Archive for November, 2012

1871: Gaston Cremieux, Marseilles Commune leader

Add comment November 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1871, Gaston Cremieux was shot at Marseilles for his role in that city’s lately-destroyed Commune.

Cremieux (French Wikipedia page: most external links in this post are also in French) was a gifted young lawyer with a social conscience who was known for taking on indigent-defense cases and working-class causes.

Given his prominence in radical circles, Cremieux was naturally thrust into leadership when word of the Paris Commune brought Marseilles, too, into a popular rising.

Lissagaray called Cremieux “an elegant and effeminate speaker … a mild enthusiast, who beheld the revolution under rather a bucolic aspect.” His admirable principles were not those of bloody revolutionary will, and he was accordingly viewed (or disdained) as a moderate.

The Marseilles Commune lasted only a fortnight: neighboring towns did not rally to it, and elsewhere in the south Toulouse and Narbonne communards were crushed within days.

When troops of the bourgeois Versailles government — the city to which it had fled from Paris — took Marseilles, according to Lissagaray, they “arrested at random, and dragged their victims into the lamp-stores of the station. There an officer scrutinized the prisoners, made a sign to one or the other of them to step out, and blew out his brains. The following days there were rumours of summary executions in the barracks, the forts and the prisons. The number of dead the people lost is unknown, but it exceeded 150.”

Cremieux’s own conscience was pretty clean in all this — he’d even advocated against keeping hostages. (Unsuccessfully, but Marseilles did not kill its hostages, unlike Paris.) “Show me those whom Cremieux has shot,” his lawyer would later protest to the military tribunal called to try him.

Cremieux’s own shooting would have to suffice. He died crying “Vive la République!” as the firing squad emptied its barrels into his torso … as per Cremieux’s request to preserve his face lest his parents be too shaken by his corpse. Just call him a family man.

A posthumously-published French volume of Cremieux’s work contains verse, a play about Robespierre’s fall, and his “Impressions of a Condemned Man”.

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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.

Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.

Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.

His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.

A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.

However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*

* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).

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1828: James “Little Jim” Guild

Add comment November 28th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.

His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.

On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.

Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.

So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.

Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.

So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.

He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.

Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.

“The trial became more of a debate over whether a 12-year-old killer should be punished like an adult,” Daniel Hearn writes in Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963. “The presiding judge placed great emphasis on that issue, especially during his instructions to the jury.”

It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.

The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:

Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”

Jim Guild’s manner was of “stoic indifference” when he was hanged before a large crowd fourteen months after his crime, the last execution in Hunterdon County history. He was thirteen years old when he died.

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1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain

5 comments November 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1835, John Smith and James Pratt (sometimes reported as John Pratt) were hanged outside Newgate Prison for (in the exhausting fulminations of the Old Bailey trial records) “feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally … commit and perpetrate[d] the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery.”


Generic gallows image from this Smith and Pratt hanging-day broadside.

These men were the last put to death anywhere in the realm under the ghastly Tudor-era Buggery Act,* and indeed among the last to die at Newgate for any crime other than murder or attempted murder.

“The grave will soon close over me,” Smith allegedly wrote to a friend before his hanging, “and my name [be] entirely forgotten.”

But that’s not altogether true.

Unbeknownst to the sufferers, they were destined for literary preservation by a young writer on the make, one Charles Dickens: Smith and Pratt make an appearance in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, an 1836 compilation of London scenes of which “A Visit to Newgate” is perhaps the best-known.

This description of the author’s visit to Newgate Prison narrates a visit made, according to William Carlton’s “The Third Man at Newgate” (The Review of English Studies, Nov., 1957), on November 5, 1835. Dickens would write in subsequent correspondence that the experience left him “intensely interested in everything I saw.”

Prisons and the threat or reality of execution would loom large in that redoubtable author’s canon. “You cannot throw the interest over a year’s imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death,” the perspicacious 23-year-old told his publisher.

So too did the still-living apparitions of the condemned Smith and Pratt occupy Dickens’s reflections in “A Visit to Newgate”; they comprise a good third of the essay.

In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. ‘The two short ones,’ the turnkey whispered, ‘were dead men.’

Smith and Pratt, of course, were the “dead men.”

Their third companion, otherwise unconnected with them, was a soldier named Robert Swan, convicted of robbery. Swan was indeed reprieved, a few days before the execution. “Boz” sketched the aspect of these men as he observed them:

The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step – he had been a soldier in the foot-guards – and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues.

If we have Dickens to thank in part for this unexpected glimpse of these poor fellows in the shadow of death, we also can hardly help but notice that — and this is in keeping with Smith’s forecast of posthumous anonymity — he does not name them, nor breathe a word about their scandalous crime. Only the man destined for the reprieve has animation; Smith and Pratt, immobile and affectless, are … but are little else besides. “Dead men,” like that turnkey said. This is not necessarily implausible, but it is also very pat for the literary construction of “A Visit to Newgate,” and we might be entitled to wonder how close to journalistic accuracy the writer has really come here, or regret the details Dickens has discarded that might have salvaged their humanity for a later readership.

Dickens’ party proceeded from these characters to a tour of the physical cells in which these doomed “statues” passed their last sleepless nights.

A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted, lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and obscure stair-case leading to a dark passage, in which a charcoal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every cell on the story opens; and from it alone can they be approached. There are three of these passages, and three of these ranges of cells, one above the other; but in size, furniture and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the recorder’s report being made, all the prisoners under sentence of death are removed from the day-room at five o’clock in the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are allowed a candle until ten o’clock; and here they remain until seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner’s execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never leaves him on any pretence.

We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side; and a small high window in the back admitted as much air and light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy, crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any description.

(Later in the 19th century, this dank vault was improved by conjoining two adjacent chambers to comprise the condemned cell.)

A year after Sketches‘ February 1836 publication, Dickens’ serialized novel of the London underclass Oliver Twist began its run. That story’s heart-wrenching denouement of the thief Fagin awaiting execution in Newgate seems to owe a debt to Dickens’ meditation in Sketches on the dolorous condition of Smith, Pratt, or any doomed prisoner facing death in these awful cells.

“A Visit to Newgate” concludes:

Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined hope of reprieve, he knew not why – indulging in some wild and visionary idea of escaping, he knew not how – hour after hour of the three preceding days allowed him for preparation, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem possible, for none but this dying man can know. He has wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness the timely warnings of his spiritual Fagin in Newgate – Cruikshank consoler; and, now that the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied, and has neither thoughts to turn to, nor power to call upon, the Almighty Being, from whom alone he can seek mercy and forgiveness, and before whom his repentance can alone avail.

Hours have glided by, and still he sits upon the same stone bench with folded arms, heedless alike of the fast decreasing time before him, and the urgent entreaties of the good man at his side. The feeble light is wasting gradually, and the deathlike stillness of the street without, broken only by the rumbling of some passing vehicle which echoes mournfully through the empty yards, warns him that the night is waning fast away. The deep bell of St. Paul’s strikes – one! He heard it; it has roused him. Seven hours left! He paces the narrow limits of his cell with rapid strides, cold drops of terror starting on his forehead, and every muscle of his frame quivering with agony. Seven hours! He suffers himself to be led to his seat, mechanically takes the bible which is placed in his hand, and tries to read and listen. No: his thoughts will wander. The book is torn and soiled by use – and like the book he read his lessons in, at school, just forty years ago! He has never bestowed a thought upon it, perhaps, since he left it as a child: and yet the place, the time, the room – nay, the very boys he played with, crowd as vividly before him as if they were scenes of yesterday; and some forgotten phrase, some childish word, rings in his ears like the echo of one uttered but a minute since. The voice of the clergyman recalls him to himself. He is reading from the sacred book its solemn promises of pardon for repentance, and its awful denunciation of obdurate men. He falls upon his knees and clasps his hands to pray. Hush! what sound was that? He starts upon his feet. It cannot be two yet. Hark! Two quarters have struck; – the third – the fourth. It is! Six hours left. Tell him not of repentance! Six hours’ repentance for eight times six years of guilt and sin! He buries his face in his hands, and throws himself on the bench.

Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. An insupportable load is taken from his breast; he is walking with his wife in a pleasant field, with the bright sky above them, and a fresh and boundless prospect on every side – how different from the stone walls of Newgate! She is looking – not as she did when he saw her for the last time in that dreadful place, but as she used when he loved her – long, long ago, before misery and ill-treatment had altered her looks, and vice had changed his nature, and she is leaning upon his arm, and looking up into his face with tenderness and affection – and he does NOT strike her now, nor rudely shake her from him. And oh! how glad he is to tell her all he had forgotten in that last hurried interview, and to fall on his knees before her and fervently beseech her pardon for all the unkindness and cruelty that wasted her form and broke her heart! The scene suddenly changes. He is on his trial again: there are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just as they were before. How full the court is – what a sea of heads – with a gallows, too, and a scaffold – and how all those people stare at HIM! Verdict, ‘Guilty.’ No matter; he will escape.

The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.

A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.

Lotta books about Dickens

A magistrate with the Dickensian name of Hesney Wedg(e)wood appealed vigorously for clemency for Smith and Pratt — pointing out that the only reason these two had been doomed among the rather many enthusiasts** for this victimless offense was that they were penurious enough to have to pursue their desires in a lodging-house rented by a friend where they were easily spied-upon.

(The testimony lodged against them in court came from the nosy landlord who got suspicious, and with his wife peeped through the keyhole on “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers below his knees, and with his body curled up—his knees were up—Smith was upon him—Pratt’s knees were nearly up to Smith’s shoulders—Smith’s clothes were below his knees … and a great deal of fondness and kissing.” The landlord burst in on the sodomites and put a stop to the fondness right away.)

“There is a shocking inequality in this law in its operation upon the rich and the poor,” wrote Wedgwood.

It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted. The detection of these degraded creatures was owing entirely to their poverty, they were unable to pay for privacy, and the room was so poor that what was going on inside was easily visible from without. (Quoted here)

* The first executed under the Buggery Act shared his scaffold with Thomas Cromwell almost 300 years before. Although there were no further executions for sodomy after Smith and Pratt in 1835, that penalty remained theoretically available for the “crime” until 1861.

** See this book-length pdf.

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1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy”

1 comment November 26th, 2012 Headsman

David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, [80]
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place

On this date in 1679, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.

This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.

With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.

Indeed, Oates’s “revelations” would trigger the Exclusion Crisis, an unsuccessful parliamentary bid to balk the heir presumptive James (eventually James II) of his throne. Parliament, argued Henry Capell, “must quiet the minds of the people, as to their fears of Popery and the Succession.”

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.

Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.

There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.

It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.

Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?

This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.

The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.

Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.


Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.

With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.

After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”

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1977: Benigno Aquino condemned

2 comments November 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1977, former Philippines Senator Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. was sentenced to death by firing squad under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

Aquino, a lifetime politician from one of the archipelago’s powerbroking families, was one of the principal opposition figures against the increasingly autocratic Marcos. His 1968 denunciation of the “garrison state” — Marcos would quadruple the size of the military and infiltrate it widely into civil society — was one of the definitive and lasting brands upon that regime.

So nobody, not least Aquino himself,* was surprised when the outspoken senator was arrested hours after Marcos imposed martial law in September 1972.

Unlike most such political prisoners, Aquino stubbornly refused to cut any deal for amnesty that would confer any hint of submission to Marcos. Their conflict reads, on both sides, as an intensely personal one.

Placed on trial for allegedly arming a guerrilla organization, murdering a political follower, and trying to place the Philippines under (unspecified) foreign domination, Aquino staged a headline-grabbing 40-day hunger strike in 1975 and received extreme unction. The Archbishop of Manila finally talked the wasting Aquino out of letting himself starve to death, but perhaps not out of a certain thirst for martyrdom. (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1977)

“If Marcos believes I’m guilty, I want to be shot tomorrow,” he’s supposed to have exclaimed as he was led away from the tribunal that pronounced his death. (New York Times, Nov. 26, 1977)

That didn’t happen.

While Aquino’s death sentence on this date was expected, it was also generally thought that Marcos — who had allowed only one (non-political) execution during five years of martial law to that point — would spare his foe, as indeed he did. Marcos even released Aquino to travel to the U.S. for treatment after suffering two heart attacks in 1980.

Aquino had those few years to raise his profile and that of the Philippines opposition around the states. Returning to his native country on August 21, 1983, a moment when a then-ailing Marcos seemed weakened enough for a political opening, Aquino was infamously assassinated right on the tarmac as he stepped off the plane.

This event, and the two million-strong funeral march of Aquino’s bullet-riddled body to Manila’s Rizal Park, helped galvanize the country’s opposition. By 1986, popular demonstrations sent Marcos fleeing to exile … and elevated to the presidency Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon.

Today, the couple adorns the Philippines’ 500-peso banknote, and their only son, Benigno Aquino III, is the country’s president. To pay him a call, just catch the next flight to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.


Marchers with a banner alluding to Ninoy Aquino’s assassination date pass the monument to the slain ex-senator in Makati. (cc) image from littleislanddimp

* According to In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, Aquino was disappointed at the muted public reaction to his arrest. “I judged Marcos correctly,” he told a friend, “but I misjudged the people.”

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1868: Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti, by the Papal guillotine

1 comment November 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti were guillotined in Rome.

Theirs was a passion of the Risorgimento, the 19th century drive to unify as a single nation the peninsula’s quiltwork of minor kingdoms, duchies, and city-states.

Following the Third Italian War of Independence, this had largely been accomplished … with the notable exception of the Papal States surrounding Rome. You can hardly have Italy without the Eternal City.

So national liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi gathered a force under the slogan Roma o morte and prepared to march … while Pope Pius IX began receiving reinforcements from the sympathetic French emperor Napoleon III.

Inside Rome, Monti and Tognetti prepared a little morte of their own. Intending to mount a fifth-column uprising to coincide with the arrival of Garibaldi’s army, the two detonated a couple barrels of gunpowder under the Serristori barracks, killing 23 French zouaves and four Roman civilians. (All links in this paragraph are Italian.)


Kablamo.

Unfortunately for the bombers, no general rising ensued, and the Papal and French armies subsequently repulsed Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana on Nov. 3, 1867 — extending the papal enclave’s lease on life only slightly, but just enough to deal with Monti and Tognetti.

Their fate at the hands of the civil and religious authorities (one and the same, at this time), is dramatized in the 1977 Italian film In Nome Del Pap Re. (This Google books freebie purports to relate their final days.)

The triumph, such as it was, was short-lived for the Papal States: these were the very last executions by guillotine in Rome; the Papal States polity as a whole had time for only two more executions in its history before the Italian nationalist army completed the risorgimento by capturing Rome in 1870.

The two are memorialized in a celebratory ode by Giosue Carducci.

PER GIUSEPPE MONTI E GAETANO TOGNETTI
MARTIRI DEL DIRITTO ITALIANO

I
Torpido fra la nebbia ed increscioso
Esce su Roma il giorno:
Fiochi i suon de la vita, un pauroso
Silenzio è d’ogn’intorno.

Novembre sta del Vatican su gli orti
Come di piombo un velo:
Senza canti gli augei da’ tronchi morti
Fuggon pe ‘l morto cielo.

Fioccano d’un cader lento le fronde
Gialle, cineree, bianche;
E sotto il fioccar tristo che le asconde
Paion di vita stanche

Fin quelle, che d’etadi e genti sparte
Mirar tanta ruina
In calma gioventù, forme de l’arte
Argolica e latina.

Il gran prete quel dì svegliossi allegro,
Guardò pe’ vaticani
Vetri dorati il cielo umido e negro,
E si fregò le mani.

Natura par che di deforme orrore
Tremi innanzi a la morte:
Ei sente de le piume anco il tepore
E dice – Ecco, io son forte.

Antecessor mio santo, anni parecchi
Corser da la tua gesta:
A te, Piero, bastarono gli orecchi;
Io taglierò la testa.

A questa volta son con noi le squadre,
Né Gesù ci scompiglia:
Egli è in collegio al Sacro Cuore, e il padre
Curci lo tiene in briglia.

Un forte vecchio io son; l’ardor de i belli
Anni in cuor mi ritrovo:
La scure che aprì ‘l cielo al Locatelli
Arrotatela a novo.

Sottil, lucida, acuta, in alto splenda
Ella come un’idea:
Bello il patibol sia: l’oro si spenda
Che mandò Il Menabrea.

I francesi, posato il Maometto
Del Voltèr da l’un canto,
Diano una man, per compiere il gibetto,
Al tribunal mio santo.

Si esponga il sacramento a San Niccola
Con le indulgenze usate,
Ed in faccia a l’Italia mia figliuola
Due teste insanguinate. –

II
E pur tu sei canuto: e pur la vita
Ti rifugge dal corpo inerte al cuor,
E dal cuore al cervel, come smarrita
Nube per l’alpi solvesi in vapor.

Deh, perdona a la vita! A l’un vent’anni
Schiudon, superbi araldi, l’avvenir;
E in sen, del carcer tuo pur tra gli affanni.
La speme gli fiorisce et il desir.

Crescean tre fanciulletti a l’altro intorno,
Come novelli del castagno al piè;
Or giaccion tristi, e nel morente giorno
La madre lor pensa tremando a te.

Oh, allor che del Giordano a i freschi rivi
Traea le turbe una gentil virtù
E ascese a le città liete d’ulivi
Giovin messia del popolo Gesù,

Non tremavan le madri; e Naim in festa
Vide la morte a un suo cenno fuggir
E la piangente vedovella onesta
Tra il figlio e Cristo i baci suoi partir.

Sorridean da i cilestri occhi profondi
I pargoletti al bel profeta umìl;
Ei lacrimando entro i lor ricci biondi
La mano ravvolgea pura e sottil.

Ma tu co ‘l pugno di peccati onusto
Calchi a terra quei capi, empio signor,
E sotto al sangue del paterno busto
De le tenere vite affoghi il fior.

Tu su gli occhi de i miseri parenti
(E son tremuli vegli al par di te)
Scavi le fosse a i figli ancor viventi,
Chierico sanguinoso e imbelle re.

Deh, prete, non sia ver che dal tuo nero
Antro niun salvo a l’aure pure uscì;
Polifemo cristian, deh non sia vero
Che tu nudri la morte in trenta dì.

Stringili al petto, grida – Io del ciel messo
Sono a portar la pace, a benedir –
E sentirai dal giovanile amplesso
Nuovo sangue a le tue vene fluir…

In sua mente crudel (volgonsi inani
Le lacrime ed i prieghi) egli si sta:
Come un fallo gittò gli affetti umani
Ei solitario ne l’antica età.

III
Meglio così! Sangue dei morti, affretta
I rivi tuoi vermigli
E i fati; al ciel vapora, e di vendetta
Inebria i nostri figli.

Essi, nati a l’amore, a cui l’aurora
De l’avvenir sorride
Ne le limpide fronti, odiino ancora,
Come chi molto vide.

Mirate, udite, o avversi continenti.
O monti al ciel ribelli,
Isole e voi ne l’oceàn fiorenti
Di boschi e di vascelli;

E tu che inciampi, faticosa ancella,
Europa, in su la via;
E tu che segui pe’ i gran mar la stella
Che al Penn si discovria;

E voi che sotto i furiosi raggi
Serpenti e re nutrite,
Africa ed Asia, immani, e voi selvaggi,
Voi, pelli colorite;

E tu, sole divino: ecco l’onesto
Veglio, rosso le mani
Di sangue e ‘l viso di salute: è questo
L’angel de gli Sciuani.

Ei, prima che il fatale esecutore
Lo spazzo abbia lavato,
Esce raggiante a delibar l’orrore
Del popolo indignato.

Ei, di demenza orribile percosso,
Com’ebbro il capo scuote,
E vorria pur vedere un po’ di rosso
Ne l’òr de le sue ruote.

Veglio! son pompe di ferocie vane
In che il tuo cor si esala,
E in van t’afforza a troncar teste umane
Quei che salvò i La Gala.

Due tu spegnesti; e a la chiamata pronti
Son mille, ancor più mille.
I nostri padiglion splendon su i monti,
Ne’ piani e per le ville,

Dovunque s’apre un’alta vita umana
A la luce a l’amore:
Noi siam la sacra legion tebana,
Veglio, che mai non muore.

Sparsa è la via di tombe, ma com’ara
Ogni tomba si mostra:
La memoria de i morti arde e rischiara
La grande opera nostra.

Savi, guerrier, poeti ed operai,
Tutti ci diam la mano:
Duro lavor ne gli anni, e lieve omai
Minammo il Vaticano.

Splende la face, e il sangue pio l’avviva;
Splende siccome un sole:
Sospiri il vento, e su l’antica riva
Cadrà l’orrenda mole.

E tra i ruderi in fior la tiberina
Vergin di nere chiome
Al peregrin dirà: Son la ruina
D’un’onta senza nome.

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1739: Seven of nine Williamsburg malefactors

3 comments November 23rd, 2012 Headsman

No, not that Seven of Nine. We have no further details on offer about these poor souls, but we thought the assortment of crimes — a mother for murdering her bastard child; a highwayman; an overseer for whipping a slave to death — and the editorial rant about the governor‘s abus’d Clemency, made for a colorful slice of life.

Image: Account of a Williamsburg, Va. mass hanging on Nov. 23, 1739

(Virginia Gazette, Nov. 23, 1739.)

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

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2012: Ajmal Kasab, 26/11 Mumbai terrorist

November 21st, 2012 Headsman

At 7:30 this morning at Yerwada jail in Pune, Maharashtra, the sole surviving author of 21st century India’s most notorious terrorist plot was put to death.

Ajmal Kasab was captured alive after the deadly November 26, 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The “26/11″ date will live quite a while in infamy on the subcontinent … as will the chilling CCTV images of the armed and armored Kasab prowling the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Kasab and his partner in the rail station attack slew more than 50 people that evening, and another dozen-plus policemen in running gun battles as they fled the scene.

This was only one of a multitude of Mumbai targets hit in an audacious attack on that 26/11 by a ten-man team of Lashkar-e-Taiba* Islamic militants, trained in Pakistan. They had sailed in from Karachi (murdering the crew of a small fishing boat they hijacked) just for the occasion.

Kasab’s confederates elsewhere in town achieved a similar body count hitting a pair of five-star hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi Trident, each of which turned into a multi-day hostage standoff only resolved by a bloody to-the-death shootout with paramilitaries.

Attacks on a cafe and a Jewish center, as well as several timed bombs, also took place. In all, some 166 people — plus nine of the ten terrorists responsible — died, with hundreds more wounded and a nation of more than a billion shaken and angry. It’s one of those cases that make people say, “if ever there was a death penalty case …” Kasab’s speedy dispatch has been a hot political topic since he was first handed a death sentence on May 6, 2010, and the whole affair has not done any favors for the ever-touchy India-Pakistan relationship.

The (usually) sluggish India death penalty process requires that cases cleared by the judiciary receive executive clemency consideration — a stage of the process that often takes years. Recent presidents have tended to stand on only considering such applications in the order they are submitted, and then either granting those clemencies after ponderous review, or scarcely prioritizing any review at all, with further judicial interventions and a shrinking pool of trained hangmen also gumming up the works.

It’s been a recipe for virtual death penalty abolition: the last hanging prior to Kasab’s was in 2004, India’s only other execution this century. This is in a country with one-sixth of the world’s population.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s new president, took office with a number of presidential clemency applications still pending, some dating back to the late Nineties. While there’s no guarantee that he’ll break with the glacial pattern established by his predecessors when it comes to backlogged everyday criminals, Mukherjee advanced this exceptional petition right to the front of the line and turned it down flat even as Kasab was secretly transferred from his unusual egg-shaped bombproof Mumbai cell to the hanging facility at Yerwada.

“His execution,” said Maharashta Home Minister R.R. Patil, “is a tribute to the victims.”

* Lashkar-e-Taiba also masterminded a 2001 massacre at the Indian Parliament, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

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