Posts filed under 'Escapes'

1845: Not William Weaver, defended by Abraham Lincoln

Add comment June 27th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1845 was the appointed hanging of William Weaver, the first convicted murderer in Champaign County, Illinois.

While drunk, Weaver shot to death one David Hiltibrau and despite the able representation of one Abraham Lincoln was speedily convicted. (pdf)

Where the rail splitter failed, fortune prevailed.

“A few days — or nights rather — before that set for his execution,” we read,

a friendly auger passed to him afforded the means of escape. Just then delays were dangerous to poor drunken Bill Weaver, for Sheriff Lewis had the rope and scaffold ready, so he did not await a farewell word from friends, but sped away to the North, as the winds go. At that time the tangled forests and the untramped prairies afforded unexcelled means for seclusion and escape, and the condemned man, once a mile from town, might well bid farewell to every fear of being caught and hanged, as he doubtless did. Years afterward Weaver was heard from in far Northern Wisconsin, a useful, law-abiding citizen. No effort was ever made to bring him back from his delicious exile.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Milestones,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Public Executions,USA

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1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni

5 comments May 29th, 2011 Headsman

This site is occasionally prepared to stray outside its execution-anniversary beat to cover especially fascinating manifestations of the death penalty in history.

So for this date, we observe the anniversary not of a punishment, but of the crime itself: a capital homicide in the capital of the world that changed art forever.

NNDB summarizes Caravaggio as a “temperamental painter,” but a less generous interlocutor might prefer a descriptor like “lowlife.”

Painter, he certainly was.

Caravaggio’s pioneering realism and flair for the dramatic …


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Though the young painter on the make would hardly want for models of public decapitation in 16th century Rome, the gendered intimacy with the act invites consideration of Caravaggio’s likely attendance at the execution of Beatrice Cenci.

… made him a rock star on the canvas.

Though the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with suspicion, there were scudi enough to burst the coinpurse of a talent who could grace a chapel with awe-inspiring stuff like this:


Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted in 1601 for Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo.

However many souls his stark brushwork won for the Church, Caravaggio’s reverential fare belied the creator’s own distinctly profane pastimes: gambling, boozing, brawling, and whoring around. He needed the intervention of well-placed patrons to duck prosecution on several occasions.

May 29, 1606 finds our “temperamental” antihero encountering a wealthy scoundrel by the handle of Ranuccio Tomassoni and a problem that would outstrip any political pull the artist could muster.

Allegedly, the two met to settle a paltry tennis wager, although this may have been a cover story for a rivalry over a courtesan.*

On whatever pretext, the young hotheads fell into a melee. Caravaggio won … and Tomassoni bled to death from the gash his foe dealt to his femoral artery.**

Caravaggio now had mortal blood on his hands. Homicides were treated very harshly by the authorities. Caravaggio was about to have a price put on his head, and if he were caught, that head would be summarily removed from his body and hung on a public street. Allies of Ranuccio bent on revenge were likely to be after him as well. … Caravaggio, the celebrated Italian painter, was now a notorious wanted killer. (Source)

Condemned an outlaw by Pope Paul V — himself fruit of Rome’s Borghese family, great patrons of art in their own right — Caravaggio fled the Eternal City. His brilliance went with him, perhaps even amplified by the exile.

“The fall from grace was huge,” a curator of late Caravaggio works argued. “It had a profound impact. He started expressing the psychological essence of the stories he is telling.”

The painter and killer had four years left to him — an exile spent sleeping clothed and armed, forever looking over his shoulder. But what his jangled nerves could still spare for the canvas would help launch the baroque artistic epoch and still influences us today.

Flight, fancy, and fortune took Caravaggio to Malta and to Sicily, but the year or so he spent as Naples’ visiting genius would make his artistic legacy: that city’s succeeding generations of painters took enthusiastic inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan offerings — like a Seven Works of Mercy that must have carried a very personal meaning for the hunted man.

He was reportedly as arrogant and hot-tempered on the run as he had been in Rome, but Caravaggio’s art in exile also traces his desperate attempts to undo the consequences of his bad behavior.

Exploiting his apparent affinity for the sawing off of heads, Caravaggio rendered his own head in a severed state in at least two apparently penitential paintings during this vulnerable period.

This Salome with the Head of John the Baptist was made for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the latter had in 1608 booted Caravaggio from that island refuge:

While David with the Head of Goliath seems to have been created shortly before Caravaggio’s own death for the pope’s art-hounding “Cardinal Nephew” Scipione Borghese, in a bid to earn a pardon. Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the dead man, and Latin inscription “humility kills pride” on the Israelite hero’s sword, suggest an attempt to effect through his creative virtuosity his own execution in effigy.

That would be, at any rate, the only execution Caravaggio ultimately had to endure. He died in the summer of 1610 under unclear — and inevitably suspicious — circumstances while attempting to return to Rome.

A few biographical books about Caravaggio …

… and some Caravaggio art books

* Ranuccio Tomassoni was the pimp and lover of a prostitute named Fillide whom Caravaggio had painted years before, and become enamored of. This Fillide was also Caravaggio’s model for Judith in the arresting painting of the Biblical heroine in mid-decapitation above.

** Possibly, if you like the love triangle angle, in a botched attempt to castrate his rival.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Crime,Escapes,Executed in Effigy,Famous,History,Italy,Murder,Not Executed,Papal States,Scandal,Sex

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1942: Not Hersh Smolar, saved by Genesis

2 comments April 1st, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1942, the Nazis issued an ultimatum to the Judenrat of the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus: turn over Hersh Smolar for torture and execution by noon, or they would all face execution themselves.

Smolar, a dedicated Communist who was a writer and editor in civilian life, had been a problem for the Germans for quite some time. He was a leader in the resistance of the Minsk Ghetto, and that resistance was a force to be reckoned with. Smolar and others like him formed an underground organization that printed leaflets about Soviet successes in the war, occasionally hid non-Jewish Communists and escaped Russian prisoners of war within the ghetto (the infectious disease ward of the hospital was a great hiding place: the Germans never went there), and above all tried to save the lives of as many Jews as possible.

The Minsk Ghetto underground formed links with underground resistance organizations on the outside and they worked together. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, the general population of Belarus was as a whole sympathetic and helpful to the Jews. The result was that Jews were able to escape the ghetto and join partisan groups in the forest by the thousands, surviving and taking out Nazis at the same time.

The Minsk Ghetto leaked like a sieve. By the time it was liquidated, 10,000 of its residents had joined partisan groups in the forest.

Smolar, of course, had tried to keep his activities a secret from the Nazis, but he couldn’t avoid their attention forever. Unfortunately the Minsk Ghetto Underground wasn’t very good at keeping itself a secret and twice it was decimated by mass arrests.

By the spring of 1942, Smolar was a hunted man, and in hiding. On April 1 he was in the hospital’s infectious disease ward, disguised as a typhus patient, meaning his face could be covered. (Typhus patients suffer extreme sensitivity to light.) The Judenrat paid him a visit and told him about the Nazis’ ultimatum.

Some of the Judenrat members were prepared to turn Smolar in, so only one person would have to die. Of course, the ideal solution would be where no one would die. They turned to the Tanakh for guidance, specifically the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt and told their father he had died, they dipped his coat in the blood of a kid and presented this as proof of his death.

Displaying the sincerest and brassiest form of flattery, one of the Judenrat members took a blank passport, filled it out with Smolar’s photograph and details, smeared it with blood from a recent Nazi victim, and took it to the Gestapo officers. He explained that they had apparently gotten Smolar in a random shooting, as the passport had just been found on a mutilated body at the cemetery.

And the Germans actually fell for this. April Fools!

Barbara Epstein’s excellent book The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism records the rest of the story: Smolar remained in hiding in the hospital for another four months. Eventually he left the infectious disease ward and moved to a specially constructed hiding place in the attic chimney, which was only large enough to stand in.

Presumably he was very happy in August 1942, when the time came for him to leave the ghetto and join a partisan group in the forest. He survived the war … as did about 4,500 other Jewish partisans from the Minsk Ghetto.

Smolar wrote a memoir about his experiences and the Minsk Ghetto Underground in general, titled The Minsk Ghetto: Soviet-Jewish Partisans Against the Nazis. He died in Israel in 1993, age 88.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belarus,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1716: Lords Kenmure and Derwentwater but not Lord Nithsdale

9 comments February 24th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1716 saw the beheading of two Jacobite lords, but it was more famous for the third who ducked the executioner in one of the Tower of London’s greatest escapes.

Lord Nithsdale, Escape from the Tower by Emily Mary Osborn(e)

Three were doomed to the block this date:

They were the fruit of Parliament’s impeachment of Jacobite leaders. Six of these fellows threw themselves upon the mercy of the Commons, and were rewarded with a death sentence by William Cowper. Only half managed to wrangle mercy from the crown.

On the eve of this date’s execution, Lord Nithsdale received a visitation of his wife, Winifred … who helped him swap clothes with one of her maids, in which garb he audaciously marched out the Tower gates in the train of his spouse.

The king whom Nithsdale had purposed to dethrone was a good sport about it. “It was the best thing a man in his condition could have done,” he declared.

The fugitives managed to cross the channel — that required another bit of dress-up, in the livery of the Venetian ambassador — and absconded to Rome. William Maxwell, Lord Nithsdale, outlived his appointment with the headsman by 28 years.

They are gone — who shall follow? — their ship’s on the brine,
And they sail unpursued to a far friendly shore,
Where love and content at their hearth may entwine,
And the warfare of kingdoms divide them no more.

“The Dream of Lord Nithsdale”

A letter detailing the escape from the pen of the intrepid Lady Nithsdale herself is well worth the read.

Her reputation as a romantic heroine (only enhanced by the romantic futility of the Jacobite struggle itself) has lent itself to all manner of literary expropriation, like this 19th century historical novel.

All very well for these two lovebirds. But the remaining 67% of the day’s scaffold carrion did not escape the Tower in women’s clothing, or men’s, and paid with their heads as scheduled.

Derwentwater went out with a peevish scaffold a ballad, “Lord Derwentwater” (or “Lord Allenwater”, or several similar variants), and another aptly titled “Derwentwater’s Farewell”.

His partner at the chop, Lord Kenmure,** also made the folk playlist in “O Kenmure’s On And Awa, Willie”, one of the ditties gathered by Robert Burns.

Having beheld all these various exemplars, Derwentwater’s brother and fellow Stuart supporter Charles Radclyffe decided to emulate them all.

Later that same year, Charles Radclyffe also made a successful prison break and got to the continent.

As a result, he was still around to participate in the 1745 Jacobite rising … and finally get executed for that.

(All part of God’s mystical plan for Radclyffe: look sharp and you’ll find him succeeding Isaac Newton as CEO of the legendary Holy Grail-keeping secret society Priory of Sion in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and its pulp novel knockoff The Da Vinci Code.)

* It’s impossible not to notice that this cross-dressing escape foreshadows that of Bonnie Prince Charlie when the Jacobite cause flamed out for good thirty years later.

** And like Lord Nithsdale, he was also blessed with a perspicacious wife — albeit one who wasn’t able to extricate him from the Tower.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Escapes,Execution,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Power,Scotland,Treason

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1944: Not Sim Kessel, Jewish boxer

7 comments December 27th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

“In December 1944,” begins Sim Kessel’s Holocaust memoir, “I was hanged at Auschwitz.”

He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.

Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.

The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.

Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:

Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!

Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:

“Boxer?”

“Boxer? Ja!”

He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.

Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:

This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.

In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”

The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.

Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.

And then the rope broke.

Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]

I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.

In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.

Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:

So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.

Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.

Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.

It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.

Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,Executions Survived,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Poland,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1909: Valgrand in place of Fantomas

1 comment December 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1909, in the first novel of the hit French Fantomas crime serial, the title character escapes the guillotine by having a duped actor beheaded in his place.

Fantomas’s Wikipedia entry calls the character “a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 19th century to modern-day serial killers“: he’s a swashbuckling anti-hero who’s a master of disguise and perfectly okay with getting his hands bloody.

His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)

The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.

That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.

Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.

“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”

The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.

There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!

But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.

“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.

“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”

And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.

Fantomas on the silver screen

This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.

In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.

* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.

It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)

Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.

** Juve is a big fan of the then-trendy, now-discredited system of Bertillonage; Fantomas consistently runs circles around this “scientific” crime-fighting. Academics, if you please?

Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.

-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Escapes,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers

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1895: Not Almighty Voice

1 comment October 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On October 22, 1895, Cree warrior Almighty Voice was arrested for the considerable crime of killing a cow without the right permit. When a white guard japed that workmen were “erecting a scaffold from which you will be hanged next morning” — actually, they were putting up a building — it set off one of the longest and bloodiest manhunts in Saskatchewan history.

Almighty Voice took the prospect of having his neck stretched this date seriously enough to break out of prison the night of October 22-23.

A week later, a Mountie tried to arrest Almighty Voice and was shot dead for his trouble. From a spurious criminal complaint that likely would not have been pursued, the specter of the gallows had sent Almighty Voice into wanted-outlaw status.

For a year and a half he mostly avoided detection, and if the other Cree on his reservation had knowledge of his whereabouts, the government’s $500 reward was not enough to induce them to supply it.

In May 1897, Almighty Voice and two fellow-travelers were finally caught in a shootout. The Cree did just fine in this exchange, but two more Mounties and (for some reason) a postmaster were not so lucky.

The next day, the Mounties turned cannon on the Indians’ position, finally killing the three of them in the bombardment — or else inducing them to kill themselves.

Nineteen months on, seven men were dead on account of our guard’s ill-chosen bit of gallows “humor.” Hardy-har-har. But Almighty Voice remains a legendary name in Saskatchewan.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,History,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft

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1942: Lodz ghetto “Children’s Action” begins

4 comments September 5th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Between September 5 and September 13 was the great deportation of vulnerable individuals from the Lodz Ghetto, one of the largest Nazi ghettos in Europe.

The 150,000-odd Jews within had starved, slaved and suffered for nearly two years, but what came next was almost too much to bear. The Nazis demanded that Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski,* the ghetto’s controversial chairman, turn over 20,000 non-working people for deportation, including the elderly and all children under the age of ten.

Those two groups constituted only 13,000 people altogether, so the gap had to be filled with the sick. The police and other Jewish authorities in the ghetto would have a chance to round up the deportees themselves. If they didn’t accomplish this, the Germans would do it themselves.

Rumkowski’s policy had always been one of accomodating to the Nazis’ demands and appeasing them with the goal of saving as many Jews as possible. He didn’t deviate from his plan even in this instance, and tried to explain himself to the ghetto population in an electrifying speech on September 4:

A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess — the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children! […] I must perform this difficult and bloody operation — I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well — God forbid.

I have no thought of consoling you today. Nor do I wish to calm you. I must lay bare your full anguish and pain. I come to you like a bandit, to take from you what you treasure most in your hearts! I have tried, using every possible means, to get the order revoked. I tried — when that proved to be impossible — to soften the order. Just yesterday, I ordered a list of children aged 9 — I wanted at least to save this one aged-group: the nine to 10-year-olds. But I was not granted this concession. On only one point did I succeed: in saving the 10-year-olds and up. Let this be a consolation to our profound grief.

There are, in the ghetto, many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: “Give me the sick. In their place we can save the healthy.” I know how dear the sick are to any family, and particularly to Jews. However, when cruel demands are made, one has to weigh and measure: who shall, can and may be saved? And common sense dictates that the saved must be those who can be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who cannot be saved in any case. […]

Although it was never explicitly stated, the beaten-down, demoralized Lodz Jews harbored few illusions about the fate of deportees; most of them knew by now that deportation meant death.

Naturally there were cries of protest. People in the crowd suggested alternatives. They should all go together. Parents’ only children should not be taken; children should only be taken from families who had several. Rumkowski would have none if it:

These are empty phrases! I don’t have the strength to argue with you! If the authorities were to arrive, none of you would be shouting! I understand what it means to tear off a part of the body. Yesterday, I begged on my knees, but it did not work. From small villages with Jewish populations of 7000 to 8000, barely 1000 arrived here. So which is better? What do you want? That 80,000 to 90,000 Jews remain, or God forbid, that the whole population be annihilated? I have done and will continue doing everything possible to keep arms from appearing in the streets and blood from being shed. The order could not be undone; it could only be reduced.

One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away!

In short, Rumkowski believed that only by cooperating with the German orders could he prevent even more lives from being lost.

He did have a point: The chairman of the Warsaw Ghetto, when faced with a similar deportation order, had committed suicide, and, as the Jewish authorities dragged their feet, the Nazis stepped in and, with much terror and bloodshed, forcibly deported close to 300,000 people over the course of six weeks. Resistance in Warsaw had made no appreciable difference in the death toll.

During the days that followed Rumkowski’s announcement, a general curfew was implemented and everyone was ordered to remain in their homes while the German SS and authorities, assisted by the Ghetto police and fire department (whose own families were exempted from the deportation) went from house to house to select their victims. The orphanages and old age homes were emptied, and Rumkowski himself supervised this to make sure no one was left behind.

People worked desperately to try to save themselves and the families. They knew the Germans would not be picky, would not be closely checking birth records or doctors’ certificates; it was enough for someone to simply look old or sick or very young.

Older men and women darkened their gray hair with coffee. Sick people dragged themselves out of bed and used makeup to brighten their faces. Children tried to hide, with their parents’ help, as Gordon J. Horwitz described in his book
Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City:

Some children hid in furniture and bedding, others in basement, in heaps of garbage and laundry, or in woodpiles. Parents did whatever they could, concealing children “in barrels in the attics, in ditches in the field, covered with leaves and branches.” One child sought refuge in a tree but was shot dead when discovered. Another, thanks to his father’s efforts to fashion an unusual hideout, rode out the danger concealed in a chimney on the roof. Though isolated and abandoned by the time they had been assembled in the collection area, child captives fought and scratched at the walls in a last-ditch effort to resist removal.

One teenage girl, after many attempts, managed to escape the assembly point and hid inside a mattress until it was safe to come out. Six-year-old Sylvia Perlmutter, whose experiences were fictionalized in her niece’s verse novel Yellow Star, hid in the cemetery.

Most of these efforts were in vain, however.

The search was thorough and the hunters ruthless. On September 13, the Nazis announced that the deportation was over. The survivors could resume their daily lives. It was not as bad as it could have been; 20,000 were not taken, after all. 15,859 people had been packed into trains, taken to the Chelmno Extermination Camp and killed. A further 600 had been shot within the ghetto itself.

For a long time after this, there were no more deportations. The ghetto inhabitants, although many of them continued to perish from starvation, overwork and disease, dared to hope that perhaps the Nazis would let them survive as long as they worked. But in the end, they didn’t escape: in August 1944, with the approaching Russian Army just 60 miles away, the entire ghetto population was deported to Chelmno and Auschwitz. An overwhelming number, including Chairman Rumkowski, perished.

* It was an open secret that Rumkowski was a pedophile who sexually abused the children in his charge both before and during the war. See Lucille Eichengreen’s Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz, and Edward Reichter’s Country of Ash.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Concentration Camps,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Pelf,Poland,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1832: Not Javert, spared by Jean Valjean

5 comments June 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this, the second day of the abortive 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, police inspector Javert is faux-executed — and mercifully released — by his longtime quarry Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables.


Javert depicted in an theatrical poster, from the Les Miserables Gallery. The site identifies this as an 1899 poster, which may be mistaken since the actor billed for Javert died in January 1898.

Hugo’s monumental novel is structured by the implacable policeman’s pursuit of Jean Valjean, an absconded ex-con with a heart of gold.

Fate brings them together accidentally at the barricade of the (historical, but now forgotten) student uprising — Javert to spy on the student revolutionaries, who unmask him, and Jean Valjean to keep an eye on his adoptive daughter’s idealistic lover.

Jean Valjean’s timely contribution to the hopelessly outgunned revolutionaries gives him the pull to ask the favor of being the one to execute the spy.* Since Valjean has been hunted relentlessly by the lawman since breaking parole nearly two decades before, the hero has ample motivation to turn executioner.

Instead…

When Jean Valjean was left alone with Javert, he untied the rope which fastened the prisoner across the middle of the body, and the knot of which was under the table. After this he made him a sign to rise.

Javert obeyed with that indefinable smile in which the supremacy of enchained authority is condensed.

Jean Valjean took Javert by the martingale, as one would take a beast of burden by the breast-band, and, dragging the latter after him, emerged from the wine-shop slowly, because Javert, with his impeded limbs, could take only very short steps.

Jean Valjean had the pistol in his hand.

In this manner they crossed the inner trapezium of the barricade. The insurgents, all intent on the attack, which was imminent, had their backs turned to these two.

Marius alone, stationed on one side, at the extreme left of the barricade, saw them pass. This group of victim and executioner was illuminated by the sepulchral light which he bore in his own soul.

Jean Valjean with some difficulty, but without relaxing his hold for a single instant, made Javert, pinioned as he was, scale the little entrenchment in the Mondetour lane.

When they had crossed this barrier, they found themselves alone in the lane. No one saw them.

Jean Valjean thrust the pistol under his arm and fixed on Javert a look which it required no words to interpret: “Javert, it is I.”

Javert replied:

“Take your revenge.”

Jean Valjean drew from his pocket a knife, and opened it.

“A clasp-knife!” exclaimed Javert, “you are right. That suits you better.”

Jean Valjean cut the martingale which Javert had about his neck, then he cut the cords on his wrists, then, stooping down, he cut the cord on his feet; and, straightening himself up, he said to him:

“You are free.”

Javert was not easily astonished. Still, master of himself though he was, he could not repress a start. He remained open-mouthed and motionless.

Jean Valjean continued:

“I do not think that I shall escape from this place. But if, by chance, I do, I live, under the name of Fauchelevent, in the Rue de l’Homme Arme, No. 7.”

Javert snarled like a tiger, which made him half open one corner of his mouth, and he muttered between his teeth:

“Have a care.”

“Go,” said Jean Valjean.

Javert began again:

“Thou saidst Fauchelevent, Rue de l’Homme Arme?”

“Number 7.”

Javert repeated in a low voice: — “Number 7.”

He buttoned up his coat once more, resumed the military stiffness between his shoulders, made a half turn, folded his arms and, supporting his chin on one of his hands, he set out in the direction of the Halles. Jean Valjean followed him with his eyes:

A few minutes later, Javert turned round and shouted to Jean Valjean:

“You annoy me. Kill me, rather.”

Javert himself did not notice that he no longer addressed Jean Valjean as “thou.”

“Be off with you,” said Jean Valjean.

Javert retreated slowly. A moment later he turned the corner of the Rue des Precheurs.

When Javert had disappeared, Jean Valjean fired his pistol in the air.

Then he returned to the barricade and said:

“It is done.”

Or, has played in the modern hit musical adaptation:

In saving his own soul, Jean Valjean (conveniently!) manages to kill his pursuer just the same: the cognitive dissonance for such a hard, emotionless man being on the receiving end of this bit of redemptive mercy leads Javert to break character so far as to allow his man to escape. The inspector then commits suicide.

Les Miserables is available free several places online, including Gutenberg.org and The Literature Network.

* While the recent musical production of Les Miserables soft-pedals what was planned for Javert, Hugo leaves no room for doubt: as the students prepare for the fatal onslaught, their leader Enjolras decrees that “[t]he last man to leave this room will smash the skull of this spy.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Escapes,Espionage,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,Shot,Spies,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1381: Eppelein von Gailingen

2 comments May 15th, 2009 dogboy

On this day in 1381, probably the most infamous robber baron in Germany was flogged, done in on the breaking wheel, and beheaded in Postbauer, near Nürnberg.

Eppelein von Gailingen (or Egkelein Geyling, or some variation thereof) has been dramatized across the ages, but little is known of the man’s life. His death, certainly, but his life is clouded in myth and folklore. What’s clear is that von Gailingen met his grisly end for robbery and a subsequent escape from incarceration. The rest is a tad murky (German link).

Von Gailingen belonged to the class of original robber barons, who supplemented their income with unauthorized tolls and, sometimes, flat-out theft. While the term is more popularly known for its application to the so-called industrial robber barons, it derived from a literal description from centuries past — Raubritter, in German, “men of birth who elected to live, in a lawless age, by saddle and by sword; who sought gain by masterful spoliation, and strove for glory by despiteful deeds of arms.” (Source)

A combination of factors led to the slow and steady dissolution of the former feudal system in favor of a money-based economy during the Middle Ages, and after the Plague swept through Europe around 1350, the accumulated changes and decimated population left much of the continent short on labor and, as a result, short on production. This really was a spot of bother for barons who, unlike their monarchical brethren, had no way to draft extra manpower. With resources thinning and a social lifestyle to keep up, many of these former lords turned to theft and exploitation. Although Rome established the rules governing tolls and trade, many local lords, now charged with obeying distant regulations, opted for a more convenient route: they stopped ships at unauthorized points, shook down the merchants, and sometimes seized wares to stock their own shelves.

Eppelein von Gailingen (German link), a lord in the castle at Gunzenhausen, near Illesheim, was of this group, but apparently one of its more bold and populist members.

He was often felt to be a kind of Robin Hood, and the earliest celebrations of the man were largely in this vein: a knight’s knight, fighting against an out-of-control state disregarding its people. Eppelein got away with his skulduggery until 1369, when he was captured by a political rival and imprisoned in Nürnberg. Von Gailingen was sentenced to death, but shortly before his hanging, an accomplice managed to sneak him a horse, on which he rode out the tower gates and hurdled the enclosing wall and moat.

Now the leader of a loyal band of brigands flouting the Roman Catholic Church, Eppelein went on the run for six years, eventually making his way back near his home. It was there that, after six more years, his minimal forces finally yielded to the Count of Nürnberg, who carried out a much more unpleasant version of the death sentence.

Eppelein’s rise to prominence began in the 16th century, when he was immortalized by a folk song, a medium that continues to be kind to him. Locals still tell a variety of tales of his exploits, and a rendition of these classics is vaguely effected through the film Ekkelins Knecht.

Others have simply waxed poetic on the topic.

As if all that attention weren’t enough, von Gailingen’s run from the law lives on through the legend of Nürnberg: locals pushing the town on tourists claim that two hoofprints from his daring escape are imprinted in the stonework near the the castle’s five-pointed tower.* And perhaps most indicative of his endurance as a cultural icon, a neighboring town has devoted a festival to him, which is more than most robber barons of any day can claim.

* Not surprisingly, the tower was destroyed and rebuilt at least once — just five decades after Eppelein’s alleged leap. But the new sandstone structure does bear the marks of what could conceivably be a horse’s hooves.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Famous,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Nobility,Outlaws,Pelf,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Theft

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