1982: Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, revolutionary foreign minister

Add comment September 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1982, Iranian revolutionary politician Sadegh Ghotbzadeh was shot in Tehran’s Evin Prison for supposedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Ghotbzadeh had come by his revolutionary aspirations back in the 1950s and 1960s, after radicalizing as a teenager with the ouster of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh; he’d be kicked out of Georgetown University for neglecting his studies in favor of protesting the U.S.-backed Shah and enter a twilight world of professional revolutionary exiles.


In Paris with the Ayatollah Khomeini.

He eventually joined the circle orbiting the Ayatollah Khomenei, returning to Iran with him on the famous Air France flight of February 1, 1979. Ghotbzadeh would serve as the frequent translator and spokesman of Khomeini, eventually becoming Foreign Minister amid the tumult of the Iranian students’ seizure of U.S. embassy hostages in late 1979.

In those fraught months, the urbane Ghotbzadeh became a familiar face on American televisions. He was notable advocate within Iran for quickly ending the hostage standoff, and spoke openly about Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan‘s ongoing behind-the-scenes project to prevent a hostage deal that might redound to his opponent’s electoral advantage.* His distaste for the hostage confrontation, as well as his westernized accoutrements, quickly set him at loggerheads with the revolution’s growing fundamentalist faction, and he was forced out of the foreign ministry in August 1980.

He was destined for the tragedy of revolutions devouring their own: arrested in April of 1982, his former associations with Khomeini availed him nothing in the face of a revolutionary tribunal that condemned him for “masterminding a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic” and to assassinate Khomeini himself. Under torture, Ghotbzadeh confessed to planning a coup in a script right out of show trial central casting: “I am shamed before the nation. Free me or execute me.”

* This project succeeded so spectacularly that it’s still officially a kooky conspiracy theory in American political culture.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason

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1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1915: Peter Sands, home leave

Add comment September 15th, 2015 Headsman

Irish lance corporal Peter Sands was shot as a deserter one hundred years ago today at Fleurbaix, near Armentières.

Sands, a nine-year veteran age 26 or 27, left the Royal Irish Rifles with another soldier on a home leave pass in February 1915 and returned to his family in Belfast.

Sands had a pass for four days. Instead, he stayed for five months — openly living with his wife, and wearing his military uniform, until some unknown busybody turned him in as a deserter that July.

He would tell his court-martial that he had lost his travel documents to return to the horrible front, and had been blown off when he visited a Belfast barracks to see about a replacement. He did not aim to desert, he insisted; “Had I intended to desert I would have worn plain clothes, but up to that time I was arrested I always wore uniform.” It is not so hard to reach Corporal Sands, psychologically — a man perhaps indulging a lethal opiate of denial. Suppose his “desertion” began with a good-faith mishap and thereafter did not last for five months, but just for one day more … day upon day.

He had no pass, so what was he to do next? He stayed in Belfast with his wife and daughter wearing his service duds while he contemplated that question. (Who can say whether he contemplated it in bemusement or terror.) He stayed every day in March, and it became every day in April, and every day in May and June, too. Nobody came for him on any of those days.

Had his war ended, then? Had he somehow slipped the toils of the machine back to a domestic idyll?

Maybe he truly had … but for that anonymous snitch.

Even if it had to be reminded of its prodigal corporal’s absence, His Majesty’s royal meatgrinder expected a little more hustle from its meat than one barracks call in five months: while Sands was at home, his mates had gone out of the trenches in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (11,000+ British casualties), and the disastrous* Battle of Aubers Ridge (another 11,000+).

His commanding officer “consider[ed] this a bad case of desertion and I recommend that the sentence be carried out.” And it was.

Sands was buried at a nearby churchyard, but his resting-place was lost during the war. He has a marker at Cabaret-Rouge Military Cemetery at Souchez.

* The report of the Times from Aubers Ridge — headlined “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France” — precipitated the “Shell Crisis of 1915″.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Ireland,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1731: Catherine Repond, the last witch burned in Switzerland

Add comment September 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Catherine (or Catillon) Repond was burned at the stake in Freiburg — the last person executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, more or less.*

Repond (English Wikipedia entry | the somewhat more detailed German) got caught out on some serious crazy.

A bailiff named Montenach while out hunting near Lake Gryere claimed to have wounded a fox on the foot, which shouted back at him in a human voice as it scampered away. Later, Repond, a 68-year-old vagabond with a pre-existing witchcraft reputation, turned up at a nearby farm where she sometimes hired out for odd jobs. Repond had a foot injury just like the fox.


It would be irresponsible not to speculate. (Image via SomethingAwful.com)

Montenach arrested and tortured Repond on this basis, aggravating the demonaic-shapeshifter charge with villager superstitions that the old crone wrecked their cheeses and blighted their herds. As late as the date was, this still conformed to the old witch-burning pattern of yestercentury, where idle gossip became evidence once some luckless person entered into an official investigation — evidence that thumbscrews would then confirm. She was transferred to Fribourg for execution.

It’s never been completely clear just why this one particular case navigated the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the stake — whether that was just the breaks, or if there was some larger interest at work that made Repond’s mouth worth closing.

Fribourg, in any event, adopted a 2009 resolution expressing regret for the execution, although it declined to issue a formal exoneration on the grounds that as the state itself was several times discontinuous with the one that put the “witch” to death, such a gesture would be intrinsically meaningless.


A fountain in the village of Gibloux pays tribute to the area’s resident hag. From this French pdf all about the curious case of Catillon.

* Anna Göldi is the conventionally recognized “last witch executed in Switzerland,” and even the last in all of Europe — she has her own museum and everything. But if you want to split hairs about it, Göldi was accused as a witch and tortured as a witch but her formal judicial condemnation was “merely” on the basis of poisoning (accomplished by witchcraft). Not a distinction with a great deal of difference for Göldi, or Repond for that matter, but there it is. Since Göldi was beheaded, Repond does have the sure consolation of ranking the last Swiss burned for witchcraft. (Although as was often the practice, Repond was mercifully strangled at the stake in preference to literally burning her to death.)

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1939: Charles McLachlan

Add comment September 15th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1939, 57-year-old Charles Augustine McLachlan was gassed at San Quentin State Prison in California. He’d murdered a six-year-old neighbor girl at his home in Downey, California the previous year.

McLachlan was a widower who was half Irish-American and half Mexican by descent but described as white. A master painter and decorator, he owned a plot of land with a few houses he’d built himself.


Mugshot of perp; newspaper sketch of victim.

McLachlan lived alone in the smallest of the houses, an eight-by-twelve-foot shack; the largest building was occupied by his son and daughter-in-law, Joe and Carmen, and their child. The parents of the victim, Jennie Moreno (her name is spelled “Jenny” in many accounts), had known McLachlan for about thirty years. Although he was occasionally seen drunk, he had a reputation as a kind, likeable man.

That is, until April 14, 1938.

At 10:00 that morning, Jennie Moreno and her younger sister went to give a magazine to Carmen McLachlan.

Jennie’s parents last saw her at 11:00 a.m., while she was getting ready to go to church. When she didn’t return home at noon as expected, her parents began searching for her. At some point a neighbor smelled a strange odor and noticed smoke pouring out the windows of McLachlan’s shack, which had no chimney or flue.

The police were summoned. They arrived at his house at midnight and found bloodstained, partially burned clothing belonging to both Jennie and McLachlan lying on a sheet of metal on the floor of the shack. The floor had been washed and was still sopping wet.

A search of the premises turned up Jennie’s shoes and a bloodstained hammer. McLachlan’s mattress was saturated with blood and there was blood on the floor beneath the bed as well. He was arrested on the spot.

At the same time the sheriff’s deputies were arresting McLachlan, a search party that included Jennie’s father and uncle found her partially nude body concealed among the weeds in the vacant lot next to McLachlan’s property.

When they saw McLachlan being led away in handcuffs, they guessed he must be the murderer. Jennie’s uncle struck McLachlan in the face and several others in the crowd called out, “Lynch him!” But the police were able to disperse these aspiring vigilantes without too much difficulty.

McLachlan, who had been drinking wine and whiskey since 9:00 a.m., was quite drunk at the time of his arrest and at first said he had no memory of what happened. He ultimately made a confession to murder. McLachlan stated he’d been lying in bed resting with the door open when little Jennie wandered inside. He took her into the bed and began to fondle her, then struck her in the head with a hammer after she screamed. He waited until after dark, and then carried her body to where it was later found.

Jennie’s body showed evidence that she had in fact been violently raped, something McLachlan never admitted to.

He would go on to repudiate his entire statement, saying the police had kept him in jail without sleep or food and coerced the confession. He pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, waived his right to a jury trial and was heard by a judge.

McLachlan claimed he heard “witches” speaking to him and said the voices “say most anything.” While in jail he would refuse to eat or speak for days at a time, and he refused to cooperate with his defense. A psychiatrist hired to examine him found “evidence of pre-senility and psychic pain” but believed he was feigning mental illness.

Found both guilty and sane, he was condemned to death. The judge to whom McLachlan had entrusted his fate called Jennie Moreno’s murder “one of the most brutal and horrible ever perpetrated in Los Angeles County.”

Charles McLachlan walked into the gas chamber at 10:10 a.m., eighteen months after his crime. “Twisting and straining against the straps that bound him,” he took seven minutes to die.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,USA

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1866: Dmitry Karakozov

1 comment September 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.

Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.

The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.

“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”

A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):

I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…

If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.

If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.

Others would follow him, and in time successfully murder Alexander II after all.

Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)

What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.

I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …

… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.

If true, that is little short of fantastic.

The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.

So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists

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1922: Eugene Weeks, by Sheriff Robb

2 comments September 15th, 2011 Headsman

“Minister-Sheriff Hangs Iowa Murderer, Resigning Des Moines Pastorate to Do So” read the New York Times headline for the execution this date of Eugene Weeks.

Our interest here is not drawn by Weeks, who hanged for the forgettable murder of a grocer, but by his executioner, a truly American character running a truly American grift.

Winfred E. Robb parlayed decorated service as a World War I chaplain into a postwar book paying sentimental martial tribute to “young men … [and] their glorious death” the better to inspire “a greater patriotism and the dedication of himself to the common good of his fellows.”

Robb had returned from the European theater to his prewar gig as pastor of Des Moines independent evangelical congregation, the First Federated Church. (It still exists, nearing its centennial in the guise of a megachurch preaching “triumphalist, Americanized Christianity”.)

Our pastor proved amenable to exchanging this ministry of God for that of a more temporal power, and was elected Sheriff of Polk County in 1920 on an anti-corruption platform. The New York Times reported that his “campaign pledges of ‘cleaning up’ Des Moines have been followed by vigorous efforts against bootleggers and disorderly places.”

Among these edifying duties was another that some of his congregation found less tasteful: while Iowa had centralized its hangings at the penitentiary in Fort Madison, each execution remained the responsibility of the local sheriff in the county which sent the man to death row. That meant Pastor Robb.

Evidently some members of Robb’s congregation objected to this office, but where theology (potentially) clashed with politics, our man was prepared to render unto Caesar.

After all, in America, who knows how high a hangman might rise?

A co-conspirator of Weeks was executed on the same scaffold a few weeks later, and by the same Sheriff Robb. Robb’s self-satisfied justification for conducting these hangings could come straight from Rick Perry campaign literature.

Brainless people who have no ability to think … will condemn and rave and shout as usual. Unthinking religious fanatics will plead and pray and forget that God is a God of justice and mercy, and that judgment is as much a duty of love as mercy is the delight of love.

America is cursed today with a lot of spineless reformers. They think of a minister as a sissy, sexless, spineless creature with lily white hands who spends his time attending ladies’ societies and pink teas.

Tough love, baby. This was an apostle of muscular Christianity.

So Weeks resigned his ministerial commission, and on this date he skipped the ladies’ societies and put Eugene Weeks to death for murder.

By the end of the year, our hammer of the Lord had found himself on the anvil side of the law, and maybe rethinking those duties of love. Prohibition was Sheriff Robb’s milieu and the cause of his fall, as told by this Associated Press wire story printed in the New Year’s Eve Miami Herald:

IOWA PARSON-SHERIFF HELD FOR BOOTLEGGING

Jailer, Whose Sons He Arrested, Accuses Preacher Who Presided at Hanging.

DES MOINES, Ia., Dec. 30. — Sheriff Robb, Polk county’s preacher-sheriff, who gained nation-wide prominence last fall through officiating at the hanging of two murderers at Fort Madison penitentiary, was arrested here today charged with unlawfully disposing of liquors as the sensational backfire action on the part of his jailer, William McMurray, whose own sons had been arrested by the sheriff for alleged complicity in the theft of $30,000 worth of bonded whiskey from the county jail Wednesday night. The sheriff’s bond was fixed at $1,000 which he furnished and the hearing set for January 3.

John Robb, brother of the sheriff, and himself a minister, who has been acting as a deputy for his brother, also was arrested charged with larceny, on information sworn out by Jailer McMurray and released on $500 bond. Neither charge was made in connection with the theft of the 47 cases from the jail Wednesday night.

Later additional charges were filed against Sheriff Robb by McMurray which alleged the sheriff had illegally sold cider presses and other paraphernalia used in making liquors, which had been seized in raids.

Charges that Sheriff Robb personally sold 35 quarts and 75 pints of whiskey to L.S. Hill, president of the American Lithographing company, a month ago, and has given away and sold seized liquors to other persons, furnished the basis for the charges which McMurray filed. Mr. Hill denied he bought liquor from the sheriff.

Greater patriotism hath no man than this, than to peddle seized drug contraband to local oligarchs under guise of law enforcement. At least you could never accuse the guy of keeping those hands lily-white.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iowa,Murder,USA

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1764: Lt. Vasily Mirovich, for attempting to topple Catherine the Great

3 comments September 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1764, one of history’s greatest monarchs cemented her still-uncertain hold on power by beheading a rebellious lieutenant.

Ivan VI: Born under a bad tsar.

Succession in the Russian Empire had been disputatious ever since Peter the Great killed off his last male son, eventually putting far-flung branches of the family into a contest for power.

To skip over much regal jockeying, Peter’s vicious niece Anna, who reigned in the 1730s, had installed her infant nephew Ivan VI as successor just before her own death.

The little Tsar of All the Russias was displaced before his second birthday by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, who clapped the former emperor in a dungeon in Schlusselburg fortress to grow up ignorant and alone, isolated from the parties who might scheme to bid for power in his name. Two Caesars are too many.

Into this dangerous scene stepped Sophia Augusta Frederica, better known to posterity by the name she took upon her politically savvy conversion to Orthodoxy: Catherine.

This Catherine immigrated to wed Elizabeth’s simpleminded heir, then overthrew him a few months into his reign.

Catherine had ultimate power, but she wasn’t yet “Catherine the Great”: as a foreigner with the late Romanov’s blood on her hands (if only indirectly), it was nowhere written that she would rule Russia for 34 brilliant years. And with the throne came its rival claimants … like Ivan, now an adult and potentially more “legitimate” than this imported German princess.

Ivan was held in secrecy, known only as “Nameless Prisoner Number One”, and his warders had strict orders to murder him on the spot if any attempt were made to liberate him.

Two years into Catherine’s reign, Lt. Vasily Mirovich, “a tormented young officer … with dreams of restoring his family’s fortunes,” attempted just that. As commanded, the guards put an end to Ivan’s troubles.

Those guards got cash rewards and promotions for their diligence. Mirovich got death. (Other soldiers whom he had rallied to his cause were condemned to run the gauntlet; I have been unable to ascertain if any were killed by this punishment.)

Mirovich was executed in St. Petersburg. When his head was held up to the crowd, it had a terrifying impact, the death penalty not actually having been exercised in Russia for 22 years.** Mirovich himself faced his execution calmly, convincing some of the bystanders that he was expecting to be pardoned at the last minute. His remains were left on public display until the evening, when they were burnt along with the gallows.

And so the first two years of the reign of Catherine II, who set so much store by reason and enlightened principles, had included two assassinations and an execution.

The woman of letters, the correspondent of philosophers, the Semiramis of the North … like the age’s other great enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, Catherine had to rule. She had not the luxury to dispense with statecraft’s cruel necessities.

Her admirers would have to be content with making her excuses. Fortunately, admirers always are.

“These are family matters with which I do not meddle,” wrote Voltaire. “Besides, it is not a bad thing to have a fault to repair; this engages her to make great efforts in order to force the public to esteem and admiration”

* September 26 (pdf) was the date on the Gregorian calendar then prevalent in Europe; it was September 15 by the older Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time.

** Not carrying out the death penalty had been a signature policy of Ivan’s usurper Elizabeth. The elimination of capital punishment in “backwards” Russia for an entire generation during the Age of Absolutism surely urges caution against any assumption that death penalty repeal is a one-way street.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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1842: Francisco Morazan, Central American statesman

Add comment September 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1842, church bells throughout Central America tolled in celebration of the death by firing squad of the great liberal statesman Francisco Morazan.

Morazan monuments litter Central America. Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once claimed (he later backed away from it) that this equestrian job in Tegucigalpa, Honduras was actually a remaindered statue of Napoleonic general Michel Ney.

The self-educated soldier and politician rose to helm the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America after it broke free of Spain (and a brief hitch with Mexico) but before it splintered into Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

After beating conservative forces in the field, Morazan forced upon them a slate of liberal reforms that had the knives out for him for a decade-plus: free speech, civil equality, separation of church and state guaranteed by the expulsion of clergy. As this patronizingly favorable biography from the late 19th century wrote,

His ambition was for the advancement and development of Central America; and while the means he used cannot be entirely approved, his purpose should be applauded. His crusade was quite as important in the civilization of this continent as the bloody work England attempted to accomplish in Egypt and the Soudan. He was better than his race, was far in advance of his generation …

Thanks, racist uncle.

Anyway, the Federal Republic fell apart in the late 1830s as its constituent statelets broke apart and the familiar conservatives-landowners-priests coalition started getting the upper hand on Morazan. After an 1842 landing that briefly established him as ruler of Costa Rica (he had also had shifts as the head of state of El Salvador and of Honduras), he overreached with an announcement for universal conscription to form an army that would reunite the Central American state.

“Posterity,” he said before the bullets felled him, “shall do us justice.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers

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1973: Victor Jara, among thousands in Chile’s September 11

7 comments September 15th, 2008 Headsman

At an unknown time on this evening in 1973, or else the early hours of the following day, Chilean putschists ushering in the Pinochet dictatorship machine-gunned folk singer Victor Jara near the Santiago stadium that today bears his name.

“I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger of Allende’s election. Victor Jara had another idea.

Four days before, Chile’s September 11 had seen General Augusto Pinochet topple the elected leftist government of Salvador Allende, murdering the president in his palace. (Or, go some accounts, Allende committed suicide — “pausing only twice to reload.”)

A long pall of evil settled over the country, with all the accustomed chilling familiars: “disappeared” people, mirrored shades, Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The day after the CIA-backed coup, popular folk singer and activist Victor Jara, a pioneer of the Nueva Cancion (“New Song” movement) then teaching at Santiago’s Technical University, was among thousands of undesirables rounded up and packed off to a makeshift prison camp at the city’s Chile Stadium — a stadium Jara had performed at.*

Left there to the tender mercies of a thuggish Chilean officer, Jara was beaten and tortured over the intervening days — evocative but possibly undependable tradition holds that the guitarist’s hands were cut off, shattered or otherwise destroyed. According to the U.S.-based United States Institute of Peace,

[t]he the last day Víctor Jara was seen alive was September 15. During the afternoon he was taken out of a line of prisoners who were being transferred to the National Stadium. In the early morning of the next day, September 16, shantytown dwellers found his body, along with five others, including that of Littré Quiroga Carvajal, near the Metropolitan Cemetery. As the autopsy report states, Víctor Jara died as a result of multiple bullet wounds (44 entry wounds and 32 exit wounds).

The Commission came to the conviction that he was executed without due process of law by government agents, and hence in violation of his fundamental human rights.

To say the least.

And as the text implies, Jara was only the most recognizable name among unknown hundreds killed as the military cemented its control of the country.

Jara remains larger-than-life martyr figure in Latin America and liberation movements worldwide, but he’s almost unknown north of the Rio Grande. Pinochet was our bastard; in the weird way history writes its own geography, Jara became a political emblem behind the Iron Curtain for the perfidy of the capitalist powers: obscure in Peoria, but a household name in Potsdam, as the credit roll from this 1978 East German film suggests.**

That’s Jara himself on the soundtrack, of course. The pat conclusion for such a figure is that his art is his legacy, and that Jara’s body of work as against Pinochet’s will be a walkover in posterity. Is that enough? Pinochet died in his bed at age 91; earlier this year, the Jara case was closed in underwhelming fashion. Thirty-five years down the road, most authors of Pinochet’s human rights depredations are dead or lost or decrepit. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Victor’s widow, Joan Jara — today director of the Fundacion Victor Jara (it’s a Spanish-only site); you can hear her interviewed on Democracy Now! for the 25th anniversary of her husband’s death in 1998 — managed to leave the country with some of his works.

Her publication of a poem he wrote while imprisoned, an untitled, unfinished work generally known as “Estadio Chile,” made it a signature cry of hope amid desperation. Here it is in the Spanish rough-hewn under the shadow of death; there’s an English translation here.

Somos cinco mil
en esta pequena parte de la ciudad.
Somos cinco mil
¿Cuantos seremos en total
en las ciudades de todo el pais?
Solo aqui, diez mil manos que sembran
y hacen andar las fabricas.

¡Cuanta humanidad
con hambre, frio, panico, dolor
presion moral, terror y locura!

…¡Y Mexico, Cuba y el mundo?
¡Que gritan esta ignomonia!

Somos diez mil manos menos
que no producen.
¿Cuanto somos en toda la Patria?
La sangre del companero Presidente
golpea mas fuerte que bombas y metrallas.
Asi golpeara nuestro puno nuevamente.

¡Canto que mal me sales
cuando tengo que cantar espanto!
Espanto como el que vivo
como el que muero, espanto.

De verme entre tanto y tantos
momentos de infinito
en que el silencio y el grito
son las metas de este canto.
Lo que veo nunca vi,
lo que he sentido y lo que siento
hara brotar el momento…

Whether or not it’s enough, his work is his legacy after all.

* Some 7,000 people were held at Chile Stadium in the days after the coup, most later moved in with other detainees at the larger Estadio Nacional. The USIP excerpt alludes to Jara being pulled out for execution during such a move.

** In a similar vein, Stanford has a small online exhibit of Jara-themed East German propaganda art. Not to be outdone, there’s a Soviet rock opera about Jara, and an asteroid discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named in Jara’s honor within a week of his execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Torture

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