1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint

Add comment January 8th, 2017 Headsman

January 8 is the execution day in 1878 of Argentine folk saint “Gauchito Gil”.

Nobody knows for sure if he really existed, but thousands flock to his sanctuary near Mercedes on this remembrance date while roadside red-flagged shrines throughout Argentina pay him homage all the year round.

If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.

Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.

The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1963: Jorge del Carmen Valenzuela Torres, Chacal de Nahueltoro

Add comment April 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Jorge del Carmen Valenzuela Torres — better known as Chacal de Nahueltoro — was shot at Chillan for murder.

Perhaps Chile’s most recognizable mass-murderer (in the non-political category) the drink-addled young peasant one summer’s afternoon in 1960 took a scythe to his 38-year-old inamorata — and slaughtered all of her five children besides. (None of the children were Valenzuela’s own.)

The horrifying crime became grist for an acclaimed movie, but “the Jackal” was also noted for his dramatic personal turnaround during the two-plus years he spent awaiting his firing squad. In one of those paradoxes of the poor, Valenzuela was a man whose world cared for him only once he was condemned to death: he learned to read and write in prison and embraced spiritual counseling that made the fellow in front of the guns an altogether different creature from the homicidal brute.

While this rebirth made the execution itself controversial, it has also amazingly helped to elevate Valenzuela into the ranks of Latin America’s criminal folk saints. His tomb in San Carlos is crowded with votive offerings in thanksgiving for his intercessions.

(The actor who played Valenzuela in that film later collaborated on a 2005 documentary Bajo el Sur: Tras la Huella de un Asesino Milagroso — exploring the popular devotions that have arisen around his character’s real-life inspiration.)

For murderabilia that pairs with a juicy cut of meat, don’t miss out on Botalcura Winery’s blood-red Chacal de Nahueltoro merlot.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chile,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Popular Culture,Shot

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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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1970: Udilberto Vasquez Bautista, Peruvian popular saint

1 comment September 11th, 2013 Headsman

Early this morning in 1970, in the prison at Cajamarca, Peru, Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista was shot for the slaughter of a young shepherdess.

The young girl — either 9 or 11 years old — had been raped, then stabbed 27 times.

Udilberto Vasquez was found with some blood incriminatingly all over his underwear. Though he never admitted guilt, his story went through a few iterations, one of which entailed pointing the finger at his brother. (… with whom he shared underwear, I guess.)

Basically desperate for any angle, his attorney pushed that as a defense.

“Without intending it, I contributed to the creation of the myth,” he said later, according to Frank Graziano’s Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America.* We’ll get to that myth in a moment.

As one might readily infer from his presence on these pages, not that defense nor any other sufficed to save his client’s life.

Rather, Vasquez became the first victim (Spanish link, as are nearly all those that follow) of draconian new legislation imposed by the Juan Velasco Alvarado dictatorship reinstating capital punishment for fatal sexual assaults on particularly young victims.** This law was only in place from 1969 to 1973, so it was bad timing as much as anything for Udilberto Vasquez. (Peru’s 1979 constitution would restrict the death penalty to wartime treason.)

So at 6 a.m. this date, and still having never confessed guilt, Vasquez was shot. A dog barked in the distance; a cock crowed out its protest. Etc.

In execution, Vasquez joined the curious pantheon of Latin American folk saints comprised of ordinary criminals (usually ones thought to be innocent). Vasquez had converted in prison to the Adventist Church, and some fellow inmates believed he had the power to work miracles.

Latter-day supplicants hoping for same crowd to a mausoleum-shrine, especially on Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day. He’s credited with many miracles rescuing the health and fortunes of devotees.†

Such divine providence necessarily implies a view of its author’s innocence in that whole rape-murder thing. Among followers, the attorney’s notion of Vasquez’s brother’s culpability — and still more, the sacrificial concept that Vasquez willingly gave himself to protect his brother (which seems at odds with Vasquez blaming his brother) — has improved into a mythic truism.

Vasquez is the subject of a film by Hector Marreros, Milagroso Udilberto Vasquez.

For a more academic take, check this short Spanish-language article (pdf) by Nanda Leonardini.

* In addition to the book, Graziano has a fascinating site on his investigations into folk religiosity in the Spanish Americas, CulturesOfDevotion.com.

** Ironically, it was doubts about the guilt of the last guy shot for a rape-murder that had caused that law to be rescinded.

Click here for a photo gallery of Udilberto devotions/festivities.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Murder,Myths,Peru,Popular Culture,Rape,Religious Figures,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1907: Emile Dubois, Valparaiso popular saint

Add comment March 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1907, Emile Dubois was shot in Valparaiso, Chile for murder.

The French-descended Dubois (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was credited with a string of homicides in Valparaiso spanning 1905-1906. (Although the first murder attributed to him, and the only one he was formally convicted of, was that of an accountant in Santiago.)

The official version of our man’s career is roughly this: in September 1905, he killed a merchant named Reinaldo Tillmanns; in October, he killed another one named Gustavo Titius — robbing both.

The following April, he stabbed the French trader Isodoro Challe, although he did not rob him. In June, he attacked an American dentist in his office, although the dentist fought him off and the assailant fled.

All this was rolled up into the indictment when “Emile Dubois” was finally captured that summer. This was the name he gave, but his Colombian documents were sketchy; his real name might have been Luis Amadeo Brihier Lacroix, or heaven knows what else.

The crime spree alone would be interesting enough for this site, but it’s really the least interesting thing about this unusual man.

Dubois exerted a curious magnetism. He was handsome, certainly, but more than that: he was gracious, impossibly serene in the face of the dangerous charges against him, and his adherence to his innocence was calm and unshakable. Dubois’s intelligence was impossible to miss; he spoke ironically with inspectors, like their fellow-man instead of their prey. “He had ideas above those of a common criminal,” wrote one biographer. (Spanish link)

His long time loose on his crime spree — if indeed the attributed crimes were really all his — had served to direct popular scorn at the police who were unable to locate the criminal. At the same time, the victims in these cases were wealthy foreign merchants, and these “usurers” would have limited purchase on public sympathy as Argentina’s oligarchy faced an unfolding social crisis. (And Valparaiso endured a natural disaster.) Meanwhile, in the courtroom itself, Judge Santa Cruz was so convinced of Dubois’s guilt that he cut a vindictive Javert-like figure hounding the accused to his death.*

Guilty or innocent, the wry and gentlemanly Dubois compared very favorably to the other characters in his drama.

Dubois played the part unerringly to the last, when he declined a blindfold and unpertubedly puffed a cigar as he faced his four-man firing detail with open eyes and the command “¡Ejecutad!”

Dubois’s last statement reasserted his innocence without vitriol or bitterness. “It was necessary that someone be held responsible for these crimes, and that someone was me,” he said. (More Spanish)

Then he died.

And after that Christ-like exit, he lived.

Dubois, who was obviously an utter obscurity prior to his arrest, went on to a surprising posthumous life as a popular folk saint. His brightly-painted grave in Valparaiso is a pilgrimage shrine forever crowded with votive offerings from followers convinced of Dubois’s powers of divine intercession (and, accordingly, his innocence).

* Dubois to the priest sent to confess him before execution: “”You should be taking the judge’s confession, not mine. The judge who ordered my murder. Go inspire his repentance.” (Source)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Chile,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Myths,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Shot

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