1938: Vladimir Varankin, Esperantist

Add comment October 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Russian writer Vladimir Varankin was executed on this date in 1938, during Stalin’s purges.

Varankin got interested in the international Esperanto language movement as a secondary school student in Nizhny Novgorod during the ecstatic months following the Bolshevik Revolution, and he founded an Esperantist club there that soon reached throughout the province.* This was the high-water moment for the Esperanto movement, now 30 years mature since its founding: World War I had shattered the international system and spawned small states and revolutionary governments shaping a new world on the fly. Esperanto would have been adopted by the League of Nations for official use but for the furious resistance of jealous France.

For the same reason that it interested visionaries and radicals, the language attracted the suspicion of authoritarians; in Mein Kampf Hitler denounced Esperanto as an insidious Semitic project.

the language spoken at the time by the Jew … is never a means of expressing his thoughts, but for hiding them. When he speaks French, he thinks Jewish, and when he turns out German poetry, he only gives an outlet to the nature of his people.

As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must, whether he likes it or not, speak their languages, and only if they would be his slaves then they might all speak a universal language so that their domination will be made easier (Esperanto!).

Esperantists became targets for political persecution in the Third Reich as a result.

In Soviet Russia, the utopian 1920s offered a far more congenial scene. These were the years Varankin came into himself and as he advanced in life, so did his enthusiasm for the artificial tongue. The late 1920s find him living in Moscow, teaching at the pedagogical institute and churning out a corpus of Esperanto books (Theory of Esperanto, the ideologically calibrated Esperanto for Workers) as well as study curricula. His magnum opus, the 1933 novel Metropoliteno, was also composed in Esperanto.

But Stalin’s purge years soon cast a pall over Esperanto and much else besides — even though Stalin actually studied a little Esperanto himself in his youth, according to Trotsky. (Pray, good reader, for Koba’s Esperanto instructors.) In about 1937 he abruptly reversed the Soviet Union’s formerly benign view of Esperanto; now, the movement’s internationalism would be held to affiliate it with the purported foreign cabals whose subversions furnished the pretext for demolishing so many lives. In Varankin’s case, and facilitated by an unauthorized visit he had made to an Esperanto conference in Germany many years before, the charge — unanswerable in those terrible days — was that his Esperantist circles comprised a network of fascist spies and saboteurs overseen by enemies abroad.

The verdict against him was posthumously reversed in 1957.

* The regional environs of present-day Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, of which the city Nizhny Novgorod is the capital; in Varankin’s youth, this was a gubernia, a regional unit held over from the deposed imperial administration. Russia’s “states” were greatly redrawn and redefined during the first decade of the Soviet experiment, and gubernias were abolished in 1929.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1937: The Parsley Massacre begins

Add comment October 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Dominican Republic soldiers commenced the dayslong “Parsley Massacre” of Haitians.

Cooperstown-worthy evil dictator Rafael Trujillo hailed on his mother’s side from Haiti’s privileged French caste and espoused a virulent form of DR’s rife anti-Haitian racism. “As if personifying the antiblack myth of Dominicans,” Robert Lawless noted, “‘Trujillo used cosmetics to disguise the phenotypical features that he inherited from his [black] Haitian grandmother.'” (Source)

Taking power in a military coup in 1930, Trujillo had spent those early years building up a cult of personality, as was the style at the time — and he put it to use conjuring a bloodbath that some shamefaced soldiers confessed they could only conduct with the numbing aid of alcohol. The hypothesized underlying reasons range from El Jefe‘s particular virulent bigotry to prerogatives of statecraft for a zone that had tended towards sympathy for Trujillo’s opponents.

The massacre followed an extensive tour of the frontier region by Trujillo that commenced in August 1937. Trujillo traveled by horse and mule through the entire northern half of the country, both the rich central Cibao region and the northern frontier areas. Touring these provinces, traditionally the most resistant to political centralization, reflected Trujillo’s concerns with shoring up control in the region at the time. The Cibao was the locus of elite rivalry with Trujillo in those years. And because the northern frontier had been a traditional area of autonomy and refuge for local caudillos, the U.S. legation in Santo Domingo assumed that the August 1937 tour was intended to “cowe [sic] opposition.” Much like earlier frontier tours and his travels in other rural areas, Trujillo shook hands and distributed food and money; attended dances and parties in his honor; and made concerted efforts to secure political loyalty in many heretofore intractable lands. Yet the conclusion of this tour was entirely unexpected. During a dance in Trujillo’s honor on Saturday, October 2, 1937, in Dajabon, Trujillo proclaimed:

For some months, I have traveled and traversed the frontier in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, “I will fix this.” And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Banica. This remedy will continue.

Drawing on the regime’s prevailing antivagrancy discourse and support for peasant production, Trujillo explained his ordering of the massacre as a response to alleged cattle rustling and crop raiding by Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. This was the first of a series of shifting rationalizations that misrepresented the massacre as stemming from local conflicts between Dominicans and Haitians in the frontier.

Some Haitians heard Trujillo’s words and decided to flee. Others had already left following news of the first killings, which occurred at the end of September. A few recalled clues that something ominous was brewing. Most were incredulous, however, and had too much at stake to abandon their homes, communities, and crops — established over decades or even generations — for what sounded, however horrible, like preposterous rumors …

A few Dominicans from the northern frontier recalled that at first Haitians were given twenty-four hours to leave, and that in some cases Haitian corpses were hung in prominent locations, such as at the entrance of towns, as a warning to others. And during the first days of the massacre, Haitians who reached the border were permitted to cross to Haiti over the bridge at the official checkpoint [at the border city of Dajabon]. But the border was closed on October 5. After that, those fleeing had to wade across the Massacre [River]* while trying to avoid areas where the military was systematically slaughtering Haitians on the river’s eastern bank.

In the towns, victims were generally led away before being assassinated. In the countryside, they were killed in plain view. Few Haitians were shot, except some of those killed while trying to escape. Instead, machetes, bayonets, and clubs were used. This suggests again that Trujillo sought to simulate a popular conflict, or at least to maintain some measure of plausible deniability of the state’s perpetration of this genocide. (From Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History)

“Haitian” in this context meant a question of ethnicity rather than simply one of citizenship, for like many border regions the world over that of the Massacre River was (and is) locally permeable. Some Haitians lived in Haiti but crossed into the Dominican Republic routinely for school, work, life; others had border-straddling families and DR birth certificates and citizenship. But even the firmest of bureaucratic documentation meant nothing to the death squads, who bequeathed the distinctive sobriquet “Parsley Massacre” by demanding potential victims buy their lives by pronouncing the word for that garnish, perejil … as an infelicity with the trilled Spanish “r” denoted a Francophone.** (It’s also sometimes known simply as the Haitian Massacre.)

The slaughter raged on until about October 8, give or take; estimates of the number of victims run from 12,000 to north of 30,000. The affair remains a source of tension to this day.

The massacre has literary treatment in the 1998 Edwidge Danticat historical novel The Farming of Bones.

* The river’s shocking name was not obtained from this slaughter, but from a Spanish-on-French bloodbath in colonial times.

** The term “shibboleth”, originally a Hebrew word for grain, was borrowed to English thanks to a similar test imposed in the Book of Judges (12:5-6):

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Dominican Republic,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions

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1939: Javier Bueno, Asturian socialist newsman

Add comment September 26th, 2019 Headsman

Socialist journalist Javier Bueno was garotted by the fascists on this date in 1939.

Bueno (Spanish Wikipedia entry | Asturian), “instigator of the revolution,” was a newsman who became the editor of the newspaper Avance in the Asturian city of Gijon.

Through “the professional zeal and personal militancy of its director” (quoth historian David Ruiz) this paper emerged as an essential organ of the rising Asturian working class in the fraught years running up to the Spanish Civil War. Repeated bannings (of the newspaper) and imprisonments (of Bueno) only enhanced his stature; “you attract the pyrotechnic rays of our enemies,” Indalecio Prieto wrote him admiringly.

The revolutionaries freed him in 1936, two years deep in a life sentence, and Bueno went back to agitation in the pages of Avance before taking to the front lines himself. Franco’s victory in 1939 found him in Madrid, working at another radical paper, Claridad. Bueno faced a snap military tribunal with no more than a pro forma pretense of defense.

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1937: Leslie George Stone, hanged by a fiber

Add comment August 13th, 2019 Headsman

Leslie George Stone hanged at Pentonville Prison on this date in 1937 for a murder that was revealed by the fabric of his trousers.

The naked body of Stone’s ex-flame Ruby Keen had turned up in the Bedfordshire town of Leighton Buzzard — strangled with a scarf after what looked a desperate struggle.

Now, Stone would already be a suspect here because of his relationship, and the fact that they’d been seen drinking together in public the preceding night. But what cinched the noose was Scotland Yard taking a variety of cast impressions of the apparent marks left in the earth by the killer.


Casts of the killer’s footprints taken by Scotland Yard from the murder scene of Ruby Keen. From the collection of Scotland Yard’s “Black Museum”.

Sample pairs of trousers were taken from all the possible suspects in the case. When Spilsbury examined Stone’s brand-new suit trousers he found that the knees had been brushed so hard that the nap had been worn away. Microscopic examination of the trousers showed up particles of sandy soil that matched that from the scene of the crime. There was also found, in the lining of Stone’s jacket, a silk fibre that matched with those taken from the dead girl’s underskirt. (Source)

If we’re being honest, “matches” of fiber even now are basically junk forensics that continue to go routinely, maddeningly overclaimed in courtrooms. But the same quality of incriminatory flimflam that enrolls fiber matches in so many wrongful conviction cases seems here to have been spotlighted the right guy. By the time of his trial Stone had to come off his demonstrable falsehoods about his and Keen’s movements on the night of her death, and submitted unpersuasive testimony that he’d strangled her as an accidental exuberance in a fight, and left her still alive.

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1931: Charles Simpson, “make it snappy”

Add comment July 17th, 2019 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.)

Make it snappy.

— Charles H. Simpson, convicted of murder, hanging, California. Executed July 17, 1931

Known as “the Torch Slayer,” Simpson was already a convicted car thief and burglar when he entered Albina Voorhies’s grocery store. Simpson had known Voorhies because she rented the building from his father. Recognizing him, Voorhies turned her back to get him some cookies. That’s when Simpson struck her in the back of the head with a police club. Simpson eventually tied her to a chair, hit her again, and poured coal oil on her clothes, which he then set on fire. Simpson’s nerve faltered — he tried to take Voorhies to the bathroom to put the fire out — but by then the fire had spread. Panicking, Simpson left her in the store to bury the club and burn the clothes he wore.

Simpson could give no reason for his actions other than robbery. He had taken three dollars from the cash register.

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1936: Adolf Seefeldt, Uncle Tick-Tock

1 comment May 23rd, 2019 Headsman

German serial killer Adolf Seefeldt was beheaded on this date in 1936 by the Third Reich.

The tramp timepiece-fixer with twenty-plus years of child molestation prison time in his 66 years of life, “Uncle Tick Tock” killed at least a dozen boys in the early 1930s whose creepy uniting feature was sailor suit garb. Their bodies — peacefully posed and innocent of any visible sign of violence — would be discovered in protected forest preserves; the nature of the killings makes it possible that he had other prey who have never been recognized as murder victims, but simply taken for natural deaths. Given that he’d dodged a previous murder charge as far back as 1908 one can’t help but wonder.

It’s been debated whether Seefeldt (English Wikipedia entry | German) poisoned his victims, as he confessed, or suffocated them, or even — fanciful hypothesis — dropped them into a hypnotic sleep only to abandon them outdoors to death by exposure.

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1939: Jose Aranguren, Civil Guard general

Add comment April 22nd, 2019 Headsman

Spanish general Jose Aranguren was shot on this date in 1939 by Franco’s Spain.

A brigadier general of the Civil Guard — an internal-to-Spain paramilitary/law enforcement force that remained predominantly loyal to the Republic during the Spanish Civil War — Aranguren (the very cursory English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Spanish) at the outset of hostilities efficaciously suppressed the Nationalist rebels in Barcelona and even gave evidence that contributed to the execution of his mutinous opposite numbers.

From 1937, he served as the Republican military governor of Valencia.

He eschewed the opportunity to flee Spain at the end of the war, counting on his faithful adherence to his plain duty to vindicate himself against the fascists.

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1939: Aleksei Gastev, Soviet scientific manager

Add comment April 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Old Bolshevik Aleksei Gastev, a theorist of scientific management for the Soviet state, was shot in Stalin’s purges.

Expelled in his youth from tsarist teaching ranks due to his radicalism, Gastev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) traced his revolutionary bona fides back to the 1905 Revolution (he fought in it) and even before (as an ally and correspondent of Lenin).

With the advent of the latter’s revolution, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor (CIT), and CIT’s training firm Ustanovka (“setup” or “installation”) — organs dedicated, respectively, to the study of work, and to the promulgation of the new science of the workplace throughout the Soviet economy.

It was a socialist perspective on Taylorism, that practice of scientific management that was also transforming capitalist production; like Taylor, Gastev aimed to systematize the routine operations on the factory floor, to learn the most efficient way to wield a hammer or a shovel and expel from the labor force the indulgence of artisanal idiosyncracy and rule-of-thumb work; more broadly, Gastev aimed to revolutionize the way work was conceptualized by Soviet people, bending the mental and behavioral orientation of workers to optimize them for the demands of industrial production.

“Even when we exit the gates of the factory, still we carry the factory,” he wrote, positing a question that demanded “a cultural ustanovka.”

Fear of this very thing haunted Europe in this moment and has never left her nightmares in the century since. The CIT juxtaposed curiously with the almost simultaneous publication of some of the seminal dystopian mechanization literature — like Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), in which the rational ordering of society annihilates freedom, and Karel Capek‘s R.U.R. (1920), the play that borrowed a Czech term for unfree work to give the world’s lexicon that wonderful word “robot”. Unsettling to many, this twining of man and machine was understood by Gastev as an emancipatory vista.

Gastev’s ideal worker is neither the oxen brute of Taylor’s dreams, nor the lifeless robot of Capek’s nightmare. He is rather an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process who behaves like a seasoned, conscious, and well-trained warrior. Armed with sharpness of vision, acute hearing, attentiveness to environment and detail, precision and even grace of movement, and “scoutlike” inquisitiveness about the relationship and locations of things and peoples, he enters the factory as though it were a battle-field with commander-like briskness, regimental routine, and a martial strut. For him, no romance, no heroic individual deeds — only a relentless battle waged scientifically for production.

But the robot is present in Gastev’s vision nonetheless: it is the machine itself, not the man. For Gastev, the machine also takes on a life that gives it not only the power to produce and enrich, but also to train, to inspire, to organize. His wildest visions of 1918-19 are previsions of Capek and Zamyatin and celebrations of a coming event often warned about in science fiction: the takeover by machines. Gastev could never quite decide whether the machine was to be the master or the servant of man. Since he continued to use the machine metaphor, he eventually opened himself to attack by those who opposed his policies on other grounds. But Gastevism differed from administrative utopia — the heavy-handed martialing and mobilization of raw labor in a palpably unequal hierarchy. Gastev’s man-machine meant a symbiosis of the two, interacting in a way never wholly understood even by himself. It clearly contained fearful elements. But Gastev himself, by all accounts, was not a cold-hearted machine-like fanatic but a warm and engaging person. He did not fear the power of the machine. He feared backwardness, passivity, and sloth. (Source)


Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera captures the excitement of industrialization and industrial workers.

On the side — to stave off the sloth — Gastev kept up an artistic output of his own as a poet of the Proletarian Culture movement; this exemplar (Order No. 2 from a work called “Ten Orders”) comes to us via Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s, which notes that “what is produced is never specified; the emphasis rather is on the establishment of a certain pace of work, as if machines manufacture a new time — the rhythm of the new life.”

Chronometer, report to duty.
To the machines.
Rise.
Pause.
A charge of attention.
Supply.
Switch on.
Self-propulsion.
Stop.

The chronometer stopped for Gastev with his fall in late 1938, and he proceeded thence to the familiar fate of Stalin’s prey amongst the intelligentsia. As he associates with the positive, modernizing, and utopian strain of the Soviet experiment but not its failures or horrors his name is not blackened to posterity and the present-day Russian Federation’s Ministry of Economic Development sponsors an “A.K. Gastev Cup” award to honor advances in production.

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1934: Surya Sen

Add comment January 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1934 the great Bengal revolutionary Surya Sen was hanged by the British.

A schoolteacher affectionately known as “Master Da”, Sen put his name in the annals by leading the April 18, 1930 raid on the Chittagong police armory,* which yielded benefits more symbolic than practical: it was hoped that the raid would also surprise and massacre the local British officer corps and trigger a whole rising, but the prospective targets were absent, and then became forewarned, on account of the raid taking place on Good Friday.

Afterwards, the rebels melted away and the wanted Sen stayed underground for years. It’s no wonder he was hard to catch: the guy who finally betrayed him was beheaded in revenge. “Death is knocking at my door,” ran the man’s letter before he went to the Chittagong Central Jail along with another revolutionary named Tarakeswar Dastidar.

My mind is flying away towards eternity … At such a pleasant, at such a grave, at such a solemn moment, what shall I leave behind you? Only one thing, that is my dream, a golden dream-the dream of Free India … Never forget the 18th of April,1930, the day of the eastern Rebellion in Chittagong … Write in red letters in the core of your hearts the names of the patriots who have sacrificed their lives at the altar of India’s freedom.

* Armories, actually: two separate facilities, one for the police and one for the auxliaries, plus the European Club where they intended to seize hostages.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bangladesh,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Terrorists

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1931: Fatma Demir, the first woman hanged in Turkey

Add comment December 14th, 2018 Headsman

The modern republic of Turkey executed a woman for the first time in 1931.

Fatma Demir (German Wikipedia page: there’s none on Turkish Wikipedia) broke the Ramadan fast with a friend whom she bludgeoned with an ax handle during a prayer. It seems that it was at the instigation of others, like the victim’s husband and that husband’s mistress, both of whom helped Demir sink the body in a river.

Her hanging took place in public.

There’s a 2013 Turkish-language documentary about her case, titled Dar Agacina Takilan Düsler (Dreams Hanged from the Gallows).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Turkey,Women

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