The contest for influence in Middle East and its lifeblood of oil for the modern mechanized army forms a crucial sidebar to World War II’s European chessboard, and the unpredictable collisions between rival empires and competing anticolonial interests made many strange bedfellows.
Two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, British and Soviet troops jointly seized Iran from its potentially pro-German ruler — securing both oil resources** and a precious route for sending American supplies to Russia’s desperately pressed defenders.
Kurds were very far from Stalin or Churchill’s calculation, but the moment also offered a power vacuum permitting de facto Kurdish self-rule in a narrow band straddling Soviet and British occupation zones.
As the war drew to a close, erstwhile allies began girding for the Cold War — and the disposition of Iran was a dress rehearsal. Moscow was keen to maintain influence in that country’s north, and to that end encouraged Iran’s Azerbaijani region to break away as an independent state — which it did in December 1945. The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad followed suit on January 22, 1946 (a date still commemorated by Kurdish activists) with Qazi Muhammed as president. Although the Mahabad Republic is sometimes characterized as “Soviet-backed,” or even a Soviet puppet, that might be a better description of its hopes than its reality.
Mahabad may have represented the national dream for Kurds, but it was a small pawn to the Soviets, easily sacrificed when its position became untenable. Moscow’s priorities were elsewhere, and this was the brief window when America was the only nuclear power: the Red Army was (diplomatically) forced out of Iran and the breakaway Republics reoccupied by the western-backed Iranian government. And Mahabad, a statelet founded by a middle class party with only limited backing from tribal chiefs, required Soviet support to have any hope of holding up.
Seeing where the wind was blowing, the Kurds submitted in December 1946 to the advancing Iranian army without a hopeless fight, but Muhammed refused on his honor to flee, hoping to placate the Iranians.
For all its inadequacies, Mahabad was the only Kurdish state of the 20th century, and Qazi Muhammed its founder and only president. That has earned him a place of honor in the crowded pantheon of Kurdish martyrs.
After a military court had him hanged, leadership of the Kurdish struggle passed to Mustafa Barzani, whose refugee guerrillas had made declaration of the Kurdish state a possibility in the first place.
In a biography of Barzani written by Barzani’s son, the Kurdish captain describes his last meeting with the president — and if the manifest interest of the reporting parties colors our presumption of its literal authenticity (journalist Jonathan Randal, for instance, reports that Barzani never held Mohammed in high regard), it likewise underscores the place of this day’s victim in the Kurdish mythology.
I went to Qazi Mohammed and asked him what he personally intended to do. He said that he intended to sacrifice his life to prevent bloodshed in Mahabad, that he would surrender to the Iranian forces, and that he had sent an emissary to General Hamayoni in Miyandoab informing him of his decision. He broke down in tears as he continued: “Never rely on anyone but your own group. All those who took the oath of allegiance have betrayed us and are rushing to prove their loyalty to the Iranian forces. Beware of the tribal chiefs who would target you if they could. I hope that you will leave Mahabad as soon as youc an to avoid confronting the Iranian forces.”
I insisted that he go with us [to Iraq], and pledged my word of honor that I would sacrifice my life and the lives of all who were with me to defend him, because he was the symbol of our nation. I told him that my advice to him was not to trust Iranian promises. It would be painful to see the first president of the Republic of Kurdistan fall into enemy hands.
In tears, Qazi Mohammed rose and hugged me, saying, “I pray God will give you strength and protect you. May my sacrifice spare the citizens some of their affliction and mitigate the terror and vengeance.” Then, he pulled a flag of Kurdistan from his pocket and gave it to me and said: “This is the symbol of Kurdistan. I give it to you as a token of trust in your honor, for I think you are the bes man to keep it.”
The Encyclopedia of Kurdistan has an excellent entry on Mahabad’s straitened political situation, as well as a good article on the background of tribal politics in the years prior to World War II.
* Some sources report March 30; the small hours in the morning of the 31st seems to have the plurality of scholarship.
** Although Baku was a much more important source of oil for the USSR.
On this date in 1689, in a Warsaw marketplace, Kazimierz Lyszczynski had his tongue torn out, his head struck off and his body burned to ashes which were shot from a cannon — all for scratching a few words with the whiff of atheism.
God is not the creator of man; but man is the creator of a God gathered together from nothing.
His actual writings are not known directly — his books were burned along with his flesh — but only from the transcripts of his rather hysterical trial, so it’s uncertain what he actually believed; for that matter, he vigorously (albeit unsuccessfully) abjured atheism. Some sources say that he was nailed for as little as irreverent marginal notations in a theological tract he found unconvincing; others report that he actually wrote a heretical text.
Cazimir Lyszczynski, a noble and landowner of Lithuania, a man of a very respectable character, was perusing a book entitled Theologia Naturalis, by Henry Aldsted, a Protestant divine, and finding that the arguments which the author employed in order to prove the existence of divinity, were so confused that it was possible to deduce from them quite contrary consequences, he added on the margin the following words — “ergo non est Deus,” evidently ridiculing the arguments of the author. This circumstance was found out by Brzoska, nuncio of Brest in Lithuania, a debtor of Lyszczynski, who denouned him as an atheist, delivering, as evidence of his accusation, a copy of the work with the above-mentioned annotation to Witwicki, bishop of Posnania, who took up this affair with the greatest violence … nothing could shelter the unfortunate man against the fanatical rage of the clergy … On the simple accusation of his debtor, supported by the bishops, the affair was brought before the diet of 1689, before which the clergy, and particularly the bishop Zaluski, accused Lyszczynski of having denied the existence of God, and uttered blasphemies against the blessed Virgin and the saints. The unfortunate victim, terrified by his perilous situation, acknowledged all that was imputed to him, made a full recantation of all he might have said and written against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, and declared his entire submission to its authority. This was, however, of no avail to him, and his accusers were even scandalized that the diet permitted him to make a defence, and granted the term of three days for collecting evidence of his innocence, as the accusation of the clergy ought, in their judgment, to be sufficient evidence on which to condemn the culprit.
Pope Innocent XI at least salvaged the performance of the Catholic hierarchy in the affair by condemning, rather than promoting, the ambitious bishops.
Whatever the doomed man’s actual doctrines and writings, it is likely not coincidence that one finds this atrocious affair during at the moment of his country’s political collapse. The heretical knight’s 55 years corresponded to Poland’s fall from central Europe’s dominant power into the plaything of neighboring hegemons. The Polish-Lithuanian Empire stood at its maximum extent at his birth; during Lyszczynski’s boyhood, the Zaporozhian Cossacks broke free of Warsaw; as a young man, he saw the Swedes, the Russians, and Poland’s former vassal Prussia strip the empire of peoples and land.
By the time of Lyszczynski’s misfortunate death, Poland was a second-rate power on the brink of irrelevance — an abyss into which it would plunge in the century to come. Corwin’s Political History of Poland (another Google Books freebie) lays the scene:
The constant internal dissensions caused and nourished by foreign intrigues were in no mean measure responsible for the King’s failures in his final campaigns and in his diplomacy. They resulted in the loss of territory and the decline of Poland’s position as a great European power. French and Austrian money supported Polish anarchy. Diets were constantly torn up some even before the presiding officer could be elected. No law could be enacted. Corruption was rampant. Several attempts were made to depose the King. Religious intolerance became intensified and the first and last auto da fe in Poland was executed in 1689, on one Casimir Lyszczynski for his atheistic proclivities. The country became a theatre of constant strife between the various magnate families. At times the clashes resulted in formal civil wars.
It might be small consolation for having one’s head chopped off, but Lyszczynski’s reputation has far outrun his persecutors’, and in the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Empire, he cuts a pathbreaking figure for secularists and freethinkers.
Lyszczynski’s gravestone — image (c) Irina Shvets and used with permission. The inscription reads, “Oh, travelers! Do not pass these stones. You will not stumble upon them if you don’t stumble upon the truth. Recognize the truth: for even those who know that it is the truth teach that it is a lie. The teachings of the wise are bound by deceit.”
The man had a gift. From 1716 to late in 1718, Vane looted dextrously, even boldly spurning a royal pardon the better to keep his loot and mounting a flamboyant escape from the armada subsequent sent to detain him.
If he had a weakness, it was not as a mariner but as a manager. A notoriously tyrannous captain, Vane saw one aide turn on him and escape with a ship and a second — the aforementioned Rackham — mount a seaborne coup after Vane judiciously refused to engage a larger French man-o-war.
Nothing daunted by the loss of his command, Vane set about rebuilding his fortunes by resuming the conquest of prizes. Little could he see that the day of piracy was fast drawing to a close, and his own hourglass running faster still.
For all the catastrophes visited on him by his confederates, it required the connivance of nature to do him in. Early in 1720, a hurricane obliterated his ship (and most of his crew); tough old Vane managed to wash up on a deserted island* … but was recognized by his “rescuers” and delivered up to the British governor of Jamaica, who strung him up within the week.
* Straight out of piracy central casting, no? Would you also believe his crew had a renowned “pirate party” rendezvous with Blackbeard’s?
He may be best-known today as the subject of the jarring opening passage of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which the full flower of this medieval torture* is described in detail by way of contrasting it with the regimented penal institutions that would sprout up in a few decades’ time. Here’s Foucault’s rendering of the scene:
On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).
“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…
“It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient.”
Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.
“After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.
“Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, ‘Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.’ Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: ‘Pardon, Lord.’
“The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.
“Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): ‘Kiss me, gentlemen.’ The parish priest of St Paul’s did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass.
“After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.
“When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.
“…In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o’clock.
“There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere” (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).
Among the throngs in attendance that day was Casanova who, according to his memoirs, rented out a windowed flat to watch that stomach-churning torture for four hours with some male friends and female companions.
One of the legendary libertine’s friends found this moment, serenaded by the prisoner’s “piercing shrieks”, opportune for an altogether different adventure of the flesh:
The three ladies packing themselves together as tightly as possible took up their positions at the window, leaning forward on their elbows, so as to prevent us seeing from behind. The window had two steps to it, and they stood on the second; and in order to see we had to stand on the same step, for if we had stood on the first we should not have been able to see over their heads. I have my reasons for giving these minutiae, as otherwise the reader would have some difficulty in guessing at the details which I am obliged to pass over in silence.
Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round.
Finding himself behind her, he had taken the precaution to lift up her dress to avoid treading on it. That, no doubt, was according to the rule; but soon after, on giving an involuntary glance in their direction, I found that Tiretta had carried his precautions rather far, and, not wishing to interrupt my friend or to make the lady feel awkward, I turned my head and stood in such a way that my sweetheart could see nothing of what was going on; this put the good lady at her ease. For two hours after I heard a continuous rustling, and relishing the joke I kept quiet the whole time. I admired Tiretta’s hearty appetite still more than his courage, but what pleased me most was the touching resignation with which the pious aunt bore it all.
Casanova’s Complete Memoires are available free online; this episode is recounted in the first chapter of “Paris and Holland”.
* Damiens’ punishment was in fact already archaic at the point when it was inflicted. Somewhat unsure of itself, the court sought precedent in the last regicide executed — Francois Ravaillac, who in 1610 was also the most recent person to suffer this horrific penalty. The clumsiness of the Damiens’ execution can surely be attributed to the art being a century and a half out of practice.
On January 7, 1965, 23-year-old Robert Lee Massie shot and killed Mildred Weiss during a botched robbery near her home. He pleaded guilty and, sentenced to die by the state of California, came within 16 hours of execution in 1967, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan temporarily halted his execution so that he could testify at the trial of his alleged co-conspirator. By this time, Massie had begun complaining to anybody who would listen about the conditions on death row, and greeting the prospect of an execution date as a welcome deliverance, was dubbed “the prisoner who wants to die” by the press.
However, Reagan’s reprieve bought him just enough time to live to see a California Supreme Court decision temporarily halting executions, which was followed by the US Supreme Court Furman v. Georgia decision of 1972 banning the death penalty as then being enforced as unconstitutionally arbitrary and capricious.
With Furman, death rows across the country were summarily cleared, and Massie, a model prisoner, was paroled for good behavior in 1978. By this time, the US Supreme Court had handed down the Gregg v. Georgia decision holding that states had revised their death penalty statutes sufficiently to allow executions to resume.
Only months after his release, Massie killed Boris Naumoff in his liquor store and wounded a clerk in another botched robbery. Again pleading guilty, this time over the objections of his court-appointed lawyer, Massie was again sentenced to die.
As before, Massie welcomed his sentence and, acting on a own novel interpretation of the Sixth Amendment guarantee of self-representation, argued that he had a constitutional right to bypass the appeals process usually automatic in capital cases and that there “is no meaningful difference between forcing an automatic appeal upon a defendant and forcing unwanted counsel upon him.” The appeals court disagreed, ruling that “while a litigant may waive the advantage of a law intended solely for his benefit, he may not waive a law established for a public reason.”
Appeals in capital cases were never intended to allow the prisoner to “choose his own sentence,” the Court wrote, and were in fact in place for just such a reason of ensuring full investigation into the “real issue [of] the propriety of allowing the state to conduct an illegal execution of a citizen.” The state was obliged to proceed with Massie’s appeals against his stated wishes, a charge unique to capital cases, because of the singular obligations imposed by the death sentence on the legal machinery of the state — and in fact imposed by the Furman and Gregg decisions that years earlier had ushered Massie unwillingly off death row.
His appeals continuing against his wishes, Massie’s conviction was ultimately overturned in a 1985 California Supreme Court decision holding that the sentence was invalid because his lawyer had not consented to the guilty plea.
Convicted again in a retrial in 1989, Massie was, once again, sentenced to death. Though he was briefly heartened enough to pursue appeals in earnest, those, too, foundered; increasingly convinced that corrupt judges were violating their oath to uphold the Constitution and greasing the machinery of death, he determined once again to pursue his own death.
As his appeals ran out, lawyers and advocates of all stripes stepped in to try to prevent Massie’s execution. A lifetime of abuse in foster care and juvenile detention centers and evidence of clinical depression and mental disorder were all presented at the last minute in a last-ditch attempt to save a man who didn’t want saving.
All were denied, and Robert Lee Massie was executed at the age of 59 on March 27, 2001. He was just the ninth prisoner executed in California in the post-Furman era and the 703rd nationwide.
Massie is one of a growing trend of death row volunteers, prisoners who voluntarily seek to run through their appeals and bring their lives on death row to an end. His frequent visitor in his last years in prison and “next friend,” Michael Kroll,* writes:
My friend, Bob Massie, maneuvered the state of California into assisting in his suicide. He had his own lawyer doing the dance of death with the attorney general and managed to avoid being declared incompetent.
And in the words of a relative of one of Massie’s victims:
I know he wants to die. It makes me think, if he wants out of the suffering, well, maybe we shouldn’t be killing him. Maybe he should just be left there to suffer.
Tossed hither and yon with the shifting legal tides of death penalty law spanning eight presidential administrations, Massie had to aid his executioners to the very last breath: when finally strapped to a gurney 36 years since that young man had murdered Mildred Weiss, he obligingly flexed his arm to help the technician find a suitable vein.
* Kroll tried to prevent Massie’s execution on the grounds that he was mentally ill, incurring his friend’s wrath.
Most particularly, saying “ana al-Haqq” — “I am God” — and poems directly identifying himself with divinity were thought by the state theologians to have mystical wisdom for initiates, but to be exceedingly dangerous sentiments to set loose among the hoi polloi, especially given popular devotion to the Abassid government that was less than ironclad.
In truth, al-Hallaj’s condemnation seems to have been rooted in contemporary imperial politics, his demise representing the (momentary) upper hand of the more autocratic elements against potentially more sympathetic parties.
He spent eleven years in a Baghdad jail, reportedly enduring torture with placidity. Accounts of his execution speak of him greeting a horrific death with joy.
Mansur al-Hallaj remains revered today among mystically inclined followers of many faiths and admired by many westerners, factors which do not quite resolve the dispute over his place within Islam. Ultimately, the rightness of his choices remains very much in the eye of the beholder.
On this date in 1977, the former president of the Congo, Alphonse Massamba-Debat, was summarily shot after his successor was assassinated.
A teacher by training and a member of the country’s powerful namesake tribe, Massamba-Debat (the link is to his French wikipedia page, which has considerably more information than the English entry) was a government minister who took power in a 1963 military coup that overthrew the former French territory’s first post-colonial government.
In a revolutionary age, Massamba-Debat swung with a Marxist-Leninist ideology. He ran a one-party state — winning a post-coup 1963 election by the comfortable margin of 100-0 — and met with Che Guevara during the latter’s African mission, while also setting up the first stirrings of industrialization.
The mix of true belief and opportunism in that formula is anyone’s guess; the brutality of his militias steadily eroded his “unanimous” popular support, and in 1968 he was toppled by another leftist, Marien Ngouabi.
That marked the end of Massamba-Debat’s meaningful political career.
Oddly, he was tried immediately after his overthrow for some of his regime’s notable political murders, but was acquitted and allowed to retire to his village: the new government plainly didn’t consider him much of a threat.
But when Ngouabi was assassinated in his turn on March 18, 1977 — for causes that remain unclear but that may have had to do with French energy interests in the region — the army seized control and purged numerous officials for supposed participation in the plot. Massamba-Debat, notwithstanding a dearth of evidence actually implicating him, was by virtue of being an overthrown former ruler far enough under the shadow of official distrust to find his name on that deadly list.
Massamba-Debat was officially rehabilitated in 1991, and is now far enough clear from the taint of treachery against his still-popular successor to have a stadium named after him. (the link is in French)
On this date in 1944, Nazi troops occupying Italy avenged a partisan attack by executing 335 Italian hostages in the Ardeatine caves outside Rome.
Part of the cave complex where the massacres took place, barred by a decorative gate.
It was six months since Germany had invaded her onetime ally, eliminating those fascists who had deposed Mussolini. Now an occupied country — an increasingly tenuous occupation as the Allied war effort bore down on Germany — Italy’s partisans multiplied.
On March 23, some of them bombed a German army column, killing 33.
The Germans ordered an immediate reprisal, although there were administrative debates over how many hostages to shoot for each casualty. Hitler initially ordered a staggering 100:1 ratio, the sort of boundary-pushing command that makes 10:1 look like the choice of moderate, reasonable mass-murderers.
A motley collection was hastily assembled to fill the quota: regular prisoners, captured partisans, men from the neighborhood and from the Jewish community rounded up randomly,* even a young Italian diplomat (the link is in Italian) being held as a political suspect. So hastily was it done, the killers miscounted the harvest — as one later explained in a deposition:
Q. It was discovered that the number of people killed was more than intended, five extra. Can you explain that to us?
A. [At the Ardeatine,] Priebke was there with the copy of the list. He got the people down [off the trucks] and canceled out their names. At a certain point, one of the prisoners was not on Priebke’s list. At the end, in fact, there were five extra men. That was when Kappler said, “What do I do with these five? They’ve seen it all.”
For much of this day, in groups of five in these manmade caves that form part of the ancient catacomb network, German soldiers went about their sanguinary business. The bodies were stacked; some of the caves dynamited — as surely many Germans realized it would not be many months before the less that was known of such crimes, the better.
But publicity is the point of reprisals, after all, and the five extra men were far from the only ones who had seen the awful business. The butchery was known from the very next morning.
Intended to alienate leftist partisans from the general populace, the massacre instead united Italians of every stripe in disgust. Even the Italian fascists were horrified; according to Richard Lamb’s War in Italy 1943-1945, Mussolini ordered all political prisoners released to safeguard them from a repeat performance.
Like many wounds of the Second World War, this infamous war crime is far from healed over.
For one thing, the Pope was notably — outrageously — silent about a crime in his own back yard and directed largely against his own flock, feeding charges of Vatican collaboration.
For another thing, there was far from a complete accounting for its authors after Italy’s liberation. An American investigative series famously caught one of the massacre’s perpetrators, onetime Gestapo officer (and little apologetic about it) Erich Priebke, living in Argentina — in 1990.
And finally, the affair, or more particularly the partisan bombing that precipitated the massacre, has been the subject of postwar critique and revisionism, especially given the years of terrorist tit-for-tat between far-right and far-left factions that followed the war. Just last year, an Italian court intervened in the historical dispute, ruling against a Berlusconi newspaper’s campaign to smear the resistance with responsibility for this day’s executions.
* Notorious informer Celeste di Porto, “the black panther,” reputedly helped fill up the rolls by fingering Jews. A childhood friend of hers, Lazzaro Anticoli, scribbled before his execution, “If I never see my family again, it is the fault of that sellout Celeste di Porto. Avenge me.” According to Susan Zuccotti, the informer had had Anticoli’s name added at the last minute to bump her own brother off the list; di Porto’s Italian Wikipedia page charges her with responsibility for 26 of the Ardeatine victims. She was almost lynched at one point after the war for collaborating; she spent seven years in jail.
On this date in 1998, the story of a boy named Paul ended in Florida’s electric chair.
Paul was born in 1951, in Schenectady, New York. He was the fifth child born to his mother, and would be the third she put up for adoption. At thirteen months old, Paul was malnourished and neglected both physically and emotionally to the point that county officials found him unfit to be adopted. But out of the slightest bit of luck, the small child caught the attention of Eugene and Norma Stano, who fought for six months to adopt the severely delayed child. And it was out of that luck that Paul became Gerald Eugene Stano.
Gerald Eugene Stano’s problems didn’t end with his new life with his adoptive parents; instead, he continued to develop a series of problems that would follow him, shaping his outlook on the world forever, and likely providing him with the excuses he needed to justify his actions later in life.
Gerald still wet the bed at ten, was the target for bullies and regularly laughed at by girls. Late in his life he would claim that women used to pull his hair, and even threw beer bottles at him, all without any provocation. He lagged behind in school, failing to graduate high school until he was 21 years old, and except for music class never achieved a grade higher than a C or D.
Yes, Gerald had a sad and difficult life, one that most people would find it easy to sympathize with. Despite his claims of being an outcast, Gerald flaunted his high opinion of himself, often going as far as to refer to himself as a “real Italian stallion”.
It seems that few really paid attention to Stano — not until March 25, 1980, when a woman by the name of Donna Hensley stumbled away from him, and walked into a police station.
Hensley would tell police that she was a prostitute, and had been approached by a man requesting her services. Once at her motel room, the two began to argue and the man ended up slicing her with a knife before insulting her and fleeing. Hensley was adamant that the man be found and charged.
An officer investigating the incident went looking for the prospective suspect, but ended the search with only a license plate for a car that matched the description. Following up with the plate number, the officer found the vehicle was registered to Gerald Eugene Stano, a 28-year-old man with a long arrest record but no convictions. Hensley gave a positive identification from Stano’s mug shot, and thus began investigation into a series of grisly murders.
On February 17, 1980 two college students had stumbled onto the decomposing remains of a young woman, and police had begun investigating the gruesome murder. The victim, 20-year-old Mary Carol Maher, was found in a remote area lying on her back, her arms at her side. Police believed she had been there for weeks, and upon moving the body discovered that she’d been repeatedly stabbed in the back, legs and chest.
During questioning for the assault on the prostitute, Stano, who fit the profile of the person sought for Maher’s slaying, was asked about the murder victim. Despite having confessed to the assault, Stano would only provide enough information to confirm that he’d previously seen Maher. But with more questioning, Stano broke and began replaying the scene out with the detective, even accompany the detective to the murder scene, and confirming the position of the body.
After returning to the police station, another detective suggested questioning Stano on a missing persons case, that of Toni Van Haddocks, a 26-year-old prostitute who had not been seen for some time. Stano denied any involvement in that case.
On April 15, 1980 a human skull was found in a garden by a Daytona resident, and a search of the area lead to clothing and more bones. Police would determine that these were the remains of Haddocks. Stano was again questioned and despite his first denials, later confessed to the murder, and would soon begin confessing to many more.
In the end, Stano admitted the gruesome murders of over 40 women, and was sentenced to death. After many failed appeals, his execution took place on March 23, 1998.
The death penalty has always been a very touchy subject. Many of its opponents believe that nothing justifies the taking of another person’s life, even if done by the state as a means of punishment. I agree that every life has value, but am personally compelled to ask whose life had more value — the victims that Stano murdered, or Stano himself?
My answer would favor the victims, and therefore I am resolved to believe that giving him any punishment less than what he received — death — would be an injustice to those who were killed by his hands.
A Catholic man with the name Giovanni Battiste (“John the Baptist”) Bugatti could hardly have had a more ironic role in church history than the man who, on this date in 1796, dispatched his first victim as official executioner of the Papal State. Nicholas Gentilucci was hanged for killing a clergyman and his coachman, then robbing two friars while on the lam; Gentilucci’s corpse was subsequently quartered.
Little is known about Gentilucci, but much is known of his then-17-year-old executioner, for Bugatti, who would become known simply as Mastro Titta, turned out to be the most individually prolific taker of life in turn-of-the-19th century Rome.
Bugatti was born in Rome in 1779 and, even while putting criminals of the state to death, lived and worked on the west side of the Tiber River as an umbrella painter. Executions were a side job, and these ghastly deeds were recognized as such by the church, which compensated him a paltry three cents of a Roman lira for each body.
“Minister of Justice”
Mastro Titta brandishes an executed woman’s head.
The original Mastro Titta — the titular corruption of the “Minister of Justice” — took responsibility for each of his “patients” (as he called them, and as they were notoriously referred to by others), dutifully noting each of the 516 in his memoir. He stood for 69 years as the primary administrator of the death penalty in papal Rome, killing variously by beheading, hanging, and use of the mallet. Some were charged with murder, others with conspiracy, others with more petty crimes, but all were found guilty by the court of judges chosen by the Church’s bishops and cardinals.
The Minister’s performances were not without an (increasingly practiced) flair, heavy on the religious symbolism. Bugatti’s residence on the west side of the river meant that, when he was to carry out a punishment, he had first to cross the river.
Initially, the executions were carried out in the Piazza del Popolo, but that location was retired in the 1820’s; it’s not clear how consistent the location was after this, but at least one later execution occurred near San Giovanni decollato, home to the group of monks dedicated to comforting the condemned even when the final blow didn’t occur at its doorstep. Regardless of the locale, a spectacle soon arose surrounding that crossing and the parade which followed, as documented by Italian dialect poet G.G. Belli in 1835 (presumably for the execution of Giovanni Orioli di Lugo on July 11 of that year):
The Dilettante at the Bridge
They approach: Attention: the ceremony is brief.
Behold the condemned, neck bare and stretched.
He is the first man of the opera, the Patient,
The Ace of Spades, lord of the fesitval.
And behold the professor that will soon be
The surgeon acting for the people
For three pence, the community,
He will cure the ills of their pained head!
But not the man on the left: the other, to the right.
He in the second place is the Assistant.
The proceedings wait for Mastro Titta.
Do you want the usual from me, who takes the head?
I who never miss it: I am consistent;
And I know him as well as I know the Pope.
The translation is largely mine, with help on some difficult sections from a well-written and complete description of Mastro Titta’s life and work here and here.
Just a Job
A pinch of snuff before I snuff you?
Bugatti was known for playing the role of executioner in a manner which left no doubt as to his feelings towards the act: it was his job, his service to the Church itself, undisturbed by any personal animus towards the condemned — particularly early in his career.
He often offered snuff to his victims and spoke briefly and quietly with them prior to the execution, likely ploys to ease the victim into his role in the spectacle. Dickens viewed one of Mastro Titta’s beheadings on 8 March 1845*, and, in his Pictures From Italy, he remarked on the callousness of the event.
In keeping with this attitude, most of the entries in Mastro Titta’s memoir are fewer than 20 words. They reflect a man who seeks to distance himself from the crowd’s bloodlust. A selection:
“Tommaso Tintori, guilty of homicide, 28 February 1810″ (The first using the “new edifice for beheading from the French government” — that is, the guillotine)
“Pecorari Angel, of Poli, aged 29. Peasant guilty of premeditated homicide of one woman, condemned to «death as an example» in Poland on 21 January 1847.” (There were a number of prisoners sentenced in other Catholic parts of Europe sent to Rome for Titta’s ministrations.)
“Sabbatino Proietti, aged 25, «decapitated» in Rieti for petty theft and highway robbery and murder on 20 August 1853, died converted, executed through administration of justice at the public square at the Bridge.”
“Angelo Lisi di Alatri, found guilty of premeditated highway robbery and murder in Frosinone, «dead» on 30 April 1862.”
An Anomalous Man
Bugatti was born just seven years prior to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany becoming the first of the Italian states to abolish the death penalty. There, Leopold II barred torture and punishment of death, a decision heavily influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and a desire to distance his nation from Rome.
In the neighboring Papal State, however, the practice continued, the embodiment of the church’s power over its people in matters earthly and spiritual. Executions of the time performed for various reasons, but with a handful of exceptions, they were almost exclusively performed on persons in the lower class. Many relied on the use of torture or testimony from confessionals. Papal executions were carried out until the 1870s and only declared unnecessary (though not banned by the Church) by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.
A complete discussion of the role of executions in the Catholic Church is too much for this space,** but a man like Bugatti serves usefully to exemplify the absurdity endowed in these killings by the Catholic Church. Where the half-dozen popes who served over Bugatti thought such executions to be necessary for the control of the masses, they had no such ideas about nobles who committed crimes.
The execution itself consisted of a parade with masked priests, banners, scriptural readings, and sermonizing, culminating in the death of the condemned. John L Allen of the National Catholic Reporter described the treatment of these executions in that day as “a liturgy”, and descriptions from writers such as Lord Byron show a scene which could only be described as a mix of Catholic Mass and town festival.
Such ritualized killing came to contrast starkly with the Italian celebration of an anti-death penalty position, and the two stood at odds for over a century. In 1909, the topic was hot enough that a plaque glorifying two Italians executed by Bugatti in 1825 was erected; a dozen years later, its contents were concealed out of deference to Rome until after the Second Vatican Council. The commemorated, Angiolo Targhini and Leonida Montanari (here’s their Italian Wikipedia page), were convicted essentially of riling the people, and they were summarily beheaded; their story was the inspiration for Luigi Magni’s 1969 classic Nell’anno del Signore:
“So ends the long list of Bugatti.”
Mastro Titta was given an official residence, and at the end of his term, he was handsomely rewarded with a pension for his service — 30 scudi per year. His final executions were carried out on 17 August 1864, wearing his traditional red cloak (now on display at the Criminology Museum of Rome): Antonio Olietti of Rome and Domenico Antonio Demartini were beheaded for homicide.
The Minister of Justice was 85, four and some years from the end of his life, and the final line in his memoir reads, “So ends the long list of Bugatti. May that of his successor be shorter.”
Indeed it was.
The final executions in Rome occurred on 24 November 1868 at the hands of Antonio Balducci, Bugatti’s long-time apprentice; the event was marked by Pope Pius IX famously intoning in response to calls for a stay, “I can’t, and I don’t want to.” The last execution in the Papal State was of Agatino Bellomo on 9 July 1870, in Palestrina, shortly before the nascent unified Italy absorbed Rome.
Mastro Titta is still known in Italy,† but, adrift amid a particularly violent period of revolution, his legacy as papal executioner is largely lost to the rest of the world.
* The day’s guillotinee was Giovanni Vagnarelli, 26, from Augustine; he killed Bavarian Anna Cotten and robbed her, and her wife’s statement at confessional was used to convict Vagnarelli. Such confessional convictions were not uncommon, as Bugatti’s own memoir confirms.
** There’s surprisingly little reading out there about this topic, though it would seem ripe for a book or two. Here’s what I can find:
“Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome: The Papal Police in Perspective”, Steven Hughes, Journal of Social History, 1987.
“Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom”, James J. Megivern, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2003.
† A half dozen kilometers from the bridge that Mastro Titta crossed on his way to carry out Papal justice now stands the Mastro Titta Pub. It is reportedly “tastefully done” and serves mostly Belgian beers.