1922: Francisco Murguia

Add comment November 1st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Mexican General Francisco Murguia was shot at the Tepehuanes cemetery in Durango.

A photographer who found martial glory in the Mexican Revolution, Murguia (FindAGrave.com entry | Spanish Wikpiedia entry) was ally to revolutionary president Venustiano Carranza against rivals like Pancho Villa. He spent the late 1910s as Carranza’s military governor of Durango and Chihuahua where Jamie Bisher in The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914-1922 denounces him “a brute” distinguished by “ruthlessness that stood out even in the Mexican Revolution … Murguila’s Chihuahua would be remembered for the corpses strung up in silent ranks along the roads.”

His loyalty to the Carranza cause after its namesake was deposed and assassinated in 1920 caused Murguia to flee to Texas for a time. He found his way into these dark pages by returning to lead a planned constitutionalist revolt against dictator Alvaro Obregon; anticipating the support of a coordinated rising, he was supported in the moment only by scanty fractions of the anticipated forces, leaving him nothing but the doomed bravado of a man before the muzzles.

“I have been granted the honor of directing my own execution, and I have sufficient fortitude to command it, but I shall not do it because I do not wish to commit suicide. For — and hear me well — they are not executing me; they are assassinating me. Viva Carranza!”

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1920: Rickey Harrison, Hudson Duster

Add comment May 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Rickey Harrison of the Greenwich Village “Hudson Dusters” went to the electric chair for a murder committed in the course of an armed robbery.

As befits a gaggle of old time New York hoodlums this crowd was rife with colorful nicknames — Goo Goo Knox, Circular Jack, Ding Dong — and hired out its thrashings in service of Tammany Hall‘s rude electoral manipulations. Their signal achievement was earning a popular doggerel tribute that rang in the streets in its day, by beating senseless a beat cop who’d had the temerity to arrest some of their number.

Says Dinny [patrolman Dennis Sullivan], “Here’s me only chance
To gain meself a name;
I’ll clean up the Hudson Dusters,
And reach the hall of fame.”*
He lost his stick and cannon,
and his shield they took away.
It was then he remembered,
Every dog had his day.

At their peak the Hudson Dusters could rank as one of the brighter stars in the dizzying constellation of Big Apple crooks. Herbert Asbury’s classic The Gangs of New York notes that “perhaps fifty small groups … operated south of Forty-second street [and] owed allegiance to the Gophers, Eastmans, Five Pointers, Gas Housers, and Hudson Dusters … Each of these small gangs was supreme in its own territory, which other gangs under the same sovereighty might not invade, but its leader was always responsible to the chieftain of the larger gang, just as a prince is responsible to his king.” Allegedly future Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day, then a teenage radical journalist just moved to New York City, enjoyed carousing with the Dusters in the 1910s.

Despite political pull through Tammany (and heavenly pull through Dorothy) arrests and gang wars dusted the Dusters over the first two decades of the 20th century.

Our man Rickey Harrison, a pipsqueak Irishman with a substandard nickname (“Greenwich Village Terror” … lame), led a gangland raid on a high-stakes poker game at the Knickerbocker Waiters Club on September 7, 1918, and shot dead a Canadian soldier who refused to give up his boodle. Harrison would go to his grave insisting that it was not he who fired the fatal shot, although he was markedly less scrupulous about accounting the undetected and unprosecuted crimes of his career.

As a last indignity, Harrison and another murderer named Chester Cantine — who preceded the gangster to the electric chair — had to brace themselves for eternity within earshot of a raucous Sing Sing vandeville show where prisoners and 800 visitors were “applauding and roaring with laughter in an improvised theatre a few feet away … comic sketches [and] jazz music resounded throughout the prison.” (New York Times, May 14, 1920)

Harrison’s last sentiment — “Let us hope and pray they will never do this thing to another man, innocent or guilty” — still awaits fulfillment a century later.

* The apparent allusion is to the Hall of Fame for Great Americas, a civic pantheon opened in 1900 that is now part of Bronx Community College. This outdoor colonnade, still extant but largely forgotten, imported its busts-of-great-men concept from Bavaria; the Hall’s popularity in its time makes it the ancestor of the innumerable Halls of Fame that have since come to litter the North American civic landscape.

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1929: Luther Baker, moonshine bootlegger

Add comment March 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1929, Washington state hanged bootlegger Luther Baker for murdering Clark County Sheriff Lester Wood during a Prohibition moonshine raid.

The rare Democrat office-holder in heavily Republican Clark County — which faces Portland, Ore., across the Columbia River — Sheriff Wood favored his dry constituents with “a ruthless war on liquor violators.” (Oregonian, May 23, 1927)

On May 22, 1927, Wood and two deputies found and destroyed an illegal 125-gallon still operated by Baker and his brothers “in the roughest and wildest part of Clark County,” Dole Valley — when the Bakers, alert to the lawmen’s presence, ambushed them. Wood was the only fatality of the wilderness shootout. Well, Wood and Luther Baker.

Luther, aged around 59, was arrested for this along with his brother Ellis and Ellis’s 21-year-old son Ted. Young Ted’s life sentence would be overturned on appeal, but Ellis spent 30 years locked up at Walla Walla and for 28 of those years he had to bear the memory of his older brother’s walk to the gallows* — for, according to the Seattle Daily Times same-day report of the morning hanging, Ellis “was awake in his cell” just “a few yards from the gallows” during the execution and seemed “more shaken than the man who climbed the thirteen steps.”**

* And the fact that Ted, despite his exoneration, succumbed to tuberculosis a few months after Luther Baker hanged. I haven’t been able to establish whether the condition related to his stint in prison.

** Luther and Ellis were allowed a half-hour together during Luther’s last night on earth.

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1928: Floyd Hewitt, “Boy Clubber”

Add comment January 6th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1928, seventeen-year-old Floyd Hewitt was executed in Ohio’s electric chair for the horrific murder of a farmer’s wife and five-year-old son.

Floyd grew up in rural area outside Conneaut, Ohio. Although at 6’4″ he had the body of a grown man, he was mentally disabled, callously described by his defense attorneys as “a moron with a ten-year-old’s intellect.” One newspaper portrayed him thus:

He is not considered of normal intellect, his drooping mouth, dull eyes and appearances contributing to the opinion. He was not bright in his classes at school.

On the evening of February 14, 1927, he visited a local farm belonging to the Brown family. He was a frequent visitor there; he loved listening to jazz music on the radio and the Browns were the only family in the area who had a set at home. Celia Brown’s husband, Fred, was away in town and she was home alone with their son Freddie.

This news column and this article describe what happened in detail. Floyd got “stirred up inside” by the music. Feeling “an overpowering love,” he made sexual overtures towards Celia, who slapped him. He hit back, and she grabbed the fireplace poker to defend herself, but he tore it from her hands. In the ensuing fight Floyd hurled Celia down the stairs and struck her repeatedly with the poker until she was dead. Then, afraid the little boy would tell on him, Floyd chased Freddie into the basement and beat him to death with a baseball bat, too.

Then he went back upstairs, washed his hands, walked the short distance home and sat down to read the newspaper.

Fred Brown got home a little after midnight, found his wife’s body on the porch. There was blood everywhere. Fred summoned neighbors and the police. After searching the rest of the house, the neighbors found little Freddie’s body in the basement.

Floyd rapidly came under suspicion; he literally left a trail of footprints right to his front door. The next morning he was arrested, wearing the same bloodstained sweater he’d worn the night before. One of the buttons had been torn off and was left at the crime scene.

Within hours, Hewitt had made a full confession. He even went so far as to take the police on a tour of the Brown house to point out what had occurred and where. The next day, however, he retracted his statements and would maintain his innocence until his death.

The press bluntly christened him “the boy clubber.”

On the first day of his trial, as he was taken into the courtroom, Floyd remarked, “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it?” One reporter described him as “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.”

He was indeed an overgrown boy, only sixteen years old at the time of his crime, but the prosecution demanded the death penalty.

Death penalty expert Victor Streib in this review of Ohio juvenile executions summed matters up thus:

Although indicted for two first degree murders (mother and son), he was tried only for the first degree murder of the five-year-old boy.

During the three week trial, the state relied heavily upon Hewitt’s signed confession while the defense stressed Hewitt’s mental disabilities. On April 26, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy.

Hewitt appealed, and his execution was postponed for a time, but the appeals process wore down in less than a year and the board of clemency refused to recommend a commutation to the governor …

Hewitt’s chronological age at execution was seventeen, but his mental age remained forever fixed at ten.

Floyd Hewitt might have been the youngest person ever executed by the state of Ohio, and he was the first from Ashtabula County. A “bedraggled figure … with his long black hair hanging low over his face,” and clutching a photo of his family, he died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary Annex at 7:43 p.m.

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1924: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment December 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dec. 13, 1924:

Shreveport, La., Dec. 12 — Alfred Sharpe, about 25 years old, a negro, was hanged here today at 12:16 p.m. for the murder of Tom Askew, a white man, veteran of the World war and manager of a plantation near Keithville, which occurred last September 9.

Sharpe, in a statement just before going to the gallows blamed liquor for his trouble. He admitted since his captured two days after the killing that he was guilty.

The negro, who was unable to read or write, and did noot know his exact age, said as he mounted the scaffld: “I know I violated the law and that the law must be fulfilled.”

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 11, 1924:

COUMBUS, O., Dec. 11. — Alexander Kuszik, 20, of Akron, must die in the electric chair at the state penitentiary shortly after 1 a.m. tomorrow for the murder of his thirteen-year-old cousin, Elizabeth Nagy, who spurned his proffered love.

Gov. A.V. Donahey late today denied a last minute appeal by Kuszi’s counsel that the death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. This plea, supplemented by the testimony of three alienists [psychologists — ed.] to the effect that Kuszik was not mentally responsible for his acts at the time of the crime’s commission, failed to convince the governor, however, that he should exercise his powers to extend clemency

Even Kuszik’s counsel, C.G. Roetzel, former prosecutor of Summit county, admitted the crime for which Kuszik was convicted was one of the most brutal on record, and made no claim the prisoner was insane. Roetzel based his plea for clemency on the theory, supported by alienists, that Kuszik was mentally irresponsible although he did know the difference between right and wrong.

Theory of Alienists.

The alienists advancing this theory were Dr. J.C. Hassall, superintendent of Fair aks sanitorium, Cuyahoga Falls; Dr. Arthur G. Hyde, superintendent of the Massillon State hospital, and Dr. D.H. Morgan of Akron.

Drs. Hassall and Hyde had made their observations of Kuszik within twenty-four hours after the crime had been committed. Dr. Morgan made his observations about a month later.

These specialists made their examinations at the request of Prosecutor Arthur W. Doyle, but their testimny was not used at the time of the trial, Dr. Doyle explained, because he reached his own conclusion that Kuszik was responsible for his acts.

Countering the views of this group of alienists was the testimony of three others who, after making an examination of Kuszik at the governor’s request, reported that the youth not only was not insane but that he was mentally responsible.

Mentality Subnormal.

These alienists were Dr. Charles F. Clark, superintendent of the Lima State hospital; Dr. H.H. Pritchard, superintendent of the Columbus State hospital, and Dr. Guy Williams, superintendent of the Cleveland State hospital. They all said Kuszik had no mental disorders. All the alienists had agreed that Kuszik’s mentality was sub-normal — that it represented the mentality of a child of about 11.

Prosecutor Doyle told the governor that, in his opinion, so long as the state recognizes capital punishment Kuszik’s case was one in which it should be used.

Kuszik exhibited no concern when told his appeal had been denied and that he was to die.

In complete control of his faculties, he walked even jauntily to the death cell to spend his few remaining hours.

“The youth has shown more spirit today than at any time since confined,” Warden P.E. Thomas said.

Two consecutive stories from the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Dec. 13, 1924:

WALLA WALLA, Wash., Dec. 12. — Thomas Walton, convicted of the murder of S.P. Burt, a fellow convict, in the state penitentiary here October 7, 1923, was hanged at the penitentiary this morning. The trap was sprung at 5:06 A.M. and the prison physicians pronounced him dead 10 minutes later.

Walking to his death with the same fearlessness that he has displayed since the beginning of his prison career, Walton refused to make any final statement and even declined to talk with Rev. A.R. Liverett, prison chaplain, or Father Buckley, Catholic priest, in his cell prior to the execution.

His body will be sent to relatives in Montague, Cal.

Although Walton paid the penalty for killing Burt, he has of official record killed two other men. The first was in 1915 in California, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin prison. The other was that of George McDonald, cellmate of Burt, whom he stabbed following his attack on Burt.

Walton and Burt were life termers in San Quentin and made their escape together in a prison automobile in January, 1923.

FOLSOM, Cal., Dec. 12 — Robert Matthews, negro, convicted of the murder of Coleman Stone, a grocer near Los Angeles, was hanged at the state prison here this morning. [Joe] Sinuel will be hanged next Friday.

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1922: Ali Kemal

1 comment November 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Anglophile Turkish politician Ali Kemal (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was lynched by a nationalist mob at Izmit during the Turkish War of Independence.

Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.

Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetret anticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.

Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)

It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.

He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:

Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.

He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”

Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.

Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.

After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.

The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.

* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.

Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.

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1929: Habibullah Kalakani, Tajik bandit-king

Add comment November 1st, 2016 Headsman

Warlord Habibullah Kalakani, deposed after ten months styling himself King of Afghanistan, was publicly shot on this date in 1929.

An ethnic Tajik whose surname alludes to his native village north of Kabul, Kalakani served in the army of Emir Amanullah Khan.*

This Khan aspired to far-reaching reforms that would modernize his marchlands kingdom and not for the last time an Afghan ruler found this programme stoked a furious resistance among tribal grandees. Kalakani, though derisively nicknamed Bacha Seqao (son of a water-carrier) was just such a grandee, having pivoted profitably from regular military orders to highway robbery.

When Khan’s forces had vacated Kabul to manage a Pashtun rebellion in the south — only the latest of numerous tribal risings that plagued the Khan years — Kalakani in late 1928 sprang a surprise Tajik rebellion from the north and marched on the unprotected capital.

Amanullah evacuated Kabul with a quickness, personally behind the wheel as he blazed his Rolls Royce ahead of Kalakani’s cavalry all the way to India and eventual exile in Europe.


Kalakani

But the “bandit king” soon found his own government strained by the same tensions that had elevated him. Pashtun rebels who used to chafe under a western-oriented king now chafed under a Tajik one — in fact, the only Tajik to rule Afghanistan in its modern history — and their fresh rebellion soon toppled Kalakani in his own turn. He was shot with his brother and their aides, contentedly telling his firing squad, “I have nothing to ask God, he has given me everything I desired. God has made me King.”

Kalakani is still the third-last king of Afghanistan and is still bitterly — violently — controversial on his native soil, where whether you reckon him a hero or a thug depends upon your kinship. Just weeks ago as we write this, a reburial of Kalakani’s remains in Afghanistan provoked bloody ethnic melees on the streets.

* Although there is no specific connection here to Habibullah Kalakani, an execution blog would be remiss not to include a reference to this sadly undateable National Geographic photo tracing to Khan’s reign of one of those real-life dangling man-cages so beloved of the sword-and-sandals fantasy genre. Per NatGeo’s caption, an actual thief was “put in this iron cage, raised to the top of the pole, so that his friends could not pass food or poison to him, and here he was left to die.”

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1926: The Lowman lynchings

2 comments October 8th, 2016 Headsman

Aiken, South Carolina disgraced October 8, 1926 with the lynching of three members of the Lowman family.

American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.

One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.

Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.

This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.

Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.

And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.

Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.

Judge Lynch was wide awake now.

That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”

At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.

“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.

He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.

Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.

A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.

“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”

* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.

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1929: Paul Rowland, cut short

Add comment September 27th, 2016 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

I have something of interest to tell —

-Paul Rowland, convicted of murder, California. Executed September 27, 1929

Serving time for a robbery, Rowland approached Alger Morrison, a man whom he claimed as a good friend, and stabbed him with a five-inch homemade knife. Rumors circulated among the inmates that Rowland and Morrison had had a “degenerate” sexual relationship, rumors that Rowland found unendurable. His last words were cut short as the trap sprang from beneath his feet.

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1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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