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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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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1937: Vincenzo Baccala

Add comment November 29th, 2018 Headsman

Italian Communist Vincenzo Baccala was executed on this date in 1937 … but not by the fascists.

The blackshirted turn of his country in the 1920s had driven Vincenzo into emigre exile, pursued by an in absentia prison sentence for “subversive propaganda tending to insurrection and incitement of class hatred.” He went first in Paris and then in 1931 to the USSR.

Although present in the fortress of Communism at the Party’s direction, and eventually an outright Soviet citizen, Baccala came into trouble after criticizing Stalin in 1933 and had to leave his family in Odessa as he struggled to find work. Come the height of the purges in the later 1930s, he was predictably denounced.

Baccala’s wife Pia Piccioni swallowed a bitter draught of her own; unable to see her husband or find support amid Stalin’s purges, she returned to her native country, finding little comfort either in Mussolini‘s Italy (for obvious reasons) or in postwar Italy (where red comrades shied from traducing the USSR). She wrote a book about her own and Baccala’s experiences, Compagno Silenzio: Una vedova italiana del gulag racconta.

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1936: The Seven Martyrs of Madrid

Add comment November 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Seven Martyrs of Madrid became martyrs.*

These sisters of Catholicism’s Visitandine or Visitation Order were the last remaining to watch over their convent, which had been mostly evacuated for fear of anti-clerical violence in the unfolding Spanish Civil War.

Indeed, even these seven felt it wiser to stay in a nearby apartment where they secreted the convent’s treasures and kept their holy orders as quiet as possible.

Their precautions were justified — but insufficient. On the night of November 17, weeks after the Spanish capital was besieged by the Francoists an anarchist militia tossed the place, interrogated them, and then returned the next day to have them summarily executed on the outskirts of town.

“I beg God that the marvelous example of these women who shed their blood for Christ, pardoning from their hearts their executioners,” Pope John Paul II said when beatifying these sisters in 1998, “may succeed in softening the hearts of those who today use terror and violence to impose their will upon others.”

* Technically, only Sisters Gabriela de Hinojosa, Teresa Cavestany, Josefa Barrera, Ines Zudaire, Engracia Lecuona, and Angela Olaizola were shot on the 18th. Sister Cecilia Cendoya escaped her captors but later turned herself in and obtained the crown of martyrdom a few days afterwards.

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1938: Kasym Tynystanov, Kyrgyz intellectual

Add comment November 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Kyrgyz intellectual and statesman Kasym Tynystanov was executed during Stalin’s Great Purge.


Kasym Tynystanov, on modern Kyrgyzstan’s 10-som bill.

Born in tsarist Russia’s mountainous frontier with Qing China, Tynystanov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Kyrgyz) was blessed by the exertions of his father and a local mullah with literacy — a gift shared by only about one in 40 of his countrymen.

He graduated from the Kazakh-Kyrgyz Institute of Education in Tashkent in 1924 and went on to a career in letters — literal letters, as he’s credited with being the first to regularize the Kyrgyz tongue in Latin characters. He would publish several works on the Kyrgyz language; he also compiled the oral folklore of his people, and wrote verse of his own.

Tynystanov served as People’s Commissariat of Education and chaired the language and literature organ of the Kyrgyz Research Institute of Culture.

In 1938 he received Stalinism’s customary reward for the conscientious public servant and was accused as a counterrevolutionary nationalist and shot. The Soviet Union officially rehabilitated him in the post-Stalin era.

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1930: Gordon Northcott, the Wineville Chicken Coop Murderer

2 comments October 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1930, Gordon Stewart Northcott hanged in California’s San Quentin Prison for the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.

Canada-born, Northcott had moved to southern California in 1924 with his parents. They set up a chicken ranch there, and Northcott found this haunt a congenial headquarters for his real passion, the molestation and of young boys.

A monster right out of the QAnon fever swamp, Northcott abducted a large number of youths for abuse. Some were released, but at least three and possibly (per Northcott’s erratic and intermittently retracted confessions) upwards of 20 were imprisoned there in chicken coops and eventually murdered on the ranch, their bodies dissolving into quicklime. The victims we can certainly vouch for are Walter Collins and brothers Lewis and Nelson Winslow, plus a never-identified teenage Mexican boy whom Northcott shot and beheaded. All the while his mother was living there on the ranch too,* and not only she, but Northcott’s quietly terrified Canadian cousin Sanford Clark. Northcott molested him too, but he wasn’t just going to brain him with an axe … Sanford was family.

When Sanford’s older sister visited the boy confided the farm’s horrors to her, and Jessie Clark kept her composure well enough to take her fare-thee-wells without raising the monster’s suspicions, finally swearing out a complaint to the American consul in British Columbia. Once Northcott caught sight of immigration officers driving up the dusty road to investigate he fled his Wineville chicken coops for good, and even made it to Canada with his dear creepy mum.

Northcott’s arrest, extradition, trial, and preordained sentence shocked Californians and Northcott did his part to keep everyone’s blood up by reveling in shifty, ghastly confessions. (The father of the Winslow brothers led an abortive lynching attempt.) San Quentin’s warden would recall that Northcott favored him in their conversations with “a lurid account of mass murder, sodomy, oral copulation, and torture so vivid it made my flesh creep.” So great was the notoriety Northcott and his chicken coops brought it that Wineville flat-out changed its name to Mira Loma to dissociate itself weeks after its infamous denizen swung.

Some books about Gordon Stewart Northcott

Northcott’s execution features in a tense scene of the 2008 film Changeling; our killer is played by Jason Butler Harner, but it’s Angelina Jolie who stars as the mother of one of Northcott’s prey who was then afflicted by an imposter child claiming to be her lost son.

* Dad — whom you will not be surprised to learn was slated with abusing young Gordon in his own turn — went to a mental asylum.

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1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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