1927: Father Miguel Pro, “Viva Cristo Rey!”

4 comments November 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1927, the anti-clerical Mexican government made the emblematic martyr of the Cristero War.

This video is in Spanish, but the storyline is pretty easy to follow — young man finds faith, lives faith, dies faith.

Miguel Pro‘s dying cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long live Christ the King!” — was a refrain of Cristeros, anti-government guerrillas who in the late 1920’s fought the revolutionary Mexican government’s attempts to forcibly restrict the power of the Catholic Church.

That conflict had been brewing for years, an outgrowth of Mexico’s own complex history of colonization and development — measures to restrict the church’s size, wealth, and social reach had been mooted and sometimes implemented well back to the middle of the 19th century.

Early in the 20th, the confrontation was merely a twist on its classic form: liberal state-builders and the Catholic hierarchy were (or increasingly saw themselves as) diametrically opposed in their vision for Mexico.

That conflict came to a head under president Plutarco Elias Calles, an irreligious northerner with a project of national capital development for whom the church’s intransigence from its agrarian strongholds was most unwelcome … and who seemed to delight in provoking Rome with sport like mandatory physicals for priests, not neglecting to publicize the incidence of venereal disease thereby revealed.

Liberals had already brought about drastically reduced clerical privileges in the Mexican Constitution of 1917; its somewhat draconian measures were neither fully enforced nor fully resisted, but initiated a period where the two hostile institutions rudely grappled for their respective spheres of influence on the ground.

Calles was the rudest grappler of all, and his 1926 Calles Law pushed for anti-clericalism stricter than the letter of the constitution … and sparked armed resistance.

It was an exceptionally dirty war with routine summary executions on both sides and thousands of Catholic refugees — a dangerous environment for any priest with legal sanctions against basically every practice of the vocation. (Photos of Cristeros, some in heroic resistance and others in grisly martyrdom, can be eyeballed here.)

Pro, a Jesuit who like many was forced underground, was under state surveillance and got picked up in the aftermath of an assassination attempt against a prominent politician. He was chosen to make an example of — without an actual trial, possibly because there’s no actual reason to think he was involved in the bombing.

Looking at these pictures of Pro’s last moments, it’s hard to believe that they were taken and circulated at government direction to cow the Cristero movement. Fail.


Led out to execution in a police courtyard. The place of his death today is (bizarrely) Calle Loteria Nacional.


Calmly at prayer before his death, under the eye of the firing squad commander.


Pro himself refused a blindfold. But why state authorities carrying out the execution with an eye towards public relations would allow him to die in this pose is anyone’s guess.


He blessed and forgave the firing squad, of course.


Just beginning to topple at the moment the bullets struck him.


Like many firing squad executions, this one failed to kill its victim with the ceremonial volley. Pro was finished off with a coup de grace.

Calles was simultaneously — the key measures were also enacted in 1926 — involved in a confrontation with the United States over oil rights, a situation that came to the brink of war, with Washington saber-rattling about “Soviet Mexico”. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two situations weren’t related, especially since the new American ambassador* who had arrived only the month before Pro’s execution would ultimately negotiate both situations’ resolutions.

While the natural resource politics went their separate way, the Mexican Revolution’s anti-clerical strain didn’t so much disappear by negotiation as fade away over decades, with regular new outbreaks.

One thinks of Mexico today as such so staunch a Catholic country that it’s hard to imagine that some of these provisions were only officially repealed in 1998.

As for Pro, he’s welcome in Mexico by now — celebrated by Pope John Paul II who ultimately beatified him, and the inspirational source of this hymn whose refrain is his famous last cry.

There’s a faithful site in his honor here, and apparently a shrine to him in Houston, Texas run by a group pushing for his canonization.

* The American ambassador in question, Dwight Morrow, invited Charles Lindbergh on a goodwill tour to Mexico, where the aviator would meet the diplomat’s daughter not long after Miguel Pro’s martyrdom. Little could Lindbergh and Anne Morrow suspect that their love match would set them on the path to their own famous encounter with capital punishment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1858: Marion Ira Stout, for loving his sister

3 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

It’s the sesquicentennial of a then-sensational, now-forgotten hanging in Rochester, N.Y.

At dawn on December 20, 1857, the city had awoken to the discovery of a mangled corpse by the Genesee River’s High Falls … and more than enough evidence to have the corpse’s killers in hand by tea time.

Marion Ira Stout — he just went by Ira — had made a dog’s breakfast of the job, according to History of Rochester and Monroe County New York from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907.

[W]hen they got near the edge of the bank, Ira struck his victim a sudden blow with an iron mallet, smashing the skull and producing death instantly. Stout then threw the body over the precipice, supposing that it would fall into the river and be swept into the lake before sunrise, but instead of that it landed on a projecting ledge thirty feet below the upper level. Perceiving that there had been some failure in the matter, Ira started to go down a narrow path that led sideways along the cliff, but in the darkness he missed his footing and fell headlong, breaking his left arm in the descent and landing beside the corpse. Summoning all his remaining strength he was just able to push the body over the bank, when he sank in a dead faint. On recovering from which in a few minutes, he called to his sister, who was still above, to come and help him. When she started to do so, the bushes to which she clung gave way; she stumbled, broke her left wrist, and fell beside her prostrate brother. But it would not do to remain there, wretched as was their plight. So, after searching in vain for Ira’s spectacles, which they had to leave behind them, but taking with them the fatal mallet, they scrambled slowly and painfully up the bank and made their way laboriously to their home on Monroe Street.

In lieu of a last statement, Stout referred his audience to this writing, which was published posthumously. Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Sure enough, the glasses were waiting near the victim for the cops to find come daylight.

How did Ira, his sister, and the late Charles Littles — the sister’s husband — find themselves in this macabre dance?

That’s the murky bit, though it’s fair to say there was some negative energy in the family.

Littles was a violent, jealous, philandering drunk. His wife Sarah seems like the classic abused spouse. Ira was an ex-con who seemingly had his life back together. Oh, and Ira and Sarah were sleeping together — professedly true in the literal sense (they were observed to sleep in bed together in their underthings), and possibly true in the Biblical sense.

Now, where in this tangled knot of incestuous desire, domestic violence, protectiveness, jealousy and intrigue lies the motive is less than self-evident, but Ira and Sarah most definitely schemed to lure Charles to his demise. (Charles was found with a club which he’d brought to clobber a lover of Sarah that he’d been told would make a rendezvous.)

Still, the condemned charmer garnered sympathy for having saved his sister from an abusive marriage; Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass rallied to his defense, and a female admirer smuggled him poison to cheat the hangman … which said admirer managed to end up ingesting herself, and barely survived.

Death got all ten-thumbed around Ira Stout, it seems. His hanging was no different.

The New York Times‘ archive has free access to the report of Stout’s execution, interestingly detailing the upward-jerking “sudden suspension” hanging apparatus in use for the job:

The gallows is the same which has always been in use in the jail — the rope, a hempen cord, alone being new. A weight of 186 pounds rests upon a swing door set in the garret floor of the jail. From this weight, the rope runs over two pulleys above, and the end of it drops through two doors, and nearly to the main floor of the jail. The weight falls about eight feet, jerking the slack end that distance. The halter attached to the main rope is a long distance below the main enginery of death, and the latter is not seen by the spectators or prisoner. The Sheriff stood at the foot of the stairs, some forty feet from the prisoner, and by a small cord pulled the latch which let the fatal weight fall.

But since this is Ira Stout, you know it didn’t come off without a hitch.

The death of the ill-fated man was not as sudden as could be desired. His struggles for eight or ten minutes were severe, and caused the spectators to turn away in disgust.

His neck was probably not dislocated, and he died by a slow process of strangulation. Doctors Hall, Avery, James and Miller stood near, and in eight minutes after the drop fell they said his pulse was as full as in life.

Sort of puts a grim twist on Stout’s own (fairly self-pitying) letters to the papers, in one of which he remarked, “I do not wish to show a cowardly tenacity for life, but I consider it my right and duty to live as long as I can.”

According to a feature story in the newsletter of Mount Hope Cemetery where Ira Stout takes his eternal rest, he might have tried to hang on quite a bit longer.

A rumor was current last night at a late hour that Stout was not dead, and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him by the use of galvanic batteries and other means sometimes employed for the restoration of persons supposed to be dead. How much truth there is in the rumors thus made we cannot say, as we have not taken pains to inquire at the house of Mrs. Stout.

No surprise, that didn’t work either.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Sex,USA

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