1955: Three for the death of King Ananda of Thailand

Add comment February 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Thai royal secretary Chaliew Pathumros and royal pages Butr Patamasarin and Chit Singhaseni were shot as regicides. (Many other transliterations of these names, and the other Thai names in this post, are possible.) Few now believe that it was they who killed the young King of Thailand, Ananda Mahidol … but who really did it?

The defendants left to right across the front row: Chit Singhaseni, Butr Patamasarin, and Chaliew Pathumros.

Inheriting the throne of Siam — it became Thailand in 1939* — as a nine-year-old expatriate student in Switzerland, the wispy King Ananda would be described by Lord Mountbatten as “a frightened, short-sighted boy … a pathetic and lonely figure.” Some questioned whether he wanted to be king; others, whether monarchy would or should survive in Thailand at all. (Absolute monarchy had given way to constitutional monarchy in 1932.) Ananda’s own deceased father, a prince who had gone to Harvard, studied medicine, and married a commoner, seemed to model a different direction altogether, and Ananda’s legally questionable selection in 1935 might have been designed intentionally to enthrone a figure with no capacity for governance.

In any event, he would not bear this strange burden for very long — for his reign ended at 9:20 in the morning on June 9, 1946, announced by the single report of His Majesty’s own Colt .45 in Boromphiman Throne Hall. Ananda Mahidol was 20 years old, and he’d been expecting within a few days to fly back to Switzerland and wrap up his law degree. Instead, shot dead in the head at point-blank range, he was the vortex of a murder(?) mystery that continues to this day to elude a satisfactory accounting. His younger brother immediately succeeded him as King Bhumibol Adulyadej and would reign for 70 years** but even he couldn’t say what happened in this 1980 BBC interview.

The palace initially announced that the king had killed himself accidentally while toying with his gun but as more information leaked out it speedily rubbished the hypothesis of accidental or suicidal self-infliction. According to a British forensic pathologist who examined the evidence,†

The pistol found at the King’s side was by his left hand, but he was right-handed. The wound, over the left eye, was not in one of the elective sites, nor a “contact” discharge. The direction of fire was not inward towards the centre of the head.

Such findings pointed to the more politically explosive possibility that someone else shot King Ananda, which was also the conclusion of an official Thai inquiry late in 1946.

Soon, charges that the late king had been murdered at the behest of Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong — a republican who in his student days had been prominent in the successful movement to overthrow royal absolutism — were being aggressively bandied by his opposition. This rumor would eventually be enlisted as justification for a 1947 military coup that forced Pridi to flee Thailand.

Having made the punishment of Ananda’s assassins part of his putsch’s raison d’etre, the authoritarian former Axis collaborator Field Marshal Phibun now fixed his gaze on three palace servants who had been close to the young king in his last hours. Through them, Phibun’s new regime could condemn Pridi in absentia.

In a bizarre and ridiculous legal saga that began in 1948, the trio would be depicted as part of a sinister plot under Pridi’s direction to slay the king — Chaliew as Pridi’s instrument, and the two pages, who were in personal attendance upon Ananda at the time of his death, as complicit witnesses/accessories. (The judgment never quite says directly who pulled the trigger.) Over the course of the legal odyssey, two of the scapegoats’ defense attorneys were murdered, and two more arrested for treason: representing these regicides was such a dangerous task that by the end their team comprised only two young attorneys, one of whom was Chaliew’s freshly-graduated daughter.

Even so, only Chit was convicted in the first go-round but prosecution appeals against the verdict succeeded in condemning both of the other men, too. (One can read the full verdict in English here.) They would be executed one by one via a machine gun fusillade to the back, delivered through a screen — the distinctive local method. Bhumibol could have spared them. He didn’t.

But talk of these men as arch-traitors faded as political exigencies shifted in the subsequent decades. Their alleged conspiracy was incoherently depicted from the start, and nothing of direct evidence really implicated them: one can see in the BBC clip above that King Bhumibol doesn’t even bother discussing them when asked about Ananda’s death. It’s left the rather consequential question of who killed the king in a puzzling irresolution, a situation compounded by Thailand’s expansive lèse majesté law which renders taboo many obvious lines of inquiry when a royal is slain in a closed residence peopled by other royals. Speculation still centers on the three main scenarios considered from the outset: suicide, homicide, and accident.


South African historian Rayne Kruger examined the obscure event in The Devil’s Discus: The Death of Ananda, King of Siam and concluded that it might have been suicide after all. In Kruger’s conception, it would have been occasioned by the young king’s mooning over a fellow law student back in Switzerland (Marylene Ferrari) who was forbidden him by his royal station.

It was published in 1964, and is banned under Thailand’s aggressive censorship program.


William Stevenson’s The Revolutionary King postulates that fugitive Japanese war criminal Masanobu Tsuji, who was hiding out in Thailand at the time, masterminded the king’s assassination.

Bhumibol and the Thai court permitted Stevenson intimate access for several years researching this volume, although this did not prevent the book from also meeting a chilly reception in Thailand. (It’s unclear to me whether it was in fact ever formally banned, as some sites assert.) Although Stevenson’s theory about the killer doesn’t have many adherents, one supposes that in view of the author’s access, Bhumibol must have suggested it or assented to it during their private conversations.


Scottish journalist and former Reuters Bangkok correspondent Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of another book banned in Thailand (A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century), has argued that the only plausible inference from the strange pattern of circumstantial evidence is that King Bhumibol himself — then an 18-year-old — pulled the trigger, likely by accident while horsing around with Ananda.

If Ananda was not assassinated by an intruder, did not shoot himself by accident, and did not commit suicide, that means he was shot by somebody known to be at the Barompiman Hall that morning. And only one person was not able to fully account for their movements that morning: Bhumibol. In particular, his testimony to investigators appeared to conflict with that of the royal nanny …

Discrepancies in the accounts of what happened when Bhumibol went to see Ananda at 9 a.m. are also telling. Investigators began to suspect the most likely scenario was that Bhumibol had indeed gone to see Ananda, but had not been turned away by the pages as he and they were later to claim. He went into Ananda’s room.

What happened there over the next 20 minutes, only Bhumibol knows for sure.

Bhumibol and Ananda both owned several guns and enjoyed playing with them. Indeed, Bhumibol had been known in the past to playfully point a gun at his brother. This has led many people to speculate privately that Bhumibol and Ananda were playing some kind of game in the bedroom that morning and that something had gone terribly wrong. The forensic evidence suggests Ananda was asleep when he was killed, however, although there remains the likelihood that, as the British ambassador’s secret cable suggests, the scene was rearranged after Ananda’s death. In any event, no credible explanation for the death of Ananda has ever been proposed other than this: between 9 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Ananda’s Colt .45 was taken out from his bedside cabinet, and somehow Bhumibol came to shoot his brother with it, with the muzzle very close to Ananda’s forehead. Perhaps they were playing, or perhaps Ananda was still dozing and Bhumibol wanted to wake him with a practical joke, holding the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Most probably, he removed the magazine from the Colt .45 automatic, put it to his brother’s head, and pulled the trigger, forgetting that even with the magazine removed, one round remains in the breech. Less likely, but possible, is that they argued about something and Bhumibol brandished the gun in a fit of anger. Bhumibol alone has the answer, and he seems unlikely to ever give us the truth.

This theory, which is also of course lèse majesté in Thailand, is supported by Paul Handley, yet another journo with a banned book (The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej).

Marshall’s website zenjournalist.org touches this event in a number of posts; he makes the case most directly and thoroughly in “The Tragedy of King Bhumibol”, Part III and Part IV. These and other posts also marshall diplomatic cables and intelligence reports showing that Bhumibol as the killer was common private scuttlebutt among both Thai and foreign officials from the very first days to the point of being received, albeit publicly unutterable, wisdom. For example, American diplomat Kenneth Landon‡ casually remarks as fact that King Ananda was “killed by his brother, either intentionally or accidentally, by the gun the OSS guy had given them to play with” in this recording made by his son for a family history. (It occurs in passing at 4:48)

Rumor is not proof, of course, but this theory would certainly account for the shroud of permanent mystery surrounding June 9, 1946, not to mention the king’s own grave public persona (“The King Never Smiles …”). For Marshall, Bhumibol — a fun-loving, jazz-playing sprite at the time he allegedly shot his beloved older brother — was a figure of monumental tragedy and, at least before he got to the point of allowing innocent people to take the fall for it, his dissembling about Ananda’s death

was not a way of shirking responsibility. Quite the reverse: his failure to confess was in many ways a profound sacrifice. Had he told the truth about the death of Ananda, he could have escaped back to Switzerland for a very comfortable life as a playboy prince, albeit a notorious one. Instead, he lied, and accepted the crushing burden of kingship, a role that he had never wanted. He resolved to devote himself tirelessly to royal duty for the rest of his life. It probably seemed the only way he could even begin to make amends.

* Thailand was again Siam from 1946 to 1948. I’ve simply used “Thai” and “Thailand” throughout this post about events overlapping this period, the better to avoid confusion.

** Bhumibol, who died in 2016, was among the world’s longest-reigning monarchs ever. As of this writing his son holds the throne.

† The palace immediately took control of, and meddled with, the scene, so the available evidence falls very far short of what a crime scene investigator might wish for.

‡ Kenneth Landon’s wife Margaret, his longtime companion in Siam/Thailand since the two first went as missionaries in 1927, is noteworthy as the author of Anna and the King of Siam, which is the basis for (among other adaptations) the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I and the Jodie Foster film Anna and the King.

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)

Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

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1584: Balthasar Gerard, assassin of William the Silent

1 comment July 14th, 2013 dogboy

“If you succeed in your enterprise, the King will fulfill all his promises, and you will gain an immortal name besides.”

Christoffel d’Assonleville, to Balthasar Gérard

After 4 days of torture, on this date in 1584, Balthasar Gérard (Geeraerts) finally met his end by beheading on the wheel.

Gérard managed to be both historically important and wholly forgettable: an assassin working for Spain against the Netherlands, his regicide was met with a predictably stiff punishment. Then, no fault of his own, the subsequent course of history** pushed the assassin into obscurity while elevating his prey.

A lawyer by trade, Gérard was a fervent Catholic and supporter of the Spanish crown, which controlled the territory up the coast through the present-day Netherlands. At the peak of its power, Spain’s monarchy — led by King Philip II — had significant cause for concern at the rise in Protestantism.

The Spanish were Europe’s paladins of staunch Catholicism, and the sight of her troops did little to endear Spain to her colonized neighbors to the North.

For both religious reasons and political ones, the Dutch were looking for a way out from under the Spanish thumb, and a former noble named William, Duke of Orange, was a major instigator in the struggle. In his collected letters and addresses from the period, An apology or defence of William the First of Nassau, William states that, starting in 1559, he became increasingly concerned with plans against Protestants by the Spanish monarchy.

That also happens to be the year William was bestowed with stadtholdership of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht; in effect, he controlled the Dutch coast.

Though he was known as William the Silent, the Duke was endowed with both financial resources and widespread popularity, and he didn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to Inquisition courts in his realms.†

When the head enforcer of that policy, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, left town, William got even noisier — declaring before the Council of State that Spanish policies were squelching religious freedom.

In 1566, the nobleman signed onto the Compromise of Nobles and began funding insurgencies across the northern provinces. As religious unrest grew, Calvinists and Protestants in the French and Germanic portions of Spain’s holdings quickly formed up behind William. An early attempt in 1568 to invade the Netherlands using German mercenaries and French Huguenots failed, but the resultant executions of Egmont and Hoorn put Spain on a long and winding road toward defeat.

The Dutch War was afoot, with William leading the way.

It would take and dozens of small-scale military victories over the next 15 years (during which William declared himself a Calvinist and fully broke his Spanish ties) for the Dutch to move to independence. The 1580 Union of Utrecht and 1581 Act of Abjuration officially ousted King Phillip II from the Netherlands and installed a new government.

Needless to say, Phillip reciprocated William’s love.

In 1580, Spain’s top man put a price on William’s head. Juan de Jáuregui tried to collect two years later by shooting the stadtholder, but the man holding the new title of Prince William I of Nassau recovered, while de Jáuregui was killed on the spot.

With 25,000 crowns at stake, there were bound to be other takers.

Our man Balthasar Gérard started looking for a close encounter with William the Target. At first, he joined the army in Luxembourg, which didn’t get him very far. It was time to gin up a real plot, which Gérard shopped to the Duke of Parma, Alessandro Farnese, in April 1584. Though the Duke offered no funding for the operation — Gérard ponied up the startup money he needed for the trip — and held out little hope that the lawyer would be successful, he gave Gérard assurances that his family would be taken care of in case of disaster.

Gérard first presented himself to William in June as the son of a martyred Calvinist from France. On 8 July, he returned and, badly in need of new clothes, managed to beg 50 crowns for a new set.

Instead, he bought a pair of pistols and, on 10 July, made history with a point-blank shot to William’s chest.

Detail view (click for the full image) of William the Silent’s 1585 assassination at the hands of Balthasar Gerard.

This assassination attempt didn’t fail. William became the second head of state to be killed by an assassin’s bullet,† — and his shooter the first such man to be juridically punished for the deed.

And, oh, how he was punished.

The regicide was beaten immediately after his capture, then subjected to a variety of cruelties, from wet leather boots which, when heated, both crushed and burned the feet, to daily floggings while hanging on a post outside the jail.

But on this day, his time of torture was up, and Gérard was finally put to death. You know, the usual:

It was decreed the right hand of Gerard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disembowelled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.

Gerard’s execution.

For all that he suffered as a regicide, Gérard left his family an impressive inheritance. Making good Parma’s assurances, King Phillip II gave them William’s former lands in three French provinces and took his siblings and their issue into his peerage.

Gérard’s cause carried on for another 60 years, until it was finally extinguished by the signing of the Peace of Münster by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Spain.

* Foucault mistakenly identifies the torture as lasting 18 days, and the additional details he lays down for Gérard’s time on death row may be less-than-believable. However, all sources indicate that the tortures Gérard endured were quite spectacular, even by the standards of the day.

** See Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries for a complete treatment of this period in The Netherlands and Belgium.

† For example, the city of Antwerp (Belgium), then under possession of the Spanish crown and considered the mercantile center of Europe for its vast sugar trade, featured over 100 executions for heresy from 1557-1562, twice as many as in all of Spain during that time.

‡ The first was James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, then Regent of Scotland. Stewart’s shooter, James Hamilton, escaped into exile, though others of the Hamilton clan answered for the murder.

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1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy”

1 comment November 26th, 2012 Headsman

David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, [80]
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place

On this date in 1678, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.

This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.

With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.

Indeed, Oates’s “revelations” would trigger the Exclusion Crisis, an unsuccessful parliamentary bid to balk the heir presumptive James (eventually James II) of his throne. Parliament, argued Henry Capell, “must quiet the minds of the people, as to their fears of Popery and the Succession.”

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.

Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.

There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.

It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.

Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?

This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.

The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.

Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.

Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.

With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.

After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”

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1662: John Barkstead, Miles Corbet, and John Okey, renditioned regicides

2 comments April 19th, 2012 Headsman

Happy 350th death day to three English regicides renditioned from Holland.

John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey were all among the 59 judges who signed the death-warrant of King Charles I.

Like everyone else on that parchment, they were in a world of hurt when Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne. And like a great many of those who figured to reap the whirlwind, they sensibly fled the realm.

Had they stayed hunkered down in Germany, they might have died in their beds.

Instead, they trusted a friend … and died half-hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces on a scaffold.

It was an ugly sight from start to finish. The capture of these fugitives was a dirty business mixing treachery, diplomatic subterfuge, and dubious legality, all in the service of violent statecraft. Sort of like it was ripped from the Downing Street memo.

The author of it all was the original Downing: Sir George Downing, the namesake of London’s Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister resides.

This guy was coming into the prime of his continent- and polity-spanning career: from Puritan New England, to the West Indies, to a gig in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. (It was John Okey himself who hooked Downing up: Downing matriculated with Harvard University’s first graduating class thanks to Okey’s sponsorship, and it was in Okey’s regiment that Downing was retained as chaplain.)

An able diplomat for the Protectorate, Downing was able to communicate his discreet abjuration to the exiled Charles II once the handwriting was on the wall, and he therefore effected a convenient volte-face and went right to work for the new boss … even when it meant hunting down his own friends and patrons. You might say it was the zeal of the converted, but maybe it was better-expressed by Downing’s own pledge to secure the refugees with vigor “as much as if my life lay at stake in the busines.”

Sound policy, considering his history. And he couldn’t have pulled it off with an ounce less.

Officially, the Low Countries had agreed not to give refuge to regicides: in reality, regicides could rest pretty easy there. Pro-immigrant, pro-Protestant,* and jealous of their sovereignty, the Dutch had little desire to enforce such clauses at any level of government; and, thanks to a federal structure, multiple state organs each held effective veto over enforcement. Moreover, a silly legalistic fetish required that fugitivies have warrants sworn out against them — warrants that would cause regicides’ many friends and sympathizers to raise the alarm before the target could be taken, which is exactly what happened when Downing tried to get Edward Dendy arrested in Rotterdam.

Downing cogitated all manner of extra-legal options to black-bag a few of the Protectorate personnel for his Majesty’s pleasure. What he ended up with was cunning, vicious, and just barely legitimate.

Turning one of the regicides’ contacts with threats and bribery, he secured advance warning of Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey’s planned visit to Delft in early March 1662. He then waited until the very day he planned to spring his trap to procure a general arrest warrant (concealing the names of his prey) from the Estates General’s capable leader Johan de Witt, and pounced within hours — using a force of his own men and a little more payola to circumvent the inevitable reluctance of the local bailiffs.

Now that the regicides were in irons, Downing had to double down on duplicitous diplomacy by maneuvering to get them delivered to the English — and that against a growing popular resistance as their capture became known. The Delft aldermen dilated; sympathetic local worthies visited the prisoners in their cells; petitions on the Englishmen’s behalf circulated nationwide. The notion of actually marching these guys out into English hands seemed to promise a riot.

Downing spread more palm grease around, maneuvered to frustrate legal aid for the prisoners, posted his own men to watch the prisoners 24-7, and after several tense days finally made arrangements

in the dead of the night to get a boate into a litle channell which came neare behinde the prison, and at the very first dawning of the day without so much as giving any notice to the seamen I had provided … forthwith to slip them downe the backstaires … and so accordingly we did, and there was not the least notice in the Towne thereof, and before 5 in the morning the boate was without the Porto of Delft, where I delivered them to Mr. Armerer … giving him direction not to put them a shoare in any place, but to go the whole way by water to the Blackamore Frigat at Helverdsluice.

Downing was exultant.

“This is a thing the like thereof hath not been done in this country and which nobody believed was possible to be done,” he gloated in his correspondence. “And there is not a thing that hath happened these many yeares that hath occasioned so much discourse here, saying that they are now no longer a free Countrey, and that no man is now sure here.” De Witt and the Dutch Estates General, having never had any intention to actually deliver a regicide to condign punishment in England, had been embarrassingly played. Ordinary Hollanders were infuriated and ashamed at having been a party to the whole business.

Nobody could dispute the excellence of Downing’s operation. But anybody on either side of the channel who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Royalist was somewhere between discomfited and revolted by it, especially as it was achieved against his own personal benefactor by a guy who had once urged Cromwell to make himself king.

Diarist Samuel Pepys (who witnessed the executions, reporting the victims “very cheerful” on that occasion) recorded the mood of the English burgher upon the news

that Sir G. Downing (like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it) hath taken Okey, Corbet, and Barkestead … all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains. (Pepys’s March 12 and March 17 entries for this year)

See: Ralph C.H. Catterall, “Sir George Downing and the Regicides,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1912)

* Dutch affinity for religious dissent and for foreigners was all of a piece with its prosperous mercantile empire. One liberal Englishman (quoted by James Walker in “The English Exiles in Holland during the Reigns of Charles II and James II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 30 (1948)) proposed that “Liberty of Conscience would be a more serious blow to Holland than all the victories yet gained.”

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1836: Giuseppe Fieschi, Pierre Morey, and Theodore Pepin, infernal machinists

1 comment February 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1836, three men were guillotined for a spectacular but unsuccessful regicide attempt.

Giuseppe Fieschi

This was in the days of the July Monarchy, a much-despised government of the country’s wealthiest elites that generated opposition both right and left and a ceaseless string of assassination attempts (French link) against King Louis-Philippe.* As Marx put it,

when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.

It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it … the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.

Hard to imagine such a state of affairs.

Fieschi (English Wikipedia page | French) et al conceived a bold attempt to destroy the entire ruling family in a single fusillade, and to that end constructed a machine infernale of 25 gun barrels mounted together to fire on a single fuse.

Unleashed upon a royal procession along the Boulevard du Temple on the fifth anniversary of the monarchy’s founding July days, this monster proved quite impressively destructive.

The assassination attempt of Fieschi, 28 July 1835 by Eugene Lami.

The infernale barrage took out an esteemed marshal and a bunch of bystanders, but somehow managed to miss everyone in the royal family. (Louis-Philippe himself was grazed … and his horse was hit.)

Exploiting the familiar power of a terrorist incident to enact horrible new policies not available in normal times, “Parliament was hastily recalled and in a near-panic atmosphere passed severe measures against the newspaper press,” notes William Fortescue. “Approximately thirty more republican newspapers were closed down by the September 1835 Press Laws.”

Police soon traced the conspiracy to Fieschi, a truly Gallic character of mixed-up national pride, personal honor, class envy, and opportunistic lechery, who had fought for Bonaparte and helped Joachim Murat on the latter’s fatal attempt to re-take “his” kingdom of Naples back in his youth. But lately, a more worn-out and middle-aged Fieschi had been booted out by his mistress and lost all his money.

Fieschi, according to Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848, basically became a dependent of Morey and Pepin, true-blue republicans who helped channel Fieschi’s unmoored passions into engineering his hydra-headed musket. He’d be back on the French-nationalism side by the end.

“I’m going to appear before God,” Fieschi said on the scaffold, after Morey and Pepin had preceded him. “I have spoken the truth. I die content. I have rendered a service to my country in signaling my accomplices … I regret my victims more than my life.”

More repressive laws and radical-hunting followed. They did not slake the thirst abroad in France for regicide.

* Louis-Philippe’s royal dad backed the French Revolution, but was still executed by Robespierre.

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1330: Roger Mortimer, usurper

Add comment November 29th, 2011 Headsman

The prince I rule, the queen do I command,
And with a lowly congé to the ground
The proudest lords salute me as I pass;
I seal, I cancel, I do what I will.
Fear’d am I more than lov’d;—let me be fear’d,
And, when I frown, make all the court look pale.

-Roger Mortimer in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

On this date in 1330, Roger Mortimer’s three-year run as de facto ruler of England ended with a rope at Tyburn.

Mortimer was a key figure in the Despenser War — a revolt of nobles against King Edward II and the king’s hated-by-nobles right hand Hugh Despenser.

That war failed and landed Mortimer in the Tower. Then, things really got interesting.

Mortimer escaped his cell in 1323 and fled to France. There he took up with King Edward’s own wife, Queen Isabella, when the latter came to court on some state business.

This was, needless to say, quite a scandalous arrangement — but hey, Isabella had seen royal cuckolding right in her own family before.

So the adulterous lovebirds settled in to canoodle and set about planning some serious homewrecking.

Both Isabella and Mortimer are by every appearance among the most outstanding personalities of their day, and they had ambition to match their considerable personal gifts.

In the autumn of 1326, they invaded England and won a swift victory as those disaffected nobles from the recent wars declared for the usurpers. This time, Hugh Despenser was put to death.

Edward didn’t fare that much better. By the next January, he had been forced to abdicate in favor of his 14-year-old son, which in reality meant ceding power to his ex and her lover. And you thought your divorce settlement was bad.

In the long tradition of rival heads of state being disposed of, Edward II was, well, disposed of: strangled in captivity later that same year (allegedly! there is some doubt as to whether he really died in 1327), and given a state funeral that put Roger Mortimer into a bogus public display of mourning

(Mortimer’s kinsman and historical-fiction-biographer Ian Mortimer thinks Edward actually survived, which is neither here nor there as pertains the fate of Mortimer.)

Once he got to the top of the heap, Mortimer too had rocky aristocratic relationships. He irked the lords of the realm with his tendency to behead them. He lost the First War of Scottish Independence. Oh, and he was a regicide. All this frayed his popularity. (This just in: governance is hard.)

More than that, since he and Isabella ruled in the minority of the titular king, Edward III, they were rearing a wolf to their own destruction — a wolf with a built-in personal grudge about his father’s overthrow and murder. All young Edward needed was a plan to disencumber his fangs.

As is so often the case, the most direct solution proved to be the best. In one of the more dramatic family moments in the English royal annals, Edward joined his close friend and a small band of trusted armed men, and burst in on Mortimer at Nottingham Castle, arresting him while his mother plaintively implored Edward to “have pity on gentle Mortimer.”

But Mortimer got as much mercy as he’d given the late Edward II. A mere six weeks removed from mastery of England, Mortimer was presented bound and gagged for the formality of a condemnation by Parliament on grounds of assuming royal authority. Then he was hustled off to Tyburn dressed pointedly in the same black tunic he had once worn to mourn Edward II. It was the first documented case of a nobleman being hanged at that grim destination.

First Lord. My lord, here is the head of Mortimer.
K. Edw. Third. Go fetch my father’s hearse, where it shall lie;
And bring my funeral robes.
Accursed head,
Could I have rul’d thee then, as I do now,
Thou hadst not hatch’d this monstrous treachery!

-Marlowe’s Edward II

The French could say the same thing of Edward.

We’ve previously recommended Lady Despenser’s Scribery for its coverage of this period; true to form, it has a detailed series on Roger Mortimer: 1, 2, 3, 4

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330 B.C.E.: Philotas, Alexander the Great Companion

1 comment October 25th, 2011 Headsman

Around this time — October, or at any rate autumn — of 330 B.C.E., Alexander the Great authored “one of the two greatest crimes of his life”* with the execution of his comrade-in-arms Philotas.

Philotas was one of Alexander’s “companions”, the elite cavalry who joined Alexander personally in battle. He had fought by Alexander’s side in the epic Battle of Gaugamela, which brought down the Achaemenid Empire and opened Persia to the legendary conqueror.

A year later, Alexander, and therefore also those companions, were winding down campaign season all the way on the other side of the late empire they had so stunningly dismantled. It’s the region of Drangiana on the present-day Iran-Afghanistan frontier. The Macedonians would name the city Prophthasia, Anticipation, in recognition of their chief’s narrow escape; we know it today as Farah, Afghanistan.

Unlike many of the “companions” who joined the young Macedonian king, Philotas wasn’t a bosom buddy of Alexander.

He was, instead, a bit of a political appointee who owed his position to the fact that his father Parmenion, a great Macedonian general, had backed the disputed succession of Alexander. Parmenion continued as one of Alexander’s generals; his kid — not particularly popular of himself but nevertheless a loyal and competent officer — got a plum gig in Alexander’s vanguard.

In this capacity so close to the royal person, Philotas was warned by a conscientious slave of an assassination plot going against Alexander. And rather incredibly, he didn’t bother to pass it on.

When the slave realized, a couple of days on, that the conspiracy hadn’t been busted, he proceeded to tell somebody else … and Philotas had some explaining to do.

For posterity, it’s as open a question as it was then: Philotas initially convinced Alexander that he had merely considered the whole thing so insubstantial as not to merit the king’s attention — but by the next day, Alexander had better inclined himself to the more damning reading, that Philotas was perfectly amenable to seeing Alexander eliminated.** If that were the truth, it would herald a conflict that would soon come to define the Macedonian’s coruscating and paradoxical career: the army’s rising discontent with its march so far from home, and its leader’s ever more visible habit of arraying himself in the alien habits of oriental despotism.

Philotas got a “proper” if farcically rigged trial before fellow-generals who were all too happy to be rid of him, and was tortured into confessing. He was executed either by stoning (actually the traditional Macedonian execution method, even for the likes of generals) or spearing.

(The scene is dramatized in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander; the relevant bit can be viewed here.)

Parmenion, a greater character than his son, would also pay the forfeit of his son’s alleged misprision.

At the time of Philotas’s execution, Parmenion was commanding a large army several days’ ride from Alexander. Fearing that the torture and execution of his last remaining son (the other two had also died on campaign) might inspire the august general to do something rash, Alexander dispatched a few trusted officers to outrace the news: they murdered an uncomprehending Parmenion as soon as they reached him. Whatever one makes of the child, the father’s loyalty both to Alexander and his predecessor Philip II had never previously been impeached in a long and brilliant career. Alexander ought to have counted himself fortunate to have avoided any wider disturbance in the army from the rough handling of this beloved general.

The whole affair was sufficiently distasteful that it remained a sensitive matter of state security hundreds of years and hundreds of miles distant: An Elizabethan play about Philotas by Samuel Daniel earned its author some uncomfortable official scrutiny for its perceived commentary on the contemporaneous execution of the Earl of Essex … the fallen courtier whose prosecution of a Jewish doctor arguably informed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

* The other — later and greater — crime was Alexander’s drunken murder of his friend and loyal commander Cleitus. (He’s the guy shown stabbing Parmenion to death in the clip from Alexander, a circumstance that plays better as drama than history.)

** It doesn’t help anyone’s fact-finding that the main alleged plotter committed suicide when they came to arrest him.

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1841: Marius Darmes, frustrated regicide

1 comment May 31st, 2011 Headsman

Louis-Philippe, the affable, ovate monarch of France’s bourgeoisie from 1830 until the revolutionary year of 1848, was a popular guy for radicals to take a shot at.

By one expansive reckoning, there were no fewer than 19 assassination attempts against the Pear King, and five executions of intended regicides.

This date in 1841 saw the beheading of one Ennemond Marius Darmès for attempting to gun down the French king the previous October.

There was no mystery as to the shooter’s identity; the enthusiastic regicide had overstuffed his weapon with powder, and when he took his potshot it simply blew up in his hands. “I had him!” Darmes fumed as he was being arrested. “I was sure of my aim!” The only guy he had actually injured was himself. (Source)

Though it didn’t harm the king, the alarming incident did help precipitate the fall of a precarious and self-dealing government led by Adolphe Thiers, whose most illustrious appearance in these executioners’ annals was yet thirty years away.

With Thiers out of the way and a foe more doctrinaire animating the government, the ensuing months’ investigation were dedicated to tracing a connection between Darmes and alleged co-conspirators among revolutionary Parisians … a lot increasingly disaffected by the July Monarchy’s extreme oligarchical outlook.

And in a performance familiar in our own day, the terroristic extremity provided convenient pretext upon which to shush the much wider portion of the populace dissatisfied with the state. You’re either with us or you’re against us!

These desperate assailants of the King’s life are goaded on by the more cautious and even more unprincipled party who assail his character [Louis-Philippe himself made this same claim -ed.] … It is impossible, indeed, to foresee what the secret arts of calumny and the secret daring of their bloodthirsty illuminati may not effect; but we may say, with hearty English respect, when we look out upon these dangers, “God save the King!” (London Times editorial, May 31, 1841)

Out of solidarity or pride of ownership, Darmes denied those connections all the way to the shadow of the blade: two men who went on trial for their lives with him were acquitted.

According to a report filed by the London Times‘ Paris correspondent (printed June 2, 1841),

At half-past 5 o’clock this morning he was called down from his cell to the greffe, where the fatal toilette was to be performed previous to the execution. He quietly submitted to the operation, and when it was over, he mounted with his confessor into a vehicle, commonly called ponier a salade, which is used for the conveyance of prisoners. This carriage, escorted by municipal guards, cuirassiers, and chasseurs, proceeded up the Rue de l’Ouest, Rue d’Enfer and the adjoining Boulevard, down to the Barriere St. Jacques, where the scaffold had been erected during the night. Few spectators were in attendance. At 5 o’clock all the avenues leading to the Barriere had been occupied by the military, all traffic interrupted, and the people, who had congregated near the scaffold, were driven back a considerable distance. After he had alighted from the carriage his sentence was again read to him. The clergyman then took leave of him, and he ascended the steps of the ladder with a steady pace, followed by the executioner’s aids. It was only when he reached the platform that he came within view of the people; his head was still covered with a black veil, and a white shirt enveloped his whole body down to the feet, which were bare. The executioner having placed him with his back to the guillotine, a dialogue appeared to pass between them; and, from the negative shake of the head which Darmes occasionally gave, it was supposed that the executioner had held out to him a hope of salvation if he would make revelations. The conversation occupied between three and four minutes; the aids then seized him, and having placed him with his face towards the knife removed the black veil from his eyes, and took off his shirt. The sight of the instrument of execution appeared to strike him with awe; he started, and, feeling rather unsteady of his legs, he made a stride in order to maintain his equilibrium, and then looked on with calmness, surrendered himself into the hands of the executioner, and an instant before the knife dropped he was heard to exclaim — Vive la France. The body and head were then placed in a basket, and conveyed to the cemetery of Mont-Parnasse, where they were interred in the enclosure exclusively reserved for regicides.

Our favorite part of that is that the cemetery had a special VIP section set aside for regicides. Only in France.

Francophones can enjoy this French-language report on the investigation.

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1792: Jacob Johan Anckarström, assassin of Gustav III

1 comment April 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacob Johan Anckarström lost his right hand and his center head for murdering Gustav III.

Like some other nobles, this officer considered the “theater king” and enlightened despot Gustav III a, well, despot.

Times being what they were, regicide was in order, to usher in an age of constitutional liberalism.

A conspiracy of Swedish nobles surrounded the royal victim at a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, and shot him in the back. Alas for them, the scene was immediately sealed and the attendees unmasked before the gang could get away.

Although in the confusion nobody knew whodunit among those disguised revelers, it was only a matter of time before the discarded murder weapon was identified as Anckarström’s.

(Actually, it was a much longer matter of time before it became a “murder” weapon. The king only succumbed to the infection 13 days later.)

Five were condemned to death, but the four who hadn’t pulled the trigger were commuted to exile instead. Exile for regicide? Maybe that’s making you wonder why they all thought it was such an oppressive regime they all lived under.

Jacob Johan Anckarström could give them the answer. He was said to have met his beheading joyfully, which would only be natural after he’d been flogged in chains in three different parts of the city over the preceding three days.*

For readers of Swedish (or exploiters of online translation), there’s much more about Jacob and his dastardly plot here and here.

Appropriately, given the murder’s stagey venue, the Anckarstrom assassination was great performance art material in the 19th century. Verdi based Un Ballo in Maschera on it, although he’s given the principals a generic love-triangle relationship — and because of mid-19th century censorship, the iteration of it below is set in colonial Boston with “Anckarstrom” sporting the very New England name “Rennato”.

Although this particular plot didn’t achieve the revolutionary thing its authors intended, it didn’t have the opposite effect either. The king’s teenage son Gustav IV Adolf succeeded the throne, with an unsurprising hatred of Jacobinism. But in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars (that also cost Sweden its dominion over Finland), Gustav IV was deposed and a liberal constitution adopted.

* He wasn’t handled with kid gloves in prison, either, but you can take in the scene over the libation of your choice at the present-day cafe that occupies Anckarstrom’s onetime dungeon. The joint is named for another Swedish political martyr, Sten Sture.

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