1957: Larbi Ben M’Hidi, in the Battle of Algiers

1 comment March 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Algerian revolutionari Larbi Ben M’Hidi — more familiarly referred to as Si Larbi or Ben M’Hidi — was extrajudicially executed in French custody.

He was one of the founders of the militant nationalist National Liberation Front (FLN) and was a critical commander in the guerrilla war against French occupation, the Battle of Algiers. Small wonder he also features prominently in the cinematic masterpiece of the same name, where he and his opposite number, the French Col. Mathieu, are bracingly clear-eyed as to their respective sides’ necessary forms of terror.

In this scene,* for instance, the captured Ben M’Hidi is asked by a journalist whether it is not cowardly to have women kill people with bombs hidden in their baskets.

“It’s it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” the shackled M’Hidi replies. “Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

This exchange adapts a conversation that “Col. Mathieu’s” real-life model, Marcel Bigeard, reportedly had with his prisoner over dinner.

Bigeard respected Ben M’Hidi too much to torture him but the French brass was not so sanguine — perceiving that the Algerian would present a great danger to the occupation as a political prisoner. This was a dirty war, and men like Ben M’Hidi met dirty fates.

Major Paul Aussaresses,** the officer eventually tasked with dispatching the revolutionary, described how it happened in his The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957.

Ben M’Hidi didn’t want to cooperate and Bigeard knew full well what the consequences of such a refusal would be … would he have talked under torture? We knew that Ben M’Hidi was responsible for most of the attacks and that he deserved the gallows ten times over, yet it wasn’t absolutely certain that he would be found guilty in court.

On March 3, 1957, [General Jacques] Massu and I discussed the problem in the presence of [Massu’s second-in-command Roger] Trinquier. We agreed that a trial of Ben M’Hidi was not a good idea. There would have been international repercussions …

“So what do you think?” asked Massu.

“I don’t know why Ben M’Hidi should get preferential treatment compared to the other rebels. When it comes down to terrorism the leaders don’t impress me any more favorably than their underlings. We’ve already executed many poor devils who were carrying out this guy’s orders and here we are hesitating for three weeks just to find out what we’re going to do about him!”

“I agree with you completely, but Ben M’Hidi is not just some cipher who will be quickly forgotten. We can’t just make him simply disappear into thin air.”

“There’s no way we can hand him over to the police either. They claim they’ll give him the third degree to make him talk but I’m convinced he won’t say a word. If there were to be a trial and he hasn’t confessed, he could actually walk away free, along with the entire FLN cadre. So let me take care of him before he becomes a fugitive, which is bound to happen if we keep on hesitating.”

“Very well, go ahead and take care of him,” answered Massu with a sigh. “Do the best you can. I’ll cover you.”

I understood that Massu already had the government’s approval to proceed.

I picked up Ben M’Hidi the following night at El-Biar. Bigeard made sure he was somewhere else because he had been told ahead of time that I was coming to take the prisoner away. I came with a few Jeeps and a Dodge pick-up. There were about a dozen men from my first squad, all of them armed to the teeth. Captain Allaire was in charge and had a little combat group lined up and presenting arms. I asked him to go get Ben M’Hidi and hand him over to me.

“Present arms!” ordered Allaire, when Ben M’Hidi, who had just been awakened, was escorted out of the building.

To my amazement the paratroopers of the 3rd RPC gave the defeated FLN leader his final honors. It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend. This spectacular and somewhat useless demonstration didn’t make my job any easier. Obviously at that instant Ben M’Hidi fully understood what was in store for him. I quickly shoved him into the Dodge. We traveled very fast since an ambush to free him was always a possibility. I gave very strict orders to the NCO guard sitting next to the FLN leader:

“If we’re ambushed, you shoot him immediately, even if we come out unharmed. Make sure you knock him off without hesitating!”

We stopped at an isolated farm that was occupied by the commando unit belonging to my regiment and located about twenty kilometers south of Algiers, on the left off the main road. A pied-noir had placed the farm at our disposal. It was a modest building and the living quarters were on the ground floor. My second team was waiting for us there.

The commando unit of the 1st RCP included about twenty men, some of whom were draftees, but all of them were completely reliable. Captain Allard, nicknamed Tatave, who was very much devoted to me, was in charge. I had told him what was going on and he had been briefed. I told him to have his men set up in a corner of the room where Ben M’Hidi would be placed. The farm was messy and they had to move a few bales of hay around and sweep the floor. While this was taking place the prisoner was kept isolated in another room, which had been prepared. One of my men was standing guard at the door.

Then I entered with one of the soldiers and together we grabbed Ben M’Hidi and hanged him by the neck to make it look like suicide. Once I was sure he was dead, I immediately had him taken down and brought the body to the hospital. Following my orders, the NCO who was driving left the engine running while the car was parked, in order to be able to drive off at top speed without volunteering any explanations as soon as the emergency room doctor appeared. It was about midnight.

I immediately phoned Massu.

“General, Ben M’Hidi has just committed suicide. His body is at the hospital. I will bring you my report tomorrow.”

Massu grunted and hung up the phone. He knew full well that my report had been ready since early afternoon, just to make sure. Judge [Jean] Berard was the first one to read it. It described in detail the suicide that was to take place the next night. Berard was impressed:

“Well, this is very good! You know, it does make sense!”

Actually the report didn’t make sense for very long. Massu called me to his office a few days later.

“Aussaresses, I’m in the shit. District Attorney [Jean] Reliquet [a torture foe -ed.] has called me in.”

“What? He dared summon you!”

“Yes, to discuss the suicide of Ben M’Hidi.”

“But that’s an outrageous thing to do! Because of your position you shouldn’t have to answer the summons. I’ll go, since I’m your representative to the legal authorities.”

I therefore paid a visit to the judge’s office.

“Mr. District Attorney, I am here to represent General Massu. Because of my position I can discuss the circumstances of Ben M’Hidi’s death. I’m also the author fo the report that you’ve seen.”

The district attorney was absolutely enraged.

“Yes, of course! Let’s discuss your report! What you state in it is purely circumstantial. And only circumstantial! There’s no proof. Can you military types offer any proof at all?”

“I can offer our good faith.”

I think that had I slapped Reliquet across the face it would have had less of an impact than that answer.

“Your good faith!” he answered, choking on the words. “Your good faith as soldiers. Soldiers who are suddenly being candid?”

I put my beret back on, saluted him, clicking my heels, and walked out of the room.

We never heard from the district attorney again after that. The death of Ben M’Hidi was a decisive blow to the FLN in Algiers. The attacks died down and the bulk of the rebels began retreating toward the Atlas Mountains near Blida.

We used the farmhouse again where Ben M’Hidi had been executed. I had the men dig a long ditch and some twenty bodies, including that of a woman, were buried there.

The French military’s success by 1957 in the Battle of Algiers did not clinch its fight to retain Algeria — which attained its independence in 1962, to the horror of the far right. But it did put the army in such a vaunting position vis-a-vis the civilian authorities — one can see it in Aussaresses’s disdainful treatment of Reliquet — that the generals would author a 1958 coup led by Gen. Massu himself which called Charles de Gaulle out of retirement and initiated France’s Fifth (and current) Republic.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi’s name today graces one of the main thoroughfares of Algiers.

* The full film is a must-watch and can often be searched up in the usual places. This press interrogation occurs about 88 minutes in … closely followed by a scene of a spokeman announcing that M’Hidi “hanged himself” and Col. Mathieu allowing that he “appreciated the moral fiber, courage and commitment of Ben M’Hidi to his own ideals. Notwithstanding the great danger he represented, I pay tribute to his memory.” Game recognizes game.

** Eventually, General Paul Aussaresses … although he’d be stripped of this rank (and of his Legion of Honor) for celebrating the use of torture in Algeria in The Battle of the Casbah.

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1957: Geza Szivos

Add comment January 4th, 2018 Headsman

From the London Times, Jan. 5, 1957:

VIENNA, Jan. 4 — Budapest radio said to-day that the Budapest military court had sentenced a 25-year-old Budapest transport worker, Geza Szivos, to death for illegal possession of arms. The sentence had immediately been carried out. The report said that Szivos had obtained a machine pistol on October 30 and with this had taken part in the attacks on the Budapest Communist Party headquarters. He had confessed to firing more than 100 rounds. As a result of the attacks several people were killed.

Szivos was said to have hidden the weapon, and others he had found, when the group was broken up. On December 18 he was betrayed to the police and arrested. The weapons were found in his house.

The radio also said that a summary tribunal at Debrecen had sentenced Gyoergy Tajko to 15 years in prison and Kalman Koris, aged 19, to 10 years. They were said to have been carrying loaded pistols and ammunition when stopped by a street patrol.

The Government newspaper Nep Szabadsag said to-day that the Hungarian police had seized “great quantities” of arms at Var Palota, in west Hungary, and were searching for a band of “blackmailers.” The arms were hidden near a pit shaft entrance and included sub-machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, and about 500 cartridges.

The newspaper also reported that small armed groups had caused disturbances in Transdanubia, in west Hungary, after the Hungarian rising. -Reuters

From the Monroe (Louisiana) News-Star, Jan. 4, 1957:

VIENNA (AP) — Budapest Radio reported today that a 25-year-old Hungarian rebel against the Communist regime was executed for hiding arms.

This brought the admitted number of rebels executed to six, although the actual number is believed to be much higher.

The broadcast said Geza Szivos, a teamster, was convicted and sentenced by a military court in Budapest. The Red radio gave these details:

Szivos got hold of an automatic pistol Oct. 30 and joined the rebel group which stormed the Communist party headquarters in Budapest.

He admitted having fired 100 shots at the building, and “several persons were killed in the building.”

On Nov. 4, the day of the Russian assault on Budapest, Szivos obtained two more automatic pistols, ammunition, eight hand grenades and two incendiary bombs. Tenants in the house where he lived informed on him to the police, and he was arrested Dec. 18. The arms were found in his quarters the next day.

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1957: Jack Gilbert Graham, terror of the skies

Add comment January 11th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Gilbert Graham was gassed* on this date in 1957 in Colorado for a cold-blooded mass murder in the skies.

Just a petty crook until his turn towards cinematic infamy, Graham fell badly in debt and looked to the friendly skies to recover his financial footing.**

When his mother, Daisie King, flew to Alaska to visit family on November 1, 1955, Graham purchased a $37,500 life insurance policy on her at the airport,† knowing that 25 sticks of dynamite had been packed into her luggage. When Graham’s bomb exploded minutes after departure, mom went down in the wreckage … and 43 other people besides. Nobody survived. Chillingly, it appeared to be a crime copied from a notorious 1949 Canadian airline bombing that sent two people to the gallows over an affair of the heart.

These cardinal sins turned literally deadly were bad enough when folks in the way got quietly poisoned off, but one could hardly fail to be alarmed at the prospect of an actual trend developing out of random private grievances turning into terror in the skies with bystanders killed by the (at least) dozens.

Once Colorado authorities zeroed in on Graham, they sought a quick trial and maximum sentence for deterrent effect. Graham halfheartedly retracted his confession but otherwise did little to fight the result; if anything, his callous indifference to the fates of a whole planeload of people stood him in a very poor light.

“As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it,” he told a Time magazine reporter. “Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”

He was easy to find, and even easier to hate.

The bombing happened on the first of November in 1955. Twelve days on, he had confessed to the FBI.‡ By May of the following year, Graham was convicted in a sensational trial — one of the first ever televised — and his appeals wrapped up a mere eight months after that.

Graham is also the reason Lenny Bruce is on the no-fly list.

* Graham died hard, screaming and thrashing against the straps in the gas chamber. The warden assured observers (accurately) that this sort of thing, horrible as it was to behold, was not uncommon.

** In Mainliner Denver: The Bombing of Flight 629, Andrew Field argues that personal resentment towards his mother drove Graham more than did pecuniary motives.

† Air travel was regarded as a much more perilous venture at this time, and insurance was commonly sold at airports.

‡ Though the feds helped the investigation, there were at that time no applicable federal statutes under which to charge Graham — so the judicial proceedings were strictly Colorado’s affair. Formally, he was charged with only one count of murder: that of his mother. It was charge enough for the task at hand.

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1957: Jorge Villanueva Torres, Monstruo de Armendáriz

Add comment December 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Jorge Villanueva Torres was shot in Lima, Peru as the notorious “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.

Except Jorge Villanueva Torres wasn’t actually the monster. His case is well-known in Peru but less so beyond, and all links in this post are to Spanish pages.

Villanueva’s hasty transmogrification began on the ninth of September 1954, when headlines announcing the discovery of a dead three-year-old child near Lima commenced a national crime hysteria. Authorities surmised that the little boy had been raped, too.

Vague eyewitness fixing on the suspect’s height and dark skin* brought many arrests of people fitting these loose criteria. Villanueva, a career petty criminal, fit that bill; when police announced him as the suspect, he became the object of his countrymen’s hatred.

Convicted in an atmosphere of prejudicial hysteria on the strength of eyewitness testimony loosely matching him to someone who might have given the victim a sweet to lure him off, Villanueva exploded with rage, even attempting to attack the judge. Naturally this only served to further implicate him as an uncontrollable beast — not as a falsely accused man pitiably near the breaking-point after two years as a nation’s scapegoat.

Villanueva asserted his innocence all the way to the fatal stake.

Those futile protestations are today widely accepted as true. There was little firm evidence against him and even the contemporary autopsy ruled against the incendiary child-rape allegation. Later forensic investigations have suggested that the poor child might simply have been the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. The mingled torments of guilt and relief in such a motorist as the matter played out must have been profound.

This case remains in present-day Peru a standing warning against occasional attempts to reintroduce the death penalty in response to the outrageous crime du jour. (Peru abolished the death penalty for all peacetime offenses in 1979.)

The Peruvian band Nosequien and Nosecuantos muses on the injustice in a single that shares its title with Villanueva — “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.

Whomever was the true “monster” — and whatever that person’s true measure of monstrosity — has never been known.

* Racism in Peru against black skin was then and remains today endemic.

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1957: Walter James Bolton, the last hanged in New Zealand

11 comments February 18th, 2011 Headsman

New Zealand got itself permanently out of the execution business after hanging Walter Bolton this date in 1957 for the murder of his wife.

The 68-year-old farmer was condemned after his wife finally succumbed to a year-long bout with some mysterious recurring ailment — and the post-mortem revealed long-term arsenic poisoning. Since Bolton turned out to have been having an affair with his wife’s sister, the pieces just fell right into place.

Jurors found these circumstances credible enough to stretch Bolton’s neck, but there’s the small problem that Walter Bolton himself also tested for arsenic poisoning.

The defense argued that the farm’s wells must have soaked up the poison from sheep dip.

But if you like your wrongful executions more sinister than dunderheaded, you might turn a wary eye to that adulterous sister-in-law, Florence Doherty, who committed suicide a year after Bolton hanged. This 2001 Investigate magazine argues (beginning on p. 24 of the pdf) that Doherty may have been a serial arsenic poisoner.

(Bolton’s hanging was also botched, to complete the official dog’s breakfast.)

Whether or not Bolton was rightly accused, nothing along the lines of a public scandal over the case triggered death penalty abolition in New Zealand.

It was rather the First World’s collctive mid-20th century move away from capital punishment. Various abolition efforts building in the 1950’s finally led to a 1961 free vote on the matter, in which ten members of the conservative National Party broke party ranks to eliminate the death penalty for all ordinary crimes. (Decades later, a Labour government also eliminated the death penalty for treason; New Zealand has only ever hanged one person for that crime.)

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1957: Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas

1 comment November 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Lithuanian link) was shot in Vilnius.

Ramanauskas-Vargas himself was born in the U.S., but his Lithuanian family soon returned to the motherland, where Adolfas grew up and taught seminary during the war years.

When the USSR finally broke the Siege of Leningrad and sent the Wehrmacht running west in 1944, it (re-)occupied the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. And the Soviets didn’t plan to leave.

Bands of anti-Soviet partisans formed in these anti-Soviet states, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe — the evocatively named Forest Brothers. Ramanauskas-Vanagas joined up.

Absent western support which was not forthcoming, these nationalist guerrillas were overmatched against the Red Army — but the movements held out in their secret wilderness fastnesses for years, and in the case of at least a few intransigent individuals, decades.

The Soviets answered with ruthless suppression to quell resistance, coupled (after Stalin’s death in 1953) with an amnesty offer that largely emptied the forests.

Ramanauskas-Vanagas, the South Lithuania commander, wasn’t captured until late in 1956. He enjoyed the customary favors of his KGB captors, and after torture, the Lithuanian SSR Supreme Court sentenced him to execution. (His wife got a trip to the gulag.)

There’s a Lithuanian biography of him here, and a few good photos in this forum thread.

A few topical books

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1957: Václav Mrázek, Czech serial killer

1 comment December 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, postwar Czechoslovakia’s most prolific serial killer was put to death at Prague’s Pankrac Prison.

Other than the mandatory Wikipedia entry, most information on Mrazek available online is in Czech.

But there’s little enough nuance to grasp. He was convicted of seven murders (and suspected in several others) to satiate his necrophiliac desires. In all over 100 crimes of sexual abuse and theft were laid at his door.

It was more pedestrian criminality that did him in; the serial killer was at work from 1951 to 1956, but somehow never caught. (This Czech site attributes it to the police force’s postwar prioritization of ideological reliability over investigative professionalism.)

Mrazek was nabbed by accident, rifling jacket pockets (more Czech) at a spa where he worked at an attendant: the subsequent search of his place turned up the evidence of far more villainous behavior, and led Mrazek to confess.

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1957: Burton Abbott, reprieved too late

3 comments March 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the phone outside San Quentin’s gas chamber rang with a governor’s reprieve for Burton Abbott … but the execution was already underway.

Abbott was convicted of abducting and murdering 12-year-old Stephanie Bryan — a notorious crime that poet Sharon Olds, then a San Francisco teenager about the same age as the victim, memorialized in verse.

Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can. And I feared the word
eczema, like my acne and like
the X in the paper which marked her body,
as if he had killed her for not being flawless.

Strong though ultimately circumstantial evidence connected Abbott to the crime, and the accused coolly maintained his own innocence at trial and thereafter. (The Oakland Museum has an extensive collection of photographic negatives from the trial.)

Abbott convinced his mom, but not many others — see this comment thread, for instance.

His last hours on March 15 were a rush of activity for a defense team that had fought for any possible angle to avert his death. A flurry of communications to Gov. Goodwin Knight delayed the execution once, and then secured a second stay just as the Abbott was being prepared for his fate.

By the time the phone rang, Abbott was already shrouded in cyanide fumes.

Goodwin’s Secretary Joseph Babich: Has the execution started?
Warden Harley O. Teets: Yes, sir, it has.
Babich: Can you stop it?
Teets: No, sir, it’s too late.

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1957: Dedan Kimathi, Mau Mau commander

1 comment February 18th, 2009 Headsman

At a Nairobi prison this morning in 1957, the most famed and feared of the so-called Mau Mau was hanged under emergency measures permitting the death penalty for illegal firearms possession.

The armed Mau Mau uprising against British colonialism was by this time on its last legs militarily, having been ground down by years of murderous anti-insurgent operations and pleasantries like mass internment.

It had been an ugly fight on all sides, with overlapping conflicts — within the Kikuyu tribe, between Kenya’s native populations, and between the British Empire and her faraway subjects — brutally settled.

Certainly the Mau Mau’s depredations had garnered voluptuous press coverage in the mother country; accordingly, the capture of “Field Marshal” Kimathi, the biggest name in the insurgency, was a plume in the British lion’s cap.

(An earlier propaganda piece along the same lines sounded the war tocsin “so that peace may come to this troubled colony.”)

Notwithstanding the (still) official London take on Kimathi and the Mau Mau, their fight for the independence Kenya would soon attain has made Kimathi a hero to many Kenyans.* He was honored on the 50th anniversary of his death with a bronze statue in Nairobi.

And more than that: the Mau Mau would metastasize into a sort of floating signifier for implacable racialized anti-colonialism, a powerful symbol for an age of decolonization. Malcolm X frequently invoked the Mau Mau example. Frantz Fanon saw in the Mau Mau the potency of spontaneous rural resistance in generating white interest in “compromise” with the moderate who

never stop saying to the settlers: ‘we are still capable of stopping the slaughter; the masses still have confidence in us; act quickly if you do not want to put everything in jeopardy.’ … as the settlers cannot discuss terms with these Mau-Mau, he himself will be quite willing to begin negotiations.

* Although many surviving Mau Mau themselves are nonplussed by their post-independence treatment.

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1957: Jacques Fesch: playboy, cop killer, saint?

1 comment October 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the dissolute son of a wealthy banker went to see Jesus on the guillotine at Paris’ La Santé Prison.

Annoyed that his estranged father wasn’t keen to finance his dream of moving to the South Pacific for a life on permanent vacation, Jacques Fesch robbed a moneychanger on the Rue Vivenne to raise the revenue — and then shot dead a police officer who gave him chase, orphaning a four-year-old girl.

Outrage at the murder of a policeman was redoubled as the callow hedonism — adultery, an abandoned illegitimate kid, and nary a hard day’s work in his life — of its privileged perp became widely known. Then, too, there’s the novelty of a financial sector scion requiring a firearm for larceny.

Fesch’s Catholic lawyer, Paul Baudet, undertook the Dostoyevskyan mission of saving client’s life and soul alike. The disinterested kid called him “Pope Paul” or “Torquemada,” but gradually — and then all of a sudden — something got through there.

Little by little I was led to change my ideas. I was no longer certain that God did not exist. I began to be open to Him, though I did not yet have faith. I tried to believe with my reason, without praying, or praying ever so little! And then, at the end of my first year in prison, a powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed, and could no longer understand how I had ever not believed. Grace had come to me. A great joy flooded my soul and above all a deep peace. In a few instants everything had become clear. it was a very strong, sensible joy that I felt. I tend now to try, perhaps excessively, to recapture it; actually, the essential thing is not emotion, but faith. (Source)

Almost overnight he gave himself to monklike asceticism, but the legal situation was not as promising as the spiritual. French President Rene Coty declined to spare him under pressure from police, and on grounds that leniency to a cop-killer would blow back on officers then trying to quell rebellion in Algeria.

Tell your client that he has all my esteem and that I wanted very much to reprieve him. But if I did that, I would put the lives of other police officers in danger. (Source)

Fesch didn’t want to die, but he accepted his penalty with resignation.

Now, my life is finished. ‘Like a little spring flower which the divine Gardener plucks for His pleasure,’* so my head will fall — glorious ignominy — with heaven for its prize! (Source)

His prison writings have filtered out widely since his beheading, and fed a burgeoning personal cult; he is often compared with the penitent “good thief” crucified with Christ. The valence of that conversion for the death penalty as a contentious political or theological issue, however, is not necessarily abolitionist. Fesch himself mused that imminent execution might have been the very thing that moved his soul.

Do you know, sometimes I think, in good faith and with horror, that the only way I can be saved [in God] is perhaps not to be saved [from the guillotine] in the human sense of the word? (Source)

Controversially, the layabout who slew a policeman has been latterly proposed for canonization within the Catholic Church — although Fesch’s defenders here observe that saints from Paul on down have often had unsavory backstories.

The young man is much better known in Romanic lands than among Anglophones — here’s an Italian homily for him:

* Quoting St. Therese of Lisieux, an apt inspiration.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,Murder,Popular Culture,Religious Figures

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