Archive for October, 2008

Executed Today’s First Annual Report: One Year of Dying Languorously

6 comments October 31st, 2008 Headsman

Somehow, it’s been a year since we launched last Halloween.

On this ghastly occasion, it’s time to do a little turn on the scaffold and review the highest points among the lowest of the dead.

Who’s #1?

The Year’s Ten Most Popular Executions

August 12, 1833: Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, sodomite
December 11, 1962: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin
December 26, 1862: 38 Sioux
February 21, 1803: Edward Marcus Despard, a patriot without a nation
January 15, 1943: Sue Logue, George Logue and Clarence Bagwell
June 8, 1934: Three inept murderers (with a fourth to come)
January 9, 1923: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters
May 15, 1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction
February 27, 1902: Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock, “scapegoats for Empire”
January 24, 1992: Ricky Ray Rector, “a date which ought to live in infamy for the Democratic Party”

No shock, they skew heavily towards the earlier posts that have had the most time to accumulate views (although that’s somewhat mitigated by the fact that nobody was reading last November), topped off by the runaway #1, the post that scored an Andrew Sullivan link.

Breaking it down by month …

The Year’s Most Popular Posts by Month

January 15, 1943: Sue Logue, George Logue and Clarence Bagwell
February 21, 1803: Edward Marcus Despard, a patriot without a nation
March 22, 1796: Mastro Titta’s first execution of many
April 10, 1905: Fou Tchou-Li, by a thousand cuts
May 15, 1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction
June 8, 1934: Three inept murderers (with a fourth to come)
July 4, 1946: Eleven from the Stutthof concentration camp
August 12, 1833: Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, sodomite
September 9, 1990: Samuel K. Doe
October 31, 1589: Peter Stubbe, Sybil Stubbe and Katharina Trump
November 5, 1925: Sidney Reilly
December 11, 1962: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin

Interestingly, there’s a heavy disproportion in both those lists towards executions in the past two centuries as opposed to earlier ones — even execution celebrities like Joan of Arc and Guy Fawkes get relatively short shrift.

My Creepy Visitor: You

But enough about me. Let’s talk about you for a while.

First, let’s get on the table what we all know to be true: I write a blog about death. You visit a blog about death. We’re all creeps here.

But still, geez … the stats tell no lies about what you’re looking for when you get here.

Most Popular Category Searches

Broken on the wheel
Public executions
Drawn and quartered
Gruesome Methods
Botched Executions
Mature Content

Where do your meatspace selves hang your hats? We recorded 188 countries and territories paying their respects, led by …

Most Frequent Visitors

United States
United Kingdom

The U.S.A. is the only country among those with a present-day death penalty of its own. If you aspire to become future content for this site, get out and see the world. (One word: Singapore.)

This blog is oddly compelling to Finns, whose bounce rate — the percentage of visitors who leave without clicking another link in the site — is barely over 50%, by far the lowest of any country with more than a handful of visitors. (The site average is in the mid-sixties.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, Executed Today is shallow and pedantic to the Vietnamese, who leave town without exploring 85% of the time.

No visits at all were recorded from any of the following:

Western Sahara
Congo (Kinshasa)

And, probably a number of island nations too small to appear on the Google Analytics maps overlay.

How did you find this site?

About 45% of visitors come from searches.

“Executed Today” is the most popular search term for this blog, and “” is also in the top 10. Leaving those aside, people were redirected to this chamber of horrors when ever-so-innocently pursuing information about …

broken on the wheel
sidney reilly
edith thompson
breaker morant
lois nadean smith
zoya kosmodemyanskaya
sue logue
kawakami gensai
public executions

Searches for specifically named individual executed women as opposed to individual men are noticeably disproportionate drivers of traffic.

Another 40% or so come from referral links, led by Google Images (which are really searches, and would push search up to about 50%).

The remainder come from directly looking up the site by, e.g., typing it straight into the search bar.

Guest Content

Executed Today got a full month’s worth of its posts from guest authors, who also happened to write some of the best content on the site. Hey, you get tired swinging this big, heavy axe every day. Respect for wonderful guest turns from:

Abe Bonowitz

David Elliot


Tim Goodwin

Kristin Houle

Laura James

Matthias Lehmphul




Dmitri Minaev

Sarah Owocki


Jeffrey Fisher


Mara Veraar

Similarly, several posts were improved with expert interviews, so thanks to the wisdom imparted by wiser heads than mine in these posts:

The Year’s Highlights

Prescience (Almost)

Just weeks after ranking Chadian dictator Idriss Deby among the current heads of state in most danger of eventual execution, rebels nearly seized his capital with him still in it.

I Only Did It For Attention

Caitlin at the addictive site Vast Public Indifference actually noticed and blogged about my downage. (See below for the reasons.)

(IE users having problems with the site now — I know, I know; I’m working on it. Also: use Firefox.)


For my money, Walking the Berkshires is one of the best free pleasures on the Netosphere, so I was red-cheeked to get this callout. (I still haven’t paid it forward yet.)

These are dopey things, but sincere gestures of appreciation are coin of the realm to bloggers. (That, and Google ad clicks. Lots of Google ad clicks.) Being reckoned eighth-freakiest was also a nice one, since I didn’t make any effort to push the award after an initial ask, but the votes to keep Executed Today in the top ten kept coming organically. (Can I be freakier still in the year ahead? You decide.)

There have been too, too many friends, linkers and well-wishers to hope to name them all. In addition to — but overlapping with — the fabulous passel of guest bloggers, a few among the many to whom I owe a debt (I reserve the right to extend this list as appalling omissions become obvious):

The year’s lowlights


My original, terrible host.

Regularly, randomly down for seconds or minutes or (a couple times) hours, and when I showed disinclination to quintuple my user fee, they made the downage permanent without warning on the preposterous grounds that a few hundred page views a day were monopolizing multiple web servers. Yeah, the old “CPU usage” canard, just one of many ways that LunarPages sucks.

They have yet to document my actually violating any terms of service or exceeding any usage standards — for that matter, they’ve never documented CPU usage — and naturally they’ve kept the rest of the service fee I paid in advance. Now that they dropped a daisy cutter on my site and forced me out, they’re very graciously keeping my account open for me until it expires. Nice.

The company is a scam, and not hyperbolically: it’s literally the core of their business model to perform negotiation-by-hostage-taking.

As for this site, it would likely been down for several days had not Logjamming fixed my cable. They’re a brilliant host with $5 and $10 packages and smart support. Just a couple weeks after this forced transition, an unexpected A-list link served up the site’s biggest traffic surge, several times anything LunarPages had ever seen. Logjamming didn’t bat an eye.

Really, I can’t endorse Logjamming strongly enough.

But the infernal deserts due LunarPages would confound Dante himself.

The Digital Oubliette (the phrase is not mine; see here)

I probably should have planned to archive locally more of the video embeds I’ve used — there’s been a lot of great supplementary content eaten by the Internet. Many outbound links will probably follow a slower but ultimately similar path of decay.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages

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1793: The Girondists

9 comments October 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, in a revolutionary Paris where the machinery of the Terror was clattering to life, five tumbrils bore to the guillotine twenty former Girondist ministers to the National Convention — plus the corpse of their late colleague Dufriche de Valazé, who had cheated the executioner by killing himself.

Named for the region of Aquitaine from which their leading lights hailed, the Girondists (or Girondins) had in the compressed history of the Revolution ascended from fringe democratic party to governing party even as the political facts shifted under their feet. Finding themselves the conservative party in an assembly increasingly dominated by radical Montagnards and the Paris mob, the Girondists’ tactlessness and stubborn refusal to deal with Georges Danton after his (still historically murky) involvement in the riotous slaughter of prisoners during the September Massacre eroded their position.

As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror.

L’ultime adieu des Girondins le 31 Octobre 1793, by Paul Delaroche

Decades later, the English historian Lord Acton remembered the faction’s doomed heroism.

[The Girondins] stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.

Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men.

They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction.

That Pierre Vergniaud who scorned the hollow truce was the last to mount the scaffold this day — a shining orator of the Revolution who captured the calamity engulfing his nation in another well-remembered aphorism, “the Revolution devours its own children.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Cycle of Violence,Famous,France,Guillotine,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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2007: Not Earl Wesley Berry … for the time being

1 comment October 30th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes before he was to die this day last year, the lethal injection of Mississippi murderer Earl Wesley Berry was stayed by the Supreme Court — the signal that it had imposed a de facto moratorium on executions while it considered the constitutionality of lethal injection.

Condemned to die for kidnapping and beating to death Mary Bounds in 1987, Berry was your basic unappealing death row case with no particular issue either substantive or technical likely to help him out in the courts.

Luckily for Berry, the fundamental issue of whether whether the lethal injection regime used in Mississippi and in most of the United States was cruel and unusual punishment had reached the high court at just time time.

Also luckily, the phone lines were open: Berry got his reprieve with about 15 or 20 minutes to spare.

Berry’s stay finally clarified a few weeks of uncertainty that prevailed after the Court took last year’s lethal injection challenge, Baze v. Rees.

Could executions still go forward while lethal injection was under review? Would the holdup be limited to Kentucky, where the appeal originated? Was there any manner of case-by-case flexibility?

Berry was the bellwether. The execution-friendly Fifth Circuit Court let Berry’s scheduled date go ahead, making the hapless killer “the last best chance for prosecutors to restart executions this year [2007].”

But Earl Wesley Berry’s luck was only about seven months long: he was executed on May 21, 2008, the second prisoner put to death after the moratorium expired upon the Court’s rejection of Baze.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Kidnapping,Last Minute Reprieve,Lethal Injection,Lucky to be Alive,Mississippi,Murder,Not Executed,USA

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1618: Walter Raleigh, age of exploration adventurer

3 comments October 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1618, schemer, explorer, and lover Walter Raleigh fell permanently out of favor.

One of the biggest wheels of Elizabethan England, Raleigh (who also rendered his name Rawleigh, Rawley, and most commonly, Ralegh) charmed his way into the Queen’s inner circle, and possibly her pants, and was even thought to be a contender for her hand.

In between gorging on royal monopolies, scribbling poetry, popularizing tobacco, and introducing the potato to Ireland [allegedly], Raleigh got his New World on by attempting to colonize Virginia,* helping fund it with privateering operations against England’s rivals in the land-grab game. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina — present-day North Carolina was part of the Virginia Colony back in the day — is named for him.

Proud, powerful, and the queenie’s pet. Just the sort of courtier other noble suckups loved to hate.

When the palace fave secretly dallied with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, he went on the royal outs and got real familiar with the Tower of London. Though he managed to patch up with Elizabeth, things were never quite the same for Sir Walter. Elizabeth’s successor James I put him back in prison (suspending a death sentence) for supposedly participating in the Main Plot.

Raleigh passed the time under lock and key burnishing his Renaissance man rep by writing various poetry and treatises, including an account of his voyage to Guyana. Convinced the legendary city of El Dorado was in the vicinity, Raleigh eventually prevailed upon James to release him to make another run at it.

But a dust-up with a Spanish outpost in South America left his son dead, and the Spanish ambassador hopping mad. Raleigh was arrested upon his return, and the death sentence reinstated.

At 66 years of age or so, Walter Raleigh had had a pretty good run.

He took his punishment with equanimity, writing tenderly to his wife, and examining the blade that would take off his head on the scaffold with the observation,

“This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases.”

His wife creepily kept the severed head for the remaining 29 years of her life.

There’s a more detailed tour of Raleigh’s life here, and a site linking many works by and about Raleigh here.

* As Governor of Virginia, Raleigh forbade injuring Indians on pain of death, according to Giles Milton’s Big Chief Elizabeth. Raleigh’s “imperialism with a human face” policy had exchange programs of Indians visiting England, most notably Pocahontas.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Political Expedience,Politicians,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1839: Sebastien-Benoit Peytel, notwithstanding Balzac

1 comment October 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1839, Honore de Balzac’s crusade to save a condemned man got the chop.

Sebastien-Benoit Peytel was a notary and minor journalist death-sentenced that August for murdering his wife and their servant, one of those countless local outrages whose passing notice flies before the years.

Driven by sentimentality or opportunism or literary conceit — but with a genuine sense of aggrieved justice — the French writer Balzac, who had met Peytel, took up his pen on the condemned man’s behalf.

I am extremely agitated by a horrible case, the case of Peytel. I have seen this poor fellow three times. He is condemned; I start in two hours for Bourg.

Blowing through 10,000 francs of his own money on travel and investigation, Balzac could never make the case to the public as compellingly as it evidently appeared to him.

The English writer William Thackeray was then abroad in Paris, and if we are to credit his more measured defense of Peytel,* Balzac was counterproductive to his cause.

Perhaps Monsieur de Balzac helped to smother what little sparks of interest might still have remained for the murderous notary. Balzac put forward a letter in his favor, so very long, so very dull, so very pompous, promising so much, and performing so little, that the Parisian public gave up Peytel and his case altogether.

Thackeray’s own (yawn) account won’t bring the rhetoricians out of their seats. Conniving Frenchmen: fresh take.

I am not going to entertain you with any sentimental lamentations for this scoundrel’s fate, or to declare my belief in his innocence, as Monsieur de Balzac has done. As far as moral conviction can go, the man’s guilt is pretty clearly brought home to him. But … [i] t is a serious privilege, God knows, that society takes upon itself, at any time, to deprive one of God’s creatures of existence. But when the slightest doubt remains, what a tremendous risk does it incur! In England, thank heaven, the law is more wise and more merciful: an English jury would never have taken a man’s blood upon such testimony: an English judge and Crown advocate would never have acted as these Frenchmen have done; the latter inflaming the public mind by exaggerated appeals to their passions: the former seeking, in every way, to draw confessions from the prisoner, to perplex and confound him, to do away, by fierce cross-questioning and bitter remarks from the bench, with any effect that his testimony might have on the jury.

[Y]ou may see how easy a thing it is for a man’s life to be talked away in France, if ever he should happen to fall under the suspicion of a crime.

Eventually, he pivots from Peytel’s execution this date to state a more general argument against the death penalty, at least in its public form.

Down goes the axe; the poor wretch’s head rolls gasping into the basket; the spectators go home, pondering; and Mr. Executioner and his aides have, in half an hour, removed all traces of the august sacrifice, and of the altar on which it had been performed. Say, Mr. Briefless, do you think that any single person, meditating murder, would be deterred therefrom by beholding this — nay, a thousand more executions? It is not for moral improvement, as I take it, nor for opportunity to make appropriate remarks upon the punishment of crime, that people make a holiday of a killing-day, and leave their homes and occupations, to flock and witness the cutting off of a head. Do we crowd to see Mr. Macready in the new tragedy, or Mademoiselle Ellssler in her last new ballet and flesh-colored stockinnet pantaloons, out of a pure love of abstract poetry and beauty; or from a strong notion that we shall be excited, in different ways, by the actor and the dancer? And so, as we go to have a meal of fictitious terror at the tragedy, of something more questionable in the ballet, we go for a glut of blood to the execution. The lust is in every man’s nature, more or less. Did you ever witness a wrestling or boxing match? The first clatter of the kick on the shins, or the first drawing of blood, makes the stranger shudder a little; but soon the blood is his chief enjoyment, and he thirsts for it with a fierce delight. It is a fine grim pleasure that we have in seeing a man killed; and I make no doubt that the organs of destructiveness must begin to throb and swell as we witness the delightful savage spectacle.

Lost among literature’s towering oaks, our day’s humble shrub has a literary footnote of his own for authoring, in 1832, Physiologie de la Poire (“The Physiology of the Pear”), a protracted satire exploiting Louis-Philippe‘s reputation as “the Pear King.” (Contrary to some reports, Peytel does not appear to have invented this image.)

According to these antiquarians, the book contains the author’s “hilarious” predictions of the ways he will not die.

“Il ne sera pas guillotine‘ comme Bories, Raoulx …”

* Thackeray argued that the trial was badly done and the evidence insufficient for execution but expressly stopped well short of expressing confidence in Peytel’s innocence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1553: Michael Servetus, but not to defend a doctrine

5 comments October 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1553, Calvinist Geneva showed it could keep up with the Inquisition by burning the theologian Michael Servetus as a heretic.

A generation or two into the Protestant Reformation, and the ministers of Rome were in full-throated I-told-you-so. The splintered religious authority had set all manner of alien doctrine afoot in the land. Adult baptism! No original sin!

Servetus believed all this queer stuff. He also believed in a unitarian — that is, not trinitarian — deity.

Catholics and Protestants both hunted him from pillar to post for heresy.

After busting out of the Inquisition’s clutches in France, Servetus fled towards Italy, but made an unaccountable stopover in John Calvin’s Geneva. He well knew that capture here would be fatal: he had had an acrimonious correspondence with Calvin. Was he seeking thrills? Martyrdom? A place in this blog?

“I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”

He quaffed all those bitter cups when he was recognized hanging out at a church service and condemned to death for sundry heresies after a sensational trial heavy with theological artillery, personal vituperation, and municipal politics. Calvin, gracious in victory, requested beheading rather than burning. He was scorned as needlessly merciful.

Of course, all manner of Christian fauna were being martyred by other Christians in the 16th century. Still, the Spanish physician is an interesting dude.

His rejection of the Trinity has secured him honored consideration from various latter-day sects, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Oneness Pentecostals to general humanists to Unitarian Universalists:

Besides all that stuff, in his day-job capacity as doctor, Servetus was apparently the first European to understand pulmonary respiration. Nobody even noticed that until decades after his death.

“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.”*

The execution of this smart, odd duck for non-violent heresy is not generally considered the highlight of Mr. Predestination’s career, but you can get some of Calvin’s side of the story in this collection of his letters. It’s worth allowing that heretics were being burned by the thousand elsewhere in Europe at this time; Servetus is noticeable in part because what was routine in England or Spain was exceptional in Geneva.

Servetus’ ashes will cry out against [Calvin] as long as the names of these two men are known in the world. –Walter Nigg

* This observation, sometimes attributed to Servetus himself, was in fact uttered by Sebastian Castellio.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Famous,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland

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1864: Klatsassin and four fellow Tsilhqot’ins

1 comment October 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1864, five Tsilhqot’in warriors were hanged as common criminals in Quesnel, British Columbia, for resisting white incursion during the Chilcotin War.

The only possibly authentic image of Klatsassin extant. (From this image archive.)

An indigenous nation in northern B.C., the Tsilhqot’in or Chilcotin* had been relatively insulated — though not completely isolated; they had well-established fur-trading contacts from the early 19th century — from the colonization that had swept the continent over the preceding centuries.

In 1862, two cataclysms turned that world upside down.

First, a smallpox epidemic sweeping out of mining camps decimated the Tsilhqot’in population.

Second, gold was discovered in the adjacent inland Cariboo region — and the ensuing gold rush to the inaccessible vein saw whites laying multiple roads through Tsilhqot’in territory. At least one of the entrepreneurs racing to complete the first road might have exploited tribal labor and forced women into prostitution.

The specific internal mechanisms and deliberations that triggered the response are lost to us, but the community must have felt itself under siege — and certainly the building projects, unchecked, would serve to project crown authority into the tribal land. The roads, too, are a specific trigger in the European encounter with North American natives. If it had not been gold, it would have been something else, and soon.

The Chilcotin War or Chilcotin Uprising erupted in April 1864 when a Tsilhqot’in party slew a civilian road-building crew. Bloodthirsty rumors (sometimes unreliable) of Indian atrocities quickly set abroad in the colonial capitals.

Despite almost limitless land to disappear into, the leader, Klatsassin (or Klattasine, or Klatsassan), was captured that August with seven of his followers by the expedient of luring him under assurance that they would be treated as prisoners of war.

Instead, they were tried as common murderers. Five were condemned — including both Klatsassin and his son. (Two others were arrested the following year, and one of them hanged as well.)

In 1993, the government of British Columbia apologized for the executions.

There’s an out-of-print (but available used) book, The Chilcotin War by a descendant of one of the whites killed in it. Several links in this piece go to the excellent site on this incident, which contains a trove of text from primary documents of the time.

And “Canadian Mysteries” is the apt title. “Klatsassin,” in the native tongue, simply means, “we do not know his name.”

The peak in the center of this photograph is “Mount Klattasine,” and the glacier stretching towards the upper right is also named for the hanged war chief.

* Many other transliterations are possible: e.g., Tsilqut’in, T?inlhqot’in, Chilkhodin, Tsilkótin, Tsilkotin.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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2007: Five young men

1 comment October 25th, 2008 Headsman

Last year on this date, according to a Deutsche Presse-Agentur report of the Syrian news service, five youths were publicly hanged in Aleppo, Syria.

Syria executed five youths by hanging in a public square on Thursday after they were convicted of murder and robbery, the Syrian news agency reported.

The hanging was carried out in Bab al-Faraj, a public square in the centre of the city of Aleppo, 350 kilometres north of Damascus, in the early hours on Thursday, according to the agency.

Bab al-Faraj square.

A military court had convicted the men, aged between 18 and 23, of premeditated murder for the purpose of committing robbery, according to the online news service, Syriano.

Syrian human rights groups have called for the abolition of military courts, which were installed under emergency law in 1963.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Murder,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Syria,Theft

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1945: Vidkun Quisling, who made his name as a traitor

4 comments October 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, eponymous Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling was shot at Oslo’s Akershus Fortress for high treason.

By the time of his death, the Nazi collaborator (English Wikipedia page | Norwegian) had already given his surname to English and other languages as a synonym for traitor.

Just deserts for his efforts as chief of the fascist party Nasjonal Samling to aid the Nazi conquest of his home country. Quisling interrupted a radio broadcast on April 9, 1940 to proclaim himself Prime Minister* and order cooperation with invading Germans.

Although Quisling’s lack of popular support compromised his value even as a puppet, he remained as Minister President of Norway through the war — a crucial tool in Germany’s counter-encirclement jousting with Britain, nicely explained at the outset of Frank Capra’s American propaganda flick Why We Fight:

He enjoyed public regard commensurate with his station.

A 1944 cartoon in Sweden (which remained tenuously neutral and unoccupied during the war) indicates that Quisling had already made his name a byword for treachery. The caption reads:
“I am Quisling.”
“And the name?”

Norway had abolished capital punishment in 1905, but its government-in-exile reinstated it expressly for dealing with high-level collaborators.

Though Quisling himself may have deserved this and worse, the justice and legality of so doing has been controversial ever since.

The site of Quisling’s execution. Some other shots from his trial are in this 60-year Norwegian-language retrospective.

* Thought to be the first on-air putsch in history.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Language,Norway,Politicians,Popular Culture,Shot,Treason

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Feast Day of Boethius

4 comments October 23rd, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at] for the guest post.)

Today is the feast day of Neoplatonic philosopher and Christian theologian Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius), author of The Consolation of Philosophy, and according to tradition martyred in 524 or 525, or possibly 526, by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric.

Well, maybe.

We know roughly as much about why Boethius was killed as when or how. We do know that he came from a line of prominent Romans (including a couple of popes back there, depending on who you count as “pope”), was himself consul in 510, and his sons were rather astonishingly joint consuls in 522. At that time he moved up to Ravenna accepting an appointment at Theodoric’s court as the Master of Offices, something like the equivalent of chief of staff, managing the work of Theodoric’s officers.

But then things went horribly wrong.

There is a long tradition, going back at least to the eighth century, regarding Boethius as having been executed for maintaining the Catholic faith against the Arian Theodoric. While Theodoric was probably paranoid about spies representing the Catholic eastern emperor-in-waiting Justinian (who would, in fact, later “reconquer” the Italian peninsula), and Boethius claims in the Consolation that he was hated for being smarter than everyone else, the truth is probably that he was caught up in the usual machinations of an imperial court.

A member of the Senate was accused of treasonably conspiring with Justinian’s predecessor Justin I against Theodoric. Boethius defended the accused (apparently the only person to do so, although the charges were surely trumped up), and in the Consolation, Boethius says he was only defending the Senate (implying that the accusations were meant to undermine the authority of the Senate by challenging its loyalty to the king).

In any event, the sources we have say that Boethius was condemned by the Senate (who appear to have thrown him under the bus) without being able to speak in his own defense. After an indeterminate time of imprisonment, he was executed.

It was while he awaited death that he wrote his most famous and arguably most influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A few of the many editions of The Consolation of Philosophy available. Others are available free at Project Gutenberg (here, here and a Latin one here), as is a podcast version.

Boethius’ translations of and commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy were the only such texts available in Europe for much of the Middle Ages, but the Consolation was translated and widely read even outside of the philosophical circles in which his other work was so important.

Written in the form of Menippean satire (alternating verse and prose) as a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, the Consolation is Boethius’s attempt to think through and make sense of the sad state of his affairs.

Boethius and Philosophy, by Mattia Preti.

Ultimately, it was both the universal nature of the problem (why are these horrible things happening to me?) and the compelling way in which he tackled the problem (a combination of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism) that have made this text so widely read and imitated.

There is no way in this space to do justice to the Consolation, which addresses the very idea of philosophical discourse (“would you like us to clash together our arguments, for perhaps out of a conflict of this kind some beautiful spark of truth my fly out?”), the nature of time and God’s perspective outside of time, the difference between providence and fate, and the nature of and way to the Good itself.

But the gist of Boethius’s argument about the sufferings of the good person maybe be quickly summarized. In short, Boethius has forgotten his true nature, which never changes, and gotten caught up in the things of this world, which come and go. If he but remembers himself, he will have something no injustice, no turning of the wheel of fortune, can take away from him. And as for the unjust and the evil, they also have their “reward”:

But since goodness confers on each man his reward, he will only lack it when he has ceased to be good. [ . . . Now] since the good itself is happiness, it is clear that all good men are made happy for this reason, that they are good. But those that are happy, it is agreed, are gods; and therefore that is the reward of good men, which no time can lessen, no man’s power diminish, no man’s wickedness obscure, to become gods. These things being so for good men, no wise man can doubt either of the punishment inseparable from evil men; for since good and evil, and also punishment and reward, are directly opposite to one another, what we see added in the case of the good man’s reward must necessarily be reflected in an opposite manner in the evil man’s punishment. As therefore goodness itself is the reward for good men, so for wicked men wickedness is itself the punishment.

On this day..

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