Unspecified Year: Vilem, the Forest King

Add comment May 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in an unspecified year, the bandit Vilem is broken on the wheel and beheaded in the classic Czech poem Maj, by Karel Hynek Macha.

Maj (“May”) commences with a lass called Jarmila on the first day of that month who waits on the shores of a Bohemian lake now named for Macha for her outlaw lover … only to be told by a boatman that her sweetheart in fact reposes across that body of water, weighted with irons in a castle dungeon, where he awaits a dawn execution for murdering his own father, who was also Jarmila’s seducer. All concerned reflect and pine through a melancholy night, and come morning Vilem is put to death as planned and gibbeted on his breaking-wheel; years later, his still-visible remains occasion a traveler-narrator to discover and somberly reflect on the events, and the ephemerality of all things: “My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May! / An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore: / Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.”

This tale, recognizable to every Czech, has been put to the silver screen on several occasions. Macha’s timing was impeccable, for he self-published it in 1838, right when central Europe’s romantic social banditry mythos was forming. According to Mohmir Grygar, the name “Vilem” (Wilhelm, William) might allude to the executed Tyrolean chancellor Wilhelm Biener, although Biener himself — a fallen overmighty politico, not a gold-hearted brigand — bears little resemblance to his alleged literary descendant.

1

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
In shadowy woods the burnished lake
Darkly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again;
And heaven’s clear sun leaned down to take
A road astray in azure deeps,
Like burning tears the lover weeps.

A haze of stars in heaven hovers—
That church of endless love’s communion—
Each jewel blanches and recovers
As blanch and burn long-parted lovers
In the high rapture of reunion.
How clear, to her full beauty grown,
How pale, how clear, the moon above,
Like maiden seeking for her love,
A rosy halo round her thrown!
Her mirrored image she espied,
And of self-love, beholding, died.
Forth from the farms pale shadows strayed,
Lengthening longing to their kind,
Till they embraced, and close entwined,
Coiled low into the lap of shade,
Grown all one twilight unity.
Tree in the shadows writhes to tree.
In the far mountains’ dark confine
Pine leans to birch and birch to pine.
Wave baunting wave the streamlets move.
For love’s sake—in the time of love—
Anguished goes every living thing.

A fair girl at the rim of land
Watches the evening’s rosy phases;
Under the oak-tree by the strand
Far out across the lakes she gazes.
Blue to her feet it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
Over the wide and watery plain
The girl has fixed her weary gaze;
Over the wide and watery plain
Only the glint of starlight plays.
A lovely girl, an angel ravaged,
A bud that April winds have savaged,
In her pale cheeks doomed beauty hastens.
One hour has swallowed up her morrow,
One hour her promise chills and chastens,
Marries her May to grief and sorrow.

Of twenty days the last has died;
Still dreams the quiet countryside.
The last light hastens to its close,
And heaven, like a great, clear rose,
Over the deep blue mountains flushes.
“He comes not! Ah, such anguish takes me!
Another spoiled, and he forsakes me!”
A heavy sigh her sad voice bushes,
Her aching heart burns in her breast,
And with the water’s plaint unsleeping
Mingles the note of bitter weeping.
Snared in her tears the stars find rest,
Down her pale cheeks like bright sparks flowing
Till like quenched stars they burn to shades there,
On her cold countenance briefly glowing.
And where they fall, the blossom fades there.

At the rock’s rim she glimmers whitely;
A silken standard flies her gown,
In evening zephyrs fluttering lightly.
Her eyes on distance fix and frown—
In haste she dries her blinding tears,
Beneath her shading hand she peers,
And on the distant shore she fastens,
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding;
Over the waves live sparks go gliding,
Star after watery starlet bastens.

Even as snow-white virgin doves
Against dark wastes of cloud in flight,
On water-lily flowering white
On deepest blue—so something moves—
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding—
Over the dark waves nearer gliding,
Nearer in haste. A moment proves
Now as the stork’s grave flight it looms,
No dove so flies nor lily blooms,
But a white sail rocked by hasting breezes.
A slender oar the blue wave teases,
With flaming furrows the surface bazing.
The golden rose of heaven’s hold,
High in the mountain oakwoods blazing,
Gilds the ripples with rosy gold.
“Swift litlle boat! Near, nearer bounding!
‘Tis be! ‘Tis be! Those plumes bright beaming,
The hat, the eyes beneath it gleaming—
His cloak—” The boat in the beach is grounding.

Over the rocks his light step rings,
By a known path he climbs and closes.
The girl’s pale face flowers into roses;
From the tree’s shade in wild hope flying
She runs, high-calling, runs and springs,
And on the rower’s breast she’s lying-
“Alas, my heart!: The moonlight shows
In its full flood a face she knows.
Her pounding blood to terror knells her.
Where is Vilem?”

“See, by the lake,”
In low grim tone the boatman tells her,
“Above the night the forests make
Rises a tower, its image white
Deep in the lake’s heart drowned from sight;
But deeper, see, at the water’s rim,
From a little window a lantern’s gleam;
This night to vigil Vilem is giving:
Tomorrow sets him free from living.
His heavy guilt and yours he carries:
Deep your seducer’s blood has stained him,
That stroke a parricide arraigned him.
Still, still revenge the avenger barries!
A felon’s death! Peace to him bring,
Lord, when that face, the rose outshining,
In its high place stands withering,
And in the wheel his limbs are twining!
So dies the dreaded Forest King!
Bear for his guilt, and your own shame,
My bitter curse, and the world’s blame!”

He turns. His voice to silence falls;
Down he climbs through the rocky walls,
Outward his boat goes gliding.
Swift as the stork’s flight, beating fast,
Dwindling, dwindling, a lily at last,
Over the lake in the mountains hiding.

Hushed are the waters, dark, forlorn,
In deep dusk all things crouch to cover.
A white dress gleams on the waves that mourn
Over her: “Jarmila!” like a lover,
And the woods sigh: “Jarmila!” over and over.

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love.
To dalliance woos the turtle-dove:
“Jarmila! Jarmila!! Jarmila!!!”

2

Out of heaven a star falls questing,
Dying through the wastes of space,
Endlessly it falls unresting
Through its endless resting-place;
From the unbounded grave wild crying
Beats at heaven with bitter breath.
“Is there then no end of dying?”
Nowhere—never an end of death.
Around the white tower breezes shiver,
Beneath, the whispering wavelets quiver.
On the blanched walls in silver glance
The argent moon sheds radiance.
But deep within the tower is darkness only,
For the clear moon’s pale wealth of light
Through narrow window into the cell gropes lonely,
And dims into the assault of night.
Column by column the sombre vault’s recesses
Melt into darkness. The entering wind sighing
Circles the cell like murdered felons crying,
And stirs the prisoner’s tresses.
Beside a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
To deeps of thought his soul resigning.
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over;
Thought into thought flows undesigning.

“Deep night, now in your veiling hold
My native village you enfold,
And friends weep for my end there.
Weep?—and for me? A dream outworn!
Long since I have no friend there.
The first gleam of tommorow’s morn
Over her forest breaking,
Will send me to my death forlorn,
And gild, as when her child was born,
Her merry, mild awaking.”

Silent he falls; but through the night,
About the high vault flying,
Far, far his voice goes sighing,
Till as with horror frozen in flight
At the cell’s end it chills there,
And into darkness stills there.

The silence in the darkness grieving
Calls back to heart the days departed;
Again in waking dreams he’s living
The long-lost life of a boy light-hearted.
Remembrance of green years and kind
Brings back a young man’s dreams to mind;
The prisoner’s eyes with tears are flowing,
And in his heart a great pain growing—
A lost world how shall the seeker find?

Mountain on mountain westward presses
Beyond the lake high-piled
And there in the pinewoods’ sweet recesses,
He dreams himself once more a child.
Early thrust from his father’s care,
Bred up by brigands in strifes and stresses,
Last to their leader fallen heir,
Gallant and daring they acclaim him.
Known to all men, thus all men name him,
Lord of the Woods, a name of fear.
Till the love of a broken rose inflames him;
His hand, to bitter vengeance straying,
Seeks the seducer, strikes him, claims him,
His stranger father strangely slaying.
Wherefore a prisoner he lies,
Doomed to the wheel’s embrace that kills;
Lord of the Woods, at dawn he dies,
At the first kindling of the hills.

Now at a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands reposing,
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
The abyss of thought his soul enclosing:
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over,
Thought evermore new thought disclosing.

“He, sire and foe!-I, death and seed!
And he my love’s betrayer!
I knew him not! My fearful deed
recoiled and slew the slayer.
Why was I banished from his sight
The lawless woods to barry?
Whose crime does the dawn’s death requite?
Whose guilt is this I carry?
Not mine! ab, surely I was bent
A mute, unwitting instrument
God’s judgment to deliver.
Not mine the deed! Why, then, ah, why
Out to this hideous death go I
So soon-and, ah, for ever?
Soon, and for ever! Endless—death—”
For horror fails the prisoner’s breath,
Echoing from the dungeon wall;
The voiceless shadow of the night
In iron grip shuts sound and sight.
A new dream holds his mind in thrall.

“Ah, she, my saint, my rose embowered!
Why lost ere ever she was found?
Why at my father’s hands deflowered?
Accursed I!—” Deep anguish drowned
The struggling words. With sudden sound
Of clamorous chains he springs upright,
And from the little window strains
Over the waves his tortured sight.
Cloud veils the moon, and shadow reigns
Over the earth, but no shade mars
The zenith glittering with stars;
With points of fire the lake they stain,
That flash and fade in waters hollow.
Their glimmering flight his fixed eyes follow,
And all his heart is wrenched with pain.
“How fair the world! How rich the night!
Silver and shade agreeing!
Ah, tomorrow shuts my dying sight
On all the bliss of seeing!
And as grey cloud across the skies
Far, far and wide goes flying,
So—” Down he sinks, his hungering eyes
Torn from the scene, his chains’ harsh cries
Soon into silence dying.

A monstrous bird’s extended wing,
From peak to peak the cloud is driven,
Under one vast pall gathering
In blackest marriage earth and heaven.
Hark! from the high hills lost to sight
A poignant voice is trilling,
A forest piper of the night,
The song of heaven distilling.
To all things which bave wakeful lain
It charms down sleep’s completeness;
The prisoner in his mortal pain
Finds Lethe in its sweetness.
“How beautiful, dear voice, the song
On the night’s breast you’re flinging!
But one more night-ah, God, not long!-
And deaf to your enchanted tongue,
No more I’ll hear such singing.”
Again be sings-the clank of chains
Rings through the cell, despairing-
Deep silence. Once again the pains
Of death his heart are tearing,
And fading far the voice complains
An anguish beyond bearing.
“Time yet to come? Tomorrow’s day?
Still, still some dream will time repay,
Or sleep too deep for dreaming?
Perhaps this life which here I live
Is but a sleep, and dawn will give
Only another seeming?
Or that best rose, long longed-for here,
That fruit the wide earth did not bear,
Will dawn and death disclose?
Who knows?—Ah, no one knows!”

Silence again. The hush of night
On all the earth is draped there.
Quenched is the moon’s benignant light,
Quenched are the stars, and all around
Is purest darkness, black, profound,
As if the grave’s mouth gaped there.
No winds blow more, nor waves complain,
Nor even the far, sweet pipe of pain,
And in the bosom in the cell
Dead silence, utter darkness dwell.
“How deep the night-how dark the night!
On me a darker closes—
Away, thought!” Panic shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.

Deep silence. From the streaming wall
Flows down a small, slow river,
And echoing drops the silence fret;
Through the long cell their hollow fall,
Measuring night’s moments of regret,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases ever,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases yet.

“How long the night—how long the night!
On me a longer closes—
Away, thought!” Horror shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.
Deep silence. Once again the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

“A darker night! Here in the womb
Of veriest midnight shines some beam
Of moon or star—there—hideous gloom,
There never—never—never a gleam,
Only the dark for ever.
All’s one there, without part-they send
no hours, no moments to befriend,
Night fails not, never dawns the day,
For there time passes never.
There never—never—never an end!
From death that passes not away
Who shall my soul deliver?
“There utter emptiness, beneath,
Around, above, the void of death,
Quenching all live’s endeavour.
Unending silence—never a sound—
Unending space, night, time, surround
The dead mind dreaming on decay—
Mere nothingness—for ever!
And I to nothing—but one more day,
And I to nothing am cast away—”
He faints, he falls aquiver.

Lightly the waves at play come springing
Under the tower, their small spray flying,
Ever a gentle murmur bringing,
A cradle-song for captive singing,
Who in a deep half-death is lying.

The fearful clash of chains awakes
The guard, who with his lamp comes hasting;
So light a step, it scarcely breaks
The prisoner’s trance of dread unresting.
Pillar to pillar the lantern bright
Puts forth its little gleaming:
Still paler, paler grows its light,
Till fails at last the exhausted spark,
And absolute and moveless dark
On all beyond lies dreaming.
But still the prisoner’s eyes, adaze
As if night shrouded still their gaze,
Strain forward, nothing seeing,
Althought the lantern’s reddening ray
Lights his wan face, and drives away
The timid shadows fleeing.
Beside the table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining,
Half-sits, half-kneels the wredched one,
To sick despair his soul resigning;
And the faint whispering of his breath
Tells forth tormenting dreams of death.

“Alas, my soul-Alas, my love-”
Single and slow the sad words move
Out of his shut lips sighing.
Scarcely they reach the straining ear
When, newly born in pain and fear,
Already they are dying.

The gaoler’s light before him goes,
And on the prisoner’s face it glows.
The prisoner’s face—ah, dread and pain!—
His fixed eyes glare in wild distress
After an end of endlessness,
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain,
For speech his lips contend in vain.

The frightened gaoler stoops to snare
The thread of utterance from the air,
Lighter than lightest breeze he hears
The prisoner’s tale of blood and tears.
Lower he leans, and closer yet
To the wan mouth his ear is set,
Hard on the labouring lips now leaning,
Till fainting, fainting, they forget
Speech, as if sleep came unawares.

Still stands the guard in dreadful dreaming,
Like bees in swarm his tears come teeming,
Sorrow his heart within him sears.
Long he stands frozen there aghast,
Till thrusting off his helpless fears,
Out of the cell he flies in haste.
Long as he lived, he told no word
Of what his ears this night had heard:
Rather his whole life through thereafter
His pale lips said farewell to laughter.

The guard is fled, fast-closed the door.
Deep darkness shrouds the cell once more;
And through the night once more the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

Beside the table hewn of stone
Half-sits, half-kneels Vilem alone;
His face a sight for fear and pain,
With fixed eyes staring in distress
After an end of endlessness—
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain.

Incessantly the watery chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time,
And wind and wawes as one complain;
To Vilem’s ear of death they tell.
He faints beneath the thought appalling.
Far through the night an owl is calling,
And louder beats the midnight bell.

Intermezzo I

Midnight

(a lonely place in the countryside)

In the wide plains sleeps sound the pale moon’s argent light,
Darkness is on the hills, the lake with stars is bright.
A hillock by the lake-shore rises,
A stake thereon, a wheel raised lightly,
Whereon a bleached skull glistens whitely,
While ghostly rout a dance devises,
About the high wheel revelling rightly.

Chorus of Phantoms

“Silent the midnight graveyard lies;
Through the graves the marshlight flies,
Its dead blue radiance lights the head
Of the newly-buried dead,
Who, while his fellows sleep, stands guard,
Last of the sepulchred, dead today,
Beside his own cross keeping ward.
A grey cloud in the zenith stays,
No moon beneath it but the ray
Of the dead man’s glassy gaze,
And through half-open lips beneath
The glitter of his gnashing teeth.”

A Voice

“This is the hour! The place prepare!
Lord of the Woods, the lord of fear,
Is one with us at dawn of day.”

Chorus of Phantoms (lifting down the skull)

“From death’s dim threshold come away,
Inherit life – a voice receive.
Be one among us, know us well,
No more be doomed alone to dwell.
Another must your place achieve.”

The Skull (joining in their dance)

“How my limbs long to join again
In one whole creature, only one!
What is this rout of terror and pain?
My newest dream – I still dream on!”

Voice

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Chorus of Phantoms

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Voice

Fly, voice, across the fields with power!
At midnight is the funeral hour.
His votive gift let each make known!

The Stake and Wheel

“I’ll be the coffin to his repose.”

Frogs in the Marsh

“The burial anthem we’ll intone.”

Storm over the Lake

“The gale funeral music knows.”

The Moon in the Zenith

“I’ll cover him with snow-white pall.”

Mist on the Mountains

“With veils I’ll drape his funeral.”

Night

“I’ll give black weeds to mourn the dead.”

The Hills Standing Round

“Give veils and garments to us all.”

The Falling Dew

“And I will give you tears to shed.”

The Barren Soil

“I’ll incense with sweet smoke his head.”

The Sinking Cloud

“With rain will I asperge his bed.”

The Falling Blossom

“I will weave garlands for his bier.”

Light Breezes

“We’ll bear them to the coffin lightly.”

St John’s Fireflies

“Our tiny candles shall burn up brightly.”

Thunder out of the Depths

“I’ll wake the great bell’s hollow tone.”

The Mole under the Earth

“I’ll dig his grave, I, lowly here.”

Time

“Over his bones a tomb I’ll rear.”

Flocks of Night-Birds Crossing the Moon

“We’ll make the funeral feast our own.”

Voice

“All honour to his grave we pay!
The moon pales in the heaven’s heart,
The gates of morning draw apart—
It is day! It is day!”

Chorus of Phantoms (as they vanish)

“It is day! It is Day!”

3

Over the dark hills rosy day
Arises, the May valley wakes;
Above the woods, as morning breaks,
Like mist lies long the dream of May.
Out of the forests bluely lifting
Faint vapours climb the rose-flushed sky,
And on the lake more bluely drifting
In delicate colours melt and die;
And on the shore, and in the shadow
Of hills and valleys flowering,
Shine out white courts through wood and meadow,
Waking; till like a mighty king—
Colossal as the shade of night
Against thwe heaven’s rosy light—
The highest peak stands towering.

But now the sun his first red blessing gives
Over the blue, dark hills, and by that token
Suddenly all the spell of dreams is broken,
And joy possesses everything that lives.
Whitely the lake’s green glass the flight of birds receives,
And fleets of little craft, and small, swift-rowing shallops,
Pattern the dim blue waves with glancing, fiery scallops.
Murmurous by the shore the pinewoods greet the day,
Sweet with the song of birds, the thrush’s shower of pearls,
And mingling with their psalm the mirth of straying girls,
As all that lives draws breath to praise the youthful May.
The morning wind, like song, through the green valley blowing,
Bears on its incensed breath a sweet white foam of flowers,
And wild geese ride its flight above the forest bowers,
And to its touch young trees unfold their eager growing.
One scene, and only one, the fair young morn defaces,
Where to the wide lake’s heart a narrow isle goes straying,
Bearing the little town, and the white tower, whose shade
Deep in the waters green in quiveringly laid.
Here wakes a clamorous cry, babel of human baying,
As from the gates of the town the hungry man-pack races.
From far the people haste, a swift stream rushing by,
And ever swells the food, a river strongly rolling,
A mighty multitude, its voice to thunder tolling;
The unhappy felon comes, led forth at dawn to die.

Now from the little town a troop of guards comes swinging,
In slow and sombre march the hapless prisoner bringing,
Whose old, proud habit soon the eager watchers spy.
The clamour stills around—a hush falls on the crowd—
Till babel bursts anew, with many a cry and loud:
“Tis he! The flowers, the plumes he’s wearing,
The hat, the eye beneath it glaring—
His very cloak—’Tis he,’tis he! The dreaded Forest King!”
About him beats the cry, his old name echoing;
And louder still it rings, as thundering waters clear,
As with a heavy step the criminal draws near.
Round him darkens the throng—like heavy clouds in heaven—
A sword flames from the dark—as heaven’s lightnings flare;
Slowly the doomed man goes, his gaze to earth is given.
The town bell tolls; the crowd pities and falls to prayer.

There stahd a little mound, on the lake-shore leaning lightly,
A long stake raised thereon, a wheel above it rearing,
A steep hill looms above, twin peaks its summit sharing,
And on the higher point a chapel gleaming whitely.
In sombre march thereto company is come;
Now all men move aside—the felon stands alone.
A last time led forth here, still he beholds his own,
The dark, deep-breasted hills which were his early home,
Where the lost coin was spent, the golden childhood days.
Yet once more, only once, in the rosy dawning light,
Let forth to the hills, a shade before the chapel white,
To the lord of heaven and earth his reverence he pays.
And deep compassion folds its hands on every heart.
His grief their grief inflames, they suffer his despair,
Fixing their eyes through tears on the summit where he stands
Adoring the fair earth well-fashioned at God’s hands,
A murderer praising God in the humbled hush of prayer.

The rising sun with ruddy grace
Flushes the prisoner’s pallid face;
His eyes, through mists of weeping,
A last love-tryst are keeping.
Beneath him deep the lovely vale
Dreams in its rugged mountain pale,
By forests circled greenly.
The lucid lake serenely
Nursed in the flowering valley drowses.
Blue to the shore it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
About the wheel the white farmhouses
Dimpling the sunlit lake-shore lie.
Across the mirroring waters fast
Flocks of white birds and small boats fly,
Till bluely hides the lake at last,
Far in the hills retreating.
And white craft in the scalloped beaches—
The tower-the town-the white birds’ flight—
Hillocks and shadowy mountain reaches—
Gaze on that mirror with delight,
Their deep-drowned beauty greeting.
Rocks are piled heavy on that far shore
Where flowering land and lake are meeting,
And there an oak-tree old and hoar
Roots in the rocks-once, once the dove
Called there deliciously to love—
Oh, fair lost hour and fleeting!
Never again! The mound is nearing,
The column an the wheel appearing.
Beyond the hill there slips away
A young wood, murmuring mournfully;
Radiant the sun on vale and lea—
The morning dew—the morning May.

Beauty once more the felon’s eyes receive,
Beauty which now for ever he must leave,
And passionate regret his heart possesses:
Deeply he sighs—tear after tear flows over—
One last long look, lingering as looks the lover,
Then to the sky his tear-dimmed eyes he raises.
In the azure vault of heaven the blanching mists are dancing,
In light dissolving zephyrs tattered,
And on the far horizon scattered
White cloudlets over the placid sky go glancing.
The grieving prisoner greets them as they race:
“You clouds, who in your wandering course embrace
Like secret circling arm the earth her own course keeping,
You dissolutions of stars, shades in the blue of heaven,
You mourners ever to mutual sorrow given,
Who know so well the ways of silent weeping—
Bear you my charge, of all things that have birth.
Where you pass from me on your long, wide way
To the distant shore, there for a moment stay,
There, pilgrim clouds, greet reverently the earth.
Ah, well-beloved earth, beautiful earth,
My cradle and grave, the womb that gave me birth,
My sweet, sole land, left to my spirit’s keeping,
Ah, vast and single of beauty as of worth!-
Seek there that rock, and when your swift sails gain it—
If you shall see—by the shore—a woman weeping—”
There fails his voice, the strangling tears have slain it.
Down from the height the guards their prisoner lead
By a wide pathway through young pinewoods threading,
Down and still down; now on the mound they’re treading;
And now the multitude is hushed indeed.
The executioner with his sword stands ready.
Yet one more time the prisoner lifts his eyes,
Worships the sweet, encircling world-once sighs-
And on the approaching death his soul makes steady.
His breast and throat he bares, kneeling to earth he leaves it;
Back steps the headsman-an age the frozen mind believes it!—
The sword flashes; a rapid forward stride—
The sword circles; the bent white neck receives it—
The head falls—a tremor—and yet a tremor beside—
And falls the body after, one with the grieved earth growing.
Into the earth, so beautiful, so beloved.
His cradle and grave, the womb that gave him birth,
His sweet, sole land, his heritage approved,
In the generous earth, the single, holy earth,
Into the mother’s heart the blood of her son is flowing.

The prisoner’s shattered shell, limb after long limb broken,
Twined in the wheel’s embrace is raised, a terrible token,
And over the wheel his head, a blind, oblivious thing.
So died the lord of the woods, the dreaded Forest King.
On the dead countenance the last dream lingers still.
Gazing upon his face, mute round the little hill
The unquiet multitude awaits the long day’s ending,
Till the declining sun draws to the west once more,
Into the head’s blind eyes its gay last laughter sending.
Hushed is the broad lake-hushed is the evening shore.

Above the far dark hills the last radiance blazed.
The pale, dead face of the head is softly silvered o’er,
Silvered the silent mound, hushed by the lake-shore,
As in the evening hush the moon’s fair face is raised.
Distant are grown the towns, far as a cloud in air,
Beyond to the edge of seeing the dead eyes steadily stare,
To the edge of sight, to his youth-Oh, brief, bright childhood day!

Time in its headlong flight has carried that Spring away.
Far fled is his dream, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights, after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep forgotten grave, eternal board and bed;
As the smoke of burned-out fires, as the shattered bell’s chime,
Are the dead years of the dead, their beautiful childhood time!

Late eve—the second eve of May—
The twilit May—the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
Vilem! Vilem! Vilem!!

Intermezzo II

Close the hills lean to each other,
Underneath a dark cloud hiding,
Like a vaulted ceiling riding
Taut from one peak to his brother.
Dark this place by evening gloom is,
Dark and silent as the tomb is.
In the portal deeply-shaded,
Where the hills shrink back dividing,
Sharp rocks in the opening spaces
Steeply rear their frowning faces,
Lower, narrower, blackly biding;
Underneath the cloud dark-braided
Shuts this gate of rocks and boulders.
In the valley’s heart deep-gladed,
Darkly red a camp-fire smoulders,
Broken from the west bright-beaming,
A long sliver of the sunset;
Round its red nocturnal gleaming
Circle night-birds, wheeling, plaining,
In a red and restless onset,
Till the blue of night they borrow.
Sinks the fire, still waning-waning,
Till the broad and bounteous heaven
Melts in nightly dews of sorrow,
And the earth to grief is given.

Oaks a hundred years a-growing,
Darkness within darkness throwing,
Hide a company of friends there.
Cloaked in white, as in the bright time,
Sit the comrades of the night-time.
Each before him groundward bends there,
Wordless, motionless, his vision,
As if terror’s chill transition
Into stone their flesh had stricken.
Through the valley seems to quicken
Whispered breath of lamentation
Round the moveless men who plain him,
Secretly, without cessation:
“Lost, our leader!—they have slain him!”

And the wind, the smoke-wreaths plying,
To the moveless men is crying:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

And the restless leaves aquiver
Underneath the cold cliff-faces,
Trembling, murmuring, utter ever
These insistent, changeless phrases:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

All the forests in their station
Sound the great, sad accusation:
“They have slain him—slain him!!—slain him—!!!”

4

Beautiful May is passed, withered the bloom of Spring;
The summer fire burns high, wanes, and as soon is gone,
Autumn, and winter after; another Spring comes on,
As time bears off the years on its unresting wing.

The seventh year it was, the seventh year’s last day;
Deep on it lay the night, and with the midnight chime
A new year would be born. The cold earth dreaming lay.
Lone hoof-beats by the lake troubled the silent time.
I was that wayfarer, bound for the town by night,
Led by chance to the mound, where, long ago at rest,
The dreaded Forest King lingered a quiet guest;
There first I saw Vilem- a bare skull glistening white.
There in the midnight land, far as the eye’s reach ranging,
Through valleys, over hills, by forest, lake and meadow,
A wide, white pall of snow lay level and unchanging,
Over the skull and wheel-all white without a shadow.
Deep clouds hemmed in the moon, which seemed to droop and sicken;
Sometimes the weird owl cried, ever the sad wind’s shaking
Plucked at the wheel above, and set the loud bones quaking,
So that my horse and I with panic dread were stricken.
Forward I spurred in fear, there where the safe town hailed me,
And asked what wheel, what bones were these which grimly grew there,
The old innkeeper told the story all men knew there-
The story I have told-and on that wheel impaled me.

Far I went through the world-and the world has enough of pain,
Many a storm of heart blew over me and bled me;
But still this old, worn woe beckoned me back again,
Till in a young Spring season home to the mound it led me.
Under the stake I sat, just as the sun descended,
Under the wheel which bore the skeleton and skull there,
Gazing sad-eyed on Spring, whose cup was fair and full there,
Even to the misty rim where earth and heaven blended.

Evening once more, the first of May-
The twilit May-the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet the pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
The lake within the dark woods straying
Softly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again
As brother sister in their playing.
About the head the sunset bright
Lay like a wreath of roses growing,
Gilding the bony face with light,
On fretted skin and white jaw glowing.
In the hollow skull the breezes sped
As if grim laughter mocked the dead,
and lifted lightly here and there
What time had left of his long hair;
Beneath his brows the dewdrops borrow
The sunset light, as if, discerning
The evening beauty of May’s returning,
His dead eyes brim with tears of sorrow.

There I sat on, until the young moon’s light
Blanched both my face and his with rays as pale as bright;
Now like a snowy pall its whiteness spreads before him
Over the vales and woods to the distant hills that bore him.
Sometimes from far away the cuckoo’s greeting sounds here,
Flung from the flowering vale, sometimes the owl’s grave warning;
From many a farmyard near the bark of dogs rebounds here;
Out of the dust arises a sweet incense of mourning,
The little tears of the Virgin upon the hill are flowering,
Deep in the heart of the lake a secret light is burning;
And the fireflies, shooting stars, about the wheel are showering,
Glittering in their play, touching the pale skull brightly,
Lighting to launch again, and launch again ac lightly,
Like fiery falling tears, all his spent tears embowering.

And in my grieving eyes two hot tears rise and break,
Glittering down my cheeks as sparks play in the lake;
For my young years, mine too, my childhood golden-gay,
Time in its headlong flight has seized and borne away.
Far is that lost dream now, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep, forgotten grave, eternal board and bed,
The smoke of burned-out fires, the scattered bell’s chime—
Like the song of dead swam, like Eden snatched away,
So is my childhood time—
But what of following time?
My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May!
An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore:
Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.

See you the pilgrim there, hastening on his quest
Through the long, sunset fields, beneath the dimming west?
Strain your eyes as you will, the end you cannot see,
As over the edge of vision he falters and finds no rest.
Never-ah, never! And this is all life offers me!
Comfort? Who comforts me? What charm this heart can move?
Love is without an end!—And bitter is my love!

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
“Hynek! Vilem! Ah, Jarmila!!!”

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1821: Tommy Jemmy executes Kauquatau

Add comment May 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1821, a chief of the Seneca Native American nation slit the throat of a woman named Kauquatau, who had been condemned as a witch.

As Matthew Dennis explains in his book on the Seneca of the early American Republic, Seneca Possessed, the rapid march of European settlement and the Seneca’s recent and ambiguous incorporation into the newborn United States had strained the indigenous society in complex ways.

One of those reactions was a period of gendered witch-hunting in the early 19th century, especially growing out of the religious movement of the prophet Handsome Lake.

“Handsome Lake pinpointed the dangers the Seneca faced, the threats that they faced, the source of those threats, and a way … of purging his society of those who were most likely to resist his changes,” Dennis explained in this New Books Network podcast interview.

The “threat” for the instance at hand was a tribal healer who had become suspected of bewitching a man to his death — and her guilt in the same voted on by the Seneca elders. One of their number, Chief Soonongise — known as Tommy Jemmy to whites — went to her cabin on May 2, 1821, and killed her. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kauquatau realized what was happening — whether she took it as a social call or recognized her angel of death from the outset. But to New Yorkers, it was murder plain as day — and Tommy Jemmy was soon confined to a gaol to stand trial for his life.


Another reaction occasioned by the upheaval of those years, a reaction destined to emerge dramatically in this instance, was a feeling-out of the Seneca people’s position within the Anglo Republic that had engulfed it. “If the Senecas were a conquered people, as some tried to allege, the terms of their conquest were ill defined, their sovereignty, though diminished, still recognizable,” Harris writes. In these very pages we have met this ill-defined sovereignty several times: a few years on from the events of this post, the state of Georgia would defy a Supreme Court stay and execute a Cherokee man in a case turning on disputed sovereignty.*

Here in New York, Tommy Jemmy’s trial would open a different contest over the same underlying question.

Rather than attempting to deny or minimize his “crime,” Tommy Jemmy defended it as a legal execution conducted by the proper jurisdiction of Seneca laws — no matter for the interference of New York. It’s a position that appeared to have ample sympathy among Anglo New Yorkers,** who gingerly kicked the argument to a Circuit Court and thence to the New York Supreme Court which found itself thereby obliged to “a very thorough examination of all the laws, treaties, documents and public history relating to the Indians” going all the way back to the Dutch. (Cherry-Valley Gazette, Aug. 21, 1821)

What musty old scrolls could supply by precedence, the luminous Seneca orator Red Jacket brought to life in his forceful defense. Red Jacket had an expert feel for the pangs in the Anglo conscience, as one can appreciate by his retort against one obvious line of condescension.

What! Do you denounce us fools and bigots because we still believe what you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black-coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formality of law; and would you now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours? Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that thousands have been executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn upon her the arm of vengeance. What have our brothers done more than the rulers of your people? And what crime has this man committed, by executing in a summary way the laws of his country and the command of the Great Spirit?

It was by no means certain that Tommy Jemmy’s argument would prevail here; a literally simultaneous case in Michigan saw a native defendant make a similar jursidictional argument and still wind up on the gallows. The question in the end stood outside any existing grant of law — and it was resolved in a legally questionable way, too.

Accepting the merits of Tommy Jemmy’s position but also unwilling to render Indian power over life and death into the statutes, Tommy Jemmy was set free without any judgment and subsequently pardoned by the legislature — the pardon reversing no conviction. He was an executioner, after all.

* U.S. President Andrew Jackson vigorously supported the state in this separation-of-powers dispute: it’s the case of which he alleged to have remarked, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

** In an essay appearing in New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas, Dennis notes the precedent here of an 1802 trial involving a Seneca man named Stiff-Armed George. Although Stiff-Armed George murdered a white victim and not on Seneca land, Red Jacket also urged a defense, successfully: “Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New-York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent from that state of New-York … we appeal to the government of the United States.” (The Seneca did have treaties with the federal government.)

They finessed the issue in the end: Stiff-Armed George was convicted, but immediately pardoned.

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1612: The slave rebels of Mexico City

Add comment May 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*

In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”

The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.

Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.

Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.

As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?

The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it

involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**

Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”

* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.

** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.

† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.

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1910: Mathias Muff, reproached by 15 orphans

Add comment May 2nd, 2015 Headsman

Thanks to the outstanding Trove digitized records of Australian newspapers, we have this item from the Advertiser (Adelaide) published May 4, 1910, concerning an affair from two days previous on the other side of the globe.

The death penalty was barely in use in Switzerland at this point; Muff’s execution would be the fifth-last for common crimes in Swiss history.


LONDON, May 3.

Mathias Muff, who some time ago murdered four persons in the canton of Lucerne, was executed in Lucerne, the capital, yesterday, the guillotine being used.

This is the first execution which has taken place for many years in Switzerland, Lucerne being one of the cantons which have re-enacted the death penalty after its abolition. Muff, when urged to sign a petition to the President for the commutation of the death sentenced, refused, saying, “I cannot live to hear the voices of fifteen orphans reproaching me.”

There was some difficulty in obtaining a guillotine, there being none in existence in Switzerland, and the authorities were compelled to secure the loan of one from the French Government. In France there are but two official guillotines, and both are kept in Paris, but one is specially reserved for executions in the provinces. Neither of these could be spared, but one was obtained from the French colonies, which between them have nine.

The cost of the guillotines is said to be £250 each, but they are well made, for the two now in use in France were made in 1870 in the place of those burnt during the Commune and by all accounts they still work as well as when first tested on a bundle of straw.

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1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

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1883: Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann, oldest hanged in Montana

Add comment May 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1883, Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann was hanged in Helena in the then-territory of Montana. He was the first person hanged in that city, and at seventy years old, the oldest person ever executed in Montana.

A non-English-speaking German national who walked with a cane, Furhmann was tiny. There was even speculation that at less than 100 pounds, he didn’t weigh enough to stretch the rope.*

Furhmann was executed for the murder of his son-in-law, Jacob Kenck, whom he’d shot three days before Christmas the previous year. While Kenck was standing in the doorway of his saloon on upper Main Street, talking to another man, Furhmann walked up to him from behind and shot him in the head.

The victim collapsed immediately, but didn’t seem to realize what had happened: as a crowd gathered around him, he said, “Boys, what is the matter? Is somebody hurt?” He passed out and was carried home, where a doctor was summoned to tend to his wound.

Furhmann was arrested immediately and, when told Kenck might survive, said he was sorry and would kill him again if he could.

But Furhmann’s disappointment didn’t last long: Kenck died within hours.

The old man had moved to Montana from his native country a decade before, after his daughter, who had emigrated before him, raised the money for his passage. She sickened and died several years after his arrival and Furhmann blamed her husband, Kenck, and nursed a bitter grudge against Kenck the way Kenck hadn’t nursed his late wife back to health.

After the emigre’s arrest he admitted he’d been plotting the murder for a year and had been carrying a gun everywhere he went, waiting for his chance.

News of the murder rocked the community, and that night a crowd gathered in front of the jail. Tom Donovan, in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana says they were a mixed lot: “interested citizens trying to maintain law and order as well as angry members of the community who wanted to take care of business, with a sprinkling of curious folks wanting to see how it would all turn out.”

There was quite a lot of shouting, but no actual attempt to storm the jail, and eventually the mob dispersed. The curious, perhaps, went home disappointed.

Given the fact that Furhmann shot the victim at literal high noon on literal Main Street in front of witnesses, it’s surprising that the jury deliberated a full 24 hours before convicting. When jurors returned with the condemnation — after it was translated for the defendant — he responded indifferently, “It is what I expected.”

He didn’t hope for clemency, just for the more-honorable death of a firing squad. Nein!

Furhmann died with a smirk on his face. His last words, referring to Jacob Kenck’s brother, were, “Now Chris Kenck will laugh.”

After his death, doctors removed and examined his brain, which turned out to be of average size and perfectly ordinary in appearance.

* Not that it was being used in Big Sky Country, but the classic drop tables/formula would potentially imply a fall of more than three meters to develop the necessary force to break such a slight man’s neck.

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1942: José Abad Santos, Chief Justice

1 comment May 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Jose Abad Santos was shot by the Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.

Brother of a famous socialist agitator who fought the Japanese from the bush, Jose Santos had an impeccably mainline elite career: university degrees in America, corporate lawyering gigs, followed by a stint in the Ministry of Justice and elevation to the high court.

In December 1941, Santos administered the oath of office to re-elected president Manuel Quezon even as the archipelago was being invaded by the Japanese. Quezon would evacuate, forming a government-in-exile.

Santos preferred to stay, and would spend his last remaining weeks as the Philippines’ Acting President.

“It is an honor to die for one’s country,” he would say to his son, after their capture. (The son survived.) “Not everybody has that chance.”


Santos (who’s also been on stamps) is pictured in the back left on the 1000-peso bill. (The woman at bottom front is another executed patriot, Josefa Llanes Escoda.)

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1960: Caryl Chessman

9 comments May 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.

During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.

He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).

The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.

Not, however, of murder.

Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**

This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.

That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.


Via.

A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.

-Caryl Chessman

So Chessman wrote.

Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.

Books by and about Caryl Chessman

And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.

One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.

But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”

According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.

With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.

Too late.

Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.

A reporter described what was transpiring inside the state’s killing chamber while Law and Ma Bell transacted their tardy business outside.

I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.

A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.

Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.

Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.

Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)

Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)

Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)

(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)

Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)

The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)

In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.

Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.

Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.

I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.

-Caryl Chessman

* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.

** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.

Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.

A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.

† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Rape,Reprieved Too Late,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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