In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.
But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.
“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”
According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.
Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.
Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.
These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.
That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)
Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.
Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.
Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,
they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.
Captured attempting to escape the approaching royalist forces of Jose Tomas Boves, Salias was shot with the spectacularly defiant last cry of “God Almighty, if the Heavens admit Spaniards, then I renounce the Heavens!”
* There are some revisionist hypotheses postulating other authors.
June 17 is an honored day in Vietnam for the sacrifice under the French guillotine this date of 13 early martyrs for national independence.
These were members of the nationalist Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, or Viet Quoc). Not averse to the propaganda of the deed, these revolutionaries labored secretly under onerous French pressure following the previous year’s assassination of labor recruiter.*
A year later (almost to the hour), with the movement crippled by arrests, the VNQDD tried an audacious gambit to revive its fortunes and trigger a general rising against the French.
The Yen Bai mutiny — named for the Tonkincity where it transpired** — saw 40 or 50 Vietnamese riflemen of the Fourth Régiment de Tirailleurs Tonkinois† and a like number of civilian sympathizers attacked the regiment’s officers in concert.
Alas, most of the other Vietnamese tirailleurs declined to join the rising, and it was suppressed within a few hours.
Over 1,000 accused revolutionaries stood trial for the Yen Bai mutiny, and the top leadership paid the top penalty this date — but as quietly as the French could manage. They were whisked out of their cells on the preceding evening and taken by secret convoy on a four-hour ride to the Yen Bai execution grounds, where a guillotine had been covertly erected.
We are going to go to pay our debt for the country. The flag of independence must be dyed with blood. The flower of freedom must be sown with blood. The country needs more and more sacrifices of its people. The revolution would meet success finally. We want to say goodbye to all of you with our respects.
-Nguyen Thai Hoc, taking his final leave of imprisoned VNQDD comrades
From 4:55 a.m. at Yen Bai, the thirteen men one by one were each lashed to the plank. One by one, each of their necks were fixed by the lunette under the blade. One by one, each cried out “Vietnam!” as the blade fell.
Bui Tu Toan
Bui Van Chuan
Ha Van Lao
Dao Van Nhit
Ngo Van Du
Nguyen Duc Thinh
Nguyen Van Tiem
Do Van Su
Bui Van Cuu
Nguyen Nhu Lien
Pho Duc Chinh, who allegedly asked (it’s unclear to me whether it was granted) to be guillotined face-up — perhaps a show of bravado
The founder of the VNQDD Nguyen Thai Hoc, whose name now graces a major street in the heart of Hanoi
The VNQDD at this point was organizationally shattered, and many of its un-arrested cadres fled to China — whose sponsorship would revive it and return it to Vietnam in the 1940s.
* The labor recruiter is only tangential to the Yen Bai story, but their function, to dragoon Vietnamese peasants into brutal plantation work on terms next door to slavery, made them particularly hated characters. More about that racket in this 1930 text (pdf) by an outraged Frenchman.
** A few other minor secondary incidents occurred elsewhere in the area, but the epicenter of the rising was always Yen Bai.
The young man striking the dramatic pose is Stjepan Filipovic, an anti-fascist partisan hanged in the city of Valjevo by the Serbian State Guard, a collaborationist force working with the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.
Filipovic was a Communist so we’re guessing that he would not have had a lot of truck with the ethnic particularism that’s latterly consumed the Balkans. Times being what they are, however, the national hero to Tito’s Yugoslavia has become a post-Communist nationalist football.
That Valjevo monument — it’s in Serbia, remember — calls him Stevan Filipovic, which is the Serbian variant of his given name. But as Serbia is the heir to Yugoslavia, he at least remains there a legitimate subject for a public memorial. Filipovic himself was Croatian, but his legacy in that present-day state is a bit more problematic: in his native town outside Dubrovnik, a statue that once commemorated Filipovic was torn down in 1991 by Croat nationalists; its vacant plinth still stands sadly in Opuzen. (Opuzen’s film festival, however, awards its honorees a statuette replicating the destroyed monument.)
It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.
Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.
For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE
“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”
The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.
All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.
Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.
Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.
Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:
the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.
Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.
Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.
Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.
Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.
Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.
A few books about the death of Socrates
* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.
During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.
There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7″ from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.
For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.
** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.
† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.
On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.
From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.
But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.
That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.
Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.
As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.
The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)
All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.
However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.
Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.
The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,
loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.
The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)
Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)
As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”
Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)
The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.
A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed we were unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us.
On this date in 1879, legendary Californio outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez was hanged in San Jose.
Born to a respectable family (his grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose) when the land was under Mexican control, Vasquez was among the many chagrined to find themselves demoted to second-class citizenry by the norteamericanoconquest of the Mexican-American War.
That occurred when Vasquez was in his early teens, and soon thereafter the young man was plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw: livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeep stickups.*
One of the latter furnished the proximate cause of his death and probably the most infamous single incident among his exploits: an armed robbery in Tres Pinos** that resulted in three shooting deaths and a serious manhunt.
For Vasquez, the end of the rope (last word: “Pronto”) was just the last act of a legendary career, of poetry and horsemanship and countless enchanted inamoratas. He was renowned in his own time, and has graduated since into a mythical, and potently symbolic, figure of the other peoples of the Golden West.
How did you separate fact from folklore researching this outlaw? How much do we really know about him?
Generally speaking the whole genre of outlaws and lawmen is sort of known for bad research and myths and crazy stories. It tends to attract — here I’m denigrating myself– people who are a little off. Like myself. The movie buffs tend to get reality mixed up with what they’ve seen in the movies.
The whole genre has attracted poor research and sensational writers since the days of the dime novels. Though there are real historical groups: the Wild West History Association is probably the best example — True West magazine and Wild West magazine do a god job of publishing authentic history.
With Vasquez in particular, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime to disadvantaged Hispanics.
He was personally very well-liked; as a general rule, he didn’t rob Hispanics (although he did from time to time); he paid for safe harbor and food; he was a terrific dancer; he wrote poetry to is female admirers. He was a bigger-than-life personality, sort of the life of the party.
Among the larger Hispanic community as he became more notorious in the 1870s, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime. A lot of the myths are exaggerations of things he really did.
When the colonized cannot earn a living within the system, or when they are degraded, they strike out. The most physical way is to rebel. This can be done in an organized way, as was done by Juan Cortina in Texas, or it can express itself in bandit activity. An analysis of the life of Tiburcio Vasquez clearly demonstrates that, while in the strict sense of the word he was a criminal, at the same time his underlying motivation was self-defense. Some Anglo-American folklorists have attempted to portray Tiburcio Vasquez as a comical and oversexed Mexican bandit … dismiss[ing] the legitimate grievance of Chicanos during the nineteenth century. While it is true that Tiburcio Vasquez was an outlaw, many Mexicans still consider him a hero.
His outlaw career seems like it’s bound up in this Anglo-Hispanic cultural collision. To what extent does that influence how he’s “read” by others?
His life is sort of a microcosm of what was going on. The first portion of my book deals with the rise and fall of the native settlers of California.
With the loss of California in the Mexican-American War and then the discovery of gold, they became second-class citizens in their own land. So Vasquez becomes a folk hero — he robbed stagecoaches, thumbed his nose at the sheriff, and got away.
You find these same outlaw myths in all cultures. Vasquez is no different, though he’s better documented than most. People would sing corridos about him.
There were some quotes by him that says that he was driven to it, the Anglos drove me to it — but that’s no different from Jesse James or Billy the Kid saying they were driven to it, even if it’s true. Most of these guys I’m talking about are or were history professors; they should have known better.
What led you to this story?
When I was a kid in the early 60s I watched all the westerns. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were my favorite. But then I wanted to know, was there a Wild West here in California? So when I got into high school I went and read everything I could get my hands on about early California history.
Vasquez and Black Bart were pretty much the most famous early California outlaws. So I started researching Vasquez in high school, and collected information for about 40 years, but it took me another four years to write it.
There’s never been a biography about Vasquez. There were three paperback books published about him, one after he was captured and two right after he was hanged — they’re not dime novels, but they’re sort of semi-fictional. There have been many magazines, many book chapters since, but everything published about him has just been a rehash of those three books. (n.b. — here’s a pdf of one of those original 1870s books -ed.)
It must have been a compelling story for you to stick with it for 40 years.
It’s just sort of a great story from early California. Vasquez was very colorful.
He fell under the influence of a guy named Anastacio Garcia when he was about 16 years old, and his parents seem to have separated. He had a large family; all of them were extremely honest. One of his brothers was a very prominent rancher; another brother served a term as a justice of the peace in Los Angeles County.
Vasquez, possibly because his father wasn’t around, fell under the influence of Garcia and got involved in the Roach-Belcher feud. Garcia was a hired gun, and the two of them were involved in a brawl in a Fandango house in 1854 and one of them killed a local constable. Tiburcio Vasquez fled Monterrey and never appeared openly after that.
But he basically did not change.
He was engaged to Garcia’s sister when he was 17 and she apparently broke it off. That seemed to have embittered him because he never had another serious relationship again with another woman. He was a real rounder, he got shot over women, took off with the wives of other gang members.
That was very foolish — that’s what got him the noose, when a cuckolded gang member testified against him at trial. He never made any effort to change; he was what you call a career criminal.
He was a very cultured person, and even if you compare him to more modern-day criminals like Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger, none of them had that kind of culture. He really was sort of the prototype of that sort of charismatic bandit who at the same time is both charming and deadly.
Probably the thing to me that was the most fascinating was the information I dug up about his family: his parents, his sisters who were very loyal to him; his brothers who all tried to get him to go straight. I was very pleased to meet the descendants of some of his brothers, so it was fascinating to reconstruct his family life to try to explain his personality.
So what was the nature of that bandit career?
Well, he wasn’t a remorseless killer, though he was involved in nine murders — he always said it was someone else.
The one that he was hanged for, his gang killed three people in a robbery. He claimed someone else pulled the trigger. Some witnesses said it was Vasquez himself, but under the law then and now, if you band together to commit a felony and someone dies, everyone involved is culpable for murder.
He’d been doing a lot of robberies before then, but he’d do them in remote areas. He tried not to kill anyone; he’d tie people up — but he was also involved in a lot of gunfights. Basically he’d shoot to escape. In doing the research I found that he had fired into a brothel in Santa Cruz and wounded three people; another time he fired into a stagecoach station.
One of the great Vasquez stories is, he gets out of San Quentin and he goes to San Juan Bautista which is one of the most picturesque villages in California then and now — it was one of his favorite hangouts. One of his gang members, Salazar, had tried to go straight. Vasquez shows up at San Juan and finds out that Salazar has married this gorgeous 15-year-old named “Pepita” and he and another gang member lust after her and get her to run off with the gang. So Salazar comes gunning for him; they have a gunfight right there in front of the mission, and Salazar shoots Vasquez through the chest and damn near kills him. His gang gets him out of it … the girl gets pregnant, evidently with Tiburcio’s child and she dies of a botched abortion. It’s sort of the Vasquez story in a microcosm, it looks pretty romantic on the surface and you look a little deeper and it becomes pretty grisly.
He gave a lot of interviews after he was captured and they give color to the story. There’s the natural human inclination to paint yourself in the best light.
None of which helped him avoid execution.
His hanging was actually the most publicized hanging in the history of the Pacific coast; newspapers came from Canada, New York all over the country to witness the hanging.
He was hanged in front of a big crowd, a thousand people or more present. People climbed trees and telegraph poles became the jailhouse was packed. The sheriff had 300 or 400 invitations issued and then many many more were clustered around.
Executed Today would be remiss not to add that our day’s gallows-bird was the namesake of the Vasquez Rocks, a small Natural Area Park north of Los Angeles where the outlaw used to hide out.
This striking triangular rock formation, thrust out of the earth by tectonic action, has been used extensively in film productions of every genre since at least the 1930s, including with almost compulsive frequency in the Star Trek franchise — e.g., Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn:
* There’s a good deal of material about Tiburcio’s career linked here.
On this date in 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett was executed by lethal injection, with the tart last words,
“I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”
Although Garrett was only 17 at the time a nun from a neighboring Amarillo convent was raped and murdered, and he may have qualified as developmentally disabled to boot — both factors that today would exclude him from execution — that whole innocence story didn’t have much public traction.
“No, no, not at all,” New Mexico attorney Jesse Quackenbush told this site in an interview. “He was villainized from day one: he was a nun-murderer who needed to be executed. The only sympathy really came from the Pope.”
But two decades on, Garrett’s dying profession is one of the more troublesome skeletons in the Texas execution machine’s closet, thanks in no small part to Quackenbush himself.
Quackenbush directed the documentary The Last Word (viewable free on Netflix), a powerful brief not only for Garrett’s innocence* but against the comprehensive rot of the system that shunted hm off this mortal coil — from the front-line investigators all the way through the Lone Star State’s intentionally broken executive clemency farce.
“It was a system-wide failure that caused this kid to die. It wasn’t just the legal system,” Quackenbush said. “The media played a part. The governor was looking more to her own re-election hopes.* There was a dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court wasn’t morally deep enough to realize that executing 17-year-olds and ‘mentally retarded’ prisoners was wrong. There’s the system in Texas that allowed the prosecutors to hand-pick the pathologists to provide junk science.
“It’s a multifaceted failure, and no one facet is more to blame than the others.”
Garrett, a white teenager, disappeared into a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth, after the alleged supernatural vision of a local soothsayer acclaimed him the culprit in the murder of a nun named Tadea Benz. Corporeal indicia of guilt falls somewhere between circumstantial and laughable: fingerprints in a convent he had visited many times, the inevitable jailhouse snitch, and an unrecorded supposed “confession” that Garrett refused to sign.
As in a preponderance of death cases, especially in Texas (pdf), a meek and all-but-unfunded defense team offered scant resistance as prosecutors made the most of this eminently disputable evidence: once the one-sided trial was in the books and the crucial direct appeals likewise slipped past, the proceedings lay beyond the reach of judicial review.
This novel is inspired by the Garrett case.
For all that, there yet remains one un-litigated piece of evidence.
Around the time of Sister Benz’s death, there was another rape-murder of another elderly Amarillo woman, a crime that authorities publicly described as “too similar” to the Benz case not to be part of the same crime spree.
That case went unsolved … but years after Garrett’s execution, DNA databases matched an old semen sample from that second crime to a Cuban rapist (he was among the criminals and undesirables that Castro expelled to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift) named Leoncio Perez Rueda.
More dispositive evidence in the form of still-testable crime scene samples may yet reside in Amarillo’s evidence lockers — semen and blood samples that, in the era of DNA, Quackenbush thinks would exonerate Johnny Frank Garrett.
If testing this sort of thing sounds like a no-brainer, you don’t work for Amarillo.
“The [Garrett] family offered the city of Amarillo complete civic immunity and they still refused to run a DNA test, and threatened to countersue** if the family tried to pursue it,” Quackenbush says. “In the state of Texas there are still only laws protecting DNA access for living people: if you’re already executed, you have no rights.”
Which is a particular pity — since “the chances of executing innocent people are still really high.”
* Quackenbush’s case for Garrett’s innocence is outlined in this legal memo (pdf). This site maintains an extensive archive of resources about the case.
** In this, it’s not unlike the Ruben Cantu case, where post-execution evidence of innocence has also been met with legal threats by the state.
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”
The reporter’s death this day was not confirmed until late February, when his killers released a video on the Internet interspersing images of American and Israeli violence with footage of Pearl speaking — and then, horrifically, of Pearl being beheaded with a knife.** It was the first of several hostage-beheading videos various militants would release in the next few years.
Pearl’s captors drew a direct line from his Jewishness to his murder in the statements they forced him to make:
My name is Daniel Pearl. I am a Jewish American from Encino, California USA … I come from, uh, on my father’s side the family is Zionist … My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish … My family follows Judaism. We’ve made numerous family visits to Israel … Back in the town of B’nei Braq there is a street named after my great grandfather Chayim Pearl who is one of the founders of the town.
It was the more startling because Pearl himself was a very secular Jew. Pearl did not set out to be a martyr for his cultural or religious heritage: that identity as the identity was thrust upon him.
And it’s been suggested that it was thrust upon Pearl’s captors as well, whose object in kidnapping an American reporter might have been a much more parochial kidnapping commonplace — publicity, cash — but who became politically boxed in when their hostage was publicized by the media as a “Jewish-American reporter”. One of the emails the captors had pre-drafted actually announced Pearl’s release. It was edited after the kidnapping … to announce Pearl’s execution within 24 hours, as a Mossad agent. Al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems to have been summoned from outside the abductors’ circle as a ringer with the captors unsure of how to dispose of their prey.
As an investigative reporter, Pearl’s own work had in some notable instances countered the preferred narratives of American hegemony. For instance, his reporting rubbished American charges that the Khartoum pharmaceutical factory Bill Clinton ordered bombed in 1998 was actually a chemical weapons plant. His work in Kosovo led him to contradict the most bellicose “genocide” allegations from that region’s dirty ethnic war.
He was a star reporter in the prime of his life, a man who poured out words that defined a career and a public persona. From February 1, 2002, suddenly and without justice, that text was torn from his hands. In its place, during the charged months after September 11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, came a silent Rorschach blot.
Pearl, the Jewish martyr. Pearl, the victim of blowback. Pearl, the journalistic icon. Pearl, the naive liberal in the heart of darkness. Pearl, the mandate for waterboarding and Iraq.
Pearl, the object lesson.
Pearl, the axe for others’ grinding.
Omar Sheikh, a Pakistani militant reportedly linked to Britain’s MI6 and the author of the kidnapping, was arrested within days of Pearl’s murder. He remains imprisoned under sentence of death in Pakistan for the crime.
* Mohammed also claimed that he wanted to kill Pearl personally to “make sure I got the death penalty” if he were eventually arrested.
** Among the many bone-chilling details to emerge from the subsequent investigation, it became clear that the actual murder was not shown — only some quick flashes of re-enacted throat-cutting — because the cameraman missed the shot of the kill.
On or about this date in 1781,* the native Aymara revolutionary Tupac Katari (or Tupac Catari, or Tupaj Katari) was torn apart in the Bolivian village of Penas — a messianic warning on his lips of his Spanish captors’ future comeuppance.
Hard on the heels of Tupac Amaru‘s public dismembering in nearby Cuzco (present-day Peru), Julian Apasa Nina took up the name and mantle of recent Bolivian insurgent Tomas Katari.
Julian Apasa’s new name Tupac Katari was as ambitious as his plans, for he took the thousands of indigenous Americans who flocked to his banner and laid siege to La Paz from the adjacent El Alto.**
The object was not mere plunder, but rolling back Spanish domination full stop.
A friar who met Katari reported that the Spanish tongue was forbidden on pain of death, and the rebel leader aimed to “totally separate himself from all Customs of the Spanish.” (Source) He did not shrink from ferocity to achieve his ends, hanging captives outsice the walls of the city, enforcing military discipline ruthlessly. (Source) The Aymara fought with “a spirit and pretentiousness so horrible that … it can serve as an example as the most valiant nation.” (Source)
Though the siege† reduced Spanish defenders to eating bark and horseflesh, and starved out thousands, the city held out and the siege was at length lifted and Tupac Katari betrayed into his enemies’ hands.
Condemned to death (a fate his wife Bartolina Sisa would share months later), Katari was lashed to four horses who strained until his body ripped into quarters suitable for placarding towns of the district. But before he went, Katari bequeathed posterity a legendary final sentiment.
* It appears that the primary sources themselves are unclear on the precise date, and there are citations for the execution taking place anywhere from Nov. 13 to Nov. 18. Nov. 15 appears to be the best-preferred by scholars, or the co-number one with Nov. 14, and we’re inclined to prefer this date because of the 20th century Indian social justice movement which explicitly cited Katari’s inspiration — the Movimiento 15 de Noviembre (more in Spanish). It’s part of an entire political tendency in Bolivia called Katarismo. If the date is good enough for the Aymara, it’s good enough for this blog.
That wasn’t the only 20th century movement to situate itself as Katari’s heirs. A set of Marxist indigenous guerrillas styled themselves the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, and a former member of this Che-inspired militia is currently Bolivia’s vice president.
** From the Aymara siege of La Paz developed the local tradition of Ekeko.
† Actually, two distinct sieges in 1781, one lasting just over three months and the next lasting just over two.