1917: Sub-Lt. Edwin Dyett, shot at dawn

8 comments January 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Edwin Dyett was shot for desertion and cowardice.

After the disastrously ineffective Somme offensive in late 1916, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig decided to pick up the men’s spirits. And what better way to motivate than by shooting more officers?

If one proceeds from the premise of the British brass that the main problem with its military ineffectiveness was the men in the field, there was something in the cruelly “progressive” about the order: luckless enlisted fellows from the lower classes were smoking last cigarettes by the bushel, but gentry-stock officers were more liable to get the kid-gloves treatment .

Haig was taking the kid gloves off.

“A soldier’s tale cut in stone to melt all hearts,” said Winston Churchill of this pathbreaking novel thought to be based on Edwin Dyett. The first novel about executed World War I deserters, it is thought to have influenced later portrayals of such executions and the sub-heroic literary context for the Great War.

Within two months of that order, our man Dyett was up against the stake at St. Firmin, France — perhaps the most famous shooting among the officer corps.

Perhaps presuming upon the traditional leniency extended to the better classes, Dyett had little inkling of his fate during the weeks after his arrest. He’d been collared during the aforementioned Somme campaign for “deserting” for two days when he’d taken umbrage at being directed to the front by an inferior officer and instead returned to headquarters for orders.

As late as Christmas Eve, he was still keeping his parents in the dark, certain that the misunderstanding was not enough to even “cause a sitting.”

That sitting, however, occurred forthwith on Boxing Day, with only a half-hour for the defense to prepare. That defense was less than robust, and the court clearly disinclined to a sympathetic reading of the circumstances.

Dyett had only just turned 21, but clemency appeals around youth and the confusion of the situation would cut no ice. “”If a private behaved as he did,” wrote the officer charged to review it, “it is highly likely he would be shot.”

Lt. Dyett had only a single evening from hearing the bad news to prepare himself for what must have seemed to him a shocking turn of events. This time, he posted a different sort of missive to the home front.

Dearest Mother Mine, I hope by now you will have had the news. Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad. Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev. W.C. — who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself. I should like you to write to him, as he has been my friend. I am leaving all my effects to you, dearest; will you give a little — half the sum you have of mine? Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give — my love. She will, I expect, understand – and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl. So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen.

Dad didn’t take it with the stiff upper lip; after a futile campaign to clear the boy, he renounced his citizenship and emigrated to America.

The Shot At Dawn site dedicated to executed first World War soldiers maintains a detailed (and very pro-Dyett) page about our day’s principal. There’s also a recent nonfiction book, Death for Desertion, which pleads Dyett’s case.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1327: Adso’s lover in The Name of the Rose

4 comments December 1st, 2010 Headsman

On an unspecified date presumably around early December of 1327 — the timeframe is approximated by action’s story’s commencing on “a beautiful morning at the end of November” — the Inquisition burns the nameless peasant lover of the narrator in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.

Adso of Melk is apprenticed to the scientific-minded William of Baskerville — a deliberate allusion to Sherlock Holmes — when the monk is dispatched to an Italian monastery to sniff about for heresy.

The Name of the Rose unfolds a labyrinthine murder mystery around a literal labyrinth (a maze-like library) as William and Adso fight crime and the superstitious dogmatism of the Church. Well … William fights these things. Young Adso mostly comes along for the ride and keeps the action signposted for the reader with his cluelessness.

As a teenage boy, Adso has his own demons to confront.

During their short stay at the monastery, Adso has a chance, and scorching, sexual encounter with a peasant girl from the lands owned by the monks. This subplot intersects with a relentless Inquisitor — the real-life historical figure Bernard Gui* — in pursuit of refugee Dolcinians and other heretical types who were actually running around northern Italy at this time.

The long and short of it is that the girl is condemned to the stake as a sorceress on ridiculous circumstantial evidence that the reason-favoring duo is in no position to repel, and that Gui is eager to trump up further to politically muscling Dolcinian-friendly monks.

The very watchable 1986 cinematic adaptation of the novel, starring Sean Connery as Brother William and Christian Slater as Adso, takes some liberties with Eco’s text on the matter of the girl.

In the novel, her execution happens “off-camera” but with a numbing certitude; it’s an evil in the world that no protagonist can prevent, and Adso just has to get used to the idea.

I was tempted to follow her … William, grim, restrained me. “Be still, fool,” he said. “The girl is lost; she is burnt flesh.”

Directly after convicting the girl for witchcraft, and nabbing two heretical monks in the process, Gui departs the convent towards the papacy’s then-residence at Avignon for a gratifying show trial. The monks are the real prize; Brother William prophesies that the girl

will be burned beforehand, along the way, to the edification of some Catharist village along the coast. I have heard it said that Bernard is to meet his colleague Jacques Fournier (remember that name: for the present he is burning Albigensians, but he has higher ambitions), and a beautiful witch to throw on the fire will increase the prestige and the fame of both.

The smitten Adso is heartbroken over this cruelty.

“So the cellarer was right: the simple folk always pay for all, even for those who speak in their favor … who with their words of penance have driven the simple to rebel!”

The only sure thing was that the girl would be burned. And I felt responsible, because it was as if she would also expiate on the pyre the sin I had committed with her.

I burst shamefully into sobs and fled to my cell, where all through the night I chewed my pallet and moaned helplessly, for I was not even allowed — as they did in the romances of chivalry I had read with my companions at Melk — to lament and call out the beloved’s name.

This was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.

The film indulges a happier and very implausible fate for Adso’s hot little number: in this version, the executions take place on-site at the monastery, and other peasants riot, murder the Inquisitor, and free our oblate’s muse. Hey, in a work that’s all about faith, why not a little deus ex machina?

Warning: Spoilers The Name of the Rose is a detective story, and the clips below intercut the execution scene with the mystery’s big reveal. Don’t watch them if you want to approach the film or the book without knowing how it all plays out.

The movie’s softhearted approach has the benefit of allowing a more cinematic and literal presentation of Adso’s choice between the life of the mind/soul and the life of the flesh. The clip below is spoiler-safe, since you already know which one he chooses.

To geek out on this book’s complex tapestry of allusions, you could do worse than this archived study guide.

* Played by F. Murray Abraham in the film. Gui wrote a notable tract on examining heretics; dust off your Latin to read it on Google books here, or get the gist with this English-translated excerpt.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Fictional,God,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Known But To God,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Shot with Arrows,Theft,Torture,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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Unspecified Year: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

1 comment October 11th, 2010 Headsman

On an unspecified date around this time in the late 1820s, the narrator of Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned Man leaves off his diary — bound for the guillotine.

An illustration from The Last Day of a Condemned Man.

The young Hugo‘s first major work of fiction, this 1829 story dramatizes the torment of an unnamed man doomed for an unstated crime. By abstracting its central character, Hugo generalizes its unabashed anti-death penalty message … but one of the few morsels of specificity places the man’s conviction on “a beautiful morning at the close of August,” with the action unfolding over the ensuing six weeks until his date with the guillotine.

If not exactly Hugo’s greatest work, this emotional rendering of a man’s anguish awaiting death well befits an artist deeply sensitive to the passion of the scaffold — and a period when many writers witnessed, critiqued, contested, and even faced the phenomenon of public execution.

They say that it is nothing,–that one does not suffer; that it is an easy death. Ah! then, what do they call this agony of six weeks,–this summing-up in one day? What, then, is the anguish of this irreparable day, which is passing so slowly and yet so fast? What is this ladder of tortures which terminates in the scaffold? Are they not the same convulsions whether life is taken away drop by drop, or intellect extinguished thought by thought?

Now I must fortify myself, and think firmly of the Executioner, the cart, the gendarmes, the crowd in the street and the windows.

I have still an hour to familiarize myself with these ideas. All the people will laugh and clap their hands, and applaud; yet among those men, now free, unknown to jailors, and who run with joy to an execution,–in that throng there is more than one man destined to follow me sooner or later, on the scaffold.

More than one who is here to-day on my account, will come hereafter on his own.


Hungarian painter Mihaly Munkacsy‘s The Last Day of a Condemned Man has no relationship to Hugo’s book, but deals in a similar mood. It won an award from the Paris salon in 1870.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man is available free online (English | French), or in throwback print form from Amazon.com.

* The prisoner finds in his cell the names of then-notable criminals who previously occupied it — a concession to period specificity. The last of these names is Castaing, meaning our man’s story takes place after that poisoner’s 1823 beheading. A subsequent reference to Louis-Auguste Papavoine, executed in 1825, would push the execution to the even narrower window of October 1825, 1826, 1827, or 1828.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,Known But To God,Public Executions

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