Archive for July, 2010

1501: Antonio Rinaldeschi, bad gambler

2 comments July 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1501,* the Italian city-state of Florence celebrated a “double feast”: that of St. Mary Magdalene, which marked a civic carnival every July 22; and, the hanging of sacrilegious gambler Antonio Rinaldeschi on the walls of the Bargello.

Eleven days prior, Rinaldeschi was having a bad run of wagering at The Fig Tree tavern.

Like Jesus is some people’s co-pilot, the Virgin Mary must have been Rinaldeschi’s card-counter — for, stalking out of the premises much the poorer, our doomed punter blasphemously uttered “words that are better kept silent” about her. Then, passing an image of Holy Mother at the piazza Santa Maria de Alberighi, he gathered up some nearby dung and flung it at the sacred pic.

This dry poo maybe should have just slid right off, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Write William Connell and Giles Constable in “Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence: The Case of Antonio Rinaldeschi” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 61 (1998), and the source of most of this entry’s narrative),

a portion of it, resembling a rosette (‘quasi pareva una rosetta secha’), stuck to the Virgin’s diadem, above the nape of her neck. The dirtied image drew much attention. The archbishop came to look. Candles and votive images were brought before the fresco, which quickly became an object of popular devotion.

Someone saw something and the trail led back to the ill-tempered cardsharp within days, who tried to stab himself to death when he realized what was about to go down. He copped to the crime pretty quickly (at least one source says it was so that he could be executed in preference to being lynched), and his corpse dangling out the Bargello window decorated the other Mary’s regularly-scheduled homage of parades and horse-races.

(And, now that it was no longer needed as evidence, the miraculous ordure was cleaned off the statue.)

Florence at the dawn of the 16th century was truly a place where religion could get you killed. This was the city that had elevated severe Dominican friar Savonarola to dictator and morals enforcer in the 1490s (Savonarola especially hated gambling), then overthrew and burned him in 1498.

Our authors think there’s some evidence that the first couple years of the 1500s were a period when the populist religious fanatics who once grooved on Savonarola’s violent party pooper act were back on the march as against, say, the more out-of-touch syphilitic reckless gambling blasphemer element that was now, post-Savonarola, enjoying free run of the town. Having one of the latter excrement-ize a Marian monument is the sort of thing that would have led the Florentine Fox News: naturally, he had to be made an example of.

To help you bear that example in mind, a nine-panel painting, “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi”, attributed to the hanged man’s contemporary Filippo Dolciati, can be seen in Firenze’s Stibbert Museum.

Madonna + manure, meanwhile, has its own art legacy … and the combination is still good for raising a ruckus to this day.


The Holy Virgin Mary, by Chris Ofili: a black Mary smeared with elephant dung.

* The primary sourcing on the chronology of the execution is sketchy enough that it’s possible Rinaldeschi was hanged on July 21, before midnight — rather than in the dark early hours of July 22.

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1986: Vice-President Paulo Correia and five others

1 comment July 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1986, six people were executed by firing squad for attempting a coup in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau.

Correia, an ethnic Balanta war hero, was an African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) activist from the days of Portuguese colonial control — which only ended in 1974.

He was among the revolutionary council that governed the country after Joao Bernardo (Nino) Vieira‘s 1980 coup d’etat.*

This latter strongman was finally assassinated in 2009, but in the interim he was one of the world’s most plotted-against heads of state — in no small part because he came from a tiny ethnic group, and had a fraught relationship with military brass from the plurality (but not majority) Balanta. Vieira needed Balanta officers like Correia to keep the army on his team. Balanta officers like Correia had to wonder whether they needed Vieira.

Correia had perhaps been involved in a 1982 coup attempt that got a tank commander executed, but such was the danger to Vieira of alienating the Balanta (and Correia’s personal following in the military) that rather than face prosecution, he was simply shifted from Minister of the Armed Forces to the less martial post of Minister of Rural Development in the aftermath. Two years later, still trying to keep his treacherous officer inside the tent pissing out, Vieira took him on as Vice-President.

Despite these relative concessions, however, neither Correia nor his fellow military men were thwarted in their drive to augment their power, and in November I985 they planned to overthrow the regime and to install Correia as President and [Balanta lawyer] Viriato Pan as Vice-President. Correia and about one dozen Balanta were immediately arrested before their coup could be implemented; a total of 53 accused conspirators were later convicted, including Correia and Pan, who were both executed along with four others in July 1986.**

“This event,” reports Human Rights Library, “is vividly remembered in Bissau, where rumor has it that Correia’s eyes were gouged out before he was shot. True or not, this belief is clear evidence of the gruesome reputation of the security forces.”

* Just a captain at the time of the 1980 coup, Correia was a colonel at the time of his execution.

** Joshua B. Forrest, “Guinea-Bissau since Independence: A Decade of Domestic Power Struggles,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, March 1987.

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1998: David Wilson

Add comment July 20th, 2010 Headsman

Just after dawn this date in 1998, David Wilson was hanged for murdering a security guard in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Wilson was only the second person executed by the tiny Caribbean nation since it achieved independence in 1983, and he would be the last hanged there until 2008.

The execution of this run-of-the-mill criminal attracted particular attention as a hempen protest against death penalty skeptics on the bench of the British Privy Council. Especially in the 1990s (and since) the exercise by this high court of the commonwealth of an excessively persnickety supervision of Caribbean death sentences attracted regional backlash against colonial meddling for hampering local response to violent crime. (See also the contemporaneous Trinidad and Tobago case of Dole Chadee.)

Wilson was controversially hanged before he submitted his appeal to the Privy Council.

In a bid to shore up national sovereignty, Caribbean countries were even then hammering out a Caribbean Court of Justice to replace these distant and unaccountable magistrates. However, official adoption of the CCJ has been halting.

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1824: Agustin de Iturbide, Emperor of Mexico

Add comment July 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the Mexican officer who had made himself emperor was shot at the village of Padilla.

Iturbide‘s military acumen saw him through a meteoric rise in the service of what was then New Spain.

Iturbide rejected an early offer of generalship from the pro-independence leader Hidalgo in favor of spending the 1810s ably quashing the insurgency.

In a bizarre twist of fate, however, it would be Iturbide who would himself cement Mexican independence.

En route to try to finish off the last major rebel leader, Vicente Guerrero, Iturbide caught wind of the recent del Riego liberal revolt back in the mother country,* which had triggered civil war in Spain.

For the conservative royalist general, heir himself to a Basque noble lineage, the potential collapse of Bourbon authority in Spain raised the frightening specter of social upheaval.

All Iturbide’s work killing guerrillas for the sake of public order could come to naught if the Spanish monarchy collapsed or ceased projecting its power overseas … and then who knew what would emerge from the resulting power vacuum in Mexico?

So Iturbide cut a deal with Guerrero to consummate the Mexican War of Independence by separating from Madrid on an essentially conservative basis — a political breakaway without a social revolution. Independent Mexico would make nice with the Spaniards already living there, keep Catholicism as the official state religion, and get itself a constitutional monarchy of its own to insulate itself from the chance outcomes of continental politics across the ocean.

And when Iturbide marched into Mexico City and encountered a crowd conveniently imploring him to take the throne, well, who was he to deny them?

And so Iturbide transitioned smoothly from scourge of the revolution to its man on horseback,** immediately splintering the coalition that lifted him to power.


Contrary to this allegorical take on Iturbide’s coronation, he crowned himself — Bonaparte-like.

Only months after his July 1822 coronation, Iturbide shuttered Congress and began arresting the opposition. Meanwhile, Ferdinand VII had emerged from the Spanish fray as the (momentary) winner, leaving his upstart former subjects without international support.

A general that the freshly-minted emperor had himself had promoted, one Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — yes, the Alamo guy — declared against Iturbide by the end of 1822, and come the following spring, Agustin I was a European exile, in the paradoxical position of drawing a pension from Mexico while also officially considered a traitor and outlaw.

In Tuscany and then England, Iturbide published an autobiographical justification — Statement of Some of the Principal Events in the Public Life of Agustín de Iturbide — then finally took up a much-asked-for invitation from Mexican conservatives to return and become the savior of his country against internal breakdown and a potential Spanish attack.

Founded on vainglory, this expedition was destined for fiasco; within five days of touching Mexican soil, Iturbide was serenading a firing squad with the last words, “Mexicans! I die with honor, not as a traitor; do not leave this stain on my children and my legacy. I am not a traitor, no.” Apparently they were serious about that injunction never to return.

When in Mexico City, relive happier times for our day’s subject at the Palace of Iturbide where he briefly maintained himself in the purple.


Iturbide’s palace. Creative Commons image from patricio00.

And do think twice about styling yourself Emperor of Mexico, since the only other person to claim that title also ended his reign in front of a firing squad.

* Ironically, it was a body of soldiers assembled for a reconquista of Spain’s independence-minded New World possessions that enabled del Riego to mutiny.

** Iturbide paused in the revolution’s good graces just long enough to design the Mexican flag.

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1943: Eight from the Krasnodar Trials

1 comment July 18th, 2010 Headsman

On July 18, 1943, eight Soviet citizens who were among 11 tried for collaboration with the recently expelled German occupiers were hanged before tens of thousands in the main square Krasnodar.

The proceedings from July 14-17 were the first major, open war crimes tribunals of World War II … which, of course, was still ongoing at this point.

But the previous winter, the Soviet Union had turned the tide by winning the Battle of Stalingrad, which victory presaged the liberation of the nearby north Caucasus city where we lay our scene.

The Russians proceeded to put the murderous Nazi occupation on trial, but did so not by trying Germans or their allies — but by trying eleven Soviet citizens for collaboration. Indeed, until the end of the war, thousands of Russians were prosecuted for crimes of collaboration, but only a relative handful of Germans for actually authoring those crimes.

These eleven were mostly* men who had served the Sonderkommando 10a (part of Einsatzgruppe D) in “guarding Gestapo buildings that held arrested Soviet citizens, executing arrests, going on military searches and expeditions against the partisans and peaceful Soviet citizens, [and] exterminating Soviet citizens by hanging, mass shootings, and use of poison gases.”

That “Soviet citizen” stuff, technically accurate, soft-pedaled the Einsatzgruppe‘s predictable primary target: local Jewry.

Sonderkommando 10a arrived in the town of Krasnodar when it fell to the Germans on August 12, 1942. On August 21 and 22, all the Jews were ordered to report for transfer to a certain neighborhood in the city. They were taken to the Pervomaisk woods, where they were shot. Many of the city’s Jews did not obey the order, but they, too, were eventually caught and shot. According to a Soviet committee of inquiry report, the number of civilians — women, old people, and children — murdered in Krasnodar was in excess of 13,000. Almost all were Jews. (Source)

This in a city that was occupied for only six months.

Under any description of the victims, these depredations were plenty to condemn collaborators with even the vaguest of associations. Only a few of the men had specific acts charged against them; evidence establishing frightful Nazi atrocities in the region (not hard to find) plus confessions to having worked for the Nazis (not hard to wring out) forged a sufficient evidentiary chain without getting lost in the weeds of such minutiae as: was the collaboration really voluntary? did these collaborators themselves actually carry out war crimes? was that confession actually reliable? (good luck with that one.)

In this military tribunal, the public prosecutor had a free hand for grandstanding, the defense had almost no scope of action, and (the USSR being an old hand at the show trial game) the accused knew their own part to play with craven self-denunciations and pleas for the “mercy” of being sent to the most dangerous part of the front. This made great headlines in Pravda and Izvestia (and update memos straight to the Kremlin) about Nazi bestiality,** and great copy with inquisitorial slam dunks like,

Today Soviet law will mete out justice to the traitors, fascist hirelings, and boot-lickers now in the prisoners’ dock. Tomorrow the court of history, the court of freedom-loving nations of the world, will pronounce its inexorable verdict on the bloodthirsty rulers of Hitlerite Germany and all its associates — on the enemies of mankind who have plunged the world into the welter of the present war. Not one of them will escape stern retribution! Blood for blood, death for death!

All were convicted; three drew long prison sentences and eight hanging, and since the tribunal permitted no appeal, those sentences were executed the day after the court finished its business.

The period quotes, and much of the information about this otherwise somewhat inaccessible trial, comes from Ilya Bourtman’s 2008 article for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, “‘Blood for Blood, Death for Death’: The Soviet Military Tribunal in Krasnodar, 1943.”


It may have been a first, but one need hardly add that it was hardly the last such prosecution.

Several others war crimes show trials took place in other Soviet cities over the next few months, and these would obviously continue after the war.

Long, long after the war.

* The one exception was a 60-year-old former kulak who had illicitly escaped the deportation prescribed for this class in the 1930s. His “collaboration” consisted of having been a doorman whom a German soldier asked a question of.

** e.g., “Death to Hitler’s Butchers and Their Vile Accomplices”

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1749: Samuel Henzi, excluded

1 comment July 17th, 2010 Headsman

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

Those lines, written for 20th century America’s struggle with racism, are rooted in the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and those “exploding” dreams deferred have provided more than a few subjects for these morbid pages.

This date in 1749 saw the beheading of writer and reluctant revolutionary Samuel Henzi (German Wikipedia page), along with two fellow-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the aristocratic government of Bern(e).

Still operating off a 13th century constitution, Berne had ossified into an oligarchic society with privilege derived from heredity and the capable but low-born frustratingly locked out. This arrangement had provoked intermittent uprisings and challenges, but as of the mid-18th century, it was still going strong, and “patricians mockingly observed that the citizens must be stripped of their feathers, that they might not want to fly.” (Source)

Henzi was a man with the ambition and the talent to soar above his place.

Eloquent, cultured, a guy to bang out some French poetry on the side, Henzi had been among a group of lower gentry who in 1744 petitioned for a change to Bern’s governing council, which at that time had become a privately held dynastic trust among a few top burghers.

For a suggestion as incendiary as allocating council seats by lot the better to represent the class, Henzi was treated as a rebel and exiled to Neuchatel.

dass ein eingewurzelter Staatskrebs mit Demuth nicht geheilt werden kann; nein! man muss den Degen in die Faust nehmen, wenn man die verlorne Freiheit wieder erobern will.*

Returning on a pardon, he found that not much had changed. The doors to employment in the civil administration shut tight against him, and not being bought off with a minor sinecure he fell in with a circle of malcontents dreamily conspiring to blow the whole thing up.

These plotters were exposed and three considered ringleaders — merchant Samuel Niklaus Wernier, Stadtlieutenant Emanuel Fueter, and Henzi — were beheaded on this date, each reputedly requiring more than one stroke of the sword.

On embarking with their two sons to quit the Helvetic territory, the wife of Henzi exclaimed, “I would rather see these children sink in the Rhine-stream than they should not one day learn to avenge the murder of their father.” However, when the sons came to manhood, they displayed more magnanimity than their mother; and one of them, who rose to distinction in the service of the Netherlands, requited with good offices to the burghers of his native town the unmerited misfortunes which they had brought upon his family. (Source)


Henzi’s fate greatly excited German dramaturg (and original Conehead) Gotthold Lessing — indeed, he would remark that no other event moved him so deeply.

Almost immediately after Henzi’s decapitation, Lessing wrote his first tragedy, the never-finished but aptly-titled Samuel Henzi, which is available in the original German here.**

Wann man des Staates Flehn, der sie aus Gunst erkoren,
Der nur aus Nachsicht fleht, empfängt mit tauben Ohren;
Wann wer der Freiheit sich das Wort zu reden traut,
Zum Lohn für seine Müh ein schimpflich Elend baut;
Freiheit! wann uns von dir, du aller Tugend Same,
Du aller Laster Gift, nichts bleibet als der Name:
Und dann mein weichlich Herz gerechten Zorn nicht hört,
So bin ich meines Bluts –– ich bin des Tags nicht wert.

* That is, “humility cannot cure the cancer of the state; one must take the sword in fist.” The comment is cited in Edward M. Batley, “‘Tu executes comme tes maitres jugent!’ – The Henzi Affair and the question of Lessing’s political judgment”, German Life and Letters, July 1984.

** Lessing’s next stab at stagecraft in the key of seria produced what’s generally described as the German theater’s first domestic or bourgeois tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (German Wikipedia entry).

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1676: Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers

Add comment July 16th, 2010 Headsman

This date’s story is amply but succinctly conveyed by the public-domain entry in the 19th century tome Biography, or Third Division of the “English Encyclopedia”.

(Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)


Brinvilliers, Marie Marguerite, Marquise de (English Wikipedia entry | French) who obtained infamy as a poisoner in the time of Louis XIV, was a daughter of the Dreux d’Aubrai, a lieutenant civil, or judge having a certain limited jurisdiction, at whose hands she received a careful education.

In 1651, whilst still very young, she became the wife of the Marquis de Brinvilliers, with whom she resided at her father’s house, in Paris. Her husband, who was the colonel of the Regiment de Normandie, entertained at his house a young officer of cavalry of the Regiment de Tracy, named Gaudin de Sainte-Croix, a native of Montauban, and the illegitimate member of an illustrious family. He was unprincipled enough to encourage the unlawful passion which the marchioness conceived for him; and her father, in consequence, procured in 1663 a lettre de cachet against Sainte-Croix, who underwent a year’s incarceration in the Bastille.

During his confinement he learned from a fellow-prisoner, an Italian named Exili, the art of preparing subtle poisons; a secret which, upon his enlargement, he communicated to his mistress, who determined to poison her father and the other members of her family. Having first wantonly essayed her art upon the patients of the Hotel-Dieu, she proceeded, with the aid of a servant named Jean Amelin, or La Chaussee, to take the lives of her father, her two brothers, and her sister.

This feat she accomplished gradually between the years 1666 and 1670. More than once she poisoned her husband; but Sainte-Croix, whose prudence shrank from the obligation of marrying the terrible widow, each time preserved the life of the Marquis by the administration of an antidote.

Sainte-Croix died suddenly in July, 1672, in the act, it is said, of compounding a subtle poison, against the effects of which he was left unprotected by the accidental fracture of a glass mask which he wore as a defence against the fumes of his deadly drugs.*

As no relative came forward to claim his property, it was taken possession of by the public authorities, who, instead of complying with the written instructions of Sainte-Croix,** dated May 25th, 1672, that a particular casket should be delivered to Madame de Brinvilliers, examined it, together with above thirty letters which he had received from her. There was also found a promise on her part to pay Sainte-Croix a sum of 30,000 libres, bearing the date of June 20th, 1670, eight days after the poisoning of the “lieutenant civil,” her father. The casket proved to be full of packets of various poisons, to each of which was affixed a label indicating the peculiar effects it was calculated to produce.

The Marchioness, fatally compromised by these and other circumstances, sought safety in flight, repairing first to England, then to Germany, and finally to Liege, where she was apprehended.

Being taken to Paris, she denied her guilt; but after her condemnation made a confession, in which, and in a kind of autobiography, she charged herself with more and greater horrors than had seemed possible to rumour or suspicion.


The Marquise de Brinvilliers, shortly before her execution, by Charles LeBrun

She was executed at seven o’clock on the evening of the 16th of July, 1676, being first beheaded and afterwards burnt. As her application and use of poison, which went by the name of poudre de succession, seemed to be growing prevalent, Louis XIV instituted a special court for the investigation and punishment of this species of crime.


This tale, uniting the attractions of bodice-ripper, true crime, and costume drama, has been adapted to stage and literature numerous times.

Alexandre Dumas pere, a true aficionado of historical crime and scandal, turned it into a much lengthier piece, from which we morbidly excerpt his description of the water torture the criminal endured prior to beheading — beginning with the sentence of the court.


“That by the finding of the court, d’Aubray de Brinvilliers is convicted of causing the death by poison of Maitre Dreux d’Aubray, her father, and of the two Maitres d’Aubray, her brothers, one a civil lieutenant, the other a councillor to the Parliament, also of attempting the life of Therese d’Aubray, her sister; in punishment whereof the court has condemned and does condemn the said d’Aubray de Brinvilliers to make the rightful atonement before the great gate of the church of Paris, whither she shall be conveyed in a tumbril, barefoot, a rope on her neck, holding in her hands a burning torch two pounds in weight; and there on her knees she shall say and declare that maliciously, with desire for revenge and seeking their goods, she did poison her father, cause to be poisoned her two brothers, and attempt the life of her sister, whereof she doth repent, asking pardon of God, of the king, and of the judges; and when this is done, she shall be conveyed and carried in the same tumbril to the Place de Greve of this town, there to have her head cut off on a scaffold to be set up for the purpose at that place; afterwards her body to be burnt and the ashes scattered; and first she is to be subjected to the question ordinary and extraordinary, that she may reveal the names of her accomplices. She is declared to be deprived of all successions from her said father, brothers, and sister, from the date of the several crimes; and all her goods are confiscated to the proper persons; and the sum of 4000 livres shall be paid out of her estate to the king, and 400 livres to the Church for prayers to be said on behalf of the poisoned persons; and all the costs shall be paid, including those of Amelin called Lachaussee. In Parliament, 16th July 1676.

The marquise heard her sentence without showing any sign of fear or weakness. When it was finished, she said to the registrar, “Will you, sir, be so kind as to read it again? I had not expected the tumbril, and I was so much struck by that that I lost the thread of what followed.”

The registrar read the sentence again. From that moment she was the property of the executioner, who approached her. She knew him by the cord he held in his hands, and extended her own, looking him over coolly from head to foot without a word. The judges then filed out, disclosing as they did so the various apparatus of the question. The marquise firmly gazed upon the racks and ghastly rings, on which so many had been stretched crying and screaming. She noticed the three buckets of water prepared for her, and turned to the registrar — for she would not address the executioner — saying, with a smile, “No doubt all this water is to drown me in? I hope you don’t suppose that a person of my size could swallow it all.” The executioner said not a word, but began taking off her cloak and all her other garments, until she was completely naked. He then led her up to the wall and made her sit on the rack of the ordinary question, two feet from the ground. There she was again asked to give the names of her accomplices, the composition of the poison and its antidote; but she made the same reply as to the doctor [namely, that she had no accomplices besides Sainte-Croix and did not know how to make the poison or its antidote], only adding, “If you do not believe me, you have my body in your hands, and you can torture me.”

The registrar signed to the executioner to do his duty. He first fastened the feet of the marquise to two rings close together fixed to a board; then making her lie down, he fastened her wrists to two other rings in the wall, distant about three feet from each other. The head was at the same height as the feet, and the body, held up on a trestle, described a half-curve, as though lying over a wheel. To increase the stretch of the limbs, the man gave two turns to a crank, which pushed the feet, at first about twelve inches from the rings, to a distance of six inches. And here we may leave our narrative to reproduce the official report.

“On the small trestle, while she was being stretched, she said several times, ‘My God! you are killing me! And I only spoke the truth.’

“The water was given: she turned and twisted, saying, ‘You are killing me!’


The torture of the Marquise de Brinvilliers. (Click for a larger image.)

“The water was again given.

“Admonished to name her accomplices, she said there was only one man, who had asked her for poison to get rid of his wife, but he was dead.

“The water was given; she moved a little, but would not say anything.

“Admonished to say why, if she had no accomplice, she had written from the Conciergerie to Penautier, begging him to do all he could for her, and to remember that his interests in this matter were the same as her own, she said that she never knew Penautier had had any understanding with Sainte-Croix about the poisons, and it would be a lie to say otherwise; but when a paper was found in Sainte-Croix’s box that concerned Penautier, she remembered how often she had seen him at the house, and thought it possible that the friendship might have included some business about the poisons; that, being in doubt on the point, she risked writing a letter as though she were sure, for by doing so she was not prejudicing her own case; for either Penautier was an accomplice of Sainte-Croix or he was not. If he was, he would suppose the marquise knew enough to accuse him, and would accordingly do his best to save her; if he was not, the letter was a letter wasted, and that was all.

“The water was again given; she turned and twisted much, but said that on this subject she had said all she possibly could; if she said anything else, it would be untrue.”

* According to Anne Somerset in The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV, this story of Sainte-Croix’s death by accidental exposure to his own toxins is “a myth” that developed in view of subsequent events.

“In fact,” writes Somerset, “his end was far more prosaic. He died after a long illness, having received the last rites and performed his final devotions with terrible piety.”

** Because Sainte-Croix died in debt, and his possessions were inventoried for his creditors.

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1953: John Christie, a little late in the day

3 comments July 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1953, English serial killer John Christie was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for the murders of six women.

The sex-killer is most infamous, though, for a different death: that of Timothy Evans, a neighbor and fellow client of Pierrepoint whom Christie had stitched up three years before for strangling Evans’s wife and child.

Back then, the respectable Christie was the star witness against Evans. Evans tried in vain to blame Christie (“this perfectly innocent man,” Evans’s prosecutors scoffed) for the murders.

Nobody knew then that Christie had strangled an Austrian prostitute during sex back in 1943, nor that he had done a gassing-strangulation-rape job the following year.

Both their bodies were both buried in the garden at 10 Rillington Place: the first inhabitants of what would be the British Isles’ most notorious corpse hotel.

Strangulation sex killings would become the definitive Christie m.o. after Evans hanged. He got himself a no-fault divorce by throttling his wife in bed late in 1952, then raped and strangled at least three other women whom he had invited back to his pad. The remains of each were secreted in the apartment’s nooks and crannies.

This is Richard Attenborough as Christie doing his thing to Evans’s wife (he’d later confess to that crime) in the 1971 flick 10 Rillington Place.

Christie seemingly could’ve gotten away with it all, if it weren’t for his penny-wise and pound-foolish decision to move out of the charnel house early in 1953 and let someone else stumble upon the remains. (Christie had quit his job the previous December, and hocked his strangled wife’s stuff to make ends meet for a while. He was homeless when the subsequent manhunt tracked him down.) There was even a human femur being used to prop a fence.

Having quite a lot of damning evidence, and Christie’s confession besides, his lawyer went for a hail-Mary insanity defense, but Christie didn’t even bother with an appeal when that didn’t take.

But there was the small matter of that other gentleman hanged back in the day for a strangulation murder, all the while unsuccessfully accusing his then-respectable neighbor Christie.

An inquiry launched by the government very conveniently concluded that (Christie’s confession notwithstanding) Evans was indeed guilty of killing his wife. Two stranglers in the same place at the same time, and the one had just happened to try to blame the other one when he was accused.

For obvious reasons, this whitewash was greeted skeptically and — though the two-killers theory does still have its defenders — officially reversed when Evans was posthumously exonerated in 1966.

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1926: Ziya Hursit and others for a plot against Ataturk

Add comment July 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1926, 15 people who had been sentenced to death only the day before for attempting to assassinate Turkish statesman Atatürk were hanged in Constantinople.

Ziya Hursit (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish), a former National Assembly delegate who didn’t see eye to eye with Atatürk, generally goes down as the ringleader in this affair.

Their object? To gun down the President during a visit to Izmir a few weeks previous. When interrogated, Hursit “admitted at the outset his intention to kill the President of the Republic.” (London Times, June 29, 1926)

Frictions with said President had been growing over the preceding months, as Atatürk broke the eggs to make the Turkish Republic’s omelet.

In early 1926, Mustafa Kemal also sought to bring the manner in which Turkish society was regulated into line with European countries. On 17 February 1926, the Turkish parliament approved a new civil code which was translated almost verbatim from the civil code in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. The changes it introduced included: granting Turkish citizens the right to choose their own religion, thus abolishing the previous prohibition on apostasy from Islam; officially recognizing only civil marriage ceremonies conducted by representatives of the civil authorities … outlawing polygamy; making divorce dependent on a decision of the courts; lifting the ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslims; and granting men and women equal inheritance rights.

The new Civil Code was followed by a battery of further legal reforms to try to bring Turkey into line with contemporary Europe. On 1 March 1926, parliament approved a new Penal Code, which was translated from the Italian Penal Code of 1889. A Code of Obligations was introduced on 22 April 1926, again based on the one in Swiss canton of Neuchatel. On 9 May 1926, parliament approved a new Commercial Code, which was largely based on German law.

(Source)

This first of the Turkish Republic’s political assassination attempts and arguably its last serious bid to reverse secularism licensed an efficient purge and further consolidation of power by Atatürk, who over the weeks ahead shattered the remnants of the Unionists and Progressive Republicans and settled in for essentially secure autocratic governance for the balance of his life.

The alleged conspirators in the hit — not all of them as eager as Hursit to avow responsibility over the two-plus weeks’ trial — were hanged at a couple different locations in the former capital this date, bearing placards damning them for “attempting to assassinate our President, Mustapha Kemal Pasha, who is the saviour of Turkey’s honour.” One of them had a botched execution with a broken rope and a do-over.

(The quote is from the London Times dispatch about the executions, printed July 15, 1926. This story gives the figure of 15 hanged; it appears to me that the correct number that date was either 13 or 14, with two additional death sentences handed down in absentia. It was, in any event, more death sentences than the public prosecutor himself had demanded (11) in the case.)

* The city wasn’t renamed Istanbul until 1930.

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1989: Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia

2 comments July 13th, 2010 Headsman

In the predawn hours this date in 1989, Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa was shot in a pasture at a West Havana military base along with Col. Antonio “Tony” de la Guardia and Captains Antonio Padrón and Jorge Martinez — all convicted of treason against the Cuban Revolution because of drug trafficking.

Before his abrupt fall just weeks before this date, Arnaldo Ochoa was one of the shining stars of Castro’s Cuba.

One of the Sierra Maestre guerrillas, Ochoa had fought with Che Guevara in the Battle of Santa Clara that toppled the Batista regime.

In the decades that followed, he rose to become one of the most powerful officers in Cuba, serving in Venezuela, Angola, Ethiopia.

But in early June 1989, and shortly after a Mikhail Gorbachev state visit to Cuba delivered the bad news that the crumbling Soviet Union would be withdrawing its subsidies to Havana, Ochoa and State Security officer Tony de la Guardia* were suddenly busted for running a drug-smuggling operation — essentially conspiring with the Colombian Medellion cartel to exploit Cuba’s position on the most direct routes to Florida, and corruptly skimming the proceeds in the process.

There seems to be little doubt among those in the know that they were doing exactly that, but endless speculation about what else they were up to — what the executions were really about.

There is the year, to begin with, which is why we’ve mentioned Gorbachev; Castro was hostile to the Soviet leader’s glasnost reforms, and could read well enough the dangerous direction of change in eastern Europe. He wanted Gorbachev to put the brakes on.

Ochoa was seen as a charismatic figure of a more liberal outlook and close to Russian officers to boot, and one school of thought has it that he therefore looked like the sort of man who might be able to mount a coup or serve as the KGB’s catspaw if it came to regime change.

Whether or not Ochoa was targeted on that basis, Castro surely did not regret during those dangerous transitional years as Russian patronage slipped away the salutary effect this day’s doings would have had on any other potential aspirants for his job.

That consideration, whether it was primary or tertiary, probably helps explain the purge’s old-school show trial vibe. On television, Ochoa confessed to it all, and assured the court,

If I receive this sentence, which might be execution … my last thought will be of Fidel, for the great revolution he has given our people.

(Although what that thought would have been is a different matter. After falling out with Ochoa over military operations in Angola, the Cuban dictator had bugged his general’s environs and thereby eavesdropped on numerous of caustic remarks about himself.)

The drug charges, too, point the way towards plausible hidden agendas.

Fidel and Raul generally took a cautious approach to the drug business — hardly virginal, but reputedly avoiding particularly egregious entanglements lest they gift-wrap the hostile Yankees a pretext for invading. (Given what happened to Panama later in this eventful year, that would have been a reasonable concern.)

At the same time, it’s all but inconceivable that they were taken completely unawares by “revelations” that their aides were up to something shady.

So the hypotheses in this area run the gamut from: Ochoa and de la Guardia taking an authorized but circumscribed covert operation and avariciously expanding it beyond any possible license; to, everyone at the top being up to his eyeballs and Ochoa and de la Guardia eliminated when it became expedient to bury their firsthand knowledge of Fidel’s firsthand knowledge. Timing, again, is suggestive; with the coming withdrawal of Soviet protection, this might have been seen in Havana a prudent moment to trim sails on narcotics transshipment.

Whatever Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia may have known or sensed about the wheels-within-wheels of Havana politics, they took it to their grave 21 years ago today. Perennial declarations of the Castros’ imminent fall have made the rounds ever since, but until that old stopped clock manages to tell the right time, it’s likely that the rest of us will have to content ourselves with guesswork.

* De la Guardia was a friend of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In this very year, Marquez dedicated The General in his Labyrinth to the soon-to-be-disgraced colonel.

Speaking of de la Guardia literary connections: Tony’s daughter, Ileana, has also published a book.

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