1956: Melvin Jackson, by calculus

Add comment September 28th, 2018 Headsman

This day’s post arrives to us via George Wallace: American Populist, and it concerns not the pugilistic Wallace but a previous Alabama governor, Big Jim Folsom.

Folsom, as we see here, was a man who had to choose his exercises of executive mercy very carefully due to the fraught racial politics of his state.

“I admit that we have got the worst penal system in the world, including Dark Africa,” Folsom said two years later* in the course of commuting the death sentence of a man whose crime was stealing $1.95.

What made Folsom most vulnerable to abandonment by even those deeply committed to his social programs was his demonstrative concern about the plight of Alabama’s blacks. He freely pardoned and paroled black convicts, believing they had been wrongly jailed or punished excessively because of their race. He harbored deep misgivings about the death penalty, especially in Alabama because use of the electric chair seemed reserved almost exclusively for blacks. In 1956, at a time of growing racial tension in the state, two black men were scheduled to die in Kilby Prison’s electric chair on the same night, one for murdering his wife and the other for raping a white woman. Folsom commuted the murderer’s sentence to life in prison, but he allowed the young rapist (who had been nineteen at the time of the crime) to die and said that he “just couldn’t” commute the sentence of a black man convicted of raping a white woman. “I’d never get anything done for the rest of my term if I did that,” he said. “Hell, things are getting so bad, they’re even trying to take Black & White Scotch off the shelves.” (It was true. The government of Alabama, which controlled the sale of liquor in the state, seriously considered barring that brand of Scotch whisky because of the name and because its label showed two Scottish terriers — one white and one black — joyfully playing together.)


The miscegenating spirit urges you to get in the holiday spirit.

* Folsom said that in 1958, the same year he let Jeremiah Reeves go to the electric chair.

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1654: Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger, sculptor

Add comment September 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1654, Flemish sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger was strangled and burned in Ghent for sodomy (sodomy in a church, no less).

As an artist, the man’s legacy is forever overshadowed by his father’s Brussels tourist essential Manneken Pis; Hieronymus (or Jerome) the Younger learned his craft from dad as a studio apprentice. (We here dismiss Hieronymus the Elder from our narrative; Hieronymus the Younger is meant by all subsequent references in this post.)

This was not to be the end of the story when it came to Hieronymus and naked young boys, but in 1621 he upped stakes for Italy and proceeded to spend the next two decades honing his craft in Mediterranean climes. Or at least, this is the necessary assumption, as very little direct evidence traces his movements in that period.

Returning to the Low Counties in the early 1640s, Duquesnoy earned a number of baroque commissions as “architecte, statuaire et sculpteur de la Cour.” (For a taste of his work: The Infant Hercules | Ganymede.)

The last of his projects was this tomb for Bishop Antonius Triest in Ghent; “he set himself up with his assistants in one of the cathedral‘s chapels, to lay out and prepare the sections of this tomb, which could have been for the master the finest jewel in a new sculptural crown, had he not come to a sad end,” according to Edmond de Busscher.


This monumental tomb would also prove the death of its sculptor. (cc) image by www.pmrmaeyaert.com — Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.

He was arrested when 8- and 11-year-old boys accused him of molestation in the church during his work on the bishop’s shrine. Duquesnoy vigorously denied the charges and tried to call in favors from his patrons to squelch the case, but Ghent’s council decided otherwise and had him executed in the city’s Koornmarkt (Grain Market).

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1554: A handsome young man from Montpellier

Add comment September 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France:

On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.

On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.

The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’

The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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1529: Adolf Clarenbach, Lower Rhine evangelist

Add comment September 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1529, the city of Cologne burnt Protestant evangelist Adolf Clarenbach at the stake.

Clarenbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a humanist-trained teacher who caught the Reformation spirit when he read Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian in about 1523.

The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers, that, so soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed …

-Luther in the dedicatory preface* to On the Freedom of a Christian (Source)

Adolf Clarenbach in statuary on present-day Cologne’s city hall. (cc) image from Raimond Spekking

Luther’s words would kindle many a fagot in the years to come. Clarenbach got an early start assailing orthodox delicacies; he was dismissed from teaching posts and harried from city to city (German link, a handy little biography). Munster ran him out for agitating against idolatrous images of saints in 1523; Duke Johann III** personally ordered his expulsion from Jülich-Cleves-Berg; Osnabrück, Büderich and Elberfeld all gave him the boot before Cologne finally arrested him in April 1528.

Clarenbach’s condemnation would only be secured by an arduous process stretching well over a year and contested by the heretic and his friends not only in theology but in law (Clarenbach, a layperson, disputed the ecclesiastical court’s right to try him and appealed successfully to an Imperial court against Cologne, dragging out the process) and in public opinion (Clarenbach’s supporters in Cologne published defenses of him). Even the actual death sentence took half a year to enact after it was issued in March 1529 while authorities loath to conduct it negotiated with their prisoner to moderate his heresy.

He was finally put to death together with another Lutheran, Peter Fliesteden; they are among the first Protestants to die for their confession in the Lower Rhine.

Given the Lutheran movement’s strong run in Germany, it’s no surprise to find this seminal martyr honored in many places in present-day Germany — and his name ornamenting a street in his hometown, a seminary, and a primary school.

* On the Freedom of a Christian was dedicated to the sitting pope. While Luther’s dedication inveighed furiously against the Roman curia, it took the politic and preposterous rhetorical angle that the Medici Leo X was a helpless ingenue undone by his scheming court, “like Daniel in the midst of lions”: “I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made Pontiff in this. For the Roman Court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.”

Luther signed that dedication on September 6, 1520. He had not been excommunicated at that point.

Just a few weeks later, he received the papacy’s official (and none too polite) rebuttal to Luther’s 95 theses. Luther answered this missive much less temperately, and his breach with Rome was complete by January 1521.

† Cologne at this time was under the bishopric of Hermann of Wied, a humanist with the germ of reform curiosity. Many years later, he would actually convert to Lutheranism which naturally led to his excommunication and deposition. (But not execution.)

** That’s Duke Johann of Cleves, the father of the Anne of Cleves whose unsatisfactory betrothal to Henry VIII precipitated the downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

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1926: Sataro Fukiage, serial killer

Add comment September 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1926, serial killer Sataro Fukiage (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was hanged at Ichigaya prison for rape-murder.

Most of what’s out there about Sataro Fukiage is in Japanese (like this book). Born in 1889, his hardscrabble upbringing saw him enter the workforce at age nine. He was not a model apprentice, alternating escape attempts with evictions for bad conduct; stealing from his master to procure a prostitute landed him in Kyoto prison at the tender age of 12, and it was in his periodic incarcerations that, Oliver Twist-like, he learned the finer points of pickpocketing from yakuza. He would need those finer points to do the breadwinning for his penniless mother in between his stints behind bars.

His somewhat sympathetic childhood also included a voracious and deviant sexual appetite which was to blossom in time into a carnivorous pattern of abuse.

Fukiage committed his first murder in 1906, when he took an 11-year-old acquaintance to a remote location, then raped and strangled her, only avoiding the death sentence because he himself was still underage at that time.

Released in 1922, he immediately brought himself to widespread public notoriety for a 1922-23 rape spree with at least 27 victims — most of them, again, underage girls. He mixed at least six murders into the one-man crime wave.

He completed an autobiography in prison, but it was banned shortly after its publication.

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1637: William Schooler and John Williams

Add comment September 28th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

On September 28, 1637, two men convicted on separate counts of murder in the Puritan colony north of Boston — in what is now Essex County — were executed on the same gallows. The first was William Schooler, convicted a year earlier of killing Mary Scholy on the path to Pascataquack; the second was John Williams convicted of killing John Hoddy near Great Pond in Wenham.


Original (c) image from Murder And Mayhem in Essex County, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1636, an Agawam Indian walking through the Winnacunnet woods, north of the town of Newbury, found the body of a young white woman, lying in a thick swamp about three miles north of the Merrimack river. From the condition of the body, he could tell that the woman had been dead for several months. She lay naked, with her clothing still in a pile not far from the body. The Indian took the news to Newbury, and led the Englishmen to the spot so they could see for themselves.

The woman’s name was Mary Sholy. She was identified more by the circumstance than by appearance, since the flesh had begun to rot. Mary had left Newbury several months earlier, traveling north to her home at the English settlement at Pascataquack. The people of Newbury were also fairly certain who had killed her; they believed she had been ravished and murdered by the man she had hired to guide her journey home, an outsider named William Schooler.

In London, England, William Schooler had been a vintner with intemperate habits. Schooler was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel he fled to Holland to escape the law; then, leaving his wife behind, he traveled to New England. In 1636 he was living in a shack by the Merrimack River within the limits of Newbury but outside the boundaries of sanctioned Christian behavior.

Mary Sholy, a servant girl, was looking for someone to guide her to Pascataquack, to return to her master. Pascataquack — now Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was a small settlement, about twenty-three miles north of Newbury. It is not known why Mary Sholy had come to Newbury; it is unlikely that her master would have sent her there without providing a guide back. The journey from Newbury to Pascataquack would have been too perilous for a young woman to take alone, first crossing the Merrimack River in a canoe, then following the route to Pascataquack, which was described as little more than a path through the woods. In 1636, even the well-traveled path between Ipswich and Newbury was too narrow for a horse cart. In addition to the possibility of losing her way and becoming hopelessly lost in the woods between the two settlements, there was a very real danger of being attacked by wild animals or hostile Indians.

Seeing an opportunity to make a little money, William Schooler sought out Mary and offered to guide her home for fifteen shillings. He did not tell her that he himself had never made the trip to Pascataquack before. Two days after their departure, William Schooler was back in Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so soon Schooler replied that he had guided Mary to within two or three miles of Pascataquack, where she stopped, saying she would go no further. Schooler left her there and returned to Newbury.

The people of Newbury remained suspicious and Schooler was questioned by the magistrates in Ipswich. When he returned from the trip he had blood on his hat and a scratch on his nose the “breadth of a small nail.” He explained that the blood was from a pigeon he had killed and the scratch on his nose was from walking into some brambles. He was released, as there was no evidence then that a crime had been committed.

The following year the Pequod tribe took up arms against the English colonists and Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia. He deemed this service to be an oppression and publicly spoke out against it. His outspoken opposition was considered “mutinous and disorderly,” and the governor issued a warrant against him. When he was arrested, Schooler assumed it was about Mary Sholy and began to vehemently defend himself against the charge of her murder. Schooler;s behavior made the magistrates suspicious and, since they now knew Mary Sholy had been murdered, they decided to reopen the case.

Newbury residents who knew him came forward to volunteer information on Schooler’s character. In a Puritan court the character of the accused was as important as the physical evidence against him.

Schooler denied that he murdered Mary Sholy but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. The court and the clergy tried desperately to persuade Schooler to confess but he would not. Schooler was contrite, saying he had told many lies to excuse himself, but vehemently denied that he had killed or ravished Mary Sholy. Some ministers argued that the evidence against him was not sufficient to take away his life, but Governor Winthrop denied Scholler a reprieve, saying: “but the court held him worthy of death, in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her (when he might have done otherwise) in such a place, as he knew she must needs parish, if not preserved by means unknown.”


John Williams was a ship carpenter who had recently come to America from England. In 1637, he was in prison in Boston for theft. Williams and another prisoner, John Hoddy, escaped from the jail and traveled north. They had gone beyond Salem and were on the road to Ipswich, on the east end of the Wenham Great Pond when they had a falling out. The two men had a fight that ended with the death of John Hoddy.

There are two versions of what happened next. In one story John Hoddy’s dog held Williams at bay until the noise drew the attention of enough residents of Wenham to apprehend Williams and take him to jail in Ipswich. The more likely story says that Williams took everything belonging to Hoddy, including his clothes, and buried his body under a pile of stones. Williams proceeded to Ipswich where he was apprehended, after having been recognized as a criminal. Though his clothes were bloody when arrested, he would confess to nothing until a week later, when the body of John Hoddy was found. Cows at a farm near Great Pond smelled the blood and made such a “roaring” that they got the attention of the cow keeper, who on investigation found Hoddy’s naked body under a heap of stones.

Around the same time the justice of the peace in Ipswich learned that both Williams and Hoddy were escaped prisoners. Williams was indicted for the murder of John Hoddy and tried by the Court of Assistants in Boston. Though he confessed to the murder, the court insisted on enforcing Williams’s right to due process, and tried the case before a jury. Williams was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The double hanging, on September 28, 1637, took place on Boston Common, where all executions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were held.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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1832: Lucy (Wells), jealous slave

Add comment September 28th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1832 was the Republic’s only execution of a female in Tyler County, West Virginia (then part of Virginia): a slave named Lucy who murdered the daughter of a neighboring family.

Detail on this case comes salvaged from the now-defunct (we think) death penalty history site Before the Needles:

Just across Middle Island from the Wells home lived a family which had a daughter named Mary Ann Fletcher.

Communication between the two homes was by canoe or johnboat and quite frequently Lucy was sent to the creek bank to set Miss Fletcher across the stream for a visit to the Wells home when they heard a halloo from the opposite shore. For some reason Lucy became intensely jealous of the attention which her master’s family lavished on the young Fletcher girl and determined to slay her.

One day after visiting the Wells home Lucy was sent with Miss Fletcher to set her across the creek and after a little longer delay than usual Lucy returned to “Stonehurst” her usual calm self, but later in the evening Mr. Fletcher came to the creek bank and hallooed across to “Stonehurst” and asked if they would send Mary Ann home immediately, as it was growing late.

Squire Wells and his family wondered what had happened, but did not think of anything wrong untill Mr. Fletcher called to them a second time. Lights were secured by both families who went to the crossing and in a short time the body of Mary Ann, drowned, was discovered.

An examination of the body disclosed the she had evidently died from foul play, because the fingers of both hands had been badly crushed and she also had bruises on her head and face. Lucy was immediately suspected and shortly confessed that she had pushed Miss Fletcher out of the boat, and when she did not readily drown, and had caught the sides of the canoe with her hands, she (Lucy) had pounded Miss Fletchers hands with the paddle, struck her over the head several times and pushed her under the surface of the stream.

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1987: Mehdi Hashemi, Iran-Contra whistleblower

3 comments September 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1987,* Iranian cleric and revolutionary official Mehdi Hashemi was secretly executed … seemingly, for leaking the Iran-Contra scandal.

Hashemi was an O.G. of the Iranian Revolution, imprisoned by the notorious secret police SAVAK** and freed when the Shah’s government collapsed in 1979.

Hashemi had a series of posts in the revolutionary state generally relating to exporting the revolution, and under the aegis of Ayatollah Montazeri, who in the late 1980s was the heir apparent of Ayatollah Khomeini for leadership in the Islamic Republic.

Montazeri was a rival of parliamentarian Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,† and further to that rivalry the Montazeri faction leaked embarrassing information about Rafsanjani’s dealings with the United States.

The Great Satan’s disreputable Middle East policy entailed playing both sides of the destructive Iran-Iraq War — arming Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, while also making secret weapons sales through Israel to Iran despite a supposed arms embargo, thereby obtaining the release of American hostages in Lebanon.

This is the “Iran” half of the Iran-Contra scandal … which became the Iran-Contra scandal when Hashemi publicly exposed the existence of secret Iranian-American contacts to the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa.

The immediate motivations appear murky even to specialists, of whom this writer is not one … but whatever they were, the leak backfired — as so often is the case — on the whistleblower himself.

While the authors of the covert policy in each country emerged stronger, Hashemi was arrested just before the story broke publicly and “persuaded” (with 75 lashes!) into one of those Soviet-style auto-denunciations, which was broadcast on Iranian TV.

Hashemi’s self-flagellation, as characterized here, runs thus:

Deviation is my ultimate sin. This is why I now stand before you. I began my career with minor infractions, gradually strayed from the correct path, continued with larger mistakes, then to major sins, and ultimately to the worst sin possible — that of heresy, apostasy, and treason against the Imam, the Community, Islam, and the Islamic Revolution. I have to ask myself what was the root cause of my downfall? …

(His answer: “carnal instincts”.)

I now realize that despicable sinners like myself had no business inside the heir-designate’s office. I thank God that I have been removed from that office …

I would like to plead with my former colleagues and friends who shared my deviant ideas to return to the correct path, relinquish their false notions, reform themselves, unite against imperialism, and overcome the carnal instincts that can lead them toward having relations with Satan and his representatives.

He was tried on a basket of nasty charges including “corruption on earth,” murder, kidnapping, plotting against the government … and, because state authority is not immune to irony, arms struggling.

Hashemi’s patron Ayatollah Montazeri worked unavailingly behind the scenes to save his man; Hashemi’s judge noted in his memoirs that the execution was carried out before the sentence went public, specifically to prevent Montazeri throwing his weight around to stop it.

But that weight would dwindle near to nothing in the months ahead, as the case opened a schism between Montazeri and the Iranian leadership.

After publicly calling for greater political openness, and criticizing a horrifying 1988 mass execution, Montazeri was officially demoted from the designated successor position in favor of Ayatollah Khamenei — who did indeed succeed to the Supreme Leader job, and holds it to this day.

Montazeri remained a frequent internal critic (and, for a time, political prisoner) of the Iranian government during the 1990s and 2000s; by the time of his December 2009 funeral, he was an emblem for the embattled Iranian reform movement.

* The execution was reported by Iranian radio as having taken place at dawn that same day, but opposition organizations immediately charged that it had actually been carried out some days before. (See New York Times, Sep. 29, 1987) If the matter has been definitively resolved, I have not been able to document it.

** For murdering a pro-regime theologian who dissed the Khomeini-backed book The Immortal Martyr, which recast Shi’a martyr Husayn Ali as a revolutionary inspiration for modern times.

† Rafsanjani also has a son named Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani — who is not to be confused with the subject of this post.

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1898: The Six Gentlemen of the Hundred Days’ Reform

3 comments September 28th, 2009 Headsman

This afternoon in 1898, six liberals got the chop for their hopeless attempt to give a tottering empire the reforms it desperately needed.

The Hundred Days’ Reform — actually 103 days, from June 11 to September 21 — marked the attempt by China’s Guangxu Emperor to implement a far-reaching modernization programme backed by forward-thinking officials with a mind to correct China’s supine position vis-a-vis the West, and even vis-a-vis its neighbors.

“Reform has never come about in any country without the flow of blood. No one in China in modern times has sacrificed himself for the cause of reform, and because of this China is still a poor and backward country. Therefore, I request that the sacrifices begin with myself.” –Tan Sitong

The Wuxu Constitutional Reform still stands as the great attempt made by Chinese progressives who tried to follow the example of the modern powers in order to save China from extinction. Represented by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the bourgeois reformists were imbued with the spirit of national salvation; they carefully set about designing a blueprint for a constitutional monarchy based on the example of Western countries. They advocated the establishment of parliament and a national conference, and wanted to see honest and fair-minded people with the courage to criticize authority installed in a position of power. National policies should be discussed by the monarch and the people. They also wanted a constitution to stipulate the rights and obligations of the monarch, officials, and the people. The constitution was to be the highest code for all people in the country. They also wanted to establish a system featuring a tripartite balance of forces: parliament was to legislate, the magistracy to deal with issues of justice, the government with administration. All of these would be under the monarch.

The constitutional reform was to take place with radical intellectuals submitting their memoranda to Emperor Guang Xu, who alone had the power to promulgate them. The feudal diehards being in a position of strength and the national bourgeoisie being weak, however, the new politics survived no more than 100 days or so. When the forces of reaction inevitably clamped down on the movement, the six reformists who had inspired the movement for constitutional reform met their deaths like heroes.

Although sincere in its aspirations, the reform movement was bound to fail, as it depended on a reform “from top to bottom”, which ultimately had to be enacted by the emperor. The Hundred Days’ Constitutional Reform, however, remains a landmark event in the modern history of China, its failure notwithstanding. The Chinese bourgeoisie in fact succeeded in spreading democratic and constitutionalist ideas widely, and this had a significant effect on future generations. The political and legal theory of the Western bourgeoisie could now take root in the soil of China.*

The emperor’s Machiavellian conservative aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had been the power behind the Chinese throne since 1861, made the sure reform didn’t see two hundred days with a “coup” that didn’t formally overthrow the Emperor — just made him irrelevant.

Troublemakers further down the food chain didn’t get off so easily.

Kang Youwei, the reform movement’s chief exponent, escaped to Japan. Six others suffered the wrath of the Dowager Empress: Kang Guangren (Kang Youwei’s brother), Lin Xu, Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui and Liu Guangdi … along with the young reformer Tan Sitong, who notably refused imprecations to flee arrest.

The sword’s blade across my neck,
I look toward heaven — laughing.
-Etched on a prison wall, allegedly by Tan Sitong


Photo of an unspecified 1867 Qing beheading in Canton.

* “The Chinese Legal Tradition and the European View of the Rule of Law” by Wu Shu-Chen in The Rule of Law History, Theory and Criticism, Part VI.

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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