On this date in 1896, Russian refugee Ivan Kovalev was hanged for a Sacramento double murder.
They might have met Anton Chekhov when he visited in Sakhalin in 1890 to compose the investigative articles that would become his book Sakhalin Island, one of the great pieces of journalism of his time. “Utter hell,” the great playwright mused of that brutal and befogged colony. “I feel that if I were a convict, I would escape immediately, whatever the consequences.”
Kovalev and nine mates felt exactly the same and they did it in the form of a downright suicidal flight from Sakhalin’s abyss in an open launch ventured into the Pacific in hopes of reaching Japan. They were on the brink of succumbing to their privations when they were miraculously picked up by a San Francisco-based whaler, the Charles W. Morgan.**
The convicts claimed that they were escaped political prisoners, a demographic that enjoyed western sympathy; there’s every chance that they were actually violent criminals but their tale of woe in the bowels of tsardom was persuasive and times being what they were a background check with the nearest consulate was not an option. The Sakhalin escapees were allowed to stay in California.
On December 30, 1894, about sixteen months after they drew their last moldy Sakhalin rations, Kovalev with two accomplices† bashed the brains out of the aged grocer F.H.L. Weber and his wife with an axe so that they could rob his store. Chekhov? Make that Dostoyevsky.
It took several months to zero in on the perpetrator but once the conviction was secured, indignant Sacramentans applied in record numbers for passes to attend the hanging, such “a spirit of enmity and hatred toward this son of far-away Russia” having been aroused by the horrid circumstances of the butchery that “it is evident that a spirit of satisfaction is abroad in the community at the thought that … Ivan Kovalev will expiate that crime with his life.”
1971 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Charles W. Morgan‘s preservation.
† The accomplices don’t figure in the execution story: one was mortally wounded in an unrelated subsequent robbery, prior to Kovalev’s arrest; the other wound up serving time for burglary.