1852: Fatimih Baraghani, Tahirih the pure

On this date in 1852, the Persian poet Fatimih Baraghani was strangled with her veil in a Tehran garden for her women’s rights advocacy.

She’s best known as* Tahirih, the title meaning “pure one” given her by the Bab.

The moniker denoted the latter’s support of her in the Babi community that would eventually develop into the Baha’i faith. Tahirih was notable even within that outlawed sect for her staunch advocacy of female emancipation; in 1848, she dramatically unveiled in public at a conference to underscore her rejection of Islamic gender law.

Known for her intelligence as well as her militancy, she came under increasing police pressure. She was killed along with about 30 of her faith in the Persian crackdown on Babism after an assassination attempt on the Shah.

Her reported last words were modern-sounding indeed:

You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.

Most readily available material about this inspirational character tends to the devotional, as with this video series; Executed Today does not necessarily endorse the position that at her apparent death she actually only escaped to trans-dimensional hiding.

* Fatimih Baraghani is also known as Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, or Qurrat al-‘Ayn — “consolation of the eyes.”

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1946: Grigory Semenov, anti-Bolshevik

At 11 p.m. this date in 1946, White general turned Japanese collaborator Grigory Semenov (or Semyonov) was hanged for a generation’s worth of anti-Soviet depredations in the Far East.

The tsarist officer Semenov joined the Russian Civil War as a notoriously vicious White commander with the grandiosely retro title of Ataman of the Baikal Cossacks.

According to G. Patrick March, Semenov’s “penchant for killing, torturing, and looting” extended to executing a captured socialist by tossing the man into his locomotive’s fuel chamber.

Although also a rival in the suicidally fractious White political jostle, Semenov was the designated successor of Aleksandr Kolchak when the latter was shot in 1920, but by that time there wasn’t much left to succeed.

Knocking around the interwar era in gloryless exile, Semenov was an easy recruit for the Japanese war machine, which was in the market by the late 1930’s for locals with command experience and a grudge against Moscow and put him on retainer in Manchuria. Like the Soviet-Japanese front in general after Khalkin Gol, nothing much came of that enterprise; the Ataman’s last great hurrah was but a footnote for Japan, and his death would be a footnote in the annals of postwar victors’ justice.

Having picked a loser two wars in a row, Semenov was captured during the short-lived Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the tail end of the war and packed off for the inevitable. Five co-defendants, including Semenov’s son Mikhail, suffered death as well — although they were simply shot, while Semenov was ignominiously hanged. (According to White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, the hanging was either botched or engineered to be an ugly strangulation job.)

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1906: Zinaida Konoplyannikov, assassin

On this date in 1906, less than three weeks after she had assassinated tsarist general Georgiy Alexandrovich Min (Russian biography), revolutionary Zinaida Vasilevna Konoplyannikov was hanged at Schlisselburg fortress near St. Petersburg.

Konoplyannikov is mostly noted in Russian sources online (for instance, here and here).

The daughter of a soldier and a peasant, she was educated — hardly a given for a low-born girl in the late 19th century — and taught in the Baltics and St. Petersburg around the turn of the century. By her profession, the plight of her similarly unprivileged students helped radicalize her.

She had a couple arrests for the usual subversive stuff (distributing illicit propaganda and the like) during Russia’s brief flowering towards liberalism in the 20th century’s early years. Those years would be bloodily reversed as tsarism reasserted itself after the revolutionary moment of 1905.

Konoplyannikov avenged herself on one of the great villains (from her standpoint) of that reversal, G.A. Min — commander of the Semenyovsky Life Guards regiment which bloodily bombarded Moscow’s Red Presnia working-class district to crush the last bastion of revolutionary sentiment in December 1905 at the cost of more than 1,000 lives.

Konoplyannikov gunned him down at a Peterhof train station the following August; in a closed military courtroom (giving her no opportunity to use the trial as an oratorical platform), the assassin was condemned to hang in less than an hour.

She was reported to have died calm, sure in the approaching victory of her cause:

the history of the Russian nation is a record of blood … the autocratic and bureaucratic structures are maintained only by violence … You cannot build anything upon the place of the old without first destroying the old. If it is impossible to catch ideas with bayonets, it is also impossible to resist bayonets with ideas only …

No repressions, no arrests, no prisons, no exiles, no shootings, no punitive expeditions, no pogroms, will stop the rising national movement.

I die with one thought: forgive me, forgive me, my people! I have so little to give you — only this, my life. I die full of faith in what will come … when the throne will crumble, and over the Russian plain, a broad, bright sun of freedom arise.

According to Abraham Ascher, Min’s assassination so spooked Tsar Nicholas II that for a time he refused to leave his room … a evocative and emblematic summary of the Romanov dynasty’s ultimately fatal dilemma.

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1944: Bronislav Kaminski, Waffen SS collaborator

On this date in 1944, the Gestapo eliminated more-trouble-than-he-was-worth Russian SS man Bronislav Kaminski.

The St. Petersburg-born Kaminski was Soviet by citizenship, but not Russian by nationality. Half-German and half-Polish, he’d done time twice for his questionable loyalties during the paranoid 1920’s and 30’s.

Turns out the commissars were on to something … or maybe, to paraphrase the old saying, that a Nazi is a Communist who’s been to the gulag.

Either way, when the front swept past Belarus where Kaminski was serving his post-release internal exile, the engineer jumped on an opportunity to join a classmate with the Russian National Liberation Army (RONA, or ROA). Kaminski soon rose to command the anti-partisan “army,” and earned an Iron Cross and the rank of Major General when it was incorporated into the Waffen-SS.

Unfortunately for Kaminski — and more so for anyone who happened to be in his unit’s vicinity — the 29th Waffen Grenadier Division was much better at roughing up partisans and their presumed civilian sympathizers than conducting disciplined military operations.

Little more than a roving band of armed thugs,* it was completely ineffective in the Siege of Warsaw earlier in August 1944, spending its time raping and looting instead.

That, evidently, was enough for Himmler, who had Kaminski eliminated** in punishment for his own looting (the booty was supposed to belong to the Reich), and the alleged rape-murder of German women along with all the expendables in Warsaw.

The exact trigger for this execution (for the juridical machinery always veils acts of discretion and intentionality; certainly, this is evident in a state like Nazi Germany) has never been completely clear; it may have been that between Kaminski and turncoat Red Army general Andrei Vlasov, the shrinking Reich had room enough for only one Russian commander.

Devil knows what he was commanding, anyway.

When, post-Kaminski, Vlasov assigned the remains of the RONA to Ukrainian collaborator Sergei Bunyachenko, the latter fumed, “So that’s what you’re giving me, bandits, robbers and thieves! You’ll let me have what you can no longer use!” … and soon bailed on his “patrons” by switching sides in the war yet again.

* It had some operations with the notorious Dirlewanger Battallion.

** The official announcement was that Kaminski had been killed in a partisan ambush; crazy conspiracy theorists refused to buy it.

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Themed Set: Russian Revolutions That Weren’t

Desperate, violent social upheaval seems to go with Russia like black bread with pickled herring.

“How can you make a revolution without executions?” Lenin once asked.

As he knewvery well he knew — that also happens to be a preferred tool of counterrevolution.

And for every successful revolution, there are dozens of abortive attempts — failed coups d’etat — empty plots that never get off the drawing board — to harvest the heads of a new order’s would-be engineers.

Russia/the USSR had flesh-rending struggles for power in the early 20th century. These are a few casualties whose revolutions didn’t take … and who, given the opportunity, would have hewed to Lenin’s own maxim with respect to the opponents who chanced to get the better of them.

(This “themed set” is actually a rewrite from the original — product of discovering a little too late a bad date in the database. This discovery did actually solve some editorial complications, but obviously would have been less embarrassing had it been effected before pressing “submit”. Oh, well. Blawg.

Although the text below is no longer operative, it is included for transparency, historical completeness, and because we are loathe to abandon any Lebowski reference no matter how ill-founded.)

Themed Set: They Were Russian Nazis, Dude?

Are we gonna split hairs here?

Even genocide isn’t completely black and white. Although wielded by a distinctly anti-Slavic power, fascism found collaborators among the peoples who figured to be enslaved, murdered, and exiled.

And no surprise, in the scheme of things.

The lines of battle, both literal and rhetorical, always conceal a million complex interactions between peoples meeting — for it is still a manner of meeting, through gunsights.

Whether driven by ideology or merely driven to the wall by the Hobson’s choice between collaboration and resistance in a war between two of history’s cruelest state edifices, some set of people will always be driven in a conflict to side-choosing that others find treacherous.

Maybe you. Maybe me. And maybe Executed Today‘s next three.

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30 B.C.E: Caesarion, “Little Caesar”

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Like father like son … unfortunately, in this case.

It was around this date that Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, “Caesarion” to his pals, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, was put to death by orders of the autocratic Octavian.

Cleopatra and Caesarion walk like Egyptians at the temple of Dendera, Egypt.

Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) was the only known son of Julius Caesar. Octavian, whose claim to power proceeded from his status as Caesar’s adoptive son, became the Emperor Augustus after eliminating the dangerous rivalry of his “brother”.

While most of us at the age of three were putting Matchbox cars in our mouths and eating macaroni and cheese, little Ptolemy XV was co-ruler of Egypt with his famous mom. King in name only, he must have seen his mother still grieving because of Caesar’s assassination March 15, 44 B.C.

The little tyke, though born in Egypt, spent the first couple of years in Rome with Caesar and his mother. Then his dad was stabbed, repeatedly, and Cleopatra took the boy home to Egypt. Proclaimed “King of Kings,” little Caesarion couldn’t realize at his young age the power struggles roiling around him and his mother.

Indeed, things were a little tense outside the family home. (And inside.)

There was some wrestling going on, and not Greco-Roman. No, there were men who wanted power. Lots of power.

There was Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover and a Roman General. He was Julius Caesar’s second cousin.

There was the patrician Marcus Lepidus, Caesar’s, for lack of a better word, deputy dictator.

Then, the aforementioned Octavian (Julius Caesar was his great uncle).

Together, the three were the Second Triumvirate, a dream team of Roman political heavyweights. Supreme rule they had. Ambition, sometimes, makes a mess of things. Only one of the three would stand victorious at the end, and there’d be casualties, like Caesarion.

Lepidus was driven into exile to Circeii. At least he died peacefully years later, securely ensconced as the Triumvir You’re Most Likely To Forget.

Conflict between Octavian and Antony climaxed at the Battle of Actium, one of history’s signal events.* (Its anniversary is next week, September 2.)

Octavian won the battle.

Antony escaped to Egypt, but as Octavian’s legions closed in the following year, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. He died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra’s arms would be cold with death soon after when she committed her famous (supposed) suicide-by-asp on August 12, 30 B.C.

“Death of Cleopatra”, by Edmonia Lewis. (Commentary.)

Before the Queen died, she sent her son Caesarion away from the political tumult.

Now 17, Caesarion bolted to the Red Sea port city of Berenice. Things were looking bleak for the young man. Octavian controlled Alexandria in early August, annexing Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony died. His mother died. His father had been dead most of his young life. And now Octavian — making an offer he couldn’t refuse — was asking for the lad, the closest living blood relation to Caesar, to come to Alexandria. He was to be spared. There was nothing to fear. Mercy would be heaped upon Caesarion.

It was not to be. “Two Caesars are too many,” Octavian declared … so Caesarion was subtracted. No documentation has been discovered about his death; because of his young age, it is thought he died of strangulation.

Octavian assumed absolute power, became known as Augustus, and died of illness August 19, AD 14. While Augustus, during his reign, was proclaimed a god by the Senate, Caesar’s only known son became a footnote in history, long dead and buried.

* More on the Battle of Actium here and here, and at this episode from the highly recommended The History of Rome podcast. -ed.

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1857: Adolf Schlagintweit, intrepid explorer

Sometimes it’s better to let your curiosity rest for a little while, especially when a violent despot takes charge of the region you want to do geological studies on. That was the takeaway lesson for Adolf Schlagintweit (English Wikipedia page | German) when Wali Khan discharged the German explorer’s head in 1857 in the Kashgar region of present-day China.

Schlagintweit and his brothers, Hermann and Robert, were in pursuit of knowledge, following up Hermann and Adolf’s drab and long-titled work Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie der Alpen, in ihren Beziehungen zu den phänomenon der Gletscher, zur Geologie, Meteorologie, und Pflanzengeographie (Studies of the Physical Geography of the Alps, in Relation to the Phenomena of Glaciers, Weather, and Phytogeography) and equally odorless (but far more accessibly titled) successor Neue Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie und Geologie der Alpen (New Studies of the Physical Geography and Geology of the Alps), authored by all three.

The Schlagintweits were successfully largely because of their ability to draw: their writing left much to be desired, and their scientific skills were frequently a target of ridicule after the voyage that saw the end of Adolf.

The East India Company funded that venture, which was intended to take magnetic field measurements, beginning in 1854. The trek was spurred on by the then-85-year-old Alexander von Humboldt, who had extensively traversed Latin America and attempted the first scientific description of its geology and wildlife; von Humboldt, a noted scientist throughout Europe, convinced the East India Company to pony up large amounts of money for what he expected to be a significant geological study, one that he long sought but could not undertake himself. This relationship is explored in-depth by Gabriel Finkelstein in his well-written History of Science article “‘Conquerors of the Künlün? The Schlagintweit Mission to High Asia, 1854–57”.

The brothers made their way to central India and from there journeyed north into the Himalayas. They did not travel together, but separated and re-united occasionally to go over samples, pictures, and notes.

After their last meeting in the fall of 1856, Adolf’s itinerary brought him through the mountains of Tibet and into present-day China, near the borders with Kyrgystan and Pakistan. It was in this Kashgar region that the geologist found himself embroiled in what would be the last in a series of revolts by the East Turkestan Khojas, a group claiming nobility in Eastern Kazakhstan from the time of Genghis Khan.*

Adolf’s end is largely shrouded in mystery, but some contemporaneous accounts given to the British government provide a minimal sketch. Schlagintweit’s ostensible goal was to reach the city of Kashgar; despite much of his party deserting, and in spite of a warning from fleeing refugees that the notably cruel Wali Khan had initiated a rebellion, Schlagintweit pressed on.

He was met at the city’s border and brought before the Khan, who, having little use for European interlopers wandering his territory, accused the scientist of being a spy and had Adolf summarily beheaded.

Adolf’s notebook was later purchased by a passing Persian from the tobacco shop, where its pages were being used to wrap tobacco leaves. The purchaser tracked down a skull he believed to be Schlagintweit’s and brought the chartaceous and skeletal evidence to India.

The book published from the travels of the Schlagintweits is available here. It has been widely panned as dull.

* Four years after Wali Khan was deposed once again by the Chinese, Uighurs successfully battled for the region’s brief independence. Tensions in the region, needless to say, have not settled.

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1876: James Murphy, gibbeted

On this date in 1876, a 19-year-old murderer was twice hanged in Dayton.

Lafcadio Hearn.

Attending John Murphy’s death was a young writer working the crime beat for the Cincinnati Commercial: Lafcadio Hearn.

This rootless Greek emigre, years and miles away yet from his best-remembered station as the Japanese folklorist better known as Koizumi Yakumo, produced for the next day’s edition a startling and evocative slice of Americana from an otherwise obscure hanging.

It also records the physical intrusion — not merely the psychological postulating — of the author himself, wandering the prison corridors in the dark, laying his hand (so it would seem) upon the condemned boy’s ebbing pulse.

“Gibbeted” ran in the August 26 Cincinnati Commercial:




A Broken Rope and a Double Hanging.

Sickening Scenes Behind the Scaffold-Screen.

The execution of James Murphy, yesterday afternoon, at Dayton, for the murder of Colonel William Dawson, in that city, on the night of August 31,1875, was an event, it must be said, which the people of Montgomery County had long looked forward to with no small degree of satisfaction. The murder was of itself peculiarly atrocious, from the fact that it was actually committed without a shadow of provocation. The victim was a worthy and popular citizen, and the feeling of the public in regard to the crime was sufficiently evinced in the fact that the city authorities, subsequent to the arrest of Murphy, were obliged to call out the militia that the claim of legal justice to deal with the criminal might be protected. Colonel Dawson, it may be remembered, was murdered apparently for no other reason than that he refused a drunken party permission to intrude upon the quiet enjoyments of a private wedding party. The Colonel was Superintendent of the Champion Plow Works, at Dayton, and the bridegroom being an employe of the company, the Colonel had, by request, assumed the management of the wedding ball. When Murphy was refused admittance, he induced one of his companions, Lewis Meyers, to entice the Colonel out of doors on the pretext of getting a drink; and soon after the invitation had been accepted. Murphy struck Dawson, and during the subsequent scuffle, suddenly plunged a long knife up to the halt in the Colonel’s left side. The victim of this cowardly assault lived but a few moments afterward, and died without being able to positively identify his assassin.

Circumstantial evidence, notwithstanding, clearly pointed to Murphy as the criminal, and to Meyers as his accomplice; the former being sentenced to death, and the latter, being convicted of manslaughter, to a term of two years in the State Penitentiary. Sentence was passed on the 28th of April, the jury having disagreed upon the first trial, in February, which necessitated a second.

The youth of the prisoner—he was only nineteen years of age—did not, strange as it may seem, excite any marked degree of sympathy for his miserable fate. He was a fair skinned, brown haired, beardless lad, with rather large features, a firm, vicious mouth; sullen, steady gray eyes, shadowed by a habitual frown; a rather bold forehead, half concealed by a mass of curly locks, brushed down, — a face, in short, that, notwithstanding its viciousness, was not devoid of a certain coarse regularity. His parents were hard-working Irish people, but his own features showed little evidence of Celtic blood.

Perhaps the dogged obstinacy of the prisoner in denying, almost to the last, his evident crime, had no little to do with the state of public feeling in regard to him. Moreover, he had long been notorious in the city as a worthless loafer and precocious ruffian, perpetually figuring in some street fight, drunken brawl or brutal act of violence. For a considerable period of time, previous to the murder of Colonel Dawson, he had been the boasted leader of a band of young roughs, from nineteen to twenty years of age, who were known in Dayton as the “chain-gang.”

The boy’s mother had died while he was yet young; but he did not lack a home, and the affection of an old father, and of brothers and sisters—the latter of whom he is said to have cruelly abused in fits of drunken passion. In this connection it of course be in order, religiously, to discourse upon the results of neglecting early admonitions; and, philosophically, upon the evidence that the unfortunate lad had inherited an evil disposition, whereof the tendencies were not to be counteracted by any number of admonitions. But the facts in the case, as they appeared to the writer, were simply that a poor, ignorant, passionate boy, with a fair, coarse face, had in the heat of drunken anger taken away the life of a fellow-being, and paid the penalty of his brief crime, by a hundred days of mental torture, and a hideous death.

Perhaps there are many readers of this article, who may have perused and shuddered at the famous tale of the “Iron Shroud.” You may remember that the victim, immured in the walls of a dungeon, lighted by seven windows, finds that each successive day of his imprisonment, one of the windows disappears forever. There are first seven, then six, then five, then four, then three, then two, then but one—dim and shadowy;—and then the night-black darkness that prefigures the formless gloom of the Shadow of Death. And through the thick darkness booms, hour after hour, the abysmal tones of a giant bell, announcing to the victim the incessant approach of the fearful midnight when the walls shall crush his bones to shapelessness. No one ever read that tale of the Castle of Tolfi without experiencing such horrors as make the flesh creep. Yet the agony therein depicted by a cunning writer is, after all, but a very slight exaggeration of the torture to which condemned criminals are periodically subjected in our prisons—not for seven days, forsooth, but for one hundred. This is the mercy of the law! – to compel the wretched victim to await the slow but inevitable approach of the grimmest and most ignominious of deaths for one hundred days. Fancy the ghastly mental computation of time which he must make to his own heart— “ninety-nine—ninety-eight—ninety-seven—ninety-six—ninety-five,” until at last the allotment of life is reduced to a miserable seven days, as frightfully speedy as those of the Man in the Iron Shroud. And then the black scaffold with the blacker mystery below the drop, the sea of curious and unsympathetic faces, the moment of supreme suspense after his eyes are veiled from the light of the world by the sable hood. But this pyramid of agony is not absolutely complete until apexed by the vision of a fragile rope, the sudden hush of horror, and the bitterest period of agony twice endured. It is cruel folly to assert that because the criminal be ignorant, uneducated, phlegmatic, unimaginative, he is incapable of acutely feeling the torture of hideous suspense. That was asserted, nevertheless, and frequently asserted yesterday, by spectators of the execution. We did not think so. The victim was young and strong, a warm-blooded, passionate boy, with just that coarse animal vitality which makes men cling most strongly to life, as a thing to be enjoyed in the mere fact of possession—he mere ability to hear, see, feel.

The incidents of the prisoner’s jail life during the last week—how he ate, drank, smoked, talked—might be very fully dwelt on as matters of strictly local interest, but may be briefly dismissed in these columns. There is, however, one story connected with that jail-life too strange and peculiar to be omitted. It seems that young Murphy learned to entertain a special affection for Tom Hellriggle, a Deputy Sheriff of Montgomery County, who had attended him kindly since his removal from the jail-room to a cell on the third floor, which opened in the rear of the scaffold. One night recently. Murphy said to Hellriggle, confidentially: “I knew I was going to be hanged, long ago. Do you know that I knew it before I was sentenced?”

“Why, how did you know that?” curiously asked the deputy.

Then the lad told him that during the intervals of the trials, one night between 12 and 1 o’clock, he heard the voice of a woman crying weirdly and wildly in the darkness, and so loudly that the sound filled all the jail-room, and that many of the men awoke and shuddered.

“You remember that, don’t you?” asked the lad.

“I do,” said the deputy; “and I also remember that there was no living woman in the jail-room that night.’

“So,” continued the boy, “they asked me if I heard it, and I said yes; but I pretended I did not know what it was. I believe I said no human being could cry so fearfully as that. But I did know what it was, Tom—I saw the woman.”

“Who was it?” asked Tom, earnestly.

“It was my mother. And I knew why she cried so strangely. She was crying for me.”

There are few men who enter the condemned cell and leave it for the gallows without having entertained during the interval a strong desire to take their own lives, and are for the most part deterred from so doing rather by the religious dread of a dim and vague Something after death, than by any physical fear. So it appears to have been with Murphy. When all hope, except the hope of pardon from the All-forgiving Father, was dead within him, and the Governor of Ohio had refused to grant a reprieve or commutation of sentence, then the prisoner listened much more calmly to the admonitions of Father Murphy, a fat, kindly, red-cheeked Irish priest, who took a heartfelt interest in the “spiritual welfare” of his namesake. He soon expressed repentance for his crime, and even agreed to confess all publically—an act, all the circumstances properly considered, which really evinced more manhood than the act of “dying game” with the secret.

Shortly afterward he handed to Deputy Sheriff Hellriggle a small, keen knife, which he had managed to conceal, despite all the vigilance of his guards “I would not take my own life, now,” he said, “though I were to be hung twice over.” Yet at the time the poor fellow probably had little idea that he would actually suffer the penalty of the law twice. It was evident, however, that he had frequently premeditated suicide, as in a further conversation with his guard he pointed out certain ingenious and novel modes of self-destruction which he had planned. That the criminal possessed no ordinary amount of nerve and self-control under the most trying circumstances, can not for a moment be questioned; nor can it be truthfully averred that his courage was merely the result of stolid phlegm and natural insensibility. None of the family, indeed, appear to inherit over-sensitive organizations, as a glance at the faces of the visitors to the condemned cell sufficiently satisfied us. When James’ oldest brother, a ruddily-featured young man of twenty, visited the prisoner day before yesterday, he mounted the black scaffold erected outside the cell-door, and, after a few humorous remarks, actually executed a double-shuffle dance upon the trap-door, until Sheriff Patton, hearing the noise, at once turned him out of the corridor. But James’ actions in jail, his last farewell to his relations, his sensitiveness in regard to certain reports afloat concerning his past career, and lastly, the very fact that his nerve did finally yield under a fearful and wholly unexpected pressure, all tend to show that his nature was by no means so brutally unfeeling as had been alleged.

The scaffold had been erected at the rear end of the central corridor of the jail hospital ward in the third story of the building, immediately without the cell-room in which the prisoner had been confined subsequent to his removal from the gloomier jail-room below, where he had heard the loud knocking of the carpenters’ hammers, and the hum of saws—sounds of which the grim significance was fully recognized by him without verbal interpretation. “Ah, they are putting up the gallows!” he said: “The noise don’t frighten me much, though.” To the reporter who visited the long, white corridors by lamp-light, with the tall, black-draped and ebon-armed apparition at its further end, these preparations for an execution under roof, instead of beneath the clear sky, and in the pure air, seemed somewhat strange and mysteriously horrible. It is scarcely necessary to describe the mechanism of the scaffold, further than to observe that the trap-door was closed by curved bolts, the outer ends of which were inserted into or withdrawn from shallow sockets in the framework at either side of the door, by foot-pressure upon a lever, which connected with the inner ends of the bolts, and worked them like the handles of huge pincers. The rope did, however, attract considerable attention from all who examined it previous to the execution. It seemed no thicker than a strong clothes-line, though actually three eighths of an inch, and appeared wholly unequal to the task for which it had been expressly manufactured from unbleached hemp. Yet Sheriff Gerard, of Putnam County, who had officiated at five executions, and was considered an authority upon such matters, had had it well tested with a keg of nails and other heavy weights, and believed it sufficiently strong. A bucket of water was suspended to it for some twenty-four hours, in order to remove its slight elasticity. But the bucket turned slowly around at intervals, and, under the constant pressure and motion, it seems that the rope became worn and weakened at the point of its insertion into the cross-beam. The drop-length was regulated to three feet and a half.

The unfortunate boy’ s mental impressions, yesterday morning, must assuredly have consisted of a strange and confused vision of solemn images and mysterious events. From the opening door of his cell he could plainly perceive every mechanical detail of the black gibbet, with its dismal hangings of sable muslin. Sisters of Charity, in dark robes; solemn-faced priests, with snowy Roman collars; Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs of austere countenance, which appeared momentarily to become yet more severe; policemen in full dress whispering in knots along the white corridor, a score of newspaper correspondents and reporters scattered through the crowd, writing and questioning and occasionally stealing peeps at the prisoner through the open door; calm-visaged physicians consulting together over open watches, as though eager to feel the last pulsations of the dying heart; undertakers, professional, cool and sad, gathered about a long, handsome black walnut coffin, adorned with silver crosses, which stood in the comer of one hospital room—these and other figures thronged the scene of death and disgrace while without a bright sun and a clear sky appeared for the last time to the wandering eyes of the condemned. He had early in the morning gone through the necessary formal preparations of being shaved, bathing, and putting on the neat suit of black cloth for which he had been measured a few days before. He had slept soundly all night; after having listened to the merry music of the city band, playing before the columned Court-house, but his sleep was probably consequent upon physical and mental exhaustion from haunting fear, rather than a natural and healthy slumber. He had risen at 7 o’clock, made a full confession in presence of the Sheriff, heard mass, listened to Father Murphy’s admonitions, ate a light breakfast, and smoked several cigars. Father Murphy’s admonitions, delivered in simple language, and a strong old-country brogue, seemed to us passive listeners somewhat peculiar, especially when he stated that the “flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, which not even the angels were worthy to eat,” would give strength to the poor lad “to meet his God at half-past 1 o’clock.” But if ever religious faith comforted the last moments of a young criminal, it did in this instance; and it was owing to the kindly but powerful efforts of the little priest that the youth made a full public confession of his crime. This is the confession:


DAYTON, 0., August 24,1876.

To Warren Munger and Elihu Thompson, my Attorneys:

I will now say to you, and the public in general, that ever since you became my attorneys, at all times until to-day, I have denied that I struck and killed William Dawson, for which crime I am now under sentence of death. This statement I have made you in the mistaken hope and belief that it might do me some good, and I therefore put the blame on another person—Charles Tredtin. Now that all hope is gone, I have to say that you have done all you could for me as my attorneys, and that I feel satisfied with your efforts in my behalf. I am willing now to make public all I know about the murder of Colonel William Dawson. and I desire to make the statement, for I am now about to die, and do not want to die with a lie upon my lips. I do not wish Tredtin to be pointed out as long as he lives as the person who stabbed Colonel Dawson; and I desire also that justice may be done Meyers, who is entirely innocent, and was not connected in any way with the killing of Dawson. The following are the facts:

On the evening of the murder, Jim Alien, John Petty, George Petty, Charles Hooven and myself were at a dance on McClure street. From there I and Hooven and George Petty went down the street to Barlow’s Hall, where there was a dance going on, but of which we did not know until we arrived there. We went in and went up to the bar, and had a drink of beer. About fifteen minutes after this, Gerdes and I started up to get into the ball-room, but before we started Kline, Petty and Tredtin had gone up. When we got within two or three steps of the top of the first stairway I met Brunner there on duty as door-keeper, and he asked me if I had a pass. I told him no, and then he said, “You’ll have to go down stairs.” I said, “All right.” Then Dawson grabbed hold of me and said, “Get down, or I’ll throw you down.” I jerked away from him, laughed at him, and went down stairs. Then Gerdes and I went and saw the man who got married, and asked him if he couldn’t let me up stairs. He said, “Yes, of course I can;” and then I went up with Gerdes and the man who got married, and he told Brunner to let me in. We went into the ball-room, where Kline, Tredtin and Petty were standing. Then Kline said, “Where’s that big son of a bitch that was going to throw you down stairs?” and I said, “What do you want to know for?” He then said, “I want to know.” Then I said, “There he is; whatever you want to say to him, say it.” Then Kline said, “Oh, you big son of a bitch!” After about half an hour Petty and I went down stairs to the bar-room. Gerdes, Tredtin and Kline came down there, where I saw them, but whether they came together or not I don’t know. Kline, Petty and I drank beer together. We all five then went back up stairs. Dawson and Meyers went down stairs, into the bar-room; then we five followed on down, and went out at the side door on the street. We then began talking about the occurrence on the stairway between Dawson and myself, and some one said, but I don’t recollect who it was, “Damn him, we’ll get him before morning.” I don’t recollect that there was anything more said. Meyers was not with us then on the street, or at all in any way connected with us or our party that evening. All five of us then went back together up stairs, where we saw Meyers and Dawson. We staid there some five or ten minutes, when we saw Meyers and Dawson go down stairs and then we five followed after them, and saw them go out of the side door on to the street, and we followed them out. Kline said to me and Petty, near the comer of the side street and Fifth street, “You go down this side of the street and we’ll go down the other.” Petty and I followed after Meyers and Dawson, some distance behind them, while Kline. Gerdes and Tredtin went across to the north side of the street, and went down west on that side of Fifth street. We saw Meyers and Dawson try to get in at the big gate at Weidner’s, and Pearl street. When we came together Dawson sort of turned around, and I struck him with both fists in the breast; Petty struck Meyers, and Meyers caught hold of a post and prevented himself from falling into the gutter, and then straightened himself up and ran away eastward, and Petty started across the street as soon as Meyers ran. My strokes in Dawson’s breast staggered him, and he didn’t recover himself until after Meyers and Petty had left. About the time Dawson recovered himself, Kline and Tredtin run in and struck Dawson too. My passions were now aroused. I drew my knife out of my inside breast coat pocket and stabbed Colonel Dawson. I did it on the instant, and took no second thought about it. I do not remember of hearing Dawson say anything before or after I cut him. He may have said something, but I did not hear him. The purpose of our party of five in following Meyers and Dawson out was to lick them both. I saw Gerdes about the middle of the street coming towards us, but he didn’t get up to us. Which way Kline and Tredtin went I do not know. Dawson started east on Fifth street on a run. I was facing the east when I cut Dawson. After Dawson run I was alone on the sidewalk, when Frank came up and struck at me with his club. I dodged him and struck at him with my knife, but don’t know whether I cut his clothes or not. I then wheeled and started to run west, As I run he threw his club at me, and as I started to run across the street, I fell over the hitching-post in front of Weidner’s, and there I dropped my cap and knife. Frank fired at me with a pistol, and shot at me just as I fell. I got up and started to run across the street, and Frank fired a second time at me as I was about to enter the alley on the north side of Fifth street. I stood in the alley awhile, and then I went home to my father’s house, where I was afterward arrested by the police. Whisky and bad company have been the ruination of me, and the cause of all my bad luck. I had drank a good deal that night of beer and whisky.

This is a true and correct statement about the murder, and is all I wish to say about the matter.


He also dictated a letter of thanks to Sheriff Patton. his deputies, and all who had been kind to him during his confinement. Sheriff Patton himself paid for the prisoner’s coffin, a very neat one.

At half-past one o’clock. Deputy Sheriff Freeman appeared at the door of the cell-room, which opened directly upon the ladder leading to the scaffold, and observed in a low, steady voice: “Time’s up, Jim; the Sheriff wants you.” The prisoner immediately responded, “All right; I am ready;” and walked steadily up the steps of the ladder, accompanied by Fathers Murphy and Carey. His arms had been pinioned at the elbows by a strong bandage of black calico. Probably he looked at that moment younger and handsomer than he had ever appeared before; and a hum of audible surprise at his appearance passed through the spectators. Accompanied by his confessor and Father Carey he walked steadily to the front of the platform; and after looking quietly and calmly upon the faces below, spoke in a deep, clear, bold voice, pausing between each sentence to receive some suggestion from the priest at his side.

“Gentlemen, I told a lie in the Court-house by saying Tredtin was guilty.”

“I think I am guilty”—with a determined nod of the head.

“I return thanks to Sheriff Patton, his deputies and all my friends.

“I forgive all my enemies and ask their forgiveness.

“If there is any one here who has any hard feelings toward me, I ask their forgiveness.

“This is my last request.

“Gentlemen, I want all young men to take warning by me. Drink and bad company brought me here to-day.

“And I ask the forgiveness of Mrs. Dawson and her children, whom I injured in passion, when I did not know what I was doing.

“I believe Jesus Christ will save me.”

Sheriff Patton then read in a quiet, steady voice, the death-warrant. It was heavily bordered in black, and bore a great sable seal. “It is my solemn duty,” said the Sheriff, “to execute the sentence passed upon you by the Court:

“State of Ohio, Montgomery County—To William Patton, Sheriff: Whereas, at the January Term, 1876, of the Court of Common Pleas, within and for the County of Montgomery and State of Ohio, to-wit, on the 28th day of April, 1876, upon a full and impartial trial, one James Murphy, now in your custody, was found guilty of deliberate and premeditated murder of one William Dawson, in manner and form as found in a true bill of indictment by the grand jury on the 30th day of October, 1875; and whereas the Court aforesaid, at the term aforesaid, to-wit: on the 12th day of May, 1876, upon the conviction aforesaid, ordered, adjudged and sentenced the said James Murphy to be imprisoned in the County jail until the 25th day of August, 1876, and that on that day, between the hours of 10

A.M. and 4 P.M., he be taken from said jail, and hanged by the neck until he be dead, this is therefore to command that you keep the said James Murphy in safe and secure custody until said day, August 25,1876; and that on said day, between said hours, you take said James Murphy, and in the place and manner provided by law, hang him by the neck until he be dead. Of this warrant, and all your proceedings thereon, you shall make due return forthwith thereafter.

“Witness: JOHN S. ROBERTSON, Clerk of said Court.

“And the seal thereof of the city of Dayton, in said county, this 20th day of June, 1876.

“[Seal Court of Common Pleas]”


In the meantime Deputy Sheriff Freeman adjusted the thin noose about the prisoner’s neck, and pinioned his lower limbs. “James Murphy, good-bye, and may God bless you!” observed Patton in a whisper, handing the black cap to a deputy. At this moment the representative of the Commercial succeeded in obtaining admittance to the little audience of physicians in rear of the scaffold; and took up his position immediately to the left of the trap-door. The next instant the Sheriff pressed the lever with his foot, the drop opened as though in electric response, the thin rope gave way at the crossbeam above, and the body of the prisoner fell downward and backward on the floor of the corridor, behind the scaffold screen. “My God. My God!” cried Freeman, with a subdued scream; “give me that other rope, quick.” It had been laid away for use “in case the first rope should break,” we were told.

The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious, with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap vailing his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse. It was beating slowly and regularly. Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead—dead in darkness, for his eyes were vailed—dead and blind to this world, but about to open his eyes upon another. The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea. But then came gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of Deputy Freeman calling, “For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!” Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.

“My God! Oh, my God!”

“Why, I ain’t dead—I ain’t dead!”

“Are you hurt, my child?” inquired Father Murphy.

“No, father, I’m not dead; I’m not hurt. What are they going to do with me?”

No one had the heart to tell him, lying there blind and helpless and ignorant even of what had occurred. The reporter, who still kept his hand on the boy’s wrist, suddenly felt the pulsation quicken horribly, the rapid beating of intense fear; the youth’s whole body trembled violently.

“His pulse is one hundred and twenty,” whispered a physician.

“What’s the good of leaving me here in this misery?” cried the lad. “Take me out of this, I tell you.”

In the meantime they had procured the other rope—a double thin rope with two nooses—and fastened it strongly over the crossbeam. The prisoner had fallen through the drop precisely at 1:44 1/2 P.M.; the second noose was ready within four minutes later. Then the deputies descended from the platform and lifted the prostrate body up.

“Don’t carry me,” groaned the poor fellow, “I can walk—let me walk.”

But they carried him up again. Father Murphy supporting his head The unfortunate wanted to see the light once more, to get one little glimpse at the sun the narrow world within the corridor, and the faces before the scaffold. They took off his ghastly mask while the noose was being readjusted. His face was livid his limbs shook with terror, and he suddenly seized Deputy Freeman desperately by the coat, saying in a husky whisper, “What are you going to do with me?” They tried to unfasten his hand, but it was the clutch of death-fear. Then the little Irish priest whispered firmly in his ear, “Let go, my son; let go, like a man – be a man – die like a man.” And he let go. But they had to support him at arm’s length while the Sheriff pressed the trap-lever—six and one-half minutes after the first fall It was humanely rapid work then.

The body fell heavily, with a jerk, turned about once, rocked backward and forward, and became almost still. From the corridor only the head was visible—turned from the audience. Father Murphy sprinkled holy water upon the victim. The jugular veins became enlarged, and the neck visibly swelled below the black cap. At this time the pulse was beating steadily at 100; the wrist felt hot and moist, and we noticed the hand below it tightly clutched a little brass crucifix placed there by the priest at the last moment. Gradually the pulse became fainter’ Five minutes later, Dr. Crum, the jail physician, holding the right wrist announced it at eighty-four. In ten minutes from the moment of the drop it sunk to sixty. In sixteen minutes the heart only fluttered, and the pulse became imperceptible. In seventeen minutes Dr. Crum, after a stethoscopic examination, made the official announcement of death.

The body was at once cut down by Sheriff Patton, and deposited in the handsome coffin designed for it. Half an hour later we returned to the jail, and examined the dead face. It was perfectly still, as the face of a sleeper, calm and undisfigured. It was perhaps slightly swollen, but quite natural, and betrayed no evidence of pain. The rope had cut deeply into the flesh of the neck, and the very texture of the hemp was redly imprinted on the skin. A medical examination showed the neck to have been broken.

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1751: Thomas Colley, witch-killer

Supposed witches are a staple of history’s scaffold-rolls, and we may well take relief at the passing of this superstition.

England’s last witchcraft executions were in 1682; the law that hanged them was repealed in 1736. But the human story is not confined to parliamentary parchment, and popular belief in witches was not instantly dispelled at the stroke of a pen. Indeed, the belief never has been dispelled altogether.

In our mid-18th-century scene, figures who might have once been thought “witch”-like can now achieve mass-market fame. But old traditions died hard — and on this date* in 1751, Thomas Colley died for believing them to the extent of killing a “witch” himself.

Aging beggar Ruth Osborne got herself on the bad side not of Colley but a Tring farmer prosperously named John Butterfield when she pooh-poohed his refusal to spare her some scraps, and Butterfield’s livestock thereafter got sick.

Obviously, witchcraft!

Whether Butterfield was animated by genuine supernatural paranoia or merely by dick-swinging, he organized a witch-ducking of Ruth and her husband John: organized to the extent of having criers announce it days in advance.

Now, granted, witch-ducking was now illegal. But Mr. Butterfield draws a lot of water in this community, and he turned out a mob to wreck a couple of suspected hiding-places before the two were captured, trussed-up, and paraded to Marlston Meer.**

Butterfield got local yokel Thomas Colley drunk and agitated enough to do for him the dirty work of casting two impoverished souls into a pond so shallow they could scarcely sink, and therefore were obviously guilty for floating. This public torture continued until Ruth died† — Colley prodding the victims with a pole and passing the hat for community underwriting.

“The Ducking of John Osborn”, as reprinted (pdf) by the Hertfordshire Countryside.

Colley was prevailed upon after his conviction to sign a recantation of the belief that had brought him to his inglorious end, a neat inversion of the forced confessions of previous generations’ “witches”, and no less indicative of the operations of power upon the mind as well as the body of the condemned.


I beseech you all to take warning by an unhappy man’s suffering; that you be not deluded into so absurd and wicked a conceit, as to believe that there are any such beings upon earth as witches.

It was that foolish and vain imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid and barbarous murder of Ruth Osborne, the supposed witch, for which I am now so deservedly to suffer death.

I am fully convinced of my former error, and with the sincerity of a dying man, declare that I do not believe there is such a thing in being as a witch; and pray God that none of you, through a contrary persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the life of a fellow creature.

I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me, and to wash clean my polluted soul in the blood of Jesus Christ, my saviour and redeemer.

So exhorteth you all, the dying

Thomas Colley

Whatever the state of Thomas Colley’s mind by the time it was strangled by the halter at Gubblecote Cross, Colley’s come-to-the-Enlightenment moment didn’t exactly impress his former audience.

[T]he infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death (perhaps from a consciousness of being present at the murder as well as he); yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much damage by her witchcraft.‡

As if to prove the point, it is said that Colley’s spirit has haunted the area ever since — in the form of a big black dog. (Colley – collie, is that it?)

* Some sources (incorrectly) give August 22nd as the date of the hanging, which might be a confusion with April 22nd, the date of the crime. Similarly, the Newgate calendar dates Thomas Colley’s hanging to April 24th, which is certainly wrong.

** “It only became possible to restrain collective violence towards witches in England … when from 1856 onwards a paid and uniformed police force came into existence. Up to that point the elected, non-professional constable or his deputy had kept well out of incidents of this sort or had even supported his fellow villagers in their infamous activities.” (Source)

† John Osborne is often reported to have died hours after he was pulled alive from the pond, but at least some (pdf) contemporaneous sources seem to indicate that he lived on and even stayed in the area — where nobody would hire him because of his wizardry stigma.

‡ Cited in W.B. Carnochan, “Witch-Hunting and Belief in 1751: The Case of Thomas Colley and Ruth Osborne” Journal of Social History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1971).

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406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

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: shadowy 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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