Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1938: Kasym Tynystanov, Kyrgyz intellectual

Add comment November 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Kyrgyz intellectual and statesman Kasym Tynystanov was executed during Stalin’s Great Purge.


Kasym Tynystanov, on modern Kyrgyzstan’s 10-som bill.

Born in tsarist Russia’s mountainous frontier with Qing China, Tynystanov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Kyrgyz) was blessed by the exertions of his father and a local mullah with literacy — a gift shared by only about one in 40 of his countrymen.

He graduated from the Kazakh-Kyrgyz Institute of Education in Tashkent in 1924 and went on to a career in letters — literal letters, as he’s credited with being the first to regularize the Kyrgyz tongue in Latin characters. He would publish several works on the Kyrgyz language; he also compiled the oral folklore of his people, and wrote verse of his own.

Tynystanov served as People’s Commissariat of Education and chaired the language and literature organ of the Kyrgyz Research Institute of Culture.

In 1938 he received Stalinism’s customary reward for the conscientious public servant and was accused as a counterrevolutionary nationalist and shot. The Soviet Union officially rehabilitated him in the post-Stalin era.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Kyrgyzstan,Popular Culture,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1907: Afanasi Matushenko

Add comment November 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1907,* revolutionary sailor Afanasi Mat(y)ushenko was executed for his part in tsarist Russia’s Potemkin mutiny.

The son of a liberated serf, the Ukrainian Matushenko (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Russian) absconded in his childhood to enter imperial Russia’s industrial economy. After spending the late 1890s — his mid teens to early twenties — on the railroads and the docks he was conscripted into the navy.

The revolutionary year of 1905 finds Matushenko a quartermaster aboard the soon-to-be-famous battleship Potemkin stationed at Sevastopol, already politically radicalized enough to have participated in a revolutionary barracks riot the previous November.

Eisenstein is mandatory where the Potemkin is concerned but the fact is that the mutiny was not spontaneously generated: it had been planned, and Matushenko was a part of the planning.

On the day of the rising, it was he who led brother-sailors in a protest against worm-ridden rations, and he who eventually crossed the rubicon into mutiny by calling them to arms. He personally killed several of the ship’s officers, and with the mutiny’s success he was elected the chair of the ship’s executive committee.

The Potemkin sailed for Odessa where her aspirations to catalyze a wider rebellion ran (metaphorically) aground, and eventually sailed for Romania. Matushenko lived abroad for two years as a political refugee, crossing paths with kindred souls but indistinct in his political outlook, nearly terroristic. The leftist writer Vladimir Posse met Matushenko in Geneva and found him

Matyushenko … did not go into theory. And his practice was to destroy — precisely the destruction, not the elimination, of all the chiefs, all the masters, and above all the officers. For him, the people were divided into masters and subordinates … the lower ranks can free themselves only when the officers are “simply” destroyed. He himself killed two or three of his superiors during a riot on the Potemkin. And it seemed to him that the essence of the revolution lay in such murders. In this spirit, he wrote bloodthirsty proclamations to sailors and soldiers, urging them to kill officers. He thought that with such a program it was easy to attract all the sailors and most of the soldiers to the side of the revolution …

He considered himself to be doomed to die in battle or on the scaffold … He considered living in an emigrant position to be dishonorable, something of a betrayal. In his view, a true revolutionary is one who not only kills, but also dies himself.

In June 1907 he acted on the latter beliefs and returned to Russia — where he was promptly arrested and condemned by a military court to fulfill his prophesied destiny.

Several cities in the Soviet Union, including Sevastopol itself, had streets named for Sailor Matyushenko, and a Black Sea minesweeper received that name in 1969.

* November 2, 1907 per the Gregorian calendar. Tsarist Russia was still hanging on to the Julian calendar at this time.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Murder,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason

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1926: Anteo Zamboni, Mussolini near-assassin, lynched

Add comment October 31st, 2018 Headsman

Halloween of 1926 was a festival of triumph for the Italian fascists … and they crowned it in a festival of blood.

The occasion marked (not exactly to the day) the fourth anniversary of Benito Mussolini‘s bloodless coup via the October 1922 March on Rome. And as a gift for himself and his populace, Benito Mussolini on that date inaugurated Bologna’s Stadio Littoriale by riding a charger into the arena and delivering a harangue.


Fascist-built and still in service, it’s now known as the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara and it’s home to Bologna F.C. 1909. (cc) image by Udb.

After another address to a medical conference later that afternoon, Mussolini was motorcading down via Rizzoli in an Alfa Romeo when a gunshot whizzed through his collar.*

It had been fired by a 15-year-old anarchist named Anteo Zamboni, vainly and sacrificially hoping to turn history’s tide with a well-placed bullet.

Instead, his act would offer Il Duce a Reichstag Fire-like pretext — there was always bound to be one, sooner or later — for a raft of repressive legislation including the creation of a nasty secret police, the dissolution of political opposition, and (of interest to this here site) reintroduction of the death penalty.**

But Anteo Zamboni would see his penalty delivered summarily after the crowd seized him.†

Zamboni was done to death with blows and blades by Mussolini’s fascist admirers right on the spot. In a turn of heart, Bologna — by tradition a leftist stronghold — now has a street named for the young would-be assassin. (Here is the source for the ghastly Mature Content images below of Zamboni’s brutalized corpse.)

The incident is the subject of the 1978 film Gli Ultimi Tre Giorni.

* Zamboni’s was only one of three assassination attempts on Mussolini in 1926 alone.

** Just days afterwards during the post-Zamboni repressive pall, the great Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci was tossed into prison, never to emerge. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks issued out of his dungeon, before his health succumbed in 1937 to the intentional neglect of his captors.

† It’s reportedly cavalry officer Carlo Alberto Pasolini who first detained the youth: the father of postwar film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,History,Italy,Lynching,Martyrs,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Torture

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1799: Sarah Clark, a melancholy instance of human depravity

Add comment October 30th, 2018 Headsman

The ensuing poem, titled “Melancholy Instance of Human Depravity” and published in an 1805 collection, laments a serving-girl’s murder by arsenic of the master and mistress of her house. It was a crime of unrequited love: the intended victim of the poisoned bread was not this couple but their daughter, whom Sarah Clark fancied a rival for the affections of a young man in her former household. Sarah Clark hanged for the murders on October 30, 1799, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but Miss Isabella Oliver was never punished for her verse.

UPON the bank of a slow-winding flood
The good Alphonso’s modest mansion stood;
A man he was throughout the country known,
Of sterling sense, to social converse prone:
He walk’d the plains with such majestic grace,
When time had drawn its furrows on his face,
‘Twas easy to infer his youthful charms,
When first the fair Maria bless’d his arms:
Maria—Oh! what mix’d emotions rise,
Grief, pity, indignation; and surprise,
At thought of thee! —

Thy sweetness might have mov’d the harshest mind;
Thy kindness taught th’ ungentlest to be kind;
And yet a fiend enshrin’d in female mould
Could thy heart-rending agonies behold;
When by her cruel wiles thy wedded heart
Was basely sever’d from its dearest part.
The lov’d Alphonso’s breathless corpse she view’d,
And yet her harden’d heart was unsubdu’d.
Perhaps, she saw thee sink beside his bed,
Or lean in speechless sorrow o’er the dead;
Or heard thee faintly cry — The knot’s unti’d
Come, gentle death, thou cans’tnomore divide:
But spare our children, our lov’d offspring spare;
They still are young, and life is worth their care.
To me the charm that sweeten’d life is gone;
Weep not, my friends, I cannot die too soon.
Fast through her reins the subtle poison spread,
And join’d with grief, to bow her aged head.
Her children strive her drooping head to stay;
The monster works to rend those props away;
But triumphs not: a greater power sustains
And bears them through excruciating pains.
Oft did Maria, in serener days,
With tender transport on her offspring gaze;
Maternal love was pictur’d in her face,
The happy parent of a blooming race;
Now the fond mother feels at every pore;
Worse than her own, the pangs her children bore.
Yet still herself, sweet, affable, and mild,
The patient sufferer on her murd’rer smil’d;
Who by her bed officiously attends,
Concern and kind solicitude pretends,
Yet still pursues her own infernal ends.

Hence aid medicinal is render’d vain,
By frequent potions of the deadly bane;
While cruel torture rack Maria’s frame,
And by degrees puts out the vital flame.
Now pause, my muse, and seriously enquire,
What could this hellish cruelty inspire!
Why strike at those who no offence had given?
It seems like stabbing at the face of heaven!
In her dark mind what ugly passions breed!
Like gnawing worms, they on her vitals feed.
Without an object, what could malice do?
Alvina’s near, she’s often in her view;
In her polluted soul foul envy’s rais’d;
Because perhaps she hears Alvina prais’d;
A groundless jealousy her breast inflames;
‘Gainst thee, Alvina, she the mischief aims.
The wicked miscreant working in the dark,
Spreads ruin round, but cannot hit the mark:
A power divine restrains the falling blow
Thus far thou may’st, but shalt no farther go.
What deadly venom rankled in that breast!
What worse than poison must the soul infest,
Which still its fatal purpose could pursue,
Tho’ general destruction might ensue!
Oh! sin, prolific source of human woe!
To thee mankind their various sorrows owe;
Thro’ thee our world a gloomy aspect wears,
Ajd is too justly stil’d a vale of tears.
Man was first form’d upon a social plan;
And tie unnumber’d fasten man to man:
None are, howe’er debas’d, in form or mind,
Cut off from all communion with their kind.
Witness the wretched subject of these lines.
Alas! how many suffer’d by her crimes!
Who more detach’d, of less import, than she?
Yet mark her influence on society.
But there are crimes of a less shocking kind,
That find an easy pass from mind to mind:
As fire spreads from one building to another,
The vicious man contaminates his brother;
Why wonder, then, that Adam could deface
His maker’s image in an unborn race?
When his own hand the sacred stamp had torn,
Could he transmit it whole to sons unborn?
In him the foul contagion first began;
From sire to son the deadly venom ran;
Thus poisoning all the mighty mass of man.

The sad effect is dreadful to endure;
But human wisdom could not find a cure:
Thus, Scripture, reason, and experience, tend
To prove, the power that made alone can mend.
Oh! Christ, thou sum and source of every good,
Thou that for sinners shed’st thy precious blood,
In thee our various wants are all suppli’d;
Thy death our ransom, and thy life our guide.
In thee thy followers second life attain;
And man reflects his maker’s face again.
Is sin progressive, spreading every hour?
Has heaven-born virtue no diffusive power?
Our blessed Saviour is a living head;
The streams that issue from him can’t be dead,
But scatter life and fragrance, as they spread.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1871: Eugen Kvaternik, for the Rakovica revolt

Add comment October 11th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1871, Eugen Kvaternik and a number of companions were shot as rebels.

A patriot who had long aspired to detach Croatia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kvaternik (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) found enough traction to give it a go during the late 19th century’s rise of swirling nationalist rivalries.

His Rakovica Revolt, named after the village where Kvaternik announced the Croatian People’s Republic on October 7, 1871, was speedily crushed, however. Kvaternik’s rebels routed on the 10th with the appearance of a federal army and the arrests began forthwith.

On October 11, a military tribunal sentenced Kvaternik and various comrades to death — sentences that were implemented immediately by musketry. Today, there are streets and city squares in independent Croatia named to Kvaternik’s honor.


The Killings of Rakovica (Death of Eugen Kvaternik), by Oton Ivekovic.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1714: Geczy Julianna, the White Woman of Locse

Add comment September 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1714, Geczy Julianna was executed in the marketplace of Gyor as a traitor.

“The White Woman of Locse” — which is also the title of an 1884 romantic novel about her live by Mor Jokai — this woman allegedly betrayed that place* into the hands of imperial Habsburg troops during Hungary’s unsuccessful 1703-1711 rebellion. Sober historians view her as simply a person trusted to serve as the emissary between the garrison and its Habsburg besiegers which role would eventually entail her communicating the defenders’ surrender.

She salvaged her reputation for posterity — and set herself up for torture and execution — by paying the betrayal forward to the empire when she destroyed a number of documents sought by the imperial marshal Janos Palffy that could have incriminated Kuruc nobles in plotting for a renewal of hostilities.

“How can a woman sacrifice her whole country for a kiss, and then sacrifice her handsome head for the same country?” Jokai mused of his paradoxical subject. “What reconciles the heaven and hell in the character of a woman?”

* Formerly part of Hungary’s northern reaches, this town today resides in Slovakia.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Women

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1442: Nguyen Trai

Add comment September 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date* in 1442, Vietnamese writer, commander, and politician Nguyen Trai died for regicide.

The Confucian scholar (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Vietnamese) was already a patriotic hero for taking to the hills in the successful rebellion that had expelled the occupation of the Chinese Ming dynasty some years before.

This philosopher of irregular war was famed for the very contemporary-sounding aphorism “better to conquer hearts than citadels”;** five centuries on, the great general of another era’s Vietnamese liberation struggle would credit Nguyen Trai’s “attacks on the minds, i.e. propaganda work among the enemy, persuading the enemy to surrender in many cities.”

A literal warrior-poet, Trai bequeathed the ages a corpus of beautiful musings to go with his martial axioms.

To A Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue — believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.

But the very sharpest turn in his fate was the last one, when the Vietnamese sovereign, healthy and young and passing through the area, paid a courtesy call on the 60-something statesman — and shockingly turned up dead in the morning, thrusting the kingdom into turmoil since his heir was an infant. We have seen in these pages that inhabiting the mere vicinity of an unexpected royal death can be an extremely dangerous situation; so it was for Trai, no matter his former heroism or his poignant verse.

Perhaps his situation as the favored royal advisor had cultivated the envy of rival courtiers who suddenly found themselves in a position to vent their pique; or, maybe it was nothing but tunnel vision where the situation of being the most proximate initial suspect would transmute into an irresistibly self-reinforcing certainty. Or could this celestial household really have been involved in regicide? It’s one of the most famous mysteries in Vietnam’s history.

The man’s contemporaries came to their conclusion almost instantly. Barely six weeks after the emperor’s unexpected death, Nguyen Trai was put to death — and not only he but his wife, Nguyen Thi Lo and all their kin. It’s one of history’s most notorious incidents of the execution of nine relations — the most severe collective punishment to be found in China and Vietnam, wherein anyone closely related to an arch-traitor could be destroyed in a family extermination.

Twenty years later, Emperor Le Thanh Tong formally exonerated the man of the charge, a verdict that has been endorsed by a posterity that honors Nguyen Trai as a national hero.

* We’re translating the date from the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar, a perilous venture. I’m well outside my expertise here but sources I can find are unanimous on this date and Vietnamese calendar converters such as this one appear to agree.

** Another great Nguyen Trai-ism for guerrilla war: “Like the ocean which supports a ship but can also overturn it, so the people can support the throne or sink it.”

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Treason,Vietnam,Wrongful Executions

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1682: Ivan Khovansky

Add comment September 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1682, the boyar Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky went from being the power behind the throne to one of the skulls under it.

A veteran military commander, Khovansky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) became a key figure in the months after the death of Tsar Feodor III of Russia. This perilous political moment left the throne in the hands of two underage half-brothers overseen by a female regent.

With benefit of hindsight we know that 10-year-old (in 1682) Peter will emerge from this troika to become the mighty Tsar Peter the Great. In 1682, it was anybody’s guess whether any of these dubious prospective autocrats might survive at all.

Peter in particular had cause to fear for his life in May 1682 when the Streltsy, a hereditary guard of Moscow musketeers, bloodily rebelled in favor of his co-heir’s privileges and against his own, rampaging through the Kremlin murdering princes in Peter’s circle. And at the head of these furies stood Khovansky.

Many years later, Peter would revenge himself upon the Streltsy for this horror but in the moment it carried the day, incidentally also carrying Khovansky to a preeminent position in the state.

But he was pitted almost immediately against his erstwhile patron and ally, the regent Sophia Alekseyevna.

Even though the Streltsy rebellion had been conducted on Sophia’s behalf, she could see as well as the next tsar the perils of embracing these latter-day praetorians‘ authority to remake the government by force … and the Streltsy made sure to remind her of it almost immediately when the “Old Believer” movement that predominated among its ranks started raising complaints about Sophia’s religious accommodations.*

Fearing an overmighty nobleman at the head of a treasonable host — and Khovansky has been suspected by both his contemporaries and posterity of coveting the regency for himself — Sophia and the young co-tsars briefly fled Moscow “because we could not tolerate the many offences, unlawful and gross actions and violations committed by criminals and traitors.” Meanwhile she maneuvered adroitly to isolate him politically and had the boyar Duma vote his attainder.

His fate was sealed by the discovery of an anonymous (probably fabricated) letter of denunciation. On 17 September, her own name day, Sophia succeeded in luring Ivan Khovansky and his son Ivan to the royal summer residence at Vozdvizhenskoe outside Moscow. The charges against them centred on their ‘evil designs upon the health and authority of the great sovereigns’ which involved no less than plotting to use the strel’tsy to kill the tsars, Tsaritsa Natalia, Sophia and the patriarch, then to raise rebellion all over Moscow and snatch the throne. The lesser charges included association with ‘accursed schismatics’, embezzlement, dereliction of military duty, and insulting the boyars. The charges were full of inconsistencies and illogicalities, but their sheer weight sealed the Khovanskys’ fate and Prince Ivan and his son were beheaded on the spot … The strel’tsy were forced to swear an oath of loyalty based on a set of conditions, the final clause of which threatened death to anyone who ‘speaks approvingly of the deeds of late, or boasts of committing murder or makes up phrases inciting rebellion as before, or stirs up people to commit criminal acts.’ (Source)

He’s the subject of the Mussorgsky opera Khovanshchina.

* Old Believers wanted a rollback of religious reforms decreed in recent years; Sophia said no dice. Once Peter the Great took over, Sophia and Old Believers alike would end up in the same boat.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1894: Abbe Albert Bruneau

Add comment August 30th, 2018 Headsman

French priest Albert Bruneau was guillotined on this date in 1894 for murder. (Most of the available information about this case is in French, as are most of the links in this post.)

The Abbe‘s protests of innocence fell on deaf ears considering his history of degeneracy — thefts, seductions, even firing his own parsonage for the insurance money — stretching back to his seminarian days.

He’d been condemned for killing that January at Entrammes another priest, Abbe Fricot — whose body had wound up plundered of valuables and dropped down a well. This epidemic of priest-on-priest violence made for a tremendous public sensation that certainly was not conducive to Bruneau’s efforts to defend himself. Once he became suspected of Fricot’s murder, he was also baselessly implicated in (though never charged with) the unsolved killing of a Laval florist from the previous year.

A thread on guillotine.cultureforum.net draws our attention not only to some wonderful original reportage but to the riveting first-person account of Henri Massonneau in his Devant l’Echafaud (In Front of the Scaffold, available free online from Google Books or Gallica). Massonneau recounts the fury in Laval, where crowds expecting the execution a couple of days previously pelted the prison with taunts for the condemned man.

Bruneau’s cell, very tall in the tower of the Vieux Château, was illuminated. The mobs were screaming:

“Bruneau! It’s for this night! You will dance!”

In the night spots around the city, Massonneau even heard patrons grumbling for the head of Bruneau’s barrister, for having dared to defend the monster.

The magistrate and energetic proto-true crime scribbler Pierre Bouchardon* took up l’Affaire de l’Abbe Bruneau in 1942 and thought the legal proceedings inexcusably slipshod owing to the prejudicial atmosphere. (Unfortunately his Le Puits du Presbytere d’Entrammes (The Well of the Presbytery of Entrammes) falls under the pall of copyright and must be hunted among sellers of antique francophone titles.) Many other retrospectives have reached a similar conclusion.

We return to Massonneau, who has caught wind on the evening of August 29 that the beheading will take place early the next day, and even secured for himself entry into the prison to observe Bruneau’s last hours:

At half-past two in the morning, the van carrying the guillotine arrives, escorted by six gendarmes, at the Place de la Justice. This square is planted with tall trees and surrounded by stone terminals connected by chains. To allow the van to enter the square, the chains at the extreme angles had to be sawed. The square has been evacuated, but the windows of the neighboring houses are full of curiosity, and the square of the Cathedral which opens directly on the place du Palais de Justice, following it, is black with people.

We will attend the spectacle. But there will not be gladiators fighting wild beasts, nor bullfights, nor athletes measuring themselves: it will be the law that will kill an unarmed man. There are men, women, children, bourgeois, farmers, workers, many priests. Kids have climbed into the trees. We can not dislodge them. There are six thousand people around the guillotine. It’s a grand success. The weather is superb, the night is even hot.

From a distance, the crowd follows the assembly of the guillotine. When the sinister machine stands up, erect in the night, joy breaks out. We are finally quiet: Bruneau will be executed. The hour passes. My colleagues and I are entering the prison, but we are numerous and the Prosecutor of the Republic informs us that we will not be able to enter the cell of the convict. We will have to wait for him in the chapel where he will come to hear his last mass. From that moment, we will not leave him.

The magistrates entered his cell at 4 o’clock. Bruneau did not sleep. The Public Prosecutor said to him:

“Bruneau, courage. The time has arrived.”

Bruneau looked around, haggard. Then he said:

“Can I get up?”

“Yes, dress up.”

He put on his pants. The prosecutor asked him if he had a confession to make.

“No,” he replied, “I am innocent, not only of the crimes for which I was acquitted, but also of the one for which I was condemned. I only committed indecent assaults. I am innocent.” He delivered a letter to the Prosecutor.

“You will read it,” he said, “at the same time as my advocate, and you will deliver it to the public.”

In this letter, Bruneau again protests his innocence and says he forgives those who have hurt him. The letter was not published. Despite claiming to forgive them, Bruneau leveled slanderous accusations against some witnesses of the trial.

I go down to the chapel. It is located in a basement. From the chandeliers, a dozen candles flicker a dim light. Soon the chapel is full of people … I have never seen a scene more moving than the appearance of Bruneau in the chapel. He has come down at a brisk pace the twenty steps that lead to it. He wears his beard, very black, which gives him a remarkably energetic appearance. His foot scarcely leaving the last step, the condemned stiffens, and with a sudden movement turns towards the holy water font. His arms are shackled and he must make an incredible effort to take holy water. He looks like an automaton. He crosses himself, not without difficulty, then with a sure step approaches the high altar. There, he drops to his knees. A thump sounds. Bruneau seems lost in a chasm of prayer.

The chaplain approaches him and speaks to him in a low voice; Bruneau resumes his prayer; the chaplain comes to ask the prosecutor for permission to isolate himself with the condemned man to hear his confession. The prosecutor hesitates, but consents in the end. The chaplain returns near Bruneau, helps him get up, and they both head for a corner of the chapel hidden by a curtain. They disappear behind it. Two guards come to stand near the curtain.

The confession lasts ten endless minutes. Finally, Bruneau comes to take his place, on his knees, in front of the maître-hôtel. And the mass begins. Another twenty minutes pass. The assistants suffer visibly for the convict throughout; Bruneau communes. Finally the ceremony is over. Bruneau, before going out, again takes holy water, and he has the same difficulties as before. He is very calm. He climbs the stairs without weakness. It feels like a man walking in a dream. From the chapel, one goes into the courtyard to go to the registry where the last toilette is to be made. It is a small room on the ground floor. Through the door, left open, I attend these funereal preparations. Quietly, without affectation, he says he is hungry. It’s a new delay. Priests usually eat immediately after communion. It is habit that he is hungry.

He leaves the registry. I run forward and I come near the scaffold. The police commissioner who is there says to me: “It’s not him already?”

“Yes, yes, here he is.”

“But it’s impossible! It is not legal time. I cannot yet permit the execution.”

Then all that I thought during the Mass about the mental state of the condemned returns to me, and I say to the commissioner:

“Well! Have a chair brought there, near the guillotine, and sit down until it is legal time. I’m sure he will not protest … ”

“No, no, it’s not possible,” he said. “We have to wait for the hour.”

And he makes as if to go to the prison, just as the procession emerges. I stop him:

“Do not worry for so little. In Paris, we always guillotine before the hour.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.”

“Ah! so …”

Bruneau is near the scaffold. It is exactly 4:47. Legally, indeed, it is at 5:15 that the execution should have taken place. We are half an hour ahead. Bruneau has crossed without faltering the two hundred meters that separate the prison from the scaffold. Contrary to all the condemned, he does not want to see the guillotine. Two meters from the bascule he turns his head with affectation so as not to behold it. The chaplain presents him a crucifix. Bruneau kisses it twice, then he drops into the arms of the chaplain and kisses it for a long time.

The executioner’s assistants seize him but he tears free with a sudden movement and turns to the chaplain begging again to kiss the cross. He can not take his lips off the crucifix. The chaplain speaks to him, exhorts him to courage, and with a movement of exquisite gentleness pushes him towards the assistants who seize him and precipitate him onto the bascule.

When Bruneau entered the Palace Square, a huge “Ah!” came out of the crowd. But once he is here, we hear no sound; no word is uttered; nobody budges. Bruneau’s struggle against death at the foot of the scaffold lasted two minutes, two centuries.

The knife falls. Society is avenged. Its representatives on the Cathedral Square record this victory by frantic applause. It is interminable, already, the head is thrown in the basket with the body, the basket in the van, and the van rolls towards the cemetery. The crowd is still clapping. By the Place du Pilier-Vert, the Place des Arts, the Rue Neuve, the Pont-Neuf, the Rue de la Paix, in ten minutes the convoy arrives at the cemetery, between two curious hedges. Since three before days the pit was dug and the coffin was waiting.

Bruneau is buried at the end of an alley on the right, in the section of mass graves. The following year, passing Laval, I went to the cemetery. I found in front of the tomb two kneeling nuns who were praying. Many people, indeed, in the religious world, did not believe the culpability of Bruneau. But it is incorrect, as has been said, as I myself reported then, that the bishop of Laval made every effort to obtain pardon for the condemned. The bishop of Laval was stricken with immense sadness when Bruneau’s crimes were discovered. He cried, remained silent, and died of sorrow.

Wikipedia claims that the scandal of the murderer-priest inspired the French journalist Paul Bourde‘s 1902 play Nos deux consciences (Our Two Consciences), a piece adapted to cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1953 as I Confess. (review)

* Most famously, Bouchardon prosecuted Mata Hari.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

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1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.

Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.

We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.

“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
 
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
 
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”

This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when

two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
 
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
 
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”

The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Death Penalty,Execution,Heresy,Italy,Pelf,Public Executions

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