1941: Viggo Hasteen and Rolf Wickstrom, for the Milk Strike

Add comment September 10th, 2018 Headsman

On September 10, 1941, the German authorities occupying Norway martyred two labor activists.

The Third Reich occupied Norway in the spring of 1940, adding their puppet ruler’s surname to the world’s lexicon.


Rations queue in Oslo, 1941.

Besides the obvious consequences — national humiliation, political executions — the occupation brought terrible economic hardship to ordinary Norwegians. Most of Norway’s western-facing trading relationships were severed by the wartime takeover, and the lion’s share of national output was appropriated by Berlin. Norway’s GDP fell by nearly half during the war years.

“There was a real risk of famine,” Wikipedia advises us. “Many, if not most, Norwegians started growing their own crops and keeping their own livestock. City parks were divided among inhabitants, who grew potatoes, cabbage, and other hardy vegetables. People kept pigs, rabbits, chicken and other poultry in their houses and out-buildings. Fishing and hunting became more widespread.”

And people got more and more pissed off.

On September 8, shipyard workers protesting the withdrawal of their milk rations triggered a large, but brief, labor disturbance. The Milk Strike was violently quashed by September 10 with a declaration of martial law in Oslo and nearby Aker and the arrests of a number of labor leaders, five of whom were condemned to death.

Two of those five sentences were actually carried out:* those of lawyer and Communist Viggo Hansteen (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian), and labor activist Rolf Wickstrom (English | Norwegian).

They’re honored today in Oslo with a monumental joint tombstone and a memorial.

* Generous commutations awarded to Ludvik Buland and Harry Vestli permitted them to die in prison before the war was out. Their comrade Josef Larsson survived the war and chaired the Norwegian Union of Iron and Metalworkers until 1958.

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1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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1718: Purry Moll and Elizabeth Cave

Add comment August 6th, 2018 Headsman

Tyburn on this date three hundred years ago saw the hanging of two women, both transgressors of the booming capital’s purported sexual mores.

The Ordinary of Newgate Paul Lorrain favored Mary Price (alias Purry Moll) and Elizabeth Cave for the occasion with “A Dehortation from living after the Flesh, that is, after the carnal Desires and sinful Lusts of our Corrupt Nature, which brings forth Death, even Eternal Death.”

Purry Moll‘s sinful Lusts didn’t really have that much to do with her crime; it’s just that she and her husband had walked away from an unedifying union after the banns of marriage were already published. It seems that her post-hubby lover upon putting out to sea had left her a tobacco box as a mark of his affection but — and this gets a little tangled — her mother‘s lover had snatched the box. Moll, clearly in a domestic passion which the scarce words on file at the Old Bailey hardly even attempt to convey, strangled to death a three-year-old girl who was the daughter of mom’s lover. (But not by mom.)

So grief-stricken was she that she insisted on pleading guilty despite the court’s repeated admonition that “if she confess’d it she must be hang’d: To which she replied, if she did confess it, she confess’d nothing but the Truth.”

With her was a woman “about 40 Years of age” of whom the Ordinary noticed — and his narrative is unfortunately truncated by a missing page — “her Face to be extreamly disfigur’d, even to that degree as to have her Nose and Lips eaten up (as it were) with the foul Disease.” Ms. Cave confirmed that “she had been a very lewd Woman, debauch’d.”

She was, in fact, a whore, as would be obvious to any 18th century cad by the cursory narration of her trial: a fellow named Sampson Barret “depos’d, that going through Drury Lane at about 11 o’Clock at Night, there was 6 or 7 Women kind standing together, who divided and made a Lane for him to go through them” whereupon Elizabeth Cave followed him and picked his pocket.

Now, with apologies to the children’s rhyme, there’s really only one reason a guy would be traversing Drury Lane at 11 o’clock at night and that he’d bump into six or seven women on his way … and baked goods weren’t the reason.

This street was a hub of London’s vigorous sex trade. Pronging off “the great thoroughfare running east from the Royal Exchange, along Fleet Street, to St. James’s Park, linking the financial and trade centre of the City with the political power base of aristocratic West London,”* Drury Lane channeled into the far less reputable Covent Garden and from the 17th century had developed into the heart of the red light district that earned this zone the sobriquet “great square of Venus.”

Here, tarts offered their wares amid the bustle of theaters and taverns, often pursuing their profession under the guise of a nominally legitimate street-hawking occupation such as flower-selling.** But little pretense was necessary: from the mid-18th century there was even an annual catalogue of area working girls, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies which by the end of its run in the 1790s was selling 8,000 copies per year. So great a boon was sex work to the economy that a German visitor half-joked that if suppressed, “London would soon be depopulated; the fine arts would be frightened away; one half of the inhabitants would be deprived of subsistence.”


In the “Morning” plate of William Hogarth‘s Four Times of the Day cycle (above), men rendezvous with prostitutes outside a notorious Covent Garden dive, Moll and Tom King’s Coffee House.

We catch an interior glimpse of this same environment in plate three of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, wherein said rake frolics at a Covent Garden brothel (below).

Unsurprisingly, venereal diseases such as that suffered by Elizabeth Cave were quite common among the more proletarian pros to be found at an hour to midnight on Drury Lane; nevertheless, they had no shortage of customers.

If Cave did indeed rob this passing john, it was unfortunate for her that she took currency. In order to save small-time criminals from the gallows, juries routinely applied “pious perjury” to downrate the value of stolen objects below the absurdly low one-shilling (12-pence) threshold for felony larceny; such maneuvers were obviously impossible when it was actual shillings that had been pilfered.

* The trade spilled aggressively out upon that same august thoroughfare, which was the route Defoe alluded to when complaining in the 1720s of “being in full Speed upon important Business, [and] have every now and then been put to the Halt; sometimes by the full Encounter of an audacious Harlot whose impudent Leer shewd she only stopp’d my Passage in order to draw my Observations to her; at other times by Twitches on the Sleeve. Lewd and ogling Salutations; and not infrequently by the more profligate Impudence of some Jades, who boldly dare to seize a Man by the Elbow and make insolent Demands of Wine and Treats before they let him go.” (Source)

** “Flower girl” consequently developed into a euphemism for a tramp. One literary artifact of this history is Eliza Doolittle of the G.B. Shaw play Pygmalion and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady: it’s never overtly stated in the text, but because Eliza begins as a Covent Garden flower girl her virtue is implicitly suspect … hence her repeated insistence, “I’m a good girl I am!”

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2011: Ruyati binti Sapubi, migrant worker beheaded on film

Add comment June 18th, 2018 Headsman

Indonesian migrant worker Ruyati binti Sapubi was beheaded in Mecca on this date in 2011 for the meat cleaver murder of her mistress. She numbered among the several hundred thousand Indonesian women hired as domestic servants in the Gulf kingdom.

“The maid carried out the killing after she was denied permission to leave the kingdom and return to her family in Indonesia, according to officials in Jakarta,” according to press reports on the very sketchy details allowed by Riyadh.

The mild and passive voice here conveys a wild overreaction by the help, but a moment’s consideration of the scenario — a terribly vulnerable imported domestic worker disallowed from leaving her job — puts matters into a different light. (To add diplomatic insult to injury, the Saudis failed to inform Indonesia when the actual execution was imminent.)

Indeed, just days after the execution, word leaked of a Sri Lankan domestic who had been secretly held in outright slavery for 14 years.

Mature Content: The execution was secretly recorded. This is a snuff film.

The Indonesian government slapped an immediate moratorium on overseas work in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of this horror. Unfortunately, these and similar measures in the 2010s have only compounded the risk of trafficking, increasing the vulnerability of people desperate to secure work abroad.

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1830: Ebenezer Cox, gone postal gunsmith

Add comment August 27th, 2017 Headsman

Long before slavery abolitionist John Brown wrote its name into the firmament, Harpers Ferry* was a vital cog for the military of the young United States. Its armory, founded at George Washington‘s behest at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers whose waters turned its machines, was the 1b supplier of small arms to American soldiery alongside a similar facility in Springfield, Mass.

But it was also a bit of a problem child from the start: the facility too small, the location too inaccessible,** the manufacturing process too inefficient.

Hoping to remedy at least the last of these, a fellow named Thomas Dunn was hired from the Antietam Iron Works in 1829 for a managerial task that was not calculated to please the Harpers Ferry armorers.

So detested were Dunn’s downsizing and production speedups that one armory hand name of Ebenezer Cox — having been laid off and subsequently balked of a re-hire on grounds of being a volatile drunk — simply walked into the boss’s office one day in January 1830 and gave him a taste of his own product.

Hopefully the irony wasn’t lost on anyone because the message for labor-management relations had the sharp report of a Model 1803: Cox “became a folk hero among the armorers; whenever future managers tried to impose factory discipline Cox’s name was always mentioned to the armory officials.” (Source)

Folk hero … and martyr. Cox naturally still had to pay the price for his early instance of going postal, and the Library of Congress helpfully preserves for ready access a Narrative of the life, trial, confession, sentence of death, and execution of Ebenezer W. Cox.

While we can scarcely evaluate Cox’s craft when it came to boring a muzzle, he was certainly not a man who wanted for an engineering cast of mind.

Preceding the fatal hour, strong suspenders were prepared, with hooks under or near the collar of his shirt or shroud, so contrived as to prevent suffocation, provided the rope could be securely placed within the crooks; and no doubt this plan would have succeeded, and the culprit been preserved alive, had the rope been deliberately fixed. But owing, probably, either to want of time, or through perturbation of mind, something was omitted, and only one of the hooks caught the fatal cord which twisted his neck awry; and although it did not prevent his finally suffocating, he apparently died with all the agonies of a lingering and protracted death.


“John Brown’s Fort”, the armory’s former guard and fire engine house. Though not yet extant at the time of Cox’s crime, it’s the best we’ll do since the rest of the original armory was destroyed during the Civil War and never rebuilt. (cc) image by Doug Kerr.

* Harpers Ferry was in Virginia at the time of these events; today, it’s in West Virginia.

** Connections via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would arrive in the 1830s.

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1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

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2015: Siti Zainab

Add comment April 14th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2015, in the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia beheaded Indonesian domestic worker Siti Zainab after a very long wait.

Zainab, a maid, was condemned to death in 1999 for stabbing to death her cruel* employer. Her execution went on pause for more than 15 years until all of the victim’s children could reach adulthood and exercise their right to enforce or mitigate the death sentence; still, for all that lead time, Saudi Arabia irked Jakarta by failing to notify consular offices of her impending beheading.

In addition to the usual controversies Saudi Arabia’s aggressive headsmen engender when dispatching the kingdom’s widely abused migrant workers, Zainab’s case raised hackles over the condemned woman’s alleged “suspected mental illness.”

* Cruel according to Zainab and her defenders. Indonesian NGO Migrant Care argued that the murder was outright self-defense.

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1832: James Lea and Joseph Grindley, arsonists

Add comment March 31st, 2017 Headsman

The London Times of April 7, 1832 brings us this arson double hanging evidencing the extension of the rural Swing Riots labor rebellion from its southern heartland up to the West Midlands.

CONFESSION OF LEA AND GRINDLEY.

(From the Salopian Journal.)

After their trial and condemnation Lea evinced much anxiety, and expressed a wish to disburden his mind by stating all that he knew of the transactions in which he had been so deeply implicated; and he observed that he would freely do so, but that he had acted under the encouragement of certain abettors, who had bound him under the obligation of a horrible oath not to divulge the counsels and purposes in which they had engaged his assistance.

However, on Wednesday last, having, from the instruction and advice to which he was submitted, in preparation for that state to which he was so shortly to remove, satisfied himself that no compact such as we have described could be binding upon him, but, on the contrary, was in itself most iniquitous, he made a full and complete confession as to all the parties implicated in the atrocious conspiracy to which he had been a ready instrument, and in furtherance of which, it appeared, his department was to set Grindley at work under the instructions that he himself received from the prime members of the conspiracy.

Who the parties implicated are, and what Lea stated, cannot of course be here more particularly alluded to; it is, however, a striking circumstance that he again affirmed the truth of Wednesday’s confession just previous to his ascending the scaffold.

The sacrament having been administered to the unhappy men in the chapel of the jail, they were pinioned and at 12 o’clock the procession commenced moving from the chapel to the lodge, where the convicts spent a few minutes in prayer with the Chaplain, and were then conducted to the platform.

Grindley ascended first, and the rope, &c., having been adjusted, he continued to pray to Heaven for mercy until the fatal bolt was drawn. Lea ascended the steps of the scaffold apparently with more difficulty than Grindley, though both met their fate with much firmness, and with a demeanor becoming their awful situation.

Richard Whitfield, convicted at our late Assizes for writing threatening letters, and now under sentence of transportation for life, was among the convicts brought out into the yard to witness the execution; and as soon as the culprits ascended the scaffold a striking and most ominous change was apparent in his countenance. His intimate connexion with these wretched men, as already known to the public, would of itself be sufficient to account for this, if no other circumstances were within the knowledge of himself and those whose awful exit he was fated to witness; but, if the statement made on Wednesday by Lea be correct, not only Richard Whitfield, but several other parties not in custody, have an account to give, either in this world or the next, the very recollection of which might well make a man of the stoutest nerves tremble.

(An 1830s publication on the fires in Shropshire, which also summarizes the trials Lea, Grindley, and Whitfield, can be read here. -ed.)

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1719: Frans Anneessens, Brussels guildmaster

Add comment September 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Dutch guild chief Frans Anneessens was beheaded on Brussels’ Grand Place.

The southern Low Countries — today’s Belgium — had remained in Spanish hands when the northern part — present-day Netherlands — broke free back in the 16th century.

That meant it was one of the lots on the table when Europe bargained the Spanish patrimony by arms in the early 18th century. For geopolitical reasons (basically, as a bulwark against France, who had lost the war), this proto-Belgium was handed over to Austria.

Neither the empire nor its ward greeted this absentee-landlord arrangement with enthusiasm.

The city of Brussels at this point* was governed by the “nine nations”, nine craft guild consortiums wielding privileges dating to the medieval economy who together dominated the city. Defending these privileges against absolutist states intent on rolling them back was a major bone of contention in Brussels, even years before the Austrian handover.

Monument in Brussels to Frans Anneessens. (cc) image from EmDee

Frans Anneessens (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch | French) who was dean of the “Saint Christopher” nation (comprising dyers, cloth shearers, lacemakers and chairmakers), had a prominent part advancing the (losing) argument for maximal guild privileges.

Just what the ancient rights of the guilds embraced had long been contested with the Spanish crown, and apparently the Brussels town council kept the charters enumerating a very expansive grant of them locked up — until they were accidentally revealed thanks to a bombing in the Nine Years’ War, then published widely.

So did the guilds get these rights or no?

Anneessens in 1698-99 argued the nations’ case before the equally ancient Council of Brabant, and lost: Spanish Austria was suffered to curtail the Brussels guilds, and although the guilds provocatively refused to swear their customary oath to the new arrangement the Spanish were able to squelch the ensuing disturbances by 1700.

The tensions rested, unresolved, through the war years but come 1717 they resurfaced when the Austrian-import governor the Marquis of Prie demanded fresh oaths upon the hamstrung guild privileges, and new taxes to boot. Again the guilds refused — not only in Brussels but Ghent, Antwerp and Mechlin.

Prie only quelled this half-revolt in 1719 but when he did,

he took drastic measures. Five leaders, including Anneessens, were arrested. They were all locked inside the Stone Gate, and a scandalous trial followed, during which Prie did everything he could to get Anneessens, whom he viewed as the brains behind the resistance, convicted. Anneessens received a death sentence, which he proudly refused to sign, and was beheaded on 18 September 1719 [sic**]. After the execution the people of Brussels mourned and collected his blood as relics, and priests in some of the churches held requiems in spite of strenuous attempts by Prie, supported by the higher clergy (the Archbishop of Mechlin) to prevent this. Prie had wanted to “make an example” with this execution and in fact succeeded, despite the sympathy of the people of Brussels for their martyr. (Hetty Wertheim-Gijse Weenink, “Early 18th Century Uprisings in the Low Countries: Prelude to the Democratic Revolution,” History Workshop, spring 1983)

* The guild-nation governance system would persist until Belgium was occupied by France after the French Revolution.

** Literally every other source I found, including the inscription on the Anneessens monument, prefers September 19 for the man’s execution.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1612: The slave rebels of Mexico City

Add comment May 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*

In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”

The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.

Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.

Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.

As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?

The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it

involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**

Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”

* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.

** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.

† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mexico,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Treason

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