1880: Ned Kelly

2 comments November 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1880, legendary bushranger Ned Kelly hanged at Melbourne Gaol.

The Dick Turpin of Australian outlawry — in the sense that he’s the first name on the marquee — Kelly was the son of an Irishman shipped to Van Damien’s Land on the British convict transportation plan.

Setting down in Greta, Victoria the Kelly family cultivated a keen reputation for criminality (e.g., see this 1880 newspaper article; also, here).

When Ned was all of 11, pa died doing a six-month prison stint at hard labor for stealing a neighbor’s cow, and it wasn’t much longer before young master Edward was making the acquaintance of the law himself: arrested for assault in 1869 at age 14; arrested once again the following year as an accomplice to the bushranger with the pornstar name, Harry Powers; imprisoned later in 1870 for three years for receiving stolen goods … and then he got into the family horse-rustling racket upon his release. Crime and gaol were just part of Ned’s world.

So was police antagonism.

The man’s famous last years started with what reads as a trumped-up run-in with a cop who turned up at a station complaining that the Kellys had shot him. (The Kelly story is that he got fresh with Ned’s sister and got whacked by a shovel.) Whatever the facts of the matter, it sent Ned and his brother Dan into the bush as fugitives.

At Stringybark Creek, the “Kelly gang” got the drop on the police posse sent to arrest them, and three officers died in the firefight. Now there was real trouble.

An 1878 “Felons Apprehension Act” immediately proscribed the men, making it “lawful for any of Her Majesty’s subjects whether a constable or not and without being accountable for the using of any deadly weapon in aid of such apprehension whether its use be preceded by a demand of surrender or not to apprehend or take such outlaw alive or dead.”

The ensuing two-year saga was a captivating cycle of dramatic robberies, escalating government bounties, state hostage-taking in the form of imprisoned family and friends, and Kelly’s own Joycean self-vindication.

he would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly bilit left the ash corner deserted the shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed massacreed and murdered their fore-fathers by the greatest of torture as rolling them down hill in spiked barrels pulling their toe and finger nails and on the wheel. and every torture imaginable more was transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself all of true blood bone and beauty, that was not murdered on their own soil, or had fled to America or other countries to bloom again another day, were doomed to Port Mcquarie Toweringabbie norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyrany and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land.*

The hunt culminated in a cinematic shootout at the Glenrowan Inn, Kelly an accomplices entering the fray clad in bulky but effective homemade body armor they’d literally hammered out of ploughshares. (It’s thanks to the armor’s protection of his head and trunk that Ned Kelly survived the Glenrowan siege so he could be hanged instead.) Now on display at the State Library of Victoria, it’s the most queer and recognizable artifact of an era that was already then slipping into the past.

Ned Kelly in his armor (left), and the logo of the Victoria Bushrangers cricket club patterned after it (right).

I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life or that one fault justifies another; but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way that will lead them to soften the harshness of their thoughts against him and find as many excuses for him as he would plead for himself.

-Ned Kelly, during his trial

This cut no ice with the men who judged him guilty of murder, but the brawler, cop-killer, bank-robber Kelly seems to have found a way to tell that story to posterity and its thoughts have softened very much indeed.

Everything from his hardscrabble upbringing to his romantic man-against-the-world criminal career to his iconic robot-suit armor to his existentially heroic last words “such is life” equips his image for posthumous appropriation. He seems one-half charming anachronism, one-half hirsute postmodern avatar, especially when you go sculpt a mailbox out of him.

131 years dead today, Ned Kelly remains very much alive in memory. To this day, descendants and supporters lay flowers at the Melbourne Gaol where he hanged, and the recent decision to release his remains for reburial (as Kelly himself requested) made national headlines.

As to Kelly in the wider culture … well, you can’t escape him.

* All this Celtic stuff because the cop whose allegation started the trouble was named Fitzpatrick.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Ireland,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines

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1803: Thomas Russell, the man from God knows where

2 comments October 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish revolutionary Thomas Russell was hanged at Ireland’s Downpatrick Gaol.

Russell was such a republican original gangster that as a young junior officer in the British army in the late 1780s, he refused to eat sugar because it was the product of the empire’s slave plantations. (Hardly a bygone issue.) And while his own family was Anglican, Russell was also a staunch supporter of the then-radical (to Anglicans) position of Catholic equality.

For Russell, this personal stuff was all most intently political. And his politics in no way ended with the dumbwaiter.

After leaving the army, he fell in with Irish separatists and in 1795 co-founded the United Irishmen movement, along with a lot of other guys who would wind up in these executioners’ annals. He joined Henry Joy McCracken, Wolfe Tone, and Samuel Neilson in a convocation of Celtic martyrs atop Belfast’s Cave Hill to pledge one another “never to desist in our effort until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”

Subversion was Russell’s game for the remaining years of his life; his Letter to the People of Ireland unveils a Tom Paine-like vision of a revolutionary world — a world that the ancien regime would remain violently vigilant against in the wake of the recent French example. Like many of the most dazzling egalitarian dreams of that insurrectionary moment at the end of the 18th century, it’s still never been realized.

Great pains have been taken to prevent the mass of mankind from interfering in political pursuits; force, and argument, and wit, and ridicule, and invective, have been used by the governing party, and with such success, that any of the lower, or even middle rank of society who engage in politics, have been, and are, considered not only as ridiculous but in some degree culpable … Those insolent enslavers of the human race, who wish to fetter the minds as well as the body, exclaim to the poor, ‘mind your looms, and your spades and ploughs; have you not the means of subsistence; can you not earn your bread … leave the government to wiser heads and to people who understand it, and interfere no more!’

-Russell, Letter to the People of Ireland

Russell actually spent most of his final decade imprisoned without trial while tragic Irish insurrections came and went. England finally released him to Hamburg in 1802, and as might be expected, Russell was so itchy by then to get back in the scrap that he immediately broke his parole to return to Ireland for the next available rising.

And as also might be expected, he showed more haste than discrimination in his project. Hey, he did vow “never to desist.”

He joined up with Robert Emmet‘s rebellion — another doomed patriot; Russell was his designated organizer of the north — but found little success canvassing for potential rebels and took the field on July 23, 1803 in a gesture of little more than hopeless romanticism. His band fell apart and fled without a shot fired.


Memorial plaque in Downpatrick commemorating Russell’s execution. (cc) image from Ardfern.

The British did what the British always did and hunted down the Irish rebel, while the Irish did what the Irish always did and stuffed his remains in a ballad.* It’s called “The Man from God Knows Where” — and God knows, two centuries later, where that man has gone.

Whiles I said “Please God” to his dying hope
And “Amen” to his dying prayer,
That the Wrong would cease and the Right prevail.
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Jail
Was the Man from God-knows-where!

Peter Linebaugh, author of the indispensable scaffold social history The London Hanged, surveyed Russell’s life and times on the occasion of his 200th death-day here

* Russell tried his own hand at verse, and some Jacobin lines in his hand helped to hang him, e.g.

Proud Bishops next we will translate
Among priest-crafted martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait,
And Knights we’ll hang in garters;
These Despots long have trod us down,
And Judges are their engines;
These wretched minions of a crown
Demand a people’s vengeance.

Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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

1 comment June 17th, 2011 Headsman

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

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

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

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

Well, we can’t all be Oscar Wilde.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1716: Lords Kenmure and Derwentwater but not Lord Nithsdale

9 comments February 24th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1716 saw the beheading of two Jacobite lords, but it was more famous for the third who ducked the executioner in one of the Tower of London’s greatest escapes.

Lord Nithsdale, Escape from the Tower by Emily Mary Osborn(e)

Three were doomed to the block this date:

They were the fruit of Parliament’s impeachment of Jacobite leaders. Six of these fellows threw themselves upon the mercy of the Commons, and were rewarded with a death sentence by William Cowper. Only half managed to wrangle mercy from the crown.

On the eve of this date’s execution, Lord Nithsdale received a visitation of his wife, Winifred … who helped him swap clothes with one of her maids, in which garb he audaciously marched out the Tower gates in the train of his spouse.

The king whom Nithsdale had purposed to dethrone was a good sport about it. “It was the best thing a man in his condition could have done,” he declared.

The fugitives managed to cross the channel — that required another bit of dress-up, in the livery of the Venetian ambassador — and absconded to Rome. William Maxwell, Lord Nithsdale, outlived his appointment with the headsman by 28 years.

They are gone — who shall follow? — their ship’s on the brine,
And they sail unpursued to a far friendly shore,
Where love and content at their hearth may entwine,
And the warfare of kingdoms divide them no more.

“The Dream of Lord Nithsdale”

A letter detailing the escape from the pen of the intrepid Lady Nithsdale herself is well worth the read.

Her reputation as a romantic heroine (only enhanced by the romantic futility of the Jacobite struggle itself) has lent itself to all manner of literary expropriation, like this 19th century historical novel.

All very well for these two lovebirds. But the remaining 67% of the day’s scaffold carrion did not escape the Tower in women’s clothing, or men’s, and paid with their heads as scheduled.

Derwentwater went out with a peevish scaffold a ballad, “Lord Derwentwater” (or “Lord Allenwater”, or several similar variants), and another aptly titled “Derwentwater’s Farewell”.

His partner at the chop, Lord Kenmure,** also made the folk playlist in “O Kenmure’s On And Awa, Willie”, one of the ditties gathered by Robert Burns.

Having beheld all these various exemplars, Derwentwater’s brother and fellow Stuart supporter Charles Radclyffe decided to emulate them all.

Later that same year, Charles Radclyffe also made a successful prison break and got to the continent.

As a result, he was still around to participate in the 1745 Jacobite rising … and finally get executed for that.

(All part of God’s mystical plan for Radclyffe: look sharp and you’ll find him succeeding Isaac Newton as CEO of the legendary Holy Grail-keeping secret society Priory of Sion in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and its pulp novel knockoff The Da Vinci Code.)

* It’s impossible not to notice that this cross-dressing escape foreshadows that of Bonnie Prince Charlie when the Jacobite cause flamed out for good thirty years later.

** And like Lord Nithsdale, he was also blessed with a perspicacious wife — albeit one who wasn’t able to extricate him from the Tower.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Escapes,Execution,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Power,Scotland,Treason

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Unspecified Year: The Robbers of Nordenshaw

1 comment December 24th, 2010 Headsman

This Yule, we present an ancient Danish ballad which “is probably too true a picture of the lawless conduct of men of the highest rank, and of a state of things not confined at that period to the islands of Denmark.”

The Robbers at Nordenshaw

The Robbers lurking at Nordenshaw*
From out the green-wood creep,
And march by night to the farmer’s house,
Their Yule with him to keep.**

They’ve march’d away to the farmer’s house
With each in hand a spear;
“Come, cousin, see, we are kith and kin,
“Tap us thy Christmas beer.

“And, farmer, lodge us all tonight,
“And well with liquor ply,
“And with us leave thy pretty wife,
“Or, farmer, thou shalt die.”

“I’ll freely pour my mead and ale,
“And well I’ll serve you too;
“But, Sirs, by all that’s good above,
“No outrage on us do.

“Now if upon my house ye seize,
“And lord it at your will,
“And if ye put my wife to shame,
“That were outrageous ill.”

Some on the table threw their swords,
Some cloaks of fur so fine,
Some bade the honest farmer’s wife
Bring in the beer and wine.

A cloth of woven silk she took,
And over the table spread;
And there her ale and wine they drank,
And ate her meat and bread.

A cautious wife was Oaselille,
And used her words with care;
She rose and told the robber guests
She would their beds prepare.

No thought had she, good Oaselille,
With them to share her bed;
But left them feasting, and for help
Through the dark forest sped.

With hurried step through bush and field
Ran on the lusty dame,
And after four long weary miles
To Drost Sir Peter’s† came.

She reach’d Sir Peter’s courtyard gate,
Drew on her mantle blue,
And boldly up to the upper room,
Sir Peter’s chamber, flew.

“Wake up, Drost Peter Hoseale, wake,
“No moment longer sleep;
“The thieves, that lurk’d at Nordenshaw,
“With us their Christmas keep.

“What! still, Sir Peter, slumbering on
“Nor yet but half awake?
“Those robbers twelve are at the Grange,
“All twelve are now to take.”

Then rose the Drost and call’d his men,
And bade them all to arm;
“Wake up, my men, there’s come tonight
“Good news from yonder farm.

“Wake up, no moment more delay,
“And d’on your trusty mail;
“For Nilus Ufridson is there,
And not the man to quail.”

“Where,” ask’d those sturdy robbers twelve,
They’d drunk of ale so deep,
“Where’s now the farmer’s pretty wife?
“We’ll have her here to sleep.”

“Chide not, good Sirs, a short delay”
The grey-coat farmer said;
“She is even now to the chamber gone
“To make her guests their bed.”

The farmer out of his window look’d,
And saw the Drost’s array;
“There stop here thirty men at arms,
“Are dress’d like cushats gray.”

Then answer’d Nilus Ufridson,
“Of such I’m not afraid,
“If but my comrades stand as firm,
“And faithful prove my blade.”

“No,” answer’d Lave Rimordson,
“And scann’d the troop afield,
“For such men care we not a bean,
“To them we’ll never yield.”

They beat the door with sword and spear
And rais’d a fearful shout;
“Up up, Sir Nilus Ufridson!
“Thy gang and thou come out.”

“Seven tons of gold I’ll give thee, Drost,
“And silver other five,
“To let us hence in peace depart
“My men and me alive.”

“Thy silver, Nilus, heed I not,
“As little heed thy gold;
“Through thee weeps many an orphan child
“For friends beneath the mould.”

Hard fought Sir Nilus Ufridson,
And well he kept his ground,
And heavy were from bar and beam
The blows he dealt around.

Nor less did Lave Rimordson,
But fought with might and main
Till at the hilt by dint of blows
He broke his sword in twain.

He dash’d the hilt against a stone,
The blade stuck in the mould;
“And now, my only chance of life,
“I’ll try good words and gold.

“Drost Peter Hoseale, spare my life,
“And do me no disgrace;
“I’m near of kin to the Danish Queen
“And of an Emperor’s race.”

“If near of kin to the Queen thou art,
“And all so nobly born,
“Why to the Farmer’s didst thou go,
“And treat his rights with scorn?”

So seized Sir Peter all the twelve,
And townward march’d them off;
And set them side by side on poles,
The people’s jest and scoff.

And there they lie on rack and wheel
To bear the heat and cold;
But to the King the Drost has brought
Twelve heavy chests of gold.

* Located on the Danish island of Fyen, Fyn, or Funen.

** The Danish Jul runs all through December up to Christmas Eve, Dec. 24; that date, Christmas Eve, is the big Yule celebration in Denmark.

† I situate this execution in the 13th century based on Drost Peter’s appearance in this historical romance of Danish King Erik VI Menved‘s youth.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Mass Executions,Nobility,Outlaws,Pelf,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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1492: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, Nearly Headless Nick

5 comments October 31st, 2010 Elizabeth M. Hull

(Thanks to Elizabeth M. Hull for the guest post. -ed.)

Post-mortem resident of Gryffindor House, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hogsmeade, U.K.

A minor character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Nearly Headless Nick remains one of the most memorable. Executed — badly — on Halloween of 1492, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington became the ghost of Gryffindor House. The school has about 20 resident ghosts: the Grey Lady (Helena Ravenclaw) and the Bloody Baron of Slytherin House died violently as well, in a murder-suicide.

Rowling says that her editor suggested that she cut a ballad Mimsy-Porpington wrote about himself from The Chamber of Secrets. In the song, the ghost claimed to have been executed for “a mistake any wizard could make,” a “piffling error,” a case of wizardry gone wrong. Asked by Lady Grieve (otherwise unknown) to straighten her teeth, Mimsy-Porpington seems to have given her a tusk. “They” imprisoned the piffler immediately, though he cried all night that he could fix his mistake, and his beheading followed the next morning.

Unfortunately for Mimsy-Porpington, his was not the only incompetence: “they’d mislaid the rock/Where they usually sharpened the axe”! The “cack-handed twit” of a headsman said “this may sting a bit” to the gibbering wizard, and swung the axe in the air. Alas, unable to sharpen the blade, the executioner was reduced to bestowing numerous blows: “But oh the blunt blade! No difference it made,” the ghost sang,

My head was still definitely there.
The axeman he hacked and he whacked and he thwacked,
“Won’t be too long,” he assured me,
But quick it was not, and the bone-headed clot
Took forty-five goes ’til he floored me.

(The full ballad is here and here; the original handwritten version can be seen here.)

After repeated strokes of the edgeless axe, Mimsy-Porpington finally expired. On festival occasions, he re-enacts his near-beheading, a show quite popular with the Hogwarts student body (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 159).

However, the bone-headed, cloddish headsman was unable to completely behead the wizard. As Ron Weasly notes, the ghost is merely nearly headless.


Nick, as played in the Harry Potter films by John Cleese. Rowling’s own original sketch of Nearly Headless Nick is here.

While he gets a great deal of pleasure from entertaining Hogwarts residents by swinging “his whole head . . . off his neck and . . . onto his shoulder as if it was on a hinge” (Sorceror’s Stone, p. 124), his condition limits his access to the dizziest heights of post-mortem society. Beheading was an aristocratic execution, meant to bring a swift death to the privileged, those able to hunt legally in their lifetime. In the afterlife, the beheaded aristocrats have established a “Headless Hunt” Club, and have blackballed Mimsy-Porpington, who misses their entrance requirements by that much: “‘half an inch of skin and sinew holding my neck on.'” Unable to participate in Club sports like “Horseback Head-Juggling and Head Polo,” Mimsy-Porpington is denied admission into the elite society (Chamber of Secrets, p. 124).

Sadly, their scorn for his crippling condition is not limited to exclusion from their company.

Mimsy-Porpington’s five hundredth Deathday anniversary party, held on Halloween 1992, welcomes hundreds of ghosts from as far away as Kent to a feast of rotten fish, putrid, “maggoty haggis,” and a tombstone cake with grey icing, while an orchestra of 30 musical saws plays waltzes. The Deathday Boy’s speech is interrupted by the members of the Headless Hunt: “Sir Properly Decapitated-Podmore” begins a game of Head Hockey, sending his own head sailing past the humiliated Mimsy-Porpington as he tries to address his guests (Chamber of Secrets, p. 132-7).

Somehow the courageous Gryffindor ghost overcomes this diabolical heads-up-manship and several months as a petrified cloud to live a useful afterlife, helping Harry many times. Most significantly, in the final pages of The Order of the Phoenix, a traumatized and grieving Harry turns to Mimsy-Porpington, hoping to discover a way to keep his dead friend and guardian Sirius Black alive. “‘You’re dead,'” Harry says, “‘But you’re still here, aren’t you? … People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely.'” Mimsy-Porpington gently tells Harry that he can only “‘walk palely'” where his living self once trod, “‘neither here nor there,'” hovering between life and death for fear of the unknown. However, Black risked his life joyously and died laughing; he will not linger between death and life. Harry must live on without him.

There may be historical precedent for Mimsy-Porpington’s death in the botched execution of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1685), when the notorious Jack Ketch took five blows to kill the rebel, and finally had to use a knife to sever the last “skin and sinew” connecting the head to the corpse. Monmouth’s hairstyle in portraits from the late 1600s resembles that drawn by Rowling in her sketch of Nearly Headless Nick, although that sketch shows a beard style from the early 1600s, nearly 70 years earlier. Moreover, the ghost enters Harry Potter’s life wearing an Elizabethan neck ruff and says that he has not eaten in nearly 400 years, implying a death in the late 1500s.

In spite of this wibbly-wobbly timeline, Mimsy-Porpington’s deathdate establishes the firm chronology of Rowling’s series: the five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1492 would fall in 1992; therefore the events of Chamber of Secrets (published in 1997) must occur in 1992. The dating of the series is confirmed five books later by the tombstones of Harry’s parents, who died on Halloween Day, 1981 (Deathly Hallows, p. 328). For J.K. Rowling, death, the last enemy — not life — marks the measure of this world’s time.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Other Voices,Summary Executions,The Supernatural

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1803: Johannes Bückler, “Schinderhannes”

5 comments November 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1803, the famous German bandit “Schinderhannes” and 19 others of his gang were efficiently guillotined in French-occupied Rhineland.

Schinderhannes with mistress Juliana Blasius and their child.

As low-born as they come, Johannes Bückler (English Wikipedia link | German) hailed from a family of executioners and knackers (his appellation means “John the Knacker”).

But this outcast was born to command, and in the wild Rhineland at the close of the 18th century, his audacity, charisma, and deft cruelty made him a legendary bandit king.

He stole, he blackmailed, he slipped his fetters … “he seemed to contest French authority” recently projected by the revolutionary citizen-army, and he preyed heavily on unpopular Jewish merchants, all of which gave Bückler purchase on folk hero status with the boldness to hold a public “robber’s ball” at the ruined castle his band occupied.

His legend grew in his own lifetime, and as such things do, it inflated quite past any capacity of its originator’s character to support.

When things got too hot on the French side of the Rhine, he ducked over the frontier to the Holy Roman Empire in the east, but was nabbed attempting to lay low in the imperial army under an assumed name, and handed back to the French.

The authorities turned his outlaw gallantry to good effect (or at least, that’s the cover story his apologists have made for his stool pigeoning) by threatening to come down on the mistress who bore him a child, leading Schinderhannes to get her off with a slap on the wrist by giving up his bandit brethren.

And with French law came French execution technology, whose proliferation in the train of Napoleon’s Grande Armee would bequeath the German condemned death by the “falling axe” down to Hitler’s time and even after.

A spectacle here as it was in France, tens of thousands turned up in Mainz this date in 1803 for what sounds like an anticlimactic six-minute show of a score of Schinderhannes’ gang losing their heads to the mechanical contraption.

Scottish scribbler Leitch Ritchie helped convey to posterity the legend with Schinderhannes, the robber of the Rhine, which romantically celebrates a knave who must have been less lovable to those who knew him from the business end of his blade. These, nevertheless, are all long gone, and Ritchie has the authority of historical mythologizing to vindicate his text’s last eulogy with its hero’s foot upon the scaffold:

The bandit-chief preserved his intrepidity to the last, and left to other times, unsullied by many of the basenesses of his tribe, the name of SCHINDERHANNES, THE ROBBER OF THE RHINE.

He sure did. From the practically mandatory ballad …

… to the stage …

… to the screen

… to vicious-looking Cambrian anomalocarid Schinderhannes bartelsi

… the outlaw has long outlived his guillotining, to the profit of the tourist trade in his former stomping-grounds.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/20973106@N08/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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1901: Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s assassin

4 comments October 29th, 2009 Headsman

Back ’round the fin de siècle, everybody who was anybody* was being whacked by anarchists.

On this date in 1901, unemployed (and seemingly unbalanced) steelworker Leon Czolgosz rode the lightning at New York’s Auburn Prison for inducting the late U.S. President William McKinley into the club.

It hadn’t even been eight weeks since Czolgosz met McKinley gladhanding a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and fatally (though it took the victim a week to succumb) shot the second-term Republican president.

Matters progressed from there as one might expect.

In a one-day trial that lasted 8 hours from jury selection to sentence, Czolgosz was condemned to die in New York’s electric chair. He went to his death unapologetic, but also alone; most anarchists disavowed him for hurting the cause.**

Here’s the New York Times account of the assassin’s final moments.

As he was being seated [in the electric chair] he looked about at the assembled witnesses with quite a steady stare and said:

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people — of the working people.”

His voice trembled slightly at first, but gained strength with each word, and he spoke perfect English.

“I am not sorry for my crime,” he said loudly, just as the guard pushed his head back on the rubber headrest and drew the strap across his forehead and chin. As the pressure on the straps tightened and bound the jaw slightly he mumbled: “I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”

It was just exactly 7:11 o’clock when he crossed the threshold [into the execution chamber], but a minute had elapsed and he just had finished the last statement when the strapping was completed, and the guards stepped back from the man. Warden Mead raised his hand, and at 7:12:30 Electrician Davis turned the switch that threw 1,700 volts of electricity into the living body.

The rush of the immense current threw the body so hard against the straps that they creaked perceptibly. The hands clinched suddenly, and the whole attitude was one of extreme tension. For forty-five seconds the full current was kept on, and then slowly the electrician threw the switch back, reducing the current volt by volt until it was cut off entirely.

They made good and sure by dissolving the body in sulfuric acid.

Thomas Edison made a video recreation of the scene — not to be confused with actual film of the execution, though some sites present it as such — shortly after. Whether its creation was influenced by Edison’s now-doomed project of discrediting Alternating Current, a business rivalry that had helped introduce the electric chair in the first place, I have been unable to determine; the Edison labs produced a number of silent films exploiting “a whole string of news events surrounding the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo … both through a monumental display of lights (including test bulbs on the reproduction of the electric chair) and by a booming output of scenics, actualities, and even a historical topical.”

Glum.

More lighthearted (and more audible) is “The Ballad of Leon Czolgosz,” from Stephen Sondheim’s offbeat Broadway hit Assassins, here presented with liberal use of the Edison labs’ Pan-Am Expo footage.

… it’s not the first pop culture ephemera generated by McKinley’s martyrdom; folk ballad variations under different titles (“The White House Blues,” “McKinley,” “McKinley’s Rag,” or this version, “Zolgotz”) were in circulation in the early 20th century. Other variations and some background can be had here.

[audio:Zolgotz.mp3]

This third assassination of an American chief executive in the span of 36 years (with similar fates for James Garfield’s killer and the Lincoln conspirators) led the Secret Service, originally a Treasury Department anti-counterfeiting unit, to assume responsibility for bodily safeguarding the President in 1902.

* We’ve met a few of anarchism’s greatest hits in these pages … as well as their greatest martyrs.

** Anarchist titan Emma Goldman was blamed for inciting the murder and initially arrested; she was also one of the few anarchists to defend Czolgosz: “He had committed the act for no personal reasons or gain. He did it for what is his ideal: the good of the people. That is why my sympathies are with him.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,USA

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1294: Rane Jonsen, Marsk Stig conspirator

2 comments July 9th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date in 1294, the former page of the late Danish King Eric V was put to death for regicide outside Roskilde.

Rane Jonsen or Jonsson (here’s his short Danish Wikipedia page) had been present at the hunt during which the former monarch, more popularly known as “Erik Glipping”, was murdered by unknown assailants in 1286.

The convention — and the official verdict of state — have it that Jonsen contrived to admit marsk Stig Andersen Hvide and fellow conspirators to the vulnerable king’s presence for the purpose of murdering him, possibly revenging the king’s rape of Andersen’s wife. “Marsk Stig” and Rane both fled, and were condemned along with seven other men by the Danish Assembly in the spring of 1287.

Although there is little remaining primary documentation, it does seem that the guilt of these people was decided above all by political expedience. It was Stig Anderson’s opponents who got control of the government (and the regency of 12-year-old Erik Menved), conveniently declaring the guilty parties to be their own rivals, who had formerly been close to Erik Glipping.*

Our page, himself a noble, got the short end of the stick in all this; he energetically denied the story that he had stood aside to permit the murder of his liege, claiming that he fought back albeit unarmed and outnumbered.

But as an emblem of the perfidy of the king’s inner circle, you couldn’t do much better than Rane theatrically planting his sword into a table and standing aside to signify the king’s vulnerability. You can just picture that story being retold with a meaningful ahem to the boy-king Eric VI.

In fact, it was retold: wrongful conviction or no, this episode (in its official version, with Rane and Stig as evildoers) was the basis for a number of entries in the rich Danish ballad genre.

Though popularly cited as medieval ballads, disputed dating places different verses anywhere from Rane Jonsen’s own time to three centuries later.** In any era, they offer some lovely exemplars of the art.

This book reproduces several; topical for this entry is an imagining of the fugitive regicide’s plight, both sad (for his hopelessness) and menacing (for his violent seizure of a bride) — disconcertingly delivered in a repetitious lullaby singsong.

Ranild bade saddle his charger gray,
‘Twas told me oft before,
“I’ll be the Algrave’s guest today,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

Ranild rode up to his castle gate
‘Twas told him oft before
Where ermine-clad the Algrave sate,
Tho’ friends he had no more.

“Hail noble Algrave, here I come,
‘Twas told thee oft before
“To fetch my trothplight Kirstin home,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

Then up and spake her mother dear,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“For thee is bride no longer here,
“For friends thou hast no more.”

“I’ll either with the maid return,
“‘Twas told you oft before
“Or else your house and chattels burn,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

“Nay set not thou the house on flame,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“E’en take the bride thou ‘rt come to claim,
“Tho’ friends thou hast no more.”

In mantle wrapt the gentle maid,
‘Twas told her oft before,
On Ranild’s good gray horse was laid,
Tho’ friends he had no more.

No other bridal bed had they,
‘Twas told her oft before,
Than bush, and field, and new made hay,
For friends he had no more.

“The wood has ears, the mead can see,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“A wretched outlaw’d pair are we,
“For friends I have no more.”

“And had you not King Erick slain,
“‘Twas told you oft before,
“We still might in the land remain,
“But friends we have no more.”

“Stay, Kirstin, stay, such words forbear,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“Where strangers are, take greater care,
“For friends we have no ore.”

With that he slapp’d her cheek so red,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“It was not I, smote Erick dead,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

From the same source, our day’s principal meets his end:

Report is rife in all the land
Ranild at last is caught;
He surely had never gone from Hielm,
His doom had he bethought;
A death of torture he must die,
As he has long been taught.

Ranild he stepp’d within the door,
‘Good evening’ bade the king,
And all the guard of gentlemen,
Who round him stood in ring;
“Christ! may no son of loyal Dane
“Such trouble on him bring!

“But, O King Erick, noble liege,
“Remember you no more;
“The best was I of all the swains
“Your father’s livery wore;
“And you through wood and flowery mead
“In arms so often bore?”

“Full well I know thou servedst here
“For clothes and food and pay;
“And, like a vile and treacherous knave,
“My father didst betray;
“For which the stake thy carcase bears,
“If I but reign a day.”

“My hands and feet hack from my limbs,
“Tear from my head these eyes;
“With racking tortures martyr me,
“The worst you can devise;
“So much the wrong I’ve done your house
“For vengeance on me cries.”

“Thine eyes put out, that will we not,
“Nor lop thy hands or feet;
“But with a traitor’s hardest death
“The worst of traitors treat;
“And on our father’s murderer take
“Such vengeance as is meet.”

As forth from Roskilde he was led,
He wrung his hands anew,
And tears to see him go to die
Wept ladies not a few;
He turn’d him round, and bade them all
A thousand times Adieu.

They led him forth to where the rack
Stood ghastly on the plain;
“O Christ, from such a martyring death
“Protect each honest Dane!
“Had I but stay’d at Hielm this year,
“And there in safety lain!

“Now were there here one faithful friend,
“Who home for me would go,
“And would my sorrowing wife Christine,
“Her path of duty show!
“O Christ, look on my children dear!
“O comfort thou their woe!

“And you, I pray, good Christian folk,
“Who here are standing round,
“A pater noster read for me,
“That grace for me be found;
“And that this night I reach the land,
“Where heavenly joys abound.”

Marsk Stig, however, is the primary focus of these dramas; he raided shipping from his island base on Hielm (Hjelm), dying of natural causes in 1293. Some additional translated ballads about this character are available here.

But since this is poetry, take a moment to dig the original Danish,† which should be at least partially comprehensible to any English- or German-speaker.

Marsti ind aff dorren tren
med suerd i hoyre hend:
kongen sidder hannem op igien,
saa giorlig han hannem kende

>>Hor du, Ranil Ienssen!
oc vilt du verie mit liff:
jeg giffuer dig min soster
oc halff min rige in min tid.<< Det vor Ranil Iensson, han hug i borde oc balck; det vil ieg for sanden sige: hand veriet sin herre som en skalck De stack ham ind at skulder-bende, oc det stod ud aff halss; det vil ieg for sandingen sige: det vaar alt giort med falsk. De stack hannem ind at skulder oc ud aff venster side: >>Nu haffuer wi giort den gierning i dag,
all Danmarck baer for stor quide<<.

Stig burst through the door,
his sword in his right hand;
the king sat upright
and recognized him.

“Hear me, Rane Jonson!
If you defend my life
I will give you my sister
and half of my kingdom.”

Rane Jonson swung his sword
and stuck it in the table and in the wall;
in truth,
he betrayed his lord shamefully.

They stabbed him in the shoulderbone
and out through the neck;
in truth,
they did it all deceitfully.

They stabbed him in the shoulder
and out through the left side.
“Now we have done the deed today,
all Denmark bears too heavy a load”

* Discussed at length in “Killing Erik Glipping. On the Early Days of a Danish Historical Ballad” by William Layher in Song and Popular Culture, 45, 2000. Layher reports that the Norwegian government (which received the fugitives) and the Danish were still trading nastygrams over the propriety of the convictions in the early 1300s. On the instigation of the Archbishop of Lund, who supported the exiles, the Church interdicted sacraments to Denmark for several years around the turn of the century.

** See Layher again. At least one contemporaneous bard, minnesinger Meister Rumelant, is known to have composed on the famous murder.

† Extract and translation from Layher, once again.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Infamous,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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