1905: Rebellious workers of the Red Presnia district

5 comments December 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1905,* the last bastion of the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution was smashed with mass executions of the radical Russian proletariat who constituted Moscow’s Presnia district.

The long, uphill struggle of tsarist Russia to adapt its economy and political institutions to modernity was nearing its final failure.

A shadow play of that approaching cataclysm would unfold in 1905, when popular dissatisfaction won a short-lived period of constitutional government.

Radicals disdained these half-measures, however, and shook the realm with a general strike in December 1905 — a small quake only, since Russia’s proletariat was still too small to constitute a real threat to the state.

And the capital of insurrectionary labor was Muscovite factory district of Presnia or Presnya. There, a botched attempt to suppress strikers resulted in an armed standoff; “Red Presnia” (Krasnaia or Krasnaya Presnia) ended in carnage when the overmatched workers were besieged by the Semyonovsky Guard.




A political cartoon trilogy on the annihilation of Red Presnia: from the top, The Entrance, The Battle, and The Pacification (picturing the Kremlin sinking in blood). They’re from this public domain Google book; scroll up from the link to pp. 35-38 for more unflattering drawings of the tsar as a tinhorn murderer.

Trotsky recounted the last days of Red Presnia.

On the night of the sixteenth Presnya was encircled in an iron ring of government troops. Soon after 6:00 a.m. on the seventeenth these troops opened a remorseless cannonade. Guns were fired as much as seven times a minute. This continued, with an hour’s respite, until 4:00 p.m. Many factories and houses were destroyed and set on fire. The barrage was conducted from two sides. Houses and barricades were in flames, women and children darted about the streets in clouds of black smoke, the air was filled with the roar and clatter of firing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of a Red Presnia barricade under fire from the Semenovsky Guard. (Source)

The glow was such that miles away it was possible to read in the streets late at night, as though it were day. Until noon the druzhiny [the workers’ militia] conducted successful operations against the troops, but continuous enemy fire forced them to stop. Only a small group of druzhinniki remained under arms on their own initiative and at their own risk.

By the morning of the eighteenth Presnya had been cleared of barricades. The “peaceful” population were allowed to leave Presnya; the troops were careless enough to allow people to leave without searching them. The druzhinniki were the first to leave, some of them still with arms. Later, there were shootings and other violence by the soldiers, but by then not a single druzhinnik remained in the area.

The “pacification troops” of the Semyonovsky regiment, who were sent to “pacify” the railway, were ordered not to make arrests and to proceed with out mercy.** They met with no resistance anywhere. Not a single shot was fired against them, yet they killed approximately 150 persons on the railway line. The shootings were carried out without investigation or trial. Wounded men were taken from ambulance wagons and finished off. Corpses lay around without anyone daring to carry them away. One of those shot by the Petersburg guards was the engine-driver Ukhtomsky, who saved the lives of a group of druzhinniki by driving them away on his engine at colossal speed under machine-gun fire. Before they shot him, he told his executioners what he had done: “All are safe,” he concluded with calm pride, “you’ll never get them now.”

“No single act during this period of governmental vengeance,” one chronicle remarked, “stands out more senseless than the punitive expeditions of the Semyonovsky Regiment on the Moscow-Kazan railroad.”

And no single victim exemplified the butchery like the legendary Engineer Ukhtomsky. A journalist relates the story:

In the course of my inquiries about the activities of the Semyonovski regiment along the Moscow-Kazan line, I heard many stories about Engineer Ukhtomski, who showed heroic firmness in the last moments of his life. Part of this information was given by the captain of the Semyonovski regiment which executed him in Lubertzy,† together with three other workingmen. The captain, who observed him in his last moments, was charmed by his personality; the soldiers felt a deep reverence for him, their esteem being expressed in the fact that after the first volley he remained untouched. Not one bullet had grazed him.

His appearance was in no way striking. Of medium height, with vivid, clever eyes, he gave the impression of a very modest, almost bashful, man.

It was a mere accident that he fell into the hands of the punitive expedition. He was traveling in a carriage, when he stopped in the Lubertzy inn, ignorant of the presence of soldiers at the station. He was searched and a revolver was found in his pocket, which caused his arrest. He was brought before the officer in charge.

Questioned as to his name, he refused to reveal it. The officer went over the lists and the photographs of the revolutionists, comparing them with the live original before him. then he exclaimed:

‘You are Engineer Ukhtomski; you will be shot!’

‘I thought so,’ Ukhtomski answered coolly.

This happened in the afternoon, about three o’clock. He was asked whether he did not want to take the communion, and expressed his desire to do so.

After the communion he was taken, together with three workingmen of the Lubertzy brake-factory, to the place of execution. He made the following statement, addressing the officer:

‘I knew that, once in your hands, I should be shot; I was prepared for death, and that is why I am so calm. … ‘

At the place of execution they wanted to blindfold Ukhtomski. He asked the favor of meeting death squarely, face to face. He also refused to turn his back to the soldiers.

The soldiers fired. The workingmen dropped. Ukhtomski was not hurt. He stood erect, arms folded on his breast.

The soldiers fired again. He fell on the snow, but he was still alive and fully conscious. He looked around, with eyes full of anguish.

The captain gave him the coup de grace.

Months later, another Russian revolutionary avenged the Presnia charnel house by assassinating the general who orchestrated it. The tsar reaped a still more fearful whirlwind.


Mother, a 1926 silent film by Vsevolod Pudovkin valorizing the 1905 revolution.

Standing just thirteen years later over the remains of that vanquished tsarism, V.I. Lenin paid the martyrs of Presnia tribute for sacrifices “not in vain”:

Before the armed insurrection of December 1905, the people of Russia were incapable of waging a mass armed struggle against their exploiters. After December they were no longer the same people. They had been reborn. They had received their baptism of fire. They had been steeled in revolt. They trained the fighters who were victorious in 1917 and who now, despite the incredible difficulties, and overcoming the torments of hunger arid devastation caused by the imperialist war, are fighting for the world victory of socialism.

Long live the workers of Red Presnya, the vanguard of the world workers’ revolution!


Moscow metro station Krasnopresnenskaya. (cc) image from Pavel Popov.

* New Year’s Eve by the Gregorian calendar; tsarist Russia was still on the archaic, 13-days-slower Julian calendar, so the dates within Russia were (as reflected in the Trotsky passage) Dec. 17 for the storming of Red Presnia, and Dec. 18 for this date’s slaughter.

** “Act without mercy. There will be no arrests.”

† Summary executions continued for some days, but a Jan. 2, 1906 London Times wire dispatch datelined Jan. 1 appears to situate the particular slaughter that would have claimed Ukhtomsky:

The majority of the revolutionaries in the Presnia quarter succeeded in escaping. About 100 surrendered to General Min to save the houses of the poor from destruction. Artillery and troops are clearing the Kazan railway and are capturing station after station. Three hundred railwaymen have been killed and yesterday 70 were summarily shot at Lubertsy. Moscow is becoming quiet.

“The river Moskva at the Presnia Verck,” the correspondent observed, “is covered with corpses of revolutionaries scattered over the ice.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Treason

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1905: Henri Languille, a man of science

June 28th, 2008 Headsman

At 5:30 a.m. this date in 1905, a murderer named Languille lost his head on the guillotine in Orleans.

Some thirty seconds later, he finally lost his life — or so suggests the account of an eyewitness who conducted upon Languille’s head one of the most renowned execution experiments in history in pursuit of that timeless question whether a decapitated head survives.

Henri Languille’s execution.

Dr. Beaurieux, if you please?

I consider it essential for you to know that Languille displayed an extraordinary sang-froid and even courage from the moment when he was told, that his last hour had come, until the moment when he walked firmly to the scaffold. It may well be, in fact, that the conditions for observation, and consequently the phenomena, differ greatly according to whether the condemned persons retain all their sang-froid and are fully in control of themselves, or whether they are in such state of physical and mental prostration that they have to be carried to the place of execution, and are already half-dead, and as though paralysed by the appalling anguish of the fatal instant.

The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck …

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.

Here comes the science.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History

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1905: Fou Tchou-Li, by a thousand cuts

16 comments April 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1905, Fou Tchou-Li suffered the last execution by lingchi in Beijing, for the murder of a Mongolian prince.

Lingchi, or slow slicing, involved the public dismemberment of the victim. As such, it became iconic to westerners as an image of exotic Chinese cruelty — albeit iconic in a mythicized form, the accounts conflicting, undependable, Orientalist. (Many different ones are collected at the Wikipedia page.)

Lingchi is especially notable — apart from fathering the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” in the English lexicology — for its overlap with the era of photography.

Fou Tchou-Li’s death was captured on film, and the images famously captivated Georges Bataille for the expression of seeming ecstasy on the face of the dying (or dead) man.

Bataille was said to meditate daily upon the image below in particular — “I never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at the same time ecstatic and intolerable.”

Agony and ecstasy? A sequence of images, strong stuff in spite of their low quality, describing Fou Tchou-Li’s execution can be viewed here. Notice, however, that it’s not the one pictured here — the scholar who maintains this page claims the man’s identity became confused by western interlocutors. The different, unnamed man who as “Fou Tchou-Li” riveted Bataille is pictured here.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explained the mystical nexus of pleasure and pain Fou Tchou-Li’s torture suggested to the French theorist, aptly comparing it to graphic but pre-photographic exaltations of torture in the western artistic tradition, such as Saint Sebastian:

To contemplate this image, according to Bataille, is both a mortification of the feelings and a liberation of tabooed erotic knowledge — a complex response that many people must find hard to credit. … Bataille is not saying that he takes pleasure in the sight of this excruciation. But he is saying that he can imagine extreme suffering as a kind of transfiguration. It is a view of suffering, of the pain of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation — a view that could not be more alien to a modern sensibility.

It’s no idle point to say that all this reads quite a lot into a single frame that may not be all that representative of the moment, though that wouldn’t necessarily diminish Bataille’s gist. More, these are western interpretations of — projections upon — an image marked as fundamentally outside in a tableau irresistibly blending the colonizer and the colonized.

The execution was ordered in the last days of the Qing Dynasty, which had long been substantially beholden to European states, especially the British; the prisoner was apparently administered opium to numb the pain, the very product Britain had gone to war to force China to accept.

Taiwanese video artist Chen Chieh-jen interpreted the photography that so captivated Bataille, and its colonial context, in Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph (review).

Two weeks after this date, China abolished the punishment for good.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Language,Lingchi,Mature Content,Milestones,Popular Culture,Public Executions

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1905: Samuel McCue, mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia

6 comments February 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1905, the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., was hanged in the city’s jail for the murder of his wife, Fannie — a sentence he may have accepted to protect his mistress from taking the rap.

This fascinating and little-known tale of local color is extensively explored in the Charlottesville weekly The Hook. For a gripping and off-the-beaten-path true crime mystery, the full story is well worth digesting.

Here’s an excerpt:

The City of Charlottesville congratulated itself on the afternoon of February 10 when it read in a special edition of the Daily Progress that J. Samuel McCue had confessed to his crime just hours before he was hanged. With a collective sigh of relief, the citizens could go about their lives knowing that they had done their duty.

But let us look carefully at Sam’s “confession.” Being an attorney, he always chose his words with care. His last words before the judge, after his conviction: “I am as innocent as any other man in the courtroom.”

Then before going to the gallows, he allegedly made a confession.

“J. Samuel McCue stated this morning in our presence and requested us to make public that he did not wish to leave this world with suspicion resting on any human being other than himself; that he alone is responsible for the deed, impelled to it by an evil power beyond his control; and that he recognized his sentence as just.

Signed: George L. Petrie, Harry B. Lee, John B. Turpin”

Are we to believe that a guilty man, just hours from death, was worried that someone else might later be suspected of the crime? He had been tried and convicted of it. What would make him worry that after his death anyone would look for another suspect, thereby proving their own mistake? Who would take responsibility for such an error, and why would Sam care?

Mysterious indeed.

McCue’s was the last legal hanging in Albemarle County.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Politicians,Scandal,Sex,USA,Virginia,Wrongful Executions

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