The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.
The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.
At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.
Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.
They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.
A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.
Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.
Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.
By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.
But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)
Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.
Arthur Gooch on the gallows
* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.
Our setting in 1972 finds Thailand under martial law, an especially nasty interlude during the “three tyrants” era when the dictatorial government had been overthrown from within and was ruling by decree.
One of those decrees came down for Sanong Phobang, Thanoochai Montriwat, and Jumnian Jantra just days after they were arrested for a shocking crime: in the course of trying to pick a woman’s pocket at a bus stop, they’d turned on a bystander who noticed the crime and shouted at the woman to look sharp. The infuriated trio boarded the departing bus, trapped the good Samaritan, and stabbed him to death.
Upon determining that the guys were violent career criminals, the authorities just sent an order to have them summarily shot. Snap executions on executive authority were common in this year.
The criminals heard the execution order read only immediately before the sentence was carried out, although by that time they had inferred their fate from the fact that they had been driven to the death house. (And been given a few moments to write their families. We’re not dealing with monsters here!)
We join our executioner’s narrative, noting that at this early stage in his career he was not yet the man who shot the prisoners, but an “escort” on the execution team who readied the prisoners for the executioner.
Suddenly it hit the three of them that this was it. Thanoochai fell out of his chair and screamed for mercy.
“Please don’t kill me sir. Let me see my mother first, she knows people, let her help me, please let me see her!”
The prisoners hugged each other and cried like children.
… at 5.25pm the other escort and myself led Jumnian out of the tower and over to the execution room. Nobody spoke. I think I half expected him to faint but he didn’t. He had resigned himself to his fate and was like ‘a dead man walking’. We had blindfolded him at the gazebo and when we reached the room we firmly secured him to the cross … Mui [the executioner] readied himself over the Bergmann [MP 34/1] and waited for the flag to drop. He fired one shot, which sent eight bullets into Jumnian’s back. He died instantly.
I headed back with the other escort to collect Thanoochai. He blanched when he saw us but didn’t try to resist as we brought him out of the tower. However, all hell broke out at the execution room. He shocked me by suddenly tearing off the blindfold and shouting out for his mother. He kept insisting that his mother be allowed to see him as she could save him because of who she knows, and implored us not to kill him. All the time he was shouting his pleas his eyes roved around wildly searching for his mother but of course she wasn’t there. She was probably in her kitchen praying for him. The staff just stood there staring at him in horror. He really seemed to think his mother was going to appear and save him.
Then he remembered his friend who had gone before him and began to call out for Jumnian.
“Nian! Are you in there? Answer me man. Do you hear me? Answer me you asshole. Are you dead? Why don’t you answer me?”
The silence was almost cruel, as if he was being taunted in his madness on top of everything else … Thanoochai realised that Jumnian would never reply to his shouts, followed by the realisation that it was also too late for him. He crumpled to the floor in front of the execution room, surrounded by staff, and began to cry quietly. … All his fight had gone now, but he still had not lost hope. As we half dragged, half carried him into the room, he still called out for his mother;
“Please help me Mom, please help me.”
… It took four of us to get him standing in front of the cross … I pushed my knee into his back to force him against the cross so that we could bind him to it. One guy tied his hands up around the cross; another guy tied his weight while the other escort and I tried to stop his squirming. Only when he was completely secure did he finally shut up.
At 5.40pm Mui fired 12 bullets into Thanoochai.
… [after the third, more routine, execution] the room stank of blood, sweat and gun powder. There was a lot of blood from each of the men all over the floor and the sand bags. Unfortunately the floor is never cleaned immediately after a shooting. Sand is just thrown down to blot up the puddles and left there overnight for the inmates, who are in charge of the room, to tidy up the following morning.
At this point, Chavoret Jaruboon muses on the spookiness of the execution cell and the belief among some members of the team that the spirits of the shot haunt the place.
The next morning, he tells of being visited by the mother of the panicked Thanoochai Montriwat, who related a dream:
I dreamt about my son last night. He was crying and when I asked him why he didn’t answer. He just stood there and then blood started to ooze out of every part of his body … He told me he lost his shoes and asked me to get them back. He just kept repeating that. I don’t really understand but I’m afraid he won’t be able to rest in peace, which is why I need your help.
Sure enough, one of the prisoners tasked with tidying up the bodies for delivery to the Buddhist temple had taken Thanoochai’s shoes for himself. Thailand’s future last executioner had them retrieved and delivered to the grieving mother.
She was a good woman and kept begging her son’s victims to see into their hearts if they could forgive her son. She was going to cremate the body and wanted Thanoochai to feel in the consuming flames, the goodness and forgiveness emanating from everyone he had hurt which would fill him with regret and sorrow for his criminal ways. A parent’s love can be the purest love there is; no matter what a child does he is forgiven and still fiercely loved.
On this date in 1699, Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet lost her beautiful head … eventually.
The talk of every Parisian in the spring of 1699 for attempting the life of her husband, Angelique-Nicole Carlier had been well-known in Paris circles since the 1670s; coincidentally or not, that was a period when a perceived boom in “husband-killing” burgeoned the phenomenon into an outright moralpanic.
In those bygone days, Mademoiselle Carlier did her manslaying metaphorically, wielding only her limitless charms (not excluding a wealthy inheritance left by her industrious albeit untitled late father). This reputed “masterpiece of nature,” alas, exchanged her magnum opus for deniers on the livre when she succumbed to the suit of Claude Tiquet, a respected councilor of the Parlement of Paris so bedazzled by the young woman that he did not pause to consider her liberalities. Although quite past her in age, Tiquet won her hand with the promise of wealth so capacious that he wooed his intended with a bouquet of flowers studded with 15,000 l. worth of diamonds — and plied her aunt with still more largesse to advance his case.
But actually, Monsieur Tiquet was not wealthy. He stretched his fortune to acquire these amorous bribes as, let us say, investments in a happy future.
“Thus they united their fortunes for life, equally blinded as to each other,” George Henry Borrow wrote. “Such are the steps that lead to the most unhappy destinies.”
The wife’s prodigality — and her belated discovery as she blew through the putative family fortune that it was he who had married the money, and not she — soon brought domestic relations to a frosty pass.
Madame kindled a more edifying romance with a young captain of the guards; Monsieur strove in vain to check her moves with locked doors and snooping skulks. They separated to distinct wings of the family house, seeing one another only rarely — and in deathly silence — while each schemed his or her embittered schemes. Years they wasted at this intolerable impasse.
Despairing at last of being rid of either her horrible husband or his horrible debts, Madame Tiquet took her plotting far enough to compass her spouse’s death. “It is impossible,” she cried in one unguarded moment to a friend, “for me to have any enjoyment of myself while my husband lives, who is in too good health for me to look for such a quick revolution of fortune.”
So she engaged the services of her porter and of a freelance villain, and on the evening of April 8, 1699, these two assassins ambushed Claude Tiquet as he returned from a friend’s house and shot him three times. One ball only barely missed the heart. Tiquet survived, and he demanded those who came to his aid take him not to his own house but back to his friend’s. Of enemies, he said, “I have none but my own wife.”
This scenario speedily became the talk of Paris, and it did not take long for sentiment to coalesce against the wife. The hired assassins implicated Madame Tiquet in a years-long conspiracy to murder her husband whose previous installments — a missed ambush; a failed poisoning — had come to naught. Both Madame Tiquet and the porter, Jacques Moura, received a sentence of death, each appropriate to their respective stations: she to lose her neck, and he to swing from his.
There nevertheless remained some ambiguity about her real guilt, for the evidence was mostly circumstance and inference and colored by the purely titillating qualities of the public scandal. And then there was the fact that she was an attractive woman.
Angelique’s brother, a guardsman like the condemned woman’s lover, organized a petition for pardon. Surprisingly, even Monsieur Tiquet threw himself at Louis XIV‘s feet to plead for the life of his would-be murderess and the mother of his children. But it is said that when the Sun King wavered in his firmness, the Archbishop of Paris himself insisted upon the sentence. That prelate’s warning that save Madame Tiquet’s head should drop, no man could feel safe in his house must have fallen very ominously from the lips of the executive manager of Parisian confessionals.
Madame Tiquet heard the final failure of her appeals this day from an official who in the springtime of life had himself numbered among Mademoiselle Carlier’s suitors. And because the condemned would still not consent to confess the plot, that admirer was further obliged to order her to the cruel water torture to extract her statement.
In this procedure, the poor sinner is stretched out as on the rack, and eight pots of water painfully forced down the gullet. Madame Tiquet endured only a single pot before she calculated her inability to withstand the procedure and admitted all. Even so she continued to insist on the innocence of her lover: “I took care not to let him into the secret, else I had lost his esteem forever!”
These justice-satisfying preliminaries dispensed with, the condemned were conducted to the Place de Greve to suffer the penalty of the law. Thousands crowded the streets and windows, as was becoming the style for the execution spectacle of the era. Genuinely contrite or else wanting to play the part, she conversed humbly with her confessor and her condemned porter, exchanging absolutions and exhortations to die with Christian firmness.
Proceedings were delayed by a thunderstorm, although Madame Tiquet showed nothing but equanimity to wait at the foot of the scaffold while the weather passed. Jacques Moura hanged first: the undercard attraction.
Then the talk of all the town mounted those beams to give her own final performance, one remarked upon by all observers for its poise and stagecraft. The later memoirs of the Sanson family, written after that name inscribed itself on the guillotine during the French Revolution, dramatized the scene. It includes the regrettable inability of their own ancestor Charles Sanson de Longval* to equal the doomed woman’s grace under pressure.
When Angelique’s turn was come, she advanced, gracefully bowing to my ancestor, and holding out her hand, that he might help her to ascend the steps. He took with respect the fingers which were soon to be stiffened by death. Mdme. Tiquet then mounted on the scaffold with the imposing and majestic step which had always been admired in her. She knelt on the platform, said a short prayer, and, turning to her confessor,
“I thank you for your consolations and kind words; I shall bear them to the Lord.”
She arranged her head-dress and long hair; and, after kissing the block, she looked at my ancestor, and said:
“Sir, will you be good enough to show me the position. I am to take?”
Sanson de Longval, impressed by her look, had but just the strength to answer that she had only to put her head on the block.
Angelique obeyed, and said again:
“Am I well thus?”
A cloud passed before my ancestor’s eyes; he raised with both hands the heavy two-edged sword which was used for the purpose of decapitation, described with it a kind of semicircle, and let the blade fall with its full weight on the neck of the handsome victim.
The blood spurted out, but the head did not fall. A cry of horror rose from the crowd.
Sanson de Longval struck again; again the hissing of the sword was heard, but the head was not separated from the body. The cries of the crowd were becoming threatening.
Blinded by the blood which spurted at every stroke, Sanson brandished his weapon a third time with a kind of frenzy. At last the head rolled at his feet. His assistants picked it up and placed it on the block, where it remained for some time; and several witnesses asserted that even in death it retained its former calmness and beauty.
For an interesting consideration of the Tiquet affair, including her posthumous use in polemical melodrama either critiquing or celebrating her repentance of a life of iniquity, there’s a freely downloadable academic paper here. It’s by the author of this wild true-crime mystery unfolding elsewhere in France at just about the same time.
* Charles Sanson de Longval was the first Sanson executioner, the founder of the dynasty of headsmen. He had fallen into the dishonorable profession from a much more respectable social station and had been transplanted to Paris from Rouen only a few years before.
“Prior to the sugar boom,” writes Daniel Rasmussen in his well-received American Uprising, “New Orleans was a poor, multi-cultural city with very few social controls.”
The lines between slavery and freedom were not clearly drawn, and slaves frequently escaped into the swamps to form maroon colonies. There was a history of armed resistance in these areas that drew on French, Creole, and Kongolese traditions. These insurrectionary traditions shaped the lives of the slaves and represented an alternative political culture to that of the planters.
As testimony to that hazy line, Saint Malo had widespread support not only from the escaped slaves who joined him, but from those that remained on plantations. The communities were linked by blood and by trade; attempts to send creole militias out to hunt the maroons tended to founder on the draftees’ fear of retaliation by the kith and kin of their targets.
According to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Saint Malo’s prosecutor complained that slaves would grumble, affront their masters, leave land uncultivated … and that owners dared but few disciplinary measures lest they disappear into the swamps.
“Malheur au blanc qui passera ces bornes” (“Woe to the white who would pass this boundary”), was the declaration attributed our man, burying an ax dramatically into a tree outside his largest village, Ville Gaillarde. (The maroons lived in permanent settlements.)
It took several years, several tries, and more than several casualties for Louisiana planters to finally bring Saint Malo’s maroons to heel. And when they did — well, the dirge recorded from a fellow maroon (as related in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization) describes Malo’s fate.
Alas, young men, come make lament,
For poor St. Malo in distress!
They chased, they hunted him with dogs,
They fired a rifle at him.
They dragged him from the cypress swamp.
His arms they tied behind his back.
They tied his hands in front of him.
They tied him to a horse’s tail.
They dragged him up into the town.
Before those grand Cabildo men.
They charged that he had made a plot
To cut the throats of all the whites.
They asked him who his comrades were.
Poor St. Malo said not a word!
The judge his sentence read to him,
And then they raised the gallows tree.
They drew the horse — the cart moved off
And left St. Malo hanging there.
The sun was up an hour high
When on the levee he was hung.
They left his body swinging there
For carrion crows to feed upon.
* Coincidentally, June 19 would later become Juneteenth, marking the end of slavery in the United States at the conclusion of the Civil War.
Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.
Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.
Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.
* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)
By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.
(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)
Ah, the gay-baiting.
The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.
The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Peirs Gaveston is generally believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.
There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.
Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.
The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.
The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.
The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.
The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.
He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.
Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.
The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.
(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)
There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.
As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.
But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.
Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**
Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.
Books about Emperor Maximilian
This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.
If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.
For some, the hanging of one of these six men had been a horrible tragedy and perhaps even a mistake. Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara had enjoyed the reputation of “gentleman soldier” and protector of the common man. Hailing from a wealthy family near Misawa in Tohokhu province, some 450 miles north of Tokyo, Sakaibara never forgot his roots. Forever poking fun at the fast-paced Tokyo lifestyle, the rear admiral touted the value of rural living, the integrity and honesty of those who lived in Japan’s rugged north country, and Tokyo’s need to recognize their great contributions to the war effort. Contemplating a postwar political future, he would be following in the footsteps of his politically influential family in northern Japan. That future was linked to championing the rights of returning veterans and other have-nots. Misawa had indeed had a heroic reputation as an important navy town and base for years. Sakaibara had assisted in the training exercises held there for the Pearl Harbor attack plan in late 1941. His future seemed golden no matter who won the war. But what some in his command called “The 1943 Incident” changed all that.
Shigematsu Sakaibara (right foreground) surrendering Wake Island on September 4, 1945.
These events, Sakaibara admitted in his trial, had taken place in an atmosphere of near starvation and impending doom. The defense counsel especially emphasized that point, asking the commission to understand and respect the pressures and strains on Sakaibara at the time of the incident. But the commission was not in a forgiving mood. In the chaos of retreat or not, innocent civilians had been murdered.
… Unfortunately for Sakaibara, several members of his former command expressed surprise on the witness stand when asked about the desperate situation on Wake in 1943. These men insisted that Sakaibara and his defense team’s description of a starving, chaotic Wake was an exaggerated one. There had been no unexpected miseries, confusion, or sense of peril, they said. Sakaibara’s fate was sealed.
True to form, defendant Sakaibara offered a very literate final statement to the commission. In contrast to so many of his colleagues on trial in Tokyo, on Guam, or elsewhere, Sakaibara, albeit with carefully picked words, admitted he was guilty of rash and unfortunate actions. He appeared especially convincing when he noted that he wished he had never heard of Wake Island. But his most memorable comments involved his own view of morality in war. A nation that drops atom bombs on major cities, the rear admiral explained, did not have the moral authority to try so many of his countrymen. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind, Sakaibara claimed there was little difference between himself and the victors over Japan. With that statement a legend grew, particularly in his home town, of Sakaibara, the victim of American revenge.
… As late as the 1990s, some people there, not necessarily of the World War II generation, still bowed in reverence to Sakaibara family members out of respect for the “sacrificed” gentleman soldier.
His last words:
I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure.
* Some sources places the executions on June 19; the U.P. wire story, dated June 19th, referred to the hangings occurring “last night,” and the preponderance of evidence I have been able to locate appears to me to support the 18th rather than the 19th.
The United States Navy had hanged fewer than a handful of men in more than a hundred years … Now on Guam they had all kinds of Japanese to try and sentence to death … They had to requisition an Army executioner to show them how to hang. He was a lieutenant with silver-rimmed glasses, a leading-man moustache, and a paunch. He used the traditional British drop formula, but he was an innovator as well: He invented a method of lowering the dead body to the stretcher without having to cut the rope.
On this date in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair as Soviet spies.
Divisive since it was handed down — or more precisely, since a famous article in London’s Guardian challenged the verdict and helped elevate it into a latter-day Dreyfus case — the Rosenbergs‘ sentence has inspired so much acrimony over several generations that merely to observe the date is to invite a debate capable of eminently more heat than light.
Where to begin with a case so towering in the recent cultural milieu?
A textbook might say that Julius and Ethel were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, that they maintained their innocence and their defenders carried that flame years after their deaths, and that intelligence files opened after the Cold War — notably the Venona project — apparently confirmed that Julius was a spy after all, though Ethel seems to have been little more than an approving bystander and Julius, come to think of it, never had anything so worthwhile as atomic secrets to share with Moscow. This information (which does have its own skeptics, albeit a small minority) undermines the maximal “absolute innocence” position that this day’s victims always asserted, but it’s a curious leap to take it as vindicating the legal outcome.
“My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism.”
Half a century on, juridical guilt or innocence seems distinctly secondary in the lasting importance of the Rosenberg trial, the two-year battle to save them, and their potent symbolic afterlives.
The Rosenbergs are the only stateside judicial executions for espionage since the Civil War.* That is a remarkable distinction, after all; so, how comes it that it is held by — to state the case against them in its strongest imaginable terms — two enthusiastic but bush-league players, and not by the likes of Aldrich Ames? How was it that a judge with a largely center-liberal career on the bench would read them a sentence of death hysterically accusing these Lower East Siders of causing the Korean War?
[Y]our conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.
I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.
It is here in the age of McCarthyism, in the shadow of the USSR’s balance-altering A-bomb test in 1949, that the Rosenbergs stand in sharpest relief — not because of “guilt” or “innocence”, but as the ne plus ultra of that era’s range of social discipline.
A few years before, the United States and the Soviet Union had made common cause against Hitler in World War II, the United States pumping war materiel to Russians bearing the brunt of the fighting.
As the Great War gave way to the Cold War, the great powers remained nominal allies (that’s the reason the Rosenbergs weren’t tried for treason), but shifted rapidly into conflict. The American polity organized to expel the red menace by rendering it foreign and criminal — ideological rigging for the forty years’ imperial contest ahead. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee … in the whole of the self-conscious construction of communism as “contagion”, the power and willingness of the state to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg formed the tip of the spear, and an ugly contrast to that same state’s solicitous handling of Nazi scientists then developing the vehicles to deliver atomic technology to Moscow in mushroom cloud form.
Though different in many particulars, the thrust will be familiar to any sentient denizen of post-9/11 America: the extreme penalty enforces a wall between the suspect and abject (but tolerated) loyal liberal and the enemy left. Depend upon Ann Coulter for the most brutal articulation:
We need to execute people like John Walker [the American-born soldier captured fighting for the Taliban in 2001] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.
Like most symbols, the Rosenbergs came by their exaltation by accident; at the strictly personal level, their deaths are nearly operatic performances of human stubbornness and bureaucratic inertia. Investigators rolling up a spy ring** were looking for confessions and names to keep the indictments coming.
Julius refused to provide either, so his wife was arrested for leverage against him on the reasoning that he would confess to protect her. The gambit failed: both prisoner and hostage remained obstinate. The government’s bluff had been called, and it ruthlessly executed its threat.
Had the two really been responsible for starting a war, execution would hardly begin to cover the bill — yet to the very foot of the chair, the condemned, and Julius especially for the sake of his wife, were pressed with offers of mercy for confessing and “naming names”.
Abjure or expire: show trial logic.
An Execution in the Family
Given names to name, the personal mystery of their silence — the ultimate heroism or folly or tragedy or transcendence — only deepens the resonance of their fate both for contemporaries and posterity, the poignance of their orphaned children’s subsequent path, the contrast with Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who has since admitted to perjuring testimony against Ethel in order to shield his own wife. (Greenglass says the Rosenbergs died from the “stupidity” of not copping a deal of their own.)
Even before Julius and Ethel went to the chair this date,† they had become the emblem of a paranoid age. In the days following, Sartre savaged the United States for trying “to stop scientific progress by a human sacrifice”:
Your country is sick with fear. You’re afraid of everything: the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans. You’re afraid of each other. You’re afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.
Decades later, the shadows haven’t faded altogether. In playwright Tony Kushner’s imagination, the spirit of Ethel stalks her real-life prosecutor, closeted McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, as he succumbs to AIDS in the 1980’s.‡
Rosenberg resources — and vitriol — are in plentiful supply online and off. A good starting point on the case is this page at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Be sure to check the tale of a last-ditch legal maneuver that almost succeeded.
* There is one partial exception in the unusual case of six German saboteurs electrocuted in Washington, D.C., during World War II on a charge sheet that included espionage. The hearing was held by a military commission and only one of the six was an American citizen, so it was far from the regular judicial process — if one can call it that — the Rosenbergs faced.
** Originating in the investigation of Klaus Fuchs, the man who actually did what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of doing — passing atomic secrets to Moscow — although with debatable ultimate effect for the Soviets’ research. Fuchs served nine-plus years in a British prison and was released to East Germany; more than a few were galled at the difference between his sentence and the Rosenbergs’.
† Julius first, then Ethel. Her execution was botched; repeated shocks were required to kill her.
‡ Cohn’s posthumous autobiography did acknowledge illegally rigging the Rosenberg trial, as his Kushner character does.