1957: Jacques Fesch: playboy, cop killer, saint?

1 comment October 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the dissolute son of a wealthy banker went to see Jesus on the guillotine at Paris’ La Santé Prison.

Annoyed that his estranged father wasn’t keen to finance his dream of moving to the South Pacific for a life on permanent vacation, Jacques Fesch robbed a moneychanger on the Rue Vivenne to raise the revenue — and then shot dead a police officer who gave him chase, orphaning a four-year-old girl.

Outrage at the murder of a policeman was redoubled as the callow hedonism — adultery, an abandoned illegitimate kid, and nary a hard day’s work in his life — of its privileged perp became widely known. Then, too, there’s the novelty of a financial sector scion requiring a firearm for larceny.

Fesch’s Catholic lawyer, Paul Baudet, undertook the Dostoyevskyan mission of saving client’s life and soul alike. The disinterested kid called him “Pope Paul” or “Torquemada,” but gradually — and then all of a sudden — something got through there.

Little by little I was led to change my ideas. I was no longer certain that God did not exist. I began to be open to Him, though I did not yet have faith. I tried to believe with my reason, without praying, or praying ever so little! And then, at the end of my first year in prison, a powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed, and could no longer understand how I had ever not believed. Grace had come to me. A great joy flooded my soul and above all a deep peace. In a few instants everything had become clear. it was a very strong, sensible joy that I felt. I tend now to try, perhaps excessively, to recapture it; actually, the essential thing is not emotion, but faith. (Source)

Almost overnight he gave himself to monklike asceticism, but the legal situation was not as promising as the spiritual. French President Rene Coty declined to spare him under pressure from police, and on grounds that leniency to a cop-killer would blow back on officers then trying to quell rebellion in Algeria.

Tell your client that he has all my esteem and that I wanted very much to reprieve him. But if I did that, I would put the lives of other police officers in danger. (Source)

Fesch didn’t want to die, but he accepted his penalty with resignation.

Now, my life is finished. ‘Like a little spring flower which the divine Gardener plucks for His pleasure,’* so my head will fall — glorious ignominy — with heaven for its prize! (Source)

His prison writings have filtered out widely since his beheading, and fed a burgeoning personal cult; he is often compared with the penitent “good thief” crucified with Christ. The valence of that conversion for the death penalty as a contentious political or theological issue, however, is not necessarily abolitionist. Fesch himself mused that imminent execution might have been the very thing that moved his soul.

Do you know, sometimes I think, in good faith and with horror, that the only way I can be saved [in God] is perhaps not to be saved [from the guillotine] in the human sense of the word? (Source)

Controversially, the layabout who slew a policeman has been latterly proposed for canonization within the Catholic Church — although Fesch’s defenders here observe that saints from Paul on down have often had unsavory backstories.

The young man is much better known in Romanic lands than among Anglophones — here’s an Italian homily for him:

* Quoting St. Therese of Lisieux, an apt inspiration.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,Murder,Popular Culture,Religious Figures

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1957: Evagoras Pallikarides, teenage guerrilla poet

3 comments March 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Cypriot guerrilla Evagoras Pallikarides was hanged by British colonial authorities for gun possession.

As it was throughout the Empire in the middle 20th century, independence was the order of the day in Cyprus. But it was not simply whether there would be self-rule in Cyprus: the form and terms of independence were themselves hotly contested.

Cyprus would be a fresh battleground between those bitter rivals Turkey and Greece, each asserting an interest in their ethnic cousins on the island; overlapping that, it would be a battleground between the institutional Communist opposition AKEL, which opposed military action for separatism, and the nationalist EOKA, demanding not simply independence but enosis, union with Greece as part of the pan-Hellenic project so inflammatory to the Turks.

From 1955 to 1959, EOKA conducted a four-year campaign of bombing, assassinations and military engagements.

As a 17-year-old, Palikarides — already facing trial and likely prison time for his resistance activities — disappeared to join an EOKA guerrilla cell. A poetic young soul, he bid his classmates farewell with this note left to explain his absence on their first morning without him:

Old classmates. At this time, someone is missing from among you, someone who has left in search of freedom’s air, someone who you might not see alive again. Don’t cry at his graveside. It won’t do for you to cry. A few spring flowers scatter on his grave. This is enough for him …

I’ll take an uphill road
I’ll take the paths
To find the stairs
That lead to freedom

I’ll leave brothers, sisters
My mother, my father
In the valleys beyond
And the mountainsides

Searching for freedom
I’ll have as company
The white snow
Mountains and torrents

Even if it’s winter now
The summer will come
Bringing Freedom
To cities and villages

I’ll take an uphill road
I’ll take the paths
To find the stairs
That lead to freedom

I’ll climb the stairs
I’ll enter a palace
I know it will be an illusion
I know it won’t be real

I’ll wonder in the palace
Until I find the throne
Only a queen
Sitting on it

Beautiful daughter, I will say,
Open your wings
And take me in your embrace
That’s all I ask …

Pallikarides fought for a year before being apprehended with a gun illegally in his possession — a hanging crime under British anti-terrorism laws, but as Pallikarides was just the ninth (and last) EOKA man executed, it seems plain that law was not receiving draconian enforcement. At least one author claims that the authorities threw the book at him on the gun charge because of a murder they believed he committed as a guerrilla but could not prove.

The fact that he turned 19 a fortnight before his execution likewise did not avail him clemency — as the young rebel predicted in court:

I know you will hang me. Whatever I did, I did as a Cypriot Greek fighting for liberty.

As youthful martyrs to nationhood are wont to become, Pallikarides (along with his poetry) lives on as a potent symbol to Greek Cypriots. Shortly after Cyprus achieved independence in 1960, his name and visage were affiliated with a Cyprus football club, Evagoras (which later merged with another club to become AEP Paphos).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cyprus,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Greece,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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