Friday, April 21, 2006

April 21

Having clicked past the noon hour, I believe I can predict with confidence that April 21 will not be my daughter's date of birth. The little goblin remains packed sedately inside my wife, content to avoid for at least one more day her inevitable, lifelong fistfight with the outside world. Good for her, I say. While April 21 marks something of reprieve from the cruelties of April -- especially those of the past two days -- it is a date no less awful than all the others.

For the Brazilian dentist Joaquim JosĂ© da Silva Xavier, today marks the anniversary of his 1792 execution and dismemberment for treason against the Portugese crown. Xavier, who during his trial acquired the pejorative nickname "Tiradentes" -- which literally means "tooth-puller" -- organized the InconfidĂȘncia Mineira, a failed plot to detach the state of Minas Gerais from Portugese rule in February 1789. Inspired by the American and French revolutions as well as the writings of Rousseau and Raynal, Tiradentes and his collaborators were infuriated by Portugese taxation policies, which required annual tributes in gold from a nation whose mines had been depleted by the extraordinary financial demands of the Napoleonic Wars. After their planned revolt was betrayed to the governor by one of the other plotters, Tiradentes fled Vila Rica to Rio de Janiero, where he was captured in May. At his trial, which lasted three years, Tiradentes insisted that the plot had been his creation and that he had acted "without inspiration from anyone." While nearly a dozen of his collaborators were condemned to death, Tiradentes' sentence was the only one actually to be executed. After being hanged, Tiradentes was decapitated and his body drawn into quarters. The head, nailed unceremoniously to a post, was displayed in Vila Rica square; his limbs were distributed to the cities between Vila Rica and Rio, where they served as a grim warning to other aspiring revolutionaries. Martyr to the cause of Brazilian nationalism, Tiradentes' death is acknowledged every April 21 as a national holiday.

Uncommemorated and forgotten, the charred and unidentified remains of scores of prisoners are buried in mass graves at Evergreen, Eastlawn and Harper-McKinley cemeteries in Columbus, Ohio. Monuments to the worst prison fire in American history, these anonymous gravesites hold most of the inmates who died on 21 April 1930 when a candle ignited a pile of oily rags on the roof of West Block. Prison officials scrambled in vain to locate a master key; abandoned as the fire spread, the prisoners suffered unimaginable deaths, as 322 were asphyxiated and barbecued in their cells. Among the dead that day was 31-year-old Wilbur "Fats" Young, a World War I veteran serving a sentence at Columbia for bigamy. Young's hometown paper, the Deshler Flag, carried his obituary on 24 April 1930:
[F]ate was not kind to Wilbur Young and he lost his life, while still a young man, within the gray walls of the institution in a most horrible manner. Trapped in his cell like a wild beast with no hope of release he could see the flames, smoke and heat creep closer and closer while all he could do was to wait and do nothing but still wait. Convict though he was, and the rest may be or rather may have been, yet withal there beat in his breast a human heart with human feelings and a heart that could love those near and dear to him and be loved in turn and it casts a pall of gloom and sorrow over those who knew him to think of the awful manner of his ending.

Mr. Young and Funeral director Rader took the ambulance to Columbus on Tuesday afternoon with the expectation of bringing the body back but were informed that no bodies would be released until 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning. They were also told that the body would be furnished with a shroud, color and tie and a coffin, and that transportation charges would be prepaid to its destination.

Prison officials blamed the fire on a botched escape plan, but the fire drew increased attention to the miserable conditions at the Columbus facility, which was operating at twice its intended capacity. Meager efforts were made to improve Ohio's prison system over the next several years; none succeeded, and the Ohio Penitentiary was the site of three major riots in the decades after World War II. The facility was ordered closed in 1979. From 1897-1963, it had been the site of 315 executions -- seven fewer than the number killed on this date in 1930.

On this date in 1997, the State of Texas executed Benjamin H. Boyle for the October 1985 murder of Gail Lenore Smith, a 20-year-old cocktail waitress from Ft. Worth. For his last meal, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Boyle requested a doublemeat cheeseburger, french fries with ketchup, and a Coke.