Tag Archives: 1896

1896: Five Persians by gatching

From the London Graphic, August 15, 1896:

An Execution in Pesia

From a corrspondent

A hideous form of execution, which has not been practiced for twenty years, was revived the other day to strike terror into the hearts of the people. The murder of the Shah was followed by a succession of robberies on the road between Bushire and Isfahan, the nomad tribes going out in large parties and looting villages and caravans, and an Englishman was even stripped naked and beaten with sticks. One hundred thousand pounds was estimated as the value of property that changed hands during one week. Every day individuals came naked into Shiraz, and the roads were strewn with merchandise that the robbers found unsuitable to carry off.

At this juncture H.R.H. Rukn-ed-Dowleh, Governor of Shiraz, marched out of prison five men, who, common report said, had been there for the last five months, and had had nothing whatever to do with the matter, but had merely been brought from the south, because they refused to pay the excessive taxes imposed on them.

These men were to be executed to frighten the people by being buried alive in plaster of Paris. This form of execution is called “Gatching,” and consists of a hollow pillar being erected over a hole about two feet deep, so that the whole forms a well into which the prisoner is put, sometimes (the most merciful method) head downwards, and at others with his head sticking out over the top; Plaster of Paris is then emptied in, and between each basketful water is poured down the well. The gatch then swells, and when it hardens it stops the circulation, causing the most excruciating agony.

About nine a.m. on Sunday, May 10th, the five prisoners, chained neck to neck, were marched out of prison, and slowly escorted by a large mob, who were kept from pressing too close by soldiers with fixed bayonets and others with long sticks, they were taken to the Koran Gate, near the Bagh-i-No, on the town side of which, alongside the road, their wells had been prepared. It took one hour to reach the Bagh-i-No, but the torture of this form of execution being unknown to the prisoners, they walked along without a sign of fear.

They were taken into a high-walled garden, a guard being placed at the entrance, and in a short time the first to be executed was brought out. Round his neck was a steel collar with a chain, which his guard held tightly in his hand. Someone offered him a pitcher of water, from which he eagerly drank, and then, not knowing to what awful death he was doomed, he walked calmly and without a word to his well.

It took nearly half an hour to fill the well with gatch, during all which time the sticks of the soldiers were in use to keep the crowd from pressing too close and hampering the movements of those employed with the gatch. After this, the second was brought out, and as the crowd moved to the well prepared for him I took the accompanying photograph, which shows the man buried up to the chin, his face covered with powdered gatch and his eyes closed, so as not to see the crowd standing round; the gatch has not begun to set, and the man is suffering no pain.

Having obtained a photograph of a form of execution which I hope has been resorted to for the last time, I hurried from the spot, and only just in time, as I afterwards heard, to escape the most heartrending scenes. When the gatch became solid and tightened on the poor prisoner, his yells were frightful to listen to, and as they were carried over the walled garden, those waiting their turn realised that the death to which they were doomed, so far from being the painless one they had hoped for, was instead of a terrible nature. As the fourth man was led from the garden he begged the executioner to take him to the Bazaar, where he would find some one to give him ten tumans (2 l.), after which he could cut his head off. The fifth man became even more frantic as the yells issued from the mouths of his companions. “Spare me! Spare me!” he cried, “and I will show you were 2,000 tumans (400 l.) lie hid,” but his offer came too late.

When, three days later I passed along the road, I found capitals had been added to the pillars, covering the heads of the poor men, who had thus horribly been done to death.

1896: Ivan Kovalev, Russian meddler

On this date in 1896, Russian refugee Ivan Kovalev was hanged for a Sacramento double murder.

Kovalev and nine other Russian convicts had in 1893 fled from the most remote and dreaded of Russia’s Far East penal colonies, Sakhalin Island.

They might have met Anton Chekhov when he visited in Sakhalin in 1890 to compose the investigative articles that would become his book Sakhalin Island, one of the great pieces of journalism of his time. “Utter hell,” the great playwright mused of that brutal and befogged colony. “I feel that if I were a convict, I would escape immediately, whatever the consequences.”

Kovalev and nine mates felt exactly the same and they did it in the form of a downright suicidal flight from Sakhalin’s abyss in an open launch ventured into the Pacific in hopes of reaching Japan. They were on the brink of succumbing to their privations when they were miraculously picked up by a San Francisco-based whaler, the Charles W. Morgan.**

The convicts claimed that they were escaped political prisoners, a demographic that enjoyed western sympathy; there’s every chance that they were actually violent criminals but their tale of woe in the bowels of tsardom was persuasive and times being what they were a background check with the nearest consulate was not an option. The Sakhalin escapees were allowed to stay in California.

On December 30, 1894, about sixteen months after they drew their last moldy Sakhalin rations, Kovalev with two accomplices† bashed the brains out of the aged grocer F.H.L. Weber and his wife with an axe so that they could rob his store. Chekhov? Make that Dostoyevsky.

It took several months to zero in on the perpetrator but once the conviction was secured, indignant Sacramentans applied in record numbers for passes to attend the hanging, such “a spirit of enmity and hatred toward this son of far-away Russia” having been aroused by the horrid circumstances of the butchery that “it is evident that a spirit of satisfaction is abroad in the community at the thought that … Ivan Kovalev will expiate that crime with his life.”

* The New York Public Library hosts a digital collection of photos of the Sakhalin penal colony, here. Others can be browsed at the Sakhalin Regional Museum site.

** The Charles W. Morgan had an 80-year service history; it’s been restored and can be visited in Mystic, Connecticut.


1971 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Charles W. Morgan‘s preservation.

† The accomplices don’t figure in the execution story: one was mortally wounded in an unrelated subsequent robbery, prior to Kovalev’s arrest; the other wound up serving time for burglary.