1950: Rosli Dhobi, Sarawak patriot

Add comment March 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Rosli Dhobi or Dhoby was hanged by the British for assassinating the governor of Sarawak.

The scene of events lies in the present-day state of Malaysia, which gained independence in 1957. As a glance at the atlas will show, Malaysia oddly comprises two principal chunks of territory lying hundreds of kilometers apart across the southern reaches of the South China Sea: the end of the Malay Peninsula, reaching south from Thailand and the Eurasian landmass — and the northern third of the island of Borneo, which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

Dhobi’s passion is a story of the Borneo side — from what is today the largest of Malaysia’s 13 constituent states, Sarawak.

The British presence at Sarawak dated to the mid-19th century when the Kingdom of Sarawak began as a series of personal concessions extracted from the Sultan of Brunei by an ex-Raj officer turned adventurer named James Brooke. Casting about for a vocation in the mother country back in the 1830s after resigning his commission, Brooke had plunked his £30,000 inheritance down on a schooner, sailed it to southeast Asia, and made such a timely and effective intervention against pirates plaguing Borneo that the Sultan put him in charge of parts of Sarawak.*

The man proved to have a deft hand for diplomacy and governance and steadily grew his fiefdom, eventually establishing his own dynastic monarchy, the White Rajahs.

In 1946, the third and last of Brooke’s dynasty, Vyner Brooke,** ceded his family’s interest in Sarawak to the British Colonial Office — changing it from a crown protectorate to a crown colony and setting Sarawak on the path to transit the era of decolonization tied to the British colony of Malaysia instead of, say, independent statehood. No surprise, this backroom arrangement among Anglo suits played to many in Sarawak as a wanton abnegation of self-determination, spurring a widespread anti-cession movement.

Thus aggrieved, our man Rosli Dhobi (English Wikipedia page | Malaysian) became deeply involved with an anti-cession group called the Sibu Malay Youth Movement.

Out of this body, 13 particularly radical members eventually formed a secret terrorist cell called Rukun 13 (“13 Pillars”). Balked of their plan to murder the British governor Charles Arden-Clarke by the latter’s timely transfer to Ghana, they instead greeted his successor Duncan Stewart just days after arrival — with Dhobi fatally daggering the new guy when he appeared at a photo op at the town of Sibu. Dhobi was only 17 years old at the time.

In time the British successfully suppressed the anti-cession movement, but Dhobi’s execution was so politically sensitive when it occurred that he was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Kuching Central Prison. The judgment of posterity in Sarawak has been quite a bit more generous: on March 2, 1996, the forty-sixth anniversary of his hanging, he was reburied in the Sarawak Heroes’ Mausoleum in Sibu. A school in that town is also named for him.

* Another noteworthy example of an intrepid private individual redrawing the colonial map for his mother country occurred decades later with Germany’s presence in Tanzania.

** Vyner Brooke’s nephew and his heir apparent as the prospective next White Rajah, Anthony Brooke, bitterly opposed the cession, so much so that British intelligence initially considered him a possible suspect in Duncan’s murder. Anthony Brooke formally ceded all his own potential claims to the rule of Sarawak in 1951.

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1423: William Taylor, Lollard

Add comment March 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1423 the Lollard theologian William Taylor was burned at Smithfield.

We have only fleeting glimpses of this excommunicate priest but the Oxford master made a scintillating entrance to the historical record by preaching a Wycliffite sermon for Advent of 1406 — which stirred a hornet’s nest and saw him excommunicated by the Lollard-quashing Archbishop Thomas Arundel. This denunciation of clerical privilege survived to our digital age as a single, damaged manuscript, and was published in 1993.

Certainly we great cause to weep if we behold the nobility, glory and cleanness of the church in Christ’s time and his apostles … for in that time the people fervently loved God and his law, and were diligent in the keeping thereof, and dreaded the hideous sins of usury, simony, whoredom, forswearing, manslaughter, and the unmeasurable filthiness of lechery …

So wonderful is our church in comparison to the time here before … shiningly arrayed and delicately fed with poor men’s goods, it lifts its voice in gladness — and great weeping. And so the voice of him that makes mirth and the voice of the weeping of the people being melded together. But the voice of the weepers, taking heed to their own wretchedness bodily and ghostly, desiring for to be relieved from bodily discomfort and to be lightened in soul by the word of God, bewail their own discomfort and others’ both. But that voice is so thin and so low that it may not be heard among the voice of those that make joy, the which, not reckoning the health of their own soul neither of others entrusted to their care, say in effect in the words of Zachary, “Blessed be God we are made rich!” and live as delicately and recklessly as though they despaired of the life to come.

We have scant evidence of him in the succeeding generation, but references in his 1420s legal difficulties to his ongoing excommunication make plain that Taylor did not reconcile: instead, he seems to have retreated to the fringes of the high church’s writ, preaching in his native Worcestershire and availing the protection of sympathetic elites during Lollardy’s apex years.

Taylor was finally run to ground in 1420 when he was forced to do penance to resolve his excommunication, and then once again made to abjure his heresies in 1421 — an occasion that might easily have been construed as his second offense and resulted in his execution.

His submissions entirely lacked sincerity, however, and each time returned to his subversive doctrines. His last arrest in February 1423 saw him “brachio seculari traditus fuerat, ac igni combustus in Smythfeld, secundo die Martii, A.D. MCCCCXXII,* et regis Henrici sexti primo,” as described in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (see “Sententia lata contra Willelmum taylor Wycclevistam” on p. 412) on a host of charges that confirm his unreconstructed Lollardy: for denouncing clerical alms; for calling on the devout to pray to God alone, sans intercessors; for insisting that “in no way does Christ wish priests of the church to rule” in the sense of any secular authority. (Translation per Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion.)

* 1423 by present reckoning, or 1422/23 as one often sees it rendered: England at the time marked the New Year on March 25.

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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1962: Kelly Moss, restless of spirit

1 comment March 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1962, J. Kelly Moss went to the Kentucky electric chair in Kentucky for murder.

A lifelong criminal whose offenses ran more to the impulsive than the diabolical, Moss was arrested 10 or more times from 1950 to 1953, according to an Evansville (Ind.) Courier and Press profile. “Kelly Moss, when he was sober, was a real gentle person,” the former police chief of Henderson, Ky. told reporters decades later. “My recollection is that he was a real good man. But when he got drunk, he was a holy terror. When (Moss) was coming at you, he looked like a raging bull. When you got a call to Kelly’s house, you sent every car you had.”

His stepfather Charles Abbitt unfortunately didn’t have all those cars.

When Moss, fresh out of his latest prison stint on a robbery charge, showed up at Abbitt’s Henderson home blind drunk and in need of fare for the cab that had just delivered him. The cab driver gave up and left while Moss wailed on the door; what happened in the next 90 minutes or so must be guessed at, but Moss’s mother returned from church to find her husband’s mangled remains. “His face was pulverized by blows, and many of his ribs had been broken,” according to the Henderson Gleaner.

Moss apparently hadn’t realized just how much damage he’d done in his raging-bull mode; when arrested later, he was shocked to discover himself a murderer. “We had a little fight but I certainly didn’t intend to kill him. This is the worst thing I have ever had happen to me. This means a long term for me.”

Actually, the term was not so long — although Moss did his level best to extend it.

Leveling himself up into a skilled jailhouse lawyer, he papered Kentucky courts with relentless self-prepared writs that protracted the short lease on life his murder conviction offered. (He helped other prisoners file their appeals, too.) Outliving his victim by four-plus years was making good time by his era’s standards.

“The restless spirit of Kelly Moss was stilled just after midnight this morning,” the Gleaner reported on March 2, 1962. He wasn’t reconciled to the electric chair, and the device almost choked on him: Moss was the last person executed in Kentucky prior to the death penalty’s long 1960s-1970s lull in America. Kentucky’s next, and last, electrocution would not take place until 1997.

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1401: William Sawtre, Lollard heretic

March 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.

The highlight of late 14th century English literature, Piers Plowman, was a great favorite of Lollards. Though this lengthy allegorical poem is not itself a Lollard text, it spawned a Piers Plowman tradition with many spinoffs that are overtly Wycliffite.

Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!

Piers Plowman’s Creed*

Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.

Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.

“From about 1390 to 1425, we hear of the Lollards in all directions,” notes this public domain history, “so that the contemporary chronicler was ale to say that of every two men found on the roads, one was sure to be a Lollard.”

Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**

But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.

This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.

Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.

But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.

Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.

divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …

the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…

[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.

Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.

[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.

With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.

Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”

Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.

The History of England podcast covers Sawtre and Lollardy in episode 141.

* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.

** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.

† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1871: Ma Hualong, Dungan rebel

Add comment March 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Qing executed Ma Hualong (or Ma Hua-lung), one of the principal leaders of a 15-year Muslim revolt in northwest China.

Ma was the fifth leader of the Jahriyya, a Sufi order whose founder Ma Mingxin had himself been executed during disturbances in the early 1780s.

By the time of Ma’s ascendancy, the Jahriyya were a major force in Gansu, Shaanxi and Ningxia.

Neither Ma nor any other single person led the Dungan revolt. (“Dungan” was a 19th century term for the ethnicity that’s now known as the Hui.) Rather, a cascading series of ethnic riots led in 1862 — while the Chinese army was absorbed elsewhere with the bloody Taiping Rebellion — to a patchwork of rebellious leaders and movements, operating independently and often viewing one another as rivals.

The Jahriyya was the closest thing to a unifying element among discontented Muslims. According to this volume, though Ma struck a pose of moderation and loyalty, in the Chinese court’s eyes, the disturbances “depend[ed] on Ma Hua-lung.” For the Qing, Ma’s nearly impregnable position at Jinjipu (Chin-chi-pao) and his diplomatic finesse were the lynchpin.

Dispatched to put down the revolt, General Tso Tsung-tang had the prestigious Ma as his primary target: with him gone, the rest of the rebels could be divided and conquered at leisure.

Unable to take Jinjipu by storm, General Tso besieged it unto near starvation, forcing Ma to surrender himself. Notwithstanding his attempts to take all the blame for the revolt on his own shoulders,

Ma was executed, together with twelve members of his immediate family, by the “slicing process”; some eighty of the lesser Muslim leaders were beheaded. Chin-chi-p’u was depopulated, and the surviving Muslims were sent, en masse, into exile or slavery.

Just a drop in a bucket for a conflict with 8 million-plus dead.

The Jahriyya order still exists to this day. And so too, of course, does General Tso — on Chinese restaurant menus.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Lingchi,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Wartime Executions

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1886: David Roberts, dutiful son

Add comment March 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1886, David Roberts was hanged at Cardiff for a murder-robbery the October previous.

Both Roberts and his father, Edward Roberts, were arraigned for the murder. The Robertses, father and son, had both been playing cards with the late David Thomas on the night of the crime, and left together with him (as well as another man).

The next day, David Thomas was found in a field bludgeoned and stabbed to death, with David Roberts’ pipe nearby. A search of the Roberts home revealed £66 stashed away in a bloody handkerchief, the approximate amount Thomas as known to have made at market on the day before he died.

David Roberts made a voluntary written confession specifically claiming sole responsibility for the murder. He even pleaded guilty in court, shouting out, “I swear my dad had nothing to do with this murder!”

Apparently he was persuasive: prosecutors decided to present no evidence against Edward Thomas and allowed him to be acquitted.

So Roberts stood alone on the trap this day, having at least the comfort of having done right by his family duty. Unfortunately the hangman did not quite do right by Roberts fils as he appeared to survive the drop. Witnesses were hastily conducted away while Roberts dangled, still twitching and strangling. The error was ascribed to the condemned man’s “muscular neck,” but this alleged physiognomy only mattered because at this late date British hangmen still designed the parameters of the drop impressionistically.

All that was changing to follow the professional example of the scientific William Marwood, however. Later in 1886, a commission was formed under former Liberal Home Secretary Baron Aberdare to examine the issue. This commission ultimately produced the first official table of drops specifying the fall that should be allotted to prisoners based on their weight, with a view to reliably breaking the neck.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Theft,Wales

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1942: Jakub Lemberg and family

4 comments March 2nd, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, on the first day of Purim, Jakub Lemberg was executed together with his family in the Nazi ghetto in Zdunska Wola, Poland.

Lemburg, a 43-year-old internist and pediatrician, was head of the Judenrat in Zdunska Wola and thus it was his task to do the Nazis’ dirty work, such as putting together lists of his fellow-Jews for deportation.

He revealed himself to be a man of exceptional character and courage, and the circumstances of his death, as recorded in Louis Falstein’s The Martyrdom of Jewish Physicians in Poland, should not be forgotten:

The Gestapo chief ordered Dr. Lemberg to deliver ten Jews to be hanged for the ten hanged sons of Haman. Dr. Lemberg replied that he could deliver only four Jews: himself, his wife and their two children. Hans Biebow, “the Butcher of Lodz,” seized Dr. Lemberg and turned him over to the executioners, who killed him in the cemetery.

The Zdunska Wola ghetto was liquidated five months later. And in 1947, Biebow got his.

Here’s an image of Lemberg testimony (in Hebrew) from the Yad Vashem database.

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