Posts filed under 'Bludgeoned'

764: St. Stephen the Younger, iconodule martyr

Add comment November 28th, 2015 Headsman

This is the supposed martyrdom date, in the year 764 or perhaps 765, of St. Stephen the Younger in Constantinople at the hands of an iconoclastic emperor.

Ancient and “dark ages” history characteristically comes with all kinds of problems arising from the paucity and prejudice of primary sources. Byzantium’s century of Iconoclastic controversy is a fine example.

In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.

This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)

But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.


Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.

The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.

Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.

The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.

As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.

A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)

And so forth.

The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)

But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage (after some hiccups) for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.

* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.

** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.

Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Rus',Russia

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1628: John Lambe murdered

3 comments June 13th, 2014 Headsman

Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.

Libel (one of many) on John Lambe’s murder

Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.

While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.

North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.

Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft

What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.

Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.

In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.

In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?

Did it even matter?

From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.

Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.

On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.

As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lambe picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.


Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)

The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecuted for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.

“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”

Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.

Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.

“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”

The History of Witchcraft podcast has an excellent episode on Dr. Lambe here.

* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",England,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Rape,Summary Executions,Witchcraft

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782”: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ohio,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.

This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.

Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.

Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.

Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.

Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.

Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.

That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.

One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.

They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.

The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.

A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”

The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads against leftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”

“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.

In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.

U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.

The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.

* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Guatemala,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1977: Hu Nim, Cambodian Minister of Information

1 comment July 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1978, peripatetic Communist intellectual Hu Nim vanished into Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s charnel house along with 126 others at Tuol Seng.

The child of a poor peasant’s family, Nim was a gifted young state worker who studied in Paris in the 1950s, where he met several future Khmer Rouge leaders.

Nim charted an independent — some might say hypocritical — course over the next two decades, serving uneasily as a leftist parliamentarian in Prince Sihanouk‘s nationalist coalition government, fleeing ahead of a conservative purge into the bush to join Communist guerrillas, then returning once more to Sihanouk’s now-leftist Chinese-backed government-in-exile. It’s a period whose interests and alliances don’t map straightforwardly onto the familiar Cold War axis.

Hu Nim’s stature as Minister of Information in the government-in-exile transitioned directly to that same portfolio when the Khmer Rouge came to power.

Maybe those old ties to the ancien regime did him in — Vietnam, after invading Cambodia, would seize on the late minister’s reputation for independence to damn the Khmer Rouge for purging a moderate socialist — but there was no ideological talisman for safety during those terrible years. Hu Nim’s longstanding pro-Chinese position was also a dangerous association come 1977, and Phouk Chhay, a fellow officer of the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association, was among the batch of prisoners shot along with Hu Nim this date.

Early in 1977, a massive internal purge shook the regime; as many people (some 1,500) went to Tuol Sleng from mid-February to mid-April of that year as had gone in all of 1976.* Almost every one of these humans would be, in the terrible bureaucrat-ese of the security apparatus, “smashed.”

Hu Nim was one of these, a denunciation wrung from a local commander leading to his April 10, 1977 arrest. Under repeated torture over the ensuing three months, the ex-Minister of Information would write and re-write his confession, fashioning himself “a counterfeit revolutionary, in fact … an agent of the enemy … the cheapest reactionary intellectual disguised as a revolutionary,” a stooge of the CIA since the high school, and a skeptic of the disastrous forced agricultural collectivization who had swallowed his doubts lest “I would have had my faced smashed in like Prom Sam Ar.” The confession ultimately tallied 200-plus pages. (Here’s some of it.)

Four days after his arrest, Hu Nim submitted the first of seven draft “confessions” to his interrogator, who appended a note to Deuch, saying: “We whipped him four or five times to break his stand, before taking him to be stuffed with water.” On April 22, the interrogator reported: “I have tortured him to write it again.” Five weeks later, Hu Nim was abject: “I am not a human being, I am an animal.” (Source

* Official count for all of 1977: 6,330 “anti-party” types tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng, as against “only” 2,404 in 1975-1976 combined.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Cambodia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1945: 8 American flyers at Fukuoka

22 comments June 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945 — morning after a devastating U.S. air raid that destroyed much of Fukuoka — eight previously-captured American airmen* were summarily executed there in retaliation.

In a precedent that dated back to the Doolittle raids, Japan officially considered as a prospective war criminal any enemy airman who could be connected to indiscriminate bombing. Tokyo didn’t follow this logic to the point of executing all downed Americans — indeed, late in the war, beleaguered Japanese civilians became increasingly hostile towards the government for allowing excess legalism to stand in the way of exacting some satisfying revenge for the cities burning under American bombs — but it did execute some, and it had sanctioned legal theorems that could have accommodated quite a bit more bloodletting.

Finding Tokyo short of prison space, the government ordered on May 1, 1945, that the various armies should no longer send to the capital any downed airmen they captured. In the chaos of the war’s last months, this would create the context for local commanders at the Western Military District in Fukuoka to put those legal theorems to seriously nasty use.

Four captured airmen held in Fukuoka were stuck in an indeterminate judicial process which the army realized was going nowhere slowly. The others were just plain underfoot. Over the period of May-June, between a couple of ambiguously-worded orders and the officers’ annoyance at having to divert scarce resources to these captives, an understanding formed if “the air raids increased and conditions became more chaotic, the prisoners would be executed without a trial.”

Well, as U.S. papers exultantly reported on June 20,

About 3,000 tons of … incendiary bombs … were released by the B-24s from low level starting about three a.m. … The three cities [Fukuoka, Toyotashi and Shizuoka] were tasting for the first time the bitter flames of war, roaring over factories, shops and thousands of congested homes.

Timothy Lang Francis, whose “‘To Dispose of the Prisoners’: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945” from the November 1997 Pacific Historical Review traces the confluence of factors that made possible this day’s executions, describes the fate that was unfolding for Fukuoka’s eight captive airmen at about the same time those words were going to press.

All were blindfolded and had their hands tied in front. Several swords were obtained from the Legal Section. [Yusei] Wako** then told the twenty or so assembled Japanese that, “in compliance with the Commanding General†’s orders, we were going to execute the plane crash survivors.” One officer, Lt. Michio Ikeda of the Medical Section, volunteered himself, and Wako ordered Probationary Officer Tamotsu Onishi, since he was skilled in kendo, to assist him as a third executioner. Sato watched the proceedings from one side.

The first flyer was brought to the edge of the pit and made to sit on his haunches. Wako then ritually washed one of the swords and stood behind the prisoner, slightly to the left. Raising the sword above his right shoulder with both hands, Wako brought it down on the flyer’s neck. “Both the body and head fell into the pit,” remembered Wako; “I washed my sword and ordered the guard to bring another flyer to the pit. I killed this flyer exactly the same way I had killed the first one.” Onishi then executed a third prisoner in the same manner.

In the pause that followed, Lt. Kentaro Toji, an officer attached to Western Army Headquarters, approached Sato. According to his pretrial affidavit, Toji said to Sato, “My mother was killed in the air raid on Fukuoka this morning, and I think it would be fitting that I be the one who execute these American flyers.” Sato told him to wait while Wako ordered Ikeda to execute the fourth flyer. Toji, after borrowing a sword from Onishi, beheaded the last four prisoners. The pit was then filled with dirt.

This is all well and good, but Tokyo’s orders to its armies had been to do the juridical legwork on these cases themselves — and not just to summarily kill prisoners. So, in a bit of ex post facto bureaucratic butt-covering, the Western District Army’s legal section proceeded to close the matter by shipping the central government a report saying that all these prisoners had been killed during the previous night’s air raid. Problem solved!

No known direct connection to this particular atrocity, but there’s a recent documentary about an elderly Japanese man who used to serve at Fukuoka that looks worth the watching.

* Six of the eight were Robert J. Aspinall, Merlin R. Calvin, Jack V. Dengler, Otto W. Baumgarten, Edgar L. McElfresh, and Ralph S. Romines. The other two remain unidentified. These eight were, maybe, the lucky ones: Fukuoka had had 16 prisoners from downed bombers, but the other eight weren’t around to be beheaded because they’d previously been given over to the local hospital to suffer ghastly deaths in vivisection experiments.

** A Judge Advocate who had also been involved in the Doolittle trials.

† Gen. Isamu Yokoyama. When he’d been briefed prior to the June 19 raid that the army was fixing to just dispose of its prisoners if it came to that, Yokoyama had done the Pontius Pilate act and informed Wako, “I have decided to concern myself only with the decisive battle and hereafter do not bother me with the problem of the flyers.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Hostages,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1543: Andrei Shuisky, gone to the dogs

2 comments December 29th, 2011 Headsman

On December 29, 1543, Ivan the Terrible arrived — with the summary execution of hated boyar Andrei Shuisky (Shuysky).

Call it Ivan’s rite of passage.

The 13-year-old Ivan IV had technically “ruled” Russia since toddlerhood, when his father died suddenly in the prime of life.

But in reality, the “ruler” was not the master of his domain.

The powerful boyar nobles ran roughshod during his minority, scrapping for power, poisoning off his mother,* and behind the Kremlin’s closed doors overtly treating the kiddo’s regal person like a redheaded stepchild.

“What evil did I suffer at [the boyars’] hands!” Ivan later remembered of these years in his hostile correspondence with the exiled noble Kurbsky.

we and our brother … remained as orphans, [having lost] our parents and receiving no human care from any quarter; and hoping only for the mercy of God … our subjects had achieved their desire, namely, to have a kingdom without a ruler, then did they not deem us, their sovereigns, worthy of any loving care, but themselves ran after wealth and glory … they began to feed us as though we were foreigners or the most wretched menials. What sufferings did I endure through [lack of] clothing and through hunger! For in all things my will was not my own; everything was contrary to my will and unbefitting my tender years. (Source)

Ivan’s indomitable personality and mercilessness, later the stuff of legend, make their first appearance in these formative years. Biding his time, nurturing his hatred, he survived his humiliations and designed a show-stopping vengenace. “Then,” remembers Ivan, “did we take it upon ourselves to put our kingdom in order.”

In the span of a single feast on this date in 1543 the young prince elevated himself from abused orphan to feared sovereign when he unexpectedly accused the attending boyars of mismanagement and had the greatest man among them — Andrei, of the mighty Shuisky family, the de facto head of state** — arrested and brutally put to death.

(The most colorful versions of this have it that Shuisky was thrown to the dogs to be devoured; I’m inclined to suspect this is embroidery upon the chronicler’s report that it was mean little Ivan’s kennel-keepers who were the men tasked with arresting and beating to death the nobleman.)

Sergei Eisenstein dramatized the terrible tsar’s backstory of violently overturning his childhood abuse in part two of Ivan the Terrible. (Masterful review.)

With his terrible blow, Ivan — still only an (unusually warped) adolescent after all this time — freed his hands and truly began the strange and cruel reign that would earn him the awestruck sobriquet Grozny, “terrible”. He got the ball rolling by purging a couple dozen other Shuisky loyalists.

While Ivan Grozny had his way in his reign’s political conflicts with Russia’s nobility, the violent monarch also shockingly killed his own son during a fit of rage — effectively destroying his own lineage. In the Time of Troubles invited by the resulting power vacuum, Andrei Shuisky’s grandson briefly claimed the throne as Tsar Vasily IV.

Though this power grab didn’t work out any better than had his grandfather’s, Vasily was the last [legitimate] product of the Rurik dynasty† dignified as Tsar of Russia, before the Romanovs were elevated to that station.

* Allegedly. Ivan certainly thought so.

** Andrei’s brother Ivan, equally loathesome to the tsar, had passed on the Big Man in Russia mantle to Andrei when he died a couple of years before.

† The Shuiskies were merely a junior branch, but they were a branch.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",By Animals,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Summary Executions

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1318: Mikhail of Tver

9 comments November 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1318, the Russian knyaz Mikhail of Tver was executed at the command of the Mongols.

Mikhail was the nephew of legendary prince and allegory Alexander Nevsky.


Not directly Mikhail-related. Just awesome.

Mikhail Yaroslavich (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Russian) in 1304 succeeded Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother as Grand Prince of Vladimir, a position granted by Mongol yarlyk that symbolized primacy over all other Russian knyazes. But Mikhail was challenged for leadership by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow.

This fellow, Yuri(y) by name, would fight Mikhail off and on for the latter’s 14 years in power. Their personal rivalry was also the political rivalry of their respective cities, Moscow and Tver — vying for that yarlyk and, in effect, for the eventual leadership of the still-gestating Russian state.

Since it was gestating at the pleasure of the Khanate at this time, the dispute was resolved by Yuri’s getting in with the new khan, Uzbeg.* To get that yarlyk, and he got it in 1317, Yuriy even went so far as to marry one of Uzbeg’s daughters.

We mention this not because it’s a piquant period detail of kingly politics and intercultural exchange, but because the next time Mikhail and Yuriy met in battle, Mikhail won a rout … and ended up with the Mongol princess in his custody.

And then, she died in his custody.

This was a most grave development for Mikhail, almost as much as for the wife herself.

The Mongol commander whom Mikhail released — because Yuriy also got a Mongol army out of the yarlyk deal — reported the tragedy with the most incriminating coloration. While we’re in no position to assert definitively that Mikhail didn’t murder the woman, it plainly does not fit the cui bono test.

The furious Uzbeg summoned Mikhail to the Horde, a summons that, times being what they were, did not admit refusal.

When he arrived, Mikhail found himself already stitched up by the accusations of his enemies, and he was beaten and stabbed to death at the khan’s order.

Mikhail mostly reads as a garden-variety unprincipled local ruler, and he had his own conflicts with ecclesiastical leaders when they took the wrong sides in the Moscow-Tver power struggle. In spite of that, our man was posthumously expropriated by the Orthodox church as a saint.** In fact, he’s the patron saint of the city (which he’s holding, in the icon pictured above) … kind of because of what happened next.

Mikhail’s son Dmitry “the Terrible Eyes” had a terrible revenge for his father’s enemy, and murdered Yuri a few years later, temporarily gaining the yarlyk for himself. The Muscovites almost immediately recaptured the upper hand, however, and in an ensuing Tverite rising the Mongols intervened directly and sacked the city.

Tver would never again regain anything like peer status vis-a-vis Moscow, which in the following years grew larger, stronger, and wealthier under Ivan I; the Mongol yarlyk thereafter became essentially the hereditary possession of his family line. The Orthodox metropolitan outright moved to Moscow under Ivan’s reign … leaving Tver with memories of what might have been, and this monumental equestrian statue of the guy who couldn’t quite make it happen.


(cc) photo of Saint Mikhail’s monument in Tver.

Although the “Tartar yoke” would eventually be thrown off, that was hardly the end for political domination in Russian history.

Experiencing a like phenomenon in altogether different circumstances, the 19th century Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, aka Marlinsky reclaims the long-ago Mikhail for an updated usage.†

His 1824 poem “Mikhail Tverskoy” (Russian link) casts the knyaz as a martyr for the Russian nation. After all, by Marlinsky’s time, the poet could take comfort that those terrible Mongols were

struck by their vassals,
[And] became their slaves‡

* Also Ozbeg or Uzbek. The longest-tenured khan in the Mongol empire’s history, Uzbeg adopted Islam and might be the namesake of the Uzbek ethnic group.

** According to this tome on the Russian church, Mikhail wasn’t really venerated as a saint until centuries after his death: only when that occurred were hagiographical details of his pious life, principled refusal to worship pagan Mongol gods, and supposed contemporary popular cult backfilled into the story.

† A maneuver quite like his friend Kondraty Ryleyev, who pulled the same trick with Severyn Nalyvaiko.

‡ Full original translation of this poem by friend of the blog Sonechka.

“Mikhail Tverskoy”

by Bestuzhev-Marlinskiy

In a dungeon, glum and hollow,
Amidst nocturnal gloom,
A darkish lampad flickers,
And shines its flimsy light
Upon two men within a shady corner:
One, in his youthful years’ prime,
The other, fettered in chains,
Adorned already with gray hair.
Why has this elder been immured
Within your walls, Abode of fear?
Is he condemned to end existence hither,
Or were the gallows meant for him?
No sighs escape his mouth,
And in his fervent eyes —
The glimmer of serenity divine.
Towards the skies his gaze is often cast,
Or with a tender sorrow, he beholds
His son, imbued with grief,
And speaks in consolation:
“Enough, my dear friend,
Of tears sousing your eyes;
The time has come for us to part,
And buy the tranquil calm of native land
with Mikhail’s head.
Be always honorable, truthful.
And, if you wish
To pay your father homage,
Relinquish all the enemies of his without vengeance …”
The people clatter at the square
In the metropolis of brutal khans,
These Russia’s fierce and evil tyrants;
They gawk with savage joy
At the cadaver, beset by wounds.
Above him, smitten by despair,
The young prince weeps,
And rips his clothes and hair,
Reproaching the Tartars and Uzbeks,
And summoning the deity of vengeance …
This mighty god has heeded prayers,
And aided Russians in revolt;
Obliterating the oppressors,
Whose city turned into the ravens’ dwelling;
Whose fields of wheat were desiccated,
Whose hand that held the arms grew weak,
Who, struck by their own vassals,
Became their slaves.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Russia

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2008: A son, all in the family

2 comments October 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Abura Apalalu of Longorinyangai village, Namalu Sub-county, in Nakapiripirit District of Uganda convened a traditional (but illegal) tribunal to try his two sons for raping their sister.

Apalalu found the youths guilty and condemned his own flesh and blood to death … after which they were both beaten by fellow-villagers, one of them fatally.

The incident illustrates the challenge of getting people in the Karamoja region, where traditional systems are used to serve justice, to conform to the rule of law as enshrined in Uganda’s constitution.

Last year alone, according to the UPDF 3rd Division spokesman, Capt. Henry Obbo, five people were hanged on orders of the Karimojong traditional clan court sitting at Namalu in Nakapiripirit District.

Nakapiripirit District Community Development Officer Michael Edikoi says under the traditional justice system, a person who kills is supposed to be killed. “You are told to dig two graves, one for the person you have killed and the other for yourself. Then you are forced to bury the dead before being stoned to death and buried in the other grave next to your victim,” he said.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Uganda,Wrongful Executions

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