Seven Generic Halloween Costumes You Can Spice Up With an Execution Story

5 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part II (Click here for Part I.)

Not enough time to assemble an individual masterpiece to play Halloween make-believe? Looking at that off-the-rack costume, that witch outfit from last year, and sighing that it’ll have to do?

No sweat.

Let Executed Today help you go from so generic to sui generis with a horrible backstory that adds conversation-starting depth to the most bland of disguises.

Witch

The Halloween standby has a few hundred thousand real-life executions of which we’ve covered a bare handful.

Anne de Chartraine, a Walloon teenager burnt for witchcraft during the Thirty Years’ War, makes a good characterization of the classic black-hat-and-broomstick outfit.

More complex occultist disguises might consider presenting themselves as poisoner La Voisin, author Jacques Cazotte or the Weirs.

Pirate

Avast, ye sea-dog — there be more pirates than Blackbeard.

Men (especially leftists, anarchists and Bostonians — but I repeat myself) will enjoy answering the inevitable question when representing as William Fly. Ladies — think Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Ghost

Appropriately, the Great White North has interesting specters to round out the old white-sheet look. Haunt the scene of the kegstand as Madame Marie Josephte Corriveau or assassin Patrick Whelan.

Roman

Cicero is an obvious choice for the toga set, but consider writing Catiline on the nametag instead.

For the whole centurion look, call yourself Sejanus and start settling scores.

Soldier

There are many military looks for many times and places, of course, lots of them liable to be politically touchy in the wrong crowd.

Partisans like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and Evagoras Pallikarides cut heroic figures with a plain set of clothes, some basic military gear, and a knapsack full of consonants.

More formally equipped modern-ish choices of various different lands include Francisco Caamano, Breaker Morant, Mikhael Tukhachevsky, Claus von Stauffenberg, Dmytro Bilinchuk, Emil August Fieldorf, and Theophile Maupas et al.

Werewolf

This blog will always have a special place at the stake for supposed real-life lycanthrope Peter Stubbe, the “Werewolf of Bedburg” who was profiled in our very first post: he was executed October 31, 1589.

Executioner

Of course, there is one ubiquitous character in these pages — and his face isn’t always well-hidden.

Klutzy Brit Jack Ketch, prolific French Revolution headsman Sanson, U.S. President Grover Cleveland and (helpfully, for Halloween) flamboyantly costumed Italian executioner Mastro Titta are among the famous characters to tread the scaffold boards.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

On this day..

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1915: Four French Corporals, for cowardice

10 comments March 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1915, four French corporals were shot at a farm in Suippes for refusing to advance out of their trenches through the carnage of a World War I no man’s land.

It was not only Corporals Theophile Maupas, Louis Lefoulon, Louis Girard and Lucien Lechat who had refused. The entire 21st Company of the 336th Infantry regiment, exhausted and already decimated by combat, was ordered over the trench at dawn on March 10.

Under withering machine gun fire, and with French artillery carelessly dropping shells just in front of their own lines, the 21st stayed put. Frantic to force the advance, the French commander ordered artillery to drive the troops ahead by shelling his own trenches — an order the artillerists refused to carry out unless someone put it in writing.*

In that slaughterhouse of trench warfare, insubordination in the ranks met stern reprisals. Generals with no strategy but to make mincemeat of their countrymen could not well abide the meat’s reluctance to be minced. Examples must be made, especially inasmuch as the impracticality of executing entire companies impressed even the brass.

On March 16, six corporals and 18 soldiers of the intransigent company faced military trial in the Suippes town hall; the four condemned were shot the next day and buried under dishonorable black crosses.

According to Shot At Dawn, a campaign for rehabilitating soldiers executed during World War I, France carried out some 600 military executions during those bloody years, more than any other country. A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. In an essay in Handbook on Death and Dying, Prof. J. Robert Lilly suggests that many more “unofficial” executions may have taken place, especially during the war’s panicked opening stages.

Whatever their precise number, the shootings, around Europe, of hundreds of men for cowardice — most in obscurity, many chosen arbitrarily, some whose descendants still struggle for recognition to this day — is one of the enduring legacies of World War I: the collision of that most individual penalty with that most faceless and indiscriminate war. A witness to a different French military execution discomfitingly describes the near-total dehumanization of the victims:

The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.

The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”

The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.

The shootings this day became emblematic of those lost and obscured legions. The circumstances of the “crime” — the senselessness of the advance, the order to bombard their own troops, the fury of the reprisal — recommended it to novelist Humphrey Cobb, and subsequently to a young Stanley Kubrick who adapted a fictionalized form to the 1957 film Paths of Glory. (The title comes from this poem.)

In the film, three soldiers face a firing squad under circumstances very similar to this day’s backstory, including the detail of the general ordering his own men shelled (and that of the order being refused). Kubrick renders the insanity of the resulting court-martial against hapless soldiers each of whom did little but what anyone in their situation would have done, with one of their officers, Kirk Douglas, mounting a vain defense.

This day’s executions, as with many of the others carried out across Europe in those years, sparked a long campaign for posthumous exoneration, in this case led by Maupas’ widow. In 1934, a French panel did exonerate them — awarding the surviving widows a symbolic one franc apiece.

Maupas himself was reinterred in a cemetery in Sartilly, where a monument was erected in honor of the four; just last year, opposite the courthouse where the Frenchmen were condemned, a life-sized white stone sculpture was dedicated, showing Maupas, Girard, Lechat and Lefoulon on their execution posts just after they have been shot.

The surety of the corporals’ posthumous exoneration contrasts intriguingly with the rigor of their sentence and points to the complex and shifting terms upon which the First World War entered subsequent national consciousness in France (and elsewhere) — the never-definitive story of the individual’s right place amid social structures hopelessly beyond individual control.

The history of the struggle over these men’s memory is extensively covered on this French website and the French blog Monuments aux morts pacifistes. The affair also has its own entry on the French wikipedia.

* Wisely.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Military Crimes,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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