1883: Vasudev Balwant Phadke dies on hunger strike

Add comment February 17th, 2019 Headsman

Vasudev Balwant Phadke died on hunger strike against his British captivity on this date in 1883.

The “father of armed rebellion” in India, Phadke radicalized while working as a clerk in Pune and arose as a prominent revolutionary in 1875 whipping up protests against the British for deposing the Maharaja of Baroda State and for the grinding agricultural crisis.

He took his sharp anti-colonial oratory on a then-novel barnstorming tour, and eventually formed the Ramosi Peasant Force — an armed peasant insurgency consisting of a few hundred souls.

Its successes were more of the local and symbolic variety — most notably, he got control of the city of Pune for a few days — but they sufficed to draw a price on Phadke’s head which eventually found a seller. (Phadke had made contemptuous reply by issuing his own bounty on the Governor of Bombay, a purse that was not claimed.) Even after capture, he briefly escaped by tearing his cell door off his hinges.

Needing to defuse his power as a potential martyr, the British gave him a term of years rather than a death sentence, and they moved him to Aden, Yemen, to serve it. Phadke overruled the sentence and clinched his martyr’s crown by refusing food until he succumbed on February 17, 1883.

There’s an eponymous 2007 biopic celebrating this Indian national hero, clips of which can be found in the usual places.

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1944: Franz Kutschera, by underground justice

Add comment February 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Nazi governor of Warsaw was “executed” by assassination.

The Austrian Sudeten German Franz Kutschera had parlayed his early Nazi party membership into various posts in the Third Reich after it absorbed Austria into Greater Germany.

The last of his several stations on World War II’s Eastern Front was SS and Police chief of occupied Warsaw. He did not hesitate to brandish the iron fist, intensifying arrests of perceived subversives and carrying out public executions of civilians to avenge German casualties.

We enter ambiguous territory for this here site here, for Kutschera’s punishment, while delivered by ambush, was decreed by a court — the illicit (to Germany) “Special Courts” of the Polish government in exile. Needless to say, the defendant was judged in absentia.

Such courts asserted the legitimate governance of an occupied nation but they had to shift for themselves when it came to enforcing their underground writ. An orchestrated commando hit, uncontroversially titled Operation Kutschera, was required for this one since the SS chief wasn’t a fellow that an opportunistic assassin could just catch with his guard down in some cafe. Instead, Poland’s internal Home Army units under the command of Emil Fieldorf put a 12-person team on the job.

On the morning of February 12, 1944, Kutschera’s “executioners” blocked with another car the limousine carrying the doomed SS-man to work. In an instant three men, codenamed “Lot” (Bronislaw Pietraszewicz), “Kruszynka” (Zdzislaw Poradzki) and “Mis” (Michael Issajewicz), sprang onto the street brandishing submachine guns and efficiently slaughtered Kutschera and his driver. Meanwhile, other members of the team swooped in with getaway vehicles and covering fire for the resulting shootout with surprised German guards. Though all escaped the scene, Lot and another team member both succumbed hours later to their wounds; two additional members of the backup group were trapped escaping across the Kierbedz Bridge and died hurling themselves into the Vistula under a rain of German bullets.

The Reich paid Kutschera tribute in his customary coinage with the mass execution of 300 civilian hostages the next day, but the memory of this dagger to the throat of a national enemy has lived in glory for Poles ever since.

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1856: Agesilao Milano, near-assassin

Add comment December 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the Bourbon monarchy of Naples avenged the near-murder of its king … but neither sovereign nor state would much outlive the assassin.

Giuseppe Garibaldi had returned two years prior from exile, and the decades-long stirring of patriots whose loyalties eschewed their peninsula’s various sordid rival kingdoms to glory in a shared dream of the future unified Italy — the era of the Risorgimento — was about to draw towards a first culmination.*

The soldier Agesilao Milano (Italian link) shared the dream too. He determined to speed it by removing the man who ruled the Kingdom of the Two Siciliies, Ferdinand II — and so after mass on December 8, he hurled himself upon his sovereign and bayoneted him. The one wound he inflicted before he was subdued was deep, but not fatal, or at least not immediately so: Ferdinand would die three years later at the age of 49 and he morbidly nagged his deathbed doctors to investigate his old bayonet scar for signs of inflammation. (They found none.)

Ferdinand’s son Francis was the last ruler the Kingdom of the Two Silicies would ever have, for in 1860 Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand marched upon that realm and its polity speedily collapsed, becoming absorbed into the newly forged Kingdom of Italy

Milano shared the triumph only from the plane of spirits, for he had been hanged five days after his treasonable attack at the Piazza del Mercato, bearing a placard dishonoring him a “parricide” and crying out, “I die a martyr … Long live Italy! .. Long live the independence of the peoples …”

The Risorgimento cosigned his martyr’s credentials, with Garibaldi creating a diplomatic furor by awarding pension and dowries to the late parricide’s mother and sisters, respectively.

* The Risorgimento truly triumphed (and concluded) only in 1871 after swallowing up the holdout Papal States.

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1714: Geczy Julianna, the White Woman of Locse

Add comment September 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1714, Geczy Julianna was executed in the marketplace of Gyor as a traitor.

“The White Woman of Locse” — which is also the title of an 1884 romantic novel about her live by Mor Jokai — this woman allegedly betrayed that place* into the hands of imperial Habsburg troops during Hungary’s unsuccessful 1703-1711 rebellion. Sober historians view her as simply a person trusted to serve as the emissary between the garrison and its Habsburg besiegers which role would eventually entail her communicating the defenders’ surrender.

She salvaged her reputation for posterity — and set herself up for torture and execution — by paying the betrayal forward to the empire when she destroyed a number of documents sought by the imperial marshal Janos Palffy that could have incriminated Kuruc nobles in plotting for a renewal of hostilities.

“How can a woman sacrifice her whole country for a kiss, and then sacrifice her handsome head for the same country?” Jokai mused of his paradoxical subject. “What reconciles the heaven and hell in the character of a woman?”

* Formerly part of Hungary’s northern reaches, this town today resides in Slovakia.

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1940: Udham Singh, Jallianwala Bagh massacre avenger

Add comment July 31st, 2018 Headsman

A national revenge drama 21 years in the making culminated on the gallows of Pentonville Prison on this date in 1940.

The story of Udham Singh‘s hanging begins long before and far away in the British Raj.

There, a crowd of 20,000-25,000 protesting for independence in the restive Punjab city of Amritsar were wantonly fired upon by Raj authorities — an atrocity remembered as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. British authorities acknowledged a staggering 379 dead; Indian accounts run much higher than that.

The massacre’s principal immediate author was the army commander Reginald Dyer, who fired on the crowd without warning and with so much premeditation as to bar exits from the Jallianwala Bagh garden for maximum bloodshed — his acknowledged intent “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” but Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, for many years a noted rough hand in the suppression of national militancy on the subcontinent, had his back. “Your action correct,” read an O’Dwyer-to-Dyer telegram on the morrow of the bloodbath. “Lieutenant Governor approves.”

British opinion was not quite so approving; indeed, many Britons were outraged and both Dyer and O’Dwyer ended up sacked. But as is usual for a horror perpetrated under the flag they also never faced any sort of punishment.

Until Udham Singh, avenger, entered the scene.

A survivor of that horrific day — when he’d been dispatched from the orphanage that raised him to serve drinks to the protesters — Singh had unsurprisingly thrilled to the revolutionary cause. A Sikh by birth, the name he adopted, Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, gestures to his movement’s now-remote spirit of unity across sect and nation.

Come 1934 Singh had made his way to London, where he worked as an engineer and quietly plotted revenge against O’Dwyer, pursuant to a vow he had taken many years before. (Dyer escaped justice in this world by dying in 1927.) And on March 13, 1940, he had it when the retired colonial hand addressed a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall. As proceedings concluded, Singh produced a concealed pistol and fired six shots at the hated O’Dwyer, killing him on the spot.

Like many (not all) of his countrymen, Singh gloried in his long-awaited triumph in the few weeks remaining him.

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to seek vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?

Many countrymen shared his exultation, even if those in respectable leadership positions had to disapprove of assassination. Nevertheless, a few years after the subcontinent’s Union Jacks came down for the last time, Pakistan independence leader-turned-president Jawaharlal Nehru publicly “salute[d] Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

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1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolvague” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

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1863: Zygmunt Padlewski, January Uprising rebel

Add comment May 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1863, Zygmunt Padlewski was shot for rebelling against the Russian empire.

A young St. Petersburg-trained tsarist officer with a patriotic bent — his father had taken part in the November [1830] Uprising against Russian domination — Padlewski (English Wikipedia entry | German | the surprisingly least detailed Polish) spent the early 1860s organizing revolutionary exiles in Paris.

He then put his neck where his mouth was by returning to Warsaw to agitate and, eventually, to assume the leadership of Polish rebels in that area during his own generation’s doomed revolution, the January [1863] Uprising.

Padlewski’s carriage was detained at a checkpoint when he tried to sneak back to Warsaw after a defeat, and his too-liberal bribes excited the suspicion of the Cossack sentries — who searched the traveler and discovered they had a man well worth the capturing.

He was shot at Plock, where a street and a school today bear his names (numerous other cities around Poland also honor Padlewski).

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1916: Thomas Kent

Add comment May 9th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1916: Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, and Sean Heuston

Add comment May 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916 — following a Sunday respite — executions in the aftermath of the Irish Republican Easter Rising against British power resumed with four more shootings at Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol.

Eamonn Ceannt was an Irish Republican Brotherhood leader and was the fifth of the seven men who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to be executed. (The remaining two, James Connolly and Sean Mac Diarmada, were shot on May 12th.) On the night before his execution, he wrote a ferocious although arguably counterproductive summons to future Irish revolutionaries

never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. I see nothing gained but grave disaster caused by the surrender which has marked the end of the Irish Insurrection of 1916 — so far at least as Dublin is concerned. The enemy has not cherished one generous thought for those who, with little hope, with poor equipment, and weak in numbers, withstood his forces for one glorious week. Ireland has shown she is a nation. This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916 …

I wish to record the magnificent gallantry and fearless, calm determination of the men who fought with me. All, all, were simply splendid. Even I knew no fear, nor panic ,nor shrank fron no risk [sic], even as I shrink not now from the death which faces me at daybreak. I hope to see God’s face even for a moment in the morning. His will be done.

His firing squad failed to kill him cleanly, necessitating a gory coup de grace.

Michael Mallin was the co-founder with the pacifistic Francis Sheey-Skeffington of the Socialist Party of Ireland, and the second-in-command for the aforementioned James Connolly of the socialist union militia Irish Citizen Army. In the latter capacity Mallin led the detachment which seized St. Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising.

A devout Catholic as well as a revolutionary militant, Mallin’s last letter to his family urged two of his children to take up holy orders. They indeed did so, and his youngest son, Father Joseph Mallin SJ, died only days ago as of this writing at the age of 104.

Con Colbert was another deeply religious rebel; an Irish Republic Brotherhood officer, he commanded rebels at several locations including the Jameson’s whiskey distillery at Marrowbone Lane.

The youngest of the group — who were, like all the Easter Rising rebels, shot sequentially rather than en masse — was 25-year-old Sean Heuston, also known as Jack or J.J. James Connolly had dispatched him to hold the Mendicity Institution for a few hours to delay the British advance; Heuston’s garrison of 26 ended up defending it for two days against several hundred enemy troops until, food and ammunition exhausted, they surrendered at British discretion.

His confessor cast the young patriot in a positively beatific light at the end:

A soldier directed Seán and myself to a corner of the yard, a short distance from the outer wall of the prison. Here there was a box (seemingly a soap box) and Sean was told to sit down upon it. He was perfectly calm, and said with me for the last time: ‘My Jesus, mercy.’ I scarcely had moved away a few yards when a volley went off, and this noble soldier of Irish Freedom fell dead. I rushed over to anoint him; his whole face seemed transformed and lit up with a grandeur and brightness that I had never before noticed

Never did I realise that men could fight so bravely, and die so beautifully, and so fearlessly as did the Heroes of Easter Week. On the morning of Sean Heuston’s death I would have given the world to have been in his place, he died in such a noble and sacred cause, and went forth to meet his Divine Saviour with such grand Christian sentiments of trust, confidence and love

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1916: Not Constance Markievicz, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”

Add comment May 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the British field court meting out death sentences to Irish Easter Rising rebels announced eighteen commutations — most notably including Countess Constance Markievicz.

Markievicz has long been one of the most remarkable and compelling personalities of the Irish independence struggle. As her biographer noted, many other women of that cause are best-known “mainly because of their connection with more famous men.” Markievicz, notably, “stood alone, self-driven and self-confident. She was more than a muse or an enabler or a facilitator, the preferred roles for women to play.”

She was the privileged daughter of a baronet turned polar explorer who came to her distinctive name by marrying a Polish nobleman.** In her girlhood, she’d been presented at court to Queen Victoria.

She trained as a painter and her material circumstances put within her reach that charmed state of comfortable avant-garde consciousness. The Countess gave that up, for Ireland. The abhorrence of the daughter of the Provost of Trinity College Dublin is perhaps her most definitive epitaph: “the one woman amongst them [Irish republicans] of high birth and therefore the most depraved … she took to politics and left our class.”

By the late 1900s and into the 1910s she was a mainstay of hydra-headed radicalism: nationalist, suffragist, socialist. (She was a close friend and comrade of James Connolly.) In those years she could have spent in a pleasant Left Bank garret, she walked picket lines, burned flags, faced arrest, and sold jewelry to fund the soup kitchen she worked in.†

Markievicz co-founded the Fianna Eireann youth organization as a response to Baden-Powell‘s imperial scouting project. It would become an essential feeder for the republican organs (like the Irish Volunteers); Fianna itself was also well-represented among the Easter Rising fighters, and contributed that conflagration’s youngest martyr.

Bust of Constance Markievicz on St. Stephen’s Green, where she served in the Easter Rising.

But for her sex Markievicz would probably have been among the martyrs herself for her role on the St. Stephen’s Green barricade, and perhaps she wished it were so; she greeted the news of her May 6 commutation with the retort, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She’s been slated with having personally shot a constable during the Rising, although her defenders consider this a baseless smear.

While again in prison — she’d been amnestied from the Easter Rising stuff, but was arrested anew for anti-war activism — Markievicz successfully stood for election to Parliament, and in fact has the distinction of being the first woman elected a British M.P. … although she complied with Sinn Fein policy and refused to take the seat. She was also a member of the First Dail (parliament) of the revolutionary Irish Republic and was the first Irish female cabinet minister (Ministry of Labour).

Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at the age of 59, penniless in a public ward having disbursed the entirety of her wealth. A quarter-million of her fellow peoples of the Irish Free State thronged the streets of Dublin for her funeral.

* The other commutations (with their associated non-capital sentences) as published by the London Times of May 8, 1916:

Penal servitude for life. — Henry O’Hanrahan.

Ten years’ penal servitude. — Count George Plunkett, John Plunkett (his son).

Five years’ penal servitude. — Philip B. Cosgrave.

Three years’ penal servitude. — R. Kelly, W. Wilson, J. Clarke, J. Marks, J. Brennan, P. Wilson, W. Mechan, F. Brooks, R. Coleman, T. Peppard, J. Norton, J. Byrne, T. O’Kelly.

** It turned out that although Casimir Markievicz went by “Count Markievicz” there wasn’t actually any such title. But “Count” and “Countess” stuck nevertheless.

† She does perhaps forfeit some wokeness points for complaining of her post-Easter Rising imprisonment at Aylesbury that she was lodged with “the dregs of the population … no one to speak to except prostitutes who have been convicted for murder or violence. The atmosphere is the conversation of the brothel.”

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