Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1943: Jerzy Iwanow (Georgios Ivanof)

1 comment January 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1943, Polish-born Greek resistance hero Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz was shot (or shot attempting to escape the Kaisariani execution ground, which amounts to pretty much the same thing) for a dramatic career fighting the occupation of Greece.

Iwanow (Polish) — or Georgios Ivanof — was the son of a Russian officer, but his parents divorced in his childhood, and mom married a Greek.

Jerzy was on his way to a cosmopolitan upbringing, mastering half a dozen languages and apparently just as many sports.

His athletic and linguistic prowess would both come in handy for derring-do missions (more Polish) in the Greek waters that saw him sink a German submarine and a destroyer with magnetic bombs. He even escaped the first two times he was captured.

Third time was a charm for the Nazis.

Sounds like celluloid material. As a matter of fact, a 1972 Polish film valorized Iwanow as Agent Nr. 1.

You can see the full movie on Veoh, if you’re prepared to install their viewing software.

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1645: John Hotham the Elder

1 comment January 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645 — one day after the same fate befell his son — Sir John Hotham was beheaded by the English Parliamentarians for attempting to betray Hull to the Cavaliers in the English Civil War.

Part of the Daily Double: John Hothams.

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1645: John Hotham the Younger

1 comment January 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, John Hotham the Younger — former M.P., and (too) briefly an adherent of Parliament in the English Civil War, was beheaded as a traitor.

Part of the Daily Double: John Hothams.

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104 B.C.E.: Jugurtha

1 comment January 1st, 2010 emperorhadrian

(Thanks to Daily Kos diarist “emperorhadrian” for licensing this guest post, originally published on that site June 24, 2007. -ed.)

The Jugurthine War was a key war in the final century of the Roman Republic.

Like the Americans in Iraq, Rome assumed that their war against Jugurtha, King of Numidia (a nation in north Africa), would be a cakewalk. They believed that Numidia was a nation of savages with a bizarre religion. They assumed that their own “shock and awe” attacks by the superior legions would decapitate and destroy the “evil doer” Jugurtha. They believed that in order to liberate the Numidians of their primitive ways, they had to impose the civilized will of the Roman state on this backward nation. Rome never expected that the Numidians would wage an insurgent war against their Roman occupiers. This war ended up dragging on for almost a decade. And in the end, it showed the depravity of the ruling party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimate party), which was sending the Roman Republic on its way to tyranny, empire and ruin.

In 148 BC, the King of Numidia, Masinissa, died. The Roman proconsul, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, had been given authority by Masinissa to divide Masinissa’s estate. He divided it between Masinissa’s three sons, Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastarnable. Soon after, Gulussa and Mastarnable died, leaving Micipsa as the sole King of Numidia. Around the year 134 BC, Micipsa sent Jugurtha (who was Masinissa’s grandson, but the son of another Numidian) to Spain with Scipio Aemilianius. Scipio was fighting the Celtiberians, who lived in a part of what is now Spain. Jugurtha was able to raise an army to help Scipio. Because of the valor of Jugurtha and his army at the Siege of Numantia, Scipio was able to win his war against the Celtiberians.

While fighting for Rome, Jugurtha worked alongside his future enemy, Gaius Marius. Jugurtha not only learned the superior Roman style of fighting, but he also learned of Rome’s weakness for money and thus bribery. Jugurtha described Rome as “urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit” (“a city for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should ever find a buyer”). When Jugurtha returned to Numidia, Micipsa adopted Jugurtha, and decided to include Jugurtha in his will.

After the fall of Numantia, Jugurtha returned home with a letter from Scipio addressed to his uncle; in it, the commander praised Jugurtha’s exploits and congratulated Micipsa for having “a kinsman worthy of yourself, and of his grandfather Masinissa” (Sallust Iug. 9). On this recommendation the king formally adopted Jugurtha and made him co-heir with his own children

In 118, Micipsa died. He left his kingdom to Jugurtha and his two natural sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. Shortly after Micipsa’s death, Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed. Adherbal fled to Rome. The Roman Senate sent a commission to Numidia to make peace. Jugurtha bribed the Romans on the commission, and thus the commission gave the better regions of the kingdom to Jugurtha.

In 113 BC, Jugurtha took his army and cornered Adherbal in his capital city of Citra. According to Sallust, Adherbal had the support of the people, but Jugurtha had the support of the best soldiers. A Roman Commission was sent to Numidia to forge a new peace. Jugurtha then bribed the Romans on this commission. The Romans thus allowed Jugurtha to storm Citra, and slaughter Adherbal and his supporters. Because Jugurtha slaughtered a number of Italian business people (including Roman Equites, or “Knights“), the Roman senate declared war on Jugurtha.

The Roman Senate sent an army under the command of the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to fight Jugurtha. Bestia decisively defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha bribed Bestia, and thus was given unusually favorable terms. The Roman Senate viewed the favorable terms with suspicion, so it summoned Jugurtha to Rome. When Jugurtha arrived in Rome, he bribed two Tribunes, who thus prevented him from testifying. While in Rome, Jugurtha attempted to have his cousin and rival Massiva assassinated. Because of this, he was expelled from the city and returned to Numidia.

In 110 BC, the Roman Senate sent the praetor Aulus Postumus Albinus (who was the cousin of a consul for that year) to defeat Jugurtha. Because Jugurtha bribed key Romans involved in Albinus’ army (who then betrayed Albinus), Albinus was defeated.

The Roman Senate then sent the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus to fight Jugurtha. At the Battle of the Muthul, a young Roman officer named Gaius Marius helped to reorganize Metellus’ legions, which then defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha was defeated because he forced his army to retreat before it could suffer heavy losses. The Romans did suffer their own heavy losses. Jugurtha disbanded his army, and had his soliders mount an insurgency to fight the Roman occupiers.

Marius returned to Rome. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the war under Metellus, the Roman Military Assembly (one of the two Roman legislative assemblies, similar to the US Senate) appointed Marius consul (the Military Assembly, not the senate, appointed consuls). The Roman consuls had similar powers as the US President. The consulship was the highest constitutional office, and the consuls had imperium powers, which allowed them to command armies and conduct wars. The senate didn’t want Marius to be consul, because at this time it was dominated by an ultra-conservative republican party of aristocratic elites known as the Optimates. Marius belonged to the party that opposed the Optimates, the Populares. Partly because the senate didn’t like Marius, and partly because of the increasing difficulty Rome was having in recruiting armies, Marius was forced to raise his own army.

The capture of Jugurtha, from this French history of the Jugurthine War.

Marius took his army to Numidia to fight Jugurtha. But while Marius had been raising his army, Jugurtha allied with his father-in-law, Bocchus, the King of Mauretania. Marius defeated Jugurtha and Bocchus in several key battles. But much like with the American occupation in Iraq, Jugurtha’s strategy of insurgency warfare against the occupiers rendered all conventional victories irrelevant. Marius was playing a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how many times the Numidians were defeated, Jugurtha’s insurgents would regroup and keep fighting. It became clear that because of this, Rome could not defeat Jugurtha.

Marius sent his young Quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to Bocchus. Sulla bribed Bocchus, and told him that Bocchus would be given a part of Numidia if he would betray Jugurtha. Bocchus then decided to give Jugurtha to Sulla. Sulla took Jugurtha to Rome, where Jugurtha was strangled in the Tullianum in Rome after marching in Marius’ January 1, 104 B.C. Triumph.


The Triumph of Marius (1729) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The inscription in Latin reads “The Roman people behold Jugurtha laden with chains”.

The Jugurthine War was over. But in the process, several problems were exposed that would cause Rome serious pain in the future. Republicans in this country love to tell us that money in politics is harmless free speech. But as we saw in the Roman Republic during the Jugurthine War, money can be very corrupting. Rome almost lost the war because of money in politics, and the susceptibility of public officials to bribery.

In addition, this war saw the rise of two Romans who would play a key role in the events that directly preceded the fall of the Roman Republic. The first Roman made famous through this war was Gaius Marius. Gaius Marius would later hold the Roman Consulship an unconstitutional 7 times in 21 years (constitutionally, a Roman had to wait 10 years before being reelected consul).

The second Roman made famous through this war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla and Marius would fight an unconstitutional civil war with each other several years after this war had ended. Sulla would illegally march his troops on Rome, and unconstitutionally legalize the mass killing of Marius’ supporters. Marius’ supporters in the senate would unconstitutionally prevent Sulla from fighting a war during one of Sulla’s consulships. Sulla would eventually seize absolute power for himself. Sulla would be the first Roman to be Dictator in almost 150 years. He would also be the first Roman in history to hold the dictatorship without the traditional six month term limit.

As dictator, Sulla would illegally change the Roman constitution to make himself and his party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimates) even more powerful. And most importantly, Sulla would set the example (of civil war on Romans, and then the seizing of absolute power) that the future tyrant Gaius Julius Caesar would follow.

In the end, the actions taken by key players in the war against Jugurtha would be repeated in the final destruction of the Roman Republic. The future triumvir Pompey would unconstitutionally hold multiple consulships in a short period of time. Crassus, another future triumvir, would illegally bribe politicians to get his way. And the future tyrant Julius Caesar would bribe, unconstitutionally hold the consulship, and become dictator for life (as Sulla had done). It was Caesar’s actions in this regard, as well as the similar actions of his adopted son and heir, Gaius Octavius (later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the Emperor Augustus) that would once and for all destroy the Roman Republic, and create the Roman Empire.

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
2. Moving naked over Acheron
3. Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
4. Marius and Jugurtha together,
5. one tangle of shadows.

6. Caesar plots against India,
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding,
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary
10. and acquire a Roman religion;

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
12. Marius and Jagurtha together.
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail,
14. bearing ancestral lares and images;
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness,
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed;
17. The perfumed cloths shall be absent.
18. A small plebeian procession.
19. Enough, enough and in plenty
20. There will be three books at my obsequies
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius, Canto VI by Ezra Pound

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1960: The assassins of Hazza Majali

1 comment December 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1960 — just two days after they had been sentenced — Saleh Safadi, Mohammed Hindawi, Lt. Husham Dabbas, and Karim Shaqra were hanged in Amman’s Hussein Mosque Square for assassinating Jordan’s prime minister earlier that year.

The marquee casualty of Jordan’s standoff against Nasserite Egypt, Hazza Majali might have just been a footnote to the story. According to King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life,

[i]t may be that the bomb plot which cost Hazza Majali his life was also aimed at the King himself. The first bomb, which killed the prime minister, was followed by a second explosion at the scene less than forty minutes later. Had the King followed through on his initial intention to visit the bomb site, he might well have been caught in the second blast.

Though the bombings didn’t get King Hussein, they claimed 11 other lives besides Majali’s.

The assassins’ conspiracy traced back to neighboring Syria, which at that time was (briefly) unified with Egypt as the United Arab Republic. Syria and Jordan have found plenty of reasons to bicker over the years, and the former’s alliance here with Nasser‘s pan-Arabism added a pointed ideological critique of Jordan’s throwback Hashemite dynasty.*

Syria and the UAR were busily subverting U.S.-backed Jordan, and in this venture they enjoyed dangerously considerable popular support within Jordan; Majali in particular was “regarded by some Jordanians — and particularly Palestine refugees — as a virtual tool of the Western powers.” (New York Times, Aug. 30, 1960)

So it was a dangerous situation, and King Hussein did well to escape those years un-blown-up himself.

Several weeks of brinksmanship followed Majali’s assassination, with Jordanian troops massed on the Syrian border. Matters stopped short of outright war, but Nasser, Syria, and the UAR were all explicitly accused of this operation and others at the resulting trial of the assassins in December: the plot was supposed to have originated in Damascus, been paid for in Damascus, and used bombs shipped from Damascus.

Eleven in all were condemned to death, but seven of those sentences were given in absentia to suspects who had absconded to Nasser’s dominions.

* In response to the Egypt-Syria union, the kindred Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq had formed the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. That arrangement was even shorter-lived than the UAR, because the Iraqi Hashemites were almost immediately overthrown. You can get Jordan’s official take on those perilous years here.

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1957: Václav Mrázek, Czech serial killer

1 comment December 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, postwar Czechoslovakia’s most prolific serial killer was put to death at Prague’s Pankrac Prison.

Other than the mandatory Wikipedia entry, most information on Mrazek available online is in Czech.

But there’s little enough nuance to grasp. He was convicted of seven murders (and suspected in several others) to satiate his necrophiliac desires. In all over 100 crimes of sexual abuse and theft were laid at his door.

It was more pedestrian criminality that did him in; the serial killer was at work from 1951 to 1956, but somehow never caught. (This Czech site attributes it to the police force’s postwar prioritization of ideological reliability over investigative professionalism.)

Mrazek was nabbed by accident, rifling jacket pockets (more Czech) at a spa where he worked at an attendant: the subsequent search of his place turned up the evidence of far more villainous behavior, and led Mrazek to confess.

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2009: Akmal Shaikh, mentally ill drug mule

8 comments December 29th, 2009 Headsman

This morning, China confirmed (to London’s fury) the dawn execution of British national Akmal Shaikh.

As tweeted @executedtoday, Shaikh has been at the eye of a media firestorm the past week, though without himself being aware of his impending (and publicly announced) execution until family members who had raced to China to plead for mercy met with him within the past day.

“He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence,” said the clan’s post-meeting (under)statement.

The 53-year-old Shaikh had been homeless in Poland and apparently duped into schlepping some cargo to China as part of a wild goose chase to become a pop star and bring world peace.

In any case like this (and certainly on any blog like this), the mystery parcel invariably contains drugs, doesn’t it? In this instance, our courier was busted at Ürümqi airport with 4 kg of heroin, some 80 times China’s death-sentencing threshold. He swore he knew nothing about it.

If “carry suspicious package for shady central Asian contact to usher in Age of Aquarius” sounds a bit daft … well, mental illness was the basis of Shaikh’s family’s appeal for his life. Shaikh seems to have been severely bipolar and to “may also have … delusional psychosis.”

“Insufficient,” said China; it never gave him a formal psychological evaluation.

So this morning, Akmal Shaikh became the first European executed in China in some 50-plus years … and the lone casualty of a lonely quest to somehow save the world.

Update: China flexes its muscle in the diplomatic row: “We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally and not create new obstacles in bilateral relations.”

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c. 560 B.C.E.: Aesop, fabulist

2 comments December 28th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date around the 560s B.C.E., the storyteller Aesop is supposed to have been executed in Delphi by being hurled from the Hyampeia rock.

The semi-legendary fable-fashioner is not quite so irretrievable to history as, say, Homer, although assuredly many or all of the tales that have accrued under the heading “Aesop’s Fables” trace to origins other than this man.

Supposed to have lived from the late 7th to mid 6th centuries B.C.E., Aesop is first referenced by history’s first historian, Herodotus.

But by way of summation, we cannot improve upon Plutarch‘s succinct description of Aesop’s fate in his essay, “On God’s Slowness to Punish Evil”. (Available here; a different translation is free online here.)

I’m sure you know the story of how Aesop came here bringing gold from Croesus. He meant to make a magnificent offering to the god,* and also to give every inhabitant of Delphi four minas, but apparently he got angry and fell out with the locals; so he made the ritual offering, but sent the money back to Sardis, because he didn’t think that the people deserved a windfall. They then engineered a charge against him of temple robbery and executed him by pushing him from the famous cliff called Hyampeia.** Subsequently, the story goes on, divine wrath afflicted them with failed harvests and with all kinds of strange diseases, and as a result they used to visit all the festivals where Greeks were assembled and make an announcement inviting anyone who so wished to claim compensation from them for Aesop. Two generations later Idmon of Samos arrived at Delphi; not only was he not a relative of Aesop, but he was in fact a descendant of the people who had bought Aesop as a slave in Samos.† It was only when the Delphians had compensated him that their troubles ceased.‡ (We are also told that this incident was the reason for moving the place of punishment for temple robbers from Hyampeia to Aulia.)

There are many books and media under the Aesop’s Fables branding available for purchase, but you can also find the same content in the public domain at Gutenberg.org and elsewhere.

In any format, they’re timeless. “The Mischievous Dog”, for instance, could have been written especially for bloggers.

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* Referring to the sacred shrine occupied by the Oracle of Delphi, of course.

** When visiting Delphi, look for Hyampeia marked on your tourist map as “Phleboukos”, one of the Phaedriades surrounding the sacred site. Hyampeia/Phleboukos towers above the Castalian spring. It’s high.

† Besides being a slave, Aesop (at least, the Aesop as legend accumulated) was afflicted with other disadvantages suitable to elevate his mythological wisdom. According to The Life of Aesop:

AESOP (according to Planudes, Cameraius and others) was by Birth, of Ammorius, a Town in the greater Phrygia; (though some will have him to be a Thracian, others a Samian) of a mean Condition, and his Person deformed, to the highest degree: Flat-nos’d, hunch-back’d, blobber-lipp’d; a long mishapen Head; his Body crooked all over, big-belly’d, badger-legg’d, and his Complexion so swarthy, that he took his very Name from’t; for Aesop is the same with Aethiop. And he was not only unhappy in the most scandalous Figure of a Man, that ever was heard of; but he was in a manner Tongue-ty’d too, by such an Impediment in his Speech, that People could very hardly understand what he said.

Be sure to check The Life‘s account of Aesop’s demise, with the undiplomatic Aesop having enraged his hosts with his poor opinion of their digs … and the fables he tells in his defense falling very flat: “He was speaking on, but they pushed him off headlong from the Rock, and he was dashed to pieces with the Fall.”

‡ The Delphians’ search for compensation is directly described by Herodotus’ Histories, written little more than a century after Aesop’s death. Though the execution story itself could be apocryphal, its presence in Herodotus at least makes Greeks’ belief in the event as a real one of their recent past about as credibly documented as anything from 2500+ years ago.

That Aesop belonged to Iadmon is proved by many facts — among others, by this. When the Delphians, in obedience to the command of the oracle, made proclamation that if any one claimed compensation for the murder of Aesop he should receive it, the person who at last came forward was Iadmon, grandson of the former Iadmon, and he received the compensation. Aesop therefore must certainly have been the former Iadmon’s slave.

Evidently, Aesop’s reputation for sagacious wit was well-established in the 5th century B.C. Aristophanes makes respectful references to Aesop in his plays The Wasps, Peace and The Birds — in the latter, the birds’ ignorance is underscored because they haven’t read their Aesop.

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1899: Hilda Blake, poorhouse orphan

2 comments December 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1899, domestic servant Hilda Blake was hanged in Brandon, Manitoba for murdering the mistress of the house.

Book CoverThe only woman ever executed in Manitoba is the subject of Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899 (U.S. Amazon link | Canadian), which charts her course from an English poorhouse to death on the Canadian frontier.

(A Norwich newspaper recently profiled its long-lost pauper daughter here and here.)

On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Hilda’s hanging, Executed Today was able to sit down with Tom Mitchell, co-author (with his Brandon University colleague Reinhold Kramer) of Walk Towards the Gallows.

Here’s an excerpt from that book. And here are some reviews:

ET: How did you run across Hilda Blake?

TM: It’s a very simple story, really. The province of Manitoba tore an old jail down, and handed the property to the department of health for a senior citizens’ center. So, construction began, and an old jail guard named Bill Ryan showed up on the site and confronted the building superintendent and said, this is holy ground, and it is immoral for you to be constructing anything on this site without removing the human remains.

Hilda and two other victims of capital punishment were on the site, and the guard knew what was there. This made front-page news.

I was doing labor history at the time, so the possibility of finding out a lot of detail about domestic servants was compelling. And it turned out she was sort of a magnet for legal proceedings. When I went to find her court pocket, I found there were actually five court pockets.

As an orphan, she ran away from [her previous placement with] the Stewarts and took up residence with a family headed by a widow homesteader Mary Rex, A legal struggle ensued over who should have Hilda, and in the course of that, Hilda had to make a statement about who she was and where she wanted to be. When we read the letter, it’s clearly not Hilda’s voice, it’s somebody else writing for her. You’re almost always dealing with Hilda second-hand.

There is no other domestic servant probably in the British Empire for whom as much documentation exists, and it’s basically because of Hilda’s notoriety in the murder and these court cases previous. And of course you can track her right back to the British census and the records of the poorhouse and her old neighbourhood and community of Chedgrave, Norfolk England.

The only straightforward account Hilda gives is “My Downfall,” [see below -ed.] and if you read that, you get a pretty good sense of her sensibility. And if you read the press accounts of what she read in jail, you say, right, we’re dealing with a 21-year-old woman for whom literature -– Victorian novels — often times provided her with life strategies and notions of how a woman should conduct herself. Of course Victorian sensation novels were also filled with women who used guns for various ends.

Why was this isolated domestic crime such a big deal?

Western Canada in the 19th century was a frontier, and often times the leading edge of civilization in this frontier were white women and the sort of ideals and morality associated with white women — domestic environment, civility, gender relationships, social class and status involving men and women in terms of how they ought to account for themselves and so on.

So when you have an attack on this sort of basic notion of the social order that people are trying to build, the response is more visceral and more trenchant than it might have been in a more settled community. Here, it was almost akin to the Riel Rebellion: the lower orders are rising against us; every middle-class wife probably looked at her husband and said, “I hope you’re not misbehaving with the help, because we could have a problem.”

So what can we in the 21st century say about how British orphans shipped to Canada for domestic servitude experienced the world? And, of course, about how Hilda specifically experienced it?

Hilda was quite literary in her own way, and she obviously read and developed strategies for life from literature. She seemed to take her role models from literature, and we argue that in part that she can be understood through the books that she read, like Jane Eyre.

My colleague, Reinhold Kramer, whose contribution to Walk Towards the Gallows cannot be overstated, is an English professor. He developed this feature of the biography as well as other fundamental themes of the book.

My continuing frustration with the book is that nobody will see it as labor history. Everybody wants to see it as whodunit or something — but that’s okay; it’s been used for a lot of different courses, some on women, some on crime, some on women and the world of work.

How widespread and significant is this phenomenon of the domestic servant?

From 1870 to about 1930, there were something in the order of about 70 or so thousand children shipped from poorhouses (which were created by the 1830s poor law).

The whole idea of adoption is a 20th century thing. If you were a poor kid, an orphan, in the 19th century, you didn’t get adopted, you were put in a poorhouse and shipped off to Australia, Canada. On the western frontier of Canada, the labor of these children was a valuable commodity.

The British government recently apologized to the descendants of these children for the fact that they were sent out, often with sort of gratuitous statements from the organizations that sent them that they would follow them up. For many of them, it was tragic, and for Hilda and Mary Lane it was more than tragic.

As an economic sector, how important was this domestic service trade to Canada at the turn of the century?

Typically these were young women, and not all of them would be living within the residence of their employer, but most of them would be. The vast majority were young British women — Irish, English, what-not — and it was for women in the paid labor force, this was the main occupation. Young women coming off the farm or young immigrant women, this was one step above prostitution.

So, you could be a sex worker, or you could be a domestic worker. You didn’t get into this if there were options, and many young women would choose options that paid less, just to have social freedom.

So what would be a typical life path for a girl like Hilda?

The premise with Hilda was that she would work as a domestic servant and eventually marry, but the difficulty was that you always carried this badge of your social station.

You had basically no place to meet men in private, and the amount of time off you had was perhaps an afternoon per week. The possibility of you having some kind of independent social life was very very unlikely, so you were a captive of your place in the world of work.

For Hilda, she must have realized that her only escape was in moving up within this small world that she resided in. She kissed Mary Lane before she shot her, and I think was saying, this is nothing personal but it’s my only chance of moving up in the world.

You do a lot with how Hilda Blake played as a political issue, and the symbolism invoked by the press in handling her execution. Frankly, a lot of it seems very contemporary: “villains were bad because they were bad,” crime is “a platform upon which to preach the value of bourgeois order”. How did this crime work as a cultural narrative?

The big issue for Canada in the late 1890s was the quality of immigrant coming to Canada, because it was clear that if the West was going to develop, the country needed hundreds of thousands of people.

Clifford Sifton, who happened to be the MP for Brandon was the Minister for Immigration, and he was bringing Count Leo Tolstoy’s Doukhobors from Russia, Ukrainians from Austro-Hungary, and so on, and he considered these good-quality immigrants because they were agrarian, they could survive. He was being attacked bitterly by people whose ideas of adequate immigrants were shaped by Social Darwinism.

The other problem was that working class immigrants, paupers especially, from Britain were viewed as being marginally adequate because of their questionable morality. The notion of gender at the time was that women were, just by their nature, moral creatures, and if they weren’t, then she was more atavistic than even criminal men — they were moral imbeciles, they were dangerous.

When Hilda Blake murdered Mary Lane, it just happened that a federal election was in the offing, and the main issue that the Conservative party was going to use to try to defeat the Liberals and Clifford Sifton in his own district was immigration, so if the federal government didn’t execute Hilda Blake, they would be handing them an issue to run on.

The Melita Enterprise condemned Hilda early on with the line “we don’t want the Hilda Blakes of the world, they carry blood with the taint of Cain,” which is a great line I wanted to use for the title of our book.

So the federal government faced this dilemma, and our argument was that virtually all women who faced the death penalty had had their sentences commuted, but in the case of Blake, her social background made it impossible.

The one powerful person she had in her corner was the Governor General Lord Minto. The thing that made him susceptible in some senses to understanding the case was his own sense of guilt for the affair he was carrying on with a young woman in Ottawa. That wasn’t a secret; she was nicknamed “Minto’s Folly.”

How about the victim, Mary Lane?

Here was a woman who was murdered by someone she had taken in, been friends with, gunned down in the parlor of her own home. She was a very-well respected person in the community, she was an Anglican, and reportedly sympathetic to women in Hilda’s situation in life.

It’s amazing that Robert Lane manages to avoid coming in even for any kind of censure or public embarrassment.

There was nothing, not in terms of any juridical sense; apparently he wasn’t even interviewed.

The theory of the crime in domestic murders was always the love triangle: if the man of the house got gunned down, the hired man had better look out; in this case, when the woman got gunned down, it was a bit confusing about who would have done this. Ultimately Hilda confessed and protected Lane, but what protected him even more was his middle-class status within that community and the notion that men of that ilk were moral creatures who couldn’t possibly have connived to have had their wives gunned down. If he’d been a working class guy whose morals would have been more suspect, he probably would have been hanged with Hilda.

I think the authorities also couldn’t have been unaware of the implications: if they hanged Lane, his four kids would be orphans.

How widespread were these sexual relationships — or sexual exploitation — between masters of the house and domestics?

Domestic servants should have received danger pay, because they were victimized so often. Most of the women set up in these Magdalene Houses, these houses for single women who were pregnant, were domestic servants.

We talk about the amendments to the criminal code in the late 19th century, and there were some protections put in for women, but Charles Tupper, a Conservative, opposed these because he said they would arm domestic servants with terrific power to blackmail their employers. So the largest class of women in the paid economy were left outside the protection of the code, and any domestic servant who claimed that their employer impregnated them would face a court that would use every possible mechanism to get at their immorality.

It was almost akin to a feudal relationship within the home.

Why did Hilda plead guilty and ask for the maximum punishment?

This was, I think, Hilda’s sense of how a proper woman would behave. You have to think of Hilda growing up as an orphan, with no strong role models. So a lot of I think how she thought of herself and how she should behave came out of what she read.

Reviewers of the book weren’t always satisfied with that.

Sure. You write that “writing a history that did not ignore Blake’s subjectivity required a historical ‘reading’ of a wide range of sources,” and you build some ambitious speculative history on that basis. What kind of reception did that get?

Some reviewers saw that treatment as sort of postmodern, that we were satisfying ourselves with kind of a literary account of Hilda without too seriously thinking about the things we couldn’t talk about because we didn’t have the evidence.

We didn’t go that way without first being made aware by Hilda of her own great interest in novels and coon songs — the sort of Victorian era rap music; it’s a lower-class music, a sort of Victorian blues … you can see how Hilda would have identified.

We felt it was quite reasonable to argue as we did that often times her life strategies were rooted in Victorian novels.

Is there any sort of lasting public memory of these events, or were you resuscitating a completely cold case?

The Lane family still resents any discussion of this case. They still reside in Brandon, and it’s still a very live matter for them.

One descendant from outside Brandon called me after the book published and told me it wasn’t at all the version he had heard growing up. The story he’d been told is that Mary died when she was standing out in her front yard and she was hit by a bolt of lightning.

By the same token, after Hilda accused a tramp of the shooting, all the itinerant foreign born men in town making their way from one job to another were rounded up. There’s another family we found that who had a story in the family that grandpa had almost been hanged when “the maid fell in love with the master and murdered the mistress.”

It’s really fascinating how these echoes of the past persist through family oral tradition. These are the skeletons in the closet, and they show up in different guises.

In Brandon once a year, a local dramatic society go to the cemetery in Brandon and represent various well-known figures in the graveyard, and the public is invited to go and ask them questions about their lives. After the one year where Robert Lane was represented by one of the actors, his descendents objected and said that it was a serious incursion into their family privacy.

How about Hilda? Has she been portrayed?

Hilda hasn’t been represented because she’s not in the cemetery; she’s still under the senior citizens’ building. The superintendent told me he got a backhoe and an undertaker one Saturday and went exploring for human remains, and they couldn’t find any. So the building project went ahead and Hilda is now under the northeast corner of the Rideau Park Personal Care Home. Not exactly what the poorhouse guardians had promised Hilda’s older sister when they sought her permission to send Hilda and her brother Tommy to Canada in 1889.

Tom Mitchell and Reinhold Kramer are also co-authors of the forthcoming When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews & the Citizens Broke the Winnipeg General Strike.


“My Downfall”
by Hilda Blake

(From Walk Towards the Gallows, as published on the Western Sun, Dec. 14 1899)

One I was innocent, lighthearted and gay,
And sang while I worked through all the long day;
A stranger to sorrow, not a care had I,
A laugh on my lip, but never a sigh.

But one day the devil, in the form of a man,
Came smiling towards me; said he “You can
Know more, if you’ll take them,
Of joy and pleasure,” I heard him say,
“Than e’er you have dreamed of; I’ll show you the way.”

I followed the tempter, along the smooth track,
I’d gone a long distance, ‘fore e’er I looked back,
Or thought of returning —
When I turned, the way back seemed so lonely and dreary,
E’er I’d gone many steps I grew footsore and weary,
That down by the roadside, to rest and to weep,
My strength was exhausted, I soon fell asleep.

I awakened refreshed, my exhaustion all gone,
Saw the phantom of Pleasure, still beckoning me on;
Then I made up my mind
To leave Prudence behind,
And pursue my perilous way.

As I journeyed along my heart lost its song,
For the path grew stony and dark;
Each step that I took tore the flesh off my feet,
And the track was a blood-stained mark.

I looked at the tempter, in his eye was a gleam;
I saw he was standing beside a dark stream;
He cried, “Come along, take a few steps more
And your struggle is ended, your journey is o’er.”

As I stood on the brink of that river,
My heart grew faint and sick;
What I saw only made me shiver –
I thought Fortune had played me a trick.

“As I look across I see only the dead,
Neither joy, nor pleasure,” to Satan, I said:
“But pleasures there are, though hidden from view,
They only wait to be claimed by you.”

I thought as he spoke, he moved his hand
And I saw I was standing on sinking sand.
As I leaped across, a frantic yell
Reached my ear
When too late, I saw I had leaped into hell;
I tried to go back, but an awful wall
Loomed up, and separated me from all
My youth and innocence.

Forsaken by friendship, kith, and kin
I lie in my lonely cell;
It seems but a dream that I’ve crossed that dark stream
And descended from heaven to hell.

You hypocrites, pleading religion,
You inquisitive seekers of fame,
Ready now with your good advice
When I’ve drunk of the sorrow and shame;
You gave me no timely warning,
You held out no helping hand, –
Why didn’t you see me sinking
As I stepped on this treacherous sand?

Oh Friend of all Friends who rules earth and sea,
Look down with a pitying eye upon me;
Thou’ll forgive my transgressions, says the book that is best –
Come ye that are weary, and I’ll give you the rest.

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Feast Day of St. Stephen

4 comments December 26th, 2009 Headsman

The day after Christmas — or the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, in a more traditional coinage — is the feast of St. Stephen.*

St. Stephen is well-known as the “protomartyr”, the first Christian to die for his faith. (Jesus doesn’t count.) There’s a St. Stephen’s Gate in Jerusalem so named for its supposed proximity to the site of the protomartyrdom.

We get the Stephen story from the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, as given in this from the Tyndale-derived King James Version (Acts 6:8 – 8:3)

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

Then said the high priest, Are these things so? … [elided; Stephen preaches on at great length before he comes to the point]

Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.

And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

The persecuting “Saul” at the end of this text is, of course, Saul of Tarsus, the future St. Paul.

Here’s a set of Catholic devotionals for the day, and here’s a more secular vibe on the day’s various quirky Anglo traditions.

As for that song …

Good King Wencesla(u)s, a tenth-century Bohemian ruler, is himself a saint — the patron saint of the Czechs, as a matter of fact.

Wenceslas was murdered in a palace coup, supposedly leading his servant Podevin to avenge that death, for which said Podevin was in turn executed. The lyrics of the song “Good King Wenceslas” celebrate the king and his loyal page undertaking together the charitable works they were famous for.

“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

* At least, it’s the Feast of St. Stephen in the Latin rite. The occasion is observed on Dec. 27 in the Orthodox tradition.

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