Posts filed under 'History'

1938: Vladimir Beneshevich, Byzantinist

Add comment January 17th, 2020 Headsman

One of Russia’s most cherished national myths is that of the “Third Rome” — Russia (via its protean polity, Muscovy) as the successor to Byzantium, which in turn succeeded Rome. Modern humans might no longer do the thing where the official lineage of the sitting dynasty traces to the loins of the local war-god, but claiming a through line all the way back to Romulus and Remus is a pretty good simulacrum.

Like all national mythologies, it’s an idea with a history of its own — and not one that enjoyed anything like its contemporary popularity at the moment that, say, Byzantium fell to the Turks. After all, those Byzantines were were an emblem of defeat.

“Political thinkers of this period, for example Ivan Peresvetov, warned Ivan the Terrible against imitating the Byzantine basileis [emperors], who had lost their empire because they had ceded their prerogatives to their magnates,” as S.A. Ivanov puts it in a chapter of The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture since 1500 — our primary source for this post. “Generally speaking, Byzantium was viewed ultimately as a failure, and nobody particularly cherished that pedigree. The same Peresvetov presented Mehmet the Conqueror as a true role model for the Muscovite tsar.”

It was a Pskov monk named Filofei (Philotheus) who formulated the Rome-Constantinople-Moscow succession around the turn of the 16th century but according to Ivanov the appeal to Byzantium was no more than occasionally and superficially grasped at in the centuries that followed, and then completely binned by Peter the Great — oriented as he was towards those counter-Byzantine values of efficiency, modernity and the west. (It’s only quite recently that western interest in Byzantium has revived.)

Only in the 19th century did Byzantium as a kindred civilization emerge widely for Russians in something like the shape of the myth as it exists today. No surprise, the scholarly field associated with it, fascinated as it was with kingship and Orthodox Christianity, became associated in the subsequent generations with right-wing politics … and by the end of this post, we will come to the execution during the Stalinist purges of an eminent scholar of Byzantium named Vladimir Beneshevich. While this fate is not surprising on its face for the circumstances, we think the journey of the idea — continuing as it does down to the present day — is well worth the taking. The following is excerpted from Ivanov:

The Byzantine question reappeared in the nineteenth century, when the Russian elite became aware of Russia’s uncertain status among the civilizations of the world. Yet the tone of the discussion had changed: in 1836 the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev in his ‘Philosophical Letters’, asserted that the very choice made by Rus’ in favour of Constantinople, not Rome, had rendered inevitable the misfortune of Russia: … ‘Driven by a baneful fate, we turned to Byzantium, wretched and despised by nations, for a moral code that was to become the basis of our education’. This was the opening of the debate that has continued until today without any substantial variations in its terms or arguments …

Byzantium as an empire once again gained importance in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the notorious Jakob Fallmerayer [a race theorist later beloved of the Nazis -ed.] enunciated his theory regarding the Slavicization of the Balkans in Byzantine times, he wanted to warn the West against the ‘Russian menace’; the Russophobic nature of his theory notwithstanding, the new trend of thought in Russia, the so-called Slavophiles used it to substantiate their claim to the Byzantine legacy. The earliest Slavophile and the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev had many conversations with Fallmerayer in Munich ‘de fatis byzantinis’, as the latter notes in his diary, in which he also briefly recorded Tyutchev’s ideas: ‘Byzanz Heilige Stadt. Pruritus Rezidenz zu verlegen’. For Tyutchev, as for the other ‘Slavophiles’, Constantinople was a ‘natural’ goal, but it was not an end in itself: in his poem ‘Prophesy’ (1850) Tyutchev implored the Russian tsar: ‘And the vaults of ancient Sophia / In resurrected Byzantium / Will again shelter the altar of Christ. / Throw yourself down in front of it, oh, Tsar of Russia, / And rise as the Tsar of all the Slavs’. The fact that the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Fall of Byzantium inspired a new upswing of imperialistic dreams. The poet Apollon Maikov wrote: ‘Let everyone know that the dream of Christian Byzantium is still alive in Russia!’

There were two facets to the Russian debate on the Byzantine legacy: the political one dealt with the fate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christians after the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire. Some, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, insisted that ‘Constantinople must become Russian’; others thought that it should become the capital of a Pan-Slavic federation. Saltykov-Shchedrin, a great Russian satirist of the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the Russian obsession with Byzantium in ‘The History of a Town’. Yet, this discussion on the fate of Constantinople seemed exciting and flattering to wide circles of learned society, especially in the 1870s, when a successful war with Turkey brought Russian troops to the very outskirts of Istanbul.

The other aspect of the Byzantine debate concerned domestic issues: is Russia a unique civilization, with only one predecessor, Byzantium, or is it part of Europe? When the famous German historian Zacharia von Lingenthal proposed a theory that the Byzantine peasant commune had been a Slavic innovation, this hypothetical construct was enthusiastically embraced by the Slavophiles. However, not everyone in Russia regarded the Slavic ‘link’ as indispensable. Konstantin Leontiev, a diplomat and philosopher, despised the Slavs and adored Byzantium. He used it as a symbol of theocracy, which he then offered as a model for emulation. ‘Byzantium gave us all our strength’, he wrote. ‘Under its banner we shall withstand the onslaught of the entire Europe if indeed it dares impose on us the rot and filth of its prescriptions for an earthly paradise’. Of course, he knew next to nothing about Byzantium — to him it was but an ideal construct. In his book Byzantism and Slavdom, which has been highly respected, praised and criticized ever since its publication in 1875, Byzantium proper is mentioned just a few times. Yet Leontiev was the first to coin the term ‘Byzantism’ (as opposed to ‘Byzantinism’), which became commonly used by the admirers of the Empire as a label for a benign tyranny. As a counterbalance, another new coinage, ‘byzantischina’,* emerged as the equivalent of the Western derogatory epithets, such as the German ‘Byzantinismus’ or the French ‘Byzantiner’. The debate about the Byzantine legacy involved prominent public figures such as Alexander Herzen, who condemned Byzantium for ‘debility’, as well as Vladimir Soloviev and Vasilii Rozanov. Rozanov, one of the greatest and most original thinkers of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, objected to Leontiev’s utopian constructs; his observations were so sharp that they are worth quoting at some length:

When, in what epoch were we particularly imbued with Byzantine principles? Wouldn’t everyone agree that it was during the time when Moscow was building the Russian state? But if that is so, why did we absorb these principles not during the period of our child-like receptiveness when Byzantium was alive and close to us, but at the time of our distrustful seclusion when Byzantium had already fallen? … Don’t the Byzantine origins of the Muscovite way of life represent a phenomenon that is far more illusory than real? … So when Byzantium was transformed from a powerful and attractive empire into a slave of Islam … that’s when we want Russia to be imbued with the principles of Byzantium. Isn’t that an illusion? Aren’t we ascribing to the imitation our deeply original and unique aspects? … Sophisticated and depraved Byzantium that mixed abstract disputes of theological and philosophical nature with orgies, with the noise and debauchery of the circus, can hardly be seriously regarded as an antecedent and prototype for Muscovy — morosely silent, stubbornly persistent, far more forceful than devious, so universally unrefined in its thought, taste and emotional inclinations.

Never afraid of internal contradictions, Rozanov in his later writings embraced the idea that Byzantium in fact did play a great role in Russian history, but that its role was negative: ‘Has the millennium of Byzantism in Russia done any good? One can answer with one’s hand on one’s heart: no, it has not! Then be consistent and help liberate Russia from the yoke of Byzantism’.

As the Russian Empire entered the twentieth century, Russian Byzantinism was at its peak: the conquest of the Straits (Bosphoros/Dardanelles) and the erection of a cross over St Sophia were the prime goals of Russian foreign policy. The public sentiments of the time can be illustrated by the fact that in 1912, a young Osip Mandelshtam, whose family tradition barely had any connection with the imperial Orthodox yearnings — he was a Jew who had recently moved with his parents from Poland to St Petersburg — wrote enthusiastic poems about Sophia of Constantinople:

1.
Hagia Sophia — here to stop and stare
The Lord has ordered people and the tsars!
Your dome, as an eyewitness once described it,
As if by chains is hanging from the stars.

2.
To all a shining light — age of Justinian,
When to steal off for foreign gods unseen
Dedicated Diana the Ephesian
Hundred and seven marble columns green.

3.
To what aspired your generous creator,
When high in spirit and in reason blessed,
He laid your features on the ground
And pointed them directions east and west?

4.
The temple shines, in the world’s aura bathing,
And forty windows — triumph of the light;
On sails under the dome the four archangels
Finest of all and basking in delight.

5.
This building will outlast people and ages
So wise and spherical and nobly built
And incandescent weeping of the angels
Will not corrode away the darkened gilt.

The idea that Russia itself was the reincarnation of Byzantium was mot graphically reflected in the architectural style referred to as ‘Byzantine’. This emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, when 40 ‘Byzantine’ cathedrals were completed all across the Russian Empire as well as beyond Russian borders: in Greece, in Bulgaria, and even in France and Germany (in Biarritz and Kissingen). The most ostentatious and grand among them was the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, whose similarity to Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, both in its exterior and interior decorations, is striking.

Byzantine Studies was one of the pillars of the Russian humanities. In Turkey, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople held a leading position among the city’s European academic institutions. Naturally the vast majority of scholars involved in Byzantine Studies were monarchists or at least conservatives. The only republican among them was Pavel Bezobrazov, whose book about Michael Psellos was a veiled critique of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This tradition of ‘Aesopian language’, talking of Byzantium but implying Russia, was later used by Soviet Byzantinists.

The outbreak of World War I further spurred public debate. In 1915, the leading Byzantinist Fyodor Uspenskii submitted to Tsar Nicholas II a memo detailing the urgent steps to be taken after the Russian takeover of Constantinople. In the same year, Archbishop Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of Russia’s most influential clerics (he was the first contender for the Patriarchate) published a plea for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in its original borders — in a sense, his dreams were even bolder than the appetites of the [Greek irredentist -ed.] ‘Megali Idea’. Yet the official position on Istanbul was less favourable to the Greeks. On 3 March 1915, Tsar Nicholas II told the French ambassador (whose name, ironically, was Paleologue), ‘The city of Constantinople and southern Thrace must be annexed to my Empire’. After the Entente Cordiale accepted his claim, the capture of Tsar’grad looked imminent. On Christmas Day, 1916, the mystical poet Vyacheslav Ivanov implored, ‘Oh Rus’, when you wrap yourself in the purple robes of Tsar’grad, do not serve worldly interests’.

The February revolution of 1917 did not stop the imperial hysteria; instead, the Byzantine question became even more acute. In the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty after the fall of the monarchy, some theologians blamed Byzantium for excessive gnosticism and asceticism, which, in their minds, were later planted into the Russian psyche.

The Bolsheviks who came to power in October 1917 could not have cared less about Byzantium, but those on the other side of the barricades did not forget about it: the abrupt collapse of the formidable edifice of the Russian Empire compelled religious and political thinkers to search for the roots of this catastrophe. The famous theologian Sergii Bulgakov,** for example, blamed Byzantium for the loneliness of the Russian culture, which made it vulnerable to pernicious influences.

Together with Christianity, at that fateful moment Russia also adopted all Byzantine insularity and its constraints; it became separated from the whole Western, Christian Europe by a “Great Wall” and remained isolated … Meanwhile, Byzantium’s attitude towards Russia was never sincere or warm, but always arrogant and hollow-hearted.

Bulgakov’s book At the Walls of Chersonnesos, written at the end of the brutal Civil War, in the atmosphere of terror and despair, was all about Byzantium and its legacy, as if they were the primary concerns of the time. The writer Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Russian emigres in Constantinople in 1920, describes the bitter disappointment of a White-Guard officer in this deceptive imperial dream: ‘Byzantium, may it go to hell! So much of our Russian blood has been spilled for this damn Byzantium. It’s the usual Russian stupidity all over again!’

To the Bolsheviks, Byzantium was one of the attributes of tsarism; more generally, for people of the new, avant-garde era, it became a symbol of everything dilapidated, moth-eaten and dusty. From the late 1920s through to the late 1930s, the very word ‘Byzantine’ was banned and was used only in quotation marks. Byzantine scholars became the targets of repressions; Vladimir Beneshevich, the most prominent among them, was executed.

* Russian uses the -schina suffix to attach an evaluative negative judgment to a period or concept; for example, a term like Stalinism (whatever its specific connotations) is a neutral description, whereas Stalinschina conveys the speaker’s scorn. One common way to refer to Stalinism’s apex of secret policing and internal purges is by reference to his notorious police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — hence, the yezhovschina.

** No relation to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1891: Slumach

Add comment January 16th, 2020 Headsman

Treasure-hunters mark this date in 1891, the hanging of an elderly Katzie indigenous man named* Slumach. Did he take with him to the gallows the secret of a lost gold hoard?

The previous September, Slumach shot dead a man named Louis Bee at a fishing spot along Lillooet Slough near the Pitt River in Canada’s western province of British Columbia. Evidently, Mr. Bee was the slough’s resident asshole, “in the habit of blustering at, and threatening almost everyone with whom he came in contact,” and had a running grudge with Slumach that the old man decided to resolve.

Although there were several bystander who witnessed the murder, none could — or dared try — apprehend the gunman, who escaped into the rugged wilderness and evaded pursuers for a number of weeks, until winter deprived him of his forage and forced his surrender.

Legendary for his ferocity in a scrap, this Slumach was much reduced, having scarcely eaten for days and showing every bit of his 60 years. “There was much sympathy for Slumach among those who witnessed his execution,” one news report ran — for, “[i]t was thought that the Government might, with just clemency, have extended a reprieve to him, for he certainly would not have lived very long in confinement, and the fact that he never ran across law and order in any shape until the latter years of his long life made many hope that he would be allowed to finish his career in the confinement of the penitentiary.”

This is an interesting enough incident on its own but what’s not in any of the original reporting is talk about gold. Many years later, however, newspapers began to speculate on his possible associations with Pitt Lake’s lost gold mine, a mythical(?) B.C. El Dorado that has been a desideratum of prospectors since the mid-19th century.

Both the existence of this mine and its relationship to Slumach are highly dubious propositions — greatly embroidered from the 1920s onward in wistful romances of the vanished frontier. (For example, Slumach is supposed to have cursed the stash, dooming a number of explorers and treasure-hunters lost in the vicinity.) Nevertheless, the link is so tightly held at this point that the mine is also sometimes known simply as “Slumach’s Mine” and latter-day adventurers have still been known to take up the trail in the hopes of conquering a lucrative historical mystery.

There’s a fun audio summary of this continuing enigma from the Dark Poutine Podcast — a Canadian true crime/dark history jam, as one might guess — here. And if you’re ready to break out the pick and shovel, the site slumach.ca has you covered for deep background reading.

* He was baptized under the scaffold and given the Christian name Peter. Fortunately for his searchability, nobody refers to him that way.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,The Supernatural

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2007: Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, Saddam Hussein aides

Add comment January 15th, 2020 Headsman

Longtime Saddam Hussein aides Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad Hamed al-Bandar — who were co-defendants with the boss at his trial under U.S. occupation — were hanged before dawn on this date in 2007.

As top officials of the Ba’athist government both men’s hands were well-imbrued in blood: Awad Hamed al-Bandar had been a judge who issued death sentences to 143 people charged with complicity in a failed attempt on Saddam’s life during the Dujail Massacre; Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother, had been his intelligence chief with all that entails. Al-Tikriti was also one of the authors of the terrifying 1979 Ba’ath Party purge in which the doomed were culled from the ranks of the party congress while video rolled and the un-culled were forced to execute them. He also achieved the dubious honor of a place in the U.S. invasion army’s playing card deck of most wanted Iraqis.*

They had initially been slated to hang on the same occasion as Saddam (December 30, 2006) but were briefly respited so that the dictator would have the spotlight to himself on his big day. It’s a good job they did that, because the al-Tikriti’s hanging was badly botched by an excessively long drop, and the noose tore his head clean off.

* We’re biased but we prefer Executed Today’s playing cards.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Iraq,Judges,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wartime Executions

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1935: Kemal Syed, assassin

Add comment January 14th, 2020 Headsman

A 28-year-old Afghan nationalist was executed in Berlin’s Ploetzensee Prison on this date in 1935.

“During a heated argument” with Sardar Mohammed Aziz Khan* on June 6, 1933, Kemal (or Kamal) Syed on June 6, 1933 “accused the minister of treason and of selling out his country to the British. He then pulled a revolver and shot him fatally.” (UP wire report via the redoubtable pages of the Oshkosh (Wisc.) Northwestern, Jan. 14, 1935)

His punishment was delayed by diplomatic wrangling between Germany and Afghanistan over possible extradition. In the end, Berlin handled matters directly.

* This man also happened to be the brother to the late (and likewise assassinated) King of Afghanistan. In time, the assassinated diplomat’s son would overthrow the assassinated king’s son and rule from 1973 to 1978 as Afghanistan’s first president. (Although if you like, you could also consider him the last of the Musahiban dynasty.) That diplomat’s son in turn was deposed in a palace coup by the ham-handed Communist who would set off the catastrophic Soviet-Afghan War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1928: Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler

Add comment January 13th, 2020 Headsman

U.S. serial killer Earle Nelson hanged in Winnipeg, Canada on Friday the 13th of January in 1928.

A disturbed and preternaturally balding 30-year-old, Nelson grew up in San Francisco “a psychotic prodigy. He was expelled from primary school at the age of 7. His behavior included talking to invisible people, quoting Bible passages about the great beast and peeking at his cousin Rachel while she undressed.”

Monsterhood beckoned via a compounding of destabilizing influences: venereal disease, a religious obsession, and a collision with a streetcar that left him in a weeklong coma and with a permanent vulnerability to headaches and dizzy spells. By the latter 1910s he was rotating shifts of institutionalization: jail in Los Angeles (mere burglary), the Army (subsequently deserted), and commitments to the state mental ward (“He has seen faces, heard music, and at times believed people were poisoning him. Voices sometimes whisper to him to kill himself.”)

From the start of 1926 until mid-1927, he gave over to a homicidal spree that claimed 22 lives all around the U.S. and ranging — obviously — into Canada. They were all women, bar 8-month-old Robert Harpin, the infant son of a mother whom he targeted; while his second-last victim was just 14, the predominant victim profile was a matronly landlady whose lodgings he could enter at invitation as a prospective lodger — and there put her at ease with his Biblical facility while maneuvering her into some circumstance suitable for wrapping his hands around her throat. Most were also posthumously raped after strangling.

Those noticeably large hands were among the first descriptors that witnesses had given of the suspect from the scenes of his earliest killings in San Francisco, and this together with a swarthy mien gave newsmen the nickname “Gorilla Killer” or “Dark Strangler”. They’d have frequent cause to use it as the terrifying killings migrated north from the California Bay to Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; Seattle … and then east, leaving outraged corpses in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Chicago.

Public alarm naturally followed each new report of his signature killings. After several homicides in Portland, the police there cautioned landlords from showing rooms unaccompanied with the grim words, “I do not wish to unduly alarm the people of Portland. But there is no denying the situation is grave.”

The Dark Strangler’s situation finally became grave when he took his act international. In Winnipeg he killed a teenage girl selling flowers and a housewife in quick succession, and this time the police A.P.B. was quick enough to catch up with him — gruesomely discovering the mutilated cadaver of the flower girl in his boarding house room. Public tips zeroed in on him a few miles before he reached the North Dakota border, and fingerprints courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department confirmed the identity.

Easily convicted in an atmosphere of great public outrage, Nelson mounted a credible but hopeless appeal for clemency on grounds of insanity.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt apparently began as a pitch for a Nelson-inspired screen treatment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,USA

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1861: Antonino Aberastain

Add comment January 12th, 2020 Headsman

Argentinian politician Antonino Aberastain was executed on this date in 1861, after the Battle of Rinconada del Pocito.

A polymath barrister from Buenos Aires, Aberastain was cursed to live his days amid the long and terrible civil wars — which pitted liberal centralizers (the Unitarian party) against conservative federalists. Aberastain belonged to the former faction.

After an interesting career that saw him by turns lawyer, judge, newsman, and national minister — and for most of the 1840s, exile abroad in Chile when a Federalist warlod chased him out — Aberastain in 1860 led a putsch that deposed and killed the Federalist governor of San Juan in November 1860.

The Federalist counterattack was settled in battle at a place called La Rinconada* on January 11, 1861, and the reader may well infer the outcome from the presence of the Unitarian commander on this site. The victorious Federal commander had him summarily executed the next day.

With the eventual settlement of hostilities, Aberastain settled in as a heroic Sanjuanino; this monument to him decorates a square that’s named for him in San Juan city.


(cc) image from EagLau.

* By coincidence, it had also been the site of a different Unitarian-Federalist battle in 1825.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Judges,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1915: Mewa Singh, Sikh martyr-assassin

Add comment January 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Mewa Singh Lopoke was hanged in British Columbia, Canada.

He was part of a massive influx of Punjabi migrants to Canada, and particularly its westernmost province of British Columbia, from around 1904 until Canada clamped down on immigration from the subcontinent in 1908.*

There Mewa Singh became involved in activism for the Ghadar Party — the North American expatriate movement for Indian independence. This movement was heavily infiltrated by spies and informants, some of whom ratted Mewa Singh out after he attempted to deliver some firearms to Punjabi passengers stranded on the Komagata Maru in Vancouver’s harbor and slated for return to the subcontinent.**

In an atmosphere of rising tension within the Vancouver Sikh community, a police informant named Bela Singh, driven to desperation by the pressure of his handlers and fear of exposure, opened fire on his coreligionists inside a Sikh temple. In the resulting trial, B.C. immigration inspector William C. Hopkinson — the man who ran the spies within the Sikh community — was scheduled to testify on the gunman’s behalf. Instead, Mewa Singh shot him dead in the hallway outside the courtroom, them immediately surrendered his pistol and calmly submitted to arrest. As he entered a guilty plea and took full responsibility for the murder, his trial came in under two hours.

“These people have disgraced us,” Mewa Singh said in his confession, accusing Hopkinson of exploiting vulnerable Sikhs to mine them for information and bribes.

We are poor, only coolie men, and whatever Hopkinson said was law. The Government listened to him completely.

Everyone knows that Hopkinson did these underhand things and it must be brought to light. The European public must be aware of the fact that Hopkinson draws money from us poor native men. In the Vancouver public there are a few that are Christian men who have received us with the proper spirit. The other have treated us like dogs.

He hanged at 7:45 a.m. at New Westminster jail. To this day he remains a martyr to many within his community; there have been campaigns for a posthumous pardon on grounds that his assassin’s turn was strictly the result of the injustice Sikhs faced in Vancouver.


Funerary procession for Mewa Singh.

By the time of Mewa Singh’s execution, World War I was well underway and Ghadrites, sensing their chance to break free from British domination, were working on orchestrating a mutiny in India. Thanks in no small part to the many spies keeping tabs on the Ghadrites, that mutiny was strangled in its crib.

* As a longer-range effect of this migration period, Canada today has a reputation as “Little Punjab” and its substantial Sikh minority is a significant political bloc — especially in B.C.

** This incident, in which 352 Punjabis were refused entry into Canada and forced to return to India — where Raj police arrested a number of the leaders as subversives, triggering a riot that took 20 lives — is still notorious in Canada today. “Not to be confused with Kobayashi Maru,” Wikipedia observes, sagely.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Wartime Executions

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1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1889: Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales

Add comment January 8th, 2020 Headsman

The last woman hanged in New South Wales, Australia was the “Botany Murderess” Louisa Collins, on this date in 1889.

A transport convict’s daughter from near Merriwa, Collins was accused in the courts and the common run of opinion of murdering both her husbands with arsenic — first Charles Andrews, 13 years her senior and father to nine of her 10 children* — and then Michael Collins, the lover with whom she scandalously fell into bed while husband’s body was still warm, and indeed before: desperate to relieve the financial pressure of their large family, Charles and Louisa had taken in boarders, of whom Michael Collins was one — at least until Charles threw him out for getting too familiar with the lady of the house.

The fact that this adulterous couple immediately shacked up (and, as our principal’s surname will have signaled, shortly thereafter wed) after a stomach ailment felled the husband set tongues a-wag and eyebrows a-cock. The subsequent death of Michael and Louisa’s only child together,** and then of Michael himself, could not but appear confirmation of the very worst.

Although accused, she was only convicted once over the course of four trials.

Where murder is concerned, any one will do for the law no matter the conviction ratio. But the chain obviously smacks of an unseemly jury-shopping, facilitated by the first three panels’ failure to reach any verdict rather than acquit outright and cinched by the Crown’s convincing the court to admit at her last trial previously-barred testimony.

The hard evidence remained stubbornly circumstantial as usual with arsenic cases: her paramour and an insurance policy on her husband supplied a motive that was positive but far from dispositive, and the alleged means was nothing more than a commercial pest controller called Rough On Rats whose presence in the house would have incriminated half of Australia.† (Arsenic was also used in the sheepskin tanning industry where both of Louisa’s late men sweated their daily bread.) Neighbors fleshed out these bare bones with eye-of-the-beholder judgments against Louisa’s comportment, such as the insufficient-mourning canard that’s still a staple of wrongful convictions.

Moreover, Louisa Collins’s case became enmeshed in the era’s web of gender politics: the campaign soliciting clemency on grounds of femininity overlapped but also contradicted the simultaneous campaign for women’s suffrage, goring oxes left and right.

That gore still spatters latter-day observers of this still-fascinating affair, who in recent years have enjoyed two different volumes illuminating the respective silhouette-halves that Louisa Collins presents posterity: a woman railroaded (Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (author interview)); and, cold-blooded murderess (Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, by Carol Baxter (author interview)). There’s also a recent historical novel, The Killing Of Louisa, by Janet Lee (author interiew).

Two things that all parties can agree on: first, that her quadruple prosecution makes for a troubling legal spectacle — “a collusion between the prosecution and the state and the judiciary to keep her going to trial until the desired result,” as Baxter put it; and second, that Collins’s eventual hanging at Darlinghurst was a ghastly botch. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported how

The executioner signalled to his assistant to pull the lever, but the handle refused to move. It could be seen that pressure was applied, and also that the pin which held the handle in its place was fast in its slot. The assistant endeavoured to remove the pin, but failed, and in a few seconds a mallet was used. Four or five blows were applied Mrs Collins meanwhile standing perfectly upright and motionless-before the pin gave way.

The delay caused could not have been short of one minute, when the lever moved and the body fell through in a slightly curved position. After one swing to the side and in a moment it was suspended perpendicularly, with the face towards the yard. There was a slight spurt of blood, followed by a thin stream which ran down the dress and spotted the floor beneath. Nearer examination showed that the strain of the drop had so far opened the neck as to completely sever the windpipe, and that the body was hanging by the vertebra. Slowly the body turned round on the rope until the front part faced the doorway, and there it remained stationary until lowered by the executioner on to a wicker bier. Death was instantaneous. After hanging for 20 minutes the corpse was conveyed to the inquest room, and again given over to the female warders.


Poor service: hangman Robert Rice Howard, aka “Nosey Bob” after a distinctive disfigurement of that appendage courtesy of a horse’s backheel.

* Seven of these nine children by Charles Andrews survived infancy. At the time of the alleged murders, five of these children still shared the house with their parents.

** The possible murder of the infant Collins child wasn’t on Louisa’s charge sheet but remains an understandable suspicion.

† As a brand name for arsenic, Rough On Rats became a ready resource for numerous aspiring suicides and homicides.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1959: Col. Cornelio Rojas

Add comment January 7th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1959, in the city of Santa Clara lately captured by Cuban revolutionaries, Col. Cornelio Rojas Fernández, commander of the city’s defeated government garrison, was shot without trial by the order of Che Guevara.

It was just one among hundreds of vengeful executions being visited in those weeks upon authorities of the deposed Batista regime.

Viewers of the televised public shooting saw the stocky commander — the grandson of a hero of the 19th century Cuban War of Independence — walk unafraid to his death in an armed escort, where he exhorted his onlookers until the firing detail sent his fedora flying.

Rojas’s granddaughter Barbara Rangel remains an energetic advocate of her father’s innocence, from Florida. A kinsman named Pedro Rojas Mir was among those killed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle when anti-Castro exiles mounted a failed invasion of Cuba.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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