1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

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1951: Arno Esch, liberal

Add comment July 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1951, liberal East German activist Arno Esch was shot in Lubyanka Prison outside of Moscow.

Plaque at the University of Rostock honoring Esch. (cc) image by Schiwago.

Just 17 when World War II ended, Esch emerged as a leading student activist for the Liberal Democratic Party in the postwar Soviet Occupation Zone — a pacifist who advocated political liberalization and civil rights.

These weren’t times for any common fronts: “a liberal Chinese is closer to me than a German communist,” Esch remarked, denoting a clear and present danger in the communist zone: his party attempted in vain to form a coalition across the nascent Iron Curtain with its like-minded brethren in the western zones.

Esch was arrested in 1949 and prosecuted as a spy and counterrevolutionary by a Soviet military tribunal.

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1823: Rafael Riego, Spanish liberal

Add comment November 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1823, Rafael Riego was hanged in Madrid.

Riego was a leading exponent of the supine cause of Spanish liberalism during the 1810s reign of the feckless Ferdinand VII, who had reversed Spain’s extraordinarily progressive 1812 constitution.

On the first day of the 1820s, he led an army mutiny that forced the king to restore that constitution.

Feckless Ferdinand went along with the new sheriff, and the result was a three-year interregnum of constitutional government — the Trienio Liberal.

But the Bourbon king was only too pleased to solicit the aid of Europe’s counterrevolutionary monarchs.

In 1823, a French expedition — the “hundred thousand sons of St. Louis — invaded Spain at Ferdinand’s invitation and swiftly crushed Riego’s liberals. Then Ferdinand crushed Riego himself.

Induced like Cranmer to sully his reputation by recanting in the vain hope of a pardon (and by starvation and other coercions), Riego was instead stripped of military honors, given a summary trial, and ignominiously drug to the gallows in a basket.


Text of a propaganda leaflet that circulated in England following Riego’s execution. (Source)

Post-Riego, Spain’s liberal and absolutist factions still had years of bloody fighting and martyr-making yet to go.

And we’re not just talking 19th century. There’s a Himno de Riego, which was also the anthem of the 1930s Spanish Republic that Franco laid low.

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1825: Joaquim do Amor Divino Rabelo, Frei Caneca

Add comment January 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1825, Portuguese divine Joaquim do Amor Divino Rabelo e Caneca — more popularly and succinctly known as “Frei Caneca” — was executed along with seven others in Recife, Brazil for a short-lived revolt against the newly independent state.

This revolt unfolded against the backdrop of Brazil’s successful war of independence against Portugal.

You’re heard “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”?

It was literally true in this case.

The heir to the Portuguese crown,* Pedro I, made the unusual career choice of declaring Brazil’s independence from his own dad, costing the House of Braganza a good deal more than is usual for family therapy.

And of course one so often grows up into a belated appreciation of one’s parents’ formerly objectionable characteristics.

For Pedro’s new South American polity, there ensued the age-old conflict between federalism and centralization: having promised the one when in need of popular support for his revolution, Pedro delivered the other when securely lodged on the Brazilian throne.

And this triggered the short-lived breakaway attempt of the so-called Confederation of the Equator, centered in Pernambuco, an ornery northeastern province that had likewise abortively rebelled against Portuguese colonial administration in 1817.**

Liberal Carmelite intellectual Frei Caneca — “Father Mug”; here‘s his Portuguese Wikipedia page — had done four years in the clink for his support of that earlier revolt, but he did not hesitate to throw in with Manuel de Carvalho (Portuguese again) when the latter proclaimed independence from Brazil.

Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, found this sort of behavior much less appealing done to him than by him.

What are the demands of the insults from Pernambuco? Certainly a punishment, and such a punishment that it will serve as an example for the future.

Having a lopsided advantage in the balance-of-force department, Pedro soon got the opportunity to set that example. (Though not on Carvalho, who escaped the roundup and long outlived his king.)

The story goes that Frei Caneca was doomed to hanging — the fate suffered by his fellow-martyrs this day — but so beloved was he that nary a Pernambucano could be found willing to stretch the friar’s neck. It’s a nice 19th century liberal-man-of-the-cloth twist on that ancient hagiographic trope, the “holy man (or woman) who defeats the execution device”.

Unfortunately for Father Mug, that’s usually only a one-device-per-execution deal. In this case, Brazil did locate personnel willing enough for a firing squad’s worth of guys to shoot Caneca dead.

This lyrical end was set to verse in “Auto do Frade” by Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto.

* Pedro would inherit the Portuguese throne in 1826 on his father’s death, briefly and theoretically uniting the realms, but power players in the motherland gave him the boot within weeks.

** The flag of the 1817 Pernambucan Revolution is Pernambuca’s state flag today.

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1831: Gen. Jose Maria Torrijos y Uriarte and his liberal followers

2 comments December 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1831, one of the great Spanish liberal officers was shot along with dozens of comrades attempting to spark a revolution.

It was a dark time for Spanish liberals under the autocratic rule of Ferdinand VII.

Jose Maria Torrijos y Uriarte (Spanish Wikipedia page) was one of the heroes of that downtrodden cause from way back, a noble-born officer who had been made a captain at the precocious age of 13 and been around for all of Spanish liberalism’s greatest early 19th century tragedies.

He was in Madrid for the ill-fated uprising against its French occupiers in 1808, and was captured en route to aid Pedro Velarde‘s last stand.

Lucky for Torrijos, and luckier still: as a prisoner, he might have been in line for the ensuing mass execution, but an aide-de-camp of General Murat let him go in gratitude for chivalrously preserving a French officer from the Spanish mob.

A few years after the Peninsular War, with independent Spain yoked to a reactionary Bourbon-backed monarchy, Torrijos’ dangerous opinions made him a prisoner once more.

This time, he was liberated by the brief ascendancy of fellow-traveler Rafael del Riego. This effusion, too, was destined for grief upon the scaffold; once more, Torrijos escaped, this time to exile.


The execution of Rafael del Riego

Pushing forty and a bit emptyhanded for all his strivings, Torrijos’ restless soul was not satisfied knocking about the shores of England. He soon assembled a company of like-minded folk (such as Robert Boyd) to make another bid at liberating Iberia. But he was induced to put ashore under the misapprehension of support, and promptly rounded up.

The Malaga governor’s message to Madrid requesting instruction returned the simple order: shoot them all.* (Spanish link)


El fusilamiento de Torrijos y sus compañeros en la playa de Málaga, by Antonio Gisbert

“A la muerte de Torrijos y sus compañeros”
by José de Espronceda (from here (pdf))

Helos allí: junto a la mar bravía
cadáveres están ¡ay! los que fueron
honra del libre, y con su muerte dieron
almas al cielo, a España nombradía.

Ansia de patria y libertad henchía
sus nobles pechos que jamás temieron,
y las costas de Málaga los vieron
cual sol de gloria en desdichado día.

Españoles, llorad; mas vuestro llanto
lágrimas de dolor y sangre sean,
sangre que ahogue a siervos y opresores,

y los viles tiranos con espanto
siempre delante amenazando vean
alzarse sus espectros vengadores.


Monument to Torrijos at Malaga’s Plaza de la Merced.

* Around 50 or so were shot. The exact figure is differently accounted by various sources; I have been unable to determine if any among them are authoritative.

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1898: The Six Gentlemen of the Hundred Days’ Reform

3 comments September 28th, 2009 Headsman

This afternoon in 1898, six liberals got the chop for their hopeless attempt to give a tottering empire the reforms it desperately needed.

The Hundred Days’ Reform — actually 103 days, from June 11 to September 21 — marked the attempt by China’s Guangxu Emperor to implement a far-reaching modernization programme backed by forward-thinking officials with a mind to correct China’s supine position vis-a-vis the West, and even vis-a-vis its neighbors.

“Reform has never come about in any country without the flow of blood. No one in China in modern times has sacrificed himself for the cause of reform, and because of this China is still a poor and backward country. Therefore, I request that the sacrifices begin with myself.” –Tan Sitong

The Wuxu Constitutional Reform still stands as the great attempt made by Chinese progressives who tried to follow the example of the modern powers in order to save China from extinction. Represented by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the bourgeois reformists were imbued with the spirit of national salvation; they carefully set about designing a blueprint for a constitutional monarchy based on the example of Western countries. They advocated the establishment of parliament and a national conference, and wanted to see honest and fair-minded people with the courage to criticize authority installed in a position of power. National policies should be discussed by the monarch and the people. They also wanted a constitution to stipulate the rights and obligations of the monarch, officials, and the people. The constitution was to be the highest code for all people in the country. They also wanted to establish a system featuring a tripartite balance of forces: parliament was to legislate, the magistracy to deal with issues of justice, the government with administration. All of these would be under the monarch.

The constitutional reform was to take place with radical intellectuals submitting their memoranda to Emperor Guang Xu, who alone had the power to promulgate them. The feudal diehards being in a position of strength and the national bourgeoisie being weak, however, the new politics survived no more than 100 days or so. When the forces of reaction inevitably clamped down on the movement, the six reformists who had inspired the movement for constitutional reform met their deaths like heroes.

Although sincere in its aspirations, the reform movement was bound to fail, as it depended on a reform “from top to bottom”, which ultimately had to be enacted by the emperor. The Hundred Days’ Constitutional Reform, however, remains a landmark event in the modern history of China, its failure notwithstanding. The Chinese bourgeoisie in fact succeeded in spreading democratic and constitutionalist ideas widely, and this had a significant effect on future generations. The political and legal theory of the Western bourgeoisie could now take root in the soil of China.*

The emperor’s Machiavellian conservative aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had been the power behind the Chinese throne since 1861, made the sure reform didn’t see two hundred days with a “coup” that didn’t formally overthrow the Emperor — just made him irrelevant.

Troublemakers further down the food chain didn’t get off so easily.

Kang Youwei, the reform movement’s chief exponent, escaped to Japan. Six others suffered the wrath of the Dowager Empress: Kang Guangren (Kang Youwei’s brother), Lin Xu, Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui and Liu Guangdi … along with the young reformer Tan Sitong, who notably refused imprecations to flee arrest.

The sword’s blade across my neck,
I look toward heaven — laughing.
-Etched on a prison wall, allegedly by Tan Sitong


Photo of an unspecified 1867 Qing beheading in Canton.

* “The Chinese Legal Tradition and the European View of the Rule of Law” by Wu Shu-Chen in The Rule of Law History, Theory and Criticism, Part VI.

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825”

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

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1831: Mariana de Pineda Muñoz, Spanish liberal

2 comments May 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1831, Mariana Pineda died for her flag.

The problem, in the eyes of feckless royal troglodyte Ferdinand VII, was that Pineda’s flag stood for “Equality, Freedom and Law.”

The widowed 27-year-old (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Spanish) had become a devotee of the liberal Zeitgeist that contended in post-Napoleonic Europe with absolutism.

Spain had had the briefest of flings with liberal government in 1812, only to have Ferdinand reverse Spain from one of the most progressive governments in Europe to one of its most backward. The man even reintroduced the Spanish Inquisition.

By the 1830’s, tensions between constitutional liberals and unreconstructed royalists had Spain on the point of civil war, which would in fact erupt upon Ferdinand’s death two years hence.

Mariana Pineda swam with liberal circles, even helping a death-sentenced cousin escape prison. In 1831, the authorities found a flag in her home embroidered with the “Equality, Freedom and Law” slogan.

Pineda refused to name accomplices, and Ferdinand threw the book at her. Pineda remained adamant.

Before suffering public garrotting in her native Granada (while the offending flag was burnt before her), Pineda declared,

“The memory of my ordeal will do more for our cause than all the flags in the world.”

Her prediction wasn’t so far off.

Pineda’s posthumous repute as heroine has migrated from the particular cause of her day to the general pantheon of Spain. These days, a Granada public holiday (festivities held in the square named in Pineda’s honor) commemorates her sacrifice. Her name is also a byword for the struggle of women to win full political participation (there’s a Centro Europeo de Las Mujeres “Mariana de Pineda”). And martyred playwright Federico García Lorca turned her story into a theatrical classic — his first successful play.

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1822: Four Sergeants of La Rochelle

2 comments September 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, four sergeants from La Rochelle were guillotined at the Place de Greve with “Vive la liberte! on their lips for plotting to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy.

In the Restoration following Napoleon, the cautious gouty brother of the Revolution’s most famous guillotinee came to the throne as Louis XVIII.

And in a right-wing reaction following a royal assassination, Louis found himself in the anomalous position of having a government more monarchist than he himself. Though not renowned for his sagacity, the sovereign had the wit to see that completely reversing the Revolution was a nonstarter. His ultra-royalist deputies, however, wanted nothing less than the full restoration of an absolute monarchy.

The new Prime Minister cracked down hard on the Liberal opposition. Here’s the scene as described by The Cambridge Modern History, a Google Books freebie:

The Chief Minister [Villele] had the merit of keeping constantly in mind the fact that his friends owed their power to the forces of reaction and alarm, aroused in the country by the dagger of an assassin who had mortally wounded a member of the royal family. To keep this fear awake, in order to establish his authority, was his first care. In this he succeeded. The Liberals, finding themselves compelled to prudence, organized themselves into secret societies; and the Republcians, imitating the Neapolitans, actually formed in 1821 the Charbonnerie francaise, which avowedly aimed at giving back “to the French nation the free exercise of the right to choose its sovereign.” In order to give battle to the ancien regime and its Bourbon protectors, they recruited their soldiers and captains without hesitation from among the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, of the old Imperial army. Villele showed particular skill in the discovery, exaggeration, and signal punishment of these conspiracies … With a magistracy obedient to its orders, the Ministry devoted itself assiduously to representing isolated movements no sooner known than crushed, as forming part of a permanent conspiracy organized by the Liberals, not only against the monarchy, but against society itself.

Les quatre sergents de La Rochelle — by the names of Bories, Goubin, Pommier and Raoulx — comprised perhaps the most egregious such case.

Driven underground (the link is French) like the rest of the Liberal opposition, they had joined the charbonnerie, a loose network modeled on Naples’ carbonari. (Lower-level officers were prime recruits for the dissidents, since their career prospects were truncated by aristocratic privilege in the upper brass.)

It was never clear that their subversiveness extended to anything beyond their affiliation with a criminalized ideology, and they kept their own peace to protect other associates in the charbonnerie. Guillotining them on this basis conformed neatly to the principles of, say, an Ann Coulter: “We need to execute [these] people … in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Back to The Cambridge Modern History:

It seemed that the Ministers were eager to multiply these trials and executions. Since certain deputies of the Liberal Opposition, Lafayette* among others, and D’Argenson, had openly associated themselves with these enterprises, which otherwise were devoid of danger, this supplied a fair pretext for exhibiting them publicly as criminals. The indictment with the King’s Procurator, Marchangy, formulated, in order to obtain the condemnation of the four sergeants of La Rochelle, left no doubt as to the intentions of the Government. Its chief aim was to terrorise the French people “by this vast conspiracy against social order, against the families of citizens, which threatened to plunge them once more into all the horrors of anarchy.” While keeping up the appearance of saving society, Villele gained forthwith the power to govern it in accordance with the wishes of his friends. The threat of anarchy, exploited by the judges in his service, allowed him to organise a despotism.

The public execution reportedly had its onlookers appalled, (more French) and as word of the young men’s heroic deaths got around, they elbowed into the vast host of (somebody’s) martyrs. (In Balzac’s Human Comedy, the courtesan Aquilina is said to have been involved with one of the four sergeants; in her appearances after the executions, she always commemorates him by wearing something red.) The Lantern Tower in their garrison’s city — depicted below in a 1927 Paul Signac painting — was renamed in their honor, Tour de Quatre Sergents.

* Lafayette always seemed to be somebody’s dangerous element. It’s a wonder he never got himself into this blog.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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