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

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1939: Las Trece Rosas

Add comment August 5th, 2018 Headsman

The Spanish Civil War’s victorious fascists shot Las Trece Rosas — “the thirteen roses” — on this date in 1939.


Plaque at the Cementerio de la Almudena in Madrid in honor of 13 young women shot there by Francoist troops on August 5, 1939. (cc) image by Alvaro Ibanez.

Earlier that 1939, Franco had clinched victory by finally capturing the capital city after a siege of 29 months. A punishing suppression of the Spain’s leftist elements ensued, running to hundreds of thousands imprisoned, executed, or chased into exile.

Our 13 Roses were members of a communist/socialist youth group, JSU, and they had been arrested in rolling-up of that organization. They were crowded into the overflowing dungeons of the notorious women’s prison Las Ventas.

A few Spanish-language books about Las Trece Rosas

And there they resided on July 29, 1939, when their JSU comrades struck back against the dictatorship by assassinating Isaac Gabaldón, the commander of Madrid’s fascist police.* The 13 Roses were immediately court-martialed and executed in revenge. Their names follow; there’s a bit more detail about them in Spanish here:

  • Carmen Barrero Aguado (age 24)
  • Martina Barroso García (age 22)
  • Blanca Brissac Vázquez (age 29)
  • Pilar Bueno Ibáñez (age 27)
  • Julia Conesa Conesa (age 19)
  • Adelina García Casillas (age 19)
  • Elena Gil Olaya (age 20)
  • Virtudes González García (age 18)
  • Ana López Gallego (age 21)
  • Joaquina López Laffite (age 23)
  • Dionisia Manzanero Salas (age 20)
  • Victoria Muñoz García (age 19)
  • Luisa Rodríguez de la Fuente (age 18)

The affair is the subject of a 2007 Spanish film.

* Gabaldon’s predecessor, the police commander under the Spanish Republic, Jose Aranguren, had been removed from his post and executed in April.

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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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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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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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1939: Operation Tannenberg public mass executions begin

Add comment October 20th, 2015 Headsman

This photo (from the German Bundesarchiv) captures an SS execution of Poles in Kornik just weeks into the German occupation of Poland in 1939, fruit of a pre-planned Nazi project to secure the new territory as lebensraum.

Operation Tannenberg (English Wikipedia entry | German | Polish) could be seen as a vanguard for the mind-boggling exterminations to come in subsequent years, cementing the army’s commitment to a campaign that extended well beyond territorial conquest. Alexander Rossino examines this understudied segment of World War II in Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity and contends that “the unlimited, almost nihilistic violence of the Wehrmacht” emerges first in these initial weeks of the Polish campaign, which proved a “transitional conflict” pivoting towards the more notorious atrocities to come. “The invasion of Poland thus occupies a crucial place in the history of Nazi Germany’s descent into mass murder and genocide.”

Drawn up by Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich and officially authorized on August 25, a week before Germany invaded Poland, Tannenberg intended to destroy Poland’s elites — from intelligentsia and nobility down to community priests and teachers, and the politically active across the spectrum from Communist to monarchist. The hope was to leave the subject nation supine, incapable of challenging Berlin’s designs on her future. Estimates I have seen vary widely but tens of thousands of Poles (with a liberal portion of Polish Jews) were shot by SS Einsatzgruppen units under Tannenberg even by the end of 1939, and kilings continued apace thereafter. Though not the literal first Operation Tannenberg Killings, the October 20-23 period marked the first public mass executions; a Polish-language list of the incidents and victims involved is available here.

The very name Tannenberg is a nationalist allusion to Germany’s time-immemorial rivalry with Poland; the original Battle of Tannenberg saw the rising Polish-Lithuanian empire defeat the Teutonic Knights, essentially breaking the latter as a European power. This defeat resonated in 20th century German national mythology not unlike the Battle of Kosovo for Serbia; in 1914, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg made himself a household name by smashing the Russians in a battle vaguely in the vicinity, and cannily christened it, too, the Battle of Tannenberg. (The Germans put up a monument to it which they felt obliged to tear down later in the war as they were being driven out of Poland.)

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1939: Fifty-six Poles shot in retaliation at Bochnia

1 comment December 18th, 2014 Headsman

We owe this discomfiting executioner’s-eye view from the ranks of German soldiers as they gun down Poles in the town of Bochnia on December 18, 1939 to a partisan attack two days prior by a Polish underground organization called White Eagle. Fifty-six civilians were executed in retaliation.

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1939: Nelson Charles

Add comment November 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Nelson Charles hanged for stabbing his mother-in-law to death in a drunken altercation.

Charles, an indigenous man and World War I veteran, was described by a retired U.S. Marshal who knew him as ” quiet, peaceful and polite person and I have never known him to even have an argument or get into trouble of any kind” — that is, when not drinking. Alas, both he and the victim, 58-year-old Cecilia Johnson, had an affinity for the stuff.

Though Charles committed this murder in “Indian Town” of segregated Ketchikan, Alaska, he hanged in the territorial capital of Juneau.

This was Juneau’s very first execution (previous Alaskan executions had occurred in Nome, Sitka, and Fairbanks), and the improvised gallows arrangement tucked into a stairwell pit under the outside staircase of the town prison is something to read about. One can do that in this here article of the Alaska Justice Forum.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also has a very moving essay written by the then-21-year-old cub reporter who was one of the dozen official witnesses:

Men have been stricken with fatal diseases and we have known they would die. We have held our buddies in our arms at the front and watched the last breaths spend themselves. But even then there had been hope, and when not hope, the awareness that death might stay away awhile. But none of that now; nothing less than a miracle could save this fellow and there are no miracles in this life. Soon he would be a stone.

From under his vest the marshal brought out the black hood. With the deputy standing on the other side, assisting him, he began to draw the thing onto the man’s head. I had not felt too bad until the priest had appeared in his long, black robes; I had seen those robes and tears had come. Nothing like tears came now, but still I hated the black, hated the hood. Take it easy now, you fool, I thought to myself. Look away for a few seconds. So I dropped my eyes and looked into the pit; then up again. They were having trouble with the hood. It was too small. Halfway on, its edge caught onto the man’s right ear.

“Fix my ear,” he said quietly. His last words. Like a small boy who is about to be punished and, with a half-sob, begs his parent to be careful not to break the toy in his pocket.

Read the rest of it here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alaska,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,U.S. Federal,USA

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1939: Six assassins of Armand Calinescu

1 comment September 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Romanian Prime Minister Armand Calinescu was gunned down on a Bucharest street in an ambush by the Iron Guard. (Romanian link)

Before the day was out, six of members of the hit squad were lined up and machine-gunned on the very same spot.

Armand Calinescu

Calinescu was a conservative politician trying to fight off the rising fascist movement in his country — that aforesaid Iron Guard — and preferred to keep Romania in politic neutrality and friendly with England and France rather than hitching its fate to Nazi Germany.

This entailed an increasingly acrimonious struggle throughout the 1930s against the fascists. Calinescu once called the Guard “an association of assassins,” and the prospect of taking a bullet from them can’t have been far from his mind. Calinescu’s fingerprints were all over press closures, pre-emptive arrests, and still worse offenses to outrage the far right. After years in the cabinet working hand-in-glove with the hated-by-fascists King Carol II, Calinescu finally became Prime Minister in March of 1939. Carol hoped he could be the bulwark against a Legionary takeover.

If by his enemies ye may know a man, know that Calinescu was taken seriously enough for a multilateral meeting between representatives of the Iron Guard, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany in order to make the arrangements for his murder. But Calinescu would probably have just as soon have preferred his life to this tribute of his foes.

Upon news of the assassination, Calinescu’s place was immediately filled by Gen. Gheorghe Argesanu, whose one week as head of government was distinguished by a ruthless crackdown on his country’s homegrown terrorists.* The very next day’s British papers, in the same stories reporting the assassination, carried news “of an exemplary punishment” delivered within hours: “Last night, under the glare of powerful arc lamps, the murderers were publicly executed by machine-gun on the spot where the crime had been committed.” (London Times, September 22, 1939)

Nor was that the last exemplar.

The Times reported on September 25th that the ensuing days had seen “more than 300 former Iron Guards were shot” all around the country, including many “in the open street as a public example, on the pattern of the machine-gun executions in public at the scene of the crime.”

The “example” did not have the intended effect: in the span of another year, a fascist-aligned government had control of Bucharest and King Carol had hightailed it to Mexico, never to return.

* The Iron Guard would pay back Argesanu a year later by killing him during the Jilava massacre of its political prisoners.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Romania,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Treason

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