In the dark hours this date in 1934, a bargain with the devil was sealed in blood.
Months before, even mere hours before, it was still possible for longstanding adherents of the National Socialist Workers’ Party to demand the “Socialist” part of the program.
The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. … It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether [the bourgeoisie] like it or not, we will continue our struggle — if they understand at last what it is about — with them; if they are unwilling — without them; and if necessary — against them.
Populist, not Bolshevik. (In fact, stridently anti-communist.) Nevertheless, a distinct menace by the have-nots against the haves.*
Especially so because they were the words not of some impotent scribbler but of Ernst Roehm, commander of the the Nazis’ paramilitary brownshirts. And threatening, too, for Adolf Hitler for this same reason: his ascension the previous year to the Chancellorship had entailed terms with a German elite who needed but mistrusted the man’s mass party. Something was going to have to give.
The Communist exile Leon Trotsky’s 1933 analysis of the infant Nazi Germany’s dynamics proved prescient.
The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.”
German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. … The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned.
The Night of the Long Knives this date took those blades to the “socialists”, to the men like Roehm whose dreams of redistribution were reckless enough to picture his working-class militia supplanting the German army proper.
As its price of power, the Nazi leadership purged these dangerous elements.
At 2 a.m. this date, Hitler flew to Munich to personally arrest Roehm on the pretext of averting an imminent coup by Roehm’s SA.** Elsewhere in the Reich, coordinated arrests and summary executions destroyed the Nazi party’s “left”, and throughout this date, and continuing into the next, did not scruple to sweep up whatever other conservative elements Hitler considered unreliable.
Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. … Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: “I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!”
The final death toll is uncertain. Hitler copped to 77 in a speech to the Reichstag two weeks later which chillingly claimed that “in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge”; it is likely that the true number is much higher. But its effect went far beyond those immediately killed: it tamed the SA’s independence, and permanently subordinated it to the military; and, it brought Adolf Hitler the dictatorial power that would make the succeeding years so fruitful for this blog.
Roehm himself died on July 2, initially spared for his many good offices for the Nazi cause before Hitler realized he could not leave him alive.
The armed forces, apparently the day’s big winner, would pay a price of their own for the arrangement.
“In making common cause with” the murderous purge, observed William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism.” As the quid for the quo, soldiers were soon required to swear “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler, and this oath would give countless Wehrmacht officers sufficient reason or excuse to eschew resistance to their leader until much too late.
Barely a month after the Night of the Long Knives, the ancient German President Hindenburg died in office. Hitler, who now commanded the clear allegiance of his nation’s elites and had savagely mastered his own party besides, succeeded the powers of Hindenburg’s vacant office along with those of his own Chancellorship and became the German Fuehrer.
* When the Nazis were knee high to the Weimar Republic, their party program sought such radical stuff as abolition of rentier income, generous old-age pensions, and nationalizing trusts.
** The historicity of any actual coup plot is generally dismissed, although the event is still known in German by the expedient sobriquet the Nazi leadership gave it, Roehm-putsch.
“Oppressive and vile towards the Kurds,” Sheikh Said declared. (pdf)
For several years we have been able to read in the newspapers and official documents about the oppression, insults, hatred, and enmity that the Turk Republic [sic] accords to the Kurdish notables and dynasties. There is a lot of evidence available from authentic sources that they want to subject the Kurdish elite to the same treatment to which they subjected the Armenians
The February revolt quickly made him master of the majority-Kurdish eastern province of Diyarbakir, but a massive Turkish counterattack drove him east, encircled him, and had the Sheikh in irons by mid-April.
The government arrogated martial law powers to itself and appointed Orwellian courts called Independence Tribunals to prosecute Kurdish elites, rebels or no. (Some Kurdish intelligentsia were hailed to Diyarbakir from Istanbul.) Hundreds hanged, without even counting wholesale extrajudicial retribution against Kurdish civilians.
the repression of the 1925 rising was accomplished with a brutality which was not exceeded in any Armenian massacres. Whole villages were burnt or razed to the ground, and men, women and children killed.
Mass hanging of Kurds at Diyarbakir, May or June 1925 (Source)
Despite prosecutors’ avowed intention to extirpate the separatist sentiment “root and branch,” ithasn’texactly put the whole Kurdish issue to bed.
* A past-is-prologue artifact from the time: the “Issue of Mosul“, a prickly international relations dispute over control of the historic city, accurately suspected to be sitting on a lot of oil.
Turkey claimed it as part of its historic heartland, but Great Britain had seized it just before World War I ended and wound up hanging onto it for the embryonic Iraqi state. Kurds who also considered it part of their homeland got short shrift altogether. It’s still disputed today among Iraqis, situated as it is just on the edge of Kurdish Iraq.
On this date in 1899, British forces occupying Benin City hanged a local tribal leader for the massacre whose perpetration had justified London’s, er, “humanitarian” intervention.
The locale of today’s post is “Benin”, but it’s important to note that this is not the modern country of Benin but rather the land just to the east currently situated in southern Nigeria — which was then the Benin Empire, at the tail end of a very long run.
Ruled from Benin City (also presently in Nigeria), this great African state had been in direct contact with European countries since the 15th century.
By the 19th, of course, it had waned with colonial incursions — but Benin itself had sagely declined to extend “free trade” to the powers that meant to dominate it, nor to cede sovereignty by signing a “protectorate” arrangement.
It was only a matter of time before Britain (or someone else) made an offer Benin couldn’t refuse.
In January 1897, a British expedition attempting to enter Benin during a religious festival against the orders of its oba (king) was slaughtered by a Benin force led by the oba‘s son-in-law, Ologbosere (alternatively, Ologbosheri). Britain claimed it was a diplomatic mission; Benin apparently believed the deputation meant to attack.
Regardless, the tactical victory would prove a strategic debacle.
New York Times, Jan. 21, 1897. The last paragraph of this article innocently observes that “the country is said to be very rich, and it would not be surprising to find that one result of the punitive expedition would be the annexation of the whole territory to the British possessions in West Africa.”
The circumstances of this encounter remain murky and hotly disputed to this day. (Here’s a Benin-sympathetic take.) We at Executed Today are confident that a global superpower would never misrepresent its intentions nor engineer a provocation in order to unseat a resource-rich dictator.
As we learn from the London Times (June 12, 1897),
The object of the mission is described as peaceful, and one version even asserts that the party were unarmed … it was intended to send a party to Benin city to ask the King to remove the obstacles which he places in the way of trade …
The King and his capital have a bad reputation. He is a “Ju Ju” follower and addicted to human sacrifices, the gruesome remains of which are to be found in abundance in his capital. He is said recently to have threatened death to the next white man who attempted to visit him, and there is but too good reason to fear that he has kept his word. A military expedition against him probably would have been necessary in any event sooner or later.
The one lasting remembrance of Benin in my mind is its smells. Crucifixions, human sacrifices, and every horror the eye could get accustomed to, to a large extent, but the smells no white man’s internal economy could stand. …
Blood was everywhere; smeared over bronzes, ivory, and even the walls, and spoke the history of that awful city in a clearer way than writing ever could. And this had been going on for centuries! Not the lust of one king, not the climax of a bloody reign, but the religion (save the word!) of the race …
the atrocities of Benin, originating in blood lust and desire to terrorise the neighbouring states, the brutal love of mutilation and torture, and the wholesale manner in which the caprices of the King and Juju were satisfied, could only have been the result of stagnant brutality …
[I saw] a crucifixion tree with a double crucifixion on it, the two poor wretches stretched out facing the west, with their arms bound together in the middle. The construction of this tree was peculiar, being absolutely built for the purpose of crucifixion. At the base were skulls and bones, literally strewn about; the debris of former sacrifices … and down every main road were two or more human sacrifices.
The synoptic reports of two other officers are excerpted in this tome; e.g.,
Seven large sacrifice compounds were found inclosed by walls … [containing earthen] altars [that] were covered with streams of dried human blood … [and] open pits filled with human bodies giving forth the most trying odours.
Whilst Britain set about making Benin safe for the olfactory nerves of long-barred merchandisers, Ologbosere persisted in the bush for more than two years. He was finally snared with the connivance of some local tribal chiefs keen to do business with the new boss.
Tried on June 27 — just one day before his actual execution; the verdict, of course, foreordained — Ologbosere was damned by those chiefs’ testimony that the strike force he had led back in 1897 to precipitate the intervention “was not sent to kill white men — and we therefore decide that according to native law his life is forfeited.”
The king told me that he had heard that the white men were coming to fight with him, and that I must get ready to go and fight the white men … when all the people called the mass meeting at Benin City and selected me to go and fight the white men, I went. I had no palaver with the white men before.
The day I was selected to go from Benin City to meet the white men all the chiefs here present were in the meeting, and now they want to put the whole thing on my shoulders.
Great Britain’s punitive expedition also resulted in the capture of many hundreds of metal objects scattered to European museums and collections — collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. (It’s a misnomer: they’re actually brass.)
Where the rail splitter failed, fortune prevailed.
“A few days — or nights rather — before that set for his execution,” we read,
a friendly auger passed to him afforded the means of escape. Just then delays were dangerous to poor drunken Bill Weaver, for Sheriff Lewis had the rope and scaffold ready, so he did not await a farewell word from friends, but sped away to the North, as the winds go. At that time the tangled forests and the untramped prairies afforded unexcelled means for seclusion and escape, and the condemned man, once a mile from town, might well bid farewell to every fear of being caught and hanged, as he doubtless did. Years afterward Weaver was heard from in far Northern Wisconsin, a useful, law-abiding citizen. No effort was ever made to bring him back from his delicious exile.
On this date in 1944, 24-year-old Krystyna Wituska [Polish language link] was guillotined inside the Halle-Saale Prison in Germany.
She’d been convicted of espionage and treason in relation to her activities with the Polish Underground.
Although for months she had feared the Germans were on to her, it wasn’t Krystyna’s own actions that lead to her arrest in October 1942. No, it was the ghost of lovers past.
A short time before, the Nazis had picked up a former boyfriend of hers who was coincidentally also involved with the Underground. The couple had been engaged at one time, but they hadn’t seen each other since 1938 and Krystyna’s passion for him had long since cooled. It was merely a remarkably unlucky chance that the Gestapo happened to find her name in his apartment.
Krystyna’s death sentence was confirmed in May 1943, but over a year passed before she was actually put to death.
During the interval she kept in touch with her family and friends by mail. Her letters, punctuated with requests for items like food and warm clothing, were remarkably cheerful and upbeat in spite of her gloomy surroundings.
Don’t think she was in denial about her fate, however, for she alluded to it frequently.
“I am not distressed that I must die,” she wrote to one acquaintance in August 1943. “If you have a good understanding of life, you know how to accept death. The important thing is to maintain one’s human dignity to the end.”
This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)
Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.
Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.
This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?
The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.
They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.
The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.
And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.
In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.
Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)
When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.
Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.
Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:
You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?
There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.
My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.
And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!
And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.
These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.
Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird’s hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]
All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.
Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.
Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.
How did you come by this story?
When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.
In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.
He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.
For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.
The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.
Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.
It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.
One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.
How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?
There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a family genealogy.
After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.
Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.
Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.
A quarter-century ago this date, a “scared” mentally disabled prisoner named Jerome Bowden was electrocuted in Georgia for a crime many think he did not commit.
Bowden drew a death sentence for a robbery-murder on the strength of two very suspect pieces of evidence:
the accusation of a juvenile co-defendant who might well have been the real murderer; and
a signed confession Bowden could barely understand
While present-day DNA exonerations are fortunately forcing reconsideration of the ubiquitous problem of false confessions, Bowden’s was understandably doubted even before his execution.
Asked to explain his signature on a document obviously beyond his capacity to compose himself, he gave a confused answer that seemed to indicate he’d been led to sign it by a suggestion that it would keep him out of the electric chair.
“Detective Myles had told me this here … Had told me about could help me, that he could, you know, which I knew that confessing to something you didn’t take part in was-if you confess to something that you didn’t do, as if you did it, because you are saying that you did.”
Bowden’s assent to this fatal “admission” sadly evokes the characteristic eagerness to please one often encounters in the developmentally disabled — sometimes, as with Joe Arridy, to their own destruction.
It’s noticeable, too, in Bowden’s incongruously ingratiating last statements, recordings of which were taken and subsequently leaked publicly. This and others are available at SoundPortraits.org.*
Bowden had been evaluated with an I.Q. of 59 at the age of 14, the examiner reporting him “functioning at the lower limits of mild retardation. He has little or no insight into his situation … He is easily distracted and has a tendency to act on impulse regardless of the consequences.”
And even though the authorities hustled through a test the day before his execution that reckoned Bowden with an I.Q. of 65 — still solidly below the conventional threshold for mental disability, but good enough for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — the whole affair shook the state. It “unsettled more than a few persons in government and law enforcement,” the Atlanta Constitution later editorialized.
Its [the state’s] reasoning was grievously faulty. Whether Bowden understood his fate or not, whether he knew right from wrong — he was indisputably handicapped …
Most states have progressed beyond the dated right-wrong standard in weighing such cases … and ask: Could the defendant help himself? There is compelling evidence that Bowden could not …
brute whimsy was given full sway. For the state of Georgia, it was a willful lapse of decency.
-Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1986 editorial**
This lapse of decency rippled over the months ahead until Georgia in 1988 became the first state to enact a law barring the execution of the mentally disabled.
While that decision was reversed in 2002, the putative ban on executing the mentally disabled in the United States remains very far from a bright line. It’s up to the states themselves to decide who falls under that definition,† and at least some have given ample indication that they’re prepared to exploit any expediency necessary to get a fellow onto death row, or keep him there. Earlier this very week, Texas (of course) put to death a man of dubious competence, Milton Mathis, essentially by cherry-picking its data and having federal appellate review barred on a technicality.
A quarter-century on, those ripples started by Jerome Bowden still have a way to go.
There, he and a fellow veteran named William Horbord or Horboard shot dead a native Maliseet for stealing their hog.
This brought neighboring peoples to a deadly tense standoff. The Maliseet demanded justice for their victim; white Canadians demanded … well, the right to shoot Maliseet without fear of their own neck.
Nelson and Horbord went right on trial, but how to finesse the situation?
According to an exhibit that unfortunately seems to have vanished from the Virtual Museum of Canada, natives “camped out around the presiding Judge Kingsclear’s home.” That must have got his commute off to an awkward start each day.
So a Solomonic compromise obtained: after the two were duly convicted and doomed to hang, Nelson, the principal offender, was measured for his coffin … while Horbord, deemed less culpable, received a pardon.
On this date in 1535, Catholic prelate John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill for refusing to endorse Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.
The longtime Bishop of Rochester had only been elevated to the cardinalate weeks before by the new Pope Paul III, in the vain hope that the sublimity of the position would induce King Henry to ease the prelate’s imprisonment.
Henry eased it, all right. Permanently.*
Forbidding the official hat to be delivered to Albion, Henry declared he would dispatch its owner’s head to Rome instead.
A jury including the father of the usurping queen who had occasioned all this trouble — Anne Boleyn, of course, bound for the block herself in less than a year — condemned the aged ecclesiastic to death for treason.
He was hustled to the scaffold on this date to beat the June 24 feast day of his patron and namesake Saint John the Baptist, Christ‘s Biblical precursor who was … beheaded by a ruthless king whose marriage the Baptist had denounced. Struck a little too close to home, that.
Fisher’s friend and fellow-traveler both spiritual and temporal, Sir Thomas More, followed the cardinal’s footsteps to Calvary a fortnight later.
* It’s possible Henry had been out for Fisher’s blood for some time. As a foe of the king in his so-called Great Matter of many years’ standing, Fisher was the presumed target of a 1531 assassination-by-poison attempt that resulted in a horrific execution by boiling alive.
On this date in 1924, a group of Japanese Oomoto* sect members was lined up for execution by a Manchurian warlord — only to be saved at the last moment by the intervention of the Japanese consulate.
These inordinately lucky folk were the remnants of a bizarre “spiritual army” under Onisaburo Deguchi, who set out to plant a utopian colony on the Mongolian steppe.
Onisaburo (left) and Ueshiba, shackled together for deportation after their near-execution. Onisaburo’s part of this image looks a little touched-up.
Oomoto got started as a splinter sect from Shinto with an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi, who began receiving spiritual visions in the in the 1890’s. Onisaburo was her follower, and then her son-in-law, and certainly the foundling cult’s greatest exponent.
With his guidance, it blossomed as one of the early 20th century’s most successful “new religions”, a term encompassing the dizzying array of novel religious movements in Japan after the Meiji Restoration.**
A born showman and innovative communicator, Onisaburo was a natural to
[mediate] between traditional and modern Japan in a time of national transformation.
… he was no less a master at what Eric Hobsbawm termed the “invention of tradition.” …
Onisaburo’s imaginative rituals and personal presentation (he loved to star in movies, and to dress as a shaman or Shinto deity) combined enough folk tradition to seem familiar, yet always with a new twist suggesting up-to-date modernity and “scientific” awareness to boot.
In private communication with this site, Ellwood compared the advent of new religions like Oomoto to the roughly contemporaneous advent in the west of movements like Christian Science and Religious Science. Both of these, like Oomoto, explicitly aimed to yoke tradition and modernity together.
“In Japan the leap from a closed-off feudal society to a modern industrial powerhouse was particularly profound, and naturally disturbing to a lot of ordinary people,” Ellwood said. “The new religions tried to combine old and new, giving people baffled by change and the breakup of traditional peasant communities and ways of life something to hold on to. They said in effect, ‘We understand your problems; we can show how it all makes sense, how it will come out good in the end, and how you can fit in, be part of exciting times, and gain power in the process.'”
Onisaburo’s brand of evangelical, grassroots millenialism hit the big time in the 1910s and 1920s.
It also attracted official censure from authorities wary of deviation from the official Shinto religion.
Onisaburo did a short stint in prison for subversion in 1921, and shifted his attentions abroad.
“Onisaburo considered himself strongly internationalist in an idealistic way, and therefore was led to challenge the increasing nationalism of his time and even the Emperor himself, whereas many of the other new religions accommodated themselves to the prevailing political currents,” Ellwood observed. Later, Onisaburo would actually be prosecuted for lese majeste for his insufficient accommodation to imperial authority.
At any rate, as part of feeling out the proper spiritual direction after his first stint as a ward of the state, Onisaburo and some followers quietly slipped out of Japan in early 1924.
They made for Manchuria, then a de facto independent principality under the Tokyo-allied warlord Zhang Zuolin.
There, they recruited one of Zhang’s subordinates on a mission to form up a “spiritual army” to invade Outer Mongolia.
According to Stalker, this adventure initially had Zhang’s blessing — but he quickly soured on the freelance militia, a leader now calling himself the Dalai Lama, and the gang’s escalating aspiration to unite all of Mongolia on his borders. Zhang surrounded and suppressed the expedition, summarily executing most of the Chinese personnel.
Even if my body is exposed
on the plains of Mongolia
I will still keep the dignity of a Japanese
I will ascend to Heaven and protect
not only Japan but the whole world
Far away from Japan
I will now join the gods
in the sky of Mongolia
But the execution was dramatically aborted when Onisaburo was fortuitously able to hail a Japanese consular official who protected his countrymen.
Scarcely chastened — indeed, the adventure with its miraculous escape drew romantic media coverage back home — Onisaburo returned to Japan to rebuild Oomoto. He would continue dabbling in both internationalism (Oomoto adopted the sometimes-persecuted artificial language Esperanto) and Japan’s right-wing fringe (Stalker says that Onisaburo wisely declined Ikki Kita‘s invitation to finance a disastrous right-wing revolt).
Oomoto was violently suppressed in the 1930s, but retained many adherents and still exists today.
Martial artist Morihei Ueshiba was one of Onisaburo’s disciples to escape execution this date. Upon returning to Japan, the man parted ways with Oomoto and instead created the martial art form aikido.
* Alternatively, Omoto, or Omotokyo.
** And continuing to the present day. While Oomoto is also a going concern, the “new religion” most widely familiar to most readers will be the Aum Shinrikyo sect — notorious for carrying out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
This master’s thesis (pdf) sets the scene for new religions (and specifically Oomoto) in early 20th century Japan.