1944: Charlie Kerins, IRA Chief of Staff

Add comment December 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Irish Free State hanged Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins.

The IRA had been sorely pressed in these war years by the Special Branch, and the inroads of counterintelligence help explain why Kerins himself took such a prominent position in the IRA at the tender age of 24.

And it also explains how he ended up on the gallows at Mountjoy Prison.

Key to the Special Branch’s campaign was the recruitment of Irish republicans — men like Denis O’Brien, a veteran of the Civil War turned police spy whom Kerins and two mates ambushed and shot to death in his driveway on the morning of September 9, 1942.

As one might expect, this incendiary assassination redoubled state pressure against the IRA. Living on the run under assumed names, Kerins managed to dodge arrest until June 1944. But when captured, he knew how to comport himself from implacable precedent of forerunners like Kevin Barry.

Kerins refused to recognize with a defense the legitimacy of the court that tried him; indeed, so reluctant were the authorities to make a martyr of Kerins that they paused proceedings for six hours with his conviction cinched to give Kerins the opportunity to save his neck by applying to submit to mercy. Kerins wasn’t the submitting type.

“You could have adjourned for six years as far as I am concerned,” Kerins sneered when the session reconvened. “My attitude to this court will always be the same.”

In the words of a verse he wrote to a friend just before his hanging —

What, said Cathal Brugha, if our last man’s on the ground.
When he hears the ringing challenge if his enemies ring him round.
If he’d reached his final cartridge — if he fired his final shot.
Will you come into the empire? He would answer, I will not.

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1922: Ali Kemal

1 comment November 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Anglophile Turkish politician Ali Kemal (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was lynched by a nationalist mob at Izmit during the Turkish War of Independence.

Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.

Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetret anticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.

Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)

It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.

He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:

Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.

He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”

Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.

Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.

After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.

The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.

* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.

Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.

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9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Add comment September 11th, 2016 Headsman


Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.

September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.

One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.

But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.

Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.

This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**

He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.

Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.

It was a right massacre.

Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.


Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).

The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.

“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”

To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.

Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.

In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.

Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.

A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)

** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.


The Hermannsdenkmal nomument in the Teutoburg Forest, the life’s labor of sculptor Ernst von Bandel who was able to finish it thanks to a mood of national exultation after the triumph of the Franco-Prussian War. For some reason it has a sister in Minnesota. ((cc) image by Hubert Berberich.)

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1891: Bir Tikendrajit, Patriots’ Day martyr

Add comment August 13th, 2016 Headsman

August 13 is marked as Patriots’ Day in the Indian state of Manipur for the execution on that date in 1891 of Prince Bir Tikendrajit.

The Kingdom of Manipur numbered among scores of “princelystates” — nominally independent tributaries of the British Raj.

Part of the deal for these princely states was that the British guaranteed the throne and the succession of the cooperating ruler, but the British waffled when the warrior chief Tikendrajit deposed Manipur’s raja in the fall of 1890 and for several months the revolution appeared to be a fait accompli. Eventually, Lord Lansdowne decided to let the transfer of power to the ex-raja’s brother stand, but marched 400-500 Gurkhas into Manipur to demand surrender of Tikendrajit for punishment.

This intention met unexpectedly fierce resistance, and Manipuri soldiers eventually overwhelmed the British, slaughtering most of the soldiers as well as the expedition’s leader, J.W. Quinton, High Commissioner for neighboring Assam.

Tikendrajit had the honor of commanding Manipuri’s forces in the brief ensuing conflict: the Anglo-Manipur War. It lasted only a few weeks, as the British scaled their punitive deployments to “overwhelming” and by the end of April hoisted the Union Jack over Kangla Palace.

Tikendrajit was hanged on the evening of August 13, 1891, along with an aged general named Thangal, on the polo grounds of Imphal. Today that place is known as Bir Tikendrajit Park, in honor of a man remembered as a patriotic hero.

Three other Manipuri leaders were hanged for the rebellion, and 22 suffered penal transportation.

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1916: Nazario Sauro, Italian patriot

3 comments August 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Italian nationalist and sailor Nazario Sauro was hanged by an Austro-Hungarian military court in Pula, Croatia.

Born in the Habsburg-controlled port of Koper at the crown of the Adriatic Sea,* young Sauro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) evinced a much greater affinity for the seas than his schooling and had his first command — a merchant ship — by the tender age of 20.

Besides seamanship, his birthplace blessed or cursed him with the fin de siecle‘s ferment of Italian irredentism: his native Istria was one of those outlying lands with an ample Italian heritage laboring under the moldering Austrian boot. Patriots pined to append it to Mazzini’s energetic young state.

So, Sauro alongside his nautical career developed an avocation in remaking the map. He took pains to monitor harbor defenses during his shipping runs around the Adriatic; nor was his conviction in national self-determination confined to his own country, for he won admiration in Albania by smuggling supplies to anti-Ottoman rebels there.

With the outbreak of World War I, Sauro — then nearing 34 years of age — hopped a train over the border into his true nation and enlisted in Venice to fight against Austria. Considering that he was still a subject of Austria, this action invited a treason charge were he ever to be captured … and this finally occurred when now-Lt. Sauro ran aground in a submarine in the Austrian Bay of Kvarner on July 30, 1916. Once someone recognized him from his long prewar career at sea, his fate was sealed.


Lyrics here

Still a celebrated patriotic martyr to this day, number of cities around Italy host monuments to Sauro and streets named for Sauro; he’s also honored by the Italian navy’s Sauro-class submarine. Mussolini had a grand statue of the illustrious native son erected in Koper in 1935, when that city was under Italian control … but Nazi Germany tore it down in 1944 once relations between the former Axis partners went pear-shaped.

* Koper is in present-day Slovenia, but within literal (and littoral) walking distance of Italy.

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1945: Mile Budak, Ustasha ideologue

Add comment June 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1945, seven former members of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime were hanged in Zagreb by Tito‘s postwar Yugoslav government — the morning after they had all been death-sentenced at a one-day military trial.*

Despite the presence of wartime Prime Minister Nikola Mandic (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) in the batch, the marquee name was writer Mile Budak
(English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Croatian and German).

The “minister of culture with a machine gun” in the branding of his leftist literary contemporary Miroslav Krleza, Budak spent the interwar years writing hit novels valorizing the Croatian peasantry (The 1,000-page OgnjišteHearth — is the magnum opus) and also voluminous copy for far-right periodicals. Thanks to the latter activity, Budak endured an arrest, an attempted assassination, several years’ self-imposed exile to Italy, and (after his return) the murder of his wife.

Small wonder that when Germany broke off from the post-imperial Kingdom of Yugoslavia an “independent” Croatian puppet state, Budak signed up as its chief propagandist. Initially Minister of Education in 1941, he subsequently became its ambassador to Germany, and in 1943 its Foreign Minister.

He’s most notorious for the alleged aphorism “One third of the Serbs we will kill, one third expel, and the last third convert to Catholicism” — and though adherents widely dispute his authorship of any such phrase, Budak’s racial cosmology elevating Croatians (“an intersection of Slav and Gothic blood”) over their South Slav brethren was part of the intellectual scaffolding for his state’s wartime campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs. (It goes without saying that Jews and Roma were even more screwed.)

Judgments on the literary merit of Budak’s output appear to be driven heavily by the critic’s sympathy level with Budak’s politics. Post-independence Croatia has a robust far right that has often shown keen to rehabilitate the Ustasha, so it’s no surprise that Budak has been rediscovered as a writer and his name stapled to numerous streets in Croatia** and even to one in the Bosnian city Mostar — strictly in honor of his artistry and not the war business, mind you.

* Indeed, several — Mandic included — were only yielded up from British captivity in mid-May. (Link goes to a Croatian pdf)

** There’s one, for instance, in present-day nationalist enclave Knin — formerly the capital of the Serbian Krajina during the internecine 1990s wars. Knin’s capture and, er, ethnic reordering is the occasion celebrated on Croatia’s Victory Day holiday (August 5). It was for this operation that Croatian general Ante Gotovina was prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Gotovina’s eventual shock acquittal and release to a great nationalist orgy in Zagreb led Serbia to quit cooperation with the ICTY’s “selective justice”.

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1951: Ants Kaljurand, Estonian Forest Brother

Add comment March 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the Estonian anti-Soviet partisan Ants Kaljurand was executed by the NKVD with comrades Arved Pildin and Juhan Metsäären.

Renowned for his ferocity and derring-do, “Ants the Terrible” was among 12,000 to 15,000 or so Estonian “Forest Brothers” who organized armed resistance to the Soviet Union.

The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.

German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**

Germany had some traction recruiting SS volunteers locally, and Estonia’s small Jewish population was exterminated so efficiently with the aid of right-wing militias that the country was officially Judenfrei by the time of the Wannsee Conference. (Kaljurand himself was an Omakaitse paramilitary.)

Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.

For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.

* “In Estonia it was hard for us to live, much less operate,” a Soviet partisan in Estonia reported. “At partisan training, they told us that the people were waiting for us to drive out the Germans … But we were never told that we’d be assaulted by the Estonians themselves.” (From War in the Woods: Estonia’s Struggle for Survival 1944-1956, a source extremely laudatory of the Forest Brothers.)

** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”

† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.

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1915: The Ghadar Mutineers

Add comment November 16th, 2015 Headsman

Prior to the war certain European nations, and especially those now ranged against us, regarded our Easern Dependency as a country where the great Mutiny would be surpassed in horror by the upheaval that would inevitably follow the entanglement of Britain in a great war, and at the outset of the conflict the German Press confidently relied upon trouble in India as a large factor on their side. Even among a not inconsiderable section of our own countrymen, too, there seemed to be a feeling of doubt. The moment Germany threw down the gauntlet, however, his Majesty’s dusky subjects forgot their little quarrels, closed their ranks, and offered all they possessed in defence of the Empire to which they are all so proud to belong, and with which their future prosperity and advancement are bound up.

-Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette, Dec. 31, 1915

One century ago today, seven of his Majesty’s “dusky subjects” submitted to the noose at Lahore Central Gaol in preference to submitting to his Majesty.

These partisans of the two-year-old expatriate Ghadar party — the word means “revolt” — had been cogitating the subcontinent’s independence since its founding two years prior in the United States.

With the onset of World War I, the Ghadarites began returning to India by the thousands with a view towards ejecting the British Raj. For an ambitious objective, an ambitious plot spanning multiple interlocking conspiracies and reaching to the sepoy bunkers of Singapore.

The project was a logistical nightmare: no surprise considering the distances and communications lags involved. German-supplied munitions arrived late or (when intercepted in North America) not at all. The movement was penetrated by counterintelligence, and many of its adherents arrested.

Full of the desperate recklessness of patriotism, the remains of the conspiracy tried to go ahead with a rising in February 1915: this too was compromised, and easily squelched.

The resulting Lahore Conspiracy Case saw nearly 300 who were not quite so proud to belong to the Empire as the crown had hoped — seven of whom hanged on November 16:

The last in particular, only 19 years old when he hanged, has attained wide recognition as a Punjabi martyr.

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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.


17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.


Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.


Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.


[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1925: The Egyptian assassins of British Gen. Lee Stack

Add comment August 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1925, “seven men were led from their cells and executed at intervals of 40 minutes,” reported the Evening Independent — all for the assassination the of the British proconsul governing Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt had theoretical sovereignty at this point, but under British occupation — a tense situation that had frequently spawned deadly riots. It’s hardly surprising in such an atmosphere that the British high military commander Sir Lee Stack was gunned down along with his driver and an aide motoring through Cairo.


This photo captures only a staged reconstruction of Stack’s murder, not the actual shooting.

The British did not take kindly to this anti-colonial propaganda of the deed. In a furious diplomatic note handed by Lawrence of Arabia supporting character Edmund Allenby to the pro-independence Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul* they accused Egypt’s native leaders of “a campaign of hostility to British rights and British subjects in Egypt and Sudan, founded upon a heedless ingratitude for benefits conferred by Great Britain, not discouraged by Your Excellency’s Government.”

Indeed, His Excellency’s Government would only outlive the murdered sirdad by five days, for Zaghloul resigned (but urging calm) in the face of London’s demands to “vigorously suppress all popular political demonstrations,” a £500,000 fine levied on Egypt, and the seizure of customs houses.

Meanwhile, there was the most immediate reprisal of all: the search for Stack’s assassins. Sydney Smith, a self-educated New Zealander and pioneer of forensic science, had a star turn in the investigation by positively connecting the firearms and the bullets** to some of the suspects.

Smith published an analysis of this affair that became one of the foundational texts of the emerging firearm forensics field — and not incidentally helped to propel Smith’s own fame to household-name levels.

* Zaghloul had formerly been imprisoned by the British for his nationalist agitation.

** The bullet points had been hand-flattened by the shooters in an attempt to make them into dumdum (expanding) projectiles.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism

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