1938: Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Winter Palace stormer

1 comment February 10th, 2018 Headsman

Communist revolutionary and Soviet military leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (or -Ovseenko) was purged on this date in 1938.

Portrait of Antonov-Ovseyenko by Yuri Annenkov.

The Ukrainian was a radical agitator from youth; he was expelled from military college in 1901 at age 17 for refusing to swear loyalty to Nicholas II and proceeded thereafter upon a cursus honorum of revolutionary tribulations — albeit, until World War I, as a Menshevik.

He stood in some danger of achieving these pages by the hand of the tsarist government rather than the Soviet one, on account of helping orchestrate the Sebastopol mutiny during the 1905 revolution, but his death sentence was commuted to hard labor.

Nothing chastised, Antonov-Ovseyenko escaped and returned to that life of militancy suitable to his badass underground nickname “Bayonet”, organizing workers and publishing illegal newspapers while dodging Stolypin‘s police. After several arrests, he finally fled for exile abroad.

According to Harold Walter Nelson’s Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917, it was in Paris writing for the red paper Nashe Slove (aka Golos) that the former cadet drew close to Trotsky, finding a common “conviction that the relationship between military events and the development of the revolution was critical,” and thereafter “Antonov-Ovseenko’s enthusiasm for columns on military topics opened the pages of Nashe Slovo to Trotsky’s articles” ultimately amounting to “several hundred pages of commentary on the war [World War I].” Ere long both figures would have opportunity to implement their doctrines on the battlefield.

Nashe Slovo was suppressed in 1916 after mutinying Russian soldiers were found to have read it, an event that also led to Trotsky’s being expelled from France to New York City.*

But the time for revolutionists’ exile was drawing to a close. Barely a year after the indignity of having his subversive exile ‘zine shuttered by the Third Republic, Antonov-Ovseenko — as secretary of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee — led a posse of soldiers and sailors into the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government, consummating the October Revolution.


Despite Sergei Eisenstein‘s epic re-creation in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and the 1920 live re-enactment staged by Nikolai Evreinov, the Winter Palace was barely defended and Antonov-Ovseenko entered and found the Provisional Government without meeting resistance. He offered amnesty for the surrender of the remaining Winter Palace holdouts, and the offer was accepted.

Now a key military figure in the infant Communist state, Antonov-Ovseyenko helped clinch Soviet victory in the ensuing civil war, routing White armies in the Ukraine in 1918-1919 and putting down the Tambov Rebellion of peasant anti-Bolsheviks in 1920-1921.


Antonov-Ovseyenko (center) chills with Red Army officers.

By the later 1920s his Trotsky affiliation had significantly dimmed his star,** though he was still entrusted in the 1930s as a Soviet consul to several countries — the last of them the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, before falling prey to the purges mere months after his return.

His son, the lately deceased Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, survived 13 years in the Gulag to become a dissident historian; his The Time of Stalin, published abroad in 1981 after being smuggled out of the USSR by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, was one of the milestones along the way toward the public reckoning with Stalinism. “An embattled personality and fearless” in Cohen’s estimation, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died in 2013, still directing a Gulag museum in Moscow even though he had long since gone blind.

* Via Spain.

** In The Time of Stalin, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko alleges that his father considered betting on the loyalty of the army in a coup against the Stalin faction, back when control of the post-Lenin state was still uncertain. “This cannot go on for long,” runs one letter the young Antonov-Ovseyenko quotes. “There remains one alternative — to appeal to the peasant masses dressed in Red Army greatcoats and call to order the leaders who have gone too far.” Trotsky also wrote in his memoir that such a coup was mooted within their circle.

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1937: Georgy Pyatakov, Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist

Add comment January 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Georgy Pyatakov was condemned to death and shot in Moscow as a Trotskyist conspirator.

Pyatakov (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Russian) was a young Bolshevik activist not long out of his schooling — and his de rigueur Siberian sentence — when the Russian Revolutions of 1917 overturned tsarism. He played an important role in the Communist revolution in Ukraine but his political opinions come the 1920s essentially aligned with Trotsky’s and we know where that will land a Bolshevik once Koba has the state in hand.

Pyatakov would die in the second of the so-called “Moscow Trials”, which was the third of the signal deadly show trials that would herald the frightful acme of Stalinism: preceding it was the First Moscow Trial or the Trial of the Sixteen in August 1936, in which Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed as supposed Trotskysts; it was followed in November 1936 by the Kemerovo Trial in Western Siberia, in which a mining disaster was pinned not on shoddy industrial management but on a Trotskyist “wrecking” conspiracy to sabotage the Soviet economy.

Gleefully did these trials compound upon the web that Trotsky was spinning from exile in Mexico. In principle, Stalin could have chosen simply to purge Zinoviev and Kamenev as rival aspirants and have done with it: in practice, these were merely early stones of an avalanche. The Kemerovo trial expanded the grasp of the Trotskyist conspiracy to compass orchestrating terrorist cells among the whole populace; and even as arrests in locales throughout the USSR vindicated this theory, the Second Moscow Trial — our focus — made the next round of doomed elites the “reserve center” backing up the Zinoviev-Kamenev guys “in case the main center was arrested and destroyed.” It was this junior varsity that had been coordinating for several years “the main work of wrecking, which ruined much in our economy” in coordination not only with Trotsky but with insidious capitalist rulers. (The comments are from the report that secret police chief Yezhov prepared for them, as quoted in 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror) Hey, Trotsky in his day had put together the Red Army on the fly: the man knew how to organize.

The progress of these official lines put any real or alleged opposition to Stalin on the same plane as treason against the state, the people, Communism, and with links reaching from the humblest disgruntled kulak all the way to a distant demon figure the parallel to Europe’s witch hunts is difficult to resist. The Soviet Union’s burning times would ensue with seasons of wild purging in 1937 and 1938.

The Second Moscow Trial — or, as you might have guessed it is also called, the trial of the “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” — unfolded from January 23 to 30 of 1937, and featured the entirely fictional tale that Pyatakov had secretly flown to Oslo to huddle with Trotsky on their wrecking strategy. Not everyone suffered Pyatakov’s summary fate at the end; the most famous defendant in this affair, Karl Radek, got a penal labor sentence and was later murdered in the camps.

The “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” types were posthumously rehabilitated during the Mikhail Gorbachev era.

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1938: Chinese soldiers and civilians after the Battle of Wuhan

Add comment October 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army conquered the Hankow or Hankou industrial district within the city of Wuhan, and according to the Associated Press* “shot scores of Chinese soldiers or civilians luckless enough to be taken for soldiers” including “twenty uniformed and civilian-garbed Chinese … executed within sight of foreign gunboats.”

A major trading city that had been forced open to western concessions by the Second Opium War, Wuhan had become, briefly, the capital of the Chinese Kuomintang after Japan’s initial onslaught the previous year quickly captured the former capital Nanking.

* The linked newspaper miscopied the dateline; it should read “Hankow, Oct. 27″ rather than “Oct. 2″.

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1938: Two anti-Nazi spies

1 comment October 4th, 2017 Headsman

The Third Reich on this date in 1938 guillotined two civilians as French spies.

Seventy-one-year-old merchant Ludwig Maringer had sent French intelligence notes on German industrial production and armaments factories from Berlin.
Thirty-nine-year-old Marie Catherine Kneup had turned mole from the advantageous position of domestic in the household of a German spy.

The latter case specifically — both the execution of Marie Catherine and the prison sentence given her husband Albert — is the subject of the German-language novel Spatzenkirschen.

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1934: Otto Planetta and Franz Holzweber, for the Juliputsch

Add comment July 31st, 2017 Headsman

German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich. Never will the German nation possess the moral right to engage in colonial politics until, at least, it embraces its own sons within a single state …

The elemental cry of the German-Austrian people for union with the German mother country, that arose in the days when the Habsburg state was collapsing, was the result of a longing that slumbered in the heart of the entire people — a longing to return to the never-forgotten ancestral home. But this would be inexplicable if the historical education of the individual German-Austrian had not given rise to so general a longing. In it lies a well which never grows dry; which, especially in times of forgetfulness, transcends all momentary prosperity and by constant reminders of the past whispers softly of a new future

-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

On this date in 1934, two Nazis were hanged for their part in a failed Austrian coup.

From his political ascent in 1933 — and well before, as the quote above indicates — the Reich’s unification with his native land of Austria had been a cherished goal for Adolf Hitler. To that end, Berlin had fostered a clandestine network of Austrian Nazis branded as “SS Standarte 89″ and allowed exiles to broadcast seditious propaganda from German soil.

Their “July Putsch” (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a year or so in the making, and commenced when four truckloads of SS Standarte 89 men in military attire suddenly stormed the federal chancellery in Vienna, murdering chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in the process.

“Hitler received the tidings while listening to a performance of Das Rheingold at the annal Wagner Festival at Bayreuth,” Shirer noted in The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich — and Wagner’s granddaughter, also in attendance, could not help observing his “excitement” and “delight” and simultaneous anxiety to feign uninvolvement.

The last of these impulses showed the emerging tyrant’s wisdom, for the coup swiftly collapsed — exposing, to Hitler’s fury, the inept organization of the plot. Basically no other coordinated actions took place to complete the coup and the Austrian army remained loyal to the existing government, leaving to the lonely SS Standarte 89 nothing but a feeble surrender.

The first targets of the resulting courts-martial were Otto Planetta (cursory English Wikipedia entry | more detailed German), who actually pulled the trigger to kill the chancellor, and Franz Holzweber, the apparent leader of the attack on the chancellery. They would be tried and condemned in a two-day hearing July 30-31 and hanged within three hours of conviction. In time, both the Planetta and the Holzweber name would adorn many city streets in the Third Reich as patriot-martyrs.

Both prisoners, when asked whether they had anything to say before hearing their sentences, addressed the Court. Planetta said: —

I do not know how many hours I have to live. But one thing I would like to say, I am no cowardly murderer. It was not my intention to kill. One thing more. As a human being I am sorry for my deed, and I beg the wife of the late Chancellor to forgive me.

Holzweber said: —

I was assured that there would be no bloodshed. I was told also that I should find Herr Rintelen at the Chancery,, that the new Government was already formed. Not meeting the leader of the operation at the Chancery, I disclosed myself at once to Major Fey. I told him, here I stand, and I do not know what I should do. More or less spontaneously I took over the responsibility for our men because no one was there to take charge of the matter.

Holzweber, who was executed first, cried out on the gallows: “We die for Germany. Heil Hitler.” Planetta said simply, “Heil Hitler.”

-London Times, Aug. 1, 1934

The time was not yet ripe — and Hitler, no matter how heiled by his would-be subjects, was required by the diplomatic blowback to forswear ambitions on unifying with Austria.

But the Fuhrer’s soft whispers of a new future would grow ever more insistent in the months to come, and not four years later the Reich accomplished the Anschluss.

That July 25, in 1938, in a Vienna now successfully absorbed to greater Germany,

the fourth anniversary [of the Juliputsch] was celebrated as an heroic act comparable with the Rathenau and Erzberger murders. The survivors of ‘SS Standarte 89′ marched to the federal Austrian Chancellery, which had been renamed the Reichstatthalterei. Here the bereaved families of thirteen men were addressed by Rudolf Hess. A tablet was unveiled which proclaimed that:

154 German men of the 89th SS Standarte stood up here for Germany on 25 July, 1934. Seven found death at the hands of the hangman.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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1939: Ramiro Artieda, Bolivian serial killer

Add comment July 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Bolivian serial killer Ramiro Artieda was executed at the prison of Cochabamba.

Artieda (German Wikipedia entry) cut his teeth in the murder business at the tender age of 18 by offing his brother Luis in order to become the sole claimant of the family inheritance. In so doing he lost his girlfriend, who was more alarmed by the fratricide — evidence to charge him never equaled the heavy suspicion against him — than she was acquisitive for his newfound loot.

After a brief spell in the United States, Artieda returned with acting experience and a festering grudge against the ex, both of which would come in handy for his new career in homicide. A series of 18ish girls with a resemblance to his former flame suddenly started turning up dead … strangled by a dark-haired charmer luring them to deadly seclusion by posing as a variety of different characters (university professor, trade delegate, monk). His last would-be victim managed to escape him, and then identify him, in May of 1939; eight weeks later, having owned the slaughter of seven young women plus Luis Artieda, he stood in front of a firing squad.

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1936: Edward Cornelius, vicarage murderer

Add comment June 22nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Edward Cornelius hanged at Victoria’s Pentridge Gaol for the vicarage murder.

The Murder at the Vicarage also happens to be the title of Agatha Christie’s very first Miss Marple novel, published several years before the very real vicarage murder of Rev. Cecil.

One lonesome night the preceding December, Cornelius, a mechanic, turned his spanner on the aged head of plain-living 60-year-old Rev. Harold Laceby Cecil of St. Saviour’s — the horrible conclusion to Rev. Cecil’s 18-year ministry in Fitzroy, then one of Melbourne’s roughest neighborhoods.

Cornelius’s motive was robbery, and it was hardly the first time that Rev. Cecil had been braced for the few quid in donatives he kept on hand for charity cases. Though undeterred from his mission, Cecil was philosophical about repeated robberies: “I will get them, or they will get me.” According to Cornelius’s confession, it was the getting that got Cecil killed: surprised in the course of a midnight stealth pilfering of the vicarage study, Cornelius grabbed the tool of his other trade and clobbered the intercessor, repeatedly: there would be 17 distinct head wounds discerned by investigators.

He fled the vicarage with £8 and few gold and silver trinkets. Some, like a silver watch, he would discard as too incriminating; others, like a gold crucifix, he pawned to obtain ready cash and readier eyewitnesses against him.

A death-house chum of similarly notorious Arnold Sodeman — the two passed Sodeman’s last hours on earth together, playing draughts — Cornelius followed the latter’s steps to the same gallows three weeks later.

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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1935: May Hitchens Carey and Howard Carey, mother and son

Add comment June 7th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1935 in Georgetown, Delaware, a mother and son were hanged for the murder of Robert Hitchens, May Carey’s brother and Howard’s uncle.

The execution of May, 52, attracted some attention as it was the first time in living memory that a woman had faced capital punishment in Delaware. The last time a woman was executed there had been in the 1860s.

On November 7, 1927, May enlisted the help of her two oldest sons, Howard, then 20, and James, 16, to murder their uncle Robert. May had taken out a $2,000 insurance policy on his life and promised to buy her boys a car if they helped her. After Robert got home from work, the three of them jumped him, beat him with a club and sledgehammer, and then finished him off with a gunshot to the head. They poured alcohol over his body and down his throat and rummaged through his belongings in an attempt to make the murder look like a robbery.

The police fell for the robbery gambit and thought Robert had been slain by bootleggers. For a long time it appeared the trio had gotten away with it.

But murder will out. The homicide went unsolved until December 1934, when May’s youngest son, Lawrence, was arrested on an unrelated charge of burglary. He told the police everything he knew about his uncle’s murder, which was enough to put his mother and brothers behind bars.

Lawrence testified against his family at the ensuing trial. (Not that his cooperation in the murder case helped with his own legal difficulties; he got seven years for the burglary.) May tried to shoulder all the blame — “I drove my children to do it. It was all my fault. They killed him but they would not have done it, if I hadn’t made them do it.”

May, James and Howard were all convicted but the jury recommended mercy for the two young men. In the end, James was sentenced to life in prison but Howard, who had sired a family of three children, got a death sentence, as did his mother.

During the time period between the trial and the time the sentence was carried out, both Howard and May turned to religion for solace and read their Bibles “cover to cover.” Their last meal was cake and ice cream.

Authorities erected the gallows behind a high fence to conceal it from prying eyes. They even stretched a piece of canvas overhead to prevent aerial photography. A single rope was used for both hangings, and May was first in line. She wore a new black dress with white ribbon around the throat. Her son was dressed in a formal suit and tie. Mary died at 5:30 a.m. and Howard followed her at 6:08.

As for James, he outlived his mother and brother by only nine years, dying in prison of natural causes at the age of 34.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Delaware,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,USA,Women

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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

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 several others.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Pelf

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