On this date in 1944, the Irish Free State hanged Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins.
The IRA had been sorely pressed in these war years by the Special Branch, and the inroads of counterintelligence help explain why Kerins himself took such a prominent position in the IRA at the tender age of 24.
And it also explains how he ended up on the gallows at Mountjoy Prison.
Key to the Special Branch’s campaign was the recruitment of Irish republicans — men like Denis O’Brien, a veteran of the Civil War turned police spy whom Kerins and two mates ambushed and shot to death in his driveway on the morning of September 9, 1942.
As one might expect, this incendiary assassination redoubled state pressure against the IRA. Living on the run under assumed names, Kerins managed to dodge arrest until June 1944. But when captured, he knew how to comport himself from implacable precedent of forerunners like Kevin Barry.
Kerins refused to recognize with a defense the legitimacy of the court that tried him; indeed, so reluctant were the authorities to make a martyr of Kerins that they paused proceedings for six hours with his conviction cinched to give Kerins the opportunity to save his neck by applying to submit to mercy. Kerins wasn’t the submitting type.
“You could have adjourned for six years as far as I am concerned,” Kerins sneered when the session reconvened. “My attitude to this court will always be the same.”
In the words of a verse he wrote to a friend just before his hanging —
What, said Cathal Brugha, if our last man’s on the ground.
When he hears the ringing challenge if his enemies ring him round.
If he’d reached his final cartridge — if he fired his final shot.
Will you come into the empire? He would answer, I will not.
The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.
Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*
In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.
Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.
Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.
Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.
Nor was this the end of the meddling.
In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.
For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”
“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”
In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.
“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”
A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world
* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.
** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.
He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.
† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.
On this date in 1944, British Capt. Victor Gough was shot at Ehrlich Forest as a German POW.
Gough had been parachuted into occupied France a few months before as part of Operation Jedburgh — a campaign to grow internal anti-German resistance to complement the Allied push via Normandy.*
Unfortunately as Colin Burbidge details in Preserving the Flame, Gough’s destignated stomping-grounds — the Vosges Mountains on the eastern borderlands — had some of France’s most pro-German populace. (Burbidge is Gough’s nephew.)
His complications were exacerbated when his wireless operator was injured — and the wireless set wrecked — in the parachute jump. The British wireless man was soon captured and their third, a French officer, killed in a gunfight, leaving Gough on his own. “Great difficulty working alone,” he managed to report to SOE headquarters. He was finally captured in October of that year, tortured by the Gestapo, and eventually shipped to the labor camp at Gaggenau.
In accordance with Hitler’s anti-saboteur Commando Order Gough was shot at a nearby forest in a gaggle of 14 POWs — six British special forces, four American airmen, and four French civilians. Their fate was discovered in part thanks to a German fellow-prisoner, a former officer in the Wehrmacht who had been sent to the camps for refusing orders to issue his men sawed-off shotguns, a weapon prohibited by the Hague Convention, who escaped shortly before the executions using a British map that Gough gifted him. That Captain Werner Helfen survived the war and gave evidence to a British war crimes investigation.
Many years later, Helfen gave something else too: according to Burbidge, his mother — Gough’s sister — in 1991 received a package from Germany containing a photo of Werner Helfen by Victor Gough’s grave, and the escape map that Gough had given to Helfen.
* Future CIA director William Colby was a notable Jedburgh alumnus.
The milestone subject’s name was Johan Alfred Ander, a failed hotelier and petty thief who, on January 5 of 1910, robbed a currency exchange outfit and in the process beat the clerk to death with a steelyard balance. As Ander had been casing his target from a nearby hotel whose own staff had grown suspicious of him, it didn’t take long to connect criminal to crime. An ample supply of incriminating booty in Ander’s possession (e.g., the beaten clerk’s wallet) confirmed the link.
Executions were already disappearing in Sweden at this point; by 1910, it had been a decade since the most recent one, ferry spree killer John Filip Nordlund. On the other hand, Sweden clearly anticipated repeat performances in the future because in the meantime it had ordered a guillotine. (Nordlund’s beheading was done by hand, by Albert Gustaf Dahlman, who also executed our man Ander.)
Ander never copped to the murder and refused to appeal for royal clemency.* Whether it was the savagery of the crime or the pride of its author, he was found a worthy candidate to interrupt the hiatus.
On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.
Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,
got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.
Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.
The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.
The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”
Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.
Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.
There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.
(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’m sorry to have caused all this trouble. You seem to be taking harder than I do.
— John Fleming, convicted of murder, hanging, California
Executed November 17, 1933
Prior resident of Folsom and San Quentin prisons for robbery and assault charges, John Fleming murdered Amos Leece at a gas-station and road house when a prostitute named Peggy O’Day (aka Leonora Smith) made derogatory remarks to Leece after he refused to buy her a drink. Leece left the station to crank his car but not before he called O’Day “a cheap, chippy whore.” Fleming then confronted Leece, demanding that he apologize and then shot him three times when he refused.
Negrin’s major resource in this doomed project was Russian aid* — aid conditioned on Kremlin internal control within Spain, against the other factional groups (anarchists, social democrats, and so forth) that comprised the Republic’s “popular front”. Indeed, Negrin himself came to power thanks to a bloody internal coup against anarchists and anti-Soviet communists. Zugazagoitia found this distasteful but for his year in the government he had to toe the line on it: pressed by a British delegation over the political arrests — and sometimes murders — of pro-Republic dissidents like Andres Nin, Zugazagoitia allowed that “We have received aid from Russia and have had to permit certain actions which we did not like.” (quoted (p. 86) in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)
Though he managed to escape abroad as the Republic fell to Franco’s armies, Zugazagoitia was caught by the Gestapo in France; as they had done with his fellow politician Lluis Companys in a similar spot, the Germans deported the former Minister of the Interior to certain execution in Spain.
On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.
A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.
While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.
But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.
Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.
Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.
Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetretanticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.
Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)
It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.
He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:
Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.
He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”
Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.
Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.
After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.
The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.
* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.
Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.
This Khan aspired to far-reaching reforms that would modernize his marchlands kingdom and not for the last time an Afghan ruler found this programme stoked a furious resistance among tribal grandees. Kalakani, though derisively nicknamed Bacha Seqao (son of a water-carrier) was just such a grandee, having pivoted profitably from regular military orders to highway robbery.
When Khan’s forces had vacated Kabul to manage a Pashtun rebellion in the south — only the latest of numerous tribal risings that plagued the Khan years — Kalakani in late 1928 sprang a surprise Tajik rebellion from the north and marched on the unprotected capital.
Amanullah evacuated Kabul with a quickness, personally behind the wheel as he blazed his Rolls Royce ahead of Kalakani’s cavalry all the way to India and eventual exile in Europe.
But the “bandit king” soon found his own government strained by the same tensions that had elevated him. Pashtun rebels who used to chafe under a western-oriented king now chafed under a Tajik one — in fact, the only Tajik to rule Afghanistan in its modern history — and their fresh rebellion soon toppled Kalakani in his own turn. He was shot with his brother and their aides, contentedly telling his firing squad, “I have nothing to ask God, he has given me everything I desired. God has made me King.”
Kalakani is still the third-last king of Afghanistan and is still bitterly — violently — controversial on his native soil, where whether you reckon him a hero or a thug depends upon your kinship. Just weeks ago as we write this, a reburial of Kalakani’s remains in Afghanistan provoked bloody ethnic melees on the streets.
* Although there is no specific connection here to Habibullah Kalakani, an execution blog would be remiss not to include a reference to this sadly undateable National Geographic photo tracing to Khan’s reign of one of those real-life dangling man-cages so beloved of the sword-and-sandals fantasy genre. Per NatGeo’s caption, an actual thief was “put in this iron cage, raised to the top of the pole, so that his friends could not pass food or poison to him, and here he was left to die.”