1513: Edmund de la Pole, rearguard pretender

Today we wish a happy 500th deathday to Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk.

Poor Suffolk’s head was born for the chop: alas, the poor House of York.

Just like the Princes in the Tower, Edmund was a nephew to hunchbacked Shakespeare villain Richard III.

Richard III in better days, before he wound up under a car park.

At the time Richard came to grief at Bosworth Field, Edmund’s older brother John was the official (as designated by Richard) heir to the throne. John instead submitted to the victorious Henry VII, only to try his hand at Lambert Simnel’s ill-fated 1487 rebellion. John de la Pole died in battle.

Edmund de la Pole was about 15 years old at that point … and he had just become the potential leading Yorkist claimant.

Many years of on-again, off-again civil strife over the English throne had preceded this, and nobody in 1487 could say with confidence that many more such years might not lie ahead. Henry VII was proceeding cautiously, trying to keep former Yorkists in the tent.

But although the king permitted Edmund to succeed to his brother’s attainted Dukedom, the title was later stripped — leading Edmund to flee for the continent in 1501, and the fate of the knockabout pretender.

Sadly, his exile would end not in a tragically glorious failed invasion, nor a dastardly conspiracy foiled at the last moment. No, Edmund de la Pole wound up on the scaffold this way:

  1. He was riding shotgun on the boat of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, en route to Spain on a journey having nothing to do with the Yorkist cause;
  2. A gale forced the boat into an English port;
  3. Henry VII forced Maximilian to give up Edmund de la Pole as his exit fee from that English port, although Maximilian extracted the promise that the Yorkist pretender would not be harmed, only confined;
  4. Henry VII died and his hotheaded young successor Henry VIII decided that he wasn’t bound by dad’s promises.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

On this day..

998: Crescentius the Younger

On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.

In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.

Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.

Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.

He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.

Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.

But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.

Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.

Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.

This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.

Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.

* Here’s an attempted family tree (pdf). They would evolve into the Crescenzi.

** Gibbon speculated that this period of female domination of the papacy might have lived on in popular memory as the medieval legend of Pope Joan.

† But not executed, more’s the pity for me.

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1899: Not J.M. Olberman, spared by Oregon’s governor

This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.

But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.

SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:

I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’

To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.

Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.

I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.

Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.

Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.

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1940: Wilhelm Kusserow, Jehovah’s Witness

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

On this date in 1940, 25-year-old Wilhelm Kusserow was executed by firing squad at Münster Prison in Germany.

A Jehovah’s Witness, he interpreted God’s command “thou shalt not kill” literally and refused to serve in the German army — a big no-no in Hitler’s Third Reich.

Kusserow had actually been born Lutheran, but his parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses after World War I and raised their eleven children in the faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in addition to not serving in the army, also refused to Heil Hitler, since the tenets of their religion required them to make obeisance only to Jehovah.

They were persecuted by the Nazis from the beginning of Hitler’s regime, and by 1935 the religion was banned altogether. The Kusserows, and many others, continued to practice their faith in secret.

During the Nazi era, some 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses did time in prisons and concentration camps (where they were required to wear a purple triangle), Wilhelm’s parents and siblings among them. 2,500 to 5,000 died.

The children in Jehovah’s Witness families were taken from their parents and sent to orphanages, foster families or reform schools.

(French Witness Simone Arnold Liebster would write a memoir about the years she spent in institutions as a child because she and her parents refused to renounce their beliefs.)

At Wilhelm Kusserow’s trial, the judge and the prosecutor were apparently reluctant to condemn this young man. They pleaded with him to back down, promising to spare his life if he did so, but Wilhelm refused. Some things were more important to him than life itself.

In his final letter to his family he wrote,

Dear parents, brothers, and sisters:

All of you know how much you mean to me, and I am repeatedly reminded of this every time I look at our family photo. How harmonious things always were at home. Nevertheless, above all we must love God, as our Leader Jesus Christ commanded. If we stand up for him, he will reward us.

Hitler later decided the firing squad was too honorable a death for Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered that they be decapitated instead. Wilhelm’s younger brother Wolfgang, who had also refused to serve in the army, was executed in this manner in 1942.

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1926: Shao Piaoping, journalist

On this date in 1928, Chinese journalist and social activist Shao Piaoping was shot at Beijing’s Tianqiao execution grounds — fulfillment of his lifelong motto, “To die as a journalist.”

The intrepid Shao blazed a trail for print media in his native country, bucking a prejudice that mere journalism was a bit on the declasse side.

He co-founded and edited Hanmin Daily in 1911, just in time to get his support for the Xinhai Revolution into newsprint.

But Shao was no propagandist, and, post-revolution, was repeatedly arrested for his scathing critiques of Yuan Shikai and the various other illiberal strongmen taking roost. He had to duck out to Japan twice during the 1910s; there, he kept cranking copy, now as a foreign correspondent for Shanghai’s top newspapers. As the decade unfolded, he also became a theoretician of journalism without abating his prodigious ongoing output.

“I saw my role as that of helpful critic and believed it wrong to praise petty people simply to avoid trouble,” this pdf biography quotes Shao saying of himself. “I was determined not to dispense with my responsibility.”

By the late 1910s, he was publishing his own capital-city newspaper, Jingbao (literally “The Capital”) and developing his academic thought as a teacher at Peking University. He was perhaps China’s premier journalist; even so, he still had to slip into exile in Japan in 1919 after openly supporting the May Fourth student movement.

Shao left an impressive mark on his students, perhaps none more so than a penniless young leftist working in the university library, Mao Zedong.

As a guerrilla, Mao — still at that time an obscurity to most of the outside world — remembered Shao fondly to journalist Edgar Snow. In contrast to many other Peking University scholars who gave the provincial twentysomething short shrift, Shao “helped me very much. He was a lecturer in the Journalism Society, a liberal, and a man of fervent idealism and fine character.” Word is that Shao even loaned Mao money.

Shao’s acid pen and unabashed sympathy for agitators led to his arrest in 1926 by the warlord Zhang Zuolin — whose wrath Shao incited by denouncing bitterly a horrific March 18 massacre of students.

But the martyr journalist’s heroic career — not to mention his accidental link with the future Great Helmsman — insured his elevation into the pantheon, even though Shao’s underground membership in the Communist party was not known for decades after his death. Mao personally declared him a hero of the revolution, and intervened to see that his widow and children were cared for. China has any number of public monuments in Shao’s honor.

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1900: Bill Brown, Sonnie Crain and John Watson

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

On this date in 1900, Sonnie (or Sonny) Crain and William “Bill” Brown, both 40, and John Watson, 59, were hanged side by side a quarter-mile from the Warren County Jail in McMinnville, Tennessee.

This was an integrated execution: Brown and Watson were white, and Crain was black.

From the April 27, 1900 American Citizen (Kansas City, Mo.)

The gallows was contained in a 30-by-30-foot enclosure and had been built especially for this day’s event. There were twenty official witnesses. A crowd of about two thousand waited outside the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution, but their view was obscured by a canvas curtain drawn hanging from the top of the gallows.

John Watson

Watson, a Civil War veteran who’d fought at Shiloh, had committed his crime on December 21, 1898. He shot a neighbor, 40-year-old James Hillis, white, after an argument about some corn and some fence rails.

Hillis walked away from the fight. Watson fetched his shotgun, waited for his chance then shot Hillis on the road that evening, in front of the victim’s daughter. Hillis lived for a few hours after the shooting and named Watson as his attacker.

The killer had a reputation for violence; he’d allegedly shot and seriously wounded a black man in a drunken rage in 1893, but was acquitted at trial. He had also served a term in federal prison for making and selling moonshine, and he was stone drunk on his own apple brandy at the time of Hillis’s murder.

His defense, one of temporary insanity caused by alcohol, didn’t fly with the jury.

Bill Brown was an illiterate tenant farmer; his victim was his wife of ten years, Mary Fults Brown. Bill was tired of his wife and attempted to leave her, but everywhere he went she just followed him. He and his brother, John “Bud” Brown, decided she had to die.

On May 5, 1898, In accordance with the plan, Bill invited a friend, Bill Rogers, to spend the night. Bill made sure to leave the door unlocked, and while Mary and the guest were sleeping, Bud Brown sneaked into the house, shot his sister-in-law and fled. Bill then woke up Rogers, crying, “Lordy, lordy, someone’s shot Mary!”

Bill told Rogers the shooter had fired through the open window, but this didn’t make sense because Mary had been asleep beside her husband and Bill was lying between her and the window. He claimed he didn’t own a gun, but a search of the house turned up a recently fired pistol hidden in a trunk.

It didn’t take long for Bill to crack. He confessed to his role in Mary’s death and implicated his brother Bud (who, incidentally, had a prior record for beastiality with a mare).

The brothers were to be tried separately and Bill went first. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was appealed on the grounds that one of the jurors had mistakenly believed he was sitting at the trial of Bud Brown, not Bill Brown. (Like Sauron and Saruman, they’re easily confused.)


The appeals court judge couldn’t believe it when Bill’s attorney made this ludicrous assertion, and threatened to hold him in contempt for making a mockery of the proceedings and wasting the court’s time. Then Bill’s attorney brought in the juror in question, who admitted his error. (The confusion arose in part because Bill and Bud, neither of whom testified at the trial, were sitting next to each other at the defendant’s table.)

While Bud Brown was awaiting his first trial, Bill was waiting his second trial, and John Watson was awaiting the outcome of his appeal, they were all housed in a jail cell with Sonnie Crain.

Crain had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Will Snellings in a dispute over a craps game, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was housed in the jail while his case was under appeal.

On May 22, 1899, as the Brown brothers slept, Crain bludgeoned them both in the head with a piece of his bed, killing Bud and critically injuring Bill. He later said the brothers had threatened him and he’d acted in self-defense, but the authorities had another theory as to motive.

The jailer was away at the time of the murder and had placed his wife in charge, and there was some evidence that Watson and Crain had conspired together to murder their cellmates in order to create a diversion so they could escape when the jailer’s wife came to get Crain.

Crain (who denied any plan to escape from jail and insisted to his dying breath that he’d acted in self-defense) was convicted of Bud Brown’s murder and sentenced to death. Although Bill Brown’s wounds were very serious and he was not expected to live, he recovered from his injuries in time to be hanged alongside the man who’d tried to kill him and the other man who’d possibly conspired in his attempted murder.

So now that no one is confused … the three ultimately set to die in this labyrinthine affair were hanged at 11:50 a.m. on April 25, attended by two black ministers and two white ones. Crain and Brown were stoic, but Watson’s nerves failed him on the scaffold and he cried and shook as the noose was placed around his neck.

It was the last public(ish) hanging ever in McMinnville.

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1998: 22 for the Rwanda genocide

On this date in 1998, 22 people were tied to wooden stakes in five different cities around Rwanda, then shot dead for their participation in the horrific 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Rwanda had, only shortly before, reversed a ban on public executions — clearly with this date’s spectacle in mind.

A Washington Post reporter described the scene in the capital city of Kigali, where 7,000 to 10,000 witnesses saw the three men and a woman put to death on Nyamirambo Stadium‘s red clay football pitch.

dressed in pale pink uniforms, under a sun that had just driven away a covering of gray clouds.

Four masked police officers leaped from a truck and sprinted to within feet of the black-square targets on the criminals’ chests.

As bullets from AK-47s shredded the prisoners, a sudden sharp silence descended on the crowd. Then a fifth marksman shot each prisoner in the head at point-blank range. Twice.

One man sprinted and danced when the shooting stopped. Women ululated.

A man named Andrew, 45, clapped lustily. “God is great!” he cried.

(Here’s another first-person account of the same execution.)

Among those dying before their eyes that day was the politician Froduald Karamira, once the vice president of the Rwandan Republican Democratic Movement and a prime mover in the 1994 genocide.

Although Karamira was actually born a Tutsi, he “converted” into a Hutu* and how. He established himself as a leading exponent of “Hutu Power” — the chilling banner under which upwards of a million Rwandans were slaughtered — and had control of two of the radio stations inciting Hutu death squads to their bloody work.

According to Hands Off Cain, these are the last executions ever carried out in Rwanda before it abolished the death penalty in 2007.

“Our experience in Rwanda has demonstrated that abolishing the death penalty gave new lease on life and this has contributed to the healing of our society,” said long-serving Rwanda President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi. “Rwandans have achieved a degree of unity and reconciliation, unimagina­ble just a decade and a half ago because a culture of forgiveness — not vengeance — has taken root.”

* Rwanda’s ethnic categories are notoriously artificial.

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1886: Joseph Jackson and James Wasson, at Fort Smith

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1886

America’s most notorious “hanging judge” Isaac Parker issued the sentences resulting in this date’s double hanging at Fort Smith, Ark.

A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.

In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)

Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.

* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)

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MMI: Two thousand and one days, a dystopia

Yesterday marked the 2,000th consecutive calendar date since this joint launched on Oct. 31, 2007.

The ambitions harbored on that Halloween fell very far short of such a milestone as this, so it seems only fitting to mark the terra incognita of day 2001 with a reflection on the death penalty in the futuristic oeuvre.

It was Thomas More — eventually himself the headsman’s patient — who coined the term Utopia; in the novel of that name, More places in the mouth of the emissary from the island-nation of Utopia a trenchant critique of harsh Tudor-era justice, with mere thieves “hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet,” which “was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual.”

Utopia, by contrast, puts thieves to labor to compensate for the injury they have done, and it’s all very superficially dignified (except that you get flogged if you resist). But Utopia and all utopias must grapple at some point with the citizen who does not abide the ordained social contract: Thomas More, who as Chancellor did not scruple to kill heretics, confines his penal slaves not with armed guards and barbed wire but with the certain threat of annihilation.

Their friends are allowed to give them either meat, drink, or clothes so they are of their proper color, but it is death, both to the giver and taker, if they give them money; nor is it less penal for any freeman to take money from them, upon any account whatsoever: and it is also death for any of these slaves (so they are called) to handle arms. Those of every division of the country are distinguished by a peculiar mark; which it is capital for them to lay aside, to go out of their bounds, or to talk with a slave of another jurisdiction; and the very attempt of an escape is no less penal than an escape itself; it is death for any other slave to be accessory to it … the very having of money is a sufficient conviction: and as they are certainly punished if discovered, so they cannot hope to escape; for their habit being in all the parts of it different from what is commonly worn, they cannot fly away … The only danger to be feared from them is their conspiring against the government: but those of one division and neighborhood can do nothing to any purpose, unless a general conspiracy were laid among all the slaves of the several jurisdictions, which cannot be done, since they cannot meet or talk together.

Maybe he’s not weighing down an overcrowded gibbet, but the thief has suffered a waking civil death; to budge an inch from his place is enough to plummet to his doom. The dystopian genre need only widen this chasm until the whole island falls in.

In the 20th century, once advancing industry had seemingly placed comprehensive social reordering within practical grasp, the dystopian gaze likewise swallowed up the utopian.

When H.G. Wells, perpetrator of several utopian novels (including one literally titled A Modern Utopia) toured the Soviet Union in 1920, Russia was engaged in what Wells and many others expected was a utopian endeavor.

The “proletarian poet” — a distinct literary circle after the October Revolution — Vladimir Kirillov* celebrated the godlike power mere workers now exercised in “The Iron Messiah,” which begins thus:**

There he is — the savior, the lord of the earth.
The master of titanic forces —
In the roar of countless steel machines,
In the radiance of electric suns.

We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole,
With a nimbus of divine mystery,
But he came to us clad in gray smoke
From the suburbs, foundries, factories.

We thought he would appear in glory and glitter,
Meek, blessedly gentle,
But he, like the molten lava,
Came — multiface and turbulent …

There he walks o’er the abyss of seas,
All of steel, unyielding and impetuous;
He scatters sparks of rebellious thought,
And the purging flames are pouring forth.

The writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, a communist revolutionary who was also an engineer and had supervised industrial icebreaker construction in Britain, was one of the men employed in producing Russian translations of Wells’s sunny forecasts of technocratic progress.

Perhaps in response to Wells — and certainly in response to his dismay over the chilling climate for dissident art — Zamyatin penned the seminal 1921 dystopian novel We (it can be read free online in this pdf). We would be distinguished as the first book banned by Soviet censorship; it was smuggled to the west and published in 1924, but it didn’t see print in the Soviet Union until glasnost.

In We, it is the future “One State” that stands as lord of the earth and master of titanic forces. In a world without privacy or dreams, Numbers (i.e., people) build a spaceship called Integral at the command of the Benefactor. The novel explicitly counterposes freedom and (material) happiness; the perfectly ordered, clockwork One State has the latter and therefore organizes explicitly to preserve its non-freedom, “for freedom and crime are as closely related as — well, as the movement of an aero and its speed: if the speed of an aero equals zero, the aero is motionless; if human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crime.”

More’s Utopia executes enslaved criminals who attempt to regain their liberty; Zamyatin’s Benefactor simply executes anyone who attempts to acquire liberty in the first place. And these are not only bodily executions: before putting to public death a seditious poet, a state-friendly writer “named” R-13 (Numbers, you see) delivers a benediction celebrating the One State/Benefactor’s Promethean achievement: “he harnessed fire / With machines and steel / And fettered chaos with Law.” It sounds a little like Kirillov.

Then the execution proceeds:

Swayed by an unknown wind, the criminal moved; one step … one more … then the last step in his life. His face was turned to the sky, his head thrown back — he was on his last … Heavy, stony like fate, the Benefactor went around the machine, put his enormous hand on the lever … Not a whisper, not a breath around; all eyes were upon that hand … What crushing, scorching power one must feel to be the tool, to be the resultant of hundreds of thousands of wills! How great his lot!

Another second. The hand moved down, switching in the current. The lightning-sharp blade of the electric ray … A faint crack like a shiver, in the tubes of the Machine … The prone body, covered with a light phosphorescent smoke; then, suddenly, under the eyes of all, it began to melt, to dissolve with terrible speed. And then nothing; just a pool of chemically pure water which only a moment ago had been so red and had pulsated in his heart.

Public execution in the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.

In 1921, We was a fantastic, satirical riff; by the time Zamyatin died in exile in 1937, We looked prophetic of the unfolding Stalinist nightmare — and still more, as Orwell put it in an enthusiastic review, of the entire project of industrial civilization. Looking around him, Orwell couldn’t help but notice that the executioner who was a vaguely embarrassing footnote for More’s utopia actually turned out to be central to the whole project — maybe even the purpose of the whole project. “The object of persecution is persecution,” says the torturer O’Brien in Orwell’s own dystopian classic 1984. “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

1984 unabashedly cribs its plot from Zamyatin; its protagonist’s day job (until he falls foul of the BenefactorBig Brother) is the artistic half of the butcher’s job, rewriting purged “unpersons” out of history like the fallen communist officials disappeared from official photographs. Kurt Vonnegut said that his first novel Player Piano (also published as Utopia-14) “cheerfully ripped off the plot of (Aldous Huxley’s) Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”

English literature aside, it was central and eastern Europe that bore the brunt of the 20th century’s totalitarian experiments; small wonder that these were also a key crucible of dystopian literary experimentation. “We were born,” ran a gallows jest among 1930s Soviet writers, “to turn Kafka into reality.”

As this gruesome site begins its third thousand days† of picking over women and men made meat under the machines of whichever benefactors, our extra morsel is an original literary review of a horrific Czech dystopian novella that deserves to be better-known in English. What follows is by Slavic literature expert Bora Chung.

Nobody knows Martin Harnícek. He was not executed; in fact he is still alive and well. Harnícek was born in 1952 in former Czechoslovakia. He used to work as a male nurse at mental institutions. And he wrote. Somewhere in the 1970s Harnícek wrote a novella titled Maso. In Czech, maso means meat.

The narrator (he doesn’t have a name) begins his story at the Meat Market. His dream is to go to the First-Class Hall one day. The problem is, he does not have the necessary number of meat cards. In fact he doesn’t have any meat card. If he gets caught at the Market with no card on him – and there are random inspections just to sort out people like him – he will be executed. Then the fresh meat from his dead body will go to the much-desired First-Class Hall. And then to the Second-Class, if nobody picks it up and it starts to go bad. And finally to the Third-Class Hall if the meat spoils completely. You see what the title means.

Inside the Market there are butchers, policemen (no women) in red uniforms, customers with (or without) meat cards, and vagrants. And this is pretty much the entire structure of the City itself. There are policemen. Everywhere. And there are the fortunate few with sufficient number of meat cards: the ones registered at a legitimate address. But if the house gets condemned, either because it was attacked by the police or by other vagrants, the place is no longer legitimate and the residents themselves become vagrants. And instead of butchers (who can slaughter people legally) there are street-gangs (who will slaughter people illegally). These are organized vagrants, helping one another to rob other unfortunate fellow citizens of their meat cards and/or their meat.

If there are other trades in this world, we’re not privy to them: no plumbers, no construction workers, no contractors. No wonder the houses are so quickly falling apart. More and more of them are getting condemned. Vagrants especially target wooden houses, to tear down the walls for firewood in their resource-poor world. That’s how the nameless narrator lost his place of residence. That’s why he had to sneak into the Meat Market without a card.

So our guy stays there at the Market and becomes a vagrant. But see, he has no meat card of his own. So has to rely on stealing. That can work out for only so long. After a whole lot of incidents and adventures he finally decides to run for his life. He sneaks back out of the Market and into the streets and he runs and runs until he crosses the City border without realizing it.

Now this is where the story gets interesting.

Crossing the City borders should have meant instant death to him by City regulations, and it very nearly does get him killed by roving vagrants who attempt to prey on him. But outside the City he finds a self-sustaining utopian community. The people there are mostly themselves defectors from the City. And their families. Real, loving families. Husbands and wives. Sons and daughters. Kindness, care, affection abound. These good people find our guy in a very bad shape. They take him in, take care of him, bring him back to health.

So our guy gets back on his feet.

The first thing he does? Attacks his benefactor’s daughter. He tries to rape her, the girl resists and dies in the process, and the guy tries to eat her because to him it’s precious fresh meat.

But it’s a community, and a utopian community at that. People hear the girl scream. They come running and catch our guy literally red-handed. Now he has to run again. He ends up back at the City and is slaughtered by a Police officer.

“I knew that in a few moments I would be in the Market, in the First-Class Hall, like I always desired. I realized it very clearly, but it didn’t make me happy at all.”

Advanced dystopian devices: cannibalism.

Well, the reader can see from the beginning that this guy is doomed. Everybody is in this City. One either eats another human being or dies a very violent death and becomes “meat” for others. Out nameless narrator was born into such a reality and has internalized it to such a degree that even when he is in very different circumstances, in fact the opposite of circumstances in a utopian community, and even when he doesn’t have to kill people or eat them anymore — our poor guy never really believes it. He can’t imagine or understand that any other way of existence is possible. So he behaves exactly the way he would have in the City. Which eventually gets himself slaughtered.

In so many other “typical” or canonical utopian/dystopian novels the main character(s) actively seek a better society or the possibility thereof. If they actually get to the perfect society, it’s a utopian novel. In a dystopian novel the main character(s) usually get caught, get beaten up, tortured and brainwashed by the evil State. Either way the main character(s) are pretty much reasonable, relatable people. They’re the reader’s guides to their strange worlds. If somebody, by some magic, pulled Winston Smith out of the novel and placed him in real, actual Britain of 1984, he’d fit in and might actually do pretty well.

In Maso, however, the main character himself is different. The reader can see that this poor nameless guy really suffers. He has feelings: meat makes him happy (really happy); hunger, thirst, cold and pain make him sad (and these are a constant, unfortunately); he feels fear, real fear, deep terror, and unnerving uncertainty all the time. The reader can understand all this. The reader can even kind of relate to him.

But out main character differs from most other characters in most other utopian/dystopian novels in that he simply can’t help himself being a part of his dystopia. The author deliberately takes him to a much, much better place but look at what our narrator ends up doing: He just wants more meat. He can’t dream of a better society, even when he’s actually in one. He has lost the ability.

In the author’s mind, that’s what it really means to be born and raised in dystopia.

Harnícek was born in 1952. Czechoslovakia became a Communist country in 1948. So there you see the difference. George Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blair, hailed from a bourgeois English family, served in India, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and sparred with fellow-leftists over supporting the USSR. Yevgeny Zamyatin, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy, saw the Bolshevik Revolution which he first embraced turn to ash. They saw the Old World, the world as they knew it, crumble apart, saw humanity turn for the worse. So in a way they knew both utopia and dystopia.

But Harnícek had no memory like theirs, no first-hand experience of a different, better world. All he had was his reality: Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Soviet tanks in the capital city after Prague Spring (Harnícek was 16), and Charter 77. Harnícek signed this anti-government, pro-freedom civil movement manifesto. It meant a political and professional suicide at the time and he knew it. He was 25.

Harnícek now lives in Germany. He is retired, has had nothing to do with the literary world for a long time, and does not wish to either. So at least his life story seems to have a happy ending.

Harnícek has written a handful of other works in his life, but none of it measured up to Maso. The original edition (published in 1981) is 76 pages long. In this short fiction he has created what is probably one of the most horrifying dystopias that one can find in Western literature. A nightmare world where human beings don’t even know what hopes or dreams can mean; where people refuse to believe them and run back to hopelessness at their own volition. To end up being eaten.

And the scariest part is that the City seems to function as a society, since it continues to exist. After all, our nameless hero went back to the City, in spite of everything he went through. If only to be slaughtered. The fact that it somehow all makes sense in a terrible, twisted way says something about the darkest, most brutish, and perhaps the most inexplicable corner of human nature.

Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:

  • 1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
  • 1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
  • 500, merely a Spartan marking of the date

* With apt tragedy, Kirillov himself disappeared into the USSR’s “purging flames” and died in the gulag under unknown circumstances — possibly executed.

** Translation from Mass Culture in Soviet Russia.

† No promises!

On this day..

1705: The Camisards Catinat and Ravanel

On this date in 1705, two men were burned at the stake and two others broken on the wheel — Camisards all, put to death in Nimes, France.

The Camisards* were French Protestants of the mountainous southern Cevennes region who make their entry into these pages because the crown in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, France’s guarantee of multiconfessional toleration.

Protestants were going to be bullied into conversion — or, in many cases, flight. (London’s Spitalfields textile industry, for instance, got a welcome shot in the arm from refugee Huguenot weavers.)

In 1702, the Cevennes Protestants pushed back.

“A persecution unsurpassed in violence had lasted near a score of years,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his 19th century travelogue of the region. “This was the result upon the persecuted; hanging, burning, breaking on the wheel, had been in vain; the dragoons had left their hoof-marks over all the countryside; there were men rowing in the galleys, and women pining in the prisons of the Church; and not a thought was changed in the heart of any upright Protestant.”

On July 24, 1702, the Catholic torturer-priest running this show was assassinated, and the Camisard revolt was on.

Two years of dirty neighbor-on-neighbor violence mostly petered out in 1704 with the loss of the Camisards’ two main leaders — Jean Cavalier, the brilliant peasant-turned-commander who was bought off by an army commission and a royal pension, and Roland Laporte, who was betrayed as by Judas for 200 pieces of gold.

Catinat and Ravanel were Cavalier’s lieutenants; according to Alexandre Dumas, Catinat was a peasant named Abdias Maurel who picked up his nickname after serving under Marshal Catinat in the War of Spanish Succession.

The prospect of a renewed rising drew them back — a bold and terrible stroke to mount a surprise massacre and kidnap the exiled English Duke of Berwick. Catinat returned from his hidey-hole in Geneva; Ravanel came the bush where he was the last notable Camisard commander in the field.

An informer spilled the secret and the conspirators were busted in Nimes before they could spring their trap.

They faced immediate trial and condemnation — Catinat and Ravanel, along with two younger fighters named Jonquet and Villas.

After a long bout of pre-execution torture on April 21 to reveal their conspirators,**

The next day, the 22nd April, 1705, they were taken from the prison and drawn to the place of execution in two carts, being unable to walk, on account of the severe torture to which they had been subjected, and which had crushed the bones of their legs. A single pile of wood had been prepared for Catinat and Ravanel, who were to be burnt together; they were in one cart, and Villas and Jonquet, for whom two wheels had been prepared, were in the other.

The first operation was to bind Catinat and Ravanel back to back to the same stake, care being taken to place Catinat with his face to windward, so that his agony might last longer, and then the pile was lit under Ravanel.

As had been foreseen, this precaution gave great pleasure to those people who took delight in witnessing executions. The wind being rather high, blew the flames away from Catinat, so that at first the fire burnt his legs only — a circumstance which, the author of the History of the Camisards tells us, aroused Catinat’s impatience. Ravanel, however, bore everything to the end with the greatest heroism, only pausing in his singing to address words of encouragement to his companion in suffering, whom he could not see, but whose groans and curses he could hear; he would then return to his psalms, which he continued to sing until his voice was stifled in the flames. Just as he expired, Jonquet was removed from the wheel, and carried, his broken limbs dangling, to the burning pile, on which he was thrown. From the midst of the flames his voice was heard saying, “Courage, Catinat; we shall soon meet in heaven.” A few moments later, the stake, being burnt through at the base, broke, and Catinat falling into the flames, was quickly suffocated. That this accident had not been forseen and prevented by proper precautions caused great displeasure to spectators who found that the three-quarter of an hour which the spectacle had lasted was much too brief a time.

Villas lived three hours longer on his wheel, and expired without having uttered a single complaint.

A hecatomb of Camisard executions followed, fed by the denunciations of frightened or avaricious people; still others were “merely” condemned to the galleys … bringing at last a sullen peace of arms to the turbulent province.

* Here’s a 19th century public domain novel about the whole Camisard business.

** While three bore the torture quietly, Villas coughed up the name Boeton de Saint-Laurent-d’Aigozre. This man, too, was arrested and executed.

On this day..