1857: Two surviving members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1857, the Utah Territory finished the extrajudicial executions it had botched three days before.

As we have detailed, Utah’s Mormon authorities had during these months of near-war against federal authorities taken prisoner a party of Californians crossing their territory — the Aiken (or Aikin) Party.

On November 25, four members of that party were murdered by the Mormon guards escorting them out of the state — killings that were quite extrajudicial, but also quite deliberately orchestrated by the stated.

Except, they had only killed two of the four.

Although outnumbered by their attackers and miles from the nearest settlement, somehow two men — perhaps John Aiken and John “Colonel” Eichard or Achard, although we cannot be certain of their identities — survived the bludgeons and staggered, wounded, back to the town of Nephi whose residents could not but take them in: an awkward situation since they still had to be done to death and could not very well be gunned down right there in the town.

We excerpt at length here from J.H. Beadle’s explanatory appendix in the autobiography of frontiersman and confessed Brigham Young hit man Wild Bill Hickman. Beadle was a vituperative anti-Mormon propagandist and his prose runs to the purple, but the core facts of the case are historically well-supported; see David Bigler, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007.

Two died without a struggle. But John Aikin bounded to his feet, but slightly wounded, and sprang into the brush. A shot from the pistol of John Kink laid him senseless. “Colonel” also reached the brush, receiving a shot in the shoulder from Port Rockwell, and believing the whole party had been attacked by banditti, he made his way back to Nephi. “With almost superhuman strength he held out during the twenty-five miles, and the first bright rays of a Utah sun showed the man, who twenty-four hours before had left them handsome and vigorous in the pride of manhood, now ghastly pale and drenched with his own blood, staggering feebly along the streets of Nephi. He reached Bishop Foote’s, and his story elicited a well-feigned horror.

Meanwhile the murderers had gathered up the other three and thrown them into the river, supposing all to be dead. But John Aikin revived and crawled out on the same side, and hiding in the brush, heard these terrible words:

“Are the damned Gentiles all dead, Port?”

“All but one — the son of a b– ran.”

Supposing himself to be meant, Aikin lay still till the Danites left, then, without hat, coat, or boots, on a November night, the ground covered with snow, he set out for Nephi. Who can imagine the feelings of the man? Unlike “Colonel” he knew too well who the murderers were, and believed himself the only survivor. To return to Nephi offered but slight hope, but it was the only hope, and incredible as it may appear he reached it next day. He sank helpless at the door of the first house he reached, but the words he heard infused new life into him. The woman, afterwards a witness, said to him, “Why, another of you ones got away from the robbers, and is at Brother Foote’s.” “Thank God; it is my brother,” he said, and started on. The citizens tell with wonder that he ran the whole distance, his hair clotted with blood, reeling like a drunken man all the way. It was not his brother, but “Colonel.” The meeting of the two at Foote’s was too affecting for language to describe. They fell upon each other’s necks, clasped their blood-spattered arms around each other, and with mingled tears and sobs kissed and embraced as only men can who together have passed through death …

[But] the murderers had returned, and a new plan was concocted. “Colonel” had saved his pistol and Aikin his watch, a gold one, worth at least $250. When ready to leave they asked the bill, and were informed it was $30. They promised to send it from the city, and were told that “would not do.” Aikin then said, “Here is my watch and my partner’s pistol — take your choice.” Foote took the pistol. When he handed it to him, Aikin said, “There, take my best friend. But God knows it will do us no good.” Then to his partner, with tears streaming from his eyes, “Prepare for death. Colonel, we will never get out of this valley alive.”

According to the main witness, a woman of Nephi, all regarded them as doomed. They had got four miles on the road, when their driver, a Mormon named [Absalom] Woolf,* stopped the wagon near an old cabin; informed them he must water his horses; unhitched them, and moved away. Two men then stepped from the cabin, and fired with double-barreled guns; Aiken and “Colonel” were both shot through the head, and fell dead from the wagon. Their bodies were then loaded with stone and put in one of those “bottomless springs” — so called — common in that part of Utah.

I passed the place in 1869, and heard from a native the whispered rumors about “some bad men that were sunk in that spring.” The scenery would seem to shut out all idea of crime, and irresistibly awaken thoughts of heaven. The soft air of Utah is around; above the blue sky smiles as if it were impossible there could be such things as sin or crime; and the neat village of Nephi brightens the plain, as innocently fair as if it had not witnessed a crime as black and dastardly as ever disgraced the annals of the civilized world.

* Grandfather of jockey George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to a famous victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938.

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1405: Astorre I Manfredi, former lord of Faenza

Add comment November 28th, 2017 Headsman

Baldasar Cossa,* in Romandiola cardinalis Ecclesieque legatus pro Ecclesia romana, Astorgium Manfredum, paulo ante dominum Faventie, publice decapitari fecit.

Annales Forolivienses: ab origine urbis usque ad annum MCCCCLXXIII

On this date in 1405, the Italian nobleman/warlord Astorre I Manfredi was beheaded in his family’s on-again, off-again stomping ground of Faenza.

A clan made for an HBO series, the Manfredi had cut a colorfully scheming profile on the Renaissance scene for years, not excluding previous encounters with the executioner.

Astorre’s own calling was to retrieve with his sword in 1377 the family patrimony from which his father had been dispossessed twenty years previous. For the balance of Manfredi’s life it would be the seat of an opera buffa for a hard-working mercenary prince trying to claw his place in the peninsular crab bucket.

Manfredi’s mercenary company was destroyed in a Genoa-Venice war, with Manfredi on that occasion only barely eluding the capture and summary death that his brothers in arms suffered. He returned to Faenza to throw his brother in the dungeon for plotting a coup, then tangled with the Marquess of Ferrara who is infamous in these pages for executing his own wife and son for an incestuous affair.**

Manfredi also cultivated an ultimately lethal rivalry with groundbreaking condottiero Alberico da Barbiano, the former beheading the latter’s brother which would help to incite Alberico to a campaign against Faenza that Manfredi could not withstand. At the end of his resources, he resigned his territories to the Vatican in exchange for a pension — but this brief period in the new boss’s employ was terminated when he was found intriguing to reassert his lordship.

Rum luck for Astorre Manfredi was far from the last chapter for his house, which was only definitively relieved of its preeminence in Faenza a century later, by Cesare Borgia. The Manfredi name has graced many notable Italians even since.

* The papal legate Baldasar Cossa who orchestrated Manfredi’s decapitation is more notorious to posterity under a name he subsequently achieved: Antipope John XXIII.

** Parisina Malatesta, the wife/victim of the Marquess in this domestic tragedy, hailed from a Rimini noble house allied to the Manfredi. (Astorre Manfredi for a time was betrothed to the Malatesta lord’s sister, Gentile; likewise, Astorre initially retired to Rimini in 1404 when muscled off his home city.) For detail on the tangled and fascinating dynastic politics proximate to these families, see The Malatesta of Rimini and the Papal State.

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1798: Dennis Nugent, for child rape

Add comment November 28th, 2016 Headsman

Dennis Nugent was hanged on this date in 1798 for raping an eight-year-old girl — a crime whose particulars were so revolting that “The Court ordered that the evidence upon this trial should not be published.”


Bell’s Weekly Messenger, Sept. 23, 1798

Nugent denied committing the crime all the way to the end.

Part of the Themed Set: Sexual Deviance.

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764: St. Stephen the Younger, iconodule martyr

Add comment November 28th, 2015 Headsman

This is the supposed martyrdom date, in the year 764 or perhaps 765, of St. Stephen the Younger in Constantinople at the hands of an iconoclastic emperor.

Ancient and “dark ages” history characteristically comes with all kinds of problems arising from the paucity and prejudice of primary sources. Byzantium’s century of Iconoclastic controversy is a fine example.

In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.

This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)

But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.


Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.

The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.

Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.

The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.

As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.

A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)

And so forth.

The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)

But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage (after some hiccups) for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.

* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.

** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.

Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.

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2006: Sanjaya Rowan Kumara, with “signs of life”

Add comment November 28th, 2014 Headsman

Sri Lankan national Sanjaya Rowan Kumara was hanged on this date in 2006 at Kuwait’s Central Prison for murdering a woman while robbing her house.

He was pronounced dead and cut down within eight minutes. But …

medics who transported his body to a morgue said they noticed he was still moving, Al-Qabas daily reported.

Forensic experts were immediately called to examine the body and they confirmed that “there was some weak pulse in his heart,” the daily said.

The examination was repeated several times and each time “the dead body showed some signs of life,” Al-Qabas quoted unnamed medical sources as saying.

“They eventually pronounced him completely dead at 1400 hours local time,” five hours after his hanging, the sources said.

The justice ministry refused to comment on the report but head of the criminal execution department, Najeeb al-Mulla, who supervised the hanging, told Al-Watan newspaper the report was “baseless.”

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2008: Wo Weihan, spy?

Add comment November 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Chinese biochemist and businessman Wo Weihan was shot for espionage along with his alleged co-conspirator Guo Wanjun.

Wo had been resident in Austria since 1990, and his daughters Chen Ran and Chen Di were Austrian citizens. In 2004, he returned to his native soil to launch a medical equipment firm in Beijing.

Wo was arrested in China in January 2005 and accused of passing “state secrets” to Taiwan and the U.S. He didn’t have a lawyer until 2006 — by which time he had produced a coerced confession that he tried in vain to retract — and the 2007 trial took place in secret, so the case against him was troublingly opaque at the time of his execution. The verdict publicly released in March 2008 even included such trifles as “discussing the health of senior Chinese leaders” — an actual crime in China but awfully difficult to accept as a factor in a capital case.

“The lack of transparency does nothing to reassure us that the court’s conclusion was the right one,” said a Dui Hua Foundation spokesman.

Allegedly, Wo got information about Chinese ICBMs from missile expert Guo Wanjun, and passed drawings to Taiwanese and American intelligence. Chinese state media have claimed that Wo’s wife was able to open a restaurant in Austria with the payoffs.

His daughters mounted a last-ditch clemency campaign involving European Union officials, Austrian President Heinz Fischer, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, all to no avail.

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1828: James “Little Jim” Guild

Add comment November 28th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.

His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.

On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.

Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.

So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.

Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.

So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.

He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.

Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.

“The trial became more of a debate over whether a 12-year-old killer should be punished like an adult,” Daniel Hearn writes in Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963. “The presiding judge placed great emphasis on that issue, especially during his instructions to the jury.”

It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.

The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:

Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”

Jim Guild’s manner was of “stoic indifference” when he was hanged before a large crowd fourteen months after his crime, the last execution in Hunterdon County history. He was thirteen years old when he died.

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1721: Cartouche, French bandit

7 comments November 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1721, the French outlaw Cartouche was broken on the wheel in Paris.

Your basic superstar robber during that archetype’s golden age, Louis Dominique Garthausen, aka Bourguignon, aka Cartouche was the son of a German mercenary-turned-French wineseller.

Little Cartouche — his nickname came from a Francophone corruption of his German surname — distinguished himself from childhood as the most charismatically intrepid of the local hooligans, and by adolescence was already the leader of a troupe of rascally thieves.

By his twenties, after a detour through the army, Cartouche and his merry men (the Cours des Miracles gang, after the slum they operated out of) were raiding the lucrative Versailles-Paris route, plundering the virtue of marchionesses, distributing stolen booty the poor, maintaining perfect courtesy in the society of gentlemen, and generally becoming the heroes of that species of literature that revels in bodice-busting sybaritic rakes who play by their own rules but have a heart of gold. (Sample escapade: walking a carnival parade with a cart full of police effigies — whipping them all the way, to the glee of the crowd. Thackeray celebrates more Cartouche folklore here.)

The flesh-and-blood police started to roll up this group around 1719, turning arrestees into informants and hunting ringleaders to ground. True to character, Cartouche defied with his liberty the growing price on his head, deftly giving gendarmes the slip until a confederate betrayed him into his enemies’ hands literally while his pants were down.


18th century engraving of the arrest of Cartouche.

The guy very nearly broke out of prison — tunneling out of a dungeon of the Chatelet into a neighboring basement, only to have the clank of his chains rouse the family dog into a woofing frenzy that betrayed him before he could vanish out the front door. But even back in the clink,

came a period of splendid notoriety: he held his court, he gave an easy rein to his wit, he received duchesses and princes with an air of amiable patronage … His portrait hung in every house, and his thin, hard face, his dry, small features were at last familiar to the whole of France. M. Grandval made him the hero of an Epic — “le Vice Puni.”

Cartouche was doomed to breaking on the wheel after a morning suffering the tortures of the boot in an unavailing effort to extract further incriminations from the rogue.*

Cartouche seems to have fully expected his troupe to reciprocate this heroism by rising to the dramatic occasion of a rescue from the very scaffold. But as the prisoner arrived at the Place de Greve, he perceived at last that like Christ he had been abandoned at the critical hour by the men who had sworn oaths with him. The great desperado’s final act was to retaliate upon these faithless friends (and family!) by taking aside his prosecutors and detailing his every accessory in crime, even his lovers. What the worst extremities of medieval torture could not procure from him, the compelling incentive of revenge instantly conjured.

Our hero went to his death this day but his revenant spirit stalked France for many months thereafter as dozens succumbed (pdf) to Cartouche’s scaffold indictment. One diarist recorded the following July,

Nothing but hangings and breakings on the wheel! Every day some Cartouchian executed.

* Available sources are flatly contradictory between the story that Cartouche was to die on the 27th and his confessions stalled things until the 28th, or was to die on the 28th all along, or was to die and did so on the 27th.

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1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe’s vote

8 comments November 28th, 2010 Headsman

“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”

-Goethe

On this date in 1783, Johanna Catharina Höhn lost her head for infanticide … thanks to the vote of the man who wrote the most recognizable infanticide story in literature.

Eleven years before, then-22-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had been a firsthand witness to the trial of another infanticide who ultimately lost her head. This case very likely inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s best-known work, Faust.

Faust was a lifelong project for the author, but evidently the same could not be said of empathy for infanticidal mothers.

As a Privy Councilor to Carl (or Karl) August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Goethe was presented with the case of Höhn, a 24-year-old unmarried servant girl who cut her newborn son’s throat.

Infanticide was an Enlightenment wedge issue touching not only evolving standards of humane criminal justice, but “as the main eighteenth-century area of conflict surrounding social repression and female sexuality.”*

Was it justice to put mothers to death for infanticide? Was it efficacious for a state to do so — given that such crimes were committed in a state of desperation that might negate deterrence, and that the offenders attracted the pity of potentially unruly scaffold mobs?

And if the executioner’s sword** was not depended upon to keep women keeping it in their britches, what social policies ought to replace it?

Infanticide and its prevention was the favorite theme of the criminologists of that time. [Christian] Rothenberger calls attention to the wide discussion of means to care for the poor, to the evil effects of luxury, and then to a “formliche Kindermordlitteratur.”† [L.W.] Seyffarth, the editor of the best edition of [Johann Heinrich] Pestalozzi‘s works, says: “The question how infanticide might be stopped was at that time a burning one.”

The great interest in infanticide can best be brought to view by the contest for a prize of 100 ducats offered by [Karl Theodor] von Dalberg, intendant of the Mannheim theater, for the best essay on the subject: “What are the best and most practicable means to eradicate infanticide without promoting prostitution?” The contest closed at Whitsuntide, 1781. The offer of the prize was published in most of the newspapers and magazines of that time and was generally accompanied by editorial comments. The editorial in August Ludwig Schlozer‘s magazine Briefwechsel is typical. “There are crimes committed among us,” the editor writes, “which are the most horrible and at the same time the most common, and among these is infanticide; crimes which are related to virtues, virtues which develop into vices, and among these too is infanticide; crimes which experience teaches are not made less frequent by increasing the severity of the punishment, while not to punish them would bring disgrace to mankind and destruction to law and order, and among these too is infanticide … How long shall we lead to the block these unfortunate girls as sacrificial victims, whose love and the natural weakness of their sex, whose adornment of innocence and modesty has made them to be mothers and murderesses?

The Duke inclined very strongly to the progressive answer gaining ground at the time, and when Hohn’s case surfaced, he put to his aides the prospect of eliminating the death penalty for infanticide and replacing it with other legal sanctions.

Those aides produced a mixed response. Goethe, perhaps the duke’s closest advisor, was ultimately in a position to exercise decisive influence on whether to adopt the duke’s proposal. (Whether it was the decisive influence is a matter of some dispute.)‡

Despite his sensitive portrayal of the fictional Gretchen/Margarete in Faust, the great writer took a distinctly retrograde stance on sparing actual flesh-and-blood women … and Goethe’s position, which he formally voted only 24 days before the execution, carried the day.

The evidence is clear that there was substantial (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement with the duke’s proposal to abolish the death penalty for infanticide.

… Without doubt, then, Goethe’s vote carried considerable weight. How could it not? He was the duke’s best friend and thus easily the most powerful member of the Council after Carl August because of his immense influence over him … [and] Goethe unquestionably cast his vote to retain the death penalty for a crime that was widely seen in his time as resulting from social injustice and harbouring wide potential for extenuating circumstances (in principle, not only in particular cases). His vote thus ran entirely counter to his depiction of the case of Margarete in Faust, in which ‘extenuating circumstances’ abound. While the question of Goethe’s guilt is a moral one that need not concern us, his part in the responsibility for retaining the death penalty for infanticide and thus also for the execution of Johanna Hohn is crystal-clear.*

A Weimar journalist called it “state murder.”

Hohn’s body was delivered to a Jena professor for anatomization.

A recent German book, Goethes Hinrichtung (Goethe’s Execution), novelizes the case.

* W. Daniel Wilson “Goether, his Duke, and Infanticide: New Documents and Reflections on a Controversial Execution,” German Life and Letters, January 2008. This volume includes the (German) text of the previously unpublished Halsgericht, a very detailed “script” for the actual execution. This volume of German Life and Letters also features a ceremonious dialogue between der Scharfrichter, the executioner, and der Richter, the judge, conveying possession of the criminal and legal direction for her punishment, which would all have been enacted in public in the doomed woman’s presence.

** Hohn was beheaded with a sword; this was itself a “mercy,” as she could have been dispatched by drowning.

† Most notably, Die Kindermörderin by Heinrich Leopold Wagner (both German links).

‡ Note that the consideration at the level of the Privy Council was formally about whether to abolish the death penalty for infanticide in general — not directly about Hohn’s case, which proceeded on a separate track. It seems to be generally agreed that Goethe and all other parties understood Hohn would live or die based on the statutory decision.

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1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

1 comment November 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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