This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.
This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.
But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.
The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*
In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.
Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.
The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*
The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)
This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.
Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.
This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.
For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†
John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.
(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)
* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.
** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.
It has the barest trappings of execution, enough to give that name descriptively to the killings — but maybe a little more than that, too, for this is the story of an occupation army whose “bad eggs” are endowed with the power of life and death over their subject population
“We’ve all killed Hadjis, but I’ve been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches.”
Barker had already picked the target. There was a house, not far away, where there was only one male and three females during the day – a husband, wife and two daughters. One was young, but the other was pretty hot, at least for a Hadji chick. Witnesses were a problem, though; they knew they couldn’t leave anyone alive. Barker asked Green if he was willing to take care of that, even if women and kids were involved. “Absolutely,” Green said. “It don’t make any difference to me.”
Green — Steven Green — is the troubled private who would do the shooting, and the one over whose life a jury wrangled over for 10 hours before finally sparing him lethal injection.
Sneaking up on the house, the soldiers corralled the whole family into the bedroom. After they had recovered the family’s AK-47 and Green had confirmed it was locked and loaded, Barker and Cortez left, yanking Abeer behind them. Spielman set up guard in the doorway between the foyer and living room, while Cortez shoved Abeer into the living room, pushed her down, and Barker pinned her outstretched arms down with his knees.
As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, “They’re all dead. I killed them all.” Cortez held Abeer down and Green raped her. Then Cortez pushed a pillow over her face, still pinning her arms with his knees. Green grabbed the AK, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired one shot, killing Abeer.
The men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now. Barker brought a kerosene lamp he had found in the kitchen and dumped the contents on Abeer. Spielman handed a lighter to either Barker or Cortez, who lit the flame. Spielman went to the bedroom and found some blankets to throw on the body to stoke the fire.
The four men ran back the way they had come. When they arrived at the TCP, they were out of breath, manic, animated. They began talking rapid-fire about how great that was, how well done. They all agreed that was awesome, that was cool.
Only after Green was discharged did the crime come fully to light.
At Green’s sentencing in the anomalous confines of Kentucky — he was the first former soldier prosecuted in U.S. civilian court for crimes committed overseas under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act — a cousin of Abeer’s murdered parents
spoke last, praising his slain family members and criticising the jury’s reluctance to execute Green. He concluded by turning to Green and saying, “Abeer will follow you and chase you in your nightmares. May God damn you.”
This incident is the subject of the 2007 film Redacted.
Though the primary sources are shaky, at least one chronicle avers that it was on this date in 1570 that the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible had Hegumen Kornily [Cornelius] of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery put to death.
An icon of the sainted Cornelius marks the spot of his martyrdom at his Pskovo-Pechery monastery. From (cc) image by Usama.
Having left Novgorod prostrate, Ivan marched westwards towards the edge of Livonia (what is now the Russian-Estonian frontier) to put Pskov in its place.
If Ivan’s depredations here were less extensive than in Novgorod — and they were less extensive — it might be due in no small measure to this date’s victim.
Over a period of four decades, Kornily had overseen the golden age of his priory — agglomerating lands, riches, and brethren. He had also charted a somewhat independent, contra-Moscow political course, and apparently harbored anti-Ivan refugee Andrei Kurbsky.*
[Ivan] came [to Pskov] in great wrath, roaring like a lion, for he wished to torture innocent people and to spill much blood. But the Lord God, all-bountiful and all-merciful lover of mankind … took pity on the human race … when the Grand Duke came before Pskov, he halted near the town and rested at the monastery of St Nicholas. And … when the Grand Duke heard all the bells ringing, his heart was softened and he came to himself, and ordered all his soldiers to blunt their swords with stones and forbade them to commit murder in the town … he was met by the Abbot of the Pechery monastery, Kornily, with all the clergy … and they went into the cathedral church of the Holy Trinity and heard mass.**
Ivan the Terrible begs Kornily for admission to the monastery, by Klavdy Lebedev. (Detail view; click for the full canvas.)
This all sounds friendly enough.
What we may have in the passage foregoing is a conflation of legends about the monk, who is unambiguously attested a martyr to Ivan at the gates of the monastery even as he’s credited with sparing the city as a whole from the tsar’s full fury. (This particular execution — or murder — date is cited in this popular history of Ivan; “February” sometime is generally agreed.)
So maybe it was one of the tyrant’s famous piques of rage — or maybe Kornily didn’t really charm him into altering his plans at all.
Although the particulars are half-obscured in legend, one can still visit at this gorgeous monastery the “Path of Blood”: the route from the gates to the cathedral along which the remorseful tsar allegedly carried his victim’s body. Ivan also made several gifts to the monastery.†
Kornily himself is still venerated on these sacred grounds, thanks not only to his holy martyrdom but to his worldly machinations. A decade after the abbott laid down his life, the walls he had raised around the monastery proved fortification enough to repel the Polish king Stephen Bathory‡ — helping cement Kornily’s reputation as the celestial defender of Pskov.
* See the title of the next footnote? Vassian Muromtsev was a protege of Kornily’s in the Pskov-Pechery monastery; Kurbsky actually had a running correspondence with Muromtsev.
Muromtsev “was put to death together with [Kornily],” reports Kurbsky, although his authority for this claim is doubtful. “They say that they were both crushed together on the same day by some kind of instrument of torture; and their holy martyred corpses were buried together.”
** Quoted in Nikolai Andreyev, “Kurbsky’s Letters to Vas’yan Muromtsev,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1955.
† Andreyev, “The Pskov-Pechery Monastery in the 16th Century,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1954.
On this date in 1821, a first-time whaleship crewman named Owen Coffin was executed by a comrade to feed three starving mates.
Coffin was the second-to-last victim of an event which shocked the whaling community and inspired the novel Moby Dick.
Owen Coffin was a 17-year-old aboard a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex. He was cousin to George Pollard, Jr., who was making his first trek to the Pacific whaling grounds as a ship’s captain.
The Essex sailed from Nantucket Island in 1819, one of dozens of ships to leave port in search of whales and, ultimately, whale oil. In spite of the large numbers of whales slaughtered by whalers around the world, the Essex had the unfortunate honor of taking part in the first documented violent encounter by a sperm whale on a whaleship.
Of the whales available to the whalers of the day, the sperm whale was most prized: aside from the typical blubber found on all whales, which could be processed for its “oil” (actually a free-flowing form of wax), this whale’s head was filled with the clean-burning substance called spermaceti, a name inspired by its resemblance to the sexual fluid. Spermaceti fetched a high price at market when sperm whales were in sufficient abundance to hunt them.
At the time, Nantucket Island was the center of the whaling world.
The industry was primarily run by Quaker businessmen, who negotiated profit-sharing rates for young, largely local crews willing to risk their lives in search of whales. To fill out the ship numbers, poor non-Nantucketers were imported from other New England ports. The Essex was no different: the ship originally held 21 crewmembers, eight of whom came from off-island.
The ship’s journey began inauspiciously by being flattened in a squall, but after repairs, she continued on in pursuit of whales. The ship made its classic trip around the southern tip of South America, put in to port in Ecuador, then traversed 2000 miles of ocean westward in search of a recently-discovered sperm whale hunting ground.
The Essex being rammed by a sperm whale, sketched by crewmember Thomas Nickerson.
And the crew did find whales and made a mildly successful trip of it … until it really pissed off the wrong whale.
The Essex discovered a group of sperm whales consisting of two females and one male. When the call went out, the three small whaleboats — built to be light and fast for the pursuit — launched.
These boats separated the females from the male, and one of the crews made a kill. It was around that time that the male, probably already distraught at being partitioned from his group, first ran into the 38-foot Essex. The jostle, which may have been accidental, apparently further upset the abnormally large whale, which briskly left the area, made a sharp turn, then swam all-out on a direct collision course with the Essex.
The old timber ship didn’t stand a chance.
The crew which had stayed aboard the main vessel watched in horror as the Essex was shattered beneath them. Two of the whaleboat crews noted the sinking and returned quickly, and Captain Pollard immediately set his crew about saving as many of the provisions as they could, including water and food.
But the speed with which the Essex went under left them with too little of both. As the final whaleboat made its way to the carnage, it was clear that the full crew complement was doomed to a long trip on a trio of very small boats.
Call Me Ishmael
Pollard and first mate Owen Chase hatched a plan (crewman Thomas Nickerson indicates that it was largely Chase who pushed the plan) to set sail for South America, thousands of miles distant and through unfavorable currents and winds, rather than for the Pacific Islands, about half as far away and in the direction of both favorable winds and currents.
The choice was sealed by fear of the unknown and a century of tales of South Pacific cannibals. Hopefully they came to appreciate the irony.
The crew went through its supplies in the first month at sea, and finally came ashore at Henderson Island, a raised, uninhabited coral reef that they mis-identified.
The fortunate crew found a temporarily available freshwater spring from which to refill their casks, and they subsisted on local fauna for several days while deciding their next course of action. Though Tahiti lay just a few hundred miles westward (again, in the direction of favorable winds and currents), our wayfarers opted to continue towards South America.
Three of the crew decided to stay behind. The remaining 17 crewmembers set out in late December 1820, and again quickly depleted their supplies.
One of the ships — carrying the second mate but no navigational equipment — was separated from the others during a storm and never heard from again, leaving two to carry on under increasingly desperate circumstances.
Passengers on both boats began succumbing to want and exposure, and their starving former comrades had little choice but to devour their remains.
The boat containing Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence was eventually rescued by the Indian off the coast of Chile, and both Nickerson and Chase wrote accounts of the the survivors’ cannibalism.
Yet it was aboard Pollard’s boat that the most gruesome events unfolded.
The deaths of two crewmen had provided for the others — but not nearly enough to hope for landfall.
Short on food and water and despairing of bringing all four remaining souls to port, Charles Ramsdell suggested that the quartet draw lots to both remove one consumer from the boat and provide for the remaining three. Pollard objected to subjecting his crew to such a fate, but Barzillai Ray and Owen Coffin agreed to the plan. The lots were cast, and Coffin pulled the black spot. The other three cast again to decide his executioner, and Ramsdell was chosen.
Pollard’s account indicates that he immediately spoke up for Coffin, offering himself up in place, but Coffin demurred and prepared himself for the execution.*
The following day, February 6, Coffin dictated a short note to his mother and declared, as per Pollard’s diary, that “the lots had been fairly drawn.”
Charles Ramsdell shot Owen Coffin, then joined Ray and Pollard in consuming his remains.
Ray died just days later, and Ramsdell and Pollard barely survived the next two weeks. When the Dauphin came up alongside the whaleboat on February 20, its crew thrilled to the spectacle of Ramsdell and Pollard sucking on the bones of their dead crewmates, emaciated beyond recognition.
Based on their statements about the events of the previous 95 days, a vessel was dispatched to find the three Henderson Island survivors. Because the crew had mis-identified the island, however, the search took longer than expected. Not until April 5, 1821, were the three located … out of fresh water and also scarcely alive.
A few books about the Essex
The Essex was a legend in its own time, and the story of the sinking and the harrowing events which followed continue to circle around Nantucket Island. Though the island’s economy collapsed less than 30 years later, Herman Melville kept the story alive through his literary classic Moby-Dick, whose story revolves around the captain of a whaling ship attacked by a vengeful whale.**
Closer to modern times, the rock group Mountain’s album and eponymous song “Nantucket Sleighride”, which was used as the theme song to London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, is dedicated to Coffin.
Coffin is not the only sailor adrift ever selected for cannibalism by lot, but his case is unusual because the particulars are so well-documented. Several other cases are provided in Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Arthur Gordon Pym uses a victim by the name of Richard Parker, coincidentally the same name as a man who was actually cannibalized in 1884‡ in an affair leading to the famous common law case R v Dudley and Stephens, wherein the killers were charged with murder and sentenced to 6 months in prison — unlike the 1835 incident of the Francis Spaight, which saw the crew acquitted for three such killings.
* One of the crueler accounts of such lot drawing occurred aboard the Peggy, where crewman David Flatt pulled the short straw. However, prior to the execution the following morning, the crew was rescued. Flatt, however, had a breakdown in the intervening hours and suffered mental illness which persisted even after their rescue.
** He was also inspired by the story of Mocha Dick, a notorious white whale which survived dozens of encounters with whalers and is now available in trenta sizes.
† Arthur Gordon Pym is Poe’s only full-length novel.
‡ Richard Parker was also the name of a man executed for the Nore Mutiny, as well as one killed in the wreck of the Francis Spaight in 1846 — not to be confused with the Francis Spaight on which cannibalism occurred 11 years prior.
On the night of January 17-18 in 1945, Szymon Srebrnik was shot in the head, along with 46 other Jewish prisoners, at the Chelmno Extermination Camp near the village of Chelmno in central Poland.
Szymon (whose name has also been spelled Simon, Shimon, Shi’mon, etc.), was fifteen short years of age … but he had sixty-one more years to live.
Relatively little is known about Chelmno, simply because there were so few survivors. At least 150,000 people, and possibly as many as 300,000, died there. The victims included Gypsies and probably Russian prisoners of war in addition to Jews, notably most of the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto.
There were three survivors. Count’em, three. Szymon was one of them. And there were one or two others who successfully escaped Chelmno but did not survive the war.
The operation went like this: the victims would be taken to the camp and told they were being sent to work camps where they would be treated well, but first they had to clean up. They undressed, and they were supposed to give their valuables to one of the Nazi officers for safekeeping.
To maintain the pretense, they were even given receipts or claim tickets. Once the naked Jews left the undressing room, however, all pretense was over. Kicked, shoved, whipped and beaten with rifles and clubs, they were forced down a ramp into a waiting van. After no more could get inside it (the capacity was about 60-80 people per van, with a few of the larger vehicles having space for 100), the van was sealed and driven away. The carbon dioxide emissions from the engine were pumped into the back of the van, and by the time the driver had reached the burial site in a nearby forest, all of the Jews would be dead. If any of them happened to still be alive, they were shot. The bodies were disposed of by either burial or burning.
Not everyone was killed at once, however.
A small number of strong, healthy men were kept alive for awhile in order to help dispose of the bodies and sort through all the belongings of the dead Jews. They were kept in iron shackles 24 hours a day to prevent escape. They slept in the granary.
These people were usually killed within days or weeks and replaced by others from new transports. Our Szymon, however, lasted for about ten months.
There were several reasons for this. The Nazis at Chelmno, for their own amusement, sometimes forced the prisoners to have athletic contests like racing and jumping, and Szymon was good at that and often won.
He also had a beautiful voice, and they enjoyed listening to him sing. The Hauskommando chief, who was in charge of the work site inside the camp itself, liked Szymon and helped keep him alive.
But all things must come to an end.
Szymon and his fellow sufferers were the last prisoner-workers left at Chelmno, and they were shot as part of a clean-up operation by the Nazis. The Russians would arrive within days; the camp itself had been destroyed, and they had to leave no witnesses behind.
Unexpectedly, the Jews put up a fight and actually killed two of the Nazis inside the granary, hanging one and shooting the other with his own gun. Mordechai Zurawski was able to fight his way free and escape. He was the second survivor (a third, Michal Podchelbnik, had escaped the camp in 1942) and testified about his war experiences alongside Szymon. The rest were all killed.
At his testimony in Lodz in June 1945, Szymon recalled:
When the Soviet Army was advancing quickly, one night we were ordered to leave the granary in groups of five … Lenz ordered us to lie down on the ground. He shot everybody in the back of the head. I lost consciousness and regained it when there was no one around. All the SS-men were shooting inside the granary. I crawled to the car lighting the spot and broke both headlights. Under the cover of darkness I managed to run away. The wound was not deadly. The bullet went through the neck and mouth and pierced my nose and then went out.
Szymon made his way to a Polish farm nearby, and the farmer agreed to hide him in his barn until the Russians came two days later. A Soviet Army doctor treated his wound, and he made a complete recovery.
In September 1945, Szymon went to Israel, one of the first Holocaust survivors to arrive there. He met his future wife en route.
Szymon went on to testify at Adolf Eichmann‘s trial in 1961, and in 1978, he went back to visit Chelmno for Claude Lanzmann’s film documentary Shoah.
Those events aside, Szymon lived a long and surprisingly normal life in Israel, marrying, having a couple of kids and living in relative obscurity. He died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 76.
The long, uphill struggle of tsarist Russia to adapt its economy and political institutions to modernity was nearing its final failure.
A shadow play of that approaching cataclysm would unfold in 1905, when popular dissatisfaction won a short-lived period of constitutional government.
Radicals disdained these half-measures, however, and shook the realm with a general strike in December 1905 — a small quake only, since Russia’s proletariat was still too small to constitute a real threat to the state.
And the capital of insurrectionary labor was Muscovite factory district of Presnia or Presnya. There, a botched attempt to suppress strikers resulted in an armed standoff; “Red Presnia” (Krasnaia or Krasnaya Presnia) ended in carnage when the overmatched workers were besieged by the Semyonovsky Guard.
A political cartoon trilogy on the annihilation of Red Presnia: from the top, The Entrance, The Battle, and The Pacification (picturing the Kremlin sinking in blood). They’re from this public domain Google book; scroll up from the link to pp. 35-38 for more unflattering drawings of the tsar as a tinhorn murderer.
On the night of the sixteenth Presnya was encircled in an iron ring of government troops. Soon after 6:00 a.m. on the seventeenth these troops opened a remorseless cannonade. Guns were fired as much as seven times a minute. This continued, with an hour’s respite, until 4:00 p.m. Many factories and houses were destroyed and set on fire. The barrage was conducted from two sides. Houses and barricades were in flames, women and children darted about the streets in clouds of black smoke, the air was filled with the roar and clatter of firing.
Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of a Red Presnia barricade under fire from the Semenovsky Guard. (Source)
The glow was such that miles away it was possible to read in the streets late at night, as though it were day. Until noon the druzhiny [the workers' militia] conducted successful operations against the troops, but continuous enemy fire forced them to stop. Only a small group of druzhinniki remained under arms on their own initiative and at their own risk.
By the morning of the eighteenth Presnya had been cleared of barricades. The “peaceful” population were allowed to leave Presnya; the troops were careless enough to allow people to leave without searching them. The druzhinniki were the first to leave, some of them still with arms. Later, there were shootings and other violence by the soldiers, but by then not a single druzhinnik remained in the area.
The “pacification troops” of the Semyonovsky regiment, who were sent to “pacify” the railway, were ordered not to make arrests and to proceed with out mercy.** They met with no resistance anywhere. Not a single shot was fired against them, yet they killed approximately 150 persons on the railway line. The shootings were carried out without investigation or trial. Wounded men were taken from ambulance wagons and finished off. Corpses lay around without anyone daring to carry them away. One of those shot by the Petersburg guards was the engine-driver Ukhtomsky, who saved the lives of a group of druzhinniki by driving them away on his engine at colossal speed under machine-gun fire. Before they shot him, he told his executioners what he had done: “All are safe,” he concluded with calm pride, “you’ll never get them now.”
“No single act during this period of governmental vengeance,” one chronicle remarked, “stands out more senseless than the punitive expeditions of the Semyonovsky Regiment on the Moscow-Kazan railroad.”
In the course of my inquiries about the activities of the Semyonovski regiment along the Moscow-Kazan line, I heard many stories about Engineer Ukhtomski, who showed heroic firmness in the last moments of his life. Part of this information was given by the captain of the Semyonovski regiment which executed him in Lubertzy,† together with three other workingmen. The captain, who observed him in his last moments, was charmed by his personality; the soldiers felt a deep reverence for him, their esteem being expressed in the fact that after the first volley he remained untouched. Not one bullet had grazed him.
His appearance was in no way striking. Of medium height, with vivid, clever eyes, he gave the impression of a very modest, almost bashful, man.
It was a mere accident that he fell into the hands of the punitive expedition. He was traveling in a carriage, when he stopped in the Lubertzy inn, ignorant of the presence of soldiers at the station. He was searched and a revolver was found in his pocket, which caused his arrest. He was brought before the officer in charge.
Questioned as to his name, he refused to reveal it. The officer went over the lists and the photographs of the revolutionists, comparing them with the live original before him. then he exclaimed:
‘You are Engineer Ukhtomski; you will be shot!’
‘I thought so,’ Ukhtomski answered coolly.
This happened in the afternoon, about three o’clock. He was asked whether he did not want to take the communion, and expressed his desire to do so.
After the communion he was taken, together with three workingmen of the Lubertzy brake-factory, to the place of execution. He made the following statement, addressing the officer:
‘I knew that, once in your hands, I should be shot; I was prepared for death, and that is why I am so calm. … ‘
At the place of execution they wanted to blindfold Ukhtomski. He asked the favor of meeting death squarely, face to face. He also refused to turn his back to the soldiers.
The soldiers fired. The workingmen dropped. Ukhtomski was not hurt. He stood erect, arms folded on his breast.
The soldiers fired again. He fell on the snow, but he was still alive and fully conscious. He looked around, with eyes full of anguish.
Standing just thirteen years later over the remains of that vanquished tsarism, V.I. Lenin paid the martyrs of Presnia tribute for sacrifices “not in vain”:
Before the armed insurrection of December 1905, the people of Russia were incapable of waging a mass armed struggle against their exploiters. After December they were no longer the same people. They had been reborn. They had received their baptism of fire. They had been steeled in revolt. They trained the fighters who were victorious in 1917 and who now, despite the incredible difficulties, and overcoming the torments of hunger arid devastation caused by the imperialist war, are fighting for the world victory of socialism.
Long live the workers of Red Presnya, the vanguard of the world workers’ revolution!
* New Year’s Eve by the Gregorian calendar; tsarist Russia was still on the archaic, 13-days-slower Julian calendar, so the dates within Russia were (as reflected in the Trotsky passage) Dec. 17 for the storming of Red Presnia, and Dec. 18 for this date’s slaughter.
† Summary executions continued for some days, but a Jan. 2, 1906 London Times wire dispatch datelined Jan. 1 appears to situate the particular slaughter that would have claimed Ukhtomsky:
The majority of the revolutionaries in the Presnia quarter succeeded in escaping. About 100 surrendered to General Min to save the houses of the poor from destruction. Artillery and troops are clearing the Kazan railway and are capturing station after station. Three hundred railwaymen have been killed and yesterday 70 were summarily shot at Lubertsy. Moscow is becoming quiet.
“The river Moskva at the Presnia Verck,” the correspondent observed, “is covered with corpses of revolutionaries scattered over the ice.”
It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.
The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.
Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.
The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.
The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.
“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.
Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.
(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)
The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.
This Yule, we present an ancient Danish ballad which “is probably too true a picture of the lawless conduct of men of the highest rank, and of a state of things not confined at that period to the islands of Denmark.”
The Robbers at Nordenshaw
The Robbers lurking at Nordenshaw*
From out the green-wood creep,
And march by night to the farmer’s house,
Their Yule with him to keep.**
They’ve march’d away to the farmer’s house
With each in hand a spear;
“Come, cousin, see, we are kith and kin,
“Tap us thy Christmas beer.
“And, farmer, lodge us all tonight,
“And well with liquor ply,
“And with us leave thy pretty wife,
“Or, farmer, thou shalt die.”
“I’ll freely pour my mead and ale,
“And well I’ll serve you too;
“But, Sirs, by all that’s good above,
“No outrage on us do.
“Now if upon my house ye seize,
“And lord it at your will,
“And if ye put my wife to shame,
“That were outrageous ill.”
Some on the table threw their swords,
Some cloaks of fur so fine,
Some bade the honest farmer’s wife
Bring in the beer and wine.
A cloth of woven silk she took,
And over the table spread;
And there her ale and wine they drank,
And ate her meat and bread.
A cautious wife was Oaselille,
And used her words with care;
She rose and told the robber guests
She would their beds prepare.
No thought had she, good Oaselille,
With them to share her bed;
But left them feasting, and for help
Through the dark forest sped.
With hurried step through bush and field
Ran on the lusty dame,
And after four long weary miles
To Drost Sir Peter’s† came.
She reach’d Sir Peter’s courtyard gate,
Drew on her mantle blue,
And boldly up to the upper room,
Sir Peter’s chamber, flew.
“Wake up, Drost Peter Hoseale, wake,
“No moment longer sleep;
“The thieves, that lurk’d at Nordenshaw,
“With us their Christmas keep.
“What! still, Sir Peter, slumbering on
“Nor yet but half awake?
“Those robbers twelve are at the Grange,
“All twelve are now to take.”
Then rose the Drost and call’d his men,
And bade them all to arm;
“Wake up, my men, there’s come tonight
“Good news from yonder farm.
“Wake up, no moment more delay,
“And d’on your trusty mail;
“For Nilus Ufridson is there,
And not the man to quail.”
“Where,” ask’d those sturdy robbers twelve,
They’d drunk of ale so deep,
“Where’s now the farmer’s pretty wife?
“We’ll have her here to sleep.”
“Chide not, good Sirs, a short delay”
The grey-coat farmer said;
“She is even now to the chamber gone
“To make her guests their bed.”
The farmer out of his window look’d,
And saw the Drost’s array;
“There stop here thirty men at arms,
“Are dress’d like cushats gray.”
Then answer’d Nilus Ufridson,
“Of such I’m not afraid,
“If but my comrades stand as firm,
“And faithful prove my blade.”
“No,” answer’d Lave Rimordson,
“And scann’d the troop afield,
“For such men care we not a bean,
“To them we’ll never yield.”
They beat the door with sword and spear
And rais’d a fearful shout;
“Up up, Sir Nilus Ufridson!
“Thy gang and thou come out.”
“Seven tons of gold I’ll give thee, Drost,
“And silver other five,
“To let us hence in peace depart
“My men and me alive.”
“Thy silver, Nilus, heed I not,
“As little heed thy gold;
“Through thee weeps many an orphan child
“For friends beneath the mould.”
Hard fought Sir Nilus Ufridson,
And well he kept his ground,
And heavy were from bar and beam
The blows he dealt around.
Nor less did Lave Rimordson,
But fought with might and main
Till at the hilt by dint of blows
He broke his sword in twain.
He dash’d the hilt against a stone,
The blade stuck in the mould;
“And now, my only chance of life,
“I’ll try good words and gold.
“Drost Peter Hoseale, spare my life,
“And do me no disgrace;
“I’m near of kin to the Danish Queen
“And of an Emperor’s race.”
“If near of kin to the Queen thou art,
“And all so nobly born,
“Why to the Farmer’s didst thou go,
“And treat his rights with scorn?”
So seized Sir Peter all the twelve,
And townward march’d them off;
And set them side by side on poles,
The people’s jest and scoff.
And there they lie on rack and wheel
To bear the heat and cold;
But to the King the Drost has brought
Twelve heavy chests of gold.
On this day in 1942 in Stalingrad, Russia, seventeen-year-old shoemaker and spy Sasha Fillipov was executed by the German Army for espionage. The Battle of Stalingrad, which had been in progress since July, was bleeding the city white and would continue to do so until the following February. Young Sasha would be just one of over two million casualties.
One death, millions of deaths. Stalin had a quote about that.
Sasha, who had already become a master cobbler, simultaneously volunteered his shoemaking services for the invading German Army and his spying services for the Russian Army. He became a regular behind German lines, and as he made and repaired their shoes and boots he also stole documents, made note of whatever military activity he could see, eavesdropped on conversations and reported it all to the Russians.
Eventually he was discovered, and two days before Christmas he and two other teenagers were led barefoot through the snow and hung from acacia trees on Bryanskaya Street. His parents were there to witness the execution, but his father couldn’t bear to watch and ran away. He also left a ten-year-old brother.
In 1944 he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Banner for his services to Russia. The street where he died was renamed after him, as was a school on that street. Today, however, Sasha is most remembered for being a minor character in the wildly-inaccurate-but-still-a-thrill-to-watch film, Enemy at the Gates. Sasha in the movie is portrayed as a much younger boy, about twelve years old, and is played by Gabriel Thomson.
The rebels were hunted to their retreat: the other brother was caught in a cave and summarily executed, which must have been at the back of Aberra and Asfawossen’s mind when they surrendered under a pledge of safe conduct.
‘Now I tell you to surrender’, wrote Graziani, ‘and I assure you nothing will happen to you. Why do you want to die uselessly?’
Only his cousins had remained with Dejaz Aberra: Mesfin Sileshi and the two younger men, Lij Merid Mangasha and Lij Abiye Abebe. They suspected Italian treachery. ‘If you want to be killed’, said Mesfin, ‘shall I kill you?’ …
The exact sequence of the events that followed is difficult to disentangle … Aberra and Asfawossen finally decided to submit. Aberra however sent his wife and baby son away with Mesfin and the two cousins, a last-minute concession to their pleas and threats.
A letter was sent up to General [Ruggero] Tracchia who had now occupied Fikke:
“To General Tracchia
“As you have assured me in your letter ot me that our lives will be spared, we shall assemble our armies and receive you by peaceful parade in a place called Bidigon.
Ras Hailu in person led Aberra and Asfawossen to General Tracchia’s camp. While they were in the tent drinking coffee with the General, the men of their escort were disarmed, apparently without difficulty, and taken away (they were released the next morning). A group or carabinieri entered the tent and arrested the two brothers. It was 21 December, three days after Ras Imru had surrendered. At 7 p.m. the men in the escort heard a volley of shots in the centre of the town.
Tracchia sent a laconic cable to Graziani: ‘Dejaz Aberra and brother shot dusk in piazza of Fikke’. Graziani sent a cable to Lessona (Italian link) repeating Tracchia’s message and adding ‘Situation Salale liquidated’.
This reference to the Salale or Selale branch of the Ethiopian royal family was not entirely correct, however.
Not liquidated was the youngest brother, Asrate Kassa, who had escaped to exile and would return with Haile Selassie’s post-Mussolini government. Asrate ultimately qualified for these dolorous pages himself, however, as one of the victims of the 1974 Derg purge.
Of more immediate concern for Graziani and his ilk: Abera Kassa’s widow Kebedech Seyoum (French link) legendarily rose from childbirth after learning of her husband’s execution to become one of the Ethiopian resistance’s greatest military leaders. She’s a national hero in Ethiopia … and there’s also a Laboratorio Femminista Kebedech Seyoum in Rome, dedicated to the study of ant-fascist women.