1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.

“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.

“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1661: The effigy and books of Giuseppe Francesco Borri

Add comment January 3rd, 2013 Headsman

Alchemist, prophet, and dashing Italian rogue, the Jesuit-educated Giuseppe Francesco Borri (English | Italian) was burned on this date in 1661.

Luckily, he was hundreds of kilometers away.

A Milanese noble by birth, Borri was studying in Rome when he experienced a vision and started expounding a mystical theology decidedly not acceptable to Catholic orthodoxy.

That Mary’s mother was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the Madonna was a goddess. That, with the limitless proceeds of the philosopher’s stone, he’d bankroll a spiritual army under the wings of the archangel St. Michael.

The charismatic young prophet began attracting quite a following — including the eccentric Swedish Queen Christina, then hanging around Rome after her abdication and indulging her own taste for alchemy — and was soon obliged to flee Rome for Milan, and then Milan for Switzerland, with the Inquisition at his heels. (He’s supposed to have left behind the occult markings that adorn the Porta Alchemica.)

While the heresiarch was safe abroard, the Roman Inquisition went ahead with its business without him. It was ruled that Borri was

to be punished as a heretic for his errors, that he had incurred both the ‘general’ and ‘particular’ censures, that he was deprived of all honour and prerogative in the Church, of whose mercy he had proved himself unworthy, that he was expelled from her communion, and that his effigy should be handed over to the Cardinal Legate for the execution of the punishment he had deserved.

Nothing daunted, the “executed” Borri set up as a doctor, scientist, astrologer, and alchemist in northern Europe — Strasbourg, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Throughout the 1660s his alchemical arts attracted the patronage of royalty as well as an endless stream of ailing patients and curious hangers-on. Borri even claimed to have accomplished the feat of transmuting a base metal into gold, which magical product can still be seen at a Danish museum.

Borri’s alchemy gold.

In a way, he did: the guy became fabulously wealthy. And he never stopped promulgating his cabalistic spiritual theorems.

Unfortunately his Danish patron died in 1670, and while en route to his next gig in Turkey he was arrested in Hapsburg territory and handed over the papacy. Borri was not put to death bodily, but spent the remainder of his life imprisoned in Rome, finally dying in the Castel Sant’Angelo in 1695.

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1314: Jacques de Molay, last Templar Grand Master

9 comments March 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1314, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burned in Paris.

Illustration of Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney burning on Paris’s Île de la Cité.

In a boring materialist history, Jacques de Molay was simply the head of an overrich military order whose crusading raison d’etre had become passe* with the Templars’ expulsion from the Holy Land.

Scores of trumped-up heresy charges did the work of ecclesiastical assassination for this renowned brotherhood originally founded to safeguard pilgrims in the Holy Land. (There’s a fine podcast episode on the Templars’ history here.)

This appears to be some sort of legitimate history. How droll!

Ruthless French King Philip the Fair, who owed the Templar banks a ton of cash, mounted in 1307 a, um, surprise nationalization — with the magnificently coordinated arrest of hundreds of members of the order on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307.**

This was, on the face of it, quite an infringement by the secular power upon the Church, but since Pope Clement V was Philip’s very own sock puppet — to the extent of relocating the papacy to Avignon the better to attend to his master — it was all good. Plus, of course, everyone made out with a big pile of loot.

As the interested parties jockeyed over those confiscated estates, there ensued for the once-powerful, now-proscribed order a years-long saga of torture, burnings (of lower-ranking Templars), salacious Baphomet-worship revelations, juridical maneuvering, and, finally, a compromise life-saving confession which Molay and his associate Geoffroi de Charney dramatically spurned.

The cardinals dallied with their duty until March 1314, when, on a scaffold in front of Notre Dame, Jacques de Molay, Templar Grand Master, Geoffroi de Charney, Master of Normandy, Ilugues de Peraud, Visitor of France, and Godefroi de Gonneville, Master of Aquitaine, were brought forth from the jail in which for nearly seven years they had lain, to receive the sentence agreed upon by the cardinals, in conjunction with the Archbishop of Sens and some other prelates whom they had called in. Considering the offences which the culprits had confessed and confirmed, the penance imposed was in accordance with rule—that of perpetual imprisonment. The affair was supposed to be concluded when, to the dismay of the prelates and wonderment of the assembled crowd, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney arose. They had been guilty, they said, not of the crimes imputed to them, but of basely betraying their Order to save their own lives. It was pure and holy; the charges were fictitious and the confessions false. Hastily the cardinals delivered them to the Prevot of Paris, and retired to deliberate on this unexpected contingency, but they were saved all trouble. ‘When the news was carried to Philippe he was furious. A short consultation with his council only was required. The canons pronounced that a relapsed heretic was to be burned without a hearing; the facts were notorious and no formal judgment by the papal commission need be waited for. That same day, by sunset, a pile was erected on a small island in the Seine, the Isle des Juifs, near the palace garden. There de Molay and de Charney were slowly burned to death, refusing all offers of pardon for retraction, and bearing their torment with a composure which won for them the reputation of martyrs among the people, who reverently collected their ashes as relics.’

-A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Vol III

Not bad, but the for a real plot twist, check the Templars’ turn — most famously in Dan Brown’s leaden bestseller The Da Vinci Code, but more entertainingly rendered as nonfiction “speculative history” in Holy Blood, Holy Grail — as mystic guardians of Christological secrets.†

Their most sensational secret: the Holy Grail.

In this reworking, the Cup of Christ is not the San Greal but the Sang Real, God’s own royal bloodline, by way (for some reason) of the French Merovingian dynasty.

The Templars and Jacques de Molay himself, this story goes, are just part of a centuries-long vanguard of Christianity’s mystical underground. Say, is that Jacques on the Shroud of Turin?

Thither this blog dares not venture, but those with the requisite inclination towards the occult will find limitless explorations of the theme for ready sale. All we ask, gentle reader, is that you kindly cut us in on the action by using our handy affiliate links.

In what may be yet another mystical just-so story, Molay is said to have foretold, as the flames consumed him, the deaths of his persecutors.

Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret [the prosecuting inquisitor], King Philip! I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out!

The curse worked: none of those gentlemen lived to see 1315. Someone, somewhere, has also attributed every bum turn for the French crown since then to Molay’s anathema. There’s a legend that an onlooker at Louis XVI‘s execution dipped his handkerchief in Citizen Capet’s Sang Real and cried out, “Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!”

* Other expeditions called “Crusades” did continue after the Templars, but Christendom’s occupation of the Holy Land was toast until Lawrence of Arabia days.

** The date of this action is a possible origin of the whole paraskevidekatriaphobia superstition.

† It is a fact that these guys liked sweeping their crusading conquests for supposed holy relics, like this Roman nail recently unveiled from a Templar fort that was reverentially “handled by a lot of people over a long period of time.”

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1792: Jacques Cazotte, occultist

2 comments September 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacques Cazotte, a writer distinctly out of step with his times, was guillotined for treason in Paris.

The Martinique-born Cazotte (English Wikipedia entry | French) was into his 40s when he launched the writing career that earns him notice enough for this blog.

He wasn’t a liberte, egalite, fraternite kind of guy: Cazotte’s works, like Le Diable Amoureux (The Devil in Love),* were fantastical, Gothic — far from the rationalist fare of the Enlightenment.

And that wasn’t exclusively a literary posture.

Cazotte fancied himself gifted with prophecy — enthusiasts’ accounts have him prophesying the course of the Revolution — and preferred the mystical enlightenment of the illuminati to the Voltairean kind.** He viewed the onset of the French Revolution with horror.

When some scribblings to that effect were discovered in his papers, the mystical goose was cooked. The French Wikipedia entry credits his daughter with saving his life during the September Massacres … buying the 72-year-old only a few weeks of life.

Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux has the devil as a young man’s servant girl, endeavoring to seduce him. Here is Cesare Pugni‘s balletic rendition, Satanella, with its grand pas de deux, “Le Carnaval de Venise,” from the Kirov:

Cazotte finds his way to us, as the dark arts are wont to do, through more meandering channels as well.

Le Diable Amoureux inspired supernatural mystery The Club Dumas by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. That novel in turn was riffed by Roman Polanski for the weird 1999 flick The Ninth Gate (review), starring Johnny Depp. (Cazotte’s book is explicitly referenced in both its progeny.)

Although only tangentially related, this digression into the occult gives us leave to notice one of the many cultural ephemera of executions linked to no particularly blog-friendly date. The Club Dumas and The Ninth Gate make use of striking woodcuts of modern vintage but after a style of centuries past that help unlock the central puzzle.

Charged with esoterica, the topical-looking “hanged man” print comes clearly modeled after its tarot cousin … although the tarot version, in most instances, is hoped to be of less deadly effect upon the plot.

* Available free in the original French at Project Gutenberg.

** Voltairean rationalism had its own ways of getting in trouble. It may have been an age of ideas, but it was hardly safe to have them.

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