1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.


Benjamin Britten put the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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1601: Starina Novak, hajduk

Add comment February 5th, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

5 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders now saw nothing of the fort save by the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could it possibly weather the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wondrous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.


On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a verse celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. “The Defence of Fort McHenry” is better known today (when set to the tune of a British drinking song) as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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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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1578: Ivan Pidkova, Cossack hetman

Add comment June 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1578, Cossack hetman Ivan Pidkova lost his head in Lviv.

Pidkova* — the name means “horseshoe” and alludes to the horsemanship that would be de rigueur for a Cossack leader — had risen by his aptitude to leadership of the Zaporozhian Cossacks in present-day Ukraine.

His death was a bid to promote himself from the steppe to power over neighboring Moldavia, and in fairness to Ivan Moldavia was worth a go.

Its throne was held at that time by a new guy named Peter the Lame, and although the nickname just referred to Peter’s physical deformity, he was a creature of the Ottoman court who scarcely knew Moldavia before he became its vassal ruler in 1574. He was twice temporarily deposed before finally voluntarily resigning in 1591 so that he could retire to the comforts of Italy.

The first deposition came courtesy of our man Pidkova.

Claiming kinship with Peter’s late predecessor Ivan III,** Pidkova seized Iasi and proclaimed himself hospodar of Moldavia until the arrival of Ottoman reinforcements refuted the conceit.

This whole border region between the Polish-Lithuanian Empire to the north and the Ottomans to the south was a perennial trouble spot. Putatively subjects of the Polish crown, the refractory Cossacks were known to raid Ottoman territory illicitly and provoke diplomatic headaches on both sides of the border.

At this particular moment — 1578, that is — the Polish king Stephen Batory had only just concluded a truce with the Ottomans. As Batory had war with Russia to worry about, he was more than keen to keep his southern frontier calm; Polish troops captured the Cossack pretender and had him put to an exemplary death.


Monument to Ivan Pidkova in present-day Lviv. Image (c) stacy2005ua, a prolific photographer of Lviv’s environs whose work can be enjoyed at FaceAndHeart.com or on Flickr, and used with permission.

Ukraine’s national bard Taras Shevchenko celebrated Ivan Pidkova in an eponymous 1839 poem:

There was a time in our Ukraine
 When cannon roared with glee,
A time when Zaporozhian men
 Excelled in mastery!
They lived as masters — freedom’s joy
 And glory were their gain:
All that has passed, and what is left
 Is grave-mounds on the plain!
High are those ancient tumuli
 In which were laid to rest
The Cossacks’ fair white bodies
 In silken cerements dressed.
High are those mounds, serene and dark
 Like mountains they appear,
Their gentle whispers in the wind
 Of freedom’s fate we hear.
These witnesses of ancient fame
 Hold converse with the breeze;
The Cossacks’ grandson reaps the grass
 And sings old memories.
There was a time when in ukraine
 Even distress would dance,
And sorrow in a tavern drank
 In honeyed brandy’s trance.
There was a time when life was good
 In that Ukraine of ours …
Recall it then — perhaps the heart
 May briefly bathe in flowers.

II.

A murky cloud from Liman’s shore
 Covers the sun from sight;
The sea is like an angry beast
 That groans and howls with might.
It floods the mighty Danube’s mouth.
 “My fellows, come with me
Within our barks! The waves are wild.
 Let’s have a merry spree!”
The Zaporozhians rushed out;
 The stream with ships was roiled.
“Roar on, O sea!” they all sang out,
 As waves beneath them boiled.
Billows like mountains round them surged,
 They saw no land, no sky.
Yet not a Cossack heart grew faint,
 Their eagerness ran high.
A bold kingfisher flies o’erhead
 As on they sail and sing;
The brave otaman in the van
 Leads on their mustering.
He strides the deck, and in his mouth
 His pipe grows cold from thought;
He casts his glances here and there
 Where exploits may be wrought.
He curled his long black whiskers,
 He twirled his forelock free,
Then raised his cap — the vessels stopped:
&nbsp:”Death to the enemy!
Not to Sinope, comrades,
 Brave lads beyond all doubt!
We’ll drive on full to Istanbul
 To seek the Sultan out!”
“Well spoken, our fine chieftain!”
 They roared in chorus back.
“I thank you, lads!” He donned his cap.
 Again the seaward track
Beneath their keels began to boil;
 And once more thoughtfully
He paced the deck in mute content
 And gazed upon the sea.

That translation is via The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko; the original in Ukrainian can be enjoyed here. The exact text of that poem also comprises the lyrics of this jam:

* Or Ioan Potcoava, as Ivan came from Romanian stock.

** Moldavia’s own “Ivan the Terrible” — no relation to his Russian contemporary, of course.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Poland,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine

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1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund'”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Lithuania,Russia,Terrorists

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1713: Juraj Janosik, Slovakian social bandit

Add comment March 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date (most likely) in 1713, Slovakian “Robin Hood” figure Juraj Janosik was hung on a hook in Liptov County for his outlawry.

Janosik was a flesh-and-blood man, but much of what is known or believed about him lies squarely in the realm of folklore.

He hailed from the village of Terchova. You’ll find Terchova today just on the Slovakian side of the Polish border; in Janosik’s time, this was the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary.


In Janosik’s native Terchova, a walking path leads to a monumental statue of the famed outlaw. (cc) image from Andre Skibinski.

Janosik is said to have fought with the anti-Habsburg Kuruc guerrillas in his youth, then joined the imperial army when that rebellion fizzled, then found his short life’s calling when detailed to guard a brigand named Tomáš Uhorcík. The two went into (Uhorcík’s) business together in about 1711, and Janosik’s natural aptitude soon made him the leader of their robber band.

From pine-forest lairs the merry bandits preyed on aristocrats and rich merchants throughout their mountainous home territories and into Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia and are supposed to have taken chivalrous care not to injure their prey other than financially. They’re inevitably also credited with sharing the fruits of their heists with the poor.

When Janosik became celebrated in later centuries his virtues both moral and martial would multiply by each astonishing retelling. In this Polish verse, for example, Janosik is less Robin Hood and more Terminator as he boldly presents himself at a royal tourney and avenges the honor of Slovakian maids raped by some of the contending knights.

“O king, an accusation I bring thee!” he proclaimed.
“Our women are dishonored, our village maidens shamed!
Twelve of our maidens ravished — on these twelve knights the guilt! —
Twelve of our village maidens! Let blood for blood be spilt!

“Twelve cottages dishonored — twelve homes lament today …
Sire, throned on gold, be gracious — give ear to me, I pray!
Blood must be shed, and bloody must be the foeman’s face;
I come, I come avenging our Slovak maids’ disgrace!”

Then all men stood astounded, and silent fell the ring.
“What word is this? How durst thou? Who art thou?” asked the king.
“A hill-born outlaw, hetman Janosik, that am I.”
Then marvelled all the courtiers, and king enthroned on high.

And the king’s visage slowly with rising wrath was lit,
And his moustache was bristling, his grizzled brows were knit.
Upon that band of Magyars, twelve gentlemen, he glowered.
Beneath the crested headgear twelve heads were earthward lowered.

“What, willest thou to fight them, all twelve, and brow to brow?”
— “With all, O king,” Janosik made answer; “all, and now!
O king, twelve fields of harvest a single gust will clear;
Thus let me, single-handed, meet these twelve warriors here.”

Then the king’s sceptre signalled; the trumpets gave one blast.
Janosik fixed his girdle, and off his mantle cast.
The king and all the courtiers, they marvelled to behold
The shirt that came from Juhasz, the trousers looped with gold.

There from his cap a bundle of discs, all golden, rayed,
And moved he ever so little, the cap a tinkling made.
A row upon his axe-haft of brazen rings he had;
At every step he swung it. His shoes in steel were clad.

His hand had gripped the hatchet, and there he took his stand.
Heralds struck up; then signalled the king, with sceptred hand;
Twelve lances, like a forest thick-timbered, took their aim,
And at Janosik’s bosom twelve lances flying came.

Hola! in golden Budzyn, hola! how went it, tell!
And in the king’s chief city what thing that day befell?
Upon that day what pastime might there the king await
In his dear daughter’s honor, by his town’s golden gate?

Now on the sand, all shattered, twelve lances fell and crashed,
And off the polished helmplates twelve glittering sabres flashed.
For see! up sprang Janosik, and raised his arm to strike,
Whistled the tune of Juhasz, and whirled around his pike.

How like a flame of lightning that hatchet circled round!
Erdoedy, count, with vizor hewn through, was on the ground;
Pallavicini, margrave, had rent his horse’s rein;
His riven skull was soiling the sand with bloody stain.

And now Prince Bathyani on his left side had dropt;
Right hand and sword were severed. Count Palffy’s brows were chopt.
And soon Prince Esterhazy upon the sand lay low,
Scrabbling the ground; and straightway his face was white as snow.

Not long did Count Festetics smile in the light of day,
But by the brothers Toskoel fell dead — and dead were they.
And then, before Janosik, the remnant lay in death.
When the twelfth corpse had fallen, he drew a mighty breath,

And leaned upon his weapon; like some rich beechtree then
He stood; there lay before him twelve haughty gentlemen;
Twelve golden suits of armor and twelve sharp sabres lay;
And dumbly gazed the people upon that mortal fray.

And no man spoke, and all men a tomblike silence kept.
To the king bowed Janosik, and low his cap he swept.
Then in their blood were carried twelve corpses from that place
And thus avenged Janosik those Slovak maids’ disgrace.

But the actual Janosik was quite vincible.

His career only really lasted a year or so; he was captured in 1712, escaped, and was soon re-taken. It seems that despite the marauders’ usual care for the safety of their victims, they managed to kill a Father Juraja Vertíka.

March 17, 1713 was the date of Juraj Janosik’s conviction and death sentence; though not explicitly recorded of Janosik, the usual practice would have been to carry out such a sentence without delay. Many of his comrades met similar fates: Uhorcík, for instance, was put to death a month after Janosik.


Janosik Hanged, by Miloš Jiránek (1906). (Via)

The bandit’s legend has survived and thrived after his death in literally hundreds (per Hobsbawm) of poems, legends, and folk ballads, like Jan Botto’s epic “The Death of Janosik”.

Oddly, Martin Votruba argues,** there is no indication that anyone in 1713 or the years following celebrated Janosik with anything like the fervor he eventually attained.

Janosik is all but invisible as a literary figure until the late 18th century, according to Votruba. Pesumably his name attached to miscellaneous anecdotes and exploits — enough to keep it in the conversation of bandits.

Around the turn to the 19th century Janosik’s person seems to have become gradually conjoined to stories and songs about other brigands, both real and fictional, just as these characters were booming in literary popularity. Juraj Janosik went from being just a guy who’d be mentioned in passing in a list of bandits, to the bandit. (Votruba guesses that the linguistic similarity our fellow’s surname had with with generic male name Jan, Janik, or Janko — variations on “John” that were commonly used for entirely legendary outlaws in folk songs — helped to form the connection)

Only in the 1830s and 1840s did the long-dead outlaw, who by then dominated lowbrow bandit-legend folklore, begin to take on the form familiar today — that of “a benevolent, rebellious, tragic, quasi-folkloric freedom-fighter” called “Janosik.” And “since this happened in a period of mounting ethnic activism in central Europe, Janosik could not become merely a romantic hero. The Slovak literary and social discourse highlighted his ethnicity, which then appeared in implicit contrast to the ethnicity of the now politically overpowering Hungarians.” The rich guys Janosik robbed — not ethnically specified in the earliest sources — now became oppressive foreign lords. Janosik’s growing corpus of attributed exploits now earned elite artistic attention.

He’s never looked back since.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, he’s been the subject of many film treatments, most recently in 2009.

* Translation by Oliver Elton from the Slavonic and East European Review. American Series, Vol. 2, No. 2 (November 1943)

** Martin Votruba, “Hang Him High: The Elevation of Janosik to an Ethnic Icon”, Slavic Review, Vol 65, No. 1 (Spring 2006).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Hungary,Murder,Myths,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft

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