1868: Michael Barrett, the last public hanging in England

Add comment May 26th, 2015 Headsman

England held its last-ever public execution on this date in 1868, and made it big game indeed: Fenian Michael Barrett, whose Clerkenwell Prison bombing long remained one of the most infamous atrocities of the Irish nationalist cause.

The bill certifying the end of that distinctive institution, the public hanging, would be finalized three days hence, so the occasion’s milestone was anticipated in advance. Elites increasingly disdained the boorish carnivals that unfolded under the gallows, like Dickens who complained that “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes” redeemed the 1840 hanging of Courvoisier.


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s view of the notoriously rowdy mob at Frederick and Marie Manning execution.

“The crowd was most unusually orderly,” ran the Times‘ report of Barrett’s death — a sort of dual eulogy — “but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”

It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield — a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

Michael Barrett’s ticket to this last assembly was punched by a different execution six months previous — the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs. This trio of Irish patriots were part of a mob who liberated some comrades from a police van, shooting a policeman in the process — though it was far from certain that any of these three actually fired shots.

Of importance for our purposes today was the crackdown on other Fenians occasioned by the Manchester affair. In November of 1867, a Fenian agent named Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested with his companion Joseph Casey in London purchasing weapons for the movement. They were clapped in Clerkenwell Prison pending trial.

The bombing that brought Michael Barrett to the gallows was a bid to liberate these men … and it did not pause for subtlety. The conspirators simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was there, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell.

But numerous working-class families lived in little tenements opposite the prison and were there, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy. This monstrous new “infernal machine” tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead and numerous buildings near to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block.


Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell Prison reduced to rubble by the December 13, 1867 Fenian bombing.

Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”

English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,” he wrote.


Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the “Fenian Guy Fawkes“.

Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it. That Barrett was that someone did not sit well for many.

Five men and a woman stood trial at the Old Bailey in April for the Clerkenwell outrage, but Barrett was the only one of them convicted, a terribly inadequate investigation/prosecution outcome given the infamy of the crime.

That conviction stood on the basis of disputed eyewitness identifications: Barrett produced witnesses who said he was in Glasgow when the bomb went off, while the crown found others who would swear he was actually in London. (The length of Barrett’s whiskers on specific dates in late November and early December forms a running subplot of the dueling testimonies.)

The reliability and even the good faith of all such winesses might well be impugned. A highly questionable stool pigeon named Patrick Mullany who ducked prosecution by turning crown’s evidence, charged that Barrett personally set off the ordnance.

Despite his certain doom, Barrett eloquently vindicated himself at his sentencing

To give me credit for such an undertaking is utterly absurd; being, as I am, a total stranger to acts of daring, and without any experience which would in any way fit me for engaging in such an enterprise. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that in the City of London, where … there are ten thousand armed Fenians, they would have sent to Glasgow for a party to do this work, and then select a person of no higher standing and no greater abilities than the humble individual who now stands convicted before you? To suppose such a thing is a stretch of imagination that the disordered minds of the frightened officials of this country could alone be capable of entertaining.

If it is murder to love Ireland more dearly than life, then indeed I am a murderer. If I could in any way remove the miseries or redress the grievances of that land by the sacrifice of my own life I would willingly, nay, gladly, do so. if it should please the God of Justice to turn to some account, for the benefit of my suffering country, the sacrifice of my poor, worthless life, I could, by the grace of God, ascend the scaffold with firmness, strengthened by the consoling reflection that the stain of murder did not rest upon me, and mingling my prayers for the salvation of my immortal soul with those for the regeneration of my native land.

Benjamin Disraeli’s government could not in the end realistically entertain the agitation from liberal and radical circles for sparing Barrett, because that would mean that nobody would hang for Clerkenwell. But as the next day’s edition of Reynold’s News noted, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”

Three months after Barrett made that expiation, England officially began its era of fully private hangings behind prison walls.

* James Joyce hung out with a (much-older) Joseph Casey in Paris in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s in Ulysses too: “He prowled with Colonel Richard Burk, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and crouching saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry. In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me.”

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1601: Starina Novak, hajduk

Add comment February 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajduk Starina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.

The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.

Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.

He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.

By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.

The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.


A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.

Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.

In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.

Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”

Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”

For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:

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1932: Lee Bong-chang, would-be Hirohito assassin

Add comment October 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1932, Korean nationalist Lee Bong-chang was hanged at Ichigaya Prison for attempting to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito.


The would-be assassin under arrest.

Remembered now as a patriotic hero, Lee on January 9, 1932 chucked a grenade at an imperial procession in Japan as it passed the imperial palace’s Sakuradamon Gate — the aptly-named Sakuradamon Incident. Korea at that point had been directly ruled by Japan since 1910.*

Lee’s hand grenade targeted the wrong carriage, and didn’t even kill the occupants of that conveyance — it just injured a guard. A second grenade failed to explode altogether.

Three months after Lee’s attempt, another Korean, Yoon Bong-gil, also tried to murder Hirohito with a bomb. Both men are interred with garlands at Seoul’s Hyochang Park. A statue of our man Lee, poised with a grenade in hand, stands in the park.

* Newspapers in China — also under Japanese occupation — expressed regret that Lee’s attempt had missed its mark; this impolite language helped to catalyze a Japanese show of force later that month known as the January 28 Incident or the Shanghai Incident.

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1526: 2,000 Hungarian prisoners after the Battle of Mohacs

Add comment August 31st, 2014 Headsman

The Sultan, seated on a golden throne, receives the homage of the viziers and the beys, massacre of 2,000 prisoners, the rain falls in torrents.

-Sultain Suleiman the Magnificent (writing of himself in the third person), diary, 31 August 1526

On this date in 1526, two days after the pivotal Battle of Mohács, the Ottomans executed all their Hungarian captives from that battle.

After the 1490 death of Hungary’s greatest king Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian kingdom began to crumble. Ottoman incursions ate away at that realm’s Balkan possessions.

Squeezed between two stronger empires, Hungary’s King Lajos II put a ring on the non-Turkish one by marrying a Habsburg princess. Fair enough.

Less successful statecraft was his decision not to cut a deal for peace with the Turks and instead force a decisive confrontation … especially since that battle was a tactical debacle. Eschewing a coy retreat towards nearby friendly forces, the belligerent Hungarian nobles hurled their heavy cavalry straight at the numerically superior Turks, basically duplicating the gameplan that the West’s last Crusaders had used when they got their lances handed to them by the Ottomans a century before at Nicopolis.

And those who did not learn from history were here doomed to repeat it. “The Hungarian nation will have twenty thousand martyrs on the day of the battle, and it would be well to have them canonized by the Pope,” a priest is reported to have said when he heard about the decision. By sundown, the Hungarians were routing in disarray, the wounded Lajos himself falling into the Danube in the disorder and drowning in his heavy armor.


Well, we’re boned. The Battle of Mohacs, by Hungarian painter Mor Than (1856).

“May Allah be merciful to him, and punish those who misled his inexperience,” said Suleiman of his 20-year-old opposite number. “It was not my wish that he should thus be cut off, while he had scarcely tasted the sweets of life and royalty.”

Not so tender were Suleiman’s pities for those 2,000 anonymous prisoners of war … and, for that matter, for anyone in the surrounding countryside unfortunate enough to find him- or herself in the path of the now-unchecked Ottoman force.

The cavalry, knowing no mercy, dispersed into the provinces of the wicked one like a stream overflowing its banks and, with the fiery meteors of its sparkling sabers, burned every home to the ground, sparing not a single one…. The contemptible ones were slain, their goods and families destroyed…. Not a stone of the churches and monasteries remained.

Within the fortnight the Turks were sacking defenseless Buda(pest); they would take it for good in 1541 and hold it for 145 years, pressing the Ottoman frontier deep into Europe. It wouldn’t be a Hungarian polity that recaptured it, but the Habsburg empire into which the Magyar wreckage was subsumed — retaking Buda in 1686 in the counterattack after the failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna.

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1849: Friedrich Neff, 1848 Revolutions radical

Add comment August 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the German revolutionary Friedrich Neff was shot at Freiburg.

A law and philosophy student, Neff had been one of the firebrands of the Baden incarnation of Germany’s 1848 Revolutions.

These stirrings for political liberalization and national unification in the loose 19th century German Confederation, which comprised dozens of duchies and principalities left over from the dissolved Holy Roman Empire, were just the sort of thing to inspire student radicals like Neff.

Neff‘s Heidelberg was an initial center of the movement, led by Friedrich Hecker* and Gustav Struve. (All links in this sentence are German Wikipedia pages.) Though Hecker and Struve were established lawyers who most certainly had something to lose, they led rebel guerrillas into the field against the troops dispatched to crush the republican stirrings. They didn’t have much success, but it’s the thought that counts.

On September 21, 1848, Struve unavailingly proclaimed a German Republic in Baden, an event that is known as the Struve-Putsch and whose defeat four days later closes the first chapter of the 1848 revolutions (at least in Baden).

As a Struve-Putsch supporter (and an open advocate of political violence even before that), Neff had been obliged to flee to Switzerland and onward to Paris. That positioned him perfectly when the 1848 revolution scheduled an 1849 comeback to be the man to muster a legion of Baden exiles who would attempt to topple the duchy.

“This legion was the wildest band which the revolution brought forth,” this history of the revolutionAlgerian Foreign Legion of France.” But these, too, were easily crushed, and Neff was arrested fleeing into exile. His last letter urged his mother to “remain firm and steadfast. I will go to death tomorrow as calmly as I once strolled in our garden — would that I had ten lives to give for the cause.”

Neff is a hero to social democrat types in present-day Germany, and there are public monuments him — like this plaque marking his birthplace in Rümmingen.


(cc) image from Erik Vogelpohl.

* Haberdashers might be familiar with the Heckerhut, a wide-brimmed, high-peaked hat popularized by Friedrich Hecker.

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1868: Stefan Karadzha, Bulgarian national hero

Add comment July 31st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, the Ottoman Turks executed Bulgarian revolutionary Stefan Karadzha.

Karadzha was one of several nationalist cheta (guerrilla) leaders aspiring to father the future sovereign Bulgaria.

Operating from adjacent, and conveniently independent, Romania, around 1866-1867, Karadzha and others of his ilk — Hadzhi Dimitur Nikolov, Filip Totyu, and the dramatically mustachioed Panayot Hitov — slipped over the mountainous border to organize revolutionary cells and foment ill-feeling towards the Sublime Porte.

In Bulgaria’s late 19th century progress towards independence, these figures are transitional characters between the vanguard leadership of Georgi Rakovski, and the ensuing primacy of Vasil Levski.

Levski himself was a guerrilla in this period; after the cheta legions suffered some backbreaking defeats in the field — one of which saw our man Karadzha captured so badly wounded that he was “half-dead before the emergency Turkish court”* when condemned to hang — Levski set about honeycombing his country with the revolutionary network that would shape the future revolutionary struggle.

A national hero of lesser stature than Levski, which is sure no disgrace, Karadzha has a village named after him.

* The quote is from the unimpeachable source of Karadzha’s Wikipedia page.

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

Add comment July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

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1687: The first of the Martyrs of Eperjes

Add comment March 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1687, the Austrian empire made the first of its many Protestant martyrs in Eperjes — the Hungarian name for the city now in Slovakia, where it is known as Prešov.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Zrinski-Frankopan Hungarian conspiracy against Hapsburg absolutism, the arch-Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold did some cracking down.

Leopold suspended the Hungarian constitution and rounded up Protestant pastors, who “were not executed, but the choice of those convicted was between recantation and serving as galley slaves.” (Source)

Rough handling pushed the most aggrieved Hungarians into outright revolt in the 1670s, eventually led by the nobleman Imre Thököly.*

Thokoly enjoyed fantastic success, carving by force of arms a Principality of Upper Hungary roughly corresponding to present-day Slovakia. Squeezed as he was between the great powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks, Thokoly allied himself with Sultan Mehmed IV and aided the Turks’ 1683 siege of Vienna.

That meant that his followers would share the downfall of that enterprise.

After the siege was thrown off, Thokoly’s rebellion was gradually quashed, culminating in a 1685 battle at Presov — one of Thokoly’s major bastions. (Hungarian link)

Thereafter, Thokoly himself would be a ward of the Ottomans, alternately a prisoner or a vassal captain in the field. (He would briefly establish himself as Prince of Transylvania with Ottoman backing in 1690.)

Pope John Paul II and Evangelical bishop Jan Midriak prayed together at a monument to the Presov martyrs in 1995.(cc) image from Jozef Kotulic.

For Presov and those misfortunate enough to be caught there, matters were worse.

The Hapsburg military governor of the former rebel territory, Antonio Caraffa, set up a star chamber to deliver some harsh justice.

From February 1687, Presov Protestants trying to raise money to re-establish war-damaged schools were accused of conspiring to rise again and subjected to a series of torture-driven show trials.

The first four of these, Sigmund Zimmermann, Caspar Rauscher, Andreas Keczer and Franz Baranyay, were beheaded and quartered on March 5, 1687. All told, some two dozen would die over the course of 1687 in this hunt, most of them on the scaffold — the Martyrs of Eperjes. (German link.)


Statue of Imre Thokoly at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. (cc) image from Hungarian Snow.

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1940: Lluis Companys, Catalan president

Add comment October 15th, 2013 Headsman

“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.

-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.

Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.

Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.

And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.

That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.

As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.

As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.

It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”

Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)

Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.

When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.

Condemned after the formality of a perfunctory trial for “military rebellion” conducted on October 14, 1940, Companys was shot the very next morning Montjuic Castle. (See Franco: A Biography)

Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.

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1931: Omar Mukhtar, Libyan revolutionary

Add comment September 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Libyan independence martyr Omar [al-]Mukhtar was publicly hanged by the Italians at their concentration camp in Suluq.

Mukhtar (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born an Ottoman subject back in 1858 and had lived long enough to see his native Libya seized in the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War.

Mukhtar, a religious teacher and follower of the Senussi movement, became the leader of the Libyan resistance that dogged the Italian occupation. Mukhtar proved an energetic and successful desert guerrilla fighter, and he had to be given the Italians’ mechanized military.

The Italians executed an estimated 4,000 Libyans in the 1920s, and drove hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, and gradually, only gradually, gained the upper hand on their adversaries.

Captured in battle after he abandoned a 1929 truce, Mukhtar was denied prisoner-of-war status and subjected to a snap military tribunal in one of the small coastal enclaves actually controlled by Italy — “a regular trial and consequent sentence, which will surely be death,” as the Italian general directed. It surely was.

He’s played by Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert — a better movie than you might think given that it was bankrolled by Muammar Gaddafi.

A national hero for contemporary Libyans across any social divide you’d care to name, Omar Mukhtar was valorized by the rebels who recently overthrew the aforementioned Gaddafi (here’s Mukhtar on a billboard in rebel-held Benghazi). “The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did,” Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son told media during the civil war. “That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar.”

His steely profile can be seen on Libya’s 10 10 dinar note.

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