1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

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1916: Abraham Bevistein, child soldier

1 comment March 20th, 2016 Headsman

One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.

Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.

Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.

Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*

“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”

Anti-war suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst took up Bevistein’s cause when she learned about his execution, prominently publishing a sympathetic feature story in her newspaper, Women’s Dreadnought. Like 305 other British and Commonwealth soldiers shot at dawn during the Great War, Bevistein was posthumously pardoned and added to war memorials in the 21st century.

* The farm owner’s later testimony to Bevistein’s court-martial that the young tommy had expressed an intent to return to England sealed his fate as a deserter.

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1531: Sikke Freriks, Menno Simons inspiration

Add comment March 20th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.

While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.

To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.

This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.

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2007: Taha Yasin Ramadan, Iraqi Vice-President

1 comment March 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2007, Saddam Hussein‘s former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was hanged for helping conduct the 1982 Dujail Massacre of Shia Iraqis in revenge for an assassination plot against Saddam.

Pushing 70, the Kurd was a longtime pillar of the Iraqi Ba’ath party and had served in a variety of posts since it took power in 1968. For instance, he brought his management expertise to the Ministry of Industry: “I don’t know anything about industry. All I know is that anyone who doesn’t work hard will be executed.”

He was noted for his role in orchestrating Saddam Hussein’s terrifying 1979 internal purge.

While the first operations of America’s 2003 invasion took place on March 19, it was March 20, 2003 local time that the land invasion proper commenced. That made Ramadan’s execution a fourth-anniversary gift to the occupier’s preposterous foreign policy blunder.

Which was all too bad, since Ramadan had also floated a 2002 plan to avert conflict: have Saddam Hussein fight a duel with George W. Bush. Of course, the offer was declined. “An irresponsible statement,” replied the spokesman of a government that was at that moment engaged in a mendacious campaign to justify its coming aggressive war with creative fables about Iraq’s nuclear capacity.

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1428: Matteuccia di Francesco, San Bernardino casualty

1 comment March 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1428, Matteuccia di Francesco was condemned and burned as a witch in the Perugian town of Todi. It’s one of the oldest witchcraft cases in Italy for which a complete trial record survives.

Matteuccia was a local wise woman or sorceress dispensing the herbal remedies, potions, and incantations that comprised the everyday magic as experienced by popular superstition — like a homemade contraceptive (ashes of a mule’s hoof mixed into wine: drink up!) for the mistress of the local prelate.

The woman seems to have practiced this openly and (for aught we know) happily in Todi … until Bernardino of Siena holy rolled into town.

Bernardino, now considered a Catholic saint, was a mendicant Franciscan who crisscrossed Italy inveighing against Jews, sodomites, and (you guessed it) witches. Think Savonarola: like that later austere and charismatic firebrand, Bernardino even had bonfires of vanities.

The turmoil was large and the people trembled. The Church and piazza Santa Croce was full of citizens and peasants, women and men, several thousands in number. The shouting of little children and young boys was loud when friar Bernardino stopped preaching and went to the piazza with many other friars and set on fire a pile of four tables of games, several baskets of dice, more than four thousands pairs of old and new card games of great numbers, and placed and attached and hung on every side were much hair and flounces of dresses of women and other things and with a lot of wood underneath. You have never seen a more beautiful fire, and the flames spread in the air and confused the demon enemy of God, bringing glory, honor and praises to the reverence of our master Jesus Christ the highest God.*


Detail view of Sano di Pietro’s 1445 St. Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, showing the saint (brandishing his trademark prop tablets) drawing a crowd in his native Siena’s central plaza. There are many paintings, stretching to centuries after his death, on the theme of Bernardino’s, er, spellbinding sermons.

As pertains specifically to witchcraft, one might say that the import of preachers like Bernardino thundering from the pulpits in the early 15th century was to delegitimate the many Matteuccias around.

Thanks to decades of evolving thought, this formerly accepted sphere of “white magic” was now going to be understood as outright devil-worship: your classic theological zero-tolerance policy.

O you who have used the charm for broken bones, to you, and to him or her who says that she is bewitched, and who makes you believe she is — to all these I say, take heed! For the first to feel the strokes from God’s scourges will be those who have trusted in these enchantments and followed them; and next vengeance will overtake those who have not brought them to justice … When such people say that they wish to cure anyone, do you know what you should do? There is nothing better to do than cry, “To the fire! To the fire! To the fire!”

Wherever one may be, and whoever may know him or her, in any place whatsoever inside or outside the city, straightaway accuse her before the Inquisitor … every witch, every wizard, every sorcerer or sorceress, or worker of charms and spells … such enchanters, every time they have worked any charms or spells have denied God by doing so.

-San Bernardino (Source)

Inspired by our itinerant zealot, Todi tightened up witchcraft laws in 1426, and prescribed the stake and the fagot for violations.

“The church now equated the performance of common sorcery, involving only a few words or simple gestures and aimed at curing or causing illness or affecting the weather, with … a preexisting pact between the sorcerer and demons that made such magic possible,” writes Michael Bailey.** “Indeed, such sorcerers, whom in an earlier era the church had seen more as victims and dupes of demonic illusions and had hardly taken seriously, now became all the more terrible in that they were capable of commanding demonic forces with only a few simple words or signs.”

Matteuccia didn’t have long to enjoy her newfound demonic-command powers before she ran afoul of Todi’s eager witch-hunters. Her words, as filtered through her interrogators, capture the evolving theology-cum-jurisprudence around magic.

After copping to countless trifling hocuses and pocuses — philters for lovers, poultices for injuries, aid and comfort for battered women (apparently, counseling these women was one of her specialties: “adding evil to evil,” according to her persecutors) — her narrative suddenly shifts to the phantasmagorial.

Presumably under torture or the promise thereof, the corner pharmacist is suddenly reporting that she drank children’s blood and transformed into an animal to fly off to Lucifer’s convocations at Benevento. (This is also one of Italy’s first documented invocations of flying to a witches’ sabbat.) Not surprisingly, these scenes are straight out of Bernardino’s own descriptions of what witches do.

The intellectual framework of the inquisitors who pursued Matteuccia now expected to find the latter variety of supernatural diabolism as a corollary and precondition for stocking an impotence enchantment. And like inquisitors are always prone to do, they made sure to find what they were looking for.

* 1424 account of a Bernardino spectacle in Florence, quoted and translated in Nirit Ben-Aryeh’s “Jews and Judaism in the Rhetoric of Popular Preachers: The Florentine Sermons of Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419) and Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444)”, Jewish History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000),

** Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages”, Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 2001).

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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1809: Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch

3 comments March 20th, 2009 Headsman

It’s the bicentennial today of the unnatural passing of the Yorkshire witch.

Mary Bateman ran her fraudulent fortune-telling business under the name “Mrs. Moore”, and had some years’ success separating fools from their money without running afoul of the law.

In fact, she outlived her fatal crime — plying with poisoned puddings a bilked couple, lest they realize their medium was defrauding them — by months, even continuing to leach money off the surviving husband after her ministrations had killed the wife.

Let’s just say she knew how to pick her clientele.

When the sucker finally got wise to the scam,* the jig was up for Mary in a sensational trial. (It’s recounted at length here — and capped by what must have a grimly comic spectacle when Mary attempted to plead her belly and the women in the courtroom bolted for the exits to avoid impaneling on a jury of matrons to adjudge the claim. The judge ordered the doors shut up before his jury pool could escape.)

Three days after conviction, she was hanged at York Castle before a crowd of thousands, who subsequently paid (.pdf) to see her corpse (and to get cured cuts of her skin as charms: even unto death, Mary had ‘em swallowing her snake oil).

After execution, Mary Bateman’s body was given over for dissection in Leeds — remaining a curio worthy of public preservation to this day at that city’s Thackray Medical Museum. (Update: The museum reports that Ms. Bateman’s remains were only on loan from Leeds University, and have since been returned.)

* Source of enlightenment? Not the death of his wife, but the fact that magical financial windfalls promised by the Yorkshire witch had failed to materialize after two-plus years of paying her.

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

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