1821: Corporal Chaguinha, Brazil’s saint of freedom

1 comment September 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1821, Brazil’s saint of freedom was martyred by the Portuguese.

Francisco José das Chagas, fondly remembered as Corporal Chaguinha, led a mutiny in Santos of enlistees aggrieved by wages five years overdue, and the unequal treatment of Brazilian as compared to Portuguese soldiers.

It was a fraught and contradictory political moment; the Portuguese royal family had spent the past decade-plus in the quasi-exile of their New World colony after fleeing Napoleon. In the process they had (even formally) elevated Brazil from a mere dependency to a coequal in the empire, and attempts to reverse this promotion once the royals returned to Portugal in early 1821 found little welcome in Brazil.

Chaguinha was born to symbolize in his death his countrymen’s frustration.

To great popular indignation a customary pardon was not extended to the man, who was instead publicly hanged in a notorious botch. After the rope broke repeatedly — and again a public clamor for clemency was refused — they strangled him slowly with a leather strap. A Catholic priest named Diogo Antônio Feijó, who in time would rise to become the regent of independent Brazil, would describe seeing “with my own eyes” seeing the still-surviving Chaguinha being murdered lying under the gallows after his last noose failed to support him.

Brazil declared independence from Portugal one year later almost to the date (September 7, 1822), and won the war to clinch it. The martyred corporal was thereafter improved by veneration as a popular saint credited with miraculous intercessions for suitably patriotic Brazilians.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Portugal,Public Executions,Soldiers

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1917: Herbet Morris, British West Indies Regiment deserter

Add comment September 20th, 2017 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1917, 17-year-old Jamaican soldier Herbert Morris was shot in a courtyard behind the town hall in the Flemish town of Poperinge.

He’d volunteered the year before, 8,000 kilometers away from the terrible trenches, to cross the Atlantic and stake his life for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment but in the end it was the guns of his own countrymen who would fell him.

Like numerous front-line troops, Morris became disordered by shellshock, and despite a generally commendable service record, routed during a bombardment to be discovered days later wandering at Boulogne. With that (non-capital) precedent already to his name, Morris’s second desertion on August 20 met a very much harsher response.

When on active service deserting His Majesty’s Services, in that he, in the Field on the 20th of August 1917, when warned for duty, in the neighbourhood of the front line absented himself from his detachment until apprehended by the Military Police at Boulogne on the 21st of August 1917.

-Morris’s death sentence, endorsed by Douglas Haig, 15 September 1917

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns,” Morris explained to his very brief court-martial, unavailingly. “I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything. It was on the Sunday that I saw the doctor. He gave me no satisfaction.” Two character witnesses from his unit comprised the entirety of his defense.

During the week between Morris’s hearing and his Field Marshal Haig-confirmed sentence, a violent mutiny by British Empire troops in Etaples, France shook the high command. Nobody can say if it was determinative for Morris’s fate, but it cannot have weighed in favor of leniency.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,Jamaica,Military Crimes,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead outlaw

Add comment September 20th, 2015 Headsman

At 4 a.m. on this date in 1889, Clay County, Minnesota hosted its only execution.

This affair began, as such things do, when “a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND” in the autumn of 1888. One of them was killed, and a farmer who saw it happen identified Brown as the suspect. What little is known of Brown* indicates that he was a hardened outlaw; he broke out of prison in Wisconsin, and did time in the Dakota territories, too. While awaiting his fate he would solve a frontier sporting mystery by admitting that he murdered the tramp who had killed bareknuckles pugilist George Fulljames.

So police had their eyes peeled for Brown 40 miles down the way in the border settlement of Fargo-Moorhead. (Fargo is on the North Dakota side of the river, Moorhead on the Minnesota side.)

One night in October, an off-duty Fargo cop spotted Brown a few blocks into the Minnesota side of town, and alerted Moorhead policeman John Thompson. But Brown had noticed them, noticing him, and drew on the Moorhead officer. While Brown was demanding to know what the two had spoken about, another Moorhead policeman approached.

This Patrolman Peter Poull’s appearance set off the gunplay: Brown wheeled and felled Poull with a shot through the heart, but the distraction allowed Patrolman Thompson to draw and wound he fleeing desperado. Brown was captured, his revolver empty, collapsed on the train tracks with shots through his shoulder and leg. It was only because the quick-thinking Clay County sheriff whisked Brown out of jail under cover of darkness by forcing a night train to Minneapolis to make an unscheduled stop that a lynching was averted.

“Unless I get a change of venue I guess I shall have to swing,” Brown observed, with preternatural coolness.

He did not get a change of venue.

Brown’s execution was one of the first (to state it more exactly: it was the second) to occur under the state’s new “midnight assassination” law, which not only shamefacedly stashed hangings behind prison walls under cover of darkness, but also prohibited newspapers from publishing the particulars of the event.

Those lingeringly detailed descriptions — of the hardihood of the dead man and the conduct of the onlookers and the ceremony upon the gallows and whether the victim confessed and if he died fast or died hard — have been a staple of print media practically since its birth, and certainly an indispensable font for these grim annals. But the legislature had been persuaded that their circulation constituted a moral degradation to the consumers who eagerly read them. This directive was at best unevenly complied with: a number of newspapers did publish such accounts, and they were not punished for it. And of course the law did not reach across the Dakota border at all, so the Fargo Argus was able to insinuate an editor into the death chamber, who later described the killer’s last moments thus:

When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer … Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear … In a weak and trembling** voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.

The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall … In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.

* Even to the end he refused to reveal his real identity or background, so as not to shame his family.

** Other published accounts speak of the hanged man’s unusual nerve. Between the moralizing interests of the interlocutors and the circulation of bogus information facilitated by the midnight assassination law, we here profess agnosticism as to Brown’s actual behavior.

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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1763: Gabriela Silang

1 comment September 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1763, the mestiza Philippines national hero Maria Josefa Gabriela Carino Silang was captured and summarily hanged — along with a number of the soldiers she had led against the Spanish.


Monument to Gabriela Silang in Makati City, Philippines. (cc) image from Jun Acullador.

Gabriela took primary leadership of a 2,000-strong rebel army after its co-leader, her husband Diego, was assassinated by his enemies in May 1763.

Said enemies were the Spanish colonial authorities, whom Diego and his helpmate Gabriela had raised revolt against and with an army wielding homemade muskets and blowguns, driven from the capital of Ilocos Sur. It was Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines during the Seven Years War that opened the opportunity for the rebellion: the British even appointed Diego Silang governor of the province his army was in the process of conquering. They just didn’t actually help him.

Spain’s assault on the rebels, once organized, was sufficiently overwhelming to drive Gabriela Silang out of the city of Vigan, and then to repel her counterattack — the occasion for her capture and her death.

Gabriela Silang is memorialized in a number of monuments and place names in the Philippines; the women’s organization GABRIELA also engineered its acronym to pay tribute to her.

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1812: Not Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace

3 comments September 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.

Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.

In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.

Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).

Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armee rolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.


Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.

The French blamed terrorists.

A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.

Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …

The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …

Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.


In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.

The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.

[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.

It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.

On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.

Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.

He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).

They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.

Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:

“Who are you?”

Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.

“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.

The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.

“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”

“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.

Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:

“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”

“Your name?” asked Davout.

“Bezukhov.”

“What proof have I that you are not lying?”

“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.

Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.

“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.

Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.

“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.

In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.

But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.

Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.

When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.

He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.

“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.

Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.

A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.

The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.

The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.

Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.

A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.

Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.

Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.

Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.

On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.

“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.

Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.

When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.

Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.

They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.

Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.

When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.

Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.

“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.

Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.

* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.

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1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d

4 comments September 20th, 2010 Headsman

The recently completed papal visit to England has summoned many a recollection of that country’s traumatic break from the Church. (As well as more recent embarrassments.)

While we know the schism from the comfort of retrospection, those present for its 16th century inception (and long afterward) had the task of sorting out winners and losers on blood-soaked scaffolds.

So we pause this date to note the extirpation September 20 and 21 of the Babington Plot, a half-baked scheme to re-establish the Old Faith that turned into one of history’s signature achievements of espionage.

Its namesake, young Sir Anthony Babington, was a secret Catholic with more money than sense; like many a Catholic of this time, he bristled under the rule of Elizabeth I, the daughter of the very woman who started all this English Reformation trouble.

Besotted with fellow-Catholic Mary Queen of Scots after having served as her page in his youth, Babington was easy prey for the fellow invariably described as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”Francis Walsingham.

Not one for scruples where his own security or his sovereign’s was concerned, Walsingham had long considered Mary Queen of Scots too dangerous to be left alive: every Catholic plot against Elizabeth intended to replace her on the throne with this Catholic cousin.

Trying to overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to off fellow royalty — dangerous precedent, in these dangerous times — Walsingham entrapped Babington and a coterie of other Catholics into designing and documenting a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and support a Spanish invasion.

And most importantly to Walsingham, they got Mary to sign off on it.

Though the design was grandiose, the real danger was pretty much nil — since Walsingham, a Renaissance reconnaissance man famous for his continent-spanning intelligence network, had penetrated the circle months before.* Walsingham let the conspiracy ripen long after he had the goods on the likes of Babington, intending to make it the instrument of Mary’s destruction. He succeeded.

Coded correspondence that Mary thought she was smuggling in and out of her cell was in fact being intercepted and decrypted.

When Babington wrote to her, alluding to his intent with “six noble gentlemen” to murder Queen Elizabeth, Mary doomed herself with a favorable reply:

The affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work; taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.

Within days, all — Mary, Babington, six gentlemen, and more — were in chains, and the commoners were being tortured into confessions and implications.**

The reckoning for Mary Queen of Scots would not arrive for some months yet.

But those of lesser breeding were dispatched with dispatch. Tried in two bunches, there were 14 in all condemned; on this date, Babington, was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, along with accomplices John Ballard, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage, Henry Donn and Chidiock Tichborne — the last of these leaving behind this doleful poetic adieu:

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green,
My youth is gone and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

(Hear this bummer of a verse read aloud here and here.)

The torture these first seven unfortunates endured as their entrails were ripped from their still-living bodies was so horrible that Elizabeth ordered the seven others awaiting execution the next day simply to be hanged to death before all the disemboweling business.†

A few books about spymaster Francis Walsingham

* Walsingham had plenty of plots to contend with, but did Elizabeth even greater service keeping tabs on the buildup of the Spanish Armada through a spy network in Italy — even using it to delay the invasion by a crucial extra year by drying up Spain’s credit line with Italian bankers. (Source, via (pdf))

Incidentally, and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be one in Walsingham’s employ.

** Luckily for Elizabeth, the treasonous Protestants who supported her back when she was at the mercy of her Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor were better able to hold their tongues under duress.

† One of those executed on September 21, Charles Tilney, has an oblique Shakespeare connection: he’s one possible author of the play Locrine, which Shakespeare might have revised and/or staged; Locrine is in the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

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1918: The 26 Baku Commissars

2 comments September 20th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1918, 26 Bolsheviks and Left SRs were shot in what is now Turkmenistan, their bid to establish Soviet power in Baku defeated — temporarily.


The Execution of the Twenty-Six Baku Commissars, by Isaak Brodsky (1925)

The 26 Baku Commissars were the men of the Baku Commune, a short-lived Communist government in 1918 led by the “Caucasian Lenin,” Stepan Shahumyan. (He was a good buddy of the Russian Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.)

In a cauldron of ethnic violence and against the military interventions of Turkey and Britain, these worthies were tasked with extending Soviet writ to the stupendous Azerbaijani oil fields* — the predominant source of tsarist Russia’s oil, and destined to be the engine of Soviet industry as well.

The Baku Soviet was expelled by the British, who inherited the bloody fight against an advancing Ottoman army.

Shahumyan and his fellow commissars, meanwhile, fled by ship across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan), where they fell into the hands of a the anti-Soviet factions — backed, once again, by the British — of a brand new locale’s incarnation of civil war.

The commissars’ “presence in Krasnovodsk was a matter of great concern to the [anti-Bolshevik] Ashkhabad Committee, the members of which were seriously alarmed that opposition elements in Transcaspia might take advantage of the presence of the Commissars to stage a revolt against the government.” Said concern was relieved by the expedient of escorting the Baku Soviet to the desert and shooting them en masse.

The Red Army recaptured Baku in 1920, this time for good, and Shahumyan and friends were raised to the firmament of Communist martyrology, and not only in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Streets and schools throughout the USSR bore their names.

As with many Soviet icons, the commissars had a rough come-down after the Iron Curtain fell. Their monument in Baku stood untended for many years, its eternal flame extinguished … until it was finally (and somewhat controversially) torn down earlier this year.


The Baku Commissars’ monument and its dead eternal flame, prior to its early 2009 demolition. Image (c) denn22 and used with permission.

* The Nobel family, which established the Nobel Prize, had a significant presence in the Baku petrol industry.

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1803: Robert Emmet, “let no man write my epitaph”

2 comments September 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish nationalist Robert Emmet was hanged and posthumously beheaded, a day after his trial for treason against England.

The well-to-do scion of a Protestant family, Robert Emmet followed his older brother into the Republican ferment of the time and led an unavailing uprising in Dublin on July 23, 1803.

Captured a month later when he romantically recklessly moved his hideout closer to his beloved Sarah Curran.*

Emmet won his great laurels in the annals of Irish Republicanism with a stirring “Speech from the Dock” addressed to the courtroom the day before he died. Or better to say that it was addressed in a courtroom, for knowing that his death sentence was a foregone conclusion, the real audience was posterity and a wider world.

Emmet found that audience with one of the great orations of the 19th century.

This clip is a truncated version of a longer speech not set to paper by Emmet, so no single definitive version exists. Versions can be found at this Irish history site, and at SinnFein.ie.

I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world — it is the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them. let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

On the strength of such sentiment — and the public’s learning of his love for Sarah Curran — the 25-year-old became iconic in death. Robert’s own death inspired the mandatory Irish patriotic ditty, “Bold Robert Emmet”:

But that sundered love between Emmet and Sarah Curran — who broken-heartedly accepted another proposal and moved to Sicily — was at least as stirring to the Romantic imagination. Washington Irving dedicated a short story to the lost romance; Emmet’s friend Thomas Moore made Curran the subject of a poem (beware: link opens an auto-playing audio file).


Anti-British terrorist Robert Emmet has a statue on Washington, D.C.’s Massachusetts Ave, and probably an entry on the no-fly list.

* 19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore paid her tribute in “She Is Far From the Land”:

She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her, sighing:
But coldly she turns from their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

She sings the wild song of her dear native plains,
Every note which he lov’d awaking; —
Ah! little they think who delight in her strains,
How the heart of the Minstrel is breaking.

He had liv’d for his love, for his country he died,
They were all that to life had entwin’d him;
Nor soon shall the tears of his country be dried,
Nor long will his love stay behind him.

Oh! make her a grave where the sunbeams rest,
When they promise a glorious morrow;
They’ll shine o’er his sleep, like a smile from the West,
From her ow lov’d island of sorrow.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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