Posts filed under 'Intellectuals'

1571: Sigismondo Arquer, Sardinian scholar

Add comment June 4th, 2020 Headsman

Sardinian scholar Sigismondo Arquer was burned at the stake in Toledo, Spain, on this date in 1571.

Born in the capital of Spanish-governed Sardinia, this gentleman had a hereditary imperial knighthood but also an interest in humanism and religious heterodoxy well-calculated to annoy in Counter-Reformation Spain.


Arquer’s map of his native city of Cagliari, for the Cosmographia universalis, for which compendium he also composed an entry on “dark Sardinia” that “in its blend of ancient sources, personal observations and original narrative structure … played a critical role, even when not explicitly acknowledged, in the development of the image of Sardinia in European culture.” (Source) Today, one of the streets in this very historical core the man once sketched is called Via Sigismondo Arquer.

Exploiting Arquer’s associations with Swiss Protestants as well as his talent for making powerful enemies — skewering clergy in the Cosmographia, nettlesome lawsuits against Spanish oligarchs — the Inquisition bagged him for heresy in 1563. He was 33.

In between bouts of interrogation, Arquer used his long confinement to knock out a Passion in Catalan, heavy with personal resonance. The Christ parallels ran all the way to the Plaza de Zocodover, where a soldier — motivated by anger at the heretic or pity for the sufferer, only God can say — speared him through the side during his death throes.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Public Executions,Spain,Torture

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1780: Johann Heinrich Waser, persecuted whistleblower

Add comment May 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, statistician Johann Heinrich Waser

“One of the most spectacular and horrific treason cases of the late eighteenth century” in the words of Jeffrey Freedman (A Poisoned Chalice | here’s a review) — one that “shattered the complacent belief that such a brutal and cynical act of repression could no longer occur in an age of Enlightenment, let alone in Switzerland, the land of William Tell, republican virtue, and free, self-governing citizens.” Subsequent centuries laugh in bitter commiseration.

Initially a pastor, Waser’s idealism had not been fully wrung out in the seminary and so he got himself fired from his Zurich-area parish for complaining too loudly about the oligarchic graft that left his flock’s poor relief barren.

Nothing daunted, he effected a career change and “threw himself with zeal and success into all researches in natural history, history, agriculture and statistics.” He surely had little notion that this technocratic exercise could imperil his life … but as with his time in the ministry, he suffered for his inability to pay the tithe of politic hypocrisy to the unrighteous mighty. Freedman again:

One of Waser’s demographic studies uncovered evidence of a stagnating and even declining population in certain rural districts. To Waser (and indeed to cameralists in general) it was axiomatic that a growing population was good, that it was both cause and symptom of economic prosperity. So the evidence of a stagnating and declining population demanded an explanation, which Waser believed he had found in the trade in mercenaries practiced by the Swiss cantons. With this, Waser was touching upon a very delicate subject indeed, for the trade in mercenaries was not only a useful safety valve for disposing of excess population, it was a major source of fiscal revenue. Yet Waser condemned the lucrative trade without restraint, documenting with hard statistical evidence the population losses it caused; and he drove home his point with anecdotes such as the following, which appeared in the introduction to a study provocatively entitled, “Swiss Blood, French Money”:

With the General Stuppa in attendance, the Marquis de Lauvois, the War Minister of Louis XIV, is supposed once t0o have said to his king: “Sire, if you had all the gold and silver paid by yourself and your royal ancestors to the Swiss, you would be able to pave the highway from Paris to Basel with Thalers.” Whereupon General Stuppa declared: “Sire, that may well be so; but if it were possible to collect all the blood shed by our nation for you and your royal ancestors, one could build a navigable canal from Paris to Basel.

Waser’s incautious muckraking got him the Julian Assange treatment: he’d be condemned for treasonably stealing the information he reported for the public weal; in an attempt to blacken his name, he was even spuriously investigated for poisoning the sacramental wine.

The May 27 beheading of the “unhappy pastor” raised a clamor of European outrage against Zurich’s oligarchs. True, the salon-dwelling demographic liable to such a sentiment had no power to chastise. But it at least enjoyed the satisfaction inside of 20 years to see the lords toppled who had built Waser’s scaffold … thanks, appropriately enough, to the French.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Switzerland,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1919: Gustav Landauer, anarchist intellectual

Add comment May 2nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1919, the anarchist writer and intellectual Gustav Landauer was summarily executed — or just murdered — by the Freikorps after the fall of the Bavarian Soviet.

A Jewish bourgeois from Karlsruhe, Landauer (English Wikipedia entry | German was a pacifist who ran in radical circles (with the usual prison interims) around the fin de seicle.

Although the newspaper he edited was confusingly called Der Sozialist, Landauer “wanted a revolution in which — contra Marxists — “individuals, and not the proletariat, would help to fashion a new mode of cooperative living through personal example rather than through politics and party.” He influenced the Bruderhof Movement, the Kibbutzim, and contemporaries like his friend Martin Buber.

Come World War I, he was part of the Social Democrat coalition that rejected that party’s craven support of the national war machine and cleaved off as the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), an affiliation that led him into the short-lived workers’ council government in Munich. It was ironic given his long advocacy of non-violent non-cooperation as the key to remaking the world that his last days would be tied to a violent rising of militants, and its violent suppression. He spurned opportunities to escape before the right-wing militias overran the Soviet.

On May 1st 1919 he was arrested by troops from the counterrevolutionary White Guard and thrown into jail in the nearby town of Starnberg. The next morning he was transferred to Stadelheim Prison. An eyewitness later described to Ernst Toller the events of May 2nd:

Amid shouts of “Landauer! Landauer!” an escort of Bavarian and Württemberger Infantry brought him out into the passage outside the door of the examination room. An officer struck him in the face, the men shouted: “Dirty Bolshie! Let’s finish him off!” and a rain of blows from rifle-butts drove him out into the yard. He said to the soldiers round him: “I’ve not betrayed you. You don’t know yourselves how terribly you’ve been betrayed”. Freiherr von Gagern went up to him with a heavy truncheon until he sank in a heap on the ground. He struggled up again and tried to speak, but one of them shot him through the head. He was still breathing, and the fellow said: “That blasted carrion has nine lives; he can’t even die like a gentleman.” Then a sergeant in the life guards shouted out: “pull off his coat!” They pulled it off, and laid him on his stomach; “Stand back there and we’ll finish him off properly!” one of them called and shot him in the back. Landauer still moved convulsively, so they trampled on him till he was dead; then stripped the body and threw it into the wash-house.

Another witness later told Toller that Landauer’s last words to his attackers were “Kill me then! To think that you are human!” Landauer’s body was buried in a mass grave from which his daughter Charlotte secured its release on May 19th that year, but it was not until May 1923 that the urn containing his remains was interred in Munich’s Waldfriedhof. In 1925, with financial backing from Georg Kaiser, a monument was erected by the Anarchist-Syndicalist Union of Munich but it was later torn down by the Nazis, who dug up his remains in 1933 and sent them to the Jewish community in Munich. He was finally laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery on Ungererstrasse. (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Jews,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1547: Diego de Enzinas, Spanish Protestant

Add comment March 15th, 2020 Headsman

On or about this date in 1547, the Spanish-born scholar Diego de Enzinas was burned by the Roman Inquisition.

Like his (more renowned) brother Francisco de Enzinas — who translated the New Testament into Spanish — Diego (English Wikipedia entry | Spanih) was an apostate (to Cathoic eyes) Protestant scholar.

He spent the early 1540s — when he was merely in his early 20s — studying, translating, and propagandizing in Paris and the Low Countries. Catching word from his kin in Burgos that it was too dangerous to risk returning to his homeland, he took refuge with fellow dissidents in Rome … but when arrested, he would betray their names to Inquisition torturers.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Papal States,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1930: Dr. James Snook, Ohio State University professor

Add comment February 28th, 2020 Headsman

Ohio State University professor Dr. James Howard Snook was electrocuted on this date in 1930.

The eggheaded veterinary lecturer, Snook was an Olympic gold medalist in pistol shooting.* On a site like Executed Today one would presume that sidearms appear with a Chekhovian purpose, but it will transpire that different instruments cause his downfall.

Beginning, as so often occurs, with the instrument the good Lord gave him, which in 1926 was diverted from his wife in favor of comely undergraduate Theora Hix.

Dr. Snook soon installed his paramour in an apartment from which they carried on a torrid three-year love affair whilst Hix progressed to medical school. “We didn’t love each other,” Snook testified. “We satisfied each other’s needs.”

Hix’s needs, by Snook’s interested account, grew shockingly ravenous: she used cocaine, liked to hit and threaten him, and took on other lovers — including another university professor, agronomist Marion T. Meyers. The doctor’s explication of their relationship scandalized the university and the nation for the sordid particulars of their stormy affair. “Almost every letter trailed off into obsceneities [sic],” notes one report (Louisville Courier-Journal, Aug. 9, 1929.) “For the most part their content is unpublishable.” His own counsel was seen to chortle as some were read out to a stunned court, before rising in a vain attempt to claim they proved his client’s insanity.


Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Daily News, July 1, 1929.

According to Snook’s testimony, matters fell apart on a motor outing on June 13, 1929, when he attempted to decline a weekend’s canoodle citing his domestic obligations: “She replied, ‘Damn Mrs. Snook. I am going to kill her and get her out of the way.'” And as Hix began raining blows on Dr. Snook, he grabbed a ball-peen hammer from the car toolkit and struck her … and then kept striking.

“I was sure she was going to shoot me,” Snook said through tears, claiming that he feared she carried a weapon in her purse. “My only thought was to stop her. I sprang after her and struck her again.” (Quotes per the Pittsburgh Post-Gaztte, Aug. 9, 1929.)

After bashing her about four times, she was a crumpled but still-breathing heap outside his vehicle. According to a confession that Snook attempted to repudiate, he then clinically finished her off with a pocket knife to her jugular, as a mercy.

* In the 30-meter team military pistol and 50-meter team military pistol competitions at the 1920 Antwerp games. This also happened to be the last year these disciplines were contested at the Olympics.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Entertainers,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Ohio,Sex,USA

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1946: Jean Luchaire, Vichy journalist

Add comment February 22nd, 2020 Headsman

Collaborationist French journalist Jean Luchaire was shot on this date in 1946.

Fortuitously just too young for the trenches of the Great War, Luchaire (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the son of playwright Julien Luchaire, and he — the son — emerged in the interwar years as an important pacifist and advocate for French-German rapprochement.

The 1939-1940 war between those countries obviously dunked this philosophy into the crucible, and not long after the Wehrmacht marched into Paris on June 14, 1940, Luchaire emerged as a friend of the Vichy government.

His Les Nouveaux Temps* — founded in November 1940 with the direct backing of Germany’s Vichy ambassador** — became a premiere outlet of Vichy collaboration, and Luchaire directed the national press association to similar ends. After the liberation of Paris, he spent the war’s waning months in refuge with the remains of the Petain government, running a newspaper and radio station for the dead-enders.

Spurned for asylum by Switzerland after the war, he was captured by American soldiers in the Italian Alps and delivered to his homeland, where he was condemned as an occupation collaborator and shot at Fort de Châtillon, outside Paris.

His daughter Corinne Luchaire, a silver screen star in the late 1930s who became a society fixture in occupied Paris, published a postwar memoir defending her father’s conduct. She died of tuberculosis in 1950.

* Luchaire had founded and edited a newspaper called Notre temps in the interwar period. It’s not the same journal as the present-day publication of the same name, which was founded in 1968.

** The Francophile Ambassador Otto Abetz married Luchaire’s French secretary. Two of Abetz’s nephews, Peter and Eric Abetz, have had political careers in Autralia.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Intellectuals,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason

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25: Aulus Cremutius Cordus

Add comment February 9th, 2020 Tacitus

(Thanks for the guest post to Roman Senator and historian Tacitus. It originally appeared in Book IV, Chapter 34 of his Annals, and concerns the undated death of a historian some 30 years before Tacitus’s birth, Aulus Cremutius Cordus — accused of treasonable historying during the oppressive reign of Tiberius.)

In the year of the consulship of Cornelius Cossus and Asinius Agrippa, Cremutius Cordus was arraigned on a new charge, now for the first time heard. He had published a history in which he had praised Marcus Brutus and called Caius Cassius the last of the Romans. His accusers were Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta, creatures of Sejanus. This was enough to ruin the accused; and then too the emperor listened with an angry frown to his defence, which Cremutius, resolved to give up his life, began thus: —

Then is there one Cremutius
Cordus, a writing fellow, they have got
To gather notes of the precedent times,
And make them into Annals; a most tart
And bitter spirit, I hear; who, under colour
Of praising those, doth tax the present state,
Censures the men, the actions, leaves no trick,
No practice unexamined, parallels
The times, the governments; a profest champion
For the old liberty.

-The Sejanus character from the 1603 Ben Jonson play Sejanus His Fall. Shakespeare himself appeared in this play when it was performed; however, it was not performed for long and its author was menaced by the Privy Council … seemingly because authorities believed that it “tax[ed] the present state” of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean politics as veiled comment on purged English elites like the Earl of Essex or Walter Raleigh.

It is my words, Senators, which are condemned, so innocent am I of any guilty act; yet these do not touch the emperor or the emperor’s mother, who are alone comprehended under the law of treason. I am said to have praised Brutus and Cassius, whose careers many have described and no one mentioned without eulogy. Titus Livius [Livy], pre-eminently famous for eloquence and truthfulness, extolled Cneius Pompeius in such a panegyric that Augustus called him Pompeianus, and yet this was no obstacle to their friendship. Scipio, Afranius, this very Cassius, this same Brutus, he nowhere describes as brigands and traitors, terms now applied to them, but repeatedly as illustrious men. Asinius Pollio‘s writings too hand down a glorious memory of them, and Messala Corvinus used to speak with pride of Cassius as his general. Yet both these men prospered to the end with wealth and preferment. Again, that book of Marcus Cicero, in which he lauded Cato to the skies, how else was it answered by Caesar the dictator, than by a written oration in reply, as if he was pleading in court? The letters of Antonius, the harangues of Brutus contain reproaches against Augustus, false indeed, but urged with powerful sarcasm; the poems which we read of Bibaculus and Catullus are crammed with invectives on the Caesars. Yet the Divine Julius, the Divine Augustus themselves bore all this and let it pass, whether in forbearance or in wisdom I cannot easily say. Assuredly what is despised is soon forgotten; when you resent a thing, you seem to recognise it.

Of the Greeks I say nothing; with them not only liberty, but even license went unpunished, or if a person aimed at chastising, he retaliated on satire by satire. It has, however, always been perfectly open to us without any one to censure, to speak freely of those whom death has withdrawn alike from the partialities of hatred or esteem. Are Cassius and Brutus now in arms on the fields of Philippi, and am I with them rousing the people by harangues to stir up civil war? Did they not fall more than seventy years ago, and as they are known to us by statues which even the conqueror did not destroy, so too is not some portion of their memory preserved for us by historians? To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.

He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Other Voices,Roman Empire,Starved,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1938: Vladimir Beneshevich, Byzantinist

Add comment January 17th, 2020 Headsman

One of Russia’s most cherished national myths is that of the “Third Rome” — Russia (via its protean polity, Muscovy) as the successor to Byzantium, which in turn succeeded Rome. Modern humans might no longer do the thing where the official lineage of the sitting dynasty traces to the loins of the local war-god, but claiming a through line all the way back to Romulus and Remus is a pretty good simulacrum.

Like all national mythologies, it’s an idea with a history of its own — and not one that enjoyed anything like its contemporary popularity at the moment that, say, Byzantium fell to the Turks. After all, those Byzantines were were an emblem of defeat.

“Political thinkers of this period, for example Ivan Peresvetov, warned Ivan the Terrible against imitating the Byzantine basileis [emperors], who had lost their empire because they had ceded their prerogatives to their magnates,” as S.A. Ivanov puts it in a chapter of The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture since 1500 — our primary source for this post. “Generally speaking, Byzantium was viewed ultimately as a failure, and nobody particularly cherished that pedigree. The same Peresvetov presented Mehmet the Conqueror as a true role model for the Muscovite tsar.”

It was a Pskov monk named Filofei (Philotheus) who formulated the Rome-Constantinople-Moscow succession around the turn of the 16th century but according to Ivanov the appeal to Byzantium was no more than occasionally and superficially grasped at in the centuries that followed, and then completely binned by Peter the Great — oriented as he was towards those counter-Byzantine values of efficiency, modernity and the west. (It’s only quite recently that western interest in Byzantium has revived.)

Only in the 19th century did Byzantium as a kindred civilization emerge widely for Russians in something like the shape of the myth as it exists today. No surprise, the scholarly field associated with it, fascinated as it was with kingship and Orthodox Christianity, became associated in the subsequent generations with right-wing politics … and by the end of this post, we will come to the execution during the Stalinist purges of an eminent scholar of Byzantium named Vladimir Beneshevich. While this fate is not surprising on its face for the circumstances, we think the journey of the idea — continuing as it does down to the present day — is well worth the taking. The following is excerpted from Ivanov:

The Byzantine question reappeared in the nineteenth century, when the Russian elite became aware of Russia’s uncertain status among the civilizations of the world. Yet the tone of the discussion had changed: in 1836 the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev in his ‘Philosophical Letters’, asserted that the very choice made by Rus’ in favour of Constantinople, not Rome, had rendered inevitable the misfortune of Russia: … ‘Driven by a baneful fate, we turned to Byzantium, wretched and despised by nations, for a moral code that was to become the basis of our education’. This was the opening of the debate that has continued until today without any substantial variations in its terms or arguments …

Byzantium as an empire once again gained importance in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the notorious Jakob Fallmerayer [a race theorist later beloved of the Nazis -ed.] enunciated his theory regarding the Slavicization of the Balkans in Byzantine times, he wanted to warn the West against the ‘Russian menace’; the Russophobic nature of his theory notwithstanding, the new trend of thought in Russia, the so-called Slavophiles used it to substantiate their claim to the Byzantine legacy. The earliest Slavophile and the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev had many conversations with Fallmerayer in Munich ‘de fatis byzantinis’, as the latter notes in his diary, in which he also briefly recorded Tyutchev’s ideas: ‘Byzanz Heilige Stadt. Pruritus Rezidenz zu verlegen’. For Tyutchev, as for the other ‘Slavophiles’, Constantinople was a ‘natural’ goal, but it was not an end in itself: in his poem ‘Prophesy’ (1850) Tyutchev implored the Russian tsar: ‘And the vaults of ancient Sophia / In resurrected Byzantium / Will again shelter the altar of Christ. / Throw yourself down in front of it, oh, Tsar of Russia, / And rise as the Tsar of all the Slavs’. The fact that the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Fall of Byzantium inspired a new upswing of imperialistic dreams. The poet Apollon Maikov wrote: ‘Let everyone know that the dream of Christian Byzantium is still alive in Russia!’

There were two facets to the Russian debate on the Byzantine legacy: the political one dealt with the fate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christians after the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire. Some, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, insisted that ‘Constantinople must become Russian’; others thought that it should become the capital of a Pan-Slavic federation. Saltykov-Shchedrin, a great Russian satirist of the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the Russian obsession with Byzantium in ‘The History of a Town’. Yet, this discussion on the fate of Constantinople seemed exciting and flattering to wide circles of learned society, especially in the 1870s, when a successful war with Turkey brought Russian troops to the very outskirts of Istanbul.

The other aspect of the Byzantine debate concerned domestic issues: is Russia a unique civilization, with only one predecessor, Byzantium, or is it part of Europe? When the famous German historian Zacharia von Lingenthal proposed a theory that the Byzantine peasant commune had been a Slavic innovation, this hypothetical construct was enthusiastically embraced by the Slavophiles. However, not everyone in Russia regarded the Slavic ‘link’ as indispensable. Konstantin Leontiev, a diplomat and philosopher, despised the Slavs and adored Byzantium. He used it as a symbol of theocracy, which he then offered as a model for emulation. ‘Byzantium gave us all our strength’, he wrote. ‘Under its banner we shall withstand the onslaught of the entire Europe if indeed it dares impose on us the rot and filth of its prescriptions for an earthly paradise’. Of course, he knew next to nothing about Byzantium — to him it was but an ideal construct. In his book Byzantism and Slavdom, which has been highly respected, praised and criticized ever since its publication in 1875, Byzantium proper is mentioned just a few times. Yet Leontiev was the first to coin the term ‘Byzantism’ (as opposed to ‘Byzantinism’), which became commonly used by the admirers of the Empire as a label for a benign tyranny. As a counterbalance, another new coinage, ‘byzantischina’,* emerged as the equivalent of the Western derogatory epithets, such as the German ‘Byzantinismus’ or the French ‘Byzantiner’. The debate about the Byzantine legacy involved prominent public figures such as Alexander Herzen, who condemned Byzantium for ‘debility’, as well as Vladimir Soloviev and Vasilii Rozanov. Rozanov, one of the greatest and most original thinkers of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, objected to Leontiev’s utopian constructs; his observations were so sharp that they are worth quoting at some length:

When, in what epoch were we particularly imbued with Byzantine principles? Wouldn’t everyone agree that it was during the time when Moscow was building the Russian state? But if that is so, why did we absorb these principles not during the period of our child-like receptiveness when Byzantium was alive and close to us, but at the time of our distrustful seclusion when Byzantium had already fallen? … Don’t the Byzantine origins of the Muscovite way of life represent a phenomenon that is far more illusory than real? … So when Byzantium was transformed from a powerful and attractive empire into a slave of Islam … that’s when we want Russia to be imbued with the principles of Byzantium. Isn’t that an illusion? Aren’t we ascribing to the imitation our deeply original and unique aspects? … Sophisticated and depraved Byzantium that mixed abstract disputes of theological and philosophical nature with orgies, with the noise and debauchery of the circus, can hardly be seriously regarded as an antecedent and prototype for Muscovy — morosely silent, stubbornly persistent, far more forceful than devious, so universally unrefined in its thought, taste and emotional inclinations.

Never afraid of internal contradictions, Rozanov in his later writings embraced the idea that Byzantium in fact did play a great role in Russian history, but that its role was negative: ‘Has the millennium of Byzantism in Russia done any good? One can answer with one’s hand on one’s heart: no, it has not! Then be consistent and help liberate Russia from the yoke of Byzantism’.

As the Russian Empire entered the twentieth century, Russian Byzantinism was at its peak: the conquest of the Straits (Bosphoros/Dardanelles) and the erection of a cross over St Sophia were the prime goals of Russian foreign policy. The public sentiments of the time can be illustrated by the fact that in 1912, a young Osip Mandelshtam, whose family tradition barely had any connection with the imperial Orthodox yearnings — he was a Jew who had recently moved with his parents from Poland to St Petersburg — wrote enthusiastic poems about Sophia of Constantinople:

1.
Hagia Sophia — here to stop and stare
The Lord has ordered people and the tsars!
Your dome, as an eyewitness once described it,
As if by chains is hanging from the stars.

2.
To all a shining light — age of Justinian,
When to steal off for foreign gods unseen
Dedicated Diana the Ephesian
Hundred and seven marble columns green.

3.
To what aspired your generous creator,
When high in spirit and in reason blessed,
He laid your features on the ground
And pointed them directions east and west?

4.
The temple shines, in the world’s aura bathing,
And forty windows — triumph of the light;
On sails under the dome the four archangels
Finest of all and basking in delight.

5.
This building will outlast people and ages
So wise and spherical and nobly built
And incandescent weeping of the angels
Will not corrode away the darkened gilt.

The idea that Russia itself was the reincarnation of Byzantium was mot graphically reflected in the architectural style referred to as ‘Byzantine’. This emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, when 40 ‘Byzantine’ cathedrals were completed all across the Russian Empire as well as beyond Russian borders: in Greece, in Bulgaria, and even in France and Germany (in Biarritz and Kissingen). The most ostentatious and grand among them was the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, whose similarity to Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, both in its exterior and interior decorations, is striking.

Byzantine Studies was one of the pillars of the Russian humanities. In Turkey, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople held a leading position among the city’s European academic institutions. Naturally the vast majority of scholars involved in Byzantine Studies were monarchists or at least conservatives. The only republican among them was Pavel Bezobrazov, whose book about Michael Psellos was a veiled critique of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This tradition of ‘Aesopian language’, talking of Byzantium but implying Russia, was later used by Soviet Byzantinists.

The outbreak of World War I further spurred public debate. In 1915, the leading Byzantinist Fyodor Uspenskii submitted to Tsar Nicholas II a memo detailing the urgent steps to be taken after the Russian takeover of Constantinople. In the same year, Archbishop Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of Russia’s most influential clerics (he was the first contender for the Patriarchate) published a plea for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in its original borders — in a sense, his dreams were even bolder than the appetites of the [Greek irredentist -ed.] ‘Megali Idea’. Yet the official position on Istanbul was less favourable to the Greeks. On 3 March 1915, Tsar Nicholas II told the French ambassador (whose name, ironically, was Paleologue), ‘The city of Constantinople and southern Thrace must be annexed to my Empire’. After the Entente Cordiale accepted his claim, the capture of Tsar’grad looked imminent. On Christmas Day, 1916, the mystical poet Vyacheslav Ivanov implored, ‘Oh Rus’, when you wrap yourself in the purple robes of Tsar’grad, do not serve worldly interests’.

The February revolution of 1917 did not stop the imperial hysteria; instead, the Byzantine question became even more acute. In the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty after the fall of the monarchy, some theologians blamed Byzantium for excessive gnosticism and asceticism, which, in their minds, were later planted into the Russian psyche.

The Bolsheviks who came to power in October 1917 could not have cared less about Byzantium, but those on the other side of the barricades did not forget about it: the abrupt collapse of the formidable edifice of the Russian Empire compelled religious and political thinkers to search for the roots of this catastrophe. The famous theologian Sergii Bulgakov,** for example, blamed Byzantium for the loneliness of the Russian culture, which made it vulnerable to pernicious influences.

Together with Christianity, at that fateful moment Russia also adopted all Byzantine insularity and its constraints; it became separated from the whole Western, Christian Europe by a “Great Wall” and remained isolated … Meanwhile, Byzantium’s attitude towards Russia was never sincere or warm, but always arrogant and hollow-hearted.

Bulgakov’s book At the Walls of Chersonnesos, written at the end of the brutal Civil War, in the atmosphere of terror and despair, was all about Byzantium and its legacy, as if they were the primary concerns of the time. The writer Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Russian emigres in Constantinople in 1920, describes the bitter disappointment of a White-Guard officer in this deceptive imperial dream: ‘Byzantium, may it go to hell! So much of our Russian blood has been spilled for this damn Byzantium. It’s the usual Russian stupidity all over again!’

To the Bolsheviks, Byzantium was one of the attributes of tsarism; more generally, for people of the new, avant-garde era, it became a symbol of everything dilapidated, moth-eaten and dusty. From the late 1920s through to the late 1930s, the very word ‘Byzantine’ was banned and was used only in quotation marks. Byzantine scholars became the targets of repressions; Vladimir Beneshevich, the most prominent among them, was executed.

* Russian uses the -schina suffix to attach an evaluative negative judgment to a period or concept; for example, a term like Stalinism (whatever its specific connotations) is a neutral description, whereas Stalinschina conveys the speaker’s scorn. One common way to refer to Stalinism’s apex of secret policing and internal purges is by reference to his notorious police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — hence, the yezhovschina.

** No relation to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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2010: Li Haito, reliquarian

Add comment November 19th, 2019 Headsman

From IANS on Friday, Nov. 19 of 2010. (via)

China executes official for plundering cultural relics

Beijing, Nov 19 (IANS) China Friday executed an official for stealing and selling cultural relics protected by the state, reports Xinhua.

Li Haitao was the chief of the cultural relics protection authority of the imperial garden in the Hebei provincial capital of Chengde.

He was executed after China’s Supreme People’s Court approved the death penalty on a conviction of embezzlement, the Intermediate People’s Court of Chengde said.

By taking advantage of his post between 1993 and 2002, Li had stolen 259 cultural relics stored in the depository of the Eight Outer Temples, an imperial compound built on the three-century old Summer Mountain Resort.


Putuo Zongcheng, one of the Eight Outer Temples. (cc) image from Ana Paula Hirama.

Li, 50, replaced the relics with copies, inferior or incomplete objects, and asked his subordinates to alter the records.

The stolen items included gold gilded Buddha statues, five of which were listed as state relics under first class protection, 56 were in the second grade and 58 in the third.

Li pocketed more than 3.2 million yuan ($482,240) after selling 152 stolen pieces.

Police have seized 202 relics and are still hunting for 57 other items.

Li’s four accomplices — Wang Xiaoguang, Yan Feng, Zhang Huazhang and Chen Fengwei — were given jail terms of up to seven years with fines.

His crimes went unnoticed until a Chinese expert found two royal cultural relics belonging to Beijing’s Palace Museum at an auction in Hong Kong in 2002.

The expert reported his discovery to the state cultural heritage authorities, which prompted a probe that found Chengde was the source of the relics.

Covering an area of 5.6 million sq metres, the Summer Mountain Resort was the temporary imperial palace of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperors Kangxi and Qianlong.

The mountain villa, the largest remaining classical imperial garden architecture in China, and the outlying temples were placed on the World Heritage list in 1994.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Intellectuals,Lethal Injection,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines,Theft

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