1925: Con O’Leary

Add comment July 28th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.

In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.

Forty-six­-year­-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.

Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.

The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.

On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.

The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.

Carey records,

By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”

“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.

“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”

At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.

Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.

Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”

When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.

The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.

Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.

On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.

While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.

Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.

Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.

There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summing­up about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s gore­soaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”

In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.

Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.

* Not to be confused with Irish historian Cornelius O’Leary.

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1920: Gerald Smyth, Royal Irish Constabulary officer

Add comment July 17th, 2016 Headsman

Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.

A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).

The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.

The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.

Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …

Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.

The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”

Mee quit on the spot, and 13 of his comrades quit with him.

This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”

Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.

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1926: Josef Jakubowski, Weimar Germany wrongful execution

1 comment February 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1926, Weimar Germany beheaded Josef Jakubowski for a murder he did not commit. Though a notorious miscarriage of justice in Germany, it is not widely known elsewhere and most of the links about Jakubowski are in Germany.

A Pole reared in the tsar’s Lithuania, Jakubowski emigrated by way of that great ravager of imperial borders, the First World War: taken as a POW, he preferred sticking around as a Mecklenburg farmhand over returning to a now-Bolshevik Russia engulfed in civil war.

Jakubowski never married, but if he had done it would have been to Ina Nogens, a local woman with whom he fathered a daughter out of wedlock. But his lover died (in non-suspicious circumstances) leaving Jakubowski to support not only the infant girl but also Ina’s three-year-old son by another man, Ewald — who were nonetheless being raised not by Jakubowski but by the Nogens relatives.

On November 9, 1924, Ewald disappeared: he was found outside the village the next day, strangled to death.

The Nogens family immediately made known their suspicions of the almost in-law from a foreign land, and in no time at all Jakubowski was caught in that still-familiar gaze of official tunnel vision and its mirrors of endlessly receding self-vindication. The most substantial evidence against Jakubowski was the shaky — and in fact, manipulated — eyewitness report of a mentally impaired teenager made to sort of put the Pole on the path to the Nogens house on the morning of the little boy’s disappearance. That’s it. It’s the sort of case would have to level up several times to achieve the stature of laughability, but when everyone already knows you did it, actual evidence is really just a luxury. Jakubowski was an outsider who maybe wanted to stop paying child support. Work backward from there!

Two years after the luckless migrant lost his head to the fallbeil, it came out that some of the Nogens clan were the ones really behind the murder, a two birds, one stone scheme to take off their hands both bastard whelp and Auslander. Three were judicially convicted of the very same murder, and one, Ina’s brother August, was actually sentenced to death — although the sentence was remitted. Despite issuing these other convictions, no German state organ has ever officially reversed Jakubowski’s condemnation.

The case was portrayed in a two-part West German TV series in 1964, Der Fall Jakubowski.

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1922: Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano, escapees

Add comment January 20th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1922, Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano were hanged in New Mexico’s Grant County Jail in Silver City for the 1921 murder of a prison guard.


Corral (left) and Losano (right).

Losano and Corral were serving time in the Grant County Jail for robbery (Corral) and attempted larceny (Losano) in the spring of 1921. Losano had only fifteen days days left to go on his sentence. Nevertheless, on April 2, 1921, the two young men decided to make a break for it. The jailer, sixty-year-old Ventura Bencoma, had been sick with the flu and during the early morning hours he decided to have a lie-down. While Bencoma slept, Corral and Losano were able to get out of the cell they shared.

A nearby cell was unoccupied and used for storing coal and firewood, and had an ax. The two convicts sneaked up on Bencoma and brained him with the ax, took his gun and keys, and threatened to shoot the other prisoners if they made any noise. They tried to use the keys to release another prisoner, Jesus Rocha, but weren’t able to get the lock undone and gave up. As soon as the pair had run off into the darkness, the others started screaming for help and woke up the sheriff, who was also enjoying a siesta of his own up on the second floor and had missed the entire jailbreak.

Bencoma died within a few hours, as the sheriff and a posse of men were searching for Losano and Corral. On April 5, after a brief exchange of gunfire, the fugitives were captured hiding in a shack. Their statements are summarized in West C. Gilbreath’s Death on the Gallows: The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923:

Both Eleuterio and Rumaldo bragged out loud of their escape and short freedom. Both men told Sheriff Casey it was Jesus Rocha who planned the escape and was to have joined them. Sheriff Casey learned from the two that after Jailer Bencoma’s keys and pistol were removed, they were to unlock the steel cell door to Jesus Rocha. Once he was released, the three were to go up to the second floor where Sheriff Casey’s quarters were and call him to the door. Once the Sheriff opened the door, he would be shot and killed with the jail’s pistol. The three would then arm themselves with the Sheriff’s rifles and ammunition. They planned to saddle the horses in the Sheriff’s corral and flee to Mexico. The plan began to fall apart after both failed to unlock the cell door to Jesus Rocha.

In light of this information, Jesus Rocha was charged with murder alongside his criminal colleagues. At trial, Losano and Corral recanted their statements about his involvement and claimed Rocha had not been a part of the escape plan. All three were convicted and sentenced to hang, but the Supreme Court of New Mexico subsequently reversed Rocha’s conviction, leaving Corral and Losano to face the noose without him.

Their families in Mexico pleaded for mercy, claiming that at the time of the murders, Corral was just sixteen years old and Losano seventeen. However, three physicians who examined them judged Corral was least nineteen and Losano was probably older than twenty.

A few days prior to the execution, the deputy warden conducted a surprise search of the condemned men’s cell. Both of their mattresses contained hacksaws and makeshift knives: they’d been planning another violent escape attempt. Unsurprisingly, the state governor, Merritt C. Mechem, refused to commute the sentences, telling Sheriff Casey, “Every guard’s life out there would be in danger with those two in the penitentiary.”

Officials set up the scaffold only about fifty feet from where Bencoma was murdered. Corral went first, then Losano. Both of them were calm and offered the standard prayers, apologies for their crimes and pleas for forgiveness.

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1927: Robert Greene Elliott conducts six electrocutions in one day

Add comment January 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Robert Greene Elliott — the “state electrician” who wired the majesty of the law to condemned men and women from Rockview, Pa. to Windsor, Vt. — had the busiest day of his illustrious career.

Once just a regular prison electrician, Elliott graduated himself to the euphemism in 1926 and was soon the go-to angel of electric death throughout the northeast. He pulled the lever a reported 387 times for men and women who sat in the new killing device in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and (just one time) Vermont; when John Dos Passos wrote that “they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch,” well, he could have been talking about Elliott’s $150-per-head bounty.

January 6, 1927 was a full and lucrative day for Elliott.

He started the day off with a triple execution in Boston’s Charleston Prison — the first triple electrocution in Massachusetts history.* Then he took a train to New York — relaxed with family — took in a picture — and then conducted the Empire State’s triple execution in the evening. (All six of his luckless subjects in either state had been sentenced for various robbery-murders.) His $900 in wages between the two occasions would be the equivalent of a $12,000+ payday today.

Friend of the site Robert Walsh has a wonderful post detailing this character’s remarkable career; venture if you dare into the world of a prolific killer of the Prohibition and Depression eras, here.

Elliott also wrote an autobiography, Agent of Death, which is out of print and difficult to come by.


(Via).

* Elliot would return there a few months later for a more famous trio: Sacco and Vanzetti, along with their accomplice Celestino Madeiros. Some other noteworthy clients of Elliott: alleged Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann and illicitly photographed femme fatale Ruth Snyder.

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1923: Jesus Saleta and Pascal Aguirre, Terrassa anarchists

Add comment September 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1923, two anarchists were garroted in the Catalan city of Terrassa.

Terrassa was unwillingly under new management, having been occupied by the Captain-General of Catalonia Miguel Primo de Rivera* upon the latter’s coup just days prior to the events in this post.

In historical periodization, Primo de Rivera’s six-year dictatorship marks a last stage of the Restoration, a decades-long social struggle bridging the span between Spain’s twilight years in the imperial-powers club and the onset of the Spanish Civil War.

Spain and especially the notoriously insurrectionary Catalonia had been riven by conflict in the first years of the 1920s. One of our principals for this day’s execution, Jesus Saleta, had been a leader of the intermittently outlawed anarchist trade union CNT,* whose gunmen fought ferocious street battles with police and company enforcers.

He was not averse to dirtying his own hands. In 1922, Saleta had stood trial (he was acquitted both times) for running a bomb factory and for orchestrating an attack on businessman Joan Bayes. After the murder of CNT executive Salvador Segui early in 1923, Saleta helped organize the reprisals. Tension and bloodshed rose throughout the year.

On September 18, he committed the crime for which he would die less than a week later: together with Pascual Aguirre and several other anarchists, he robbed a bank to finance his underground operations; a man was shot dead in the process. Saleta, Aguirre, and a third collaborator, Joaquin Marco, were arrested in the ensuing chase.

Marco was acquitted — he had not been identified clearly enough — but both Saleta and Aguirre were condemned to the firing squad, a sentence the military unilaterally amended to the garrote on the grounds that shooting was too honorable a death for these terrorists.

Both went boldly to the scaffold on this date. (There’s a full narration of proceedings in a Spanish newspaper (pdf) here, and a plain-text equivalent here) “This is the way anarchists die!” a proud Saleta exclaimed to the executioner as he was seated.**

The cry “Viva anarchy!” was the last thing each man uttered as the metal ring wrung the life from his throat.

* We’ve already met Primo de Rivera’s Falangist son in these pages.

** The two were garroted by longtime executioner Gregorio Mayoral Sendino, assisted by Rogelio Perez Vicario [or Cicario]. The latter was assassinated in revenge by Barcelona anarchists on May 7, 1924.

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1925: The Egyptian assassins of British Gen. Lee Stack

Add comment August 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1925, “seven men were led from their cells and executed at intervals of 40 minutes,” reported the Evening Independent — all for the assassination the of the British proconsul governing Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt had theoretical sovereignty at this point, but under British occupation — a tense situation that had frequently spawned deadly riots. It’s hardly surprising in such an atmosphere that the British high military commander Sir Lee Stack was gunned down along with his driver and an aide motoring through Cairo.


This photo captures only a staged reconstruction of Stack’s murder, not the actual shooting.

The British did not take kindly to this anti-colonial propaganda of the deed. In a furious diplomatic note handed by Lawrence of Arabia supporting character Edmund Allenby to the pro-independence Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul* they accused Egypt’s native leaders of “a campaign of hostility to British rights and British subjects in Egypt and Sudan, founded upon a heedless ingratitude for benefits conferred by Great Britain, not discouraged by Your Excellency’s Government.”

Indeed, His Excellency’s Government would only outlive the murdered sirdad by five days, for Zaghloul resigned (but urging calm) in the face of London’s demands to “vigorously suppress all popular political demonstrations,” a £500,000 fine levied on Egypt, and the seizure of customs houses.

Meanwhile, there was the most immediate reprisal of all: the search for Stack’s assassins. Sydney Smith, a self-educated New Zealander and pioneer of forensic science, had a star turn in the investigation by positively connecting the firearms and the bullets** to some of the suspects.

Smith published an analysis of this affair that became one of the foundational texts of the emerging firearm forensics field — and not incidentally helped to propel Smith’s own fame to household-name levels.

* Zaghloul had formerly been imprisoned by the British for his nationalist agitation.

** The bullet points had been hand-flattened by the shooters in an attempt to make them into dumdum (expanding) projectiles.

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1921: Richard and Abraham Pearson, the Coolacrease killings

2 comments June 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1921, an Irish Republican Army detail detained Richard and Abraham Pearson at their farm in rural County Offaly.

While the Pearson brothers watched in horror along with their mother, three sisters, and other family members, the Republicans readied the kindling to fire the family house. Then, Richard and Abraham were executed by an IRA firing detail.

The shooters were inexperienced as executioners and nobody delivered a coup de grace, so the Pearson brothers took hours to bleed to death from their assortment of debilitating torso wounds; Abraham did not expire until the next morning, some 14 hours later.

It might perhaps be said that few places exemplify like Ireland after its dirty war of independence Faulkner’s bromide that the past is never dead, and it’s not even past.

The Irish network RTE exhumed these once-past Killings at Coolacrease in a 2007 broadcast —

— claiming that the evangelical Protestant Pearsons were essentially targeted by neighboring Catholics on grounds of sectarian bigotry and/or an interest in pinching their 341 acres. (The surviving Pearsons emigrated to Australia and their land was indeed broken up and distributed.)

This line, whose upshot obviously impugns Irish Republicanism, occasioned a furious counterattack from that sector arguing that the Pearsons were punished for a much more prosaic reason: that they had shot at and wounded IRA volunteers who were setting up a roadblock by cutting down trees at the perimeter of the Pearson farm.

The family patriarch, William Pearson, was away at the time and later filed for compensation from London, noting that “I was always known as a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown. I assisted the Crown Forces on every occasion, and I helped those who were persecuted around me at all times.” “Crown Forces” in this instance would have been the hated paramilitaries, the Black and Tans, who pack their own upshots.

Extrajudicial executions might perhaps rate among the inevitable casualties of a tooth-and-claw war over the nation’s destiny, but so too are the clash of interpretive meanings given them by later generations. Even eighty-odd years later, the urgent need to confute RTE’s “revisionist” gloss on the Pearson executions led almost immediately to a book of essays by Republican historians.

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1925: The Sveta Nedelya bombers

Add comment May 27th, 2015 Headsman

Three perpetrators of Europe’s most spectacular terrorist attack were hanged on this date in 1925 in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia — after each stood on the gallows for forty minutes while the names of their victims were read to them.

Those 40 minutes of victims had unknowingly begun their path to Calvary two years before, when the Bulgarian military overthrew the post-World War I civilian government.

Though the Communist party stayed out of this putsch — it was a peasants‘ party that was toppled from power — the reds responded a few months later with their own countercoup: the September Uprising.


Septemvri 1923, by Ivan Milev. Perhaps topical to the horrible events yet to come in this post, also check out his 1926 Our Mothers Are Always Dressed In Black.

The eventual Cold War Communist government of Bulgaria would officially regard September 1923 as “the first anti-fascist uprising” — an ex post facto interpretation that would be aided by the Bulgarian dicator‘s eventual affinity for the World War II axis, and by the “White Terror” unleashed by the military after it routed the Communist revolt.

Harried and hunted, and their underground leadership succumbing to assassinations, the Communists conceived a punchback as devastating as it was contrary to the standard Leninist line on terrorism.

On April 14, 1925, a Communist agent assassinated Gen. Konstantin Georgiev.


Memorial marker for Konstantin Georgiev. Photograph by Miko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Shocking as this murder was, it was only the overture — and Gen. Georgiev was only the bait.

Two days later — Holy Thursday — a huge crowd turned out for the general’s funeral in Sveta Nedelya Church, perhaps Bulgaria’s most important cathedral. Unbeknownst to them, they shared the sacred vault with 25 kilograms of explosives packed into a column under the church’s dome.

When detonated during the service, it brought the dome down on the congregation.

“A tremendous explosion occurred and all became dark,” a former War Minister told the London Times correspondent. “Fortunately, I was standing almost below a pair of arches and I escaped without injury, not even losing my balance. A minute later the fumes began to disperse and, with six or seven others, I found myself standing while every one else was lying on the ground. Fragments of masonry were falling from the walls and the roof.”

One hundred fifty people died and another 500 were injured when Sveta Nedelya’s roof fell in — though amazingly, none of the many top state officials attending were killed. (And Tsar Boris III was not even in attendance.)


Sveta Nedelya after the explosion.

Like Samson, the bombers brought the walls down on their own heads, too.

Already none too lenient with the subversive element, the dictatorship directly implemented martial law and began rounding up suspected fellow-travelers, “disappearing” hundreds in the process. (One notable victim was poet Geo Milev, who never returned from a May 15 police interview; his remains were discovered 30 years later in a mass grave.)

The lucky ones managed to escape to Yugoslavia and thence to the Soviet Union. But three men* implicated in the plot remained to face more decorous vengeance of the judiciary: Lieutenant-Colonel Georgi Koev, Marko Fridman, and Petar Zadgorski. The last of these was a sexton at Sveta Nedelya whose role as the inside man was essential to infiltrating the deadly package into the sanctuary.

* There were actually eight death sentences at this proceeding, but five of them were delivered in absentia … an absentia caused, for three of the five, because they had already been murdered during the post-bombing crackdown.

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1929: Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck, wrecker

Add comment May 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.

Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.

While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.

It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.

So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.

He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.

Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.

But by the late 1920s, Stalin was in full control and the industrialist would become the first subject of a new Soviet law against “wreckers”.

Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.

This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.

“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless soulsin The Gulag Archipelago.

Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.

Nikolaus and Anna’s daughter Galina Nikolayevna von Meck — who did time in Siberian exile herself in the 1930s — wrote a memoir of her famous family in 1973, As I Remember Them.

* Notably Peter Palchinsky, whose life is dealt with in some detail in Loren Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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