(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
I have something of interest to tell —
-Paul Rowland, convicted of murder, California. Executed September 27, 1929
Serving time for a robbery, Rowland approached Alger Morrison, a man whom he claimed as a good friend, and stabbed him with a five-inch homemade knife. Rumors circulated among the inmates that Rowland and Morrison had had a “degenerate” sexual relationship, rumors that Rowland found unendurable. His last words were cut short as the trap sprang from beneath his feet.
On this date in 1987* in the Belarusian SSR, highly prolific serial killer Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich was put to death by firing squad. Police were able to prove he’d committed 36 murders; he confessed to 43, but the actual total may have been 55 deaths or perhaps more.
“The murders are separate incidents,” the police insisted, “not connected at all.” And so off they went to arrest a suspect, four in fact over a fourteen-year period, one of whom was executed. It was an arcane and inept stance, one that allowed a killer to massacre at least 33 young women in 14 years.
On the surface, Mikhasevich (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Belarussian) was an ordinary enough man: born in the village of Ist in the Vitebsk Oblast’ in 1947, as an adult he served in the military, graduated college, got a job in a machine repair shop, married and sired two children.
He was conscientious at his work, a caring father, and didn’t drink. He was a Communist Party member — in fact, he was chosen to be secretary of the local committee — and also a member of the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, a sort of Soviet equivalent to the Neighborhood Watch.
But who watches the watchmen?
Mikhasevich committed his first murder on May 14, 1971. He came home from his stint in the army and discovered that his girlfriend back in Ist had left him and married another man.
Devastated, a few days later he decided to hang himself. He was walking to a nearby forest to do the deed, carrying the rope, when he met a woman on the road. Rather had commit suicide, Mikhasevich took his anger out on the stranger, dragging her off into the woods and strangling her.
He must have liked it, because he killed again later that year, and twice more in 1972.
And the list kept growing.
With his early murders, he would wait at an isolated spot, hoping that a woman would chance along. Now he had a car, a red Zaporozhets, so he cruised the roads looking for victims. None of the women ever refused to get into his car. In a backwater like Ist, a ride in a motor vehicle was a real treat. (Keller)
Mikhasevich would drive his victim to an isolated spot and then turn on her. Throttling her into unconsciousness. He’d then rape the woman before strangling her with a rope. Then he’d rob the victim of money and valuables, toss the body at the side of the road and drive off. In common with many serial killers, he often kept souvenirs.
By the 1980s, the police had finally conceded that the murders were related, and witnesses reported the killer drove a red Zaporozhets. Investigators started checking who in the oblast’ owned that particular vehicle, and called on the Voluntary People’s Druzhina for help with their inquiries.
Thus, Mikhasevich began investigating his own crimes.
Authorities were stopping and questioning anyone seen driving a red Zaporozhets, but the investigation went nowhere; the killer appeared to be invisible. Mikhasevich, as a druzhina, was of course aware of where the cops were and when, and he evaded them easily. He claimed fourteen victims in 1984 and twelve more the following year.
He was growing a bit nervous, though, so to derail the investigation he sent a letter to a local newspaper, supposedly written by members of an organization called the “Patriots of Vitebsk.” The letter said the murders were being committed by them and they were trying to rid the oblast’ of “lewd women.”
The police were inclined to write the letter off as a sick joke. But then a note turned up at one of the crime scenes, written in the same hand. It was signed, “the patriots of Vitebsk.”
Galvanized, the cops decided to check the handwriting of all the men living in the oblast. After sorting through 556,000 samples, graphologists found a match: Gennady Mikhasevich.
He was arrested on December 9, 1985, fourteen and a half years after his first murder. As the police were hauling him away in handcuffs, he told his wife, “This is a mistake. I’ll be right back.” Taken to the prosecutor’s office, he was asked, “Are you the patriot of Vitebsk?”
He ultimately broke down and confessed, leading investigators to the place where he’d hidden some of his victims’ belongings. He’d given other items to his wife as gifts; in one case, he even melted down two wedding rings from women he’d murdered and used them to make dental fillings and crowns for his wife.
According to Mikhasevich, although he did rape his victims, he got the most satisfaction out of killing them.
From there on it was a short trip to the firing squad.
The case was widely remembered in the area, not only for the terrible crimes Mikhasevich committed, but for the wrongfully convicted men and the ineptitude of the police. Several officials were dismissed from their posts, and one prosecutor was himself prosecuted for abuse of power.
Who watches the watchmen?
* Many Soviet executions were conducted in secrecy and have elusive dating as a result. In September 25 we’re going with the most commonly attributed date and the one favored at present by Russian and Belarussian Wikipedia. However, alternate dates as late as February 3, 1988 are also out there.
Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.
Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.
The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.
* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.
Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.
** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.
Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.
He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.
Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerinaaround 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.
Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.
* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.
Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)
A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.
Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.
The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between tworevolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.
Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.
Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.
The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.
After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:
“Now God help you! Go!”
It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.
“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.
At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.
“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.
“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.
He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”
Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.
— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:
“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”
Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.
“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡
as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.
* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.
** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.
† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.
‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).
When our party took over political power, the exploiting classes and reactionary forces went into action. The only rusty and antiquated tool that they use against us is preaching in the name of faith and religion against the progressive movement of our homeland.
On this date in 1979, Afghanistan’s Communist ruler Nur Muhammad Taraki was deposed and summarily executed (or just murdered, if you like: he was held down and suffocated with pillows) by his defense minister.
The writer whom the Soviets had once hailed as “Afghanistan’s Maxim Gorky” had been one of the most prominent Communist leaders in Afghanistan for a generation by the time he led a coup against Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978. It was Taraki who inaugurated the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and so came to number among the USSR’s accidental gravediggers.
Like any proper Red he dreamt a far grander legacy: his program for Afghanistan featured wide-ranging land reform, education, and women’s rights. But he would quickly discover that the resistance to these aggressive changes wielded tools far less antiquated than expected.*
The rebellion that broke out against Taraki in 1978 — joining rural magnates, religious traditionalists, ideological anti-Communists, and people pissed off about the new government’s egregious human rights abuses — is basically the same war that’s still raging there today.
To Moscow’s credit, the morass-detector went to high alert when Taraki first began soliciting Kremlin aid. Soviet Foreign Minister Alexei Kosygin gave a sharp and apt refusal when Taraki first invited his Russian allies to come visit that graveyard of empires:
It would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. … If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.
You know how they say you should usually obey your first instinct?
Taraki in the end wheedled very little by way of Russian props for his regime. It was only with his downfall that events took a different turn — for the aide who overthrew and then killed Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, was not half so trusted in the USSR as his predecessor. Before the year was out, Moscow had worriedly (and somewhat impulsively) begun committing its divisions into that self-destructive struggle Kosygin had warned about, vainly trying to manage the deteriorating situation. (Russia also overthrew and executed Amin into the bargain.)
* It also didn’t help Taraki that his own Communist movement was sharply divided. Members of the rival faction were widely purged or driven to exile in 1978-79; a notable exemplar of the exiled group was Mohammad Najibullah, who became president in the late 1980s and ended up being lynched when the Taliban took over in 1996.
The ensuing Retreat from Mons scrambled the BEF, sprinkling the French countryside with stragglers, though there is little evidence that these men represented a trend towards wholesale desertion as against the disorder inherent to the retreat. The horrors of trench warfare still lay in the (very near) future but perhaps British commanders who aspired to put the Hun to jolly rout were already shaken by the dawning reality of a long and inglorious slog.
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once quipped. In Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson suggest that BEF Commander-in-Chief John French had become a bit unmanned by the punches the Germans had thrown at his beautiful army* and fired off the memo that would doom Thomas Highgate in an embarrassed panic.
The C in C views with grave displeasure the straggling which still continues … and has reason to think that in certain cases sufficient effort is not being made to rejoin units. … All ranks will in the event of being detached from their units use every effort to [rejoin] … and [will face] severe punishment if there is reason to suppose that every effort has not been made.
On September 5, Highgate slipped away from his unit to relieve himself, then just stayed away. “I got strolling about, went down into a farm, lay down in an empty house,” he would explain to his court-martial. (For whom Highgate’s inability to account for doffing his military duds played very ill.**) A few hours later, he had the rum luck to be found by a manor gamekeeper who happened to be a former British soldier. “I have lost my army,” Highgate declared, “and I mean to get out of it.” The private suggested to his judges that the sense of this remark was to express his intent to return (i.e., get out of the barn).
The court martial didn’t buy it: here was the public example to make as a sop to the boss’s anti-straggling ukase. There was little time wasted.
Highgate was condemned on the 6th, the death sentence endorsed by superior officers on the 7th, and it was carried into effect on the morning of the 8th — Highgate having the benefit of only 47 minutes’ advance notice, just enough time to scribble a tear-jerking “will” leaving the remains of his salary due to a girlfriend in Dublin. His execution was published in army orders a few days later — a little warning to the rest of the team.
* French would be relieved of BEF command in 1916.
** Dressing in civvies reads pretty badly, but slumming in more comfortable French peasant gear too was a (disturbingly, to the brass) common indiscipline in these days. Adrian Gilbert in Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914 quotes a cross directive of Brig. Gen. Forestier-Walker: “No unauthorized articles of dress should be allowed. Articles of civilian pattern are absolutely prohibited … The crime of throwing away clothing must be severely dealt with.” To be fair, Forestier-Walker had in mind ad hoc amendments to the gear, like tossing the army cap in favor of a shady straw hat, more so than wholesale wardrobe changes.
That left Kaiser plenty of time on his hand to vent his political disaffection by working for the anti-communist resistance organization Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit — the “Combat Group Against Inhumanity”. When all was said and done, inhumanity got the best of its combat with Kaiser.
His chemistry background was a welcome skill set for the KgU activists, who put Kaiser to work building fuses for balloons that rained anti-Soviet propaganda leaflets in the east, as well as putting together incendiaries and the like with which to perpetrate nuisance-level harassment. The Stasi had him under surveillance immediately, although his old college buddy was such an amateurish snoop that he flat-out told Kaiser that he was watching him for the East Germans.
Eventually, however, that buddy persuaded Kaiser to turn himself in and become a collaborator himself — with a chance to resume his university career as one of the plums. Instead Kaiser found himself charged up as a saboteur “endangering the peace of the world.” The young man’s fighting spirit was also sabotaged by some sort of misleading representations made to him in his detention, because he entered the show trial believing it to be exactly that: just a show. So mistakenly confident was he that his death sentence was strictly ceremonial that he reportedly bragged about his penthouse accommodations behind bars.
On this date in 1972, Argentina’s junta authored the extrajudicial execution of 16 political prisoners after a jailbreak attempt.
Remembered as the Trelew Massacre (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), it’s been back in the news for an Argentine court’s 2012 conviction of executioners Emilio Del Real, Luis Sosa and Carlos Marandino for crimes against humanity.
One week to the day before those 16 crimes, more than 100 captured guerrillas from both leftist and Peronist movements attempted a mass breakout from Rawson Prison. The plan was to rendezvous with some well-timed getaway drivers who would whisk everyone to the airport where a flight waited to carry them to Salvador Allende’s Chile, which was then still a year away from its own military coup.
Between drivers failing to turn up and others arriving late to the airstrip the operation was a logistical catastrophe. Six people actually managed to escape abroad;* nineteen others, having made it to the airport but missing the flight, salvaged what they could be summoning a press conference and surrendering without resistance. They hoped to protect themselves by putting their case into the public eye.
Navy Lt. Commander Luis Emilio Sosa took the would-be fugitives to a naval base near the port of Trelew — not back to Rawson.
In the early hours of the morning on August 22, all nineteen were awoken, lined up, and machine-gunned by a detachment commanded by Sosa and Lt. Roberto Bravo. Twelve died on the scene; the others were dumped in the infirmary where four more succumbed. It would be put about, as usual, that the murdered prisoners had been shot trying to escape but that story didn’t convince many people. From exile, Juan Peron decried it as “murder”; protests and guerrilla attacks occurred on the anniversary of the slaughter for the next several years.
* These escapees went on to various interesting — and often violent — fates in revolutionary Latin America. One of them, Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, would eventually help to assassinate exiled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.