2010: Four Kurdish political prisoners

Add comment May 9th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 2010, Iran hanged five political prisoners — four of them Kurdish — in Evin Prison.

The non-Kurd was Mehdi Eslamian, condemned a terrorist for complicity in a notorious 2008 terrorist bombing in Shiraz, an incident for which his younger brother had already been hanged a year previous.

With him died Farzad Kamangar, Ali Heydarian, Farhad Vakili, and Shirin Alam Holi, all of them Kurdish dissidents of various descriptions.

Farzad Kamangar was a popular 32-year-old teacher, who might have been the most publicly visible member of this quintet to judge by media hits and tributary pop music.

Shirin Alam Holi, a woman from the area of “Kurdistan” reaching into western Iran’s Azerbaijan province, was condemned for affiliation with the PKK front Kurdistan Free Life Party. A letter allegedly written by her a few months before execution detailed the abuse she endured in custody:

I was arrested in April 2008 in Tehran. The arrest was made by uniformed and plain clothed members of Sepah who started beating me as soon as we arrived at their headquarters without even asking one question. In total I spent twenty five days at Sepah. I was on hunger strike for twenty two of those days during which time I endured all forms of physical and psychological torture. My interrogators were men and I was tied to the bed with handcuffs. They would hit and kick my face and head, my body and the soles of my feet and use electric batons and cables in their beatings. At the time I didn’t even speak or understand Farsi properly. When their questions were left unanswered they would hit me until I pass out. They would stop as soon as they would hear the call for prayers and would give me time until their return for as they said to come to my senses only to start their beatings as soon as they returned – again beatings, passing out, iced water …

When they realised I was insistent on my hunger strike, they tried to break it by inserting tubes through my nose to my stomach and intravenous feeding; they tried to break my [hunger] strike by force. I would resist and pull out the tubes which resulted in bleeding and a great deal of pain and now after two years I’m still suffering the consequences and am in pain.

One day while interrogating me they kicked me so hard in the stomach that it resulted in immediate haemorrhaging. Another day, one of the interrogators came to me – the only one whose face I saw, I was blindfolded all other times – and asked irrelevant questions. When he heard no reply he slapped me and took out his pistol from his belt and put it to my head, “You will answer the questions I ask of you. I already know you are a member of PJAK, that you are a terrorist. See girl, talking or not talking makes no difference. We’re happy to have a member of PJAK in our captivity”.

On one of the occasions that the doctor was brought to see to my injuries I was only half conscious because of all the beatings. The doctor asked my interrogator to transfer me to the hospital. The interrogator asked, “why should she be treated in hospital, can’t she be treated here?” The doctor said, “I don’t mean for treatment. In hospital I will do something for you to make her sing like a canary.” The next day they took me to hospital in handcuffs and blindfold. The doctor put me on a bed and injected me. I lost my will and answered everything they asked in the manner they wanted and they filmed the whole thing. When I came to I asked them where I was and realised I was still on a hospital bed and then they transferred me back to my cell.

But it was as if this was not enough for my interrogators and they wanted me to suffer more. They kept me standing up on my injured feet until they would swell completely and then they would give me ice. From night till morning I would hear screams, moans, people crying out loud and these voices upset me and me nervous. Later, I realised these were recordings played to make me suffer. Or for hours on end cold water would be dripped slowly on my head and they would return me to the cell at night.

One day I was sitting blindfold and was being interrogated. The interrogator put out his cigarette on my hand; or one day he pressed and stood on my toes for so long that my nails turned black and fell off; or they would make me stand all day in the interrogation room without asking me any questions while they filled in crossword puzzles. In short they did everything possible.

When they returned me from hospital they decided I should be transferred to 209. But because of my physical condition and that I couldn’t even walk 209 refused to accept me. They kept me for a whole day in that condition by the door of 209 until I was transferred to the clinic.

What else? I couldn’t tell night from day anymore. I don’t know how many days I was kept at Evin Clinic until my wounds were a little improved and was transferred to 209 and interrogations started. The interrogators at 209 had their own methods and techniques – what they called hot and cold policy. First of all, the brutal interrogator would come in. He would intimidate me threaten and torture me. he would tell me that he cared for no law and that he would do what he wanted with me and … then the kind interrogator would come in and ask him to stop treating me in this way. He would offer me a cigarette and then the questions would be repeated and the futile cycle would start all over again.

While I was at 209 especially at the beginning when I was interrogated, when I wasn’t well or had a nose bleed they would inject me with a pain killer and keep me in the cell. I would sleep the whole day. They wouldn’t take me out of the cell or take me to the clinic…

Shirin Alam Hoolo?Nesvan Wing, Evin?28/10/88 (18 January 2010)

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1916: Thomas Kent

Add comment May 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Thomas Kent was shot in Cork, Ireland — the only person executed that May for the Easter Rising outside of Dublin.*

The Kents were were prominent nationalists of several generations’ standing in County Cork and were all set to join the Easter Rising until the last-minute countermanding order went out.

When the Rising happened anyway in Dublin — a day later and numerically much smaller than originally intended — the constabulary was preventively dispatched throughout the island to arrest known fellow-travelers … like the Kents.

The constabulary’s attempted raid on the Kent property May 2 met armed resistance that became an hours-long siege; Constable William Rowe was shot dead, as was Richard Kent.

The surviving Kent brothers, William and David,** along with our man Thomas, were all tried for affair: William was acquitted, David condemned but the sentenced commuted, and only Thomas actually executed.

Cork’s main railway station was in 1966 re-christened Kent Station in his honor.

* In August of that year, Roger Casement hanged in London for treason in connection with the Easter Rising. Casement had not taken any direct part in the fighting, but had worked to arrange the (attempted) support of Britain’s wartime enemy, Germany.

** Both David and William Kent later sat in the Irish parliament.

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1887: Charles Smith

Add comment May 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1887, 63-year-old Charles Smith was judicially hanged at Oxford Castle Prison by James Berry. He’d brutally murdered his wife in front of their children that February.

The Smith family were Gypsies: Charles, his wife Lucy, their 17-year-old daughter Oceana (known as Oshey) and their 11-year-old son Prince Albert. As Nicola Sly notes in her book Oxfordshire Murders,

The lifestyle of Gypsy families in 1887 was not one to be envied. The traveling people were at the mercy of the weather all year round, whether the heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter. Forced to scratch a living any way they could, many supplemented their meager income with a little poaching or petty theft. Thus they were very rarely welcomed in any area and were always in fear of the local police who almost invariably moved them on wherever they tried to settle.

According to this account, Lucy had borne many children, but only four lived long. By the time of the murder, one of the children had died and one, a daughter named Elizabeth, had grown up and left home.

Charles’s siblings regularly got in trouble with the law, and at least one of his siblings was transported for sheep theft. He and Lucy, however, were somewhat more fortunate: Lucy possessed a valid peddler’s license. In the 1881 censuses, both had their occupations listed as “hawker.” Charles made baskets, skewers, roasting forks, meat stands and pegs which his wife sold.

Throughout their lives Charles and his family traveled around Oxfordshire, pitching a tent wherever they could find a place, and in February 1887, they were camped on public land near Headlington. They’d been there before and were friendly with some of the local residents, including a couple coincidentally also named Smith.

Charles was a violent man who regularly beat his wife and children; Oshey stated he beat his wife every day, and Prince Albert would later testify, “He has been knocking my mother about nearly all his life.”

At one point the domestic violence had gotten so bad that Lucy had gone so far as to take out a formal complaint against her husband for cruelty. She never followed up on it, though.

On the 18th of February, Kate and George Smith, who lived in a nearby cottage, visited the tent and noted Lucy was visibly bruised. They asked Charles why he’d beaten her and he wouldn’t give a reason, but said it was over something that happened thirty years before.

The visitors advised him to forgive and forget, but Charles acted surly and hostile for the rest of the day. Lucy was so frightened of him that for a long time she stayed outside the tent in the bitter cold, and only partially dressed, rather than go inside where her husband was. At bedtime she finally came in.

In the early hours of the next morning, Charles began shouting at his wife, waking the children. As Oshey and Prince Albert watched in horror, their father picked up a hammer and attacked Lucy, beating her on her head, back and legs until he was too tired to do it anymore. Then he laid down and went peacefully asleep.

Mortally wounded, Lucy crawled out of the tent to get some water from a nearby stream. She never returned, and eventually Oshey went out to check on her and found her dead.

When Charles realized what he’d done, he sank to his knees beside Lucy’s battered corpse and sobbed, crying, “My wench, my wench!”

Oshey and Prince Albert ran for help, going to the same neighbors who’d visited the night before. When Kate Smith answered the door, Oshey blurted, “My Mammy’s dead. He’s been and killed her with the hammer.”

Kate and George rushed to the scene of the crime. Charles had dragged Lucy’s body into the tent and lain it out on some straw. He told them Lucy had “fallen down” and died. George told everyone he was going to fetch a doctor, but instead he went to the police, returning with two constables. By then Charles had calmed down and said casually, “Good morning. I have got a dead ‘un this morning.”

One of the constables searched the tent and found the bloodstained hammer concealed under some straw. Charles, whose coat was also bloodstained, was placed under arrest for the willful murder of his wife. The autopsy showed she’d died of a fractured skull; Charles had hit her head with the hammer three or four times.

At the ensuing trial in April, Oshey was the star witness against her father, although Charles kept shouting that she was telling lies and was a “nasty, wicked wretch.” Prince Albert testified also, as did Kate and George Smith.

The defense argued that Charles had no intention of killing his wife and there was no motive, and so it was a case of manslaughter. However, the jury returned a verdict of murder.

After he was condemned to die, Charles turned to religion for solace, praying with the prison chaplain. Some of his relatives came to visit, although Oshey and Prince Albert stayed away. His eldest daughter Elizabeth made the strange observation that “when he was a drunkard there was not a kinder man living, that something or somebody turned him into a teetotaler, and from that time he had been a cruel wretch.”

While walking to the scaffold, Charles fainted on the trapdoor just before James Berry drew the bolt. The hanging went smoothly and it was judged he died quickly and painlessly.

As for the orphaned Oshey and Prince Albert, it was recorded that “through the noble hearted philanthropy, of Miss Skene, of this City, the girl Oceana has been placed in a Home in York, and boy the Prince Albert, through the same thoughtfulness, will also be brought up to acquire the means of earning an honest livelihood.”

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1800: Three Canadian pirates in Philadelphia

Add comment May 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1800, French Canadiens Joseph Baker (anglicized from Joseph Boulanger), Peter Peterson (LeCroix), and Joseph Berouse hanged in Philadelphia for a murderous mutiny.

That trio had seized control of their schooner Eliza, slaying three men in the process. They had a view to selling off the cargo but none of the three knew how to navigate the vessel — so they were obliged to bargain with the deposed captain William Wheland to sail them to Spanish territory. Eventually Wheland was able to get the drop on his mutineers, locking up LaCroix and Berouse in the hold while Baker was at the helm, then surprising the Canadian ringleader to get his ship back.


Norwith Courier, July 30, 1800

Whelan turned the naughty help over to a U.S. Navy ship, and in the consequent trial back at Philadelphia “his narrative alone was sufficient to carry conviction with it. The facts were too strong to admit a doubt of the commitment of the horrid crime with which the prisoners stood charged, and the jury, with very little hesitation, gave in their verdict guilty.” (Maryland Herald, May 1, 1800.)

The men died, penitent, at an execution island in the city harbor, “in the view of an immense concourse of spectators, who crouded the wharfs and the shipping.” A sorrowful confession purportedly taken down from Baker himself survives and can be read in full online.

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1942: Robert “Rattlesnake” James, the last man hanged by California

1 comment May 1st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.

“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”

James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.

Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.

In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.

From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.

In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.

The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.

Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.

James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.

Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.

The insurers paid.

Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.

James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.

In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.

Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.

They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.

Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.

Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?

Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.

He appeared to have gotten away with it again.

However, several months later, it came undone.

A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.

This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”

Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.


Star witness.

The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”

James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.

The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.

And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.

The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.

When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)

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1726: Three molly-house sodomites

5 comments May 9th, 2015 Headsman

Nine men and one notorious women died at Tyburn on this date in 1726 at a more than usually raucous execution-day.

“At the Place of Execution, Map got himself loose, threw himself out of the Halter, and jump’d 3 or 4 Yards from the Cart, upon the Heads of the numerous Crowd of People, but the Officers following after him, wounded him with their Pikes, and the Executioner and some others soon brought him back again,” the Ordinary’s account remarked. “Vigous got himself free of the Halter also, which was immediately observ’d: Gillingham was the more desirous of Prayers, having the Night before taken Poyson, and conscious of his Guilt.”

And that’s just what was happening under the nooses.

Out in the audience,

Just before the Execution, a Scaffold that had been built near Tyburn, and had about 150 People upon it, fell down. A Snuff Box Maker in Castle-Street, and a Gentleman then not known, were, as ’tis believed, mortally Wounded; and about 12 other Men and Women, Maimed and Wounded in a most cruel Manner: Some having their Legs, others their Arms, &c. broke.

Some part of the Scaffold being left standing, the Mob gathered upon it again in Numbers; and in about Half an Hour more, that also fell down, and several were hurt. Soon after another Scaffold broke down, with about 100 Persons upon it; but the People that were damaged by it, being immediately carried off on Mens Backs, and in Coaches, we must defer the Particulars of that Mischief … (Daily Journal, May 10, 1726)

We will leave for a future May 9th the notorious fate of the woman, Catherine Hayes, and focus for this post on the fate of the notorious men: sodomites Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright.

A mere three months before, this trio had been among dozens of men rounded up in a raid on London’s thriving “molly house”.

These establishments catered to what we might anachronistically call the gay scene of Georgian London — or the molly scene, if you like, from the slang term for effeminate, cross-dressing, or homosexual men encompassing a panoply of alternate sexual identities and preferences. What these behaviors “among Christians not to be named” had in common, of course, was the opprobrium of the surrounding world.

Rictor Norton, who keeps the voluminous Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Enland site and wrote a book about Mother Clap’s Molly House, records a 1726 letter to the editor demanding an exemplary punishment to check the misuse of genitalia.

It being too notorious, that there are vile Clubs of Miscreants in and about this City, who meet to Practise and Propagate the detestable Sin of Sodomy, a Crime which drew down the flaming Vengeance of God upon the City of Sodom, in a Day when they had not that Light which we are bless’d with now, ’tis humbly propos’d that the following Method may not only destroy the Practice, but blot out the Names of the monstrous Wretches from under Heaven, viz. when any are Detected, Prosecuted and Convicted, that after Sentence Pronounc’d, the Common Hangman tie him Hand and Foot before the Judge’s Face in open Court, that a Skilful Surgeon be provided immediately to take out his Testicles, and that then the Hangman sear up his Scrotum with an hot Iron, as in Cases of burning in the Hand.

Old Blighty was never favored with courtroom scrotum-searings, but connoisseurs of same-sex love “must risque our necks for” it well into the next century.

But what pleasures welcomed the man who was ready to wager his life! An informant reported from that same Mother Clap’s that he

found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women. O, Fie, Sir! – Pray, Sir. – Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? – I swear I’ll cry out. – You’re a wicked Devil. – And you’re a bold Face. – Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss! – Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.

Several such informers were stalking the city’s molly-houses in the 1720s, goaded (or forced) by both police and private bluenoses. One of the resulting court records notes that “[t]he discovering of the Molly Houses, was chiefly owing to a Quarrel betwixt Mark Partridge and – Harrington: For upon this Quarrel Partridge to be revenged on Harrington, had blab’d something of the Secret, and afterwards gave a large Information of a great many others.”

Many lives hung on this lover’s spat. Mother Clap’s was raided in February 1726, but it was just the most famous of a whole series that forced into public awareness “a new, distinct molly ‘sodomite’ identity.”

The saving grace for the twoscore arrestees at Mother Clap’s was that even in Bloody Code England, a fairly high bar was required to execute for same-sex sodomy: penetratio, that is res in re (“thing in thing”)* — often quite difficult to prove.** As nobody had actually been caught in flagrante delicto, most of those initially arrested were simply released un-charged.

But the informants raise their scaly heads once more here: as they were themselves habitues of the molly circuit, they could provide firsthand eyewitness testimony about the acts of buggery several men had committed with them.

Five men were put on trial for their lives in April on the strength of accusations made by informants Mark Partridge, Thomas Newton, and Edward Courtney. The cases are described in some detail at Norton’s site: Gabriel Lawrence and William Griffin, both 43-year-old married men, were Mother Clap regulars who implausibly claimed to have no idea it was a molly house. (The place was a coffee shop/tavern.) Griffin actually lived there. Both these men were easily condemned but refused to the end to admit their proclivities to the Newgate Ordinary, and insisted that they had been framed.

Thomas Wright, seller of ale, had gone so far to set up his own molly house where he both slept with Newton, and procured Newton for his other customers. Wright, who “inclin’d to the Anabaptist-Way,” also said that Newton had perjured himself; nevertheless, he “could not deny his following this abominable Courses, only he refus’d to make particular Confessions.”

A third informant keyed two additional capital trials that didn’t end at Tyburn. George Kedger (Keger) and George Whittle (Whytle) both mounted much stronger defenses casting much greater doubt on the circumstances of their entrapment.

Charged with taking Courtney into his bed, Kedger contended that he had in fact resisted Courtney’s advances until the latter threatened to “swear my Life away”. Kedger was condemned, but pardoned. Whittle did still better by forcing his accuser to admit that he was a convict three times over and insinuating that rumors about his buggery were started by a disgruntled lodger. With a parade of character witnesses at his back, Whittle was acquitted outright.

* This was also the standard for same-sex rape; we’ve seen in these pages a man’s life hang on a question of just the tip.

** Attempted buggery — a charge which could result from making a sexual advance on another man that he rejected, or as a judicial punt when same-sex activity was afoot but no penetration could be proven — might land one a fine and a trip to the pillory. This was no mean sentence; the pillory could be quite a dangerous (sometimes lethal) ordeal for homosexuals or for anyone else.

Mother Clap herself, whose molly house we have referred to throughout this post, was also pilloried, not executed. Her eventual fate is not known; a marker in Holborn notes the former site of her famous establishment.

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1961: Alvin Table Jr. and Billy Wayne Sees, Bahamas pirates

Add comment May 9th, 2014 Golde Singer

On this date in 1961, two modern-day (but somewhat inept) pirates sailed into the history books by becoming the first U.S. citizens to be executed in the Bahamas.

Alvin Table Jr., 26, mounted the gallows in Nassau at 7 a.m.; William (Billy Wayne) Sees, 21, followed an hour later. Each was declared dead within three minutes.

The bizarre adventure that preceded the hangings had begun a year earlier in Texas, where Table wooed 18-year-old Barbara Fisher briefly before whisking her off to Mexico to be married. The couple returned to San Antonio and linked up with Sees. (In a post-crime interview, Barbara described Sees as Alvin’s friend, but it’s unclear how the two ever met. Table, a Californian, had a history of at least one bad marriage, some bad checks and an assault on the West Coast; Sees, a native of Arkansas, had a history of assault in the south and, according to one account, a conviction for murder in New York State.)

However the liaison was forged, the trio worked their way across the south, cashing bad checks along the way to pay for the trip. They arrived in Florida in April 1960 and, with the law closing in, tried to buy a boat in Key West with yet another bogus check. When the sale took longer than planned, they simply took the boat and headed for Cuba.

Their plan apparently was to take refuge in Cuba — or, as Barbara put it, to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, their boating skills failed them, and they ran aground off Elbow Key in the Bahamas. (It didn’t help that they hadn’t filled the boat with gas before leaving Key West.)

For three days, they took refuge in the island lighthouse — and, according to Barbara, they “had a pretty good time”. But the good times lasted about as long as the food held out.

About the time they started to panic, a charter fishing boat, the Muriel III, spotted the castaways and radioed the Coast Guard of the situation. Sees swam out to the Muriel, clambered aboard, and turned a gun on the passengers. When the captain, Angus Boatwright, grabbed a rifle to defend himself, Sees shot him.

Alvin Table then joined Sees aboard the boat, and they let the four fishermen swim to shore, taking the captain’s body with them on a raft made of life jackets. Their attempts to keep the first mate, Kent Hokanson, on board, failed when Hokanson simply jumped overboard and also started swimming for the island. Table and Sees, apparently deciding that time was of the essence in the situation, let Hokanson go and fled the scene.

During the gun battle, Barbara Table was in the lighthouse, packing up the trio’s belongings for departure. She heard the gunshots, and on finding out what had transpired, wisely chose not to stand by her man. The Coast Guard eventually picked up all the survivors and flew them to Nassau.

Table and Sees did reach Cuba, but they were arrested there after again running aground — this time near Isabela de Sagua, 200 miles east of Havana. At the request of the British government, Cuba extradited the pair to the Bahamas. They were both charged with and convicted of murder and piracy, despite Table’s efforts to distance himself from the murder by pointing out that he wasn’t on board the boat when it happened. An appeal to the Privy Council in London fell on deaf ears, and the Americans were sentenced to hang.

Barbara Table was briefly held in the Bahamas on a charge of grand larceny in the theft of the boat but was later released; officials cited “a lack of evidence.” Mrs. Table returned to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and quietly disappeared.

On a side historical note, the Bahamas retains the death penalty today, although it conducts actual executions so infrequently that the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain considers it “abolitionist de facto”. According to researcher William Lofquist, no executions have been carried out in the Bahamas in the last decade. Lofquist observes that in today’s Bahamian justice system, “death sentences rather than executions have become the measure of the state’s resolve to maintain ‘order’.” Some of this is due to restrictions placed on the nation by the Privy Council in London, but while some chafe at those restrictions, attempts to create an appellate system separate from the Privy Council have failed. For more on Lofquist’s analysis of executions in the Bahamas over the centuries, and the cultural environment that shaped them, read his complete study. (pdf link to his “Identifying the Condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16)

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1979: Rahim Ali Khorram and Habib Elghanian, millionaire businessmen

1 comment May 9th, 2013 Headsman

Iranian Revolution firing squads claimed seven lives on this date in 1979, including two multimillionaire businessmen.

One of the businessmen was Rahim Ali Khorram, “an immensely rich contractor who built roads and airports for the government, and sometimes used his 2,000-man work force as a political shock force in support of the Shah.” That quote is from a New York Times profile of Khorram’s son, Hossain, who says that he himself was led out for a mock-execution not long after. (Hossain also says that his father was dead or dying of a heart attack as he was dragged out for execution.)

The charges against Khorram pere consisted of “operating gambling dens, cabarets and a prostitution ring* and feeding a man to a lion in his amusement park.” No lie. He was supposed to have an entire secret necropolis in that park stuffed with the bodies of his enemies. (New York Times, May 10, 1979.)

Habib Elghanian

The other businessman was the Jewish-Iranian plastics mogul Habib Elghanian.

Elghanian was the first Jewish person executed during the Iranian Revolution. His death on charges of spying for Israel, fundraising for Israel, and “friendship with the enemies of God” for having met with Israeli politicians, greatly alarmed Iran’s Jewish community: many fled the country, something Elghanian had pointedly refused to contemplate.

Though Elghanian allegedly claimed not to be a Zionist, he had investments and contacts in Israel — and a radio denunciation made clear to what extent such an association would be anathematized going forward.

He was a disgrace to the Jews in this country. He was an individual who wished to equate Jewry with Zionism … the mass of information he kept sending to Israel, his actions to achieve Israel’s designs, the colossal sum of foreign exchange and funds he kept transferring to Israel; these are only samples of his antinational actions; these were the acts used to crush our Palestinian brethren. (Source)

Weirdly, this execution has made news more recently: the Stuxnet computer worm, which is widely thought to have been engineered in Israel to attack Iran, contains the string 19790509. It’s been hypothesized that this apparent reference to May 9, 1979 might allude to Elghanian’s execution.

* Alleged clientele: the already-executed Gen. Nematollah Nassiri.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,History,Iran,Jews,Milestones,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1474: Peter von Hagenbach, war crimes milestone

2 comments May 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1474, Peter von Hagenbach was tried in a remarkable judicial proceeding in the Rhine city of Breisach, found guilty, and publicly beheaded by the end of the day.

This Alsatian knight in the train of Charles the Bold had been installed by that Burgundian duke as his satrap in in the Upper Rhine, in lands that Burgundy held on lease from the Habsburgs.

He made a legendary villain of himself in the early 1470s:

His regime of arbitrariness and terror extended to murder, rape, illegal taxation and wanton confiscation of pivate property, and the victim[s] of his depredations included inhabitants of neighbouring territories as well as Swiss merchants on their way to and from the Frankfurt fair … the outrages of Hagenbach, remarkable even by the standards of the late fifteenth century, greatly contributed to forging what, until then, had been considered impossible, that is, alliances against Burgundy by all her neighbours: Austria, Berne, France, and the towns and knights of the Upper Rhine, all formerly at loggerheads with one another.

After overturning Burgundian authority in the Upper Rhine, that unique alliance aired its many grievances with Hagenbach at a unique tribunal. There, the ex-knight was prosecuted before judges drawn from the several Germanic and Swiss principalities who had allied against him.


Breisach: seems like a nice place to oppress. (cc) image from Routard5.

This unusual procedure gained a special prominence in the 20th century postwar era as historical precedent for “war crimes” prosecutions. Since that time, there’s been a going debate over just what kind of precedent it really makes.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome Prof. Gregory Gordon of the University of North Dakota law school — a rising star in international human rights law.

Gordon wrote a 2012 paper re-examining the Hagenbach case attempting to reconcile both the legal and historiographical perspectives on Peter von Hagenbach.

ET: You characterize the present-day understanding of the Hagenbach case as proceeding from Georg Schwarzenberger‘s recovery of the incident further to providing legitimizing precedent for the Nuremberg tribunals. Between 1474 and World War II, did anyone think of this case as one with a wider import for jurisprudence? (And if not, do we know anything about how Schwarzenberger unearthed it?)

GG: To the extent anyone did, from my research, it would have been historians, not jurists per se. Hagenbach was the object of a fair amount of historical scholarship but that had evolved over the years. In the initial period after the trial, Hagenbach was portrayed as the quintessential bogeyman. But over the centuries, historians began to view him in a different light. By 1945, a more nuanced view of Hagenbach had been established. I have not researched Schwarzenberger’s biography in great detail. So I’m not sure how his eureka moment arose. What is clear is that the Nuremberg trial caused him to focus on Hagenbach (my sense is that Hagenbach was fairly well known in Europe — his supposed mummified head was on display in an Upper Alsace museum, for example — but given the absence of anything resembling Nuremberg before Nuremberg, people tended to ignore the details of the Hagenbach legal proceedings).

And my sense is that Schwarzenberger had an agenda — he realized the case could help legitimize what many would claim to be illegitimate ex post facto law at Nuremberg. So he relied on the earlier historical accounts of the Hagenbach case (it seems he based his seminal Manchester Guardian article primarily on the account of French historian Prosper de Barante). And thus he created a fissure between legal scholars and contemporary historians.

Who tried Hagenbach, under what authority, and how were the different interested parties formally represented? Whose idea was all this? What can we tell of the public atmosphere surrounding the trial — was there bottom-up pressure to do this?

After the League of Constance (consisting of various regional polities fed up with Hagenbach) paid off his debt for him, Archduke Sigismund of Austria resumed control over the Upper Alsace territory mortgaged to Charles the Bold. And thus Sigismund made the decision to have Hagenbach tried by the international ad hoc tribunal (another inexplicable link in the chain: Hagenbach escaped lynch-mob justice on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1474 — only thanks to Breisach resident Friedrich Kappelar’s decision to arrest him and await instructions from Sigismund).

Diebold Schilling the Elder made this illustration of the proceedings for a chronicle in 1485.

Sigismund’s decision to convene an ad hoc international tribunal was utterly remarkable for the time. And it is not clear how or why Sigismund came up with it (although historians suggest it had something to do with the prominent position Hagenbach held as representative of the Duke of Burgundy).

Numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights, sat as part of this international ad hoc tribunal.

Eight of the judges were nominated by Breisach, and two by each of the other allied Alsatian and Upper Rhenanian towns [Strasbourg, Sélestat, Colmar, Basel, Thann, Kenzingen, Neuburg am Rhein, and Freiburg im Breisgau] as well as by Berne, a member of the Swiss Confederation, and Solothurn, allied with Berne.

In fact, each sovereign represented a member of the League of Constance (Berne being the only representative of the Swiss cantons).

Thomas Schutz, the chief magistrate of Ensisheim, was designated as the tribunal’s presiding judge. The nominal trial prosecutuor was the new Alsatian bailiff chosen by Sigismund to replace Hagenbach — Hermann von Eptingen. Eptingen, for his part, chose Heinrich Iselin, one of the commissioners from Basel (one of the League of Constance’s members), to present the prosecution’s case to the court. The other representative from Basel, Hans Irmy, took on Hagenbach’s representation. At some point later in the trial, Iselin resigned because, as the evidence came in, he felt the case lacked merit (and even made a motion to withdraw the charges). He was then replaced by Hildebrand Rasp. Hagenbach also requested additional attorneys and the tribunal assigned him two attorneys — one from Colmar and one from Selestat.

The trial was held in open air before the Breisach mayor’s residence and was attended by “a multitude” of people from Breisach and surrounding towns. It appears as if it were somewhat of a circus atmosphere.

Is there a degree to which the pre-modern characteristics of the belligerents — Burgundian duchies, Swiss cantons, the Holy Roman Empire patchwork — set a contradictory precedent for the postwar world?

Let me quote my paper:

Nothing in history leading up to that moment in 1474 would have suggested the remarkable course of action taken by Sigismund. It is tempting to see that decision as an historic anomaly that would not be repeated for centuries to come. But on closer inspection, Sigismund’s choice to hold a trial before an international court fits well within the historical narrative of that era.

It was a time of religious and political disintegration. The Holy Roman Empire was fading into irrelevance and the Catholic Church was on the verge of losing its European hegemony. It was the eve of the nation-state — a unique moment when the old collective structures were dying and the new ones had yet to be born. Given the interstitial political turbulence, the time was ripe for a plural approach to law enforcement in the cosmopolitan geographic center of Europe. Hagenbach’s inter-regional depredations, which helped forge a rare pan-Germanic consensus, provided the perfect forum to experiment with international justice during that fragmented time. The Westphalian order, already on the horizon, would foreclose any such future experiments until Nazi brutality put a chink in the Westphalian armor and inspired an unprecedented transnational justice operation in the wake of a truly global war. In that sense, although on much different scales, Breisach and Nuremberg have much in common. And should the nation-state ever manage to reassert its absolute supremacy again, Breisach will undoubtedly be on the lips of future international jurists seeking, as before, to end impunity at the expense of sovereignty.

You discuss a revisionist thesis about Hagenbach that essentially says he wasn’t a monster, and even that he was a forward-thinking but star-crossed reformer. Why do you think that we can, in fact, conclude that there’s something to the claim that Hagenbach was tyrannous or criminal? What do you consider the most credible charges, and the ones that to his judges would have distinguished Hagenbach from a run-of-the-mill brutal lord or military commander?

What evidence supports the view that the good burghers of Alsace were the victims of Sir Peter’s violence? Their treatment of the wayward knight after his arrest is most revealing in this regard.

While torture may have been commonplace in ordinary criminal inquisitions of the time, the severity of torment inflicted leads one to believe it was inspired by and directed at the kind of mass, depraved criminality of which Hagenbach has traditionally been accused. Significantly, in this regard, in addition to enduring horrific torture, he was stripped of his knighthood. Degradation of knighthood was exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages and reserved only for the most extreme and infamous crimes.

And there is other evidence to suggest Hagenbach’s culpability for atrocities. Most telling perhaps is the trial record itself.

Hans Irmy, it must be remembered, mounted a valiant and spirited defense to the very end. And yet the record does not reveal his even attempting to refute the charge that Hagenbach planned to exterminate the citizens of Breisach or that he murdered the four petitioning residents of Thann. At most, he offered the rejected defense of superior orders. Nor did Irmy (or Hagenbach, for that matter), directly deny the rape charges (merely objecting that taking women in this fashion was common practice and/or he had paid for services rendered). Rape, as opposed to murder, appears to have been Hagenbach’s preferred weapon of terror and atrocity.

And there is a plausible explanation for why Hagenbach would have wanted to murder the citizens of Breisach.

Hagenbach was aware of other towns that had plotted to kill him during the previous year and, when requesting entry to create defensive fortifications in anticipation of an attack by the League of Constance, he had already been denied admittance with his troops into Thann and Ensisheim. He was only able to gain entry into Breisach because his mercenaries were already present there. Given the animosity shown him in these other towns and the previous conspiracy to kill him, Hagenbach did not want to take any chances. Killing Breisach’s citizens would have permitted him to use the town as a defensive fortification without the risk of an uprising from its citizens.

Did Hagenbach slaughter thousands of innocent civilians in concentrated liquidation campaigns? There is no evidence to suggest he did — he was not a fifteenth century proto-Nazi. But the record suggests that he terrorized the local population by murdering civilians, raping numerous women and conspiring to commit a large-scale massacre in Breisach. It should be noted that the rape charges are the most persuasive as there are numerous examples and they were never directly refuted.

And Hagenbach’s back story further validates this view of him. He was the product of a Burgundian ducal culture that was steeped in and glorified violence — the reflection of its bellicose chief, Charles the Bold (known to his enemies as Charles the Terrible). The duchy was in almost a permanent state of war with one enemy or another during Charles’s reign. Charles the Bold’s Burgundy was in the practice of laying siege to towns and routinely killing civilians who resisted — Liege, Dinant, Neuss — all were subjected to horrific violence by Burgundian troops, and Hagenbach played a leading role in the first two. And within that violent culture, Hagenbach was Charles’s fiercest, most loyal lieutenant. In that regard, Sir Peter’s steadfast reliance on superior orders at trial speaks volumes.

And it is not to be overlooked that a criminal disposition was apparent even before Hagenbach cast his lot with Charles the Bold. The reported kidnapping of Marquard Baldeck, the Swiss banker for whom Hagenbach demanded ransom, is telling in that regard. As noted previously, Hagenbach supposedly demanded ransom from Baldeck’s family and the scheme was scuttled only when Philip the Good ordered Baldeck released without any extortion payment. Hagenbach also seems to have fabricated a murder plot against Charles the Bold, which he falsely pinned on a court rival to have him eliminated.

Add to this Hagenbach’s contempt for the emerging bourgeoisie and townspeople, as well as a deep animosity toward the Swiss, and his stewardship of the Upper Rhine represented the perfect storm. By 1474, he had indeed become the scourge of the Sundgau. In this regard, it is interesting to note Burgundy expert Richard Vaughan’s insight that, in fact, it may have been Hagenbach driving policy and tactics in Charles’s Alsatian territory, not the other way around:

Many of Hagenbach’s activities were undertaken at [Charles’s] express command, though often as a result of representations made to him by Hagenbach in the first place. It is possible, for example, that Charles only agreed to sign the treaty of St. Omer on Hagenbach’s persuasion. In the duke’s letters to Hagenbach of 8 August 1470 he orders him to undertake the siege and conquest of Ortenberg castle, ‘in accordance with your memorandum (advertissement)’, which seems to imply that Charles was here acting on detailed advice to take Ortenberg sent him by Hagenbach. As to other mortgaged places, the bailiff wrote to Charles describing how he had seized possession of Landser and seeking the duke’s approval, which was given on 6 January 1474. . . . On 26 December 1470 he wrote congratulating Hagenbach on taking Ortenberg . . .”

Finally, it should be pointed out that Hagenbach may be responsible for atrocities in the region, even if he personally did not commit or order or was unaware of all of them. In particular, the Picard and Wallon mercenaries he hired toward the end of his reign had a well-known reputation for being unruly, violent and hostile toward the local Alsatian population. French historian Emile Paul Toutey, for example, describes Picard soldiers engaging in mass rape of Breisach’s women toward the very end of 1473. These troops may have acted on their own initiative but Hagenbach was their superior and, at the very least, he bore command responsibility. And this may also have contributed toward the writing of Hagenbach’s black legend.

Did the Hagenbach case, in your opinion, actually break new legal ground relative to what had occurred up through 1473? Does it have any analogues you’re aware of over the next century or two, prior to the advent of the Westphalian system?

In my opinion, nothing in the historical record up through 1473 suggests the possibility (certainly not the likelihood!) of what actually took place in 1474.

Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.

Hagenbach tried to raise a “superior orders” type of defense, claiming that Charles the Bold had ordered him to do the nasty things that were imputed to him. The dismissal of this defense does sound pretty modern, but was it mere expedience on the part of the court since it had no way to compel evidence from Charles the Bold?

That’s a great question! I don’t think so. Why? Because Hans Irmy asked for a trial continuance to contact Charles the Bold to appear before the tribunal and corroborate Hagenbach’s claims of superior orders. The tribunal flatly denied the motion for continuance. There was not even an attempt to contact the Duke of Burgundy. Like the decision to try Hagenbach before an ad hoc international tribunal, the decision to deny the motion (and flatly reject the defense) seems nothing other than ground-breaking. In short, it was an epochal precedent.

What interpretive conflicts does this case raise for you when considering it as a legal scholar, versus as a historian? How do you think people today should understand Peter von Hagenbach’s prosecution?

Again, I quote from my paper:

My piece attempts to identify and resolve certain vertical and horizontal dissonances in Hagenbach scholarship. With respect to the former, this has amounted to an exercise in historiographic and historical archeology. The recent attention lavished on the case by international criminal law (ICL) experts is informed by a cartoonish conception of the defendant — an ultra-violent, sexually depraved monster who ran amok for years along the Upper Rhine and terrorized its population. Consistent with that interpretation, the authorities who captured and tried him engaged in a righteous and visionary justice enterprise. They came out on the winning side of a Manichean struggle that gave birth to ICL and ennobled its pedigree.

Digging deeper, though, one finds a very different narrative developed initially by nineteenth century historians and embraced by most of their twentieth century confreres. They saw Hagenbach as a would-be administrative reformer whose efforts were thwarted by xenophobic subjects and a parsimonious superior. In trying to transform a fragmented archipelago of city-states into a cohesive governmental entity, Hagenbach was despised because he threatened an ingrained culture of seigneurial privilege and parochial complacency. In his efforts to redeem property put in hock by Sigismund, he likely reinforced views of Burgundy as excessively acquisitive and bent on conquest (this was exacerbated by Charles’s own efforts to accede to the imperial throne). And in levying taxes to pay for good government, Hagenbach stoked local fears of financial servitude and ruin. But in doing the Duke’s bidding, he did not have the Duke’s support. And so he was left to flounder, his undoing hastened by his admitted crass and prurient behavior. They point out that his trial, a marketplace spectacle based on torture-extracted confessions, was little more than drumhead justice. It was akin to executing Charles the Bold in effigy. Peter von Hagenbach may not have been the most adroit governor and perhaps he did manifest contempt for the rising merchant and urban classes. But, the revisionists would contend, his final deserts were not just at all.

Digging deeper still, the bottom layer of historiography consists of the journalistic rough draft and the first generations of historians that followed. It is largely consistent with the modern ICL expert view but without the larger historical perspective and legal focus. And it is more regionally tinged and archaic. This layer is at once more reliable, given its comtemporaneity or relative proximity, and less reliable, given the inherent biases of its initial chroniclers and the disproportionate influence they exerted on sixteenth through eighteenth century historians.

But my piece demonstrates that each layer is not necessarily inconsistent with the others. In fact, there are many points of convergence. And it is there that a unified, coherent narrative can be stitched together. Hagenbach was coarse and confrontational. But he was also hardworking and loyal and wanted to do right by his master. His entire career had been built on pleasing Charles the Bold. He undoubtedly meant to reform and upgrade the administration of his Alsatian fiefdom. And consequently resentment of the bailiff grew over the years as he pushed while the Alsatians pulled. Hostilities boiled over in 1473 and matters came to a head in 1474. Charles’s loyal lieutenant with a criminal past and odd sexual predilections felt increasingly boxed in and he eventually lashed out. The almost exclusive procedural focus of his defense at trial strongly supports accounts of the resulting crime spree.

It should also be noted that modern Hagenbach scholarship is characterized by a certain horizontal dissonance as well — between jurists and historians. Given the historical points of convergence just noted, however, these two schools ought to find common ground too. Certain views of the revisionist historians concerning the Hagenbach judicial proceedings are not without merit. The Breisach ad hoc tribunal may not have been a kangaroo court but it bears no resemblance to the well-oiled machine of modern international criminal justice administration. The defendant was hideously tortured for days before the trial. He was given no notice of the charges or allegations against him in advance of the hearing. He had no time to speak with a lawyer before standing in front of the judges. The proceeding itself was held on a market square in a circus atmosphere and concluded within a matter of hours. He was not able to call his most important (and only) witness to the stand – Charles the Bold. And there is no indication of a high burden of proof or that any such burden even rested with the prosecution. The Breisach Trial was certainly not the paragon of due process.

On the other hand, this was the late Middle Ages — centuries removed from our modern notions of due process. Torture was part of standard pre-trial procedure at that time. And the trial itself seems relatively fair for that era. Hagenbach was represented by a zealous advocate in Hans Irmy and he was given two additional lawyers of his choice. There is as well a flip side to the “public spectacle” aspect of his trial — transparency. Hagenbach could have been summarily condemned in front of a secretive Star Chamber but his trial was held in public (and that was consistent with local custom). He was able to confront witnesses called against him. He had twenty-eight finders of fact (compared to twelve in the modern jury system). And Charles the Bold, his sole designated witness, was not allowed to testify because the defense of superior orders was rejected ab initio. As well, the proceedings lasted from early in the morning until late at night — which could equate to two or three modern court days. There seems to have been significant deliberation among the twenty-eight judges suggesting that a consensus was cobbled together after carefully sifting through the evidence. In an age of witch-hunts, trials by ordeal, the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, this was an exceedingly fair trial.

And in many ways it seems inappropriate to use twenty-first century ICL terminology to analyze a fifteenth century judicial proceeding. But if that terminology is used, this piece has demonstrated that the Breisach Trial has many of the hallmarks of a modern international atrocity adjudication. As a threshold matter, regardless of anything else, it is the first recorded case in history to reject the defense of superior orders. In itself, that distinction invests the trial with universal historic importance in the development of atrocity law.

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1766: Thomas Arthur de Lally-Tollendal, undiplomatic

Add comment May 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a refugee noble with more honor than sense lost his head in Paris.

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, baron de Tollendal — more efficiently known as Lally, or as Lally-Tollendal, though he’s not to be confused in this with his son, a French Revolution bit player — entered this world in County Galway, the child of a minor lord.

Since said lord hewed to the Jacobite party favoring restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne, the family found itself relocated with the exiled Pretender to a continental power whose spiritual and temporal interests were similarly inimical to the Hanoverian king.

Our man landed himself, like a proper retainer of his adoptive liege, a gig in the French army in which capacity he actually served at the Jacobites’ last doomed British hurrah, the 1746 Battle of Falkirk.

But his problems came from his Bourbon service much further afield — in India.

There, his expeditionary force suffered reversal after reversal at the hands of the hated Brits, even then in the process of appending India to their dominions.

Our general’s military misadventures were compounded by impolitic high-handedness towards his officers and men, and to the locals whose alliances he needed. He was, in the main, a man ill-suited to the job entrusted to him. As the Memoirs of Sanson remark, “his temper, his obstinacy, and especially his contempt for all means of action except brutal strength, were destined to lead him into mistakes in a position demanding more knowledge of politics than science of war. Sixteen years before Lally-Tollendal’s appointment, Dupleix, with scanty forces, at enmity with the Company, receiving neither help nor subsidies from the mother country, had held in check English power in the Indian peninsula by mere diplomatic proficiency. Lally knew how to conquer; but he was incapable of studying and detecting the secrets of Dupleix’s policy.”

By the time the bad news that established all this hit France, the subcontinent was pretty much Britain’s to command — just another piece of the imperial butt-kicking France suffered in the Seven Years’ War.

And Lally’s enemies were holding him personally responsible as a potential traitor. After all, he was conveniently now in English custody.

Incensed at having his honor impugned, Lally unwisely obtained English parole to return to repel these charges. He proved no more diplomatic with the barristers than he had been with the Hindus:

he was so convinced of his own innocence that he was imprudent enough to impeach the officers who had served under his orders, together with the administrators of the colony. He charged them with such violence that his death and condemnation became indispensable for their justification … When the accused appeared before his judges, he was no more able to control his temper than when he was in India … answering, fuming, retorting, stigmatising the cowardice of some, the cupidity of others, and hinting that the only guilty party was the powerless Government.

Just the sort of vindication liable to appeal more to posterity than to said government. Louis XV, another man unequal to his position, was by this autumn of his reign plumbing the nadir of his unpopularity; for the officer who had risked his life in battle under French colors throughout adulthood, Louis calculated more profit in severity (or expedience) than in clemency. Hey, it had worked for the English.

And really, for a Stuart adherent, sacrificial execution was kind of an apt fate.

We guess it worked.

“The people were pleased with all that made his punishment ignominious: the cart, the handcuffs, and the gag,” recorded aristocrat-of-letters Madame du Deffand (Source) “He was a great rascal, and besides he was very disagreeable.”

Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution, spared in Lally’s defense a few sentences of delicious invective for the rotting regime that did him in.

The Parlement of Paris may count itself an unloved body; mean, not magnanimous, on the political side. Were the King weak, always (as now) has his Parlement barked, cur-like at his heels; with what popular cry there might be. Were he strong, it barked before his face; hunting for him as his alert beagle. An unjust Body; where foul influences have more than once worked shameful perversion of judgment. Does not, in these very days, the blood of murdered Lally cry aloud for vengeance? Baited, circumvented, driven mad like the snared lion, Valour had to sink extinguished under vindictive Chicane. Behold him, that hapless Lally, his wild dark soul looking through his wild dark face; trailed on the ignominious death-hurdle; the voice of his despair choked by a wooden gag! The wild fire-soul that has known only peril and toil; and, for threescore years, has buffeted against Fate’s obstruction and men’s perfidy, like genius and courage amid poltroonery, dishonesty and commonplace; faithfully enduring and endeavouring,–O Parlement of Paris, dost thou reward it with a gibbet and a gag?

There’s a public-domain 19th century lecture on our man’s adventurous career here. And there’s a monument back home near Tuam, Ireland.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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