Oden confessed to slaying her lover, and was also suspected of poisoning off her husband.
This made her perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s dokufu, poison-women — a perceived epidemic of the early Meiji period. Oden’s infamy thrust her into the crime genre’s characteristic harvest pulp literature, like Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari. (Takahashi Oden, the She-Demon’s Tale)
“Oden’s body became part of a scientific discourse that worked to produce ‘knowledge’ about feminine norms based on determinist biological differences,” Sharon Chalmers observes. “Deviancy was also characterised in terms of ‘masculine’ traits … [and] female transgression was read as sexual excess.”
And the feeding frenzy of the popular press around each new dokufu only exaggerated the effect: the sexual rapacity angle moved media.*
According to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, the anatomizing team was especially keen on delineating that scientific discourse of feminine deviance. And, of course, the pamphleteers were keen on publicizing it. In this case, standing as we do today outside the surgeons’ intellectual framework, we can readily discern the corpse’s role for these men as grist for the ideological mill.
Immediately following her execution, her body was taken to the hospital affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Office (Keishicho) and dissected by an army surgeon and three regular doctors. Some accounts of this autopsy reveal that these doctors focused their attention on Oden’s genitalia during the procedure. Her bizarre autopsy is said to have been prompted by a newly emerging field of study called zokaki ron, roughly “the study of (re)productive organs.” A cross between sheer superstition and legitimate study of anatomy, zokaki ron was getting much scholarly as well as popular attention as one of the branches of science recently introduced from the West. After the autopsy, the primary operating surgeon, Osanai ken (1848-85), made the following report on Oden: “Abnormal thickness and swelling of the labia minor. Over-development of clitoris. Enlargement of vagina.” For Osanai — a skilled physician who is credited with having performed the first operation in Japan with chloroform and even makes an appearance in Shibue Chusai (1916), a novel by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) about a doctor of Chinese medicine in late Edo period Japan — such physical abnormalities explained Oden’s violent nature: after all, she ruthlessly slit her victim’s throat and left him in a pool of his own blood, and it took several blows for the authorities to execute her as she kicked and screamed in resistance.
Autopsy of Takahashi Oden, from Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari.
On an uncertain date in January 1474, a condemned archer* escaped the noose by volunteering to endure an experimental living vivisection for kidney stones.
The authority for this incident is a single medieval chronicle with just enough context to tantalize:
In January, 1474, an archer of Meudon was condemned for many robberies, and especially for robbing the church at Meudon, to be hanged at Paris. He appealed to the Parlement which confirmed the sentence. Then the physicians and surgeons of the city represented to the king that many and divers persons were grievously molested and tormented by stone, colic, and pains in the side, with which the said archer was also much troubled, and that Monseigneur du Bouchaige (a favourite courtier mentioned by Comines) was sorely afflicted by the said maladies, and that it would be very useful to see the places where these maladies are concreted, and that this could be best done by vivisecting a human being, which could be well effected on the person of the said archer, who was also about to suffer death. Which opening and incision was accordingly done on the body of the said archer, and the place of the said maladies having been sought out and examined, his bowels were replaced and he was sewn up again. And by the king’s command the wound was well dressed, so that he was perfectly healed within a fortnight, and he received a free pardon, and some money was given him as well.
Pretty cool, and possibly the earliest semi-convincingly documented case of human vivisection in Europe.
Assuming it did really go down, it seems to have made little immediate impression on contemporaries, but it was gradually recovered in centuries later — and the medical achievement really improved in retrospect.
These few lines inflated into a story, a myth of French medicine: in the first place, the unspecified ailment became identified with kidney stones; a heroic and brilliant Italian-trained French physician named Germain Colot (or Collot)** was fabricated as the genius behind the procedure; even Louis XI turns up personally to observe.
Antoine Rivoulon’s 1851 lithograph valorizes the mythical 19th century version of the Archer of Meudon’s surgery as the first kidney stone operation, undertaken by legendary surgeon Germain Colot, and in the very presence of the sovereign. The archer looks pretty chill himself, given his situation.
“Why this story has disappeared from view is almost as baffling as its origin,” observe Vivian and Christine Nutton in their fascinating survey† of the archer’s historiography. “”Patriotic’ history … has not entirely fallen out of favour.”
One major reason is not to be sought in a library but in the operating theater. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, this story could be seen as having a practical value: it provided proof that this or that procedure, whether to remove a stone from the bladder or the kidney, could be followed safely and effectively. A modern operation could thus be given historical support, which might tip the balance in deciding which of a number of competing possible courses should be followed. John Douglas’s reprinting of the relevant sections in Rousset was an avowed attempt to secure backing for his new and controversial operation for the stone. But with the advent of anesthesia and aseptic surgery, the priorities of surgeons themselves changed in choosing how to operate … There was no need to scrutinize the historical record to establish the most effective way to proceed.
* We digress to notice that the francs-archers to which our offender belonged were a peasant militia established by Charles VII: archers received tax abatements in exchange for regular practice with the bow.
Charles’s best-known military innovation was elevating raving teenager Joan of Arc to battlefield command. Since God helps those best who help themselves, Charles also evidently was cagey enough to take a warning from rival England’s devastating use of the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War. Nice idea, but by this point the archers were “havens for tax exemption … units of ill-disciplined men” — much like our marauding, but fortuitously afflicted, patient.
They were used rarely and ineffectively, and soon after making their mark in the annals of surgery, replaced entirely by foreign mercenaries.
** “Germain Colot” connected a lineage to French lithotomy by way of the historically verifiable 16th century doctor Laurent Colot. As of this writing, Laurent’s Wikipedia page still asserts the existence of this phantom ancestor.
† Nutton, Vivian and Nutton, Christine, “The Archer of Meudon: A Curious Absence of Continuity in the History of Medicine,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 58, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 401-427
On this date in 1869, Chauncey W. Millard was shot in Provo, Utah, for a stagecoach murder and robbery.
Despite the trust fund moniker, Chauncey Millard was an underbelly character, a youth of uncertain age (18 or 19, went the estimate) who had drifted west from an abusive apprenticeship. His complete backstory — not even his name* — was never fully assayed, and the Utah authorities did not keep his acquaintance more than a few weeks before they shot him. “It was snowing like this when I done it,” he remarked on his execution day: frontier justice had not allowed even a single season to elapse.
Though slightly different configurations of his backstory are to be found, all recognize him as a youth barely grown from out of that vast and indistinct vagabondage of lumpen marginalia consigned to the shadowlands to scrap for their bread. He wanted any education save a self-made career of small-time savagery. His life was nasty, brutish, and short.
The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin of Jan. 5, 1869, presents a representative summation, channeling a wire story from the scene:
DREADFUL DEPRAVITY — The Salt Lake Reporter of December 24th has the following:
The young man now in the county jail, for the murder of Swett, certainly comes as near being a complete reprobate as any we have met. He tells the story of the murder, and the unsuccessful attempt on Mayfield, with great circumstantiality of detail, adding in conclusion: “Well, Mayfield needn’t be afraid of ever being killed by a pistol, for it can’t be done. His life is insured. I shot at him four times, fair as ever a man did, and with good aim too, and never hurt him.” After the killing, he fled across a ridge, and the next day hired to a Bishop there to herd sheep. As he relates the story, the Bishop spoke of his intention to buy a beef, upon which the young man asked: “Have you got money enough to buy a beef?” “No,” said the Bishop, “but I think I can trade for it.” The prisoner adds very complacently: “I think he was a little scared, but if he had money enough to buy a beef, I thought I would pop him over, take what he had, and light out!” When arrested he merely said: “I suppose you’ll string me up to the first good limb you come to, but I’ll take a nap first.” Upon which he lay down in the wagon and snored quite lustily for four hours.
On awaking he expressed some surprise at not being hanged at once, and was told in this country every man could have a trial and a choice between being hanged or shot. To which he made reply: “By —, that’s bully, I’ll take shooting all the time.” He first gave his name as Chauncey Millard, stating that he had no recollection of his father; but soon after spoke of his mother’s maiden name being Millard, to his paternity is rather doubtful. He was born in the South;** early neglected and abused, and taught nothing worth knowing, his hand was against every man and a good many hands against him. The man to whom he was apprenticed mistreated him, and his first crime was destroying his master’s property for revenge. This was at the age of 13; not long after that he became a bushwhacker, and with a few companions robbed or murdered rebel or Union soldiers indifferently. With the return of peace he came West, and relates several crimes and attempts committed in this Territory.
He expresses a willingness to die, saying he has tried to make money by crime and made a failure. Strangely enough the young man has what phrenologists would call “rather a good head,” and presents an interesting but terrible case of “perverted moral instinct.” He is 18 or 19 years of age, not above the latter, though he is not certain of his age. He presents a curious case of the youthful criminal, made so by the utter neglect of moral cultivation.
Calling him, as one source does, “Utah’s version of Billy the Kid” would probably be more corrective of William Bonney’s inflated legend than of Millard’s utter obscurity.
The tawdry particular of his death: having no kin, and no care, he heedlessly made the Faustian bargain to salvage some last juvenile diversion in this world in exchange for the mortified flesh he was about to take leave of.
The execution proved what a human fiend Millard was. Selling his body to Doctor Roberts of Provo for a pound of candy, he calmly ate the sweets while sitting in the executioner’s chair awaiting the fatal shot.
* Chauncey Millard was the name he gave the lawmen, at least; his real identity was never clearly established, though the Salt Lake City News reported shortly before “Millard’s” hanging that guards found a tattoo reading “C.E. Otoway” on his arm and hypothesized that to be his real name. Did 19th century drifters usually tattoo their own names on their bodies?
Wanted: corpses. Apply to Doctor Robert Knox, MD, FRSCEd, Professor of Medical Studies, Barclay’s Medical College, Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh. Reference William Burke, hanged Jan. 28, 1829.
Robert Knox was a noted physician in his prime, in the early 1800s.
A surgeon, anatomist, and zoologist, Knox studied anatomy in London, then headed off to Africa in the army. Field surgery was a brutal business, and the poor anatomical knowledge at the time made it even more terrifying for those involved.
When his old professor came calling in 1826 with an opportunity to teach at Surgeon’s Square in Edinburgh, Knox jumped at the chance. As a partner to Barclay and curator of the school’s museum, Knox was well aware of the significant problem that faced the school: corpses were hard to come by.
And since the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh certified the school as a prep course for entrance to University, coming up with bodies became a very important task.
If there’s one way to ruin your career, it’s to be caught paying a few pounds for fresh murder victims.
So it was for Knox, who gave out 7 pounds, 10 shillings for the body of an itinerant lodger who died in William Burke’s building in 1827.
This transaction led Burke to realize that such lodgers weren’t paying as much alive as dead. As a collector of bodies, Knox also had a strict no-questions-asked policy, and Burke and his partner William Hare exploited that to its fullest extent.
Almost a score of suspicious bodies later (and after the price had inflated to 10 pounds per), the pair was found out, given away as suspects by the lame and mentally disabled “Daft Jamie” Wilson, then caught when the late Marjory Campbell Docherty was found by a fellow tenant under one of Burke’s lodge’s beds.
Hare copped to a string of murders* and played stool pigeon in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Burke went to the gallows to “vehement cheering from every quarter, mingled with groans and hisses.” (London Times, Feb. 2, 1829)
“When the cheers had subsided, the wretched man was assailed with every epithet of contempt and abhorrence,” the Times continued. “Not a single indication of pity was observable among the vast crowd: on the contrary, every countenance wore the lviely aspect of a gala-day.”
William Burke’s hanging.
As a corpse himself, Burke made one final contribution to science’s insatiable desire for bodies: his cadaver went straight from the gallows to the practiced hands of one Dr Alexander Monro, who performed a complete lecture while dissecting the murderer’s corpse.
Knox, for his part, paid not with his neck but with his reputation.
Though never charged with a crime, the doctor was run out of the the lecturing business, first by subtle and not-so-subtle actions by the University, and eventually by the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.
He was also unable to obtain any surgical post after the incident and spent his later years writing academic books and papers, none of which have lasted like the doggerel that shadowed his steps.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
A few books about Burke and Hare
Anatomy of Anatomy
Robert Knox was operating under the Murder Act of 1751, which expressly forbade the burial of an executed murderer while permitting the malefactor’s dissection.
The Act had the dual effect of allowing the state to gibbet executed criminals (both hanging in chains and dissection were considered an added ignominy, beyond the punishment of the gallows), and of supplying the budding medical community with an immediate source of fresh bodies.
As courses in anatomy became more commonplace, though, the need for cadavers increased dramatically, and the business of selling bodies for science was born.
Typically, these sales manifested themselves in body-snatching — wherein “resurrectionists” illicitly exhumed a freshly buried corpse and conveyed it to some physician’s ready scalpel.
This grim trade in turn spawned a variety of security measures. The favored dead were defended by fences, watchtowers, and human lookouts. But nothing could eliminate the industry.
In particular, those with little money or no immediate relatives were unlikely to be buried in these gated graves; that left their remains ripe for the remaindering. As well, the increase in demand made so-called anatomy murder a possibility. Burke and Hare may have been notorious for the offense,** but they did not invent it.
In that case, two nurses (Jean Waldie and Helen Torrence) on death watch bartered a decent price of two shillings to sell the body of an ill child to a local surgical college. His death was delayed, and the nurses smothered him, possibly through simple carelessness.
Shortly after the Murder Act, simple economics made pikers of Torrence and Waldie. In the 17th century, England executed hundreds of prisoners a year, each a potential dissection. As Dr D.R. Johnson writes in his Introductory Anatomy:
The dissections performed on hanged felons were public: indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution, and later public exhibition of the open body itself. …
Agents representing surgeons would bargain with condemned prisoners not under sentence of dissection (remember this only happened for murder: hanging was in vogue for stealing a sheep or even a loaf): occasionally prisoners struck a bargain to pay expenses, to provide for a family or to buy the customary decent apparel for the hanging.
Supply was unreliable, however: riots at public hangings became common, partly because of the paltry nature of hanging events, partly from superstition. The body was often reclaimed by relatives and the unpopular anatomists stoned, defeated and out of pocket. Competition was often so fierce that a rival anatomy school carried off the body.
Dissection was unpopular and other medical uses were to be found for a recently hung body – the cure of scofula, goitre, wens, ulcers, bleeding tumours, cancers and withered limbs for example. To prevent riots and disorder the Sheriff of London took all bodies of hanged men, except those sentenced to dissection, into his own custody and handed them to the relatives for burial.
Hanoverian Britain sure did keep the gallows busy. But the pace of hangings had abated by the 19th century just as demand boomed. The math didn’t add up.
Anatomy schools (officially) dissected some 592 corpses in 1825; at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, only about 50 executions were carried out annually, and each college was guaranteed just one a year.
That meant a shortfall of close to 550 bodies. With limited supply and significant demand, surgical colleges and anatomical lecturers were willing to pay top dollar for new cadavers … and the anatomical murder business really got legs.
And while the execution of Burke was met with applause from the community, in London, another group was already hard at work both body snatching and murdering its way into the classroom.
The London Burkers were caught in 1831 and convicted of murdering a 14-year-old whose cadaver they sold to St Bartholemew’s Hospital for 9 guineas.† The killers, Thomas Williams and John Bishop, had offed several others prior to the lad in question, making about the same price on each body.‡ In the grand, Burkean tradition of anatomical murderers, these miscreants were also dissected after their execution.§
Williams and Bishop were just two of a group of resurrectionists known collectively as the London Burkers, who claimed to have stolen upwards of 1,000 bodies from nearby cemeteries. That made the Burkers the largest known exploiters of the anatomical trade.
Over the decades after the Murder Act, though, resurrectionists were walking a dangerous line in their communities.
Reverence for the dead sparked community outrage when graves were found empty or disturbed, and it was often the anatomists themselves who felt the wrath of crowds.§§ In Glasgow in 1803, surgeons were threatened by an unruly mob and were forced to seek police protection; in 1813, an empty grave caused a similar furor. Punishments moved from fines to jail time as the surging demand made body-snatching an ever more lucrative trade.
A few books about body-snatching
By the time of the Burkers, anatomists were generally presumed to be body thieves in some capacity, a hostile sentiment graphically underscored during the Aberdeen riots of 1831. When a dog unearthed what looked like a human bone behind the Aberdeen surgical college, a mob coalesced and stormed the lecture hall.
The lecturer (“Dr Moir” — little else is known about the man) fled in terror as the hall was burned to the ground. Soldiers and police clashed with the crowd, which was thought to be over 10,000 strong. Hours later, the riot subsided, but Aberdeen was no longer a friendly place for a prospective medical talent.
And where Burke and Hare were still not quite sufficient to convince the House of Lords to take up a measure providing anatomists with alternatives for corpse acquisition, the Burkers and the Aberdeen riots apparently were.
The underground economy of resurrectionists was supplanted by the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed individuals to donate themselves or their unwilled kin to science for a pittance of compensation.
Anatomy murder is, of course, still the subject of horror movies. Like this one, or for the more classically inclined, this 1945 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicle adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story inspired by Burke and Hare:
* The murders included at least one husband/wife pair, a mother and, later, her (adult) daughter, and a grandmother and her young grandson. They are also known as the West Port Murders.
** Burke entered the English language as a verb meaning … well, pretty much exactly what Burke got up to.
Dr. Murray, in the new English Dictionary, gives the following definition of the verb to ‘burke.’ ‘To murder in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did: to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection,’ and the familiar lines are quoted from the Ingoldsby Legends: —
But when beat on his knees, that confounded De Guise
Just whipped out the “fogle” that caused all the breeze,
Pulled it tight round his neck until backwards it jerked him,
And the rest of the rascals jumped on him and burked him.
† 9 pounds, 9 shillings; by the time of the transactions, the guinea was no longer technically in use, but the term had stuck at the 21-shilling mark.
‡ Over the course of their 6 active months, the pair went from asking 8 guineas to asking 12 guineas; apparently 9 was the negotiated price with St Bartholemew’s.
§ The Burkers are the subject of the song “The Resurrectionist” by the Pet Shop Boys. (Lyrics)
§§ Edinburgh also had trouble as far back as 1742, when several surgeons’ homes were attacked by locals; a local beadle suspected of the crimes also had his home, dubbed resurrectionist hall, burned during the mob incident.
He does not merely confront us with our mortality, but with our still more terrifying duality. Awaiting the chop, his self has already been sundered from a corporeal form now appropriated — even by mere chance — to the edification of some foreign entity’s own purposes.
The operation of the apparatus upon his form is his concern, the account he will make of himself on that stage (Henry VIII’s adulterous fifth wife, Catherine Howard, asked for the headsman’s block in her cell so she could practice how best to address it); the disposal of his flesh, yet living, may be reckoned in thus-and-such many hours. It was once not so rare to travel to the killing scene upon one’s very coffin — in fact, this was recent enough to be photographed. And more to the point, all this is our concern, we scaffold-ministers, for the doomed.
Everyone must grapple with the mysterious inevitability of death, but to be reduced to a cadaver while yet alive — that is a special form of horror. No wonder the undead make such spellbinding literature.
To another epoch, the line could as well blur in the other direction, the deceased remains be made to suffer for their former soul’s transgressions. Charles II could not best Oliver Cromwell in life, but finally made Cromwell’s bones suffer for regicide. As an object lesson, what difference whether the bones came to the halter breathing or no?
“A dead body,” writes William Bogard, “is not necessarily a corpse. It only becomes one in virtue of a social machine that needs dead bodies, and the flows of organs, tissues, and fluids they generate, to function.”
In the 18th and 19th century, Foucault contends, the “medical gaze” — a searching, scientific inquiry into the true foundations of bodily decay by following Bichat’s counsel to rip away the exterior and investigate the true form within. This is the literal definition and intent of autopsy: to see with one’s own eyes.
The medical gaze, “that absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” is likewise in Foucault’s reckoning a piece of the intellectual and ideological program that made the post-Enlightenment world.
That which hides and envelops, the curtain of night over truth, is, paradoxically, life; and death, on the contrary, opens up to the light of day the black coffer of the body: obscure life, limpid death, the oldest imaginary values of the Western world are crossed here in a strange misconstruction that is the very meaning of pathological anatomy.
Herewith, four who expired to open up their living fellows’ shambling carrion to that life-breathing medical gaze.
During the unsteady regency of Henry’s sickly heir, Cranmer would push frenetically to make the religious reformation that his former boss never completely backed. The Archbishop sent to the continent for Protestant theologians like Peter Martyr who could help him “do away with doctrinal controversies and establish an entire system of true doctrine.”
The piece de resistance of Cranmer’s project was his Book of Common Prayer — a reformed liturgy, and in English, to go with the new English Bible. Many centuries — and revisions — later, it’s still the basis of Anglican services and of rites in many other Protestant denominations.
In 1549, it debuted to decidedly mixed reviews.
Enforced by Parliament’s Act of Uniformity, the Book of Common Prayer replaced all Latin liturgies on Whitsunday 1549, and for many of England’s Catholics, it was one affront too many. (The country’s bumpy economic realignment couldn’t have helped matters.)
On Whitmonday, traditionally-minded parishioners in West Devon unimpressed* with this newfangled vernacular service forced their local cleric to break out the old vestments and say Mass in Latin. State attempts to enforce the ban soon produced a martyr for the cause — one William Hellyons, melodramatically impaled on a pitchfork — and a march to Exeter that spiraled into outright revolt, heavy with suppressed Cornish nationalism.
We, the Cornishmen, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English.
Religion, theology, the liturgy, the text of the Scripture … these were things that early modern Europeans were ready to fight and die for.
We wyll haue the Sacrament hang Oller the hyeghe aulter, and there to be worshypped as it was wount to be, and they whiche will not thereto consent, we wyll haue them dye lyke heretykes against the Holy Catholyque fayth.
We wyll haue . . . images to be set vp again in euery church, and all other auncient olde Ceremonyes vsed heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.
We wyll not receyue the newe seruyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll haue oure old seruice of Mattens, masse, Euensong and procession in Latten as it was before.
SANTA BARBARA, Oct. 20 — [By the Associated Press.] Mary Dezirello, aged 22 years, was shot and instantly killed this morning at 10 o’clock by Ramon Lopez, a Spaniard, aged 38 years. Lopez has been bothering the girl with his attentions for some time past, and had made threats of violence against her, declaring that if she did not marry him she should not marry anyone.
This morning he called at her father’s residence and called her out to the gate. He wanted to make up with her. She refused to have anything to do with him, when he pulled a big Colt’s revolver and shot her through the body. She died almost instantly. Lopez then shot twice at himself, without effect, and then walked away.
Shortly afterwards an officer came up and went toward Lopez’s house, which is in the same block. Lopez fired three shots at the officer without effect and was then arrested and locked up. Threats of lynching were so strongly made that this afternoon the murderer was taken to Ventura for safe keeping.
“Bound to Hang Him”
Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1890
SANTA BARBARA, Oct. 21 — [By the Associated Press.] A vigilance committee was formed here yesterday to avenge the death of Mary Dezirello, the young girl who was murdered early yesterday morning by Ramon Lopez, because she refused to accept the latter’s attentions. The prisoner was taken to Ventura during the afternoon, but the committee did not believe this and last night over one hundred men visited the County Jail and demanded that Lopez be delivered to them.
The keys were given to the leader and the jail and courthouse searched, but the murdered [sic] was not found. The feeling against Lopez is at fever heat, and it is reported that members of the Vigilance Committee have sworn to hang him. The officers in Ventura feared that the crowd would go there to take the prisoner, and this morning Lopez and Edwardo Espinosa, another Santa Barbara murderer, were placed on a train at Ventura and taken to Los Angeles for safe-keeping.
It is reported here tonight that the mother of the murdered girl is dying on account of the tragedy, and that her father is nearly crazed.
“Last Day on Earth”
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 1891
SANTA BARBARA (Cal.) Jan. 25 — [Special.] This was the last day for Ramon Lopez on this terrestrial sphere. Tomorrow, at some time between the hours of 10 and 3, he will be hanged in the jail-yard here for the murder of pretty Mary Dezirello in October last. Everything is in readiness and the rope has been thoroughly tested. He has spent much of the day in company with a priest.
Sheriff Broughton opened the gates to the jail-yard yesterday and today, and hundreds availed themselves of the opportunity to see a scaffold ready for the hangman. There is considerable suppressed excitement over the event. Lopez eats heartily and is cool and quiet. Several peace officers from adjoining counties are already in the city for the purpose of witnessing the execution.
“Only One Hitch; An Artistic Execution at the Channel City”
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 1891
SANTA BARBARA, Jan. 26 — [Special.] Another life has been snuffed out in obedience to the mandates of the law. Ramon E. Lopez was executed on the gallows here today by the Sheriff of this county in a most expeditious and faultless manner. People who have witnessed a large number of executions say that they never saw anything of the kind so perfectly accomplished.
The sentence of Lopez said that he should be hanged by the neck until dead some time between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. of today. Sheriff Broughton had not given out what would be the exact time of the hanging. By 10 o’clock, however, a large number of curious people, including a few women, were on the grounds, some of whom, of course, held permits which were to admit the bearers of the jail yard. About this time it was rumored around that the execution would be at 11 o’clock.
THE FAVORED FEW.
At 10:30 o’clock the gate to the jail inclosure was opened, and the ticket-holders were allowed to pass in one at a time, but before they were permitted to pass under the canvas where the scaffold was erected, each one was required to sign his name in a large blank book, which was kept near the entrance. About one hundred and fifty names were registered in this manner in this manner, which constituted probably three-fourths of those who witnessed the execution. At 10:57 o’clock Sheriff Broughton ascended the platform, and, addressing the crowd below, said: “Gentlemen, I think that a proper respect for the prisoner requires that you should all remove your hats and cease smoking when he comes upon the platform. Please do so from that time until the execution is over.”
THE PRISONER’S APPEARANCE.
The speaker then went down the steps and entered the jail, but reappeared almost immediately afterward, accompanied by the prisoner, two deputies and a Catholic priest. The condemned man was dressed in black, wore a plain black tie and carried aloft a large Roman cross. While crossing the yard to the scaffold the priest read aloud in Spanish an invocation from a small book. Lopez walked with a firm, deliberate tread across the grounds and up the steps. A general murmur went through the crowd of “How cool he is!” “What nerve!”
CONFESSED TO THE PRIEST.
The priest then stepped to the edge of the platform, and, looking down upon the heads below, said in broken English: “This man has confessed to me that he is guilty of the crime for which he is about to be hanged; he says that he deserves the punishment, and wishes me to ask all whom he may have offended, to forgive him; he is ready.”
Lopez’s arms and legs were then tied securely by the deputies. In about one minute the black cap was placed over his head, followed immediately by the fatal rope, and at 11:05 Sheriff Broughton pressed the pedal to the platform with his right foot, the trap door was free, and the condemned
SHOT LIKE AN ARROW
through the aperture beneath him, a distance of six and a half feet, and there he remained suspended for fifteen minutes, during which time not one tremor or convulsion of any kind was discernable. His neck had been dislocated by the fall, and he moved not a muscle.
The body vibrated very slightly but did not turn round, and remained exactly was when it dropped. This was considered very remarkable by the crowd. The knot, which had been placed under the left ear, by some means slipped around almost under the center of the chin.
THE BODY CUT DOWN.
At the end of the time mentioned the corpse was lowered into a coffin and was taken away by a local undertaker. Two physicians took turns testing the heart’s action and one of them reported to the Sheriff that “the prisoner is dead” at the end of the fifteenth minute.
The condemned man uttered not a word during the ordeal of the final preparations. Immediately after he ascended the platform the town clock struck eleven times. Lopez soon after turned his face to the south and upward, and seemed for a moment to
GAZE FULL UPON THE SUN,
which shone in uninterrupted rays upon him. This was his only voluntary act while on the platform, except kissing the cross, which the priest placed to his lips. The rest of the time he stood perfectly still with his eyes closed, and was apparently the most composed man on the platform.
“The Crime and Criminal”
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 1891
SANTA BARBARA, Jan. 26 — [Special.] For days and days almost the sole topic of conversation here among all classes has been the forthcoming execution of Ramon E. Lopez. This was partly the result of the extraordinary nature of his crime, for which he has suffered death, and partly from the fact that it is the first legal execution ever held in the county. During these days of discussion the condemned man has occupied a small cell upstairs in the county jail, under the eyes of the “death watch,” pacing up and down in his small room or lying stretched out on his cot, conversing with the attendants or an occasional visitor, or playing on his favorite instrument — the guitar.
RESIGNED TO HIS FATE.
He was a small, compactly built Spaniard with a typical Castilian face and a very large head which required a 7 1/2 hat. When seen by your correspondent a few days ago he was perfectly calm and collected, and seemed everyway resigned to his impending fate. He was asked if he had any statement for the public, but answered in the negative and added: “The poor girl I loved so well, is gone to her long home; I shall soon go too. I am ready; there is nothing more to be said.”
I learn that Lopez was a man of considerable intellectual attainments, being especially well versed in the history of his own and contemporary nations. He was a natural mechanic of unusual skill. He had worked at the blacksmith’s trade, but of late years was principally engaged in repairing complicated machinery, including watches and clocks. He was born and raised in this city and was 38 years of age. He has relatives in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Jose.
The murder he committed was among the most atrocious and inexcusable known to the annals of crime. About 8 o’clock in the morning of October 20, last, he called at the home of his victim in one of the principal residence streets of this city, summoned her to his side, and without even the pretext of a personal quarrel, shot her down on the spot. She was his sweetheart, and they had been engaged to be married. Her parents were opposed to the match and she felt compelled to break off the engagement, and for this she lost her life! Her name was Mary Dezirello, and she was young, beautiful, and accomplished.
WANTED TO LYNCH HIM.
The reading public will probably remember the frantic attempts of a mob which came near lynching the murderer, and of his being spirited away by the officers to Ventura, and later to Los Angeles, in order to save his neck. He remained in the Los Angeles County Jail for a month and was then returned to this city. He was tried in December last and promptly convicted of murder in the first degree, the jury occupying only twenty minutes in finding a verdict.
But this was not his only crime. He killed Henry Heldt in Los Angeles in 1883, in a row at a dance, and got three years at San Quentin for manslaughter, but was pardoned out a few years since by Gov. Stoneman. Lopez has not been guilty of any of the smaller vices so common to murderers. On the contrary, he has generally led a quiet, peaceable and industrious life, but has always been known to possess an ungovernable temper.
THE SOLACE OF RELIGION.
During the last few days of his life he was under the almost constant tutorage of his father confessor. His prison life has otherwise been quiet and uneventful. A few Christian ladies did, occasionally, visit him and pray and sing in his presence. He was always attentive and respectful to them, and generally asked them to return again. There has been a notable lack of that sickly sentimentality in his case so often displayed by the morbid and curious. It may be worth while to state that after the murder, and before he left the spot, Lopez fired two shots over his own head as if to take his own life; but he seems to have exercised considerable caution in doing so, since neither of the shots took effect.
A STRANGE ADVERTISEMENT.
A few days before the killing this extraordinary notice appeared over Lopez’s signature in one of the local papers:
All those desiring to marry a certain girl might be on the lookout, as their steps, manners and customs will be made known through the press next week in a historical point of view.
This was no doubt meant for a threat against any gentleman who might sue for the girl’s hand in marriage.
THE INSTRUMENT OF DEATH.
The scaffold, which was erected in a corner of the jail yard, has been ready since Friday last, and has been viewed by hundreds of people who were admitted to the premises by the Sheriff. The framework and platform of this scaffold was made in San Bernardino several years ago and its first service was in the case of the murderer McDowell, about the year 1883. Since that time it has done yeoman’s service in “removing” Silvas and Martinez in Los Angeles. It was also got in readiness to add dramatic effect to the taking off of one [Fritz] Anschlag, but that accomplished butcher chose his own method of quitting the earth, and cheated this useful instrument. It was shipped here from Los Angeles several days ago, and althrough it looks a little scarred and weather-beaten, seems sufficient for much substantial service in behalf of good society yet.
More to the point, she was one of the handful of the treason trial subjects who was directly involved in the actual plot to assassinate the emperor. (Her diaries are full of anguish for those tried with her who were merely guiltly by association.)
[E]ven among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers [she told her interrogators]. When I was imprisoned in June 1908 in connection with the Red Flag incident I was outraged at the brutal behavior of the police. I concluded that a peaceful propagation of our principles could not be conducted under these circumstances. It was necessary to arouse the people’s awareness by staging riots or a revolution or by undertaking assassinations … Emperor Mutsuhito, compared with other emperors in history, seems to be popular with the people and is a good individual. Although I feel sorry for him personally, he is, as emperor, the chief person responsible for the exploitation of the people economically. Politically he is at the root of all the crimes being committed, and intellectually he is the fundamental cause of superstitious belief. A person in such a position, I concluded, must be killed.
Succinct. Little wonder she admired Russian assassin Sophia Perovskaya … and that she shared Perovskaya’s fate.
She mounted the scaffold escorted by guards on both sides. Her face was covered quickly by a white cloth … She was then ordered to sit upright on the floor. Two thin cords were placed around her neck. The floor-board was removed. In twelve minutes she was dead.
She was back in the news in 2010 when a long-hidden secret message of hers surfaced, corroborating the orthodox historical take that while Kanno was up to her eyeballs in a real plot to murder the emperor, Shusui Kotoku was not part of it.
A century ago today, eleven Japanese anarchists were hanged for plotting the assassination of the Emperor.
Radical journalist Shusui Kotoku challenged Meiji Japan from the insurrectionary anarchist left.
A socialist early on — he helped translate The Communist Manifesto into Japanese — Kotoku turned towards anarchism when he read Kropotkin while serving time for opposing the Russo-Japanese War. He “had gone [to jail] as a Marxian Socialist,” he said, “and returned as a radical Anarchist.”
So, when police uncovered an apparent plot by other radicals to off Emperor Meiji, and opportunistically used it to sweep up as fellow-travelers a nationwide “conspiracy” of twenty-plus alleged plotters, Kotoku was naturally one of the bad apples they were pleased to indict.**
The twelve ultimately doomed to death were slated to receive their judicially appointed sanctions on this occasion, just six days after conviction. (The rest of the anarchist movement was harshly suppressed in the years ahead.)
The first eleven (all men) took so long that the twelfth doomed soul, Suga Kanno — Kotoku’s lover and a genuine bomb-plot participant, who enjoys the distinction of being the only woman her country ever hanged for treason — had her execution put off to the 25th for want of daylight.
Though he’s never been officially [judicially] exonerated, Kotoku’s native Nakamura voted in 2000 to declare his rehabilitation. A secret letter that surfaced only in 2010 appears to support that position.
Some of Kotoku’s writing is available online in Japanese here.
** George Elison translated a Kotoku Shusui letter denying any interest in the anarchist assassination racket. It appears as “Discussion of Violent Revolution, From a Jail Cell,” in the Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1967) Monumenta Nipponica.
How is the anarchist revolution to be brought about if not by bomb-throwing attempts upon the life of the sovereign? The Japanese word for “revolution” — kakumei — is Chinese in origin. In China, the term was used to describe the process in which the emperor of dynasty A, receiving the Mandate of Heaven, replaced the emperor of dynasty B; so it signified mainly the change of emperors, the change of sovereigns. Our “revolution” has quite a different meaning. We do not place much value upon the mere transfer of power between potentates; we do not use the word “revolution” except to mean a fundamental change in the governmental system and in the organization of society.
… they who for the sake of universal peace and liberty participate in this revolution must endeavor as best they can to avoid violence, to avoid producing victims to the revolution. For it seems that the great revolutions of the past were accompanied by much violence and required a great number of victims … I only hope for the disappearance of the misconception that the anarchist revolution has as its objective the assassination of the sovereign …
the prosecution and the examiners first put the title “Violent Revolution” to what I had said and contrived the stern-sounding phrase “death-defying band,” with other similar phrases. And I believe they condemned us under this syllogism: “The anarchist revolution is concerned with the destruction of the Imperial Family. But Kotoku’s plan was to carry out a revolution by violence. Therefore, all who were party to this plot planned to commit the crime of High Treason.” So the fact that these people used to discuss such things as direct action and the revolutionary movement has now served to get them into trouble! This I deeply regret.
Japan’s popular image is of a hierarchical and regimented society, while the Japanese are widely regarded as unswervingly loyal servants of the company and the state. Even within Japan there are many Japanese who are unaware of the anarchist movement’s existence, of the martyrs who have died for the cause, and of the sustained struggle that has been fought against the capitalist state and the inhumanity it has perpetrated over the years.
In 1910, a bust of anarchists caught scheming an imperial assassination led to a guilt-by-association roundup known as the High Treason Incident, an in camera trial of 26 anarchists hysterically “connecting” people to friends to comrades to alleged inspirations like Glenn Beck’s blackboard. One of the accused (according to Shusui Kotoku) had been badgered into “admitting” having once talked admiringly about the Paris Commune.
Newspaper sketch of the High Treason Incident defendants. (From here.) Shusui Kotoku is on the left; Suga Kanno is in the center.
Where radicalism itself is treasonable, small surprise that a trial of 26 radicals resulted in 24 death sentences. The offended sovereign majesty generously commuted half of them.
Over January 24 and 25 in 1911, the less fortunate dozen faced death, just days after their convictions.