Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1831: Dic Penderyn, Merthyr Rising martyr

Add comment August 13th, 2020 Headsman

Welsh coal miner Dic Penderyn was hanged on this date in 1831 to crush a labor rising.

Richard Lewis was his real name — he got his nickname from the village of his residence, Penderyn, which is also true of Wales’s most famous whisky — dug carbon out of the ground to serve the mighty ironworks of Merthyr Tydfil.


Satanic mill? Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night, by Penry Williams (1825).

This vital node of the burgeoning industrial revolution made princes of its masters, and paupers of its subjects. “The town of Merthyr Tidfil was filled with such unguided, hard-worked, fierce, and miserable-looking sons of Adam I never saw before,” Thomas Carlyle would write in 1850. “Ah me! It is like a vision of Hell, and will never leave me, that of these poor creatures broiling, all in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits, and rolling mills.” The broiling creatures’ surplus labor lives on to delight the modern visitor in the form of Cyfarthfa Castle, the spired mansion thrown up in the 1820s by the prospering ironmaster William Crawshay II. (His successor in the role, Robert Thompson Crawshay, would be known as the “Iron King of Wales”.)

For workers, precarity sat side by side with toil and in 1831 the pressure of contracting wages and constricting debt triggered a protest that metastasized into rebellion. The Merthyr Rising saw the town completely overrun by the lower orders, flying the red flag in perhaps the earliest deployment of this now-familiar symbol as a banner of the proletariat.

They sacked the debtors’ court and fed its obnoxious bonds to a bonfire, and formed a militia that fought off a couple of attempted state interventions before 450 troops occupied Merthyr Tidfil on June 6 to finally quell the revolt. Two dozen protesters were killed in the associated fighting.

Twenty-six people were arrested and tried for various crimes associated with the Merthyr Rising, but amid the various imprisonments and transportations-to-Australia, Westminster perceived the need for the sort of message that only hemp conveys. Two men, Lewis Lewis (Lewsyn yr Heliwr) and our man Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) drew death sentences for stabbing a soldier with a bayonet. The former man’s sentence was downgraded to penal transportation when a policeman testified that he’d been shielded from a dangerous moment in the riot by Lewis Lewis. That left just the one guy and never mind a widespread belief in the town that Dic Penderyn was innocent of the crime.

Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey — yes, he’s the Earl Grey tea guy — refused an 11,000-strong community petition to spare him. Dic Penderyn hanged at Cardiff on August 13, 1831, at the site of the present-day Cardiff Market. A plaque marks the spot.

To latter-day descendants, both those of blood and those of insurrectionary spirit, Dic Penderyn is a seminal working-class martyr. Commemorations, and efforts to officially exonerate him, continue down to the present day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Rioting,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1469: Andrea Viarani

1 comment August 12th, 2020 Headsman

The August 12, 1469 beheading of a Ferrara nobleman named Andrea Viarani is the subject of a chapter in the very fine volume The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy.

This scholarly tome explores via six chapters with different authors and several translated texts the spiritual and ritual experience of execution, particularly as mediated by confraternities of lay comforters who worked to steady the condemned for their ordeal and — as they prayed — their salvation.

Notably, The Art of Executing Well favors the reader with a 100-page translation of a Bolognese Comforters’ Manual and its associated hymnal. This resource was used by the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte to train its brethren for their weighty task of counseling the doomed.

This manual is, in the first place, a philosophical text for the counselor — to get his mind right, fully versed in Church doctrine concerning the afterlife and approaching his somber task full of contrition, humility, and piety.

Those doing this work must put their heart in it and act only out of love for God, and also out of charity for and the salvation of the neighbor. And they must make a great effort to do this, otherwise it would be displeasing to God. And take note that it will not gain you anything for eternal life if it is done for any vain reasons: any aspect of glory or mundane pomp, or to be held in high esteem by the people of this world, or to avoid disrespect of your fellow man, or for any worldly gain, or to be on everyone’s lips, or to be praised, or to be able to learn the secrets or the deeds of those people, or out of revenge, or out of ill will, or for faction, or for reward. But you should only do it out of reverence for God and to observe his commandment.

And in the second place, it’s a practical handbook for navigating the many reactions and considerations that people in their last hours might have, as part of guiding the sufferer towards reconciliation with God. “You must not tire of speaking” to those who wish to listen and pray with you, but also bring several enumerated volumes for those who prefer to read; in many other cases, “you will find those who do not willingly accept their death and for whom it is a very big thing” and who must be guided empathetically when their thoughts are preoccupied by concern for their family, or by writing their will, or by their raw resistance to death. At times the guidance reads strikingly modern; set aside the figure of the executioner and words like these would not be amiss to aid you or I in a 21st century personal crisis:

There are those whom you will find hard-hearted in the beginning and who do not want to hear anything you say … Be very careful not to unsettle him with words or harshness. Because sometimes those who are so hardened and miserable may react quite violently against one word they don’t like, with the result that you risk never being able to say anything that they do like, and this leads to worse. And if you see that in spite of your words he doesn’t wish to repent and remains hard-hearted, let it be and say nothing to him. Rather, let him say what he wants. And then tell some appropriate story or some example to your companion [i.e., a brother emissary from the confraternity -ed.] or with whoever is around, and tell in such a way that he who is to die hears you. And when his anger subsides and he is just there not doing anything, then go and put your hand on his back and ever so gently reprove him for his folly and place him on the proper road.

We’ve previously seen in these annals an example of lay brother and condemned prisoner working together to ready a soul for the block, in the person of Niccolo Machiavelli associate Pietro Boscoli, who was involved in (or perhaps merely adjacent to) an anti-Medici plot.

That’s not dissimilar from the situation of our day’s principal. Andrea Viarani came from a cultured noble family numbering diplomats, doctors, and astrologers among its ranks — and he came to his grief by his involvement in a conspiracy against the local tyrant, Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.*

Not much is really known about this man’s life, but he comes alive in Alfredo Troiano’s examination of three poems that the man wrote while awaiting execution. These poems later made their way to Bologna, where the aforementioned Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte incorporated them into its own corpus and for Troiano, that’s no coincidence: they exhort the reader to attitudes characteristic of confraternities, revealing the unrecorded exertions these lay brethren must have made in Viarani’s cell.

If the blind, false, and treasonous world,
full of injustice, betrayal, and deception
has held you many years
far from your Maker and the Supreme Good,

Shows now both the shadowy and the fleeting nature
of hoping for vain pleasures, which
that foolish desire inclines towards
never thinking of its true salvation:

Now that heaven has given you much grace
and you are brought back to the point,
Andrea, that God has made you
repentant of the wrong committed.

Lift your mind to God, move your hard heart
and do not be so obstinate with him
but with devout tears,
repentant of having erred, ask for forgiveness.

Ah! Don’t wish to abandon your soul,
being diffident of eternal grace,
for it never is tired of gathering
he who, repentant, so asks.

This sirvente runs to 35 stanzas, and the translation is original to The Art of Executing Well where the reader may peruse it at length; Viarani also wrote two sonnets, one addressed to the Eternal Father and the other the Eternal Queen (that is, to God and to the Virgin Mary), which also appear in that book.

* The son of Niccolo d’Este, a name distinguished in execution annals by meting that fate out to his young wife and his son for their shocking affair. (The lovers weren’t kin themselves.)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1869: Katkeena and John Anayitzaschist, Glyphs and Gallows

Add comment July 29th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1869, two men of the aboriginal Hesquiat nation of Vancouver Island off British Columbia’s Pacific coast were hanged outside their village by the white colonial authorities, on the charge of gratuitously murdering the (again, white) survivors of a shipwreck.

The English-built barque John Bright foundered in a gale just offshore from the location of the eventual gallows in February of that same year, with all aboard lost — including apparently the wife of the captain, their children, and the pretty young English nursemaid who looked after them.* Although within sight of a Hesquiat village also called Hesquiat, the violent surf put the vessel beyond aid.

The tale of a ship lost to the sea soon became in the eyes of Vancouver Island’s European capital city, Victoria, a very different tale of villainous “West Coast savages.” An unprincipled trader named James Christenson was the first to report the shipwreck in Victoria and put about his suspicions that at least some of the John Bright‘s denizens had reached shore alive. His evidence for this claim was seeing several headless bodies. A more generous interlocutor might proceed from this observation to indict the implacable violence of the rough open-ocean surf that would have carried the drowned to shore, crashing through the John Bright‘s timbers and tossing boulders hither and yon.

Instead the most diabolical inferences were immediately bandied as fact, with the city’s preeminent journalist D.W. Higgins categorically broadcasting that the ship’s personnel “were without doubt murdered by the Indians” and whipping political pressure that forced the colonial government into action. The HMS Sparrowhawk was dispatched to investigate with its conclusions so firmly determined that the refusal of the ship’s doctor to endorse a finding of homicide relative to the bodies he examined did not save native canoes from a cannonade meant to force the village to surrender some suspects. In the end the gunboat returned to Victoria with seven new passengers, two of whom wound up on the gallows: a man named John Anayitzaschist, whom some witnesses accused in contradictory accounts of shooting survivors on the beach, and a wretch named Katkeena (or Kahtkayna) who wasn’t even present in Hesquiat Village at the time of the shipwreck. The former man was a factional rival of the Hesquiat chief. The latter “was a simpleton of inferior rank and considered so worthless that not one woman of his tribe would take him as a husband,” according to the Catholic missionary Augustin Brabant, who lived for many years afterward among the Hesquiat people. He seems to have been given over to the executioner because he was disposable.

The case has receive a bit of renewed scrutiny in the 21st century: the British Columbia government issued a statement of regret in 2012, and an empathetic musician composed a string quartet (“Cradle Song for the Useless Man”) in honor of the forlorn Katkeena.

Executed Today comes by the affair via a wonderful 1997 book, Glyphs and Gallows: The Art of Clo-oose and the Wreck of John Bright. Author Peter Johnson weaves the wreck of the John Bright and the legal shambles that ensued with his exploration of native art — including the titular petroglyphs etched into coastal stone by native artists where still they sit to this day.

Drawn to the story by (accurate) reports of glyphs depicting European ships, Johnson hiked to the petroglyph site at Clo-oose where he sketched and photographed these amazing productions. The glyphs tantalize with the never-consummated possibility that they might directly allude to the John Bright affair, but more than this: in Johnson’s telling, they’re a priceless point of contact offered us by the hand of the artist to a cosmology in the moment before it is irrevocably lost to the tectonic action of European settlement.

Soon after the John Bright affair, things changed on the coast. The Colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, and the Royal Navy no longer sent its gunboats to intimidate worrisome Aboriginals. Settlement occurred, law and order prevailed, the potlatch and the totem poles were taken away. Disease forced a good many Natives to sanitoria, and Native children were sent to the residential schools run by Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries. Families were disconsolate. The soul of a race was broken, and the moss-wet forest slowly reclaimed the longhouses and the welcome figures of a once proud people. A whole culture was literally on the brink of being wiped out completely. And then, from the very edge of oblivion, the elders began to retell their stories. It was these bits of remembered tales, called up from a desperate soul’s interior like images forced onto stone, that would enable everything to begin again.

The motive for metaphor is the motive to create a story: it is the artistic drive. The impulse to use symbols is connected to our desire to create something to which we can become emotionally attached. Symbols, like relationships, involve us with deeply human attributes. Raven and Bear can speak to us directly. I can smile at the glyph of a seal, with its curious smiling head poking just above the water, and I am filled with wonder at the image of a bird carrying a small child or a bodiless head. A symbols is at once concrete, palpable, and sensual — like a rose. At the same time, it reaches beyond itself to convey an idea of beauty, of fragility, and of transience. The great thing about art is that it continually forces us to see new sets of resemblances. Those long-gone artists who created the petroglyphs at Clo-oose used two sets of symbols — their own and those of nineteenth-century Western Europeans — in order to depict a vignette that was firmly grounded in their point of view. Like the carvers of the Rosetta Stone, they wisely used sets of metaphors and imaginative icons against materialist images of nineteenth-century commercial technology. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, however, the petroglyphs of Clo-oose do not use one set of images to explicate the other; the petroglyphs of Clo-oose are stunning because they incorporate one set of images into the other. Like a series of lap dissolves in modern film, we are drawn to ponder one story while at the same time being faced with the jarring reality of another … They are rich metaphors of the interior world of Native spirituality and history, and they have been juxtaposed with metaphors of European conquest. As such, they are eloquent indeed.

It is impossible to completely crack the codes of the sailing-ship glyphs of Clo-oose because the meaning of the Native spiritual images cast upon the rocks on that lonely shore has died with those to whom it was relevant. Our interpretations are approximations born of respect for the images themselves and of a renewed feeling for the time. We are left to ponder one significant story born of cultural collision. The petroglyphs of Clo-oose have served us well. They have, like any great code, prompted us to express, and urged us to remember, what might otherwise have been ignored. They have brought some light to an obscure world.

“Petroglyphs, monuments, art, music, dance, poetry, etc. are at the core of any culture,” Peter Johnson told us in an interview. “Where a mix of cultures occurs, then look to its art as a means of understanding the complex motives of such clashes.”

Executed Today: It’s the “Gallows” that draws our site‘s eye but can you introduce the native-carved petroglyphs of Clo-oose, including glyphs of 19th century ships akin to the ones involved in your narrative? Twenty-plus years after your book, have these treasures become any better appreciated as art and cultural heritage, or any better preserved and curated at their site?

Peter Johnson: An excerpt of the Clo-oose affair from D. W. Higgins’s The Passing of a Race (Toronto: William Briggs Publisher, 1905) is included in the back of Glyphs and Gallows. Being directly facing the Pacific, the Clo-oose site is one of many that Higgins suggests captures Native / Indigenous interactions in the 19th century. The four ships at the Clo-oose Site, Higgins suggests, are: the Sparrowhawk (long thin one that the Royal Navy used as a gunship to apprehend the so-called guilty tribesmen who “murdered the crew of the John Bright as it foundered just offshore”); the John Bright (the other long one, a barkentine freighting lumber from the coast to Valpariso, Chile); and, the smaller two ships may have been ships that sailed to the site and “discovered” the bodies. The official name of the site (anthropologically speaking) is DdSf 1 or commonly called Blowhole Site, because of a spout of water that comes shooting out of a cleft in the rocky shore at high tide. Other sites nearby are Hill Site, nearby on a sandstone ledge showing a huge beaked bird, and a copulating couple. Southeast of Clo-oose about 6 miles away, is Carmanah Lighthouse; there is a site there that contains several petroglyphs of human figures (one seemingly impregnated with a child) and other sites nearby show huge, fat, birds, and various fishes. These don’t say anything we can understand about first contact with “whites” and are likely religious figures which had a role in Native cosmology or family organization.


Peter Johnson’s sketch of the Blowhole Site, circa mid-1990s: there’s no way to conclusively identify any of the ship images with any one specific vessel, but if we are to suppose that association then in Johnson’s estimation the ship at the top would be the Sparrowhawk and the one at just left of center at the bottom the John Bright. The image is (c) Peter Johnson and used with permission.

The maps, mention and location of the sites are no longer found in recent books about the West Coast Trail, and the sites themselves have been left to erode away along the shore. Since Glyphs and Gallows, there has been no attempt, that I am aware of, to cover, reveal or understand more of their cultural and artistic messages. It’s as if the Natives don’t wish any further trace of information to be transmitted to other cultures and perhaps, they don’t know any more about the sites than we do. For example, totem poles of other indigenous peoples are left, as part of their meaning, to rot in the bush. We have a different predilection, and that is to save objects from the past. Which is more important? Who knows? Perhaps, the one that serves the intent of the original artist is most important?

As sandstone erodes fairly quickly, these important cultural sites will be gone in 100 years. I personally believe they are very important artistically and historically. Were they found in Britain, like the monoliths on the Orkneys, (at Scara Brae) or Stonehenge and other henges, they would be covered and revered. Here, the new Natives at Clo-oose don’t seem to know much more detail about such petroglyphs at Clo-oose, or do not wish to preserve them as culturally important artifacts. Perhaps, too, they are too difficult to decipher, much like Champolion’s translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, that previously to him took many hundreds of years. Native myths do not seem to be currently studied as much as they are simply appreciated … appreciation is good, but it’s only a start of understanding. Digging for meaning, beyond a purely aesthetic appreciation, is equally, if not more important.

One of the questions you set out to explore was whether these glyphs directly depict the events around the John Bright wreck and the subsequent hangings. Your answer is indeterminate on that … but how should we understand what they say more generally about the cultural upheavals concerning contact with Europeans, and about the civilization that preceded that contact?

The context of what happened during the first 50 years of European contact with West Coast natives, needs to be read about and understood by more “Whites” and Natives alike. D. W. Higgins believes whiskey traders destroyed many Native lives through the products they brought. (I don’t entirely believe this.) Higgins suggests in July 1858, the Native population in Victoria was 8,500, and goes on to say that at least 100,00 Natives perished from booze-related afflictions. I believe smallpox wiped out great numbers as Natives were moved away from Victoria up-country and spread the disease (like Covid), as they met other indigenous groups. Many were vaccinated, but Gov. Douglas at the time (1862), needed to save some vaccine for his own Europeans who settled in Victoria. They did not cruelly withhold the vaccine from the Natives, several European governors helped them as much as possible … that so-called dismissal today is a more popular misreading of the history of the time which serves a current, darker political purpose.

Once the idea that the John Bright survivors had reached shore only to be murdered by the Hesquiat got around, it’s comprehensible how a racist “tunnel vision” fit all facts into this understanding. However, I struggled with why this idea was initially formulated at all — it’s not the null hypothesis when a ship founders in a gale and nobody survives. Was it the shock value of “headless bodies” even though the Europeans on Vancouver Island should have been familiar with the devastating force of the surf? Was it a wholly cynical formulation by James Christenson to, as you put it, “elicit regular naval protection from Natives that he and other unscrupulous traders had cheated”?

Yes, it was a cynical formulation by Christenson and others to elicit naval protection from bald-faced raiding of their Native resources (lumber, fish, etc.). Shock value of the headless bodies certainly inculcated White racist reaction against Native action.

Victoria’s precarity at this moment, as a city that aspired to political leadership but was still a muddy frontier settlement, riven by class conflict, so bereft of women that they arranged bride ships — another of your books — and with a politically uncertain future between England, Canada, and the U.S. … felt eerily resonant with our treacherous current historical moment. Can we interpret the rush to judgment and the hangings here as to some extent expressions of a civic psychological insecurity? If so, did anyone involved in the prosecution later express any misgivings about it as Victoria grew and Canadian confederation became settled?

Yes I think so, not so much insecurity as fear. Myths had been perpetrated about Native violence (Natives attacked and killed white settlers on Lummi Island and in Cowichan Bay about this same time). So certainly, the Indigenous peoples gained much “bad press” about their time. That probably led to the gunboat frontier mentality of the time and the not-so-much later movement to remove the diminishing numbers of children in Native settlements to the White residential schools. This movement is usually interpreted as Native genocide on the part of ingigenous peoples and many Europeans themselves believe this. A few felt it was the only way to save what they believed was a dying culture by giving them proficiency in English so they could survive and integrate among a juggernaut of white settlers that became Canada. I guess the anxiety here is about the meaning on the word “integration.’

The debate over that issue remains. Too bad the petroglyphs are ignored today, they (and pictographs, etc.) could shed more light on the complex cosmology of the region’s Native cultures. Protest, and not an understanding of the historical context, seems to get more coverage. Real knowledge, not bitterness on both sides, is the answer. Proper historical co-operation would help immensely here.

One of the threads in your narrative is teasing out this undercurrent of skepticism about the verdict that stretches back to the European coroner who would not support a finding of homicide and includes the missionary priest Augustin Brabant, who extensively rebutted the D.W. Higgins narrative of native guilt … but only in private. Do we have any direct native sources from the time, or any later traditions, that tell us how the John Bright affair has been remembered in that community? And why did Brabant never publish his extensive personal knowledge from decades of living with the Hesquiat?

Father Brabant had a Catholic ulterior motive. His answer was to turn the Natives away from their own cosmology to a belief in Catholicism. That kind of religious zeal and “cultural blindness” led to the divisions we are trying to solve today. I bet very few remember the John Bright Affair or even care to, as an example and a means to dismiss and/or destroy early Native humanity. It took him years to write about his own view, likely because the Catholic Church would have condemned or excommunicated him.

[Brabant told Higgins in private correspondence that Christenson was at Hesquiat Village when the John Bright wrecked, but fled without attempting to render aid for fear that he would “expose myself to be killed by the Indians.” (That’s Brabant quoting Christenson at third hand.) Brabant thought Christenson only returned, weeks later, to cover up his own cowardice by bearing “to town a tale of cruelty, and barbarism, of which there is not a particle of truth.” Since Higgins extensively published the tale of cruelty and barbarism, it’s no surprise that he didn’t buy what Brabant was selling. Brabant also witnessed another shipwreck in 1882 — he wasn’t there for the John Bright itself — and described victims washing up on the beach in pieces, arms and legs horrifically torn from their torsos by the incredible force of the surf. -ed.]

* We lack a precise complement of the ship and especially of the women-and-children contingent, who were renumbered and rearranged by conflicting reports. Rumors that one or more of the children lived on as wards of this or that tribe circulated for years afterwars.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Interviews,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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1942: Valentin Feldman, “Imbeciles, it is for you that I die!”

Add comment July 27th, 2020 Headsman

Marxist philosopher and French Resistance figure Valentin Feldman was shot on this date in 1942, but he went out with an epic own of his firing squad: “Imbéciles, c’est pour vous que je meurs!” (“Imbeciles, it is for you that I die!”).

A Jewish emigre from the Soviet Union, Feldman (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French) matriculated at Paris’s prestigious Lycee Henri-IV alongside such luminaries as Simone Weil and Maurice Schumann. He mobilized during the “Phoney War” run-up ahead of Germany’s blitz on France, publishing a short Journal de guerre about his experiences.

He was excluded from his teaching work by anti-Semitic laws, leaving him plenty of time for anti-occupation subversion until he was caught sabotaging a factory.

Feldman’s last words were so unsurpassably revolutionary and modern and French that Jean-Luc Godard built a 1988 short film, Le Dernier Mot, around them.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Jews,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions

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1880: George Bennett, assassin of George Brown

Add comment July 23rd, 2020 Headsman

He has gone to his death through an oversight on my part. It was a foolish thing for me to have drawn the revolver, but I was in liquor or I would have never done it. I could not control the event. I went there purely on a matter of business and my business was very simple and very plain. The result was as it was. I am prepared to die.

-George Bennett

George Bennett hanged at Toronto on this date in 1880 for murdering George Brown.

By far the more consequential figure in the transaction was the victim. One of the Fathers of Confederation, the visionary Scottish emigre bequeathed to the country he helped to shape such institutions as the Liberal Party and the Toronto Globe (now the Globe and Mail, after a 20th century merger with a rival newspaper). His personal and political rivalry with Conservative lion John A. Macdonald, and the “Great Coalition” formed by these two to steer a faltering polity deadlocked by the mutual vetoes Anglophones and Francophones towards the Canadian Confederation, is the subject of a fine 2011 CBC film, John A.: Birth of a Country.

Brown’s killer, and our date’s principal, was Brown’s employee for five-ish years, as an engineer in the boiler room. He had a dissolute, chaotic life, marked by frequent domestic disturbances and heavy drinking. It was his propensity for turning up to work drunk that set in motion the tragedy, for his mishandling of the boiler one night early in 1880 led to his dismissal by the foreman.

A great scribbler of words, Bennett in this time produced copy by turns vengeful and despairing, and of course he kept hitting the bottle. On March 25, he turned up at his former workplace where he rantingly accosted several former coworkers. By late afternoon he’d found his way to George Brown’s office, and inviting himself in he proceeded to importune the publisher with his disordered grievances. At last he pressed Brown to sign a paper affirming his length of employment. Brown had little idea who this impertinent drunk was, and still less that the impertinent drunk was armed; the boss’s attempts to redirect Bennett to his supervisor or the business administrators to address his paperwork request enraged his ex-employee, who suddenly produced a pistol and through a scuffle put a ball into George Brown.

One wouldn’t think the injury pictured above would be fatal; indeed, the next day’s Globe exulted that “Yesterday afternoon one of the most seditious and dastardly attempts at murder ever made in this city took place in the private office of the Hon. George Brown in the Globe Building. Fortunately, owning mainly to Mr. Brown’s presence of mind and superior physical strength, the attempt was unsuccessful, the only results being a severe flesh wound to the thigh and the nervous prostration which is the inevitable result of such an encounter. Had the miscreant who made the murderous assault been a little more prompt in taking his aim, or had the pistol been of a different construction, the attempt could hardly have resulted so favourably, for he persisted in his efforts to effect his bloody purpose until he was overpowered and the weapon was wrenched from his grasp.” But the relief proved premature when the leg wound torn by Bennett’s bullet turned gangrenous and eventually — seven weeks later — killed Brown.

Monuments to the murdered statesman abound in Canada, including the Second Empire home he built and died in, preserved as the historic George Brown House, and George Brown College. His whiskered statue strides on Parliament Hill.

Brown’s widow returned to Scotland with her children, and the Canadian hero’s son George Mackenzie Brown followed his father’s career in both printing and politicking: per Wikipedia, “As a publisher, he produced Arthur Conan Doyle’s books; as a politician, he beat him to win election to the House of Commons.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims

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1986: Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, Dadah is Death

Add comment July 7th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1986, Malaysia hanged Australian nationals Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow for trafficking heroin.

The two men were nabbed together at the Penang island airport with 179 grams of heroin in their packs. While Chambers was an experienced drug courier, Barlow was a rookie; reportedly, his visible nervousness in the airport gave the game away. (He had also refused out of revulsion to pack the product into his stomach or anus.)

Although the amount they carried far exceeded Malaysia’s then-brand-new 15-gram threshold for an automatic death sentence, “Westerners” so-called had never yet actually been hanged there. The two were initially sanguine about their situation, expecting a mixture of bribes and diplomatic logrolling to do the trick.

Over the 20 months between arrest and their July 1985 trial, they realized their true predicament.

According to Bruce Dover, who covered their trial for Australia’s Herald Sun, “They turned on each other. The parents and family members who Barlow and Chambers had early agreed to ‘keep out of it’ now watched on helplessly from the court gallery, as each man tried to implicate the other in a desperate gambit that at best would send one man to the gallows while the other walked free … [and] in their efforts to save themselves, each had condemned the other to die.” In Dover’s estimation, the very best they could have hoped to achieve was to have one man shoulder the blame to save the other.

International appeals from all the usual suspects — Australia Prime Minister Bob Hawke, the Pope, various human rights organizations, and even Margaret Thatcher (because Barlow was a British-born dual citizen) — failed to move the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. If anything, the clamor only strengthened the domestic political imperative to advertise Malaysian resolve in a high-profile case against the special pleading of foreign busybodies.*

“Like many people of European descent, they [Barlow and Chambers] have assumed that a white skin was protection against local laws,” a Kuala Lumpur newspaper editorialized. “That is also the unspoken assumption among many in the foreign media who are now in this country. The two men should be hanged.”

They were.

A 1988 Australian television film about the Barlow and Chambers case, Dadah Is Death — “dadah” being the Malaysian word for drugs — is a star-studded affair, featuring Julie Christie on the marquee as Kevin Barlow’s mother in her fight to save her son, opposite appearances by then-little-known youngsters Hugo Weaving, Sarah Jessica Parker, and John Polson.

* A similar script played out in neighboring Singapore with a Dutch smuggler a few years later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Malaysia,Milestones

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1523: Jan van Essen and Hendrik Vos, the first Lutheran martyrs

Add comment July 1st, 2020 Headsman


Christian reformer Martin Luther composed his hymn “Ein neues Lied wir heben an” (literally “A new song we raise” but commonly titled in English “Flung to the Heedless Winds”) in response to a major milestone for his movement: the first evangelicals executed for the faith, namely defrocked Augustinian monks Jan van Essen and Hendrik Vos (or Voes), who were burned on July 1, 1523 in Brussels. “How welcome must that fire have been which hurried them from this sinful life to eternal life yonder,” Luther wrote in a missive to the Low Countries. But it wasn’t that welcome: their entire Antwerp monastery had been suppressed as a heretical nest with all its denizens save these two fleeing the stake, many by way of recantation. Nevertheless, Jan and Hendrik would not be the last of the former Antwerp Augustinians to achieve the martyr’s crown and Luther’s tribute.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Netherlands,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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2004: David Harris, Errol Morris subject

Add comment June 30th, 2020 Headsman

Errol Morris’s classic 1988 docudrama The Thin Blue Line helped to exonerate former death row inmate Randall Dale Adams.* He’d been convicted of shooting a Dallas police officer to death during a traffic stop.

On this date in 2004, the man who really pulled the trigger, David Ray Harris, received lethal injection. It wasn’t the murder of Officer Robert Wood he was being punished for: after more or less confessing the crime to Morris’s recorders, Harris was never charged with it. By that time, he was already on death row for an unrelated 1985 murder.

Randall Adams published a book about his ordeal. He died of brain cancer in 2010.

* Adams avoided execution in 1980 and had his sentence commuted. He was still in prison, but no longer on death row, at the time of the film’s release. He was released outright in 1989. Filmmaker Morris describes how he came to make the film — and how Adams “never will be exonerated” officially — in this interview with Bill Moyers.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Texas,USA

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1558: Toqui Caupolicán

Add comment June 27th, 2020 Headsman

Es algo formidable que vio la vieja raza:
robusto tronco de árbol al hombro de un campeón
salvaje y aguerrido, cuya fornida maza
blandiera el brazo de Hércules, o el brazo de Sansón.
Por casco sus cabellos, su pecho por coraza,
pudiera tal guerrero, de Arauco en la región,
lancero de los bosques, Nemrod que todo caza,
desjarretar un toro, o estrangular un león.
Anduvo, anduvo, anduvo. Le vio la luz del día,
le vio la tarde pálida, le vio la noche fría,
y siempre el tronco de árbol a cuestas del titán.
«¡El Toqui, el Toqui!» clama la conmovida casta.
Anduvo, anduvo, anduvo. La aurora dijo: «Basta»,
e irguióse la alta frente del gran Caupolicán.

-“Caupolican” by Ruben Dario

On this date in 1558, the Spanish executed Mapuche revolutionary Caupolicán by impalement.

A toqui (war chief) for the Mapuche as they launched in 1553 their decades-long insurrection against Spanish domination, Caupolican (English Wikipedia entry | the well-illustrated Spanish). It is he who had the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia put to death after one early Mapuche victory.

The Spanish were able to recover and throw back the indigenous rebels. Caupolicán’s force was destroyed, and he shortly after taken prisoner, when whilst besieging a Spanish fort called Cañete a Spanish double agent lured the Mapuche into a devastating ambush.

His end verges into the mythic thanks to Alonso de Ercilla‘s lengthy epic poem from a decade after Caupolicán’s death, La Araucana. (Full text at archive.org.) Two key events stand out.

In the first, the bound Caupolicán is reviled by his wife, Fresia, for permitting himself to be captured alive. Her gesture of scornfully abandoning their infant child in at Caupolicán’s feet has been captured on canvas numerous times, although Fresia’s historicity outside of Ercilla’s pen is quite dubious.


The prisoner Caupolicán and Fresia, by Raymond Monvoisin.

However, the conquered toqui redeems his valor at the last by kicking away the executioner and hurling himself upon the spike meant to impale him.

Eslo dicho, y alzando el pié derecho
aunque de las cadenas impedido,
dió tal coz al verdugo, que gran trecho
Je echó rodando abajo mal herido;
reprehendido el impaciente hecho,
y del súbito enojo reducido,

Je sentaron después con poca ayuda,
sobre la punta de la estaca aguda.

It is said that, raising his right foot
although impeded by the chains,
he dealt the hangman such a mighty kick
that the man was thrown from the scaffold;
that impatient reprimand delivered,
his fury abated
and he sat himself unaided
upon the tip of the sharp stake.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1950: The Martyred, at the outset of the Korean War

Add comment June 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1950, the opening salvos of the Korean War were fired … and behind North Korea’s lines, in Richard E. Kim‘s novel The Martyred, 12 imprisoned Christian pastors were on that same day executed.

This psychologically complex novel takes place months later, when United States/United Nations forces backing South Korea have surged northward, capturing Pyongyang. Here the narrator, a South Korean intelligence officer named Captain Lee, is detailed to investigate how it came to pass that these 12 were killed … and that two others with them were spared.

One of those two has gone mad from the experience. The other is suspected of abandoning God to save his life.

We discover otherwise: that in fact, Rev. Shin was spared by his jailers because they admired his firmness whereas the executed men were the ones who turned coward. Even so, Rev. Shin refuses to publicize his innocence, preferring to embrace the unjust suspicion of his faithlessness in order to elevate the so-called martyrs — in turn giving heart and faith to his congregants.

We followed the chaplain up the aisle, flanked by the congregation that still sang, standing. Only a few of the chandeliers were lighted. A cold draft chilled my bare head, though I felt the warmth of human bodies surrounding me. Halfway up the aisle, I looked up toward the altar, behind which stood the elders, Park and a few others, and Mr. Shin. Soon Colonel Chang and I were with them, facing the congregation. Mr. Shin stepped forward. The candles on the lectern flickered. The congregation sat, hushed.

“Dear brethren,” he began quietly. “You all know who I am, and I know you. I know you, yes, I know you so well that I do not hesitate to say that I belong to you and you belong to me. I am you, you are me, and we are one. And I stand here in the shadow of my inglorious past, and say to you, welcome to the house of our Lord. This house of our Lord is filled tonight, and I am out there with you and you are up here with me. We are here together as one to worship our God and praise Him. Amen.”

Scattered voices in the congregation said, “Amen.”

“I know you well, so well that I know you did not come tonight to this house of our Lord to worship Him. You came to hear me. And I shall speak to you and you shall hear me. I am you and you are me. But who am I?” He paused. “I am a sinner.”

He paused again for a long moment; then, suddenly, his powerful voice boomed. “You came to hear me, a sinner, and you shall hear me, a sinner! Open your eyes! Bare your hearts! And hear! It was I who betrayed our martyrs!” He stopped, his hands clutching the lectern, his body bent slightly forward. He had stressed “I” so strongly that the high-ceilinged interior of the church rang with a vibrating “I” in a tremulous echoing that pervaded the dim, cold air — “… I … I … ” Not a soul stirred.

He said quietly, “On the eighteenth day of June, as you all know, the Communists imprisoned fourteen ministers, and I was one of them. On the twenty-fifth day, twelve ministers were murdered. For seven days and nights, they tortured our martyrs. My dear brethren, I say to you that they tormented the flesh of your martyrs for seven days and nights. I say, ‘flesh of your martyrs,’ for they could not harm their spirits. But how did they torture your martyrs?”

To my surprise — and uneasiness — Mr. Shin, for the next twenty minutes or so, described to the congregation in the minutest detail how each ministers was tortured, one after another, all twelve of them. Mr. Hann, said Mr. Shin, collapsed after three ays and nights of torture and becme ill. At first it seemed that the silent congregation was spellbound by the blood-smeared description, but gradually it began to bestir itself, the rustling of clothes, coughing, and concentrated heavy breathing disturbed the cold air.

Suddenly a woman shrieked. Cries went up. The entire congregation stirred with agitation. Some of the elders rose to their feet. Chaplain Koh hurried over to Mr. Shin, who stood unmoved, rigidly facing the crowd.

A voice from the back shouted, “Away with you!” and another voice, “We don’t want to hear from you!”

Then a woman hissed, “You — a sinner! How dare you defile our martyrs!”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Fictional,God,History,Korea,Martyrs,Mass Executions,North Korea,Religious Figures,Torture,Wartime Executions

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