One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.
Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.
The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.
Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.
And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?
One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”
Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.
We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:
Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …
He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:
“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.
The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.
These stirrings for political liberalization and national unification in the loose 19th century German Confederation, which comprised dozens of duchies and principalities left over from the dissolved Holy Roman Empire, were just the sort of thing to inspire student radicals like Neff.
Neff‘s Heidelberg was an initial center of the movement, led by Friedrich Hecker* and Gustav Struve. (All links in this sentence are German Wikipedia pages.) Though Hecker and Struve were established lawyers who most certainly had something to lose, they led rebel guerrillas into the field against the troops dispatched to crush the republican stirrings. They didn’t have much success, but it’s the thought that counts.
On September 21, 1848, Struve unavailingly proclaimed a German Republic in Baden, an event that is known as the Struve-Putsch and whose defeat four days later closes the first chapter of the 1848 revolutions (at least in Baden).
As a Struve-Putsch supporter (and an open advocate of political violence even before that), Neff had been obliged to flee to Switzerland and onward to Paris. That positioned him perfectly when the 1848 revolution scheduled an 1849 comeback to be the man to muster a legion of Baden exiles who would attempt to topple the duchy.
“This legion was the wildest band which the revolution brought forth,” this history of the revolutionAlgerian Foreign Legion of France.” But these, too, were easily crushed, and Neff was arrested fleeing into exile. His last letter urged his mother to “remain firm and steadfast. I will go to death tomorrow as calmly as I once strolled in our garden — would that I had ten lives to give for the cause.”
Neff is a hero to social democrat types in present-day Germany, and there are public monuments him — like this plaque marking his birthplace in Rümmingen.
On this date in 2005, U.S. journalist Stephen Vincent was abducted off the streets of Basra by a Shia militia. Before the day was out, he had been extrajudicially executed on the outskirts of town — along with his assistant and translator, who managed to survive the execution.
Vincent, originally from California, had been a New York journalist (most prominent on the arts scene) for more than twenty years when he stood on his apartment’s roof on September 11, 2001, and watched United Airlines Flight 175 smash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Deeply shaken by the specter of Islamic terrorism and wanting to, as he put it, “do my part in the conflict”, Vincent took an abrupt turn from his Gotham haunts and in 2003 bought his own ticket to Iraq to venture into the war zone with nothing but wits honed by a lifetime’s freelancing. Free of both institutional control and institutional protection, and picking up his Arabic on the fly, the dauntless Vincent reported from the ground in war-ravaged Iraq, eyed by perplexed officials who could scarcely help but suspect him a spy.
In April 2005, Vincent returned to Iraq — this time, to Muqtada al-Sadr‘s* bastion in the Shia south where, as he put it in a post on his still-extant blog, “militant Shiites … have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola‘s Florence.”
One of few Western journalists in British-occupied but increasingly Sadr-controlled Basra, Vincent filed numerous stories raising the alarm on fundamentalism and Iranian influence.
“Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups,” Vincent wrote in a July 31, 2005 New York Times piece that would prove to be his last. “And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.”
Vincent traces the early cracks that would widen into Iraq’s now-familiar sectarian fracturing, and the ruins of a secular society as institutions like the university dare not shoo away self-appointed purity monitors of students’ dress and conduct lest they invite the wrath of the Iranian-backed Shia parties (and Shia police).
An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations — mostly of former Baath Party members — that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of “death car”: a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.
This passage prefigures Vincent’s own fate, and it’s thought to be the fact of his filing reports like this one that sealed it. Returning on the afternoon of August 2 from a Basra currency exchange with his translator Nouriya Itais Wadi (or Nouri al-Khal; Steven Vincent referred to her as “Leyla” in the personal dispatches he posted on his blog),** the pair was seized in broad daylight by armed men in a white police vehicle. Hours later, their bodies were recovered just a short drive away. Or rather, Vincent’s body was recovered: his aide, left for dead by her executioners, was clinging to life despite multiple gunshot wounds.
There’s an Open Source Radio interview with Vincent’s widow Lisa Ramaci-Vincent from August 10, 2005, available as a podcast here. After yet another journalist was abducted and murdered in Basra a few weeks later, Ramaci-Vincent launched the Steven Vincent Foundation “to assist the families of indigenous journalists in regions of conflict throughout the world who are killed for doing their jobs, and to support the work of female journalists in those regions.” She also helped Nouriya, who survived her injuries, to emigrate to the U.S.
Muqtada al-Sadr, who survived a 2008 attack by the American-backed Iraqi army on Basra, remains today one of the dominant figures in Iraqi politics.
* Saddam Hussein — a Sunni — had the name “Muqtada” chanted at him by his executioners during the fiasco of his hanging.
** Vincent’s relationship with his unmarried translator has also been cited as a possible factor in their murder. He was apparently planning to marry her opportunistically to help her escape Iraq, a plan that his wife knew about and supported.
Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.
Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.
In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.
In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)
This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.
Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.
The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.
21 April 1937
A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?
23 April 1937
Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.
Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.
Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.
* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.
On this date in 1995, Nigeria’s military dictatorship struck a bloody blow against the country’s surging crime waves with a mass execution of 43 prisoners at Kirikiri prison in Lagos.
Soldiers dressed in camouflage and with black shoe polish on their faces fired semi-automatic weapons to execute the convicts who were tied to stakes in three groups of 12 and one of seven.
The executions, which lasted 90 minutes, were witnessed by three doctors, who certified the deaths, an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Muslim imam. (Reuters report, in the July 23, 1995 Los Angeles Times)
Armed robbery had since the 1970s been the most feared and high-profile genre of a crime surge that seemed all but impervious to remedies. Organized into aggressive syndicates stealing on an industrial scale, robbers grew so numerous and brazen that they plundered the personal home of the Vice President in 1983; another band raided currency exchange offices at the Lagos airport in 1993. For everyday citizens, the terror of home invasion, often accompanied by rape or gratuitous murder, horribly taxed material and psychological resources. A 1985 Nigerian Herald article (via) reported that
Lagosians now live behind bars, in houses caged with tough iron rods. In such homes, it takes occupants 20 to 30 minutes to get through the barricades each time they want to go out or get in. Driving in Lagos as well is done in a style intended to avoid interception by armed robbers. The basic rule is that no driver allows the vehicle behind him to catch up with his and overtaking at the wrong side of the lane by another motorist is avoided at the risk of death. In Lagos, people live in such terrible fear of armed robbers that those who are not attacked as each day passes regard themselves as fortunate.
The death penalty was decreed for armed robbery in 1970, revoked in 1980, re-introduced in 1983. In the late 1980s, Nigeria tried check points, road blocks, increased police patrols — nothing stemmed the tide.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular -- sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
Antequera, a judge, began his revolution legally in 1721 by affirming an impeachment the city council of Asuncion (Paraguay’s present-day capital) against the unpopular Spanish governor. Antequera, conveniently, also happened to be the guy who would succeed the unpopular territorial governor.
The conflict between the two would-be governors spiraled into a wider revolt for local autonomy pitting criollo settlers against the crown, though it would likely be overstating matters to call this a true bid for independence. One notable sore spot between the two parties was the prerogatives of Jesuit Reductions: these mission settlements for Christianizing natives (particularly prominent in Paraguay for the Guarani people) had originally been placed at the far fringes of Spain’s New World reach, and they enjoyed a wide autonomy, sustaining themselves economically with the yerba mate trade. For the Guarani, these were also welcome refuges from the brutal encomiendas; Guarani militias stoutly repelled slave raiders.
For these prerogatives, the Jesuits and the Guarani were loyal to the Spanish crown as against the local settlers better inclined to view the Reductions (and the potential slaves who inhabited them) as assets they’d like to get their own hands around. Antequera accordingly expelled the Jesuits near Asuncio and for a few years his word was law in Paraguay. Guarani troops mustered by the crown helped put the rebellion down, taking Antequera into custody and forwarding him to the notoriously severe Marquis of Castelfuerte, the Peruvian viceroy.
Society at Lima was in [Antequera's] favor. Great efforts were made to delay his trial. But the viceroy was resolved to punish him, and sentence of death was passed. The judges, the university, the municipality, petitioned for pardon, as well as the people of all classes. The stern old marquis refused to listen, and Antequera was brought out for execution in the great square of Lima on July 5, 1731. There were cries for pardon, and the mob began to throw stones. Hearing the tumult, the viceroy came out on horseback and ordered his guards to fire. Antequera fell dead, as well as the two priests by his side, and several others. The viceroy then ordered the body to be taken to the scaffold and beheaded. His conduct received the approval of the king by decree of September, 1733. (Source)
The Spanish had not heard the end of Antequera.
During his imprisonment, Antequera befriended and inspired a fellow-prisoner named Fernando Mompo. After Antequera’s execution, Mompo returned to Paraguay brandishing the late rebel governor’s banner: “The authority of the commune is superior to that of the King himself!” Mompo launched a recrudescence of the comunero rebellion in the early 1730s. Mompo too shared Antequera’s fate.
A change in the political winds decades later led to the Spanish king Charles III himself expelling the Jesuits — and posthumously exonerating Jose de Antequera.
And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.
Warning: This is the execution footage.
Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.
“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”
Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.
On this date in 1950, Taiwan’s former nationalist governor Chen Yi was shot for a dalliance with the Reds.
A Kuomintang officer since China’s 1920s Warlord Era, Chen Yi was from 1934 Chiang Kai-shek’s governor of Fujian province — the mainland territory directly across from the island of Taiwan. Chen had the honor at the end of World War II of accepting Japan’s surrender of Taiwan — the occasion commemorated by Taiwan’s unofficial October 25 holiday, Retrocession Day. Postwar, he became governor of that island, back before it was synonymous with nationalist China itself.
His life ended in 1950, when Chiang suspected him of negotiating with the Red Chinese who had overrun the mainland. By that point, however, Chen’s political career was already history, courtesy of the most lasting of his legacies, the 228 Massacre (or more diplomatically … “Incident”).
Taiwan’s new managers — the place had been in Japanese hands since 1895 — made an immediate mess after 1945. Taiwan’s productive economy was essentially siphoned for the civil war the KMT had underway against the Communists, as well as for the venal enrichment of various well-connected mainlanders who hopped over to Formosa for plum assignments that displaced Taiwan’s own local elites.
Billowing inflation fed ethnic resentments, and the whole situation boiled over, as the name implies, on 2/28 of 1947.
On that date, frustrations boiled over* in island-wide protests that turned to riots and even took over administration of Taipei and many other cities. Chen, on whose watch the many grievances had accumulated, suppressed those with enormous violence. Chen regained control of the situation only with considerable violence: well over 10,000 are thought to have been killed in suppression during early March, many of them executed in cold blood by mainland military reinforcements.
An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku said that troops from the mainland arrived there March 7 and indulged in three days of indiscriminate killing and looting. For a time everyone seen on the streets was shot at, homes were broken into and occupants killed. In the poorer sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead.
There were instances of beheadings and mutilation of bodies, and women were raped, the American said.
Two foreign women, who were near at Pingtung near Takao, called the actions of the Chinese soldiers there a “massacre.” … people were machine gunned. Groups were rounded up and executed.
The man who had served as the town [of Pingtung]‘s spokesman was killed. His body was left for a day in a park and no one was permitted to remove it.
While effective in reasserting political power, this didn’t exactly bury the animosities between Taiwanese and mainlanders. It did put an end to Chen Yi’s governorship, however, since it was on his watch that things came to this pass in the first place. Given he then doubled as the author of the bloodbath, he assured himself a place of opprobrium in Taiwanese history.
In 1949, the Kuomintang nationalist government fled rout on the mainland and holed up on Taiwan, implementing an authoritarian state under martial law with a running “White Terror” against dissidence, often broadly conflated with communism. Until political liberalization in the late 1980s, public discussion of 228 was strictly taboo.
Today, there’s enough distance that the event is openly commemorated; indeed, Lee Teng-hui, the politician who embraced Taiwan’s democratic transition around the end of the Cold War, was himself a participant in the 228 protests. There are a variety of memorials and parks remembering 228 in present-day Taiwan … but you’d have to look very hard to find one for Chen Yi.
* The specific boiling point for the protests was a violent confrontation on February 27 when state agents had seized the unlicensed cigarettes of a local peddler. The way things were going, however, there was always going to be something like this to catalyze Taiwanese anger.