1831: Vicente Guerrero, former President of Mexico

2 comments February 14th, 2019 Headsman

Vicente Guerrero, late the president of Mexico, was executed on this date in 1831.

He was once a rebel soldier under Jose Maria Morelos in the Mexican War of Independence against Spain.

The Afro-Mestizo Guerrero (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) cinched that conflict by successfully appealing to his royalist opposite number, Agustin de Iturbide, to switch sides. Their combined forces rode into Mexico City together in September 1821 but the conservative Iturbide and the liberal Guerrero soon parted ways.

Iturbide was elevated to emperor of Mexico; Guerrero by 1823 had returned to the field to rebel against the strongman. When Iturbide was deposed (and eventually executed), Guerrero became one of the ruling triumvirs and a national political figure. He contested the 19281828 presidential election which he lost at the ballot box but won in the ensuing street battles — an affair that featured the intervention on Guerrero’s side of Santa Anna.

He was quick about abolishing slavery and he had to be, for this mixed-race populist was deposed by his conservative vice president within months — beginning another round of civil conflict that was dishonorably resolved when an Italian sea captain arranged with the Mexico City government to lure him aboard and arrest him. For this gambit Judas received 50,000 pesos and Guerrero a summary court-martial and a firing squad at Cuilapam.

The cruel treatment of Guerrero requires an explanation. Bravo had been defeated in 1827 but was merely exiled and there were other similar cases. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, why in the case of Guerrero the government resorted to the ultimate penalty. The clue is provided by Zavala who, writing several years later, noted that Guerrero was of mixed blood and that the opposition to his presidency came from the great landowners, generals, clerics and Spaniards resident in Mexico. These people could not forget the war of independence with its threat of social and racial subversion. Despite his revolutionary past, the wealthy creole Bravo belonged to this “gentleman’s club’, as did the cultured creole, Zavala, even with his radicalism. Hence Guerrero’s execution was perhaps a warning to men considered as socially and ethnically inferior not to dare to dream of becoming president. (Source)

The southern Mexico state of Guerrero is named for him; its slogan, mi patria es primero (my fatherland is first) is the legendary reply that the young Vicente Guerrero made to his Spain-supporting father when asked to foreswear the independence movement.

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1943: Dora Gerson, cabaret singer

1 comment February 14th, 2017 Headsman

Jewish cabaret singer and silent film actress Dora Gerson was gassed with her family at Auschwitz on this date in 1943.

IMDB credits the Berlin entertainer (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed German) with two silver screen roles,* both in 1920 and both now believed lost.**

Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.

And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.

After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”

Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.

* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.

** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

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1873: John Gaffney, hanged by a President

1 comment February 14th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1873, John Gaffney hanged in Buffalo — the last of two executions conducted by future U.S. President Grover Cleveland.

The man whom future foes on the national stage would deride as the “Buffalo Hangman” got his political start as sheriff for that Erie Canal port. It was the Sheriff’s honor not only to drop the trap on a condemned man like Gaffney, but, in the first days of February, to successfully petition Gov. John Adams Dix* for a short delay pending execution of the sentence.

Having been condemned for a drunken murder the year prior, Gaffney was then engaged in playing vigorously his last card for clemency: “either insane through fear of death or pretending insanity,” as press reports put it. (We find this one all the way down in Texas’s Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Feb. 7, 1873.) “He has become very violent and uses the foulest language to all who approach him. He walks incessantly, and is said to have abused his spiritual adviser in the most outrageous manner to-day, and threw a crucifix at him through the grating.” Most everyone supposed this was a put-on, but a group of physicians wanted some time to examine him for propriety’s sake.

This ruse kept Buffaloans quite excited for the next week, butteressing the already-vigorous movement among its best citizens for sparing Gaffney’s life.

But in the end, his life was only spared for a week.

To give the killer his due, he had the dignity not to continue the pretense once the governor made it clear that the attempt had failed. Sheriff Cleveland delivered to Gaffney the bad news, and with it, an instantaneous return to reason. (Gaffney admitted once again under the gallows that his madness was shammed.)


From the Feb. 12, 1873 New York Herald.

For the whole of his short adult life, and even years before then, Gaffney was a rough customer down in Buffalo’s seedy dockside canal district — where “a life didn’t count for much.”

One night in May the previous year, Gaffney had been on one of his frequent benders through the district’s cutthroat dive bars. While gambling that night at Sweeny’s saloon, he fell into a senseless quarrel with another of his depraved ilk named Patrick Fahey — which ended when Gaffney produced a pistol and the evident intent to use it. Fahey fled as Gaffney fired errantly, making it all the way to the street before his whiskey-addled assailant finally aimed true. The noise of the volley brought a pair of police running — they only ventured into this part of town in pairs — and they arrested Gaffney on the spot while Fahey breathed his last into the iniquitous gutter.

Gaffney’s usual crew zipped their lips. But police were able to find a minstrel named McQueeney who was witness to the mayhem and prepared to talk (and testify) about it.

By the end — after eight months’ worth of legal maneuvers, clemency appeals, and faux-insanity — Gaffney affirmed his guilt to the witnesses who attended his Valentine’s Day hanging, blaming drink for escalating the encounter and regretting that he had not admitted all and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. “I beg pardon for all the crime I have done, and I forgive all who have injured me,” he said. Then at two minutes before noon, the 22nd and 24th** U.S. president touched the spring to open eternity beneath Gaffney’s feet, and efficiently snapped his neck.

* Dix was one-half of the namesake of the Dix-Hill cartel under whose auspices the belligerents of the recent Civil War managed their prisoner exchanges. The breakdown of this exchange system in 1863 helped create the conditions for the humanitarian catastrophe at Andersonville.

** As all U.S. civics nerds know, Grover Cleveland was President from 1885 to 1889, then lost an election to Benjamin Harrison, then defeated Harrison in a rematch in the next election and returned to the Oval Office from 1893 to 1897: the only president who served multiple terms non-consecutively.

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1942: Matvey Kuzmin, modern-day Ivan Susanin

Add comment February 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1942, German troops in Russia’s Pskov Oblast summarily executed 83-year-old peasant Matvey Kuzmin for leading them into an ambush.

World War II’s real-life Ivan Susanin was conscripted as a guide for the occupying Wehrmacht intending to approach a Soviet position at the village of Makino.

Kuzmin cunningly sent his son ahead to Malkino to alert his countrymen of the attack while guiding the Germans circuitously. By the time Kuzmin et al reached the outskirts, a Soviet ambush was waiting for them.

An enraged German officer shot Kuzmin during the ensuing firefight.

Since Kuzmin’s feat of resistance was not at all anonymous, he was transmuted into a parable of national heroism almost immediately. Kuzmin was posthumously honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union; the Moscow visitor to this day can behold his statuary’s valorous stance at the Partizanskaya metro station, opposite the martyred guerrilla Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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2004: Yang Xinhai, Monster Killer

1 comment February 14th, 2014 Headsman

When I killed people I had a desire. This inspired me to kill more. I don’t care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern…I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern.

-Yang Xinhai

On this date in 2004, China executed one of its most prolific serial killers ever.

Yang Xinhai was an impoverished migrant worker with previous theft and rape convictions already to his name when he commenced his infamous spree in 1999.

Over the ensuing four years the so-called “Monster Killer” amassed 67 murders and 23 rapes via terrifyingly bold home invasions: he would break into rural occupied rural dwellings under cover of darkness wielding a heavy iron hammer or similar slasher-villain melee weapon, and then just go to town.

“He didn’t leave survivors, and more than a few families were exterminated by his hand,” one newspaper report described. (In fact, about five people are known to have survived Yang’s various attacks.)

The last of his slayings — eight people in two different attacks in Hebei Province villages — occurred a bare six months before Yang himself caught a bullet to the back of his end. A routine police stop in November 2003 made him a little too shifty and prompted beat cops to detain him. Almost immediately the diabolical character of their new capture spilled out.

Yang himself didn’t see the point in resisting the inevitable. He provided a full confession, didn’t bother to defend himself in an hour-long trial on February 1, 2004, and declined to mount any sort of appeal to prevent his swift execution 13 days after that.

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1548: Francesco Burlamacchi, Lucca republican

Add comment February 14th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Francesco Burlamacchi lost his head … for a united Italy?

A humanist patrician with a soft spot for Plutarch, Burlamacchi had orchestrated a bid to break away an independent federation of Tuscan cities — Florence, Pisa, and his own city of Lucca.

The dream of the Republic and liberty lived long after Rome’s legions had ceased to tromp. It’s just that said dream got reliably tromped over whenever it threatened to materialize in reality.

These prospectively-liberated cities existed with formal independence under the aegis of the allied Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — and were locally bullied by the Medici Duke Cosmo. That made two Caesars who would not be keen on fragmented city-states coalescing into Burlamacchi’s Republic of Tourist Hotspots; for good measure, Burlamacchi threw in some religious reform and anti-clericalism that would be sure to go down poorly with the church. (Lucca was notorious in the Vatican’s eyes as a center of heterodoxy.)

Against this likely formidable opposition, our plotter counterpoised an astonishing rolling-putsch plan.

His scheme was to march a militia, under cover of “training,” out to the environs of Pisa where he would appeal to the Pisans to throw off their Florentine shackles, then march the resulting larger troop to Florence and appeal to the Florentines to kick out the Medici. Revolution accomplished, the neighboring cities — Siena, Arezzo, Lucca itself — would naturally adhere to this new confederation.* He meant, he later told his judges, to “free all of Tuscany.”

Pretty ambitious. Or optimistic. Or … bonkers.

Once the impossible dream plot was betrayed from the inside, Duke Cosmo, as the most direct target of the intended march, wanted Burlamacchi delivered to his own hands for interrogation and punishment; the elders of Lucca could not do this without making an impolitic show of submission to their neighbor.** Charles V resolved the impasse by taking Burlamacchi to the imperial seat of northern Italy, Milan, and cutting his head off there.

During Italy’s 19th century risorgimento, the Italian writer Carlo Minutoli rediscovered Burlamacchi and popularized him as a forerunner of the new Italian nationalists. (Burlamacchi had long been forgotten as an embarrassment in the intervening centuries.)

Accordingly, with the (proto-)unification of Italy, Tuscan sculptor Ulisse Cambi was commissioned to produce a monumental statue of Francesco Burlamacchi. This would-be Aratus still keeps watch on Lucca’s Piazza San Michele.


(cc) image from alphaorionis. Note that, according to The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies (whose chapter “Fortune’s Fool” by Mary Hewlett was invaluable to this post), the historical Burlamacchi actually never carried a sword and hated bloodshed.

* The confederated city-states model was really big in the family. Burlamacchi’s teenage — at the time of the execution — son Michele later emigrated to Geneva, in the Swiss Confederation, and converted to Calvinism.

** Lucca was declining as a power at this time, and all the more insistent about jealously guarding a maximal appearance of sovereignty. The city-state’s major project in the 16th century was throwing up city-girding defensive walls meant to preserve her independence.

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1845: John Gordon, the last hanged in Rhode Island

Add comment February 14th, 2012 Headsman

Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a measure posthumously pardoning John Gordon — who on February 14, 1845 was the last man executed in that state.

Gordon’s hanging, for the murder of a prominent industrialist who had bad blood with Gordon’s brother, was long notorious in Rhode Island as one secured on highly uncertain evidence in an atmosphere of anti-Irish prejudice.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome on this occasion University of Rhode Island labor historian Scott Molloy, author of Irish Titan, Irish Toilers and a major advocate of the Gordon pardon.

ET: Can you set the scene — what’s going on in Rhode Island at this time, and what are the tensions surrounding Irish immigrants?

SM: Rhode Island was the site of the first factory in America in the 1790s, called Slater Mill. It really changed the face of Rhode Island and eventually the rest of the US.

In Rhode Island, curiously, as more and more people left the farms to work on the mills, they had an unusual requirement that really didn’t make any difference years earlier: in order to vote, you had to have so much land. (Specifically, $134 worth of land.)

By 1840, not only were the usual suspects not able to vote — women, people of color, Native Americans — 60% of native-born white male Rhode Islanders were also unable to vote. It meant that just a handful of people ruled the state, compared to the time of the American Revolution when just about every white male could vote. And immigrants in particular — and in those days, that was the Irish — were basically precluded from voting. You had a residency requirement, a property qualification. It made Rhode Island almost unique in New England, almost like a southern state.

A group of reformers came to the forefront, a guy named Thomas Wilson Dorr, a blueblood aristocrat, Harvard-educated, one of the best legal minds of the country. He threw his lot in with the reformers to try to get people the right to vote. It really polarized the state in 1842.

The Irish were sympathetic, but Irish priests tried to keep them out of it because they wanted to acclimate. But because a lot of the animosity toward people having the right to vote was directed at Irish immigrants. People blamed the Irish even though the Irish didn’t get particularly involved in the Dorr War.

Often times they got blamed for everything whether they did it or not. And of course we face the same situation with immigrants today.

What was the crime and how did the Gordons come to be the focus of the prosecution?

In 1843, a Yankee industrialist out in Cranston by the name of Amasa Sprague was found on New Year’s Eve 1843 bludgeoned to death in what today we might call a hate crime. He had a gold watch still on him, he had money in his poket, and he had been beaten to death.

Amasa Sprague was a very influential guy. His older brother who helped run the mill with him and was the US Senator from Rhode Island had the local city council lift the liquor license from the Gordon family’s business, which for all intents and purposes ended their livelihood. This was Nicholas Gordon’s shop: John Gordon had only just crossed over from Ireland.

When Sprague was found dead about six months after the license was lost, they focused on the Gordon family. The authorities formed a posse and they went after this Irish family.

Book CoverHow did anti-Irish sentiment manifest itself at trial?

The juries in all three trials had no Catholics and no Irish that I’m aware of. There was a lot of religious and socioeconomic animosity.

At the time, the Supreme Court of the state would sit in on the whole trial just because it was a capital trial, and the trial judge would say in the transcript — which is still available (pdf) — he basically says to the jury, if you find testimony that contradicts itself between a Yankee and an Irish witness, you should give the Yankee testimony more credence.

Doesn’t the fact that John Gordon’s brothers were not convicted militate against the notion of overwhelming anti-Irish prejudice?

You can’t go overboard on these things. The juries — all three of them — they found one Gordon innocent and in the other case they had a hung jury. I don’t want to say they were completely prejudiced, because they weren’t, but almost everything else in Rhode Island at that time was stacked up against them.

The earlier Irish who came in the 1820s and 1830s were a little bit better off, a little bit better-educated [compared to later Irish immigrants after the potato famine]. The animus against the Irish was still intense; the Irish were seen as criminal, unskilled, uneducated, ignorant. The Protestant majority at the time, mostly of English heritage, kind of brought that over with them even though they had been there for a long time.

So how did the legal proceedings play out?

They put two of the recently immigrated brothers up for conspiracy for murder, but not the oldest brother. So John Gordon and his brother William go on trial first.

The jury came back with a guilty verdict for John Gordon, who didn’t have much of an alibi, but a not guilty verdict for William, who did have an alibi. So you’ve got a conspiracy conviction with only one conviction.

Then they put Nicholas Gordon on trial, and the jury comes back deadlocked. His second trial is not going to be until the spring of 1845. In the interim, his brother John was to be hanged, Valentine‘s Day 1845 — rather than wait to see what happened at Nicholas Gordon’s trial and whether there even is a conspiracy.

The defense petitions the governor and the general assembly to hold off the execution until after the trial of the oldest brother. The governor washes his hands of it, and the general assembly votes very narrowly to go ahead with the execution.

So they hang him, and what’s interesting in that part of it is an itinerant, traveling Catholic priest — a guy named Father John Brady — hears John Gordon’s last confession.

Well, they invite the elite of providence inside the prison to watch the hanging. (There’s about 1,000 Irish outside the prison in support of John Gordon.) When they put the noose around his neck, the priest is with him, and the priest berates the elites and authorities, and he says, John, you are going before a just God who has seen way too many of your countrymen.

I always argue in my writings that this guy, he’s an immigrant, he’s uneducated, he’s just been in America for a few months. I just can’t believe that this guy would ever lie to the priest hearing his last confession, and the priest would never berate the elites unless he’d heard a confession of innocence.

After John Gordon’s hanging, his brother Nicholas goes on trial as planned, and they come back with another hung jury — this time, with a majority voting him as innocent. They were going to try him again except about 18 months later, Nicholas dies of natural causes.

I’ve seen a lot of people describe growing up hearing unambiguously that this was a wrongful execution. Is that how it was perceived right from the start? How universal was/is that perception?

There was such a collective feeling of guilt about this that in 1854, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty and John Gordon was the last person ever executed there.

There’s one flaw in the law. This was added late in the 20th century, that anyone convicted of killing a prison guard during an escape could still be killed. And there was an incident, I remember it as a kid maybe 30 years ago, but they still didn’t condemn even that person to death. But Rhode Island has never changed that.

None of us who ever testified ever said categorically that John Gordon was innocent, because we just can’t prove that. But we did say that he never got a fair trial, just like Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.

We did in our research was come up with two or three suspects who had much better reason to assassinate Sprague. But there were no witnesses to the case. It was all circumstantial evidence. I have to say, every time I look at the case — there are some pieces of evidence that would make the Gordons look very guilty. There are other aspects of it that make them look very innocent. If it was in today’s world, the police would interrogate them as people of interest.

It’s not as cut-and-dried as some people make it. All I know is that they got an unfair trial.

Gordon was posthumously pardoned last year. How did that campaign get going, and how receptive were folks in the capitol?

The problem was a lot of people had forgotten the case. I had been writing for a number of years op-ed pieces in the Providence Journal, and mentioned John Gordon from time to time.

But it was an 80-year-old guy named Ken Dooley, and he grew up a couple miles from the murder site near Cranston, and he was a playwright. He came back home and remembered his grandmother singing some little ditty of a song 70 years ago saying something like “Poor Johnny Gordon”, and so he researched it, and he wrote a play.

And they put it on in Cranston, and over the couse of the month several thousand people saw it. A state representative, an Irish guy, saw the play four or five times and then introduced that into the general assembly trying to obtain a posthumous pardon — just to say that the evidence didn’t support the execution.

And Gov. Chaffee, who comes from an ancient Yankee family in Rhode Island, signed the damn thing. It was that play that this guy wrote and we were all amazed that this kind of came out of the blue. We held a lot of events around it — had church services, put up ceremonial headstones. I always tell people that I want this on my headstone: that I had a hand in getting John Gordon pardoned.


There are some excellent resources already available online concerning the Gordon case, including:

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1554: David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius, Anabaptist martyrs

Add comment February 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Anabaptists David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius were burned at the stake in Ghent.*

Looks like it hurt.


In the year 1554, there was imprisoned at Ghent, in Flanders, for following Christ and living according to God’s commandments, a young brother named David, who, when examined, freely confessed his faith. Being asked what he thought of the sacrament, David said, that he considered it nothing else than idolatry. Then a priest said to him, “Friend, you err greatly, that you so readily confess your faith, for it will cost you your life, if you do not change your mind in time.” Thereupon David sweetly replied, “I am ready to shed my blood for the name of Christ, even though it should be here in this place; for God is my salvation, who will keep me, and preserve me from all evil.” The priest said, “It will not be as good as though you were put to death secretly here in this place; but you will be burnt publicly at the stake, for an everlasting reproach.” He was then brought into the court, where he was condemned to death, and his sentence was read, namely, that he had fallen from the true faith into heresy, and was therefore, according to the imperial edict, sentenced to be strangled and burned. David said, “No one will ever be able to prove by the Scriptures, that the faith for which I must now die is heresy.”

There was also sentenced to death with him a woman named Levina, who rather forsook, not only her six dear children, but also her temporal life, than her dear Lord and Bridegroom Jesus Christ. Arriving on the scaffold, David attempted to kneel down in order to offer up his prayer to God, but he was prevented, and they were immediately driven away to the stakes, standing at which, David said to Levina, “Rejoice, dear sister; for what we suffer here is not to be compared with the eternal good that awaits us.” (Rom. 8:18) When about to offer up their sacrifice, both exclaimed, “Father, into thy hands do we commend our spirits.” A little bag of gunpowder was tied to each of them, whereupon they were strangled and burned. But there happened a manifest miracle of God; for though they were completely burned, and the fire was as good as extinguished, David was seen to move his head, so that the people exclaimed, “He still lives.” The executioner seized the fork, and thrust it three times into his bowels, so that the blood flowed out; yet even after this he was still seen to move, hence, the executioner threw a chain around his neck, and bound him to the stake, and thus broke his neck.

Thus these two valiantly fought their way through, firmly trusting in God, who did not let them be confounded, since they had firmly built their building upon the only foundation; wherefore they shall never perish, but abide forever.

Martyrs Mirror

* The very birthplace of the then-sitting Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

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1994: Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov

5 comments February 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1994, Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo was shot dead in a soundproof room in Novocherkassk, Russia, for a stupendous serial murder spree in the 1980s USSR.

The quintessential case study in anonymous middle-aged melancholy turned larger-than-life horror, the sexually dysfunctional Chikatilo raped, murdered and mutilated dozens in a homicidal career beginning at the unusually late age of 42.

After that initial foray into rape-murder in 1978, three years passed before the factory clerk (molestation allegations had drummed him out of teaching in the interval) began his harvest of 50-plus victims: children and teenagers of both sexes, and young adult women.

In addition to the staggering body count, the murders of the “Rostov Ripper” were marked by orgiastic savagery: breasts severed, eyes gouged out, genitalia mutilated and even eaten, and bodies lacerated with scores of stab wounds.

Like many monsters, he was also, as much as his more well-adjusted fellows, a creature of his own time and place.

Chikatilo was a socially maladjusted child in part due to his father’s capture by the Germans during World War II, subjecting the family to the postwar ostracism that awaited returning POWs. (Some sources also say Chikatilo saw his mother raped by German soldiers.)

The part of his life for which he’s most famous, meanwhile, drew out into a years-long bloodbath even though he was a suspect from the very first murder — a crime for which another man was wrongfully executed. Sclerotic bureaucracy and investigative cock-ups hobbled the police effort throughout, a sort of criminological emblem of the Soviet Union’s twilight. Authorities were loathe to involve the public by admitting the presence of a serial killer, a type officially associated with bourgeois society.

Chikatilo was arrested once in 1984 carrying a Bundy-esque murder kit, but authorities couldn’t make anything stick (Chikatilo’s Communist Party membership helped); another officer stopped him leaving the forest where bodies turned up, but didn’t search the satchel which contained his most recent victim’s severed breasts. Chikatilo was investigated early on, but ruled out as a suspect because of a blood type mismatch between his blood and crime-scene semen — apparently the result of a rare biological anomaly that (combined with authorities’ outsized confidence in forensic detection) bought him years of killing and involved thousands more suspects before investigators finally circled back to Andrei Romanovich.

Even at his last arrest, investigators who knew they had their man nearly let him slip away because they couldn’t charge him within 10 days — finally cajoling a confession and the killer’s cooperation at nearly the last possible hour.

According to Cannibal Killers, the Chikatilo task force solved 1,062 unrelated crimes, including 95 murders, while puzzling out the Rostov Ripper.

There’s much more about Chikatilo’s career at trutv.com; the 1995 film about the Chikatilo murders, Citizen X, indulges some dramatic license, but it’s pretty watchable for a TV movie.

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1009: St. Bruno of Querfurt

4 comments March 9th, 2009 Headsman

We have the rare privilege this date* to salute 1,000 years since the martyrdom of St. Bruno of Querfurt.

St. Bruno — also Brun or Boniface — had his head chopped off, and 18 companions were allegedly simultaneously hung or hacked to pieces, by a chieftain who did not appreciate the bishop’s efforts to Christianize the Baltics. The wherefores, and even the wheres (different sources locate it in Prussia, Rus’, or Lithuania) of this missionary’s end are permanently obscure to us.

But this relatively forgotten saint has something to tell us about the fluid area of contact between the Latin and Greek Christian spheres in the decades before their schism.

Lithuanian Institute of History scholar Darius Baronas argues** that although Bruno’s missions were conducted independently under papal authorization, he received support from the courts of both the Polish king Boleslaw the Brave and the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ Vladimir the Great.†

Both rulers hoped to extend their influence among the still-pagan lands of Europe, a secular incarnation of the rivalry between eastern and western rites.

So why is he so little-known to posterity? Baronas observes that St. Bruno

is a supreme example of a missionary saint and his activities ranged almost from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Yet despite his activities, let alone his glorious death, he did not receive much praise from his contemporaries and still less from later generations. His subsequent cult was rather circumscribed and was largely forgotten.

Precisely because of his ambiguous place between these two competing powers, and because his mission did not conform precisely with either’s policies of statecraft, neither Boleslaw nor Vladimir promoted a cult of Bruno: each realm was uncertain which side Bruno was on, and which side would profit most from his inroads among the pagans.

* February 14, 1009 is also cited as a date for St. Bruno’s martyrdom — for instance, by the Catholic Encyclopedia; the source of this may be the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg. In the absence of a determinative reason to prefer that earlier date, and allowing that 1,000-year-old executions are prone to shaky dating, I’m placing it on March 9 based on the Annals of Quedlinburg.


This text, reading “St. Bruno, an archbishop and monk, who was called Boniface, was beheaded by Pagans during the 11th year of this conversion at the Rus and Lithuanian border, and along with 18 of his followers, entered heaven on March 9th,” also happens to be the earliest surviving written reference to Lithuania.

** Darius Baronas, ‘The year 1009: St. Bruno of Querfurt between Poland and Rus”, Journal of Medieval History (2008), 34:1:1-22

† Vladimir the Great is himself a saint, too — in the Catholic tradition as well as the Orthodox.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 11th Century,20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Lithuania,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,No Formal Charge,Poland,Power,Prussia,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Rus',Russia,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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