Archive for September, 2008

1822: Four Sergeants of La Rochelle

2 comments September 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, four sergeants from La Rochelle were guillotined at the Place de Greve with “Vive la liberte! on their lips for plotting to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy.

In the Restoration following Napoleon, the cautious gouty brother of the Revolution’s most famous guillotinee came to the throne as Louis XVIII.

And in a right-wing reaction following a royal assassination, Louis found himself in the anomalous position of having a government more monarchist than he himself. Though not renowned for his sagacity, the sovereign had the wit to see that completely reversing the Revolution was a nonstarter. His ultra-royalist deputies, however, wanted nothing less than the full restoration of an absolute monarchy.

The new Prime Minister cracked down hard on the Liberal opposition. Here’s the scene as described by The Cambridge Modern History, a Google Books freebie:

The Chief Minister [Villele] had the merit of keeping constantly in mind the fact that his friends owed their power to the forces of reaction and alarm, aroused in the country by the dagger of an assassin who had mortally wounded a member of the royal family. To keep this fear awake, in order to establish his authority, was his first care. In this he succeeded. The Liberals, finding themselves compelled to prudence, organized themselves into secret societies; and the Republcians, imitating the Neapolitans, actually formed in 1821 the Charbonnerie francaise, which avowedly aimed at giving back “to the French nation the free exercise of the right to choose its sovereign.” In order to give battle to the ancien regime and its Bourbon protectors, they recruited their soldiers and captains without hesitation from among the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, of the old Imperial army. Villele showed particular skill in the discovery, exaggeration, and signal punishment of these conspiracies … With a magistracy obedient to its orders, the Ministry devoted itself assiduously to representing isolated movements no sooner known than crushed, as forming part of a permanent conspiracy organized by the Liberals, not only against the monarchy, but against society itself.

Les quatre sergents de La Rochelle — by the names of Bories, Goubin, Pommier and Raoulx — comprised perhaps the most egregious such case.

Driven underground (the link is French) like the rest of the Liberal opposition, they had joined the charbonnerie, a loose network modeled on Naples’ carbonari. (Lower-level officers were prime recruits for the dissidents, since their career prospects were truncated by aristocratic privilege in the upper brass.)

It was never clear that their subversiveness extended to anything beyond their affiliation with a criminalized ideology, and they kept their own peace to protect other associates in the charbonnerie. Guillotining them on this basis conformed neatly to the principles of, say, an Ann Coulter: “We need to execute [these] people … in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Back to The Cambridge Modern History:

It seemed that the Ministers were eager to multiply these trials and executions. Since certain deputies of the Liberal Opposition, Lafayette* among others, and D’Argenson, had openly associated themselves with these enterprises, which otherwise were devoid of danger, this supplied a fair pretext for exhibiting them publicly as criminals. The indictment with the King’s Procurator, Marchangy, formulated, in order to obtain the condemnation of the four sergeants of La Rochelle, left no doubt as to the intentions of the Government. Its chief aim was to terrorise the French people “by this vast conspiracy against social order, against the families of citizens, which threatened to plunge them once more into all the horrors of anarchy.” While keeping up the appearance of saving society, Villele gained forthwith the power to govern it in accordance with the wishes of his friends. The threat of anarchy, exploited by the judges in his service, allowed him to organise a despotism.

The public execution reportedly had its onlookers appalled, (more French) and as word of the young men’s heroic deaths got around, they elbowed into the vast host of (somebody’s) martyrs. (In Balzac’s Human Comedy, the courtesan Aquilina is said to have been involved with one of the four sergeants; in her appearances after the executions, she always commemorates him by wearing something red.) The Lantern Tower in their garrison’s city — depicted below in a 1927 Paul Signac painting — was renamed in their honor, Tour de Quatre Sergents.

* Lafayette always seemed to be somebody’s dangerous element. It’s a wonder he never got himself into this blog.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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Themed Set: Counterrevolution

2 comments September 20th, 2008 Headsman

As the Enlightenment gave way to the West’s great revolutionary age in the late 18th and early 19th century, the crowned heads of Europe weren’t just sitting around — and with good reason. Regimes don’t get to be ancien without knowing how to deal with troublemakers.

For the next three days, Executed Today presents the mailed fist in three lands, and the agitators it smashed.

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Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

1803: Robert Emmet, “let no man write my epitaph”

2 comments September 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish nationalist Robert Emmet was hanged and posthumously beheaded, a day after his trial for treason against England.

The well-to-do scion of a Protestant family, Robert Emmet followed his older brother into the Republican ferment of the time and led an unavailing uprising in Dublin on July 23, 1803.

Captured a month later when he romantically recklessly moved his hideout closer to his beloved Sarah Curran.*

Emmet won his great laurels in the annals of Irish Republicanism with a stirring “Speech from the Dock” addressed to the courtroom the day before he died. Or better to say that it was addressed in a courtroom, for knowing that his death sentence was a foregone conclusion, the real audience was posterity and a wider world.

Emmet found that audience with one of the great orations of the 19th century.

This clip is a truncated version of a longer speech not set to paper by Emmet, so no single definitive version exists. Versions can be found at this Irish history site, and at SinnFein.ie.

I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world — it is the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them. let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

On the strength of such sentiment — and the public’s learning of his love for Sarah Curran — the 25-year-old became iconic in death. Robert’s own death inspired the mandatory Irish patriotic ditty, “Bold Robert Emmet”:

But that sundered love between Emmet and Sarah Curran — who broken-heartedly accepted another proposal and moved to Sicily — was at least as stirring to the Romantic imagination. Washington Irving dedicated a short story to the lost romance; Emmet’s friend Thomas Moore made Curran the subject of a poem (beware: link opens an auto-playing audio file).


Anti-British terrorist Robert Emmet has a statue on Washington, D.C.’s Massachusetts Ave, and probably an entry on the no-fly list.

* 19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore paid her tribute in “She Is Far From the Land”:

She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her, sighing:
But coldly she turns from their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

She sings the wild song of her dear native plains,
Every note which he lov’d awaking; —
Ah! little they think who delight in her strains,
How the heart of the Minstrel is breaking.

He had liv’d for his love, for his country he died,
They were all that to life had entwin’d him;
Nor soon shall the tears of his country be dried,
Nor long will his love stay behind him.

Oh! make her a grave where the sunbeams rest,
When they promise a glorious morrow;
They’ll shine o’er his sleep, like a smile from the West,
From her ow lov’d island of sorrow.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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46 B.C.E.: Vercingetorix the Gaul

2 comments September 19th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date around this time — sort of — in 46 B.C.E., the Gallic chief Vercingetorix was marched as Julius Caesar’s star captive in Rome, then strangled in prison.

A nobleman who in the course of things would have been destined for that class of domestic elites bought off by Rome for orderly management of conquered provinces, Vercingetorix instead mounted a massive and effective semi-guerrilla resistance. A few months after Caesar had declared “Mission Accomplished” and Gaul at peace, it rose in arms … and, as Vercingetorix rolled out a scorched-earth defense, in flames.

Julius Caesar, then serving a long and lucrative career as Governor of Gaul, managed only with difficulty — and staggering bloodshed — to pacify the province at the Battle of Alesia. It was a signal military engagement in the development of the Roman Empire, cementing Roman power in Gaul for centuries to come.

The wily barbarian’s revolt and the very serious danger it posed to Caesar’s ambitions are the subject of a five-part BBC documentary.

Vercingetorix’s allegedly theatrical surrender to Caesar essentially ended the Gauls stubborn, centuries-long resistance to Roman dominion.


Reddition de Vercingétorix à Alésia – Christophe Lambert
Uploaded by EvivaEuropa

Yes, that’s the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, playing the French Braveheart version of barbarian heroism in Druids. HBO’s series Rome went with a less romantic version:

Either way, the once-intractable province became the bastion from which Caesar would overthrow the foundering Roman Republic.

Political rivals in the capital for whom Caesar’s Gallic campaign was nothing to celebrate denied Caesar a ceremonial Triumph and maneuvered to check the ambitious general. When the conflict came to a head in 49 B.C.E., Caesar’s bold move from the provincial borders of Gaul into Italy — crossing the Rubicon — ignited civil war in Rome.

Vercingetorix languished in Roman chains all along, until Caesar finally mopped up his enemies in the field and returned to Rome, where he celebrated an extravagant quadruple Triumph for his various military achievements.

As described by Appian,

when he returned to Rome he had four triumphs together: one for his Gallic wars, in which he had added many great nations to the Roman sway and subdued others that had revolted; one for the Pontic war against Pharnaces;* one for the war in Africa against the African allies of L. Scipio, in which the historian Juba (the son of King Juba), then an infant, was led a captive. Between the Gallic and the Pontic triumphs he introduced a kind of Egyptian triumph, in which he led some captives taken in the naval engagement on the Nile.** Although he took care not to inscribe any Roman names in his triumph (as it would have been unseemly in his eyes and base and inauspicious in those of the Roman people to triumph over fellow-citizens), yet all these misfortunes were represented in the processions and the men also by various images and pictures, all except Pompey, whom alone he did not venture to exhibit, since he was still greatly regretted by all. The people, although restrained by fear, groaned over their domestic ills, especially when they saw the picture of Lucius Scipio, the general-in-chief, wounded in the breast by his own hand, casting himself into the sea, and Petreius committing self-destruction at the banquet, and Cato torn apart by himself like a wild beast. They applauded the death of Achillas and Pothinus, and laughed at the flight of Pharnaces.

It is said that money to the amount of 60,500 silver talents was borne in the procession and 2822 crowns of gold weighing 20,414 pounds, from which wealth Caesar made apportionments immediately after the triumph, paying the army all that he had promised and more. Each soldier received 5000 Attic drachmas, each centurion double, and each tribune of infantry and perfect of cavalry fourfold that sum. To each plebeian citizen also was given an Attic mina. He gave also various spectacles with horses and music, a combat of foot-soldiers, 1000 on each side, and a cavalry fight of 200 on each side. There was also another combat of horse and foot together. There was a combat of elephants, twenty against twenty, and a naval engagement of 4000 oarsmen, where 1000 fighting men contended on each side. He erected the temple to Venus, his ancestress, as he had vowed to do when he was about to begin the Battle of Pharsalus, and he laid out ground around the temple which he intended to be a forum for the Roman people, not for buying and selling, but a meeting-place for the transaction of public business, like the public squares of the Persians, where the people assemble to seek justice or to learn the laws. He placed a beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess, which stands there to this day. He caused an enumeration of the people to be made, and it is said that it was found to be only one half of the number existing before this war.

War is hell.

At the Gallic triumph, Vercingetorix — by far the most fearsome enemy Caesar had to display vis-a-vis a five-year-old child and the sister of his lover — was at last the center of attention again for a day. Still defiant, he was marched through the Eternal City, then strangled at the Tullianum, or Mamertine Prison.

But which day? The bare fact is that we just don’t know, but this one has more than the typical imprecision that characterizes dating ancient events. This footnote on a page about Egyptian royalty grapples with the timing.

Suetonius gives us that his Triumphs were celebrated

four times in one month, each Triumph succeeding the former by an interval of a few days.

Since Cassius Dio claims that Caesar dedicated the Temple of Venus (datable to late September of 46) on the last day of the last Triumph, that presumably makes September the “one month” of the various celebrations.

That’s about as close as it gets, but even “September” comes with a caveat. During his few months in Rome between campaigns, Caesar accomplished a frenetic civil agenda (it helps to be dictator). Perhaps none is of such recognizable consequence for posterity as reform of the wacky solar-lunar hybrid Roman calendar — and 46 B.C.E. was the very year he implemented it.

Disdaining incrementalism, Caesar tackled the mess the Roman calendar had become at once, by stuffing the year 46 up to 445 days. As a result, 365 days after the execution of Vercingetorix was not September of 45, but July (or possibly June) — and those months are sometimes given for the dates of Caesar’s Triumphs on this basis. Since Caesar actually won his decisive battle in April of 46 B.C.E. and returned to Rome that July, the potential for confusion multiplies: if you’re not accounting for the exceptional calendar, July Triumphs appear initially plausible.

It is here that one beholds the essential subjectivity behind a putatively mechanistic device like a calendar: if Vercingetorix was executed in spring or summer, was he executed in September?

Whenever it was that he was throttled in the Mamertine, Vercingetorix did not go quietly. If his cause of resistance to Roman authority was doomed for the time being, the eternal allure of rebellion — and, as the Gallic lands later germinated France, the proto-nationalism of his cause — secured him his own symbolic immortality.


Napoleon III, with his complex relationship to the Gallic and Italic dreams of another age, was just the man to put up this statue of Vercingetorix where the barbarian was thought to have made his last stand. Its inscription reads:

La Gaule unie
Formant une seule nation
Animée d’un même esprit,
Peut défier l’Univers.

* The speedily resolved Pontic War gave us Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”.

** It was at the Egyptian triumph that Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe was marched, though she was not executed afterwards.

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1589: Dietrich Flade, for leniency towards evildoers

5 comments September 18th, 2008 dogboy

On Sept 18, 1589, a magistrate and deputy governor in Trier, a city embroiled in a witch-burning campaign, was himself delivered that fate.

The winds of the Reformation swirled mercilessly at that time, and Dietrich Flade sat on the bench charged with maintaining order in Trier. Flade held a Doctorate of Civil and of the Canon Law, and he was well-connected in the magisterial Germany of the day. He just happened to be alive at the wrong time. George Lincoln Burr provides an extensive account of Flade’s ill-fated time on the bench, including this foreboding look:

But the storm that was to rob him of fortune, fame, and life was already brewing all along the horizon. The witch-trials, which, during the earlier part of the century, had appeared only sporadically, were settling here and there into organized persecutions. In the neighboring Lorraine, the terrible Nicolas Remy was already exercising that judgeship, as the fruit of whose activity he could boast a decade later of the condemnation of nine hundred witches within fifteen years; and just across the nearer frontier of Luxemburg, now in Spanish hands, the fires were also blazing. Nay, the persection had already, in 1572, invaded the Electorate itself.

In six years, the diocese of Trier oversaw the execution of 368 witches, many of whom confessed only under torture. The anti-witchcraft campaign was so expansive that some towns were left with few if any women. The hysteria was widely reviled by the academics of the time, including both Flade and Cornelius Loos.

Loos was so disturbed by the events occurring around him that he wrote a book in objection; before it could gain distribution, however, Loos was arrested and jailed. It was four years before he was released, only after recanting his entire treatise and acknowledging the authority of the Pope.

Flade (German Wikipedia link) was not as lucky.

As judge, he was too light with suspected witches and allowed many to go free or get off with light sentences. Worst of all, he let the unsettled Reformation continue without his intervention on behalf of the church. His “trial” was brutal*, with an extracted confession from five heinous torture sessions serving as evidence against him. As high-ranking as Flade was, though, he was executed rather mutedly in Treves.

Not without reason, Burr suspects the motive was entirely political on the part of Archbishop Johann von Schöneburg. Von Schöneburg immediately stepped up his campaign to ensure his dominion, moving to larger mass executions and damning the populace to a generation of loss — except the executioner, of course, who was paid handsomely for the deed.

The persecutions were spurred on by both similar events elsewhere in the world and the writings of those directly involved. France, and, of course, Spain both featured notable witchcraft courts. One bishop under Von Schoeneburg, Peter Binsfield, was tasked with scribing works to defend the practice, which he dutifully discharged in 1589 and 1591; these were followed shortly by Jesuit Peter Thyraeus** (1594) and the aforementioned Nicholas Remy (1595). By that time, however, the furor in Trier had, in more ways than one, burned itself out: by 1593, with too few people to tend the land and sustain the towns, the area around Trier had become an economic crater, and the persecutors put a reluctant end to the madness.

Badly damaged page from Flade’s original trial transcription, courtesy of the Cornell University Library’s Witchcraft Collection.

* One of the founders of Cornell University, A.D. White, joined forces with Burr to acquire the one known copy for that university’s library in 1883. Burr intended to transcribe the text but apparently never completed the job, instead delivering several talks and writing an tract on the subject that includes extensive footnotes.

** Thyraeus also wrote one of the age’s definitive considerations of lycanthropy, shapeshifting and werewolfism — another demonic manifestation simultaneously afoot in Germany.

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1938: Nikolai Kondratiev, purged economist

1 comment September 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Stalin’s purges claimed Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev.

Not the most recognizable name in the Soviet Union’s 1930’s bloodletting, Kondratiev — also transliterated Kondratieff — was a pre-Keynesian economist of some note, who had a prominent hand in the fledgling USSR’s early agricultural direction.

Thus far goes the portfolio of many a forgotten academic or bureaucrat shot by Stalin.

But Kondratiev made a contribution still much remembered — and one that might just be due to re-emerge from its occult hibernation.

In a series of 1920’s papers, Kondratiev worked out the theory that capitalism had 50-to-60-year economic supercycles. Though not strictly the first to so hypothesize, he put the idea on the map; the (alleged) pattern still bears the name “Kondratiev wave” or “Kondratiev cycle”.

His belief that the intermittent major crises punctuating capitalism were not building towards systemic implosion but clearing the economic debris of bygone ages and allowing new growth were not the least of what got him into hot water with Stalin.

“Creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter would call it, adapting the idea.

Though sidelined from mainline economics for much of the 20th century, Kondratiev waves have never gone entirely out of fashion. Congenial to any number of collateral theoretical hobbyhorses — technological innovation, entrepreneurship, generational psychology, statecraft, and the eternal bracing for end times right around the corner — Kondratiev waves are a niche player in economic theory both conventional and otherwise.

Here’s a site that lovingly describes them.

Its problem, even if you happen to buy into the concept, is its near uselessness as a predictive tool: half-century cycles don’t just arrive like clockwork, and the timing and very existence of particular cyclical epochs is highly dependent on the interpreter’s choice of data. The margins of error run out to decades. You never know at any given moment what you’re looking at — so you can find the supercycle crashing in 1998, or beginning its springtime of growth in this decade.

That very uncertainty accounts for Kondratiev’s intermittent mainstream resuscitation during economic crisis: when worried about Where Things Are Headed, some version of a Long Wave theory is almost sure to have a story to tell.

According to the New York Times‘ database of past articles, the word “Kondratieff” (its preferred transliteration; “Kondratiev” yields stories about New York Rangers prospect Maxim Kondratiev) went essentially unmentioned in the post-World War II paper before appearing in 20 articles from 1973 through 1984 — the period when the capitalist core was buffeted by energy crisis, stagflation, and the punishing Paul Volcker recession of the early Eighties.

And then Kondratiev/Kondratieff faded from the Grey Lady; after a few appearances during Wall Street’s woes in the late 80’s, it doesn’t seem to have appeared in print there since an offhanded reference in a 1992 William Safire column.

Have you seen the news lately? It’s mighty Kondratiev-friendly. His cycle of exclusion has probably just about run its course, and if you’re the wagering type, I’ll take Thomas Friedman against the field.

Behind the theorems, of course, there was the flesh-and-blood man; it so happens that not many dismal scientists went as poignantly as our principal.

Initially imprisoned in 1930, Kondratiev served eight years before he was re-sentenced and executed; he ached for the separation with his family. Kondratiev’s daughter, Elena — Alyona or Alyonushka in the Russian diminutive — preserved his correspondence to her, the only remnants of her father in her life.

The last letter — as it turned out; plainly the writer had no inkling of it — was dated August 31, 1938.

My sweet darling Alyonushka.

Probably your holidays are over now and you are back at school. How did you spend the summer? Did you get stronger, put on weight, get tanned? I very much want to know. And I would like very, very much to see you and kiss you many, many times. I still do not feel well, I am still ill. My sweet Alyonushka, I want you not to get sick this winter. I also want you to study hard, as you did before. Read good books. Be a clever and a good little girl. Listen to your mother and never disappoint her. I would also be happy if you managed not to forget about me, your papa, altogether. Well, be healthy! Be happy! I kiss you without end.

Your papa.

(From Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.)

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1560: Arnaud du Tilh, alias Martin Guerre

8 comments September 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1560, a French peasant was hanged outside the home he had made with another man’s wife in the southwestern French village of Artigat (or Artigues).

A poignant, perplexing tale of identity and social place — and possibly even of love — the story of Martin Guerre is at once exactingly local to its time and place, and timeless in its principals’ humanity.

As told in Natalie Zemon Davis’ captivating social history The Return of Martin Guerre, the restless (or ill-tempered) young titular peasant — impotent with his wife Bertrande, tense living with his father-in-law, chafing in rural Artigat — got out of town in 1548, joined one of the soldiering companies crisscrossing Europe, and was heard of no more.

In the centuries before fingerprints, credit cards, cell phones and Facebook, Guerre just disappeared. Constrained by Catholic law not to remarry without proof of his death, Bertrande just had to wait.

Until “Martin” returned in 1556 simply by reappearing at Artigat — moved in with Bertrande — resumed the vanished man’s name and with it his place in the village. There were suspicions from the first that he wasn’t quite right … but this man had Martin’s stories, and the villagers didn’t have so much as a photograph to test him against.

Martin was accepted in Artigat for three-plus years, fathered two children with Bertrande, and managed the estate as head of household. In Davis’s telling, he appears much the better husband and father than the pre-1548 version, and this bolsters her case that Bertrande must have been complicit in the fraud that unraveled in 1560.

Property and inheritance conflicts with Martin Guerre’s uncle (now married to Bertrande’s widowed mother) brought to the courts the novel case: was this man really Martin Guerre?

The inconclusive tools for establishing identity and a deft defense by “Martin” must have made for a riveting legal drama (French link) — with villagers taking up competing sides and the man put to the test of his memory of Martin’s life, which he impressively aced. So thoroughly did the man command the role that

the gesture, deportment, air, and mode of speaking of the prisoner were cool, consistent, and steady; while those who appeared in the cause of truth were embarrassed, hesitating, confused, and on certain points contradictory in their evidence. (Source)

On the point, perhaps, of acquittal, the case was resolved like any legal potboiler should be: with the dramatic reappearance of the real Martin — for so all the conflicting witnesses quickly agreed him to be, and so confessed the imposter husband, Arnaud du Tilh (or Arnaud du Tilb), a peasant from a nearby village also nicknamed “Pansette”. A onetime army buddy of Guerre’s, the enterprising du Tilh had been mistaken for Guerre, and had pieced together enough of the absconded husband’s life that by dint of total recall and superhuman audacity, he made for his own the place in the world that Martin Guerre disdained.

The sentence of the court was that Martin Arnaud

make amende honorable in the marketplace of Artigat, in his shirt, his head and feet being bare, a halter about his neck, and holding in his hands a lighted torch; to beg pardon of God, the king, and the justice of the nation; of the said Martin Guerre, and de Rols his wife; and this being done, the said du Tilh shall be delivered into the hands of the executioner, who after making him pass through the streets, and other public places in the said town of Artigat, with a rope about his neck, at last shall bring him before the house of the said Martin Guerre, where, on a gallows set up for that purpose, he shall be hanged and strangled, and afterwards his body shall be burnt. (Source of the translation, slightly tidied up based on the French version here)

Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin Guerre with him, passed thereupon into the historical memory, for in assigning names to bodies, had the court really sorted out who was who? What does it mean to drop out of one’s society … and what rights can one expect to command upon returning? What did it mean to be Martin Guerre but to live in the house of Martin Guerre and manage the affairs of Martin Guerre? And the characters: Arnaud with his mysterious spark of bravado; Martin and his sudden and unexplained reappearance; the two of them as if cast for one another’s roles in life and crossed up by the gods.

And the mysterious Bertrande — what did she do, and what did she want?

A bit of Rorschach history, then, which accounts for the still-robust liveliness the tale enjoys four and a half centuries later. And let’s admit: a bit of wistfulness for the time you could start on a clean sheet just by changing your name. (Although illiterate 16th century peasants had achieved TSA-quality security protocols in this respect.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, whose own account has been criticized for overclaiming Bertrande’s role and motivations, also consulted as she was writing it for a Gerard Depardieu film of the same title.


visit videodetective.com for more info

The same story transplanted to the Civil War United States yielded the 1993 film Sommersby:

And if you must, you can see Martin Guerre in show tunes.

(This medley sequence has second and third parts as well.)

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1973: Victor Jara, among thousands in Chile’s September 11

7 comments September 15th, 2008 Headsman

At an unknown time on this evening in 1973, or else the early hours of the following day, Chilean putschists ushering in the Pinochet dictatorship machine-gunned folk singer Victor Jara near the Santiago stadium that today bears his name.

“I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger of Allende’s election. Victor Jara had another idea.

Four days before, Chile’s September 11 had seen General Augusto Pinochet topple the elected leftist government of Salvador Allende, murdering the president in his palace. (Or, go some accounts, Allende committed suicide — “pausing only twice to reload.”)

A long pall of evil settled over the country, with all the accustomed chilling familiars: “disappeared” people, mirrored shades, Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The day after the CIA-backed coup, popular folk singer and activist Victor Jara, a pioneer of the Nueva Cancion (“New Song” movement) then teaching at Santiago’s Technical University, was among thousands of undesirables rounded up and packed off to a makeshift prison camp at the city’s Chile Stadium — a stadium Jara had performed at.*

Left there to the tender mercies of a thuggish Chilean officer, Jara was beaten and tortured over the intervening days — evocative but possibly undependable tradition holds that the guitarist’s hands were cut off, shattered or otherwise destroyed. According to the U.S.-based United States Institute of Peace,

[t]he the last day Víctor Jara was seen alive was September 15. During the afternoon he was taken out of a line of prisoners who were being transferred to the National Stadium. In the early morning of the next day, September 16, shantytown dwellers found his body, along with five others, including that of Littré Quiroga Carvajal, near the Metropolitan Cemetery. As the autopsy report states, Víctor Jara died as a result of multiple bullet wounds (44 entry wounds and 32 exit wounds).

The Commission came to the conviction that he was executed without due process of law by government agents, and hence in violation of his fundamental human rights.

To say the least.

And as the text implies, Jara was only the most recognizable name among unknown hundreds killed as the military cemented its control of the country.

Jara remains larger-than-life martyr figure in Latin America and liberation movements worldwide, but he’s almost unknown north of the Rio Grande. Pinochet was our bastard; in the weird way history writes its own geography, Jara became a political emblem behind the Iron Curtain for the perfidy of the capitalist powers: obscure in Peoria, but a household name in Potsdam, as the credit roll from this 1978 East German film suggests.**

That’s Jara himself on the soundtrack, of course. The pat conclusion for such a figure is that his art is his legacy, and that Jara’s body of work as against Pinochet’s will be a walkover in posterity. Is that enough? Pinochet died in his bed at age 91; earlier this year, the Jara case was closed in underwhelming fashion. Thirty-five years down the road, most authors of Pinochet’s human rights depredations are dead or lost or decrepit. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Victor’s widow, Joan Jara — today director of the Fundacion Victor Jara (it’s a Spanish-only site); you can hear her interviewed on Democracy Now! for the 25th anniversary of her husband’s death in 1998 — managed to leave the country with some of his works.

Her publication of a poem he wrote while imprisoned, an untitled, unfinished work generally known as “Estadio Chile,” made it a signature cry of hope amid desperation. Here it is in the Spanish rough-hewn under the shadow of death; there’s an English translation here.

Somos cinco mil
en esta pequena parte de la ciudad.
Somos cinco mil
¿Cuantos seremos en total
en las ciudades de todo el pais?
Solo aqui, diez mil manos que sembran
y hacen andar las fabricas.

¡Cuanta humanidad
con hambre, frio, panico, dolor
presion moral, terror y locura!

…¡Y Mexico, Cuba y el mundo?
¡Que gritan esta ignomonia!

Somos diez mil manos menos
que no producen.
¿Cuanto somos en toda la Patria?
La sangre del companero Presidente
golpea mas fuerte que bombas y metrallas.
Asi golpeara nuestro puno nuevamente.

¡Canto que mal me sales
cuando tengo que cantar espanto!
Espanto como el que vivo
como el que muero, espanto.

De verme entre tanto y tantos
momentos de infinito
en que el silencio y el grito
son las metas de este canto.
Lo que veo nunca vi,
lo que he sentido y lo que siento
hara brotar el momento…

Whether or not it’s enough, his work is his legacy after all.

* Some 7,000 people were held at Chile Stadium in the days after the coup, most later moved in with other detainees at the larger Estadio Nacional. The USIP excerpt alludes to Jara being pulled out for execution during such a move.

** In a similar vein, Stanford has a small online exhibit of Jara-themed East German propaganda art. Not to be outdone, there’s a Soviet rock opera about Jara, and an asteroid discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named in Jara’s honor within a week of his execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Torture

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2004: Mamoru Takuma, for the Osaka school massacre

1 comment September 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Mamoru Takuma was hanged for one of the most notorious crimes in modern Japan — the Osaka school massacre.

On June 8, 2001 — a day the 11-time arrestee was due in court for assaulting a bellhop — Mamoru Takuma (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) entered the Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka and knifed 20-plus people, killing eight young students.

Even when taking on 7- and 8-year-old children, that’s an astonishing body count for a guy packing only a blade. Some staff at the school finally tackled the guy.

“I want others to know the unreasonableness that high-achieving children could be killed at any time.”

Takuma had been institutionalized even more often than he had been arrested, so the shocking crime pitted public outrage against the judiciary’s capacity for handling mentally ill offenders.

Guess which won out. In the wake of the crime, in fact, the government toughened laws on crimes committed by mentally ill offenders.

Takuma was hanged barely three years after the attacks, and even though he pushed for his own execution, the lightning-fast completion of the sentence (most death penalty cases in Japan drag on for decades — here’s an extreme example) raised misgivings both domestic and international.

Though his case remains an outlier, those concerns already seem a bit passe: Takuma also turned out to presage the distinctly more aggressive pace of executions in Japan in recent years.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,Infamous,Japan,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Volunteers

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1946: Amon Göth, Schindler’s List villain

September 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Plaszow concentration camp commandante Amon Göth was hanged near the camp site by Poland’s postwar Communist government.

Göth is most widely recognizable as Ralph Fiennes’ fiendish character in Schindler’s List, one of the American Film Institute’s top movie villains of all time. (And, naturally, a first-class bastard in real life, too.)

A short-drop strangulation is not the way you’d want to go. It turns out, though, that Steven Spielberg (ever the sentimentalist) seriously tidied up the proceedings.

As you watch the video of the real Amon Goeth’s exit below — and it’s a snuff film, so proceed advisedly — consider the following:

  • Amon Goeth does bear a passing fair resemblance to Ralph Fiennes.

  • To judge by their getup — dig the masks! — the executioners might have been Batman and Robin.
  • To judge by the discharge of their duties, the executioners might have been Larry, Moe and Curly. Goeth survived two drops (notice the executioner on the right gesticulating in frustration as the second try fails) before they finally got it right:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mature Content,Poland,Popular Culture,Soldiers,The Worm Turns

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