1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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1942: Tom Williams, IRA martyr

2 comments September 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Irish revolutionary Tom Williams was hanged at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol on this date in 1942.

A plaque at 46 Bombay Street in Belfast marks the home Tom Williams shared with his grandmother.

The 19-year-old Belfast Catholic had been the chief of a six-man Irish Republican Army team that mounted an Easter Sunday attack intended to divert Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary from preventing Republican marches to commemorate the Easter Rising. The attack killed an RUC officer, and all six IRA men were arrested and sentenced to death.

As the acknowledged leader, Williams alone paid that forfeit; the five others all had their sentences commuted. (Notably, their number included 21-year-old Joe Cahill, who was destined for an illustrious career in the movement; he would go on to co-found the Provisional IRA in 1969, and to become a prominent exponent of the peace process in the 1990s.)

“Tom Williams walked to that scaffold without a tremor in his body. The only people who were shaking were us and the hangman,” his priest said later that day. “I’ve one other thing to say to you. Don’t pray for Tom Williams, pray to him, for at this moment Tom is a saint in heaven.”

That’s about the size of Williams’s place in the Republican memory. After the prison was closed, Williams was reburied with honors (Gerry Adams attended) in 2000. He’s commemorated in a ballad.

Tom Williams (Irish republican) from REBELS OF IRELAND on Vimeo.

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1778: Samuel Lyons and Samuel Ford, Fort Mifflin deserters

Add comment September 2nd, 2016 Headsman

In Philadelphia this date in 1778, “Lyons, Ford and Wilson, late Lieutenants, and John Lawrence, late gunner, in the navy of this State, were taken from the gaol to one of the gallies lying off Market Street wharf, where the two former were shot agreeable to their sentence, but the two latter reprieved.” (Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 2, 1778)

Samuel Lyons, Samuel Ford, John Wilson and John Lawrence all served on various of the American “row galley” fleet that gave the American revolutionaries at least some seaborne presence in their fight against the world’s preeminent naval power.

The four, executed and pardoned alike, had deserted the American garrison when that preeminent power put Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River under siege the previous autumn. (There’s a very detailed account of this operation here; the British eventually captured the fort from its badly outnumbered defenders.)

While desertion between the antagonists was a common phenomenon in the American Revolution, this made for an especially bad look a year later once the British abandoned Philadelphia to the aggressively triumphalist Patriots.

Even so, the last-minute clemencies alongside the actual shootings were also very much a part of the Continental Army’s delicate enforcement of discipline, in an environment where it feared that being either too lenient or too harsh could fatally undermine the tenuous morale of the rank and file. Every enforcement was considered in the light of its public impression.

“The number of spectators was very great,” our short report in the Evening Post concluded. “And it is hoped the melancholy scene will have a proper effect upon the profligate and thoughtless, who do not seriously consider that the crime of desertion is attended with the dreadful consequences of wilful perjury.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1944: Olavi Laiho, the last Finn executed in Finland

Add comment September 2nd, 2014 Headsman

Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944.

Laiho (English Wikipedia entry | Finnish) was conscripted to the Finnish Navy to fight in Finland’s theater of war against the Soviet Union.

As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.

While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are the last ever put to death in Finland.

Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, but he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.

Readers with Finnish proficiency might enjoy the Laiho biography En kyyneltä vuodattanut (I Never Shed a Tear).

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1887: Josiah Terrill, “I ain’t guilty of this here charge”

1 comment September 2nd, 2013 H.M. Fogle

From the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


Chapter 4

Josiah Terrill
September 2, 1887

Hanged Sept. 2, 1887, for the murder of a Meigs County, Ohio, citizen. It is believed that he was innocent but lacked friends and finances to clear himself.

Died Brave, Proclaiming His Innocence


Josiah Terrill, serial number 18,872, a Meigs County murderer, was hanged September 2, 1887. He met his fate bravely and, as is said of college graduates, “acquitted himself with great honor.” Like nine-tenths of the men who die upon the gallows, Terrill denied all knowledge of the crime with which he was charged, and with a last breath declared that he suffered death as an innocent man.

A few hours before the time appointed for his execution, the condemned man awoke from a refreshing sleep and asked for something to eat. The request, of course, was granted. Someone unguardedly expressed surprise at the desire to eat, and Terrill said, “You ain’t going to choke me off that way are you, without anything to eat?”

While Terrill was eating, a Missouri Colonel conversed with him, urging him to unburden his mind if he had any guilty knowledge. The murderer reiterated his oft repeated declaration of innocence, and requested the Warden to give him a drink of whiskey. But the man’s nerve was so great that the Warden declined to give him a stimulant to raise his courage for the trying ordeal.

After the final administration of spiritual comfort, the Warden read the death warrant, and the condemned man was lead [sic] to the scaffold.

Terrill was perfectly cool and collected, and his features shone in their natural color. As he stepped to the trap, Warden Coffin asked him if he had anything to say, to which he replied, “I say I ain’t guilty of this here charge.” “You say you are guilty?” queried the Warden who, with others, misunderstood him. “I say I ain’t guilty of this here charge,” reiterated Terrill. “God in heaven knows I ain’t guilty. There are some people and lawyers in Pomeroy who think they have got satisfaction on me now. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Warden Coffin then stepped over and shook hands with the condemned man, bidding him good-bye. The minister gravely followed his example, saying in a solemn tone: “Josiah, put your confidence and trust in the Lord.” “I have,” replied Terrill.

He was placed over the trap and, standing as if being measured for a suit of clothes, permitted Deputy Cherrington to adjust the ropes. There was some difficulty in fastening a strap, and he considerately moved his feet to facilitate operations. The black-cap–a rude bag–was placed over his head and the noose adjusted. At 12:34 A.M., before the audience realized that it had happened, Warden Coffin shot the lever from north to south. Rattle went the trap against the sides of the scaffold, and with a boom the body of the condemned man shot down seven feet, oscillated once or twice and then became quiet. There was not a twitch of the muscles or a movement of the body.

Instantly there was a plank placed across two chairs on the platform directly under the body of the hanging man, and two doctors sprang upon the plank to take note of the pulse and respiration. The heart beats were very rapid at first, but after six minutes began to lessen. In twelve minutes he was dead. The rope was lowered so the body could be placed on the plank, the knot was cut and the noose loosened, and then the black-cap removed, exposing the swollen and blackened face. His neck had been broken by the fall, but the rope had not cut the flesh. The body was placed in a coffin and shipped to Pomeroy, where it was buried by the dead man’s mother.

Strange to say, he expressed no desire to meet the aged woman before his death; on the contrary, he remarked at supper that the only person he cared to see was his child (illegitimate).

There has always existed grave doubts in the minds of some of Meigs County’s best citizens as to Terrill’s guilt. The evidence against him was purely circumstantial, but the jury evidently thought it strong enough to warrant a verdict of guilty.

He was accused of murdering an old man for whom he had previously worked. The opinion of the writer is that Josiah Terrill died an innocent man. This opinion is based upon evidence, and what could be learned from some of Meigs County’s best citizens. Certain it is that he was a poor illiterate man, without money and without influential friends.

Charles Phillips, the murdered man, was aged and decrepit. By frugality and hard toil he had accumulated quite a sum of money. Robbery was the motive of the crime, and a bludgeon and knife were the instruments of destruction.

Innocent or guilty, Terrill is in the hands of a just God, where he will remain until that great “Day of Judgment,” when all wrongs will be righted, and the innocent shown and the guilty punished according to the unerring judgement of an ETERNAL GOD.

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1944: Six Milice collaborators in France

1 comment September 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, just days after the Liberation of Paris secured the restoration of the French Republic, six collaborators were publicly shot in the foothills of the French Alps. They were the condemned of the first court-martial to sit in liberated France.

A London Times correspondent estimated that 4,000 or more of their countrymen braved cruel wind and rain to cheer the traitors’ deaths meted to these young members of the Vichy government’s hated milice.

They were among ten members of that militia captured at a training grounds in Grenoble, and the shooting of these six was preceded by a loudspeaker announcement decrying the tribunal which tried them for having the softness merely to imprison the other four.

“The Liberation Committee considers that the sentences which failed to inflict the death penalty on all the militiamen not to be in conformity with the wishes of the French people and accordingly promises, in conformity with those wishes, to see that the composition of the court-martial is revised in order to avoid a repetition of such weakness.” The people answered with a cheer.

London Times, Sep. 4 1944

The executions, carried out on a grounds the Gestapo had once used to executed Resistance members, were also photographed, and the striking images published in the Oct. 2 issue of Life magazine. Once available online from Life at this now-dead link, the gallery is reproduced at this Chinese page; Warning: Disturbing Content.

Photographer John Osborne, later a noted editor and habitue of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, would not have been a candidate for the Resistance’s court.

“I am susceptible as most,” he wrote in Life‘s original dispatch. “When I first saw the 10 men and boys in the courtroom dock at this trial, I wanted to cry. They looked so young, wretched, unshaven … It was very easy to sentimentalize over these men, all of whom were underlings. It was easy to agree with the [collaborators’] chief defender, Pierre Guy, that France would be harming only herself if she killed them now.”

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1772: Moses Paul

2 comments September 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1772, the town of New Haven, Connecticut hanged a Mohegan Indian named Moses Paul for a drunken homicide. He’d been kicked out of a tavern as an unruly sot, and vengefully beat to death outside it a (white) fellow-customer with whom he had quarreled.

Notable to the reported “concourse” of attendees as the first execution in those parts for more than twenty years, it comes to posterity as the occasion for an interesting milestone: the first known Native American publication in America was Samson Occom‘s “A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian”. (pdf)

Occom, himself a Mohegan, was a Presbyterian divine whom the condemned solicited to deliver the hanging sermon. So the multitudes assembled were also treated to the edification of seeing an Indian preach from the scaffold, which may have been yet another first.

Occom’s sermon went predictably long on the hark-ye-to-this-warning Christian boilerplate (as a convert from heathenism, Occom did not want for zeal). But the speaker was also plainly self-conscious of his racial position,and took pains to invoke the egalitarianism of the afterlife:* the same death and judgment awaiting “Negroes, Indians, English, or … what nations soever.”

Given the liquor-induced crime that was even then a stereotype of Indian susceptibilities, Occom concluded “address[ing] myself to the Indians, my bretheren and kindred according to the flesh” with a call to temperance in view of the waste he saw laid to his own communities:

My Poor Kindred,

You see the woeful consequences of sin, by seeing this our poor miserable countryman now before us, who is to die this day for his sins and great wickedness. And it was the sin of drunkenness that has brought this destruction and untimely death upon him … this abominable, this beastly and accursed sin of drunkenness, that has stript us of every desirable comfort in this life; by this we are poor miserable and wretched; by this sin we have no name nor credit in the world among polite nations, for this sin we are despised in the world … when we are intoxicated with strong drink we drown our rational powers, by which we are distinguished from the brutal creation we unman ourselves, and bring ourselves not only level with the beasts of the field, but seven degrees beneath them.

Drunkenness is so common amongst us, that even our young men, (and what is still more shocking) young women are not ashamed to get drunk.

break off from your drunkenness … O let us reform our lives, and live as becomes dying creatures, in time to come. Let us be persuaded that we are accountable creatures to God, and we must be called to an account in a few days … Fight against all sins, and especially the sin that easily besets you, and behave in time to come as becomes rational creatures.

Ava Chamberlain’s “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut”, published in The New England Quarterly (September 2004) has a detailed summary of this case, Paul’s unsuccessful efforts to appeal around the question of premeditation, and the historiographical riddle left by Occom’s voluble commentary vis-a-vis his subject’s near-total silence.

* Our colonial Calvinist anticipated Marxist aphorists with the remark, “whether we concern ourselves with death or not, it will concern itself with us.” The colonists present probably would have appreciated the occasion more had they known they were participating in an Internet meme.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1983: Jimmy Lee Gray, drunk-gassed

11 comments September 2nd, 2010 Headsman

Just after midnight on this date in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray gruesomely paid with his life in the Mississippi gas chamber for raping and murdering a three-year-old.

Mississippi’s gas chamber had had a checkered history since its first usage in 1955, and with America just emerging from a long lull in executions, Jimmy Lee Gray was its first client in 19 years.

“Sumbitch took a little three-year-old girl out into the bush and he raped her,” executioner T. Barry Bruce would later explain of the man’s crime. “Then he tried to shove her panties down her throat with a stick, then he pushed her head into a little crick full of running shit and then he broke her neck. So yeah, I feel real sorry for Jimmy Lee.”

Gray was on parole at the time for the 1968 murder of his teenage sweetheart, so no — nobody felt all that sorry for Jimmy Lee, not even his mom.

But the reason that questions about the affair were being directed at the executioner (usually a party as silent in these matters as he is implacable) was that Jimmy Lee Gray’s had been drunk on the job — and the execution was a notorious horrorshow.

“Gasping” or “moaning” a recorded eleven times, Gray convulsed wildly in the Parchman death chair, slamming his unrestrained head “with enough force to shake the chamber” against a metal pole that some user interface genius had positioned right behind the death chair. The witness room was cleared eight minutes into the affair, with Gray still thrashing about.

Though the Magnolia State contended that Gray was clinically dead within two minutes, that head-smashing act disturbed everyone.

As a result, for the third time in a half-century, Mississippi switched to a newer and supposedly more humane method for killing people — adopting lethal injection for anyone sentenced to death after July 1, 1984. (Three more prisoners already condemned under the old sentencing guidelines would die in the gas chamber in the late eighties, however.)

Actual executions in the U.S. were still novel enough in the early 1980s that Gray’s made national news — albeit distinctly second fiddle to the tense Cold War escalation occasioned by the September 1 Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007.

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1724: Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson

15 comments September 2nd, 2008 Headsman

Allegedly on this date in 1724, a young woman was hanged at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket for concealing her pregnancy.

Any number of details in this horrible/wonderful story are shaky, including the date: some sources make it 1728, a few say 1723, and only a handful attest a specific calendar date. Nobody seems to doubt the tale in the main, however — and it’s certainly excellent enough lore to deserve even a heavily asterisked entry.

Deserted by her husband, young Maggie Dickson took lodgings at an inn in exchange for work, and became pregnant by either the innkeeper or his son. (Again — details in the various sources available read like a game of telephone.) Since single* pregnant working-class women had about as many employment options as birth control options, Maggie kept quiet about her condition in the interest of keeping her job.

And since male parliamentarians figured their job was to keep young lasses of loose character and modest means on the straight and narrow by criminalizing their options, Maggie’s sleight-of-womb put her in violation of a law against concealing a pregnancy. (The same situation was playing out elsewhere in the British sphere at this time.)

When the resulting infant turned up dead, the trail led straight to Dickson … but the concealment of the pregnancy and birth were capital crimes on their own, making it immaterial whether it had been a miscarried pregnancy, an act of infanticide, or simply one of the many early 18th century babies to die in the cradle. The law was an indiscriminate instrument to prevent women terminating their pregnancies.

Nothing noteworthy about the hanging itself is recorded; it seems to have been one of the routine public stranglings of the age, and even the scuffle over the body between family and medical students hunting dissection-ready cadavers was a normal occurrence.

The family won. And en route to Musselburgh for burial, Maggie started banging on the inside of the coffin, and was forthwith revived. Officials decided the sentence of hanging had already been carried out … and her awestruck neighbors suddenly started seeing Maggie sympathetically

And they all lived happily ever after. This day’s principal, at any rate, gained a foothold in adequate prosperity, bore more children, and answered to the nickname “Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson” all the many more years of her life.

The story passed into legend; the dates, as we’ve alluded, fuzzed. One entrepreneurial English broadside publisher of the 19th century even transported the affair to February 1, 1813 — four years after a Concealment of Pregnancy Act reduced the penalty for Maggie Dickson’s “crime” to penal servitude. And near the site of the not-quite-Passion, should you call sometime in Edinburgh, you can raise Half-Hangit Maggie a pint at Maggie Dickson’s Pub.

I’le crye as fu’ o’ tears an egg,
‘Death, I’ve ae favour for to begg,
That ye wad only ge a flegg,
And spare my life,
As I did to ill hanged Megg,
That graceless wife

-Broadside, ‘The last speech and dying words of John Dalgleish, Hangman of Edinburgh’

* Technically, she was still married but separated.

Part of the Themed Set: Judging Abortion.

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