1950: The Leningrad Affair “culprits”

1 comment October 1st, 2010 Headsman

Fifty-nine minutes after midnight on this date in 1950, five Soviet cadres were condemned to death in a secret trial on trumped-up charges of treason in one of Stalin’s party purges. An hour later, they were shot.

The “Leningrad Affair” saw Uncle Joe — with the urging of other henchmen jockeying for the imminent post-Stalin succession — liquidate the excessively independent leaders of Russia’s other capital.

During the late World War, the “hero city” Leningrad withstood a withering 28-month Nazi siege stretching from the very first weeks of war into 1944.

In those days there was something in a man’s face which told you that he would die within the next twenty-four hours …

I shall always remember how I’d walk every day from my house near the Tauris Garden to my work in the centre of the city, a matter of two or three kilometres. I’d walk for a-while, and then sit down for a rest. Many a time I saw a man suddenly collapse on the snow. There was nothing I could do. One just walked on. And, on the way back, I would see a vague human form covered with snow on the spot where, in the morning, I had seen a man fall down.

One didn’t worry; what was the good? People didn’t wash for weeks; there were no bath houses and no fuel. But at least people were urged to shave. And during that winter I don’t think I ever saw a person smile. It was frightful. And yet there was a kind of inner discipline that made people carry on.

-A survivor of the siege

This horror cost the lives of a million Leningraders, and tour guides will be sure to point out the physical scars still to be seen.

But the city never fell, and its resistance wrote one of the 20th century’s awe-inspiring monuments to human perseverance. Dmitri Shostakovich, caught in the city himself, composed one of the Great Patriotic War’s most famous musical anthems, defiantly performed by the Leningrad symphony itself during the actual siege, and broadcast on Soviet radio and around the world.

One result of a city’s being carved away from its country — and of consequence to this date’s victims — was that it put Leningrad on increasingly autonomous footing.

Voznesensky, who literally wrote the (incautiously heterodox) book on The Economy of the USSR during World War II

And as the war receded, the men who administered Leningrad were left with an unusual scope of action … bolstered by their recent reputation for anti-fascist heroism. The so-called “Leningraders” had become an embryonic rival power center.

The Leningrad Affair corrected that unwelcome-to-Stalin development with a wholesale purge. While the Soviet judiciary harvested the most illustrious heads on this date — economist Nikolai Voznesensky, Party bigwig Aleksei Kuznetsov — Michael Parrish observes in The lesser terror: Soviet state security, 1939-1953 that

[t]he executions of October 1, 1950, were only the tip of the iceberg … The Leningrad Affair probably claimed more than 1,300 victims, including over 100 who were shot, nearly 2,000 people who were dismissed, and many arrseted.

This day’s victims (though not all those persecuted) were officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era; responsibility for the Leningrad Affair even served to condemn one of its authors, NKVD torturer Viktor Abakumov, to death in the 1950s.

But compared to the corpse motel of 1930s USSR, this purge was distinctly small potatoes. One of its survivors — a man who could easily have been condemned on the same evidence that doomed the likes of Kuznetsov — was politician Alexei Kosygin, later to emerge as one of the USSR’s leading liberalizers in the 1960s and (in the words of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) “the forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Shot,Theft,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1788: William “Deacon” Brodie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inspiration

2 comments October 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1788, the real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was hanged at Edinburgh.


The Execution of Deacon Brodie, by Alexander Hay Ritchie.

William Brodie, respectable burgher by day, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights, wasn’t the type for the gallows. Actually, the upright citizen is said to have proposed an improvement in the old Tolbooth gallows, replacing the old-school ladders with a forward-thinking drop mechanism.

“Brodie,” says Traditions of Edinburgh, “was the first who proved the excellence of [the] improvement … He inspected the thing with a professional air, and seemed to view the result of his ingenuity with a smile of satisfaction.”*

Insouciance in the face of mortality … but Brodie had plenty of practice in compartmentalization.

With a gambling habit, a couple of mistresses, and five kids, Brodie the oleaginous society man had a double life, or treble, or more. By and by, the well-known tendency of such profligate pastimes to lead a man to venture his neck in order to keep up appearances worked its will upon Brodie, who began using his contracts with Edinburgh’s upper crust to case their houses and copy their keys … returning at night to burgle his employers.

It was taking on partners that did in the budding master thief; inevitably, someone flipped to dodge the gallows himself. Brodie’s cover was blown, and he hanged with his confederate George Smith, keeping up appearances to the very end.

A century later, native Edinburgher Robert Louis Stevenson would tap this extraordinary local history (and maybe some similar predecessors) as inspiration for that classic novelistic exploration of the soul’s duality, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In fact, prior to that work’s 1886 publication, Stevenson (who grew up with Brodie furniture in the house) co-wrote a play called Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life.

That earlier composition hasn’t been entrusted to celluloid, to my knowledge (though there is a Deacon Brodie film of recent vintage). But Jekyll and Hyde has been.

Brodie’s striking case does not live on only through his literary doppleganger(s); you can enjoy the company of the hanged criminal to this day on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.

Brodie himself is supposed to have made his own bid to live on by surviving the hanging. William Roughead in Classic Crimes describes these machinations whose generally attested failure is now and again disputed anew.

Of the plans, various and futile, formed for the resuscitation of the Deacon there are two contemporary and competing versions. One is that the hangman was bribed to tamper with the rope, so as to give a short fall and avoid dislocation of the vertebrae. But by an excess of caution that officer first made it too short and then too long. The body, when cut down, was placed in a cart and driven furiously round the back of the Castle to the Deacon’s woodyard at the foot of Brodie’s Close, so that animation might be restored as in the historic case of “half-hangit Maggie Dickson,” a lady whose departed spirit was recalled by similar Jehu methods. In his own workshop his veins were opened by a French surgeon, whose services had been retained to that end; but all the resources of science could not bring the Deacon back to life. According to another account, he had, before leaving his cell for the last time, been supplied with a small silver tube for insertion in his throat at the final ceremony in order to prevent suffocation, and wires were carried down both his sides from head to foot to counteract the jerk of the fall. In spite of these precautions and of subsequent bleeding by a surgeon, his friends had reluctantly to admit that “Brodie was fairly gone.”

* This “tradition” of Edinburgh is kin to a folkloric subgenre and should not at all be presumed dependable. Roughead:

Of the many picturesque legends of old Edinburgh which, in defiance of truth, cling like ivy about her vanished past, one of the most persistent is that Deacon Brodie was the first to suffer upon the new drop which he himself designed. This myth, upon research, I found myself reluctantly compelled to disprove. He may have planned the “moveable platform for the execution of criminals,” which the Town Council caused to be erected in 1786 at the west end of the Tolbooth; but it was certainly not of his construction, nor was he the first to benefit by its ingenuity. The place of execution was the roof of a low building which projected from the west gable of the prison — roughly where the Buccleuch statue now stands. A beam was drawn out from an aperture in the wall above the platform and from this depended the fatal rope.

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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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