1950: Timothy Evans, instead of John Christie

5 comments March 9th, 2010 Headsman

Sixty years ago today, Timothy Evans was hanged at Pentonville Prison still protesting his innocence of murdering his wife and daughter — three years before a neighboring tenant was revealed to be a serial killer.

A drunkard with a tempestuous marriage, Timothy Evans didn’t look like a compelling innocence case when he walked into a police station and confessed to killing his wife while attempting to administer an abortifacient.

Evans’s confession didn’t add up, and he kept changing it — to indicate the involvement of neighbor John Christie. The “botched abortion” angle got complicated when the Evans’s older, un-aborted daughter also turned up dead: like her mom, she’d been strangled.

“I didn’t do it, Mam,” he told his mother. “Christie done it.”

But the dim suspect’s iterative interpretations of how his family wound up throttled had left his credibility in tatters by the time he came to trial insisting that the confession was wrong. And you’d have to admit that the looming shadow of Executioner Pierrepoint presented a compelling reason to disbelieve his latest revisions.

The jurors disbelieved.

Evans swung.

Three years later, that very Christie who had so smoothly inculpated Timothy Evans, was arrested for a killing spree that turned out to have lodged at least six corpses hidden on the same premises at 10 Rillington Place.

That infamous address has its own web site — and book, and film, and Madame Tussaud’s exhibit.

And why not?

Here was a man desperately and (to the public) implausibly implicated by a convicted murderer recently hanged: that this man subsequently turned out to be a prolific serial killer did a job to undermine public confidence in the death penalty.

Christie himself hanged for his own crime spree in 1953. He admitted to murdering Beryl Evans, Timothy’s wife, though never to killing daughter Geraldine.

Little more than a decade after that, England’s gallows fell into disuse.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Wrongful Executions

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1623: Amboyna Massacre

5 comments February 27th, 2010 Headsman

On February 27,* 1623, the Dutch East India Company beheaded twenty who had been waterboarded into confessing to a terrorist plot.

English prisoner suffering “waterboarding” faux-drowning torture, published under the name “A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East-Indies 1624”.

The torturers “poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth [wrapping his head] was full, up to the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher, so that he could not draw breath but he must suck in all the water.” More nasty description.

(cc) Image from Flickr | BiblioOdyssey

Posh Spice

As in modern times, this scenario originated with resource competition in the Muslim world … in this case, competition for spice, in Indonesia.

European colonialism had pitted the Dutch East India Company against its British counterpart on the archipelago, both scrabbling after the lucrative trade in cloves and pepper, with garnishes of nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and ginger.

The two rival powers had, as we lay our story, recently come to a tense truce, dividing the commerce between them — and swapping mutual accusations of violating that pact. The arrangement basically gave the Dutch a bigger slice of the pie, so we’ll find them when the cloves hit the fan having the balance of power on their side.

Terrorists

We’re going to oversimplify to set the scene.

On Ambon Island, one of the very “Spice Islands” (i.e., the Moluccas) — at the Dutch-controlled fortification of a trading post also shared by the English — the Dutch merchant-governor Herman van Speult heard that a Japanese mercenary had asked about the Dutch fortifications.

The security-conscious van Speult ordered that unfortunate soldier interrogated under torture.

As tends to happen when the interrogators in such a case are convinced of a ticking time bomb situation, the torture uncovered a ticking time bomb situation.

The mercenary got the Dutch to stop burning and drowning him by “revealing” a highly implausible** English plot to seize the Dutch fort, with 20 guys or so and no prospect of imminent outside aid. Wouldn’t you know it: when the supposed confederates named by the mercenary were similarly tortured, they too admitted the plot. Van Speult’s English opposite number, Gabriel Towerson, was one of them.

The Amboyna Massacre followed anon, with Towerson and nine other British East India Company employees beheaded, along with nine Japanese mercenaries and one Portuguese. (The latter ten worked for the Dutch East India Company, not the British. A fifth column!)

They went to their deaths protesting their innocence, and many smuggled out written recantations to that same effect: “tortured … with that extream Torment of Fire and water, that Flesh and Blood could not endure it, and we take it upon our Salvation, that they have put us to Death Guiltless.”

Anger in the English Street

That last quote comes from Karen Chance, “The Amboyna Massacre in English Politics, 1624-1632,” in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies (Winter 1998).

As the title of that piece suggests, the Amboyna Massacre outraged Towerson’s countrymen and -women once word finally made it back to the mothership. (In addition to the torture/wrongful execution dimension, the legal authority of the Dutch trading concern to impose judicial punishment on their English counterparts was questionable at best.)

English demands for satisfaction against the perpetrators continued to complicate Dutch-English relations into the reign of Charles I and beyond. Even Oliver Cromwell required, as the price of peace for the First Anglo-Dutch War in the 1650s, punishment of any surviving offenders. (Which was apparently nobody at all.)

And still later, the burgeoning British Empire’s propaganda arm reached for the Amboyna narrative to justify seizing New Amsterdam on the grounds that the Dutch had attempted to spring a massacre on English settlers — “their Amboyna treacherous Cruelty extended itself from the East to the West Indies, and pursued thus the straight channel of Dutch blood”.

As for the trade-jockeying: the Netherlands’ commanding position in Indonesia ultimately squeezed the English out.** But don’t fret for Old Blighty: she turned attention to gobbling up India, and made a lot more bank than did the Dutch spice racket.

* February 27 was the date according to the Julian calendar in use at this time by the British. By the Gregorian calendar the Dutch were using, the massacre took place on March 9.

** For more on both the fanciful nature of the supposed plot, and the economics of the East Indies trade as it unfolded in the 17th century, see D.K. Bassett, “The ‘Amboyna Massacre’ of 1623”, Journal of Southeast Asian History, September 1960.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Indonesia,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Mercenaries,Netherlands,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Scandal,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1009: St. Bruno of Querfurt

4 comments March 9th, 2009 Headsman

We have the rare privilege this date* to salute 1,000 years since the martyrdom of St. Bruno of Querfurt.

St. Bruno — also Brun or Boniface — had his head chopped off, and 18 companions were allegedly simultaneously hung or hacked to pieces, by a chieftain who did not appreciate the bishop’s efforts to Christianize the Baltics. The wherefores, and even the wheres (different sources locate it in Prussia, Rus’, or Lithuania) of this missionary’s end are permanently obscure to us.

But this relatively forgotten saint has something to tell us about the fluid area of contact between the Latin and Greek Christian spheres in the decades before their schism.

Lithuanian Institute of History scholar Darius Baronas argues** that although Bruno’s missions were conducted independently under papal authorization, he received support from the courts of both the Polish king Boleslaw the Brave and the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ Vladimir the Great.†

Both rulers hoped to extend their influence among the still-pagan lands of Europe, a secular incarnation of the rivalry between eastern and western rites.

So why is he so little-known to posterity? Baronas observes that St. Bruno

is a supreme example of a missionary saint and his activities ranged almost from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Yet despite his activities, let alone his glorious death, he did not receive much praise from his contemporaries and still less from later generations. His subsequent cult was rather circumscribed and was largely forgotten.

Precisely because of his ambiguous place between these two competing powers, and because his mission did not conform precisely with either’s policies of statecraft, neither Boleslaw nor Vladimir promoted a cult of Bruno: each realm was uncertain which side Bruno was on, and which side would profit most from his inroads among the pagans.

* February 14, 1009 is also cited as a date for St. Bruno’s martyrdom — for instance, by the Catholic Encyclopedia; the source of this may be the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg. In the absence of a determinative reason to prefer that earlier date, and allowing that 1,000-year-old executions are prone to shaky dating, I’m placing it on March 9 based on the Annals of Quedlinburg.


This text, reading “St. Bruno, an archbishop and monk, who was called Boniface, was beheaded by Pagans during the 11th year of this conversion at the Rus and Lithuanian border, and along with 18 of his followers, entered heaven on March 9th,” also happens to be the earliest surviving written reference to Lithuania.

** Darius Baronas, ‘The year 1009: St. Bruno of Querfurt between Poland and Rus”, Journal of Medieval History (2008), 34:1:1-22

† Vladimir the Great is himself a saint, too — in the Catholic tradition as well as the Orthodox.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Lithuania,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,No Formal Charge,Poland,Power,Prussia,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Rus',Russia,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1944: Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of the Warsaw Ghetto

4 comments March 9th, 2008 Headsman

It was not only the destroyers of the Warsaw ghetto who left their testimony.

Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian and social worker, was among the 450,000 trapped in the ghetto.*

Ringelblum organized a monumental project to document its life — the “Oyneg Shabbos”. Ringelblum’s ring cast a network throughout the ghetto, systematically collecting its written history: public proclamations, ration cards and identity papers, and most precious of all, personal diaries and memoirs of hundreds of inhabitants, testament to the gathering madness encircling Warsaw’s Jews. Ringelblum sat up nights, sifting and categorizing a stupendous trove — over 25,000 surviving sheets — that was still never equal to his vision:

“To our great regret, however, only part of the plan was carried out … We lacked the necessary tranquillity for a plan of such scope and volume.” (Source)

Shortly before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Ringelblum and his family were spirited out of the Jewish quarter and into the protection of friendly Poles. There, they outlived the ghetto by nearly a year.

But on March 7, tipped by a neighborhood teenager who would himself receive a death sentence after the war for the act, the Gestapo captured both Ringelblum’s family and that of his protectors. Around this date — just a few days after their arrest — they would be summarily shot with other fugitives in the ruins of the community he chronicled. Ringelblum reportedly spurned a rescue attempt, preferring to swallow the same draught as his wife and son.

A few years before, another writer living under another dictator scratched in his secret novel — still secret at the time of Ringelblum’s death — words that would become a signature of literary integrity in a totalitarian age:

Manuscripts don’t burn.

While Ringelblum himself fell victim at last, like most of Warsaw’s Jews, to the Holocaust, the burning — his manuscripts did not. Shortly before capture, the diligent historian had secreted them in buried coffee tins. Years after the war, many of those tins were recovered.

Their contents form the basis for Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the most moving and penetrating first-person Holocaust histories.

An interesting interview with Samuel Kassow, author of Who Will Write Our History?, is available from the New Books In History podcast.

This French-language page on an exhibition of Ringelblum’s archives covers some of its history, with a number of photographs. This site collects a number of Yiddish poems from the Ringelblum archive.

* This Time magazine article claims that Ringelblum was safe in Switzerland as of 1939, but voluntarily returned to Poland to witness and share his fellows’ fate. Noble if true, but I have been unable to find corroboration of this elsewhere.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Disfavored Minorities,Germany,Intellectuals,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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