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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Russia,Shot,Torture,USSR

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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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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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1937: Panfiliya Tanailidi, Azerbaijani actress

Add comment October 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Azerbaijani actress Panfiliya Tanailidi (various other transliterations are possible) was purged during Stalin’s terror.

Born in a tsarist governorate to Greek emigres, Tanailidi (English Wikipedia entry | Azerbaijani) was treading the Caucasus boards as a teenager in the pregnant century’s first decade.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Azerbaijan,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

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 ballerina around 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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Intellectuals,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1937: Alexander Chayanov, economist of the peasantry

Add comment October 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov was shot during Stalin’s purges.

“Our present capitalist form of economy represents only one particular instance of economic life and the validity of the scientific discipline of the national economics as we understand it today, based on the capitalist form and meant for its scientific investigation, cannot and should not be extended to other organizational forms of economic life.” (via)

A specialist in the rural economy, Chayanov was noted for his forward thinking about Russia’s backwards peasantry.

Prevailing Marxist orthodoxy envisioned this class hurtling inevitably towards capitalism as its members sought their own advantage;* against this, Chayanov emphasized the resilience of the peasantry. And not only that, he postulated that the unwaged peasantry operated in an economic constellation alien to the classical model of value maximization — and would rather tend to relax labor once it reached subsistence production, rather than working ever onwards to attain surplus value and Five-Year Plan quotas.

This theory accurately anticipated difficulty for Soviet agricultural policies like collectivization and grain confiscation.

Denounced as an apologist for the refractory kulaks — official agrarian bogeymen of the early Soviet state — Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and found himself shipped to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was re-arrested in 1937, tried, condemned, and shot in a single day; his wife Olga also disappeared into the gulag only to be released in 1955, after Stalin’s death. They were officially rehabilitated in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though Chayanov’s own work was cut short by his suppression, his ideas would resurface in the postwar period and find exponents among western economists and social scientists. Nor have those ideas been exclusively of interest to academics studying peasant societies; Chayanov’s emphasis on the family as an essential economic unit found an echo in the New Home Economics field launched in the 1960s by classical economists like Gary Becker, while his appreciation for maintaining a harmonious relationship to the land has been revived in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Megre‘s “Ringing Cedars” eco-cult.

* Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value that the “peasant who produces with his own means of production will either gradually be transformed into a small capitalist who also exploits the labor of others, or he will suffer the loss of his means of production … and be transformed into a wage worker.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1937: Douglas Van Vlack

Add comment December 9th, 2013 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 here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I have a right to choose the way I die!”

— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937

Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Idaho,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1937: Helmut Hirsch, secret bomber

Add comment June 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the German-American Jewish terrorist Helmut “Helle” Hirsch was decapitated at Plotzensee Prison.

Hirsch (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an architecture student who had been driven from Germany by anti-Semitic laws and studied, therefore, in Prague. (Before the Reich gobbled up Czechoslovakia, of course.)

There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.

In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”

It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.

The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.

This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.

Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.

Dear Mother, dear Father,

I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.

We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.

It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.

The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.

Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.

Yours forever,

Helmut.

* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.

** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Jews,Terrorists,Treason

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