“Everything passed simply, decorously, and without affectation on his part,” is the entirety of Stendhal’s death scene for his man.
Julien Sorel, the flawed (or anti-) hero of The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir), is the intelligent son of a provincial carpenter who puts his wits to use trying to climb Restoration France’s treacherous social ladder.
Ambition, says Stendhal, is “the very essence of his existence,” much as it is for his milieu, and through Julien’s exertions — brilliant and resourceful at times; infuriatingly handicapped by social prejudice against the protagonist’s low birth at others — the author sets down one of the most psychologically forceful works in the canon.
Julien Sorel’s ambition also powers his youthful passion, and his fall: to conquer the mother of the children he tutors, and to likewise conquer the daughter of a nobleman.** This latter conquest has him a made man, married into the aristocracy and set with a plum military assignment that has Julien dreaming of Napoleon … so when the spurned former conquest denounces Julien to the father of that latter conquest as an upstart seducer cynically shagging his way into decent society, the incensed Julien hauls off and shoots that previous conquest. (As she kneels at Mass, no less.)
Is it a mere jealous fit? Even though his victim survives the attack, and forgives her lover, Julien obstinately pleads guilty, and insists on his own maximum culpability. It’s not only an individual criminal culpability, but a culpability of class aspiration.
‘I ask you for no mercy,’ Julien went on, his voice growing stronger. ‘I am under no illusion; death is in store for me; it will be a just punishment. I have been guilty of attempting the life of the woman most worthy of all respect, of all devotion. Madame de Renal had been like a mother to me. My crime is atrocious, and it was premeditated. I have, therefore, deserved death, Gentlemen of the Jury. But, even were I less guilty, I see before me men who, without pausing to consider what pity may be due to my youth, will seek to punish in me and to discourage forever that class of young men who, born in an inferior station and in a sense burdened with poverty, have the good fortune to secure a sound education, and the audacity to mingle with what the pride of rich people calls society.
‘That is my crime, Gentlemen, and it will be punished with all the more severity inasmuch as actually I am not being tried by my peers. I do not see, anywhere among the jury, a peasant who has grown rich, but only indignant bourgeois …’
The Red and the Black is available in its French original here; in English translation here; and as a free French audio book here. And here’s some literary analysis
* The date is not explicit in the text. The Red and the Black was subtitled Chronique de 1830, but several past-tense allusions to the event show that the main action takes place after the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X and raised Louis-Philippe to the throne. There is, however, a late and seemingly anachronistic allusion to Julien’s lover/victim intending to “throw herself at the feet of Charles X” to appeal for his life. Oh well: ambiguity is the novel’s stock in trade.
Further to that body’s sanguinary campaign against papal political domination, they authored an attempted kidnapping and/or assassination of the Vatican’s Romagna enforcer, Cardinal Rivarola. Rivarola had recently issued mass condemnations against carbonari.
Which is very nice. But they didn’t get the Cardinal.
Ubiquitous 19th century papal executioner Mastro Titta conducted the executions — the 266th through 269th of his career (he’d also done Gaetano Montanari’s better-known brother Leonida three years before) — and devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the occasion. You can call the carbonari terrorists if you wish, but the Ravenna populace’s fearsomely cinematic display of solidarity with the doomed makes eloquent historical testimony on their behalf.
The execution took place on May 13 on a large square in Ravenna, occupied by the military so that nobody could not approach the gallows other than the executioners, the soldiers, and the prisoners. The windows and doors of the city and the shops were all closed and many were hung with black. Not a person was seen on the streets. Ravenna seemed transformed into a necropolis. All attempts to convert them were vigorously rejected by the prisoners, who did not want confession nor religious comforters, and protested against the accompaniment of two friars ordered by the Cardinal.** The wagon crossed streets deserted and silent, all surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback riding at a brisk trot. Arrived at the foot of the gallows, the condemned went down with a firm step, and one by one they boldly climbed the stairs of the gallows, and before the gallows clutching their necks shouted in a voice strong and fearless:
- Viva Italia! Down with the papacy!
The execution was conducted rapidly. I departed with my aide that night under guard, because it was rumored that the conspirators wanted to skin us.
* It appears to me — although it’s not completely clear from what I’ve seen — that a fifth man, a Jewish poisoner named Abramo Isacco Forti (aka “Machino”), was also executed in this group, for collaborating with the carbonari on a different murder. He’s listed on Titta’s roster of victims without date or explanation, but specifically named in, e.g., this Italian book’s roster of death sentences handed out by that same court.
The two of them weren’t connected to one another save in their common support for expelling the British from the Mediterranean island and reuniting it to the Greek mainland. It was a longtime, long-frustrated Hellenic dream.
Great Britain, even while the death penalty was eroding domestically, spurned international appeals for clemency — the Greek government made history by filing the first state-vs.-state petition to the European Commission of Human Rights a few days before the execution — reckoning that its credibility as a hard line against terrorism was at stake.
In Nicosia, where the hangings took place, schools were shuttered, armed paratroopers patrolled streets barred to traffic, and newspapers operated under a censor’s requirement not to inflame the populace.
In Athens, beyond the reach of the crown, the soundness of this policy was unpleasantly confirmed. Seven deaths and hundreds of injuries resulted from the ensuing brickbats with police. (The mayor of Athens personally smashed up a tributary plaque to Queen Elizabeth II.) And in retaliation, the EOKA subsequently executed two British soldiers it had captured, Gordon Hill and Ronnie Shilton … although British skepticism over this claim required an additional statement clarifying the matter.
BOGOTA, Colombia, Tuesday, March 6. — The three men who on Feb. 10 attempted to assassinate Gen. Reyes, the President of the Republic of Colombia, were shot to-day at the spot where the attack took place.
-New York Times, March 8
Reyes had parlayed a successful military career into politics (Spanish link), and was the elected-ish but also dictatorial president of Colombia.
Marco Salgar (left) and Roberto Gonzalez, two of the failed assassins.
He couldn’t make these omelets without breaking a few eggs and his authoritarian power was challenged with at least two coup attempts and multiple assassination plots, as well as a bid by other Colombian territories to break away and join up with Panama.
But the most notorious angry-with-Reyes event was the 10th of February 1906 — also the title (Spanish again) of a book of photographs documenting the incident — when three gunmen ambushed Reyes on the outskirts of Bogota and somehow all managed to miss both the president and his daughter.
Reyes’ vengeance was extrajudicially old-school: the executions he arranged were not permitted under Colombian law at all, and by having them publicly shot at the scene of the crime, he added a downright medieval twist of lese-majeste.
Images from here. These are the three shooters mentioned by the Times, as well as a fourth accomplice.
However rough his methods, Reyes did accomplish some important reforms for his country, and he did have the grace to resign his position in 1909 under fire for financial and diplomatic mismangement. (The man’s five-year administration has its own periodization in Colombian historiography: the quinquenio.) There have been worse entries in the annals of dictatorship.
On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.
Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.
The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.
On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.
When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.
shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.
This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.
Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.
Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.
Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.
On this date in 1964, South Vietnam executed a 17-year-old Communist for a plot to assassinate American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The young electrical worker and Viet Cong urban guerrilla Nguyen Van Troi was nabbed in the spring of 1963 trying to off both McNamara, famous for the megatonnage he would bestow on Southeast Asia, and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
(Later, when the South Vietnamese client president whose guests these men ostensibly were was being shot in an armored personnel carrier with the Americans’ blessing, Ngo Dinh Diem might have had cause to wish this youth’s inhospitable gesture had not been undone by his men. Lodge was a particularly vocal advocate in the Kennedy administration for overthrowing Diem.)
For the months leading up to his public shooting, he became an international cause celebre; North Vietnam would later milk his martyrdom with a postage stamp, an award, and numerous public streets.
The international reach of his case was underscored when a Venezuelan revolutionary cell kidnapped an American officer shortly before Troi’s execution, and threatened to shoot him in retaliation. (They didn’t.)
Against this, South Vietnam counterposed the unedifying spectacle of a 17-year-old patriot put to death, energetically declaiming at the stake while cameras rolled,
It is the Americans who have committed aggression on our country, it is they who have been killing our people with planes and bombs…. I have never acted against the will of my people. It is against the Americans that I have taken action.
Naturally, he became a worldwide leftist martyr. There’s an Estadio Nguyen Van Troi in Cuba; American actor Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda from her “Hanoi Jane” days, is also named for Nguyen Van Troi.
Robert McNamara, meanwhile, had many, many years yet to live, and many, many more Vietnamese deaths to burden his conscience.
Troi’s widow wrote a 1965 book about him, out of print but still available on the used book market.
Just what his beef with national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi might have been is also subject to the exigencies of the story at hand. Let it be oppression or something, good enough for one of those classic outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold retorts against condemnation for his thieving career.
It is you who are the robber who stole the whole country!
He gets to be the title character of the 2009 film Goemon:
Thanks to the inevitable marketing tie-ins, the world also has a Goemon action figure.
Personally, and especially because I would lose all these nifty accessories, I much prefer the adorable Goemon Cosbaby series.
* As a result of this famous exit, a Goeomon-buro (Goemon bath) in Japanese refers to a large iron kettle-shaped bathtub.
On this date in 1894, on the very day that anarchist terrorist par excellenceEmile Henry was guillotined in Paris, six more anarchists were executed by firing squad outside Barcelona’s Montjuich Fortress.
Mariano Cerezuela, Bernat Siveval, Jaime Sogas, Jose Codina, Villarubbia, and Manuel Archs were condemned just weeks prior by a military court for complicity in the attempted assassination earlier that year of Spanish Marshal Arsenio Martinez Campos. Some had originally been rounded up in the general anti-anarchist crackdown after the bombing of the Liceu theater … although another man would be put to death for authoring that crime later in 1894.
Only one of their number, Sogas, died penitent.
In the report of the London Times (May 22, 1894),
[t]he condemned men were conveyed from the chapel, where they had spent the night, to the place of execution by an underground passage, the first two to appear being Sogas and Cerezuela. The former, who confessed last night, joined in the prayers offered by the priest, and he and Cerezuela walked quietly to their doom. The other prisoners, however, shouted all kinds of revolutionary cries. The convicts were placed in line, and at the first shot they all fell to the ground. It was found, however, that in the case of Sogas and Codina the bullets had not taken effect, and a second shot was necessary.
May 10, 1744 — The negro man “Jan,” of Johonnes Van Houten, was tried “for poysoning and attempting to do the same to several blacks at the township of Bergen; to wit, the negro man of Arent Toers, named Lowis, and has some time past poysoned two wenches of Garret Ross, of the same precinct, and attempted several more.” Convicted and sentenced to be hanged May 11, between 10 and 12, at Bergen; “at the suitablest place, where Peter Marselis and Michel Vreeland shall think proper.”
Was it the slave trade that capitalized the Van Houten cracker empire?
The slave was the property of a Miss Elizabeth McQuerns, a schoolteacher who hired him out — in which capacity he raped the wife of his subcontracted master.
This case is treated in an April 1990 piece for The South Carolina Historical Magazine by Lowry Ware, titled “The Burning of Jerry: The Last Slave Execution by Fire in South Carolina?” But in addition to being the last execution by fire in South Carolina, it might well be the last in the United States. (The quotes below are all via Ware.)
“Judicial,” for slaves, was of course something less than a robust vindication of the defendant’s rights — and burning sentences imposed in colonial and antebellum America were almost universally used against black slaves. One pictures a context not unlike that of extrajudicial burnings to follow in the decades yet to come.
According to a copy of the trial transcript McQuerns later filed for compensation (the original trial record is lost, Ware says),
the Court acquainted [Jerry] that they were to proceed immediately upon trial and would hear his answer to the charge against him and whatever witnesses he had to produce in his behalf as well as against him.
The witness produced to support the charge against the prisoner was heard and examined and there being no witness in behalf of the prisoner, the court after mature consideration of the case found the prisoner guilty … [and was condemned to] be sent to the Gaol of the said District and there remain until the first day of May next and then be brought back to an old field above West Donald still house, and there burnt to death between the hours of twelve and two o’clock.
But previous to awarding and ordering said sentence to be executed appraised and valued said Negro slave man named Jerry at four hundred dollars and direct the sum of ____ to be paid to Elizabeth McQuerns the owner of said Negro and the remainder of the sum of ____ dollars to ____ agreeably to the Act of Assembly made and provided.
Such a dramatically anachronistic sentence surely made its impression.
As remembered, decades later, by a minister named Samuel Leard who witnessed the execution as a teenager,
thousands of men, women and children, both white and colored, assembled together in an old field not far from the residence of Mr. Donald to witness the execution of a beastly criminal by burning alive at the stake. The crime cannot with propriety be named — the name and the memory of the criminal ought to be consigned to eternal oblivion. But there sat the prisoner, the waiting impatient crowd, the immense pile of pitch pine logs and kindling wood scattered around, the sheriff and his posse, the temporary platform for the preacher … for it was determined that the fiendish criminal should hear his own funeral sermon pronounced … As the poor doomed man ascended the pile, he began to pray audibly and this was kept up continuously during the process of chaining him to the stake, and until the mounting flames deprived him of a wretched life. This was the last execution by fire ever seen in South Carolina.
-Abbeville Press & Banner, July 2, 1879
In 1833, the Palmetto State humanely legislated that “that “on the conviction of a slave, or a free person of color, for a capital offence, the punishment shall be by hanging, and not otherwise.”
* The scanty documentation remaining of this case leaves the date less than completely ironclad, but the one issued in sentence attested in this piece will have to do.