On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.
“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.
Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.
Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.
But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.
ET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?
JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.
Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?
Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.
In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.
Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?
You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.
Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?
After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).
Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.
As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.
You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?
Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.
This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?
This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.
* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.
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 1897, John Gibson was hanged for murder.
In its particulars, the case itself was as minute and forgettable as a homicide ever could be: Gibson got into a spat with a plantation overseer over the theft of 20 or 25 cents from his wages. Later that night, still steaming and now drunk, he called the boss out through the window. The overseer went out to the confrontation armed (Gibson wasn’t), and wound up shot dead by his own gun in the struggle.
This literal two-bit crime became national news, however, and went twice to the Mississippi Supreme Court and twice to the U.S. Supreme Court as a vehicle to challenge Mississippi’s new Jim Crow constitution.
After Reconstruction but especially in the 1890s, the dreadful regime of American apartheid reversed black civil rights gains.
Mississippi’s all-white* constitutional convention of 1890 was a signal event for this nadir of race relations — the first of a wave of new southern constitutions aimed at setting up a color bar. In addition to mandating segregated schools, that constitution imposed a few, ahem, reasonable requirements for voting, which lacked any overt racial language but just so happened to disenfranchise the black electorate almost to a man. (Don’t even get started about women.**)
every voter must pay “a uniform poll tax of two dollars”;
“every elector shall … be able to read any section of the constitution of this State.” Now, lest one miss the intent here, Mississippi added a clause permitting anyone descended from a legal voter pre-1867 to cast a ballot without passing the exam: if your grandfather could vote, you could vote too … too bad if your grandfather couldn’t vote on account of being property. This one-two punch throughout the South kept poor whites on the right team, and bequeathed to English the phrase “grandfather clause”.
Both these gratuitous hurdles to voting are now confined to the history books, but two other important techniques of disenfranchisement remain very much in use today.
a needlessly onerous voter registration process;
and, the franchise is reserved for upstanding voters who have “never been convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.” In a context where wholesale incarceration of African Americans was a matter of policy.
Plus of course, brute force up to and including lynch law for political terrorism. “In those days,” one black Mississippian said, “it was ‘Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another.’ They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season.”
From 1901 to 1973, the South never once seated a black lawmaker in the U.S. Congress.
So it’s a grim scene for racial justice in the twilight of the 19th century. But we dwell on the voting-rights aspect because jurors were drawn from the voting rosters: all the filters that excluded African Americans from the ballot box likewise excluded them from the jury box. And here’s where we get back to John Gibson.
could show a racial motive in refusing potential black voters (and likewise potential black jurors), they would have a reasonably strong case.
The elements of a strong, jury-based anti-disfranchisement case were in place for Jones and Hewlett and all that they really wanted was to have his case remanded to a U.S. district court. That might seem anticlimactic, but it would have meant that southern judges, sheriffs, and voting registrars would find themselves standing before federal district judges to justify their administration of jury selection and voter registration. In the immediate short term, there would almost surely be some benefit for disfranchised African Americans.
They argued the cases on December 13, 1895, and the Supreme Court announced decisions in Gibson and [a companion case] Smith on April 13, 1896, little more than one month before [Jim Crow landmark] Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote both opinions and dismissed each case on jurisdictional grounds. The problem lay in the evidence, which was conspicuous by its paucity … Mississippi did not exclude blacks in terms … [and] in Gibson, Jones had not shown that Mississippi’s courts committed “any error of law of which this court may take cognizance” or that his client’s murder conviction “was due to prejudice of race.”
Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1895
In the real world, where rights need enforcement if they are to thrive, this ruling had the effect of giving a free hand to white power so long as it had the sense God gave a vegetable and didn’t directly declare that any of its universally all-white juries (or electorates) were constituted as a matter of explicit race prejudice. Just a marvelous coincidence! Nothing to see here, you federal judges.
As the Southwestern Christian Advocate editorialized after the ruling (Apr. 23, 1896)
Proof need hardly be asked that there was a deliberate purpose on the part of the persons charged with that responsibility [i.e., seating juries] to absolutely ignore the colored man as a juror. This is the cold truth, that the sheriffs and other court officers who have charge of the impanneling of juries will not select colored men. The persistency with which they deny such intent is one of the most gigantic mysteries of the age.
Of course, there is no constitutional enactment on the statute books of the State of Mississippi denying the right of jury service to Negroes, yet they do not serve, and for the simple reason that they are not chosen. It is the easiest matter in the world to keep Negroes out of the jury box in Mississippi. It is one of their sovereign rights.
There is no enactment against it, nothing for it, so there it is. And what is the Supreme Court or the Federal government going to do about it? Why, simply render its decisions upon what it does not permit. The fact is that the amendments to the Constitution, so far as the black man is concerned, are not worth the paper they are written upon without the moral sentiments of high minded and noble people behind it. And this will apply to State, Federal and Supreme Courts as well.
Meanwhile, the black man is expected to be an intelligent and a loyal citizen, notwithstanding the rights which he fought and bled for are now almost exclusively in the hands of those who at one time sought to pull the fair fabric of our Constitutional liberties to the ground.
It’s still to this day the case that defendants have very little scope to scrutinize potentially prejudicial jury composition. It’s still to this day the case that the Supreme Court has nothing but a toothless remedy. And it’s still to this day the case that some state’s attorneys can and do craft racially discriminatory juries more prone to convict by excluding blacks … so long as it’s “not in terms” and instead for literally any other pretext.
* Except for one black man.
** Representative sentiment of a Mississippian: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.” Mississippi only ratified female suffrage in 1984.
† There are some claims out there that the first black attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court did so only in 1910; I may be overlooking a nuance in the manner these issues were presented to the high court, but so far as I can discern, Gibson was argued by black attorneys. This source suggests that it was hardly the first.
A century ago today, Raymond Caillemin, Elie Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined in Paris for their exploits with Third Republic France’s most celebrated band of anarchist bank-robbers, the Bonnot Gang.
It was actually not Bonnot but Octave Garnier who was the original moving spirit for the gang, which took shape in 1911 around a core of anarchist adherents to the philosophy of illegalism — criminality as resistance. The outlaws were revolutionaries, vegetarians, working-class. Though respectable anarchist communists fled from them, the philosophy bit wasn’t a pose.
“It’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal,” Garnier wrote in a memoir discovered after he was killed in a police shootout.
To Garnier the gang owed its signature innovation of using automobiles: they were the first ever to use this novel machine to flee the scene of a crime after knocking over a Paris bank in December 1911. Between their internal combustion engine and their repeating rifles, they had a decided technological advantage on the police who pursued them.
For obvious reasons they were initially dubbed the “Auto Bandits.” But Jules Bonnot stole the marquee by marching into the office of La Petit Parisien in January 1912 to indignantly correct some of its reporting. The newspaper gave him an interview, and started branding the outlaws the “Bonnot Gang” (La bande a Bonnot), a name which has stuck for posterity and titles a 1968 film about them.
For the next three months, they would repeatedly crash the headlines on either side of the French-Belgian border by stealing cars to perpetrate new robberies, often shooting policemen and bank tellers into the bargain.
Meanwhile, they magnetized admirers and enemies alike with their Gallic intrepidity and self-confessedly impossible struggle. Garnier mailed his fingerprints to the police chief. Ground-down proletarians fell into their orbit, cracking bitter fatalistic jokes. Under the pen name La Retif, a young writer extolled the masculine, doomed outlaws: he was the Russian expatriate Victor Serge, at the start of a long revolutionary career.*
To shoot, in full daylight, a miserable bank clerk proved that some men have at least understood the virtues of audacity.
I am not afraid to own up to it: I am with the bandits. I find their role a fine one; I see the Men in them. Besides them I see only fools and nonentities.
Whatever may result, I like those who struggle. Perhaps it will make you die younger, or force you to experience the man-hunt and the penal colony; perhaps you will end up beneath the foul kiss of the guillotine. That may be! I like those who accept the risk of a great struggle. It is manly.
Besides, one’s destiny, whether as victor or vanquished, isn’t it preferable to sullen resignation and the slow interminable agony of the proletarian who will die in retirement, a fool who has gained nothing out of life?
The bandit, he gambles. He has therefore a few chances of winning. And that is enough.
The bandits show strength.
The bandits show audacity.
The bandits show their firm desire to live.
By April and May the authorities were finally overcoming the audacious bandits, though desires to live showed firm to the last: both Bonnot and Garnier were overcome and killed only after holding off protracted sieges against overwhelming numbers.
Although the headline attractions were gone, the ensuing massive trial soon fitted four for death:
Raymond Callemin, Serge’s own friend and reading-companion since childhood
Elie Monier (or Monnier), the onetime refugee draft-dodger whose will grandiloquently bequeathed to the Paris library his copy of Darwin, and to the Paris museum the pistol he was arrested with, provided it be engraved with the phrase “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
The sickly Andre Soudy, reckless in his outlaw adventure since tuberculosis that he was too poor to fend off already had him coughing his way to an earl grave
The joiner Eugene Dieudonne, a friend and compatriot of the gang members but not an actual bank-robber himself. Dieudonne was reprieved on April 20th and dispatched instead to the French penal colony at Devil’s Island
Other prison sentences from a few years up to a lifetime at hard labor were meted out to various other Bonnot gang members and fellow-travelers, several of whom showed themselves dedicated enough to their heroic fatalism to take their own lives. One who attempted an escape only to find himself stymied when he attained the roof of the prison worked fellow-inmates into a frenzied chant of Viva l’anarchie as he hurled slate shingles at the guards who treed him, then wrapped up the performance by hurling himself off the roof, too.
“I would have liked to eat black bread with black hands,” that man’s last testament read. “But I was forced to eat white bread with red hands.”
* Serge got himself in some hot water as an anti-Stalinist in the Soviet Union. Serge’s mature (1945) appraisal of his youthful infatuation with the Bonnot gang, as well as his first-person recollections of the Bonnot gang trial (which got Serge himself a five-year sentence) can be read here
Pavlik Morozov was one of the must well-known figures in the Soviet Union. Every Soviet schoolchild learned his name and the story of his heroic life and tragic death. On April 7, 1933, his alleged killers — his own grandparents, uncles and cousin — were executed by firing squad for his murder.
A postage stamp honoring the Moscow statue honoring little Pavlik Morozov. Many more Pavlik propaganda images are here.
The legendary Pavlik, a Russian boy who lived in the remote village of Gerasimovka in western Siberia, was a member of the Young Pioneers, a kind of Communist version of the Boy Scouts designed in indoctrinate youth into the Soviet way of thinking. When the superlatively loyal child found out his father, Trofim, was acting against the state, he denounced him to the secret police, the OGPU. (Accounts differ as to what Trofim’s misdeeds actually were; he may have hoarded grain, or sold forged documents, or both.) The result was that Trofim was sent to a labor camp, never to be heard from again.
The Morozov family, not being good Communists like he was, were furious with him for the denunciation. Soon after his father’s trial, in early September 1932, his grandparents, his uncle and his cousin murdered him while he and his eight-year-old brother Fyodor were picking berries in the woods. (Fyodor was taken out too, as he was a witness.) The boys’ bodies weren’t located for several days and it’s unclear when they actually died.
An OGPU officer, Ivan Potupchik, who was another of Pavlik’s cousins, found them. The murderers were arrested in due course, and Pavlik became a martyr and an example for every Soviet child to look up to — a Stalinist passion play, the horrid little saint of denunciation. As Soviet dissident writer Yuri Druzhnikov wrote in this article,
Indeed, it is virtually impossible for someone not born and raised in the USSR to appreciate how all-pervasive a figure Morozov was … [E]veryone in the Soviet Union, young and old alike, used to know about Pavlik Morozov. His portraits appeared in art museums, on postcards, on match-books and postage stamps. Books, films, and canvases praised his courage. In many cities, he still stands in bronze, granite, or plaster, holding high the red banner. Schools were named after him, where in special Pavlik Morozov Halls children were ceremoniously accepted into the Young Pioneers. Statuettes of the young hero were awarded to the winners of sports competitions. Ships, libraries, city streets, collective farms, and national parks were named after Pavlik Morozov.
A reconstruction of the suppressed Eisenstein film based on the Pavlik Morozov story, Bezhin Meadow. Aptly, its supposed ideological flaws got some of its own participants arrested.
The Cult of Pavlik declined significantly once World War II began and there were other youngheroes to exalt, and even more so after Stalin’s death. Still, even into the 1980s public figures praised the child as an “ideological martyr.”
The problem, as you might have guessed already, is that almost none of the accepted story about Pavlik is true. While not entirely made up, his Soviet-official biography was always thick with exaggerations, distortions and outright lies.
This Los Angeles Times article explains that Druzhnikov first got interested in Pavlik Morozov in the mid-1970s, when he attended a conference that included a discussion of “positive heroes of Soviet culture.” Pavlik was mentioned, and Druzhnikov asked just what was so positive about someone who had betrayed his own father. A few days later, he was summoned to KGB headquarters and two agents told him very firmly, “do not touch this subject.” It backfired: more curious than ever, Druzhnikov began secretly researching the case.
The book that resulted, Druzhnikov’s Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov, was written in the early 1980s, but it was too politically sensitive for publication at the time. Instead it circulated privately among intellectuals and dissidents as Samizdat. It finally saw publication in Russian in 1988, and was then translated into English in 1993. (The full text of this book is available online for free here … in Russian.)
British historian Catriona Kelly published a second book on the subject in 2005, Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero. By then, nearly all the surviving witnesses were dead. But unlike Druzhnikov, Kelly was able to obtain access to the official records of the Morozov murder trial and used them as a major resource.
These two authors got as close to the truth as one is able to get at this late date.
The Real Pavlik’s Life and Death
Pavlik Morozov’s story is sordid and mysterious as only a grand Soviet propaganda myth can be.
There really was a boy named Pavel Morozov (his name was the Russian equivalent of “Paul”) in Gerasimovka, but his nickname was Pasha or Pashka, not Pavlik. He was not ethnically Russian but of Belorussian descent on both sides of his family, as were most of the inhabitants of Gerasimovka. He could not have been member of the Pioneers, since there was no Pioneers troop where he lived.
When Yuri Druzhnikov began picking apart the Pavlik Morozov myth in the 1980s, he was able to talk to those still alive who had known the youth. In addition to the elderly villagers in Gerasimovka, he also interviewed Pavlik’s mother and his sole surviving brother, Alexei. (Another brother, Roman, was killed in World War II.)
Druzhnikov developed the following data points:
The exact date of Pavlik’s birth is unknown; his own mother didn’t remember it when asked in her old age. He was probably between twelve and fourteen at the time of his death.
The villagers of Gerasimovka who knew Pavlik and were interviewed by Druzhnikov did not remember him fondly: he was variously described as a “hoodlum,” a “rotten kid” and a “miserable wretch, a louse” who enjoyed smoking cigarettes and singing obscene songs.
Pavlik enjoyed denouncing his neighbors for breaking the rules; he “terrorized the whole village, spying on everybody.”
According to his former schoolteacher, he was almost illiterate; in fact, Druzhnikov believed he may have been slightly mentally retarded.
Pavlik’s whole family was the Russian equivalent of poor white trash. Tatiana was a mentally unstable and quarrelsome woman who was widely disliked in the village. After Trofim’s arrest, the state seized all his property and so the family went from mere penury to the brink of starvation.
Druzhnikov’s witnesses from Gerasimovka remembered Trofim Morozov’s denunciation, trial, and exile, which was central to the Pavlik-the-martyr myth. They remembered the boy testifying and said he didn’t seem to understand what was going on.
Kelly, however, examining the historical records twenty years after Druzhnikov, could find no documentary evidence of any trial — nor any proof that Pavlik had denounced his father to the OGPU or that Trofim had been convicted of political offenses and exiled.
Trofim had definitely disappeared from Gerasimovka by the time of his sons’ murders, but Kelly believes it’s entirely possible that he simply walked out of little Pavel’s life and wasn’t put in a labor camp at all. If Pavlik did in fact denounce his father, it was probably at the behest of his mother, Tatiana, and not for political reasons: Trofim had deserted the family and moved in with a mistress.
Tatiana was bitterly angry about her husband’s defection, and Pavlik, as the oldest male member of the household, was stuck with the exhausting household and farm chores his father had once performed. The family certainly did not want for points of friction … and Pavlik Morozov’s murder certainly had nothing to do with politics.
However, one of the four people put to death for the crime might actually have been involved after all.
After the Murders
The murdered boys were buried quickly, before the police even arrived to investigate. No photographs were taken, experts consulted or forensic tests performed. No doctor examined the bodies, and it isn’t even known how many wounds the victims suffered.
Within short order, however, investigators had rounded up five suspects: Pavlik’s uncles, Arseny Silin and Arseny Kulukanov; his grandparents, Sergei and Ksenia Morozov, both of whom were in their eighties; and his nineteen-year-old cousin, Danila, who lived with Sergei and Ksenia.
The only physical evidence to implicate them was a bloodstained knife and some bloody clothes found in Pavlik’s grandparents’ house. As Druzhnikov records:
The prosecution had at its disposal two pieces of material evidence that were found in the home of Sergei Morozov: the knife, which was pulled out from behind the icons during the search, and the blood-spattered trousers and shirt — though whose clothes they were, Danila’s, the grandfather’s, or someone else’s, and whose blood was on them remained unknown. The court did not demand a laboratory examination of the blood stains.
It’s worth noting here that Danila had recently slaughtered a calf for Pavlik’s mother; this would provide an alternative, innocent explanation for the bloody clothes.
During their nationally publicized show trial in November 1932, the defendants presented incriminating yet often wildly conflicting statements abut the murders, and virtually no other evidence was presented. Druzhnikov details the farcical proceedings, which lasted four days:
Witnesses for the prosecution (about ten people) … did not introduce facts but demanded that the court employ “the highest measure of social defense” — execution. In fact, there were no defense witnesses at all. At the trial there was only one defense counsel, but during one of the court sessions he stepped forward and announced to the hall that he was revolted by the conduct of his clients and refused to defend them further. After this the lawyer withdrew with a flourish, and the trial concluded without him.
Four of the five were convicted and sentenced to death for “terrorism against representatives of the Soviet Government.” Sergei, Ksenia, and Danila Morozov, and Arseny Kulukanov, were all shot in April after the inevitable rejection of their appeals. (Arseny Silin was able to produce a credible alibi and was acquitted.)
Tatiana supported the convictions and testified against the defendants. Stalin later purchased her a resort home in the Crimea, where she lived until her death in 1983.
Were They Guilty?
Druzhnikov, researching the case fifty years later, concluded that Pavlik and his brother were deliberately set up to be murdered by agents of the OGPU, who treated the murders as political and the children as martyrs, bringing righteous proletarian wrath upon a fiercely independent village which had so far successfully resisted collectivization.
“The murder,” he wrote towards the end of his book, “could only have been committed, or at least provoked, by the hands of the OGPU.”
Stalin’s regime would become famous for its terrifyingshow trials. “A show trial in the Urals,” Druzhnikov suggests, “called for a show murder.” Because, in Gerasimovka, “there really was no crime. The peasants living there were peaceful; they didn’t want to kill one another. So they needed help.”
Kelly, on the other hand, suggested that the appearance of the crime scene, with no attempt to hide the bodies by burying them or dumping them in the nearby swamp, suggests an impulsive act of violence probably committed by a local teenager or teenagers. (One wonders, however, why it took so long for searchers to find bodies supposedly lying in plain sight.)
Kelly’s best guess was that Pavlik’s cousin Danila may have actually been guilty after all, possibly acting in concert with another villager his own age, Efrem Shatrakov: Danila and Pavlik had a very nasty argument over a horse harness only a few days before Pavlik and Fyodor disappeared, and Pavlik had allegedly denounced the Shatrakov family for possessing an unlicensed gun, which was confiscated.
In fact, Danila’s statements to the authorities made reference to his fight with Pavlik about the harness, and Shatrakov actually confessed to the murders, but later retracted his statements and was let go.
In any case, as Kelly wrote, if one or more of the defendants convicted at the trial happened to be guilty, either of committing the murders or as accessories after the fact, “they most certainly did not receive a fair trial, and the corpus delicti upon which the sentence was based was without question seriously flawed.”
No matter who killed Pavlik, as Druzhnikov says, the final result is this: “It is a historical commonplace that Stalin ruthlessly converted living people into corpses. In this instance, he effected the conversion of a corpse into a living symbol.”
The only known real-life photograph of Pavlik Morozov, at center under the arrow, taken as a school class portrait by a wandering photographer in 1930.
On this date in 1944, the dashing Royal Air Force adventurer and prisoner of war Roger Bushell was shot for his key role orchestrating World War II’s most famous prison break — the Great Escape.
Richard Attenborough plays the Bushell-based character “Roger Bartlett” in The Great Escape, the film based on the story.
South African-born, Cambridge-educated, a pitch-perfect speaker of German and French, Bushell turned in his barristers’ briefs for fighter wings when World War II got underway.
But he was not meant to add Knight of the Air to his c.v., for his Spitfire was downed in its first engagement in May 1940. Bushell wound up in German custody, where he proved to possess a preternatural aptitude for escape.
He slipped German custody in June 1941 and made it within steps of Switzerland before a border guard nabbed him.
Nothing daunted, Bushell escaped again in October 1941 and successfully laid low in Czechoslovakia for months … long enough to finally get swept up in the reprisal roundups following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
By now he’d wound up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp adjacent the Silesian town of Sagan (today, Zagan, Poland). Here Bushell would author his breakout masterpiece.
In truth it was a collaborative effort of astonishing scale. Captured soldiers characteristically fled custody, as Bushell himself had before, in ones or twos, or in small groups.
In this camp, Bushell conceived and rigorously managed an industrial-scale operation aiming to bust out more than 200 inmates. “Only” 76 ultimately got out, more than enough for the utter consternation of the Third Reich.
Bushell was going to go big to go home; in fact, his alpha-male code-name among the escape plan’s initiates was “Big X”. Big X mobilized some 600 prisoners to work on three simultaneous escape tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Sunk 9 meters underground to stymie German anti-digging seismographs, the tunnels entailed a complex, months-long logistical operation for disposing of dirt, buttressing walls, pumping air. Nor did the escape plans end at the camp wire: teams prepared clothing, papers, maps, money. Every escaping prisoner had a plan and a cover story.
We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times.
One of the tunnels was found, and one was abandoned, but “Harry” was completed. 102 meters long, it stretched just beyond Stalag Luft III’s outer perimeter, and agonizingly shy of the nearby tree line. On the night of March 24-25 1944, 76 men (Bushell included) slipped out of “Harry” at intervals minutes apart, and into the freezing dark, scurrying into the woods with silent prayers that the nearby guard tower would not throw a spotlight in their direction. The 77th escapee was finally spotted emerging by camp sentries and captured, shutting down the whole operation.
Despite their prepared plans, the runners were very deep within German territory, and in the dead of a moonless night. Successfully completing their escapes would require crossing land on foot in the snow, navigating multiple Reich train platforms without catching the eye of now-hyper-vigilant inspectors, crossing hundreds of kilometers of territory, and passing off accents and forged papers with credible aplomb.
Not many could really manage this: the honor — the duty, as Bushell and many others thought — was in the attempt.
In all, 73 of the 76 escapees in this caper were recaptured within days. (Click here for the stories of the three who actually got away.)
A furious Adolf Hitler personally ordered everyone concerned executed when news broke of the escape, a flagrant violation of the laws of war. His advisors, concerned at triggering possible reprisals, managed to talk the boss down to the nice round number of 50 executions, a … 31.5% less extensive flagrant violation of the laws of war? Germans too suffered the regime’s fury; Hitler was talked off executing the camp commandant, but that guy lost his job. Some workmen from whom the escapees had stolen electrical cable for work on the tunnel were shot for having failed to report the theft.
And the 50 whom the Reich’s leadership had decided to kill* were shot out of hand at various times and places from March 29 to April 12.**
Their somewhat reduced ranks did not much lessen the ferocity of the Allies’ postwar manhunt for the parties involved in conducting it; the “Stalag Luft III murders” were announced in Parliament as soon as May 1944 and became the subject of a dedicated trial in 1947. The convictions in that case led to a mass hanging for war crimes in Hameln, Germany on February 27, 1948.
For his part, Bushell takes his final rest in Posnan, Poland. Although the men shot on this and succeeding nights for the Great Escape are interred at various spots, a monument near the old camp site at Sagan/Zagan permanently honors “the 50″.
* The specific 50 were chosen by Artur Nebe, who would later be executed by the Nazis himself. The selections were heavy on happenstance; while eastern Europeans and the escape leadership were predictably included, many others were in or out by the feeblest of reasons. For example, the Germans are thought to have passed on shooting escapees named “Nelson” and “Churchill” for no better cause than their conceivable relationship to the famous Britons of those names.
On this date in 1676, the Combe Gibbet was put to its first and only use.
Adulterous lovers George Bromham (or Broomham) and Dorothy Newman had been doomed by the Winchester Assize for murdering the wife and son of Bromham’s inconvenient marriage. “With a staff,” the trial record says. Ouch.
The two were sentenced to hang together “in chaynes near the place of the murder,” which demonstrative sentence required the erection of a brand-new purpose-built double gibbet just for the occasion, high atop Inkpen Beacon, the 975-foot hill overlooking the countryside.* After execution, they were taken down, laid out a nearby barn (inevitably to become known as “Gibbet Barn”), and then strapped back up on the double-gallows in chains for a few days.
* Bromham was from Combe, and Newman from neighboring Inkpen, and the murder itself took place on the towns’ border. In the great tradition of municipal politics, there was a consequent dispute over the bill for setting up this gibbet; they were forced to split the bill.
The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.
The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.
If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herotodus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.
Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.
Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”
13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.
In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:
“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.
The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”
Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”
Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”
And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.
Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.
“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.
By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.
At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.
“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.
Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.
The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar
So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.
And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”
And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”
So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.
Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.
Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.
Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)
The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.
Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”
Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.
* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.
On this date in 1938, Juan Castillo Morales was shot in a cemetery for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl.
Morales was executed under the strange ley de fugas (“law of fugitives”), an expedient quasi-lynching arrangement that gave the inmate the opportunity to flee for his life in front of the firing detail. He didn’t make it — nobody ever made it.
But the method of his death is the least bizarre thing about his story.
Juan Castillo Morales is better known today as Juan Soldado, “Juan the Soldier.” He was an army private serving at the border town of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, Calif., when young Olga Camacho disappeared on February 13. (Yes, that’s four days before the execution.)
Olga’s abduction — and the discovery of her body, throat slashed and sexually molested — triggered a public outcry.
Our man was arrested on the 14th, and the evidence quickly started stacking up against him. Even his wife incriminated him. At least, allegedly: there’s very little documentary evidence remaining from the case, and very little about the life of Juan Castillo Morales, all of which helps fuel its latter-day ambiguity.
Castillo Morales, again allegedly, confessed in jail. The public had its pedophile: the man was nearly lynched by rioters threatening to put the whole town to the torch. This radioactive case was disposed of in great haste by a secret military tribunal before the whole city spiraled out of control. Thousands of onlookers turned out for the public “fleeing” execution.
So far, so unsurprising (at least by the standards of these grim pages): a notorious sex crime, a mini-moral panic, a perp done (however unusually) to death.
Now, it gets interesting.
With blood lust sated and Morales entombed in the cemetery where he was shot to death, mysterious reports began circulating … that his grave was oozing blood, and that his anima (soul) was floating around proclaiming his innocence.
Maybe there were people who already believed that but dared not speak up when lynch law reigned. Maybe the rushed, not-altogether-judicial “investigation” and the cruelty of the execution catalyzed some latent communal guilt.
But for sure, once the idea that the man was innocent got out there, it had legs. There’s a folk belief that “those who have died unjustly sit closest to God”; before 1938 was out, newspapers had already begun to report people praying at the grave … and some of them reporting miracles worked in consequence.
He wasn’t Juan Castillo Morales the executed army private any more: for posterity, he would be Juan Soldado, the everyman sublime.
Against any odds you’d care to stake, Juan Soldado has developed in the decades since into a going cult figure in Tijuana, and throughout the border region — a popular saint (by no means acknowledged by institutional Catholicism) for everyday people’s problems. A chapel built over his resting place bursts with offerings and thanksgivings.
Juan, as befits a border-town saint, is particularly regarded as a patron of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and particularly liable to relieve the troubles of migrants. With that following has, of course, come a general understanding among most devotees that Juan Soldado was innocent, even that he was executed to cover up for a powerful general who was the real killer.
Juan Soldado receives tribute and supplication throughout the year, but particularly on June 24: so little is known about John the Soldier’s real biography that the official feast date of John the Baptist has been appropriated for his celebration, and picnics, pilgrimages, mariachi bands singing “happy birthday”, crowd the cemetery on that day. (The Day of the Dead is another biggie at Soldier John’s shrine.)
Olga Camacho’s family still lives in Tijuana and understandably disdains the cult around the little girl’s presumed murderer.
As a historiographical phenomenon, Soldier John fits into a pattern of folk saints from early 20th century Mexico, including similarly dubious characters like executed bandit Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking — as well as non-executees like Pedro Jamarillo and Nino Fidencio.
Part of this, surely — and Vanderwood developed the theme — is the story of the border, the story of Tijuana and Mexico in the 1930s. But part, too, is the story of Catholicism and of the contradictory, occasionally transformative, emotions excited by execution.
The potential of even an unambiguously guilty criminal to become in his passion a channel for worship goes all the way back to, well, the Passion itself, and the “good thief” on the cross with Christ. Twentieth century France has its own guillotined murderer who’s also a candidate for sainthood. And this is hardly the only occasion when folk veneration has produced an unofficial saint. Some of them even become official saints with the passage of time. But official or otherwise, once adopted into the practice of a living community of believers, they are animated by the life of that community and in return they succor the same.
“I pray to Juan Soldado even if the church does not approve,” one woman told Vanderwood. (Here quoting his “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections” in the Winter 2001 Journal of the Southwest). “I do not think that God minds.”
There exists a receipt for January 9, 1386, in which the executioner of Falaise, France, acknowledges payment of ten sous and ten deniers
for his efforts and salary for having dragged and then hanged at the [place of] Justice in Falaise a sow of approximately three years of age who had eaten the face of the child of Jonnet le Macon, who was in his crib & who was approximately three months old, in such a way that the said infant died from [the injuries], and [an additional] ten s. tournoise for a new glove when the Hangman performed the said execution: this receipt is given to Regnaud Rigaut, Vicomte de Falaise; the Hangman declares that he is well satisfied with this sum and that he makes no further claims on the King our Sire and the said Vicomte.
From this tiny kernel of primary documentation — the only primary source that exists — an impressive legend has grown up around the “Sow of Falaise”. It’s been alleged by subsequent interlocuters that the condemned sow was dressed up as a person for execution, that other pigs were made to attend in order to take warning by their swinish sister’s fate, and even that the incident became so famous as to merit depiction in a church fresco.
The supposed fresco has been whitewashed, but Arthur Mangin’s L’Homme et la Bete (1872) took a stab at reconstructing it.
This bizarre scenario can’t help but raise the question for we later observers — just what was the objective in trying and “executing” a farm animal? Did the human supporting cast to this scene not feel itself ridiculous?
“Punishment may be about many things, but in the last instance, we citizens of the modern world have an almost visceral need to believe that it is primarily about one thing: deterrence,” Friedland opines.
“The punishment of a pig for murder violates our modern understanding of the essential purpose of punishment because it punishes an animal, which we ordinarily do not believe to be capable of criminal intent, and because it does not lend itself very well to the principle of exemplary deterrence.” The tale’s evolution in later centuries “allowed an incomprehensible anecdote from the past to fit neatly into the modern paradigm of penal deterrence.”
Seeing Justice Donesituates that murderous pig within an unfolding saga of penal theory and practice stretching from the Roman Empire to the 20th century. And while Friedland’s study focuses on France in particular, the historical threads he teases out will look familiar much further afield.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Frieldand about his book recently, and we’re pleased to present it here not in our customary Q&A form, but as Executed Today‘s debut podcast. The mediocre sound quality is on me, but Dr. Friedland’s insights are more than worth it. (Unlike your host, Friedland is a podcasting natural; catch him in a July 2012 episode of the New Books In Human Rights podcast.)
Trouble seeing the podcast player? Access the interview on podbean.