Archive for June, 2011

1911: Sitarane and Fontaine, Reunion Island occultists

1 comment June 20th, 2011 Headsman

This date marks the centennial of perhaps the most famous execution in the history of Reunion Island: the June 20, 1911 guillotining of Sitarane and Fontaine.

Sitarane (French link) — his actual name was Simicoudza Simicourba — hailed from Portuguese Mozambique, supposedly from a long line of sorcerors.

A contract job brought him to Reunion, but he soon abandoned it for the black [magic] economy. A fellow purported necromancer named Pierre-Elie Calendrin pulled Sitarane and run-of-the-mill hoodlum Emmanuel Fontaine into a prolific little crime ring that terrorized Reunion around 1907 to 1909, amassing about a dozen murders.

And what murders!

Most of the sources on this circle are French, and they narrate weird occult criminality: reading tarot and sacrificing a black cock before a proposed adventure, drinking the blood of their victims to gain their strength.

Still, this was practical magic: Calendrin, Sitarane and Fontaine killed people so that they could rob them.

So it was with their dark arts, too: the sacrificed chickens were drugged and tossed to watchdogs; a mysterious powder blown through keyholes narcotized targets before the gang burst in to do its dirty work. It’s Sherlock Holmes in the Indian Ocean.

The three were finally surprised in the midst of one of their mercantile and monstrous sorties, and tried in 1910.

Although all three received death sentences, Calendrin — who as the trio’s leader would figure to have been the most culpable among them — had his execution mysteriously commuted to penal transportation to Guyana instead. Maybe he foretold the lottery numbers for a judge, or just cooked him a mean chicken dinner.

Sitarane died wailing a Comorian death-chant. Fontaine, more panicky, resisted the executioners and got his neck in a twist, resulting in a bad strike from the blade that lodged in his jaw.

But bad luck on the appellate circuit would mean a bit of immortality that the spared Calendrin could never obtain: today’s doomed — most particularly Sitarane — live on yet as popular saints with a special appeal to the underworld.


Sitarane’s jaunty red grave in Saint-Pierre attracts a lively flow of cult offerings from supplicants hoping to avail the powers of its resident thaumaturge … and of gawkers who do not fear to tempt the evil eye by photographing same. Allegedly, it’s the place to pray for fortune in the sort of nefarious scheme Sitarane used to get up to: folk contemplating a robbery or homicide are among those particularly likely to invoke their criminal forebear, as are those who fear such plots against them.

Image: Par Thierry Caro (Travail personnel) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ou CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The toxic hallucinogen Datura, a “witches’ weed” of long standing deployed over the centuries in all manner of potions and poultices, is known locally as Herbe à Sitarane.


(cc) image from mwanasimba

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Organized Crime,Pelf,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Reunion Island,The Supernatural

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1937: Jan Sten, Stalin’s tutor

1 comment June 19th, 2011 Headsman

Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.

This account of Sten’s unfortunate (though hardly atypical) fate comes from the archive of Sten’s personal friend, one Yevgeny Frolov and is printed in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.

Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.


Komar and Melamid‘s ironic 1981-1982 Stalin and the Muses travesties sycophantic Socialist Realism exaltations of Uncle Joe, like these. (More by K&M)

Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.

Seen in that light, a hostile review on RateMyProfessors.com doesn’t sound so bad at all.

* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)

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1800: Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover

2 comments June 18th, 2011 Headsman

It’s at dawn on this date in 1800 that the republican Mario Cavaradossi is shot at Castel Sant’Angelo in the climax of the Puccini opera Tosca.

This opera was adapted from the play La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou. That author does this site the considerable favor of exactly dating the action; a character at the end of Act 1, Scene 1 announces, “this evening, 17 June, a celebration at the Palazzo Farnese in honor of this victory.” The remaining story unfolds over that night and into the next morning.

En route to Marengo: Jacques-Louis David‘s heroic picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps comes from this campaign.

“This victory” worth the proposed palazzo party is the Austrian defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo during Bonaparte’s 1800 invasion of Italy.

But there’s a minor problem. Said seesaw battle went not to Austria but (decisively) to Napoleon, after a late French rally.

The action of Tosca takes place in a Rome which has received an initial, incorrect notice of Austrian victory. This is of particular import in the Eternal City because it’s under the temporary receivership of the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina, a virulent foe of the French Republic as befits a sister of Marie Antoinette.

(France-supported Italian revolutionaries had already deposed Maria Carolina once; the Corsican’s reappearance on her peninsula gave her good cause to fear that it would happen again.*)

At any rate, “Queen Caroline” and her husband Ferdinand were not above spilling blood to hold down the republican elements in Rome. Harold Acton pegged their harvest at “8,000 political prisoners … 105 were condemned to death, six of whom were reprieved.”

Our date’s fictional principal would reckon among those.

We meet him as a painter with subversively liberal inclinations, in love with the titular heroine as she with him — but opposed by police chief Scarpia: his profession is to pursue revolutionaries; his passion, to pursue Tosca.

Scarpia captures, and tortures, Cavaradossi for aiding an escaped official of the recently destroyed Roman Republic, and forces Tosca to yield herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life.** This is Tosca’s aria lamenting her position:

One thing: because Scarpia doesn’t want to be implicated in the release of a dangerous radical, he insists on a mock-execution in which the prisoner will appear to be shot and feign death, the better to spirit Cavaradossi away and on to happily-ever-after.†

And because Scarpia is a villain, he arranges for his rival’s “mock” execution to be not so mock after all … to the suicidal horror of Tosca.

Aaaaaand curtain.

There are scads more Tosca excerpts on YouTube. Here’s an Italian-English libretto, and here a handy summary.

* It would, in fact, happen again.

** Okay, to agree to yield herself to him. Tosca stabs Scarpia to death when he rises to collect her promised virtue.

† “In the manner of Count Palmieri,” Scarpia instructs his subaltern. If this is a reference to a real case, we are not aware of it; there was a royalist Marquis Palmieri executed in Naples in 1807 by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph.

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1825: Isaac, Israel, and Nelson Thayer, in Buffalo’s only public hanging

1 comment June 17th, 2011 Headsman

Given that the great city of Buffalo, New York has raised its hangmen all the way to the White House, it might come as a surprise that the Queen City has hosted only a single public hanging day.

This is the anniversary of that day, which saw droogish brothers Isaac, Israel, and Nelson Thayer turned off from the same gallows for the murder of John Love — the Thayers’ former boarder, turned considerable creditor, turned potential forecloser.

The very enjoyable blog Murder by Gaslight, whose beat is America’s 19th century crime scene, has the story of the Thayer brothers fully narrated — along with a separate post featuring a very ungainly murder ballad.

Then the judge pronounced thare dredful sentence
Whith grate candidness to behold
You must all be hanged untell your ded
And lord mursey on your souls

Well, we can’t all be Oscar Wilde.

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1826: Janissaries during the Auspicious Incident

2 comments June 16th, 2011 Headsman

We have received from Constantinople the following further particulars of the revolt of the Janissaries: —

“June 16, 3 o’clock p.m.

“The Sultan was at his summer palace of Bschektash. The Aga Pacha, and the Pacha commanding on the Asiatic bank of the Bosphorus, repaired to Constantinople with their troops: 8,000 topschis, or artillery, also went thither. At length, his Sublimity being resolved to quell the rebellion, caused the standard of the Prophet to be displayed, and proclamations to be made in all the quarters of the city, that all men of honour — that is to say, true believers — had immediately to rally round this standard. The Ulemas met in the Seraglio. The appearance of the Snadgiak Sherif caused some hesitation among the rebels; their numbers were reduced by desertion, while, on the other hand, all the people hastened to assemble round the sacred standard. The energy of the Aga Pacha did the rest; he has crushed the rebles with grape-shot, burnt their barracks in the Ahnudan, and pursued them without mercy.

“The Grand Vizier is in the Court of the Mosque of Sultan Achmet, in the Hippodrome, with the Sandgiak Sherif still displayed; the chiefs of the corps of the Ulemas are met there in council; the Sultan is at the Seraglio, with the great men of the empire. Every moment persons are brought into the Hippodrome, and executed on the spot. Above 100 Oustas have already suffered this fate. This morning all the gates of Constantinople, except one, are shut or guarded by topschis and citizens. The remainder of the rebels have taken refuge in some khans built of stone, where they are invested, and where, to all appearance, famine will soon deliver them to the mercy of the Aga Pacha.

London Times, July 15, 1826 (translating July 11 reports published in the French papers)

This date in 1826 finds Constantinople in the midst of what history will remember as the Auspicious Incident — an attempted revolt by the Ottoman Empire’s elite Janissary corps that was not at all auspicious for the Janissaries.

This centuries-old slave infantry,* a sort of Ottoman Praetorian Guard as well as the sultan’s elite military presence in the empire’s hinterlands, had evolved by this stage of decadence into a vampire squid on the face of the Porte.**

Jealous of their material privileges and political prerogatives even as the dawn of industry and conscript armies undermined their combat utility, the Janissaries had become much more trouble than they were worth.†

They had “begun to present a serious threat to the Empire,” wrote Lord Kinross in Ottoman Centuries. “On the battlefield they were gaining a reputation among the modern foreign armies for ineptitude and even cowardice under arms … In the capital … they came to be a dominant power and a focus of sedition.”

Kinross wrote that about the Janissaries of the early 17th century, in the reign of Osman II. (Osman tried to curtail the troop’s power, and was executed by his bodyguards for his trouble.)

A couple of centuries on from that moment, and the Janissaries are still skulking about the Seraglio, still keeping their supposed masters in mortal terror, still arbitrating the succession.

The current ruler, Mahmud II, had been fortunate in his own youth to survive the Janissaries’ political intrusion and reach the throne.

For a generation, Mahmud had waited and readied himself for the opportunity to sweep this piece off the chessboard. This would be a most Auspicious Incident indeed.

Kinross and many other historians suspect that Mahmud intentionally baited the Janissaries to revolt in 1826, but whether or not that is so, they did revolt — in response to a decree reorganizing the corps.

Mahmud was ready for them. He repelled the Janissary mutiny on June 15, and as described by our third-hand correspondent above, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy: under artillery barrage in the barracks they retreated to, or by the summary execution of all who surrendered — not just on this date, but throughout the Incident and extending to the further reaches of the empire where Mahmud’s agents carried his decree abolishing the Janissaries forever.

* Culled from children taken from non-Muslim families and raised as Islamic converts.

** Not unlike the actual Praetorian Guard.

† There’s a competing historiography contending (pdf) that, contrary to the corrupt-backwards-military-caste story, it was the Janissaries’ economic and social links that brought on their destruction: they became the entity representing the autonomous Ottoman classes, such as artisans and guilds, who had the most to lose from the elites’ state modernization project.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Ottoman Empire,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey

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1648: Margaret Jones, the first witch executed in Boston

Add comment June 15th, 2011 Headsman

We expediently cadge today’s entry from the public-domain Memorial History of Boston, in a section penned by Chicago public librarian William F. Poole.

(The illustrations, their captions, and the footnotes are interpositions from ExecutedToday.com.)


In Boston, the earliest execution for witchcraft was that of Margaret Jones, of Charlestown, on June 15, 1648.* There seems to be no evidence that any earlier case of witchcraft was under investigation in the colony.

Her husband, Thomas Jones, was arrested at the same time on the same charge, but he was not convicted. The little we know of Margaret Jones we find in Governor Winthrop’s Journal. She was evidently a strong-minded woman, and a skilful practitioner of medicine … There was no charge that she had bewitched any one, and the usual phenomena of spectres, fits, spasms, etc. were wanting. The main evidence on which she was convicted was her imps, which were detected by “watching” her …

The Court Records and the Deputies’ Records … for May 18, give an order concerning Margaret Jones and her husband, without the mention of their names, as follows: —

This court, desirous that the same course which hath been taken in England for the discovery of witches, by watching [them a certain time] may also be taken here with the witch now in question: [It is ordered that the best and surest way may forthwith be put in practice, to begin tis night, if it may be, being the 18th of the 3d month] that a strict watch be set about her every night, and that her husband be confined to a private room and watched also” (Deputies’ Records, with the words in brackets inserted from the Court records).

The theory of the English law books was that every witch had familiars or imps, which were sent out by the witch to work deeds of darkness, and that they returned to the witch once a day, at least, for sustenance, and usually in the night. By watching the witch these imps might be detected, and thus furnish certain proof of guilt in the accused.


1647 frontispiece of English witch hunter Matthew Hopkins‘s tract The Discovery of Witches shows witches and their various named familiars.

Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, containing the Practice, Duty, and Power of Justices of the Peace, was a common book in the colonies, and was quoted in the witch trials at Salem. In the chapter on “Witchcraft” it has the following directions: —

Now against these witches, being the most cruel, revengeful, and bloody of all the rest, the justices of the Peace may not always expect direct evidence, seeing all their works are the works of darkness, and no witnesses present with them to accuse them; and, therefore, for the better discovery, I thought good here to insert certain observations, partly out of the ‘Book of Discovery of the Witches that were arraigned at Lancaster, Anno 1612, before Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, Judges of Assize there,’ and partly out of Mr. [Richard] Bernard’s ‘Guide to Grand Jurymen.’

These witches have ordinarily a familiar, or spirit, which appeareth to them, sometimes in one shape and sometimes in another; as in the shape of a man, woman, boy, dog, cat, foal, hare, rat, toad etc.


A 1579 English image of a witch feeding her familiars. (But not from secret teats.)

And to these their spirits they give names, and they meet together to christen them (as they speak). Their said familiar hath some big or little teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where he sucketh them. And besides their sucking the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blue or red spot, like a flea-biting, sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow (all which for a time may be covered, yea, taken away, but will come out again in their old form). And these Devil’s marks be insensible, and being pricked will not bleed, and be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search. These first two are main points to discover and convict those witches; for they fully prove that those witches have a familiar, and made a league with the Devil. So, likewise, if the suspected be proved to have been heard to call upon their spirits, or to talk to them, or of them, or have offered them to others. So if they have been seen with their spirit, or to feed something secretly; these are proofs that they have a familiar. They have often pictures [images] of clay or wax, like a man, etc., made of such as they would bewitch, found in their house, or which they may roast or bury in the earth, that as the picture consumes, so may the parties bewitched consume (Edition of 1727, p. 514.)

Mr. John Gaule, in his Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft, 1646, p. 77, condemning the barbarous methods of discovering witches, thus describes the mode of “watching a witch” in use at the time: —

Having taken the suspected witch, she is placed in the middle of a room upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some uneasy posture, to which if she submits not, she is bound with cords. She is there watched, and kept without meat or sleep for the space of four-and-twenty hours. — for they say within that time they shall see her imp come and suck. A little hole is likewise made in the door for the imps to come in at.

Margaret Jones was “searched” and “watched;” the fatal witch-marks were discovered, and her imp was seen in “the clear day-light,” as appears in the record of the case which Governor Winthrop made in his Journal at the time: —

[June 15, 1648].** At this court, one Margaret Jones, of Chalrestown, was indicted and found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged for it. The evidence against her was —

  1. That she was found to have such a malignant touch, as many persons, men, women, and children,, whom she stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure, or etc. [sic], were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness.
  2. She practising physic, and her medicines being such things as, by her own confession, were harmless, — as anise-seed, liquors, etc., — yet had extraordinary violent effects.
  3. She would use to tell such as would not make use of her physic, that they would never be healed; and accordingly their diseases and hurts continued, with relapse against the ordinary course, and beyond he apprehension of all physicians and surgeons.
  4. Some things which she foretold came to pass accordingly; other things she would tell of, as secret speeches, etc., which she had no ordinary means to come to the knowledge of.
  5. She had, upon search, an apparent teat … as fresh as if it had been newly sucked; and after it had been scanned, upon a forced search, that was withered, and another began on the opposite side.
  6. In the prison, in the clear day-light, there was seen in her arms, she sitting on the floor, and her clothes up, etc., a little child, which ran from her into another room, and the officer following it, it was vanished. the like child was seen in two other places to which she had relation; and one maid that saw it, fell sick upon it, and was cured by the said Margaret who used means to be employed to that end. Her behavior at her trial was very intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the jury and witnesses, etc., and in the like distemper she died. The same day and hour she was executed, there was a very great tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many trees, etc. (ii. 397, ed. of 1853).

Mr. John Hale,† in his Modest Inquiry, p. 17, mentions the case, but none of the incidents recorded by Winthrop. He was born in Charlestown, was twelve years old at the time, and with some neighbors visited the condemned woman in prison the day she was executed. He says: —

… She was suspected, partly because that, after some angry words passing between her and her neighbors, some msichief befell such neighbors in their creatures [cattle] or the like; partly because some things supposed to be bewitched, or have a charm upon them, being burned, she came to the fire and seemed concerned.

The day of her execution I went, in company of some neighbors, who took great pains to bring her to confession and repentance; but she constantly professed herself innocent of that crime. Then one prayed her to consider if God did not bring this punishment upon her for some other crime; and asked if she had not been guilty of stealing many years ago. She answered, she had stolen something; but it was long since, and she had repented of it, and there was grace enough in Christ to pardno that long ago; but as for witchcraft she was wholly free from it, — and so she said unto her death.

There is no other contemporary mention of the case. It is a horrible record; and if downright, stolid superstition and inhumanity was not surpassed, if, indeed, it was equalled, at Salem forty-four years later. That it was an incident characteristic of the time, and that similar atrocities were being committed in every nation in Europe without shocking the sensibilities of the most refined and cultivated men of that day, are the only mitigating circumstances which can be suggested.

Thomas Jones, the husband of the woman executed, found, on his release from prison, that his troubles had only begun. He resolved to leave the country, and took passage in the Boston ship “Welcome,” riding at anchor before Charlestown … The weather was calm, yet the ship fell to rolling, and so deep it was feared she would founder … hearing that te husband of the executed witch was on board, between whom and the captain a dispute had arisen as to his passage-money, [the County Court of Boston] sent officers to arrest him, one of them saying “the ship would stand still as soon as he was in prison.” No sooner was the warrant shown, tan the rolling of the ship began to stop, and after the man was in prison it moved no more.‡

* Not to be confused with the first witchcraft execution in all of New England, witchwhich distinction belongs, so far as can be documented, to Alse Young in Connecticut the previous year.

** Winthrop does not date this entry himself. The author of this piece observes in a footnote here that “the date next preceding is June 4, 1648. The true date of the execution was doubtless June 15, as appears in Danforth‘s Almanac for that year.

† John Hale is of particular interest as one of the ministers later involved in the Salem witch trialsproceedings he initially supported, but turned against as they unfolded. He appears in that capacity as a character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; there’s a short YouTube video series exploring his character in that play: Part 1 | Part 2

The work cited here, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, was Hale’s post-Salem critique of witchcraft theology and jurisprudence.

‡ Suggestive evidence indeed. Montague Summers might encourage us to consider the possibility that the Joneses really were witches.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

5 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions

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1857: Twelve blown from cannons in British Punjab

15 comments June 13th, 2011 Headsman

An account from the February 15, 1862 Harper’s Weekly of a very messy spectacle orchestrated to maintain British control of Punjab.

Another execution of a similar nature took place on the 13th of June, at Ferozepore. All the available troops and public establishments were convened to witness the scene. Some of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up. The mutineers were then brought into the centre, and the proceedings of the general Court-Martial was read. Upon being informed that if they would become Queen’s evidence they would be reprieved, twelve of the criminals accepted the offer and were marched to the rear. Two were taken to the gallows. They ascended the ladder with firm steps, and to the last moment betrayed no emotion of fear.

The remaining ten were now led away to the artillery guns, and while their irons were being struck off some cried, “Do not sacrifice the innocent for the guilty!” Two others rejoined, “Hold your sniveling: die men and not cowards — you defended your religion, why then do you crave your lives? Sahibs! they are not Sahibs, they are dogs!” Others then began to upbraid their commanding officer. The wretched beings were quickly fastened to the muzzles of ten guns, charged with blank cartridge.

The commanding officer directed port-fires to be lit. “Ready!” “Fire!” and the drama was played out. An eye-witness says: “The scene and stench were overpowering. I felt myself terribly convulsed, and could observe that the numerous native spectators were awe-stricken — that they not only trembled like aspen-leaves, but also changed into unnatural hues. Precaution was not taken to remove the sponge-and-load men from the muzzles of the guns; the consequence was that they were greatly bespattered with blood, and one man in particular received a stunning blow from a shivered arm!


A lengthier account, no less riveting and we suppose more accurate on account of its primary sourcing, is to be found in this memoir or the British campaign against the Sepoy rebellion.

June 13 The morning of June 13 was fixed upon for the execution. A gallows was erected on the plain to the north side of the fort, facing the native bazaars, and at a distance of some 300 yards. On this two sepoys were to be hanged, and at the same time their comrades in mutiny were to be blown away from guns.

We paraded at daylight every man off duty, and, with the band playing, marched to the place of execution, and drew up in line near the gallows and opposite the native quarter.

Shortly after our arrival the European Light Field Battery, of six guns, appeared on the scene, forming up on our left flank, and about twenty yards in front of the Light Company.

The morning was close and sultry, not a cloud in the sky, and not a breath of wind stirring; and I confess I felt sick with a suffocating sense of horror when I reflected on the terrible sight I was about to witness.

Soon the fourteen mutineers, under a strong escort of our men with fixed bayonets, were seen moving from the fort. They advanced over the plain at our rear, and drew up to the left front of, and at right angles to, the battery of artillery.

I was standing at the extreme right of the line with the Grenadier Company, and some distance from the guns; but I had provided myself with a pair of strong glasses, and therefore saw all that followed clearly and distinctly.

There was no unnecessary delay in the accomplishment of the tragedy. Two of the wretched creatures were marched off to the gallows, and placed with ropes round their necks on a raised platform under the beam.

The order was given for the guns to be loaded, and quick as thought the European artillerymen placed a quarter charge of powder in each piece. The guns were 9-pounders, the muzzles standing about 3 feet from the ground.

During these awful preparations, I watched at intervals the faces of the condemned men, but could detect no traces of fear or agitation in their demeanour. The twelve stood two deep, six in front and six in the rear, calm and undismayed, without uttering a word.

An officer came forward, and, by the Brigadier’s order, read the sentence of the court-martial, and at its conclusion the six men in front, under escort, walked towards the battery.

There was a death-like silence over the scene at this time, and, overcome with horror, my heart seemed almost to cease beating.

Arrived at the guns, the culprits were handed over to the artillerymen, who, ready prepared with strong ropes in their hands, seized their victims. Each of these, standing erect, was bound to a cannon and tightly secured, with the small of the back covering the muzzle. And then all at once the silence which reigned around was broken by the oaths and yells of those about to die. These sounds were not uttered by men afraid of death, for they showed the most stoical indifference, but were the long-suppressed utterances of dying souls, who, in the bitterness of their hearts, cursed those who had been instrumental in condemning them to this shameful end. They one and all poured out maledictions on our heads; and in their language, one most rich in expletives, they exhausted the whole vocabulary.

Meanwhile the gunners stood with lighted port-fires, waiting for the
word of command to fire the guns and launch the sepoys into eternity.

These were still yelling and raining abuse, some even looking over their shoulders and watching without emotion the port-fires, about to be applied to the touch-holes, when the word “Fire!” sounded from the officer in command, and part of the tragedy was at an end.

A thick cloud of smoke issued from the muzzles of the cannons, through which were distinctly seen by several of us the black heads of the victims, thrown many feet into the air.

While this tragic drama was enacting, the two sepoys to be hanged were turned off the platform.

The artillerymen again loaded the guns, the six remaining prisoners, cursing like their comrades, were bound to them, another discharge, and then an execution, the like of which I hope never to see again, was completed.

All this time a sickening, offensive smell pervaded the air, a stench which only those who have been present at scenes such as these can realize — the pungent odour of burnt human flesh.

The artillerymen had neglected putting up back-boards to their guns, so that, horrible to relate, at each discharge the recoil threw back pieces of burning flesh, bespattering the men and covering them with blood and calcined remains.

A large concourse of natives from the bazaars and city had assembled in front of the houses, facing the guns at a distance, as I said before, of some 300 yards, to watch the execution. At the second discharge of the cannon, and on looking before me, I noticed the ground torn up and earth thrown a slight distance into the air more than 200 paces away. Almost at the same time there was a commotion among the throng in front, some running to and fro, while others ran off in the direction of the houses. I called the attention of an officer who was standing by my side to this strange and unaccountable phenomenon, and said, half joking: “Surely the scattered limbs of the sepoys have not been carried so far?”

He agreed with me that such was impossible; but how to account for the sight we had seen was quite beyond our comprehension.

The drama came to an end about six o’clock, and as is usual, even after a funeral or a military execution, the band struck up an air, and we marched back to barracks, hoping soon to drive from our minds the recollection of the awful scenes we had witnessed.

Two or three hours after our return news arrived that one native had been killed and two wounded among the crowd which had stood in our front, spectators of the recent execution. How this happened has never been explained. At this time a “cantonment guard” was mounted, consisting of a company of European infantry, half a troop of the 10th Light Cavalry, and four guns, and two of these guns loaded with grape were kept ready during the night, the horses being harnessed, etc. Half the cavalry also was held in readiness, saddled; in fact, every precaution was taken to meet an attack.

As far as I can recollect, there were but two executions by blowing away from guns on any large scale by us during the Mutiny; one of them that at Ferozepore.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Blown from Cannon,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,India,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1903: Ora Copenhaver and William Jackson, a double hanging

1 comment June 12th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1903, there was a double hanging at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana: William Jackson, a black man, and Ora E. Copenhaver, who was white.

According to the Indianapolis Star‘s history of capital punishment in Indiana, they were the seventh and eighth persons to be executed since Indiana adopted the death penalty in 1897. Ora (sometimes called “Orie” in press reports) was twenty-six years old at the time of his death; Jackson was forty-five. Copenhaver had murdered his wife (unnamed in the press reports) in Indianapolis on September 7 the previous year:

Shortly before their dinner hour on the day of the tragedy Copenhaver called his wife to the door and without a warning or giving her any inkling of his intent, drew a revolver from his pocket and fired four shots at her, three of which took effect […] Copenhaver, after shooting his wife, calmly walked to a neighboring store and telephoned to the police station, informing the desk sergeant that a murder had been committed. He then awaited the coming of the police and surrendered himself. Jealousy was ascribed as the motive for the deed.

Justice was swift and without mercy: Copenhaver was convicted by a jury of his peers on October 15, a mere 38 days after the shooting. He was formally sentenced on October 28, and the sentence was carried out seven and a half months after that. The Fort Wayne News called the murder “dastardly” and praised the death sentence. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, citing an unnamed “authentic source,” claimed that in the weeks before his death Copenhaver feigned insanity in an effort to evade his punishment. Yet he was calm and ready when the moment came.

Little information can be found about Jackson, described as “an Evansville Negro.”

On some unspecified date in 1902, he killed his coworker, a night watchman named Allan Blankenship, at a mill in Melrose, Indiana. He also robbed his victim of the princely sum of $3.90. Contemporary reports state Jackson seemed “wholly indifferent” about his sentence and spent most of the last day of his life reading the Bible. He had no last words.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Indiana,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1949: Koci Xoxe, Titoist

6 comments June 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Albania’s former defense minister was purged.

One of the first purge victims in the Soviet satellites — though scarcely the last — Xoxe was induced to admit having labored “against the Party and the people.”

The ethnic Macedonian’s real offense had been a pro-Yugoslav orientation.

That put Xoxe on the wrong side of the emerging rift in the Communist bloc, between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and independent-minded Yugoslav strongman Josip Tito.

After Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, Moscow froze the naughty Yugoslavs out of the international communist club and began suppressing “Titoist” elements whose national political or economic orientation augured potential annoyance for Soviet supremacy.

Albanian chief Enver Hoxha in later years would become somewhat notorious as the last unabashed Stalinist leader in Europe. (Hoxha took an “anti-revisionist” stance on Khrushchev’s later denunciation of Stalin.) So you can see the bind Koci Xoxe was about to be in.

Hoxha’s own pro-Soviet orientation was akin in its way to Tito’s anti-Soviet orientation: for Tito, Moscow meant domination, but for Hoxha, Yugoslavia was the resented aspiring regional hegemon. Albanian economic ministers complained that trade links disproportionately benefited Belgrade, and Yugoslavia once high-handedly marched troops into Albania to contain a conflict in neighboring Greece.

At any rate, Hoxha went energetically along with Uncle Joe on the Tito question … whose answer, on this date, was a bullet for Hoxha’s former Defense Minister.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Albania,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Shot,Torture,Treason

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