1931: Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf

6 comments July 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.

It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.

A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.

He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.

The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.

Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.

The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.

“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”

Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.

At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.

I said to myself in my youthful way ‘You just wait, you pack of scoundrels!’ That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it …

Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.

-Kürten

Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.

“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”

The doctor indeed thought it possible the head might survive a few seconds.

“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”

Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer, played by Peter Lorre. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)

Sources:

Murderpedia

TruTV

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1647: Domenica Gratiadei and her coven of witches

2 comments April 14th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1647 marked the execution of five supposed witches in Trentino.

Secular and modernist as this grim site‘s curators confessedly stand, we have perhaps given too little credence to those devout officers of the law who labored in those years to uphold the throne of heaven besieged by Satan’s varied earthly minions.

Montague Summers

In an effort to balance the record, we present this date’s account as rendered by a guy who took the supernatural a bit more seriously: Montague Summers.

Summers is a weird figure, but if he wasn’t really a throwback believer in Rome’s phantasmagoric early modern theology, he was the century’s most sublime performance artist.

Converting to Catholicism as an Anglican deacon, he went about in spooky clerical robes although his ordination status remains unclear to this day, immersed his capacious mind in supernatural arcana, and penned voluptuously eloquent books credulously treating the spectral evidence another era had given against sorcerers, vampires, lycanthropes, and suchlike habitues of the Monster Manual.*

I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was -– an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organization inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counselor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.

Summers projected (perhaps intentionally) a mysterious and vaguely sinister persona and did not disdain to cultivate a friendship with nefarious occultist Aleister Crowley, his contemporary. There were even rumors of an unwholesome interest in pederasty.

We’re confident that none of this has done his sales a bit of harm. So who are we social pests and parasites of the blogosphere not to batten upon it ourselves?

The below is drawn from Summers’ The Geography of Witchcraft — and as the reader will perceive, Geography at least purports to treat the flying-off-to-infernal-orgy stock in trade of those bygone witch hunters as legitimate evidence of the lead crone’s “attendance at the Sabbat, sometimes, no doubt, an experience on the psychic plane, for she was undoubtedly a medium of unusual powers, and sometimes in actual fact.”

A typical case of Witchcraft, and one which owing to its prominence and the meticulous investigations of the authorities has luckily been reported in full, attracted considerable attention in the winter of 1646 and the following spring. It will, moreover, be found to present so many factors and features, which occur again and again in the contemporary trials of wellnigh every European country, that it may profitably be dealt with in some detail.

A certain old woman of Castelnovo, Maria Salvatori, nicknamed “la Mercuria,” who had long been suspected of sorcery, was arrested on 26 October, 1646, and formally examined. At first the two principal charges, sufficiently damning in themselves, seem to have been that at her communions she did not swallow the Sacred Host, but kept It in her mouth to spit It out secretly and reserve It for some abominable purpose, and also that by her ecbolic spells she had caused the young Marchesa Bevilacqua to miscarry in childbirth. She was again interrogated on 8 November and put to the torture of the cord when she accused Domenica, the widow of a certain Tomaso Camelli, and Domenica’s daughter, Lucia, the wife of Antonio Caveden, both of whom dwelt at the hamlet of Villa, of being rank witches. She also avowed she had taken a Host from her mouth to give to Lucia Caveden, who thereby confected a charm which caused the abortion of the Marcioness. She added that she had also bewitched Cristoforo Sparamani, the son of Cecilia Sparamani, and that a certain Delaito Cavaleri was a necromancer and a worshipper of Satan. A further interrogation followed on 15 November, as a result of which the court, consisting of Paride Madernino, delegate in all criminal and civil cases in the districts of Castelnovo and Castellano, and his assessor Giovanni Ropele, doctor utriusque iuris, promptly gave orders to GiuseppeCoriziano, “bargello di questa turia,” to arrest Domenica and Lucia. This was done, and on Saturday, 24 November, 1646, at Nogaredo, the proceedings against the witches were formally opened. “Processus Criminalis pro destructione lamiarum.” On 27 November Domenica Carnelli was questioned by the judges, but they got little enough out of her. Two days following Lucia Caveden was brought before the tribunal. She vehemently declared that the charges were all malice; the hag Salvatori was her enemy; and with many cries she called Heaven to witness her innocence, repeatedly exclaiming “per grazia del Signor Iddio no son una stria” But the next day she proved less firm and implicated yet another woman, Domenica Gratiadei, who was immediately thrown into prison, a number of suspicious objects being found in her house when it was closely searched by the officers. Certain pots of a dark unguent and a mysterious powder being produced in court, Lucia Caveden confessed that these were for the destruction of human life and cattle. Seeing that the game was up Domenica Gratiadei, upon being put to the torture, soon laid bare all the secrets of the infernal sisterhood. She had made this unguent with which she annointed herself to attend the Sabbat “trasformata in gatto,” she had cast the evil eye on Cristofero Sparamani, she had renounced her baptism, defiled the Blessed Sacrament, adored Satan with divine honours. The judges were filled with horror, and trembled at the hideous tale of diabolism these women poured forth. Cecilia Sparamani, a plain honest woman, was next summoned as a witness and told how her son fell into fits of no ordinary kind. The doctors had acknowledged their skill baffled, and in spite of the prayers of two Capuchin fathers and the exorcisms of Monsignore the Bishop of Brondolo, this preternatural sickness still persisted. She informed the court that as soon as summer came and the roads were passable she intended to take the boy to the shrine of S. Antony at Padua, to whom she had a special devotion.

On 18 December, 1646, Benvenuta, the daughter of Domenica Gratiadei, made a startling confession. She declared that she had been taken by her mother “as if in a dream” to a place where there was dancing and singing, where she had been welcomed by a large number of revellers, and especially by a young man, who having kissed and fondled her awhile afterwards had connexion with her. This was, her mother averred, Satan himself. When closely questioned as to these proceedings the girl could only reply: “Tutto mi sembra, come ho detto, un sogno: e parevami che sempre vi fosse il diavolo in forma di quel giovene.” It would seem from these very striking and significant words that the girl was a hypnotic subject, entirely under her mother’s control, and that on these occasions she passed into a semi-trance state. The case dragged on throughout the months of January and February, 1647. There were interminable interrogations, and a large number of persons were gradually implicated.

On 2 January 1647, Domenica Gratiadei gave a detailed description of the Sabbats she had attended. She and an old warlock named Santo Peterlino always led the coven. “The rest followed in the shape of cats; but the Devil went first of all.” They enjoyed banquets, dances, plays, music, songs, and afterwards all worshipped Satan, presenting him with Hosts which they kept from their last communion. Before attending the Sabbat she anointed herself with an unguent made of “the Blessed Sacrament, the blood of certain small animals, Holy Water, the fat of dead babies” which was mixed with horrible imprecations and blasphemies to confect the charm.

On 10 January, a strange figure, Maddalena Andrei, nicknamed “La Filosofa,” first appears in the case. She confessed that she had assisted in the making of the ointment and had also adored the Devil who frequently appeared to her, “brave, like a gallant captain, dressed all in red.” On 9 March, when Giuseppe Goriziano entered the cell of La Filosofa to summon her to court he found her lying dead upon the floor. The common people believed that she had been carried off by Satan, especially as the Archpriest of Villa, Don Giovanni Bragliardi, shrewdly suspecting that the unhappy woman had committed suicide, refused her sepulture in consecrated ground.

This long and complicated Witchcraft-trial at length came to an end in April 1647. The court was throned with an excited yet hushed crowd, when the judge Paride Madernino and his assessors the Counts of Lodrone and Castel-Romano delivered the sentences. Domenica Camelli, Lucia Caveden, Domenica Gratiadei, Catterina Baroni, Zinevra Chemola, Isabella and Plonia Gratiadei, and Valentina Andrei were condemned to death. Maria Salvatori, “la Mercuria,” and Maddalena Andrei, “la Filosofa” had expired in prison. The condemned were beheaded and their bodies burned. It would seem, however, that Isabella and Polonia Gratiadei and Valentina Andrei managed to escape and could not be traced. The execution of the rest took place on 14 April, 1647, when Leonard Oberrdorfer the common hangman carried out the judicial sentence.

The chief witches here naturally fall into four groups each constituted of one old and one young woman, Domenica Camelli and Lucia her daughter; Domenica Gratiadei and Benvenuta her daughter; Isabella Gratiadei and Plonia her daughter; Maddalena Andrei and her daughter Valentina. The chief of the coven was undoubtedly Domenica Gratiadei, whose vile confessions, a mixture of most horrid blasphemies and lewdest obscenity, convince her of being a wretch wholly devoted to evil, and an active propagandist of the Satanic cult. It was she who had debauched her own daughter to “the Devil,” that young man whose name and individuality do not appear, but who may be guessed to have been a noble of the district, using the witches for his own ends and, presumably, supplying them with money to carry out his dark designs. That the whole gang frequently attended the Sabbat, at which he was not unseldom present, there can, I think, be no question.

This case is recounted in much greater detail in Italian in this Google book; this page has another summary, also in Italian.

* “[I]n every way a ‘character,’ and in some sort a throwback to the Middle Ages,” the London Times blurbed Summers at his death (obituary in the Aug. 11, 1948 issue). But his “preoccupations with the supernatural, however, represented only one side of his nature. His solid services to learning lie rather in his copious editorial and critical work on the English Restoration drama — a field in which he possessed the most comprehensive and expert knowledge.”

Summers’ edited compendium of 17th century playwright Aphra Behn‘s works is available free at gutenberg.org.

For exemplars of the stuff more topical to this post, one can also peruse free online his The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and his translation of the notorious witch-persecution manual Malleus Maleficarum.

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1611: Three accomplices of Elizabeth Báthory, the Countess of Blood

9 comments January 7th, 2011 Headsman

Four hundred years ago today, on Jan. 7 1611, three servants of the legendary “Countess of Blood” Elizabeth Bathory (Báthory Erzsébet, in the Hungarian) were tried, convicted, and immediately put to death for the noblewoman’s stupendous career of homicide.

This date’s entry is occasioned by the deaths of three subalterns — manservant Janos Ujvary, beheaded; and female attendants Ilona Jo and Dorottya Szentes, fingers ripped off and burned — but the headline attraction is their employer, who was never tried or condemned.

Not, at least, juridically. Posterity’s condemnation of this classic vampire inspiration has been little short of … voluptuous.


A 1971 film based on Elizabeth Bathory’s exploits. Horror star Ingrid Pitt later reprised her “role” with guest vocals on a Cradle of Filth concept album devoted to the Countess, Cruelty and the Beast.

Bathory was rarefied Hungarian nobility, the niece of the King of Poland, which is also the biography of countless aristocrats you’ve never heard of.

The world remembers Elizabeth Bathory because she exploited her rank to butcher hundreds of peasant girls, allegedly to bathe in their rejuvenating blood.

On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in [Elizabeth Bathory’s] head-dress, and as a recompence for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spirted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful — whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been.

Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty.


McFarlane Toys figurine of Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Bathory from its grotesque “Faces of Madness” series.

These scrub-ups are what the Countess of Blood is best remembered for, but however striking the visual, it’s an atrocity that actually doesn’t turn up in the trial records.

But she could hardly complain of the embroidery, having given her interlocutors so much material.

Elizabeth Bathory is supposed to be responsible for over six hundred deaths, starting while her husband was away on campaign, and then carrying on into a wholesale operation after he died. When she and her servants were finally busted at Csejte Castle the end of 1610, their captors found a dead girl, a dying girl, and several others imprisoned and awaiting that fate.


Elizabeth Bathory, a sexually charged 1893 painting by Hungarian impressionist Istvan Csok depicting one of the countess’s victims being drenched in icy water for death by exposure.

So although the confessions the servants made this date to seal their own fates were undoubtedly torture-adduced, the documentary record turns out to be amazingly strong for such a fantastical spree. Hungarian King Matthias II convened a tribunal that examined 200 to 300 witnesses.

One can postulate that the woman ran afoul of a patriarchal culture affronted by her exercise of power or that she became a parable for the “unnatural” lust of a middle-aged woman … but so far as we are left to understand, Erzsebet Bathory really did lure young girls to her castle, and then inflict (pdf) a Nazi doctors’ litany of sadism on them … like jabbing them with needles to drain out their blood. She even kept a log of the victims in her own hand.

So, locals disappearing into the creepy castle, never to be seen again, or possibly to turn up pallid and dead. (Disposing of all those corpses became a logistical problem for the creepy castle.) No surprise to find it associated with the vampire legend.*

And no surprise that the tale became magnified, twisted, and reconfigured by popular culture.

In 1817, as accounts of the testimonies about the alleged murders and sadistic tortures were published for the first time, national and international headlines sensationalized the already misconceived story. From that on [sic], the literary countess took on a life of her own: the Grimm brothers wrote a short story about her, the romantic German writer, Johann Ludwig Tieck (1774 – 1853), cast her as a Gothic femme fatale, Swanhilda, in his short story Wake Not the Dead. It is alleged that Sheridan le Fanu shaped his female vampire Carmilla on Elizabeth Bathory. If we can believe some etymological explanation the compound English word blood-bath is of mid-nineteenth century origin possibly connected to the bloody countess’ rising popularity in England.

-László Kürti, “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous — The Elizabeth Bathory Story,” Croatian Journal Of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Jan. 2009

A few books about Erzsebet Bathory

To say nothing of the death porn (link not safe for work).

The noblewoman never faced an executioner herself, owing to her rank; she was shut up in the castle.

* As it turns out, a Bathory ancestor actually fought with the “original Dracula” Vlad the Impaler in the 15th century.

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1460: The residents of Amlas, impaled by Vlad Dracula

5 comments August 24th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the 550th anniversary of (in)famous Wallachian dictator/vampire prototype Vlad III Tepes‘s destruction of the town of Amlas, impaling all its surviving citizens.

The signature execution form of “Vlad the Impaler” was as nasty as it sounds: still-living victim mounted on a long, oiled stake driven through the rectum and emerging through the mouth to expire agonizingly over a period of hours or days. Or, alternatively, stuck through the midsection, leaving the subject horizontally mounted like a flopping fish.

And he had frequent recourse to it during his long struggle for power in the treacherous 1450s and 1460s, the period* when Vlad III became famous for the iron-willed cruelty required to exercise power in a Wallachia squeezed between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Hungary.

It was this terrifying period from the late 1450s that made Vlad Dracula — the titular second name inherited from his father‘s investment into the Order of the Dragon, Draco in Latin — the namesake for Bram Stoker‘s famous bloodthirsty Transylvanian noble, and the granddaddy of all its lucrative latter-day offspring.

(Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire myth, and the notion that Vlad Dracula “is” Count Dracula is one of those bits of popular folklore that’s become academically unfashionable. But still.)

The historical Vlad has his latter-day defenders, who see him as a nation-builder. Certainly, both the man himself and his vulnerable frontier principality were menaced by innumerable threats both foreign and domestic.

This date’s massacre was to deal with one such, Germans in the territory of Transylvania, which lay to the north of Vlad’s own Wallachia. Both realms are part of present-day Romania, and they were closely connected in Vlad’s time as well; the young Dracula himself was born in Transylvania, and Transylvanian towns had helped him take the Wallachian throne with the support of Hungary.

So far, everyone was on the same page. But when a power struggle erupted for the Hungarian throne in 1457, the “Saxon” emigres who formed the upper crust of merchants in Transylvania (supported by a vast sea of Romanian peasants) backed the Holy Roman Emperor while Vlad supported the usurping Hunyadi family that had so ably patronized him.** It’s quite a bit more dizzyingly complex than that, but the bottom line is that commercial and political conflicts soon saw Vlad Dracula mounting a campaign of Transylvanian terror from 1458 onward.

During the summer of 1460 Dracula organized his final raid on Transylvania. This time he attacked townships and villages in the district of Amlas known as the “Land of the Forest” or Unterwald … The meistersinger Beheim gives the exact date of the attack as falling on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew in the year 1460: August 24. Dracula struck in the early morning after “passing through the great forest” with his cavalry force. He burned the town of Amlas and impaled all the citizens, a priest having led the procession to the burial scene …

Dracula’s raid on Amlas was aimed at eliminating any remaining dissident resistance and at killing rival contenders to his throne … Dracula knew, for instance, that … the boyar Bogdan Doboca, was hiding in the village of Sercaia, in the Fagaras district. So he had the entire village razed to the ground; it had to be completely repopulated in the following century. Similar was the fat of the village of Mica. The narrator Beheim tells us that Dracula burned or destroyed half the communities in the Amlas district, including the capital city by that name. He “assembled all the citizens and all those he could find” from other villages and hanged them on hooks and pitchforks, after having had his men hack them to pieces with knives, swords, and sabers. Amlas was reduced to a ghost town, as it still is today, and other villages such as Saliste, Apodul de Sus, and Tilisca were similarly destroyed. Beheim claims that altogether some 30,000 Germans were killed during this Dracula raid on the district of Amlas.

Impressive as this date’s butchery would have been — although we know it from German propagandists who figure to have made the most of it — it was simply of a piece with Vlad’s Transylvanian campaign. To this campaign, Florescu and McNally attribute an impressive catalogue of atrocities, such as:

  • Slaughtering all the inhabitants of a village named Bod
  • Impaling one of his own captains who reported an inability to take an enemy position “for the inhabitants are brave and well fortified”
  • Boiling alive 600 Saxon merchants
  • Impaling as spies 41 Saxons who came to Wallachia to learn the Romanian language
  • Forcing one captured rival claimant with Saxon support to go through a Mass for the dead clothed in funerary vestments before personally beheading him

Fleeing Germans carrying spine-tingling eyewitness accounts and rumors of even worse made a happy match with that new media technology, the printing press, giving Dracula continental infamy and a purchase on future literary immortality.

“The horror genre conformed to the tastes of the fifteenth-century reading public as much as it does today,” observe those same authors Florescu and McNally in another volume. “No fewer than thirteen different fiteenth- and sixteenth-century Dracula stories have been discovered thus far in the various German states.”

The St. Bartholomew’s Day 1460 events are seemingly sometimes conflated† with a more famous bloodbath during the spring of 1459, when Vlad arranged a demonstrative mass impaling on the outskirts of Brasov.‡

All those whom he had taken captive, men and women, young and old, chlidren, he had impaled on the hill by the chapel and all around the hill, and under them he proceeded to eat at table and enjoyed himself in that way.

It’s this 1459 event that provides us the most horribly recognizable images of Dracula’s reign, with the insouciant Wallachian prince enjoying his repast amid a thicket of impaled wretches.

* 1456 to 1462, specifically, which was the second (and most consequential) of the three different periods Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. The Ottomans drove him out in 1462, and he took refuge in Hungary before a return bid in 1476, which ended in his own death in battle.

** And specifically, Mihaly Szilagy (Hungarian link), the uncle of the ascendant king Matthias Corvinus. The latter would seek to woo Saxon support, and he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Vlad Dracula. Wallachia was a small buffer state from the standpoint of a greater power like Hungary, and Wallachia’s ruler a political instrument no matter how much impaling he might do.

† Perhaps because Brasov’s Church of St. Bartholomew was among the targets ravaged by Dracula’s force?

‡ Attack staged from picturesquely vampiric Castle Bran.

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2005: Mohammed Bijeh, the desert vampire

6 comments March 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Iran “desert vampire” was flogged to the point of collapse and hanged before a bloodthirsty throng in Pakdasht.


Mohammed Bijeh collapses during his flogging (top); then, as he is hoisted by a crane — with what one would take to be the stab wound from a victim’s brother visible on his back. More frightful photos of this execution here.

Bijeh confessed to raping and murdering 16 boys age 8 to 15 over a yearlong spree.

His modus operandi? Lure them into the desert on the pretext of hunting animals.

Unsurprisingly a figure of intense public hatred, Bijeh stolidly endured his own death before a jeering mob.

Riot police held back the angry crowd, but at one point a brother of one of the victims managed to break through and stab Bijeh in the back.

After 100 lashes, the desert vampire was noosed to a crane arm by one of the victims’ mothers, and hoisted 10 meters into the air for public strangulation, to the cheers of onlookers who had to be restrained from savaging the body when it was finally brought down.

An accomplice, Ali Baghi, somehow avoided execution and got off with whipping and a prison term.

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