1689: Sambhaji, Maratha king

Add comment March 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1689, the Maratha prince Sambhaji was put to a grisly death by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.*

Sambhaji was the firstborn son of the man whose daring had created the Hindu Maratha state — and whose death in 1680 seemed to the neighboring Muslim Mughals the right invitation to destroy this nascent rival.

The Mughals were right to worry, for in the 18th century the Maratha polity would grow into an empire dominating the Indian subcontinent, and drive the Mughals into a long decline.

But in the 1680s, it was the Maratha on the back foot as Aurangzeb invaded their haunts on the Deccan Plateau, steadily albeit very slowly reducing Maratha fortresses over the course of the decade (and the next decade).

This war defined Sambhaji’s reign, and ended it too, when he was at last captured with his favorite aide Kavi Kalash in Sangmeshwar. Mockingly dressed up as buffoons, they were paraded through Mughal territory to the emperor, who would present them a demand for Islamic conversion as the price of their lives.

But the doomed wretches knew that, after all, their heads would fall upon the scaffold, or that, if by abject submission and baseness, they escaped death, they would be kept in confinement deprived of all the pleasures of life, and every day of life would be a new death. So both Sambha and Kabkalas indulged in abusive language, and uttered the most offensive remarks in the hearing of the Emperor’s servants … [Aurangzeb] gave orders that the tongues of both should be cut out, so that they might no longer speak disrepsectfully. After that, their eyes were to be torn out. Then, with ten or eleven other persons, they were put to be put to death with a variety of tortures, and lastly he ordered that the skins of the heads of Sambha and Kabkalas should be stuffed with straw, and exposed in all the cities and towns of the Dakhin, with beat of drum and sound of trumpet. Such is the retribution for rebellious, violent, oppressive evil-doers. (Source — British, it must be said)

Sambhaji has not been highly rated for his indifferent internal governance of Maratha, but the clarifying allure of war and the gruesomely patriotic manner of his death earned him hero’s laurels still honored by Hindu nationalists down to the present day; the village of Tulapur where he was put to death honors Sambhaji with several monuments.

For a contemporary — like, say, Aurangzeb — Sambhaji’s death followed closely by the capture of his family when the Maratha capital succumbed to Mughal siege must have appeared to presage the destruction of his state. Things didn’t work out that way: Sambhaji’s younger brother Rajaram and especially Rajaram’s impressive queen Tarabai kept the Mughals bogged down on the Deccan, bleeding money** and time as they struggled to complete the conquest — until by Aurangzeb’s own despondent death in 1707, it was the Maratha on the advance, and the Mughal Empire on the brink of its own collapse.

* Aurangzeb was the son of the man who built the Taj Mahal. He’d needed some violence of his own to claim the Mughal throne from his brothers.

** “The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital — a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a ½ million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth.” -Stanley Wolpert

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,India,Maratha Empire,Martyrs,Mughal Empire,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1619: The Witches of Belvoir

3 comments March 11th, 2016 Headsman

The family of the Earl of Rutland enjoyed closure on this date in 1619* when two daughters of a notorious local sorceress were hanged at Lincoln Castle for bewitching the Rutland heirs to death.

Hotheaded enough in his youth to have joined Robert Devereux‘s ridiculous rebellion, Francis Manners had matured into a solid pillar of James I’s court by 1612 when he succeeded to the Earldom upon the passing of his brother.

Taking up his proper residence at the estate’s noble Belvoir Castle, lord and lady Manners had two noble sons and the consequent prospect of a robust progeniture to carry on the Rutland title, father to manful son onward into trackless posterity.

But witchery (as Shakespeare documented) went boldly abroad in those days. To the Rutlands’ grief it set its fell eye against the prosperity of their house.

Belvoir Castle was then “a continuall Pallace of entertainment, and a daily receptacle for all sorts both rich and poore, especially such auncient people as neighboured the same,” noted a pamphlet of the time.** “Amongst whom one Ioane [Joan] Flower, with her Daughters Margaret and Philip were not onely relieved at the first from thence, but quickly entertained as Char-women, and Margaret admitted as a continuall dweller in the Castle, looking both to the poultrey abroad and the wash-house within dores.”

Someone having detected this clan of hags pilfering from His Lordship, the Flower family was soon dismissed: a reckless show of rectitude by parents who would soon have cause to regret it.

Joan Flower, the mother, “was a monstrous malicious woman, full of oathes, curses, and imprecations irreligious … her eyes were fiery and hollow, her speech fell and envious, her demeanour strange and exotic.” Folk who knew her had come to understand — how could they not? — that her curses had the power to bend infernal servants to her spiteful will; her daughters were likewise suspected of necromantic potency all their own.

Together, they were formidable enemies when roused — and they promptly avenged their dismissal by enchanting the Rutland heir Henry, who fell ill and died in September 1613. (The rest of his family got sick on this occasion, too.) Five years later, they enspelled Henry’s younger brother Francis and sent him to an early grave too.

Under such compelling affliction, the family could not long remain ignorant of the Flowers sorceresses’ enmity, and denounced them to authorities. They were arrested around Christmas of 1618.

The mother-witch soon died in prison under God’s own torture, for she

called for Bread and Butter, and wished it might never goe through her if she were guilty of that whereupon shee was examined; so mumbling it in her mouth, never spake more wordes after that, but fell downe and dyed as shee was carryed to Lincolne Gaole, with a horrible excruciation of soule and body.

As though more evidence were needed, both of Joan’s daughters also admitted turning their occult powers against the little heirs, part of a horrific pattern of infernal connivance:

  • that the late mother kept a feline familiar named Rutterkin, and Joan malevolently stroked the cat with a glove stolen from Henry while uttering incantations that the boy might never thrive
  • that similar treatment was meted out using Rutterkin and a glove discarded by Francis
  • that Margaret kept two evil familiars whom she profanely suckled — “the white sucked under her left breast, and the blacke spotted within the inward parts of her secrets”
  • that Philip “heard her mother often curse the Earle and his Lady, and thereupon would boyle feathers and blood together, using many Devillish speeches and strange gestures”
  • that Margaret “saith, That her mother, and shee, and her sister agreed together to bewitch the Earle and his Lady, that they might have no more children”

While the mother was beyond the reach of the law, both daughters were duly condemned for murder on the evidence of their own confessions, and “executed accordingly, about the 11 of March, to the terror of all the beholders, and example of such dissolute and abominable Creatures.”

Even so, their horrid magic outlived them. The Earl and the Duchess were never again able to conceive; their only surviving child was a daughter, Katherine, who would carry the rich inheritance that should have been her brothers’ into a marriage with King James’s favorite.†


“Two sons, both which dyed in their infancy by wicked practise & sorcerye”: Inscription on a Manners family memorial at Bottesford. (cc) image by J. Hannan-Briggs.

* 1618 by the local reckoning, since the new year at this time began on March 25. It’s 1619 as we would see it retrospectively in view of a January 1 calendar rollover.

** The wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Bever Castle: executed at Lincolne, March 11, 1618

† Some scurrilous wags of the present day have suggested that said favorite cunningly poisoned off the brothers himself so that he could get his hands on Katherine’s huge tracts of land.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1941: Twenty-one hostages for Igo Sym

Add comment March 11th, 2015 Headsman


Igo Sym tickles the ivories in Zona i nie zona (Wife and No Wife) … his last role.

On this date in 1941, the Germans occupying Poland took revenge for the loss of an artist.

Handsome Austrian-born silver screen luminary Igo Sym, whose silent film credits included roles opposite Marlene Dietrich and Lillian Harvey, had become a prominent fixture of the Warsaw stage when the Germans overran Poland in 1939.

Sym (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) collaborated with the German occupation: he worked manicured hand in glove with the Gestapo, even helping to entrap a former co-star.

This attracted the hostility of the Polish underground, which secretly condemned him to death — and executed that sentence on the morning of March 7, 1941, with a knock at Sym’s apartment door and a sudden 9 mm pistol.

In punishment for this gesture of national defiance, all of Warsaw was clapped under a harsh curfew and dozens of hostages seized as surety for the public’s promptly rendering the actor’s murderers for punishment. But the assassins were not so delivered: in revenge, the Germans executed 21 hostages at the nearby village of Palmiry.* Two University of Warsaw professors were among those hostages, biologist Stefan Kopec and historian Kazimierz Zakrzewski.

* Palmiry had the sorrow to host numerous similar mass-executions during the German occupation of Warsaw. Over 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the site.


Polish hostages (not necessarily those of March 11, 1941) being readied for execution at Palmiry. This photo (and others) via the Polish Wikipedia page on war crimes in Palmiry.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1872: Sher Ali Afridi, assassin of the viceroy

Add comment March 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Sher Ali Afridi was hanged at Viper Island for knifing to death the British Viceroy of India 32 days before.

Richard Bourke, the 6th Earl of Mayo, had stopped off to visit the convict settlement at the Andaman Islands.

Little remembered today, Great Britain shipped tens of thousands of Indian convicts to that Bay of Bengal archipelago in the latter half of the 19th century (and continuing into the 1930s).

One of them was Sher Ali.

This former cavalryman in the UK’s Indian military forces had murdered a relative in a private feud, and was dispatched to the prison colony for his trouble. Evidently he nursed a terrible grudge at being judicially punished for what, in his opinion, was no crime at all. The standard story* is that he dreamed of wreaking revenge on the person of “some high British official.”

They don’t come much higher than the Viceroy to India.

So despite his sterling conduct record as a prisoner, Sher Ali was ready with an opportunistic blade when Lord Mayo took the wrong pause at the wrong spot.

Notwithstanding the enormity of the blow — the Viceroy of India was literally one of the most powerful figures in the British Empire — the incident was relatively downplayed, perhaps to avoid stoking any wider sectarian martyr-making or conveying the impression of colonies in turmoil. Arrested on the spot, Sher Ali was condemned quickly and hanged with little fanfare.

An Indian paper quoted by the April 15 London Times reported the assassin’s last hours thus:

I had a long interview with the prisoner the evening previous to his execution. He talked quite freely, and appeared to think he had done a fine thing. He had been told about an hour before I saw him that he was to be hanged next morning. We got up steam early next morning and went to Chatham, passing him with his police guard in a boat on the way. As soon as we were moored we got over to Viper Island, where the gaol is. There was no unusual preparation for the affair, and the convicts were at work as usual. Indeed, it was not generally known that it was to be. There were from 30 to 40 Europeans present, no natives except the police and sepoys, and no European soldiers. About a quarter to 8 the fellow was led out. He was smiling and quite collected. The police officer who came down to investigate the affair, as he ascended the steps leading up to the scaffold, asked him a question. He shook his head with a smile, as he said nahin sahib. As soon as he got up he asked the hangman to turn his face towards Mecca, and then began to pray very loudly and quickly. He said two prayers, and kept on repeating the Mussulman’s creed. The drop fell at seven minutes to 8 o’clock exactly. The knot slipped round to the back of his neck, and although he had nearly seven feet of a drop, his neck was not broken, so he died very hard. He was hanging about ten minutes before he ceased to struggle. As he was scantily clothed, and his legs and most of his body naked, his struggles were distinctly visible. We were quite close to the scaffold. After he was dead we adjourned, and returned to see him cut down at 9. His face was not distorted in the least, but wore an expression of pain. We afterwards went to see the post mortem examination. There were only eight persons present. The prisoner’s lungs, liver, heart, &c., were taken out and weighed. The top of his head was cut off, and his brain taken out: the latter weighed 47 ounces.

Despite not making a particularly big deal about Lord Mayo’s murder, the Empire did favor its Indian subjects with a Calcutta equestrian statue of the assassinated viceroy.


This monument and other former public memorials from the British imperial period now squirreled out of view in independent India can be found on a fun Flickr gallery, Forgotten Statuary of the British Raj. Brits can find the Earl of Mayo in marble closer to home in Cockermouth.

Mayo was also the namesake of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, present-day Pakistan (it’s now known as the National College of Arts). The school’s first principal was Lockwood Kipling, and this man was able to hook his 16-year-old son up with an assistant-editorship at a Lahore newspaper … from which young Rudyard Kipling launched his literary career.

* The “lone nut with a grudge” version has been latterly disputed with attempts to reconstruct Sher Ali as an Islamic revolutionary.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Murder,Notable for their Victims

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1997: The last execution in Ukraine

Add comment March 11th, 2012 Headsman

The last execution in Ukraine apparently took place on this date in 1997 — and bizarrely, nobody even seems sure of exactly who enjoyed this unwelcome distinction.

This was post-Soviet Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma, a man in no way renowned for his excessive regard for human dignity.

But Kuchma was keen on integrating with Europe, and that meant appeasing western Europe’s human rights sensibilities.

Ukraine joined the Council of Europe in 1995, a move that required it to abolish the death penalty. But executions — by means of the old Soviet method, a single gunshot to the back of the head — were ragingly popular during a decade of economic collapse and spiraling crime.

According to When the State No Longer Kills, which has an entire chapter devoted to the Ukrainian abolition experience, Ukraine’s annual count of reported murders shot up from 2,016 in 1988 to 4,896 by 1996, with 4,000-plus per annum every year from 1993 on.

“The country’s crime rate does not allow for cancelling the death penalty,” Ukraine’s Parliamentary chair told COE observers in November 1996.

He was in for a surprise.

To Europe’s chagrin, some 167 people were indeed put to death in 1996 alone. The Council Of Europe pointedly threatened sanctions against the Ukrainian delegation in January 1997 … and Kiev chickened out.

Its last executions were thirteen conducted in the first 70 days of 1997 — executions which were not announced publicly beforehand or even afterwards, and only wrung as admissions out of the government months afterward when the prisoners’ respective contacts realized they hadn’t heard from them in a suspiciously long period of time. Between this up-front secrecy and Ukraine’s practice of dumping its executed bodies in unmarked graves, nobody ever seems to have been able to document who exactly died when, and who really was last. (We assume the incriminating paper does exist somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy.)

By the same token, there was no public indication when the sun came up on March 12 that anything had changed. Ukraine kept information about its death row prisoners close to the vest; the Council of Europe continued to press it for a moratorium until very late in 1997, when Kiev announced that it had in fact been observing a de facto moratorium since March 11. I guess we have no choice but to take their word for it.

Just like that, this impossible dream had been accomplished.

Two years later, the country’s high court barred the death penalty, followed quickly by parliamentary action to remove it from the statutes full stop.

The nameless dead man or woman of this date is actually not only the last executed in Ukraine, but the last in the entire 47 countries of the Council of Europe — a zone that still excludes Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus, which as of writing is the last redoubt of capital punishment in Europe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Milestones,Murder,Ukraine

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859: St. Eulogius of Cordoba

3 comments March 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date 1,150 years ago, Eulogius of Cordoba was beheaded for blasphemy in Muslim Spain.

Islamic rule in Spain was a century and a half old at this time; a period of relative comity among the Abrahamic faiths, it was nevertheless far from painless for Christians.

Islamic law exerted some (usually) non-lethal pressure on subject Christians by tolerating them as second-class citizens, subject to restricted civic privileges and additional taxes. With apostasy from Islam to Christianity punishable by death, it engineered a steadily increasing Muslim proportion of the populace.

Around 850, and continuing for the ensuing century, some Christians’ resistance to this arrangement would provoke periodoc repressions and a regular supply of martyrs.

Eulogius, a priest renowned for his eloquence and education, became a prominent exponent of the emerging trend of missionary martyrdom — Christians intentionally blaspheming Mohammad to a Muslim judge for purposes of drawing an exemplary death sentence.

We can readily infer that Eulogius’s support for such behavior was controversial; surely missionary martyrdom escalated tensions between the comingling communities in ways potentially troublesome for the go-along, get-along crowd. And Christians had good reasons to go along and get along: they could enjoy positions of wealth, influence and comfort, along with unencumbered worship.

Bishop Reccafred of Cordoba attempted to squelch any appearance of official support for these fire eaters, and threw Eulogius and other priests in prison after promulgating a decree against the martyrdoms in 852. Naturally, this made him a sellout in the eyes of the militants; Eulogius took a firm line against any attempt to derogate the martyrs of a fellow monotheism as unequal to the ancient martyrs of pagan Rome.

Those who assert that these [martyrs] of our own day were killed by men who worship God and have a law, are distinguished by no prudence … because if such a cult or law is said to be valid, indeed the strength of the Christian religion must necessarily be impaired. (Cited here)

The Cordoban martyrs’ movement claimed a few dozen lives over the 850’s — a hagiography records 48 — some taking inspiration from Eulogius’ Exhortation to Martyrdom. The author of that tract eventually followed his own advice.

Caught sheltering an apostate Muslim (she was executed a few days after Eulogius), the priest got into it with the Islamic judge, denounced the Prophet, and earned himself a death sentence. The story says he even literally “turned the other cheek” when struck by a guard en route to his decapitation.

In all the time since, Eulogius’s words have had a resonance for at least some segment of Christendom: when martyrdom has waxed popular, or confrontation with Islam loomed large. As his entry in Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia puts it,

Eulogius’s apologetic treatises are important, then, not only as evidence of the wide spectrum of Christian responses to life under Muslim rule — from outright rejection to almost complete assimilation — but also as one of the earliest extant sources for Western views on Islam.

St. Eulogius’s life gets a somewhat more detailed treatment (from an apologetic perspective) in The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other Principal Saints, a Google books freebie.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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Entry Filed under: Activists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Nobility,Religious Figures,Spain

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1963: Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, model for the Jackal

4 comments March 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1963, clutching a rosary, French officer Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry was shot by a firing squad in the Paris suburb Ivry-sur-Seine for attempting to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.

Perhaps no anticolonial struggle left a more considerable intellectual and cultural footprint than the Algerian War of Independence against France. It gashed the French polity as well; the right violently rejected the swelling sentiment to end their country’s 132-year occupation. It is often said that the conservative Charles de Gaulle was the only man who could have engineered the departure with the support of a sufficient portion of the populace — but a sufficient portion by no means meant all, and every blunder multiplying the [French] body count was laid on de Gaulle’s head besides.

On August 22, 1962 — just weeks after that war successfully expelled the European power — an assassins’ team led by Bastien-Thiry (collaborating with the far-right Organisation de l’armée secrète) unleashed a machine gun fusillade at de Gaulle’s car. Hundreds of shots were fired; miraculously, the president and all his aides all escaped unharmed.

Although the actual gunmen were reprieved by their intended target, their manager was not. Said de Gaulle,

The French need martyrs … I gave them Bastien-Thiry. They’ll be able to make a martyr of him. He deserves it.

Certainly Bastien-Thiry had that in mind. At his trial (as recorded by a sympathetic French-language website), he addressed his conduct to posterity:

Nous avons exercé le droit de légitime défense contre un homme, au nom de ses victimes, au nom de nos concitoyens et au nom de nos enfants ; cet homme est ruisselant de sang français et il représente la honte actuelle de la France. Il n’est pas bon, il n’est pas moral, il n’est pas légal que cet homme reste longtemps à la tête de la France ; la morale, le droit et la raison humaine s’unissent pour le condamner. La vérité que nous avons dite, et que bien d’autres que nous ont dite avant nous, restera attachée au nom de cet homme, où qu’il aille et quoi qu’il fasse. Un jour cet homme rendra compte de ses crimes : devant Dieu, sinon devant les hommes.

Bastien-Thiry’s sensational plot, and the ongoing efforts of the OAS to murder de Gaulle, inspired Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal, and a classic 1973 film of the same title:

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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