Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off a maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.
The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.
In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.
We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we soon feel there is something ominous about it.
After the last slip is drawn,
there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.
Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.
And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.
“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.
Korecki’s clan hung its zupans at Korets, in present-day western Ukraine, and the young Samuel fought gleefully in the early 1600s in the train of the legendary commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski when the Polish army was ravaging Russia.
Samuel Korecki married the daughter of Jeremi(ah) Mohila or Movila, a boyar who contended for the Moldavian at the turn of the century; it was by this link that he too became drawn into the politics of that frontier realm, along with several other powerful families of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This period is known as the Moldavian Magnate Wars.
Though a dependency of the Ottomans, Moldavia had proven appealing in the past for Polish adventurers. The late Mohila had bequeathed power in Moldavia to his son Constantine but after some years Constantine’s tributary payments to Istanbul started to lag. His resulting deposition by the sultan saw Constantine flee to Polish territory — and his brother-in-law Korecki come to his aid by mounting an armed expedition meant to depose the Ottoman replacement.*
Korecki was captured by the Turks in the process, dramatically escaped via Greece and Italy (and a celebrity-making papal audience into the bargain), then returned to the field only to be captured again at the Battle of Cecora in 1620.
This decisive Ottoman victory portended ill and not just for Korecki personally.
19th century woodcut illustrating the death of Samuel Korecki. (Source)
As our man was hauled back to Istanbul (he would not escape a second time), the rampant Turks drove for Ukraine with the intention of taking a bite out of it for the Sublime Porte.
The Poles were able to stanch the advance with a stand at Khotyn, but the Commonwealth would shift into an unmistakable decline thereafter; by mid-century, rebellious Cossacks had taken Ukraine over to Russian protection, while Swedish incursions from the north so greatly reduced Poland’s reach that the period is known as the Deluge. (For his part, the teenage Ottoman sultan Osman II went home from this campaign determined to reform the Janissary corps whom he blamed for the unsatisfying stalemate of Khotyn; these dangerous slave-soldiers vetoed the plan by murdering Osman instead.)
* Moldavia was a secondary foreign policy concern for the Ottomans, who were absorbed in this period by war with Persia.
On this date in 1794, Simon-Nicholas Henry Linguet was guillotined during the French Revolution for having written praise of foreign tyrants.
Linguet (English Wikpiedia entry | French) was a brilliant lawyer and a prolific but prickly man of letters. Famous in his own day for his prose, he’s of less account to a modernity that’s long forgotten the various axes he had to grind.
The one sure constant in his life was a gift for making enemies.
He soon apostasized from the Reason-worshipping “fanatical”philosophes, and eventually found himself disbarred for irritating too many fellow barristers. Turning instead to journalism, his Annales politiques, civiles et litteraires — published mostly in exile from 1777 to 1792 — became, as his biographer put it, “a quasi-independent force for molding opinion and policy in the power centers of Europe. Maneuvering among the great powers of Europe wielding the power of his public’s opinion, Linguet institutionalized political influence for himself, and liberty as well.” And of course the writing business really let Linguet’s native gift for pissing people off shine.
He scalded the French Academy and settled scores with rivals old and new. Eventually a suit by one of them landed Linguet in the Bastille when the latter tried to return to Paris in 1780.
Linguet got out (and left France again) in 1782, turning his spell in the Bourbon dungeons into a Memoirs of the Bastille,* which didn’t buy him as much sympathy as one might assume come revolutionary times since he had scarcely incurred his sufferings on behalf of the masses.
Linguet was finally able to return to his country with the Austrian embassy courtesy of ennoblement conferred by Marie Antoinette‘s brother Emperor Joseph II. His restored relations with Europe’s crowned heads, however, did not prevent him taking up the cause of Belgium’s Brabant Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution.
An early member of the Cordeliers and temporary enthusiast of the Revolution, Linguet would later be bold enough to write Louis XVI offering to defend him. He was easy pickings in the end for a revolutionary tribunal that accused him of prostituting his literary gifts to Europes various ancien regimes: Linguet had taken refuge in his time with all of revolutionary France’s principal enemies, and had flattered their princes for his trouble; his provocative pen had set his name to a defense of slavery; and he’d even mounted an attack on Alexander the Great which in the great tradition of contrarian provocateurs compared the legendary conquerer unfavorably (on the body count metric) with the Emperor Nero. Literally defended Nero was the epitaph his prosecutors pinned to him, and it’s never fully come unstuck. It’s unfair, sure … but Linguet was the last man in a position to complain, and not just because he’d had his head cut off.
A manuscript of a history of France Linguet was working on was found among his papers after his visit to the guillotine. It made fine cartridge paper for France’s muskets.
* At one point in this text — an overwrought rant against the rigors of his imprisonment from the pen of a man whose previous treatises had scornfully defended absolutism against his former buddies among the philosophes — he mounts a defense of executioners, who “ought to be much less ignominious in the public opinion.” After all, they
are only the ministers of an indispensible severity: they are officers, and necessary officers, of a lawful power they may sometimes execute unjust orders; but they act constantly in obedience to justice and the laws. They are certain that the unfortunate being who is delivered to them, either has had, or will have, the means of defending himself: they are sure, or at least must believe, that an equitable and impartial enquiry has preceded the rigorous decision under which they act. They are authorized to think that none but the guilty, or at least men justly suspected, have ever been the objects of them.
On this date in 1740, the Russian politician Artemy Volynsky was beheaded in St. Petersburg.
Volynsky, as famously corrupt as he was famously able, had worked himself up from Peter the Great’s dragoons into the circles of high statecraft but lost a power struggle in the notoriously cruel court of Empress Anna. He’d made it all the way to Anna’s cabinet, but there made himself the rival of powerful Baltic grand chamberlain Ernst Johann von Biron: in political terms, Biron and the fellow Balt who ran foreign policy had a west-facing, German orientation, while Volynsky looked east to Central Asia, India, and China; in personal terms, Biron was the lover of the queen, and Volynsky … was not.
After Volynsky beat up a poet, Biron had the excuse to have him investigated and was able to construct as treasonable some private correspondence about changing the way things are done in Russia, Biron thereby ridding himself of the rival.
Just a few months after Volynsky’s execution, Anna herself died, leaving an ill-starred one-year-old heir and an uncertain political situation.
In the event, Biron and his fellow Germanophiles were driven out of court by the Russian grandees, who then constructed the late Volynsky — by all indications as cutthroat and grasping as anyone else at court — as a patriotic martyr vis-a-vis the detested late ascendancy of the Baltic types.*
Further to that same end, the scaffold-bound 19th century Decembrist poet Ryleyev (Ryleev) paid his own tribute to Volynsky in verse. So far, I’ve only found Ryleyev’s “Volynsky” in Russian, but here’s a little taste [courtesy of blog friend Sonechka] of the gist:
He who resists the overweening
Expects no reward and asks for none
And forgetting even himself
Sacrifices all to the motherland.
Against the cruel tyrants
He will be free even in chains
At execution justly proud
And ever after exalted.
In that same vein, Ryleyev’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov featured Volynsky as the protagonist of his historical novel The Ice Palace or The Ice House,† again whitewashing the man’s ample stock of disreputable qualities.
The book’s title alludes to a famous structure put up in the winter of 1739-1740 for the royal court’s amusement, a vast frozen edifice 20 meters tall and 50 meters wide, designed by the architect Pyotr Yeropkin … a Volynsky ally who ultimately shared Volynsky’s fate on June 27, 1740.
This sounds great, but the decadent amusement park soon became the scene for one of imperial Russia’s more infamous and bizarre horrors: Anna forced an ex-prince who had been demoted to court jester for marrying a Catholic to wed a homely Kalmyk serving-girl, with whom he would have to pass a “wedding night” naked in that icebox. (Somehow, they managed to survive.)
The yellow-clad Anna dances merrily while her terrified servants/prey brace to survive a winter night on the ice bed. Detail view; click for the full painting.
Where the rail splitter failed, fortune prevailed.
“A few days — or nights rather — before that set for his execution,” we read,
a friendly auger passed to him afforded the means of escape. Just then delays were dangerous to poor drunken Bill Weaver, for Sheriff Lewis had the rope and scaffold ready, so he did not await a farewell word from friends, but sped away to the North, as the winds go. At that time the tangled forests and the untramped prairies afforded unexcelled means for seclusion and escape, and the condemned man, once a mile from town, might well bid farewell to every fear of being caught and hanged, as he doubtless did. Years afterward Weaver was heard from in far Northern Wisconsin, a useful, law-abiding citizen. No effort was ever made to bring him back from his delicious exile.
As commoners, Joseph and Flamank were condemned to the barbarous hanging-drawing-quartering death, but Henry commuted it to simple hanging with posthumous dismembering lest the popular leaders’ public torture spark fresh trouble in their native stomping-grounds. (Michael Joseph prophesied that posterity would confer upon these martyrs “a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal.” The authorities still did the dismembering bits, only posthumously, and put the heads up on pikes.)
After all, the fact that these troublemakers had marched right up to London before anyone had opposed them underscored Henry’s own potential vulnerability. Even the noble that Henry sent out to whip the marchers might have had one finger to the wind before deciding which side would be the winner.
As events would prove, the king was right to worry.
First as tragedy, then as farce
Seeing how much latent disaffection had been readily converted to action in Cornwall, Perkin Warbeck decided to make his big move later that same year in 1497 by landing there near Land’s End.
A few thousand joined the ensuing Second Cornish Uprising, but it came to much the same end — and resulted, this time, in Warbeck’s own capture and eventual execution.
* Some Wikipedia articles assert June 24, but June 27 seems attested by better authorities. I have not been able to pin down primary documentation proving either date, but the maintenance of June 27th as “An Gof Day” disposes the case. (There was a big 500th anniversary march for the occasion in 1997.) Claims that all three were executed on June 28 appear to be simply mistaken.
** As a peer, Audley got the chop instead of the hemp: he was beheaded on June 28. The rank-and-file were generally pardoned.
On this date in 1777, they hanged the macaroni parson at Tyburn.
High-living, Cambridge-educated vicar William Dodd achieved this emasculating nickname for his frippery — macaroni (or maccaroni) being 18th century slang for a sort of outrageous continental metrosexual.*
He came particularly in for public ridicule when he was caught trying to bribe his way to a lucrative ecclesiastical position, financial hardship from his lifestyle having driven him to the desperate need for a pay hike. (In sorer straits later, he would sum up his life: “my greatest evil was expense. To supply it, I fell into the dreadful and ruinous mode of raising money by simonies. The annuities devoured me.”
Playwright Samuel Foote skewered the recently-humiliated Dodd on the stage in The Cozeners as “Dr. Simony,” described in the scrambled boast of “Mrs. Simony”:
not a more populous preacher within the sound of Bow-bells: I don’t mean for the mobility only … with a cambric handkerchief in one hand, and a diamond ring on the other: and then he waves this way and that way; and he curtsies, and he bows, and he bounces, that all the people are ready to — but then his wig, madam! I am sure you must admire his dear wig … short, rounded off at the ear, to show his plump cherry cheeks, white as a curd, feather-topped, and the curls as close as a cauliflower…
Then, my doctor is none of your schismatics, madam; believes in the whole thirty-nine! and so he would if there were nine times as many.
Three years after Foote’s cruel pen gave Dodd’s name immortality, the divine himself was (so he should think) ushered into eternity, after he got caught passing a forged bond against the revenues of his onetime student Lord Chesterfield.
Condemned to die for the offense,** a longer-than-usual lag from sentence to execution gave Dr. Simony leave to follow that classic Calvary of errant clerics with a mien of pious self-flagellation that helped his case raised a public outcry for clemency.
Samuel Johnson was among thousands of Britons who petitioned for mercy, and in Johnson’s case, went a bit further to ghost-write a piece in Dodd’s name, “The convict’s address to his unhappy brethren”. It was when the litterateur’s hand was suspected behind this prose† that Johnson made his quotable, tweetable remark,
“Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Dr. Johnson, nevertheless, was the true author, and the old scribbler used it to express some of his particular opinions on the proper staging of gallows-theater.
It is the duty of a penitent to repair, so far as he has the power, the injury which he has done. What we can do, is commonly nothing more than to leave the world an example of contrition. On the dreadful day, when the sentence of the law has its full force, some will be found to have affected a shameless bravery, or negligent intrepidity. Such is not the proper behaviour of a convicted criminal. To rejoice in tortures is the privilege of a martyr; to meet death with intrepidity is the right only of innocence, if in any human being innocence could be found. Of him, whose life is shortened by his crimes, the last duties are humility and self-abasement. We owe to God sincere repentance; we owe to man the appearance of repentance.—-We ought not to propagate an opinion, that he who lived in wickedness can die with courage.‡
William Dodd (together with another criminal, John Harris) had occasion to do just that this day in 1777. Dodd became the last person hanged for forgery at Tyburn.
Dodd, himself a big death penalty opponent from his former public perch, gave a sermon the very year of his eventual death titled The Frequency of Capital Punishments Inconsistent with Justice, Sound Policy and Religion, critiquing “voluntary destruction” of human life and its inconsistency with “the humane and benevolent spirit which characterizes the present times.”
He was also — which helps explain the revival attempt — a big supporter of the Humane Society, which sought to apply the developing science of the Enlightenment to the problem of resuscitating the (near-)drowned. (The Royal Humane Society’s motto today is lateat scintillula forsan, “a small spark may perhaps lie hid.”)
Dodd preached an enthusiastic sermon to this body in 1776, expansively anticipating its work for analogous “various other kinds of sudden and accidental death” such as “malefactors executed at the gallows, [which] would afford opportunities of discovering how far this method might be successful in relieving such as may have unhappily become their own executioners by hanging themselves.” Dodd’s own engagement with both the medical and the theological questions at stake in resuscitation surely conditioned his own anticipation under the noose that, if revived, he might live on as a “renovated being.”
(Dodd’s involvement with the Humane Society is detailed in Kelly McGuire’s “Raising the Dead: Sermons, Suicide, and Transnational Exchange in the Eighteenth Century,” Literature and Medicine, Spring 2009.)
It was, surely, an astounding time to live; no less so, to die. And the mysterious border between the two might be re-engineered by human ingenuity.
What opposite discoveries we have seen!
(Signs of true genius, and of empty pockets.)
One makes new noses, one a guillotine,
One breaks your bones, one sets them in their sockets;
Bread has been made (indifferent) from potatoes;
And galvanism has set some corpses grinning,
But has not answer’d like the apparatus
Of the Humane Society’s beginning
By which men are unsuffocated gratis:
What wondrous new machines have late been spinning!
* The lyrics of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (“stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”) may be the most recognizable modern-day relic of this lexicon.
** Dodd made a groveling plea to the jury in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, at one point bold enough to appeal to injury his death would inflict upon those who lent him money: “I have creditors, honest men, who will lose much by my death. I hope, for the sake of justice towards them, some mercy will be shown to me. ”
† Dodd could write a little himself; he had a theological tract and a commentary on Shakespeare already to his name, and at Newgate cranked out Thoughts in Prison, a collection of sub-Villon poetry.
Every man reposes upon the tribunals of his country the stability of possession, and the serenity of life. He therefore who unjustly exposes the courts of judicature to suspicion, either of partiality or error, not only does an injury to those who dispense the laws, but diminishes the public confidence in the laws themselves, and shakes the foundation of public tranquility.
On this date in 1950, Milada Horakova was hanged with three others in Prague’s Pankrac Prison as a spy and traitor to the Communist Czechoslovakian government.
Not (yet) as internationally recognizable as Rudolf Slansky,* the Communist General Secretary in Horakova’s time who would run afoul of Stalin and die on the same gallows two years later, Horakova (English Wikipedia page | Czech | the detailed French) is a potent symbol domestically of her country’s Cold War nightmare.
Lawyer, social democrat, and a prominent feminist in the interwar and postwar periods — her life’s work, rather overshadowed by an end that was memorable for different reasons — Horakova survived Nazi imprisonment and was a member of parliament when the Communists seized power in 1948.
She spurned counsel to flee the country, and found herself the headline attraction at a show trial for a supposed plot to overthrow the government. In a hopeless scenario, she distinguished herself with off-script defiance despite having broken under torture and signed a confession; Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt all pleaded in vain for clemency.
Horakova left the world clear in her purpose. In a letter to her teenage daughter awaiting execution, she justified her own dangerous choices:
The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children. But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good … by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. … Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight.
Hours before her hanging, she wrote a few last words for her loved ones:
I go with my head held high. One also has to know how to lose. That is no disgrace. An enemy also does not lose honor if he is truthful and honorable. One falls in battle; what is life other than struggle? (Both excerpts cited here)
The only woman among Czechoslovakia’s postwar political executions was abortively rehabilitated during the 1968 Prague Spring. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, her resistance to both Naziism and Communism — worthy of an opera (topical interview) and a forthcoming film — have elevated her into her country’s official pantheon.
As a result, this date is “Commemoration day for the victims of the Communist regime” in the Czech Republic.