Archive for July, 2008

Themed Set: Thermidor

21 comments July 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Paris, 1794

It is Thermidor — Month of Heat — by that queer artifact of the times, the Revolutionary calendar, and in the blistering summer the guillotine rots its own scaffold.

It is the climax of that emblematic moment of the French Revolution, often wrongly standing to casual observation as synonymous with the entire revolution. Jarring indeed how brief the span of those pregnant, dangerous days, that upon the storming of the Bastille the guillotine had not yet been erected and from that traditional birthdate of the Revolution were eclipsed successively the Bourbon monarchy, the Constitutionalist Assembly, the Girondin liberals, Marat, Danton … culminating in the bloody hegemony of Robespierre and the fatal test between the Jacobins and their enemies.

By the spring and summer of 1794, Paris is delivered fully to Robespierre. “Terror,” he says, “is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.” A blip on the screen chronologically, this period seems endless to those who survive it, and it reverberates endlessly to those who succeed it.

In this Revolution-era cartoon, legendary Parisian headsman Sanson, having run out of victims, guillotines himself.

For the next week, join Executed Today in 1794’s Month of Heat as day by day the Terror rages at its apex, inscrutably suffering citizens to live or die — until of a sudden it succumbs to its own rot.

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1944: Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the plot to kill Hitler

25 comments July 21st, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1944, four senior Wehrmacht officers who had come within an ace of murdering Adolf Hitler less than 12 hours earlier were summarily shot in Berlin — the first of thousands executed for the most famous assassination attempt on the Fuhrer.

One of those rare moments where historical epochs (arguably) turn on the minutest exigencies of chance, the so-called July 20 plot had seen Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg insinuate a bomb into Hitler’s conference room in modern-day eastern Poland, then fly back to Berlin to mount a coup d’etat.

Blam

Stauffenberg had every reason as he left Wolfsschanze to believe the devastating blast at 12:42 p.m. must have killed the Nazi dictator. Little did he know that another officer at the table where the high command was plotting strategy for the eastern front had, in the name of legroom, shifted the deadly satchel to the other side of a heavy oak table support — shielding Hitler from the brunt of the explosion.

Four men died. Hitler had hearing loss, an injury to his right arm, and one hell of a grudge.

Stauffenberg weaseled out of the confused bunker and flew back to Berlin, expecting that his confederates were even then launching Operation Valkyrie — a contingency plan for martial law in the case of civic disturbance that the conspirators intended to use to mount a coup.

Failure to Communicate

Control and distribution of information was not the least of the many threads in the tapestry of July 20, 1944. Hitler had risen to power on his artful grasp of propaganda; today, his headquarters’ mastery of communications would overpower the putschists’ rank amateurism.

While en route, Stauffenberg had no ability to communicate to the wider world. Landing in Berlin three hours after the not-quite-deadly-enough blast at Wolfsschanze, he must have been stunned to find that Valkyrie had not been launched. Apparently, fragmentary reports from the east were unclear as to whether Hitler had survived; everyone was reluctant about committing himself.

Frantically, Stauffenberg — already deeply committed — rallied his comrades and set the treasonable gears into motion. But by this time, communications with Hitler’s headquarters had been re-established and contradictory reports of the assassination attempt’s success were flying in Berlin. Stauffenberg’s sincere but incorrect eyewitness testimony of Hitler’s death became increasingly untenable. Compounded by the sluggish and ill-coordinated action of the conspirators, officers of a more opportunist bent soon began lining up with the bad guys.

Joseph Goebbels, the senior Nazi in Berlin and Hitler’s wizard of public relations, was inexplicably left unmolested for hours — long enough to phone the radio station (also never seized) an announcement of Hitler’s survival. “To think that these revolutionaries weren’t even smart enough to cut the telephone wires! My little daughter would have thought of that.”

Conspirators’ orders to military units around Berlin went out late, piecemeal, and far too often fell on ears already deaf to the appeals. In some cases, the proclamations that should have been queued up for inundating the airwaves instantaneously were with some other officer not on the scene, and consequently were haphazardly redrafted on the fly — for telex operators who had caught the day’s drift themselves and intentionally delayed or ignored them.

From the perspective of a radio editor it was tragic. Tragic because the way in which details were handled made it obvious that this revolt had had very lithe chance of succeeding. (Source)

The coup fell apart almost as soon as it began.

Fromm Here to Eternity

Most decisively of all, timely information had prevented any participation by Gen. Friedrich Fromm, Stauffenberg’s commanding officer and the head of the Reserve Army — it was that position that allowed his aide access to Hitler’s person, and it was under his authority that the putschists were issuing their Valkyrie orders.

Fromm fell in the “opportunist” camp, and would have been ready to strike had the Fuhrer been demonstrably killed. But a telephone connection straight from the scene of the crime assured him that Hitler had survived … and that his adjutant was a wanted man.

Fromm the potential collaborator quickly turned the tables on Stauffenberg and company late on the night of the 20th.

The Schwein Abides

Before advancing to our heroes’ foreordained fate, take a moment to appreciate this newsreel rushed into production to assure the German public that everything was under control. It’s an impressive advance on statist slick-talking from Germany’s World War I clunkers (like this):

Notice Hitler greeting Mussolini — the two had been scheduled to meet that day; it would be their last encounter in this world. His maimed right arm hanging concealed beneath a greatcoat, Hitler shakes left-handed.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Now that Fromm saw which way the wind was blowing, he acted with alacrity: many executions in the days to come were the product of Hitler’s vengeance, but this night, Claus von Stauffenberg, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, Friedrich Olbricht, and Werner von Haeften were shot on Fromm’s orders for Fromm’s benefit. Here’s Shirer’s description of the fatal scene:

Fromm … had quickly made up his mind to eliminate these men and not only to cover up the traces — for though he had refused to engage actively in the plot, he had known of it for months, sheltering the assassins and not reporting their plans — but to curry favor with Hitler as the man who put down the revolt. In the world of the Nazi gangsters it was much too late for this, but Fromm did not realize it.

He … announce[d] that “in the name of the Fuehrer” he had called a session of a “court-martial” (there is no evidence that he had) and that it had pronounced death sentences on four officers: “Colonel of the Genera Staff Mertz, General Olbricht, this colonel whose name I no longer know [Stauffenberg, his aide], and this lieutenant [Haeften].”

In the courtyard below in the dim rays of the blackout-hooded headlights of an Army car the four officers were quickly dispatched by a firing squad. Eyewitnesses say there was much tumult and shouting, mostly by the guards, who were in a hurry because of the danger of a bombing attack — British planes had been over Berlin almost every night that summer. Stauffenberg died crying, “Long live our sacred Germany!”

The courtyard of the Bendlerblock on modern-day Stauffenbergstrasse in Berlin, where Col. Stauffenberg and three compatriots were shot. Photo by Daniel Ullrich, licensed by CC-by-sa.

Minutes after they died, the SS arrived on the scene and forbade any further executions of potential witnesses.

Fromm’s gambit didn’t work any better than Stauffenberg’s had: he was arrested right away, and was himself later shot.

What If?

While the afternoon’s theatrics may have been doomed from the moment Hitler arose unkilled from the bomb’s debris, his miraculous escape from death — “confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence,” he told the nation in a radio address an hour after Stauffenberg’s execution — is an inexhaustible mine for historical hypothesizing.

That the bomb could have, and would have with the least change in the principle variables, slain the dictator is widely accepted; a 2005 reconstruction of the blast scene by the Discovery Channel supports that belief in the context of the cable-documentary-friendly format* of Adolf Hitler plus slow-mo explosives. (Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series set up the episodes excerpted here with the plot’s historical background and the crew’s investigation into the precise dimensions of the blast space — a combination of file footage, modern recreation shots, talking heads, and tromping about the forest in the modern remains of Wolfsschanze.)

But that’s the easy what-if.

More problematic — and well into the realm of bar-stool dickering — are the questions of what would have happened if the explosive had hit its target.

Stauffenberg enjoys latter-day popularity in Germany — the street where he was shot bears his name — in no small measure because of the confessedly quixotic nature of the attempted murder. Indeed, he probably died at the height of his potential popularity for history.

But it’s not for nothing that this attempt (though it did have many botched antecedents) took place in the weeks when Germany’s military position went from desperate to disastrous. Over the preceding two months, Soviet offenses had pushed the front back to the prewar Polish border, and the Normandy landing had opened a rapidly expanding western front. The assassination had a healthy dose of self-interest … and therefore was at least potentially antithetical to other interests at play in the great conflagration.

The motivation of sparing the Fatherland the ravages of war on its own soil is not ignoble of itself, of course. But given this opposition circle’s years-long failure to take effective action against Hitler while he went from successful crime to successful crime, one might ask a little more than a late-breaking suicidal gambit for unreserved historical vindication.

The German military’s deal with the devil had seen Europe’s greatest armed forces squandered by its dumbest commander. The end result would bleed the Nazi state white at unspeakable human cost … but also, arguably, towards one of the better postwar outcomes imaginable.

And would the coup even have achieved the goal of leaving Germany unoccupied? It seems impossible to think that any outcome would have been worse than Hitler, and the last year of the war was also its bloodiest … but among the spectrum of counterfactual alternatives, the appealing possibilities mostly seem to work out in spite of the plotters, rather than because of them.

1. Civil War?

Countercoups, or even outright civil war, might very likely have erupted between rivals for succession. This might have worked out as the best-case situation — fragmenting German resistance and hastening the inevitable — but it might also have given Germany a leaner, meaner fascism with a path to enduring long-term. Predicting any particular arrangement of players to emerge from this black box is a just-so story, and any of them probably leads to one of the other three alternatives; certainly the plotters weren’t banking on their own subsequent overthrow.

2. Status Quo Ante?

The coup might have utterly failed to obtain peace. German was close to defeat; the Allies were demanding unconditional surrender, and the entire point of the plot was to surrender on better terms than that. Had no quarter been offered, the putschist government might then have fought on (either by choice, or by the compulsion of internal politics) to much the same end, although quite plausibly with much less gratuitous bloodletting in the camps. Accidentally abating the Holocaust would be a very significant plus, of course, but probably not what posterity has in mind when it goes naming streets for the man.

3. World War Against Russia?

The new government might have successfully made peace with the western Allies, which was its fervent hope. Under the circumstances of the summer of 1944, that practically implied the continuation of the global war with the capitalist and fascist powers aligning against the USSR. The horrors of the eastern front up to the summer of 1944 then would likely pale in comparison to what followed. You could tell the story so that it all works out in the end, but replacing the long Cold War with an immediate hot war, especially with the United States less than a year away from its first successful A-bomb test, isn’t exactly a presumptive improvement.

4. 1918 Redux?

In the all but unimaginable case that the post-Hitler government successfully sued for peace on both its fronts (or accepted unconditional surrender), it would have had to give up to a Soviet buffer zone much of what the Soviets ultimately conquered. Millions who died fighting for it, and millions more who died in concentration camps while the fighting played out, and millions of women raped by the conquering Red Army, would have considered that arrangement an improvement; still, the peace itself could have ensconced a less crazy and therefore more durable military dictatorship in central Europe, which wouldn’t necessarily seem like an altogether positive outcome vis-a-vis the actual postwar history. More worryingly, this might have horribly recapitulated the post-World War I scenario in which the liberal politicians who accepted defeat, and not the crazed reactionaries who caused it, were blamed for the loss, fueling the subsequent rise of some unattractive revanchist successor state. Precisely because that example would have been uppermost in the officers’ own minds, it’s hard to believe this least-bloodthirsty path would have been the actual consequence of the coup.

And so on …

Second-order effects from any of these possibilities generate a novelist’s trove of alternative histories. What would the map of eastern Europe have looked like? Whither European Jewry … and therefore the postwar state of Israel … and therefore the political chessboard in the Middle East? What would an early resolution in Europe have meant for the Pacific theater, or for the Chinese revolution? How would decolonization movements have been affected had the war concluded earlier, or had it transformed into a worldwide anti-Communist war?

Postscript

Somewhere in those alternate realities, staff at the re-education camp are bantering over happy hour about what would have happened if Stauffenberg had failed.

Who knows if “internally peacable European social democracies” are a bullet point for the pie-eyed optimists, or the incorrigible pessimists?

A few of the books about Stauffenberg and Operation Valkyrie

Poor Col. Stauffenberg is due to be played by a smirking Tom Cruise in the biopic Valkyrie, a role that has drawn some slightly overheated controversy in Germany over Cruise’s adherence to Scientology.

* And, let’s face it, blog-friendly, too.

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1514: György Dózsa, Transylvanian Braveheart

5 comments July 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1514, the leader of a Hungarian peasant uprising that scared the ermine robes off the feudal nobles met a punishment from the unspeakable depths of their medieval imaginations.

While Marki Sandor’s 1913 biographical treatment of this character — also rendered Georghe Doja or Dosa, or as György Székely for his native soil — is available online, it seems to be available only in Hungarian.

Since readily-accessible non-Magyar sources such as Dozsa’s Wikipedia page all appear to spring root and branch from the public domain edition of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica … well, who is Executed Today to buck the trend? (Some paragraph breaks added for readability.)

GYORGY DOZSA (d. 1514), Hungarian revolutionist, was a Szekler squire and soldier of fortune, who won such a reputation for valour in the Turkish wars that the Hungarian chancellor, Tamas Bakocz, on his return from Rome in 1514 with a papal bull preaching a holy war in Hungary against the Moslems, appointed him to organize and direct the movement.

In a few weeks he collected thousands of so-called Kuruczok (a corruption of Cruciati), consisting for the most part of small yeomen, peasants, wandering students, friars and parish priests, the humblest and most oppressed portion of the community, to whom alone a crusade against the Turk could have the slightest attraction.

They assembled in their counties, and by the time Dozsa had drilled them into some sort of discipline and self-confidence, they began to air the grievances of their class. No measures had been taken to supply these voluntary crusaders with food or clothing; as harvest-time approached, the landlords commanded them to return to reap the fields, and on their refusing to do so, proceeded to maltreat their wives and families and set their armed retainers upon the half-starved multitudes. Instantly the movement was diverted from its original object, and the peasants and their leaders began a war of extermination against the landlords.

By this time Dozsa was losing control of the rabble, which had fallen under the influence of the socialist parson of Czegled, Lorincz Meszaros. The rebellion was the more dangerous as the town rabble was on the side of the peasants, and in Buda and other places the cavalry sent against the Kuruczok were unhorsed as they passed through the gates. The rebellion spread like lightning, principally in the central or purely Magyar provinces, where hundreds of manor-houses and castles were burnt and thousands of the gentry done to death by impalement, crucifixion and other unspeakable methods.

Dozsa’s camp at Czegled was the centre of the jacquerie, and from thence he sent out his bands in every direction, pillaging and burning. In vain the papal bull was revoked, in vain the king issued a proclamation commanding the peasantry to return to their homes under pain of death. By this time the rising had attained the dimensions of a revolution; all the feudal levies of the kingdom were called out against it; and mercenaries were hired in haste from Venice, Bohemia and the emperor.

Meanwhile Dozsa had captured the city and fortress of Csanad, and signalized his victory by impaling the bishop and the castellan. Subsequently, at Arad, the lord treasurer, Istvan Telegdy, was seized and tortured to death with satanic ingenuity. It should, however, in fairness be added that only notorious bloodsuckers, or obstinately resisting noblemen, were destroyed in this way. Those who freely submitted were always released on parole, and Dozsa not only never broke his given word, but frequently assisted the escape of fugitives. But he could not always control his followers when their blood was up, and infinite damage was done before he could stop it.

At first, too, it seemed as if the government were incapable of coping with him.

In the course of the summer he took the fortresses of Arad, Lippa and Vilagos; provided himself with guns and trained gunners; and one of his bands advanced to within five leagues of the capital. But his halfnaked, ill-armed ploughboys were at last overmatched by the mailclad chivalry of the nobles. Dozsa, too, had become demoralized by success. After Csánad, he issued proclamations which can only be described as nihilistic. His suppression had become a political necessity.

He was finally routed at Temesvar* by the combined forces of Janos Zapolya and Istvan Bathory.

The radicalism of this revolt is not to be downplayed; Friedrich Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany, reports that Dozsa declared a republic and abolished nobility.

As with his French predecessor Guillaume Cale, his punishment would demarcate the feudal order by horrifically mocking its victim’s pretension to political authority. This description of Dozsa’s unenviable end comes from The History of Hungary and the Magyars, a 19th century text available free at Google Books, beginning with :

[After hearing his sentence, Dozsa] exclaimed — addressing the crowd whom he saw shuddering at his approaching doom — “Come back tomorrow, you miserable slaves, and see if I shrink in the midst of my sufferings! If a single groan escapes my lips, may my name be covered with eternal infamy!”

On the following day, he was placed almost naked on a burning throne, and his head was encircled by a crown of red-hot iron. Fourteen of his followers had been kept without food for several days, and were then brought into his presence, and while he was yet living the flesh was torn from his bones and cast to them that they might satiate their hunger. “To it hounds!” was his bitter exclamation, “ye are of my own rearing!”

This insurrectionist’s confrontation with backward power structures would offer plentiful fodder for those lands’ now-fallen Communist regimes; his name adorns many streets and monuments in Hungary and Romania.

However, Dozsa was well on his way into the nationalist pantheon before Communist ascendancy. Nineteenth-century composer Ferenc Erkel, for instance,** wrote an opera about him, and poet/nationalist revolutionary Petofi Sandor saluted him in verse in 1847.

The latter text is available in Hungarian on Dozsa’s Hungarian Wikipedia page, which also attributes at least two plays about him to the Interwar period.

* aka Timisoara — in modern-day Romania, where the execution actually took place.

** Dozsa was actually captured in a fortress constructed by John Hunyadi, whose executed son is a fellow nationalist martyr (playing for the traditional-authority team), and the subject of one of Erkel’s more famous operas.


Sculpture of Gyorgy Dozsa burned on his throne, from Budapest’s Hungarian National Museum. (cc) image from redteam.

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1824: Alexander Pearce, cannibal convict

Add comment July 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1824, Irish convict Alexander Pearce received the Catholic last rites and was hanged in Australia’s Hobart town jail for murdering and cannibalizing a fellow con during an escape attempt.

When Pearce, a petty thief who had been sentenced in England to penal transportation, was caught at King River after fleeing a Tasmanian prison colony. He had human flesh in his pocket … pretty much as alleged in this court scene from the docudrama “Exile in Hell”:

… or, at least, there is no record of Pearce, who was defended by no lawyer, contesting the charges. He is said to have had other food available at this time; it seems he killed his young companion when he realized the boy would hold him up … then ate him, because he liked the taste.

You’re wondering how he knew he liked human flesh, right?

Incredibly, the crime for which he was hanged was not Pearce’s first incident of cannibalism — not even his first incident of confessed cannibalism.

During a previous escape attempt in 1822 with six other men, the party had plunged ill-equipped into forbidding terrain, and fallen to … well, you know. Here’s a newspaper account by the author of a book about Pearce:

As the journey continued, one by one, the weakest man was killed with an axe and butchered to provide food for the others. After five weeks of endless walking, only three men were left: [Robert] Greenhill, Pearce and [Matthew] Travers.

Driven by extreme hunger, Greenhill finally faced the prospect of having to kill his injured friend Travers, who had been bitten on the foot by a venomous tiger snake. With Travers’ foot now gangrenous, Greenhill and Pearce half-dragged and carried their injured companion for five days until Travers begged them to kill him. The only weapon left was the axe. They killed him in his sleep, and ate his flesh.

Pearce and Greenhill struggled on for eight days, playing cat and mouse with each other, desperate to stay awake, fearing that the other would attack him if he closed his eyes and nodded off. It was Pearce who kept awake long enough to grab the axe and kill the sleeping Greenhill with a blow to the head.

Months later, when the law finally caught up with Pearce, he admitted to killing and eating his companions. He wasn’t believed: authorities figured his collaborators were still on the run and Pearce was covering for them, so they sent him back to the prison colony.

Whoops.

This unpleasant story is the subject of a forthcoming film, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce.

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2007: Not Sina Paymard, saved by a flute

July 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date one year ago, a teenager who saved himself with a flute cheated Iran’s hangman by the narrowest of margins.

Sina Paymard had had the hemp about his throat the previous fall for murdering — at the tender age of 16 — a drug dealer in a pot buy gone bad.

The bipolar young musician’s last request was to play the ney (a Persian flute), and in a feat fit for legend, he played so movingly that the family of the victim reprieved him.

This power under Islamic sharia law comes with a price: the reprieve bought time for the families to negotiate alternative financial compensation known as diyeh. Come July, the lad’s family was still $90,000 short, and he was shifted to Tehran’s Evin prison to do the whole thing over again.

Sina’s new execution date received worldwide attention:

… helping them scrape together enough from donors (“notably a substantial donation from a university lecturer”) to make good his escape.

Such are the vicissitudes of the Iranian judiciary that Paymard went from all but dancing on air twice to outright liberty: he’s a free man today, or was as of a few months ago.

Though things worked out for Sina Paymard, other juvenile offenders continue to face the ultimate sanction in Iran — virtually the last outpost of the practice on the globe. Earlier this month, StopChildExecutions.com detailed 138 Iranian prisoners condemned for crimes committed as children; Iran has executed at least two such prisoners this year.

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1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family

18 comments July 17th, 2008 Headsman

In the small hours after midnight on the night of July 16-17 90 years ago, the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and four family retainers, were shot in a Yekaterinburg basement by their Bolshevik jailers.

Doting family man, vacillating dictator, as weak and rich as Croesus … the doomed Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias was a man small of stature. His reign emerged under a bad star when 1,300 Muscovites were trampled to death in the crush for his coronation largesse; 18 years later, Nicholas‘s support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary was instrumental in pitching Europe into World War I, a blunder for which he reaped a whirlwind long in the making.

When an anti-Bolshevik force approached Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg), where the deposed royals had been stashed in a commandeered private residence,* Yakov Sverdlov (for whom the city was subsequently renamed) ordered the prisoners shot — not only the tsar, but his beloved wife, their hemophiliac heir, and those four daughters who had to be bayoneted because the state jewels secreted in their corsets shielded them from the gunfire.

The executioners (here’s the account of their leader; here’s another guard’s version) did their best to destroy and conceal the remains, helping fuel subsequent rumors that one of the children had survived and escaped.

Those rumors are only now, with post-Soviet investigation and DNA forensics, being debunked, and not yet to the satisfaction of all comers. This very week, Moscow affirmed (though the Orthodox church has not accepted) that the last of Nicholas’s family had been accounted for:

Modern nostalgia for this unimpressive sovereign is making a minor comeback, with Nicholas absurdly contending in a current poll for the title of “greatest Russian” … supported not only by the miseries of the state that succeeded his, but by the family’s decent and accessible private life.

Even a monarchist — especially a monarchist! — shouldn’t reason that the greatest monarch is the one who drove the bus over the cliff. But much is forgiven a martyr. Indeed, like Charles I of England, the last Romanov monarch has been posthumously saddled with divine sanction; he and all the family are certified “passion bearers”. (Update: And possible future relics!)

A handful of the many books about the Romanovs and their fall

* The Ipatiev House where the tsar was held (and shot) no longer stands. On its spot is a church consecrated five years ago yesterday to the Romanov canonization.

Update: The Romanovs were officially rehabilitated by the Russian Supreme Court on October 1, 2008.

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1573: Wigbolt Ripperda, Haarlem city governor

2 comments July 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Wigbolt Ripperda was beheaded in Haarlem’s Grote Markt for having led a stubborn seven-month resistance to a Spanish siege.

Ripperda had been a Calvinist with a hand in the iconoclastic spasm against Catholic churches that had led to the beheadings of Counts Egmont and Hoorn a few years prior.

In the intervening years, relations between the Low Countries and the Spanish crown that ruled them had deteriorated into outright revolt — the germ of the decades-long struggle that would result in Dutch independence.

Haarlem had initially tried to keep its head down in the conflict, but had declared against Spain in 1572. That brought it into the sights of a vengeful Spanish army that greatly outnumbered Haarlem’s 4,000 defenders. Spurning any talk of compromise or capitulation, city governor Ripperda rallied his garrison and held out against the Spanish siege throughout the winter and spring.

In the end, starvation did the work that engines of war could not. Haarlem fell on July 12, 1573.*

Ripperda was beheaded with a lieutenant a few days later, but in winning the battle, Spain had suffered a setback in the war: besides the seven-month delay, other Calvinist strongholds took heart from the effective resistance and got a lot less cowed by the royal army.

While this day’s martyrdom made “Ripperda” a fixture in Haarlem place names, and despite a somewhat illustrious family tree that also includes a signatory of the Peace of Munster and a fascinatingly disreputable 18th century politician, actual Ripperdas are apparently hard to find in present-day Holland. According to American Tom Ripperda, who runs the family site ripperda.org, the name lives on only in the U.S. and Germany.

“In the 1830s the last of the Dutch Ripperdas died,” Ripperda told me. “There are no Ripperdas in the Netherlands since they moved to Germany (about 200 or so) and on to America (about 600 or so).”

* As to the vengeful mass executions visited on Haarlem, John Lothrop Motley conveys this anecdote.

Instead of Peter Hasselaer, a young officer who had displayed remarkable bravery throughout the siege, the Spaniards by mistake arrested his cousin Nicholas. The prisoner was suffering himself to be led away to the inevitable scaffold without remonstrance, when Peter Hasselaer pushed his way violently through the ranks of the captors. “If you want Ensign Hasselaer, I am the man. Let this innocent person depart,” he cried. Before the sun set his head had fallen.

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1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

16 comments July 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the haughty Duke of Monmouth mounted the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill to suffer beheading for treason, and tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”*

Upon this tart public reminder of his recent and infamous failure of craft, the eponymous executioner Jack Ketch quite came apart.

Monmouth, certainly, would have appreciated the advance that would bring the guillotine. Beheading by a free-swinging axe was a ghoulishly inexact procedure: bad aim, insufficient force, an untimely flinch, or the tough neck muscles of a grizzled campaigner regularly complicated the process, often to the fury of spectators. Jack Ketch is sometimes reported a sadist, and sometimes a professional hangman so rarely summoned to give a nobleman the chop that he simply lacked proficiency. Either way, he’d been on the job for a generation by this time: his reputation for infelicity with the blade preceded him.

Historical fiction from the perspective of the Duke of Monmouth.

Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, had cause to dread Ketch’s offices for the rebellious culmination of a long power struggle with his uncle, the future King James II.

The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority.

As it became known that the king’s brother James had gone from Catholic sympathizer to Catholic convert, Protestants began maneuvering to keep him from inheriting the crown. For three years, Parliament pushed the Exclusion Bill, which would have excluded James from succession.**

Favor among the bill’s supporters settled on the Protestant playboy Monmouth — politically convenient rumors that he was actually a legitimate child began circulating. “Weak, bad, and beautiful,” this unfriendly-to-Monmouth free book has him; whatever he was, his allies in the House of Commons were handily outmaneuvered. The Exclusion measures failed, and in 1685, James II began his reign as England’s last Roman Catholic monarch.

Monmouth’s hopes had been raised, however, and he proceeded to invade England at Dorset with a somewhat ragtag army that was routed by the Protestant royal troops who remained loyal to James at the Battle of Sedgemoor — not quite the last battle fought on English soil, but the last consequential one (the last fought with pitchforks makes a livelier distinction). Monmouth was caught trying to get away in a shepherd’s disguise. Other fugitives of his cause were hunted mercilessly.

The defeated duke was reputedly not above begging the sovereign for his life; obviously, that didn’t work out. But his cause was a popular one, nearing reverence among some commoners. Jack Ketch may have had a case of the butterflies even before the duke undressed him … and as it turns out, Ketch almost left the scaffold worse than his victim.

Here is the scene in Macaulay’s words:

The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner. The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff. ‘Fling him over the rails,’ roared the mob. At length the axe was taken up. Two more blows extinguished the last remains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the shoulders. The crowd was wrought up to such an ecstasy of rage that the executioner was in danger of being torn in pieces, and was conveyed away under a strong guard.

In the meantime many handkerchiefs were dipped in the Duke’s blood; for, by a large part of the multitude he was regarded as a martyr who had died for the Protestant religion.

Just the sort of soil for posthumous tall tales — that his execution was bogus and he was in hiding to return again, or had been packed off to France to become the Man in the Iron Mask. One possibly better-founded legend is that his head was set back upon its stump to sit him for what must have been a pungent portrait.

Protestant opponents of James were much thicker on the ground than the Duke’s own person, of course. They soon succeeded where Monmouth had failed.

* Slightly different versions of this address from the Duke to the executioner are recorded. Macaulay omits the “if you strike me twice” clause but adds “My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well”; a more polite (barely) construction suggests “Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell.”

** The factions in this dispute — the “Petitioners” (supporting the bill) and the “Abhorrers” (supporting the king) — evolved into the Whig and Tory political parties.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Nobility,Notable Participants,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Royalty,Treason

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1989: Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr., “just hope that he was not conscious”

29 comments July 14th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1989, Alabama’s executioners electrocuted a developmentally disabled murderer. Nine minutes later, after rewiring the chair, they finally managed to kill him.

Alabama’s fifth execution of the “modern” era initially made the headlines as the nation’s first execution of a mentally impaired prisoner after the Supreme Court’s controversial Penry v. Lynaugh decision (since overturned) green-lighted the death penalty for developmentally disabled defendants.

Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. and an accomplice had raped a mother of four, tied her to a tree, and stabbed her to death, an unquestionably horrific crime. A black man with a white victim deep in Dixie … well, his IQ in the high sixties wasn’t going to help him do anything but waive his right to remain silent. The jury at his trial didn’t hear about his borderline mental retardation — Penry would require that juries get that information in the future — and at least one juror later said that little tidbit would have made the difference in Dunkins’s case.

At any rate, the buzz in this morning’s papers wasn’t about the circumstances of Dunkins’s entry into the criminal justice system, but his clumsy exit from it into the great hereafter.

According to the account of a Dr. John Vanlandingham:*

I saw Dunkins in the electric chair and I heard the generator start…. After a short period of time the other doctor … and I were called into the execution chamber. I could see that Dunkins was breathing…. I checked his peripheral pulse, in his wrist, and it was normal. I listened to his heart and his heartbeat was strong with little irregularity…. I told an official that Dunkins was not dead. Dr. – and I returned to the witness room…. I again heard the generator begin.

“I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong,” the prison guard captain called out. It was flatly not enough current to kill, although it apparently did the killer the favor of knocking him out.

From 12:08 to 12:17, Dunkins sat motionless and seemingly unconscious while the execution team went all MacGyver on Yellow Mama. Once they’d fit Tab A into Slot B into Lethal Electrode C, they were finally able to try again. The doctors pronounced death 19 minutes after the switch had first been thrown.

”I regret very very much what happened,” the Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen, said at a news conference after the execution. ”It was human error. I just hope that he was not conscious and did not suffer.” (The New York Times)

* Dr. Vanlandingham was participating in the execution despite an injunction by the American Medical Association, which considers it a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Physicians’ involvement (or not) in executions is a thorny ethical issue of its own; Vanlandingham, however, is not the only doctor to break the taboo.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,USA

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1882: Thomas Egan: 3 tries, 2 ropes, 1 innocent man

4 comments July 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Thomas Egan was hanged in Sioux Falls in the Dakota Territories (present-day South Dakota) for strangling his wife, Mary.

It took three tries to get the hanging right … and it still turned out they got it wrong: years later, Egan’s stepdaughter copped to the crime on her deathbed.

Egan was the first man hanged (.doc) by state officers in the Dakota Territory; earlier, Jack McCall had been executed there by the feds.

Let’s start with the twice-botched hanging, whose can’t-look-away horror can hardly be improved from its original coverage by The Chicago Tribune (picked up elsewhere as well — such as The Alexandria Post of Douglas County, Minnesota):

A HORRIBLE AFFAIR.

The Execution of Thomas Egan, the Wife Murderer, at Sioux Falls, Dak — The Drop Fails Three Times Before the Culprit is Deprived of Life, Owing to Rotten Ropes.

On Thursday, July 13, occurred at Sioux Falls the first judicial hanging ever done in the territory of Dakota. Nearly two years ago Thomas Egan, who suffered the death penalty, most foully and cruelly murdered his wife, with whom he had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. From evidence produced at the trial it would appear that they had frequent quarrels which at length culminated on this fatal morning in her death. He deliberately sent the children away, and while she was washing dishes at the table came behind her, and after throwing a rope around her neck and strangling her, pounded the life out of her with a club. The body was then thrown through a trap door into the cellar, where it was found three days after, horribly mutilated. The skull was fractured and the head was covered with frightful gashes made by the club. It appeared also as if she were not dead when thrown down, as she was discovered partly reclining against the call [sic] of the cellar, which added to the horribleness of the crime. Eagen [sic] was arrested and tried, and although there was every effort made by his attorneys to save him; he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Sioux Falls by Judge Kidder of the Fourth judicial district of the territory.

On Thursday, 13th, after eating a hearty breakfast, hearing the sentence read, and some religious exercises by a Catholic priest, Eagan [sic] was taken to the gallows. All eyes were intently fixed on the prisoner. His face was somewhat pale, but his lips were firm and he seemed to exhibit no sign of fear. He was a straight, heavy-set man, weighing 180 lbs., with a retreating forehead, heavy projecting eyebrows and an ugly looking eye. His general appearance was far from prepossessing. He was dressed in a plain black suit, with clean white shirt, collar and tie, and low shoes. He walked straight up to the platform to the scaffold, taking his place on the fatal trap, turned around and faced the crowd below. The sheriff now asked him if he had any thing to day [sic], but his lips still were kept sealed to his secret, and he shook his head and answered in a low voice, “No.” His legs were now tied, he himself assisting the officer by placing his feet close together. The black cap was put on his head, but not a limb quivered. The noose was adjusted and the fatal moment had come. While the priests were chanting their solemn service, and while the attending officers and crowd were holding their breath in silence, the sheriff touched the trigger which alone kept Thomas Egan from his death. There was a crash as the door flew back against the boards and body, deprived of its footing, shot through the door, and now, horror or horrors!

The rope snaps like a piece of thread, the body drops to the earth with a dull thud, partly on its back, and rebounding rolls over on its face. The crowd are paralyzed with astonishment and fear. An unearthly gurgling sound now breaks forth from the prisoner. His neck is not broken, but the cord is wound tightly about it and he is strangling. A half a dozen men now rush forward, one seizes him by the arm, another by the leg, another by the waist, another by the head. It is seventy-five feet from the ground, where he has fallen, back to the jail-door, and around to the platform of the scaffold he is hurriedly conveyed through the crowd, the broken rope in the meanwhile dangling from his neck, while his horrible groaning strikes terror to the bystanders. Once more on the scaffold, another rope is adjusted and the sickening details once more gone through with, the trap falls again and the half dead man drops once more; but worse. The rope was not fully adjusted before the excited sheriff again touched the trigger and down the body goes a second time but not with sufficient force to accomplish the desired result.

His neck is still unbroken, and the slow process of suffocation is all this time going on. The attendants seize him by the arms and again pull him on the scaffold while the death struggle continues. The first rope is flopping from his neck and he still has life enough, so one says who was on the scaffold, to brace his feet for the third and last fall. If at this juncture some one had mercifully stepped up and put a bullet through his head, it would have been an act which would have certainly been appreciated by the crowd. The rope is finally fixed, the door drops once again, the man shoots down, and there is a snap which is heard all around the yard and outside. There is a shrugging of the shoulders, a twitching of the legs a convulsive shudder and all is still. The body swings slowly around. There is no motion of leg or arm or muscle, and in eight and one half minutes the doctors pronounced him dead, and shortly after the body was taken down. Yes, he is dead at last, and the sightseers heave a genuine sigh of relief. The corpse is now cut down and the pinioned arms and legs released. The dirt was brushed from the clothing and body laid in a coffin, where it was afterwards viewed by the crowd, both outside and inside the jail. The effects of the strangulation were fearfully evidence about the neck. The first cord had embedded itself, but the action of the heart had forced the blood under it and the flesh was swollen, purpled and discolored. There was a sightless stare to the eyes and blood was flowing out of the corners of his mouth. After all those desiring had seen the corpse it was boxed up, and early in the afternoon it was taken to the Catholic burying-ground where it was buried, and with it the club and cord with which he killed his wife.

Nobody in a position to help Egan knew he hadn’t “most foully and cruelly murdered his wife” or that “the horribleness of the crime” stained some other’s soul, of course … but one wonders how the writer thinks he did know it. The obscure considerations of jurymen might well be the most virtuous structural safeguard of the Republic, but as a dependable compass of fact, one might as well scry the entrails of a sacred ox.

It has always seemed misfortunate to the Headsman that journalists prone to the most tedious wheedling over the use of the qualifier “allegedly” to uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty consider the epistemological certitude of a juridical conviction sufficient to abandon full stop the (admittedly inelegant) qualifier and speak of Revealed Truth. The New York Times would hardly think to make apology for flatly calling Egan — who did keep his peace about the verdict — “the wife murderer”:


… any more than the San Antonio Express-News would regret the assertive headline “Father who killed 3 is executed” mounted atop an article reporting the executed man’s continued insistence upon his innocence. Any good scribe frets more readily about column-inches and legal ass-covering than bickering and arguing over who killed who. But shame if not stylistics merits less awe before the particular sausage-making of the judiciary when such modern cases too turn out to have been cock-ups from start to finish.

In 1993, South Dakota Governor Walter Miller apologized (.pdf) for Egan’s execution. A descendant of Egan’s has written a book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies: The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas Egan.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,South Dakota,USA,Wrongful Executions

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