1878: Max Hödel

4 comments August 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.

(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)

Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.

Reichstag fire-like, these two outrages provided the Reich sufficient pretext to outlaw the Social Democratic Party** — even though the gunmen were much more radical types than this. (Hodel himself had previously been booted from the SDP.)

Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.

Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.

* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.

** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.

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1892: Ravachol, anarchist terrorist

3 comments July 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1892, French anarchist François Claudius Koenigstein — better known as Ravachol — was guillotined at Montbrison for a series of bomb attacks on right-wing judges.

He took the name “Ravachol”, his mother’s, after his Dutch father ditched his mom, leaving the family in poverty.

Young Ravachol supported himself as best he could in proletarian labor and crime, as he attempted to observe* at his trial.

Ravachol, as painted by Charles Maurin.

There are many people who will feel sorry for the victims, but who’ll tell you they can’t do anything about it. Let everyone scrape by as he can! What can he who lacks the necessities when he’s working do when he loses his job? He has only to let himself die of hunger. Then they’ll throw a few pious words on his corpse. This is what I wanted to leave to others. I preferred to make of myself a trafficker in contraband, a counterfeiter, a murderer and assassin. I could have begged, but it’s degrading and cowardly and even punished by your laws, which make poverty a crime. If all those in need, instead of waiting took, wherever and by whatever means, the self-satisfied would understand perhaps a bit more quickly that it’s dangerous to want to consecrate the existing social state, where worry is permanent and life threatened at every moment.

Personal want segued into political conviction for Ravachol, whose crimes were justified by the principle of reprise individuelle.

And the political led him to reprisals of a less individual nature, when French state violence against radicals caused him to dynamite several magistrates’ homes.

He was caught in a restaurant,** brought to trial, and let off with penal servitude for life. Then another jury, intimidated by public outcry, reversed the decision and sent him to the guillotine.

The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I, which argues that anarchists “unsettle[d] the political smugness of the Third Republic … [and] challenge[d] any formulated aesthetic. The dynamism of prewar artistic activity ran a close parallel to anarchism; postwar Dada and surrealism look like its artistic parodies†.”

Anarchism, that revolutionary specter stalking fin-de-siecle Europe, burnt its fuse at both ends, but Ravachol’s falling head‡ left a legacy for his fellow-travelers. The next year, Auguste Vaillant tossed a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies to avenge Ravachol. (Vaillant was himself guillotined, and himself avenged by Emile Henry and Sante Geronimo Caserio.)

Ravachol was also honored in a song, La Ravachole — set to the jauntily menacing tune of La Carmagnole, it cheers, “Long live the sound of the explosion!”

* This incendiary speech was cut off by the court.

** The table where the terrorist was nabbed got its own inscription: “Here ate Ravachol the day of his arrest.”

† e.g., Dadaist Marcel Janco‘s recollection:

We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the ‘tabula rasa’. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.

‡ Ravachol was guillotined midway through a parting exclamation, “Vive la Re-“. Initial newspaper reports implausibly rendered this as the patriotic classic “Vive la Republique!” rather than a much more in-character word like, oh, “Revolution”.

Weeks of controversy ensued over some witnesses’ claims that the head post-severing had actually completed the word “-publique”, a notion of a piece with the idea that the severed head survives decapitation by a few seconds. Scienticians countered that obviously excited witnesses were maybe hearing air escaping from the headless trunk and filling in the rest of the scene in their heads.

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1974: Salvador Puig Antich and Heinz Ches, the last garroted in Spain

23 comments March 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1974, in the face of an international controversy, Spain executed anarchist Salvador Puig Antich — the very last execution by garrote.

Handsome young Salvador radicalized as a youth in the 1960s under the oppressive semi-fascist Franco dictatorship.

As was the style at the time, the Catalan nationalist’s philosophy soon migrated to anarchism, and he brought his army experience to the Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación (MIL), whose direction-action credo entailed bank robberies branded as “expropriation.”

Puig Antich was caught in a police ambush that also claimed the life of a police officer — at least some of the bullets seemingly delivered by police friendly fire.

But his defense that his own gun discharged only as he was beaten senseless by the gendarmes never had a chance, since between arrest and trial, another set of proscribed leftists assassinated Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco.

Blanco’s successor went by the handle “Butcher of Malaga” for his depredations as a nationalist prosecutor during the Spanish Civil War.

So there was no quarter forthcoming from the Spanish regime, notwithstanding domestic general strikes and worldwide gnashing of teeth.

Salvador Puig Antich went on to a post-mortem existence as anarchist martyr. To help take the political edge off the scene, a non-political murderer, Heinz Ches (Spanish link), was garroted at almost the same time, in a different prison.

Spain soon did away with the discomfiting garrote; its very last executions were carried out by firing squad.

Salvador Puig Antich was the subject of a 2006 film, Salvador. (Here is a hostile anarchist review.)

The junior partner in the day’s twin killing, Heinz Ches, was himself the subject of a documentary, Nobody’s Death: The Enigma of Heinz Ches, exploring the weird near-total obscurity of the man who shared the headlines with Salvador Puig Antich. (A clip can be viewed here.)

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1901: Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s assassin

4 comments October 29th, 2009 Headsman

Back ’round the fin de siècle, everybody who was anybody* was being whacked by anarchists.

On this date in 1901, unemployed (and seemingly unbalanced) steelworker Leon Czolgosz rode the lightning at New York’s Auburn Prison for inducting the late U.S. President William McKinley into the club.

It hadn’t even been eight weeks since Czolgosz met McKinley gladhanding a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and fatally (though it took the victim a week to succumb) shot the second-term Republican president.

Matters progressed from there as one might expect.

In a one-day trial that lasted 8 hours from jury selection to sentence, Czolgosz was condemned to die in New York’s electric chair. He went to his death unapologetic, but also alone; most anarchists disavowed him for hurting the cause.**

Here’s the New York Times account of the assassin’s final moments.

As he was being seated [in the electric chair] he looked about at the assembled witnesses with quite a steady stare and said:

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people — of the working people.”

His voice trembled slightly at first, but gained strength with each word, and he spoke perfect English.

“I am not sorry for my crime,” he said loudly, just as the guard pushed his head back on the rubber headrest and drew the strap across his forehead and chin. As the pressure on the straps tightened and bound the jaw slightly he mumbled: “I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”

It was just exactly 7:11 o’clock when he crossed the threshold [into the execution chamber], but a minute had elapsed and he just had finished the last statement when the strapping was completed, and the guards stepped back from the man. Warden Mead raised his hand, and at 7:12:30 Electrician Davis turned the switch that threw 1,700 volts of electricity into the living body.

The rush of the immense current threw the body so hard against the straps that they creaked perceptibly. The hands clinched suddenly, and the whole attitude was one of extreme tension. For forty-five seconds the full current was kept on, and then slowly the electrician threw the switch back, reducing the current volt by volt until it was cut off entirely.

They made good and sure by dissolving the body in sulfuric acid.

Thomas Edison made a video recreation of the scene — not to be confused with actual film of the execution, though some sites present it as such — shortly after. Whether its creation was influenced by Edison’s now-doomed project of discrediting Alternating Current, a business rivalry that had helped introduce the electric chair in the first place, I have been unable to determine; the Edison labs produced a number of silent films exploiting “a whole string of news events surrounding the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo … both through a monumental display of lights (including test bulbs on the reproduction of the electric chair) and by a booming output of scenics, actualities, and even a historical topical.”

Glum.

More lighthearted (and more audible) is “The Ballad of Leon Czolgosz,” from Stephen Sondheim’s offbeat Broadway hit Assassins, here presented with liberal use of the Edison labs’ Pan-Am Expo footage.

… it’s not the first pop culture ephemera generated by McKinley’s martyrdom; folk ballad variations under different titles (“The White House Blues,” “McKinley,” “McKinley’s Rag,” or this version, “Zolgotz”) were in circulation in the early 20th century. Other variations and some background can be had here.

[audio:Zolgotz.mp3]

This third assassination of an American chief executive in the span of 36 years (with similar fates for James Garfield’s killer and the Lincoln conspirators) led the Secret Service, originally a Treasury Department anti-counterfeiting unit, to assume responsibility for bodily safeguarding the President in 1902.

* We’ve met a few of anarchism’s greatest hits in these pages … as well as their greatest martyrs.

** Anarchist titan Emma Goldman was blamed for inciting the murder and initially arrested; she was also one of the few anarchists to defend Czolgosz: “He had committed the act for no personal reasons or gain. He did it for what is his ideal: the good of the people. That is why my sympathies are with him.”

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1942: Joan Peiro i Belis, Catalan anarchist

2 comments July 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, anarchist, trade unionist and anti-fascist Joan Peiro was shot with six others at Paterna, Spain.

Joan (or Juan) Peiro (English Wikipedia page | Spanish) was a Barcelona glassworker of anarcho-syndicalist politics.

As Secretary General of the Confederacion National del Trabajo (CNT) and editor of the anarchist rag Solidaridad Obrera, Peiro mixed it up in the rough-and-tumble interwar political scene, eventually becoming Minister of Industry for Republican Spain — an untoward position to more orthodox anarchists.

When the Spanish Republic lost the Civil War, Peiro fled to France, where he was nabbed and extradited.

The nationalist general Emilio Mola had said before the war’s conclusion,

Whoever is, openly or secretly, a supporter of the Popular Front, must be shot … we must sow terror … eliminating without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do. (Source)

In practice, reprisals weren’t that vicious (maybe because Mola himself had died in a plane crash and wasn’t managing them) — but the leadership and intelligentsia who could rally an anti-Franco political bloc were purged ruthlessly.

The imprisoned Peiro was offered — repeatedly — a sellout package to oversee Franco’s house unions, and he repeatedly refused.

He earned martyrdom for his troubles, and after Franco’s death re-entered the public sphere as the sort of bloke to name streets after. (As an anti-Stalinist, Peiro had had all the right enemies.)


Placa Joan Peiro, a major square in Barcelona.

The Spanish judiciary, however, has thus far declined (Spanish link) to overturn his sentence.

Peiro is saluted in Catalan here.

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1894: Auguste Vaillant, bomb-throwing anarchist

5 comments February 5th, 2009 Headsman

“For too long a time, our voice is responded to with prison, the rope or the fusillade, but don’t delude yourselves: the explosion of my bomb is not only the cry of Vaillant in rebellion, but is the cry of an entire class that calls for its rights and will soon join its acts to its words.”

Auguste Vaillant

On this date in 1894, bomb-throwing anarchist — literally — Auguste Vaillant was beheaded in France.

The preceding December, the young Vaillant (French Wikipedia link) went from impoverished obscurity to national bogeyman by hurling a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies — reprisal for the 1892 execution of the anarchist Ravachol.

This bomb’s symbolic effect greatly exceeded its injury to life and limb: Vaillant said he had not been intending to kill, and in fact he did not. (Vaillant himself was among the wounded. His nose was blown off.)

But his political affiliations brought a suppression of anarchists and their press, and, of course, this day’s operation of the guillotine.*

“Mort à la société bourgeoise! Vive l’anarchie!”

Vaillant’s dying sentiment was taken up by Emile Henry, who bombed a Paris cafe the next week, and Sante Geronimo Caserio, an Italian immigrant who assassinated French President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot four months later.

* “Between the time of Vaillant’s arrival at the guillotine and the closing of the baskets containing his remains,” says the New York Times’ account, “scarcely more than twenty seconds elapsed.”

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1887: Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, the Haymarket Martyrs

10 comments November 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1887, the Chicago political machine hanged four at Cook County Jail to defend civilization from the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket martyrs, as they would be remembered ere the hysterical atmosphere of their sentencing had passed, were four from a group of eight anarchist agitators rounded up when a never-identified person threw a bomb at Chicago police breaking up a peaceful rally. The bomb killed one cop; the indiscriminate police shooting that followed killed several more in friendly fire, plus an uncertain number of civilians.

The incident occurred just days after nationwide strikes began on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour day. Nowhere were the tensions greater than Chicago, an epicenter of militant organizing. When tens of thousands poured into the streets on May 1, the Chicago Mail darkly said of high-profile radicals Albert Parsons and August Spies,

Mark them for today. Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.

Sure enough …

Most of the eight hadn’t even been present at the time the bomb was thrown, but the state put anarchism itself on trial under the capacious umbrella of “conspiracy,” in a proceeding so absurdly rigged that a relative of a slain cop was on the jury. Quoth the prosecutor,

Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousand who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.

That was the argument for hanging them. And right-thinking burghers applauded it.

Seven of the eight were condemned to die; two had their sentences commuted, but the other five refused to ask for clemency on the grounds that, innocent, they would “demand either liberty or death.” One of those five, Louis Lingg, painfully cheated the hangman by setting off a blasting cap in his mouth the night before his execution. (Lingg might have made, though seemingly not thrown, the mysterious bomb.)

The others — Parsons and Spies, along with Adolph Fischer and George Engel — hanged together, with their epitaphs upon their lips — literally so for Parsons, whose parting remark is at the base of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument*

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

“Throttle” was right, as the Chicago Tribune reported the next day, taking up when the trap was sprung:

Then begins a scene of horror that freezes the blood. The loosely-adjusted nooses remain behind the left ear and do not slip to the back of the neck. Not a single neck is broken, and the horrors of a death by strangulation begin.

Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Altgeld granted the free pardon the hanged men had demanded to the three surviving Haymarket anarchists. There is no institutional mechanism to determine erroneous executions in American jurisprudence — a fact that occasionally leads to smugly circular avowals that nobody recently executed has ever been “proven” innocent — and death penalty researchers Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau believed as of this 1998 paper (pdf) that Altgeld’s executive statement flatly asserting the injustice of the Haymarket convictions was the most recent official acknowledgment of a wrongful execution in U.S. history. If true, its uniqueness would be understandable: the gesture cost Altgeld his political career.

Long gone as all these principals are, the legacy of Haymarket remains very much with us, and not just as a magnet for digital archives like this, this and this (don’t miss the brass gallows pin).

May 1, now rich with the symbolism of the Haymarket Passion, was soon selected by the international labor movement as the date to resume the eight-hour-day push — thus becoming the global workers’ holiday it remains to this day.

* Opposing interpretations of the Haymarket affair — which can be the “Haymarket riot” or the “Haymarket massacre,” depending on where you line up — were marked by opposing memorials. The police memorial was itself eventually bombed by the Weather Underground, and subsequently squirreled away from easy public view. Paradoxically, the Haymarket Martyrs Monument has been federally dignified as a National Historic Landmark.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1894: Sante Geronimo Caserio, anarchist assassin

9 comments August 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Sante Geronimo Caserio was guillotined in Lyon, where he had assassinated the president of France two months before.

In the day when the terror stalking European order brandished the black flag of anarchy, the Italian immigrant Caserio (his first name can be rendered either Sante or Santo, and his middle name alternately as Jeronimo, Ironimo or Heironymus) escalated the “propaganda of the deed” into the nightmares of Europe’s executives.

Retaliating for the executions of two previous anarchists, August Vaillant and Emile Henry, Caserio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian | French) stepped up to the carriage of Marie Francois Sadi Carnot on the night of June 24-25 and efficiently planted a dagger in his heart.

Before the decade was out, the Prime Minister of Spain, the King of Italy and the Empress of Austria-Hungary would all likewise be murdered by Italian anarchists.

As one might imagine, Caserio played the role of cocksure martyr to the hilt: asked whether he repented, he vowed to kill another president if given a few minutes; he refused to pursue a mental illness defense or inform on comrades; and at the guillotine, he exhorted the onlookers, “Forza, compagni! Viva l’anarchia!” (The New York Times account of the beheading recounts Caserio’s background, from an obviously hostile class position.)

By the time Caserio lost his head, the propaganda of his deed had already provoked mass arrests of Italians, and a tightening of the lois scelerates (“villainous laws”) cracking down on dissidents.

But as always, one person’s evildoer is another’s hero, and Caserio has his online monuments — like this Italian page, or this blog entry, or this rendition of one of the several songs in his honor:

In an artsier vein, one can also follow the thread of the story to Les Bal des Innocents, a downloadable French production billing itself as “The first feature film under Creative Commons Licence.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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