On this date in 1917, someone was electrocuted in Rockview, Pennsylvania.
“John Nelson”, the cipher alias by which authorities were eventually content to call him, was 5′ 8″ tall and 165 pounds, and looked like an African-American. (“Nelson” himself said that neither white men nor black were of his race.) Papers put this about quizzically because he was also utterly steadfast in refusing to identify himself or his background.
He eventually allowed that he came from Canton, Ohio (but who knows if that’s true). “He reads Shakespeare and seeks high grade newspapers and magazines,” ran news-of-the-weird wire copy all around the country. He boasts “long hair which bears the appearance of having been done up in kids to give a ‘Sis Hopkins’* effect” as well as “long gray whiskers, sideburns and a heavy mustache.” He looked maybe 60 years old.
The Scranton Times sent 5,000 of these postcards around the country hoping to scare up information about their mysterious murderer.
Tips poured in from all over — but nothing definitive. An upstate New York sheriff reported discharging a guy named John Nelson from jail a couple of years before. A woman in Butte, Montana recognized the picture and thought it might be her vanished father. The prisoner also resembled a missionary from Ohio and a bank president from Richmond, Va., also both missing; a Scranton woman thought he maybe used to be her gardener. (All but the last of these indefinite tips via Cheryl Kashuba’s two-part series on this case in the March 17 and March 24, 2013, issues of the Scranton Times-Tribune.)
Although nobody could figure out who he was, everyone was pretty sure what he’d done.
On the evening of Oct. 30, 1915, he’d trudged into Mill City, a Wyoming County township outside of Scranton, and made an unexplained sudden attack on three men lolling about a barbershop porch.
According to those three men’s story — and they’re all we have to work with since Nelson kept mum on this, too — a little white boy running down the darkened street bumped into the mystery pedestrian. At that, “Nelson” suddenly produced a knife and charged at the trio of nearby men, bellowing “White people in a tank town like this can’t run over me!”
J.M. Sickler, a prosperous local farmer, bravely intercepted the attacker before he reached Judge Robert Westlake, and suffered mortal stab wounds for his trouble. The attacker fled, but other locals roused by the commotion overpowered him as he escaped; Sickler lived long enough to give a deathbed positive identification.
Of course, it wasn’t really “positive” — that’s the whole point. And “John Nelson”, whoever he might have been, kept his nose in his Shakespeare and his lips enigmatically sealed on the crime and its causes; on his background and biography; on everything whatsoever. “I just wouldn’t care to talk about that,” he would reply when questioned, or similar versions of that polite deflection.
He kept his queer peace all the way to the electric chair.
* Maybe Mr. “Nelson” was just taking Sis Hopkins’ good advice: “There ain’t no sense in doin’ nothin’ for nobody what won’t do nothin’ for you.” As Nelson blithely put it (and who could contradict him?) any name at all would do for his circumstances.
According to some newspaper accounts deemed credible enough by almanacs and registers of the time, a British officer named Hamilton Ballendine was hanged by the Americans during the Siege of Charleston. The good colonel had thought he was approaching his own British sentries after a reconnoiter of Charleston’s defenses, and when hailed he provided this name.
His name, or his alias, or his password — whatever it was, it was not recognized by the sentries, who turned out in fact to be the colonial pickets. At that point, he was a spy caught red-handed, and these folks tended to get short shrift during the American Revolution.
This event has struck some observers as conspicuous by its absence from any of the numerous firsthand diarists’ accounts within the besieged city. The account in this footnote, recopied in its entirety below, appears to be the sum of the information on the matter. Judge accordingly, gentle reader.
In the Siege of Charlestown (Munsell), 68, we find the following: —
EXECUTION OF COLONEL HAMILTON BALLENDINE.
(From Dunlop’s Packet of April, 1780.)
WILLIAMSBURG IN VIRGINIA, APRIL 18.
On the 5th Ult. was hanged at Charlestown, South Carolina, Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, for drawing Draughts of the town and Fortifications. He was taken by a Picquet Guard, which General Lincoln sent out that Night to Stono, as he was making his Way to the enemy; and when he was hailed by the Guard his Answer was, ‘Colonel Hamilton Ballendine.’ The Guard told him that would not do, and carried him to the commander of the Picquet, upon which he pulled out of his pocket the Draughts. The Officer told him he was mistaken, and carried him to General Lincoln, who ordered him for Execution.” –New York Royal Gazette, April 16.
See, also, Moore’s Diary of the Revolution, vol. II, 260. The story is also incorporated in the text of the Annual Register for 1780 (London), vol. XXIII, 222, in which it is said that Ballendine suffered “the unpitied death of a traitor.” Both Simms (So. Ca. in the Revolutionary War, 177) and Draper (King’s Mountain and its Heroes, 22, note) call attention to the fact that the story is mentioned by none of the South Carolina historians, nor any of the Charlestown diarists or letter writers. Draper seems to doubt if there was any such person. In the So. Ca. and Am. Gen. Gazette, June 9, 1775, Hamilton Ballentine advertises a power of attorney to receive a legacy due and collect the assets of an estate. There was therefore doubtless such a person, but what became of him is not further known. His name is not on the list of those whose estates were confiscated (Statutes of So. Ca., vol. VI), where it probably would be found had the story been true. It is scarcely possible that such an event would have been overlooked by all the writers and diarists of the time, and not have been preserved by local tradition; and yet the particularity of the statement, and its acceptance by the Annual Register at the time, would suggest that there must have been some foundation for the statement.
ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens was the scene of a triple execution today. Three terrorists were hanged in a row after having been condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop. Their trial took place before a drumhead court martial.
New York Times Jan 18, 1907
ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens here to-day were the scene of a triple execution. Three Terrorists condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop were hanged in a row. They obtained only $3.50 from the store they robbed.
This atrocity (derogated as “Field Courts Martial which endeavor to confuse ordinary civil offenses with revolutionary acts leading to the almost daily execution of offenders, who in civilized lands would receive only the most trivial sentences.”) appeared in a petition for the U.S. Congress to condemn the Russian crackdown against agitators in the waning 1905 revolution.
We, the undersigned, believe that it is time for civilized nations to protest against the atrocities practiced by the Russian Government in its prolonged warfare against its own people.
The subject is one which interests all nations, as a matter of common humanity. On more than one occasion governments have taken action for the amelioration of termination of abhorrent conditions existing in foreign countries. Many instances might be cited, but we content ourselves, as sufficient for our present purposes in citing the case of the Bulgarian atrocities in 1877, when Russia, in taking advantage of the general horror excited by the inhumanities of the Turkish forces within the dominions of the Sultan, intervened in the name of humanity, to rescue the inhabitants of Bulgaria from their deplorable condition. Fifty years before, various European powers, of whom Russia was one, intervened to redeem the Greek inhabitants of the Sultan’s dominions from barbarities and oppression. In seeking now some entirely pacific means of inducing the Russian Government to ameliorate the condition of its subjects, we are asking for nothing which the Russian Government has not itself in times past afforded a good precedent.
One notices that among the behaviors viewed by this petition’s congressional sponsors as “disregardful of the usual customs of civilized nations” when conducted by tsarist Russia were acts that in other times members of that august body would rise to defend: “Tortures are applied to prisoners within fortresses and prisons to elicit information.”
This account of an incident during the 1727 Spanish siege of Gibraltar, where the British army garrisoned, comes from an unknown soldier who signed himself only
December 9th. Last night a deserter clambered up within a little of Willis’s battery and was assisted by a ladder of ropes by our men. When the officers came to examine his face, they found him to have deserted out of the Royal Irish two months ago. Asking the reason of his return, he said he chose rather to be hanged than continue in the Spanish service, so is to have his choice.
It is not positively stated that the hanging itself did take place on this date. Since we concern ourselves in these doleful pages with the circumstances under which life becomes dispensable, an assortment of other anecdotes from this same soldier’s journal helpfully illustrate the life of British soldiery at the Pillars of Hercules.
March 9th. Came a deserter who reports that while our guns were firing at them an officer pulled off his hat, huzzaed and called God to damn us all, when one of our balls with unerring justice took off the miserable man’s head and left him a wretched example of the Divine justice.
April 12th. A recruit refused to work, carry arms, eat or drink was whipped for the fifth time, after which being asked by the officer he said he was now ready to do his duty.May 7th. This morning Ensign Stubbs of Colonel Egerton’s regiment retired a little out of camp and shot himself.
June 17th. Today two corporals of the Guards boxed over a rail until both expired, nobody can tell for what reason.
October 11th. One of Pearce’s regiment went into the belfry of a very high steeple, threw himself into the street, and broke his skull to pieces.
October 16th. Will Garen, who broke his back, was hanged.
January 2 1728. Here is nothing to do nor any news, all things being dormant and in suspense, with the harmless diversions of drinking, dancing, revelling, whoring, gaming and other innocent debaucheries to pass the time — and really, to speak my own opinion I think and believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were not half so wicked and profane as this worthy city and garrison of Gibraltar.
Model of a soldier being flogged on present-day display in the remains of Gibraltar’s fortifications. The adjacent explanatory placard reads: “Under siege conditions, the mixture of tension, boredom, hunger and alcohol meant that discipline had to be strict if order was to be preserved. One of the most common forms of punishment was flogging with a nine tailed whip. A drummer in a regiment, which later became the Lancashire Fusiliers, achieved fame as the most flogged man in the British Army. In his first years here [in Gibraltar] he received 30,000 lashes, of which 4,000 were administered in a single year.”
Though executioners don’t quite bat 1.000 — who does, at any human endeavor? — the field on the whole succeeds more often than not.
On this date in 1864, the Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby had seven Union prisoners executed, but he only managed to kill three of them — an efficiency very well below the Mendoza Line for the executioner’s trade.
It was a rare competence gap for the brilliant cavalryman.
The irregulars Mosby commanded in the Shenandoah Valley had frustrated for six months the consolidation of rampant northern armies, thereby preserving the Confederate capital of Richmond and extending the Civil War.
The situation had quick become intolerable for the Union, and Gen. Ulysses Grant emphasized (pdf) to Gen. Phil Sheridan the cruel anti-insurgent tactics he would countenance for “the necessity of clearing out the country so that it would not support Mosby’s gang. So long as the war lasts they must be prevented from raising another crop.”
Incensed, the Confederate “gray ghost” began stockpiling blue bodies from the offending command of George Armstrong Custer — yes, the Little Bighorn guy; he was perceived by Mosby to be responsible for the atrocity, although the actual paper trail on the execution order seems to be a little sketchy.
Mosby, who fancied himself the genteel sort who would closely abide the laws of war when fighting for the right to maintain human chattel, sent a lawlerly appeal up the chain of command seeking permission “to hang an equal number of Custer’s men.” General Robert E. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Sedden granted it.
The preparations began innocently enough on a quiet Sunday morning (November 6, 1864) when 27 Union prisoners of war were ushered with no explanation about what was happening out of a brick storehouse located in Rectortown, Virginia …
[They] were then marched to the banks of Goose Creek, about half a mile away. some, but definitely not all, of this specially selected pool of 27 prisoners belonged to Custer’s commands both past and present … [but] of the seven men eventually selected to die on Mosby’s orders only two were actually members of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade.
All 27 of the prisoners were lined up along Goose Creek and then made to draw slips of paper from a hat. Twenty of those slips of paper which were part of the macabre lottery were simply that, blank pieces of paper. The other seven — one for each of Mosby’s men executed at Front Royal and in Rappahanock County — were marked with a number …
Of the men who were forced to draw those slips of paper, some of them simply stared into space. Others, once they understood what was happening, prayed. There were a few of them who simply broke down.
Among the prisoners was a young drummer boy … who broke down completely, sobbing … He drew a blank slip and immediately proclaimed: “Damn it, ain’t I lucky!” When a second drummer boy was found to be unlucky enough to have drawn one of the marked slips of paper, upon the request of the men who had been spared, Mosby personally ordered the boy to be released from the seven condemned prisoners and the 18 remaining prisoners (excluding the first drummer boy) drew from the slips of paper for a second time.
Then one of the seven adults also got himself swapped out of the scrap by flashing a Masonic sign at a Confederate lodge member. The things that stand between life and death.
Out of the nine to come under death’s pall and the seven who were actually marched overnight to the place of execution (as close to Custer’s camp as Mosby dared) only three were there successfully ushered past death’s threshold.
At 4 a.m. on Monday, November 7, 1864 (the day before the election which would give Abraham Lincoln his second term in the White House and would therefore become the signature on the death warrant of the Confederacy), the Rangers and their prisoners reached the execution site in Beemer’s Woods, a mile west of Berryville, and the executions were carried forward. However, everything did not go exactly according to plan.
In the pre-dawn darkness and confusion (either through carelessness or lack of caring for their orders, since none of the prisoners had actually been involved in depredations against Confederate civilians) the Rangers allowed two of the seven prisoners (one of whom, G.H. Soule, 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment, punched out a guard) to escape outright. Two other prisoners were apparently shot in the head, but surviving, having only been grazed, also escaped since they pretended, and were apparently believed, to be dead. The remaining three prisoners were hanged. The identities and whether or not these three prisoners were members of either Custer or Powell’s commands are unknown. Lt. Thompson, in accordance with his orders attached a placard to one of the hanged men (just as similar placards had been attached to the bodies of all three of Mosby’s hanged men). Mosby’s placard read: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for Measure.”
Believing his purpose accomplished, or at any rate close enough for rebel government work, Mosby then wrote to Union General Sheridan justifying the action and assuring him that future “prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly, to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.”
The letter, and the 3-out-of-7 reprisal, actually worked — with no further measures exacted for measure or tits given for tat. For the waning months of the war the rival forces confined themselves to killing one another on the battlefield, and not in the stockade.
Well, mostly: one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 — which did assassinate Lincoln, but was really a wider attempt to decapitate the entire northern government — was a former Mosby’s ranger named Lewis Powell aka Payne. Lincoln killer John Wilkes Booth also seemed to flee in Mosby’s direction (Mosby’s units were still in the field, not covered by the April 9 Appomattox surrender.) There exists an unproven but delicious speculative hypothesis that the hand of John Mosby was among those behind an exponentially more ambitious “line of policy repugnant to humanity.”
Be that as it may, Mosby actually became a Republican after the war — for which he received some Southern death threats — and lived fifty eventful years. Among other things, the aged Mosby regaled the young George Patton (whose father Mosby knew) with Civil War stories.
Ivorian politics pitted the more prosperous coastal Christian south against the more rural Muslim inlands, but the 2000 election did not: Alassane Ouattara, the northern/Muslim standard-bearer was eliminated from the election by a conveniently-introduced summer 2000 law disqualifying candidates with a foreign parent. Ouattara was a former Ivorian Prime Minister, but for this election, he wasn’t Ivorian enough to stand.
Political bad blood became political bloodsport with the Oct. 22 election.
On Thursday, Oct. 26, 2000 — which was also the day that election’s winner Laurent Gbagbo was officially sworn in, despite thousands protesting — pro-Gbagbo militias went to town on Ouattara supporters, Muslims, immigrants.
In the late afternoon of October 27, the bullet-ridden bodies of fifty-seven young men were found dumped in two piles in a forest clearing on the outskirts of Yopougon. After speaking with two survivors of and several witnesses to events surrounding the massacre, Human Rights Watch researchers established that paramilitary gendarmes based at the Gendarme Camp of Abobo were directly responsible for the killings. This incident was the single worst atrocity of the election period.
The massacre took place on October 26, 2000 in two stages. The first involved the shooting of detainees at the Gendarme Camp of Abobo, where young men rounded up from Abobo neighborhood were taken during the morning and early afternoon of October 26, 2000. Prior to the shooting detainees were subject to … brutality and torture … At approximately 3:00 p.m…. at least two gendarmes opened fire on the detainees held there, killing some thirty to forty.
The second stage showed the signs of being a well-planned operation. Well-armed gendarmes deployed intoa neighborhood bordering the Gendarme Camp of Abobo and rounded up between eight and thirteen young men who were used as porters to load the dead onto a truck and later dispose of the bodies in the forest. The porters and all other survivors were then gunned down, though some were not killed. These survivors described the presence of one truck, two jeeps, and the involvement of some thirty gendarmes in this operation.
Two men (they’re both directly quoted in the Human Rights Watch report) survived the second stage of the massacre by playing dead.
This unpunished incident — eight gendarmes were tried, but all acquitted — has blended into the rich tapestry of grievances stoking Ivory Coast tensions down to the present day.
Laurent Gbagbo … under arrest. (Not for this massacre.)
When outright civil war erupted in 2002, anti-Gbagbo rebels reportedly yelled “This is for Yopougon!” when gunning down policemen.
On the 21st a circumstance occurred which created much controversy. A reputed Obeah-man was tried by court-martial and convicted. One of the favourite assertions of these people has been that “Buckra can’t hurt them.” Colonel Hobbs directed him to be placed on a hill-side, about four hundred yards from the firing party. The bullets caused almost instantaneous death, and it is stated that the effect on the minds of the prisoners was so great, that the colonel felt at liberty to release a considerable number then in his camp, many of whom were heard to say they never would believe in Obeah again.
One part Christianizing the pagans and one (or more) parts territorial aggrandizement, Charlemagne’s exertions on the Rhinish frontier were opposed by Widukind, or Witikind, or Widochind, whose “forest-child” name belies its owner’s legendary ferocity.
Widukind was reclaimed in the Renaissance as a patriotic or national figure. (Source)
In the summer of 782, when Charlemagne perhaps thought he had whatever passed for peace among the querulous Saxons, Widukind raised a revolt and dealt the Franks a stinging defeat that put a couple of imperial legates into the ground and made some martyrs out of clerics he found in the wrong place at the time.
Charlemagne’s forces counterattacked and routed the Saxons at the Battle of Suntel (or Sonnethal) Mountain, and thereupon
questioned the primores of the Saxons, all of whom be had summoned to attend him, as to who was responsible for the rebellion which had taken place. And since they all declared that Widukind was the author of this wickedness but were unable to deliver him up in view of the fact that he had taken himself off to the Northmen once the deed had been done, no fewer than 4500 of the others, those who had fallen in with his promptings and committed such a gross outrage, were handed over and at the place on the river Aller called Verden, at the king’s command, all beheaded in a single day. Thus was punishment executed; and the king then retired to winter-quarters at Thionville, where he celebrated both the Lord’s birthday and Easter in the customary fashion.
This merciless slaughter of prisoners is one of the lasting blights on Charlemagne’s impressive reputation. Even so, the reputation had the last word: three years later, Witikind was finally defeated and delivered up, in person, to the Frankish ruler … who accepted the Saxon pagan’s submission and forced him to convert to Christianity.
Charlemagne receives Witikind’s submission at Paderborn in 785.
At the evening roll-call of the prisoners, Max Bialas instructed those who had arrived that same day to line up on the side. It was not clear who was to be liquidated — the new arrivals or those who had arrived earlier. At that moment Berliner jumped out from the ranks of the prisoners, lurched toward Bialas and stabbed him with a knife. A great commotion followed. The Ukranian guards opened fire. Berliner was killed on the spot. and in the course of the shooting more than ten other prisoners were killed and others were wounded. When the tumult subsided the prisoners were lined up again for roll-call. Christian Wirth, who was in Treblinka at the time, arrived on the scene accompanied by Kurt Franz, the second in command of the camp. Ten men were removed from the ranks and shot on the spot in full view of all the others. On the following day, during the morning roll-call, another 150 men were taken out, brought to the Lazarett [the so-called "hospital" which was in fact an execution site] and shot there.
Little is known about Berliner.
According to the testimony of fellow-inmate Abraham Krzepicki, he was a middle-aged Jewish citizen of Argentina who had lived in that country for many years.
He and his wife and young daughter traveled to Poland on vacation in the summer of 1939. They could have picked a better time: when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939, the Berliners were unable to return home. Their Argentine passports should have protected them, but they ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto and were transported to Treblinka. Berliner’s wife and child were gassed immediately, but he was spared to work.
This reprieve would be expected to last days, or a few weeks at the most before he too would go to the gas chamber. Berliner became consumed with rage and the thirst for revenge, supposedly saying, “When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.”
As he must have known he would, Berliner died a horrible death — according to Krzepicki, he was beaten to death with a shovel.
Ironically, following Bialas’s murder, conditions for prisoners at Treblinka actually improved.
This was strictly for pragmatic reasons, as Arad noted: “The Jews selected for temporary work were a danger to the Germans, and the Berliner incident had proved it … When people knew they had nothing to lose, an act of despair like that of Meir Berliner could happen again and again.”
Rather than constantly killing and replacing their workers, the Nazis in charge of the camp decided to create a permanent staff of prisoner-workers and treat them with relative humanity. In this way, they hoped to prevent further acts of suicidal violence on the part of the Jews.
The existence of a permanent cadre of workers made it possible to plan and organize a revolt and mass escape from the camp. In August 1943, after months of conspiring and gathering the necessary weapons, the inmates killed most of the guards and made a run for it. About 300 or so actually made it outside of camp; of those, approximately 60 would survive the war.
On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.
Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.
In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.
Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).
Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armeerolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.
Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.
The French blamed terrorists.
A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.
Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …
The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …
Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.
In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.
The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.
[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.
These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.
It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.
On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.
Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.
He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).
They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.
Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:
“Who are you?”
Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.
“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.
The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.
“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”
“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.
Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:
“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”
“Your name?” asked Davout.
“What proof have I that you are not lying?”
“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.
Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.
At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.
“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.
Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.
“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.
In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.
But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.
Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.
When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.
He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.
“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.
Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.
It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.
A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.
From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.
The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.
The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.
Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.
A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.
Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.
Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.
Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.
On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.
“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.
Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.
When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.
Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.
They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.
Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.
When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.
Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.
“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.
Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.
* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.