Archive for January, 2010

1673: Mary Carleton, “German princess”

4 comments January 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1673 ended the adventures of “German princess” and early modern celebrity Mary Carleton.

Mary vaulted into the ranks of famous-for-being-famous in 1663, when the pamphleteering forerunners of Perez Hilton caught wind of a bigamy scandal wherein Mary, presenting herself as a mysterious German noble, had hitched with 18-year-old law student John Carleton and run through his money.

Once the public made her acquaintance … well, there was just something about Mary.

Over two dozen pamphlets are known sensationalizing her subsequent trial and acquittal for hubby-hopping, including post-acquittal volleys by both John and Mary.

(These pamphlets don’t currently appear to be available in their original forms online, but substantial excerpts from the most famous of them can be found in the public domain 1914 book The Mary Carleton narratives, 1663-1673: a missing chapter in the history of literature. This volume argues the Carleton publications are a stylistic progenitor of the English novel as it emerged in the hands of, for instance, Defoe. We certainly would be remiss not to notice here our real-life anti-heroine’s parallels (pdf) with Moll Flanders.)

Actually the daughter of a Canterbury fiddler, Moll Carleton was accused of having ditched her first spouse (a shoemaker) for a surgeon, then ditched the surgeon for John Carleton.

Having adroitly beat that rap in a court of law (if not exactly in the court of public opinion) “the German Princess” went into show business; that ubiquitous diarist Samuel Pepys caught her on stage, playing herself, remarking

I’ve passed one trial, but it is my fear
I shall receive a rigid sentence here:
You think me a bold cheat, put case ’twere so,
Which of you are not? Now you’d swear I know.
But do not, lest that you deserve to be
Censur’d worse than you can censure me:,
The world’s a cheat, and we that move in it,
In our degrees, do exercise our wit;
And better ’tis to get a glorious name,
However got, than live by common fame.

Well, why not?

In a time with scant social mobility for women, Carleton — which is the name by which she’s been remembered although she was born “Mary Moders” — carved it out with the tools at her disposal, which makes her an irresistible academic subject.*

Carleton/Moders is nearly the anti-Martin Guerre: whereas the male Arnaud du Tilh subsumed his own identity to insinuate himself into the existing social part of “Martin Guerre”, Mary Carleton’s shifty identity excised her from the social circumstances that would otherwise define her. (She was even reported to have taking to masculine cross-dressing.) Paradoxically, her fictitious biography enabled her to be taken for her own self, which explains why she stuck with her blank-slate “German origins” backstory after it had been publicly discredited.

And after the stage gig had run its course and her identity become disposable once again, she easily resumed her marital perambulations.

Mary Jo Kietzman called Carleton’s life “self-serialization.” The Newgate Calendar sanctimoniously records some of her adventures.

After a few years below the Restoration radar, Carleton was caught up for petty larceny and given a death sentence commuted to penal transportation to Jamaica. (England had just seized it from Spain during Cromwell‘s Protectorate.)

Two years later, she returned to England — not the only one to prefer the danger of Tyburn to the rigors (and obscurity) of the colonies.

She could only live as herself at the peril of her life. And on this day, she clinched her lasting fame at the end of a rope.

* e.g., Mihoko Suzuki, “The Case of Mary Carleton: Representing the Female Subject, 1663-73,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1993).

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Pelf,Public Executions,Sex,Theft,Women

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1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman

24 comments January 21st, 2010 Headsman

It’s been 340 years since the immortal highwayman Claude Duval (or Du Val, or Du Vall) went to the Tyburn gallows and was turned off into legend as the ne plus ultra of English gentleman thieves.

Duval, actually, was French, an import to Isles in the train of some forgotten noble migrating with the restoration of royal prerogatives.

On the English highway, this formerly impecunious retainer coruscated as a knight of the road, the very model of the chivalrous outlaw against whom the likes of Dick Turpin would be compared to disadvantage. Macaulay recorded

how Claude Duval, the French page of the Duke of Richmond, took to the road, became captain of a formidable gang, and had the honour to be named first in a royal proclamation against notorious offenders; how at the head of his troop he stopped a lady’s coach, in which there was a booty of four hundred pounds; how he took only one hundred, and suffered the fair owner to ransom the rest by dancing a coranto with him on the heath;


William Powell Frith‘s painting (1860) of Claude Duval dancing with his prey.

how his vivacious gallantry stole away the hearts of all women; how his dexterity at sword and pistol made him a terror to all men; how, at length, in the year 1670, he was seized when overcome by wine; how dames of high rank visited him in prison, and with tears interceded for his life; how the king would have granted a pardon, but for the interference of Judge Morton, the terror of highwaymen, who threatened to resign his office unless the law were carried into full effect; and how, after the execution, the corpse lay in state with all the pomp of scutcheons, wax lights, black hangings and mutes, till the same cruel judge, who had intercepted the mercy of the crown, sent officers to disturb the obsequies. In these anecdotes there is doubtless a large mixture of fable; but they are not on that account unworthy of being recorded; for it is both an authentic and an important fact, that such tales, whether false or true, were heard by our ancestors with eagerness and faith.

Gillian Spraggs justifiably observes that no matter how genuinely gallant the brigand, his profession entailed relieving others of their rightful produce by main force. But then, the same could be said of the lords of the realm.

No, although Duval’s legend invites debunking, this must be for another blog.

We take Duval here at his mythological acme: he is the patron saint of the early modern bandit, the Superman of English outlawry, succoring with the fantasy of freedom upon the road the thousands of porters and scullery maids and apprentices chained to their oars below-decks upon Britannia’s ship of state.

What matter the rest?

This day, we toast Claude Duval, the Knight of the Road, in the manner of the fetching inscription (since destroyed by fire) under which he was reportedly buried:

Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc has he made of both; for all
Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall
The second Conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arm did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,
Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1677: William Drummond, for Bacon’s Rebellion

4 comments January 20th, 2010 Headsman

“Mr. Drummond, I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia; you shall hang in half an hour.”

Virginia Governor William Berkeley didn’t deliver gallows justice as rapidly as promised, but the outcome was just as certain.

Scotsman William Drummond, the former colonial governor of Abermarle and therefore the first governor of North Carolina,

was made to walk to Middle Plantation, about eight miles distant, and tried before a drum-head court-martial, the next day, at the house of James Bray, Esq., under circumstances of great brutality. He was not permitted to answer for himself; his wife’s ring was torn from his finger; he was stripped before conviction, was sentenced at one o’clock and hanged at four. (Source)

There’s nothing worse than a poor winner.

Drummond caught Berkeley’s considerable wrath for associating himself with Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion of frontier settlers demanding lower taxes and more energetic genocide against their Indian neighbors. When Berkeley balked, the movement metastasized into a republican revolution which declared the agent of royal authority in Virginia to have abdicated and proposed to reconstitute it by popular convocation.

It was very much short of an actual attempt to separate from England, but in its form and complaints one easily perceives the germ of the American Revolution a century hence. Sarah Drummond was reported to have been at least as vehement as her hanged spouse, and she is credited with prophesying “the child that is unborn shall have cause to rejoice for the good that will come by the rising of the country.”

Armed struggle between two desperate factions was truncated by the fatal case of dysentery* contracted by the namesake insurrectionary. His unpleasant and untimely demise crippled the rising rising, and left Drummond as about the most prominent target available for the victorious Berkeley’s fury.

Not that there wasn’t much more to go around — even when the British navy finally landed in late January with reinforcements too late to do any good, a general amnesty Berkeley had not clemency enough to use, and a successor to Berkeley the aging governor did not like one bit. Nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft in his History of the Colonization of the United States writes of the crackdown,

In defiance of remonstrances, executions continued till twenty-two had been hanged.** Three others had died of cruelty in prison; three more had fled before trial; two had escaped after conviction. More blood was shed than, on the action of our present system [i.e., the constitutional government of the United States], would be shed for political offences in a thousand years. Nor is it certain when the carnage would have ended, had not the assembly convened in February, 1677, voted an address “that the governor would spill no more blood.”

Finally the new guy managed to get Drummond on a boat back to the mother country with an unflattering report of his conduct. The crotchety septuagenarian, who had been a spry mid-30’s courtier when first appointed Virginia governor by Charles I, was coldly received by Charles II. “The old fool,” remarked the sovereign, “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

* “The bloodie flux” was an unsatisfying avenger for his foes, as indicated by the doggerel

“Bacon is Dead, I am sorry at my hart
That lice and flux should take the hangman’s part”

** Some sources put the total number executed at 23, not 22; I have been unable to locate the source of this discrepancy.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1661: Thomas Venner and the Fifth Monarchy Men

6 comments January 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1661, the restored English monarchy made an end to the interregnum’s religious crazies.

A few other images of Thomas Venner are available here.

“It is difficult in these days to follow with patience, or even with complete seriousness, all the ramifications of Fifth Monarchy speculation,” writes historian Louise Fargo Brown, whose gratis tome The Political Activities of the Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men in England proceeds to do just that.

This blog wants for both patience and seriousness, so we’ll sum up that Venner et al were the holy rollers of the day, the true whack-jobs in the millenarian hustle of Cromwellian England.

Venner himself was born in New England, and there’s a zippy bio of him in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The North American colonies and Parliamentarian Britain helped to incubate political/religious heterodoxy for one another, and Venner was not the only budding religious zealot in the distant marches to emigrate to London after Charles I lost his head.

There the cooper became an outspoken apostle of the Fifth Monarchists, a part of Cromwell’s coalition made for disappointment with the mundane machinations of statecraft. Relieved in time of any a share in General Ironsides’ burden of helming the state in choppy waters, the men of the Fifth Monarchy were at liberty, to retire with their slide rules and philosopher’s stones to calculate the (imminent) date of the apocalypse foretold by Daniel and pursue the maxim not yet born that, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.

All well and good to mock from posterity, and from a country where Left Behind is a bestseller no less. To be fair to the Monarchy Men, one could as well say that the egalitarian political language of these “arrant Radicals and levellers” just happened to be scriptural.* They would hardly be the last to foretell a golden age made ready by the slaying of a king, not by a long shot.

At any rate, our Bostonian tradesman became such an outspoken prophet of the return of “King Jesus” that Cromwell was obliged to clap him in irons.

Venner didn’t take the hint well, nor other more salutary warnings, and Venner instigated a riot of his few dozen followers at the start of January 1661 that took London unawares and did some damage before it was put down.

Diarist Samuel Pepys records of the riots that

[a] thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief. Their word was, “The King Jesus, and the heads upon the gates.” Few of them would receive any quarter, but such as were taken by force and kept alive; expecting Jesus to come here and reign in the world presently, and will not believe yet but their work will be carried on though they do die.

Thomas Venner and his compatriot Roger Hodgkins died that traitor’s death this day, along with William Oxman and Giles Pritchard, the latter two having their sentences commuted to simple hanging and posthumous beheading. The remaining survivors of his band climbed the scaffold two days later.

* e.g., “Then shall the Oppressor cease and no more complaining be heard in the streets. Taxes should be no more. And Trade and industry should abound. … The poor should have bread, and the Army no more in Arrears. Prison doors should be open and Debtors satisfied without Arrests … then peace and safety, plenty and prosperity, should overflow the land.” (Cited by Brown)

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1676: Joshua Tefft, drawn and quartered in Rhode Island

6 comments January 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1676, Puritan colonist Joshua Tefft (or Tifft, or Tift) became perhaps the only person ever to suffer the traitor’s death of hanging and quartering in what is now the United States.

The 30-ish Rhode Island farmer got sucked into King Philip’s War and was captured by colonists apparently fighting for the Narragansett Indians during a the Great Swamp Fight.

Lacking a first-person account from Mr. Tefft, we are left to descry (or project) his purpose. Tefft himself claimed that he had been enslaved by the Indians, but he made this claim in the context of trying to avoid a grisly execution; opposing witnesses said he’d been much more enthusiastic in the fight, raising an evident horror of civilized man gone native.

Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over. (Source)

He was one man caught up in a war, so of course he could have been many things. But Tefft invites speculation on racial self-identification on this still-tenuous New World frontier.

Living immediately adjacent to the Narragansett, Tefft was probably on good terms with the natives, something that at least some Anglos had keenly worked after for fifty-plus years. Some sources report (or charge) that he had taken an Indian wife,* and the Narragansett redoubt attacked in the Great Swamp Fight was a fortified encampment full of non-combatant types, hundreds of whom were eventually slaughtered.

And Rhode Island had a long-running border dispute with its Puritan fellow-colonists that intersected their historical differences on religious toleration. (Tefft is also decried as irreligious, though whether that’s literally true or just an extra heaping of opprobrium is anyone’s guess.) Why, after all, should a man not cohabit among the friendly peoples of his wife, and assist them when attacked — for the Narragansett were not at war until they were attacked — by a bunch of Connecticut and Plymouth colony prigs who’d want to shanghai him into their army?

One colonist able to sympathize with the Indians’ situation wrote of them that “perhaps if Englishmen, and good Christians too, had been in their case and under like temptations, possibly they might have done as they did.” Who knows but that some were, and they did.

Our Scouts brought in Prisoner one Tift, a Renegadoe English man, who having received a deserved punishment from our General, deserted our Army, and fled to the Enemy, where had good entertainment, and was again sent out by them with some of their forces; he was shot in the knee by our scouts, and then taken before he could discharge his musket, which was taken from him and found deep charged, and laden with Slugs: He was brought to our army, and tryed by a counsel of war, where he pretended that he was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them compelled to bear Arms in their Service; but this being proved to be false, he was condemned to be hanged and Quartered, which was accordingly done. (Source)

But while some Indian tribes allied with some whites, European identification ultimately proved much too strong to admit any possibility of not banding together against the “savages.” When vengeful Narragansett warriors raided Providence the following spring and torched the house of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, Massachusetts in sympathy lifted its 39-year-old exile on the man they’d have hung as a heretic in days gone by.

By then, it had long been over for Joshua Tefft, whose trial preceded execution by only two days. Joshua’s son Peter and other descendants of the Tefft family, however, would be fruitful and multiply.

By the time these New World settlements became the United States a century later, drawing and quartering was still on the books in England. But the New York legislature expressed (pdf) the sense of that realm’s North American offspring that this sentence even for treason was “marked by circumstances of Savage Cruelty, unnecessary for the Purpose of public Justice, and manifestly repugnant to that Spirit of Humanity, which should ever distinguish a free, a civilized, and Christian People.”

* Joshua Tefft’s previous wife, Sara, had died from childbirth a few years before. For Sara, also notable as the owner of what was once thought to be the oldest marked headstone in New England, it was her second husband … the first, Thomas Flounders, was hanged for murder.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration

6 comments January 18th, 2010 Headsman

It was a world turned upside down.

The Stuart line was (for now) restored to the throne, and the regicides of its late king horribly if not voluminously punished.

Not so easy, though, to undo the violent social changes that had produced (and fermented in) the Interregnum.

Feudal property relations had been overthrown, religion cast into dispute; uncharted lands were discovered and conquered, the laws of nature unveiled; great lords were put to death. Danger and possibility and portent must have felt omnipresent. Even London burned down.

Marx, endlessly fascinated by the English bourgeoisie’s rise over the centuries, wrote that it “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley of ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors.'” Into this disorder stepped a bewildering welter of ideas and models of life to contend at the frequent expense of their adherents’ lives.

From affairs of state to affairs of the heart, from the remote wildernesses of the New World to the highways of Albion, the Stuarts’ subjects risked life and limb seeking their places in this upside-down world.

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1799: Dun Mikiel Xerri, Maltese patriot

3 comments January 17th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

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

That Napoleon Bonaparte, he simply can’t leave well enough alone.

He already conquered Malta. Most of the Maltese were even okay with it. But then he started disassembling the Maltese nobility and restricting the church. This displeased Dun Mikiel Xerri, and it was on this date in 1799 that Xerri was shot dead for spearheading a Maltese revolt against the French.

Born on September 29, 1737 in Zebbug, Malta, Xerri studied as a young man at various universities throughout Europe. Learned, he becme a Roman Catholic priest and dabbled in both philosophy and mathematics, living warmly under the rule of The Knights of St. John. Then, Napoleon came.

It was 1798 and Napoleon’s fleet was traveling to Egypt on expedition. Napoleon asked for safe harbor on Malta to resupply his ships. The Maltese refused him water and so Napoleon ordered a division of troops up to Valletta, the Maltese capital city. Ferdinand von Hompesch au Bolheim, the 71st Grand Master of the Order of St. John, thought again on his stance on the water issue but Napoleon was already beginning to be entrenched in Maltese life, looting the Order’s assets and administering control. Not wanting to fight fellow Christians (the French), Hompesch did little to quell the influx of French soldiers. In fact, he quickly signed a treaty handing over sovereignty of the Island of Malta to the French Republic.

This initially pleased some Maltese, tired of Knight rule, but the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Xerri, and many others, believed a revolt was the only way to regain people’s rights due to the fact that the rights of Maltese nobility were figuratively stripped, and the treasures of the Maltese church literally so.

Outraged Maltese rose against the French garrison headquartered in Notabile. Outraged Maltese formed a National Assembly. Outraged Maltese raised open rebellion on the islands.

The French retreated to the fortified cities around the harbor where their ships were anchored. The Maltese, in arms, implored the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (run by King Ferdinand I) and Great Britain (then under the rule of King George III).

It was to no avail. During the blockades, hundreds of people, Maltese and French alike, died from starvation and deprivation. Desperate, within the fortress, Xerri the patriot and others decided to attack French forces in Valletta and Cottonera. The plot, however, was discovered by the French and before it could be executed, 49 people were arrested for the plotted insurrection, Xerri among them.

The archbishop of Malta, Vincenzo Labini, met with Xerri and Xerri’s companions the morning of January 17, 1799. Prayers were offered, quiet words of salvation exchanged. Xerri was taken from Fort Saint Elmo to the Palace Square. French troops awaited him. Xerri, moments from death, gave a silver watch to the official on duty. He asked to be shot through the heart. “May God have pity on us!” he shouted with the others. “Long live Malta!” He was then shot dead, taken away, and buried near the Church of Saint Publius in Floriana.

Malta did not gain its independence until September 21, 1964.

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1682: Alexander Cockburn, hangman, condemned

Add comment January 16th, 2010 Headsman

Domestic annals of Scotland: from the reformation to the revolution (reporting an item initially recorded by Lord Fountainhall):

1682. Jan. 16. Alexander Cockburn,* the hangman of Edinburgh, was tried before the magistrates as sheriffs, for the murder, in his own house, of one Adamson or Mackenzie, a blue-gown beggar. The proof was slender, and chiefly of the nature of presumption — as, that he had denied Adamson’s being in his house on the alleged day, the contrary being proved, groans having been heard, and bloody clothes found in the house; and this evidence, too, was chiefly from women. Yet he was condemned to be hanged within three suns. One Mackenzie, whom Cockburn had caused to lose his place of hangman at Stirling, performed the office.

Condemned by the evidence of women. How much worse can it get?

There is no report I have been able to locate of Cockburn’s actual hanging date; the “within three suns” sentence was standard for the time.

In days of yore, (says Aubrey) lords and gentlemen lived in the country like petty kings, had jura regalia belonging to the seignories, had castles and boroughs, had gallows within their liberties, where they would try, condemn, and execute; never went to London but in parliament time, or once a year to do homage to the king. Justice was administered with great expedition, and too often with vindictive severity. Pennant informs us that “originally the time of trial and execution was to be within three suns!” About the latter end of the seventeenth century** the period was extended to nine days after sentence; but since a rapid and unjust execution in a petty Scottish town, 1720,† the execution has been ordered to be deferred for forty days on the south, and sixty on the north side of the Tay, that time may be allowed for an application to the king for mercy.

* Not to be confused with barrister Alexander Cockburn (we’ve already met him) … nor, of course, with the late acerbic journalist.

** Specifically, 1695 — well after our day’s hangman had turned hanged man.

† This picturesque over-hasty execution detail appears to me to be folklorish and of questionable reliability. The bottom footnote here attributes the legal change to a cracking yarn about a dancing-master and an officer (here’s the broadside). This source puts it down to a man who committed murder while drunk and was caught, tried, and hanged before he so much as sobered up.

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2009: A day in the death penalty around the world

Add comment January 15th, 2010 Headsman

Capiital punishment may be an ancient historical phenomenon, but it’s hardly ancient history.

The executions that several of the 21st century world’s more aggressive death penalty users coincidentally carried out a year ago today testify together to the enduring place (and variegated guises) of the headsman in modernity.

China

Three prisoners were reported killed in Jinan in China on Jan. 15, 2009.

Two were men who had been serving prison terms for separate crimes when they incurred a death sentence for a violent (though seemingly non-lethal) escape attempt.

Liu Junjie, 35, and Wang Bing, 31, broke out of the prison in Zibo City on December 8, 2007 as a truck was moving out of the prison gate, according to a statement from the Shandong Provincial High People’s Court.

They hit a prison worker and two policemen with iron bars and choppers as they forced their way out. They were later caught as they fled along a road.

Former cabbie Bo Lijun shared that fate for a series of thefts, rapes, and murders.

According to the court, Bo raped and suffocated a female barber on Oct. 23, 2002 in Dongying.

Bo attempted to rape a female passenger in a wooded area near Dongying on July 29, 2006. Although he abandoned the rape attempt, he clubbed her to death for fear she would inform the police, and he buried the body at the site.


Saudi Arabia

One Mushabeb Al-Ahmari was beheaded in the province of Asir for “killing a compatriot with a machine gun” (who he killed and why was not reported).

Al-Ahmari was a minor when he was sentenced. The statement said his execution was delayed until he came of age.


United States

62-year-old James Callahan suffered lethal injection in Alabama Jan. 15, 2009, after 26 years on death row for raping and murdering a Jacksonville State University student in 1982. Callahan

requested a last meal of two corn dogs, french fries and a Coke … spent the day visiting with family and spiritual supporters … receive[d] communion at 4:30 p.m.

Callahan’s will bequeaths to his son $36.42 from his prison account, a black and white Radio Shack TV, two watches, a Walkman, some headphones, a leather belt, two pairs of boots, one pair of Nike tennis shoes, food items and legal papers.


Updated: Somalia

(This incident was not brought to our attention until after the post was already up, but in the peripatetic spirit of the entry, we thought it suitable to append.)

Somali politician Abdirahman Ahmed (also known as Waldiire) was shot by an Islamist militia in the port of Kismayo on Jan. 15, 2009.

Perhaps the first pol executed by Islamists, Ahmed was once the spokesman for a faction in the Somali civil war. He was put to death for collaborating with the Ethiopians who invaded Somalia at U.S. behest. As the Ethiopians were Christian, this behavior qualified as “apostasy” to the militants’ sharia court.

In January 2009, Ethiopia was in the process of withdrawing its military presence in its war-torn neighbor.

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1772: Susanna Margaretha Brandt, Faust inspiration

3 comments January 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Susanna Margaretha Brandt was beheaded with a sword in Frankfurt am Main for murdering her infant child.

The orphaned maid (German Wikipedia entry), not yet 26, had the previous August given birth to the child of a passing goldsmith who had drugged and seduced/raped her.

Brandt got rid of the child, and when caught hysterically attributed the murder to infernal influence.

Faustian Bargain

Affecting as Brandt’s small tragedy might be, she is remembered today not in her own right but because of her proximity to a 22-year-old lawyer living a few hundred yards from her cell: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Several of Goethe’s family and friends were directly involved in Brandt’s case, and her death through seduction and infanticide are widely taken (pdf) to have inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust: the character and the infanticide plotline are additions the German author made to an age-old legend.

Goethe began Faust in this same year of 1772, and continued reworking it throughout his life.

And it was a historically timely juncture to incorporate the baby-killing angle into the old Satanic pact story: infanticide was the subject of philosophical and juridical debate, with the use of capital punishment in infanticide cases sharp declining in forward-thinking German states.

Infanticide likewise became a trendy literary topic; Faust is only the best-known example.

“Seduction, and during the second half of the century infanticide, are possibly the most popular themes in eighteenth-century German literature by men,” according to Susanne Kord.*

Lessing’s Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti, Schiller’s Luise Millerin (Kabale und Liebe), Goethe’s Marie Beaumarchais (Clavigo) and countless other bourgeois heroines die as a direct result of a man’s — often a nobleman’s — sexual desire. Goethe’s Gretchen (Faust), Heinrich Leopold Wagner’s Evchen Humprecht (Die Kindermorderin), Lenz’ Marie (Zerbin) and many others are put to death for committing infanticide.

Like the woman-as-child, the woman-as-childkiller, fictional or not, teaches sexual morals; mounting the scaffold, the woman admits her guilt, speaks her warning, and, incidentally, absolves society of all blame.

That might be a little too pat. But despite rendering a sympathetic character in Margaret, Goethe’s own biography suggests the problematic nature of this widespread fascination with illicit sexuality.

The writer 11 years later found himself in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in position to help decide whether another infanticide should live or die.

Goethe voted for Johanna Catharina Höhn’s execution.

* “Women as Children, Women as Childkillers: Poetic Images of Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Spring 1993. More in this vein on Goethe in “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models” by Helga Stipa Madland, The German Quarterly, Winter 1989.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Women

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