1983: Wang Zhong, small-time grifter 1678: James Mitchell, Covenanter assassin

3,001 Days of our Deaths

January 17th, 2016 Headsman

The 17th of January in 2016 happens to mark the 3,001st consecutive day this diligent site has posted since it launched with a Halloween werewolf way back in 2007.

Having traveled such a very long odyssey, and survived thus far so many perils to continuity,* it seems meet to leave a few runic scratchings for the next foolhardy adventurer, on the topic (so essential to the almanac conceit) of the calendar.

Perhaps we ought to begin with that word essential. Our schtick here at Executed Today is to pin each entry to the anniversary of the execution in question. Day by day, few readers really care that this is the case and justifiably not: each post stands or falls on its own, and the coincidental date rarely appears as more than a footnote. But from the standpoint of structure, the dates constitute a sort of editorial dark matter that holds the whole together. It’s the constraint that produces the site’s mixture of household-name cases and exhumed obscurities, ancient saints and headline news, not to mention the odd discovered** thematic patterns we occasionally cobble together across the centuries. Without the need to meet the date the selections would be too arbitrary, the arrangements too pat, and the deadlines too forgiving — and for that reason I endeavor to keep the occasional executions of uncertain dates, be they ever so intriguing, only rare indulgences.

It’s also certainly the case that the requirement to research events for specific dates has led me to discover stories through, as it were, the other end of the telescope — to begin with a general resource like the roster of British hangings at CapitalPunishmentuk.org and, from nothing but an initial name and date, try to crack open a story. These can yield astonishing discoveries. My favorite instance of this was stumbling on the role a death penalty appellate case played in the legal challenge to Jim Crow in the 1890s — which came into my view only because I needed some entry to plug in on 1 May, searched the Espy file index of U.S. executions accordingly, and started following the threads.

For me, the payoff in quality easily rewards the troubles of maintaining the anniversary format. That does not mean those troubles have not on occasion been bayed out, garments rent by the fleshchunk, under a blood moon.

The first and most maddeningly ubiquitous problem one encounters in writing an almanac history site is the amazingly cavalier attention to detail that prevails in roughly any class of sources one would care to name — detail like the date.

I’m sure this is not peculiar to executions, but let me tell you from hard experience that when some source or other out there reports that the poor bastard was hanged on whatever day, you had best begin by taking the specifications with a grain of salt.

People who retell these stories, whatever the nature of their interest or axe-grinding, don’t care about this date, in the least; the thing that happened March 15 could as well be March 18 or April 15 or Christmas Day and for nigh everyone but the daily blogger that minutiae just isn’t the point. In the grand tradition of sleepy scriptorium scribes miscopying their scrolls you’ll get some nameless pen in the fogs of time who writes down the fellow’s trial date for his death date, or transposes the numbers in the date, or any other bloody thing at all. I would presume this fuzzing of the record is typically an accident born of carelessness or indifference, though occasionally it’s perfectly intentional.

Whatever the reason, when your concept is all about the calendar, it’s a jolly walk over quicksand.

I discovered this to my early grief not three weeks into the site’s run when I posted about pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham and casually dropped in the execution date that was at the time asserted in Jack’s Wikipedia entry … which turned out to be one day off.

Let it not be said that the world’s fact-checkers do not earn their daily bread, for it is from innumerable copies upon copies that these little slips perpetrate themselves upon the years, multiplying into their own self-confirming colonies of cross-referencing sources. Unfortunately, your narrator is this site’s only fact-checker; ever since the Calico Jack debacle, I’ve lost literally hundreds of hours like Diogenes searching for one honest date in the (disturbingly frequent) instances where early research shows the timing questionable or disputed. Ideally one’s torchlight at last falls upon a definitive primary source, as with Spanish anarchist Michele Angiolillo; sometimes one has to settle for what appears to be the most credible consensus, as with this criminal autopsy painted by Rembrandt; and every now and again, one must outright spike a promising post. (Murder your darlings, they say; surely a headsman ought to be able to do it.)

Despite what sometimes veers into Ahab-like pursuit of a detail that readers basically figure to ignore, I’ve still managed to punt one or two other dates in live posts over the years: contravening as they do the core architecture of the entire project, these errors scar my soul more deeply than pretty much any other. Even though she’s an Ace in our playing card deck, I’d sooner call Joan of Arc a Huguenot arsonist who was beheaded during the Boxer Rebellion for passing bad checks than say that she burned on May 29th.

(Paradoxically, this all makes ancient dates some of the “best” for my purposes even though they’re the worst as far as objective reliability goes. Cassius Dio might be talking through his toga but if he wrote a date down, we’re rolling with it because odds are that it’s the only date citation in existence at all.)

Ticking the wrong box on the calendar is one thing, but a whole new level of pandemonium arises when the calendar itself must be queried.

We’ve obviously normalized this site to the dates of the present-day western calendar. This is basically the Gregorian Calendar; it’s named for the counter-Reformation pope who promulgated it as a corrective to the slightly-too-slow Julian calendar.† Since the reform was associated with one side in Christendom’s sectarian schism, Protestant countries were slow to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and did so one by one when they finally cracked. (Catholic territories adopted the Gregorian calendar almost in one fell swoop in 1582.) Orthodox Europe held out even longer.

Consequently, for several centuries, different European countries used two different calendars. When Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn, and quartered on 31 January 1606, it was already 10 February across the channel in France.‡ So how’s that supposed to work on my calendar?

I’m frankly surprised than in eight-plus years I’ve never been challenged on this — another indicator how little most readers care about the dates. (Again, I don’t say this to criticize. Readers have little reason to care about the dates!) This was not at all something I had thoroughly thought through when I launched this site, and as a result it has not been handled with anything approaching rigorous consistency, but the practice I’ve come to is roughly this:

  1. For dates prior to 1582, the Julian calendar is used. (i.e., we’re not retrofitting the Gregorian calendar)
  2. For dates from 1582 (the initial introduction of the Gregorian calendar) to 1752-53 (when the last major Protestant states finally adopted it), I let the local date prevail: Julian dates for English executions; Gregorian dates for French executions.
    • However, this does still leave gray area where the execution is the concern of multiple countries. For example, in 1623, the Dutch (already on the Gregorian calendar) executed in the East Indies some nationals of England (still on the Julian calendar). I rolled with the Julian date for the entirely arbitrary reason that the post focused greatly on how that event played in England.
  3. After 1752-53, I default to Gregorian dates even in Orthodox countries — where, even though the Julian calendar remained in use until as late as 1923, even local intelligentsia often reference events by the Gregorian dates that were clearly emerging the de facto standard
    • However, I have definitely cheated on (or simply been inconsistent about) the Julian/Gregorian thing in post-1753 Orthodox Europe, as in this post channeling Tolstoy’s War and Peace executions. Considering the source and nature of that particular story, it just seemed more right to let its Russianness carry the day.

So that covers dates in the western milieu, with a substantial fudge factor.

When it comes to the many and interesting calendars outside the Julian-Gregorian track, it’s Katy bar the door. I do my best to cram them into the equivalent western date on a catch-as-can basis; if you’ve read this far with me you will not be surprised to hear that dates emerging from, say, an ancient Persian calendar or from variants of the Hindu calendar deserve a jaundiced eye when they’re served up in January-to-December terms by a website, popular history, or any intermediary channel that looks less than anal-retentive.

Case in point: you’ll see the crucifixion date of Japanese “Warring States Period” hero Torii Suneemon described in some sources as occurring on 16 May. It turns out that it took place on the 16th day of the fifth month … of the pre-Gregorian Japanese lunisolar calendar.§ I arrived at 24 June as the correct equivalent date by testing and nervously re-testing through calendar translators, leaving the date’s accuracy suspended between the reliability of said translators and the competence of your correspondent. (Fortunately the story is excellent enough to bear a little trepidation in the dating.)

This is the sausage-making that for three millennia has slaked your morbid fascination and mine. It’s time for the fourth thousand posts.

Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:

  • 2500, against miscorrection
  • 2001, musing on the death penalty in literary dystopias
  • 1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
  • 1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
  • 500, merely a Spartan marking of the date

… at this point I suppose I’m only doing the thousand-and-one thing in deference to now-meaningless precedent. Does 3,001 have any special resonance, the way 1,001 and 2,001 did?

* I am not above writing lashed naked, save that one can rarely afford this service on the pennies earned by Amazon referrals.

** Or forced.

† Introducing the Gregorian calendar entailed jumping forward 10 days (when the calendar was introduced) or 13 days (as of today). If you think this was a logistical nightmare, consider the 445-day year that Julius Caesar had to decree in order to bump Rome from its crazy lunar hodgepodge and onto the Julian calendar.

As added fun, England prior to the Gregorian switch had its New Year not on January 1 but on March 25, meaning that one must double-check the years of English dates in January, February and March.

‡ These also occasionally compound the simple date accuracy problems as writers conscious that the Gregorian calendar is the more accurate sometimes normalize their own commentaries to the “true” date, resulting in one’s sources citing the same events according to different date registers and nobody being explicit about which they’ve chosen. Oh, and after that, you’ll get interlocutors who completely misinterpret leftover impressions of the Julian/Gregorian changeover and talk utter nonsense as if intentionally trying to obfuscate.

§ You’ll also commonly see this “Xth day of the Yth month” stuff naively rendered “straight” into a western date when primary sources use a regnal year. (e.g., the fourth day of the eighth month of the illustrious reign of King So-And-So does not mean 4 August.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages

4 thoughts on “3,001 Days of our Deaths”

  1. Lee Fisher says:

    This site is great; not to be morbid, very educational, all about the vicissitudes of life. Thanks again

  2. Headsman says:

    Thank you both for such warm words.

    The “why” is a question I’ve never had a good answer to, and maybe has different answers across time. I had the germ of the concept for years before I started this site but the writing has certainly animated the idea in ways I never anticipated.

  3. Derrick Jensen says:

    I check this website every day. I enjoy it not only because of the stories themselves, and not only because of the history I learn through it, but also because you’re a damn good writer. The writing is frankly fantastic. I say this, by the way, as someone who has more than 20 books out. Anyway, I’ve been reading your site for years, and thought it finally time to thank you.

  4. Sarah Johnson says:

    I for one appreciate your efforts to be accurate. As someone researching 17th century England, I am constantly amazed at the general lack of proofreading before posting or publishing. Actually, I appreciate your posts all the time … macabre as they sometimes must be.

    Why did you start it?

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