1866: Mokomoko and the Maori killers of Carl Volkner

Add comment May 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1866, five Maori men hanged for the murder of a German proselytizer.

Hesse-born Carl Sylvius Völkner* arrived in New Zealand as a Lutheran missionary in 1849; by 1861, he was directing an Anglican-run mission at Opotiki, the center of Maori Te Whakatohea territory.

Unfortunately for Volkner, his mission to win souls overlapped with the British mission to win land.

This same early 1860s period saw a sharpening of the European-Maori conflict on the North Island where Volkner kept his mission — the bloodshed in turn fostering the militant Pai Marire or Hau Hau faith in place of the settlers’. Though the Te Whakatohea weren’t directly involved in this war, they had felt its effects: refugees, food shortages, disease outbreaks.

Volkner, who was seen by Maori as a pro-government character and a British spy,** was warned that under the fraught circumstances he might be wise to extend his most recent trip to Auckland indefinitely and wait for things to simmer down.

He did not heed that warning.

On March 2, 1865, the day after Volkner’s return to Opotiki, a group of Pai Marire hanged the missionary to a willow tree outside his Church of St. Stephen, then butchered the dead body.

The Pai Marire leader Kereopa Te Rau then preached from the church’s pulpit with Volkner’s severed head at his side, in the course of which he tore the eyeballs from his grisly prop and, calling one “the Queen” and the other “Parliament”, theatrically devoured them. (Kereopa Te Rau is nicknamed “Kai whatu”, “the eyeball eater”.)

Old eyeball eater would eventually hang for this display as well, but he avoided capture until the 1870s — so this narrative takes its leave of him here.

The slaughter of the European evangelist at the very steps of the protomartyr’s church in turn fired the fury of white New Zealand.

The most immediate response was the government’s landing 500 soldiers in Opotiki in September 1865. From there they raided throughout Te Whakatohea territory (confiscating some 240,000 hectares that would feed white settlers’ surging demand for real estate) and put crops to the torch until the tribe surrendered up some 20 chiefs for punishment of the Volkner affair.

Five of those eventually hanged for their participation: Heremita Kahupaea, Hakaraia Te Rahui, Horomona Propiti and Mikaere Kirimangu … and a man named Mokomoko who was then and remains now the most controversial execution of the bunch.

Mokomoko’s guilt was sharply disputed by eyewitnesses who gave conflicting accounts of whether he was even present at the church on March 2. It was Mokomoko’s rope that strangled Carl Volkner, but the man himself insisted that he was not present. (The three witnesses who placed him on the scene said he carried the rope, suggesting participation far exceeding a bystander.)

Maori tradition preserved Mokomoko as an emblem of wrongful persecution, along with his song Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki kia waiata au i taku waiata (Take the rope from my neck that I may sing my song):

Violent shaking will not rouse me from my sleep
They treat me like a common thief
It is true that I embrace eternal sleep
For that is the lot of a man condemned to die.

Shielded from the harsh light
With narrow eyes I reflect on the retribution taken at Hamukete
Remember how I was taken on board ship (chained)
The memory of it burns me with shame.

Bring me justice from distant lands to break my shackles
Where the sun sets is a government in Europe
It is for them to say that I must hang
Then shut me in my coffin box.

Under pressure from Mokomoko’s descendants, latter-day New Zealand has made a number of gestures of apology for Mokomoko’s hanging over the past 20-odd years, culminating in a posthumous pardon.

* A copse of rocks sprouting out of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is named for our man — the Volkner Rocks, also known as Te Paepae o Aotea.

** He sent reports to the government about subversive activity.

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1521: Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

6 comments May 17th, 2013 Nancy Bilyeau

Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.

On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.

Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.

When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. Young Edward Stafford was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.

He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.

Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”

Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.

But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.

In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.

What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?

For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.

Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?

On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.

Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.

Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”

Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.

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1964: Namgyal Bahadur, Bhutan assassin

Add comment May 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1964, three officers were executed in Bhutan, including former deputy commander in chief Namgyal Bahadur, for assassinating Prime Minister Jigme Dorji.

Jigme Dorji

A member of the powerful Dorji family and brother-in-law to the Bhutanese king, Dorji was overseeing a modernization campaign for the insular Himalayan kingdom. On April 5, 1964, while the king was in Europe for medical treatment, Dorji was shot dead while relaxing on his veranda. No wholesale seizure of power was attempted.

The entire affair has long been murky, and it seems it was murky to those involved, too.

The assassin, one Zambay,* was caught within days, and he implicated a number of powerful people — including not only Namgyal Bahadur, but the king’s Tibetan mistress.

She eventually fled the country, though her alleged involvement fueled rumors of a Chinese connection, or (more plausibly) of palace politics between her faction that that of the rival Dorjis. Old guard military guys versus the modernizers is another hypothetical dimension, although again the specifics (why now? what was the last straw?) are wanting.

* Zambay was executed on July 4.

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1995: Girvies Davis, framed?

6 comments May 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Illinois executed Girvies Davis for murdering 89-year-old Charles Biebel in Belleville, Ill.

A small-time African-American hood reared in an alcoholic home, Davis was not linked to the murder by any physical evidence, or even any eyewitnesses. There was only one piece of evidence against him: his signed confession.

Unfortunately, the source lacked all credibility.

Davis copped to some 20 crimes under police interrogation. Officially, he did this when he voluntarily wrote out a list of evildoings and spontaneously passed it to a guard, which would be hard to believe even if the guy weren’t nearly illiterate. (Even the official story later became that Davis must have dictated the confession to someone else, like a cellmate.)

According to Davis’s later account, he signed statements the police had prepared for him … at gunpoint. The police logs say that he was taken out for a drive that night (“for evidence”), and conveniently confessed in the small hours of the morning.

Even though our man’s involvement in most of these “admitted” crimes (anything outstanding in the area that was still unsolved, it seems) was disproven, he couldn’t get traction in the courts once his conviction by an all-white jury was secured. Paradoxically, because there was no other evidence in the case to discredit, that “a-ha!” exoneration moment became all but impossible to secure despite the other holes in the case.

More action was had in the court of public opinion, where the usual suspects enlisted any number of pro-death penalty prosecutors and Republicans with serious misgivings about the case.

Time magazine lodged a naive early entrant in the “wait, wrongful confessions happen?” genre. The New York Times also covered the Davis clemency campaign:*

“The public sees the Bundys and the Gacys executed and they cheer,” said Gary V. Johnson, a former Kane County, Ill., prosecutor, who sought the death penalty in the past but opposes the execution of Mr. Davis. “The public doesn’t see the Girvies Davises.”

What savvy pols like Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar could see was that in the 1990s, all the political upside was in denying clemencies. So that’s what he did.

Years later, Davis’s last appellate attorney still believes “that the State of Illinois executed Girvies Davis for a crime I am sure he didn’t commit.”

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess was also convinced of Girvies Davis’s innocence, and led a team of students researching the case back before he was famous for doing exactly that sort of thing. His work did not yield success on this occasion, but to judge by his account (pdf) of a last conversation he and his students had hours before Davis was put to death, it helped lead to the school’s later headline-grabbing wrongful conviction exposes.

Protess put [Davis] on the speakerphone, and the group gathered around. “Try not to mourn for me,” Davis said. “Move on with your lives. Just try to help people like me who get caught up in the system.” …

Davis had a final request: He wanted Protess and the students to promise that this wouldn’t be their last crusade in a capital case.

The room fell silent. “Of all the guys you know on the Row, who do you think most deserves help?” Protess asked.

Buck Williams,” Davis answered without hesitation. “I’m certain he’s innocent.”

Protess … vowed that he and his next group of students would leave no stone unturned for Williams.

Protess was as good as his word.

In less than a year, Williams along with Verneal Jimerson, Willie Rainge and Kenneth Adams were free men after a generation in prison.** These men, known as the “Ford Heights Four”, would win the largest civil rights lawsuit payment in U.S. history for their wrongful imprisonment.

* Davis may also have been the first death-row prisoner in the U.S. with his own Internet site and online clemency petition, although these interesting artifcats have long since vanished into the digital oubliette. Gov. Edgar reportedly received 1,200 emails asking him to spare his prisoner’s life … testament even then to elected officials’ disregard for online advocacy.

** Williams and Jimerson were on death row; Rainge and Adams were serving life sentences.

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1972: The rapists of Maggie dela Riva

59 comments May 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1972, Jaime Jose, Basilio Pineda and Edgardo Aquino were electrocuted* in Muntinlupa for the gang-rape of actress Maggie de la Riva (or dela Riva) five years before.

The rising young actress had scarcely wavered after the assault before courageously making the always-fraught rape charge against a quartet** of attackers themselves from elite families. (The particulars are recounted in the Supreme Court ruling.)


J’accuse! Maggie de la Riva identifies two of the culprits just five days after her gang rape. Talk about facing your accuser; according to the accompanying article, “the frail-looking mestiza was a picture of righteous indignation as she extended her arms, showed her bruises, and asked Pineda, pointedly: ‘Do you remember these?'”

The case was a media sensation from day one. The Philippine film blog Video 48 republished a three-part series on the rapists’ capture (parts 1 and 2) and execution (part 3), complete with the desperate efforts of the offenders’ families to save them.

The victim herself continued her acting career.

Decades later, she’s still a public personality, and seems to have made peace with and moved on from her famous ordeal with impressive equanimity.

When that misfortune happened to me, I realized that although my body was raped my true self was never defiled and that there’s another person in me that’s beautiful, strong and true. The old Maggie has faded away. I look at my experience as something that happened to someone else who is no longer the person I am today. (Source)

* The Philippines adopted use of the electric chair in the early 20th century from the U.S., its colonial ruler at the time. It’s the only country besides the United States to have used the chair.

** One of the four condemned to death for the rape, Rogelio Canial, died in prison of a drug overdose several months before the executions.

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