1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

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1945: Gen. Charles Delestraint

2 comments April 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, French general and Resistance figure Charles Delestraint was hastily disposed of, ten days before the liberation of Dachau.

Delestraint, who also spent the First World War as a POW, was among those who noticed the hidebound military dogmas of the past needed updating.

With de Gaulle, Delestraint was a forceful advocate in the interwar period for mechanized warfare.

He didn’t get far enough, certainly not as far as the soon-to-be-vaunted Wehrmacht.

In 1940, just months after retirement, Delestraint was recalled to lead a mechanized division against the Germans, which of course turned out to be a spectacular triumph of tank warfare … for the Germans. While the French distributed armor units throughout their forces, the Germans massed them at a schwerpunkt aiming to break through the French line and speedily conquer in the rear.

Delestraint later remarked of the doctrinal difference,

We had 3,000 tanks and so did the Germans. We used them in a thousand packs of three, the Germans in three packs of a thousand.

Recruited subsequently into the French Resistance and thence betrayed, Delestraint enjoined the hospitality of many concentration camps and the tender mercies of one of their more infamous torturers.

Uncertainty remains over exactly how the Germans killed Delestraint, or even why the Dachau commandants wanted to finish off him in particular, although he was a primo catch in the anti-Resistance operation. The body was immediately cremated, camp records of the execution order disappeared if they ever existed, and eyewitness testimony at variance.

But dying in Dachau for the French Resistance? By any standard, that’s a passport to hero status, as attested by any number of Rue General Charles Delestraints to be found in his native land.

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1804: Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duc d’Enghien

3 comments March 21st, 2009 Headsman

It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder on this date in 1804.

Napoleon shocked, just shocked, his admirers and more especially his foes by having a royal relative ventilated at Vincennes for the trifling offense of plotting against his life.

The particular allegations against him may have been formulated with greater haste than precision, but the duc d’Enghien actually had been taking English coin to overthrow Republican France for the past decade, and nonchalantly avowed as much at his drumhead tribunal.


The Duke awaiting execution in the predawn gloom in the moat of the Chateau de Vincennes. The pathos of the accompanying dog is mandatory for this scene, as in this Harold Piffard illustration. This spot is now marked with a monument.

After surviving one too many assassination attempts, Napoleon was in the market for someone to make an example of, and the Bourbon scion, hanging about the French frontiers conniving with the English, certainly qualified.

The dispatch of his military commission, which rammed through a conviction the night of the 20th and arranged the fusillade immediately thereafter, raised self-righteous hackles among rival monarchs who had little enough compunction of their own about politically expeditious regicide.

Conventional disdain for the shooting (as with this (pdf) from the Fourth Estate), reached far and wide, and appears in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a subject for (spurious) gossip in the Russian salons.

The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Bonaparte’s hatred of him.

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s spirit-questing Russian noble then in the thrall of the Little Corporal, has the rashness to defend d’Enghien’s execution.

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Monsieur Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

Though that defense went over like a lead balloon with the partygoers (and with Tolstoy), others have ventured to stand in the breach for the Corsican, who assuredly attracts far more opprobrium as a commoner shooting a royal traitor than he would have had their bloodlines been reversed. Bonaparte enthusiasts, like those of the Napoleon podcast, are particularly susceptible to such impolitic sentiment.

[audio:http://napoleon.thepodcastnetwork.com/audio/tpn_napoleon_20060920_011.mp3]

But Louis-Antoine-Henri normally gets better sympathy than that, as he did with the like of Chateaubriand, who resigned his Napoleonic commission in outrage.

And his death — far more notable than anything he did in life — is supposed to have occasioned the quip, “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”: “it is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.” (Or, “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”) Often attributed to Talleyrand, it was more likely uttered by his machiavellian mirror image, Joseph Fouche.

(See here for more on the phrase’s lineage. Talleyrand was so strongly in support of d’Enghien’s death that he is sometimes accused of steamrolling Napoleon on the subject. The wily minister destroyed some evidence and effected a timely volte-face when Bonaparte fell.)

The First Consul — he would crown himself Emperor later in 1804 — never had use for any such soft-pedaling, and unapologetically avowed the Duke’s execution literally to the end of his life.

Dying in exile on St. Helena years later, it is said, Napoleon read a calumny upon the d’Enghien shooting in the English press and promptly hauled out his already-completed will to insert in his own hand his lasting justification for the affair.

I caused the Duc d’Enghien to be arrested and tried, because that step was essential to the safety, interest, and honour of the French people, when the Count d’Artois* was maintaining, by his own confession, sixty assassins at Paris. Under similar circumstances, I should act in the same way.

* The Comte d’Artois was, at the time of Napoleon’s writing, the heir presumptive to the restored Bourbon monarchy — and he did indeed succeed in 1824 as Charles X. In 1804, the future king was in exile in Britain funding hits on Bonaparte and kindred counterrevolutionary stuff. For adherents of the much-disputed theory that Napoleon was poisoned in his island captivity, d’Artois figures as a possible instigator of the murder.

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1927: Father Miguel Pro, “Viva Cristo Rey!”

4 comments November 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1927, the anti-clerical Mexican government made the emblematic martyr of the Cristero War.

This video is in Spanish, but the storyline is pretty easy to follow — young man finds faith, lives faith, dies faith.

Miguel Pro‘s dying cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long live Christ the King!” — was a refrain of Cristeros, anti-government guerrillas who in the late 1920’s fought the revolutionary Mexican government’s attempts to forcibly restrict the power of the Catholic Church.

That conflict had been brewing for years, an outgrowth of Mexico’s own complex history of colonization and development — measures to restrict the church’s size, wealth, and social reach had been mooted and sometimes implemented well back to the middle of the 19th century.

Early in the 20th, the confrontation was merely a twist on its classic form: liberal state-builders and the Catholic hierarchy were (or increasingly saw themselves as) diametrically opposed in their vision for Mexico.

That conflict came to a head under president Plutarco Elias Calles, an irreligious northerner with a project of national capital development for whom the church’s intransigence from its agrarian strongholds was most unwelcome … and who seemed to delight in provoking Rome with sport like mandatory physicals for priests, not neglecting to publicize the incidence of venereal disease thereby revealed.

Liberals had already brought about drastically reduced clerical privileges in the Mexican Constitution of 1917; its somewhat draconian measures were neither fully enforced nor fully resisted, but initiated a period where the two hostile institutions rudely grappled for their respective spheres of influence on the ground.

Calles was the rudest grappler of all, and his 1926 Calles Law pushed for anti-clericalism stricter than the letter of the constitution … and sparked armed resistance.

It was an exceptionally dirty war with routine summary executions on both sides and thousands of Catholic refugees — a dangerous environment for any priest with legal sanctions against basically every practice of the vocation. (Photos of Cristeros, some in heroic resistance and others in grisly martyrdom, can be eyeballed here.)

Pro, a Jesuit who like many was forced underground, was under state surveillance and got picked up in the aftermath of an assassination attempt against a prominent politician. He was chosen to make an example of — without an actual trial, possibly because there’s no actual reason to think he was involved in the bombing.

Looking at these pictures of Pro’s last moments, it’s hard to believe that they were taken and circulated at government direction to cow the Cristero movement. Fail.


Led out to execution in a police courtyard. The place of his death today is (bizarrely) Calle Loteria Nacional.


Calmly at prayer before his death, under the eye of the firing squad commander.


Pro himself refused a blindfold. But why state authorities carrying out the execution with an eye towards public relations would allow him to die in this pose is anyone’s guess.


He blessed and forgave the firing squad, of course.


Just beginning to topple at the moment the bullets struck him.


Like many firing squad executions, this one failed to kill its victim with the ceremonial volley. Pro was finished off with a coup de grace.

Calles was simultaneously — the key measures were also enacted in 1926 — involved in a confrontation with the United States over oil rights, a situation that came to the brink of war, with Washington saber-rattling about “Soviet Mexico”. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two situations weren’t related, especially since the new American ambassador* who had arrived only the month before Pro’s execution would ultimately negotiate both situations’ resolutions.

While the natural resource politics went their separate way, the Mexican Revolution’s anti-clerical strain didn’t so much disappear by negotiation as fade away over decades, with regular new outbreaks.

One thinks of Mexico today as such so staunch a Catholic country that it’s hard to imagine that some of these provisions were only officially repealed in 1998.

As for Pro, he’s welcome in Mexico by now — celebrated by Pope John Paul II who ultimately beatified him, and the inspirational source of this hymn whose refrain is his famous last cry.

There’s a faithful site in his honor here, and apparently a shrine to him in Houston, Texas run by a group pushing for his canonization.

* The American ambassador in question, Dwight Morrow, invited Charles Lindbergh on a goodwill tour to Mexico, where the aviator would meet the diplomat’s daughter not long after Miguel Pro’s martyrdom. Little could Lindbergh and Anne Morrow suspect that their love match would set them on the path to their own famous encounter with capital punishment.

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1538: John Lambert, “none but Christ”

3 comments November 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date 470 years ago, John Lambert was burned to death at London’s Smithfield market for heresy.

One possible way to read the early progress of the English Reformation is as an initial flowering of Protestantism followed — after the execution of Anne Boleyn — by a reactionary crackdown by the monarch.

In this telling, John Lambert (born John Nicolson or Nicholson) marks the turning point, the man in whose blood Henry VIII etched his warning against doctrinal liberality.

John Lambert cooked his goose by picking a theological dispute with a pastor in London. He didn’t buy into transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine (still extant today) that the bread blessed on the altar became the literal body of Christ.

Though the Anglican church would ditch this belief soon thereafter, it came down hard on Lambert in a show trial attended by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and all the Tudor big wheels whose heads were at that point attached to their shoulders.

The king himself — who here reminds one of the the stout defense of the sacraments that in his early Catholic period had earned him the papal honorific “defender of the faith” — debated theology with the accused, though mostly he left it to his august councilors.


John Lambert disputing before Henry VIII. Early 19th c. illustration.

But the crowned head made his doctrine as plain to the audience as the consequences of crossing it.

The pro-Lambert account from which this extract is drawn is available free on Google books:

At length [Lambert] was worn out with fatigue, having been kept five hours standing …

Night coming on, the King being desirous to break up this pretended disputation, said to Lambert, “What sayest thou now, after all this pains taken with thee, and all the reasons and instructions of these learned men? Art thou not yet satisfied? Wilt thou live or die? What sayest thou? Thou has yet free choice.” Lambert answered, “I yield and submit myself wholly unto the will of your Majesty.” Then said the King, “Commit thyself into the hands of God, and not unto mine.” Lambert replied, “I commend my soul unto the hands of God, but my body I wholly yield and submit unto your clemency.” Then said the King, “If you do commit yourself unto my judgment, you must die, for I will not be a Patron unto heretics.” And then turning to Lord Cromwell he said, “Cromwell, read the sentence of condemnation against him:” which was accordingly done.

A few months later, Henry induced Parliament to pass the Act of the Six Articles, essentially establishing Catholic doctrine — sans Pope, obviously — as the basis for the Church of England and criminalizing dissent.

What to make of this trial and the policy it represented is open to dispute. In a simple telling, Henry realizes his Reformation is running away from him, or becomes wise to discomfiting reforms that Cranmer or Cromwell are pushing. Too, the ebb and flow of Henry’s “Reformation” has sometimes been seen as a product of the shifting balance between reformers and conservatives advising the crown; Protestant martyrologist John Foxe favored this approach since it enabled him to celebrate a John Lambert without indicting the monarch by blaming advisors.

Lambert’s death is also sometimes interpreted in light of the international situation, as the Catholic powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire had made peace, potentially (along with Scotland) encircling England with Popish foes who might conceivably be less belligerent with a move towards traditional doctrine.*

But maybe that’s all a good deal more explanation than is needed for the old defender of the faith. G.W. Bernard’s consideration of The King’s Reformation argues that Lambert isn’t so pivotal after all:

[H]istorians who see … the trial of Lambert as some sort of turning point are greatly mistaken. There was absolutely nothing new in Henry’s policy in November 1538. Ever since radical — Zwinglian — notions on the mass had come to influence some within England, Henry had reacted firmly and boldly. This was not something that only came late in the 1530s, when he supposedly woke up to what Cromwell and Cranmer had been doing in his name but without his knowledge. It was there from the start. As early as March 1535 a proclamation fiercely denounced strangers who had presumptuously rebaptised themselves and who denied that the blessed and most holy sacrament of the altar was really the body of Christ. If there was a novelty in autumn 1538, it was the perception that such heresies were spreading through the realm and that heretics with a high profile, such as Lambert, needed to be dealt with publicly so that others might learn from their unhappy example. … Henry surely blasted against sacramentarians for the straightforward reason that he sincerely believed them to be wicked.

As for Lambert himself, he met an especially cruel version of the none-too-pleasant sentence of burning alive, allegedly being lifted by pikestaffs from the flame when his legs were burned off to prolong his suffering. He is said to have continued to call out the inspirational last words, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

* It was against this alliance that Cromwell would arrange the king’s ill-fated marriage to German princess Anne of Cleves, a debacle that helped Cromwell lose his own head.

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1941: Arndt Pekurinen, conscientious objector

2 comments November 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Finnish pacifist Arndt Pekurinen was executed at the front for refusing to fight.

Initially conscripted in the 1920’s, Pekurinen had refused to serve under arms and spent 1929-31 in prison for his troubles. He was a minor cause celebre; British MPs and big international names like Einstein and H.G. Wells pressed for his release.

A change in the Finnish conscription law — the bill was called the “Lex Pekurinen” — finally saw him freed to civilian life, but he was drafted anew to fight the Soviet Union in the “Continuation War”. When he again refused, he was shot at Suomussalmi without trial — though two men refused to do it before someone finally agreed to be the executioner.

“Kun ihmisiä ei syödä, on niitä turha teurastaa.”
(“As people are not eaten, butchering them is of no use.”)

A neglected figure during the Cold War, he’s enjoyed a latter-day rediscovery since the 1998 Erno Paasilinna book Courage: The life and execution of Arndt Pekurinen. In the decade since, Pekurinen has become a household name and a widely-admired figure. (The link is in Finnish.) A park in Helsinki was recently named for him. (Finnish again.)

Tangentially, the Nordic stock of our day’s victim and his era of militarism call to mind the hero of e.e. cummings’ “i sing of Olaf glad and big”. The allusions of this poem are American, and there’s no reason to associate it directly with Pekurinen — but it so happens that it was published in 1931, the year international pressure forced the end of Pekunin’s first prison stint:

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but–though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

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1793: The Girondists

9 comments October 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, in a revolutionary Paris where the machinery of the Terror was clattering to life, five tumbrils bore to the guillotine twenty former Girondist ministers to the National Convention — plus the corpse of their late colleague Dufriche de Valazé, who had cheated the executioner by killing himself.

Named for the region of Aquitaine from which their leading lights hailed, the Girondists (or Girondins) had in the compressed history of the Revolution ascended from fringe democratic party to governing party even as the political facts shifted under their feet. Finding themselves the conservative party in an assembly increasingly dominated by radical Montagnards and the Paris mob, the Girondists’ tactlessness and stubborn refusal to deal with Georges Danton after his (still historically murky) involvement in the riotous slaughter of prisoners during the September Massacre eroded their position.

As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror.


L’ultime adieu des Girondins le 31 Octobre 1793, by Paul Delaroche

Decades later, the English historian Lord Acton remembered the faction’s doomed heroism.

[The Girondins] stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.

Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men.

They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction.

That Pierre Vergniaud who scorned the hollow truce was the last to mount the scaffold this day — a shining orator of the Revolution who captured the calamity engulfing his nation in another well-remembered aphorism, “the Revolution devours its own children.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Cycle of Violence,Famous,France,Guillotine,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1902: Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock, “scapegoats for Empire”

15 comments February 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1902, two Australian officers were shot in virtual secrecy at Pretoria for atrocities they committed in service of the crown during the Second Boer War.

Harry “Breaker” Morant — he got the nickname from his aptitude with horses — was the famous one of the pair and the reason the date is so well-known to posterity as to merit its own cinematic treatment (review):

A colorful son of the Commonwealth’s hardscrabble strata, Breaker Morant led a life that has been improved into mythology, not least by his own efforts. Impoverished but educated, he migrated in 1883 from England to Australia where he carved out a larger-than-life profile as a bush poet, married the (subsequently) famous anthropologist Daisy Bates and eventually — fatefully — volunteered for service in South Africa.

The Second Boer War, Britain’s (ultimately successful) fight to corral the Dutch-descended Boer republics into the empire, started sunnily enough for the English, but as the Boers abandoned a conventional war they could not win and adopted guerrilla tactics, it descended into an exceedingly dirty conflict — notable for Britain’s pioneering use of concentration camps.

It was also notable for savagery between combatants. When Morant’s best friend in the unit was tortured and mutilated by Boer guerrillas, the poet went on a rampage, ordering a number of prisoners’ summary executions over a period of weeks. It was for this that he and his confederate were shot this day. The fact of his confinement was not communicated to the Australian government; Peter Handcock’s wife only learned of his execution weeks later, from press reports.

The defendants maintained that there was a standing order from the top to kill any Boer caught wearing British khaki, a tactic the Boers were known to employ, and that the order was frequently enforced. Though the prosecution strenuously maintained otherwise at trial, the existence of that (unwritten) directive has become accepted to posterity.

What remains murky is the matter of why — why these two, why now? And is Breaker Morant a hero or a villain? Those questions are also prisms for the many currents of Morant’s case so strikingly prescient for the century that lay ahead.*

Asymmetric warfare and the legal status of guerrillas. Human rights and war crimes. Corruption and plausible deniability. The moral culpability of subordinates for the orders of the brass. And certainly all the contradictory forces of empire and resistance entailed by an Australian adventurer shot by a Scottish detachment for killing Dutchmen in Africa at the behest of London.** It was an old-time colonial war in a world becoming, for we of the early 21st century, recognizably modern.

Hard-living to his dying breath, Morant stayed up the night before he was shot scribbling his last poem — piquantly titled “Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday”.

In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit-
A little bit – unhappy!

It really ain’t the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme
Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!

No matter what “end” they decide –
Quick-lime or “b’iling ile,” sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!

But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship
To polish off the Dutchmen!

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!

And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: “ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!”

Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, –
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: “The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.”

His last words were hurled at his firing squad: “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

* It is no coincidence that the Australian film excerpted in this post was released while the Vietnam War was still a fresh memory.

** Breaker Morant’s memory would develop into a point of Australian suspicion towards the British military, especially after Morant’s persecutor helped author World War I’s infamous hecatomb of Australian (and New Zealand) troops at Gallipoli. Morant and Handcock turned out to be the last Australians executed by the British military.

Update: Via Airminded, an Australian history program took a skeptical look at the Breaker Morant myth a few years ago.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Australia,Cycle of Violence,England,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Martyrs,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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532: Hypatius and Pompeius, for Byzantine sports riots

4 comments January 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 532, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had two nephews of a former emperor executed for participating, however unwillingly, in the Nika riots.

Early in Justinian‘s reign, chariot-racing factions comprised mobs unruly enough to put any modern football hooligan into traction. Riots were a periodic feature of the sport.

The historian Procopius, who is our guide to this day’s events, describes a type the modern reader will recognize:

The Empress Theodora‘s cool head famously saved the day — and the empire — when her husband was ready to bolt. “May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty … as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”

They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction” …

When the clubs were pitted against each other, the civic disturbance rated a mere annoyance. But early in 532, they came into an unexpected alliance — around, it should be said in this venue, hangings meted out to their respective partisans — and outright revolt erupted at a race on January 13. Instead of chanting their respective factional slogans, a common cry of Nika! — “Victory!” — heralded a week of mayhem that nearly ended the great Byzantine prince’s era when it had hardly begun.

This day’s victims were nephews of a former Byzantine emperor, and their lot in the affair was an unlucky one. The suspicious Justinian cast them out of the palace quite against their will, for they feared exactly what in fact came to pass: the mob proclaimed Hypatius emperor and thrust him involuntarily — he had to be physically pried from the desperate resistance of his wife — into treason.

It was an old vintage in the Roman tradition, as Edward Gibbon reflected in reviewing the perverse structural logic of civil war during an earlier era of the western empire:

[I]f we examine with candour the conduct of these usurpers, it will appear that they were much oftener driven into rebellion by their fears than urged to it by their ambition … If the dangerous favour of the army had imprudently declared them deserving of the purple, they were marked for sure destruction; and even prudence would counsel them to secure a short enjoyment of the empire, and rather to try the fortune of war than to expect the hand of an executioner.

For a few hours, the throne stood in danger. Justinian mulled flight; his remarkable wife held him steady — and on January 18, their generals trapped the rioters in the Hippodrome and slaughtered some 30,000 of them.

Back to Procopius:

[T]he populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat … the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed.

Hypatius and his brother were taken alive but disposed of on this day, by which time their deaths were but a drop in a bloodbath.

[T]he emperor commanded the two prisoners to be kept in severe confinement. Then, while Pompeius was weeping and uttering pitiable words (for the man was wholly inexperienced in such misfortunes), Hypatius reproached him at length and said that those who were about to die unjustly should not lament. For in the beginning they had been forced by the people against their will, and afterwards they had come to the hippodrome with no thought of harming the emperor. And the soldiers killed both of them on the following day and threw their bodies into the sea. The emperor confiscated all their property for the public treasury, and also that of all the other members of the senate who had sided with them. Later, however, he restored to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius and to all others the titles which they had formerly held, and as much of their property as he had not happened to bestow upon his friends. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.

Bad luck for Hypatius and Pompeius proved a blessing for posterity (and Turkey’s contemporary tourist trade): riot-devastated space near the Hippodrome was appropriated by Justinian to build the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica.

This gripping affair is narrated in greater depth in an installment of Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast series:

[audio:http://www.12byzantinerulers.com/audio/07-Justinian-Part_1.mp3]

… and in gripping detail by the History of Byzantium podcast.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Early Middle Ages,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Rioting,Summary Executions,Treason,Turkey

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