1642: Henri Coiffier de Ruze, Marquis of Cinq-Mars

2 comments September 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1642, with the last words “Mon Dieu! Qu’est-ce que ce monde?”, 22-year-old former royal favorite Cinq-Mars was beheaded at Lyon’s Place des Terreaux.

Henri Coiffier de Ruze (English Wikipedia page | French) had been under Cardinal Richelieu’s protection since the boy’s father died in 1632; in 1639, the Red Eminence introduced the then-19-year-old whippersnapper to Louis XIII as a prospective royal favorite (read: lover).

Though the king did indeed take to the youth, Cinq-Mars, in the age-old custom of sullen teenagers everywhere, soon found the luxurious profligacy of the favorite’s life rather overbalanced by irritation at both of his sickly, aging patrons.

Tart talk to intimates graduated to something more serious after Richelieu rudely put the kibosh on Cinq-Mars’s (unrealistic) designs on a wealthy noblewoman — which was also a bid to parlay his tenuous favorite gig into some lasting power.

Now considering himself personally begrudged of the Cardinal, Cinq-Mars fell into the conspiracies (French link) to depose, assassinate, or otherwise replace him.

Eventually Cinq-Mars would go so far as a real blockbuster (French again): he signed a secret pact with the Spanish king to support a noble revolt in exchange for handing over French possessions, a seditious plan also backed by perennial plotter Gaston d’Orleans, the king’s scheming brother.

Our angry moppet had more than met his match in Richelieu, however: the cardinal’s agents intercepted (more French) the treasonable correspondence and had Cinq-Mars dispatched this date along with his confederate de Thou.


Execution of Cinq-Mars and De Thou in Paris (1642), engraving by Johann Luyken, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (via)

Richelieu himself was already dying as he undid this last conspiracy against him. The cardinal succumbed on December 4, 1642 … with Louis following him into the grave the next May.

While Richelieu’s name is fixed in the firmament of history and literature, Cinq-Mars has to make do as the namesake of a rarely-seen Gounod opera, based on the 1826 historical novel Cinq-Mars by Alfred de Vigny.

On this day..

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1812: Not Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace

3 comments September 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.

Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.

In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.

Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).

Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armee rolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.


Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.

The French blamed terrorists.

A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.

Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …

The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …

Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.


In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.

The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.

[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.

It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.

On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.

Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.

He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).

They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.

Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:

“Who are you?”

Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.

“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.

The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.

“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”

“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.

Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:

“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”

“Your name?” asked Davout.

“Bezukhov.”

“What proof have I that you are not lying?”

“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.

Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.

“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.

Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.

“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.

In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.

But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.

Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.

When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.

He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.

“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.

Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.

A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.

The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.

The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.

Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.

A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.

Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.

Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.

Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.

On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.

“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.

Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.

When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.

Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.

They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.

Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.

When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.

Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.

“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.

Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.

* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.

On this day..

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1628: Milady de Winter, Three Musketeers villainess

2 comments August 27th, 2012 Headsman

Late this night* in 1628 was the fictional execution of The Three Musketeers antagonist Milady de Winter.

Milady de Winter, as the heroine of Agnes Maupre’s revisionist French graphic novel series (Author interview | Another (Both in French)).

This conniving minx bears the fleur-de-lis brand of a teenage crime upon her shoulder — a very naughty beauty-mark indeed — but becomes a secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu. (Richelieu is a point of friction for the Musketeers right from the start.)

This novel — which has long been in the public domain (Text at Gutenberg.org or ClassicReader.com | Free audio book at Librivox.org) — features Milady continually bedeviling the protagonist d’Artagnan. He loves her; she keeps trying to kill him. Pretty typical for these grim annals. (She also used to be Athos’s wife, years ago, until he tried to murder her. Long story.)

To skip to the end of things, Milady is portrayed as having orchestrated at Richelieu’s behest the (actual, historical) assassination of the Musketeers’ buddy the (actual, historical) Duke of Buckingham, which Milady accomplishes by seducing and manipulating his (actual, historical) assassin, John Felton. In reality, Felton was motivated by the stirring Republican sentiment that would soon generate a revolution; in Dumas, he’s a horny dupe who beholds his seductress escaping by sea even as he’s placed under arrest.

Buckingham was (actually, historically) murdered on August 23.

The fictional narrative picks up on August 25, when the escaped Milady writes to Cardinal Richelieu from the safety of Boulogne. Unbeknownst to her, her hours are numbered.

Milady proceeds the next morning to a convent in Bethune where she chances to encounter the mistress of her old foe d’Artagnan … and, by that night, to slay said mistress with poison just ahead of the arrival of the Musketeers.** But the Musketeers are able to track the escaping murderess down by the next evening. There, they subject her to a snap “trial”:

“We wish to judge you according to your crime,” said Athos; “you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first.”

D’Artagnan advanced.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening.”

He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.

“We bear witness to this,” said the two Musketeers, with one voice.

D’Artagnan continued: “Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place.”

“We bear witness to this,” said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.

“Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done.” And d’Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.

“Your turn, my Lord,” said Athos.

The baron came forward.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.”

“The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!” cried all present, with one voice.

“Yes,” said the baron, “assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!”

And so forth.

Then these obviously impartial judges judge her guilty, and have the executioner of Lille — whom they have thoughtfully procured in advance — chop off her head and dump her in a river.

“The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,” said the man in the red cloak [i.e., the executioner himself], rapping upon his immense sword. “This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans.”

Extrajudicial is as extrajudicial does. And in this case, Richelieu is just as happy to be rid of his duplicitous agent and, admiring the protagonist’s moxie, commissions d’Artagnan a lieutenant in the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is the fourth of the titular “three Musketeers”, so this denouement means that he’s finally made it … and he should stand by for duty in sequels continuing to mix-and-match Dumas’s fictional characters with actual, historical events.

Indeed, in the next volume of the series, Twenty Years After, it’s Milady’s vengeful son Mordaunt who acts as Charles I‘s executioner.

This date’s captivating femme fatale has appropriately been portrayed by a ravishing host of silver screen sirens including Lana Turner, Mylene Demongeot, Antonella Lualdi, Faye Dunaway, Rebecca de Mornay, Emmanuelle Beart, and (most recently as of this writing), Milla Jovovich.

* August 27-28, right around midnight. Dumas isn’t specific as to pre- or post-midnight.

** In the novel, it’s Madame de Chevreuse who has arranged this rendezvous of d’Artagnan with his lover — another actual, historical person whom we have met elsewhere in these pages.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Murder,No Formal Charge,Spies,Women

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1942: Irene Nemirovsky, Catholic Jewish writer

1 comment August 17th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, 39-year-old French/Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky was gassed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.

She was a victim of the Nazis’ racial laws: anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, even if they themselves did not practice the Jewish religion, could be considered a Jew. Nemirovsky, born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine, had converted to Catholicism in 1939 — sincerely, insofar as anyone can discern.

Irene Nemirovsky fled Russian territory after the Bolshevik Revolution and spent a short time in exile in Finland and Sweden before eventually settling in France. There she married a banker, had two daughters, and published her first novel in 1930.

The book, called David Golder, was about a ruthless businessman (described by modern readers as “a Bernie Madoff of her time”) who in old age and poor health begins to regret the way he lived his life. It was a success and was made into a 1930 film.

Her second novel, Le Bal, also hit the silver screen. She penned several other books as well: Dimanche and Other Stories, Jezebel, The Dogs and the Wolves, The Courilof Affair, and more.

Although she was widely acclaimed as a writer in France, even by anti-Semites, she was denied citizenship in 1938. By then she had lived in the country for twenty years.

Following the German invasion of France in 1940, Nemirovsky’s books were pulled off the presses and she was required to wear the yellow star. If she and her family had succeeded in obtaining French citizenship, this would have provided some protection; the French were reluctant to deport their own Jews, filling the cattle cars with foreigners instead. Irene was instead classified as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and the high-ranking Nazi official Ernst Kaltenbrunner called her a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony.”

The “stateless” Irene was arrested on July 13, 1942. She had time to write a letter to her family, asking them not to worry about her, before she was deported to Auschwitz four days later.

Although she survived the initial selection and was tattooed with a prisoner number, it was reported a month later that she had died of typhus, a common and deadly disease in the concentration camps. However, later investigation showed she had in fact been sent to the gas chamber. Her husband was also gassed in Auschwitz in November of that year, but their two children survived the war.

One of Nemirovsky’s books, All Our Worldly Goods, was posthumously published in France in 1947. However, for sixty years following the war this once-famous author was largely forgotten.

In 2004, however, she became a literary sensation when a previously undiscovered manuscript, Suite Francaise, hit the press. The “suite” consisted of two books out of a projected five, titled “Storm in June” and “Dolce”. Irene had written them while in hiding in 1940. When she was arrested she gave the manuscripts in a suitcase to her daughter Denise, who safeguarded them all those years.

The book was received to great acclaim and became a bestseller, and publishers blew the dust off her novels from the 1930s and brought them back into print. In 2007, another of Nemirovsky’s works, Fire in the Blood, was published. The book was a companion to Suite Francaise — and like Suite, Nemirovsky had worked on it while in hiding during the Nazi occupation.

Nemirovsky never escaped controversy, in her life or after her death. Several critics and scholars have accused her of being an anti-Semite, a “self-hating Jew,” as detailed in this article from the Australian publication The Age.

Novelist Paul LaFarge charged her as “a Jew who disliked other Jews.” Primo Levi‘s biographer wrote of her, “She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong to a different, less worthy ‘race’, and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick black ringlets, crooked teeth…”

There is evidence to support this assertion.

Some of her books were serialized in anti-Semitic magazines, and during the occupation Irene also wrote a letter to Marshal Petain, head of France’s collaborationist Vichy government, to say she disliked Jews and shouldn’t be classified as a Jew, racial laws notwithstanding. Her husband wrote a similar letter to the German ambassador after her arrest, saying his wife “did not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever.” The ambassador never bothered to reply.

Irene, however, also has her defenders in this matter: “She didn’t dislike Jews,” said one. “She disliked some Jews. Big difference.” Patrick Marnham, who wrote the introduction to the reprinted David Golder, argued that, “Her choice of an unsympathetic Jewish character [in the book] does not make Nemirovsky anti-Semitic; any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.”

You could argue that if she appeared to be anti-Semitic it was because she was trying to conceal her own Jewish origins and thereby protect her family from the deadly consequences. Her daughters believed this was the reason for her assertions that she hated Jews.

In any case, whatever Irene may have said or thought about her religious origin did not save her life. She was just one of many thousands of Christian converts who fell victim to Nazi Germany’s madness.

Irene’s younger daughter, Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, wrote a novel titled Shadows of a Childhood which was based on her parents’ disappearance. She had only been five years old when Irene was arrested. In 2010, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt published the first major biography of Irene, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, 1903-1942.

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1831: Julien Sorel, in The Red and the Black

Add comment July 25th, 2012 Headsman

According to Michel Crouzet,* literary scholar of Stendhal, it was on this date in 1831 that the protagonist of said French author’s magnum opus was guillotined.

“Everything passed simply, decorously, and without affectation on his part,” is the entirety of Stendhal’s death scene for his man.

Julien Sorel, the flawed (or anti-) hero of The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir), is the intelligent son of a provincial carpenter who puts his wits to use trying to climb Restoration France’s treacherous social ladder.

Ambition, says Stendhal, is “the very essence of his existence,” much as it is for his milieu, and through Julien’s exertions — brilliant and resourceful at times; infuriatingly handicapped by social prejudice against the protagonist’s low birth at others — the author sets down one of the most psychologically forceful works in the canon.

Julien Sorel’s ambition also powers his youthful passion, and his fall: to conquer the mother of the children he tutors, and to likewise conquer the daughter of a nobleman.** This latter conquest has him a made man, married into the aristocracy and set with a plum military assignment that has Julien dreaming of Napoleon … so when the spurned former conquest denounces Julien to the father of that latter conquest as an upstart seducer cynically shagging his way into decent society, the incensed Julien hauls off and shoots that previous conquest. (As she kneels at Mass, no less.)

Is it a mere jealous fit? Even though his victim survives the attack, and forgives her lover, Julien obstinately pleads guilty, and insists on his own maximum culpability. It’s not only an individual criminal culpability, but a culpability of class aspiration.

‘I ask you for no mercy,’ Julien went on, his voice growing stronger. ‘I am under no illusion; death is in store for me; it will be a just punishment. I have been guilty of attempting the life of the woman most worthy of all respect, of all devotion. Madame de Renal had been like a mother to me. My crime is atrocious, and it was premeditated. I have, therefore, deserved death, Gentlemen of the Jury. But, even were I less guilty, I see before me men who, without pausing to consider what pity may be due to my youth, will seek to punish in me and to discourage forever that class of young men who, born in an inferior station and in a sense burdened with poverty, have the good fortune to secure a sound education, and the audacity to mingle with what the pride of rich people calls society.

‘That is my crime, Gentlemen, and it will be punished with all the more severity inasmuch as actually I am not being tried by my peers. I do not see, anywhere among the jury, a peasant who has grown rich, but only indignant bourgeois …’

The Red and the Black is available in its French original here; in English translation here; and as a free French audio book here. And here’s some literary analysis

* The date is not explicit in the text. The Red and the Black was subtitled Chronique de 1830, but several past-tense allusions to the event show that the main action takes place after the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X and raised Louis-Philippe to the throne. There is, however, a late and seemingly anachronistic allusion to Julien’s lover/victim intending to “throw herself at the feet of Charles X” to appeal for his life. Oh well: ambiguity is the novel’s stock in trade.

** These (fictional) de la Moles are very proud of being descended from the (actual) Joseph Boniface de la Mole, whose signal achievement was his April 30, 1574 beheading.

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1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian

Add comment April 14th, 2012 Headsman

“The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe.”

-Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian

Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.

Worthy fodder indeed for Scott’s pen.

That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)

Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.

A great, and tense, crowd turned out for the occasion. The poet Allan Ramsay was present among them.

[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.

This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.

He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”

Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.

After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.

There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.

Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.

We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.

Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …

In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.

Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.


It was not until 1973, with “all passion spent”, that this memorial stone was erected for John Porteous in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (cc) image from Kio Stark.

The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.

Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.


The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.

Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.

The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

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1644: Mary Latham and James Britton, adulterous lovers

3 comments March 21st, 2012 Headsman

One James Britton, a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government, and one Mary Latham, a proper young woman about 18 years of age, whose father was a godly man and had brought her up well, were condemned to die for adultery, upon a law formerly made and published in print.

It was thus occasioned and discovered. This woman, being rejected by a young man whom she had an affection unto, vowed she would marry the next that came to her, and accordingly, against her friends’ minds, she matched with an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto.

Whereupon, soon after she was married, divers young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her, and among others this Britton. But God smiting him with a deadly palsy and fearful horror of conscience withal, he could not keep secret, but discovered this, and other the like with other women, and was forced to acknowledge the justice of God in that having often called others fools, etc., for confessing against themselves, he was now forced to do the like. The woman dwelt now in Plymouth patent, and one of the magistrates there, hearing she was detected, etc., sent her to us.

Upon her examination, she confessed he did attempt the fact but did not commit it, and witness was produced that testified (which they both confessed) that in the evening of a day of humiliation through the country for England, etc., a company met at Britton’s and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house. It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull. And yet some of the magistrates thought the evidence not sufficient against her, because there were not two direct witnesses; but the jury cast her, and then she confessed the fact, and accused twelve others, whereof two were married men. Five of these were apprehended and committed, (the rest were gone,) but denying it, and there being no other witness against them than the testimony of a condemned person, there could be no proceeding against them.

The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it; and questioned the letter whether adultery was death by God’s law now.* This Britton had been a professor in England, but coming hither he opposed our church government, etc., and grew dissolute, losing both power and profession of godliness.

March 21 [1643/44*]. They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company, etc.

John Winthrop‘s journals, specifically this volume

While Puritan courts were certainly known to execute for sexual transgressions, Mary and James appear to be the only documented case in the history of [what is now] the United States of an outright execution for adultery.**

The crime and the setting inevitably call to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and indeed he would likely have known about this case from Winthrop’s journals.

There are, however, even more compelling parallel cases — which, if they do not end on the scaffold, are at least as dramatic from the standpoint of posterity.

The case of the woman branded for adultery first appeared in the records of York, in what is now Maine. Dated 15 October 1651, the entry reads:

We do present George Rogers for, & Mary Batchellor the wife of Mr. Steven Batcheller minister for adultery. It is ordered by ye Court yt George Rogers for his adultery with mis Batcheller shall forthwith have fourty stripes save one upon the bare skine given him: It is ordered yt mis Batcheller for her adultery shall receive 40 stroakes save one at ye First Towne meeting held at Kittery, 6 weekes after her delivery & be branded with the letter A.”

Beside that entry, written in the same hand, is the notation, “Execution Done.” It appears that Charles Edward Banks, in his History of York, Maine (1935), recognized the connection between Hawthorne’s novel and this case, for he refers to Mary Batchellor’s branding in a section titled “The Scarlet Letter.”

… the similarities between Hester Prynne and Mary Batchellor are so outstanding that is is tempting to argue for a direct source. For example, Mary Batchellor’s adultery is the only known case involving a child that can be linked to Hester’s plight. By postponing execution of the sentence until six weeks after Mrs. Batchellor’s delivery, the officials of York obviously considered the health of the unborn child. Hawthorne suggests a similar delay in the novel, for when Hester and Pearl appear in the opening scaffold scene, Pearl is “some three months old”.

It’s rather interesting to notice that in Latham and Britton’s case, even the judges who ultimately sentenced the lovers to die were overtly reluctant about doing so: the subtext of Winthrop’s narrative suggests to this reader that, had the pair not confessed, everyone would have been more than happy to use the “two witnesses” loophole to avoid noosing a concupiscent teenager stuck in a barren marriage. Whatever our caricature of them, Puritan elites too had some sense of proportionality about these things.

Even in Hawthorne, where the protagonist is punished only with public shaming, one of the crowd complains,

“This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their won wives and daughters go astray.”

And they have, ever since.

Thanks to Laura James of the (alas) dormant true-crime blog CLEWS for bringing this case to our attention.

* 1643/44: England was observing the legal new year on March 25 at this point.

** See the Espy file.

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1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist

9 comments November 16th, 2011 Headsman

“Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me.”

Jack Sheppard

On this date in 1724, the hangman finally got Jack Sheppard.

Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no prison could hold.

It had become possible in his time to ride criminal notoriety into celebrity: Jack Sheppard, a mere 22 at his death, proved as adept with that quicksilver element during his personal annus mirabilis of 1724 as he was with a lockpick.

Sheppard’s world had him fitted to wield a hammer better than thieves’ tools — but at about age 20, a young man awash in the illicit liberty of London’s underbelly, he ditched the square carpenter to whom he was apprenticed to live free by his wits.

Peter Linebaug’s The London Hanged finds in Jack Sheppard’s career and his runaway popularity an important marker of the capital city’s “refusal of subordination: — contra Foucaultian discipline, which “makes the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful.”

An important meaning of liberation … [consisted of] the growing propensity, skill and success of London working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in. This tendency I have dubbed ‘excarceration’ because I wish to draw attention to the activity of freedom in contrast to its ideological or theoretical expressions…

This lithe youth is most famous for his literal talent for freedom: four times in 1724 he escaped from custody in ever more dramatic fashion.

He busted out through the ceiling of St. Giles Roundhouse. He rappelled with a bedsheet rope down the 20-foot wall of Clerkenwell Prison with his lover.

This sort of thing won the enterprising rogue growing folk hero status. The vaunted Sheppard “made such a noise in the town, that it was thought the common people would have gone mad about him, there being not a porter to be had for love nor money, nor getting into an ale-house, for butchers, shoemakers and barbers, all engaged in controversies and wagers about Sheppard.”*

It also drew the unwanted attention of 1720s London’s Jabba the Hutt: “thief-taker” Jonathan Wild, who managed a vast thieving cartel enforced by Wild’s willingness to turn in non-participants in his ingenious cover role as the city’ preeminent lawman. That’s some protection racket.

Sheppard, to the fame of his memory, scorned obeisance to the crime lord as much as to any guild carpenter and worked for no man but himself. A vengeful Wild shopped him to the authorities.

This time, Sheppard was actually condemned to death for burglary but broke prison again, using yet another classic ruse: the “disguised in smuggled women’s clothes.”

Back on the lam, he posted a cocky letter to his executioner “Jack Ketch” giving his regrets at not having joined two fellow-sufferers on the scheduled hanging date. (September 4.)

I thank you for the favour you intended me this day: I am a Gentleman, and allow you to be the same, and I hope can forgive injuries; fond Nature pointed, I follow’d, Oh, propitious minute! and to show that I am in charity, I am now drinking your health, and a Bon Repo to poor Joseph and Anthony. I am gone a few days for the air, but design speedily to embark, and this night I am going upon a mansion for a supply; its a stout fortification, but what difficulties can’t I encounter, when, dear Jack, you find that bars and chains are but trifling obstacles in the way of your Friend and Servant

JOHN SHEPPARD

London’s finest were determined to put an end to this character’s preposterous run of prison breaks, so when they caught him the fourth time Sheppard found himself loaded with manacles and chained to the floor of a special strongroom in Newgate Prison. Get out of that, Jack.

Somehow, Jack got out of it.

On the night of Oct. 14, Sheppard authored the sublimest breakout in Newgate’s voluminous annals. Picking the locks of his fetters with a small nail, our acrobat scurried up a chimney, picked, prised, or otherwise passed a succession of locked doors in the dead of night, paused to rest on the condemned pew of the gaol chapel, forced a grille, reached the roof, and threw another homemade rope over the wall to scamper down to safety.

And then “he promptly went forth and robbed a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane of a sword, a suit of apparel, snuff boxes, rings, &c., and suddenly made a startling appearance among his friends, rigged out as a gentleman from top to toe.”

There’s no doubt but that Jack had showmanship, but at a certain point he could have done with just the tiniest measure of discretion. But then, this was a man writing his own legend. Sure, he could have put his head down and tried to disappear into some nameless Puritan settlement in the New World. (His distraught mother kept telling him to get out of the country.) He traded those dull and toilsome years for the fame of generations: his candle burned at both ends.

When next Sheppard was detained, it was towards his apotheosis. It was the only time he would be arrested and fail to escape.

A throng of thousands mobbed London’s route to execution this date, almost universally supporting the ace escapologist. And Sheppard very nearly had for them the piece de resistance in his career of magical disappearances: it was only at the last moment before boarding the fatal tumbril that Sheppard’s executioners found the penknife their prey had secreted on his person, evidently intending to cut his cords and spring from the cart into the safety of the surging crowd. What an exploit that would have been.


Detail view (click for full image) of George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Sheppard’s death for William Ainsworth‘s Victorian novel about the legendary criminal. More of these illustrations here.

This indomitable soul has enjoyed a long afterlife as a subversive hero.

A celebrity in his own time, his execution-eve portrait was taken by the Hanover court painter himself, James Thornhill. Sheppard is a very likely candidate as an inspiration for the criminal Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera completed just a few years after his death; likewise, his abandoned apprenticeship makes him the most apparent model for Hogarth‘s “idle prentice” plates.

A century later, prolific historical novelist William Ainsworth** claimed the convict-martyr for an 1839 retelling. This popular potboiler — read it free online here — came in for a spate of 19th century social panic when it was learned that a notorious servant-on-master murder had been carried out by a young man who had recently read it. A two-decade ban on public plays based on the Jack Sheppard novel ensued.

For as much as Jack Sheppard is romanticized in his remarkable individual characteristics, his story has always had a class undertow that raises the hackles of the powerful — and is celebrated by the people who menace that power. Linebaugh, again:

Jack Sheppard, housebreaker and gaol-breaker, was once the single most well-known name from eighteenth-century England. His fame spread across oceans and the centuries. When the bandit Ned Kelly was alive, the Australian press was full of comparisons between him and Sheppard. At the same time on the other side of the globe in Missouri, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to the Kansas City Star signed ‘Jack Sheppard’. In England his name cut deep into the landscape of popular consciousness. Henry Mayhew noted that Cambridgeshire gypsies accepted Sheppard stories as the archetype of ‘blackguard tales’. Among English sailors anyone with the surname of ‘Sheppard’ was automatically called ‘Jack’. Within the Manchester proletariat of the 1840s his name was more widely known than that of the Queen herself. One of these lads said, ‘I was employed in a warehouse at 6s. 6d. a week, and was allowed 6d. of it for myself, and with that I went regularly to the play. I saw Jack Sheppard four times in one week.’

The oral history of Sheppard has maintained his memory within human contexts where books were scarce and working-class resources for an independent historiography were non-existent. Moreover, that memory was kept in contexts of social struggle in which a continuity, if not a development, with earlier moral and political conflicts was suggested.

* cited in Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, December 2006

** Ainsworth is also known for a novel about Sheppard’s near-contemporary, highwayman Dick Turpin.

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Unspecified year: Snowball’s animal fifth column

2 comments April 10th, 2011 Headsman

“Four days” after an unspecified “early spring” date in George Orwell’s classic allegory of Soviet communism, Animal Farm, a show trial and mass execution of animals purporting to work for the book’s Trotsky figure signals the titular farm’s unmistakable collapse into dystopia.

In the book, a revolution of animals displaces the farm’s human owner, Jones — the hated ruler of the ancien regime.

The farm’s early cooperative elan soon shatters, with a pig bearing the unsubtle name of Napoleon becoming the revolution’s autocrat, and fostering a paranoid security climate against phantasmal plots by his fellow swine and onetime comrade, the exiled Snowball.

Let’s watch.

Napoleon ordered all the animals to assemble in the yard. When they were all gathered together, Napoleon emerged from the farmhouse, wearing both his medals (for he had recently awarded himself “Animal Hero, First Class”, and “Animal Hero, Second Class”), with his nine huge dogs frisking round him and uttering growls that sent shivers down all the animals’ spines. They all cowered silently in their places, seeming to know in advance that some terrible thing was about to happen.

Napoleon stood sternly surveying his audience; then he uttered a high-pitched whimper. Immediately the dogs bounded forward, seized four of the pigs by the ear and dragged them, squealing with pain and terror, to Napoleon’s feet.0 …

The four pigs waited, trembling, with guilt written on every line of their countenances. Napoleon now called upon them to confess their crimes. … Without any further prompting they confessed that they had been secretly in touch with Snowball ever since his expulsion, that they had collaborated with him in destroying the windmill, and that they had entered into an agreement with him to hand over Animal Farm to Mr. Frederick. They added that Snowball had privately admitted to them that he had been Jones’s secret agent for years past. When they had finished their confession, the dogs promptly tore their throats out, and in a terrible voice Napoleon demanded whether any other animal had anything to confess.

The three hens who had been the ringleaders in the attempted rebellion over the eggs now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon’s orders. They, too, were slaughtered. Then a goose came forward and confessed to having secreted six ears of corn during the last year’s harvest and eaten them in the night. Then a sheep confessed to having urinated in the drinking pool — urged to do this, so she said, by Snowball — and two other sheep confessed to having murdered an old ram, an especially devoted follower of Napoleon, by chasing him round and round a bonfire when he was suffering from a cough. They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the expulsion of Jones.

When it was all over, the remaining animals, except for the pigs and dogs, crept away in a body. They were shaken and miserable. They did not know which was more shocking — the treachery of the animals who had leagued themselves with Snowball, or the cruel retribution they had just witnessed. In the old days there had often been scenes of bloodshed equally terrible, but it seemed to all of them that it was far worse now that it was happening among themselves. Since Jones had left the farm, until today, no animal had killed another animal.

Animal Farm was published in 1945. In this 1954 British animated feature, the downer of an ending — with the corrupt pig rulers becoming literally indistinguishable from people — was dumped in favor of an ending where the animals revolt again.

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Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas

4 comments March 3rd, 2011 Headsman

The main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son was condemned to a March 3 electrocution by the state of Illinois.

In Number 666-983, indictment for murder, the sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third,* in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state.

The Court finds your age to be twenty.

The Sheriff may retire with the prisoner.

Readers are not treated to the actual execution scene, but the hopelessness of Bigger Thomas’s situation is the book‘s whole context and theme. There is little room to entertain a reprieve.

“In the first draft I had Bigger going smack to the electric chair,” the author remarked. “But I felt that two murders were enough for one novel. I cut the final scene.”

The first Book of the Month club selection by an African American author was an instant best-seller, but hardly easy reading. Wright tackles the catastrophic “hatred, fear, and violence” suffusing negro life.

Inspired in part by a real-life Windy City murderer, Bigger Thomas grows up wretched and impoverished in Depression-era Chicago and eventually commits an accidental homicide, then rapes and murders his girlfriend. Wright took some heat for staging a character seemingly written to whites’ darkest fears of African-Americans, but it was his object to force the reader to relate to a violent man whose brutality is conditioned by the world he inhabits.

Bigger Thomas’s trial has his lawyer present an overt indictment of structural oppression as the true cause of Bigger’s crime.

“I didn’t want to kill,” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder … What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. It’s the truth …”

Whether Wright truly broke out of the existing literary genres may be a matter of debate.

James Baldwin considered Native Son to be of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin tradition, “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality … the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.”

All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear … elow the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy … Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

“Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pdf)

“Protest novel” or otherwise, Native Son‘s mainstream success extended to the stage, where Orson Welles — fresh from the debut of Citizen Kane — directed a Wright-written adaptation in 1941. Less successfully, Wright himself played the title role in a 1951 Argentinian film.

“Bigger Thomas” is also the name of a long-running ska band.

Though the novel is not yet public domain in the United States, it is in some countries — and can be perused free here.

* For the finicky chronologist: Native Son was published in 1940. At that point, the most recent occasions March 3 had fallen on a Friday were 1939 and 1933.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Fictional,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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