On this date in 1833, French immigrant Antoine le Blanc was hanged on the Morristown (N.J.) village green.
A cigar-chomping French immigrant, LeBlanc came to the New World to seek his fortune and found himself doing grueling farm work for Samuel and Sarah Sayre in exchange for a dank basement room but no pay.
After just a couple of weeks in this unsatisfactory situation, LeBlanc clobbered Samuel Sayre with a spade … and then did the same to Sarah Sayre … and then killed their infant child. Stuffing all the portable valuables he could find into pillowcase sacks, he hopped on a horse and fled for New York, hoping to pawn his booty for passage back to Europe.
Like an inept Scooby-Doo villain, LeBlanc in his haste managed to dribble a trail of the Sayres’ goods on the road, and these helped his pursuers corner him in the Meadowlands — an incriminating parcel of his ill-gotten gains right there beside him.
The trial was a mere formality. The execution on an upward-jerking gallows drew an excited crowd several times the 2,500 souls residing in Morristown itself.
And then, it really gets creepy.
LeBlanc was condemned to post-execution medical anatomization, and the good doctors of Morristown took that as license for every posthumous indignity in the 19th century book. First, the late LeBlanc got a course of electrical shocks — a popular corpse experiment of the day whose object was discovering a means of reanimation but whose consequence was merely a ghoulish danse macabre of senseless, jerking limbs as each jolt charged the putrefying flesh.
When they’d had their fill of zombie Antoine LeBlanc, they skinned the murderer and sent his hide off to be made into wallets and book covers which then got hawked to Morristown’s finest citizens. That sounds like an urban legend, but scroll down this page for the pictures: some of these objects have made it to museums, but it’s thought that others persist in private collections, handed down over the generations or just stashed away forgotten until they can emerge for a starring role on Antiques Roadshow.
Apparently the old Sayre house (significantly rebuilt after a 1957 fire) still stands in Morristown … and it’s haunted by LeBlanc and his last victim, the baby Phoebe.
It was one of the city’s most infamous crimes, touching explosive resentments among Londoners for the vampiric trade in human cadavers ultimately demanded by medical students. Thirty thousand packed the streets around Newgate Prison to send this date’s hated offenders on to the hereafter.
As the gang’s nickname indicates, it closely followed the similar affair of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. (“Burking” had immediately come to mean “killing someone for their marketable cadaver”, a shadowy underworld phenomenon that was in need of a catchy name.) But although William Burke made the OED, it was the London Burkers who most directly triggered the legislation to reform the anatomy business.
ET: Let’s begin with the title of your book, The Italian Boy — an allusion to the victim in the case. Who was this youth, how did he come to be in London, and what did the city look like to a penniless foreign child in 1830?
SW: Well the book is less a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘who-was-it-done-to’. The identity of that particular victim was never fully established. But, as still happens today in murder cases, some types of victim seem to have more appeal than others, and rumour that a little Italian beggar boy was missing from his usual pitches snowballed into a situation where even the courts, police and newspapers were accepting it as fact that it was his body that had been delivered to an anatomist. The final chapter of my book goes into why this might not have been so.
The ‘Italian Boy trade’ was a racket, whereby traffickers paid poor peasant parents, worried about what future they could offer their children, and took charge of the child, walked them north to the wealthy cities of northern Europe, and got them exhibiting small animals or plaster images around the streets, in the hope of being thrown a penny or two. Huge sums could be obtained in this way, but needless to say, the children themselves saw little of this. [There's an 1872 New York Times article describing the trade into North America here. -ed]
I was fascinated by the warmth shown to these kids in what was otherwise a pretty mean city. This really is the London of Oliver Twist — dark, filthy, with all sorts of Fagin types (and much worse) around. Child vagrancy (as with adult vagrancy) was all too common and yet there were practically no public or civic bodies to offer any help; the idea of hordes of kids sleeping rough is just extraordinary, but that’s how London was right up until the end of the 19th-century.
But Londoners loved these attractive, exotic-looking little Italian waifs, and would also defend other types of beggars if anyone appeared to be hassling them. Ordinary city-dwellers seemed to me, in reading the primary source material, to be a lot less withdrawn and in their own little world than we city-dwellers are today, and seemed to show more class, or social, solidarity.
And how about the killers? What’s their own background, and how do they get into the business of killing people to sell the bodies?
One of the killers, John Bishop, came from a good, solid, small-business background, having been bequeathed a successful carting company. He drank away the family firm, and then turned to the related trade of bodysnatching — there was often a close connection between those involved in city transport and those who needed to move their very questionable goods around surreptitiously. Both trades had the pubs in the street called Old Bailey as their headquarters.
The other killer, Thomas Head, aka Williams, was younger and harder to find out about. He was said to have come from a very poor but honest home, and his parents were devastated when he began to go off the rails in his adolescence, firstly petty-thieving, and then moving on to the less petty-thieving of grave robbery.
I’ve touched a bit elsewhere on the site on the underlying dynamic at work: more demand for medical cadavers than was being met by the gallows. Do we have a sense at this time, after the Burke execution, what proportion of those extra cadavers were being provided by resurrectionists? And how many might have been provided by outright homicide?
Numerical estimates vary hugely for every aspect of this subject. In terms of the sheer volume of bodies medical students were getting through, the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy canvassed many opinions, and came up with the hugely divergent total of between 500 and 1,000 in a year — the ideal being three bodies per student, with each student completing a 16-month surgical and dissection training. The Select Committee suggested that on average, the Resurrection Men were supplying around 500 to 550 corpses a year — by one means or another. But all these stats should be used with caution.
As for grave robbery: it was all highly surreptitious, as you would expect — there is no great documentary source to turn to, and so we have only scraps of rumour and hearsay. John Bishop, one of the Italian Boy murderers, is said to have ‘lifted’ between 500 and 1,000 corpses in his career, which lasted from 1818 to 1831. That is a huge differential and there is no way of checking whether the lower or higher number is the more likely. Someone shouted at Bishop, in the Old Bailey cells, ‘You’re a bloody murdering bastard, and you should have been topped [hanged] years ago!’, which suggests that the Italian Boy killing was not his first.
Image of a burking, from a broadside on the London Burkers among a book full of street literature here.
As we know, only around twelve people a year were executed for murder in England in these years — people executed for other crimes were not sent to the anatomists. My guess is that many folks who died in public hospitals or workhouses were anatomised, but that this was a highly secret matter and went on illegally. The other main sources of corpses, to make up the shortfall, will have been corrupt undertakers, church sextons and gravediggers. I suspect many coffins in London graveyards were filled with nothing more than brick or earth. As the 1820s wore on, actual exhumations are likely to have declined in favour of more simple ‘sneak-thieving’, with insiders giving the tip-off about where a recently deceased body was likely to be found.
One more ‘statistic’ for you: in a plea bargain attempt during the Italian Boy case, the police placed in front of one prolific bodysnatcher a list of all the resurrection men they had ever known or come across and asked the witness if he would mark with a cross any of the 50 whom he thought capable of murder for dissection. When he handed it back, he had marked six names.
Huge irony: when anatomised, John Bishop was found to be one of the very best specimens the Royal College of Surgeons had ever dissected — great, strong muscles, extremely fit and hearty, from his horrible career in body-handling.
How overtly implicated were aspiring or actual doctors with this sort of thing (even “mere” resurrection as against murder) as a “necessary” part of their education that they chose to turn a blind eye towards? And was there any engagement with the problem as an ethical question?
The public cared hugely about the ethics; the legislature very little. That’s why Dr. Knox, in the Burke and Hare case, was so unusual — no one protected him when the case came to trial, and he was vilified and more or less chased out of Edinburgh. But in the Italian Boy murders, no doctor got anywhere near the witness box. Society and the legislature really rallied around them, to make sure the public did not take their feelings out on them.
But popular resentment that the doctors might have encouraged, or turned a blind eye to, grave-robbery (not murder) remained very common.
By around 1800, doctors and students had wholly outsourced exhumations for dissection material — gangs of specialised labouring men did it for them, and part of the deal was that (in return for a good wage) the bodysnatchers themselves, if caught, would keep silent, do their stretch in gaol, and they and their families would be looked after financially by the surgeons who commissioned them.
One surgeon, Joshua Brookes, fell foul of the bodysnatchers (refusing to put up their wages) and in revenge, they placed half-dissected corpses close to his Soho premises. These were tripped over in the dark by pedestrians, which caused a huge rumpus and the police had to come to protect Brookes from the mobs who wanted to stone his house. Such events were the exception, rather than the rule.
There’s something just sublimely Swiftian about a disposable person being literally, bodily consumed by the city and its professional class. Was it surprising that a doctor would bust these men when they came to sell the body, and/or that it would trigger an aggressive police response? Had they probably pulled this trick with a wink and a nod many times before?
The Italian Boy case was highly unusual in that it was a surgeon, Richard Partridge, who blew the whistle — not only on the killers but essentially on the whole trade. He was the anatomy teacher at the brand-new King’s College, which was very religious-based, though funnily enough, I don’t think Partridge himself was devout. In getting the men arrested, he really blew wide open this secretive, terrifying world of the trafficking of (poor people’s) corpses.
It is the Italian Boy case — not Burke and Hare — which brought about swift legal change, which ensured the demise of surreptitious grave-robbery for anatomical teaching.
Other than hanging the perps, what was the fallout from this case at the level of policy or social evolution? Was there conflict between the privileged and the poor over how to understand this sort of crime and how to go about addressing it?
The ‘resolution’, the ‘evolution’, was the 1832 Anatomy Act, which essentially legalised what had been going on all along. It permitted anatomists to claim as legitimate teaching material the corpse of anyone who died in a workhouse or public hospital whose body went unclaimed by friends or family for private burial. In practice, it seems that even when apparently friendless beggars died, and associates did come forward, the doctors had already earmarked the body for their own purposes.
This type of thing caused decades and decades of bitter class resentment in this country, and fear of doctors and hospitals was even discernible in my late parents’ generation. These worries still occasionally resurrect themselves. The UK’s Human Tissue Act of 2004 was passed following disclosure of the mass storage of children’s organs, without any permission or consent having been sought from the parents. I think consent remains a huge issue in medical matters, in most cultures, and those who are deemed powerless in some way — by class, race, caste, gender and so on — are by far the more likely to have their bodies commandeered in the name of science.
Sarah Wise has been a Londoner since the age of 14. She has a BA in English Literature and a Masters degree in Victorian Studies, from Birkbeck College, University of London. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.
Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.
And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**
Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)
Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)
For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.
Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)
Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.
(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)
This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.
Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.
However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.
(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)
Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.
While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:
On this date in 1946, fascist William Joyce, famous by the nickname “Lord Haw-Haw” for his English-language Nazi propaganda broadcasts, was hanged at Wandsworth Prison for treason.
As a pugilistic young anti-Semite with the unusual credential of being a Unionist Irish Catholic, Joyce had been a moving spirit in the interwar British fascist party. (Since audio broadcasts would define Joyce’s life, it seems appropriate to refer the reader for a fuller biography to this recent Oxford biography podcast.)
But because time loves a good laugh, it had the guy haranguing his countrymen for insufficient patriotism marked out for the last treason execution in British history, and unrepentant about it by the time he got there.
The Brooklyn-born Joyce (he never lost his American citizenship) who naturalized as a German in 1940 had a rather tenuous claim on the patriotic high horse to begin with, and after the war, that meant the treason charge proceeded on legally doubtful grounds: speaking the King’s English didn’t mean he owed allegiance to the king. Prosecutors ultimately hung him with a British passport he’d obtained fraudulently, and the legal principle has never since sat well with jurists.
However limited the resources at his disposal — sparse intelligence, paltry staff, and of course, after 1942, a disastrously collapsing war effort — he had fashioned them into broadcast spin to twist the British lion’s tail in countless British homes throughout the war.
Here’s one episode, with Joyce savaging Winston Churchill, selected from archive.org’s library of Joyce broadcasts (1-7, 8-16, 17-23).
Joyce’s star shone brightest and his invective cut deepest early in the war. Once everything at the front stopped coming up Teutons, he descended into irrelevance and self-parody, albeit without professing the slightest doubt in his fascist convictions.
This last broadcast, prepared just a few days before Germany capitulated, has our day’s principal ramblingly drunkenly from the besieged Nazi capital.
Content-wise, not much had changed eight months later, but at least he managed to make his gallows statement coherently.
In death as in life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the power of darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the crushing imperialism of the Soviet Union. May Britain be great once again and the hour of the greatest danger in the West may the standard be raised from the dust, crowned with the words — you have conquered nevertheless. I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.
There’s a thorough, and lavishly illustrated, history of Joyce here.
On this date in 1878, John “Black Jack” Kehoe was hanged in Pottsville — as Pennsylvania’s anthracite trusts took a victory lap around the corpses of the Molly Maguires.
Even to say what the Mollies were is to take a side in their life-and-death struggle. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine had poured into Pennsylvania’s coal mining country in the mid-19th century, where life in the mines was nasty, brutish and short, and the pay wasn’t anything to write home about either.
In a time when capital ruthlessly hunted any intimation of labor organizing and the Irish were a distinctly second-class people, the (apparent, or at least alleged) response of the Mollies was natural: form a secret society, and wring by threat of bodily harm the concessions it could not pursue by collective bargaining. For the recent Irish transplants, the tableau of a Catholic underclass working for a Protestant landlord who owned (and gouged on) everything in sight had a certain familiar feel.
Terrorists? They certainly used violence to achieve political objectives, at least if the testimony of their foes is credited. But they weren’t the only ones.
Mine owners turned public and private violence on Irish radicals pushing for things like the eight-hour day. The notorious strike-breaking Pinkerton Detective Agency was detailed to infiltrate the Mollies.
The main blow against the Mollies was struck over a period of (extrajudicial) vigilante justice in the mid-1870′s, culminating in “Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope” in 1877, when ten supposed members were (judicially) hanged around the Keystone State.
Kehoe, a power broker in mining country with some sway at the capital who was reputed to call the shots among the Maguires, faced the hangman singly a year later for an 1862 cold-case murder so doubtfully ascribed to Kehoe that the governor hesitated to sign the death warrant.
He signed it just the same, marking a sort of ceremonial “end to Molly-ism.” The New York Timesexulted two days hence “that the widely-extended and long-continued tyranny and terror of this association is at an end,” and all because the resolute executive had gone and sent a hempen message to “the savage and benighted population of the coal region.”
The lesson taught by the punishment of the Molly Maguires would have been shorn of much of its terror and impressiveness if the energetic and persistent efforts made in behalf of KEHOE, the reputed king of that organization, had resulted in rescuing him from the gallows. If they had even so far succeeded as to have caused his punishment to be commuted to imprisonment for life, the admonitory influence of his fate upon the murderous clain of whom he was the last surviving chief would have been greatly lessened, and the snake of Molly Maguire-ism, of which he was the forked tongue and fangs, might haply have been only scotched, not killed. … The law has shown that it has subtlety enough to hunt [the Molly Maguires] through every possible labyrinth of refuge and strip from them every artifice of disguise, and power enough to wring them out of the desperate grasp of sympathizing constituencies and crush them.
Like we said, violence wasn’t the exclusive resort of one side. But the monopoly of violence … that was held, as always, by the same hands that held the monopolies. Sean Connery as Kehoe reflects on the uneven contest while awaiting his fate in a (fictional) exchange with the Pinkerton mole who condemned him from the 1970 film The Molly Maguires.*
Pennsylvania Gov. John Hartranft left office a few weeks later, and reflected in his outgoing address on the lessons “the manufacturers and operators” ought to draw from the late unpleasantness.
The Mollie Maguire murders, like the agrarian murders in Ireland, and the trades-union outrages, arsons, and machine-breakings in England, were not the work of the so-called criminal classes. They were essentially class murders … If some of the leading spirits of the class had been members of a board of arbitration as representatives of labor, with some of the employers or their agents as representatives of capital, it is not unreasonable to suppose that most of the disagreements that have kept the coal regions in a state of turmoil might have been amicably adjusted, and many of those who were assassinated and of those who have been hanged living to-day.
101 years later, Kehoe received what was thought to be the first and only posthumous pardon in the state’s history. The Mollies’ true extent, purpose and actual actions — even their very existence as anything but a stalking-horse for the more thorough conquest of surplus labor — remain hotly debated to this day, since the public record of this tight-lipped society consists of little beyond the courtroom testimony of a handful of parties thoroughly prejudiced to hostility by class interest or payoffs.
* Written by Walter Bernstein, who had only recently emerged from the Hollywood blacklist for his Communist proclivities.
On this date in 1937, Japanese emigre Masao Sudo was shot in Moscow as a spy.
The executed man’s son, Dr. Mikhail Masaovich Sudo.
A true-red Communist who had fled increasingly right-wing Japan in the 1920′s and become a labor organizer in the far east, Sudo shared the tragic fate of the Japanese community in Stalin’s USSR, decimated by denunciations of one another.
On this date in 2005, North Carolina executed 67-year-old immigrant Elias Syriani at Raleigh’s Central Prison for the murder of his wife — despite the emotional clemency intervention of the couple’s children.
Syriani responded by jumping her when she drove home one night, and stabbed her to death with a screwdriver in front of their 10-year-old child.
This case meandered forgettably through the bowels of the criminal justice system; the traumatized children moved on (.pdf).
Until the year before Syriani met his fate, when the mysteries of the human heart flipped the script.
The four children visited Syriani and found themselves forgiving their mother’s murderer … and forging an unexpected bond with the father they hadn’t known for a decade. They called it a miracle, a gift from their late mother to go from “hate, absolute hate, to love in a split second.”
The children — by then grown — became Syriani’s advocates for executive clemency, posing an unusual challenge for Gov. Mike Easley: in an environment that (rhetorically, at least) often counts on survivors’ rage and grief as arbiters of punishment, would he spare a father for killing a mother when the children said execution would redouble the family’s injury?
“After careful review of the facts and circumstances of this crime and conviction, I find no convincing reason to grant clemency and overturn the unanimous jury verdict affirmed by the state and federal courts.” (Easley)
The following are excerpts from an interview with the film’s Producer/Director Linda Booker originally conducted by Sean O’Connell of The Charlotte Weekly.
When did you first hear about/become interested in this story?
Back in July 2005, I was checking the weather on a local news website and scanning the headlines when the article about the Syriani siblings forgiving their father caught my eye. I think at first it interested me because I have been involved with our local domestic violence agency as a volunteer and fundraiser, but as I read the article something about their reconciling with and forgiving their father really touched me. At this point they had begun to share their story with the public and had just appeared at a domestic violence conference in Charlotte called “Hope to Heal.”
At what point did you get the idea to film the story in documentary form? How long did it take to complete the film?
It was an immediate reaction for me upon reading the article that their story might make a compelling documentary film. I printed it out and carried it around with me. But I was still finishing up interviews and editing my first documentary project “Millworker: the Documentary” so I didn’t act on it right away. Then several months later I learned that they would be speaking in Chapel Hill, close to where I live, and I thought, “okay, if I feel this strongly about this, here’s my chance to meet them and film their discussion.” So there I was, a relatively new filmmaker and very nervous about that first step, but I received permission to film that night. That’s also when I first heard about and met Meg Eggleston, who had been writing letters and visiting Elias Syriani on death row for four years and the Syriani sibling’s attorney Russell Sizemore, who was helping them through their father’s clemency appeal pro-bono. I came to learn that Meg’s friendship with Elias was an essential part of their father’s transformation and was such an interesting story in itself.
I started filming in October 2005, edited in the fall of ’06 and started doing preview screenings in early ’07. Since then the film has screened at film festivals and many grassroots screenings with various non-profits and faith groups as sponsors in the U.S. especially in North Carolina.
The Syriani children are open and honest in the film. Did you have trouble accessing them? Were they open to the idea of participating in the film, even though at this point it could not help their father?
I started filming interviews with Meg Eggleston and Russell Sizemore first who trusted that I was not trying to do a sensationalized story, but that I recognized the Syriani’s story of forgiveness was inspirational, regardless of the outcome of the clemency appeal. The Syrianis knew that I was working with Meg & Russ, but out of respect for all they were going through, I did not push the issue of their participation. About six months after the appeal, I wrote them about participating and subsequently we went to California and Chicago in the summer of ’06 to film interviews with them. While they know that a part of the discussion around the film will be capital punishment, the Syriani siblings have expressed that they want their story to live on in hope that their experience of surviving a domestic violence tragedy and the healing that came from forgiveness will touch people’s hearts and help others.
I think it’s because this case is so unique, but I found the film’s stance on the death penalty unclear. Can you, as the filmmaker, clarify your thoughts on the death penalty?
Well, I’ll take that as a compliment, because the documentaries I admire aren’t pounding you over the head with the filmmaker’s opinion. I can tell you that making this film made me face how I felt about the death penalty and I spent a lot of time researching and doing some deep thinking about the issue.
Needless to say it’s very complex, and it is completely understandable that feelings of anger and retribution can occur when you have lost a loved one to violence. We need to do more for those dealing with the aftermath of murder with as much support, assistance and counseling services as possible, especially children. But as I went to restorative justice forums and have met many people who belong to organizations such as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, I kept hearing stories about how the death penalty was causing more grief, stress and division in families that had experienced murder. Between making the documentary and doing the research, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t support a system of justice that can possibly create more pain and victims in its wake and that was also irreversible and arbitrary.
On this date in 1862, German immigrants fleeing Confederate conscription were caught near Texas’ Nueces River and slain to a man.
The nomenclature of the “Nueces Massacre” is controversial since this party of Union loyalists making a leisurely pace* for Mexico got its shots off as it was gunned down in a gully by Texas Partisan Rangers in the predawn hours.
But the incident becomes a clear candidate for these pages with the summary execution of the surviving captured and wounded men later this day. Here’s the account of an obviously upset member of the Confederate party:
[S]ome of the more humane of us did what we could to ease the sufferings of the wounded Germans. They had fought a good fight, and bore themselves so pluckily I felt sorry I had taken my part against them. We bound up their wounds, and gave them water, and laid them as comfortably as we could in the shade. Poor creatures, how grateful they were!
He then pauses for breakfast and helps gather up the scattered German horses; we rejoin the narration after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
I hurried over to where we had left the German wounded to see how they were getting on, and was surprised to find them gone. Asking what had become of them, I was told they had been moved to a better shade a short distance away. With this answer I was quite satisfied, and never dreamed the brutes with whom I served would be guilty of foul play, especially after the gallant fight the enemy had made.
Just then one of our wounded called for water, and I brought him some from the cool spring. As I was giving it to him, the sound of firing was heard a little way off. I thought at first they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war; but it didn’t sound like that either. Then, possibly it might be an attack on the camp; so I seized my rifle and ran in the direction of the firing. Presently I met a man coming from it who, when he saw me running, said, “You needn’t be in a hurry, it’s all done; they shot the poor devils, and finished them off.”
“It can’t possibly be they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!” I said, not believing that even Luck [a villainous -- to the diarist's mind -- lieutenant] would be guilty of such an atrocious crime. “Oh, yes; they’re all dead, sure enough — and a good job too!” Feeling sick at heart, though I hardly even then credited his report, I ran on, and found it only too true.
It seems they were asked if they wouldn’t like to be moved a little way off into better shade. The poor creatures willingly agreed, thanking their murderers for their kindness. They were carried away, but it was to the shade and shadow of death, for a party of cowardly wretches went over and shot them in cold blood.
More summary justice followed in the weeks ahead against members of the party who had escaped** and others, and Confederate Haengerbande would plague Texas Germans of insufficient southern enthusiasm for the remainder of the war.
This day’s victims are honored by the Treue der Union obelisk, the only Union monument in Confederate territory, a prominent distinction that (as with all things in the Civil War) invites political football. This conservative article throws cold water on the “Germans-as-antislavery-Unionists” trope, and academic papers from a 1990′s conference gathered in this volume treat Nueces among other topics of “disloyalty” in the Confederacy.
The photo is taken by Steve & Marion Daughtry In Comfort, Texas. Image used with permission.
* An escapee recounted decades later by way of explanation for the party’s fatal inattention to either haste or defense, “Having read a proclamation from the Confederate government announcing that all persons not friendly to it might leave the country, we believed we had a right to do so in large or small bodies, as best suited our convenience, to the border and there cross over into Mexico.”
** About half the group had separated from the main body just before the Confederates engaged them. From this number come the “escapees,” many of them later killed in the hills or while crossing into Mexico. Those who stayed put all died this day.
On this date in 1937, Japanese intellectual Teido Kunizaki was shot as a “spy of the Japanese army” in Moscow.
The reader is not deceived to infer from the date and place the dread hand of Stalin’s NKVD at the height of the Soviet purges. The fate of the Soviet Union’s tiny community of Japanese emigres, one of the hidden chambers in a house of horrors, only became fully understood after the Soviet Union collapsed.
The leader of the Japanese section of the German Communist Party in Weimar Germany, Kunizaki’s opposition to Japanese intervention in China and involvement in a publication as subversively titled as Revolutionary Asians had made him unwelcome in Germany shortly before Hitler took power.
But arriving in Russia in September 1932 with his German wife, he stepped into a struggle for power within the Japanese Communist Party’s Russian organs.
According to Tetsuro Kato, the professorial Kunizaki was among those denounced by another seminal Japanese communist, Kenzo Yamamoto — a working-class activist who distrusted intellectuals.
Kunizaki’s execution this day was only one of many wrought on the Japanese party by the Soviet secret police in the dangerous exchange of accusations and denunciations. On this date, Yamamoto himself was already in prison; early in 1939, he would swallow the same draught as Kunizaki — denounced, as it emerged after the Cold War, by yet another of Japan’s revered old Marxists.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were about 100 Japanese who dreamed of living in “the paradise of the working class” and went to the USSR. These people were mainly communists, who were oppressed by the imperial police in Japan. There were also ordinary workers, intellectuals and artists who were not communist … Almost all Japanese living in the USSR [in the 1930's] faced the same destiny. The exact number of victims is not yet known, but I now estimate there to have been about 80 Japanese [shot by the NKVD].