2005: Richard Cartwright, uncensored

3 comments May 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Richard Cartwright was executed in Texas for robbing and murdering a gay man in Corpus Christi.

Cartwright attained some recognition (if not exactly a plausible purchase on clemency) as the writer of Uncensored from Texas Death Row, a sort of death row blog.

(As befits a blogger in the early 2000s, Cartwright also had a MySpace page, which remains active. “Chi-town” grew up in Chicago. He played youth hockey there, for this club. This is the sort of thing one learns about bloggers.)

Cartwright was admittedly involved in the robbery-murder, though he insisted he wasn’t the one who did the murdering.

Whatever one makes of that, his fairly prolific “Uncensored” series over the last six months of his life furnish a sometimes bracingly personal chronicle of a man among the lowest of the dead … and drawing nearer and nearer to a fate he realizes he cannot avert.

People are looking at me differently, like they are trying to instill into memory or something. They don’t mean to, but they do, and it is spooky. Like I am already dead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Pelf,Texas,USA

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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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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Colombia,Cycle of Violence,Drugs,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions

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1960: Caryl Chessman

10 comments May 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.

During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.

He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).

The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.

Not, however, of murder.

Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**

This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.

That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.


Via.

A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.

-Caryl Chessman

So Chessman wrote.

Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.

Books by and about Caryl Chessman

And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.

One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.

But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”

According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.

With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.

Too late.

Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.

A reporter described what was transpiring inside the state’s killing chamber while Law and Ma Bell transacted their tardy business outside.

I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.

A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.

Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.

Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.

Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)

Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)

Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)

(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)

Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)

The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)

In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.

Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.

Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.

I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.

-Caryl Chessman

* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.

** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.

Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.

A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.

† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Rape,Reprieved Too Late,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1968: Lin Zhao, martyr poet

8 comments April 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1968, a “rightist” student whose critique of the Cultural Revolution was not blunted by the rigors of imprisonment was informed that her jail sentence had been changed to execution — which was immediately imposed at Shanghai’s Longhua Airport.

Utterly obscure at her death, Lin Zhao’s memory was tended by those closest to her, passed down like samizdat to latterly emerge out of Mao’s shadow.

An impassioned young intellectual at Peking University and a dedicated Communist with an irrepressible sense of justice, Lin Zhao once called Mao the “red star in my heart” and actually supervised the execution of a landlord during the country’s land reform push in the early 1950s.

But she also refused to temper or retract her criticisms of China’s path when the government abruptly reversed its brief flirtation with pluralism.

In 1960, after circulating a petition for fallen Communist (but not orthodox Maoist) Marshal Peng Dehuai, Lin was arrested, and eventually sentenced to a 20-year term.

It is here that the judicious person discovers the error of her ways, and accepts such terms as she can make for herself.

Not Lin Zhao.

Lin kept writing. Poetry, political manifestos, letters to the newspaper — hundreds of thousands of “reactionary” words. When they took away her ink, she opened her veins and wrote in blood.

By the end, official maltreatment and Lin’s own hunger strikes had wasted her away to less than 70 pounds. She was literally plucked from her prison hospital bed on this date by soldiers who drug her (gagged) to a show trial and execution. But like Marshal Peng, she never bent.

“Better to be destroyed,” she told her doctor, “than give up one’s principles.” (He’s quoted in Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.)

Somehow, many of her hematic scribblings (saved by the prison, for possible use against her down the road) were smuggled out to her loved ones.* Somehow, they made their way to filmmaker Hu Jie, who put Lin Zhao back on the cultural map with the banned but well-received 2004 documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (or In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul).

This movie can actually be seen in its entirety in 10-minute installments on YouTube as of this writing.

Lin Zhao was posthumously exonerated by a Shanghai court in 1981. Despite Hu Jie’s efforts, she is still little known in her country, or abroad.

Phosphorescent green light never goes out
And lighting up souls every night
Preserving the soul
Letting go the crippled body
Burning into ashes in misfortune
Someday with a red flower on the head
Recognizing the blood stains
Just as copying a bright red flower
Impossible to paint the real color

One of Lin Zhao’s poems, inscribed on her tomb

* Stanford’s Hoover Institution also holds a collection of Lin Zhao papers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Shot,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1794: Jacques Hebert and his followers

4 comments March 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, firebrand revolutionary pamphleteer Jacques Hebert and his eponymous party of Convention radicals mounted the scaffold during the Paris Terror.

As a 32-year-old, Hebert started putting out his foul-mouthed blog radical newspaper Le Pere Duchesne in the Revolution’s early months.

In this increasingly vituperative rag, Hebert — incongruously writing in the voice of “Old Man Duchesne” — savaged first the royal couple, and then (after that pair lost their well-coiffed heads) whatever the retrograde element of the unfolding Revolution happened to be on any given day: the constitutional monarchist Lafayette; the bourgeois liberal Girondists. His paper valorized the Parisian working-class sans-culottes, and lustily demanded heads for the satisfaction of their various grievances.

Here, he literally channels Marat:

All of these thoughts trouble my brain, and the memory of Marat follows me without end. Last night I saw him in a dream: his wound was still bleeding, dammit. Upon seeing it I cried. Friend of the people, I shouted, is it you? Yes, good Père Duchesne, it’s Marat who comes from the dead to talk with you, because — dammit — the love of freedom pursues me even beyond the grave. Content to have lost my life for my republic, there only remains to me the regret of not having seen it delivered, before my death, from all the scoundrels who tear away at its breast. Père Duchesne, you must do what I couldn’t do. You closely followed me in the revolution; like me you consecrated you life to the defense of the rights of the people. You speak the language of the Sans Culottes, and your foul mouth, which makes little mistresses faint, sounds beautiful to free men, for free men shouldn’t be sought among the beautiful souls. Your joy and your anger have done more than all the dreams of statesmen. They know this well, the worthless fucks, and that’s why they’ve persecuted you like they did me. Courage, old man; don’t back off when you suffer the same trials as me, don’t be afraid: is there a more beautiful death than mine? But since you’re useful to your fellow citizens, try to avoid the daggers of statesmen. Live a while longer in order to denounce them and to complete, if you can, the task I’d undertaken.

Yes, Père Duchesne, you have to go after them hammer and tong, and not take it easy on anyone. When three months ago I proposed planting three hundred nooses on the terrace of the Tuileries in order to hang there the perfidious representatives of the people, some took me for a madman, and others as someone thirsty for blood. But nevertheless, if I’d been believed how much bloodshed would have been avoided! More than a million fewer men would have perished! So when I made that proposition I wasn’t speaking as a bloody monster, on the contrary I spoke as a friend of humanity. The moderates have buried more victims than those that fell before the steel of our enemies. Nothing is more harmful in a revolution than half measures. We have finally arrived at the era when we must pare things right down to the bone. … No more quarter for the defeated party, because, dammit, if the statesmen had the upper hand for one moment there wouldn’t exist a single patriot in six months.*

Late in his run, Hebert was on to venting dissatisfaction with the party of Danton, who had followed the monarchists and the liberals off the starboard of acceptable revolutionary opinion. Sensible centrist Maximilien Robespierre would indeed strike that faction down — just two weeks after he’d purged the radical Hebertist gaggle itself.**

Eleven days after Le Pere Duchesne last hit the streets, its author’s head hit the basket.

His printed editorials (like the one above) often assert a modish conviction in his own coming martyrdom, but as proof against a fatal political reversal, Hebert had trusted overmuch to his power base in the Paris commune. When he was carted out this morning, the mob whom his own paper once played to reveled in old Pere Duchesne’s fall just as readily as it had reveled in his enemies’.

some men carrying long sticks, at the end of which were suspended braziers of burning charcoal, symbolical of the “Charcoal-burners” of the “Pere Duchesne,” thrust them into the face of Hebert, insulting him with the same bitter railleries with which he tormented so many other victims (Alphonse de Lamartine)

Hebert was executed at the Place de la Revolution in a batch of 20 fellow-radicals, among whom we also find the eloquent “orator of mankind,” anticlerical† wordsmith Anacharsis Cloots. (Victor Hugo on his revolutionary leader in Les Miserables: “he had too much of Saint-Just about him, and not enough of Anacharsis Cloots.”)

The original La Pere Duchesne was dead, but just as the hot-selling mag had attracted ripoffs in its original run, the name lived on as a symbol of popular revolutionary menace — to be reclaimed by later generations in print and song.


La chanson du pere duchesne (live at RMZ)

* I know, right? Hebert was such a wild man, he thought ill of slavers.

Everywhere and at all times men of commerce have had neither heart nor soul: their cash-box is their God; they only know how to thieve and deceive; they would shave an egg, they would kidnap their own fathers; they traffic in all things, even human flesh; theirs are the ships which sail to the African coasts to capture negroes whom they then treat as worthless cattle.

** These rival factions linked as fellow-victims of Robespierre’s Terror are neatly symbolized by the spouses of their respective antipathetic scribblers: Jacques Hebert’s wife Marie, and Lucile Duplessis, wife of the Dantonist journalist Camille Desmoulins. Marie and Lucile were guillotined together that April, having forged a friendship while awaiting the chop.

† “The personal enemy of Jesus Christ,” Cloots called himself. He also remarked, “What is man’s chief enemy? Each man is his own.” A lot of enemies, this one had.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1986: Mamman Jiya Vatsa, warrior-poet

4 comments March 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1986,* Nigerian Major-General Mamman Jiya Vatsa was shot (along with nine others) by command of his childhood friend — the dictator Ibrahim Babangida, whom Vatsa was allegedly plotting to overthrow.

A gifted writer since youth, Vatsa was just a nameless twenty-something junior officer in the early 1970s when he emerged onto the national literary scene.

In the 15 years before his death, Vatsa churned out 20-plus volumes, mostly poetry. He had a special inclination for writing for children.

Simultaneously, his star ascended in his professional sphere.

Risen to General, Vatsa was part of the Supreme Military Council of the previous dictator.

But by December of that year,
Vatsa and dozens of others were arrested.

Testimony against them — much of it of the speculative or torture-induced variety — described a ring of officers piqued at the Babangida coup (Vatsa was out of the country when it occurred) and keen to undo it. The scheme would have been only one of many such hatched or imagined in an unstable political situation that surely made the new big man nervous.

In the end, “only” ten (the nine others are named here) were stood up against the wall for the alleged plot. Many others, however, were imprisoned or purged, a lasting injury to the Nigerian brass that particularly crippled its air force.

Babangida, of course, rejected clemency appeals from the Vatsa family he knew well. He has since justified his harshness by arguing that Vatsa would have continued plotting against him in prison or in forced retirement. “Rawlings did it in Ghana,” Babangida said. “And you know Vatsa was very stubborn.”

The fatal tribunal’s judge** is less certain, and is hardly the only one to doubt Vatsa’s guilt outright.

I don’t know, nobody ever asked.
That was how some heroes died.
They died.

-Vatsa, “They Died” (Voices from the Trench)

* Some sources give March 6 as the execution date, but contemporaneous western press reports (admittedly an impeachable source) prefer the 5th. For instance, the March 6 Chicago Tribune says the executions occurred on “Wednesday” (the 5th).

** Ironically, Vatsa himself had once sat on a tribunal for another group of failed putschists, the 1976 Dimka coup.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Nigeria,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1940: Isaak Babel

1 comment January 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Isaak Babel, “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry,” was shot in Moscow.

The Odessa-born 45-year-old had managed the difficult trick of maintaining a high-profile writing career in the 1930s Soviet Union without abandoning his artistic integrity. (This meant he published a lot less in that decade, which fact was held against him in his trial: “deliberate sabotage and a refusal to write.”)

A pre-revolutionary friendship with Maxim Gorky and an early affinity for the Bolsheviks had helped see him through such transgressions against Communist ideology as describing Red atrocities during the Russian Civil War, and writing a play about the underbelly of Soviet society.

Babel remains beloved today for that very reason; his Odessa Tales collection of short stories about Jewish gangsters still charms Russians and foreigners alike.

But Gorky died in 1936, and without that elder statesman’s protection, Babel’s insufficiently lockstep scribbling laid him increasingly liable to public denunciation for, e.g., “aestheticism.”

And as sickle follows hammer, miscalibrated revolutionary ardor in Stalin’s Russia led in 1939 to that dread knock on the door, that stay in Lubyanka Prison, that inevitable “confession” of Trotskyism, and that bullet to the head after a perfunctory trial.

Babel’s work is recent enough that it’s mostly not freely available in English. A couple in English and several in Russian are linked here; literary criticisms with plentiful excerpts of Babel’s work are available here, here, and here, among many other places.

Babel was officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1792: Jacques Cazotte, occultist

2 comments September 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacques Cazotte, a writer distinctly out of step with his times, was guillotined for treason in Paris.

The Martinique-born Cazotte (English Wikipedia entry | French) was into his 40s when he launched the writing career that earns him notice enough for this blog.

He wasn’t a liberte, egalite, fraternite kind of guy: Cazotte’s works, like Le Diable Amoureux (The Devil in Love),* were fantastical, Gothic — far from the rationalist fare of the Enlightenment.

And that wasn’t exclusively a literary posture.

Cazotte fancied himself gifted with prophecy — enthusiasts’ accounts have him prophesying the course of the Revolution — and preferred the mystical enlightenment of the illuminati to the Voltairean kind.** He viewed the onset of the French Revolution with horror.

When some scribblings to that effect were discovered in his papers, the mystical goose was cooked. The French Wikipedia entry credits his daughter with saving his life during the September Massacres … buying the 72-year-old only a few weeks of life.

Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux has the devil as a young man’s servant girl, endeavoring to seduce him. Here is Cesare Pugni‘s balletic rendition, Satanella, with its grand pas de deux, “Le Carnaval de Venise”:

Cazotte finds his way to us, as the dark arts are wont to do, through more meandering channels as well.

Le Diable Amoureux inspired supernatural mystery The Club Dumas by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. That novel in turn was riffed by Roman Polanski for the weird 1999 flick The Ninth Gate (review), starring Johnny Depp. (Cazotte’s book is explicitly referenced in both its progeny.)

Although only tangentially related, this digression into the occult gives us leave to notice one of the many cultural ephemera of executions linked to no particularly blog-friendly date. The Club Dumas and The Ninth Gate make use of striking woodcuts of modern vintage but after a style of centuries past that help unlock the central puzzle.

Charged with esoterica, the topical-looking “hanged man” print comes clearly modeled after its tarot cousin … although the tarot version, in most instances, is hoped to be of less deadly effect upon the plot.

* Available free in the original French at Project Gutenberg.

** Voltairean rationalism had its own ways of getting in trouble. It may have been an age of ideas, but it was hardly safe to have them.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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2004: Enzo Baldoni

2 comments August 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this day four years ago, an Islamic militants in Iraq executed* hostage Enzo Baldoni, an Italian freelance journalist and Red Cross volunteer.


Baldoni had a variegated copyriting career, often working through his company Le Balene Colpiscono Ancora (“The Whales Strike Again”)

Baldoni (English Wikipedia page | Italian) made his writing chops with advertising copy, but also translated (notably the American comic strip Doonesbury, whose creator saluted him “Enzo the miraculous” in this FAQ) and segued into journalism. He was an early adopter of blogging and made a habit of traveling to the world’s hot spots; he had interviews with Subcomandante Marcos and Xanana Gusmao under his belt … but he was no scavenger of human misery.

Some people think I am some sort of a Rambo who loves strong emotions and seeing people die. I am miles away from that mentality. I am a convinced pacifist and for that reason I am curious to understand what make normal people brandish a gun.

Baldoni reported from Iraq for the Italian weekly Diario and kept a blog from the ground as well. On August 21, he was kidnapped after being caught in a firefight between Baghdad and Najaf.** Three days later, Al Jazeera aired his captors’ demand for Italian withdrawal within 48 hours; Baldoni was killed when that demand was ignored.

The day after Baldoni’s death, the black armband-clad Azzurri defeated the upstart Iraqi soccer team for the Olympic bronze medal.

The final legacies of Baldoni’s work well reflected his generous principles. The last entry on his blog Bloghdad (now defunct; here’s how it looked four years ago) was this picture:

And his (translated, obviously) “last testament” as released by a fellow journalist described a man who would not want this blog post to linger on mawkishly.

[At my funeral] I want people to smile — did you notice? Funerals always end up with someone smiling: it’s natural, it’s Life taking over Death. And let people smoke freely anything they like; I’d also be pleased if new love stories would come out, and I’d even consider some casual sex an offer to Life rather than an offense to Death.

At about eight or nine o’clock, with little or no ceremony, bring my coffin quietly to the crematorium, while the party and the music should last until late night.

About my ashes … throw them into the sea. Or do as you want, who fucking cares? Just nothing phony like in The Big Lebowski.

Ciao, Enzo.

* Obviously, this is a case of a borderline execution, owing to the Islamic Army in Iraq’s non-state credentials — in a legal sense, Enzo Baldoni was murdered. But it was precisely the point of his killing to contest legitimate state authority, and according to a later interview with an alleged spokesman of the faction, there was even a juridical proceeding “convicting” Baldoni of espionage.

** According to Reporters Without Borders, a stupefying 142 journalists — Baldoni among them — were killed in Iraq from 2004 through 2007, nearly half the worldwide total of 299 reporters who died in their line of work during that span.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Espionage,Execution,God,Hostages,Iraq,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ripped from the Headlines,Wartime Executions

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