1983: Waldemar Krakos, Dekalog inspiration

Add comment October 10th, 2019 Headsman

Polish murderer Waldemar Krakos was hanged on this date in 1983 in Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison.

With a partner, Wiktor Maliszewski, he’d bludgeoned and strangled a female taxi driver to death on New Year’s Eve 1982/83, yielding a few thousand zlotys to drink away before their arrest on New Year’s Day.

Both initially caught a term of years when judge (and the future President of the post-Communist Supreme Court) Lech Paprzycki found that Krakos’s traumatic childhood rendered him mentally unfit to hang; but amid public clamor the sentence against Krakos was upgraded in June by the Supreme Court. (Although his was not a political crime, Krakos’s treatment was facilitated by Poland’s early 80s martial law.)

Prior to his execution the killer met cinema director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Five years later, Kieslowski’s acclaimed Dekalog drama series explores, in Dekalog: Five, a capital punishment case very much like Krakos’s own.

That film’s portrayal of violent lumpen “Jacek Lazar” brutally murdering a taxi driver and suffering a brutal hanging in retribution has been credited with helping bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Krakos, as a result, is among the very last to suffer that punishment in Polish history.

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1943: Amos Pampaloni, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin inspiration

Add comment September 21st, 2019 Headsman

Italian artillerist Amos Pampaloni, the real-life model for the title character of the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, miraculously survived execution on this date in 1943.

It occurred at the outset of the Cephalonia Massacre on September 21, 1943, which began a dayslong slaughter on that Greek island by German soldiers of their former Italian comrades. With some 5,000 victims, it’s one of the largest POW massacres of the Second World War.

Captain Pampaloni was among 500-odd officers deployed with the 12,000-strong Acqui Infantry Division. This formation had been part of fascist Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940-41; after victory in that campaign, the Acqui Division occupied several Greek islands over the succeeding years, where German troops were also stationed.

The Pact of Steel uniting these powers melted abruptly in early September of 1943, when the Allies forced Italy into an armistice. For Italian forces standing in the field cheek-by-fascist epaulette, this forced a sudden and dangerous reckoning. Some units had barely even heard of the new situation before they were under German guns; in a best-case scenario, they had to decide within a few hours or days between radically different attitudes towards their up-to-now comrades-in-arms.

The Acqui on the Ionian island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) was a case in point. In the days following the Italian armistice, the much larger German force presented its commanders an ultimatum to decide among three alternatives:

  1. Continue fighting alongside the Germans
  2. Fight against the Germans
  3. Surrender, disarm, and repatriate

While the last of these might seem the obvious course, disarming was contrary to the Italian high command’s ambiguous order neither to initiate hostilities with Germans, nor to cooperate with them. Moreover, the Cephalonia division got some reports in those confused days that the Germans weren’t always repatriating units that surrendered. The soldiery was polled on the options, and went for resistance.

Unfortunately the Italians were thoroughly outgunned in this fight, and the Allies refused to permit dispatching reinforcements from Italy that might easily be captured by the Germans. Within days the Acqui had been roughly brought to heel.

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 1 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 2 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Numerous summary executions disgraced the German victory. (There’s a monument to the victims in Verona.) Our man Amos Pampaloni faced his on the first day of the general massacre; according to a 2001 profile in the Guardian,

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.*

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

In the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pampaloni’s fictional imitator survives thanks to a noble comrade who hurls his body in front of the fusillade.

Pampaloni didn’t appreciate Mandolin all that much, owing to its hostile depiction of the Communist partisan movement that he joined after surviving his execution. For those seeking alternative literatures, there’s also a 1960s novelization of the Greek resistance on Cephalonia by Marcello Venturi; written in Italian (as Bandiera bianca a Cefalonia), it’s long out of print in English as The White Flag.

* Prior to the Italian armistice, the Italian forces on the island were working on an arrangement to obey German command structures; hence, the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners who could be conceived as not merely prisoners of war, but traitors or rebels unprotected by any law of war. A German directive had explicitly demanded as much: “because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.”

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1973: Charles Horman, American journalist in the Pinochet coup

Add comment September 18th, 2019 Headsman

Horman was interrogated at the military school and then transferred to the national stadium for further questioning. He was ordered shot and killed the evening of September 19. According to [redacted] the authorities at the stadium did not know that Horman was an American … the body was taken from the stadium and left at a location to create the idea that he had been killed in a firefight with the military. However, in the confused days following the coup, and after it was known that he was an American, the military sought to hide the fact that he was dead.

Declassified informant’s report (pdf) of the death of Charles Horman

On this date in 1973,* American journalist Charles Horman was extrajudicially executed by the Chilean coup junta of Augusto Pinochet.

Horman was a prizewinning U.S. journalist and filmmaker from the heyday of crusading, adversarial journalism: stateside, he’d made a documentary about napalm use in Vietnam and protested that war at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

With his wife Joyce, Horman had been living in the Chile of socialist president Salvador Allende since the spring of 1972, reporting freelance while working as a screenwriter. He was right there in the capital on September 11, 1973, to see Allende’s vision ground under tank treads when the Chilean military with U.S. support overthrew the elected civilian government and initiated a litany of horrors.

One of the most emblematic atrocities of Pinochet in his earliest hours was his regime’s commandeering the Santiago football stadium as a makeshift concentration camp for leftists whose blood would desecrate the facility’s recreational purpose.**

The putschists did not fear to extend their terror to subversive Yanks like Horman and (a few days after him) a fellow-journalist named Frank Teruggi — their murders secretly okayed by Pinochet’s CIA comrades.†

There’s a 1978 book investigating this affair, titled The Execution of Charles Horman; the book, and Horman’s fate, inspired the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing.

* There are some citations out there for September 17 (the date of Horman’s arrest) or September 19, and a good many general punts to only “September 1973” for this extrajudicial execution/murder. We’re depending for our part on the firm published findings of Chilean judge Jorge Zepeda:

the following day, September 18, 1973 at around 1:35 p.m., military officials took the remains of an unidentified male to the Servicio Medico Legal [Medical Legal Department], and this individual was later fingerprinted and identified as Charles Edmund Horman Lazar, in accordance with Protocol No. 2663/73; the Medical Legal Department concluded that his death had occurred on September 18 at approximately 9:45 a.m. The corresponding death certificate was issued on October 4, 1973 by Doctor Ezequiel Jimenez Ferry of the aforementioned Department.

** In November 1973, the Soviet Union honorably refused to set boots on this boneyard to contest a World Cup playoff and was disqualified as a result — although not before the hosts were made to take the pitch unopposed in a sham “match”.

Thanks to Chile’s consequent advance to the 1974 tourney, a Chilean player holds the distinction of being the first footballer red-carded at the World Cup finals.

† Post-Pinochet Chile unsuccessfully sought the extradition of the former American military mission commander for permitting these murders, when he as the delegate of the coup’s sponsor-empire presumably would have had the juice to forbid them.

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1949: Li Bai, PLA spy

Add comment May 7th, 2019 Headsman

Red spy Li Bai was executed in the Pudong district of Shanghai on this date in 1949.

Li Bai and his circuitry immortalized in stone in Shanghai’s Century Park. (cc) image from (checks notes) “Kgbkgbkgb”

A survivor of the Party’s epic Long March Li Bai (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) was a Party-trained wireless operator who was detailed to Shanghai with the 1937 outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

He was fortunate to survive arrest by the Japanese while transmitting from occupied Shanghai in 1942. (The Japanese took him for a mere enthusiast.) Even more fortunate from his handlers’ standpoint was the interest his radio skills subsequently attracted from the nationalist Kuomintang, which recruited him into service that Li Bai was only too happy to accept.

For the next several years, he sent to the Communists voluminous inside information about the disposition of their opponents in the endgame stage of the Chinese Civil War. He was detected in the last days of 1948, sending to the People’s Liberation Army the troop dispositions that would enable it to overrun the capitals in the subsequent months. Not three weeks after Li Bai’s execution in Shanghai that city fell to the Communists; by year’s end, the Kuomintang had evacuated the mainland for its so-far permanent Formosan redoubt.

There’s a 1958 Chinese biopic about him, titled The Unfailing Radio Wave; the embed below is one of many subsequent readaptations:

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1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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1883: Vasudev Balwant Phadke dies on hunger strike

Add comment February 17th, 2019 Headsman

Vasudev Balwant Phadke died on hunger strike against his British captivity on this date in 1883.

The “father of armed rebellion” in India, Phadke radicalized while working as a clerk in Pune and arose as a prominent revolutionary in 1875 whipping up protests against the British for deposing the Maharaja of Baroda State and for the grinding agricultural crisis.

He took his sharp anti-colonial oratory on a then-novel barnstorming tour, and eventually formed the Ramosi Peasant Force — an armed peasant insurgency consisting of a few hundred souls.

Its successes were more of the local and symbolic variety — most notably, he got control of the city of Pune for a few days — but they sufficed to draw a price on Phadke’s head which eventually found a seller. (Phadke had made contemptuous reply by issuing his own bounty on the Governor of Bombay, a purse that was not claimed.) Even after capture, he briefly escaped by tearing his cell door off his hinges.

Needing to defuse his power as a potential martyr, the British gave him a term of years rather than a death sentence, and they moved him to Aden, Yemen, to serve it. Phadke overruled the sentence and clinched his martyr’s crown by refusing food until he succumbed on February 17, 1883.

There’s an eponymous 2007 biopic celebrating this Indian national hero, clips of which can be found in the usual places.

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1945: Walraven van Hall, banker to the Resistance

Add comment February 12th, 2019 Headsman

Wally van Hall, the Dutch banker, fraudster, and national hero, was executed by the Nazi occupation on this date in 1945.

Walraven — to use his proper given name — was born into a well-heeled family, the brother of eventual Amsterdam mayor Gijs van Hall.

The man’s expertise in the occult crafts of banking gained an unexpected heroic cast during World War II when Wally became the “banker to the Resistance,” quietly sluicing the funds needed to support anti-occupation movements.

Notably, he plundered the present-day equivalent of a half-billion Euro from the Dutch National Bank by swapping fraudulent bad bonds for good ones.

This profession was no less dangerous for being so esoteric. He was betrayed by an informer who was himself executed in revenge by the Resistance; van Hall has posthumously received his country’s Cross of Resistance as well as Israel’s recognition as Righteous Among the Nations for his aid to Dutch Jews. He’s the subject of the 2018 film The Resistance Banker.

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1926: Anteo Zamboni, Mussolini near-assassin, lynched

Add comment October 31st, 2018 Headsman

Halloween of 1926 was a festival of triumph for the Italian fascists … and they crowned it in a festival of blood.

The occasion marked (not exactly to the day) the fourth anniversary of Benito Mussolini‘s bloodless coup via the October 1922 March on Rome. And as a gift for himself and his populace, Benito Mussolini on that date inaugurated Bologna’s Stadio Littoriale by riding a charger into the arena and delivering a harangue.


Fascist-built and still in service, it’s now known as the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara and it’s home to Bologna F.C. 1909. (cc) image by Udb.

After another address to a medical conference later that afternoon, Mussolini was motorcading down via Rizzoli in an Alfa Romeo when a gunshot whizzed through his collar.*

It had been fired by a 15-year-old anarchist named Anteo Zamboni, vainly and sacrificially hoping to turn history’s tide with a well-placed bullet.

Instead, his act would offer Il Duce a Reichstag Fire-like pretext — there was always bound to be one, sooner or later — for a raft of repressive legislation including the creation of a nasty secret police, the dissolution of political opposition, and (of interest to this here site) reintroduction of the death penalty.**

But Anteo Zamboni would see his penalty delivered summarily after the crowd seized him.†

Zamboni was done to death with blows and blades by Mussolini’s fascist admirers right on the spot. In a turn of heart, Bologna — by tradition a leftist stronghold — now has a street named for the young would-be assassin. (Here is the source for the ghastly Mature Content images below of Zamboni’s brutalized corpse.)

The incident is the subject of the 1978 film Gli Ultimi Tre Giorni.

* Zamboni’s was only one of three assassination attempts on Mussolini in 1926 alone.

** Just days afterwards during the post-Zamboni repressive pall, the great Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci was tossed into prison, never to emerge. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks issued out of his dungeon, before his health succumbed in 1937 to the intentional neglect of his captors.

† It’s reportedly cavalry officer Carlo Alberto Pasolini who first detained the youth: the father of postwar film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

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1930: Gordon Northcott, the Wineville Chicken Coop Murderer

2 comments October 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1930, Gordon Stewart Northcott hanged in California’s San Quentin Prison for the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.

Canada-born, Northcott had moved to southern California in 1924 with his parents. They set up a chicken ranch there, and Northcott found this haunt a congenial headquarters for his real passion, the molestation and murder of young boys.

A monster right out of the QAnon fever swamp, Northcott abducted a large number of youths for abuse. Some were released, but at least three and possibly (per Northcott’s erratic and intermittently retracted confessions) upwards of 20 were imprisoned there in chicken coops and eventually murdered on the ranch, their bodies dissolving into quicklime. The victims we can certainly vouch for are Walter Collins and brothers Lewis and Nelson Winslow, plus a never-identified teenage Mexican boy whom Northcott shot and beheaded. All the while his mother was living there on the ranch too,* and not only she, but Northcott’s quietly terrified Canadian cousin Sanford Clark. Northcott molested him too, but he wasn’t just going to brain him with an axe … Sanford was family.

When Sanford’s older sister visited the boy confided the farm’s horrors to her, and Jessie Clark kept her composure well enough to take her fare-thee-wells without raising the monster’s suspicions, finally swearing out a complaint to the American consul in British Columbia. Once Northcott caught sight of immigration officers driving up the dusty road to investigate he fled his Wineville chicken coops for good, and even made it to Canada with his dear creepy mum.

Northcott’s arrest, extradition, trial, and preordained sentence shocked Californians and Northcott did his part to keep everyone’s blood up by reveling in shifty, ghastly confessions. (The father of the Winslow brothers led an abortive lynching attempt.) San Quentin’s warden would recall that Northcott favored him in their conversations with “a lurid account of mass murder, sodomy, oral copulation, and torture so vivid it made my flesh creep.” So great was the notoriety Northcott and his chicken coops brought it that Wineville flat-out changed its name to Mira Loma to dissociate itself weeks after its infamous denizen swung.

Some books about Gordon Stewart Northcott

Northcott’s execution features in a tense scene of the 2008 film Changeling; our killer is played by Jason Butler Harner, but it’s Angelina Jolie who stars as the mother of one of Northcott’s prey who was then afflicted by an imposter child claiming to be her lost son.

* Dad — whom you will not be surprised to learn was slated with abusing young Gordon in his own turn — went to a mental asylum.

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1894: Abbe Albert Bruneau

Add comment August 30th, 2018 Headsman

French priest Albert Bruneau was guillotined on this date in 1894 for murder. (Most of the available information about this case is in French, as are most of the links in this post.)

The Abbe‘s protests of innocence fell on deaf ears considering his history of degeneracy — thefts, seductions, even firing his own parsonage for the insurance money — stretching back to his seminarian days.

He’d been condemned for killing that January at Entrammes another priest, Abbe Fricot — whose body had wound up plundered of valuables and dropped down a well. This epidemic of priest-on-priest violence made for a tremendous public sensation that certainly was not conducive to Bruneau’s efforts to defend himself. Once he became suspected of Fricot’s murder, he was also baselessly implicated in (though never charged with) the unsolved killing of a Laval florist from the previous year.

A thread on guillotine.cultureforum.net draws our attention not only to some wonderful original reportage but to the riveting first-person account of Henri Massonneau in his Devant l’Echafaud (In Front of the Scaffold, available free online from Google Books or Gallica). Massonneau recounts the fury in Laval, where crowds expecting the execution a couple of days previously pelted the prison with taunts for the condemned man.

Bruneau’s cell, very tall in the tower of the Vieux Château, was illuminated. The mobs were screaming:

“Bruneau! It’s for this night! You will dance!”

In the night spots around the city, Massonneau even heard patrons grumbling for the head of Bruneau’s barrister, for having dared to defend the monster.

The magistrate and energetic proto-true crime scribbler Pierre Bouchardon* took up l’Affaire de l’Abbe Bruneau in 1942 and thought the legal proceedings inexcusably slipshod owing to the prejudicial atmosphere. (Unfortunately his Le Puits du Presbytere d’Entrammes (The Well of the Presbytery of Entrammes) falls under the pall of copyright and must be hunted among sellers of antique francophone titles.) Many other retrospectives have reached a similar conclusion.

We return to Massonneau, who has caught wind on the evening of August 29 that the beheading will take place early the next day, and even secured for himself entry into the prison to observe Bruneau’s last hours:

At half-past two in the morning, the van carrying the guillotine arrives, escorted by six gendarmes, at the Place de la Justice. This square is planted with tall trees and surrounded by stone terminals connected by chains. To allow the van to enter the square, the chains at the extreme angles had to be sawed. The square has been evacuated, but the windows of the neighboring houses are full of curiosity, and the square of the Cathedral which opens directly on the place du Palais de Justice, following it, is black with people.

We will attend the spectacle. But there will not be gladiators fighting wild beasts, nor bullfights, nor athletes measuring themselves: it will be the law that will kill an unarmed man. There are men, women, children, bourgeois, farmers, workers, many priests. Kids have climbed into the trees. We can not dislodge them. There are six thousand people around the guillotine. It’s a grand success. The weather is superb, the night is even hot.

From a distance, the crowd follows the assembly of the guillotine. When the sinister machine stands up, erect in the night, joy breaks out. We are finally quiet: Bruneau will be executed. The hour passes. My colleagues and I are entering the prison, but we are numerous and the Prosecutor of the Republic informs us that we will not be able to enter the cell of the convict. We will have to wait for him in the chapel where he will come to hear his last mass. From that moment, we will not leave him.

The magistrates entered his cell at 4 o’clock. Bruneau did not sleep. The Public Prosecutor said to him:

“Bruneau, courage. The time has arrived.”

Bruneau looked around, haggard. Then he said:

“Can I get up?”

“Yes, dress up.”

He put on his pants. The prosecutor asked him if he had a confession to make.

“No,” he replied, “I am innocent, not only of the crimes for which I was acquitted, but also of the one for which I was condemned. I only committed indecent assaults. I am innocent.” He delivered a letter to the Prosecutor.

“You will read it,” he said, “at the same time as my advocate, and you will deliver it to the public.”

In this letter, Bruneau again protests his innocence and says he forgives those who have hurt him. The letter was not published. Despite claiming to forgive them, Bruneau leveled slanderous accusations against some witnesses of the trial.

I go down to the chapel. It is located in a basement. From the chandeliers, a dozen candles flicker a dim light. Soon the chapel is full of people … I have never seen a scene more moving than the appearance of Bruneau in the chapel. He has come down at a brisk pace the twenty steps that lead to it. He wears his beard, very black, which gives him a remarkably energetic appearance. His foot scarcely leaving the last step, the condemned stiffens, and with a sudden movement turns towards the holy water font. His arms are shackled and he must make an incredible effort to take holy water. He looks like an automaton. He crosses himself, not without difficulty, then with a sure step approaches the high altar. There, he drops to his knees. A thump sounds. Bruneau seems lost in a chasm of prayer.

The chaplain approaches him and speaks to him in a low voice; Bruneau resumes his prayer; the chaplain comes to ask the prosecutor for permission to isolate himself with the condemned man to hear his confession. The prosecutor hesitates, but consents in the end. The chaplain returns near Bruneau, helps him get up, and they both head for a corner of the chapel hidden by a curtain. They disappear behind it. Two guards come to stand near the curtain.

The confession lasts ten endless minutes. Finally, Bruneau comes to take his place, on his knees, in front of the maître-hôtel. And the mass begins. Another twenty minutes pass. The assistants suffer visibly for the convict throughout; Bruneau communes. Finally the ceremony is over. Bruneau, before going out, again takes holy water, and he has the same difficulties as before. He is very calm. He climbs the stairs without weakness. It feels like a man walking in a dream. From the chapel, one goes into the courtyard to go to the registry where the last toilette is to be made. It is a small room on the ground floor. Through the door, left open, I attend these funereal preparations. Quietly, without affectation, he says he is hungry. It’s a new delay. Priests usually eat immediately after communion. It is habit that he is hungry.

He leaves the registry. I run forward and I come near the scaffold. The police commissioner who is there says to me: “It’s not him already?”

“Yes, yes, here he is.”

“But it’s impossible! It is not legal time. I cannot yet permit the execution.”

Then all that I thought during the Mass about the mental state of the condemned returns to me, and I say to the commissioner:

“Well! Have a chair brought there, near the guillotine, and sit down until it is legal time. I’m sure he will not protest … ”

“No, no, it’s not possible,” he said. “We have to wait for the hour.”

And he makes as if to go to the prison, just as the procession emerges. I stop him:

“Do not worry for so little. In Paris, we always guillotine before the hour.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.”

“Ah! so …”

Bruneau is near the scaffold. It is exactly 4:47. Legally, indeed, it is at 5:15 that the execution should have taken place. We are half an hour ahead. Bruneau has crossed without faltering the two hundred meters that separate the prison from the scaffold. Contrary to all the condemned, he does not want to see the guillotine. Two meters from the bascule he turns his head with affectation so as not to behold it. The chaplain presents him a crucifix. Bruneau kisses it twice, then he drops into the arms of the chaplain and kisses it for a long time.

The executioner’s assistants seize him but he tears free with a sudden movement and turns to the chaplain begging again to kiss the cross. He can not take his lips off the crucifix. The chaplain speaks to him, exhorts him to courage, and with a movement of exquisite gentleness pushes him towards the assistants who seize him and precipitate him onto the bascule.

When Bruneau entered the Palace Square, a huge “Ah!” came out of the crowd. But once he is here, we hear no sound; no word is uttered; nobody budges. Bruneau’s struggle against death at the foot of the scaffold lasted two minutes, two centuries.

The knife falls. Society is avenged. Its representatives on the Cathedral Square record this victory by frantic applause. It is interminable, already, the head is thrown in the basket with the body, the basket in the van, and the van rolls towards the cemetery. The crowd is still clapping. By the Place du Pilier-Vert, the Place des Arts, the Rue Neuve, the Pont-Neuf, the Rue de la Paix, in ten minutes the convoy arrives at the cemetery, between two curious hedges. Since three before days the pit was dug and the coffin was waiting.

Bruneau is buried at the end of an alley on the right, in the section of mass graves. The following year, passing Laval, I went to the cemetery. I found in front of the tomb two kneeling nuns who were praying. Many people, indeed, in the religious world, did not believe the culpability of Bruneau. But it is incorrect, as has been said, as I myself reported then, that the bishop of Laval made every effort to obtain pardon for the condemned. The bishop of Laval was stricken with immense sadness when Bruneau’s crimes were discovered. He cried, remained silent, and died of sorrow.

Wikipedia claims that the scandal of the murderer-priest inspired the French journalist Paul Bourde‘s 1902 play Nos deux consciences (Our Two Consciences), a piece adapted to cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1953 as I Confess. (review)

* Most famously, Bouchardon prosecuted Mata Hari.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

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