1527: Leonhard Kaiser, Lutheran

2 comments August 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1527, Lutheran evangelist Leonhard Kaiser burned for his heresy at the Bavarian (today, Austrian) city of Scharding.

Kaiser (German link) was a middle-aged vicar hailing from a comfortable Bavarian family when Luther’s reformation fired a new evangelical zeal; he relocated to Wittenberg to absorb the new doctrines and became not only Luther’s exponent, but his friend.

In 1527, however, our man returned to his native Raab to nurse his ailing father — a calculated risk but a reasonable one, since Bavaria had not been killing its heretics.

Unfortunately for Kaiser, the region had a fresh new anti-Lutheran authority, and Kaiser’s continued preaching while he was in town set him up to be made an example of. Lutheran nemesis Johann Eck personally participated in the investigation.

According to Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death, Luther personally wrote Kaiser a short letter of comfort in May of 1527, exhorting him to “patiently endure with the strength of Christ” his imminent martyrdom.

The great Reformer seems to have been profoundly affected by the death of his fellow-traveler, even (says this) questioning his own ministry relative to the sacrifice of flesh made by Leonard Kaiser. “I daily expect the death of a heretic,” Luther had written a friend a few years before … yet those martyrs’ laurels were not for him.

Instead, Luther did his proselytizing with his pen, and he found in Leonhard Kaiser a powerful subject indeed.

Luther took an early martyr’s hagiography written by Michael Stifel and greatly expanded it into a tribute, Concerning Leonhard Kaiser, Burned in Bavaria For the Sake of the Gospel that remained continuously in print in the 16th century. In that volume (I have not found a public link to it available online) Luther uses the burned man’s suggestive name: Leonard, “Lion-Hearted”, and Kaiser, “King”, to exalt the martyr’s courage and ultimate triumph.

It was also about this period — 1527 to 1529 — that Luther composed the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Based on the Bible’s Psalm 46, this enduringly popular (even with Catholics) piece has been thought (though it’s just one speculative hypothesis among several) to be Luther’s tribute to his lion-hearted friend.

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1911: Laura and Lawrence Nelson lynched

3 comments May 25th, 2011 Headsman

A century ago today* Laura Nelson and her son Lawrence were lynched outside Okemah, Oklahoma.

“Two weeks ago,” mused the May 26, 1911 Tulsa World “Deputy Sheriff George H. Loney went to the Nelson home in search of some stolen meat. He found it and started to make an arrest when he was shot and killed. Both the Nelson woman and her son at first claimed to have fired the fatal shot, but it was later admitted that it was the son who fired it.”

So Laura found her way into the annals of lynched women by that most quintessentially maternal act: attempting to protect her child.

The bodies were posted partway down the road to a nearby all-black township — one little incendiary signpost en route to Oklahoma’s coming racial explosion.

As is typical in lynchings, the perpetrators remained permanently wink-wink “unknown”; indeed, the resulting investigation contributed some outstanding exemplars of racist patronizing — like the investigating judge’s charge to his grand jury of “the duty devolv[ing] upon us of a superior race and of greater intelligence to protect this weaker race from unjustifiable and lawless attacks.”

Thanks?

At least that compared favorably on the sympathy scale to the state’s governor, who slated the NAACP for stoking mob violence when the latter pressed for more vigorous anti-lynching action.

If your organization would interest itself to the extent of seeing that such outrages as this [i.e., the appointment of black federal officials in the state] are not perpetrated against our people, there would be fewer lynchings in the South than at this time, and you can do a great deal more to aid the Negro by seeing that other people of our section of the country are considered in these matters than you can issuing abusive statements against this country when a crime of this kind is committed.

Actually, a tweak here and there and that paragraph could go right into a present-day stump speech. The past, as they say, is not even past.


View Larger Map
The site of the lynching: present-day Route 56 where it crosses the North Canadian River west of Okemah.

One face in the crowd — his exact role in the lynching seems to be unknown — was a local real estate hustler by the name of Charley Guthrie.

This blustery conservative southern Democrat would, the next year, name his third child for the Confederate-friendly academic Woodrow Wilson, who was then making a run for the White House that would see the U.S. to the nadir of its race relations.

Young Woodrow Wilson Guthrie — you know him as Woody — grew up with some different principles from dad; the counterculture folk troubadour was sufficiently haunted by his father’s proximity to this horrific exercise of mob justice to expiate it in song.

* Many web sites give the date as May 23, but the primary sources are unequivocal; the correct date is May 25.

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Feast Day of St. Cecilia, patron of music

1 comment November 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast day of the early Christian saint Cecilia.

There’s more than serendipity in that name’s pop culture connection: Cecilia is the patron saint of music for the rather slight reason that her heart sung only for God even when she was forced to marry the pagan Valerian. Seriously, Christianity didn’t have any early martyr with a stronger biographical context for a portfolio as significant as music?*

Being the go-to divine intermediary for something this big made Cece a popular saint centuries after her martyrdom, supposed to be either later in the 2nd century or early in the 3rd. (As with many other martyrs’ legends, Cecilia survives several executions before the Romans finally manage to cut her head off.)

Musician and songwriter Paul Simon knew enough St. Cecilia lore to explicitly use her in her musical-patronage role in a different song, “The Coast” (lyrics). The song “Cecilia” deepens immensely if it’s understood as mixed frustration and exaltation with the minstrel’s inconstant artistic muse.

Nor would that be the only 20th century musical homage for this accessible saint. In a more traditional vein, Benjamin Britten set to music a W.H. Auden poem about Cecilia, creating the Hymn to St. Cecilia.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Fans of classical music should hit YouTube for Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which appropriately premiered on this date in 1739. Here’s a nibble:

* So far as we know, blogging remains a niche of divine patronage as-yet unfilled. We propose to accept the protection of the patron saint of lost causes.

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1553: Prince Mustafa, heir to Suleiman the Magnificent

20 comments October 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1553, the capable heir apparent to Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent was strangled at dad’s order — casualty of the the realm’s lethal harem politics.

If ’tis state thou seekest like the world-adorning sun’s array,
Lowly e’en as water rub thy face in earth’s dust every day.
Fair to see, but short enduring is this picture bright, the world;
‘Tis a proverb: Fleeting like the realm of dreams is earth’s display.
Through the needle of its eyelash never hath the heart’s thread past;
Like unto the Lord Messiah bide I half-road on the way.
Athlete of the Universe through self-reliance grows the Heart,
With the ball, the Sphere—Time, Fortune—like an apple doth it play.
Mukhlisi, thy frame was formed from but one drop, yet, wonder great!
When thou verses sing’st, thy spirit like the ocean swells, they say.

-Prince Mustafa, about himself

Suleiman’s first-born son by his first concubine, Mustafa seemed well-positioned to emerge in the Ottomans’ fratricidal succession.

The racket: when the current sultan dies, all his sons by his various concubines make a rush from their provincial outposts for the capital and fight it out, the winner killing off his half-brothers to consolidate his rule.

This disorderly ascension made, while dad still lived, for fraught internal politicking among the sons for the inside track: the most prestigious positions, and the assignments closest to Istanbul. The various mothers of the contenders jockeyed just as aggressively on behalf of their various entrants in the imperial sweepstakes.

Mustafa was the capable eldest son in a kingdom at its very acme,* but to his misfortune, and the empire’s too, he found himself pitted against one of the ablest women ever to call the Ottoman harem home: Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana (or Roxolana).

A Ukrainian woman kidnapped to the harem by Tartar slavers, Roxelana enchanted Suleiman and soon became his favorite. Therefore, Roxelana also became the rival, with her son and her own potential heir, to Mustafa and his mother.

As the story is told, Roxelana at length contrived to convince Suleiman that Mustafa was in cahoots with the rival Safavid Empire to supplant Suleiman on the throne; Suleiman had his firstborn summoned to his tent on campaign in Anatolia, and straightaway put to death. He’s supposed to have sat by the body in grief for days afterwards, and barely averted a revolt by his elite Janissaries, who much favored the talented Mustafa.

“This terrible tragedy exercised an effect on Ottoman affairs resembling that which the Massacre of St. Bartholomew had on the history of France,” according to The Cambridge Modern History (vol. 3). Roxelana’s unimpressive son “Prince Selim, in whose favour the crime was committed, was the first of a series of degenerate Sultans, sunk in pleasure-seeking or stricken with Imperial mania, under whose sway the Empire went to ruin.”

Consequently, Mustafa is still mourned in Turkey as a tragic turning-point; visitors pay homage to his tomb at Bursa.

Westerners had word of this fascinating palace intrigue through diplomatic correspondents who were not privy to the actual harem, and adopted the story themselves while imaginatively filling in the orientalizing details. Inevitably these imaginings have helped shape the story as it comes to us.

The scenario blending the familiar and the exotic — a European in the court of the Turk; a slave woman dominating the conqueror; fratricidal princes and the alluring seraglio — all set in the heart of the feared Muslim state proved irresistible to literary interlocutors. These made of Suleiman, Mustafa (Mustapha), and Roxelana moral fables, theater (endorsed by Samuel Pepys!), symphony

… and opera (many librettos, this by Hasse):

Not to mention, of course, more titillating fare.

* The PBS documentary Islam, The Empire of Faith does engrossing coverage of Suleiman (including his relationship with Roxelana and the execution of Mustafa) in these video segments: 3, 4, 5.

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1671: Stenka Razin, Cossack rebel

2 comments June 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1671, famed rebel Stepan (Stenka) Razin was publicly butchered in Moscow.


On that day, following four days of torture, he was led to an executioner’s scaffold in Red Square in the company of his younger brother, Frol. The list of Razin’s crimes and then his sentence were read out to him. The punishment was to be “an evil death befitting the wicked — by quartering.” According to eyewitness accounts, Razin then crossed himself and submitted to the executioner. Normally, death by quartering requires that the executioner first chop off the right arm of the convicted man at the elbow, then his left leg at the knee, then the left arm at the elbow, then the right leg at the knee, ending the whole gruesome process by decapitation. In the case of Razin, the executioner made only the first two cuts when, for some reason — perhaps for fear of Razin’s power over the assembled multitude — he was told to end it all and chop off the head. To complete the sentence, the executioner then went back and severed the remaining limbs of the already headless Razin. The limbs and the severed head were taken to Bolotnaia ploshchad’ across the Moscow River and displayed on spikes. The body was thrown to the dogs. Frol, who was supposed to be executed in a similar manner, began screaming his willingness to cooperate with the authorities midway through his brother’s execution. He was led back to prison, interrogated further, and executed on 26 May 1676.

Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries

Stenka Razin’s unpleasant end came with the consolation of a ticket to immortality as Russia’s go-to folklore bandit.

In life, Razin led the most renowned internal rising against the Romanovs, lasting from 1667 to 1671.

Marshaling the underclasses (literally, the “naked ones”: the Cossacks had class issues) in the semi-lawless southern reaches of the realm, Razin segued smoothly from from a career of brigandage into suzerainty over a quasi-state around the Volga with the help of a sympathetic peasant uprising.


Stepan Razin on the Volga (1918), by Boris Kustodiev.

Throw back a frosty glass of Stepan Razin beer, brewed in St. Petersburg since 1795.

Razin’s revolt had scope and duration enough to trounce a Persian expedition against him. He bestrode the Volga — sailed the Caspian — raided foreign lands — established a Cossack republic.

It was an impressive run while it lasted. But like most peasant revolts, it was ultimately on the receiving end of the trouncing.

Captured and hailed to Moscow for his demonstrative end, Razin’s story lives strong in Russian culture and folklore even though his body ended up in bits and pieces.

Razin is the subject, for instance, of the first Russian feature film, a 1908 silent.

According to the Russian Wikipedia, Razin was even the subject of the first foreign dissertation about a Russian figure.

During the late 19th century’s reactionary period, Boris Glazunov put Razin’s capture to symphony.

In the Soviet era, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote about Razin’s execution, and so did Dmitri Shostakovich.

Best-recognized and most universally beloved is the folk tune “Ponizovaya Volnitsa”, which celebrates Stenka and the mighty waterway that bore him to posterity, the Volga.

* June 6, 1671 per the Julian calendar. It was June 16 in those countries that had already adopted the Gregorian calendar.

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1723: Major Jean Abram Davel

2 comments April 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Major Jean Davel was beheaded for an abortive separatist bid in Vaud.

The French-speaking Swiss Canton was at this time under the heavy-handed domination of neighboring Bern(e), part of an oligarchic arrangement of power in Switzerland that would provoke regular unrest.

Davel (German Wikipedia page), a notary turned soldier who had fought at Villmergen, identified with the underdog.

On March 31, 1723, Davel took advantage of a general absence of bailiffs gone to Berne for government sinecures, and marched 600 men to the Vaud capital of Lausanne to pitch the town on breaking away from its Teutonic overlords.

Instead, the city worthies paid him lip service just long enough to betray him.*

“I see well enough,” Davel observed, “I will be the first victim in this affair.”

Yup.

But he held firm under torture to his insistence that the revolt was his doing alone (well, his and God’s), and perhaps thereby saved others from sharing his fate.


The Execution of Major Davel, by Charles Gleyre. A very in-depth analysis of this work by Michel Thevoz titled “Painting and Ideology: A Commentary on a Painting by Charles Gleyre” is available in pdf form here.

Davel is noted for checking out with a unique scaffold speech, discoursing on a topic rarely explored on that platform: the role of music in worship.**

As concerns the praise of God, in what manner is it sung? Is there any sense of orderliness, any real music, anything whatever calculated to excite and sustain the devotion? Yet this part of divine service is one of the most considerable and the one by which is the most effectively demonstrated the lifting up of our hearts to God … Such being the importance of this part of Christian worship, I cannot too much emphasize my exhortation to you to give it a new and serious attention, in order to correct the faults of which you are at present guilty in connection with it.

In a similar vein, the 52-year-old groused at the kids these days, to wit, young divinity students in attendance who, in the immortal tradition of kids these days throughout all days,

neglect your studies for worldly pleasure. You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God’s praises. The songs of the church form an essential part of divine worship, and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God. I pray you, then, to apply yourselves with all possible zeal to your preparation for the holy ministry.

Music in worship was in the Zeitgeist, and 1723 in liturgical composition suggests the (otherwise wholly unrelated to Davel) move by Johann Sebastian Bach that very year to Leipzig. Bach took up his post there just weeks after Davel lost his head, and would spend the remaining 27 years of his life in Leipzig. But it only took him until the very next Easter to lift up his congregation’s heart to God with the Johannes-Passion.

* Better late than never, Lausanne gave Davel a statue.

** According to Percy A. Scholes, “Church Music: A Plea from the Scaffold,” The Musical Times, vol. 78, no. 1136 (Oct. 1937).

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2009: Akmal Shaikh, mentally ill drug mule

8 comments December 29th, 2009 Headsman

This morning, China confirmed (to London’s fury) the dawn execution of British national Akmal Shaikh.

As tweeted @executedtoday, Shaikh has been at the eye of a media firestorm the past week, though without himself being aware of his impending (and publicly announced) execution until family members who had raced to China to plead for mercy met with him within the past day.

“He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence,” said the clan’s post-meeting (under)statement.

The 53-year-old Shaikh had been homeless in Poland and apparently duped into schlepping some cargo to China as part of a wild goose chase to become a pop star and bring world peace.

In any case like this (and certainly on any blog like this), the mystery parcel invariably contains drugs, doesn’t it? In this instance, our courier was busted at Ürümqi airport with 4 kg of heroin, some 80 times China’s death-sentencing threshold. He swore he knew nothing about it.

If “carry suspicious package for shady central Asian contact to usher in Age of Aquarius” sounds a bit daft … well, mental illness was the basis of Shaikh’s family’s appeal for his life. Shaikh seems to have been severely bipolar and to “may also have … delusional psychosis.”

“Insufficient,” said China; it never gave him a formal psychological evaluation.

So this morning, Akmal Shaikh became the first European executed in China in some 50-plus years … and the lone casualty of a lonely quest to somehow save the world.

Update: China flexes its muscle in the diplomatic row: “We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally and not create new obstacles in bilateral relations.”

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1871: The Paris Commune falls

18 comments May 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the last barricade of the Paris Commune fell to the onslaught of the army — and a legion of Parisians fell to the army’s firing squads.

On the evening of that bright Sunday when the insurrection finally collapsed, a Sunday when the streets of central Paris were crowded with returning bourgeois, all expressing their satisfaction that the struggle was at last over, the city’s walls were placarded with a proclamation emanating from MacMahon. “Inhabitants of Paris,” said he, “the Army of France has come to save you. Paris is delivered. At four o’clock our soldiers carried the last position occupied by the insurgents. Today the struggle is over, order, work and security will now revive.

I read that announcement in the Rue de Rivoli, not far from the Hotel-de-Ville. A moment later, however, I heard a discharge of musketry … Several insurgents who had been taken fighting were being shot. (My Adventures in the Commune, Paris, 1871, an anti-Commune source)

The day was climax and curtains for the first working-class seizure of power in industrial Europe, but in truth indiscriminate reprisal executions had been underway since troops of the conservative Versailles government first breached rebellious Paris on May 21.

What followed was semaine sanglante, the “bloody week” — each barricade’s surviving defenders executed summarily, and anyone in the city liable to a similar fate if the nearest French officer disliked the cut of his or her jib. Rumors swept the city that women of the Commune were torching buildings, for instance, and suddenly any woman in the street could be killed as an arsonist; some firefighters were shot as saboteurs when the “water” they threw on such flames failed to speedily quench them,* and was consequently adjudged to be kerosone.

And heaven help he who should chance to resemble one of the wanted Communard leaders!

Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium … Members and functionaries of the Commune were thus shot, and often several times over, in the persons of individuals who resembled them more or less.


Un rue de Paris en 1871, by Maximilien Luce.

The total body counts are guesswork: the killing ran far ahead of the record-keeping. Twenty thousand, or thirty, or more are thought to perished by summary execution. Even the press of the bourgeoisie, whose sword arm the Versailles men comprised, was aghast. London’s Times filled its broadsheets with calumnies upon the Commune, but noted on May 29:

“The Revolution is crushed;” but at what a cost, and amid what horrors! … the Communists seem not very much worse than their antagonists. It sounds like trifling for M. Thiers to be denouncing the Insurgents for having shot a captive officer “without respect for the laws of war.” The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women and children, during the last six days.

Whatever the true death toll, it massively surpassed that of the much more eagerly commemorated Revolutionary Terror.

Not for Executed Today to number what the butchers themselves could not. In a city turned charnel house in the midst of a Week of Blood, a few scenes of mortality from the day the Commune fell. (Heavily sourced to the very pro-Commune — hence potentially sensational — History of the Commune of 1871)

This people, heroes in the face of the foreigner, must therefore by called assassins, criminals, wretches, because they died for the Universal Republic, because in defense of their beliefs, their conscience, their idea, they preferred, in their fierce enthusiasm, to bury themselves in the ruins of Paris rather than abandon it to the coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than any foreigner.

-Lissagaray

The 147 Fédérés at Communards’ Wall

At a wall still consecrated to leftists in the Pere Lachaise cemetery of Belleville, 147 were summarily shot.

The 147 are acclaimed as the last defenders of the Commune.

the Commune is in its death throes. Like the dragon of fairy lore, it dies, vomiting flames … What must these men feel who are killing and being killed in the cemetery! To die among the dead seems horrible. But they never give it a thought; the bloody thirst for destruction which possesses them allows them only to think of one thing, of killing! Some of them are gay, they are brave, these men. That makes it only the more dreadful; these wretches are heroic! Behind the barricades there have been instances of the most splendid valour. A man at the Porte Saint-Martin, holding a red flag in his hand, was standing, heedless of danger, on a pile of stones. The balls showered around him, while he leant carelessly against an empty barrel which stood behind. — “Lazy fellow,” cried a comrade. ‘”No,” said he, “I am only leaning that I may not fall when I die.”

Paris Under the Commune, an anti-Commune source

Communard Eugene Varlin

Varlin, alas! was not to escape. On Sunday the 28th May he was recognized in the Rue Lafayette, and led, or rather dragged, to the foot of the Buttes Montmartre before the commanding general. The Versaillese sent him to be shot in the Rue des Rosiers. For an hour, a mortal hour, Varlin was dragged through the streets of Montmartre, his hands tied behind his back, under a shower of blows and insults. His young, thoughtful head, that had never harboured other thoughts than of fraternity, slashed open by the sabres, was soon but one mass of blood, of mangled flesh, the eye protruding from the orbit. On reaching the Rue des Rosiers, he no longer walked; he was carried. They set him down to shoot him. The wretches dismembered his corpse with blows of the butt-ends of their muskets.

Varlin was shot along with a nameless batch of others to whom the March 18 execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas had been hastily imputed (they were held at the generals’ execution site, to contemplate their sin). A pro-government paper allowed that Varlin “died game.”


L’execution de Varlin, another Maximilien Luce scene.

Many at the stock exchange

According to the Paris Francais as quoted by this Marxist review of the events

It is at the Bourse that there was to-day the largest number of executions. The doomed men who attempted to resist were bound to the iron railing.

The stock exchange is “a fit place, to be sure, for this sort of business,” observes our interlocutor.

Eighty-plus defenders of Belleville, at the Arc de Triomphe

The London Times editorialized on May 31 upon this incident when the Marquis de Gallifet plucked from the mass of Belleville’s May 28 captives “eighty prisoners, principally soldiers of every arm, linesmen, artillerymen, and Zouaves, [who] were set apart and afterwards led to the right of the rampart to be shot.”

The French are filling up the darkest page in the book of their own or the world’s history. The charge of ruthless cruelty is no longer limited to one party or to one class of persons. The Versailles troops seem inclined to outdo the Communists in their lavishness of human blood. The Marquis de Gallifet is escorting a column of prisoners to Versailles or Satory. He “picks out eighty-two of them, and shoots them at the Arc de Triomphe.” Next came a lot of 20 firemen, then a dozen women, one aged 70. On another spot our Correspondent came upon “80 corpses, piled upon each other, a mass of arms and legs and distorted faces, while the roads and gutter literally flowed with blood.” About 1,000 are said to have thus suffered. By this wholesale and summary execution of prisoners in batches of 50 and 100, not only must the innocent perish with the guilty, but many must bear the penalty of imaginary guilt.

An utterly disconnected Englishman, according to the paper’s correspondent, was accidentally among the four score at the Arc, and only saved by the fortuitous intervention of a Belgian attache.

an English officer somehow got mixed up in the procession, and was forced to keep in it by the escort, who, out of 5,000 prisoners, could not, of course, be expected to recognize one innocent man … it so happened that some of the prisoners tried to escape, and to make an example the leader of the cavalry escort, the Marquis de Gallifet, a man who is not prone to err on the side of mercy, had then and there 81 shot, and the English officer was all but one of them, his explanations being at first refused the slightest attention. Human life has, in fact, become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog.

Socialist physician Tony Moilin

One single fact was Tony Moilin reproached with: that of having on the 18th March taken possession of the mairie of his arrondissement, and having thus had a share in giving the signal for the insurrection …

The court-martial condescended to tell him that the fact of the mairie, the only one he could be reproached with, had in itself not much importance, and did not merit death, but that he was one of the chiefs of the Socialist party, dangerous through his talents, his character, and his influence over the masses; one of those men, in short, of whom a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so

[A] respite of twelve hours was granted him in order that he might make his testament, write a few words of farewell to his father, and finally [marry his pregnant lover] … on the 28th May, in the morning, Tony Moilin was led into the garden a few steps from the palace and shot. His body, which his widow claimed, the surrender of which had been at first promised, was refused her. (History of the Commune of 1871)

The unnumbered dead of Lobau Barracks

Since morning a strong cordon is being formed round the theatre (Châtelet); where a court-martial is permanently established. From time to time one sees a band of fifteen to twenty individuals coming out, composed of National Guards, civilians, women and children fifteen to sixteen years old.

These individuals are condemned to death. They march two by two, escorted by a platoon of chasseurs, who lead and bring up the rear. This cortege goes up the Quai de Gevres and enters the Republican Barracks in the Place Lobau. A minute after one hears from within the fire of platoons and successive musketry discharges; it is the sentence of the court-martial which has just been executed.

The detachment of chasseurs returns to the Chatelet to fetch other prisoners. The crowd seems deeply impressed on hearing the noise of the shootings.

This is another publication’s story cited in the History of the Commune of 1871, which itself also details the court-martial procedures of this drumhead tribunal:

Thousands of prisoners who were led there were first of all penned in upon the stage and in the auditorium, under the guns of the soldiers placed in the boxes; then, little by little, like sheep driven to the door of the slaughter-house, from wing to wing they were pushed to the saloon, where, round a large table, officers of the army and the honest National Guard were seated, their sabres between their legs, cigars in their mouths. The examination lasted a quarter of a minute. ‘Did you take arms? Did you serve the Commune? Show your hands.’ If the resolute attitude of a prisoner betrayed a combatant, if his face was unpleasant, without asking for his name, his profession, without entering any note upon any register, he was classed. ‘You?’ was said to the next one, and so on to the end of the file, without excepting the women, children, and old men. When by a caprice a prisoner was spared, he was said to be ordinary, and reserved for Versailles. No one was liberated.

The classed ones were at once delivered to the executioners, who led them into the nearest garden or court. From the Châtelet, for instance, they were taken to the Lebau Barracks. There the doors were no sooner closed than the gendarmes fired, without even grouping their victims before a platoon. Some, only wounded, ran along by the walls, the gendarmes chasing and shooting at them till they fell dead. … There were so many victims, that the soldiers, tired out, were obliged to rest their guns actually against the sufferers. The wall of the terrace was covered with brains; the executioners waded through pools of blood.


Summary executions — death squads — continued for days or weeks afterwards in Paris; martial law throttled left organizing in the city; and those “fortunate” enough to have been captured alive were processed in a steady stream of judicial executions over the months yet to come.

The Commune, a palpably subversive example even in the present day, was destroyed in every way possible for the Versailles government. But its example could hardly be forgotten.

Marx would write The Civil War in France of the only proletarian revolution he would actually witness in his lifetime.

The next generation’s subversives also took inspiration from the Parisian example … and lessons from its mistakes. Lenin — a fond student of the Commune, who was eventually buried wrapped in a Communard banner — said that

two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over … The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.

“The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten,” Lenin vowed, and his own revolution gained a vital object lesson in the Bloody Week of Paris, and an anthem besides: Communard Eugene Pottier, fleeing the Versailles army’s slaughter, wrote the verses that have been sung ever since by millions dreaming of a better world — the Internationale.

* Water can accelerate a fire, under the right circumstances.

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1894: Emile Henry, because there are no innocent bourgeois

3 comments May 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Emile Henry was guillotined in Paris for bombing the Cafe Terminus three months before.

Yale history professor John Merriman (see him lecturing on the Paris Commune) explores how Henry’s bombing “ignited the age of modern terror.” (Review.) (Another.)

A bourgeois youth who, disgusted at the gross economic exploitation of the Gilded Age, had turned against his class with the fury only the apostate can command, Émile Henry had chucked a bomb into the chic cafe of the Parisian Gare Saint-Lazare a week after the execution of Auguste Vaillant.

Henry’s act killed only one, but electrified the country.

The Terminus bombing stood out in an era of violent anarchist ferment for its target selection: not a prince or president or parliamentarian, but the faceless multitudes of the bourgeoisie (formerly) secure in their metropolitan repose — who, in their indifference to the misery of workers assented to and profited from the more infamous repressions wrought by their plenipotentiaries.

Henry was completely explicit about his intent: “there are no innocent bourgeois.”

Recognizing the hopelessness of his legal position, he proudly admitted the charges against him and mounted an eloquent defense for the wider world of his version of anarchist terror.

I had returned to Paris at the time of the Vaillant affair, and I witnessed the frightful repression that followed the explosion at the Palais Bourbon. I saw the draconian measures which the government decided to take against the anarchists. Everywhere there were spies, and searches, and arrests. A crowd of individuals were indiscriminately rounded up, torn from their families, and thrown into prison. Nobody was concerned about what happened to the wives and children of these comrades while they remained in jail.

The anarchist was no longer regarded as a man, but as a wild beast to be hunted everywhere while the bourgeois Press, which is the vile slave of authority, loudly demands his extermination.

But, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, you have reckoned a little too much without your host. You arrested hundreds of men and women, you violated scores of homes, but still outside the prison walls there were men unknown to you who watched from the shadows as you hunted the anarchists, and waited only for the moment that would be favourable for them in their turn to hunt the hunters.

… The bomb in the Cafe Terminus is the answer to all your violations of freedom, to your arrests, to your searches, to your laws against the Press, to your mass transportations, to your guillotinings. But why, you ask, attack these peaceful cafe guests, who sat listening to music and who, no doubt, were neither judges nor deputies nor bureaucrats? Why? It is very simple. The bourgeoisie did not distinguish among the anarchists. Vaillant, a man on his own, threw a bomb; nine-tenths of the comrades did not even know him. But that meant nothing; the persecution was a mass one, and anyone with the slightest anarchist links was hunted down. And since you hold a whole party responsible for the actions of a single man, and strike indiscriminately, we also strike indiscriminately.

Perhaps we should attack only the deputies who make laws against us, the judges who apply those laws, the police who arrest us? I do not agree. These men are only instruments. They do not act in their own name. Their functions were instituted by the bourgeoisie for its own defence. They are no more guilty than the rest of you. Those good bourgeois who hold no office but who reap their dividends and live idly on the profits of the workers’ toil, they also must take their share in the reprisals. And not only they, but all those who are satisfied with the existing order, who applaud the acts of the government and so become its accomplices, those clerks earning three or five hundred francs a month who hate the people even more violently than the rich, that stupid and pretentious mass of folk who always choose the strongest side — in other words, the daily clientele of Terminus and the other great cafés.

That is why I struck at random and did not choose my victims! The bourgeoisie must be brought to understand that those who have suffered are tired at last of their sufferings; they are showing their teeth and they will strike all the more brutally if you are brutal with them. …

We will not spare the women and children of the bourgeois, for the women and children of those we love have not been spared. Must we not count among the innocent victims those children who die slowly of anaemia in the slums because bread is scarce in their houses; those women who grow pale in your workshops, working to earn forty sous a day and fortunate when poverty does not force them into prostitution; those old men whom you have made production machines all their lives and whom you cast on to the waste heap or into the workhouse when their strength has worn away?

At least have the courage of your crimes, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, and grant that our reprisals are completely legitimate.

In that pitiless war which we have declared on the bourgeoisie, we ask for no pity. We give death, and we know how to endure it. So it is with indifference that I await your verdict. I know that my head is not the last you will cut off; yet others will fall, for the starving are beginning to know the way to your great cafes and restaurants, to the Terminus and Foyot. You will add other names to the bloody list of our dead.

You have hanged in Chicago, decapitated in Germany, garotted in Jerez, shot in Barcelona, guillotined in Montbrison and Paris, but what you will never destroy is anarchy. Its roots are too deep. It is born in the heart of a society that is rotting and falling apart. It is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents all the egalitarian and libertarian aspirations that strike out against authority. It is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain. It will end by killing you.

Clemenceau, who witnessed the beheading at the Place de la Roquette, saw in the ghastly white 21-year-old crying “long live anarchy!” in the predawn gloom this morning in 1894 “the face of a tormented Christ, terribly pale, implacable in expression, trying to impose his intellectual pride upon his child’s body … let those for the death penalty go, if they dare, to smell the blood of La Roquette.”

Five weeks later, the French president who had refused to spare Henry was himself assassinated by another anarchist.

The clip above uses an actual 1893 anarchist hymn to dynamite, that fruit of the chemical science whose pyrotechnics were held to catalyze social change. Henry, who probably hummed the song a few times in his life, must have approved the songwriter’s philosophy.

Tant mieux s’il éclate parfois en faisant beaucoup de victimes
Chez nos ennemis les bourgeois cela nous venge de leurs crimes

For more on Henry’s place in the era’s revolutionary ferment, enjoy this lecture by Dynamite Club author John Merriman as part of his course European Civilization, 1648-1945.

[audio:http://openmedia.yale.edu/projects/courses/fall08/hist202/mp3/hist202_14_102208.mp3]

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Martyrs,Murder,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar

5 comments February 24th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in February (perhaps) 1613 — so says a cherished Russian national legend — a villager met a Polish army intent on deposing the Russian tsar, offered to guide it on a “shortcut,” and proceeded to lead it into a forest or fen where it succumbed to the elements.

A monument to Ivan Susanin in Kostroma. Image courtesy of Barbara Partee (Barbara adds: to help prevent future executions of the wrongly convicted, check out the Innocence Project.)

That peasant, Ivan Susanin, is supposed to have been put to death as the army realized its folly and imminent doom — the fate one would expect, although also not the sort that would leave a lot of corroborating witnesses.

Though the particulars are of doubtful veracity, Susanin’s son-in-law was awarded estates for the man’s tortures by enemy armies seeking the tsar — so the story is not completely baseless.

It was tsarist public relations, however, that gave us Susanin in his dramatic, familiar* form with the trackless wilderness.

This Susanin embodies the Russian people’s sacrificial love for their autocrat … and more specifically, since this was the Time of Troubles when the Russian crown’s succession was contested, for the Romanov dynasty whose first scion chosen in February 1613 would have been the Poles’ target.**

Thus, Glinka’s 19th century opera A Life for the Tsar.

But Glinka and Ivan proved up to the shifting needs of authority as the tsar gave way to the Politburo, and that to the post-Soviet state.

In a fascinating 2006 academic disquisition,† Marina Frolova-Walker dissects A Life for the Tsar‘s transmutation into Ivan Susanin, a Stalin-era opera with the same score but a libretto altered to expunge the tsar — and the success this adaptation of a national classic enjoyed vis-a-vis Soviet artists’ original creations under the impossible aesthetic and political restrictions of official censorship.

Not only did this now-nationalist composition thrive in the USSR, it has been successfully re-staged in its Soviet form, or as a fresh amalgamation of Stalin and Glinka, in the Putin era.‡

From the days of serfdom via the days of the gulag past the fall of the Iron Curtain, here’s Ivan Susanin‘s stirring finale performed by the Russian army at the Vatican, and broadcast on Russian television.

* Familiar to Russians, certainly, and you can call one who gets you lost “susanin”.

** And we all know how they left the throne.

† Marina Frolova-Walker, ‘The Soviet opera project: Ivan Dzerzhinsky vs. Ivan Susanin’, Cambridge Opera Journal (2006), 18:2:181-216

‡ In the Yeltsin era, the opera was staged in its pre-Soviet form. Frolova-Walker argues that the version incorporating Stalinist edits actually speaks to contemporary Russia more aptly than the original, an operatic mirror of the state’s re-adopting the Stalinist national anthem after having used a tsarist piece (written by Glinka!) during the 1990’s.

The reappearance of these cultural tokens is occurring because high Stalinism provides the most easily assimilable model for Russian nationalism today: it is less remote than its nineteenth-century counterpart … The eclectic and confident nationalist of the new Susanin contains the appropriate message for those Russian citizens wealthy enough to attend the Bolshoi today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Russia,Summary Executions,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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