On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.
In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.
Forty-six-year-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.
Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.
The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.
On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.
The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.
By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”
“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”
At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.
Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.
Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”
When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.
The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.
Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.
On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.
While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.
Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.
Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.
There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summingup about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s goresoaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”
In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.
Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.
On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.
Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.
During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.
He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.
Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.
They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**
Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.
* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed handsrepeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.
** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.
Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.
In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.
In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)
This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.
Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.
The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.
21 April 1937
A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?
23 April 1937
Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.
Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.
Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.
* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.
On this date in 1976, Christian Ranucci, 22, was guillotined in Marseilles … with the last words addressed to his attorneys, “Réhabilitez-moi”.
If that has not yet occurred, it has not been for want of trying.
Many people think Ranucci was the last person executed by France; in fact, this is not correct. But the confusion is understandable: Ranucci has persisted in the headlines and the public imagination owing to a running controversy over whether he was wrongly convicted. It’s a vexing case rife with ambiguous circumstantial evidence, and observers are usually able to see in it what they want to see.
On June 3, 1974, two incidents — a minor traffic accident, and the request by a young man of a local mushroomer to help his car out of a muddy gallery where it was stuck — placed a gray Peugeot 304 at La Pomme, outside Marseilles. This also happened to be the date that 8-year-old Maria-Dolores Rambla was abducted from St. Agnes by an unknown man in a red sweater reportedly driving a gray Simca 1100, a vehicle that would be possible to mix up with the Peugeot 304.
When news of the abduction broke on the radio the morning of June 4, the people who saw the Peugeot(s) later called it in as a tip.
Police got to the bespectacled young Ranucci (English Wikipedia entry | French; most of the links from here on out are French) via the accident. His car didn’t stop for the other motorist, but limped on down the road another kilometer. The other driver’s vehicle was inoperable, but that driver sent a passerby to follow the hit-and-run Peugeot’s path to see if he could track down a license plate number. Indeed he did do that.
And when that good citizen called police, he said he had seen the driver running into the nearby woods with either a sizable package or a small child. (The story has … evolved.) You can see where this is going: when the area was searched after the tip came in, poor Maria’s dead body was steps away from the spot the car stopped. She’d been knifed to death.
The mushroom-gallery, for its part, yielded up a red pullover sweater like the one the abductor wore, and a bloody knife.
After 17 hours’ grilling by the police, Ranucci broke down and confessed. He would later retract the confession, blaming police pressure. (Here in 2013, everybody does know — right? — that false confessions happen with alarming frequency, and that they’re widely associated with exonerations.)
As open-and-shut as this sounds, Ranucci’s many defenders have found a great deal wanting in the case
There’s the inconsistency in the reported make and model of the vehicle vis-a-vis what Ranucci was driving.
None of the eyewitnesses to the abduction could identify Ranucci in a lineup … until the lineup was pared down to make it a gimme. Sloppy lineup work has been a significant factor in wrongful convictions; on the other hand, eyewitnesses are extremely unreliable in general.
The recovered red pullover was much too small for Ranucci, possibly suggesting that this apparent link to the observed abductor did not reach all the way to the accused.
Mr. Red Pullover Simca 1100 was allegedly seen attempting other abductions at times and places that made it certain that he was not Christian Ranucci.
Questionable handling of physical evidence by investigators.
That’s basically just to scratch the surface. Here (pdf) is a much lengthier exegesis of the potentially exculpatory evidence, in French. Here’s an English summary covering the same stuff on a site whose resources are mostly also in French. (“We do not assert Christian Ranucci is innocent.”) Countless additional search hits en francais await the interested researcher.
Ranucci himself insisted against advice on pursuing an actual-innocence defense, rather than mounting a mitigation case focusing on avoiding the guillotine while conceding guilt. He was convicted on just a 9-3 jury vote.
On this date in 1865, tens of thousands crowded Glasgow Green to send off the murderous Dr. Edward William Pritchard … and with him, the era of public hangings in that city.
Pritchard died for poisoning his wife and his mother-in-law earlier that same year, but he might have first killed in 1863. That’s when his 25-year-old servant suspiciously burned to death in a home fire she suspiciously didn’t try to escape. Despite how it looked, Pritchard’s insurance paid up for the incident.
Murder or no, that used up all his escaping-justice karma: there’d be scant deniability next time.
After knocking up another servant in 1864, Pritchard performed an illegal abortion to dispose of the unwanted progeny with the understanding that he’d marry the girl.
Pritchard then found that his increasingly inconvenient wife had taken suddenly and strangely ill. When her mother came to care for her, mom caught the exact same symptoms — vomiting, dizziness. They checked out within three weeks of each other in early 1865, having suffered months of patient, systematic dosing by the medical man of the house.
An anonymous letter, conceivably supplied by an attending physician who naturally had suspicions about these incredibly suspicious deaths, led to the bodies’ exhumation and the ready discovery therein of antimony in lethal quantities. Servants’ testimony affirming the proclivity of others in the household to get sick when they tasted the victims’ food easily nailed down the conviction.
Asked if he had any last remarks on his way to the scaffold, Pritchard replied, “in a firm and clear, but sepulchral, tone of voice, ‘Simply to acknowledge the justice of my sentence.'” (London Times, July 29, 1865)
His posthumous notoriety in Victorian crime pulp is attested by Sherlock Holmes’ tribute in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, published full 27 years after our man’s death: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.”
One year ago today, Japan hanged three men, among whom the most notorious was Internet suicide-club serial sex killer (you can see why he made the headlines) Hiroshi Maeue.
After a couple brushes with the law over asphyxiation-oriented assaults in the 1990s, Maeue found his medium in hypertext.
Trolling a Japanese “cyber-suicide” site — they’re notoriously popular in Japan — the late-30s Maeue lured two young women and a 14-year-old schoolgirl to separate meetings for the ostensible purpose of committing joint suicides.
M.O.: get the “partner”/victim into a car on the pretext of doing the carbon monoxide poisoning thing together, then tie her up and throttle her. Rape doesn’t seem to have been a part of it, but word was that Maeue “confessed to deriving sexual pleasure from seeing people suffocate.”
He got that treatment himself little more than two years after he was sentenced. Hanged along with Maeue in Osaka this date was Yukio Yamaji, who raped and murdered two sisters in 2005. On the same day in Tokyo, Chinese national Chen Detong got the rope for a 1999 triple homicide.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these high-profile executions occurred just weeks before national elections that were looking bad (and turned out worse) for the then-governing Liberal Democratic Party.
Update: Japan observed the one-year anniversary by hanging two more people this same date in 2010, executions personally witnessed by anti-death penalty Justice Minister.
“It made me again think deeply about the death penalty,” said Keiko Chiba. “and I once again strongly felt that there is a need for a fundamental discussion about the death penalty.”
They were the first executions under the Democratic Party government elected shortly after Maeue’s hanging.
“Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your majesty? He that was so advanced by your majesty, he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your majesty; he that was such a servant, in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had …
If he be a Traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him, or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas!”
It was on this date in 1540 that the Machiavellian minister of Henry VIII fell by the instrument he had wielded so ably against so many others.
While Henry strove to get his end away, Thomas Cromwell made the Reformation, setting his energetic hand to the needfully violent reordering of England.
In almost a decade as the king’s chief minister, he had dissolved so many monasteries, annulled so many noble prerogatives, backstabbed so many courtiers, and sent so many of every class to the scaffold that most at court had some reason to hate him. (Cranmer was the only one to (cautiously) object to his old partner’s arrest.)
Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Man-Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall humanizes Cromwell’s side of his clash with Thomas More. (Review)
Though it may be, as Edward Hall recorded, that “many lamented but more rejoiced” at Cromwell’s fall from the very height of his power — “and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night [of his execution], many wishing that that day had been seven year before” — the reasons for it are murky enough to invite recourse to the royal person’s irrationality.
The bedroom politics get all the press: Cromwell’s bit of marital statecraft arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a famous dud, but negotiations to end it were well on their way by the time of Cromwell’s arrest.
Why, too, should the minister have been ennobled Duke of Essex in April 1540, months after the disastrous union? That Cromwell, whose own security rested upon the stability of the realm, was a radical Protestant promulgating inflammatory religious ideas — and he was condemned for both treason and heresy, incidentally giving the king wide latitude for just how painfully to kill his former servant — seems to beggar belief.
Once fallen, Cromwell was kept alive long enough to add testimony to the Cleves divorce; that much is clear. But then why keep him alive still three weeks more?
In the end, maybe it was inevitable that one in his position, at his time and place, had to follow to the scaffold the many he had sent thither, just the Tudor version of that familiar “bad advisors” trope: it were not treason to murmur against the aide whose ill counsel did wrong by His Majesty, and so Cromwell stood to accumulate the share of hostility that properly belonged to his sovereign. As an expert practitioner of the game of power politics, Thomas Cromwell could hardly be in a position to complain.
Oh, and by the by: with the German princess on the outs, the king’s wandering eye had fallen upon a niece of Cromwell’s enemy. On the day that Cromwell lost his head, Henry married Catherine Howard. No matter your brilliance, in Henrican England you only had to lose at court politics once, even if the king would be lamenting this injudicious trade within months.
Henry gave his loyal servant the easiest death, beheading on Tower Hill (although it turned out to be a botched job) — alongside a distinctly undercard attraction, Walter Hungerford, the first person executed under the Buggery Act.
Hall records Cromwell playing ball with a fine entry in the scaffold-speech genre that kept his son in the peerage.
I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should do so, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I have had yeres of discrecion, I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And it is not unknowne to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Churche.* Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long live with you, maie long reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe.
And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office.
* Cromwell’s bit about the “Catholic faith” in his dying confession is to be carefully handled; it’s sometimes rendered “the traditional faith,” and occasionally treated by later Protestant polemicists as a phony addition made by Roman apologists. It’s not, appearances aside, walking back the Reformation; according to Charles Carlton’s “Thomas Cromwell: A Study in Interrogation” (Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1973)) our day’s victim “did not see himself as a Catholic separate from the Church, but as a Christian, who, with his King, had escaped the Pope’s usurped authority.” Cromwell is also explicit in this passage about rejecting sacramentarianism, which was part of the heresy accusation against him.
On this date in 1794, the curtain — and the blade — fell on the Terror.
Maximilien Robespierre, who had breakfasted the previous day as master of France, was guillotined this evening with his chief lieutenants and partisans.
His fall came as sudden and inevitable as his rise had been unpredictable.
Five years before, Robespierre was an unprosperous Arras attorney of fashionably liberal philosophies, and you wouldn’t have given a sou for the prospects of his being remembered five minutes after he died. Yet it would come that his inseparable lieutenant Saint-Just would remark with understatement, “The words we have spoken will never be forgotten on earth.”
The historic convocation of the Estates-General thrust him onto the political stage where he would make the dread name that follows him, starting off in the Revolution’s inception as a far-left deputy. He took a notable early stand against the death penalty, with several arguments that are quite familiar by our day:
The first obligation of a legislator is to form and preserve public morals, the source of all freedom, source of all social happiness. When in running to a particular goal he turns away from this general and essential goal he commits the most vulgar and dire of errors. The king must thus present to the people the purest model of justice and reason. If in place of this powerful, calm and moderate severity that should characterize it they place anger and vengeance; if they spill human blood that they could spare and that they have no right to spread; if they spread out before the people cruel scenes and cadavers wounded by torture, it then alters in the hearts of citizens the ideas of the just and the unjust; they plant the seed in the midst of society of ferocious prejudices that will produce others in their turn. Man is no longer for man so sacred an object: we have a less grand idea of his dignity when public authority puts his life at risk. The idea of murder inspires less fear when the law itself gives the example and the spectacle. The horror of crime is diminished when it is punished by another crime. Do not confuse the effectiveness of a penalty with the excess of severity: the one is absolutely opposed to the other. Everything seconds moderate laws; everything conspires against cruel laws.
For Robespierre, it was an abomination for the nation to deal out death within its community, but his Rousseauan elevation of the collective and abstract People made extirpating existential threats to the community itself an altogether different matter.
The future tyrant’s anti-death penalty case for executing the deposed Louis XVI, flowing directly from those principles, makes interesting reading and is excerpted at length (all emphases added) here for its topicality:
When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. … The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrant’s trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.
Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?
As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.
It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live.
“Pity is treason.”
Months later, as head of the Committee of Public Safety — the Orwellian name harkens to the body’s power to judge who lay inside the community and who, lying outside, made war upon it — he would find an inexhaustible fifth column of kindred threats to the Revolution.
But Revolutionary France really was in a war for its survival, against external and internal foes alike. The monarchist for whom crime multiplied upon crime every day after the Tennis Court Oath has the easiest time of this period, for every step brings a new monstrosity. And it is well enough to call Robespierre illiberal, to shudder at his prim and icy persona.
But if the French Revolution’s liberte, egalite, fraternite is a legacy for celebration — as it is to much of the west, and much of the world — one must grapple with the place of this man and his methods.
Merely because they are the paths not taken, one hardly seems entitled to assume that at that tumultuous moment the rule of a constitutional monarchy heir to all the monstrosity of the ancien regime, the government of the Girondins who had launched the nearly fatal war against Austria, or that of Danton‘s haute bourgeoisie would necessarily have delivered France to a better place, or even a different one.
For a Dickens, Robespierre’s Terror is simply the appalling wrong turn of a high-minded movement. For Trotsky, “the Incorruptible”* is the admirable sword of France’s bourgeois revolution who effects the needful task of annihilating the feudal nobility, who presses fearlessly forward seeing that the only alternative is the slide into Bonaparte. Between the two lie many readings of the man.
Whether an aberration, a visionary, or a necessity, he waded a sea of blood for his frightening twins Virtue and Terror.
The fall of 9 Thermidor preceded Robespierre’s execution by a full — and very eventful — day. Arrested by the Convention, he was promptly liberated by his base in the Paris Commune which came within a whisker of overthrowing the Convention at that very moment. Instead, a frantic few hours of marshaling the armed power of the Revolution’s rival claimants to leadership ensued ending in a fray which saw the Robespierrists overpowered.
Robespierre was shot through the jaw in the process of signing an appeal to arms — some say a botched suicide, but a wound from the invading national guard is more generally believed; at any rate, the bloodied document with his signature begun “R-o-” is one of the age’s most arresting historical artifacts.
Horrifically injured, he lay most of the following day exposed for public derision before he was hauled with his party to the guillotine, re-erected in the Place de la Revolution for this most memorable execution. In Carlyle’s florid (and free) narration:
Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention hall, while his Prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clenched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. … -O reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no more word in this world.
Fouquier had but to identify; his Prisoners being already Out of Law.** At four in the afternoon, never before were the streets of Paris seen so crowded. From the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution … it is one dense stirring mass; all windows crammed; the very roofs and ridge-tiles budding forth human Curiosity, in strange gladness. … All eyes are on Robespierre’s Tumbril, where he, his jaw bound in dirty linen, with his half-dead Brother, and half-dead Henriot, lie shattered; their “seventeen hours” of agony about to end. The Gendarmes point their swords at him, to show the people which is he. A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’enivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Scelerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry; — hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!
Samson’s work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. Deservedly, and also undeservedly. O unhappiest Advocate of Arras, wert thou worse than other Advocates? Stricter man, according to his Formula, to his Credo and his Cant, of probities, benevolences, pleasures-of-virtue, and such like, lived not in that age. A man fitted, in some luckier settled age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons. His poor landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honore, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!
* Even his enemies agreed — sometimes adding it to the bill of particulars against him — that Robespierre lived a life of personal moderation; he lived as a boarder with a working-class family, and disdained to avail the politician’s typical harvest of political graft.
** The Convention had decreed Robespierre’s outlawry when he escaped custody; his immediate execution was, of course, akin to the logic he had once turned against the king.