1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

Add comment September 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

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1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

3 comments June 25th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)

This book is also available here, and via the author’s Portland, Me., History Blog, or on order from any bookstore.

Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.

Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.

This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?

The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.

They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.

The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.

And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.

In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.

Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)

When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.

Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.

Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:

You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?

There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.

My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.

And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!

And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.

I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.

These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.

Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird's hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]

All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.

Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.


Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.

How did you come by this story?

When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.

In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.

He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.

-Goold

For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.

The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.

Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.

It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.

How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?

There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a family genealogy.

After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.

Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.

Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.

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1705: Captain Thomas Green and two of his crew on the Worcester

3 comments April 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1705, another century’s supposed terrorist was hanged on Leith Sands with two of his “pirate” crew by a Scottish court “drunk with patriotic prejudice.”*

This execution took place in the feverish run-up to England and Scotland’s Acts of Union welding the neighboring realms into Great Britain in 1707.

Arising as it did from the same causes that animated that national marriage of convenience, Green’s execution also endangered it: Daniel Defoe, who was at this time a pro-Unionist mole (and prolific pamphleteer) for English pol Robert Harley, described this hanging as one of the six crises that had to be overcome en route to the Union.

A Man, A Plan, A Calamity

Panama.

That’s where it all started, for Green and Union alike.

Mired in economic backwardness as neighboring European states carved up the world, Scotland made a bold, doomed bid for a chit in the empire game: the Darien scheme. One part visionary and (at least) two parts daft, this venture attempted to establish a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama (aka the Isthmus of Darien) with a view to porting freight across the narrow strip of land separating Atlantic and Pacific, and dominating the dramatically more efficient east-west trade route that would result.


The intended Scottish colony in Panama; map from this University of Glasgow exhibit.

Students of the Panama Canal project will be aware that this malarial tropic would not be described as especially hospitable; to the natural disadvantages of the climate were added the political interpositions of England herself, whose hostility to the advent of her Caledonian neighbor as a New World rival was expressed in legislation choking the Darien adventure of foreign aid.

(Also a problem: Spain. The colony was abandoned at last under Spanish siege.)

So Scotland went it intrepidly, injudiciously alone in this last bid for real independent muscle in Europe. The hyperbole of the Isthmus’s publicists eventually sucked in 20 percent or more of the capital circulating in Scotland. And when Darien-dot-com went bust by 1700 at the cost of a couple thousand lives, it cratered the Scottish economy too. That set the stage for Edinburgh’s partnership in a different scheme: Great Britain.

Green with Envy

In the years following the Darien catastrophe, the Scottish corporation chartered to undertake it was still throwing stuff against the wall in the world trade game, trying to get something to stick to at least take the edge off the losses.

This company (theoretically a potential rival of England’s own East India Company) had suffered the further national indignity of having one of its ships, the Annandale, seized in the Thames for infringing the East India Company’s royal monopoly. Its appeals for redress falling on deaf ears, the Darien company apparently induced Scottish authorities to undertake the retaliatory seizure of an English merchant ship, the Worcester, that had the ill luck to weather a storm at the Firth of Forth.

Rumor soon connected this ship to another vanished Darien company vessel overdue from its return trip from the East Indies … and, as it quickly became understood by all right-thinking Scots, overtaken in the Indian Ocean by this same Worcester and its crew butchered.

Captain Thomas Green and his English crew were hailed before an Admiralty court** on piracy charges on this extremely fantastical connection in a virtual mob atmosphere.

It never was clearly established that an act of piracy had been committed as a distinct fact, but by putting certain circumstances together it was inferred that Green was guilty of piracy. The very shape in which the accusation is set forth, shows that the accusers could not point to the specific act of piracy which had been committed …

[There] was no specification as to the vessel taken, which might enable the accused to prove that it had not been taken; no names of parties murdered, who might be shown still to be alive; no ownership of cargo, which might admit of proof that the owner’s goods had arrived safe. As Green himself is made justly to say in the document published as his dying speech, “We are condemned as pirates and murderers on a coast far distant from this place — is there any of you who wants either a friend whom we have murdered, or whose goods we have taken?”

Worcester Sauce

The Worcester‘s Malabari cook provided a highly dubious charge — dubious, for he was not yet among the crew when it last called at the location he claimed the crime took place — of Green and crew hatchet-murdering approximately ten English-speaking mariners on an unnamed vessel off the Indian coast.

Upon this evidence, 14 or more members (the ready sources are a little loose on the total number) of the Worcester crew were condemned for piracy, and initially slated for three batches of hangings. Queen Anne‘s personal intervention managed a stay,

The Scottish Privy Council unto the very last hours debated what to do with the diplomatic appeals, with evidence forwarded from London to the effect that the crew these Worcester men had supposedly slaughtered were alive, their vessel having been hijacked in another place, by another man.

But a surging Scottish mob aggrieved by the preceding years’ misadventures and the impending shotgun marriage to Westminster rather than anything Green himself had really done was already engorged on the blood of the supposed English corsairs. Most of the Council thought better than to deny them their sacrifice.†

The Streets fill’d with Incredible Numbers of Men, Women and Children, calling for Justice upon those ENGLISH Murtherers. The Lord Chancellor Seafield‘s Coach happening to pass by, they stop’d it, broket he Sashes, haul’d him out, and oblig’d him to promise Execution should speedily be done before he could get from ‘em … According to the Chancellors promise, soon after, on the same Day, being Wednesday, Captain Green, Madder [the mate], and Sympson [the gunner] were brought out, and convey’d to Execution, which was at Leith Road upon the Sands, and all the way was Huzza’d in Triumph as it were, and insulted with the sharpest and most bitter Invectives. Being come to the place of Execution, Good God! what a moving sight was it to see those Men stand upon the very Varge of Life, just launching in to Eternity, and at the same time see the whole Multitudet ransported with Joy!”

-From an anonymous Letter From Scotland To a Friend in London, quoted by James Kelly, “The Worcester Affair,” The Review of English Studies, Feb. 2000

In the event, these three were the only ones actually hanged; passions cooled enough for the other “pirates” to be quietly released.

But the wider, national passions unleashed by this date’s executions would long provide fodder for intemperate patriotic recrimination, and specifically anti-Unionist propaganda — on both sides of the border.

Competing propagandistic broadsides framed and re-framed the events, as the affair of unscrupulous English buccaneers or perfidious highland barbarians. (Defoe, maneuvering for Union, wrote to chill such bad-for-business hostility: “Nothing could be more horrid, than that the Scots should Execute these Men on a meer Pique at the English Nation. Nothing can be more like it, than to conclude rashly, that it is so, and improve it on purpose to Exasperate our People against the Scots.” (Kelly))

And that, of course, is precisely the viewpoint that prevailed.

While the hemp neckties issued to Green et al this date threatened to (ahem) scotch the Union project, that very danger might have ultimately hastened its completion — as elites recognized, in Defoe’s words, that Union represented “the only way to preserve the publick Tranquillity, and prevent the certain Mischiefs that threatened the whole Body,” (Kelly, again) and rammed it through with dispatch.‡

* English historian G.M. Trevelyan.

** A lengthy account of the trial can be found in this Google books freebie

† In their very scanty defense, the Scottish magistrates had reason to fear Scottish citizens.

‡ The ebb and flow of national resentment continued long after the Acts of Union, of course; continuing Scottish support for the restoration of the Stuart monarchy was one expression of Scottish nationalism and anti-Union sentiment.

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1479: Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, sketched by Leonardo da Vinci

3 comments December 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1479, a fugitive of the previous year’s Pazzi Conspiracy — an ill-starred attempt by the Pazzi family to overthrow the Medici — was hanged in Florence.

Bernardo Baroncelli had actually struck the first blow on the Pazzi conspiracy’s big day, planting a dagger in the chest of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici in the theatrical setting of Florence’s Duomo, with the theatrical declaration, “Here, traitor!”

Must’ve been a sight to see. Giuliano wound up dead, but the rest didn’t work out so well.

Baroncelli, however, managed to evade the resulting paroxysm of civic vengeance and hightail it to Ottoman Istanbul, where he had some contacts.

Unfortunately for Bernardo, Florence had some contacts there, too. Ottoman relations with the various Italian city-states were actually quite strong, and Florence in particular enjoyed lucrative trade arrangements bringing its wool textiles to Bursa to exchange for silk.

So you can understand the effusion for Mehmet the Conqueror* (and the interest of said Mehmet the Conqueror) in this bit of Florentine diplomatic correspondence quoted in The Papacy and the Levant:

By letters of Bernardo Peruzzi we have learned with great pleasure how that most glorious prince [Mehmet] has seized Bernardo Bandini, most heinous parricide and traitor to his country, and declares himself willing to do with him whatever we may want — a decision certainly in keeping with the love and great favor he has always shown toward our Republic and our people as well as with the justice of his most serene Majesty … although as a result of the innumerable benefits done by his most glorious Majesty in the past for the Republic and our people, we owe him the greatest indebtedness and are the most faithful and obedient sons of his Majesty, nevertheless because of this last benefit it would be impossible to describe the extent to which our obligation to his most serene Majesty has grown.

A Florentine representative quickly sailed for the Ottoman capital to make the arrangements, and returned with the hated Bandini on Dec. 24. Five days later, he was hanged over the side of the Bargello.

Florentine native son Leonardo da Vinci sketched the hanging man (the sketch is now in the Musee Bonnat), diligently noting his clothing.

A tan colored skull-cap, a doublet of black serge, a black jerkin, lined and the collar covered with a black and red stippled velvet.
A blue coat lined with fur of fox’s breasts.
Black hose.
Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli.

In the video game Assassin’s Creed II, one of the missions (assigned by Giuliano’s surviving brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent) is to kill Bernardo Baroncelli … but not with trade relations and diplomacy.

* Conqueror of Istanbul/Constantinople, among other things.

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1401: Klaus Stortebeker, Victual Brother pirate

1 comment October 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1401,* “Victual Brother” Klaus Störtebeker was beheaded in Hamburg.

Statue of Klaus Stortebeker. (cc) image from blariog

This legendary freebooter terrorized the Hanseatic League‘s trading channels from Novgorod to London in the 1390s.

He was the most famous of a company of privateers who’d been hired out in 1392 to place their thumb on the scale of Scandinavian dynastic politics** — notably, supplying Stockholm during a siege, from which service they obtained† the nickname Victual Brothers. It stuck, even when operations had moved far beyond the larder.

In the mid-1390s, the “brothers” turned against Danes and Hanse alike, raiding coasts and plundering sea trade.

Klaus, the most famous of them, is still remembered today “like Che Guevara, a freedom fighter, but also like Robin Hood, because he fights the rich in the name of the poor”:‡ folk hero-outlaws, men of the pirate utopia.

Whatever debunking that legend might invite, its existence speaks to that timeless romance of the road. And then there’s that kernel of truth, or so one hopes: after Stortebeker’s death, the remnants would persist as the Likedeelers, “those who share equally.”

The buccaneer’s end, after capture by Simon of Utrecht, was equally legendary: he’s supposed to have made a scaffold pact with the headsman to spare any of his mates he could walk past once decapitated.

Rising from the chop like St. Denis, the headless trunk of Stortebeker lurched past 11 of them before the executioner himself tripped it up. (In the most embroidered version of this story, Hamburg not only didn’t honor the promise, it executed the executioner when all was said and done. But we’re pretty comfortable saying that once we reach the headless zombie pirate part of the story, the reader has carte blanche to rewrite anything not to liking.)


Störtebeker 2.teil part 11 / 11 – MyVideo

Drink up me hearties yo ho! “Stortebeker” itself just means, “quaff the mug.”

Klaus Störtebecker is our master
advised by Godeke Michels!
Shoot through the waves like storm, just faster
The Flying Dutchman’s godfather
Gaffer is the ships goblin
Let’s tackle, crew!
Life is bauble!
We are the hell of Helgoland

Our bloody flag is cracking the mast
Rats scurrying on the floor
A skeleton is our guest
On the sail there are strange shadows
The mermaid is swimming in our wake
Laugh, crew!
Life is bauble!
Still ruling is the hell of Helgoland

And when our ship makes its last run
Laugh while like a coffin she goes down
We die an ancient pirate’s way
Today we fight, tomorrow we drown
In green algae and white sand
Land ho, crew, land!
Life is bauble!
Such dies the hell of Helgoland

-Folk song honoring Klaus Stortebeker
(translated here)

* As often for events at this distance of time, the dates are a little bit shaky; 1400, rather than 1401, has been proposed for the actual year of Stortebeker’s execution; October 21 rather than October 20 is also given on some sites. Folklore more so than almanac blogs has the luxury of indifference to such particulars.

** The Victual Brothers were initially retained to oppose the adroit Danish Queen Margaret. She would face (and brush aside) even weirder challenges to her rule en route to lashing together the Kalmar Union under Danish regional hegemony.

Alternate explanation: food-based euphemisms for piracy trace to armies’ victual officers, and their unscrupulous methods of filling the mess hall.

‡ In a continuing spirit of democratic larceny — or as a gang symbol for the local Hell’s Angels, whatever — our man’s alleged skull was stolen from a Hamburg museum earlier this year.

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1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

6 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.


A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan's] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.

-Dumas

The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

-History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

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1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning

8 comments March 4th, 2010 dogboy

The typical turning-point execution features an illustrious protagonist upon the scaffold: a royal dethroned, a politician overthrown, a revolutionary laid low.

On this day in 1771, an obscure woman executed for everyday crimes launched a new era in Japan.

The Kyoto resident, nicknamed “Aochababa” — roughly translated as the Green Tea Hag — sparked a scientific revolution that would span decades, push Japan into its own Age of Reason called Dutch Learning, and keep an island nation astride goings-on from thousands of miles away in spite of isolationist practices.

The Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s, was widely regarded as anti-Western for closing down trade with several European nations.

Concerned with what it saw as colonial aspirations in the Americas, the Shogunate clamped down on Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal. Starting in the 1630s, the island nation officially enacted the Seclusion Laws, which effectively allowed trade only with China, Korea, and the Netherlands; contact with the last was only legitimated through the Dutch trading outpost in Dejima, an isolated island with strictly controlled access.* Because of these limitations, Japan became a repository of non-Christian Dutch paraphernalia.**

The execution of Aochababa itself is practically forgotten: she was hanged in Kyoto’s Kozukappara (the present day Arakawa ward) in Meiwa 8, the second year of a 15-year drought gripping Japan. Her crime is unknown, and her execution would have been as un-noteworthy as dozens of others that year had her body not been secured for science.

However, under the reign of (though little due to) Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu, Dutch influence was increasing dramatically in Japan.

As a result, Aochababa’s corpse was brought to a medical facility, where Sugita Genpaku, Maeno Ryotaku, Nakagawa Jun’an, Toyo Yamawaki, and others performed and viewed an autopsy. Their medical training was Chinese; their medical texts were a mixture of Chinese and Dutch; as Genpaku reports in his later book Rangaku Kotohajime:†

Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs.

Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions.

After the dissection was over, we were tempted to examine the forms of the bones too, and picked up some of the sun bleached bones scattered around the ground. We found that they were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.

In short, their medical results matched those of the Dutch and flew in the face of a millennium of Chinese anatomical teachings.

Genpaku was intrigued. As he tells it (40-some years after the fact), Ryotaku, Jun’an, and he immediately laid down a plan to translate the Dutch text into Japanese.

The process was a slog. Lacking a dictionary or translator for anatomical studies, the team — bolstered by the Shogun physician Katsuragawa Hoshu — was forced to reverse-engineer the Dutch language using a short phrase book, occasional contacts with the Dutch themselves, and a host of educated guesses based on the anatomical features they were attempting to describe. In addition to the problems of simple translations — turning a language with definite and indefinite articles into one with no such concept — many anatomical features had never been named in Japanese before; Genpaku and his collaborators invented dozens of words just to get by. A brief history is given here.

Finally, in 1774, Kaitai ShinshoThe New Book of Anatomy — based mostly on the Dutch book Ontleedkundige Tafelen (itself a translation from German), was published, the first translation of a Western text into Japanese. The book was four volumes (three of text, one of illustrations) and scribed in a Chinese-based writing style known as Kanbun.‡


An image (more can be seen here) from the 1774 Japanese anatomy treatise.

Topical historical literature, recommendation via Reddit.

The translation was the first in a long line of texts that the Japanese would eventually use to quietly capture the technology of the West.§

Genpaku was at the forefront of Dutch Learning, and his second masterwork, Rangaku Kotohajime (“Beginnings of Dutch Learning”), published in 1815, provides a thorough description of the events which led to these advances in science and medicine in Japan.

It would be 80 years before the United States Navy forced its way into Japanese harbors and used gunship diplomacy to end Japan’s seclusion. During that time, the Japanese reproduced everything from telescopes to automata to steam engines using borrowed texts and dissection of imported goods. Dutch Learning kept Japan abreast scientific advancements even while it maintained its isolation.

The enduring legacy of Dutch Learning was the late-19th century Meiji Restoration, wherein a Japan now officially opened swiftly modernized efficiently enough to trounce Russia in the Russo-Japanese War at the end of the century.

A fairly complete description of the evolution of Japan under Dutch Learning is given in Wakabayashi’s Modern Japanese Thought and De Bray et al‘s Sources of Japanese Tradition (Vol 2).

Today, many of the Dutch words imported to describe new objects, anatomical and otherwise, remain in the Japanese language as a testament to Dutch Learning. Sugita Genpaku is also the namesake of a modern-day attempt to translate texts to Japanese. And Toyo Yamawaki, through his help with dissections of the era, prompted an interesting ritual of memorializing cadaver donors in medical schools. For physical specimens, a museum with sections devoted to Dutch Learning can also be visited at Nakatsu.

* The Dutch were allowed to stay because they weren’t Catholic. The Shogun also enacted laws forbidding missionaries and Christian prosteletyzing, as well as officially outlawing the practice of Christianity; however, an underground group of Christians remained in the country.

** Initially, all foreign texts were outlawed. However, beginning with Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, Dutch texts were allowed into the country, generating a new wave of books that were, for several decades, largely illegible to their owners. To go with the anti-Christian theme, however, the Japanese authorities continued to blot out all Christian references.

† Translation by Ryozo Matsumoto, available here.

Kanbun is a mapping of Chinese ideograms and writing style into Japanese-comprehensible language using classic symbolic meanings (a standardized shape to represent a tree) and sound equivalents (using the same standard shape to represent the the sound of the word “tree” rather than its meaning), as well as sentence structure and purpose markings. Using this style, direct Chinese-to-Japense translation is possible, but the onus is on the author to properly annotate the text.

§ Strangely, there is as yet no Dutch-Japanese dictionary in print.

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1623: Amboyna Massacre

4 comments February 27th, 2010 Headsman

On February 27,* 1623, the Dutch East India Company beheaded twenty who had been waterboarded into confessing to a terrorist plot.

English prisoner suffering “waterboarding” faux-drowning torture, published under the name “A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East-Indies 1624″.

The torturers “poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth [wrapping his head] was full, up to the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher, so that he could not draw breath but he must suck in all the water.” More nasty description.

(cc) Image from Flickr | BiblioOdyssey

Posh Spice

As in modern times, this scenario originated with resource competition in the Muslim world … in this case, competition for spice, in Indonesia.

European colonialism had pitted the Dutch East India Company against its British counterpart on the archipelago, both scrabbling after the lucrative trade in cloves and pepper, with garnishes of nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and ginger.

The two rival powers had, as we lay our story, recently come to a tense truce, dividing the commerce between them — and swapping mutual accusations of violating that pact. The arrangement basically gave the Dutch a bigger slice of the pie, so we’ll find them when the cloves hit the fan having the balance of power on their side.

Terrorists

We’re going to oversimplify to set the scene.

On Ambon Island, one of the very “Spice Islands” (i.e., the Moluccas) — at the Dutch-controlled fortification of a trading post also shared by the English — the Dutch merchant-governor Herman van Speult heard that a Japanese mercenary had asked about the Dutch fortifications.

The security-conscious van Speult ordered that unfortunate soldier interrogated under torture.

As tends to happen when the interrogators in such a case are convinced of a ticking time bomb situation, the torture uncovered a ticking time bomb situation.

The mercenary got the Dutch to stop burning and drowning him by “revealing” a highly implausible** English plot to seize the Dutch fort, with 20 guys or so and no prospect of imminent outside aid. Wouldn’t you know it: when the supposed confederates named by the mercenary were similarly tortured, they too admitted the plot. Van Speult’s English opposite number, Gabriel Towerson, was one of them.

The Amboyna Massacre followed anon, with Towerson and nine other British East India Company employees beheaded, along with nine Japanese mercenaries and one Portuguese. (The latter ten worked for the Dutch East India Company, not the British. A fifth column!)

They went to their deaths protesting their innocence, and many smuggled out written recantations to that same effect: “tortured … with that extream Torment of Fire and water, that Flesh and Blood could not endure it, and we take it upon our Salvation, that they have put us to Death Guiltless.”

Anger in the English Street

That last quote comes from Karen Chance, “The Amboyna Massacre in English Politics, 1624-1632,” in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies (Winter 1998).

As the title of that piece suggests, the Amboyna Massacre outraged Towerson’s countrymen and -women once word finally made it back to the mothership. (In addition to the torture/wrongful execution dimension, the legal authority of the Dutch trading concern to impose judicial punishment on their English counterparts was questionable at best.)

English demands for satisfaction against the perpetrators continued to complicate Dutch-English relations into the reign of Charles I and beyond. Even Oliver Cromwell required, as the price of peace for the First Anglo-Dutch War in the 1650s, punishment of any surviving offenders. (Which was apparently nobody at all.)

And still later, the burgeoning British Empire’s propaganda arm reached for the Amboyna narrative to justify seizing New Amsterdam on the grounds that the Dutch had attempted to spring a massacre on English settlers — “their Amboyna treacherous Cruelty extended itself from the East to the West Indies, and pursued thus the straight channel of Dutch blood”.

As for the trade-jockeying: the Netherlands’ commanding position in Indonesia ultimately squeezed the English out.** But don’t fret for Old Blighty: she turned attention to gobbling up India, and made a lot more bank than did the Dutch spice racket.

* February 27 was the date according to the Julian calendar in use at this time by the British. By the Gregorian calendar the Dutch were using, the massacre took place on March 9.

** For more on both the fanciful nature of the supposed plot, and the economics of the East Indies trade as it unfolded in the 17th century, see D.K. Bassett, “The ‘Amboyna Massacre’ of 1623″, Journal of Southeast Asian History, September 1960.

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1839: An opium merchant

7 comments February 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1839, the Chinese government provocatively beheaded an opium merchant before the European consulates in Canton.

Opium exports from India into China were a lucrative trade for the British Empire* — for those watching the macroeconomic books, it balanced Britain’s costly importation of Chinese tea — but the consequences for China were wealth hemorrhaging overseas and a growing population of addicts.

Qing decrees against the opium trade dated to decades earlier, but the English had simply smuggled the stuff in. Finally, in the late 1830′s, China began to move to enforce its prohibition.

The trading port of Canton — the English name for Guangzhou — under the administration of upright Confucian governor Lin Zexu (alternately transliterated Lin Tse-hsu) would become the tinder box for open war, by which Britain ultimately compelled China by force of arms to accept its unwanted product.

This day’s execution was one small escalation in that conflict.


Lin Zexu supervises the destruction of opium.

Late in 1838, Chinese police initiated drug busts and expelled at least one opium-trading British merchant. The beheading this date was of a Chinese dealer, but unmistakably directed at westerners given its placement before the foreign missions. The consular officials pulled down their flags in protest of the affront.**

But greater provocations were to follow anon, and by year’s end open hostilities were afoot.

The humiliating British victory that ensued forced China to accept Her Majesty’s drug-running … and helped seed domestic agitation that would ultimately undermine China’s decrepit Imperial rule.

* The United States also trafficked opium — primarily lower-quality opium imported from Smyrna, Turkey — into China during this time, on a much smaller scale than Britain. (Source)

** This period would also mark Canton/Guangzhou’s eclipse as a trading port. Britain seized Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and relocated its foreign offices. Most European powers followed suit, making that city the far eastern entrepôt of choice.

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