In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.
Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”
Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.
Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.
Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.
Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.
Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.
In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).
Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.
McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.
Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.
And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.
“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).
Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!
Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”
Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.
Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.
And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.
But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”
The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)
* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.
The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.
** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.
† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.
One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Franks was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.
Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.
The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.
Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.
Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.
But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.
Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that
my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.
This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)
In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)
By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.
Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.
Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …
This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …
lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.
“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†
Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.
Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.
As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):
The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.
** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.
† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.
On this date in 1284, the deposed Mongol ruler Tekuder was put to death.
The Mongols had conquered half the world on the back of steppe horses and religious toleration. Mongols variously adopted Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as tribal shamanism; it even sponsored debates among the rival confessions. What counted in the end for the men who commanded its armies was wins and losses.
Our man Tekuder was the son of Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who exemplified pluralistic competence. The son of a Christian but an eventual convert to Buddhism, Hulagu Khan’s signal achievement in the religious arena was done by his sword-arm: he defeated and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate.
In time, three of the four large khanates comprising the Mongol ascendancy would declare themselves for Islam … but in the 13th century the doctrine most likely to get you in trouble was simply to be too doctrinaire.
Hulagu’s son and heir Tekuder, though once baptized into his parents’ Christian faith, turned to Mohammed’s faith with a convert’s zeal and demanded the compliance of his military brass. He declared the Ilkhanate of Persia and Mesopotamia a Muslim sultanate, and tilted Mongol diplomacy away from the Franks and towards Mamluk Egypt.
This split Tekuder’s coalition between Muslims on one side, and Christians and Buddhists on the other, and “the whole of the old Mongol party of malcontents, Buddhists and Nestorians alike, rallied to”* Tekuder’s own nephew Arghun.** One may infer from this entry which man prevailed.
Arghun enjoyed a successful seven-year reign with an incidental appearance in the Marco Polo saga: Arghun appealed to his great-uncle Kublai Khan to send him a wife, and Marco Polo was a part of the party that escorted that woman to Persia in 1291-1293.
Marco Polo would proceed back home to Venice after this voyage, laden with Spice Road riches after a quarter-century’s absence.
Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai’s great-nephew, had in 1286 lost his favourite wife the Khatun Bulughan; and, mourning her sorely, took steps to fulfil her dying injunction that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own kin, the Mongol Tribe of Bayaut. Ambassadors were despatched to the Court of Kaan-baligh to seek such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Kokachin, a maiden of 17, “moult bele dame et avenant.” The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for such a tender charge, but was imperiled by war, so the envoys desired to return by sea. Tartars in general were strangers to all navigation; and the envoys, much taken with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially as Marco had just then returned from his Indian mission, begged the Kaan as a favour to send the three Firinghis in their company. He consented with reluctance, but, having done so, fitted the party out nobly for the voyage, charging the Polos with friendly messages for the potentates of Europe, including the King of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Zayton (as the Westerns called T’swan-chau or Chin-cheu in Fo-kien) in the beginning of 1292. It was an ill-starred voyage, involving long detentions on the coast of Sumatra, and in the South of India, to which, however, we are indebted for some of the best chapters in the book; and two years or upwards passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. The three hardy Venetians survived all perils, and so did the lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard; but two of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of the suite, had perished by the way. Arghun Khan too had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother Kaikhatu reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. We are told by one who knew both the princes well that Arghun was one of the handsomest men of his time, whilst Ghazan was, among all his host, one of the most insignificant in appearance. But in other respects the lady’s change was for the better. Ghazan had some of the highest qualities of a soldier, a legislator and a king, adorned by many and varied accomplishments; though his reign was too short for the full development of his fame.
A Mesopotamian Christian people* whom the past century has hard pressed, Assyrians were in the post-World War I aftermath of the Ottoman Empire angling for some form of a self-governing enclave in the British Mandate, and were highly alarmed at being consigned to the tender mercies of an independent Iraq after 1932.
The Assyrian Nation which is temporarily living in Iraq, having placed before their eyes the dark future, and the miserable conditions which are undoubtedly awaiting them in Iraq, after the lifting of the mandate, have unanimously held a Conference with me in Mosul … At the conclusion of lengthy deliberations, it was unanimously decided by all those present that it is quite impossible for us to live in Iraq.
WE ARE POSITIVELY SURE THAT IF WE REMAIN IN IRAQ, we shall be exterminated in the course of a few years.
WE THEREFORE IMPLORE YOUR MERCY TO TAKE CARE OF US, and arrange our emigration to one of the countries under the rule of one of the Western Nations whom you may deem fit. And should this be impossible, we beg you to request the French Government to accept us in Syria and give us shelter under her responsibility FOR WE CAN NO LONGER LIVE IN IRAQ AND WE SHALL LEAVE.
Assyrians have a tragically voluminous register of atrocities endured; the one in question for this date perhaps resonated deeply enough to emblazon the date on the calendar because it ground up Assyrian bodies and national aspirations alike during the formation of the modern Middle East.
WE SHALL LEAVE, the petition said; in July 1933, 600-plus Assyrians crossed into French Mandate Syria, seeking asylum. They were refused, and sent back to Iraq — and encountered a hostile Iraqi army unit, resulting in a firefight with 33 Iraqi casualties.
This date’s massacre was the army’s revenge — or rather the start of a five-day bloodbath featuring numerous summary executions of Assyrian civilians. And not only that, but for the army and for Iraqis, even a unifying communal experience to strengthen adherence to the unfamiliar new state of Iraq. “The Assyrian pogrom,” Kanan Makiya opined, “was the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire.”
For those on the receiving end of the incipient national consciousness, the experience was quite different. One observer described Assyrian refugees he met later in August as “utterly panic-stricken … their spirit was completely broken.”
On this date in 1941, near the city of Lvov in eastern Poland (now called Lviv and part of Ukraine), an Einsatzgruppe—mobile Nazi killing squad—shot an unknown number of Poles and Jews. We know a little bit about what happened because of Felix Landau, a young SS Hauptscharführer of Austrian origin, who kept a diary of his experiences in the Einsatzkommando.
Landau was a Nazi of the Old Guard who’d been involved in National Socialist activities since the age of fifteen, served time in prison for his role in the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, and ultimately became a naturalized German citizen. He volunteered for the Einsatzkommando on June 30, 1941 — the same day the Wehrmacht arrived in Lvov — and went right to work.
It should be emphasized that Landau was not, by SS standards, a particularly vicious man. He rapidly became disillusioned with the kommando, writing that he preferred “good honest open combat.” In his first diary entry he referred to “scum” who “did not even draw the line at children” and also wrote, “I have little inclination to shoot defenseless people — even if they are only Jews.”
Yet shoot them he did, and he described it in his diary in a flat, matter-of-fact way.
Often he simply put down the dry numbers, as on July 22: “Twenty Jews were finished off.”
Other times, Landau recounted his gruesome work in chilling detail. And so it was on July 4, when over 300 people were killed. His entry describing that day is worth quoting at length:
One of the Poles tried to put up some resistance. He tried to snatch the carbine out of the hands of one of the men but did not succeed. A few seconds later there was a crack of gunfire and it was all over. A few minutes later after a short interrogation a second one was finished off. I was just taking over the watch when a Kommando reported that just a few streets away from us a guard from the Wehrmacht had been discovered shot dead.
One hour later, at 5 in the morning, a further thirty-two Poles, members of the intelligentsia and the Resistance, were shot about two hundred meters from our quarters after they had dug their own grave. One of them simply would not die. The first layer of sand had already been thrown on the first group when a hand emerged from out of the sand, waved and pointed to a place, presumably his heart. A couple more shots ran out, then someone shouted — in fact the Pole himself — “shoot faster” What is a human being? […]
The stench of corpses if all pervasive when you pass the burnt-out houses… During the afternoon some three hundred more Jews and Poles were finished off. In the evening we went into town for an hour. There we saw things that are almost impossible to describe… At a street corner we saw some Jews covered in sand from head to foot. We looked at one another. We were all thinking the same thing. These Jews must have crawled out of the grave where the executed are buried. We stopped a Jew who was unsteady on his feet. We were wrong. The Ukrainians had taken some Jews up to the former GPU citadel. These Jews had apparently helped the GPU persecute the Ukrainians and the Germans. They had rounded up 800 Jews there, who were supposed to be shot by us tomorrow. They had released them.
We continued along the road. There were hundreds of Jews walking along the street with blood pouring from their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken and their eyes hanging out of their sockets. They were covered in blood. Some of them were carrying others who had collapsed. We went to the citadel; there we saw things that few people had ever seen. […] The Jews were pouring out of the entrance. There were rows of Jews lying one on top of the other like pigs whimpering horribly. We stopped and tried to see who was in charge of the Kommando. “Nobody.” Someone had let the Jews go. They were just being hit out of rage and hatred.
Nothing against that — only they should not let the Jews walk about in such a state.
Writing on July 6, Landau described himself as “psychologically shattered” — not due to what he had just seen and done, but because he was homesick and especially missed his girlfriend Trude. He complained of not being able to find stationery to compose a letter to her. (Landau was forever fretting when they weren’t able to write to each other, constantly worried she would leave him.)
He was, however, able to find “a lovely big traveling bag” for only 3.80 reichmarks.
Just another day on the job.
It is often said that the reason the Nazis stopped using the Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews and started using gas chambers was because it was more efficient: they could kill more people in less time using gas. This isn’t true. The Einsatzgruppen’s shooting at Babi Yar, for example, killed more than 33,000 people in two days. Gas chambers could not have done better than that.
In fact, the reason for the switch to the quieter, cleaner method of gassing had more to do with the effect the shootings were having on the Einsatzkommando men themselves. Men would rapidly develop what, in the modern parlance, would be called post-traumatic stress disorder; many were ruined for life. Given the conditions Landau described in his diary, it’s no wonder.
August Becker, a gas van inspector, later stated, “The men in charge of the Einsatzgruppen in the East were increasingly complaining that the firing squads could not cope with the psychological and moral stress of the mass shootings indefinitely. I know that a number of members of these squads were themselves committed to mental asylums and for this reason a new and better method of killing had to be found.”
The first gas vans wouldn’t be created until December 1941, however, and gas chambers came later still. In the meantime, the Einsatzgruppen traveled from town to town, massacring civilians everywhere they went.
As for Felix Landau: in late 1941 he moved in with Trude, and they married in 1943 after Landau divorced his first wife. He and Trude divorced in 1946, though, and that same year he was recognized and arrested for war crimes. Escaping from an American prison camp, he adopted an alias name and lived in plain sight as an interior decorator.
In 1959 he was arrested again and ultimately sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings, but pardoned in 1973. Felix Landau died a free man in 1983, at the age of 73.
Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off a maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.
The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.
In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.
We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we soon feel there is something ominous about it.
After the last slip is drawn,
there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.
Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.
And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.
“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
On this day in 1886, John W. Kelliher, known as “Reddy” or “Big Red”, was lynched by a mob of some five hundred people in Becker County, Minnesota.
Kelliher had gotten into a fight with a rival pimp and gambler and the village marshal of Detroit (today, Detroit Lakes), John Conway, tried to intervene. Conway was shot dead for his pains, shortly before his wedding day.
Marshal Conway had been very much liked in the village. Though his killer was instantly chased down and handed over to the constabulary,
little business was done in Detroit that day. Men were to be seen in small groups in every part of the town, upon the streets, in the stores, saloons and alley-ways earnestly discussing the tragedy, and the many threatening countenances were ample indications that further developments might be expected, while many appeared anxious, apprehensive and excited, as though waiting for and fearing some terrible event. At precisely ten o’clock in the evening, several taps were made upon the fire bell in quick succession, and the fierce yell, which immediately followed, breaking harshly upon the oppressive stillness, was ample evidence that this was the understood signal for an execution by Judge Lynch. Farmers for many miles around had been coming into town all day, and many men arrived by the evening train from points both east and west; the town was thronged with men and at the ringing of the bell a mass of humanity surged toward the court house; a sledge hammer was brought into use; the sheriff and jailer were overpowered and the keys to the jail taken from them, and Kelliher was quickly brought face to face with his unlawful but determined executioners; a rope was thrown over his head and the cry “go ahead” was given; with probably fifteen men having hold of the rope, and pulling with frenzied zeal the mob left the jail and ran wildly down the street leading west, to the house that had been occupied by Big Red as a bagnio, and in a twinkling the rope had been thrown over the limb of an oak tree, and the body of Big Red was swinging in the air; the victim was doubtless dead long before the tree was reached, or if not dead certainly unconscious.
The scene was one of wildest confusion, but all had been done so quickly and so effectually that the terrible affair could scarcely be realized, but the deed over, the excited crowds melted away and in a short time the village streets were practically deserted. (Original source)
According to John D. Bessler’s Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Tribune took a vehement editorial line against this “barbarous and disgraceful act,” and urged that jails fit themselves out with “a Gatling gun, intended for business” as proof against Judge Lynch. However, the St. Paul Daily Globedemurred, editorializing that “Society owes it to itself to get rid of such tough characters as Kelliher” — and if attaining that end via lynch law was in principle less than ideal, “it was past all human endurance to have a defiant desperado walk the streets of a respectable town and shoot down its citizens in cold blood. Nobody is surprised that he was taken from jail by a mob and swung to the nearest tree. It would have been a surprise if it had not been so.”
Jirí Chmelnicek shot this footage in just-liberated Prague on May 10, 1945 of Czechs celebrating the end of World War II by doling out mistreatment — including a chilling mass-execution — to Sudeten Germans. It was the presence of that population, the reader will recall, that Berlin invoked to justify its occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Chmelnicek’s video only surfaced publicly in 2010: its images were far too sensitive to air closer to the Great War, especially while Czechoslovakia was under communist control. As Der Spiegel reported.
Chmelnicek’s film shows how the Germans were rounded up in a nearby movie theater, also called the Borislavka. The camera then pans to the side of the street, where 40 men and at least one woman stand with their backs to the lens. A meadow can be seen in the background. Shots ring out and, one after another, each person in the line slumps and falls forward over a low embankment. The injured lying on the ground beg for mercy. Then a Red Army truck rolls up, its tires crushing dead and wounded alike. Later other Germans can be seen, forced to dig a mass grave in the meadow.
We do not know who these people are. Considering the indiscriminate revenge visited on Sudeten Germans after the war, it is not likely that these several dozen souls were selected for their fate with care.
The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks': The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.
And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.
British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”
It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.
Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)
The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.
Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.
In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)
That warning got the colony’s attention.
The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.
In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.
It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting
Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.
We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?
April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.
The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.
“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.
And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.
The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.
They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …
Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.
This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.
Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.