1938: Juan Soldado, patron saint of Mexico-US migrants

3 comments February 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Juan Castillo Morales was shot in a cemetery for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl.

Morales was executed under the strange ley de fugas (“law of fugitives”), an expedient quasi-lynching arrangement that gave the inmate the opportunity to flee for his life in front of the firing detail. He didn’t make it — nobody ever made it.

But the method of his death is the least bizarre thing about his story.

Juan Castillo Morales is better known today as Juan Soldado, “Juan the Soldier.” He was an army private serving at the border town of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, Calif., when young Olga Camacho disappeared on February 13. (Yes, that’s four days before the execution.)

Olga’s abduction — and the discovery of her body, throat slashed and sexually molested — triggered a public outcry.

Our man was arrested on the 14th, and the evidence quickly started stacking up against him. Even his wife incriminated him. At least, allegedly: there’s very little documentary evidence remaining from the case, and very little about the life of Juan Castillo Morales, all of which helps fuel its latter-day ambiguity.

Castillo Morales, again allegedly, confessed in jail. The public had its pedophile: the man was nearly lynched by rioters threatening to put the whole town to the torch. This radioactive case was disposed of in great haste by a secret military tribunal before the whole city spiraled out of control. Thousands of onlookers turned out for the public “fleeing” execution.

So far, so unsurprising (at least by the standards of these grim pages): a notorious sex crime, a mini-moral panic, a perp done (however unusually) to death.

Now, it gets interesting.


With blood lust sated and Morales entombed in the cemetery where he was shot to death, mysterious reports began circulating … that his grave was oozing blood, and that his anima (soul) was floating around proclaiming his innocence.

Book CoverMaybe there were people who already believed that but dared not speak up when lynch law reigned. Maybe the rushed, not-altogether-judicial “investigation” and the cruelty of the execution catalyzed some latent communal guilt.

But for sure, once the idea that the man was innocent got out there, it had legs. There’s a folk belief that “those who have died unjustly sit closest to God”; before 1938 was out, newspapers had already begun to report people praying at the grave … and some of them reporting miracles worked in consequence.

He wasn’t Juan Castillo Morales the executed army private any more: for posterity, he would be Juan Soldado, the everyman sublime.

Against any odds you’d care to stake, Juan Soldado has developed in the decades since into a going cult figure in Tijuana, and throughout the border region — a popular saint (by no means acknowledged by institutional Catholicism) for everyday people’s problems. A chapel built over his resting place bursts with offerings and thanksgivings.

Juan, as befits a border-town saint, is particularly regarded as a patron of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and particularly liable to relieve the troubles of migrants. With that following has, of course, come a general understanding among most devotees that Juan Soldado was innocent, even that he was executed to cover up for a powerful general who was the real killer.

Juan Soldado receives tribute and supplication throughout the year, but particularly on June 24: so little is known about John the Soldier’s real biography that the official feast date of John the Baptist has been appropriated for his celebration, and picnics, pilgrimages, mariachi bands singing “happy birthday”, crowd the cemetery on that day. (The Day of the Dead is another biggie at Soldier John’s shrine.)

Olga Camacho’s family still lives in Tijuana and understandably disdains the cult around the little girl’s presumed murderer.

The curious phenomenon of a devotional following for an executed sex-killer is sensitively explored in the late Paul Vanderwood’s Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint.

As a historiographical phenomenon, Soldier John fits into a pattern of folk saints from early 20th century Mexico, including similarly dubious characters like executed bandit Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking — as well as non-executees like Pedro Jamarillo and Nino Fidencio.

Part of this, surely — and Vanderwood developed the theme — is the story of the border, the story of Tijuana and Mexico in the 1930s. But part, too, is the story of Catholicism and of the contradictory, occasionally transformative, emotions excited by execution.

The potential of even an unambiguously guilty criminal to become in his passion a channel for worship goes all the way back to, well, the Passion itself, and the “good thief” on the cross with Christ. Twentieth century France has its own guillotined murderer who’s also a candidate for sainthood. And this is hardly the only occasion when folk veneration has produced an unofficial saint. Some of them even become official saints with the passage of time. But official or otherwise, once adopted into the practice of a living community of believers, they are animated by the life of that community and in return they succor the same.

“I pray to Juan Soldado even if the church does not approve,” one woman told Vanderwood. (Here quoting his “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections” in the Winter 2001 Journal of the Southwest). “I do not think that God minds.”

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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.

Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.

Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.

His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.

A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.

However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*

* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).

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1938: Corneliu Codreanu, Romanian fascist martyr

Add comment November 30th, 2011 Headsman

“In place of the weak and beaten man who bends with every breeze, a man who is all too common in politics and other fields, we must create for this nation a man who does not bend, who is inflexible.”

-Corneliu Codreanu

On this date in 1938, 14 political prisoners of the Romanian Legionary movement were extrajudicially executed — including Corneliu Codreanu, one of the Romanian right’s leading spirits.

The son of a Bukovina schoolteacher in what was then Austria-Hungary, Codreanu came to political maturity in the interwar heyday of Greater Romania. It was a moment of national aspiration — the Romanian state had never before grown so large — but it was abutted by the great threats of Germany and Russia, and haunted by nationalism, economic crisis, shaken political authority, and all the other spooks conjured by the first World War.

For Codreanu as for many at that time it was the stage for a blood-and-soil death struggle against Communist agitators and sinister Jewish financiers.

But his vision was an intensely positive one as well: a valiant new Romania founded by a courageous new man, honorable and true to the virtues of the nation’s noble peasant stock. “We shall create,” Codreanu declared, “a spiritual atmosphere, a moral atmosphere, in which the heroic man may be born and on which he can thrive.”

Codreanu’s vehicle for stamping out these heroic countrymen was the Legion of the Archangel Michael* which our principal founded in 1927. Named for God’s ass-kickingest enforcer, this movement/militia was not above creating its spiritual atmosphere with political assassinations by adherents widely noted for a willingness to die for the cause.

Later known as the Iron Guard, the Legion, in the view of German historian Ernst Nolte, “plainly appears to be the most interesting and the most complex fascist movement, because like geological formations of superimposed layers it presents at once both prefascist and radically fascist characteristics.” (Qutoed here.)

As his Legion’s name suggested, Codreanu was intently religious — virtually a mystic, and a messianic Romanian Orthodox Christianity was essential to his new Romania. His movement took root in a peasant society, not an industrial state with a revolutionary working class to crush or co-opt. Rather, it organized in opposition to a mediocre king and a feckless, heavily non-Romanian oligarchy which maintained its enervating grip on the nation with “endless appeals to the Fatherland which it does not love, to God in whom it does not believe, to the Church where it never sets foot, to the Army which it sends to war with empty hands.”*

And also to the police, which clapped Codreanu and his confederates in prison after the revolutionaries declined the elite incumbents’ offer of political collaboration.

In 1938, Codreanu was hit with a long prison sentence for sedition. Uncowed, the Legion grew ever more overtly aggressive when Nazi Germany successfully dismembered Czechoslovakia; Berlin made the Legions plainly aware that it saw their movement as Romania’s future, German-allied government. Futilely maneuvering for his own scope of action, Carol attempted to decapitate the Iron Guard by having its imprisoned leadership “shot while trying to escape” on this date.

This did not turn out to help the king. Codreanu’s movement traded stripe for stripe with its foes; within two years, Carol had been forced to abdicate and the Iron Guard helped govern (albeit with tension) a fascist state.

The contemporary Romanian right aggressively reclaimed Capitanul, “the Captain”, after the fall of communism. Codreanu is now revered among not only among Romanian nationalists but in fascism’s wider populist Strasserite tradition. (Gregor Strasser, who liked the socialist part of national socialism too much for Hitler’s taste, was among those murdered on Nazi Germany’s Night of the Long Knives.)

* Eugen Weber in Varieties of Fascism, quoted by Anthony James Joes in “Fascism: The Past and the Future,” Comparative Political Studies, April 1974

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1938: Albert Dyer, sex killer (presumably)

4 comments September 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Albert Dyer hanged at California’s San Quentin prison for a triple rape-murder.

Dyer is a very modern bugbear, a monster right out of cable news and amber alerts and stranger danger.

As often with those, his path to infamy began with disappeared white girls — Jeanette Stephens, Melba Everett, and Madeline Everett, all ages 7 to 9 — who went to picnic at an Inglewood park one summer afternoon and never came home.

The police set about hunting for any known sex offenders in the area, but the offense would ultimately be attributed to a neighbor who was active with the concerned search parties that scoured the area.

Induced by a police threat to deliver him into the hands of a lynch mob, Dyer admitted to having lured the girls off on the pretext of catching rabbits, then strangling them to death and raping their corpses.

(Here’s a disturbing set of photos of the girls’ bodies.)

Dyer attempted to repudiate these confessions, which you’d have to say were obtained under a bit of duress. The case against him apart from self-incrimination was a tissue of meager circumstantial evidence; Dyer’s persona smacks of mental deficiency that might have left him easy prey for manipulation by his captors.

Newspapers described Dyer as “dull” and “stupid”, and in fact the defense attempted to cast doubt on the prisoner’s mental competence and the reliability of his confessions. The jury took agonizing days to reach a consensus, and the last man holding out against conviction would later say that he finally gave in after being led to believe that the judge considered Dyer guilty. (This revelation was among the defense’s last arguments for executive clemency, at the end of the process.)

In short, for all the horror of the crime, the case was not cut and dried in 1938. The passage of time — with our latter-day awareness of false confessions and developmental disability — will hardly make it more so, unless some forgotten crime locker still preserves a testable genetic sample. But no surprise, the popular press had a different take. The Los Angeles Times editorialized (Aug. 27, 1937) anticipating that

[t]he verdict of a jury that Albert Dyer must die for the murder of three Inglewood children is a long step toward the eradication of sex crime in California. It is the only outcome of the case that public opinion could afford to sanction.

The evidence against Dyer was overwhelming; and there could be no mitigating circumstance which could justify this State in letting such a miscreant go on living.

Even if Dyer is mentally defective, there is no reason for his continued existence. He could never be safe to have at large. Legally, his condition is not insanity; he knew what he was doing and that it was wrong. Eradication of such types is necessary for public safety.

And the death penalty is the best deterrent. If others have this criminal tendency, his fate may cause them to repress it. Dyer, hanged, may save the lives of countless California innocents. In any scale, the safety of children must weigh more heavily than his forfeited right to live.

Dyer was the second-last person hanged by the Golden State before the gas chamber came online to replace the gallows. His legacy was California’s 1939 passage of a law governing (pdf) the handling of “Sexual Psychopaths”. (This site suggests he was also posthumously exploited for the cause of marijuana criminalization.)

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1938: Anthony Chebatoris, in death penalty-free Michigan

5 comments July 8th, 2011 Andrew Gustafson

This post was contributed by Andrew Gustafson, a writer and cartographer based in Brooklyn, NY. Andrew’s work can be found on his website, and he regularly blogs about New York City history and culture for Urban Oyster Tours.

On this date in 1938, Anthony Chebatoris was hanged at the federal prison in Milan, Michigan, becoming the only person executed in Michigan since it gained statehood in 1837.

Chebatoris and an accomplice, Jack Gracy, rolled into Midland, Michigan on September 29, 1937, with the intention to rob the Chemical State Bank. They never did get their hands on the cash, and only one of them would leave the town alive, though with a proverbial noose dangling from his neck. The two men, armed with a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun, entered the bank and approached the bank manager, Clarence Macomber, with guns drawn. In the ensuing scuffle, Chebatoris shot Macomber and another bank employee, Paul Bywater. Upon hearing the shots, Frank Hardy, a dentist whose office was next to the bank, grabbed the loaded deer rifle he kept handy and went to the window to see what the commotion was about. As Chebatoris and Gacy abandoned the botched robbery empty-handed, Hardy began firing at the fleeing robbers, hitting Chebatoris in the arm and causing him to crash the getaway car he was driving. As the wounded men looked for another escape route, Chebatoris spotted a uniformed truck driver named Henry Porter, whom he mistook for a police officer, and shot him. The men then tried to hijack a truck to make their escape, but as Gacy attempted to climb into the cab, the sharpshooter Hardy shot him in the head from 150 yards away, killing him instantly.* Chebatoris took off on foot and was apprehended a short distance away, exhausted and bleeding.

Chebatoris would survive his injuries, as would the bank employees Macomber and Bywater. But the innocent bystander Henry Porter put our convict on the road to the gallows: after two weeks in the hospital, Porter would succumb to his injuries, and murder would be added to the charges against the surviving bank robber. Michigan had outlawed the death penalty for murder in 1846, becoming the first U.S. state to do so. But Chebatoris found himself subject to a legal system that had been changed by New Deal politics and the public’s panic over escalating violence and criminality. Federal prosecutors took on the case, under the authority of the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934, which was passed in response to the rash of bank holdups across the country. The law gave the federal government the authority to prosecute anyone involved in the robbery of a bank that was a member of the Federal Reserve System or the newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Unluckily for Chebatoris, Chemical State Bank was a member of both.

With a mountain of evidence against him, Chebatoris was easily convicted, and on November 30, 1937, he was sentenced to death by federal judge Arthur Tuttle. The case set off a political controversy in Michigan, one that would pit an anti-death-penalty governor against federal judges and prosecutors who wanted the sentence passed down and carried out in the state. Under the federal statute, federal death sentences could only be carried out in states that had their own death penalty. While Michigan had long abolished capital punishment for murder and other crimes, it still kept an obscure law on the books allowing execution for treason (which has never been exercised, as it is unclear how one would commit treason against the state of Michigan). This loophole allowed the federal capital prosecution and execution to proceed within the confines of the staunchly abolitionist state.

In response to the decision, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy said, “There hasn’t been a hanging in Michigan for 108 years. If this one is carried out in Michigan, it will be like turning back the clock on civilization.” Illinois, which had its own electric chair, offered to finish off Chebatoris, but Judge Tuttle ordered that the execution should proceed in Michigan, noting, “The just verdict having been returned, the law was mandatory in the three respects, namely that the penalty should be death, that it should be hanging, and that it should be within the state of Michigan. These last two requirements resulted from the fact that Michigan has one statute providing for the death penalty by hanging. If the sentence had been different in any one of these respects, it would have been unlawful. I have neither the power nor the inclination to change the sentence.”

Chebatoris was transferred from the Saginaw County Jail, where he had been held throughout his trial, to the federal prison in Milan. At 5 a.m. on July 8, 1938, he was brought to the gallows, and before 23 witnesses, including an inebriated hangman named Phil Hanna, he was hanged. In the middle of the night before the execution, Hanna had arrived at the prison demanding that his three drunken friends be admitted to the hanging. After an argument with the warden and a call to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Hanna was allowed to proceed with execution, and the warden acceded to his demands (though at the time of the execution, the warden barred the three friends from the proceedings, knowing that the room was too dark, and Hanna too drunk, for him to notice their absence).**

Chebatoris’ execution was both a unique event and a bellwether for things to come in the federal death penalty system. Since 1927, he is the only person to be executed for a murder committed in a state that does not have its own death penalty statute. After World War II, executions, both federal and state, went into a steep decline across the United States, culminating in the 1972 Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, which struck down every capital punishment statute in the land. Four years later, the death penalty was revived in Gregg v. Georgia, and it took barely six months for states to resume executions. The federal government was slower, however, and the first post-Furman federal death penalty statute did not appear until 1988. Since that date, however, we have seen the steady expansion of the federal death penalty, building on the precedents set by the National Bank Robbery Act. Rather than targeting bank robberies, the federal government has used the death penalty to take aim at other perceived scourges, employing it is a weapon in the various domestic “wars” on crime, drugs, and terrorism.

In the past twenty years, the federal death penalty has been transformed from a seldom-used punishment for pirates and crimes committed in the territories to an expansive weapon that can be imposed in a wide range of jurisdictions, leading the Criminal Defense Network to conclude that “virtually every homicide occurring within federal jurisdiction is now death-eligible.”† The greatest expansion of the federal death penalty came with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which greatly expanded federal jurisdiction and authorized the death penalty for nearly 60 different crimes. And the reach of the federal death penalty has continued to expand, even into states like Michigan that have rejected capital punishment.

There are currently 58 people sitting on the federal death row, nine of whom committed their crimes in states that either do not have a constitutionally valid state death penalty statute or have active moratoriums on the death penalty.‡ Interestingly, all of those nine were sentenced to death during the tenures of Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez, and their decisions to pursue capital prosecutions marked a departure from the actions of their predecessors. Early in his term, John Ashcroft revised the U.S. Attorneys Manual and removed language about the Department of Justice’s policy towards seeking the death penalty in states that did not have their own capital punishment statutes. Previously the manual stated that in these states, “penalty-driven decisions to file federal charges are inappropriate.” That language was removed, and presumably this opened the door for the increase in prosecutions, convictions, and death sentences handed out in federal districts located within abolitionist states. Since Chebatoris’ execution, no one who falls into this category has been executed, and current Attorney General Eric Holder has signaled a return to the earlier practices, meaning the federal government will be less inclined to pursue these kinds of cases. Nevertheless, it is likely that at least one of these nine will eventually be executed.

When that happens, Anthony Chebatoris will no longer be a solitary historical footnote.

* Hardy was a hero, but he is not nearly as celebrated as another bank robbery foiler, Northfield, Minnesota’s Joseph Lee Hayward, who is remembered annually at the town’s “Defeat of Jesse James Days.” Perhaps Midland could build its own tourist attraction around Hardy?

** For a detailed account of the case of Anthony Chebatoris, read Aaron Veselenak’s article in the May/June 1998 issue of Michigan History Magazine, “The Execution of Anthony Chebatoris.”

† From Burr, Dick, David Bruck and Kevin McNally (2009). “An Overview of the Federal Death Penalty Process.” Capital Defense Network.

‡ These death row inmates are: Carlos Caro (WV), Donald Fell (VT), Marvin Gabrion (MI), Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson (IA), Ronald Mikos (IL), Alfonso Rodriguez (ND), Gary Sampson (MA), and Kenneth Lighty (MD). For a description of their cases, visit the Death Penalty Information Center. All are held in the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, IN, with the exception of Gary Sampson, who is being held in New Hampshire. For more information on these cases, visit the Death Penalty Information Center.

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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1938: Margarita Arsenieva, the explorer’s widow

Add comment August 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1938, the widow of the Russian explorer and ethnographer Vladimir Arseniev was convicted in a drumhead trial of espionage and sabotage, and summarily shot at Vladivostok.

Vladimir Arseniev explored the distant Far East on foot with the help of local guides during the last years of the tsar.

Arseniev formed a lifelong friendship with one such guide, and gave the man’s name to the title of a widely-read book about his explorations — Dersu Uzala.

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa adapted Dersu Uzala to the silver screen in a 1975 joint Japanese-Soviet production that pocketed an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. (The entire film is available online through Veoh.)

Arseniev died in 1930 — not by the executioner’s offices — and was survived by his wife and scientific assistant Margarita.

As the subsequent, terrible decade unfolded, Margarita and other members of the Far Eastern Academy of Sciences came under official political scrutiny that would eventually lead to a purging.

Arrested once in 1934, and again in 1937, on the usual right-Trotskyist-conspirator stuff (Vladimir Arseniev — a suspect fellow in his later years for a potentially un-Soviet attitude to “the national question” — was the ringleader, dontcha know?), Arsenieva and a number of colleagues waited a year to get their 10-minute trial this date before assizes of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court. Six in all, including Margarita Arsenieva, were held “subject to immediate execution.”

The Arseniev’s orphaned teenage daughter Natalia was subsequently consigned to the gulag.

Most of the sources about Margarita Arsenieva available online are in Russian, including:

* This German text gives Aug. 23 as the date of the trial and execution, and a couple of other online sources use that date instead.

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1938: Arkadi Berdichevsky, Jon Utley’s father

7 comments March 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Arkadi (or Arcadi) Berdichevsky, a Russian Jew run afoul of the (pre-KGB) NKVD, was executed in the Arctic Circle prison town of Vorkuta for leading a prisoners’ hunger strike.

Though the powerful whom Stalin purged are well-known to the student of Russian history, Berdichevsky is just one of the countless obscure Soviet citizens who disappeared into the gulag never to emerge again.

Berdichevsky had something most of his fellow-victims did not: an English wife.

Freda Utley and her son Jon Utley — the couple cannily gave the boy his mother’s foreign last name to make it easier to emigrate if it should come to that, as indeed it did — left the USSR and Freda’s communist youth for fame as (paleo)conservative giants.

While young Jon — just two years old when his father was whisked out of their Moscow flat by the spooks — came of age, Freda Utley naturalized as an American and turned against her former ideology with the zeal of the converted.

Berdichevsky’s widow, Freda Utley, published this book in 1940 about her disillusionment with communism. This work and many others by Utley are also available as free pdfs from FredaUtley.com.

She savaged the U.S. government officials who “lost China”, and testified at Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s behest in the latter’s 1950’s red-hunt. (Utley also supplied McCarthy some research. She defended Tailgunner Joe until her death in 1978.)

Along the way, Freda Utley learned the date of her husband’s death, but never the circumstances.

That discovery fell to Jon Utley, who made his own fortune in business and became a conservative activist/intellectual himself, notable for his anti-imperialist position. (Utley writes regularly for antiwar.com, and opposed the recent Iraq blunder.)

In 2004, Jon Utley finally obtained the remarkably detailed records revealing that it was a firing squad rather than cold or malnutrition that took his father’s life. Utley then personally visited the sites of that Calvary in the Komi region of Russia.

Jon Utley gives a video interview about the experience and about his own path as an anti-communist here, but most especially recommended for our purposes is his written account of finding his father: HTML form here; pdf here.

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1938: Han Fuqu, Koumintang general

2 comments January 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Chinese warlord Han Fuqu (or Fuju, or Fu-chu) was executed by the Koumintang for cravenly surrendering Shandong Province to the Japanese without a fight.

Han cut his teeth during China’s Warlord Era, and though he made a timely adherence to Chiang Kai-shek‘s central government that gave him rule over Shandong, he was never exactly in love with the KMT. He ran his fief like a dictator and got rich.

When Japan and China went to war in 1937, it wasn’t a gung-ho nationalist heart throbbing beneath his decorated breast.

Commanded by this still-alien central government to defend Shandong and its capital Jinan at all costs, the former warlord instead bargained secretly with the Japanese for a way to keep his prerogatives.

Why, after all, should he throw away his own position against an overwhelming foe merely for the better advantage of the distant Chiang Kai-shek?

When Han couldn’t pull off a deal and the Japanese set about simply taking his province by force, Han withdrew without firing a shot — forcing other KMT units in Shandong to likewise fall back. To top it off, Han himself then ditched the army he’d taken a-retreatin’.

Chiang, no dummy, could see an example waiting to be made. A couple weeks after arresting Han, Chiang’s trusted aide Hu Zongnan shot him in the back of the head in what is now Wuhan for flouting superior orders.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1938: Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessell, the first gassed in California

5 comments December 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1938, California debuted the latest in killing technology when its brand new gas chamber consumed Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessel for the previous year’s riot in Folsom Prison.


Folsom Prison.

Already near 15 years in service in Nevada and previously mammal-tested in the Golden State, the gas chamber made California’s gallows a thing of the past.

First up were five convicts in three installments: Cannon and Kessel on Friday, Dec. 2; Wesley Eudy and Fred Barnes the following Friday, Dec. 9; and Ed Davis by his lonesome on Dec. 16. (The gas chamber only seated two at a time, and had to be aired out for hours after completing an execution.)

They were the five survivors of a bloody rising at Folsom in September 1937 that had killed Warden Clarence Larkin, plus a prison guard and two inmates. And they earned thereby the distinction of being blogged about in the 21st century as Californian pioneers.

Though the gas chamber’s maiden run doesn’t appear to have experienced what we might call an actual botch (a later article would report that they “stoically shuddered to their deaths”), the unfamiliar procedure made plenty of witnesses queasy. According to the Dec. 3, 1938 Los Angeles Times,

Prison attendants, used to watching men die, said the exhibition sickened them. It led almost immediately to a movement to have the new law repealed and hanging reinstuted as the method of capital punishment in this State.

The Times‘ “Daily Mirror” history blog helpfully provides several of the eyewitness reactions (along with ancient newsprint pictures of the condemned).

Kessell’s death was visibly unpleasant. He “appeared to be trying to hold his breath. He was rigid and his hands gripped the arms of his chair as the gas hit him. He gasped: ‘It’s bad!'” Cannon’s seems to have been less so.

But the real source of spectator revulsion was the audience’s aesthetic experience — in this case, of excessively prolonged and intimate proximity to the dying men.

What several witnesses said made today’s executions so terrible was the fact that the condemned men were not masked or blindfolded and that it took so long,* from the time they entered the chamber to be strapped into the chairs until they were pronounced dead.

The movement to restore the gallows never got, er, off the ground; California kept gassing condemned men and women into the 1990’s, when it switched to lethal injection.

Killed in San Quentin for crimes in Folsom? Here’s the mandatory Johnny Cash callout.

* A couple of minutes to strap down, and another 16 minutes from the start of the execution until death was pronounced. This same newspaper article said hangings clocked in at under 15 minutes for the entire procedure.

Everything is relative, of course. Renowned British hangman Albert Pierrepoint had to conduct a few executions for the U.S. military, and he found the American hanging ritual to be intolerably prolonged and personal compared to his baseline assumption.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Milestones,Murder,USA

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