1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats

1 comment June 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.

The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.

Seeking to pre-empt a Russian move into Afghanistan, Britain invaded in 1839. This was the First Anglo-Afghan War: it would have, for the Brits, an inglorious end.

Our day’s featured principals were among the postscript casualties of that catastrophe, never-avenged losses for an empire that had overreached itself.

Stoddart, an intelligence officer, had been dispatched northward to the ancient silk road city of Bokhara intending enlist the allegiance, or at least the benign neutrality, of its emir, Nasrullah Khan. Today Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, Bokhara was then an independent state .

[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.

(Vibe on some the oriental fantasy in the 1911 volume The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, or this volume on Russian Central Asia, which by then included Bokhara.)


Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.

Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.

In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.

Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.

Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.

The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.

Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.


Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler, depicts the only British subject on retreat from Kabul to reach Jalalabad, William Brydon.

Battles don’t get much more decisive than that.†

Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.

The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§

Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.

their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.

The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.

-London Times, Aug. 22, 1843, reporting the testimony of a dubious local semi-ally

The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.

Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).

* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.

** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.

† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.

‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.

§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.

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1950: American soldiers during the Korean War

3 comments July 10th, 2011 Headsman

Jensen’s counterattack [during the Battle of Chochiwon in the opening days of the Korean War] in the afternoon [of July 10] uncovered the first known North Korean mass atrocity perpetrated on captured American soldiers. The bodies of six Americans, jeep drivers and mortar-men of the Heavy Mortar Company, were found with hands tied in back and shot through the back of the head. Infiltrating enemy soldiers had captured them in the morning when they were on their way to the mortar position with a resupply of ammunition. An American officer farther back witnessed the capture. One of the jeep drivers managed to escape when the others surrendered. (Source, specifically)


Photograph of a U.S. Army 21st Infantry Regiment soldier executed July 10, 1950.

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1675: The murderers of John Sassamon, precipitating King Philip’s War

2 comments June 8th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.

The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.

After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.

Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.

King Philip (natively known as Metacomet) became head (Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1662 after his brother’s death.

Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.

The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.

But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.

Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.

With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.

In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**

The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.

On June 18, he launched an attack on homesteads in Swansea, and the war was on. The colonists struck back, laying siege to Mount Hope with the thought of gutting the insurgency by capturing its leader. That move failed, and King Philip escaped to recruit more tribes to his cause. Eventually, the forces included five major native tribes fighting colonists and two other major tribes.

Things got ugly fast: the conflict would become one of North America’s bloodiest colonial wars, and touch everyone who lived in the region. In September, the New England Confederation officially declared war on the Native Americans of the area.

After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.

Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.


1857 Harpers magazine engraving of the attack on King Philip’s last redoubt.

Philip’s body was mutilated: he was quartered and beheaded, and his head was displayed in Plymouth Colony Fort for years to come.

After the war, Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by Philip’s men, wrote a memoir about her experience. Philip’s escapades were also later made into a play.

* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.

** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.

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1918: Robert Prager lynched during war hysteria

1 comment April 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1918, German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched near Collinsville, Ill., for making disloyal utterances against the United States as his adoptive country entered World War I.

Basically the most visible and famed victim of patriotic anti-German bellicosity, Prager ironically is rather difficult to reconstruct as an unambiguous anti-war activist. After his mob execution, a baker would even come forward to say that he had been thrown in the clink when Prager accused him … of badmouthing a patriotic display. Prager himself had tried to enlist in the Navy and been rejected for medical reasons.

“Prager was, in fact, as loyal to the United States as any native-born citizen, and his innocence was attested to by many who knew him,” according to Donald Hickey in the summer 1969 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. “Two of the men with whom he boarded attested to Prager’s loyalty. One said that although Prager was a radical socialist, he had said he was ‘all for the United States’ when this country entered the war.”

But he was a socialist, and a German, and seems like the sort whom others might have found personally unpleasant. It is in the midst of a tiresome local dispute with a union leader (the union also rejected him) that Prager came to the unwelcome attention of the rabble: the union leadership accused him of being a spy, which led Prager to post handbills around town denouncing this lot for their scurrilous accusation. This obviously did him more harm than good and as the public conviction that Prager was disloyal took hold, it overran the halfhearted efforts of the town’s putative authorities to keep a semblance of order.

A mob on April 4 captured Prager at his home, paraded him, made him kiss the flag — momentarily rescued and hustled off to jail by police and a mayor who tried to talk the mob out of its design — then shanghaied from his “protective” custody cell and taken to the outskirts of Collinsville for hanging on a tree.

Eleven men stood trial for the affair over three weeks. Once the matter was finally rested with the jury, they were instantly acquitted.

There was wild applauding and cheers from ‘most everyone present. Relatives, friends and acquaintances rushed toward the bar to shake hands with the defendants. …

There was a peculiar coincidence at the trial Saturday. The Jackie Band was in Edwardsville for a patriotic demonstration.

When a shower of rain came up the musicians were sent to the court house where it had been arranged to give a program. At 2:40 o’clock judge Bernreuter ordered a recess after the completion of arguments and before reading the instructions.

Then word was sent that the band might play until court re-convened. The first number of all concerts is the Star Spangled Banner and it was played Saturday.

The strains from the Jackie Band caused tears to flow down the cheeks of Riegel. He was still crying when he returned to the court room.

As the jury came in with its verdict the band was at the head of a procession of draft boys and in passing the court house played “Over There.”

While Prager’s murder stands as the most emblematic event of anti-German intimidation during America’s months in the Great War, it was far from the only one: many others nearly as ugly stopped just this side of homicide. Papers were rife with reports of German immigrants being made to kiss the flag; clapped in jail for suspect utterances; of being menaced by mobs.

Outrageously, Germany made propagandistic use of these events, which the virtuous Entente powers would certainly never do.


Washington Post, April 11, 1918.

A number of federal lawmakers, as well as former presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, condemned the lynching, mostly in the familiar coded terms with which lynchings were opposed in those days: one would rather let justice take its course. Mob rule is itself disloyal. Etc. (See Hickey)

But the right-thinking potentates of the war party were also finding themselves relieved that a polity which had re-seated the current president on the slogan “he kept us out of war” would so pliably turn towards bellicosity. This charade so mechanically familiar in our time was still an arcane and uncertain art in America’s imperial adolescence.

“The recent lynching of a German in Illinois and violent outbreaks of the same character in other parts of the country,” intoned the Washington Post, “have awakened the Department of Justice to the need of a law which will enable government officers to prosecute pro-Germans rather than leave them to be dealt with by mob law.”

Oh. Danke very much.

An unsigned editorialist in the paper’s April 12 edition opined so nauseatingly brutal and specious that in another age it would have earned its author an immediate contract with Fox News:

Stamping Out Treason

The question whether or not the laxity of the laws against treasonable utterances has been responsible for the people’s acts in taking the law into their own hands has been much debated of late.

While sedition may have been encouraged to some extent because of the comparatively mild risks involved, it is quite probable that the pro-German intrigues would have been carried on if the risk had been greater. This suggests the thought that other reasons must be looked for to account for the general revulsion of public sentiment against the treason spreaders and the prompt punishment meted out to them in so many instances.

A plausible explanation is found in the fact that the open and ingenuous American mind had been fed up on German lies to the point where it broke out in fierce revolt. At the beginning of the war, and even after the entrance of America into it, there remained debatable points in many minds. Though of a minor nature and scarcely affecting the larger issue, these points were emphasized by enemy agencies which had been at work from the beginning. But as the truth has been laid bare the indignation of the people has grown stronger. The fact that the rounding-up process has been most vigorously conducted in the middle West tells its own story in this respect. It was that section which was slowest to wake up. There the enemy propaganda apparently worked with most success. So it is there that the people have arisen unitedly in their righteous wrath against the treason talkers.

The comparative absence of outbreaks of this character in the East is explainable on the same theory. In the East the public mind toward the war was much earlier divested of errors. Consequently the enemy agents were more wary in their utterances, not because of any greater stringency of the law, but because of their appreciation of the temper of the people.

In spite of excesses such as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country. Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur. The people know what they want. They are not seeking to subvert law and order.

Other powerful institutions were not quite so sanguine as the Post: the lynching was discussed hours after it occurred in the U.S. cabinet, no doubt mindful that it was also being denounced in the German Reichstag. And indeed all concerned marshaled these animal spirits of the populace towards killing men by the thousands under the auspices of the state rather than singly by drunken small-town mobs.

Fears of German reprisals against American prisoners never seem to have materialized; neither is there any other documented lynching in the short course of America’s World War I involvement that was conducted on unambiguously “patriotic” grounds.

* Any number of other papers joined the Post in this campaign, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, they got their wish — the Sedition Act, under which the Socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for speaking against the war.

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1916: Three in the Mexican Revolution

Add comment March 8th, 2011 Headsman

On an uncertain date — approximated only to “about the time of the Columbus affair,” which was Pancho Villa‘s famous (and otherwise unrelated) raid on Columbus, N.M. March 8-9, 1916 — a triple execution took place in Juarez, Mexico.

The who, why, and wherefore appear to be completely lost. Only the image remains:

These images were captured by C. Tucker Barrett, a lawyer and amateur photographer serving with the U.S. Army’s 16th Infantry Regiment then stationed right across the border from Juarez, in El Paso, Texas. (This regiment would be detailed for a punitive expedition into Mexico, which Barrett also photographed.)

The Mexican Revolution may be ancient history, but Juarez and extrajudicial executions are still very much in the news.

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1916: Private Billy Nelson

3 comments August 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.

The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy

I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”

“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.

Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,

“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”

According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.

“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”

Hap
by Thomas Hardy

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:

Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’

In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

* The title is a Biblical allusion to Jeremiah 51:20.

As a slight stretch, part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

4 comments August 23rd, 2009 dogboy

Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.

Possible etymological connection to the possibly proto-Slavic barbarian horde: hypothetical Slavic god Radegast lends his gnarly visage to a Czech beer — and maybe to a Tolkein character.

Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.

According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.

But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.

While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.

So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.

Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.

Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.

Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.

* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 423, long after Stilicho was murdered.

** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.

† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.

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1915: Eleven Arab nationalists

1 comment August 21st, 2009 Headsman

On August 21, 1915, the Turkish governor of Syria had 11 Arab nationalists publicly hanged in Beirut for seditious contacts with the French.

A larger and more famous batch would follow these the next year, like today’s victims the fruit of the French consul‘s leaving an incriminating list of potential allies in its embassy when it bugged out.

According to Charles Winslow,

[i]n all, fifty-eight individuals were tried and sentenced to death; forty-five of these were either out of the country or avoided arrest; two were given reprieves; and the other eleven, ten Muslims and one Christian, were disgracefully hanged. This public display of terror was only a prelude to additional steps taken as part of the wartime policy of repression…

Lightly defended, Jemal argued that he had no means other than those of terror to hold the area. He claimed that the executions had, in fact, forestalled a rising in Syria. Others, however … see Jemal’s actions in Syria as turning the tide against Istanbul, “causing the Arab Muslims in the area to make up their minds once and for all to break away from the Turkish Empire.” Jemal had perpetrated a “Remember-the-Alamo” for the Lebanese. Throughout the country, the story of his perfidy was passed from person to person and from village to village … One can hardly measure the significance of these hangings in stimulating people to abandon their Ottoman attachment.

By the next year, Arabs had risen in revolt, in alliance — as Pasha had feared — with the Triple Entente.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lebanon,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Ottoman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1859: Ormond Chase, casus belli not quite

2 comments August 7th, 2009 Headsman

Every foreign policy adventure needs its pretexts, even adventures that never happen.

Quite marvelously, this illustration appeared in the same issue of Harper’s as Sydney Carton’s beheading in the last installment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities serial.

On this date in 1859, forces of Mexican General Miguel Miramon provided the United States such a pretext by executing American Ormond Chase in Tepic during the Mexican War of Reform.

This incident, said to have ensnared the luckless Portland (Me.)-born sawyer “for reasons entirely unknown,”* became elevated into the foreign policy calculation of U.S. President James Buchanan.

Buchanan rates as one of America’s worst chief executives for fiddling as the conflagration of Civil War began, but he kept himself busy eyeballing other dark-skinned folk in the hemisphere over whom America ought to claim suzerainty.**

So, in December of 1859, Ormond Chase was name-checked in a State of the Union address further to pressing Buchanan’s case for Mexico as a (to use a modern coinage) failed state — “a wreck upon the ocean, drifting about as she is impelled by different factions.”

“Little less shocking,” the Chief Executive intoned, crowning a litany of injuries “upon persons and property,” “was the recent fate of Ormond Chase, who was shot in Tepic, on the 7th August … not only without a trial, but without any conjecture by his friends of the cause of his arrest.”

And, of course, we know what happens to failed states.

Mexico ought to be a rich and prosperous and powerful Republic. She possesses an extensive territory, a fertile soil, and an incalculable store of mineral wealth. She occupies an important position between the Gulf and the ocean for transit routes and for commerce. … Can the United States especially, which ought to share most largely in its commercial intercourse, allow their immediate neighbor thus to destroy itself and injure them? Yet without support from some quarter it is impossible to perceive how Mexico can resume her position among nations and enter upon a career which promises any good results. The aid which she requires, and which the interests of all commercial countries require that she should have, it belongs to this Government to render, not only by virtue of our neighborhood to Mexico, along whose territory we have a continuous frontier of nearly a thousand miles, but by virtue also of our established policy, which is inconsistent with the intervention of any European power in the domestic concerns of that Republic.

The wrongs which we have suffered from Mexico are before the world and must deeply impress every American citizen. A government which is either unable or unwilling to redress such wrongs is derelict to its highest duties.

I recommend to Congress to pass a law authorizing the President under such conditions as they may deem expedient, to employ a sufficient military force to enter Mexico for the purpose of obtaining indemnity for the past and security for the future.

“The meaning of all this is clear enough,” observed the London Times, an ocean away and correspondingly less euphemistic.†

Before long another Mexican war will sever new provinces from the unhappy Spanish Republic, and give them to the Anglo-Saxon race. In one sense this is a gain to humanity. Beautiful and fertile regions, now desert, will pass under the hands of the cultivator, mines will be worked, harbours will be filled with shipping, and a new life will animate that vast region. It is not likely, however, that the Americans will seek to annex the whole Republic. The Mexicans are not the stuff to make citizens of, and another generation of discord and decay must elapse before their time comes to be improved off the face of the earth. Although we have not the slightest wish to interfere with the Americans, it is but right that an adequate force should be at hand to protect British interests in those quarters.

In the event, Congress actually turned down Buchanan’s use-of-force request — that actually used to happen! — and with Abraham Lincoln’s election the next year, poor Ormond Chase’s purchase on historical significance was dashed by the fierce urgency of the Civil War. His death was a wasted root of an intervention that never was.

As it happens, and as the London Times article’s closing allusion suggests, Buchanan’s suspicion of European interference in the New World was not without foundation. The Mexican Civil War that Buchanan here proposed to join evolved — while the Yankees were busy shooting one another — into a badly botched French‡ attempt to establish a foothold in Mexico.

We have met the most famous casualty of that affair in these pages before: imported Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I.

Shot along with him were two of his loyal generals: one of them was Miguel Miramon, whose men had put Ormond Chase to death eight years before.

* Per a deposition in the U.S. Consul’s investigation.

** More on Buchanan’s Mexican project in this 1883 biography.

† January 11, 1860

‡ Spain and Britain had made the initial foray with France to collect their own debts as well, but soon thought better of the project.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Lynching,Mexico,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination

July 7th, 2008 Headsman

On a sweltering July 7, 1865, a mere 12 weeks after Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, four of his assassin’s accomplices were hanged in the courtyard of the District of Columbia’s Washington Arsenal — present-day Fort McNair, and specifically its tennis courts.

Booth, on the far left, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar opposite his brothers. He had Brutus’ example in mind, as he wrote in his diary while on the run: “with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.”

The exact nature of the conspiracy against the man who had seen the North to victory in the Civil War has been debated ever since actor John Wilkes Booth lodged a ball from his one-shot Derringer behind Honest Abe’s ear. But it was a conspiracy — an astoundingly bold one.

Simultaneous with Booth’s successful attack upon Lincoln, there was an unsuccessful attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward; it would emerge in the investigation that another man had been detailed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got drunk and chickened out. The apparent upshot: with the President and Vice President dead, new national elections would be required to replace the Senator who would become acting president — and with the Secretary of State dead too, there’d be nobody to implement them. Booth was trying to paralyze the North with its own constitutional machinery in some desperate hope of reviving the defeated South.

Ten Against D.C.

Hundreds were detained in the stunning assassination’s immediate aftermath, but ten would ultimately be the federals’ targets. A massive manhunt pursued Booth through southern Maryland and into Virginia, where he was killed in a shootout. John Surratt, who had conspired with Booth in an earlier plot to kidnap the president — that failed plot had been reconfigured into the assassination — escaped from the country.

The other eight were rounded up and stashed at the Arsenal to face a military tribunal. It was a highly controversial arrangement: the war had entered a gray area — Robert E. Lee’s surrender just days before the murder had effectively ended the war, but when the trial opened in May Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still at large, and the last Southern general wouldn’t lay down his arms until late June. The District of Columbia was still technically under martial law … so would it do to use a military court?

Military Tribunal

So the government asked itself: government, would you rather have looser evidentiary rules and a lower bar of conviction than you would have in civil court? The government duly produced for the government an opinion that the military characteristic of the assassination — that is, to help whatever southern war effort still obtained — licensed the government to use the military courts.

That didn’t sit well with everyone. One former Attorney General griped:

If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.

Indeed, a year later, the Supreme Court’s landmark ex parte Milligan ruling would forbid the use of military courts where civilian courts are open — which they were in Washington, D.C.

That, of course, was too late to help Booth’s comrades. It would be a military trial, with a majority vote needed for conviction and no right of appeal but to the president for the most infamous crime of the Republic. Everyone had a pretty good idea what the results would be.

A cartoon depicting the defendants as Gallow's (sic) Birds.

Rogues’ Gallery

Two of the four today were doomed from the outset under any juridical arrangement imaginable: Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine or Lewis Payne) had made the attempt on Secretary of State Seward; David Herold had guided him there with the getaway horse, and later escaped along with Booth. They were in way past their eyeballs. George Atzerodt, the schmo who couldn’t rise to the occasion of popping Andrew Johnson, looks a bit more peripheral from the distance of a century and a half, but in the weeks following the assassination he was much too close to the action to have any hope. All received death sentences.

Two others — Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold — had been involved in Booth’s earlier scheme to kidnap the president, but didn’t seem to have much to do with the murder. Still another two — Ned Spangler and Dr. Samuel Mudd* — were lesser participants. They all received long prison sentences for their pains, and the three of them still surviving were pardoned by Andrew Johnson as he left the presidency in 1869.

That left Mary Surratt, mother of the fugitive John and the only woman in the dock, the focus of attention and controversy. The 42-year-old widow owned a downtown boardinghouse, plus a tavern of sufficient importance at a Prince George’s County, Maryland, crossroads, that its community was called Surrattsville.**

The conspirators met frequently in her lodgings; Surratt maintained her innocence beyond that, but evidence and witness testimony began to pile up heavily against her … especially when Seward assailant Lewis Powell wandered into her place looking for refuge right while the police were questioning her. Booth and Herold turned out to have made a pit stop at her Surrattsville tavern to pick up a package of guns that Mary had prepared for them.

Though Surratt’s avowal of ignorance was not widely believed, a gesture of presidential mercy was anticipated — many thought (and think) she went on trial as a virtual hostage for her absconded son, who declined to take the bait. Strangely, five members of the nine-judge panel who condemned Mary Surratt turned around and asked President Johnson for clemency. Johnson claimed never to have seen the memo, but his mind seemed pretty made up — when Surratt won a habeas corpus stay on the morning of her scheduled hanging, he promptly “specially-suspended” the writ specifically to hang her:

I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States do hereby declare that the writ of habeas corpus had been heretofore suspended in such cases as this; and I do hereby specially-suspend this writ, and direct that you proceed to execute the order heretofore given upon the judgment of the Military Commission.

Harsh treatment, and possibly well-deserved, for the first woman executed by the U.S. government. Even so, it does seem a curious thing when all is said and done that the mother of “the nest that hatched the egg” was worth a special suspension of the Great Writ, and even the stagehand who just held Booth’s horse for him caught six years, but old Jeff Davis — who apart from having figureheaded a treasonous four-year insurrection was implicated for giving Booth’s kidnapping plot official Confederate sanction — got to retire to write his memoirs.

Fine pages on the Lincoln assassination are here, here and here. There are also contemporary newspaper accounts posted online as filed for The Boston Post and The New York Herald.

The Surratt houses, by the way, are still standing. The Maryland tavern is kept as the Surratt House Museum by the Surratt Society. The downtown boarding house is a Chinese restaurant … marked with a plaque remembering more momentous doings than bubble tea.

The Chinatown restaurant where Mary Surratt had her boarding house ...

... as marked by plaque ...

... and how it looked back then.

* The panel voted 5-4 to hang Mudd, a Maryland doctor who not only set the leg Booth broke when he leaped onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, but then misdirected Booth’s pursuers. However, the rules for the trial said a two-thirds majority was required for execution.

** They changed the name after the unpleasantness. Today, it’s Clinton, Maryland.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Maryland,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Power,Scandal,Separatists,Treason,U.S. Federal,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC,Women

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