And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.
So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.
Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”
If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.
Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:
O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.
Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.
O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.
We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.
Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.
O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.
The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by severalothers.)
The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.
Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*
In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.
Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.
Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.
Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.
Nor was this the end of the meddling.
In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.
For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”
“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”
In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.
“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”
A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world
* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.
** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.
He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.
† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.
(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’m sorry to have caused all this trouble. You seem to be taking harder than I do.
— John Fleming, convicted of murder, hanging, California
Executed November 17, 1933
Prior resident of Folsom and San Quentin prisons for robbery and assault charges, John Fleming murdered Amos Leece at a gas-station and road house when a prostitute named Peggy O’Day (aka Leonora Smith) made derogatory remarks to Leece after he refused to buy her a drink. Leece left the station to crank his car but not before he called O’Day “a cheap, chippy whore.” Fleming then confronted Leece, demanding that he apologize and then shot him three times when he refused.
On this date in 1933, Dallas Egan hanged at California’s San Quentin Prison — and pretty much nobody was happier about it than Dallas Egan.
A cynic might attribute the puckish jig he reputedly danced en route to the gallows to the liberal allotment of whiskey, straight he had swallowed at the sufferance of Gov. “Sunny Jim” Rolph* — “all the whiskey he can safely stand up under.” It was just the governor’s way of saying thanks to the murderer for going so easy on the justice system.
Barely a year before, Egan and three accomplices robbed a Los Angeles jewelry store when, mid-robbery, an old fella with a hearing deficiency paused at the store window to check his pocketwatch against the wares n display — one of those little accidental moments that make up a life, or in this case, a death. Two deaths, actually. Egan shot the misfortunate William Kirkpatrick dead when the man didn’t respond to an order the robber shouted. “I gave the man full warning,” Egan explained.
But Egan didn’t mean to minimize his guilt; he was fully committed from the time of his capture to get himself the noose.
“I don’t know whether or not I’m insane,” he mused to the court when an attorney tried to secure a sanity hearing for him (per thisLos Angeles Times profile). “We’re all a little crazy; even you, Judge. But I don’t want nine years’ punishment, or 20 years. I want to pay in full!” In later months he would write the governor and the Supreme Court insisting on his just deserts and washing his hands of any appeal or clemency effort on his behalf.
Egan’s last morning, Oct. 20, 1933, began with a good breakfast, some final sips of whiskey and a cigar “tilted at a ridiculous angle,” according to one witness. The previous night he’d played a record of “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider” over and over in his cell, telling guards: “I’ll dance out to that tune.” (Some newspapers misquoted this statement with the more formal “I want to dance out to the gallows.”)
When the hour came, he really did dance an Irish jig as he entered the death chamber handcuffed between guards. He then walked up the 13 steps, energetically and alone. Offering no final words, he plunged through the trapdoor.
Rolph’s generosity toward Egan resulted in a two-day controversy. Some Bay Area preachers chided him for it, but Rolph had the last word: “We would be pretty small when we sent a man into eternity if we could not grant his last request.”
She became an accomplished stage and screen actress, starring in 1930s silents Ismet and Almaz.
Come the Stalin years when any pretext was enough to destroy a body, the pretext against Tanailidi was apparently her affiliations with an Iran then taking a concerted anti-Soviet line: the actress had toured Iran in 1917 and had friends like Govhar Aliyeva who had fled the Soviet Union for Iran. This was more than enough to cast the pall of espionage about her.
Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.
He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.
Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerinaaround 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.
Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.
* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.
On this date in 1935, one of the all-time great names in American gallows history hanged at California’s Folsom Prison for one of the all-time crimes of ingratitude.
Tully McQuate (or Tulley, or Tullie; the name means “peaceful”) entered the annals of criminology via a sack of dismembered human remains discovered in San Diego’s harbor in 1934.
These gory parts turned out upon examination to have formerly constituted a well-to-do 74-year-old widow named Ellen Straw. Mrs. Straw, it transpired, had taken a shine to an Ohio-born drifter thirty years her junior after hiring him to do her yard work, and finally invited said McQuate to live with her.
Period reportage describes her as his “benefactress” but it appears the favors were reciprocal.
“She took a liking to me and I took a liking to her,” he explained in a matter-of-fact confession. (Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1934)
She took me into her home and we got along pretty well for about a year. Then she began to get jealous of me and we began to quarrel.
One night we went down to a mission — neither of us was very religious, but we used to get a kick out of it. We quarreled on the way home. She went to her room and I went to mine. She kept on quarreling with me — I could hear her through the wall.
Finally I got up to get a drink of water. I found a clawhammer that I had been using around the house. I took it and went in and hit her over the head with it. I guess I hit her twice. [The court would find that he hit her six or seven times. -ed.]
I never had any intention of killing her, but when I saw she was dead, I just covered her up and went back to bed.
“Well, if it’s done, it’s done,” I said to myself. I knew it was all up with me then. I knew they would find me some time. But I didn’t care. When I lost my family I had nothing left to care about. [McQuate’s wife had divorced him years before. -ed.]
I left the body there for six days. I never did see her face again. Then I decided I’d better get rid of it, so I took the knife and a saw — I couldn’t get the body into the sack.
McQuate projects a pragmatic matter-of-factness about the situation that’s equal parts disarming and blood-chilling. One can at least say for him that he faced the consequence with the same equanimity.
Well, I guess my time has come. I’ve confessed — told the whole truth — and I’ll plead guilty. There’s no use putting the State to the expense of a trial. I’ve paid taxes myself.
McQuate was as good as his word. Indeed, when the legal proceedings required two days — perhaps anticipating appeal avenues, the District Attorney successfully insisted that McQuate, who had intended to represent himself, must have an attorney in a death penalty case — the murderer griped on the second day, “It’s so foolish. I did it; let ‘em sentence me and get it over with. If I hang, I hang.” (Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1934)
On this date in North Carolina, a middle-aged man named Asbury Respus was executed for the murder of nine-year-old Vera DeWitt Leonard.
And that wasn’t all: though virtually forgotten today, Respus was a serial killer with eight confessed murders to his name.
He claimed that he fell from a barn rafter as a youth and was never quite the same after that, being prone to “spells” of homicidal rage. This story may well have been true; he had a noticeable indentation in his skull.
According to Respus’s confession, he killed his first and second victims in Northampton County in the early 1900s. Their names were Lizzie Banks, whom he shot, and Zenie Britt, whom he beat to death with a stick. The third victim was Becky Storr, killed in Boydton, Virginia around 1910; she too had been bludgeoned with a stick.
These early murders are attested only by Respus’s own confession; the first verifiable homicide by his hand took place in 1912. Sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Northampton County man named Ed D. Wynne, Respus escaped from a road gang in 1916 and began life as a drifter.
They can’t have hunted this fugitive very hard. He never went far, always staying in the vicinity of Greensboro, North Carolina.
All four victims prior to his incarceration had been African Americans, as was Respus himself. On January 14, 1918, Respus crossed the color line to axe to death a 56-year-old white woman named Jennie Brown in her home, which he then burned to the ground. So thoroughly did his arson consume the premises that no evidence of a crime remained … leaving Respus free to continue his murder spree. From here on out, by whatever happenstance, all victims were white.
On July 22, 1920, he came across a little boy named Robert Neal Osborne and drowned him in a stream, just for kicks. Again he got lucky: little Robert’s death was recorded as accidental. On July 17, 1925, he murdered 80-year-old widow Eunice Stephenson by striking her on the head and hanging her body from a ceiling beam. This homicide was recognized as such but went unsolved for years.
Vera Leonard was Respus’s youngest female victim and his undoing. Respus may have killed her with rape on his mind. As it was, he went with his old standby, a blunt instrument to the head; afterwards, he burned her body “to a char.” He did not blame his “homicidal spells” for Vera’s murder but instead said he’d been out of his mind on drugs.
Respus expressed gratitude that he was going to his death. “I’d rather he dead and in heaven,” he said, “than here on earth being tormented to death.”
It was a busy day for U.S. executioners. Headlines from the Jan. 8, 1932 edition of the New York Sun.
On this date in 1938, serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn was electrocuted in Ohio.
The Bavarian-born immigrant had arrived to Cincinnati espoused to a young telegraph operator. Hahn herself tried her hand at a bakery but soon tired of the tedium of honest work and set herself up better in the lucrative business of elder abuse.
Using an ancient ploy still effective to this day, the “plump and pretty” young woman flitted about the German emigre circles of Cincinnati advertising herself as a live-in caretaker for senior citizens. Once retained, she was in a position to price-gouge for her “services”, pilfer from the estate, and even to so insiniuate herself into her clients’ good graces as to enter their wills. Her first victim, Ernest Kohler, actually left her a boarding house: pretty good work compared to rolling out dough before the sun came up.
Using a variety of poisons,** Hahn killed off five known victims during the Great Depression, making off with tens of thousands of dollars in the process that she largely squandered on gambling.*
The first woman to die in Ohio’s electric chair, Hahn was reportedly stoic until her last hours. Then, overcome by desperation, she slid into a state of collapse and even at the last moments of life bawled “incoherent” pleas to a warden who of course had no authority to help her. Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed (both blog and book) — quotes her frightful last words thus:
Good-bye all of you and God bless you … Mr. Woodard [the warden], don’t do this to me. Think of my boy. Can’t you think of my baby? Isn’t there anybody who will help me? Is nobody going to help me?
* One clever fellow, George Heiss, escaped her clutches when he grew suspicious of a mug of beer she presented him; when Hahn refused to sample it herself, he sacked her — but he did not report her.
Falangist politician Ramiro Ledesma Ramos was executed on this date in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.
Ledesma (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) launched the first fascist publication in Spain as a perspicacious 25-year-old admirer of Mussolini and Hitler.*
La Conquista del Estado — the expressive title was cloned from Curzio Malaparte‘s Italian fascist magazine — positioned Ramos as one of the leading apostles of the right in early 1930s Spain. Despite his youth, he’s been credited by later observers as one of the clearest, earliest intellectual exponents of fascism in Spain. Ledesma affiliated from the start with the Falangist movement Jose Primo de Rivera, and personally signed off on the party’s yoke-and-arrows logo and its motto “¡Arriba España!”
Spain’s Republican government had him detained in Madrid with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. With the fascist armies closing in on Madrid in late October, Ledesma was among dozens of political prisoners taken out and shot without trial at the cemetery of Aravaca.
* His philo-Hitlerism allegedly led Ledesma to imitate the Fuhrer’s flopover coiffure.