On this date in 1706, Bavarian butcher Matthias Kraus was beheaded and quartered for an anti-Austrian rebellion.
This commoner was the victim at several orders’ remove of distant imperial politics; as such, he will enter this story only as a coda. Instead, we begin in the 1690s, in Spain, with the approaching death of the childless Spanish king Charles II.
The question of who would succeed Charles presented European diplomats the stickiest of wickets: there were rival claims that augured civil war, which was bad enough, but such a war’s potential winners could themselves be scions of the French Bourbons or the Austrian Habsburgs … which meant that Spain’s world empire could become conjoined with that of another great European power and unbalance everything.
For a while this whelp looked like the answer the continent’s schemers were searching for, since neither the state of Bavaria nor his father’s House of Wittelsbach was already a great power — and thus, they could be elevated without creating a new hegemon. But in 1699, months after the infirm Charles had designated the little boy “my legitimate successor in all my kingdoms, states and dominions,” Joseph Ferdinand too dropped dead.
The boy was only seven years old — but he had lived long enough to whet his father’s appetite for a more substantial patrimony. When Charles II finally died in 1700 with the inheritance situation still unresolved, Max Emanuel entered the resulting continental war — the War of Spanish Succession — allying himself with France with the intent of supplanting the Habsburg dynasty on the Austrian throne.
This was a bold gambit to be sure but in the war’s earliest years it looked like it might really work. The Elector of Bavaria parlayed his strong position on the Danube (and ample French support) into a menacing thrust into Austria that threatened to capture Vienna. For the Wittelsbachs, this would mean promotion to a higher plane of dynastic inbreeding; for France, it would mean a lethal blow to the rival Austrian-English-Dutch “Grand Alliance”.
All this statecraft brings us as a postscript the unhappy fate of our butcher, Herr Kraus.
The Austrian occupation of Bavaria — complete with punishing wartime levies — triggered in 1705 a peasants’ revolt grandly titled the Bavarian People’s Uprising. Matthias Kraus was a leader in this rising.
Like the Wittelsbach pretension writ small, Kraus was intrepid but doomed. Having seized the town of Kelheim with a force of 200 or so, he held it for just five days. Austrian forces appearing at the gate negotiated for a peaceful surrender of the city, but as soon as they got the gates open they ran amok in a general massacre.
Kraus himself, interrogated under torture in Ingolstadt, was returned to Kelheim for public execution — his body’s quarters to be mounted around the city as a warning.
Detail view (click for a full image) of an Austrian leaflet publicizing the fate of the rebellious Kraus.
His martyrdom at the hands of a foreign occupation has stood Kraus in good stead in posterity. There is a Matthias-Kraus-Gasse in Kelheim, as well as a fountain memorial put up to celebrate the 1905 bicentennial of his his fleeting moment of heroism.
Repudiating its former death penalty moratorium with bombast, the government of Pakistan hanged 12 men today.
From 2008 to 2014, Pakistan while continuing to hand down death sentences had suspended their completion; a soldier condemned by court-martial and hanged in 2012 was the sole execution during that period.
Islamabad resumed executions almost immediately thereafter, explicitly as a response to that atrocity. Those were, at first, hangings of prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offenses — not connected to Peshawar per se but tit-for-tat in at least a thematic fashion.
Approximately 27 terrorists with pre-existing death sentences hanged over the ensuing weeks.
But in keeping with the tradition of our age, “just terrorists” was just the camel’s nose under the tent.
Earlier this very month, the Interior Ministry announced an end to the death penalty moratorium for all crimes — casting many more people under the pall of potentially imminent execution.
The execution of death sentences may be carried out strictly as per the law and only where all legal options and avenues have been exhausted and mercy petitions under Article 45 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been rejected by the president.
Pakistan has continued even during the moratorium to be one of the most active death-sentencing countries in the world, and has an estimated 8,000 “ordinary” condemned criminals. Because many — up to 1,000 — of those prisoners’ judicial processes and clemency appeals ran their course during the time of the moratorium, and because President Nawaz Sharif has shown an avidity in the three months since Peshawar for the hangman’s services, it has been feared that Pakistan’s execution toll this year could easily vault straight into the triple digits.
Different media outlets are giving slightly different rosters of the executed this morning, and Zafar Iqbal confusingly appears to be a name shared by two different prisoners — so this list (via the Pakistan Tribune) is offered only tentatively pending more definitive revisions. It appears to me that all or nearly all committed murder, often in the course of some other crime such as robbery or rape.
Multan (1) — Zafar Iqbal (another man there named Wazar Nazir was reportedly reprieved at the last moment)
Karchi (2) — Muhammad Faisal and Muhammad Afzal
Faisalabad (1) — Muhammad Nawaz
Rawalpindi (2) — Malik Muhammad Nadeem Zaman and Muhammad Jawed
Gujranwala (1) — Muhammad Iqbal
Jhang (3) – Muhammad Riaz, Muhammad Sharif, and Mubashir Ali (or Abbas?)
Mianwali (2) — Rab Nawaz and Zafar Iqbal
The hanged Muhammad Afzal’s shrouded body is received by his brother in Karachi.
A second man in Multan, named Wazar Nazir, was reported reprieved at the last moment, as was an Asghar Ali in Dera Ghazi Khan.
On this date (most likely) in 1713, Slovakian “Robin Hood” figure Juraj Janosik was hung on a hook in Liptov County for his outlawry.
Janosik was a flesh-and-blood man, but much of what is known or believed about him lies squarely in the realm of folklore.
He hailed from the village of Terchova. You’ll find Terchova today just on the Slovakian side of the Polish border; in Janosik’s time, this was the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary.
In Janosik’s native Terchova, a walking path leads to a monumental statue of the famed outlaw. (cc) image from Andre Skibinski.
Janosik is said to have fought with the anti-Habsburg Kuruc guerrillas in his youth, then joined the imperial army when that rebellion fizzled, then found his short life’s calling when detailed to guard a brigand named Tomáš Uhorcík. The two went into (Uhorcík’s) business together in about 1711, and Janosik’s natural aptitude soon made him the leader of their robber band.
From pine-forest lairs the merry bandits preyed on aristocrats and rich merchants throughout their mountainous home territories and into Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia and are supposed to have taken chivalrous care not to injure their prey other than financially. They’re inevitably also credited with sharing the fruits of their heists with the poor.
When Janosik became celebrated in later centuries his virtues both moral and martial would multiply by each astonishing retelling. In this Polish verse, for example, Janosik is less Robin Hood and more Terminator as he boldly presents himself at a royal tourney and avenges the honor of Slovakian maids raped by some of the contending knights.
“O king, an accusation I bring thee!” he proclaimed.
“Our women are dishonored, our village maidens shamed!
Twelve of our maidens ravished — on these twelve knights the guilt! —
Twelve of our village maidens! Let blood for blood be spilt!
“Twelve cottages dishonored — twelve homes lament today …
Sire, throned on gold, be gracious — give ear to me, I pray!
Blood must be shed, and bloody must be the foeman’s face;
I come, I come avenging our Slovak maids’ disgrace!”
Then all men stood astounded, and silent fell the ring.
“What word is this? How durst thou? Who art thou?” asked the king.
“A hill-born outlaw, hetman Janosik, that am I.”
Then marvelled all the courtiers, and king enthroned on high.
And the king’s visage slowly with rising wrath was lit,
And his moustache was bristling, his grizzled brows were knit.
Upon that band of Magyars, twelve gentlemen, he glowered.
Beneath the crested headgear twelve heads were earthward lowered.
“What, willest thou to fight them, all twelve, and brow to brow?”
— “With all, O king,” Janosik made answer; “all, and now!
O king, twelve fields of harvest a single gust will clear;
Thus let me, single-handed, meet these twelve warriors here.”
Then the king’s sceptre signalled; the trumpets gave one blast.
Janosik fixed his girdle, and off his mantle cast.
The king and all the courtiers, they marvelled to behold
The shirt that came from Juhasz, the trousers looped with gold.
There from his cap a bundle of discs, all golden, rayed,
And moved he ever so little, the cap a tinkling made.
A row upon his axe-haft of brazen rings he had;
At every step he swung it. His shoes in steel were clad.
His hand had gripped the hatchet, and there he took his stand.
Heralds struck up; then signalled the king, with sceptred hand;
Twelve lances, like a forest thick-timbered, took their aim,
And at Janosik’s bosom twelve lances flying came.
Hola! in golden Budzyn, hola! how went it, tell!
And in the king’s chief city what thing that day befell?
Upon that day what pastime might there the king await
In his dear daughter’s honor, by his town’s golden gate?
Now on the sand, all shattered, twelve lances fell and crashed,
And off the polished helmplates twelve glittering sabres flashed.
For see! up sprang Janosik, and raised his arm to strike,
Whistled the tune of Juhasz, and whirled around his pike.
How like a flame of lightning that hatchet circled round!
Erdoedy, count, with vizor hewn through, was on the ground;
Pallavicini, margrave, had rent his horse’s rein;
His riven skull was soiling the sand with bloody stain.
And now Prince Bathyani on his left side had dropt;
Right hand and sword were severed. Count Palffy’s brows were chopt.
And soon Prince Esterhazy upon the sand lay low,
Scrabbling the ground; and straightway his face was white as snow.
Not long did Count Festetics smile in the light of day,
But by the brothers Toskoel fell dead — and dead were they.
And then, before Janosik, the remnant lay in death.
When the twelfth corpse had fallen, he drew a mighty breath,
And leaned upon his weapon; like some rich beechtree then
He stood; there lay before him twelve haughty gentlemen;
Twelve golden suits of armor and twelve sharp sabres lay;
And dumbly gazed the people upon that mortal fray.
And no man spoke, and all men a tomblike silence kept.
To the king bowed Janosik, and low his cap he swept.
Then in their blood were carried twelve corpses from that place
And thus avenged Janosik those Slovak maids’ disgrace.
But the actual Janosik was quite vincible.
His career only really lasted a year or so; he was captured in 1712, escaped, and was soon re-taken. It seems that despite the marauders’ usual care for the safety of their victims, they managed to kill a Father Juraja Vertíka.
March 17, 1713 was the date of Juraj Janosik’s conviction and death sentence; though not explicitly recorded of Janosik, the usual practice would have been to carry out such a sentence without delay. Many of his comrades met similar fates: Uhorcík, for instance, was put to death a month after Janosik.
The bandit’s legend has survived and thrived after his death in literally hundreds (per Hobsbawm) of poems, legends, and folk ballads, like Jan Botto’s epic “The Death of Janosik”.
Oddly, Martin Votruba argues,** there is no indication that anyone in 1713 or the years following celebrated Janosik with anything like the fervor he eventually attained.
Janosik is all but invisible as a literary figure until the late 18th century, according to Votruba. Pesumably his name attached to miscellaneous anecdotes and exploits — enough to keep it in the conversation of bandits.
Around the turn to the 19th century Janosik’s person seems to have become gradually conjoined to stories and songs about other brigands, both real and fictional, just as these characters were booming in literary popularity. Juraj Janosik went from being just a guy who’d be mentioned in passing in a list of bandits, to the bandit. (Votruba guesses that the linguistic similarity our fellow’s surname had with with generic male name Jan, Janik, or Janko — variations on “John” that were commonly used for entirely legendary outlaws in folk songs — helped to form the connection)
Only in the 1830s and 1840s did the long-dead outlaw, who by then dominated lowbrow bandit-legend folklore, begin to take on the form familiar today — that of “a benevolent, rebellious, tragic, quasi-folkloric freedom-fighter” called “Janosik.” And “since this happened in a period of mounting ethnic activism in central Europe, Janosik could not become merely a romantic hero. The Slovak literary and social discourse highlighted his ethnicity, which then appeared in implicit contrast to the ethnicity of the now politically overpowering Hungarians.” The rich guys Janosik robbed — not ethnically specified in the earliest sources — now became oppressive foreign lords. Janosik’s growing corpus of attributed exploits now earned elite artistic attention.
On this date in 1662, two elderly women were hung at Bury St. Edmunds for bewitching various neighborhood children.
This trial, the second notable witch trial at Bury St. Edmunds in the mid-17th century, got going when a well-off merchant, Samuel Pacy repeatedly declined to buy herring from Amy Denny (also spelled Deny or Duny in various accounts). Denny was heard muttering something indistinct as she left the house, and soon Pacy’s daughter Deborah was seized by the “most violent fits, feeling most extream pain in her Stomach, like the pricking of Pins, and Shreeking out in a most dreadful manner like unto a Whelp, and not like unto a sensible Creature.”
Actually, Deborah had already been hit with “”was suddenly taken with a Lameness in her Leggs, so that she could not stand” even before Amy Denny’s visit. Nonetheless, she apparently called out Amy Denny’s name during her throes of this most recent affliction. When an area doctor couldn’t diagnose the situation, Pacy finally filed a witchcraft complaint.
That was Oct. 28, 1661, when Amy Denny was clapped in irons. Two days later, the heretofore unperturbed eldest daughter (age: 11) came down with the same stuff. Anyone with a bit of experience in multiple-child is probably conjuring up an alternative hypothesis right this moment.
Both girls now commenced a litany of woes, coughing up pins, and reporting visions of evil little witches’ familiars like mice and flies, and having dreams “that Amy Duny and Rose Cullender would appear before them holding their Fists at them, threatning, That if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than eve they did before.”
Rose Cullender was another local widow of advanced age. Like Denny, Cullender had a pre-existing reputation as a witch.
By the time these two crones went on trial on March 10 — a week before their hangings — three other teenage girls were rocking the same symptoms. They even showed up to court, where they “fell into strange and violent fits, screeking out in a most sad manner, so that they could not in any wise give any Instructions in the Court who were the Cause of their Distemper.” Yet another woman deposed that Amy Denny had, several years before, bewitched both of her children, killing one of them: she said she caught a toad lurking around her ailing child, threw it in the fire, and the next day Denny was covered with burns. She didn’t say why she hadn’t mentioned any of this before.
The scientist Thomas Browne turned up to provide expert testimony that witchcraft did exist and that “the Devil” could exacerbate otherwise natural illnesses arising from an imbalance of the four humours.
stir up and excite such humors, super-abounding in [human] Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner afflict them with such distempers as their bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these children; for he conceived, that these swooning fits were natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the devil, cooperating with the malice of these which we term witches, at whose instance he doth these villanies.
Despite the court’s confidence as to the existence of witchcraft (The judge — more on him in a bit — instructed the jury that there could be no question on this point, only as to whether the children at hand were indeed bewitched at the defendants’ hands), it did its best impression of skepticism, trying to verify the sorcery by means of whatever tests it could. Unfortunately, the era’s forensics left something to be desired.
Samuel Pacy’s daughters’ reactions to Amy Denny were tested in a few different ways. For instance, as they sat near-comatose with fists clenched, nobody in the court could pry open their stubborn hands … but they popped right open when Amy Denny touched them. Elizabeth once broke out of her torpor to scratch and claw wildly at Amy Denny.
This little girl failed a more plausible test, however. When she was blindfolded and touched by two different women, she had the same reaction to both Amy Denny and the control contact. This embarrassing result was waved off by the widespread conviction in the courtroom that nobody “should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with such various Circumstances, much less Children; and for so long time.” By the time of the trial, it was fully five months since Amy Denny had tried to get the Pacys to buy her darn herring.
In the end, none of the six still-living children supposedly affected by the witches testified directly. Their creepy presence in court did the talking for them. Within the hour after jurors handed down convictions for both women, all the children were freed of their symptoms. Both women, however, refused the many imprecations to confess and set their souls right before execution on March 17.
Hale’s reputation gave the weight of juridical precedent to his witchcraft superstition.
Across the pond in New England, the Salem witch trials judges would refer to this very case when determining to admit so-called “spectral evidence” from the shitty little fabulistspossessed children who accused various townsfolk of enspelling them.
Witch trials apologist Cotton Mather dedicated a whole chapter (under the title “A Modern Instance of Witches, Discovered and Condemned in a Tryal, before that Celebrated Judg, Sir Matthew Hale”) to the authority established by the Cullender-Denny trial.
It may cast some Light upon the Dark things now in America, if we just give a glance upon the like things lately happening in Europe. We may see the Witchcrafts here most exactly resemble the Witchcrafts there; and we may learn what sort of Devils do trouble the World.
The Venerable Baxter very truly says, [“]Judge Hale was a Person, than whom no man was more Backward to condemn a Witch, without full Evidence.[“]
Now, one of his latest Printed Accounts about a Tryal of Witches, is of what was before him … it was a Tryal, much considered by the Judges of New-England.
… [Mather spends several pages outlining the investigation and trial] …
The next Morning, the Children with their Parents, came to the Lodgings of the Lord Chief Justice [i.e., Hale, although he was not Chief Justice in 1662], and were in as good health as ever in their Lives; being restored within half an Hour after the Witches were Convicted.
The Witches were Executed, and Confessed nothing; which indeed will not be wondered by them, who Consider and Entertain the Judgment of a Judicious Writer, That the Unpardonable Sin, is most usually Committed by Professors of the Christian Religion, falling into Witchcraft.
On this date in 1995, Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged for murder in Singapore.
Contemplacion had, four years before, strangled a fellow-maid and drowned that maid’s four-year-old charge.
That’s what she confessed to, at least. Even though Contemplacion’s camp would eventually argue that the confession had been coerced, or that she’d been possessed by a strange epileptic, Contemplacion herself never really walked back that admission.
Still, Flor Contemplacion the cause celebre and Flor Contemplacion the cultural phenomenon was never only about the woman’s innocence, even if many do still believe she was framed.
By whatever happenstance of timing and circumstance, widespread publicity of her case in the Philippines during the months leading up to her hanging tapped a national discontent among her countrymen and -women about “OFWs” — overseas Filipino workers.
This economic sector — exported labor — had been intentionally nurtured (pdf) by Manila beginning with a 1974 labor code, and over the ensuing generation ballooned twentyfold into a positively enormous phenomenon.* By the time Flor Contemplacion hanged, everybody in the Philippines knew people who had worked overseas, and whose wage remittances were indispensable (pdf) for supporting their families in the Philippines. (And increasingly, the entire national economy.)
Boom of the overseas Filipino workers sector, 1975 – 2000 (1975 = 1). Source of figures; there are more official OFW stats here.
Ascendance of the OFW industry brought with it the discontents attendant with scattering wholesale quantities of the populace to unfamiliar corners of the globe, many of them to confront the timeless varieties of workplace abuse from positions of special vulnerability: “The dark reality,” one organization says this year, of “low wages, horrid working conditions, little protection for human rights, exploitation, harassment, threats, illegal arrests, imprisonment, criminalization, and deportation.”
To say nothing of the political discontents raised by such a discomfiting abdication of autarky, and the “domestic anxieties” (pdf) of developing “the embarrassing reputation that we are a country of DHs [domestic helpers], entertainers, and even prostitutes.” This is, truly, a rich and complex tapestry.
Flor Contemplacion is practically the patron saint of the indicted Filipino/a abroad, and her fruitless clemency appeal the political breakout of OFWs and their allies as a constituency to reckon with.
The effect was immediate. Contemplacion hadn’t had any great level of consular support early in her criminal process — the time when it might have made the most difference. (The Philippines embassy in Singapore later took considerable heat for this fact.)
But as the story made headlines and some sketchy witnesses accused the victim’s widower husband of being the real perpetrator, the case became a national sensation. Recently-elected president Fidel Ramos, who campaigned on restoring the previously-abolished death penalty in the Philippines, not only had to put on the full-court press for this condemned woman but incongruously declared her a “national hero”; his wife personally received Contemplacion’s remains at the airport. Leaders and ordinary people from Catholics to Communists rallied (sometimes rioted) in anger.
(Singapore was just at this time establishing its own reputation as the place that never gives diplomatically expedient clemencies. Never.)
Whatever the domestic controversies, the labor-export business has only continued to grow in the generation since Contemplacion’s hanging. To this day, the Filipino public has shown great sympathy with OFWs entangled in alien criminal justice systems, and demanded diplomatic support — regardless of particular individuals’ putative guilt.
Regrettably, it is often called to do so: from Saudi Arabia to China, the plight of Filipinos executed abroad remains a recurrent and emotionally charged theme in the country.
Flor Contemplacion’s name, well-known still anywhere in the archipelago, was back in the news last year … when her three sons all drew lifetime prison sentences for drug-smuggling.
There was certainly no cause when killer Andrew Kokoraleis suffered lethal injection at 12:34 this afternoon to suppose that his would be the last execution in the illustrious history of Illinois.
Against all odds, however, it was the last.
Illinois has had plenty of poster boys for death penalty foes — Rolando Cruz; the Ford Heights Four — but Andrew Kokoraleis was hardly among them.
As a member of a satanic murder cult branded the Ripper Crew, he’d participated in abducting, raping, mutilating, murdering, and cannibalizing prostitutes under the charismatic sway of one Robin Gecht.*
The exploits of Gecht, Edward Spreitzer, and brothers Andrew and Thomas Kokoraleis in the Dark Lord’s services are nauseatingly recounted at trutv.com and the spellbinding true-crime book Deadly Thrills.
By the time Andrew Kokoraleis’s appeals had wended their way through the courts, it was high tide for capital punishment in the United States: a modern record 98 executions were carried out in 1999; a Texas governor best-known to the general public for his prodigious execution output was lining up the White House bid that would hurl America into much deadlier pastimes; a law stripping condemned prisoners of federal appellate avenues had just been passed with overwhelming support. Even liberal Democrats dared not touch the divisive issue of capital punishment for fear of appearing soft on crime.
Though sub-Texan in its gurney output, the Land of Lincoln was cranking out a consistent 1 to 2 executions per year in the late 1990’s. It had just inaugurated a Republican governor who as a lawmaker had voted to reinstitute that state’s death penalty statute. Illinois held well over 100 death row prisoners, including one of Kokoraleis’s own confederates from the Ripper Crew.
So the 21st century figured to present an ample harvest for the Illinois death chamber.
Just days into Ryan’s term, a man named Anthony Porter, who had avoided execution by the narrowest of margins the year before, walked out of Illinois death row a free man — exonerated by the efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class.
“I turned to my wife, and I said, how the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief? And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter.”
Ryan okayed the execution of Kokoraleis six weeks later, but the piqued governor would soon impose an executive moratorium on further executions.
Ryan’s personal journey on the death penalty during his four years in the governor’s office, as linked to his state’s journey over the past decades, must be one of the rare operatic sagas in modern American political life.
Because our three year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.
I cannot say it more eloquently than Justice Blackmun.
The legislature couldn’t reform it.
Lawmakers won’t repeal it.
But I will not stand for it.
I must act.
Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.
This move drew plenty of criticism, but the George Ryan death penalty moratorium persisted through the terms of his successors.
Finally, legislators did repeal it.
Early in 2011, longstanding efforts to push that moratorium into formal abolition finally bore fruit in the state legislature. After a protracted silence on the matter, Gov. Pat Quinn** finally — just eight days ago as of this posting — signed that legislation into law, simultaneously commuting all the state’s then-existing death sentences.
Naturally, no government can bind its successors, and laws eliminated today might be reinstated tomorrow. But for now and for the foreseeable future, this date in 1999 marks the final destination not just for Andrew Kokoraleis — but for the Illinois executioner.
* To magnify this troupe’s outsized crime-tabloid appeal, Gecht, the leader, had actually worked for legendary serial sex-killer John Wayne Gacy.
** In earlier years, Quinn was a political rival of George Ryan.
Though worth billions (or at least hundreds of millions), Yuan went down over the trivial sum of $9 million — the amount he reckoned a business associate had taken by fraud.
But then, it’s always impolite to count the corpses stuffed into the pillars of capital. The surprise here is that Yuan got caught: he’d hired a dirty cop to kill that business partner, but after the plot failed the cop started blackmailing the tycoon. Yuan responded by hiring his brother and cousin to pop the cop.
On this date in 1915, four French corporals were shot at a farm in Suippes for refusing to advance out of their trenches through the carnage of a World War I no man’s land.
It was not only Corporals Theophile Maupas, Louis Lefoulon, Louis Girard and Lucien Lechat who had refused. The entire 21st Company of the 336th Infantry regiment, exhausted and already decimated by combat, was ordered over the trench at dawn on March 10.
Under withering machine gun fire, and with French artillery carelessly dropping shells just in front of their own lines, the 21st stayed put. Frantic to force the advance, the French commander ordered artillery to drive the troops ahead by shelling his own trenches — an order the artillerists refused to carry out unless someone put it in writing.*
In that slaughterhouse of trench warfare, insubordination in the ranks met stern reprisals. Generals with no strategy but to make mincemeat of their countrymen could not well abide the meat’s reluctance to be minced. Examples must be made, especially inasmuch as the impracticality of executing entire companies impressed even the brass.
On March 16, six corporals and 18 soldiers of the intransigent company faced military trial in the Suippes town hall; the four condemned were shot the next day and buried under dishonorable black crosses.
According to Shot At Dawn, a campaign for rehabilitating soldiers executed during World War I, France carried out some 600 military executions during those bloody years, more than any other country. A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. In an essay in Handbook on Death and Dying, Prof. J. Robert Lilly suggests that many more “unofficial” executions may have taken place, especially during the war’s panicked opening stages.
Whatever their precise number, the shootings, around Europe, of hundreds of men for cowardice — most in obscurity, many chosen arbitrarily, some whose descendants still struggle for recognition to this day — is one of the enduring legacies of World War I: the collision of that most individual penalty with that most faceless and indiscriminate war. A witness to a different French military execution discomfitingly describes the near-total dehumanization of the victims:
The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.
The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”
The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.
The shootings this day became emblematic of those lost and obscured legions. The circumstances of the “crime” — the senselessness of the advance, the order to bombard their own troops, the fury of the reprisal — recommended it to novelist Humphrey Cobb, and subsequently to a young Stanley Kubrick who adapted a fictionalized form to the 1957 film Paths of Glory. (The title comes from this poem.)
In the film, three soldiers face a firing squad under circumstances very similar to this day’s backstory, including the detail of the general ordering his own men shelled (and that of the order being refused). Kubrick renders the insanity of the resulting court-martial against hapless soldiers each of whom did little but what anyone in their situation would have done, with one of their officers, Kirk Douglas, mounting a vain defense.
This day’s executions, as with many of the others carried out across Europe in those years, sparked a long campaign for posthumous exoneration, in this case led by Maupas’ widow. In 1934, a French panel did exonerate them — awarding the surviving widows a symbolic one franc apiece.
Maupas himself was reinterred in a cemetery in Sartilly, where a monument was erected in honor of the four; just last year, opposite the courthouse where the Frenchmen were condemned, a life-sized white stone sculpture was dedicated, showing Maupas, Girard, Lechat and Lefoulon on their execution posts just after they have been shot.
The surety of the corporals’ posthumous exoneration contrasts intriguingly with the rigor of their sentence and points to the complex and shifting terms upon which the First World War entered subsequent national consciousness in France (and elsewhere) — the never-definitive story of the individual’s right place amid social structures hopelessly beyond individual control.