1845: Abner Baker, feudmaker

Add comment October 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1845 — sneering at the noose with the words “Behold the necklace of a whore!” — Abner Baker was publicly hanged in Manchester, Kentucky.

He was the second casualty — the first was the man whom he murdered — in the Baker-Howard feud, or the Clay County War, a bloody interfamily conflict that would blight the Kentucky mountains into the next century.

Its headwaters were a man out of his head: just how much so would be the controversy of his case, and a foundational grievance of the feud.

Said head perched itself on the shoulders of our man Abner Baker, who — prior to his unfortunate turn towards derangement — was a respectable frontier striver, with an unsuccessful stint in commerce redeemed by a medical practice. He had also to his name a wife born Susan White, a woman — or rather a 14-year-old girl — from a wealthy family who was respectable in the eyes of all save he.

As Baker slid into lunacy, he leveled at his spouse the most lurid charges of concupiscence, of having committed gleeful incest, of having orgies with slaves, and of cheating on him with another wealthy man, Daniel Bates. Bates was married to Baker’s sister.

Testimony printed in an 1845 volume to capitalize on interest in the case, Life and trial of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr: (a monomaniac) features many acquaintances establishing a delusional paranoia about his wife’s intercourse with Daniel Bates — with Baker brandishing a Bowie knife around her to the extent that their mutuals feared for her life; ranting about his wife cuckolding him in his very bed while he slept beside her; fixing on his certainty that Bates designed to murder him. They also report acquaintances, and Baker’s own father, increasingly convinced that the man had gone mad.

On September 13, 1844, Baker presented himself at Bates’s salt works and shot Bates in the back. Bates lingered on for several hours, doing much to stoke the succeeding generations of clan vigilantes by bequeathing $10,000 to seek his murderer’s life and making his son promise to take revenge.

The subsequent legal drama pitted that quest for revenge against Baker sympathizers’ conviction that the man was too starkers to swing. The first magistrates to review the matter days after Bates’s murder took the latter view and released him, allowing Baker to decamp to Cuba to recuperate.

The Bateses were not to be balked this easily, however, and prevailed on Commonwealth attorneys to indict Baker for murder. At the urging of his father, the good doctor voluntarily returned to defend himself when he learned of this. The text of the trial comprises witnesses clashing over whether the killer suffered from “monomania”, but the subtext was the flexing muscle of the White family — that of Abner Baker’s poor traduced wife.

The Whites were Clay County royalty on the strength of their salt mining wealth, and allied to the Bates family. Their peers and rivals, the Garrards, were locked in tense economic competition and even came within a whisker of murdering Daniel Bates himself in a different standoff in 1840. They took a more sympathetic view of Abner Baker’s obviously unbalanced mental state and tried to shield him from his persecutors; the Garrard patriarch was one of the magistrates who had initially ruled Baker too crazy to prosecute.* It was the Whites who, in effect, outmuscled the Garrards by forcing Baker’s prosecution and execution.

“The BAKERS wept with rage for the WHITES helping the BATES to bring Abner Baker to trial when they knew he was insane,” this history of Clay County feuding observes. “The lines had been drawn and competition for salt hardened into hostility.”

Enjoy a podcast situating this affair in the regional economy and the resulting political rivalries, from American History Tellers here, as well as a successor episode on the resulting feud, here

* Baker thanked the Garrards in his last address from the gallows (“the Garrard family, on whom I had no claims, came up like noble-souled men, and asked the county to give me justice”).

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1880: George Bennett, assassin of George Brown

Add comment July 23rd, 2020 Headsman

He has gone to his death through an oversight on my part. It was a foolish thing for me to have drawn the revolver, but I was in liquor or I would have never done it. I could not control the event. I went there purely on a matter of business and my business was very simple and very plain. The result was as it was. I am prepared to die.

-George Bennett

George Bennett hanged at Toronto on this date in 1880 for murdering George Brown.

By far the more consequential figure in the transaction was the victim. One of the Fathers of Confederation, the visionary Scottish emigre bequeathed to the country he helped to shape such institutions as the Liberal Party and the Toronto Globe (now the Globe and Mail, after a 20th century merger with a rival newspaper). His personal and political rivalry with Conservative lion John A. Macdonald, and the “Great Coalition” formed by these two to steer a faltering polity deadlocked by the mutual vetoes Anglophones and Francophones towards the Canadian Confederation, is the subject of a fine 2011 CBC film, John A.: Birth of a Country.

Brown’s killer, and our date’s principal, was Brown’s employee for five-ish years, as an engineer in the boiler room. He had a dissolute, chaotic life, marked by frequent domestic disturbances and heavy drinking. It was his propensity for turning up to work drunk that set in motion the tragedy, for his mishandling of the boiler one night early in 1880 led to his dismissal by the foreman.

A great scribbler of words, Bennett in this time produced copy by turns vengeful and despairing, and of course he kept hitting the bottle. On March 25, he turned up at his former workplace where he rantingly accosted several former coworkers. By late afternoon he’d found his way to George Brown’s office, and inviting himself in he proceeded to importune the publisher with his disordered grievances. At last he pressed Brown to sign a paper affirming his length of employment. Brown had little idea who this impertinent drunk was, and still less that the impertinent drunk was armed; the boss’s attempts to redirect Bennett to his supervisor or the business administrators to address his paperwork request enraged his ex-employee, who suddenly produced a pistol and through a scuffle put a ball into George Brown.

One wouldn’t think the injury pictured above would be fatal; indeed, the next day’s Globe exulted that “Yesterday afternoon one of the most seditious and dastardly attempts at murder ever made in this city took place in the private office of the Hon. George Brown in the Globe Building. Fortunately, owning mainly to Mr. Brown’s presence of mind and superior physical strength, the attempt was unsuccessful, the only results being a severe flesh wound to the thigh and the nervous prostration which is the inevitable result of such an encounter. Had the miscreant who made the murderous assault been a little more prompt in taking his aim, or had the pistol been of a different construction, the attempt could hardly have resulted so favourably, for he persisted in his efforts to effect his bloody purpose until he was overpowered and the weapon was wrenched from his grasp.” But the relief proved premature when the leg wound torn by Bennett’s bullet turned gangrenous and eventually — seven weeks later — killed Brown.

Monuments to the murdered statesman abound in Canada, including the Second Empire home he built and died in, preserved as the historic George Brown House, and George Brown College. His whiskered statue strides on Parliament Hill.

Brown’s widow returned to Scotland with her children, and the Canadian hero’s son George Mackenzie Brown followed his father’s career in both printing and politicking: per Wikipedia, “As a publisher, he produced Arthur Conan Doyle’s books; as a politician, he beat him to win election to the House of Commons.”

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1881: Albert and Charles Talbott, bad sons

Add comment July 22nd, 2020 Headsman

Dr. Perry H. Talbott was among the most prominent citizens of Nodaway County, Missouri. In addition to being a skilled physician, Talbott was state legislator, a writer and a newspaper editor. He was a civic minded citizen with strong beliefs, highly admired by friends and neighbors. But towards his family, Dr. Talbott was cold and distant. Miserly and neglectful, he had little interaction with his children beyond the occasional scolding. When Dr. Talbott was shot by an unknown assassin on September 18, 1880, in his dying breath he blamed his political enemies. The Nodaway county authorities, however, believed the killer was someone closer to home.

-Profile of the July 22, 1881 Marysville, Missouri hanging of Albert and Charles Talbott at friend of he site Murder By Gaslight. Enjoy in full here.

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1945: Harold Pringle, the last Canadian military execution

Add comment July 5th, 2020 Headsman

The only Canadian soldier to be executed during (… actually well after!) World War II, Harold Pringle, caught a fusillade in Italy on this date in 1945.

A 16-year-old — he fibbed about his age — enlistee from small-town Ontario, Pringle joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment.

Pringle and a mate in the Hasty P’s name of “Lucky” MacGillivray linked up with some British deserters to form a black market outfit in conquered Rome. The “Sailor Gang”* enjoyed several weeks of picaresque living in the lawless city. Unsurprisingly, as Allied military authorities got control of the place they were eager to make examples of these minor gangsters. (Major gangsters were a different matter.)

The shooting death of that mate MacGillivray gave military prosecutors the means to sink the Sailors. One of their number was induced by a sweetheart deal to finger Pringle as for murdering him. Pringle and his comrades all contended that “Lucky” had been shot by mischance during one of the outlaws’ frequent drunken bouts, and having died en route to the hospital, Pringle shot him up posthumously in hopes of making the body look like it had been prey to a gang hit.

Despite all the trouble taken to secure a very dubious conviction, the execution itself was carried out in great secrecy by a tiny rump contingent of Canadians — all their fellows had already been withdrawn from Italy — who were not to speak of it afterwards.

According to Andrew Clark, the author whose research revealed the event to the wider public in A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle, it all came down a political balancing act. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King faced a June 1945 election (followed by formation of a coalition government) that a controversial execution might complicate.

However, the British had executed two of their guys in the Sailor Gang case, and reciprocity was expected on a diplomatic level. So the solution was to do it as quietly as possible, and cover it with an official secret designation. Even Pringle himself didn’t find out his sentence was confirmed until the morning of the execution.

Book CoverBook Cover
Left: The classic antiwar novel inspired by the Pringle case, which was the only novel published by Colin McDougall. Right: The 2002 nonfiction treatment that brought the affair to the public eye. Below: A 1955 episode of Four Star Playhouse also seems to be based on the Pringle case, and Colin McDougall is credited with the story.**

There’s a riveting audio interview here with a member of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment who had guard duty on the condemned youth on the last night of his life. “Just as brave as could be,” Orville Marshall reports.

* There’s another infamous troupe of deserter-gangsters operating in Rome in this same period, the Lane Gang. The said “Lane” — whose real name was Werner Schmiedel — was hanged by American authorities in June 1945.

** McDougall served in Italy up to the end of Canada’s involvement there, and that is surely how he came to know about the secret execution in a general sense; any more specific vector of information appears to be unknown. However discovered, Pringle clearly haunted McDougall: he took several years to write his magnum opus, and also published a short story in McLean’s in the early 1950s called “The Firing Squad”.

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1499: Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last Plantagenet claimant

Add comment November 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1499, the Plantagenet prince Edward, Earl of Warwick lost his head — and his once-mighty house lost its last direct male successor to its claim upon kingship.

A lagging casualty of the Wars of the Roses, little Ted was only three when he lost his old man to a treason charge and a butt of malmsey. The same blade dangled close to Edward’s neck throughout his few years, for he became a potential royal claimant after his young cousins, the Princes in the Tower, were killed off in 1483.

Warwick was all of eight years old at that moment. When he was 10, he was shut up in the Tower of London by Henry VII, never really to leave it again.* “Being kept in the Tower from his tender age, that is to say from his first year of the king [i.e., of Henry VII’s reign] to this fifteenth year, out of all company of men and sight of beasts, in so much that he could not discern a goose from a capon,” in the words of chronicler Edward Hall. Some historians have taken that to mean that Edward was was mentally disabled, but under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be?*

It was cold and eminently practical mistreatment, for this boy however innocent in his own person was the potential champion of the Yorkists. In 1487, an abortive rebellion arose in Warwick’s name, with a 10-year-old kid named Lambert Simnel presented as a faux-Edward. Henry crushed the rebellion and was obliged to make his proofs to the populace by parading the real Edward around London which was at least a rare excursion outside the Tower walls for the tween hostage.**

Pretenders tossed the boy prisoner hither and yon on the currents of fortune. The next one to have a go at Henry, a Low Countries twerp named Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be one of the lost Princes in the Tower, mounted landings in the mid-1490s, vainly hoping to spark a general revolt. After he was finally captured in 1497, he wound up in the Tower with poor Warwick. Warbeck persuaded the desperate youth upon a desperate course — or was it by the intentional policy of that scheming king to dispose of a threat and thereby cinch that famously ill-fated Spanish marriage so productive of clientele for our grim annals? A century-plus later, Francis Bacon described in History of the Reign of King Henry VII the popular suspicion that had attached to this convenient tying up of loose ends:

it was ordained, that this winding-ivy of a Plantagenet should kill the true tree itself. For Perkin, after he had been a while in the Tower, began to insinuate himself into the favour and kindness of his keepers, servants to the lieutenant of the Tower Sir John Digby, being four in number; Strangeways, Blewet, Astwood, and Long Roger. These varlets, with mountains of promises, he sought to corrupt, to obtain his escape; but knowing well, that his own fortunes were made so contemptible, as he could feed no man’s hopes, and by hopes he must work, for rewards he had none, he had contrived with himself a vast and tragical plot; which was, to draw into his company Edward Plantagenet earl of Warwick, then prisoner in the Tower; whom the weary life of a long imprisonment, and the often and renewing fears of being put to death, had softened to take any impression of counsel for his liberty. This young Prince he thought these servants would look upon, though not upon himself: and therefore, after that by some message by one or two of them, he had tasted of the earl’s consent; it was agreed that these four should murder their master the lieutenant secretly in the night, and make their best of such money and portable goods of his, as they should find ready at hand, and get the keys of the Tower, and presently let forth Perkin and the earl. But this conspiracy was revealed in time, before it could be executed. And in this again the opinion of the King’s great wisdom did surcharge him with a sinister fame, that Perkin was but his bait, to entrap the earl of Warwick.

… Howsoever it were, hereupon Perkin, that had offended against grace now the third time, was at the last proceeded with, and by commissioners of oyer and terminer arraigned at Westminster, upon divers treasons committed and perpetrated after his coming on land within this kingdom, for so the judges advised, for that he was a foreigner, and condemned, and a few days after executed at Tyburn; where he did again openly read his confession, and take it upon his death to be true. This was the end of this little cockatrice of a King, that was able to destroy those that did not espy him first. It was one of the longest plays of that kind that hath been in memory, and might perhaps have had another end, if he had not met with a King both wise, stout, and fortunate.

And immediately after was arraigned before the Earl of Oxford, then for the time high steward of England, the poor Prince, the Earl of Warwick; not for the attempt to escape simply, for that was not acted; and besides, the imprisonment not being for treason, the escape by law could not be treason, but for conspiring with Perkin to raise sedition, and to destroy the King: and the earl confessing the indictment, had judgment, and was shortly after beheaded on Tower-hill.

This was also the end, not only of this noble and commiserable person Edward the earl of Warwick, eldest son to the duke of Clarence: but likewise of the line male of the Plantagenets, which had flourished in great royalty and renown, from the time of the famous King of England, King Henry the second. Howbeit it was a race often dipped in their own blood. It hath remained since only transplanted into other names, as well of the imperial line, as of other noble houses. But it was neither guilt of crime, nor treason of state, that could quench the envy that was upon the King for this execution: so that he thought good to export it out of the land, and to lay it upon his new ally, Ferdinando King of Spain. For these two Kings understanding one another at half a word, so it was that there were letters shewed out of Spain, whereby in the passages concerning the treaty of marriage, Ferdinando had written to the King in plain terms, that he saw no assurance of his succession, as long as the earl of Warwick lived; and that he was loth to send his daughter to troubles and dangers. But hereby, as the King did in some part remove the envy from himself; so he did not observe, that he did withal bring a kind of malediction and infausting upon the marriage, as an ill prognostic: which in event so far proved true, as both Prince Arthur enjoyed a very small time after the marriage, and the lady Catharine herself, a sad and a religious woman, long after, when King Henry the eighth his resolution of a divorce from her was first made known to her, used some words, that she had not offended, but it was a judgment of God, for that her former marriage was made in blood; meaning that of the earl of Warwick.

* The situation reminds of little Tsar Ivan VI in the 18th century, although that Russian prince was held from an even younger age, under even more oppressive conditions.

** Being only a figurehead, the pretend Warwick ironically enjoyed great mercy compared to the real one. Simnel was installed in Henry’s kitchens instead and lived out a comfortable life in the royal household.

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1393: Karsten Sarnow, Stralsund mayor

Add comment June 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1393 the mayor of Stralsund was beheaded.

From the perspective of that Hanseatic city‘s hereditary patricianate, Karsten Sarnow was a chancer — a burgher who championed the political reforms that enabled his own self to enter the city council.

He cinched his municipal preeminence by taking leadership of the naval campaign against some Baltic pirates and successfully suppressing them, marching a hundred or more of them through town for execution.

With this prestige he attained the mayoralty and attempted to implement an ambitious constitutional reform that chased the leading grandee family from the city.

This house, the Wulflams,* successfully intrigued against Sarnow from the Hanse sister-city of Lübeck and eventually Wulfhard Wulflam had the pleasure of revenging the slights against his station by ordering the decapitation of both Sarnow’s person and his constitutional innovations.

This coup scarcely resolved the simmering class and faction conflicts in Stralsund, as discussed by F.L. Carstein in Essays in German History, which notes that “from the beginning of the 14th century the patrician rule was attacked time and again by movements and revolts of the urban Commons, especially in the most important town of Pomerania, Stralsund.”

The popular movement, however, was not stifled. The council was forced to declare the memory of the executed Sarnow untarnished; his body was exhumed and given a solemn funeral. The populist party triumphed once more, helped by battles against the pirates. Yet after only a short time the rule of the old council was restored; the leaders of the rebellion were executed and 48 burghers were expelled …

The 15th century brought new unrest to Stralsund, of a clearly anticlerical character. The ecclesiastical superintendent of the town was a nobleman, Kurt von Bonow. In 1407 he complained about the low offerings the burghers gave to him, quit the town, assembled his noble friends and appeared with 300 horsemen outside the walls. They cut off the hands and feet of burghers whom they found outside, burnt down the farms beyond the walls and departed triumphantly with cattle and other booty; burning villages marked their path. When the priests in Stralsund added their insults and the rumour spread that they supported their leader with arms and money, the burghers, led by the porters’ guild, rose against the clergy, imprisoned sixteen of them and then attempted to burn the house where they were confined. The council tried to protect the priests, but the enraged crowd shouted they were all knaves and evildoers, they had helped to fan the fires and therefore they must burn. The master of the porters’ guild demanded the death of the three senior priests who were burned in the market place; the others were saved by the council. The news of ‘the priests burning at the Sund’ (i.e. Stralsund) spread throughout Germany. Then the burghers marched out of the town and pillaged the houses and estates of noblemen who had participated in Bonow’s enterprise. The feud between them and the nobility allied with the duke lasted seven years, and several other Pomeranian towns supported Stralsund. All trade languished …

About this time the social conflicts in the Hanseatic towns, especially in Lübeck, became so strong that the League — which meant the ruling merchant aristocracies — at a Diet held in Lübeck stipulated the death penalty for burghers who summoned the Commons to take action or agitated otherwise against the council; any member town in which the council was forcibly deposed by the burghers was to lose the Hanseatic privileges and liberties and was not to receive any help from the other towns. Fear had grown to such an extent that it was further ordained no burgher was to appear in front of the council with more than six companions.

Wulfhard Wulflam himself was murdered in 1409 in a revenge killing by the son of a noble knight whom he, Wulflam, had slain several years prior.

* The family’s Wulflamhaus, an outstanding exemplar of the late Gothic style, is still to be seen in Stralsund.

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1492: Jan van Coppenolle

Add comment June 16th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1492 the Flemish rebel Jan van Coppenolle was beheaded at the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent.

When the formerly doughty duchy of Burgundy faltered as an independent polity after the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, Ghent and its sister Low Countries trading cities had forced upon Charles’s heir Mary an expansive recognition of those cities’ rights.

It was known as the Great Privilege, and it was greatly dependent on the political weakness of the recognizing authority.

Mary expressed this weakness in another way as well: with her marriage to the Habsburg heir Maximilian I of Austria — tying her patrimony to the Austrian empire. Upon this marriage did the House of Habsburg found a redoubling of its already expansive holdings, for Mary herself brought the wealthy Low Countries into the fold while the couple’s son Philip married a Spanish infanta and founded the line of Habsburg Spanish monarchs.* Apt indeed was the House Habsburg motto: “Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you”

Mary, unfortunately, was not around to enjoy the triumph of her matrimonial arrangements, for in early 1482 a horse threw her while out on a ride, breaking her back. Philip might have had a bright future ahead, but he was only four years old.

It was Maximilian’s flex on direct power in the Low Countries — and in particular his ambition to raise taxes to fund expansionist wars — that brought to the stage our man van Coppenolle (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch). He became a preeminent popular leader of a decade-long Flemish rebellion against the future Holy Roman Emperor that verged towards a war of independence.

Briefly forced to flee to exile in France after Maximilian quelled the initial resistance in 1485, van Coppenolle returned with French backing and controlled Ghent from 1487 when the rebellion re-emerged. This second installment had some legs, especially since Maximilian was imprisoned several months by the city of Bruges, allowing van Coppenolle leave enough to even mint his own coinage, the Coppenollen … before the Habsburgs finally suppressed the risings.

* The present Spanish king, Felipe VI, is a descendant of Philip I.

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1984: James Hutchins

2 comments March 16th, 2019 Headsman

James W. Hutchins was gassedexecuted by lethal injection in North Carolina on this date in 1984.

Hutchins was “credited” with the largest one-day slaughter of North Carolina law enforcement officers in 1979. An altercation with his teenage daughter* led to a domestic disturbance call, which led eventually to three dead cops all killed in separate shootings.

Hutchins shot Captain Roy Huskey by ambush when he responded alone to the 911 call. Several minutes later, a deputy named Owen Messersmith rolled up to check on the situation since Huskey hadn’t checked in. Messersmith quickly realized the reason, but was shot through the window of his patrol car as he slammed into reverse and “the vehicle drifted backwards across the street and came to rest in a ditch with Messersmith’s body slumped over the steering wheel, causing the horn to blow without stop.” (Wikipedia) The third victim, state highway patrolman Robert L. Peterson, pulled Hutchins over for speeding as the latter fled in his car.

Only by this point did the garbled and chaotic communications flying through dispatch radios that day finally coalesce sufficiently to give cops on the scene a full picture of what was going on: Peterson, for instance, is thought to have been entirely innocent of the knowledge that a suspect in a double shooting was at large in the area.

At any rate, the ensuing manhunt brought Hutchins into custody and a postscript as a part of political lore: in a sort of Ricky Ray Rector play, Democratic Governor Jim Hunt theatrically staged Hutchins’s execution date and denial of clemency in the run-up to his 1984 Senate campaign. But Rector’s sacrifice at least had the excuse of success: not so Hutchins’s. No matter Hunt’s tough-on-crime credentials, he was still trounced at the polls by goggle-eyed racist Jesse Helms.

There’s an independent film about the events in this notorious murder spree, titled Damon’s Law.

* Hutchins was pissed that she spiked the punch for her high school graduation party with vodka.

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706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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1391: Agnese Visconti and Antonio da Scandiano, adulterous lovers?

Add comment February 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1391, the condottiero tyrant of Mantua, Francisco Gonzaga, removed his consort from his right arm by removing her head.

Daughter of the powerful Milanese Visconti family, Agnese Visconti had been dynastically married off to the Mantuan prince by her father. Dad had in 1385 been overthrown and murdered by a kinsman, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, but still this was all in the family: the thing was that Francisco Gonzaga started wanting to cut ties with that family.

No trouble: Francisco simply accused his wife of adultery with a knight,* Antonio da Scandiano, and had both put to death on February 7, 1391 — Agnese via the blade, Antonio at the end of a rope. Then, Francisco switched its allegiance from #TeamMilan to #TeamVenice in the peninsular geopolitics scrum.**

European courts were aghast as news of the divorce proceedings reached her preening chateaux, but “nimble, opportunistic changes of political loyalty like these were typical of Gonzaga foreign policy and helped them to navigate their small state safely in a sea of unpredictable alliances.” (Source)

Consummate survivors, the House of Gonzaga weathered the Visconti wrath and ruled Mantua into the 18th century, producing among other things down the centuries a name check in Hamlet and a pious Jesuit who became namesake to the many educational institutions called “Gonzaga”.

* The headsman is not so cold to the sentiments of the heart that he excludes the possibility of an actual dalliance. Consider him agnostic, beneath his dark cowl.

** Gian Galeazzo Visconti did right by his cousin by assailing Mantua in revenge, leading Gonzaga to throw up the gorgeous Castello di San Giorgio. This fortress was later used as a prison, and in its day has held some figures destined for Executed Today‘s pages, such as Andreas Hofer and the Belfiore martyrs.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Women

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