Archive for June, 2008

1882: Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s colorful assassin

12 comments June 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, America’s weirdest assassin recited fourteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew and (sans requested orchestral accompaniment) a poem of his own composition entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” and was hanged in the District of Columbia jail for shooting forgettable Gilded Age president James Garfield.

Mad as a march hare, Charles Julius Guiteau had irritated the obscure reaches of the Republic near four decades, trying his hand at free love, law, newspapering* and evangelism. A contemporary account of his religious flimflammery survives:

Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.

Having failed at each characteristic American monkeyshine more comprehensively than the last, he naturally gravitated to politics; while today Guiteau might tilt with his psychoses on some vituperative blog, in 1880 he published and delivered as a speech a widely-ignored crackpot encomium** for his eventual victim. Guiteau reckoned the GOP carried the 1880 elections on the strength of such rhetorical thunderbolts as “some people say he [Garfield] got badly soiled in that Credit Mobilier transaction but I guess he is clean-handed.”

Stunned that his contributions did not earn him a diplomatic posting to France, Guiteau stepped out of obscurity and into this blog’s pages by shooting the ungrateful (and unguarded) executive in the back at a Washington, D.C. train station (since demolished, and today occupied by the National Gallery of Art).

“To General Sherman: I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau.” (Click for the full image.) From the Georgetown Charles Guiteau collection.

Thoughtfully, he had already hired a cab to take him to jail, where he expected to be liberated by General William Sherman.

Malpractice

The bugger of Garfield’s assassination is that Guiteau was no better at killing presidents than he was at electing them. Despite his exultation “Arthur is President now!”, he actually inflicted what could have been a non-fatal flesh wound that through ten-thumbed medical intervention became an agonizing eighty-day Calvary for the miserable Garfield.

Doctors jabbed unwashed hands into the the wound, failing to dig out the bullet they were looking for but successfully turning the three-inch wound into a crater, puncturing Garfield’s liver, and passing him Streptococcus. Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find the missile, but the damn thing gave a bad reading … because Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs. His doctors, feuding with one another and with the press, instituted a regimen of rectal feeding — “Nutritive enemas — consisting of beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and several drops of opium … Garfield’s flatulence became intolerable,” according to one biographer — that “basically starved him to death.”† He lost 100 pounds before succumbing; the autopsy concluded that Garfield probably would have lived if not for the medical attention, which didn’t stop the doctors from submitting a sizable invoice to the feds for services rendered.

(In a moment of lucidity, Guiteau defended himself with the observation “The doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him.”)

Not Ha-Ha Funny

Horribly hilarious, this American Absurdistan. “Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History,” Sarah Vowell put it.

Guiteau’s circus trial — with the defendant constantly interrupting to harangue participants, object to his own attorneys or converse with the spectators, plus the macabre appearance of the late Garfield’s actual vertebrae (now at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Medicine) as an exhibit — was for all that a landmark test of evolving law around criminal insanity.

Just as Garfield probably would have survived his injury had he been treated by the next generation’s medical norms, Guiteau probably would have survived his brush with the law if treated by the next generation’s legal norms.

Against an almost-too-strict-to-achieve earlier bar for legal insanity, a more accommodating jurisprudential norm called the M’Naghten Rules or M’Naghten Test was even then being adopted from English courts: essentially, did the “criminal” realize his act was wrong? Still the basis for legal insanity claims in much of the U.S. today, the first trial of a presidential assassin would be the M’Naghten standard’s trial by fire.

While the judge gave ample leeway for the defense to use M’Naghten, the legal standards it implied were still not widely understood and the medical testimony about Guiteau’s mental condition was (embarrassingly, for the profession) wildly contradictory. Ultimately, the judge cued the jury that “the law requires a very slight degree of intelligence indeed” on Guiteau’s part to impute him with sufficient criminal culpability to hang. There were cheers in the courthouse when the jury took an hour to decide that Guiteau had that very slight degree of intelligence indeed.

In the final analysis, as Charles Rosenberg observes in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age, the jurors’ prompt conviction of the widely hated, barking-mad defendant underscored the real-life constraints of dry legal theory as applied by an outraged community to a notorious offender:

[T]he Guiteau case demonstrated anew that the circumstances of a particular case had ordinarily as much to do with its disposition as the precise injunctions of rules of law … Many observers agreed after the trial that if an individual of Guiteau’s marked eccentricity had killed an ordinary man … he would almost certainly not have been convicted; very likely he would not even have been brought to trial. Similarly, while Garfield lay on his sickbed, it was commonly assumed that his assailant would be institutionalized if the President should survive. But if not, then not.

Reckoning the gesture could cost him the 1884 Republican nomination, Chester A. Arthur declined to spare his “benefactor” (“Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of this nation,” was Guiteau’s reaction, picturing fire and brimstone) and left Guiteau to his strange and lonely fate. The latter was talked out of an early plan to go to the gallows in the Christlike garb of only his undergarments, but did insist upon delivering his incoherent parting ramble in a high-pitched childlike tone (“the idea is that of a child babbling to his mama and his papa”).

Wrapping up this surreal historical episode in a neat little bow, Charles Guiteau got his own bluegrass tune:‡

For more adventures through Guiteau’s looking glass, there’s a fine page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

* One of Guiteau’s failed newspaper ventures was to exploit the telegraph to reprint original content from other outlets. That one looks a lot less harebrained in retrospect: it’s a primitive model of the wire service, and latterly of RSS-based distributors like Google News.

** Scans of Guiteau’s apologia for Garfield — via Georgetown’s Charles Guiteau collection — are here: cover, pages 1-2, page 3.

† You really want to know more about the South Park-esque practice of rectal feeding? Garfield’s quack physician published this pamphlet in 1882.

‡ The “Charles Guiteau” ditty is actually a rather shameless knock-off of a murder ballad for James Rodgers, an Irish immigrant hanged in New York in 1858.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,USA,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

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2000: Two kidnappers, televised by Guatemala

1 comment June 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Amilcar Cetino Perez and Tomas Cerrate Hernandez were executed on live television in Guatemala for kidnapping and murdering a liquor heiress.

The televised Perez execution began at 6:05 a.m., with Hernandez (reportedly “shaking badly”) following at 7:15. Both took some minutes; Amnesty International has charged that they were botched and the prisoners suffered prolonged suffering. The macabre spectacle was replayed on Guatemalan TV throughout the day.

So daunting (or puffed-up) was the menace posed by the Los Posaco kidnapping-and-extortion gang they belonged to, the president sent his family to Canada to shield them from reprisals.

Today’s casualties were the second and third persons to die by lethal injection in Guatemala, and remain to this date the last.

They might not retain that distinction long, however. Legislation earlier this year filled a legal gap that had caused a five-year moratorium on executions — ironically, by restoring the president’s power to pardon and commute death sentences.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guatemala,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Organized Crime,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines

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1905: Henri Languille, a man of science

June 28th, 2008 Headsman

At 5:30 a.m. this date in 1905, a murderer named Languille lost his head on the guillotine in Orleans.

Some thirty seconds later, he finally lost his life — or so suggests the account of an eyewitness who conducted upon Languille’s head one of the most renowned execution experiments in history in pursuit of that timeless question whether a decapitated head survives.

Henri Languille’s execution.

Dr. Beaurieux, if you please?

I consider it essential for you to know that Languille displayed an extraordinary sang-froid and even courage from the moment when he was told, that his last hour had come, until the moment when he walked firmly to the scaffold. It may well be, in fact, that the conditions for observation, and consequently the phenomena, differ greatly according to whether the condemned persons retain all their sang-froid and are fully in control of themselves, or whether they are in such state of physical and mental prostration that they have to be carried to the place of execution, and are already half-dead, and as though paralysed by the appalling anguish of the fatal instant.

The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck …

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.

Here comes the science.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History

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1950: Milada Horáková, democrat and feminist

7 comments June 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Milada Horakova was hanged with three others in Prague’s Pankrac Prison as a spy and traitor to the Communist Czechoslovakian government.

Not (yet) as internationally recognizable as Rudolf Slansky,* the Communist General Secretary in Horakova’s time who would run afoul of Stalin and die on the same gallows two years later, Horakova (English Wikipedia page | Czech | the detailed French) is a potent symbol domestically of her country’s Cold War nightmare.

Lawyer, social democrat, and a prominent feminist in the interwar and postwar periods — her life’s work, rather overshadowed by an end that was memorable for different reasons — Horakova survived Nazi imprisonment and was a member of parliament when the Communists seized power in 1948.

She spurned counsel to flee the country, and found herself the headline attraction at a show trial for a supposed plot to overthrow the government. In a hopeless scenario, she distinguished herself with off-script defiance despite having broken under torture and signed a confession; Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt all pleaded in vain for clemency.

Photo of Milada Horakova defending herself at trial.

Horakova left the world clear in her purpose. In a letter to her teenage daughter awaiting execution, she justified her own dangerous choices:

The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children. But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good … by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. … Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight.

Hours before her hanging, she wrote a few last words for her loved ones:

I go with my head held high. One also has to know how to lose. That is no disgrace. An enemy also does not lose honor if he is truthful and honorable. One falls in battle; what is life other than struggle? (Both excerpts cited here)

The only woman among Czechoslovakia’s postwar political executions was abortively rehabilitated during the 1968 Prague Spring. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, her resistance to both Naziism and Communism — worthy of an opera (topical interview) and a forthcoming film — have elevated her into her country’s official pantheon.

As a result, this date is “Commemoration day for the victims of the Communist regime” in the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, Horakova’s now-octogenerian prosecutor Ludmila Brozova-Polednova, whose repulsive legal barbs at trial (“Don’t break her neck on the noose. Suffocate the bitch — and the others too.”) were probably the consequence of the foregone conclusion more than the cause, was convicted late last year for her role in the trial. That verdict has kept in the news these past several months — most recently, the Czech Supreme Court returned it for retrial after an appeals court overturned the sentence — a tangible symbol of the challenges inherent to confronting the past. (Brozova-Polednova, for her part, is unapologetic.)

* One of the goons who tortured confessions out of the conspirators in Horakova’s “terrorist center,” Karel Svab, was among those later hanged with Slansky.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Ripped from the Headlines,Torture,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1979: Two former dictators of Ghana with four of their aides

2 comments June 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the putschist government of Ghana shot former military rulers Frederick William Kwasi Akuffo and Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa along with four others at the Teshie Military Range for corruption.

Twenty-two years before, Ghana had become the first black sub-Saharan former colony to gain independence, but after a 1966 coup it had staggered through political and economic chaos. Six different men had been head of state in that span, three of them deposed by coups. By 1979, General Fred Akuffo‘s government was the target of explosive anger.

Enter Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who had actually failed in a coup attempt in May and was in line for execution himself before his mates toppled the government on June 4.

Seeking to stabilize the situation — and, Rawlings himself has said, riding the tiger of popular fury — the new government served up a few high-profile morsels on charges of pilfering the treasury in order to forestall a general slaughter of senior officers by the armed forces’ lower ranks.

There was no alternative. We had to contain it within the military so it didn’t spill into the civil front — if it had it would have been terrible.

We had no choice but to sacrifice the most senior ones — the commanders.

Another former head of state, Gen. Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, had been shot earlier in the month; on this date, Akuffo and Gen. Akwasi Afrifa, one of the original 1966 plotters who had ruled Ghana in 1969-70, followed him. Afrifa, ironically, had written to Acheamphong worrying that political upheaval and military discipline could find them … well, where it eventually found them:

I feel greatly disturbed about the future after the government … In order to discourage the military from staging coups in the future, how about if they line all of us up and shot us one by one? I do not certainly want to be arrested, given some sort of trial and shot.

All these shootings had an unseemly character of haste and summary justice; charges against the four senior ministers* shot along with the former rulers have struck an especially sour note. Rawlings has claimed that he only wanted the two former heads of state shot and tried unsuccessfully to stop the other four executions.

I attempted to prevent it and sent an officer but the firing squad shot the officers before their commander could give the order … you must understand our country was in a state of rage then, not different from what Russia was when it had its revolution.

I was a partial hostage to that situation. I had no force. The authority that I enjoyed was my moral authority with the people. Their action (the execution of the senior officers by the boys) was to curtail the anger of the nation.

Rawlings would hand power over to a civilian government, which he then overthrew again in 1981 — looking like this:

He would run Ghana for the next two decades, the last eight years after winning elections. Rawlings’ legacy is much up for debate, but to many he cuts the figure of a benevolent dictator (how many former strongmen have fan pages?) whose human rights abuses were mild in the scheme of things and helped usher in a relatively prosperous and democratic Ghana that stands a very far cry from the country he took over in 1979.

Rawlings himself has graduated to a sort of global elder statesman — for instance, he recently called for fair elections in Zimbabwe. And he has not been hesitant to justify his political actions, as in this interesting BBC interview from 2005 — in which, pressed on the executions of the former state ministers, he concedes:

There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way. There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.

The bodies of all the officers executed in June of 1979 were exhumed for “fitting burial” under Rawlings’ successor in 2001.

* One of the aides held the Ghanaian high jump record at the time of his death, a mark not surpassed until 1996.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ghana,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Pelf,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Shot,Soldiers,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1959: Charles Starkweather, Nebraska spree killer

30 comments June 25th, 2008 Headsman

Just past midnight this date in 1959, Charles Starkweather was electrocuted in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a mass-murdering road trip with his jailbait date that claimed ten lives.*

A loner and loser, Starkweather’s spree in January 1958 caught the national imagination and has never quite let it go since — the prototypical despair of miscarried white masculinity, a primal scream from the underbelly of the American dream.

Bowlegged, myopic, slightly speech-impaired, Starkweather was an outcast at school and fought back with his fists, then dropped out entirely and into a yawning dead-end economic life collecting garbage from the wealthier quarters of Lincoln. “The more I looked at people the more I hated them because I knowed they wasn’t any place for me with the kind of people I knowed,” he said in his confession. Starkweather palliated his isolation by aping James Dean, dreaming of a big robbery score, and losing his heart to 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, in whose adolescent eyes the beaten boy felt his stature grow.

He — or maybe they together — killed her parents when they tried to interfere in the relationship, and then eight days of murderous desperation ensued that riveted Lincoln and the nation: they lived a few days with the corpses, shooing neighbors away with a story about the flu, then fled like animals, killing ruthlessly for a couple of cars and a place to spend the night and heading for Wyoming — all to no end that would make a lick of sense, not even the cockeyed hope that there was somewhere to go to outrun the gore. Killing and running had just become what they did to keep from having to stop.

I had hated and been hated. I had my little world to keep alive as long as possible and my gun. That was my answer. (Source)

Four months after he murdered the Fugate family and not yet 20 years of age, Charles heard his own death sentence from jurors in the city he’d briefly but unforgettably terrorized. (There’s a pdf timeline of the case from the Lincoln Evening Journal here.)

He lived cruelly, and it went cruelly with him to the last; offered a chance to donate his eyes, Starkweather retorted that “nobody ever did anything for me when I was alive. Why should I help anybody when I’m dead?” According to the Los Angeles Times, the doctor who was supposed to pronounce the prisoner dead himself suffered a fatal heart attack minutes before the electrocution.

Fugate’s tender age and sex spared her a death sentence, even though Starkweather said that she ought to be “sitting in my lap” when he went to the chair. She was paroled in 1976 and has mostly stayed out of view since. Laura James at CLEWS recently posted an update on her whereabouts.

More detailed annotations of this notorious duo’s life and times can be found here and here; the Lincoln Journal Star recently published an online 50-year retrospective on the case with high production values.

But if Starkweather’s James Dean fixation denoted the pull of celebrity glamor culture, his death left an enduring legacy for a world that had nothing for him in life, a haunting name recognition few school shooters or bell tower snipers have been able to hold since. He captivated the boyhood Steven King:

I do think that the very first time I saw a picture of [Starkweather], I knew I was looking at the future. His eyes were a double zero. There was just nothing there. He was like an outrider of what America might become.

The title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska is written as a first-person narrative by Starkweather, to the tune of a desolate acoustic accompaniment that imbues the killer’s brutality with an aching loneliness.

They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world

Martin Sheen wonderfully rendered a (heavily fictionalized) Starkweather character opposite Sissy Spacek on the silver screen in Badlands (1973):

Rather less artistically consequential, the 1963 low-budget film The Sadist, also based on the Starkweather case, is in the public domain and available free on Google video:* Starkweather killed a gas station attendant in a separate incident weeks before, so his body count is 11, with ten of them on his infamous spree.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,USA

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1953: Dmytro Bilinchuk, Company 67 of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army

3 comments June 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1953, a guerrilla with the nom de guerre “Khmara” was shot in Kiev’s Lukianivka Prison for his involvement in a still-controversial resistance movement.

Dmytro Bilinchuk on the forest moon of Endor. UPA regs supposedly strictly prohibited photography; being rebels by nature, they snapped enough to fill up this page.

History is lived forward but understood backward. Therein lies the ambiguity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist organization that operated in Galicia and environs after the Nazi invasion and persisted several years afterwards.

At its height, the UPA is said to have had up to 100,000 members, famously operating out of subterranean forest bunkers. This day’s victim was the captain of one of its companies; there is very little about him available online in English — principally his death date — but Ukrainian sites add the folklorish but poignant detail of his supposed adoption of an orphaned bear cub.

But about his organization, the name alone is sufficient to invite the most acrimonious debate:* were these partisans Nazi collaborators? Ukrainian patriots? Both?

Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of a man who had abandoned socialism for a fascist national ideology (everyone was doing it), entered the World War II era having conspicuously failed to grasp independence in a period when nationhood was being handed out like candy to small European states.

The specific kettle for Ukraine’s stewing ethnic aspirations was Galicia, the northeastern shoulder of the Carpathian mountains presently in western Ukraine. Galicia had been at the heart of both Polish and Ukrainian national movements, and they fought for it after World War I — a war won by Warsaw. (Meanwhile, Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War forestalled national ambtions further east.)

Brewed with the movement’s right-wing ideology, Ukrainian nationalism developed an anti-Polish, anti-Russian, anti-Communist programme, and it gazed around 1930’s Europe wondering if it couldn’t find an aggressive great power with a similar outlook that might take Ukraine under its wing.

Fast forward to the eve of World War II: by the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin carved up the Ukrainians’ rival and thrust Galicia into Soviet hands, incidentally exposing its inhabitants to the pleasures of life under Stalin.

For Ukrainian nationalists, the altered situation of the Poland partition — followed shortly by Hitler’s initially successful invasion of Russia — offered an apparent opportunity to realize the dream of statehood under the patronage of a somewhat congenial Nazi government.

Though there’s a great deal of contention this author is not remotely qualified to referee about precisely which organs collaborated with or resisted the Nazis in precisely which ways, it seems fair summation to say that Ukraine’s nationalist movement was happy to treat with Berlin. Berlin being more reserved about a Slavic nationalist movement in its conquered territory, the UPA’s proposed institutional alliance with the Wehrmacht never quite came to pass as such, but that left many nationalists as freelance collaborators instead.** The hypothetical Ukrainian state in a Nazi-dominated Europe was not going to come about by sabotaging the Germans.

Instead, the UPA got busy laying the groundwork for an ethnically homogeneous Ukrainian homeland by fighting a reciprocal dirty war of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Galicia (most notoriously and emblematically, at Volhynia) — eventually developing into inter-partisan civil warfare against both Polish and Communist units (who had their own differences) with the odd brush with the Wehrmacht mixed in, and giving way to full concentration upon Soviet authorities as Red Army drove out the Germans.

The fact of having engaged German troops is a loudly bandied point in the UPA’s modern defense — the elevator pitch is that they “fought the Nazis and the Communists,” though it sure looks like they fought the one a lot harder than the other, and fought both less eagerly than they fought the Poles. There may be no cause to call UPA fighters other than sincere patriots of a nation whose aspirations were no less worthy than any other, who under beastly circumstances and for motives they believed noble committed sins no uglier than many other nationalists: even so, the thing separating that militia and its movement from, say, the Croatian Ustashi looks like opportunity rather than principle. Most perceived at the strategic plane a clear choice between Nazi victory with Ukrainian independence and Nazi defeat without, and most consciously preferred the former. No doubt the UPA would retort that its only other option was worse.

While Ukraine had a predictable exodus of anti-communist types as World War II drew to a close,† thousands of UPA guerrillas stuck around to keep up their fight (already underway) against the Soviets — including Dmytro Bilinchuk, whose biography can be enjoyed by readers of Ukrainian here.

It took a decade or more for Russia to extirpate this movement by hunting down its Bilinchuks. Buried in obscurity for the remainder of the Cold War, however, the martyrs of the OUN and UPA have pried open their tombs since Ukraine separated from the USSR in 1991 and become a contentious symbol in present-day Ukraine.

The OUN successor Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists has been part of Ukraine’s governing alliance since the Orange Revolution, and has pressed to treat its dead forebears as national heroes — renaming streets and attempting to rehabilitate UPA veterans into a class with those of the Red Army, a problematic enterprise since the two groups spent years killing one another. Old warriors may never reconcile, but the self-conscious reconstruction of the Ukrainian partisan movement in the service of shaping modern Ukrainians’ identity is a going concern:

Proving Faulkner’s old aphorism that the past isn’t dead and isn’t even past, this latter-day party and others of the Orange coalition remain electorally rooted in the UPA’s old western Ukraine stomping grounds, and tend to lean towards western Europe in outlook; eastern Ukraine remains more heavily Russian-oriented, and more inclined to the Russians’ distasteful view of the OUN and UPA.

* See, for instance, this Axis History thread, or the UPA’s Wikipedia discussion page.

** Late in the war, Germany would eventually form its own Galician SS Division. UPA proponents take pains to separate this German-officered formation from UPA guerrillas.

† Ironically, Ukrainians who bolted west — including the Galician SS division, which undertook a forced march to surrender in Italy rather than to the Soviets — profited greatly from having been “occupied” by Poland before the war, and from bloodily moving the border during the war. A refugee screening report (cited in Poland’s Holocaust — a source hostile to the UPA, as the title suggests) commented that Ukrainian detainees

are really having the best of both worlds. They do not qualify as Soviet citizens because their place of birth and/or habitual domicile on 1.9.39 were in Poland, and they therefore by our definition escape all punishment by the Russians for their having assisted the enemy; and they are not presumably eligible now for punishment by the Polish authorities because that part of the country from which they came is no longer part of Poland.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Ukraine,USSR

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Unspecified Year: Justine Moritz, Frankenstein family servant

5 comments June 23rd, 2008 Headsman

Around this date in the unspecified 18th-century year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular family’s servant is put to death for the murder of their youngest child, William.

In the novel, smarty-pants university student Victor Frankenstein has created (and immediately rejected) his famous monster. Not long after, he receives a letter (dated May 12, “17–“) from his father informing him of the murder of his youngest brother.

About five in the morning I discovered my lovely boy, whom the night before I had seen blooming and active in health, stretched on the grass livid and motionless; the print of the murder’s finger was on his neck.

Covering the 600-plus kilometers home to Geneva, Victor becomes convinced that his creation is the culprit.* But upon reaching his destination, he finds that circumstantial evidence has accused the family’s blameless (and ironically named) servant, Justine.

He’s back just in time to watch, in horror, as she’s convicted — impotent (or at least that’s what he tells himself) to help her with his fantastical truth, and despairingly watching her friends abandon her to her fate.

Justine has grown up with Victor and the others, so the entire Frankenstein family remains convinced of the servant’s innocence, though they’re practically alone in Geneva in that belief.

A woodcut illustration of Justine in prison, by Lynd Ward — as seen here.

Shelley includes an interesting passage in which Justine (having already been convicted) is battered by her priest into falsely confessing to the crime. Though clearly anti-clerical in intent, it’s also a moment with remarkable current resonance given the prevalence of false confessions in modern wrongful conviction scenarios:

“I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me; all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable.”

The poor woman’s fate is sealed either way — and in her parting conversation with Victor and his future wife Elizabeth, we find Justine more at peace than the monster’s creator:

“I do not fear to die,” [Justine] said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”

During this conversation I [Victor] had retired to a corner of the prison room, where I could conceal the horrid anguish that possessed me. Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony.

“In these last moments I feel the sincerest gratitude towards those who think of me with kindness. How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am! It removes more than half my misfortune, and I feel as if I could die in peace now that my innocence is acknowledged by you, dear lady, and your cousin.”

Thus the poor sufferer tried to comfort others and herself. She indeed gained the resignation she desired. But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation. Elizabeth also wept and was unhappy, but hers also was the misery of innocence, which, like a cloud that passes over the fair moon, for a while hides but cannot tarnish its brightness. Anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish. We stayed several hours with Justine, and it was with great difficulty that Elizabeth could tear herself away. “I wish,” cried she, “that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery.”

Justine assumed an air of cheerfulness, while she with difficulty repressed her bitter tears. She embraced Elizabeth and said in a voice of half-suppressed emotion, “Farewell, sweet lady, dearest Elizabeth, my beloved and only friend; may heaven, in its bounty, bless and preserve you; may this be the last misfortune that you will ever suffer! Live, and be happy, and make others so.”

And on the morrow** Justine died. Elizabeth’s heart-rending eloquence failed to move the judges from their settled conviction in the criminality of the saintly sufferer. My passionate and indignant appeals were lost upon them. And when I received their cold answers and heard the harsh, unfeeling reasoning of these men, my purposed avowal died away on my lips. Thus I might proclaim myself a madman, but not revoke the sentence passed upon my wretched victim. She perished on the scaffold as a murderess!

Shelley gives us quite the gentle picture of the Frankenstein family, in which Victor is practically the only exponent of vengeance after the dreadful crime. Even the father’s initial letter home, written in the immediate shock after discovering the boy’s body, summons his son to come

not brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal, instead of festering, the wounds of our minds.

After the hanging, dad again endeavors to keep Victor from wasting himself on rage … which it seems that Victor would have readily assented to had he not carried his secret burden of guilt:

“Do you think, Victor,” said he, “that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother” — tears came into his eyes as he spoke — “but is it not a duty to the survivors that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself, for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society.”

This advice, although good, was totally inapplicable to my case; I should have been the first to hide my grief and console my friends if remorse had not mingled its bitterness, and terror its alarm, with my other sensations.

Frankenstein is available free at Project Gutenberg. Of course, it has been adapted many times into other cultural artifacts; these are somewhat famous for their infidelity to the original work, and Justine tends to get short shrift in most (although she’s hanged in quite an over-the-top spectacle in the 1994 Kenneth Branagh vehicle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (review here)).

If Justine is usually pulled from the story, Hollywood has found a role for the scaffold elsewhere. Where Shelley has Victor haunting “charnel houses” and the like, the seminal and oft-imitated 1931 Boris Karloff film makes a point to include a hanged criminal for some of the creature’s parts — although “the brain is useless”:

But a criminal brain finds its way into the monster just the same, an explanation of its behavior completely antithetical to Mary Shelley’s:

* He’s right, of course — the creature later admits it — but you could certainly quibble with Victor’s methodology:

Nothing in human shape could have destroyed the fair child. HE was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.

** The precise date is never disclosed, but the events are roughly dated by Victor’s subsequent narration, “it was about the middle of the month of August, nearly two months after the death of Justine, that miserable epoch from which I dated all my woe.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Hanged,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Public Executions,Switzerland,The Supernatural,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1711: Ifranj Ahmad, Janissary

Add comment June 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1711, a Janissary captain in Ottoman Egypt was beheaded in Cairo as the “Great Insurrection” gave way to the last gasp of Mamluk power in Egypt.

Mamluks (or Mameluks) — enslaved soldiers who had evolved into a military caste — had ruled Egypt from 1250 until absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. Now nominally under the power of the sultan, Mamluks remained as beys (district governors) and were drawn into a labyrinthine political environment that boiled down to a contest for rent collection from the lucrative country.

The relative power in Egypt of the Ottoman viceroy (wali) vis-a-vis Mamluk beys in shifting alliances waxed and waned through the 17th century, but the position of wali was always fundamentally undermined by his short-term appointment and the presence of imperial troops who did not answer to him and therefore became independent players Cairo. The most prominent of these were the Janissaries — elite troops whose original servile composition somewhat mirrored the Mamluks’ own and who had established themselves as the wealthiest (and most arrogant, and most resented) regiment by making profitable commercial partnership with the Cairo artisans.

Read all about the Qasimi and Faqari founding myths (and possible realities).

As we lay our scene in the early 18th century, the Ottoman walis have been thoroughly eclipsed; politically, Mamluk Egypt is independent in all but name. The Mamluks are themselves grouped into two great factions, the Qasimi and the Faqari.*

Each faction was composed of the personal mamluks of the leader, retainers who attached themselves to the leader, bedouin tribes, men of the garrison regiments [that is, the Janissaries and other Ottoman military corps], and private armies composed of free-born Ottoman mercenaries. (From the introduction to this translation of Al-Damurdashi’s Chronicle)

An accelerating cycle of revolts and disturbances culminated in the “Great Insurrection,” (or “Great Sedition”) several years of friction climaxing in three months of armed conflict in early 1711 — “to all intents and purposes, a civil war among the elite” over dividing up spoils, as Afaf Lutfi Sayyid-Marsot puts it.

Ifranj (or Ifrandj, or Afranj) Ahmad — “Ahmad the European,” a distinctive name since the Janissaries were mostly locally born by this point — was a lower officer, but a predecessor in his position had mounted a temporarily successful revolt against the Janissary brass in the 1690’s, and Ahmad (as events would prove) commanded the loyalty of his regiment. A dispute over an attempt to remove him helped precipitate the open fighting in 1711.

Ifranj Ahmad was just an excuse … The main reason was the resentment of the other regiments, primarily the ‘Azab [“armourers” — (distantly) second only to the Janissaries among the military corps], at the privileged position and the profits the Janissaries were enjoying. … Siding with Ifranj Ahmad were the majority of the Janissaries, the pasha [the wali], … the Faqari governor of Upper Egypt who brought with him reinforcements of … bedouins, some elements of the other regiments, and most of the Faqari beys and their Mamluk households. On the other side were almost all the ‘Azab and the other regiments, 600 Janissary defectors, the Qasimiyya beys, and Qaytas Bey, a Faqari grandee who had quarrelled with … the Faqari leader, and had joined the Qasimiyya. (Egyptian Society Under Ottoman Rule)

In short, the Faqari and Qasimi factions, backed respectively by the Janissaries and the ‘Azab.

As one can readily infer from Ifranj Ahmad’s presence in these pages, the Qasimi had the better of the fight; Ahmad was nabbed trying to flee and summarily beheaded, a fate shared with several other Faqari leaders.** Here’s the account from Al-Damurdashi, an ‘Azab officer at the time:

Afranj Ahmad and his colleague had fled through the Mahjar Gate, but as they passed by the guard post … [and] captured and were [being dragged] to the ‘Azab barracks, but one of the [captors] brought [Ahmad] to the ground with a blow on his jugular vein. He then cut off his head, took it to the ‘Azab barracks and received a reward from the senior officers.

Although Istanbul would continue trying to exert its influence, this day’s denouement marked the end of real Ottoman authority on the Nile — the Turks had their hands full fighting the Russians at this moment, anyway — and inaugurated a long sunset of Mamluk power until Napoleon’s quixotic Egyptian adventure overturned it for good.

* There are many different transliterations of both these names — Faqari, Faqariya, Faqariyya … Qasimi, Qasimiya, Qasimiyya

** It was so far from an extermination, however, that the Faqari turned the tables on the Qasimi twenty years later, and the Qasimi thereupon faded from influence.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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1621: Bohemia’s “Day of Blood”

5 comments June 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1621, the Habsburg crown took 27 nobles’ heads in Prague’s Old Town Square for attempting to lead Bohemia to independence.

A century into the Protestant Reformation, the many conflicts between the prerogatives of princes and prelates were about to spawn the Thirty Years’ War — a settling of accounts eventually to lay the cornerstone of modern national sovereignty.

And it all got started in the mother of cities.

Predominantly Protestant Bohemia was at loggerheads with the doctrinaire Catholic slated to become the next Holy Roman Emperor, and as rising tensions in Prague between the faiths took on a patriotic tone, a mob chucked a couple of imperial representatives out the window of Prague Castle.

The Defenestration of Prague. It’s a great word for a great political tradition — there are multiple Defenestrations of Prague in Czech history.

The royal retainers survived the plunge, thanks to miraculous angelic intervention [Catholic version], or to fortuitously landing on a dunghill [Protestant version]. (Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.)

Either way, it was game on. The Protestant nobility refused to recognize the Habsburg heir and offered the crown to a Calvinist toff instead.

This Frederick V, Elector Palatine answers to the nickname “the winter king” — because by the next winter, the Catholics had overrun Bohemia and driven Frederick off to the dissolute life of exiled nobility, where he anonymously knocked around the Low Countries and accidentally sired the modern line of British royalty.

Good choice: the Czech lands soon felt the monarch’s wrath.

J.E. Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church — which treats especially a distinctive strain of local Christianity with roots in the pre-Lutheran Hussite movement, and which although shattered by the failed revolt still persists today — narrates the result for the 27 unluckiest nobles:

There fell the flower of the Bohemian nobility … Among these were various shades of faith — Lutherans, Calvinists, Utraquists, Brethren; but now all differences were laid aside, for all was nearly over …


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bohemian nobles’ execution. Note the block on the scaffold foreground for chopping off hands.

Swiftly, in order, and without much cruelty the gory work was done. The morning’s programme had all been carefully arranged. At each corner of the square was a squad of soldiers to hold the people in awe, and to prevent an attempt at rescue. One man, named Mydlar, was the executioner; and, being a Protestant, he performed his duties with as much decency and humanity as possible. He used four different swords … The first of these swords is still to be seen at Prague, and has the names of its eleven victims engraven upon it. … In every instance Mydlar seems to have done his duty at one blow. At his side stood an assistant, and six masked men in black. As soon as Mydlar had severed the neck, the assistant placed the dead man’s right hand on the block; the sword fell again; the hand dropped at the wrist; and the men in black, as silent as night, gathered up the bleeding members …

Much more general reprisals were in store, too. One of Europe’s most liberal writs of religious toleration was swiftly revoked. Catholicism was imposed from above, with Marian columns thrown up in every town. German became the official language. Books were burned by the thousand. Protestants fled or were expelled over the years to come in such numbers that (combined with the general devastation of a war that wrought famine on Europe), modern Czechia’s population had dropped by a third by the Peace of Westphalia.

And while the war the Bohemians helped touch off would win recognition for several small polities breaking away from dynastic imperial formations and cement the principle for other such states to follow, Bohemia itself would remain yoked to the Habsburgs until World War I.

Nobody’s nursing any grudges against the headless nobles for all this, however. Now that the Czech Republic has finally got a place to hang its hat in the community of nations, it keeps 27 white crosses in the Old Town Square bricks as homage to the Day of Blood.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Treason

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