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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1779: James Hackman, sandwich wrecker

1 comment April 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1779, Londoners crowded Tyburn to witness the hanging of James Hackman for a sensational high-society murder.

Just twelve days before his date with the hemp, Hackman had walked up to Martha Ray at the Royal Opera and shot her in the head with a single-shot pistol. Then, he turned a second weapon on himself in a vain attempt to commit suicide.

The reader is not mistaken to detect here the mania of unrequited passion. Several years before the young Hackman was a handsome lieutenant introduced to Martha Ray’s social circle. She was a successful soprano on the London stage and though unmarried lived with the Earl of Sandwich as his wife in all but the illustrious name.


(cc image) from Molly Elliott.

Yes, this is the very Earl of Sandwich who pioneered the eating of things stuck between bread slices.* Sandwich — John Montagu to his parents — had other interests besides the munchies; he was the capable First Lord of the Admiralty throughout the 1770s. (As a result, Captain Cook, whose seafaring explorations were occurring at that time, kept naming islands for the Earl of Sandwich).

Domestic life for the Earl and his legal Countess — not “Earless”; that’s a different thing — wasn’t quite as satisfying. Dorothy Montagu, going gradually insane, separated from Sandwich. The lord plucked 17-year-old commoner Martha Ray — a quarter-century Sandwich’s junior — in 1759 and she lived as his mistress from there on out.*

Despite their age difference and never-formalized status they had a comfortable arrangement; Ray bore Sandwich five children** and the two appeared in public as a couple. The Earl sponsored Martha Ray’s opera career and education.

James Hackman met the Earl’s mistress around 1775 and the two formed an intimacy. Just how intimate they might have been has never been firmly established but is clear that as time passed the infatuation increasingly ran in only one direction. Hackman sold his commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot to become a Church of England deacon, perhaps angling by this expedient to woo Martha Ray away from Sandwich to a wholly respectable union.

She understandably demurred on this “opportunity” — leading the greenhorn Reverend to his blackguard act.

Hackman’s pointless waste of Martha Ray’s life and his own plucked his contemporaries’ sentimental heartstrings like nothing else. “All ranks of people … pitied the murderer’s fate,” remarks the Newgate Calendar. One newspaper report of the death sentence noted that “all present were greatly affected” at Hackman’s agitations “and however we may detest the crime, a tear of pity will fall from every humane eye on the fate of the unhappy criminal.” (General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Apr. 17, 1779)

James Boswell was fascinated by the crime; he attended the trial and spilled many public and private words on its subject.

Boswell empathized with Hackman: in a report of the trial for the St. James’s Chronicle (Apr. 15-17, 1779) he opined that the “natural Effect of disappointed Love, however, shocking it may appear, is to excite the most horrid Resentment against his Object, at least to make us prefer the Destruction of our Mistress, to seeing her possessed by a Rival.” Not that Boswell condoned the murder, but “I would say to all that are conscious that their Passions are violent, Think ye that htis unfortunate Gentleman’s general Character is … worse than yours? No, it is not.”

While Human Justice is to be satisfied, let us consider that his Crime was neither premeditated‡ Cruelty, nor base Greediness. He is therefore an Object neither of Abhorrence nor of Contempt … Let us unite our fervent Prayers to the Throne of Heaven, that this our Brother may obtain Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and be admitted in another State of Being to everlasting Happiness.

The kinship so many Londoners felt for this homicidal stalker moved print copy high and low, before Martha’s body had gone quite cold. Its most notable product was the 1780 Love and Madness, an epistolary novel of tragic passion presented via the (fictitious) letters exchanged by the supposed lovers. So heavily did this understanding of events by Hackman’s contemporaries color its subsequent remembrance that Love and Madness is also the title or subtitle of two 21st century nonfiction considerations of the affair. (1, 2 | Review of both)

Hackman for his part carried off the requisite public posture of resigned tragic nobility in the few days before he satisfied human justice. The General Evening Post, April 17-20 1779 described the execution:

This unfortunate gentleman received the sacrament in the morning with all the fervency and devotion of a sincere repenting criminal: — he repeated that affecting acknowledgment of his guilt, which on his trial drew tears from the audience, and seemed in a state of composure, unruffled with the idea of punishment, which, he said, was no more than he deserved.

At nine o’clock he came into the press-yard, where a great crowd of persons assembled to gratify their curiosity. That all might have an equal share of the sight, a lane was formed by the multitude on each side, through which Mr. Hackman passed, dressed in black, leaning on the arm of his friend the Rev. Mr. Porter, whose hand he squeezed as he muttered the solemn invocation to Heaven, not to forsake a sinner of so enormous a degree, in the trying hour of death.

Mr. Hackman was conveyed from Newgate in a mourning coach, attended by the Rev. Mr. Porter Mr. Villette, the ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Leapingwell, a Sheriff’s officer.

He reached Tyburn about a quarter before eleven o’clock. When he arrived at the fatal tree, a cart lined with black was under the gallows ready to receive him. Mr. Porter and Mr. Villette ascended it by a pair of steps, and he followed them unsupported. As soon as he had got into it he walked forward, and fell on his knees, (a position seldom used by persons in his circumstances at Tyburn, as they always pray standing) and the Clergymen did the like, one on each side of him, where they remained praying for about fifteen minutes, then got up, when the rope was put about his neck, and tied to the gallows.

In this manner he remained praying between the two Divines for ten minutes more, when the Rev. Mr. Porter embraced him, and Mr. Villette took his leave, and both left the cart. The convict[‘]s cap being pulled over his face, he told the executioner to leave him to himself for a few minutes, and he would drop his handkerchief as a signal when he was ready, which he did after a few minutes pause, and was thereupon launched into eternity.

His whole behaviour was manly, but not bold: his mind seemed to be quite calm, from a firm belief in the mercies of his Saviour.

He wore not hat, not any bandage on his face where he gave himself the wound, that the public curiosity might not be interrupted in looking at him; saying, “that he wished to be made a public spectacle of, and hoped his death might be of service to mankind.”

He was no ways convulsed, nor was their [sic] any motion of the body that tended to shew it experienced any pain. Nothing more was to be seen than what proceeded from the jerk on quitting the cart.

The mob was more numerous than on any other occasion since the death of Dr. Dodd. It was expected Mr. Hackman would suffer at Covent-garden, and preparations were made by some speculating carpenters, who met with a mortifying disappointment.

After hanging the usual time, his body was put into a hearse, and taken to Surgeons-hall in the Old Bailey, where it was prepared for the inspection of the public.

Mr. Harkman expressed a wish to his friends, that the ceremony of anatomizing his body might be dispensed with; and that his corpse might be treated in the same manner as that of Lord Ferrers.

Mr. Hackman intimated to a particular friend, that if his remains could be deposited near those of Miss Ray he should feel inexpressible happiness in the hour of death.

A man who was standing near a dray in Oxford-street to see Mr. Hackman pass, was thrown down under one of the horses by the crowd; the horse being frightened, stamped on the man, and beat out his brains.

* Allegedly so that the Earl wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table to dine.

** There is a wonderful bon mot that has enlivened compendia of anecdotes through the years, consisting of more or less the following exchange:

First speaker: You will either die on the gallows or of some social disease.

Second speaker: That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Though it’s been variously attributed, it appears that the retort was originally delivered by the comic Samuel Foote to Lord Sandwich — about Martha Ray.

† Notable among the five children of Sandwich and Martha Ray: jurist Basil Montagu.

Sandwich’s wife also bore him a legitimate son, who eventually succeeded to the father’s Earldom; the title still exists today.

‡ Hackman had to be talked off simply pleading guilty but in the end he hung his trial hopes on arguing that he intended to kill himself, in Martha’s presence, and was overwhelmed by a momentary “phrensy”. A letter in his pocket meant to be delivered posthumously to his brother-in-law supported this claim; the fact that he brought two guns to meet her rebutted it.

Trial judge William Blackstone pointed out to Hackman’s jurors that the composure of the accused before and after the crime did not suggest a madman and that accepting Hackman’s claim of only an instant’s insanity could present a very slippery slope indeed for future murder prosecutions.

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1875: Henry Wainwright, Whitechapel murderer

Add comment December 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, Whitechapel’s most notorious murderer ere Jack the Ripper arrived on the scene paid for his double life on the gallows of Newgate.

Henry Wainwright, brushmaker and philanderer, came to his mortal ruin by way of a financial one.

The expansive Wainwright could not confine his adventures to actresses at the theater adjacent his Whitechapel Road shop* but in 1872 installed a mistress, one Harriet Lane, in a flat of her own with a liberal £5-a-week stipend. “Mrs. King”, as she styled herself with a better ear for the forgettable name than Wainwright would evidence (we’ll come to that part), bore her lover two children.

But by the next year, Wainwright’s prodigalities and a worldwide economic crisis had sunk him in debt. As his creditors circled, Wainwright pinched farthings where he could, putting predictable strain on his lover’s allowance — and with it, her affection, her sobriety, and her discretion.

As Wainwright succumbed to bankruptcy, Harriet Lane’s demands for money and occasional drunken forays into his very place of business had Wainwright scrambling for some way to fob the mistress off on some other man. His efforts thereto were frustrated, so he contrived the next best thing: prevailing on his brother Thomas** to write his mistress mash notes under the ungainly pseudonym of “Edward Frieake”, Wainwright spun a plausible scenario for her elopement.

Unfortunately for Mrs. King, the honeymoon would be a chloride of lime pit under the floorboards of Wainwright’s warehouse.

On September 11, 1874, the lady sallied out of her apartment, and was never heard from again.

Laborers working near Wainwright’s warehouse that night would report hearing three gunshots, but being unable to pinpoint their source they let the matter drop — just as did police with Harriett Lane’s disappearance. With the help of a chaser letter or two from his brother, Wainwright represented that she had run off to Paris with her correspondent. Why, she might never be heard from again!

According to Jonathan Goodman, the 1844 Thomas Hood poem “The Bridge of Sighs” was a Wainwright favorite, one he often recited to entertain his family(s):

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Wainwright himself qualified for verse not long after poor Harriet Cole’s remains tumbled into plain view on that London street, like the “Awful Murder and Mutilation of a Female At the East-end of London”, whose composition mirrors its expository title:

Her head was severed from her body,
Her arms as well — how sad to tell

The above fragment (I have not located the entire original) is from this informative post about murder ballads

Another year on, Wainwright had good cause to believe he’d gotten away with the whole thing.† But his finances having finally collapsed, the warehouse that doubled has Harriet Lane’s tomb had been foreclosed upon in July of 1875, and it would soon be sold to new and potentially nosy owners. Wainwright had a body to move. And when the hole was opened up on September 10, 1875, it uncovered not a few scraps of a satisfyingly dissolved corpse — but the body entire, preserved rather than eroded by its chemical bath.

And the corpse stank disgustingly.

Showing the extraordinary judgment that had got him into this mess in the first place, Wainwright bought a spade and a cleaver to dismember the foul limbs he had once made love to, and then engaged a colleague to help him schlep the resulting packages out to the street. Arthur Stokes would later attribute his decision to peek to a divine command that struck him from the firmament, but nothing more remarkable than below-average curiosity will be required of a man encumbered by a heavy, fetid parcel to wonder what they might contain. A more impressive explanation will be required to justify Henry Wainwright’s decision to leave Stokes alone with the horrors while Wainwright jogged off to hail a cab.

Thinking fast for a man come face to face with a severed head, Stokes rewrapped the horrendous bundle and casually helped his homicidal friend pack it all onto the cab. When Wainwright drove off, Stokes trailed him, looking for constables to summon. And when he found them, and they approached the cab asking to inspect his cargo, all Henry Wainwright’s nauseating hypocrisy spilled out on the street in a lurid pile. He lamely tried to bribe the constables two hundred quid to ignore the putrid sackful of human remains.

A distinct scar and the dress Harriet Lane had worn on the day of her “elopement” identified the body to everyone’s satisfaction, and the circumstances of the body’s discovery did not admit much hope for Wainwright’s defense team.‡

So notorious was Wainwright’s crime that a vast concourse of gawkers mobbed the exterior of Newgate on the morning of his hanging, just like in the bad old days — even though, all executions by this late date being private affairs, these masses had no opportunity to glimpse anything save the black flag hoisted over Newgate to signal that the sentence of the law had been carried into effect.

Sources:

* Wainwright’s old shop apparently still stands, in relatively good condition. There are some 21st century photos of it and some interesting discussion of the case on casebook.org.

** Exactly when Thomas Wainwright became aware of what his brother had been up to with this “Edward Frieake” stuff is not certain. He did help his brother open Harriet Lane’s lime grave prior to its catastrophic attempted move.

Tried for his life alongside his brother, Thomas was acquitted of capital murder but caught a seven-year prison sentence as an accessory after the fact.

† The illegitimate children were in the care of a dressmaker, Ellen Wilmore, who still had them by the time of Wainwright’s trial. (Wilmore was called to testify.) It is not known what became of them thereafter.

‡ We are indebted to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in London’s East End for this outstanding detail: librettist W.S. Gilbert appears as a part of Wainwright’s defense. Gilbert, a barrister by training who had just made his big breakthrough by writing the 1875 musical theater hit Trial by Jury, was in the process of launching the collaborative career that puts Gilbert and Sullivan productions on community playhouse stages down to the present day.

Late in 1875, W.S. Gilbert received a jury summons highly inconvenient to his burgeoning artistic career. Consequently, he managed to finagle for himself a nominal assignment on the Wainwright defense team as a means of re-establishing “practicing attorney” bona fides that would exempt him from any jury boxes.

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1854: Aslak Hetta and Mons Somby, Sami rebels

Add comment October 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1854, two Sami men were beheaded for Norway’s Kautokeino Rebellion.

The indigenous Sami people — often known as Lapps, although this nomenclature is not preferred by the Sami themselves — had by this point become territorially assimilated to the states of the Scandinavian peninsula across which their ancestral homeland had once spanned.

The material benefits of this association for the Sami were much less apparent.

In Norway — our focus for this post — Sami shared little of the economic growth in the 19th century save for a startling proliferation of alcoholism.

In the 1840s a charismatic Sami preacher named Lars Levi Laestadius founded a Lutheran revival movement that went over like reindeer among his people. Religious enthusiasm and social critique went hand in hand: Laestadius’s hard anti-alcohol line and criticism of the comfortable state clergy touched deeply felt grievances, and Laestadius could deliver these messages in Sami dialects. Villages devastated by drink would go dry in response to his exhortations with pleasing results for the social fabric, further stoking adherents’ piety.

The most militant expression of this movement soon detached itself from any restraint Lars Levi Laestadius might hope to exercise upon it. Eventually it would move towards disruptive actions like interrupting services of the official clergy and protesting licensed alcohol merchants.

In a rising in November 1852, firebrand Laestadians attacked the trading post of Carl Johan Ruth, the liquor merchant in the Finnmark village of Kautokeino. Both Ruth and the local sheriff, responding to the disturbance, were slain in the ensuing fray and several other buildings in town torched. A counterattack managed to quell the disturbance — killing two rebels in turn — and eventually 17 men and 11 women were condemned to sentences ranging from short prison terms to lifelong prison terms to (our concern, of course) execution.

The two leaders of the mob, Aslak Hetta (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) and Mons Somby (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian), were both beheaded at the Arctic Circle town of Alta.

After decapitation, the men’s bodies were buried at Alta’s Kafjorddalen Church, but their severed heads went off to the Royal Fredrik’s University (today the University of Oslo) for scientists to probe. The heads eventually went missing until a search turned them up at a cranium collection in Copenhagen in 1997, which returned them at the behest of the descendants for burial back with the trunks from which they parted ways 160 years ago today.

A 2008 Nils Gaup-directed feature film, The Kautokeino Rebellion, dramatizes these events. (Synopsis | review) Armas Launis, a Finnish composer with an interest in ethnography, also wrote a libretto (Finnish link) in honor of Aslak Hetta after residing among the Sami for some time.


As of this writing, the full movie is also available on YouTube provided you can understand Norwegian, or read Spanish subtitles.

* Laestadianism still exists today. According to Wikipedia, “Because of doctrinal opinion differences and personality conflicts, the movement split into 19 branches, of which about 15 are active today.” Said Wikipedia entry enumerates all 19 groups, ranging from the Conservative Laestadians (approximately 115,000 adherents) all the way down to the Sten group (15 adherents) and the Kontio group (5 adherents).

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1911: Dmitry Bogrov, Stolypin’s assassin

2 comments September 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1911,* Dmitry Bogrov was hanged in Kiev for assassinating Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.

Many could diagnose the long-advancing rot of the Russian state, but few had the physic to abate it. Stolypin, a resolute conservative landowner, might have been tsarism’s last, best hope.

During the cataclysmic 1905 revolution, Stolypin was governor of Saratov and kept his province notably free from disturbances.

That earned him a kick upstairs in 1906 in hopes that he could work the same magic on the turbulent country. To a greater extent than most, he did: Stolypin was tsarist Russia’s last great statesman, notably introducing capitalistic land reforms in an effort to germinate a new rural middle class of small, freeholding landowners with skin in the Romanov dynasty. To break liberal obstruction, he also mounted a coup to weight the Duma in favor of propertied classes. “Give me 20 years of peace,” he vowed, “and you won’t recognize Russia.”

It’s left to the speculation of posterity whether he could have pulled the trick: in the event, Stolypin did not get 20 years and Russia did not get peace.

For some, like Solzhenitsyn, Stolypin is the lost chance for a Russia without either despotism or revolution: “He brought light to the world and the world rejected him.” For many others, that Great Man theory is a bit much. Russia’s issues with class and governance were a pretty long-term concern.

One of its long-term products was Russia’s energetic radical underground, and this Stolypin harried Russia’s revolutionaries from pillar to post, greatly intensifying police surveillance and infiltration of agitators’ circles to prevent a repeat of 1905. His secret courts meted out punishment with a greater regard for swiftness than certainty; a staggering 3,000 radicals were hanged for alleged involvement in terrorism from 1906 to 1909, generating worldwide condemnation and causing the phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” to enter the lexicon as a synonym for the noose.

Of course, there was plenty of real terrorism, no small part of it directed at Stolypin himself. He survived or avoided several assassination attempts, including a bomb that took the life of his daughter. In turn-of-the-century Russia, though, there was always a next man or woman up when it came to the propaganda of the deed.

In September 1911, at festivities marking the quinquagenary of the liberation of the serfs, Stolypin attended the Kiev opera’s performance of The Tale of Tsar Saltan.


The (obviously non-operatic) cartoon adaptation of The Tale of Tsar Saltan; the source material for both opera and cartoon is a Pushkin poem.

As the third intermission drew to a close, a young bourgeois approached Stolypin, drew a Browning pistol, and shot the Prime Minister. Legend has it that Stolypin opened his bloodied waistcoat and addressed the close-enough-to-witness-it sovereign with the words, “I am happy to die for the tsar.” The prime minister would linger on and die a few days later; his murderer did not long outlive him.

Despite Stolypin’s reputation as public enemy no. 1 for revolutionaries, the reason for Dmitry Bogrov to commit this particular murder has long remained murky. (pdf)

Bogrov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a revolutionary, but he was also an informer for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police whose augmentation had been a key Stolypin priority. Just where Bogrov stood at any given time in the vast foggy marches between compromised true believer and agent provocateur is difficult to pinpoint.

The Kiev opera on the night Bogrov shot Stolypin was thick with military personnel, but nobody at all stood watch on the oft-targeted politician — even though there was specific intelligence of a possible threat, issued in his capacity as an informer by the Janus-faced Bogrov himself. The eventual assassin was admitted to the theater that night on a ticket provided by his police handlers.

Considering Bogrov’s very swift execution, and the fact that the tsar suspiciously shut down the investigation (Russian link), many believe that elements of the state security apparatus were the true authors of Stolypin’s death, whether or not Bogrov himself realized it. Russia’s great landholders, never noted for farsightedness, widely opposed the reductions of their estates demanded by Stolypin’s agricultural reforms and rightly saw him as about the only man with the clout to move policy against their considerable opposition. They weren’t sorry to see him go.

As for Bogrov, his departure was a mere footnote. He asked for a rabbi before his hanging, but when he found out that this presumably confessional meeting would be monitored by the public prosecutor, he withdrew the request. (London Times, September 26, 1911) He reportedly died almost indifferently, his last words a disarmingly casual inquiry to the executioner about how best to position his head within his Stolypin’s necktie.

* September 12 by the local Julian calendar; September 25 by the Gregorian calendar.

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1418: Beatrice di Tenda

Add comment September 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1418, the Duke of Milan annulled his marriage at the headsman’s block.

Beatrice (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was initially the wife of the condottiero Facino Cane, a brutal but successful warrior who gained de facto control of the Duchy of Milan when it was inherited by a teenage Duke.

That teen’s younger brother, Filippo Visconti, spent the early 1400s packed away in Pavia, sickly and marginal, wondering which of the deadly machinations of state playing out above him might unexpectedly come crashing down on his own head. It seems doubtful that Beatrice ever had reason to give the little twerp a thought.

Delivery for Filippo came in May 1412. Big brother was assassinated while Facino Cane lay dying and suddenly the 19-year-old called the shots in Milan. In his day, he would become known as a cunning and cruel tyrant, and would make Milan the dominant power in northern Italy.

And it all was possible because of May 1412, which not only elevated Filippo but widowed our principal Beatrice. From her puissant late husband she inherited 400,000 ducats and huge … tracts of land. Her virtues could hardly fail to appeal to the whelp of a Duke, even at twenty years his senior; indeed, it was Cane himself who sketched out this succession plan from his deathbed.

It seems, however, that having taking possession of the wealth and legitimacy that came with Beatrice’s hand, Filippo soon grew irritated with the rest of her — enough so that he at last determined to put her aside. His paranoid Excellency wasn’t the quietly-retire-you-to-a-monastery type; instead, he went for the full Anne Boleyn.

Accusing his consort of consorting with a young troubadour in her court, Michele Orombelli, Filippo had the accused cuckolder and two of Beatrice’s handmaidens tortured until they produced the requisite confession/accusation of faithlnessness. Upon that basis he had Orombelli and Beatrice di Tenda both beheaded at the castle of Binasco. A plaque placed there to commemorate the spurned wife is still to be seen today.


(cc) image from Jk4u59.

Bellini’s second-last opera was based on this tragic story. Beatrice di Tenda premiered in 1833; it’s noteworthy in Bellini’s biography because deadline disputes in its composition ruined the composer’s longstanding collaboration with librettist Felice Romani.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milan,Nobility,Sex,Torture,Women,Wrongful Executions

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756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1355: Ines de Castro, posthumous queen

Add comment January 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1355, the 29-year-old lover of the Portuguese crown prince was put to summary death by the reigning king’s minions.

Ines de Castro (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) would be posthumously acknowledged as queen on the say-so of her ex, whom everyone obeyed because he was called Peter (Pedro) the Cruel.

But in the years before Ines’s death you could just call him loverboy.

As a young man, Peter got plugged into a typical dynastic marriage with Constance of Panafiel, a descendant of kings of Castille and Aragon.*

In Constance’s entourage came the enchanting Ines, the daughter, albeit illegitimate, of a Galician nobleman.

Peter was entirely smitten by entirely the wrong woman. Vainly did the Portuguese sovereign Afonso IV strive to conform his indiscreet son to the demands of conjugal propriety. At last, the put-upon Constance died after bearing Peter his heir in 1345 and left the field to her rival.

Afonso steadfastly refused to let his lovestruck son marry Ines, and even tried banishing her to Castile, but the two carried on their forbidden passion secretly like they were in poetry, which would soon be the case.


One of 20-plus operas and ballets about Ines de Castro. She also turns up in the Portuguese national epic The Lusíadas, the French play La Reine Morte, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“Ignez da Castro murdered, and a wall / Here stripped, here made to stand”) … among many other literary appearances.

But beyond any qualms of prudery, Peter’s obsession made dad sweat the politics.

Peter refused to marry anyone else, and got tight with Ines’s brothers. These guys were Castilian exiles with their own axes to grind. Was the whole fortune of his house and his realm to fall under the sway of this unpredictable faction just because Peter couldn’t keep it in his codpiece? The affair had already made a dog’s breakfast of the alliance Peter was supposed to contract with his scorned wife’s family; now that Peter was having kids** with his mistress, there was the potential for a contested succession, and the brothers were goading Peter to pretend to the throne of their native Castile.

Afonso figured that this was about where his son’s right to romantic love ended. Peter had proven many times that only the most drastic of steps could separate him from Ines.

On the 7th of January 1355, Afonso and his own advisors met in secret and declared Ines’s death. Then three of the king’s emissaries, Pêro Coelho, Álvaro Gonçalves and Diogo Lopes Pacheco, rode out to find the irksome mistress at Coimbra, and chopped off her head right in front of her children.†


Assassínio de Dona Inês de Castro (date unknown), by Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro.

It was only with difficulty that a sufficient reconciliation between father and son was effected to manage a stable transition once Afonso kicked off in 1357. Finally in charge, Peter set about earning that “the Cruel” sobriquet by hunting down the retainers who had slain his wife and having them all put to terrible deaths in their turn, like their hearts ripped out of their chests. Just like had happened to Peter, see.

Peter also announced that he had been secretly married to Ines, posthumously legitimizing her. Legend, probably apocryphal, has it that he even exhumed her body and set her up on the throne in regal finery like the cadaver synod, so that his courtiers could pay their respects to the putrefying flesh of “the queen who was crowned after death”. But she wasn’t coming back for real: in the still-extant Portuguese idiom, “Agora é tarde; Inês é morta” — “It’s too late, Ines is dead.”


Couronnement d’Inés de Castro en 1361 (c. 1849), by Pierre-Charles Comte.

In death at this hour, Ines de Castro reigns in a gorgeous carved tomb in the Alcobaca Monastery … right next to her lover, King Peter I.

* The Peter-Constance marriage was itself an alliance of marital castaways. Constance had been the child bride of Castilian King Alfonso XI, but was put aside by Alfonso so that he could realign his bedroom politics by instead marrying Peter’s own elder sister. But Alfonso neglected her, too — causing a love triangle that would in time end with an execution.

When Peter’s humiliated sister fled the Castilian court, the Portuguese royal family allied with Constance’s family against Alfonso, by marrying the spurned Constance to the spurned-in-law Peter.

** High noble titles were bestowed on the three children of Peter and Ines who survived into adulthood. Two of them, John and Denis, unsuccessfully attempted to claim the throne during the chaotic interregnum of Portugal’s 1383-1385 Crisis.

† Ines’s execution/murder is associated with Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, even though that’s not where it actually occurred. A fountain there is said to have sprung from the tears she said as she was slain, and its red stones stained by her blood.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Nobility,Popular Culture,Portugal,Scandal,Sex,Summary Executions,Women

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1435: Agnes Bernauer

1 comment October 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1435, the Duke of Bavaria-Munich had his son’s commoner mistress drowned.

Agnes Bernauer (English Wikipedia link | German) was supposed to have been the daughter of an Augsburg barber, though hard details about her life are hard to come by owing to her social class.

By 1432, she’s demonstrably a part of the Munich court; it’s thought that the prince Albert (the future Duke Albert III) must have met her at an Augsburg tournament in 1428.

The nature of her relationship to the Bavarian heir, too, must largely be guessed at. It’s been widely hypothesized that they might have married secretly.

Such a marriage might explain the shocking end to the Agnes-Albert relationship by situating it as a threat to dynastic succession: Albert was Ernst’s only legitimate son, and the Bavarian patrimony had been subdivided and fought over among Wittelsbach kin over the preceding decades.

Whatever the reason, Ernst took the disapproving (maybe) in-law act quite a lot farther than most. While Albert was out on a hunt, Ernst had Agnes seized, condemned for witchcraft, and executed by drowning in the Danube River on Oct. 12, 1435.

Upon hearing of the death of his beloved, Albert bitterly deserted his father for Ernst’s cousin and rival Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. The prospect of capping domestic homicide with civil war loomed for several months until father and son were reconciled — and one must guess, once again, at how that conversation went. Albert endowed a perpetual mass for Agnes which is still said annually. A Bernauer chapel containing a tomb relief of Agnes, erected as an apology by Duke Ernst, remains a tourist draw in Straubing.

The star-crossed love of Agnes and Albert has proven irresistible to the arts over the centuries, with a special boom in the Romantic era.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria composed a poem in her honor; several 19th century stage tragedies (most notably that of Friedrich Hebbel) explore the story; and Carl Orff made it into an opera, Die Bernauerin.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,Germany,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Sex,Summary Executions,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1642: Henri Coiffier de Ruze, Marquis of Cinq-Mars

2 comments September 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1642, with the last words “Mon Dieu! Qu’est-ce que ce monde?”, 22-year-old former royal favorite Cinq-Mars was beheaded at Lyon’s Place des Terreaux.

Henri Coiffier de Ruze (English Wikipedia page | French) had been under Cardinal Richelieu’s protection since the boy’s father died in 1632; in 1639, the Red Eminence introduced the then-19-year-old whippersnapper to Louis XIII as a prospective royal favorite (read: lover).

Though the king did indeed take to the youth, Cinq-Mars, in the age-old custom of sullen teenagers everywhere, soon found the luxurious profligacy of the favorite’s life rather overbalanced by irritation at both of his sickly, aging patrons.

Tart talk to intimates graduated to something more serious after Richelieu rudely put the kibosh on Cinq-Mars’s (unrealistic) designs on a wealthy noblewoman — which was also a bid to parlay his tenuous favorite gig into some lasting power.

Now considering himself personally begrudged of the Cardinal, Cinq-Mars fell into the conspiracies (French link) to depose, assassinate, or otherwise replace him.

Eventually Cinq-Mars would go so far as a real blockbuster (French again): he signed a secret pact with the Spanish king to support a noble revolt in exchange for handing over French possessions, a seditious plan also backed by perennial plotter Gaston d’Orleans, the king’s scheming brother.

Our angry moppet had more than met his match in Richelieu, however: the cardinal’s agents intercepted (more French) the treasonable correspondence and had Cinq-Mars dispatched this date along with his confederate de Thou.


Execution of Cinq-Mars and De Thou in Paris (1642), engraving by Johann Luyken, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (via)

Richelieu himself was already dying as he undid this last conspiracy against him. The cardinal succumbed on December 4, 1642 … with Louis following him into the grave the next May.

While Richelieu’s name is fixed in the firmament of history and literature, Cinq-Mars has to make do as the namesake of a rarely-seen Gounod opera, based on the 1826 historical novel Cinq-Mars by Alfred de Vigny.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Treason

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