1971: Victor Apaza Quispe, Arequipa folk saint

Add comment September 17th, 2014 Headsman

From Frank Graziano’s Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America:


In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.

It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.

People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.

Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.

Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”

Book CoverThe devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.

When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.

Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Murder,Peru,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Sex,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1820: Not Stephen Boorn, saved by newsprint

1 comment January 28th, 2014 Headsman

January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.

Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.

And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?

The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.

The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.

Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)

Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.

Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.

Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)

Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*

While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.

As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.


From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.

Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.


New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.

A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.

Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.

Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.

* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Sleuthing,USA,Vermont,Wrongful Executions

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1621: Not Katharina Kepler, thanks to her son Johannes

3 comments October 4th, 2008 Headsman

On October 4, 1621, the Duke of Württemberg declared Katharina Kepler free of a witchcraft charge for which she had barely avoided execution … with the help of her son, the astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The famous scientist was very well along his career, and his mother (German Wikipedia link) a too-old-for-this-crap 69, when authorities in her native town of Leonberg initiated proceedings in 1615.

It says here she was an eccentric, cantankerous old dame, just the sort liable to face a gossip campaign that would promote her into partnership with the Evil One. She was only one of a number of people targeted in the town’s witch-spasm, noticeably occurring as the Catholic-Protestant conflict was stoking that crucible of modernity, the Thirty Years’ War — a fine time and place for infernal superstition.

Several of the suspected were put to death.*

Kepler, whose heterodoxy and heliocentrism made him a touchy figure in a fraught time for scientists, might have done her no favors with his trippy Dream, whose overt musings on “daemons” and the like might have drawn suspicion onto the family. Johannes made six years of atonement struggling — ultimately successfully — to keep his mother alive and untortured.

Commuting back and forth from his work in Linz (showing an admirable capacity for keeping his head while others about him were in danger of losing theirs, Kepler discovered his third law of planetary motion in 1618; apparently he also read Galileo’s father on one of the trips between Linz and Leonberg), he organized his mother’s defense and wrote her briefs in his own hand.

It finally paid off.

The judicial college at the University of Tübingen — Kepler had matriculated there as a younger man — opened the door to Katharina’s release by declaring the evidence insufficient either way, and issuing a split-the-baby conviction directing that she be shown but not subjected to the instruments of torture.

On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles, the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming, praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest astronomers of the age — the emperor’s mathematician, the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, he could not stop them.

There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory (the duke’s council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. … Fear ruled Europe — fear of difference, fear of change.

And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran, nearly paid with her life.

Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession, and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn’t. He showed her each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body — the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience.

Stubborn Katharina was having none of it.

Do with me what you want. Even if you were to pull one vein after another out of my body, I would have nothing to admit. (Source)

Having survived the “torture,” she was in the clear; at her son’s relentless insistence, the Duke ordered her released six days later.

Katharina Kepler died naturally the following April. There’s a school named for her (German link) in nearby Güglingen, Germany, where ma Kepler spent 14 months in prison. (German again)

* This German timeline of Leonberg says the witchsmeller got nine out of 10 targets. Other versions have slightly different head counts for the persecution; at any rate, Katharina wasn’t alone.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Habsburg Realm,History,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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