1857: Francis Richeux, witnessed by Tolstoy

Add comment April 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1857, a robber-murderer named Francis Richeux was publicly guillotined in Paris before a crowd of 12,000 to 15,000 people.

One of those onlookers was a 28-year-old Russian noble, fresh from the Crimean War and abroad on his first European trip: Leo Tolstoy.*

Overcome with curiosity, Tolstoy (as he recorded in his diary; here it is in Russian)

rose at seven o’clock and drove to see an execution. A stout, white, healthy neck and breast: he kissed the Gospels, and then — Death. How senseless … I have not received this strong impression for naught. I am not a man of politics. Morals and art I know, love, and [understand]. The guillotine long prevented my sleeping and obliged me to reflect.

And he developed the impression into a full-on rant that same day, in his running correspondence with Russian litterateur Vasily Botkin. The following is as translated in Dialogues with Dostoyevsky: The Overwhelming Questions.

The spectacle made such an impression on me that it will be long before I get over it. I have seen many horrors in war and in the Caucasus, but if a man were torn to pieces in my presence it would not have been so repulsive as this ingenious and elegant machine by means of which they killed a strong, hale, healthy man in an instant. There [in war] it is not a question of the rational [will], but the human feeling of passion, while here it is a question of calm and convenient murder finely worked out, and there’s nothing grand about it. The insolent, arrogant desire to carry out justice, the law of God. Justice, which is determined by lawyers every one of whom, basing himself on honor, religion, and truth, contradicts each other. With these same formalities they have murdered both the king and Chenier, both republicans and aristocrats.† . . Then the repulsive crowd, the father explaining to his daughter what a convenient and ingenious mechanism it is, and so forth. The law of man — rubbish! The truth is that the state is a conspiracy not only for exploitation, but chiefly to corrupt its citizens. But all the same states exist, and moreover in this imperfect form. And they cannot pass from this system into socialism . . . For my part, I can only see in all this repulsive lie what is loathsome, evil, and I do not want to, and cannot, sort out where there is more and where there is less. I understand moral laws, the laws of morality and religion, binding on no one, that lead people forward and promise a harmonious future; I feel the laws of art which always bring happiness; but the laws of politics constitute for me such an awful lie that I cannot see in them a better or worse. All this is what I felt, understood, and recognized today. And this recognition at least to some extent relieves the burden of the impression for me . . . From this day forward I will not only never go to see such a thing again, but I will never serve any government anywhere.**

He wasn’t kidding about that long insomnia, either: the impression startled him, permanently. Recalling the effect years later in his Confessions, Tolstoy still attributed to it an important confirmation of his egalitarian philosophy.

When I saw the head separate from the body, and how they both thumped into the box at the same moment, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress can justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world, on whatever theory, had held it to be necessary, I know it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, and is not progress, but is my heart and I.

Tolstoy developed the same theme further a few years later in What Is to Be Done? … the shade of the long-forgotten Francis Richeux still haunting the great man of letters.

Thirty years ago in Paris I once saw how, in the presence of thousands of spectators, they cut a man’s head off with a guillotine. I knew that the man was a dreadful criminal; I knew all the arguments that have been written in defence of that kind of action, and I knew it was done deliberately and intentionally, but at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense, and that however many people may combine to commit murder — the worst of all crimes — and whatever they may call themselves, murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes, and I by my presence and nonintervention had approved and shared in it. In the same way now, at the sight of the hunger, cold, and degradation of thousands of people, I understood not with my mind or my heart but with my whole being; that the existence of tens of thousands of such people in Moscow — while I and thousands of others over-eat ourselves with beef-steaks and sturgeon and cover our horses and floors with cloth or carpets — no matter what all the learned men in the world may say about its necessity — is a crime, not committed once but constantly; and that I with my luxury not merely tolerate it but share in it. (PDF source | Original Russian)

* Among Tolstoy’s other activities in Paris was hanging around Turgenev … but the two mostly irritated one another. Nevertheless, they shared a distaste for the guillotine, at least to judge by Turgenev’s repulsion at seeing it in action years later.

** Two days after the execution, Tolstoy left Paris for Geneva. Execution-disgust is a suggestive speculation, although Henri Troyat argues that it merely gave him a “dramatic excuse” to stop putting off travel plans he had already made.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

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2003: Guillermo Gaviria Correa and nine other FARC hostages

Add comment May 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2003, the Colombian military mounted a raid in an attempt to free 13 hostages of the narco-trafficking guerrilla organization FARC — causing the rebels to summarily execute their hostages. (Three survived.)

Most notable among the victims of what Colombian President Alvaro Uribe called “another massacre” in that country’s long-running civil war were two men:

Scion of a political family, Gaviria had become a notable exponent of nonviolence; he and Echeverri had been captured leading an unarmed, 1,000-person solidarity march in April of 2002.

It was part of the governor’s visionary (or quixotic) bid to transform his society.

As time passes, my confidence about the benefits of spreading and promoting nonviolence in Antioquia grows stronger. It is not about using nonviolence as a tool to try to transform FARC-EP attitudes. Before we can aim that high, it is absolutely necessary for the people of Antioquia to familiarize themselves with the concept of nonviolence and to adopt it, to the best of their abilities, as their own. We need nonviolence as a society to overcome our mistakes and transform the cruel reality suffered by so many in Antioquia. Here I have pondered about what kind of message I could offer as a leader. I came to the conclusion that the only message I want and can give is about the transforming power of nonviolence, its tremendous capacity to bring out the best in human beings, even in the worst of circumstances.

Peace activist Glenn D. Paige paid Gaviria the tribute of comparing him to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and nominated the governor for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.

The diary Gaviria kept during his year’s captivity, reflecting on his “journey toward nonviolent transformation,” has been published.

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1949: Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin

15 comments November 15th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin was hanged at India’s Ambala Jail, together with one of his co-conspirators.

Often spoken of posthumously as little less than a saint, Gandhi was deeply immersed in the controversial rough-and-tumble politics of his time — India’s independence movement, and the shape of the nascent state. Winston Churchill, for instance, scorned him as “a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace.”

The hatred of a Tory M.P. at the twilight of the empire might be expected, but it was a Hindu nationalist who struck Gandhi down after the partition into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi had vocally opposed partition on the grounds of interreligious tolerance — but he eventually assented to Pakistan’s separation when he became convinced that the alternative was civil war.

Distrusted by Hindu partisans for his “appeasement” of minority groups within India, Gandhi survived numerous attempts on his life. But he sealed his fate by fasting to compel Delhi to make its agreed-upon partition payments to Islamabad even in the midst of war. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, gunned him down during evening prayers on January 30, 1948.

(For a less Hollywood take on Gandhi, a five-hour documentary available online surveys his life.)

Godse never betrayed doubt or regret. On the contrary, he cogently justified the murder at trial:

I thought to myself and foresaw I shall be totally ruined, and the only thing I could expect from the people would be nothing but hatred and that I shall have lost all my honour, even more valuable than my life, if I were to kill Gandhiji. But at the same time I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be proved practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces. No doubt, my own future would be totally ruined, but the nation would be saved from the inroads of Pakistan. People may even call me and dub me as devoid of any sense or foolish, but the nation would be free to follow the course founded on the reason which I consider to be necessary for sound nation-building.

I do say that my shots were fired at the person whose policy and action had brought rack and ruin and destruction to millions of Hindus. There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book and for this reason I fired those fatal shots.

Sixty years later, the subcontinent and the world at large seem more strained than ever by the collision between these men’s visions — the secular and egalitarian as against violent religious animosity.

Godse’s old party, the RSS, has become a substantial far-right bloc in the modern political scene. And while the party has always disavowed responsibility for the murder, some still consider Godse a hero. Pakistan, for whose birth Gandhi was slain, totters on the brink of an abyss.

Gandhi, meanwhile, is not only the official “father of his country” but has become the very watchword for nonviolence, his tactics and ideas inspiring such luminaries as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. But his life and legacy remain live topics of research and dispute.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Infamous,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Pakistan

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