Friday, March 23, 2007

Brief Vacation Interruption

I probably shouldn't have written about the anniversary of an airplane crash the day before flying to Arizona for a week. But there it is.

Back in a week. April is the cruelest month, after all.

March 23

Thirteen years ago today, a Russian teenager accidentally killed 75 people -- including himself -- when he caused an Aeroflot Airbus A310 to plummet earthward into the Altain Mountains near Siberian city of Mezhdurechensk. Eldar Krudinsky was the 15-year-old son of the plane’s pilot, Yaroslav, who allowed his son and daughter to sit with him in the cockpit during a flight from Moscow to Hong Kong. While his father was demonstrating the plane’s navigational features to his children, Eldar momentarily turned the control wheel just enough to partially disengage the autopilot. By the time anyone noticed, the aircraft had entered into a 90-degree bank that soon turned into steep upward pitch as the autopilot overcompensated for the sudden change of course. As the pilot and co-pilot struggled valiantly, the plane stalled, entered into a spin, and struck the ground two minutes later.

Investigators later determined that if the pilots had not seized the steering column in an attempt to regain control of the doomed plane, the autopilot would have corrected the problem.

The Flight 593 disaster brought that year’s Aeroflot death toll to 194 passengers, as the Russian company cemented its reputation as one of the most dangerous carriers on the planet; oddly enough, Aeroflot has not had a fatal accident since.



Thursday, March 22, 2007

March 22

German soldiers -- aided by Ukrainian and Belarussian collaborators -- destroyed the Belarussian town of Khatyn on this date in 1943, burning and shooting 149 people, half of whom were children. The town lay within the European regions of the Soviet Union targeted for absorption by Germany, which launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 to accomplish precisely that goal. From the vantage point of Aryan racial ideology, the presence of inferior Slavic peoples in the region would pose a problem after the conquest. Nazi leaders arrived at a plan to reduce the Slavic population -- by extermination or transfer -- by 75%. As the Reichsfuhrer Hitler himself mused,
[W]e are extremely interested in not letting eastern nations unite. On the contrary, we must spit them into small groups and branches. As for separate nations, we are not going to allow them to get closer and bigger, let alone allowing them to cultivate the sense of national identity and culture. Quite the contrary, we are concerned with splintering them into numerous small groups...

I hope we will be able to completely destroy the very concept of a 'jew', because we think there is a possibility of resettling all jews in Africa or some other colony. However, we will need rather more time to exterminate Ukranians, Gorakis and Lemkies on our territory.
By August, Belarussia was completely occupied and the systematic extermination of the republic’s citizenry began in earnest. Mass executions and concentration camps eventually claimed more than 2.2 million lives -- a full quarter of the Belarussian population -- while more than 5000 villages were destroyed, some of them three or more times over the course of the war.

Khatyn was targeted on the pretext of punishing the killers of a German officer in a nearby town in mid-March 1943. Although no one from Khatyn was involved in the shooting, the entire community was made to bear collective responsibility for the soldier's death. On March 22, the village was surrounded and nearly everyone was herded into a large shed that was doused in benzine and set ablaze. When the building collapsed and the terrified residents of Khatyn scattered, German soldiers gunned them down. A handful of children lived through the slaughter, though their parents did not. Only one adult, a 56-year old craftsman named Joseph Kaminsky, managed to survive after losing consciousness and being left for dead. Kaminsky found his son in the rubble and held him in his arms as he died.

A statue at the Khatyn memorial, not far from Minsk, commemorates that moment.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21

By the early 1960s, the apartheid government of South Africa had instituted an extraordinary series of restrictions intended to humiliate the majority black population. Driven by the racist ideology of the Herstigte National Party (HNP), the exclusion and demotion of blacks was secured over a period of roughly a decade after the end of World War II. For resistance groups like the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, the “six unjust laws” passed during the 1950s were regarded with special disdain. In addition to the Group Areas Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Coloured Voters Act and the Bantu Authorities Act, the South African state instituted pass laws requiring blacks over the age of 16 to carry dompas (passbooks) that indicated whether their presence was allowed in a particular urban area -- and for how long. By the early 1970s, more than a million black South Africans had been arrested for pass law violations.

On 21 March 1960, demonstrations against the pass laws led to sixty-nine deaths in Sharpeville, where police opened fire on an unarmed crowd of 300 protestors. Led by the PAC, large demonstrations took place across the Transvaal that day, pre-empting similar demonstrations planned by the rival ANC for the following week. PAC leaders had issued numerous statements and conferred with the South African and international press to explain that the March 21 demonstrations would be peaceful. As planned, the demonstrators were asked to march to local police stations without their dompas, singing and chanting “Awaphele ampasti” (“Down with the passes”). As one participant recalled later,
At the police station [in Sharpeville] we sat down, we were singing hymns, you know it was just a jolly atmosphere. We were singing these hymns as Christians because we were just rejoicing. And we didn’t know what will follow thereafter. We were just joyous because we thought that same afternoon we would get a message. Everybody was taking his feelings out.

Predictably, the authorities responded with something less than toleration -- crowds in Evaton were scattered by low-flying jets, while those in Vanderbijlpark were pounded with batons and tear gas. In Sharpeville, anywhere from 50-75 police officers -- inexperienced and frightened, according to most accounts -- began shooting around 1:15 p.m., allegedly in response to rocks being heaved in their direction. No order to disperse was issued. Within minutes, scores lay dead and wounded, most of them shot in the back as they tried to flee. Many of the wounded were later arrested in their hospital beds.

As Sharpeville Police Commander D.H. Pienaar explained,
The native mentality does not allow Africans to gather for peaceful demonstrations. For them to gather means violence. I do not know how many we shot. It all started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lessons the hard way.
In 1961, the South African parliament voted to indemnify the police officers against criminal charges or civil suits resulting from the massacre at Sharpeville. Within a year, the armed struggle in South Africa had commenced.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

March 20

When Martha M. Place threw sulfuric acid into her daughter’s face and smothered her with a pillow in February 1898, she probably was not angling to become the first American woman to die in the electric chair. Yet the Brooklyn dressmaker achieved precisely that status a little over thirteen months later, when on 20 March 1899 she was strapped into the novel device at Sing Sing prison and followed her 17-year-old child into the void.

Place was described in the press as "homely, old, ill-tempered, not loved by her husband." According to prison officials -- who carried out the execution after Governor Theodore Roosevelt refused to commute the sentence -- her electrocution was quick and efficient.

Thirty-four years after the life of Martha Place shuddered to a conclusion, the State of Florida executed bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara for the crime of murder. Zangara, a naturalized American citizen from Italy, had attempted to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt a month earlier in Miami. Zangara, who had suffered from acute stomach ulcers since childhood, was convinced that if he killed the leader of the capitalist world, he would be delivered from his excruciating physical pain -- and that he could alleviate the economic catastrophe that had immiserated millions over the previous four years.

In early 1933, he purchased a gun for $4 and on February 15 brought it to Bayfront Park in Miami, where Roosevelt was scheduled to appear that day. There, the five-foot-tall Zangara stood on top of a wooden chair and shot five people, none of whom was his intended target. Four of the wounded survived. Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, however, took a bullet to the chest and died on March 6. Two weeks after Cermak’s death, Zangara was executed at the state prison in Raiford. Had Cermak lived, Zangara would have spent at least 84 years in prison -- the sentence he had already received for trying to kill Roosevelt.

As he was being strapped into the chair, Guiseppe Zangara remained feisty and unrepentant. "Viva Italia!" he cried.
Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Push the button!
Sixty-two years after Zangara’s anti-capitalist tirade, the state of Oklahoma executed Thomas Grasso by lethal injection, punishment he received for killing two elderly women (one of whom he strangled with her own Christmas tree lights on Christmas Eve 1990). Grasso had been serving a 20-year sentence in New York for one of the murders; although Grasso was sentenced to die in Oklahoma for the murder of 87-year-old Hilda Johnson, New York Governor Mario Cuomo refused to send him back -- even though Grasso, by his own account, desperately wanted to die. When George Pataki campaigned for Cuomo’s job in 1994, he promised to help Grasso fulfill his wish. After his victory, Pataki made good on his vow. Upon his return to the lower plains, Grasso refused to appeal his sentence, and his death was quickly scheduled.

On 20 March 1995, Thomas Grasso sat down to his last meal -- a dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger, a can of spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake. Grasso’s last meal was more notable, however, for what it lacked. In his final statement, Grasso announced that “I did not get my Spaghetti Os -- I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this!"

In a separate written statement released to the press before his death, Grasso wrote that “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Almost no one recognized that Grasso’s statement came from “Little Gidding,” one of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quarters.



Monday, March 19, 2007

March 19

Rene-Robert Cavelier De La Salle was killed by a single bullet to the head three hundred and twenty years ago today at a spot about 70 miles northwest of what would later be the city of Houston. The French explorer was certainly not the last person to be murdered in Texas, but the circumstances of his passing were memorable nonetheless. Credited with exploring the Louisiana territory and establishing (and botching) the first French colony on the Gulf of Mexico, La Salle was an audacious but badly organized, manic depressive and ill-tempered leader who eventually drew the murderous animosity of his men during his final adventure. While searching for the Mississippi River La Salle’s nephew, Moranget, became embroiled in a dispute over bison meat with the expedition’s surgeon, a man named Pierre Duhaut; Moranget accused them of setting aside the best meat and saving the marrow bones for themselves. On the night of March 18 Duhaut -- enraged by the accusations from a man he already loathed -- plotted with four other accomplices and killed Moranget and two others with an axe while they were asleep.

The next day, when La Salle arrived at the scene of the crime with a Recollet priest, he was dispatched as well. As one of the conspirators explained later
We followed them a few paces along the river as far as the fatal spot where two of the assassins were hiding on either side in the grass with their guns cocked. The first one missed his mark, but the other fired at the same time and with that single shot hit Monsieur La Salle in the head; he died one hour later.
The murderers stripped La Salle’s body and left it behind as the rest of the party continued on toward their destination at Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois. Accounts vary as to the final disposition of La Salle's corpse. Some accounts insist that the dead explorer was buried by his friend, Father Anastase Douay, who was with him when he died. Others explain that he was left unburied to be eaten by wild animals. Regardless of the truth, La Salle's body was never recovered.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

March 16

Nineteen years ago today, the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja was struck by mustard, sarin and cyanide gas weapons during the last brutal months of the Iran-Iraq War -- already one of the most senseless conflicts in a century already brimming with them. The massacre lasted for two days, killing 5000 immediately and perhaps as many as 12,000 within a few weeks; birth defect and cancer rates subsequently accelerated in the region, as the effects of the massacre lingered.

At the time of the attack, Halabja was part of nearly 25,000 square miles of Iraqi territory that had been recovered in recent years by Kurdish insurgents, who had been locked in varying states of combat with the Baghdad government since the early 1960s. Beginning in spring 1987, seeking to tip the balance of the war, Saddam Hussein’s military forces renewed their campaign against the Kurds and focused their attention on towns and cities like Halabja, Kormal, and Dojeyleh that lay along the border with Iran. By this point in the war, Iranian fighters had spilled into Iraq and had taken shelter in the Kurdish areas, with whose residents they were allied. The Iraqi government was determined to root out the foreign fighters while collectively punishing the Kurds for their resistance.

Helicopters and planes -- many of the former manufactured in and sold by the United States -- began assaulting Hallabja on the morning of March 16 and continued through the 18th. The people of Halabja were thrown into a panic -- people wandered the streets, dazed and vomiting, collapsing by the thousands in their homes and as they tried to flee. When the attacks subsided, Iranian military forces escorted journalists and photographers through the human wreckage. David Hirt, writing in the London-based Guardian a week after the massacre, described the ghostly aftermath:
No wounds, no blood, no traces of explosions can be found on the bodies -- scores of men, women and children, livestock and pet animals -- that litter the flat-topped dwellings and crude earthen streets in this remote and neglected Kurdish town...

The skin of the bodies is strangely discolored, with their eyes open and staring where they have not disappeared into their sockets, a grayish slime oozing from their mouths and their fingers still grotesquely twisted.

Death seemingly caught them almost unawares in the midst of their household chores. They had just the strength, some of them, to make it to the doorways of their homes, only to collapse there a few feet beyond. Here a mother seems to clasp her children in a last embrace, there an old man shields an infant from he cannot have known what...
After the accounts and photographs of Halabjah were broadcast to the world, the events in Kurdistan were largely ignored by Western nations, including the United States. The Reagan administration in fact blocked efforts by the US Congress as well as the United Nations to investigate and/or condemn the chemical attacks. Instead, additional grain credits were extended to allow Saddam Hussein’s regime to continue its war against the Iranian theocracy.

By the end of the 1990s, Halabja was rarely mentioned in the American press and almost never by political leaders like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. By the summer of 2002, however, Bush administration officials had developed a certain fondness for the town’s name, invoking it as often as possible as the United State prepared for yet another war against Saddam Hussein. Three days before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, George W. Bush spoke in his radio address about the anniversary of the Halabja massacre:
Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive still suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory diseases, miscarriages, and severe birth defects among their children.
Much, of course, could be said for the rest of the country, which has been littered for four years now with depleted uranium from American weapons used to “disarm” Saddam Hussein.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

March 15

The middle of March, 44 BCE was not looking so good for Gaius Julius Caesar. Though he had recently been appointed dictator for life over Rome and was positively drowning in formal honors bestowed on him by the Senate, Caesar had reason for concern. Rumors abounded of plots against him, and a series of bizarre events foretold great unpleasantness to come. A bronze tablet, for instance, had recently been excavated from the tomb of Capys, founder of Capua, warning that its discovery would be followed by a terrible murder of great significance to the Roman people. More strangely, the herd of horses Caesar had brought with him across the Rubicon had suddenly refused to graze and were observed actually weeping in the fields. A soothsayer named Spurrina had also given warning to the dictator that peril was afoot, and on March 14 a king bird flew into the Hall of Pompey (named for Caesar’s vanquished foe) and was torn to pieces by various other birds in pursuit from a nearby grove. Finally, on the night before his death, both Caesar and his wife Calpurnia each experienced strange dreams -- Casear saw himself flying through the air, while Calpurnia dreamed of clutching her husband’s murdered body. During Calpurnia’s dream, the door of their bedroom suddenly flew open.

The following day, Caesar -- undeterred by the mountain of evidence that he was about to perish -- took to the forum on the invitation of numerous senators, who claimed to have a petition for him to examine. The first century Roman historian Seutonius explains what transpired:
As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber, who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something; and when Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders; then as Caesar cried, “Why, this is violence!” one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat. Caesar caught Casca’s arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, and finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down. And of so many wounds none turned out to be mortal, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, except the second one in the breast.
The common people of Rome rampaged through the streets after Caesar’s death, setting fires and seeking out the conspirators, whom they intended to destroy. The conspirators were spared, though few of them came to good ends. During the civil war that followed Caesar’s death, Brutus committed suicide and Cassius ordered his own freed slave to kill him.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

March 14

The liquidation of the Podgorze Ghetto in Krakow was completed on this date in 1943, marking the conclusion of a three-year project to render the Polish city the “cleanest” in the land. This racial cleansing was conceived by Hans Frank, who was appointed generalgouvenour after the German invasion of September 1939. Jews had been living in Krakow since the middle of the 13th century, when they were invited there by King Boleslav, who granted them unprecedented religious freedoms and guarantees of personal safety; during the following century, as European nations expelled their Jewish populations, many fled to Poland. By mid-March 1943, Nazi Germany had obliterated that 600-year history.

A deportation order issued in May 1940 dispersed tens of thousands of Jews into the suburbs, small towns and countryside; more were expelled later that fall, with the remaining numbers relocated from the historic Jewish quarter to a dilapidated, overcrowded ghetto in the district of Podgorze. In June and October 1942, the new ghetto was thinned as thousands were shipped to the nearby Belzec death camp, where nearly 450,000 Jews would eventually perish. During the second deportation, all the children from the orphanage were taken to the outskirts of town and shot along with their teachers and curators.

On 13 March 1943, Podgorze was sealed off and the last 6000 Jews were evacuated or shot. The “workers” from Ghetto A -- mostly men -- were transferred to Plaszow, a labor camp were workers were forced to exhume, cremate, and scatter the remains of previous victims from mass graves. The women, children and elderly of “Ghetto B” were cleared out on March 14 and embarked for Berkenau, where 1500 were immediately put to death in Krema II, the gas chamber that became operational that very day. After Podgorze was “cleansed,” Jewish prisoners were trucked in to collect the property left behind.

Among the survivors from Krakow was Roman Polanski, the film director whose wife Sharon Tate would eventually be murdered by the Manson family.



Tuesday, March 13, 2007

March 13

If he were still living, William Joseph Casey would be enjoying his 94th birthday. Head of the SEC under Nixon and the CIA under Ronald Reagan, Casey died of pneumonia -- abetted by a malignant brain tumor and prostate cancer -- in May 1987.

Wiliam Casey directed Ronald Reagan's election campaign in 1980 and was rewarded with the directorship of an agency whose reputation had taken a severe and well-earned pounding in the post-Watergate years. On matters of foreign policy, William Casey was devoted to the “Reagan Doctrine,” which called on the US to fund insurrections along the margins of the so-called “Communist world,” including Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. After the US Congress voted in 1984 to suspend all American financial assistance to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, officials in the CIA and on the National Security Council were furious, that elected officials dared to interfere with their global ideological struggle against the Red Menace in all its guises.

Rather than accept defeat graciously, they instead devised a plan to continue funding the war, first by recruiting South Korean, Saudi and South African financial assistance, then by diverting revenue to the Central American fighters -- revenue derived, as it turned out, from illegal arms sales to Iran. Although Chief of Staff James Baker had warned that such efforts might constitute “an impeachable offense,” Casey and the rest pressed forward in 1985 and 1986. Casey introduced Oliver North to various CIA assets in Central America, contacts that enabled North to organize the illegal financial transfers that were intended to bring millions of dollars into the Nicaraguan civil war. The project was bungled, however. In a beautiful twist of fate, the illegal covert operations were disclosed on the verge of Congressional approval of $100 million in aid to the contras.

Casey took ill in December 1986 and was dead by early May. At the time this seemed like a wise move, as the prime movers in the Iran-Contra scandal all appeared to be headed for lengthy prison terms; in retrospect, Casey might have put forth more of an effort to survive the beastly disease, since even the most deserving among the conspirators emerged without too many legal blemishes. Despite the pardons and vacated convictions and short prison terms that spared these men lasting indignity, history will not be nearly so kind to Casey and others who subverted the Constitution, funded terror, retained the services of drug traffickers, and helped prolong brutal conflicts that siphoned off tens of thousands of lives on two continents.



Monday, March 12, 2007

March 12

After the St. Francis Dam failed seventy-nine years ago today, William Mulholland -- the most famous water engineer in American history -- tearfully declared that “The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are dead.” There were hundreds of them -- some buried beneath 20 feet of mud and detritus in Santa Clara Valley, North of Los Angeles, others pushed into the Pacific Ocean. As more than 12 million gallons of water poured from the ruptured dam, the towns of Castaic Junction, Piru, Bardsdale, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy were overrun as the water coursed in a two-mile-wide stream, crushing its way 50 miles to the sea.

The dam, whose construction had begun four years earlier, seemed destined to equal the majesty of the Los Angeles Aqueduct -- Mulholland’s greatest triumph, which helped spur the rapid development of Southern California in ways that were ultimately disastrous for the region’s ecology. Before the project was completed, however, numerous cracks had begun to appear in the massive concrete wall, which towered 195 feet and held back nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water. Mulholland dismissed evidence of the dam’s weakness. When new faults appeared earlier in the day on March 12, the engineer personally inspected the site and declared it sound. Three minutes before midnight, the St. Francis dam failed catastrophically, breaking into several pieces and killing the damkeeper and his entire family before having its way with the test of the valley.

The Fillmore American -- based in one of the destroyed towns -- reported bitterly several days later:
Just as the ominous thirteenth of March, 1928, was being born, Death, mounted on a wave of swirling waters, seventy feet high, and beginning at a crumbling dam high up in San Francisquito canyon, rode in devastating wrath to the sea. Sweeping through the most fertile valley in the Southland. And in his wake he left death, and devastation, and ruin, where a short hour before his passing people slept in peace, security and happiness.

The story of the breaking dam has greeted your eyes from scores of newspapers pages before this one reaches you. How the big $2,500,000 dam, built on the insecure foundation of a great city's greed for what did not belong to it, crumbled as the result of faulty designing and hasty construction. Engineer [Carl] Grunsky was right. That great dam built in the center of the canyon, with light-flung wings to the soft earth sides of the mountains, was an ‘old woman's apron.' And the strings broke and the result was a hell of swirling waters that took life after life, until its fury was stayed in the waters of the sea.
The final death doll from the flood was never accurately surveyed, though the best contemporary estimates suggest as many as 600 may have perished. Some bodies washed up ashore in Mexico. Others were never found. The last known victim of the St. Francis flood was discovered in 1992 in Newhall.

Following the disaster, William Mulholland retired and secluded himself from public life until his death eight years later.

. . . via Phil in comments, there's this little slideshow about the disaster....



Friday, March 09, 2007

March 9

An innocent man was executed on this date in 1762. Jean Calas, an elderly French merchant, had been accused of hanging his son Marc Antoine -- allegedly as a consequence of the young man’s acceptance of Catholicism. The elder Calas, a Protestant living amid a sea of Catholics in Toulouse, discovered the body of his son hanging from a door in his home in mid-October 1761. As mother and father wept and waited for the police and doctors to arrive to claim the son’s body, their neighbors began to surmise that a murder had occurred and that Jean Calas had hanged his own son in a religious dispute.

Propelled along by innuendo and hysteria, the police captain of Toulouse arrested the entire Calas family and charged the father with the horrific crime. Calas’ son Pierre was banished from Toulouse, and his two daughters were dispatched to convents. The family’s property was confiscated, and his two daughters were dumped in a convent. A jury of thirteen convicted Jean Calas and sentenced him to be tortured on the rack and then burnt to a crisp; the sentence was executed on 9 March 1762.

Three years later, after Calas’ widow had drawn the sympathetic attention of Voltaire among others to her husband's case, a Parisian court exonerated Calas of the crime and declared his complete innocence. The court ordered the Toulouse court to reverse its verdict -- an order that was ignored in the town that condemned Jean Calas to die.


One hundred and thirty years later, three other innocent men were put to death by a mob in Memphis, Tennessee. There, between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on 9 March 1892, three black grocers -- Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart -- were taken from their jail cells and shot a mile north of the city limits, their bodies left in an open field where they were discovered the next morning. Several nights before their lynching, the three men had wounded several police deputies who raided their store unannounced; the People’s Grocery, as their business was called, posed an economic threat to local white grocers, who no longer enjoyed a racial monopoly in the segregated area of Memphis known as the Curve. The store had become a focal point of white resentment, and the police raid was a mere pretext for destroying its business.

Ida Wells Barnett, a young Memphis journalist and friend of Thomas Moss, wrote bitterly about the lynching and devoted the rest of her life to the cause of exposing the South’s “red record” of violence against blacks. A year after Moss, McDowell and Stewart were killed, Barnett wrote about their deaths and the absence of justice in Memphis:
"It was done by unknown men," said the jury, yet the Appeal Avalanche which goes to press at 3 a.m., had a two column account of the lynching. The papers also told how McDowell got hold of the guns of the mob and as his grasp could not be loosened, his hand was shattered with a pistol ball and all the lower part of his face was torn away. There were four pools of blood found and only three bodies. It was whispered that he, McDowell killed one of the lynchers with his gun, and it is well known that a police man who was seen on the street a few days previous to the lynching, died very suddenly the next day after. "It was done by unknown parties," said the jury, yet the papers told how Tom Moss begged for his life, for the sake of his wife, his little daughter and his unborn infant. They also told us that his last words were, "If you will kill us, turn our faces to the West."

. . . . Although these men were peaceable, law abiding citizens of this country, we are told there can be no punishment for their murderers nor indemnity for relatives. I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law which we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours; all had been destroyed in a night, and the barriers of the law had been down, and the guardians of the public peace and confidence scoffed into the shadows, and all authority given into the hands of the mob, and innocent men cut down as if they were brutes the first feeling was one dismay, then intense indignation.
After Moss, McDowell and Stewart were dead, a mob of whites descended on the store and helped themselves to cigars and wine. They rifled the cash register and made off with McDowell’s trunk. When they discovered that the trunk contained nothing more than grocer’s clothes, they dumped the contents on the storeroom floor.

The rest of the store’s inventory was auctioned off to a white grocer at one-eighth its actual value.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

March 8

One of the most ferocious massacres in North American history occurred on this date in 1782, as scores of Pennsylvania militiamen systematically clubbed to death 96 Munsee Indians near Gnadenhutten, Ohio. Like many frontier Indians during the American Revolution, the Delaware confederacy was divided -- some factions allied themselves with the British, while others mistakenly counted on the benign intentions of the colonists, hoping their friendship would be rewarded with security and recognition at war’s end. One segment of the Delaware confederacy was made up of Christian converts living under the guidance of Moravian missionaries in several villages along the Muskingum River. These Munsees were culturally assimilated -- they spoke English, dressed English, used English household goods, and practiced Christianity.

In fall 1781, English soldiers forced the Munsee from their homes and herded them into a poorly-supplied camp. They accused the Moravian missionaries of supplying intelligence to the Americans to the east. By February, however, many of the captives were determined to return to their villages to harvest the corn they had planted the previous season. Upon their return they were confronted by a group of 160 Pennsylvania militiamen, who -- unbeknownst to the Munsee -- had already killed and dismembered one their fellow tribesman not far from Gnadenhutten. One Indian witness to the killing was himself murdered in his canoe as he tried to escape; another succumbed to shock and was unable to warn the other villages of the approaching danger.

On 7 March, the militia arrived in Gnadenhutten and persuaded the Munsee to relocate closer to Pittsburgh. After disarming them, the Americans accused the Munsee of raiding frontier villages, killing American settlers, and absconding with their property. The fact that the Munsee were culturally assimilated actually hurt their cause -- the militia refused to believe they had acquired their English goods lawfully. The next morning, 96 captives were executed with coopers’ mallets; all the bodies were scalped, including one of two young boys who managed somehow to survive the massacre. Of the 96 killed that day, 39 were children. The militia followed up the massacre by burning Gnadenhutten to the ground.

Photo credit

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

March 7

Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old widow and mother born to a noble family in Carthage, is believed to have been martyred on this date in the year 203 along with her slave Felicitas and three other Revocatus, Saturus, and Saturninus. The five martyrs were catechumens -- Christian believers who had yet to receive baptism -- and were arrested during the rule of Emperor Septimus Severus, whose reign was no more or less hostile to Christians than his predecessors.

The martyrs were imprisoned for several days, during which time Perpetua’s father -- a pagan -- repeatedly visited his daughter and begged her to renounce her faith and spare her own life. According to Perpetua’s own account,
my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth, and I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother's sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught.

This he said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father's case because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: That shall be done at this tribunal, whatsoever God shall please; for know that we are not established in our own power, but in God's. And he went from me very sorrowful.
The catechumens were able to receive their baptism after two deacons, Tertullian and Pomponious, bribed the guards to admit them to see the prisoners. Perpetua was able to nurse her son; Felicitas, herself eight months pregnant, soon gave birth to a child of her own.

After their trial and inevitable sentence of death, Pertetua, Felicitas and their comrades were paraded before a hostile stadium crowd during the military games honoring the birthday of the Emperor’s son, Publius Septimus Geta. Subjected to beatings and taunts -- which, according to the only surviving account, they endured saintfully -- the five martyrs were attacked in succession by a leopard, a bear, a boar, and a “wild cow.” Wounded by the animals, Perpetua, Felicitas, and the rest shared a final embrace before their heads were lopped from their necks by swordsmen.



Tuesday, March 06, 2007

March 6

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, by which the US Supreme Court determined that Congress did not have the power to restrict slavery anywhere in those territories acquired after 1787. Issued in March 1857, the ruling denied Dred Scott the right to sue for his freedom in federal court.

Scott was an enslaved man from Missouri who had lived for several years in Illinois and the Wisconsin territory, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In denying Scott the opportunity to sue for freedom, the Court also ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. In the notorious majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney argued that blacks had never been intended to receive any federal rights “the white man was bound to respect,” and that it was inconceivable that blacks should ever have been intended by the Founders to enjoy equal citizenship. Such a status, he pointed out, would have endowed blacks with
the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.
Among other things, Taney explained, these rights would have produced “discontent and insubordination” among both slaves and free men, thus “endangering the peace and safety of the State.”

Eighteen months after the decision was rendered, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. The decision that bears his name, of course, became one of the decisive strokes in the background to the American Civil War, which would kill 600,000 people within the decade.


On the 125th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, Ayn Rand -- who surely would have approved of its fearless pronouncements on inequality -- died at the age of 77. The right-wing cult philosopher and high priestess of tedium somehow managed to sell millions of copies of her nearly unreadable novels from the 1950s onward, including paperweights such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. On 6 March 1974, following a speech to the Army cadets at West Point, Rand was asked about the dispossession of American Indian land. In short, she approved of the idea.
They didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using . . . . What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.
Eight years to the day after delivered this speech, Ayn Rand died.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

March 5

On this date in 1770, British redcoats from the 29th Regiment of Foot opened fire on a crowd of American colonists at the Old State House in Boston, killing five bystanders from a crowd that had been pelting the soldiers with snowballs, garbage, and chunks of ice. At their trial, the Redcoats were successfully defended by a lawyer named John Adams -- Adams would eventually serve one term as President of the United States.

Broadly speaking, the shootings represented perhaps the inevitable outcome of the hostility between many Bostonians and the British regulars quartered so controversially in their city since October 1768. Clashes between soldiers and local men were routine and had accelerated in the days before the encounter on March 5. In narrower terms, however, the so-called Boston Massacre originated in a dispute over a bill owed to a local wigmaker by an English officer; when the argument over the bill escalated and the wigmaker’s apprentice was beaten, a crowd of artisans and other workingmen responded by confronting a group of soldiers outside a government guilding. When a chunk of ice knocked Private Hugh Montgomery to the ground, he and his fellow soldiers opened fire on a group that Adams described as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”

Among the “motley rabble” were Crispus Attucks, an Afro-Indian who died of two shots to the chest; Samuel Gray, who took a bullet to the brain; James Caldwell, who died of two shots to the back; and Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr, both of whom died from their wounds several days after the attack.

In his famous “Boston Massacre Oration,” delivered on the fourth anniversary of the bloody deed, John Hancock urged his fellow colonists not to forget what happened on 5 March 1774. Speaking with typical revolutionary hyperbole, Hanckock thundered:
Let this sad tale of death never be told without a tear; let not the heaving bosom cease to burn with a manly indignation at the barbarous story, through the long tracts of future time; let every parent tell the shameful story to his listening children until tears of pity glisten in their eyes, and boiling passions shake their tender frames; and whilst the anniversary of that ill-fated night is kept a jubilee in the grim court of pandemonium, let all America join in one common prayer to heaven that the inhuman, unprovoked murders of the fifth of March, 1770, planned by Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston, and executed by the cruel hand of Preston and his sanguinary coadjutors, may ever stand in history without a parallel.
Without doubt, John Hancock would not have enjoyed the 20th century. One hundred and seventy years after the Boston Massacre, Joseph Stalin accepted a memo from Lavrenty Beria, head of Soviet intelligence, recommending the execution of 25,000 Polish prisoners of war being held at Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. The shootings were carried out beginning in April at the Katyn Forest, at two locations in Smolensk, as well as at prisons in Kalinin, Kharkiv, Moscow, and other Soviet cities. For the next half century, the Soviet Union denied that the mass executions had ever taken place.

Thirteen years after agreeing to what would become known as the Katyn Massacre, Joesph Stalin expired from a massive stroke on 5 March 1953. Most of his final day was spent alone on the floor of his dacha, where he lay partly paralyzed and unable to call for assistance, or to tell anyone that he had soiled himself. If he was not in fact poisoned -- as has sometimes been alleged -- he probably should have been.



Friday, March 02, 2007

March 2

The fascist regime of Francisco Franco executed Spanish anarchist Salvador Puig Antich on this date in 1974; he was garroted at Modelo Prison in Barcelona, having been convicted in the death of a policeman the previous September. He was one of two people executed by garrote that day, the last to be killed by such abominable means in Spain’s history.

Antich had been a member of the Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación, a group comprised of Spanish and French anarchists that battled the Franco government with increasingly violent results. To support their activities -- which included offering support to striking workers -- MIL conducted a series of bank robberies, for which Antich served as a driver. After an August 1973 heist at the Savings and Pension Bank of Barcelona, several of Antich’s comrades were arrested and tortured into naming their co-conspirators. On 25 September 1973, a young police officer was shot and killed -- probably by one of his own men -- during a raid that netted Antich and Xaviuer Garriga, also a member of MIL. After a farcical trial, Antich was sentenced to die; in spite of protests across the country and the rest of the continent, the 25-year-old was strapped to a chair thirty-three years ago and strangled by a ligature tightened from behind by his executioner.


Thirty years later, rockets, mortars and suicide bombers in the Iraqi cities of Kerbala and Baghdad killed nearly 200 people in a coordinated series of attacks that coincided with the Shi’a celebration of Ashoura. The most important of the Shi’a holy days, Ashoura had been banned under the rule of Saddam Hussein -- this was to be the first celebration in years to occur without fear of suppression. In Kerbala, a witness described the scene to a British reporter:
"Suddenly there was a huge fire in the street," he said. "I passed out. When I came round I saw dead people all around - so many dead people.

"I saw pieces of flesh everywhere, and heard screaming. When the ambulance came I just jumped in."
Meanwhile in the Pakistani city of Quetta, three gunmen opened fire on a crowd of Shi’a during its procession through the city’s Liaquat Bazaar. Dozens were killed immediately; the infuriated crowd quickly turned on the shooters, who blew themselves up -- along with dozens more -- with explosive belts strapped to their torsos.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

March 1

Today is the 445th anniversary of the Vassy Massacre, which launched 36 years of nearly uninterrupted religious war between French Protestants and French Catholics. When Henri II died in 1559, a struggle for power ensued between the House of Guise -- who fancied themselves defenders of the Catholic faith -- and the House of Montmorency as well as the Bourbon princes, both of whom were for the most part Protestant worshippers. In January 1562 Catherine de Medici, wife of the deceased Henri II and regent for her son, the young King Charles IX, issued the Edict of Saint-Germain that allowed Protestants the limited freedom to worship in open air so long as they did so outside town limits. This sort of “toleration” did not sit well with the Huguenots, who continued to pursue their faith indoors and in their towns, disregarding the restrictions set in place by the regent.

When Francois de Lorraine, the second Duke of Guise, traveled to the town of Vassy on Sunday, March 1, 1562, he and his armed retainers happened upon a barn filled with Protestants, six or seven hundred in all. When the Duke’s followers attempted to disrupt the service, the Duke himself was struck by a rock hurled by one of the Huguenots. Opening fire on the assembled crowd, the retainers managed to kill at least sixty people. The Duke himself would be killed the following year, assassinated prior to his forces’ assault on the town of Orleans.

One hundred and thirty years after the Vassy Massacre, magistrates John Hathorn and Jonathan Corwin examined several women accused of being witches in the Massachusetts town of Salem. After physical examinations of Sarah Osborn, Sarah Good and the slave Tituba failed to produce evidence of “witches’ teats” -- extra nipples used to suckle demons -- the magistrates questioned the women directly, accusing them of “afflicting” several young girls with fits. Court transcripts of Good’s interrogation described her as a combative witness who denied causing the girls any harm. The magistrates were unimpressed:
shee was not willing to mention the word God[.] her answers were in a very wicked, spitfull manner reflecting and retorting aganst the authority with base and abusive words and many lies . . .
It was noted, moreover, that Good was unable to recite a psalm -- clear evidence that she held consort with unholy spirits.

The fates of Good and Osborn were sealed, perhaps, with the testimony of Tituba, which was also conducted on 1 March 1692. During questioning, the West Indian slave alleged that she had been visited by a pig or a dog who had “bid her sarve” the Devil; when she refused, she was visited by a yellow bird and two cats who also commanded Tituba to do Satan's bidding. The animals instructed Tituba to “pinch the children,” which she subsequently did by sending a cat to perform the deed. Tituba also explained to the magistrates that she had flown about on a “poall” with Osborn and Good and that she had seen a creature with wings and two legs disappear into Osborn’s cloak. This “short and hary thing,” in fact, was often seen with Osborn, according to the testimony.

Sarah Good was executed on July 19 along with Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, and Elizabeth How. Sarah Osborn died in prison on May 10. Tituba, who avoided punishment by confessing to witchcraft, later recanted her confession and spent 13 months in jail before she was purchased for seven pounds. Of the rest of her life, nothing is known.