Triskaidekaphobia: Executed Today’s 13th Annual Report

Did you ever see a hangman tie a slipknot?
I’ve seen it many a time and he winds, and he winds,
After thirteen times he’s got a slipknot.

It’s not actually the case that hangman’s knots have 13 loops as a general rule but of course we all know why it’s in the lyric. And Halloween 2020 marks the unluckiest anniversary to date for Executed Today, 13 years since we were born howling.

Although it says here that irrational avoidance of the 13th day of the calendar, and Friday the 13th in particular, costs hundreds of millions per year, I can’t but feel skepticism that anyone in our disenchanted world retains a truly heartfelt phobia about this jagged figure. Certainly the number has achieved an enduring place in the western conscience that you might be reminded of every time you step into a North American elevator.

The origin story of triskaidekaphobia seems as murky and arbitrary as you’d suppose. One oft-cited hypothesis is that it traces to a Norse legend in which Loki crashes a party as the 13th guest; the parallels to the Last Supper and its treacherous 13th attendee are obvious. That’s as may be but as usual with numerology it answers the wrong question; one could conjure ample retrospective rationale to anathemize any number you’d like and 13 is far from the only unlucky number situationally reviled here or there. (Four is unlucky in China; 17 in Italy; 39 in Afghanistan — all of these numbers holding associations with death in their respective contexts. Perhaps in the age of coronavirus we’ll find ourselves headed for superstitious avoidance of 19.) And it is probably no more than modern retconning that makes the Friday the 13th arrest of the Knights Templar in 1307 the wellspring of our Jason Voorhees slasher franchise.

But this gnarly prime surely clangs against the balanced and mystically satisfactory twelve, that essential component of the ancient sexagesimal that still smiles at us from clock faces and horoscopes. Is the dissonant remainder transgressive, even sexually subversive?

The first specific mention of the unlucky 13 which I have been able to find occurs in Montaigne:

And me seemesth I may well be excused if I rather except an odd number than an even … if I had rather make a twelfth or fourteenth at a table, than a thirteenth … All such fond conceits, now in credit about us, deserve at least to be listned unto.

The fact that the number was associated with Epiphany by the Church, and appears not to have been considered other than holy by any of the medieval number theorists leads to the inference that the unlucky 13 was a popular superstition entirely disconnected from the “science of numbers.” Petrus Bungus is the first arithmologist to recognize any evil inherent in the number. He records that the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year, thus not reaching the satisfaction of the law and the evangelists, which are figured by 10 and 4. As 11 is a number of transgression, because it goes beyond the 10 Commandments, so 13 goes beyond the 12 apostles. Therefore hic numerus Judaeorum taxat impietatem. The previous absence of any such explanation in the arithmologies gives the impression that popular belief had forced upon the priest this painful and rather unconvincing interpretation of the Commandments + the Trinity. Montaigne’s intimation that the superstition was widely in vogue would tend to push its origin back at least to the Middle Ages. To find a 13 which might popularly achieve baleful connotations is so easy that I should rather assign the superstition to a confluence of factors, rather than to a single source.

With nearly every traditional 12, a 13 is somehow associated. Earliest in time is the intercalated thirteenth month, which Böklen asserts was regarded as discordant and unlucky. Webster agrees that such was sometimes the case. There is a slender chance that a tradition, even as uncertain as this, might have been orally transmitted to the Middle Ages. There is a much better chance that the omnipresent 13 of the lunar and menstruation cycle made the number fearsome, or at least unpopular.

At the same time, the number may have become popularly associated with the diabolical arts. In Faust’s Miraculous Art and Book of Marvels, or the Black Raven, 13 are said to compose the Infernal Hierarchy. This must be the same astrological 13, since the Raven is the thirteenth symbol in the intercalary month year, as well as the effigy for the moon. Simultaneously, cabalistic lore may have introduced the 13 Conformations of the Holy Beard, also astrological in origin and magical in common belief. In Britain, 13 became associated with witchcraft. Whether for the same reason or because the inclusion of a leader with any group of 12 makes a thirteenth, as seems to have been the case in Druidic ceremony, a witches’ koven was ordinarily composed of 13, or a multiple.

It will be noted, however, that the specific superstition mentioned by Montaigne is that of 13 at table. Here the connection is indisputably with the Last Supper. One wonders how much the legend fo the Siege Perilous had to do with drawing attention to the thirteenth unlucky chair. True enough, the Siege Perilous was sanctified, but it was also Perilous and distinctly unlucky for the wrong person — “wherein never knight sat that he met not death thereby.” This is something more than a guess, because, although the thirteenth chair is ordinarily reserved for the leader — Charlemagne in the Pelerinage and the All-Father in the temple of the Gods at Gladsheim — Boron’s Joseph assigns the vacant seat to Judas, and the Modena Perceval to “Nostre Sire” in one place but to Judas in another. It is also possible that “Nostre Sire” might have been the author’s intention but that the copyist and public opinion altered it to Judas.

-Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought

While it might have its seat — ha, ha — in the table arrangements, once its stigma achieved sufficient circulation 13 got bootstrapped into all manner of ad hoc sinisterisms, which of course makes it perfect grist for the executioner: after all, when your tarot reading turns over the XIII card, you’re looking at Death. So it’s not only 13 loops in the hangman’s noose but 13 steps to the gallows that are endorsed in casual folklore, and more than likely some latter-day scaffolds have actually been outfitted intentionally with these ill omens in misbegotten tribute to the superstition. (I’m not aware of, but would be delighted to discover, this figure being insinuated into the mechanics of the death-dealing inventions of modern industry like the electric chair or gas chamber.)

In our case, the foreboding 13th anniversary marks the nice round 4,750th consecutive day of posting even if (as we have regrettably noted in other recent annual reports) the “daily” schedule increasingly demands an indulgence of the deadline on the part of readers. Now that we’ve stuffed the Siege Perilous and every other chair besides with cadavers, the portends are surely grim.

On this day..

Eleventh Hour: Executed Today’s (cursory) 11th annual report

Halloween 2018 makes it 11 years to the day since Executed Today was born on a Cologne breaking-wheel.

On this day..

Decimated: Executed Today’s Tenth Annual Report

Mattia Preti, The Crucifixion of St. Andrew (1651)

Halloween 2017 makes it ten damn years since Executed Today was born howling. Has it really been that long?

Our inconceivable dekalog of 3,650 posts … plus the leap days … plus the meta content … and for some reason playing cards … somehow just keeps the tumbrils rolling day upon numbing day. That’s how it goes, until it stops.

It’s been the custom on these anniversaries to bask in the year’s signal events, like our most-beloved tweet that coincidentally fell the day after Donald J. Trump implausibly joined the roster of U.S. presidents.

But I feel ever less entitled to bask as I become ever more conscious that this death has a mounting chorus of its own, and here I the mere scrivener cling by its netherworldly quills, charged to voice the wails of an endless sea of damned souls. There will never be days enough, and never hours in the day enough, to do justice. This is the curse. Write.

The other reason militating against celebration is that, as any regular reader has surely noticed, I these days often struggle to keep to my calendar, including for this very post. That’s not for any want of material or inclination but executioners too grow old; once there was a bottomless energy and a content reservoir running weeks ahead of time and now there is … the other thing.

To some extent this is the consequence of changing circumstances in life outside the blog, and to some extent it is intrinsic to the wild conceit of holding out a topical almanac like this for an entire decade. By whatever reason, a silver age holds no dishonor but one cannot help think longingly of the gold.

Morbid reader, it is you who carries us onward. Whether you have come by this site recently or have walked with us for years on end, your surprising and gratifying interest — nearing 20 million pageviews! — have made the journey worth every step.

Trick or treat! Year 11 awaits.

On this day..

3,001 Days of our Deaths

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 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..

The Eight Pains: Executed Today’s Eighth annual report

Yesterday’s post, the 2,922th consecutive day we’ve filled in these implacable annals, completed our eighth revolution around the sun since this here site was born on Halloween way back in 2007.

When looking back on this project, whenever it should come to an end, it will be very difficult to account for how it’s managed to shamble along all this time without going all to pieces. Life has changed quite a bit in that time, but death seems to hold maddeningly consistent.

I have been lucky, no doubt, to have that margin (if sometimes barely that margin) of health and income and time to maintain, and luckier still for the collaboration and support of many others who have contributed to this site and without whom it would have died a fool’s death long ago. The surest thing I can credit to myself is the obstinance just to stack up the next post, day upon day, whether I want to or not. As Steinbeck wrote of the onerous birth of The Grapes of Wrath.

I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.

Books, at least, have ends to go with their beginnings and middles. We are eight years in, the figure for the infinite and a number that’s starting to get too big for the numerological sport. It’s a goddamned bloody history of tragedy and horror that we’ve slogged through and the fact of the matter is that we haven’t even scratched the surface of enterprise: if anything, the surface has scratched us.

Growth Chart

  • 15.25 million pageviews
  • 24,509 Twitter updates to (at present) 4,235 followers
  • The Ted Bundy post has 7,666 comments

Typical daily traffic has dipped a bit and is now more in the 6,000-7,000 neighborhood than former heights of 7,000 and even 8,000.


As we’ve noted in some past incarnations of this accounting, the register of Executed Today’s most-trafficked posts all-time has become fairly ossified by dint of the enormous first-mover advantage that the oldest posts on the site enjoy. 2015’s top 40 is basically 2014’s top 40, with some minor jostling around the order; the only new additions vis-a-vis 2014 are Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, one of the earliest posts on this site and a regular top traffic earner around the lower fringes of these posts, and — a truly new addition — our September 2014 treatment of Nigerian gangster Ishola Oyenusi.

1. Ted Bundy (January 24, 1989)
2. Eleven from the Stutthof concentration camp (July 4, 1946)
3. Pargali Ibrahim Pasha (March 15, 1536)
4. Hideki Tojo (December 23, 1948)
5. Rainey Bethea (August 14, 1936)
6. Mohammad Najibullah (September 27, 1996)
7. Karl Hermann Frank (May 22, 1946)
8. Samuel K. Doe (September 9, 1990)
9. Jesse Washington lynched (May 15, 1916)
10. Prince Mustafa (Oct. 6, 1553)
11. Eugen Weidmann (June 17, 1939)
12. Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni (July 19, 2005)
13. Green Tea Hag (March 4, 1771)
14. Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis (July 8, 1999)
15. Fou Tchou-li (April 10, 1905)
16. Thomas Cromwell (July 28, 1540)
17. The rapists of Maggie dela Riva (May 17, 1972)
18. Nguyen Van Lem (February 1, 1968)
19. Pvt. Eddie Slovik (January 31, 1945)
20. James Corbitt (November 28, 1950)
21. Eva Dugan (February 21, 1930)
22. Pulitzer Prize-winning firing squad photograph from the Iranian Revolution (August 27, 1979)
23. Hamida Djandoubi (September 10, 1977)
24. Three partisans in Minsk (October 26, 1941)
25. Charles Starkweather (June 25, 1959)
26. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (June 19, 1953)
27. Robert-Francois Damiens (March 28, 1757)
28. Claus von Stauffenberg (July 21, 1944)
29. Princess Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud (July 15, 1977)
30. Ishola Oyenusi (September 8, 1971)
31. Eight July 20 anti-Hitler plotters (August 8, 1944)
32. Amon Goeth (September 13, 1946)
33. Karla Faye Tucker (February 3, 1998)
34. Dhananjoy Chatterjee (August 14, 2004)
35. 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. (June 16, 1944)
36. Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin (December 11, 1962)
37. Stephen Morin (March 13, 1985)
38. Mohamed Oufkir (August 16, 1972)
39. Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya (November 29, 1941)
40. John Bennett (April 13, 1961)

The two posts falling off the top 20, Ruth Snyder’s illicitly photographed electrocution and the stoning of Soraya M., come in at nos. 41 and 42, respectively.

Most Popular Posts Within the Past Four Years

To get a view of what new content is actually hitting, we took a look last year at the top posts by lifetime pageviews that were actually written within the past four years. Even this view skews to the earliest; 10 of those posts from last year automatically roll off in an updated snapshot for being written before Halloween of 2011 — just as most of the posts in this moving window date from 2012.

1. Ishola Oyenusi (September 8, 1971)
2. 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. (June 16, 1944)
3. The Münster Rebellion leaders (January 22, 1536)
4. Boonpeng Heep Lek, the last public beheading in Thailand (August 19, 1919)
5. Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, assassins of Indira Gandhi (January 6, 1989)
6. German soldiers for cowardice (Uncertain/various dates, 1945)
7. Pin Peungyard, Gasem Singhara, and (twice) Ginggaew Lorsoungnern (January 13, 1979)
8. Amelia Dyer, baby farmer (June 10, 1896)
9. Daniel Pearl (February 1, 2002)
10. The kid brother of the outlaw Cartouche (July 31, 1722)
11. Leo Echegaray (February 5, 1999)
12. The Dachau Massacre (April 29, 1945)
13. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party coup (July 22, 1979)
14. Laszlo Baky and Laszlo Endre (March 29, 1946)
15. Johnny Frank Garrett (February 11, 1992)
16. Anna Antonio (August 9, 1934)
17. Clarence Ray Allen (January 17, 2006)
18. Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting (March 14, 1719)
19. Eva Braun’s brother (April 28, 1945)
20. Sehzade Beyazit (September 25, 1561)

Dead Draw

A years’-long white-whale project somehow came to fruition this year thanks to the inestimable design prowess of Tom Eykemans. As a result, it’s now possible to have the dead man’s hand comprised of actual dead men. (And women.)

You can have these in time to creep out your poker buddies for a pittance of a tip to your friendly executioner. (We promise not to do you like Monmouth.)

Buy this on Selz

Guest Posts

As usual, many of the site’s best posts are the products of guest authors. Does one even consider Meaghan Good a “guest author” at this point? She’s logged about six months’ worth of content over the years, with numerous more in the hopper pending future publication. Every year I try to find a different way to say that Meaghan rocks … but man, does she rock.

Meaghan Good

Robert Elder

David Graham-Scott

Amelia Fedo

Emma Goldman

Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon

Harry Brodribb Irving

Michael DeHay

Sabine Baring-Gould

On this day..

Seven-Out: Executed Today’s Seventh Annual Report

Dante‘s model of Purgatory, with a level for each of the seven deadly sins.

Yesterday’s post completed Year 7 of this here death blog; today’s Halloween anniversary of our maiden post is the traditional occasion for self-indulgent reflection.

Seven straight years of nailing every-24-hours deadlines — over 2,500 posts by now — is a little feather in our headsman’s hood. But even in pausing to preen, I must admit that this labor of love has felt more like labor than ever before these past months. There’s a reason that seven years comes with its own itch.

No need to belabor the point. The site presses ahead to Year 8; as a matter of fact, there are dozens of posts already pre-scheduled. But the editor under the hood is also searching for a fresh spark from the Muse to leave this fallow period behind. Executioner’s angst: surely there must be more to this world than the chopping of heads?

There are innumerable stories worth the telling that we have not yet touched and justify perseverance in an existential desert. But one also must also acknowledge that this will still be true after seven more years or seventeen. Every executioner comes to his end, sometimes when least expected.

Photo of seven Communards in their coffins, by André-Adolphe-Eugène_Disdéri


Seven years deep, the annual list of most popular posts ever has ossified to the point where the minor yearly rearrangements just don’t have much new to say that previous annual reports haven’t already said. Last year’s installment ran up to an unwieldy 66; I’ve pared it back to 40 this year for better digestion. Check out the Year 6 report and you’ll get a pretty good idea what the next 20 or 30 on the list would have been.

1. Ted Bundy (January 24, 1989)
2. Eleven from the Stutthof concentration camp (July 4, 1946)
3. Pargali Ibrahim Pasha (March 15, 1536)
4. Hideki Tojo (December 23, 1948)
5. Mohammad Najibullah (September 27, 1996)
6. Rainey Bethea (August 14, 1936)
7. Samuel K. Doe (September 9, 1990)
8. Jesse Washington lynched (May 15, 1916)
9. Karl Hermann Frank (May 22, 1946)
10. Green Tea Hag (March 4, 1771)
11. Eugen Weidmann (June 17, 1939)
12. Thomas Cromwell (July 28, 1540)
13. Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni (July 19, 2005)
14. Nguyen Van Lem (February 1, 1968)
15. Fou Tchou-li (April 10, 1905)
16. Prince Mustafa (Oct. 6, 1553)
17. Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis (July 8, 1999)
18. The rapists of Maggie dela Riva (May 17, 1972)
19. James Corbitt (November 28, 1950)
20. Pulitzer Prize-winning firing squad photograph from the Iranian Revolution (August 27, 1979)
21. Pvt. Eddie Slovik (January 31, 1945)
22. Eva Dugan (February 21, 1930)
23. Hamida Djandoubi (September 10, 1977)
24. Three partisans in Minsk (October 26, 1941)
25. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (June 19, 1953)
26. Charles Starkweather (June 25, 1959)
27. Claus von Stauffenberg (July 21, 1944)
28. Amon Goeth (September 13, 1946)
29. Eight July 20 anti-Hitler plotters (August 8, 1944)
30. Karla Faye Tucker (February 3, 1998)
31. Robert Francois Damiens (March 28, 1757)
32. Princess Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud (July 15, 1977)
33. Mohamed Oufkir (August 16, 1972)
34. Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin (December 11, 1962)
35. Dhananjoy Chatterjee (August 14, 2004)
36. John Bennett (April 13, 1961)
37. Stephen Morin (March 13, 1985)
38. Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (January 12, 1928)
39. 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. (June 16, 1944)
40. The Stoning of Soraya M. (August 15, 1986)

One reason this list looks the same year after year is that the lifetime-pageview metric confers such a huge early mover advantage on older posts. Meaghan Good’s guest post on the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. just squeaked onto our countdown at no. 39 above: it’s the most recently-posted story in that cohort, and it ran 28 months ago. Only two of the remaining 39 were published within the past four years. The random emergence of a news story or bit of cultural ephemera may cause some heretofore obscure post to pop onto the marquee come next year, but the list just posted increasingly resembles the light of a distant star — the snapshot of what transpired when the blog was young.

What’s been going on more recently?

Seven men on the gallows, sketch by unknown artist, Bolognese school c. 1630

Most Popular Posts Within the Past Four Years

Here’s a pull of the most-trafficked posts over the course of the past four years that were actually written during the past four years.

1. Pargali Ibrahim Pasha (March 15, 1536)
2. Eva Dugan (February 21, 1930)
3. 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. (June 16, 1944)
4. David Tyrie, the last hanged, drawn, and quartered (August 24, 1782)
5. Boonpeng Heep Lek, the last public beheading in Thailand (August 19, 1919)
6. Majid and Hossein Kavousifar (August 2, 2007)
7. Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, assassins of Indira Gandhi (January 6, 1989)
8. Pin Peungyard, Gasem Singhara, and (twice) Ginggaew Lorsoungnern (January 13, 1979)
9. Twelve blown from cannons in British Punjab (June 13, 1857)
10. The Münster Rebellion leaders (January 22, 1536)
11. Daniel Pearl (February 1, 2002)
12. Three accomplices of Elizabeth Báthory, the Countless of Blood (January 7, 1611)
13. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, strange fruit (August 7, 1930)
14. Andrei Vlasov, turncoat Soviet general (August 1, 1946)
15. Cartouche’s brother, hanged by the armpits (July 31, 1722)
16. German soldiers for cowardice (Uncertain/various dates, 1945)
17. Laura and Lawrence Nelson lynched (May 25, 1911)
18. Amelia Dyer, baby farmer (June 10, 1896)
19. Massacre of Waldensians (April 24, 1655)
20. Clarence Ray Allen (January 17, 2006)

The diversity for periods, topics, and especially geography in the above list pleases me. One of the intentions of this site is to capture snapshots of the death penalty experience in many times and places.

Even though the major Anglo countries — the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia — ranked one through four in traffic sources and collectively supplied over two million of the site’s three million or so pageviews this past year, we also boasted traffic hot spots from the Philippines, Pakistan and India, South Africa, and (it doesn’t really pop on the map) Singapore … with a clear assist to the fabricators of the British Empire for promulgating English in all these places.

Guest Posts

Outstanding guest posts accounted for more than 10% of the content for the past year, led as usual by the indefatigable Meaghan Good. Meaghan’s own individual contributions to the site are nearing a half-year’s worth of content; she also recently published for Kindle a fictional story, Execution Detail in Tartu, exploring the experience of an ordinary Einsatzgruppe commando carrying out his little bit of the Holocaust on the Second World War’s eastern front.

Meaghan Good

Robert Elder

Amelia Fedo

Harry Brodribb Irving

Aaron Molyneux

Jonathan Shipley

Robert Wilhelm

Seven years went under the bridge like time was standing still …

On this day..

2,500 days: Still hanging around

Today’s admittedly slight entry is a milestone not only for Finland but for this site as well: it’s the 2,500th consecutive day we’ve posted since we launched on Halloween all the way back in 2007, roughly two or three Ice Ages in Internet years. Lord knows the site design looks it.

One can well doubt the utility of passing the epoch in execution-hunting. But if there is one thing that thousands of hours over 2,500 days plumbing archives for scaffold stories confers, it’s a certain facility with the subject matter. I’ve read an awful many literary products from many a time and place, on the occasion of this rare meta-post, I’d like to mine them in service of a petty peeve.

There is a certain English convention favoring the use of the word “hanged” to refer to the execution of a human at the end of a rope, in contravention to the word “hung” in every other imaginable context of a dangling past participle. Though this is certainly an intervention in an ancient argument that tends to generate more heat than light, I do wish it understood in no uncertain terms that a vast concourse of primary literature testifies that it is perfectly acceptable to use “hung” to refer to an execution.

While I have my own preference and peccadillos about language, I associate most readily with the descriptivist camp.

But I hope to convince you, gentle reader, that for us to hang together on this matter it is not even unnecessary that you share my readiness to welcome ever more shocking barbarisms into the tongue.

The verb to hang derives from two different Old English words, hon (intransitive) and hangian (intransitive). A good thousand years ago, hon and hangian collapsed into a single word, whose dominant past tense across the board was hanged. Centuries after that, the alternate form hung migrated out of the north of England and basically crowded out the old hanged past participle, sort of like snuck is doing to sneaked today. No doubt the pubs of old rang in their day with outrage that apprentices these days no longer said hanged my codpiece but preferred this degenerate novelty quasi-word instead.

Ever thus. Anyway, when all was said and hung, hanged only hanged on to its archaic noosey usage, perpetuated by innumerable formulaic judicial sentences. It’s hanged right onto it all the way down to the present.

Let’s just see about that.

However, there’s never been any sort divinely inscribed rule to halt the advance of hung at the edge of the scaffold — nor has that been the consensus practice of actual English speakers over the generations.

It’s practically mandatory among the descriptivist set to roll out the 1994 Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage on this subject. The source has its detractors and other dictionaries argue differently, but underscore at a minimum its point as to the worth of the distinction. Sure, your teacher, like mine, probably told you that “pictures are hung and people are hanged,” and hanged is certainly a correct word for what the hangman did. But …

Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years … Hanged is, however, more common than hung in writing. It is especially prevalent when an official execution is being described, but it is used in referring to other types of hanging as well …

The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.

Tastes aside — and I will admit to a deeply inculcated preference for “hanged” — what does the language profit by throwing up a Berlin Wall to preserve from hung only this one specific sense of to hang — this sense, and no other? How does the noose, a minuscule enclave of usage, command its own irregularity in 21st century English?

Languages evolve in funny ways, to be sure. Hanged is certainly good for the gallows but less so for your picture, and that alone is an acknowledged oddity.

But it is not only in the 21st century that English has resorted to “hung” to refer to execution, and done so with perfect ease and clarity.

The Merriam-Webster source aforementioned was good enough to provide some of the examples informing its conclusion, and these are repeatedly found in the various forum threads on the Internet where the sorts of readers who make war over the Oxford comma hang out. For example:

“These men were … at last brought to the scaffold and hung.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley

“I have not the least objection to a rogue being hung.”
-W. M. Thackeray

“The negro murderer was to be hung on a Saturday without pomp.”
-William Faulkner

“But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does.”
-Herman Melville

“Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.”
Henry David Thoreau

We could add a few from Executed Today’s voluminous archives ourselves.

“Some of those hung were known personally to Europeans in Tabriz, who are positive that they took no part in the fighting. They were hung simply because they were Constitutionalists.”
-Bertrand Russell

“My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick.”
-Thomas Hardy

Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings”
-Ezra Pound

“Convicts are horrible creatures: at least, the old one is, with his long, nasty face … if I were dictator, I should order the old one to be hung at once.”
D.H. Lawrence

Andrè was hung the 2d. inst: He submitted to his fate in a manner that shewed him to be worthy of a better one.”
James Madison

Educated, knowledgeable wielders of the language have been right at home with hung in our sense for centuries. These examples tend to elicit the objection that one is cherry-picking a few careless errors every writer makes here and there, and while that has the look of circularity to me — educated speakers don’t say “hung”, so every example to the contrary is by definition a mistake — maybe the problem is a dearth of data points.

Please allow your narrator to remedy this! Two and a half thousand posts in, I’ve seen “hung” used many times in primary (or secondary, but still quite vintage) sources in a wide variety of literary forms and quoted some number of them on the site.

Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 1905

Any individual example of a word’s use can always be defined away. For example, when Thomas Hardy recalled the disturbingly sensuous appeal of a murderess he saw die on the gallows in his youth — “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back” — one can well note that here he uses “hung” to draw attention not to the execution itself but to the fact of her dangling, her suspended corpse’s impression as an object under his eyes.

Perhaps this is also why our correspondent finds that the beloved thief Skitch “hung but a few seconds, before the rope slipped from the gallows.” It is certainly in this sense that Christ “hung on the cross” because he was physically sagging off it.

And this lyric celebrating Irish “Invincible” Joe Brady would obviously lose the rhyme if it resorted to “hanged”, so artistic license may be admitted as well if it be confined to stylists of poetry and not prose:

It was in Kilmainham Prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there all in mourning for her son.
She threw back her shawl and said to all:
“Though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer and he died a Fenian blade.”

Grammar very quickly becomes the proverbial blind man’s lamppost here, used not for illumination but for support of an ungenerous and predetermined conclusion. But I think the frequency of the examples of “hung” over the years, often used precisely in spots that would induce today’s fastidious language police to fire off a blog comment or tweet, builds a strong case that “hung” has been an acceptable past participle in English for our line of work for a very long time.

While “hanged” is the predominant choice, there are so many instances of “hung” to be dredged from English archival sources that the alternatives are clearly a both/and for writers across several centuries, rather than an either/or.

These official 17th century Middlesex county records, to pick a trifling example, consistently index the various felons “sentenced to be hung.” Much later, the prolific 19th century scribbler George Walter Thornbury‘s Old and New London volumes remark that Lord Sanquhar was “sentenced to be hung till he was dead;” likewise this 1880s tour of York Castle given to the Smithsonian Institute uses the four-letter variant over and over again.

Jonathan Swift’s poetic rogue Tom Clinch went to his death with intrepidity that Swift commended to his readers in a line whose meter could just as easily have borne “hanged”.

Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.

When Lord Nelson had the Jacobin Neapolitan admiral executed by asphyxiation with a rope attached to a ship’s yardarm on June 29, 1799, he recorded in his journal:

A slight breeze; a cloudy sky. Sentenced, condemned, and hung Francesco Caracciolo.

Ahead to the turn of the 20th century, a lifetime newspaper man paid a different maritime noosing the same four-letter coin when he published a history of his native Brighton:

Crossing the pond, we find the New York Times correspondent reporting the execution of five indigenous Cayuse for perpetrating the Whitman Massacre. “The town,” he reported, “was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.” Grammarians may enjoy their chuckle here, but nobody misunderstands the meaning.

New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette, Nov. 29, 1865

Surveying the British suppression of India’s 1857 revolts, Harpers magazine similarly noted that

[s]ome of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up.

In none of these are the various authors lingering especially over the physical quality of suspension. The word conveys the act of execution, simply and directly.

Even diplomatic cables — whose milieu is a cadre of educated elites — have been seen in these very pages making free use of “hung”:

“Hung” is certainly ubiquitous in the use of everyday speakers who are not literary craftsmen. An eyewitness report to the post-Civil War execution of Confederate guerrilla Sue Mundy:

The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions.

But this syntax is not confined to the hoi polloi. Even judges — like the one who pronounced sentence on Richard Johnson in 1829 — were known to condemn prisoners to be hung by the neck until dead.

Respectable English newspapers used “hung” sometimes, and without worrying the empire’s fainting-couches, in the 18th and 19th centuries, like the London Times on Fritz Muller’s 1864 hanging:

We’ve seen that even the executioners themselves describe their calling with the word “hung”; more recently, a Liverpool screw recalled the morning of Britain’s last executions for the Telegraph:

At half past seven in the morning, all the prisoners started tapping their cell doors: bang, bang, bang. It just went on. As we got nearer to eight o’clock they started banging quicker: bang, bang, bang, bang. And at eight o’clock exactly they all banged once, hard, and then stopped dead. And I thought, ‘That’s the moment he’s been hung.’ The hairs on the back of my neck went up, they really did. I remember it to this day.

So how many more centuries must the line against common folk saying “hung” be policed to save the Queen’s English from degradation?

I can’t speak readily to the thrust of English in all the many parts of the world that it is spoken, but at least as pertains Great Britain and North America, I do wonder if a wider colonization of the word “hung” in this sphere was unnaturally aborted by the vanishing of the hangman from the Anglo public eye.

Britons have not laid eyes on a public execution in a century and a half; hardly any Americans are still alive who would remember the last one stateside. Although Britain has been fifty years without an execution of any kind, its current frequency of execution by hanging is basically statistically identical to that of the United States. Even allowing for the imprint of judicial executions abroad, or suicides by hanging, most of those who don’t choose to write a daily blog about the death penalty perhaps have altogether less reason to talk or think about hangings than did ancestors milling about the public gallows at Tyburn or the Boston Common.

It’s just a theory.

Two thousand, five hundred posts into this project, only the devil knows how long this site might continue to run or what it will all mean when we come to the end of it. I can only assure the reader that I’ll, er, hang on as long as I can. If the substance of this post can be Executed Today’s legacy, I’ll consider it an epoch well-wasted.

Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:

  • 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

On this day..

Six Years Under: Executed Today’s Sixth Annual Report

They say the coward dies a thousand deaths. Executed Today has now made it six full trips around the sun, and died two thousand, one hundred and ninety-two.*

We’re getting pretty long in the tooth in blog years, and as noted in this space last year blogging daily for five, and now six, years puts us well past our original win conditions for this site.

There has been some consideration hereabouts about how and when to let this blog die its own cowards’ death, but there are still so many stories left untold for the faithful executioner. “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau,” as Madame du Barry is said to have begged under the guillotine. Just one moment more … one more year at least.

Andrew Jackson’s execution of six militiamen in the War of 1812 introduced the term “Coffin Handbills” to the language.


We logged about 2.77 million pageviews over the past twelve months, bringing the site near 10 million all time. (It should reach that milestone in about a month.)

That figure was spiked by a Reddit frontpage referral to the fascinating medical-history guest post on the nameless woman “Aochababa”, whose 1771 beheading and subsequent medical dissection initiated a new era of anatomical learning in Japan. That post, originally published in 2010, had five-sixths of Executed Today’s one-day traffic record (53,646 on May 1, 2013). On that strength it became the most-trafficked post on the site for the entire year, the most common visitor entrance page other than the home site, vaulting from undeserved obscurity into the site’s top 10 all time.

Also making an enormous move: the Ottoman Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. This post just snuck into the top 60 last year as it began receiving search traffic after the debut of a Turkish costume drama about the reign of Pasha’s friend, sovereign, and executioner Suleiman the Magnificent. In Executed Today’s sixth year, Pargali was consistently among the top two or three most-seen posts day in and day out; it’s the ninth-most-trafficked post all-time on the site as of this writing, but if the next year is like the last, it could easily stand as high as no. 2 next Halloween. (A different post about the capable heir Suleiman foolishly executed also reached the top 50.) For close-but-no-cigar cultural ephemera, the TV series Vikings drove “Ragnar Lodbrok” to the no. 21 search term for the year — surely a spoiler for viewers who learned that the show’s protagonist is destined for execution in a snakepit. Like those snakes, such search wins can be poisonous; while once we had one of the few pages on the whole Intertubes about this fellow, it has subsequently been buried by posts about the television program.**

Current events spurred other movers. Eva Dugan, the last woman executed in Arizona, shot up into the top 20 thanks to the wall-to-wall media coverage of Jodi Arias’s Arizona capital murder case. John Bennett, the last U.S. military execution to date, cracked the top-posts list for the first time because of Major Nidal Hasan‘s death penalty court-martial for the Fort Hood shootings. We’re not above drawing such connections explicitly ourselves on Twitter, where we’ve sent about 17,200 tweets (4,500 in the past year) to a follower universe now nearing 3,000.

The all-time top posts hereabouts run as follows:

1. Ted Bundy (January 24, 1989)
2. Eleven from the Stutthof concentration camp (July 4, 1946)
3. Mohammad Najibullah (September 27, 1996)
4. Samuel K. Doe (September 9, 1990)
5. Rainey Bethea (August 14, 1936)
6. Green Tea Hag (March 4, 1771)
7. Hideki Tojo (December 23, 1948)
8. Jesse Washington lynched (May 15, 1916)
9. Pargali Ibrahim Pasha (March 15, 1536)
10. Thomas Cromwell (July 28, 1540)
11. Karl Hermann Frank (May 22, 1946)
12. Nguyen Van Lem (February 1, 1968)
13. Fou Tchou-li (April 10, 1905)
14. Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni (July 19, 2005)
15. Eugen Weidmann (June 17, 1939)
16. Pulitzer Prize-winning firing squad photograph from the Iranian Revolution (August 27, 1979)
17. James Corbitt (November 28, 1950)
18. The rapists of Maggie dela Riva (May 17, 1972)
19. Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis (July 8, 1999)
20. Eva Dugan (February 21, 1930)
21. Three partisans in Minsk (October 26, 1941)
22. Charles Starkweather (June 25, 1959)
23. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (June 19, 1953)
24. Hamida Djandoubi (September 10, 1977)
25. Claus von Stauffenberg (July 21, 1944)
26. Amon Goeth (September 13, 1946)
27. Pvt. Eddie Slovik (January 31, 1945)
28. Mohamed Oufkir (August 16, 1972)
29. Karla Faye Tucker (February 3, 1998)
30. Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (January 12, 1928)
31. Eight July 20 anti-Hitler plotters (August 8, 1944)
32. Witold Pilecki (May 25, 1948)
33. John Bennett (April 13, 1961)
34. Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin (December 11, 1962)
35. Michael X (May 16, 1975)
36. Henry Francis Hays (June 6, 1997)
37. Robert Francois Damiens (March 28, 1757)
38. Dhananjoy Chatterjee (August 14, 2004)
39. Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters (January 9, 1923)
40. Princess Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud (July 15, 1977)
41. Du’a Khalil Aswad (April 7, 2007)
42. The Stoning of Soraya M. (August 15, 1986)
43. Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya (November 29, 1941)
44. Partisans by the Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger (Uncertain date, 1942)
45. Mary Surratt and the Lincoln assassination conspirators (July 7, 1865)
46. Hannah Ocuish (December 20, 1786)
47. Che Guevara (October 9, 1967)
48. Prince Mustafa (Oct. 6, 1553)
49. Marion Braidfute (Uncertain date, 1297)
50. Maximilien Robespierre (July 28, 1794)
51. The Belsen war criminals (December 13, 1945)
52. William Johnson (June 20, 1864)
53. Mohammed Bijeh (March 16, 2005)
54. The In Cold Blood killers (April 14, 1965)
55. Henri Languille (June 28, 1905)
56. The Lonely Hearts Killers (March 8, 1951)
57. Cameron Todd Willingham (February 17, 2004)
58. Father Miguel Pro (November 23, 1927)
59. Dr. Jose Rizal (December 30, 1896)
60. Willie Francis (when he was successfully executed May 9, 1947)
61. Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe (late 41 BCE)
62. Not Willie Francis (when he survived the electric chair May 3, 1946)
63. John Wayne Gacy (May 10, 1994)
64. Mona Fandey (November 2, 2001)
65. 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. (June 16, 1944)
66. England’s last hangings (August 13, 1964)

For whatever it’s worth, the most popular post actually published in Year VI was by a very wide margin the first-person account of a horrifically botched Thailand execution.

One of the more noticeable site trends in the past year has been the continued steady growth in traffic share of mobile devices. Those accounted for only a bit over 10% of the traffic in Year V (Nov. 2011-Oct. 2012), but that soared to 25% in Year VI (Nov. 2012-Oct. 2013). The month-over-month change shows a still stronger trend than that, with site views from desktop devices bottoming out at 68.7% in August 2013 before rebounding ever so slightly the past two months. Both mobile phone views and tablet views have grown by about +50% relative to where they were last October — perhaps facilitated by plumping for WPTouch Pro, money very well spent by my lights.

Guest Posts

The site has always managed to get by on the kindness of strangers, several of whom once again contributed a trove of guest posts.

In addition to those named below, a special thanks is due my correspondent “Mastro Titta” (here‘s the inspiration for the name) for adding countless names and dates to our expansive archives of potential source material. Similar gratitude goes to Tom E. for reasons which will become clear in the near future.

Grazie to them, and to all of these …

Co-authored with Bora Chung

Our 2001 days‘ meta-post musings on the death penalty in dystopian literature

Nancy Bilyeau

May 17, 1521: Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham
May 27, 1541: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

Richard Clark

July 29, 1879: Kate Webster of the Barnes Mystery


May 23, 1876: The Lennie mutineers
July 14, 1584: Balthasar Gerard, William the Silent’s assassin

Robert K. Elder

Mar. 9, 1981: Steven T. Judy
Aug. 16, 2001: Jeffrey Doughtie

Meaghan Good

With this year’s contributions (and there are many more already scheduled for future dates), Meaghan’s published posts on Executed today ran past 100. As noted last year, we’d have been hard-pressed to keep this operation running all these years without her prolific and thoroughly researched output.

Nov. 13, 1943: the Zalkind family
Nov. 14, 1930: Mao Zedong’s wife
Nov. 15, 2011: Oba Chandler
Nov. 28, 1828: James “Little Jim” Guild
Dec. 13, 1889: John Gilman
Dec. 16, 1678: Stephen Arrowsmith
Dec. 23, 1926: Petrus Stephanus Hauptfleisch
Dec. 27, 2001: Kojiro Asakura
Jan. 6, 1836: Abraham Prescott
Jan. 19, 1894: Albert Bomberger
Feb. 6, 1997: Michael Carl George
Feb. 18, 1862: Margaret Coghlan
Feb. 26, 1909: C.Y. Timmons
Mar. 22, 1882: George Parrott, who was tanned and made into a pair of shoes after hanging
Mar. 24, 1936: George W. Barrett
Mar. 30, 1883: Emeline Meaker
Apr. 6, 1752: Mary Blandy
Apr. 7, 1933: The “killers” of Pavlik Morozov, an engrossing story of Soviet mythmaking
Apr. 13, 1942: Four Jews from Bedzin and Sosnowiec, with a cameo in the classic Holocaust graphic novel Maus
Apr. 15, 1921: Mailo Segura
Apr. 25, 1900: A triple hanging in McMinnville, Tenn.
Apr. 27, 1940: Wilhelm Kusserow
May 2, 1883: Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann
May 12, 1936: Buck Ruxton
May 25, 1721: Joseph Hanno”, “miserable African”
June 1, 1936: Arnold Sodeman
June 3, 1886: 22 Uganda Martyrs
June 8, 1866: Anton Probst
June 10, 1944: The Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane
June 14, 1897: Choka Ebin
June 18, 1827: Kentucky Gov. Joseph Desha pardons his plainly guilty son Isaac
June 20, 1944: Jakob Edelstein and family
June 24, 1890: A segregated quadruple hanging
July 1, 1943: Gay Dutch Resistance fighter Willem Arondeus
July 9, 1920: Lee Monroe Betterton
July 30, 1888: A 76-pound Newfoundland
Aug. 9, 1786: Tom, a “faithful, industrious, healthy slave”
Aug. 18, 1941: 534 Lithuanian Jewish intellectuals
Aug. 19, 1897: Harvey DeBerry
Aug. 23, 1849: Rebecca Smith, to save her children from want
Aug. 28, 1765: Three Burglarious Johns
Aug. 31, 1876: The reprieve of boy serial killer Jesse Pomeroy
Sep. 12, 1864: George Nelson, Indiana Jones rapist
Sep. 15, 1939: Charles McLachlan
Sep. 18, 1953: Louisa May Merrifield
Oct. 2, 1901: James Edward Brady
Oct. 4, 1648: Alice Bishop
Oct. 5, 1943: The children of the Bialystok Ghetto
Sometime in early Oct. 1943: Yitskhok Rudahevski
Oct. 16, 1946: Neville Heath, torture-killer
c. 19: Some wicked priests of Isis, according to Josephus

Melissa S. Green

Apr. 14, 1950: Eugene LaMoore Alaska’s last execution

Courtney Thomas

Mar. 25, 1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow
May 14, 1631: Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven

Robert Wilhelm

Jan. 10, 1879: Benjamin Hunter, of the Hunter-Armstrong Tragedy


In addition to outright guest posts, interviews with a variety of expert sand specialists illuminated a number of unusual cases.

Editor’s Picks

Regardless of traffic prominence, these are a few of the many daily posts that were among the most interesting to research and write.

Meta Content

A want of hours in the day led us to go easy on some of the aspired-to meta content. In addition to the post for our 2001st consecutive day (op. cit.), we extended our sidebar “decade-defining executions” series to the 1970s, and ginned up an election day tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty. We also took a very quick and dirty look at which U.S. governors have signed the most death warrants.

If all goes well, we’ll manage a bit more of these in the year to come.

* Actual sum total of persons executed in the 2,192 posts — or however many it ends up being — would be an interesting figure to have but an extremely tedious (not to say depressing) job to compile.

** This same thing happened with Cameron Todd Willingham: when the New Yorker put the story in the national eye, our longstanding account of Willingham’s likely innocence was one of the few already online and became one of the most visited pages on the site in 2009. As one can see from the traffic ranker above where it now sits at #57, it’s been subsumed for everyday websearchers by the many thousands of new Willingham links in the past few years.

On this day..

MMI: Two thousand and one days, a dystopia

Yesterday marked the 2,000th consecutive calendar date since this joint launched on Oct. 31, 2007.

The ambitions harbored on that Halloween fell very far short of such a milestone as this, so it seems only fitting to mark the terra incognita of day 2001 with a reflection on the death penalty in the futuristic oeuvre.

It was Thomas More — eventually himself the headsman’s patient — who coined the term Utopia; in the novel of that name, More places in the mouth of the emissary from the island-nation of Utopia a trenchant critique of harsh Tudor-era justice, with mere thieves “hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet,” which “was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual.”

Utopia, by contrast, puts thieves to labor to compensate for the injury they have done, and it’s all very superficially dignified (except that you get flogged if you resist). But Utopia and all utopias must grapple at some point with the citizen who does not abide the ordained social contract: Thomas More, who as Chancellor did not scruple to kill heretics, confines his penal slaves not with armed guards and barbed wire but with the certain threat of annihilation.

Their friends are allowed to give them either meat, drink, or clothes so they are of their proper color, but it is death, both to the giver and taker, if they give them money; nor is it less penal for any freeman to take money from them, upon any account whatsoever: and it is also death for any of these slaves (so they are called) to handle arms. Those of every division of the country are distinguished by a peculiar mark; which it is capital for them to lay aside, to go out of their bounds, or to talk with a slave of another jurisdiction; and the very attempt of an escape is no less penal than an escape itself; it is death for any other slave to be accessory to it … the very having of money is a sufficient conviction: and as they are certainly punished if discovered, so they cannot hope to escape; for their habit being in all the parts of it different from what is commonly worn, they cannot fly away … The only danger to be feared from them is their conspiring against the government: but those of one division and neighborhood can do nothing to any purpose, unless a general conspiracy were laid among all the slaves of the several jurisdictions, which cannot be done, since they cannot meet or talk together.

Maybe he’s not weighing down an overcrowded gibbet, but the thief has suffered a waking civil death; to budge an inch from his place is enough to plummet to his doom. The dystopian genre need only widen this chasm until the whole island falls in.

In the 20th century, once advancing industry had seemingly placed comprehensive social reordering within practical grasp, the dystopian gaze likewise swallowed up the utopian.

When H.G. Wells, perpetrator of several utopian novels (including one literally titled A Modern Utopia) toured the Soviet Union in 1920, Russia was engaged in what Wells and many others expected was a utopian endeavor.

The “proletarian poet” — a distinct literary circle after the October Revolution — Vladimir Kirillov* celebrated the godlike power mere workers now exercised in “The Iron Messiah,” which begins thus:**

There he is — the savior, the lord of the earth.
The master of titanic forces —
In the roar of countless steel machines,
In the radiance of electric suns.

We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole,
With a nimbus of divine mystery,
But he came to us clad in gray smoke
From the suburbs, foundries, factories.

We thought he would appear in glory and glitter,
Meek, blessedly gentle,
But he, like the molten lava,
Came — multiface and turbulent …

There he walks o’er the abyss of seas,
All of steel, unyielding and impetuous;
He scatters sparks of rebellious thought,
And the purging flames are pouring forth.

The writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, a communist revolutionary who was also an engineer and had supervised industrial icebreaker construction in Britain, was one of the men employed in producing Russian translations of Wells’s sunny forecasts of technocratic progress.

Perhaps in response to Wells — and certainly in response to his dismay over the chilling climate for dissident art — Zamyatin penned the seminal 1921 dystopian novel We (it can be read free online in this pdf). We would be distinguished as the first book banned by Soviet censorship; it was smuggled to the west and published in 1924, but it didn’t see print in the Soviet Union until glasnost.

In We, it is the future “One State” that stands as lord of the earth and master of titanic forces. In a world without privacy or dreams, Numbers (i.e., people) build a spaceship called Integral at the command of the Benefactor. The novel explicitly counterposes freedom and (material) happiness; the perfectly ordered, clockwork One State has the latter and therefore organizes explicitly to preserve its non-freedom, “for freedom and crime are as closely related as — well, as the movement of an aero and its speed: if the speed of an aero equals zero, the aero is motionless; if human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crime.”

More’s Utopia executes enslaved criminals who attempt to regain their liberty; Zamyatin’s Benefactor simply executes anyone who attempts to acquire liberty in the first place. And these are not only bodily executions: before putting to public death a seditious poet, a state-friendly writer “named” R-13 (Numbers, you see) delivers a benediction celebrating the One State/Benefactor’s Promethean achievement: “he harnessed fire / With machines and steel / And fettered chaos with Law.” It sounds a little like Kirillov.

Then the execution proceeds:

Swayed by an unknown wind, the criminal moved; one step … one more … then the last step in his life. His face was turned to the sky, his head thrown back — he was on his last … Heavy, stony like fate, the Benefactor went around the machine, put his enormous hand on the lever … Not a whisper, not a breath around; all eyes were upon that hand … What crushing, scorching power one must feel to be the tool, to be the resultant of hundreds of thousands of wills! How great his lot!

Another second. The hand moved down, switching in the current. The lightning-sharp blade of the electric ray … A faint crack like a shiver, in the tubes of the Machine … The prone body, covered with a light phosphorescent smoke; then, suddenly, under the eyes of all, it began to melt, to dissolve with terrible speed. And then nothing; just a pool of chemically pure water which only a moment ago had been so red and had pulsated in his heart.

Public execution in the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.

In 1921, We was a fantastic, satirical riff; by the time Zamyatin died in exile in 1937, We looked prophetic of the unfolding Stalinist nightmare — and still more, as Orwell put it in an enthusiastic review, of the entire project of industrial civilization. Looking around him, Orwell couldn’t help but notice that the executioner who was a vaguely embarrassing footnote for More’s utopia actually turned out to be central to the whole project — maybe even the purpose of the whole project. “The object of persecution is persecution,” says the torturer O’Brien in Orwell’s own dystopian classic 1984. “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

1984 unabashedly cribs its plot from Zamyatin; its protagonist’s day job (until he falls foul of the BenefactorBig Brother) is the artistic half of the butcher’s job, rewriting purged “unpersons” out of history like the fallen communist officials disappeared from official photographs. Kurt Vonnegut said that his first novel Player Piano (also published as Utopia-14) “cheerfully ripped off the plot of (Aldous Huxley’s) Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”

English literature aside, it was central and eastern Europe that bore the brunt of the 20th century’s totalitarian experiments; small wonder that these were also a key crucible of dystopian literary experimentation. “We were born,” ran a gallows jest among 1930s Soviet writers, “to turn Kafka into reality.”

As this gruesome site begins its third thousand days† of picking over women and men made meat under the machines of whichever benefactors, our extra morsel is an original literary review of a horrific Czech dystopian novella that deserves to be better-known in English. What follows is by Slavic literature expert Bora Chung.

Nobody knows Martin Harnícek. He was not executed; in fact he is still alive and well. Harnícek was born in 1952 in former Czechoslovakia. He used to work as a male nurse at mental institutions. And he wrote. Somewhere in the 1970s Harnícek wrote a novella titled Maso. In Czech, maso means meat.

The narrator (he doesn’t have a name) begins his story at the Meat Market. His dream is to go to the First-Class Hall one day. The problem is, he does not have the necessary number of meat cards. In fact he doesn’t have any meat card. If he gets caught at the Market with no card on him – and there are random inspections just to sort out people like him – he will be executed. Then the fresh meat from his dead body will go to the much-desired First-Class Hall. And then to the Second-Class, if nobody picks it up and it starts to go bad. And finally to the Third-Class Hall if the meat spoils completely. You see what the title means.

Inside the Market there are butchers, policemen (no women) in red uniforms, customers with (or without) meat cards, and vagrants. And this is pretty much the entire structure of the City itself. There are policemen. Everywhere. And there are the fortunate few with sufficient number of meat cards: the ones registered at a legitimate address. But if the house gets condemned, either because it was attacked by the police or by other vagrants, the place is no longer legitimate and the residents themselves become vagrants. And instead of butchers (who can slaughter people legally) there are street-gangs (who will slaughter people illegally). These are organized vagrants, helping one another to rob other unfortunate fellow citizens of their meat cards and/or their meat.

If there are other trades in this world, we’re not privy to them: no plumbers, no construction workers, no contractors. No wonder the houses are so quickly falling apart. More and more of them are getting condemned. Vagrants especially target wooden houses, to tear down the walls for firewood in their resource-poor world. That’s how the nameless narrator lost his place of residence. That’s why he had to sneak into the Meat Market without a card.

So our guy stays there at the Market and becomes a vagrant. But see, he has no meat card of his own. So has to rely on stealing. That can work out for only so long. After a whole lot of incidents and adventures he finally decides to run for his life. He sneaks back out of the Market and into the streets and he runs and runs until he crosses the City border without realizing it.

Now this is where the story gets interesting.

Crossing the City borders should have meant instant death to him by City regulations, and it very nearly does get him killed by roving vagrants who attempt to prey on him. But outside the City he finds a self-sustaining utopian community. The people there are mostly themselves defectors from the City. And their families. Real, loving families. Husbands and wives. Sons and daughters. Kindness, care, affection abound. These good people find our guy in a very bad shape. They take him in, take care of him, bring him back to health.

So our guy gets back on his feet.

The first thing he does? Attacks his benefactor’s daughter. He tries to rape her, the girl resists and dies in the process, and the guy tries to eat her because to him it’s precious fresh meat.

But it’s a community, and a utopian community at that. People hear the girl scream. They come running and catch our guy literally red-handed. Now he has to run again. He ends up back at the City and is slaughtered by a Police officer.

“I knew that in a few moments I would be in the Market, in the First-Class Hall, like I always desired. I realized it very clearly, but it didn’t make me happy at all.”

Advanced dystopian devices: cannibalism.

Well, the reader can see from the beginning that this guy is doomed. Everybody is in this City. One either eats another human being or dies a very violent death and becomes “meat” for others. Out nameless narrator was born into such a reality and has internalized it to such a degree that even when he is in very different circumstances, in fact the opposite of circumstances in a utopian community, and even when he doesn’t have to kill people or eat them anymore — our poor guy never really believes it. He can’t imagine or understand that any other way of existence is possible. So he behaves exactly the way he would have in the City. Which eventually gets himself slaughtered.

In so many other “typical” or canonical utopian/dystopian novels the main character(s) actively seek a better society or the possibility thereof. If they actually get to the perfect society, it’s a utopian novel. In a dystopian novel the main character(s) usually get caught, get beaten up, tortured and brainwashed by the evil State. Either way the main character(s) are pretty much reasonable, relatable people. They’re the reader’s guides to their strange worlds. If somebody, by some magic, pulled Winston Smith out of the novel and placed him in real, actual Britain of 1984, he’d fit in and might actually do pretty well.

In Maso, however, the main character himself is different. The reader can see that this poor nameless guy really suffers. He has feelings: meat makes him happy (really happy); hunger, thirst, cold and pain make him sad (and these are a constant, unfortunately); he feels fear, real fear, deep terror, and unnerving uncertainty all the time. The reader can understand all this. The reader can even kind of relate to him.

But out main character differs from most other characters in most other utopian/dystopian novels in that he simply can’t help himself being a part of his dystopia. The author deliberately takes him to a much, much better place but look at what our narrator ends up doing: He just wants more meat. He can’t dream of a better society, even when he’s actually in one. He has lost the ability.

In the author’s mind, that’s what it really means to be born and raised in dystopia.

Harnícek was born in 1952. Czechoslovakia became a Communist country in 1948. So there you see the difference. George Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blair, hailed from a bourgeois English family, served in India, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and sparred with fellow-leftists over supporting the USSR. Yevgeny Zamyatin, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy, saw the Bolshevik Revolution which he first embraced turn to ash. They saw the Old World, the world as they knew it, crumble apart, saw humanity turn for the worse. So in a way they knew both utopia and dystopia.

But Harnícek had no memory like theirs, no first-hand experience of a different, better world. All he had was his reality: Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Soviet tanks in the capital city after Prague Spring (Harnícek was 16), and Charter 77. Harnícek signed this anti-government, pro-freedom civil movement manifesto. It meant a political and professional suicide at the time and he knew it. He was 25.

Harnícek now lives in Germany. He is retired, has had nothing to do with the literary world for a long time, and does not wish to either. So at least his life story seems to have a happy ending.

Harnícek has written a handful of other works in his life, but none of it measured up to Maso. The original edition (published in 1981) is 76 pages long. In this short fiction he has created what is probably one of the most horrifying dystopias that one can find in Western literature. A nightmare world where human beings don’t even know what hopes or dreams can mean; where people refuse to believe them and run back to hopelessness at their own volition. To end up being eaten.

And the scariest part is that the City seems to function as a society, since it continues to exist. After all, our nameless hero went back to the City, in spite of everything he went through. If only to be slaughtered. The fact that it somehow all makes sense in a terrible, twisted way says something about the darkest, most brutish, and perhaps the most inexplicable corner of human nature.

Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:

  • 1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
  • 1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
  • 500, merely a Spartan marking of the date

* With apt tragedy, Kirillov himself disappeared into the USSR’s “purging flames” and died in the gulag under unknown circumstances — possibly executed.

** Translation from Mass Culture in Soviet Russia.

† No promises!

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10 executions that defined the 1970s

The transitional years from the era of liberation and revolution to the rising tide of reaction and neoliberalism, the Seventies are an embarrassment of execution riches. Too much was at stake for too many not to generate a trove of memorable deaths: the Vietnam War ended and the (Soviet) Afghan War began; Nixon went to China; the Cold War swung from detente to sharpened confrontation.

In the West, the death penalty was ending. France and Spain saw their last executions in the Seventies; Great Britain, Canada, and Australia had already left off the long Commonwealth tradition of hanging the decade before. Even the U.S. spent most of the 1970s in a de facto death penalty moratorium and carried out only two executions. (Although the present-day death penalty system in the U.S. dates to these years, as does the drug war and its terrifying expansion of the prison state.)

Death penalty or no, remarkable criminals surely plied their trade — indeed, it was a golden age (since passed) for serial killers: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, the Hillside Strangler, the BTK killer, the Yorkshire Ripper … all got started and left most or all of their bodies in the swinging Seventies.

Terrible crimes, to be sure, some of them authored by eventual clientele of the executioner.

But in years the history books have etched with blood, our eye is drawn most of all to the lives ground up in epoch-shaping transformations.

10. Deniz Gezmis

A handsome student radical hanged by Turkey’s military government in 1972, Gezmis has become a Che Guevara-like revolutionary icon.

9. Gary Gilmore

The first U.S. execution in nearly a decade and the first under the re-rigged capital punishment statutes that have governed the American death penalty ever since, Gilmore made headlines — and a cultural footprint — by volunteering enthusiastically for his speedy execution by firing squad.

8. The Balibo Five

Three days after recording this broadcast, reporter Greg Shackleton was dead.

With a leftist government taking shape in recently-decolonized East Timor, neighboring Indonesia bloodily invaded with the west’s blessing in December 1975. Australia has been a good enough neighbor never to kick up much of a diplomatic stink about several of its nationals believed to have been summarily executed by Indonesian forces while reporting from menaced Timor-Leste.

7. Western mercenaries in Angola

In a post-colonial warning from the (putatively) revolutionary “Third World”, four British and American mercenaries were shot as illegal combatants after a show trial for taking soldier-of-fortune gigs in Angola.

6. Salvador Puig Antich

The young Spanish anarchist and worldwide cause celebre was — along with the much less-remembered Heinz Ches — the last person garroted in Franco’s, or anyone else’s, Spain. (Not the last executed in Spain, however.)

5. Ghana’s former military rulers

The 1979 Jerry Rawlings coup in Ghana saw the execution of the country’s former dictators Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, Fred Akuffo, and Akwasi Afrifa, along with various other aides and officers of the former regime(s). Putschists shooting their predecessors isn’t news, of course, but the fact that this coup and these shootings set Ghana up for transition to prosperity and a stable democracy? That’s news.

“There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way,” explained Jerry Rawlings in his latter-day elder-statesman guise. “There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.”

4. Victor Jara

The great Chilean folk singer was extrajudicially executed days after Cold War vampire Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende. Jara remains a poignant emblem of those tortured, killed, and “disappeared” in the dark times that followed.

3. Long Boret

The ghastly Cambodian genocide was too many executions to comprehend, too many even to number — fallen elites, everyday people, even the guards and executioners themselves.

The arrest and immediate execution of the country’s former Prime Minister Long Boret at the outset of the Khmer Rouge conquest set the tone for the years of the Killing Fields.

2. Revolutionary Iran’s firing squads

Another emblem: the fall of the hated Shah of Iran brought many executions in its train, but none so vivid as those captured in this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (anonymously attributed until recently) of 11 men mid-topple as they are fusilladed by a squatting firing detail almost within reach of their flailing arms.

1. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Pakistan’s polarizing prime minister who was toppled by a military coup and controversially hanged. The dictator who ordered Bhutto’s death would be succeeded as head of state by Bhutto’s own daughter, Benazir Bhutto.

Honorable Mentions

There were so many shocking, memorable, and history-making executions in the 1970s that a respectable top-10 list for the average decade could be culled from Seventies’ honorable mentions alone. At least punk will never die.

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