The early mornings of Italy are often crisp. The residents in the area around the then small city of Bergamo as usual knew as they lay in their beds that they would awake feeling less than refreshed. Bergamo situated in northern Italy is situated approximately 40 kilometres from Milan, in Lombardy. Now a thriving city which became one of the most industrialised areas in Italy during the twentieth century, in 1867 Bergamo was like many settlements in the still newly founded Kingdom of Italy beset by both urban and rural poverty. One of the most common ailments suffered by the residents of the area other than low paying and precarious employment was pellagra. Now a largely forgotten malady, pellagra was endemic in Italy in the late nineteenth century and led directly to the death of thousands. Caused by a vitamin deficiency and common amongst the urban and rural poor, for whom maize was a stable of their limited diet, this sickness of the poor could cause long term debilitation and eventual death. Like many residents in the small farming village of Bottanuco on the outskirts of the province of Bergamo, Marianna Verzeni was stricken with mild pellagra and had been in bed for a few days to try and recover from it. The twelve year old was small for her age, and her recent bout of sickness had weakened her. As she lay in the pre-dawn darkness of her small room she found that she was gasping for breath. Stricken with terror, she felt strong hands on her throat as her eyes probed the pitch darkness of the room desperate to see her assailant. Struggling against whoever was seeking to crush the life from her, she struck out, hoping to strike the unseen form in its stomach. The grip of the assailant loosened, and Marianna screamed a long anguished, near hysterical cry, that in all likelihood saved her life.
As the screams of Marianna rang through the small farmhouse at around in the early morning gloom, the attacker quickly released his grip and ran from her bedroom. Hearing the screams of the child from her room upstairs, her aunt, Teresa Innocenti quickly roused herself from her sleep, and raced through the small house towards the stairs. As she raced towards the rickety stairs, she saw Marianna’s cousin, Vincenzo on the stairs. He claimed to be heading upstairs to attend to his young cousin, but Teresa was almost sure he was heading down not up. Putting aside her suspicions Teresa passed the then eighteen year old Vincenzo on the stairs, and sped towards the bedroom of the distraught young girl.
Vincenzo Verzeni is little remembered today, and there are scant writings concerning him, and no detailed accounts in English. Before Jack the Ripper began to terrorise Whitehall in London, Verzeni had left a trail of victims of his brutality in and around Bottanuco and is considered by many to be the first serial killer in Italian history. Only a few pages in Italian language books and websites have detailed the brutal and bloody egregious acts enacted by Verzeni, and many contain a variety of conflicting information. There are claims that Verzeni took his own life after leaving a trail of up to twenty victims in his wake, but these claims are provably false. Serial killers are considered to be a distinctly modern phenomenon, but as Verzeni illustrates gruesome and murderous instincts are as old as humanity itself. It is arguably high time that the background and crimes of Verzeni were considered in detail and made accessible to English language readers. By examining his darkness, we may hopefully shed light on or own fractured and brutal age.
Eighteen years prior to the attack on Marianna, her cousin Vincenzo Verzeni was born in Bottanuco during 1849. A year prior to his birth in 1848 Italy had been plunged into revolution. In nearby Milan, revolutionary ardour forced the withdrawal of over twenty thousand Austrian troops, and Sicily and Naples erupted in full-fledged revolt, and by the time of his birth much of Italy had still not resolved from the state of chaos that had been unleashed. For this reason finding records of the birth of Verzeni are significantly problematic. Thankfully despite Verzenis’ parent being peasants the birth was registered in the local parish, and indicates that he was born on 11 April 1849. Details of his family life and relatives are less well defined and recorded however. What can be established about the childhood of Verzeni can be obtained thanks to interviews that were conducted by the Italian psychiatrist, whose work arguably laid the foundations of modern criminology, Cesare Lombroso with Verzeni following the arrest of the latter. According to the accounts that were subsequently published regarding their interview, Vincenzo was not born into a life of either financial or domestic security. By all accounts, Verzeni was born into the peasantry and his parents faced the same privations as many of their peers. In the nineteenth century, Italian peasants faced chronic deprivation which was typically characterised by inadequate housing and widespread disease. This was further compounded by indebtedness to absentee landlords and crippling levels of taxation. Further misery was heaped on them in 1845 by the price of stable foods such as maize and grains increasing sharply in Lombardy and other regions thanks to the majority being purchased by foreign buyers, particularly the British. One reaction to such circumstances was the revolutionary activity that preceded the birth of Verzeni. Another common reaction was alcoholism, and it was this that according to all accounts, Verzenis’ father was to fall victim too, becoming a violent and abusive drunk. Further compounding the family difficulties was the health of Verzenis’ mother who suffered from severe epilepsy in an age where neurology was little understood, and epilepsy carried with it the stigma of lunacy. Years before the introduction of bromide as even a basic treatment option, one of most vivid childhood memories imparted to Verzeni to Lombroso is his recollection of his mother frequently falling to the floor of the small family home as if she was dead. It is not known how many siblings, Verzeni had, and indeed how many survived childhood, but continuing to exist in the rural, although hardly bucolic surroundings of Bottanuco with a violently unpredictable drunken father and a severely ill mother can hardly have provided Verzeni with the security and support so vital in relation to childhood development.
During his trial, the mayor of Bottanuco testified to the taciturn and solitary nature of Verzeni, which was also confirmed by the deputy major, Giuseppe Locatelli who knew the family well, and described Vincenzo as possessing a gloomy and solitary nature. This however was disputed by the testimony of the village schoolteacher, Luigi Ravasio who described Verzeni as neither strange nor exceptional. According to the testimony of the school teacher, Verzeni attended the small village school between the ages of six and ten, and although he was represented in the popular press as having been beaten regularly by his father, the teacher denied ever seeing any physical manifestation. Ravasio did indicate that the young boy limped owing to a job he had outside of his education which involved collecting dung (presumably to be used as a cheap fuel source) in a large basket. Indeed as was later revealed in the trial, this limp became so pronounced during Verzeni’s life that he was exempted from military service.
Contemporary accounts that were published in the Italian media of the period indicate that Verzeni was a subdued and solitary child (thanks in no small part from testimony of the political elite of Bottanuco), which given the background and poverty of his family circumstances could hardly be considered a surprise. His ability to develop interpersonal skills became more pronounced as he grew older, and the suppressed rage began to find an expression. In a series of prison interviews that were later discussed by Lombroso in his work, Verzeni e Agnoletti published in 1874 (Annali universali di medicina, Aprile-Maggio 1874, vol. 228, pp. 3-29), Verzeni details how the isolated and socially awkward youngsters thoughts gradually became more homicidal as he aged. Verzeni details how as he reached puberty, from around the age of twelve he found sexual gratification in the act of slaughtering chickens on the small family holding. The only known photograph of Verzeni, badly damaged, smudged, and obscured over the years, shows a diminutive child, posed in an affectation of a mature pose, within whom dark and dangerous thoughts and deeds were beginning to find expression. These deeds included achieving orgasm through the strangulation of fowl on the family farm, and Lombroso alludes to post mortem bestiality also being enacted during this period, in his work Delitti di Libidine (Second ed., Archives of Psychiatry, Criminal Sciences and Criminal Anthropology, Fratelli Bocca editori, 1886).
The then mysterious attack against the sickly Marianna which occurred when Verzeni was eighteen was the not the last in the area around Bottanuco. In December of 1869, the assailant struck again. A twenty five year old farmer by the name of Barbara Bravi had risen early as farmers are loath to do. By 4.am she was on the small rural road that led from the village of Cerro to the parish church located in Bottanuco. Shortly after leaving her farm and walking in the wintry chill, Barbara was approached on the road by a stranger who ambled towards her, his head down, and obscured. As he passed her, the stranger quickly wrapped an arm around Barbara’s neck and went to drag her from the road towards the undergrowth. Initially, Barbara assumed it was an ill-considered prank by one of her acquaintances, but her initial levity soon turned to panic as the assailant began to tighten his grip, and become more fervent in seeking to drag her from the relative safety of the secluded country road. Like Marianna before her, Barbara fought back as best she could against her attacker, screaming loudly as the arm crushed against her windpipe. Her screams punctured the silence of the countryside, and her still unseen attacker fled into the darkness of the early morning,
Two attacks against young women in and around Bottanuco, had begun to unsettle the local population. Unfortunately, worse events were to follow. On the same morning as the attack against Barbara Brevi, and on the same stretch of isolated country road, another attack was to occur against another solitary female traveller. Margherita Esposito was a local woman from Cerro who like Brevi was travelling to the parish church. Although it is not recorded how old Margherita was, what is known is she was pious. As revealed later during the trial of Verzeni, Margherita was reciting a pater noster as she walked down the road in the still pre-dawn darkness and wore a string of coral rosary beads around her neck. For deprived peasants in rural Italy, such an item would have been expensive and an attractive target for thieves. In a pattern that had only just transpired less than an hour before, Margherita was approached by a stranger on the road. Unlike with Barbara his head was held high, affording her a good look which she would rely upon to make her later identification. As he neared her, the young moustachioed man with his intense glare grabbed Margherita by the throat. To her surprise rather than attempting to snatch her expensive rosary, his fingers closed sharply around her neck. Although Margherita was a pious woman, she was also possessed of a strong temper, and it was this that she unleashed on the attacker. She grabbed the young man by the shirt, and with her free hand sharply punched him in the face, wounding his lower lip. As the assailant loosened his grip, Margherita screamed, and the attacker again fled into the darkness of the countryside. As dawn broke on the December morning, flooding the countryside with light, two young women had been traumatized within mere moments of each other. Although neither of the victims was seriously wounded, the traumatizing attacks had occurred with a few miles of each other. For now at least, during the bright light of day, the attacks had ceased. This cessation however was only to prove temporary respite to the citizens of Bottanuco and the surrounding small settlements.
A few days following the attacks against Margherita Esposito and Barbara Bravi, a local twelve year old girl, Angela Previtali was making her way through the fields near Bottanuco to get to the local school. As she crossed the course Spartan winter fields, she encountered Verzeni who had been hiding in the hedge rows. As the youngster drew near at seven in the morning, Verzeni sprang from his hiding place, and grabbed the terrified child by her wrists, seeking to drag her to a nearby empty cattle shed and away from the route familiar to the sons and daughters of local farmers on their way to school. According to the accounts later published regarding this attack, Angela responded with tears, and imploring prayers that caused Verzeni to cease his assault. Rather than being moved by sympathy for the plight of his would be victim, it is probable that Verzeni was disturbed by the unexpected noise that Angela was making, and rather than risking discovery by other passing school children or their parents, behaved in the same manner he had in all his other assaults, and turned and fled.
His attacks escalating over a very rapid period of time, Verzeni was to strike again on 8 December 1869, and this time even the most naïve writer could not accuse him of demonstrating anything in the way of sympathy. Verzeni struck again in an isolated location in the early morning hours. That fateful morning, the fourteen year old, Giovanna Motta had set out from Bottanuco to the nearby small town of Suisio. Giovanna like many girls of her age and background had for a number of years been working as a maid in Bottanuco, in the home of Giovanni Ravisio (who may well have been related to the one time school teacher of Verzeni) and Elisabetta Secchi. One of the richer couples in the village, the couple had given the young maid permission to leave their house and her duties for the day, and pay a fleeting visit to her family that lived in Suisio. The house that Giovanna worked in was nearby that of Verzeni and he had often observed her working in the nearby fields. As she began her walk in the early morning to her parents’ home, she may have observed the strange young man that lived next door, but she probably gave it little thought. Giovanna was never to make it back to visit her relatives in Suisio.
As night closed in on Bottanuco, Giovanni and Elisabetta grew concerned. They had given their maid a day off to visit her family home, but it seemed like she had decided that she would take a longer absence. Upset that their previously reliable maid had decided to punish their generosity the couple retired to bed. The following morning, Giovanna had still not returned. Nor had she appeared the next day. The concerns of the couple only increased when a representative from the Motta family appeared looking both harried and forlorn on their doorstep and reported that the young maid had not returned to their home. Panic rising and knowing of the attacks that had preceded the disappearance of Giovanna, a search of the local area was soon underway.
On the morning of 8 December, a local farmer unearthed a gruesome discovery. In the hollow of a mulberry tree that stood on his land, he discovered what looked at first glance to be the result of an animal attack, a looping pool of intestines, and internal organs. Inured to the harshness of the natural world, the farmer thought nothing of it and continued with his daily tasks. The ragged body of Giovanna was found the following day following a brief search. She was found in the same open fronted cattle shed, had previously attempted to drag Angela Previtali towards. Naked, the young maid was brutally disfigured by the savage wounds that had been inflicted upon her. Her intestines had been removed, and her calf cut away from her right leg. Her lifeless mouth had been stuff with rich earth of Bottanuco. Giovannas’ clothing was found, folded neatly and secreted beneath a pile of maize stalks on a nearby farm, apart her handkerchief that fluttered pathetically in the snow nearby. On a rock near her lifeless corpse, the hairpins that Giovanna had arranged in a fan like pattern in her thick black hair were arranged in the same pattern, laid out mockingly by her attacker.
The recent attacks in the area that had escalated to the gruesome death of Giovanna, sent shockwaves through the small rural community and panic was widespread. Local authorities were as panicked as the general populace, and an alert was raised for the nearby city of Bergamo, that was just beginning its ascent to one of the most industrialised areas in Northern Italy, and had a police force to match. Representatives from the carabinieri quickly flooded the area, moving swiftly to seek to apprehend the brutal attacker. In the small town of Suisio, they thought they had found there man, in the figure of Abramo Esposito (it is not known if he was related to Margherita, the fiery young woman who had injured her attacker, but this certainly seems credible given the limited population of the area). A builder by trade, and a recent arrival in the small town he was arrested by the carabinieri on 18 December, only days after the brutal murder been committed. Although he had an alibi, he was clearly a suspicious character at least in the eyes of the regional police. In addition to being a recent arrival in the area, Eposito had the misfortune to come from Southern Italy. In the eyes of the local police, and residents, the very fact he was almost a foreigner was cause enough for suspicion and arrest. Esposito had to endure a few months in the Bergamo jail, until his alibi was finally confirmed and he was released on March 2, 1871, by a judgement handed down by the Council Chamber of the Court of Bergamo. With the release of the unlucky builder, the memory of the hideous crime of which he had been accused, and the anxiety that a dangerous and predatory killer lurked in their midst lingered in the small community of Bottanuco.
A month after the release of Esposito, another attack occurred in Bottanuco that made the panic rise anew. On the morning of 10 April 1871, a young woman by the name of Maria Galli was walking in the field near her home in Suisius. Galli was walking back from attending church in the nearby small town of Solza. As she walked slowly across the fields, she noticed a young man walking towards her. She was later to identify the man that approached her as Verzeni, but on that fateful morning, Galli was to enjoy what was to be a lucky escape. As he approached her, Verzeni snatched a red scarf Galli was wearing on her head to protect her from the beating heat of the Lombardy sun. According to her later account, Galli first assumed it was a prank of some kind, and challenged Verzeni to return her scarf. The protestations of the young woman had attracted the attentions of other people wandering the sparsely populated route on their way home from church, and seeing them approach, Verzeni chose to flee, clutching the scarf rather than attack another victim.
The spring of1871 turned to summer, and the roads around Bottanuco remained quiet. Villagers remained wary, but slowly it seemed as if normality was finally returning to the area, and the recent spate of attacks against solitary women and girls had ceased. Sadly for the residents in the Bergamo area, this was not to be the case. Many solitary travellers had changed their routines avoiding travelling in the dark to avoid the undue attentions of whoever was still at large and responsible for the savagery unleashed on Giovanna Motta. One such traveller was the local nineteen year old, Maria Previtali. Like Giovanna, Maria was walking along the road from Bottanuco to Suisio, however she had decided to travel when the sun was at its highest apex, and endure the midday heat. As she walked along the familiar route, she was surprised to see the familiar loping gait of her cousin, Vincenzo approaching her from further down the road. Unconcerned now that she saw the male figure approaching was Verzeni not an attacker, Maria relaxed and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Unfortunately, Marias’ relief was to be misplaced. Upon nearing Maria on the road, Verzeni rushed at her, and grabbed her savagely before dragging her into a nearby field. Amidst the stubble of harvested crops, Maria’s cousin savagely threw her to the ground, lifting her skirts, and pinning her to the ground by the throat. The air was soon rended with the screams of Maria. As her screams of terror and fear filled the air, Verzeni stood aside from her prostrate form. At his temporary departure, Maria quickly scrambled to her feet and went to flee. As she turned, Verzeni again grabbed her by the throat. Maria screamed again, and again her would be assailant released his hold, and strangely stayed in place as she fled panic stricken across the desolate field from the savagery of her distant cousin.
On 27 August, the twenty-eight-year-old Elisabetta Pagnoncelli (also known by her marital surname of Frigeni) set out from home to deliver some chickens to a neighbouring farm. What should have been a simple and quick morning trip, extended throughout the course of the day, and as the hours passed her husband grew increasingly worried. He was right to be. As the morning turned to the afternoon, a search party headed by Elisabetta’s anxious husband, Anteo Frigeni, was launched. Her body was found in a nearby municipal field. It had been stripped naked, and Elisabetta had been strangled. Worse still, she had been crudely eviscerated with a nearby sickle, and several hairpins had been jammed into her body. The savagery of the assault and the existence of hairpins at the scene, only served to remind the distraught crowd and the later investigators of the murder of Giovanna Motta.
The discovery of another corpse and the escalating pattern of attacks against local woman, finally prompted action from the local police force. Suspicion first fell upon a brick layer from Suisio, a small village some 14km from Bergamo, by the name of Abramo Esposito. The reason for the arrest of Esposito were spurious at best, and mostly seem to be that as suggested by his surname he came originally from Southern Europe, and the assumption by the local populace and police, is that such savagery could only have been unleashed by a stranger. And a stranger from the supposedly volatile and easy to anger South was as good as any. Thankfully for Esposito he had a solid and unequivocal alibi, which was thoroughly checked by the local police. So thoroughly in fact that the innocent Esposito spent several months languishing in an Italian jail before his eventual release (subsequently described as ‘immediate’ during the trial of the actual killer). Police were again at a loss as to the identity of the killer, and following the release of the hapless Esposito, they turned their attentions to a Bergamo native by the name of Luigi Cornerio. The evidence against Cornerio was even more scant than that against Esposito, and could be reduced to the fact that he made a suggestive pass at Elisabetta which was rebuked. Even for a desperate police force, an Italian man attempting infidelity with an attractive neighbour was too much of a legal stretch, and they found themselves bereft of a supposedly viable suspect in the string of savage attacks and murders that had occurred in the environs of Bergamo.
With no viable suspects and no seeming possible lines of enquiry to follow, the public and local police investigators began to grow increasingly resigned and resentful. In such an environment, gossip began to become a credible source of information, and could provide leads that were lacking. And one name kept cropping up, that of the local youth, Vincenzo Verzeni. Witnesses began to emerge that had seen Verzeni in the same locales as some of the attacks, and survivors could accurately describe him for the most part. Most damning perhaps was the testimony of two local women Rosa and Carolina Previtali who claimed to have seen Verzeni at the cattle shed where Giovanna Motta had been later that very same morning been so brutally murdered. Additional testimony came from Giovanni Bravi (possibly a relative of Barbara Bravi) who would claim to have spotted Verzeni on Sunday 27 August close to the field where Elisabetta was to meet her unfortunate, savage, and untimely end. Although some of the testimony and claims were perhaps somewhat suspect, for the local police they were certainly more definitive than the supposed evidence against Esposito and Cornerio, and on the morning of 10 January 1872 at the family home, prior to his transfer the following morning to the Sant Agata prison in Bergamo to await his trial.
The trial of Verzeni was as could perhaps be predicted a major event for both the local press and community. It was also to prove a contentious affair for nascent criminologists and witnesses alike. Although the testimony of the supposed witnesses was purely circumstantial, it was for the most part accepted by the jury when the trial of Verzeni finally commenced on 26 March 1873 at the Court of Assizes in Bergamo (it was to conclude ten days later on 9 April 1873). Verzeni faced three charges, namely the attempted murder of his cousin Marianna and the murders of Giovanni Motta and Elisabetta Pagnoncelli. As well as facing the charges he also faced Cesare Lombroso. The expectation of the period is that the figure of Verzeni would resemble that of a monster. As revealed by Claire Valier (Theories of Crime and Punishment, Longman, 2001, Pg. 15) in her discussion of Patrizia Guarnieris’ essay ‘Alienists on Trial’ (Alienists on Trial: Conflict and Convergence between Psychiatry and Law (1876–1913), Patrizia Guarnieri, History of Science, Vol 29, Issue 4, pp. 393 – 410, 1991) this expectation unsurprisingly to prove false. As detailed by Guarnieri in her description of the trial: “Who would have guessed to look at him that this was the ‘hyena’, the ‘monster’? Professor Cesare Lombroso, however sought for and naturally found that there was something abnormal, though barely evident in the physique of Vincenzo Verzeni. First of all he was to demand that the defendant’s head be entirely shaved, after which his knowledgeable fingers would have felt it all over; measured the distance from certain points to others… comparing the resulting data with averages and percentages for criminals, normal persons, and the insane”. Lombroso was to conclude contentiously with a “diagnosis, which implied that Verzeni could not be held responsible for his crimes” a clinical judgement that was not only out of pace with justifiable public rage and disgust, and “held up to ridicule by the Public Prosecutor and given scant consideration by the judges”. Originally sentenced to death, Verzeni soon found himself languishing back in the harsh and unforgiving environs of the Santa Agata prison.
Following the sensation of the trial, and the hardly surprising verdict, Verzeni was to appeal the decision still decrying his innocence. A juror was to believe that indeed his guilt may be in question, and the Court of Appeal in Brescia was to reduce the sentence of Verzeni to one of forced labour for life, loss of civil and political rights, as well as the payment of court costs and compensation for families of his victims. This too was later to be overturned on 20 January 1890 when the court reduced his sentence to thirty years with a commutation of the forced labour aspect of his sentence.
As for Verzeni and his conduct within the prison environment, a number of accounts related to him report that he committed suicide rather than face the decades that stretched ahead of him. It is certainly true that Verzeni was in a delicate enough psychological state to be transferred to the Pia Casa della Senavra on 13 April 1872, which was the first secure asylum established in Milan which opened its doors as of 1781. It was within the walls of the asylum that Verzeni was subsequently attempt to hang himself as of 23 July 1874, which is the ignominious ending to his history that most writers record. Unfortunately historical fact does not wrap things up so neatly. Indeed it is highly probably that it was within the walls of the Pia Casa della Senavra that Verzeni continued his interviews with Lombroso. Sentenced, convicted, and now interred in an asylum, Verzeni had no need to attempt denial of his heinous crimes, to revel in his own sadism, and was to reveal to Lombroso that, ““I killed those women and tried to strangle the others because I felt a great pleasure in that act. The scratches that were found on the thighs were not produced with nails but with teeth, because after choking them, I bit them and I sucked the blood that was flowing, which I enjoyed very much”. The man who would later come to be known by the tabloid title of the vampire of Bergamo had finally confessed to the depravity of his crimes years after his arrest.
Following his suicide attempt, Verzeni was transferred from the asylum of Pia Casa della Senavra to the Civitavecchia prison located some sixty kilometres from Rome. And here he was to remain until his release in 1902 some twenty two years after his conviction, and presumably with a reduction in sentence owing to his behaviour when in the confines of the prison environment. The Bergamo newspapers were quick to respond to the imminent release of Verzeni and the local L’ Eco di Bergamo reported that a special commission had been called and that Verzeni would for the first five years of his release spend his time under compulsory house arrest. The location for such was the family home he had once tried to strangle his young cousin Marianna within situated in Bottanuco. Here, Verzeni was to spend the next sixteen years of his life as an outcast until his death of natural causes (rather than the suicide reported by many) on 31 December 1918 (as shown by the death certificate uncovered in the comune archives of Bottanuco by Italian researcher, Tania Moscaitoli and presented in her detailed and thorough thesis in 2008 (Analisi di un Serial Killer: Profilo psicologico di Vincenzo Verzeni, il vampiro della bergamasca, Universite Europeenne Jean Monnet, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2008).
Following his death in 1918, the body of Verzeni was transferred to Rome and mummified where it was originally displayed in the Museo Criminologico. In the years since his death, the mortal remains of Verzeni have been widely travelled throughout Italy. They now form a macabre centre piece to the collection of criminologist, collector, and artist, Roberto Paparella and his Criminological Museum situated in the town of Casale Monferrato.
Whether it was childhood abuse, mental illness, sexual dysfunction, or a host of other factors, that prompted Verzeni to begin his murderous rampage will never be known. Determining the motivations of psychopaths even with a host of evidence and psychiatric evaluations can present challenges for even the most skilled modern investigator. Peeling back the layers of history to examine such motivations is arguably an exercise in futility. Verzeni however serves as a dark reminder that the past was just as brutish and venal as our own dangerous age, and that danger has always lurked in even the most seemingly bucolic surroundings. Given the fact that Verzeni was the first reported serial killer within Italy and murdered his unfortunate victims in such a brutal manner, indeed akin to the still mysterious figure of Jack the Ripper, it is also perhaps a surprise that he is not better known beyond his native shores. His actions arguably should serve as a historical reminder, and a grim warning regardless of locale.
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So, taking a quick break from historical oddities and such, I have, as the title suggest have some good news and bad news sort of situations to report. The good news is that my first book has now been published by the lovely people at McFarland and is available from all good retailers. If you want to buy from Amazon could be a bit of a problem as they seem to have understocked, which is sort of hilarious really…
The bad news that I have to disclose is sadly very bad. In July this year after getting mired in my second tome and the day job (hence the staggering lack of updates on this site) I went to the hospital emergency department with what I thought was a bad case of IBS which required medicinal strength flushing. Sadly, my initial self-diagnosis was, to put it mildly, slightly off. Within three days I was vomiting faecal matter (I really don’t recommend that by the way) and being ushered at speed into emergency surgery to remove about three foot of blocked bowel. This left me with a fetching scar, and also a new ileostomy. And thus began the great adventure of shitting in a bag at 42, the only upside of which is that I don’t actually have to move anywhere if I get diarrhoea.
Now you would have thought that for most people, this would have been enough. I am however, nothing if not special. Following the operation and my introduction to crapping from the front and not from the back, I was bought in for another appointment, where it was revealed none too gently that I have Stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer. Now this is something that is meant usually to happen to out of shape, eighty-year olds that eat too much red meat, no people half their age, who are reasonably healthy and have been lifelong vegetarians. Like I say, I get all the luck. Anyone who reads my twitter will now how well my treatment has been going and why I don’t like my oncologist very much, but let’s say it has not been a particularly fun experience and leave it at that for now.
As part of treating bowel cancer they have to administer chemotherapy. One of the interesting things about the chemo that they use is that the patent extends all the way back to the nineteen fifties, which just shows how much effort has gone into researching bowel cancer lately. Rock and roll era chemicals aside, what happens with normal people who are in the same position I am in is that a device called a central catheter is inserted. In most cases they use something called a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) which is a tiny wire that runs the length of the upper arm, coils around and ends about 1.5 cm from the heart. It’s one of the few surgical procedures that can be performed as an outpatient by a nurse and typically takes two hours. Once it is in they send you home with a pump and the several bags of chemo drugs that take about fifty hours to go through the body.
Now this is where me being a bit special comes in. When I went to get my PICC line. I bled. Copiously. For ten hours. Eventually I got bored of bleeding so much and after much debate made them take the PICC line out and went home, feeling a bit wobbly but a far less bloody. After a weekend of wandering what was up with me, I got an emergency call from the hospital telling me check into a ward. Now for being of my age and demographics to get bowel cancer is weird but I am very weird, so I decided to get a side effect called DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation). As well as being a hilarious acronym that allows me to mention all the trouble my DIC causes, its common during pregnancy, when people have sepsis, and sometimes happens as a side effect of breast cancers. When it comes to bowel cancer though, literally 0.1% of 0.1% of people get it. DIC effectively means that my blood clots internally, but if I bleed externally, I effectively can bleed indefinitely. The way to address it is blood transfusions, and the way to treat it is to nuke the cancer that causes it. What is useful is that depending what the bloods are doing, I can see how the underlying cancer is doing. It’s like a massively useful metric of infection. Which if it goes awry can cause my liver to explode or similar. See; special. As a result of that wonderful state of affairs, I now have to have chemotherapy as an inpatient, which is a bit of pain, but considerably less painful than a blood clot ending up in my brain, or aforementioned organ explosions.
Anyway I started this personal post (which I am not a massive fan of) by saying this was good news, bad news kind of thing. The bad news is I that I have cancer, with fun and surprisingly useful side effects, but there is an upside to that too weirdly enough. I am having to close the company I have been building tooth and nail after six years. That’s left a number of people without jobs, but I can’t feel too shitty about that, as they were not jobless for long, and the one person who still is, will be getting sorted imminently. Everyone who I have worked with over the years, remains a friend, and a brother and sister with whom we shared an amazingly fun journey. I know I helped a few people, and even if the business failed to achieve anything of financial benefit for me, it did for others and for that I am perpetually glad, as my evil plan to build something ethical in an unethical industry for the most part worked. It’s also left a number of business debts unpaid, but most of those are to the government, so I’m have a really hard time feeling much in the way of sympathy. As a result of this (and not constantly having to deal with a clamouring HMRC which act and react like back street Glaswegian debt collectors) my stress levels will be reduced once I put the insolvency nail in the coffin of the company, and I will be in a much happier place when it comes to dealing with my idiot body.
Talking of which I am halfway through my first cancer cycle (which consists of six fifty-hour transfusions of toxic chemicals that are so toxic you can’t leave the environs of the ward) and thus far all the anticipated side effects have been surprisingly mild. The one thing I’m not really enjoying is chemo fog. It’s a weird sensation, but post chemo your brain ends up feeling less able to focus, and you suddenly develop a very reduced attention span. For a supposed writer and obsessive reader, this is not good, but I’m trying to train my brain past it, which appears to be reaping some small dividends. One of the ways I am doing that is by writing my second book which is under contract to Vernon Press in the US and concerns a history of the Makhnovshchyna and civil war in Ukraine during the 1920s. Said book was due for delivery in November, but given the circumstances it’s been delayed just a tad.
Thus far, I am coping surprisingly well with the diagnosis I received. Lots of people break with news like this, I however remain the pragmatic, stubborn individual I always have been. A number of complications have already occurred that should technically have killed me and probably got a lot closer than I really want to think about in too much detail. They have not. This is due in no small part to the skill and expertise of clinicians, but also I’m robust and really not prepared to let me body to attempt to dictate things. As a result, I am fairly resolute and confident that a supposed killer cancer will actually be killed, and I can continue to produce books that may or may not get read for the foreseeable future.
PS: For anyone worrying, this blog is not suddenly going to turn into a “my struggle with cancer” sort of reading experience. There are already too many self-referential resources of that ilk and I have no desire to add to that particular clamour. I’ll carry on writing about obscure bits of history and things here, and save my thoughts about this shitty medical nonsense, for ranting on twitter, and private consideration in a journal, which may see the light of day at some juncture when I edit out all of the quite frankly impressive and consistent swearing.
On the afternoon of 11 April 1883, a middle aged man walked slowly towards Birkenhead train station. He was in the process of purchasing a ticket to Birmingham Snow Hill station via Wolverhampton, when he was surrounded by plain clothes English police and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who quickly snatched the parcels he was carrying under his arm, and whisked him away from the station and the prying eyes of the curious Liverpudlians. The middle aged passenger prisoner was John Daly (Seán Ó Dálaigh) and it was not his first brush with the law.
Born in Limerick city on 18 October 1845, Daly’s father was employed at the James Harvey & Son’s Timber Yard, and at age sixteen, his son joined him working as a lathe splitter. Like many young Irish men of the period, Daly was deeply troubled by the British rule of Ireland, and also deeply disenchanted. Three years after Daly’s birth in 1848, and with most of Ireland still suffering from being ravaged by famine, despite the frequent exports of viable grain and cattle under armed British escort, the Young Irelanders which had been established in the early part of the 1840s, turned from agitation concerning the repeal of British rule, to open armed rebellion. On 28 July 1848, in South Tipperary, in the small town of Ballingarry, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Doheny had given a speech on the town commons calling for revolt against the occupying forces of the British and the establishment of home rule throughout Ireland. All three were impassioned and experienced speakers, and they soon gathered enthusiastic support from the local population of miners, tradesmen and small tenant farmers. Doheny and Meagher moved on from the commons to spread the rising, but O’Brien lingered and assisted in the locals in construction of barricades to repel the police, and the inevitable military intervention. Seeing an agitated and combative crowd that was in no mood for compromise, and formidable barricades when they arrived on 29 July 1848, a detachment of forty six police from the town of Callan in County Kilkenny, led by a Sub-Inspector Trant, veered off the approach to the barricades and made their way to a defensible position of a nearby two storey farmhouse, the crowd hot on the heels.
The farmhouse in question belonged to a local woman Margaret McCormack who was in an out building when the police arrived and did not have time to intervene before the police had blocked the doors. Unfortunately the five children of Margaret McCormack were still in the house along with the agitated and scared police who took them hostage. As the crowd led by O’Brien reached the farmhouse, they were approached by the now understandably hysterical Margaret McCormack who told them that as well as the police in the house, so too were her children. O’Brien approached the house with the distraught mother in tow, and attempted to broach a peaceable solution, even going so far as to shake hands with some of the police through the window. Without provocation, and with no warning, a shot rang out from inside the farmhouse and mayhem broke loose. Wounded in the fire fight that ensued, O’Brien had to be dragged out of the line of fire by his supporters who were also wounded by stray bullets. Although the Young Irelanders and the police exchanged bullets, it gradually became clear that the farmhouse was a heavily defensible position, and when reinforcements arrived led by Sub-Inspector Cox although the crowd tried to repel them using what little ammunition they had left, eventually under heavy fire they were forced to withdraw. When the dust and cordite settled, O’Brien was arrested and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered for the crime of high treason. After receiving a petition for clemency signed by 70,000 Irish citizens, and 10,000 Europeans, the British legal authorities finally conceded and commuted his sentence to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Although this sentence too was eventually commuted and O’Brien was to receive a pardon in 1856, his arrest, the brutal suppression that followed the Battle of Ballingarry, and many leaders of the Young Irelanders being forced to flee abroad led to the failure of the 1848 rising.
The Case of Daly and Egan
From the ashes of the Young Irelanders, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed. The IRB was a secret fraternal organisation that sought to establish an independent democratic republic in Ireland free from British rule. Along with their US based sister organisation and financiers , Clan na Gael, the IRB launched a devastating dynamite campaign on British shores in 1881, particularly focused on governmental and infrastructure targets. Many of the attacks were focused on London however both Liverpool, and indeed Birmingham were hotspots. In 1883, John Daly moved from America where he had been in exile following the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867 to Birmingham to share the lodgings of a fellow Limerick man, and inactive member of the IRB, James Francis Egan. Events were subsequently to unfold that illustrated “the truly dark side of what the British authorities were capable of” . In his youth James Egan had been an enthusiastic supporter of Irish home rule, but had moved to Wolverhampton in pursuit of employment. Initially he found work as a clerk. In 1879, Egan became the licensee of the Lamp on Froysell Street, Willenhall, Walsall . Egan gave up his license to operate a public house in 1883, to resume employment in the quieter role of a clerk again, and he moved with his wife to a new home with their lodger, a Mrs. Treherne . The house on Kyotts Lake Road in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, was soon also home to his childhood friend Daly, who used the alias Denman, suspecting that he was under surveillance by the authorities, and not wishing to drag his mostly apolitical childhood friend into the fray. As the events that were to transpire began to unfold, Daly was right to be wary.
Daly was under tight surveillance before he even got off the boat. The Royal Irish Constabulary and Major Nicholas Gosselin of the newly minted Special Irish Branch, who was responsible for an intelligence network that stretched across Northern England, contacted Birmingham Chief Constable Joseph Farndale to inform him of the arrival of Daly. Although Farndale was aware that he presided over a detective branch that was “the most corrupt and unreliable force in the country”  he had some experience with the dynamite threat thanks to events earlier in April that occurred in Ladywood where police found a dynamite factory in the house next to the unused shop inhabited by Alfred George Whitehead (although the case of Daly and Egan is often conflated with this discovery, they were separate events and probably not indicative of a wider plot). Gosselin was one of the proponents of secret surveillance of Irish Republicans and also frequently employed a network of informants and agent provocateurs. One such was a Liverpudlian publican by the name of Daniel O’Neill. O’Neill was a long standing contact of Daly and a known Fenian who had been recruited by Gosselin. He was also in receipt of correspondence to and from Daly acting as an intermediary between him and contacts in the United States, in case of his arrest. For the nascent Special Irish Branch he was to prove an excellently placed mole. It was at the request by telegram from O’Neill that Daly travelled from Birmingham to Liverpool.
After traveling from Snow Hill station to Birkenhead via Wolverhampton on 9 April 1883, Daly met the known Irish nationalist, Patrick Fitzgerald  and then moved on to spend a few days with his long standing acquaintance, O’Neill. Daly was still under active police surveillance, by the RIC and the Special Irish Branch on his arrival in Liverpool. On the morning of his departure back to Birmingham, O’Neill asked Daly to carry four small parcels back with him. They were to be collected later, and Daly did not enquire as to their contents. Unfortunately for Daly, they were collected far earlier than he could have anticipated, by members of the RIC that affected his arrest and to the surprise possibly only of Daly found to contain explosives. One the same day as the arrest of Daly, a telegram was issued to Chief Constable Farndale to commence a raid against the house in Sparkbrook occupied by Egan. Farndale jumped at the chance, chafing perhaps that an arrest of an Irish radical had been affected in Wolverhampton by the RIC and not by the legal authorities he commanded, and accompanied by a number of detectives and inspectors under his command and members of the RIC swooped on the property in Sparkbrook.
The search of the house in Sparkbrook resulted in a find of a bundle of letters and catalogues and communications to and from a Birmingham publican, William McDonnell which dated back to 1875 and was a one-time IRB member. As police moved to arrest McDonnell at the Royal Oak pub in Wednesbury , and after finding nothing more in Egans’ rooms they turned their attentions to the rear garden of the property. That first day of the search, the police recovered another stash of letters buried in a small metal box, and decided to bring in a gardener to help with their unusual excavations. As the police now aided by a local gardener continued to dig through Egans’ back yard, they discovered a small glass bottle filled with a mysterious liquid. This was quickly sent to Colonel Sir Vivian Dering Majendie who was the Chief Inspector of Explosives to Queen Victoria and one of the first British bomb disposal experts who soon confirmed that the liquid in the bottle was highly concentrated nitroglycerin, an active ingredient in the manufacture of dynamite. The discovery was made the day after the police and the local gardener had already cleared that patch of the garden, which it was decided for seemingly arbitrary reasons to double check. MacDonnell, Egan and Daly were soon languishing in Winson Green prison awaiting their day in court.
The Trials of Justice
Initially the plan for the trial of the three prisoners was to conduct it in Birmingham however this was soon discounted as an option. The Victorian legal authorities lived in dread of an attack by Irish nationalist ‘dynamitards’ in an effort to spring their associates, and Birmingham posed too many risks. The venue was moved to the Warwick assizes, and had armed police at every entrance and exit, as well as barricades on the surrounding streets. As it was, the trial commenced on the morning on 30 July 1884 with no incident or much feared attack being enacted. To prevent such, the prisoners were transported under heavy guard, and several decoy vans were used to frustrate any potential rescue. Following the successful transportation of the prisoners, and a brief prosecution and a defence that had to be led by the defendants themselves being as they were unrepresented, the jury retired to chambers for all of fifteen minutes . All three defendants were found guilty following this brief consideration of their fates. John Daly was sentenced to penal servitude for life, and James Egan (who Daly vocally and vigorously denied was involved in any capacity during the trial) for twenty years. McDonnell faired best of all the defendants and was bound over on past charges for the sum of £50. When it transpired that he could not pay he was quietly released on the recommendation of the court. Somewhat unusually the defendants were not tried with possession of explosive materials which would have been a Treason Felony, but rather with their involvement in the IRB. And here the story of the would-be bombers would have ended, were it not for revelations that were to follow.
On Wednesday, 24 September 1890 , The Times published an article that was to prove just as explosive as any of the materials that were found in the rear garden of Egans’ property in Sparkbrook. This article referenced a swirl of controversy that had blighted the prosecution since 1886. Daly had always claimed that he did not know what was in the parcels that the RIC informer O’Neill asked him to transport, and that the explosive materials recovered from the garden in Sparkbrook had been placed there by over eager members of the police. This appears as if it may have held a kernel of truth. Following the conviction of Daly and Egan, Chief Constable Farndale gave a statement to the Birmingham Watch Committee in which he implied that a man employed by the RIC had given Daly the bombs in Birkenhead. As was to be proved subsequently, O’Neill was indeed an RIC agent. The Birmingham Lord Mayor, Alderman Manton although not present when Farndale gave his statement, was so troubled by it that he took the opportunity to write to the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, raising his concerns that the prosecutions may have been based around tainted evidence, and even going so far as to state that Daly and Egan had suffered “wrongs inflicted as a result of a vile conspiracy” .
The letter from the Chief Constable became the basis for a strong amnesty campaign for the two prisoners, and was further supported by press reports such as that in The Times which reported that Egan was beginning to lose not only his health but his sight . The Irish Parliamentary Party also began to call for an inquiry into the circumstances of the arrest of Egan and Daly. This wave of public sympathy however may have been misplaced. Farndales’ statement arguably concerned not the justice of the conviction against Daly, but rather the methods of his arrest and the fact it was enacted by the RIC. For the government of the day the case was an embarrassment, and many suspected that extra-legal measures had been implemented against the prisoners, and evidence planted. Daly was finally released from prison on 16 August 1896, with Egan preceding his childhood friend to freedom on 21 January 1893. In 1901 Daly was to become the Mayor of Limerick City, and both he and his onetime co-accused remained active in Irish Republican politics until their deaths.
Whether Daly was guilt of any other charge rather than being in favour of Irish nationalism will perhaps never be known. Birmingham during the period, like much of the rest of the United Kingdom was cowed by fear of the Irish dynamiters, and indeed had been the subject of a largely concurrent dynamite plot in Ladywood and indeed elsewhere through the UK. Legal authorities were overstretched, and there was a reliance on secret policing which often had recourse to extra-legal measures such as the use of paid informants, and agent provocateurs. Record keeping was scant, and transparency was at best an afterthought. In such an environment it is perhaps not an overstatement to consider that the RIC and their local counterparts may have resorted to whatever mechanisms they could to reduce the threat posed by Republicans. The truth of the Sparkbrook dynamite plot and the involvement of Daly and Egan will perhaps never be known in full, much of it being lost to history. It remains however, a “sensational story”  from Victorian Birmingham that illustrates that the challenges of combatting terrorism are however, not unique to our own fractured and fraught age. One thing that is known is that the incident in Sparkbrook was part of a much larger campaign by the IRB within the UK which involved another plot in Birmingham which will be discussed in an additional article later.
 Anonymous, England Beware, Dynamite Monthly, May 1884
 Helen Litton, Edward Daly: 16 Lives, The O’Brien Press, 2013, Pg. 6
 The events of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, are discussed in detail in Laurence Fenton, Young Ireland Rebellion and Limerick, Mercier Press, 2006 and Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848: The Road to Ballingarry, Four Courts Press Ltd, 2000
 Joseph McKenna, The Irish-American Dynamite Campaign: A History, 1881–1896, McFarland, 2012, Pg. 72
 Tony Hitchmough, Hitchmough’s Black Country Pubs: Willenhall, Longpull, 2016, Pg. 281
 The Dynamite Plots, The Investigation in Birmingham, Birmingham Daily Post, April 21 1884, Pg. 5
 Bernard Potter, The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch Before the First World War, The Boydell Press, 1987, Pg. 73
 The Nation, Volume 38, J.H. Richards New York, The Nation Company, 1884, Pg. 332
 McKenna, Pg. 76
 Sean Mcconville, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-1922: Theatres of War, Routledge, 2002, Pg. 352
 The Conviction of Daly, The Times, 24 September 1890, Pg. 4; Issue 33125
Russia prior to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 was a miserable place. Deeply corrupt, it constrained its citizens in all manner of ways. With a series of autocratic rulers, and a domineering and largely ignorant ruling class, life for many was brutish, harsh, and short. Poverty was rife, starvation was frequent, and opportunities were few. Although many are now familiar with those who were to stand against Royalist forces such as Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, there were just a few in a long line of revolutionaries that sought to equalise Russian society. Some of these largely forgotten revolutionaries unlike the patriarchal view of many later historians were young women who fought, plotted, lived, loved, and died alongside their male comrades. For the most part now committed to the dusty pages of obscure histories, these young women also helped to assassinate a Russia Tsar in the nineteenth century, which ultimately led to the events in the twentieth that still resonate today.
Spring 1874 in Russia saw the melting of the snows, and the rays of the sun finally settling over the landscape. It also saw a wave of young, educated Russians aged between sixteen and twenty five walking singly or in pairs from village to village in pursuit of employment and with a desire to settle. Far from being roving itinerants, many of those that left Russian cities were university educated idealists, often drawn from the upper echelons of Russian society, and fired up with a desire to impact upon social change. The Narodniks as they came to be known were also motivated to attempt to provide famine relief and medical aid. Following the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, many of those that had been indentured to landowners, now found that rather than feudalism ending, they had merely been sold into wage slavery to the bourgeoisie. Forced to scratch a subsistence living on small parcels of land, and pay their landlords excessive taxes and rents for the privilege, many found that supposedly free life bought with it no material benefits. Rates of illiteracy were pronounced, opportunities were few, and infant mortality was rife. By 1873 with the failure of several harvests caused by weather conditions and economic privations, starvation was also rampant. Drawing upon a somewhat idealised view of the Russian peasantry, a generation of middle class youngsters sought to go to the people (khozhdeniye v narod) or the Narod (people or folk), as it was believed that by living amongst them and spreading awareness of the economic disparity of Russian life, they could foster revolution amongst those millions sold into agrarian economic bondage.
Narodism did not occur in a vacuum and nineteenth century Russia was awash with radicalism. One of the primary influences on the development of the Narodniks (other than social iniquity) found in the novel, “What Is to Be Done?” by the socialist, philosopher, and sometime writer, Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Born the son of a priest on 12 July 1828, Chernyshevsky like many was horrified by the harsh conditions of his day, and in 1862 found himself detained in the infamous Fortress of St. Peter and Paul for promoting the revolutionary overthrow of Russian autocracy and the introduction of a socialist society based around peasant communes in the pages of the Russian paper, Sovremennik which he was the editor of. Whilst detained in the brutal conditions of one of Russias’ most notorious jail environments, Chernyshevsky was to compose the novel that so inspired Lenin he was to produce his own work of political theory by the same name, and so enraged Fyodor Dostoyevsky he was to compose “Notes from the Underground” in response. For the modern reader, “What is to Be Done?” can come dangerously close to parody, but during the nineteenth century it was to prove hugely influential in Russia. In the novel, the central character of Rakhmetov (which was later to be used as an alias by Alexander Berkman when he attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in 1882 as a response to the US Steel involvement in the notorious Homestead Strike) is wholly dedicated to creating a revolution. To achieve this Rakhmetov lives an life that is both austere and ascetic, devoting all his efforts to the revolutionary cause, and even going as far as to sleep on a bed of nails, and engage in an exercise regimen solely in preparation for the inevitable revolution. Although Rakhmetov can be seen as somewhat ridiculous, in the vain of a holy fool, for modern readers for young Russians of the nineteenth century who craved meaningful democratic social change, he served as the very model of a committed revolutionary, and Chernyshevsky was to go onto to become a major influence on the Narodnik movement. A lesser, but still significant influence can be found in the somewhat unlikely, and definitely contentious figure of Sergey Nechayev.
Born 2 October 1847, Nechayev was the son of a sign painter and sometime waiter, and in his thirty five years alive was to become according to Bakunin the best exemplar of revolutionary youth. Much influenced by the Decmberists and the abortive attempts at revolt of 1825, as well as the work of Chernyshevsky, the measures proposed by Nechayev were far less peaceable and have had a lasting influence even until today. Refusing employment as a servant to the local landed gentry, Nechayev moved to Moscow aged eighteen, and eventually secured work as both an auditor, and teacher. Whilst auditing lectures at St. Petersburg University in 1868, Nechayev became exposed to the radical student politics of the period, which were to exert an influence on him throughout the rest of his short life. In 1869, the twenty two year old Nechayev composed his now infamous “Catechism of a Revolutionary” which with its constant refrain of the ends justifying the means was to influence not only some Russian nihilists, but also Eldridge Cleaver and the initial rumblings of the Black Panther Party. The Catechism is a short manifesto that packs a heavy punch. In it Nechayev presents an idealised image of the revolutionary as a doomed individual, who subsumes their own desires and wants, in pursuit of violent revolutionary change. Strongly influenced by the work of Chernyshevsky, the Catechism is a bleak, furious and impassioned plea for change. Sadly it was not a change, Nechayev was to live to see. After repeated conflicts with other revolutionaries scattered throughout Russia and elsewhere (most notably Switzerland), Nechayev was accused of murdering a student by the name of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov who was a member of a small revolutionary group, Narodnaya Rasprava (Peoples’ Retribution) which was established by Nechayev in 1869 in Moscow. Quickly detained by police in Geneva, and repatriated to Russia, Nechayev was to die in the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul. He had been held in solitary confinement for ten years, and after striking a General of the secret police who suggested he could be released if he served as a spy, had his hands and feet placed in irons that were not removed for two years, causing the skin to rot in the damp and unforgiving blackness of his cell.
The Russian Nihilists were to take some of their influence from the work and of life of Nechayev, and he, like Chernyshevsky was also to influence the Narodniks when they went to the people (albeit to a lesser extent) in the spring of 1874. Driven by a desire to bring about positive change, the Narodniks, saw the Russian rural poor as an untapped pool of revolutionary potential. The plan, such as it was, involved the young urban intelligentsia giving up their gilded lives, and embedding within the ranks of the peasants. They would then use their position to help educate the peasantry using propaganda that was secretly printed and distributed by a network of couriers. It is worth remembering that for all the supposed early liberality of Tsar Nicholas II, Russia of the period, was one of the most controlled nations on earth, with an active an aggressive secret police force, a trigger happy military, and an active censor. To be found with contentious printed materials or guilty of their dissemination was to risk either execution, or the living death of exile to Siberia, wherein life for political prisoners was both particularly brutal, and in most cases short. Ultimately the wave of nascent propagandists and radicals that flooded the destitute Russian country side was doomed to failure. This was due in no small part to a number of factors including internal divisions, no overall leadership as such, the embedded nature of a multitude of police informers, and the resistance of the rural narod themselves. Although it was possible in many cases for the Narodniks to embed with the peasantry, and in many cases improve their conditions as well as sharing propaganda, much of the Russian countryside was controlled by not only kulaks (the rural wealthy who owned the farms and tracts of land others were forced to scratch base subsistence from) but priests. As soon as one or other of these found out about the presence of Narodniks in the vicinity, they were either arrested or forced to flee undoing any progress that they may have made up until then. And progress they did make. Often with no tangible means of support, the Narodnik were able to set up a network of schools, and local medical treatments facilities. Many of the female Narodniks were experienced midwives (that being one of the few educational opportunities available to women of the period, who did not wish to become tutors for the privileged classes which was the other career and educational path) and they were able to directly impact on the safety and survivability of child birth. The influence of the Narodniks went beyond spreading populist revolutionary propaganda, and directly helped improve the circumstances of the Russian peasantry that had been abandoned for centuries by a centralised and selfish autocracy. The migration of the young and politically naïve idealists from city to country was ultimately doomed to failure, but its legacy was to endure in Russia, and was also to influence much of what transpired later.
Starting in 1873, the Russian authorities ably assisted by the grandly named, but deeply repressive Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, which acted as both censors and secret agents, commenced rounding up Narodniks, or anyone suspected of being affiliated with the youthful propagandists. Following the summer of 1874, the forces of supposed law and order swung into high gear, and they had arrested over 1600 young people. Of those detained, initially 770 were selected to face trial. Eventually this figure dwindled, as over four hundred were released from custody and placed under close observation, over fifty went missing, some two hundred were detained indefinitely without trial, and 193 were to stand trial. These figures seem high, but according to some historians they are anything but. According to the account provided by V.Burtsev in “One Hundred Year (1800-1896)” some 3500 arrests took place in 1874 alone. Whatever the true figure, the Russian government had seemingly triumphed in the face of a genuine youth movement dedicated to the removal of autocratic rulers. To reinforce their triumph, it was agreed within government at all levels that the trial of the 193 would commence in earnest, but also that an already repressive state that had begun to temporarily relax in the face of European liberalism, would now increase repression with the aim on clamping down once and for all on dissent. Sadly, those that had been arrested were soon replaced with other individuals from abroad, some of which were far more radical than those who had gone before, and many of whom were women (and thus less suspicious in the eyes of a patriarchal society such as nineteenth century Russia).
Before his deportation, Nechayev had fled to Switzerland, and for many, it was still a place of exile. Access to university education for Russian women was during the nineteenth century significantly limited. Unless a woman wished to learn nursing or aspired to be a tutor to the sons and daughters of the idle rich, she had no other option than to pursue an education abroad. It was amongst the ex-patriate students in Switzerland that the next wave in the rebellious nineteenth century history of Russia would be unleashed. There were two important figures in Zurich that were embraced enthusiastically by both male and female students. One was the incendiary Anarchist firebrand, Mikhail Bakunin and the other lesser known figure now was Pyotr Lavrov. Very much affiliated with the Narodnik cause, Lavrov was considerably less impassioned and immediate than Bakunin, but also believed that revolution was imminent, albeit one that would be both socialist, and for the most part non-violent. Although Bakunin was to become much wider known and remembered, it was the prolific writer and sociologist, Lavrov that found enthusiastic support in a number of university students in Zurich. Amongst the circle that assisted Lavrov when he founded a collective printing press in Zurich in 1873, were a number of young female students who came to be known as the Frichi circle, so named as they all resided in the lodging house of a Frau Frichi. Sharing what limited funds and resources that they had, this small group of five young women, lived in a semi-communal manner, and assisted Lavrov is spreading news of the burgeoning Narodnik movement back in Russia. Chief amongst the Frichi circle was Sophia (sometimes spelt Sofya) Bardina however also associated with the group was the stalwart revolutionist, Vera Figner who is should be noted was only associated tangentially and never lodged with them. Bardina was the nexus of the group, and her story is emblematic of them as a whole and indeed much of the wider ex-patriate student community resident in Switzerland during this period. Born into a poor family which was terrorised by an abusive father, Bardina sought solace in her studies. Denied the opportunity to continue with her education in Russia, Bardina eventually found her way to Zurich where she could study medicine in the hopes of becoming a doctor capable of assisting the poor, unimpeded. Groups of students becoming radicalised was a concern for the all controlling Russian authorities, and indeed they were to feature in a report from The Russian Government Herald of 21 May 1872, which stated:
“Several Russian girls set off abroad to attend lectures at Zurich University. At first there were only a very few of them, but now there are more than a hundred women there… Largely because of this increase in Russian women students, the ring-leaders of the Russian emigration have chosen this town as a centre for revolutionary propaganda, and have done all in their power to enlist into their ranks these young women students. Under their influence, women have abandoned their studies for fruitless political agitation. Young Russians of both sexes have formed political parties of extreme shades… In the Russian Library they hold lectures of an exclusively revolutionary nature… It has become common practice for the girls to attend workers’ meetings… Young and inexperienced minds are being led astray by political agitators, and set on the wrong course. And to cap it all, meetings and party struggles throw the girls into such confusion that they accept this fruitless and fraudulent propaganda as real life. Once drawn into politics the girls fall under the influence of the leaders of the emigration, and become compliant weapons in their hands. Some of them go from Zurich to Russia and back two or three times a year, carrying letters, instructions and proclamations and taking an active part in criminal propaganda”.
It is worthy of note, that although some of the article quoted was to be proved accurate, the same article went on to accuse all female revolutionary students in Zurich of studying obstetrics with the sole intent of making a living as abortionists! Of those engaged in “fruitless political agitation”, the Frichi circle were initially some of the least ardent. Many who were present in Zurich of the period remember them as being mere schoolgirls and affected ones at that. Initially this group of young women wanted nothing more than to continue their studies which in one form or another would ultimately be of benefit to their homeland. That they shared some of the ideology of the Narodniks was unsurprising but rather than calling for the open social revolt and violent revolution so espoused by the likes of Nechayev, the Frichi circle were seeking democratic reform to an autocratic nature. This changed in June 1873 when the Russian government (possibly in response to articles such as that quoted earlier) issued a decree that all Russian female students were to return from Zurich or in essence be exiled. Those that did not return by January 1874 were to be barred from any examinations or studies within Russia, and indeed any activity that relied upon government approval or permission. In a society as dictatorial, bureaucratic and tightly controlled as Russia in the nineteenth century, this last caveat was particularly onerous. In a society that dictated what employment could be engaged in by whom, and indeed who could travel where, to be denied such basic liberties was potentially devastating, unless foreign studies were to turn into a permanent exile. Presented with this choice, and indeed the option of going to the people in 1874, many Russian female students at universities in Zurich, either continued their studies elsewhere in Europe (the decree did not say anything about that) or returned back to Russia. It was the repression of the arrests of the Narodniks coupled with decree of 1873, that arguable incensed the Frichi circle as turned them away from the rationalism of Lavrov towards the unimpeded zeal of Bakunin.
Before leaving Zurich, the residents of Frau Frichis’ boarding house met several male Georgian students. Like many involved in the early revolutionary movements in Russia, all of the young students believed that by uniting all national minorities, and by moving beyond the sectarianism encouraged by the state, their aims could better be served. With a matter of weeks, the young students had thrown in their lot together, and decided to form a clandestine organisation that although lacking a centralised leadership may ultimately lead to them all having to risk their lives. The plan of the All-Russian Social Revolutionary Organisation (sometimes called the Moscow Organisation) was to emulate the Narodniks in smuggling radical literature into Russia from abroad and via underground presses and in doing so utilise it to radicalise workers in both the towns and country. In the November and December of 1874 the female students (including Bardina who had failed to complete her medical studies in Paris owing to time constraints) and the several Georgians drifted across the borders in small groups, and back towards St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Within weeks of arriving in Moscow, Bardina was able to find work in one of the many factories that populated the city. With no prior knowledge of the conditions they would be facing, the overzealous female students all actively sought employment as factory labourers. The Georgian men who had knowledge of industrial labour conditions in Russia tried, and ultimately failed to persuade them. Life in Russian factories of the nineteenth century was punishing. For negligible pay, workers were expected to labour for fifteen hours a day, with only one free day a week. During the working week, all workers were shut up behind large steel gates and were expected to reside in dormitories separated by sex. Any married couples that had the misfortune of working together were separated and only allows contact for ten minutes every several days. As to the living conditions themselves, the dormitories consisted of dirty mattresses stacked on pallets with no bed linen. Food was scarce and typically consisted of little more than a bowl of thin soup. Working conditions were unsafe and living conditions unsanitary with lice, bedbugs, and disease all rampant. Casual violence from overseers to employees was a regular and often unprovoked occurrence. For enduring this, workers were frequently docked wages for the most spurious of reasons, and following deductions for food and lodgings were left with a pittance. For the naïve students it must have come as quite a shock.
Initially the group began by circulating smuggled copies of Bakunins’ weekly paper, Rabotnik (The Worker), however they had soon established their own printing press in Moscow and busily began churning out their own revolutionary screeds. Patiently explaining why conditions were awful and how they could be improved following the removal of the autocratic government and royalty of the period, gradually, the Moscow Organisation gathered workers to its cause most estimates put the total figure at little more than one hundred individuals however. Between them they drafted a set of statutes of expected behaviour that owed much to Nechayev. These well-educated and attractive women were bound to capture the attention of factory owners, and although attempts were made to obscure what was going on it wasn’t long before the Moscow Organisation found they were on the radar of the persistent Third Section. Starting in April 1875 several arrests were made, and confessions coerced by violence, and by August of the same year, over one hundred people, including Bardina and the entirety of the Frichi circle had been arrested and charged with crimes against the state, including forming an unlawful society and distributing “criminal writings”. The Russian state had clamped down on the final spasm of the Narodniks, and was about to flex its muscles.
Prisons in Russia were bursting at the seams owing to the arrests of the original Narodniks, Nihilists, and those that followed. For the majority of those interred whilst they waited for trials that may or may not be forthcoming, conditions were miserable. Typhoid was rife and resulted in many deaths, and the majority of political prisoners spent the majority of their terms of imprisonment in solitary confinement. Conditions in solitary confinement were harsh, consisting of a cold dank cell with often no natural light, and the only furniture being a slop bucket that was changed infrequently at best. For many, the strain of being deprived of human contact, heat, and light proved too much to bear and a number of political prisoners either succumbed to illness, went blind or deaf, or in many cases insane. For many the interminable and seemingly arbitrary wait for trials became overwhelming. The first wave of political trials did not begin until 1877m by which point some of the accused had been kept in solitary confinement for five years. The trials themselves were causing a headache for the authorities. Many of the Narodnik movement, had been motivated by altruism, but the contention of the Russian state is that they were all part of an overarching conspiracy to commit crimes against the state. Unfortunately evidence to support this assertion was limited at best. Many in the Third Section wanted to hold private trials of small numbers of defendants where such evidence that would be presented would not be subject to too close a scrutiny. Tsar Alexander had other ideas. The mass arrests had sent a palpable message, and it was one he was keen to reinforce. Large public trials of the accused would send a message of strength to his opponents, and so the Third Section bowed to his demands, and acceded to his wishes. The show trials (as that was in essence what they were) began in earnest in 1877 with the trial of the Moscow Organisation, followed by the Narodniks. This may seem chronologically flawed, but it had a legal logic to it. For the Frichi circle and the wider Moscow Organisation, the prosecution could show scant evidence of some level of not only co-operation amongst defendants but also conspiracy. For those idealists that had decided to roam the countryside attempting to spread a message of revolt whilst providing practical assistance, there was little to support the claim.
The trial of Sophia Bardina and the Moscow Organisation commenced in February and March of 1877 and lasted for five weeks in total. The fifty defendants having been held in harsh conditions for years presented a sorry picture as they took the stand one after another before the court. The prosecution also overplayed their hand, and was not able to provide much in the way of proof of a wide an overarching conspiracy. Holding the trial very publicly was also an error, as the defendants in particular, the Frichi circle elicited sympathy from the public who were admitted via ticket (which quickly became a desirable item for the elite of Russian society). Although still young and barely into their twenties in some cases, the young women that were on trial were as steadfast and resolved as their male comrades. The sympathy of the public was perhaps shared by the court, and reflected in the sentences handed down. Of the Moscow Organisation, those who fared the worst were the Georgian male students, who each received sentences of ten years of hard labour. Two female defendants including Sophia Bardina were sentenced to nine years of hard labour. For the rest their sentences were lighter. Later Bardina was sentence to exile for life, but this held true for many of the other defendants too. After serving years engaged in pointless and back breaking work, those convicted would be transported (or rather transport themselves via a long walk in chains) to the far bleak corners of Siberia, where they would pass there days working for scant meals typically in environments such as quarries or gold mines. Although not formal prisoners, they often had no means of escape and were forced to endure the privations of a life in exile for the rest of their young lives.
Following the sentencing, some of the Moscow Organisation took it upon themselves to proclaim their ideas to the court. By all available accounts one of the most telling and certainly that which was to have the greatest impact was provided by Bardina. Advising the court calmly that repression could not stop much needed change in Russian society, she went on to proclaim;
“I am convinced that a day will soon dawn when our sleepy and lazy society will wake up and be ashamed that it has allowed itself to be humiliated for so long; that it has not resisted when its brothers, sisters, and daughters were taken away and destroyed for no greater crime that being true to their convictions. And when this day comes, society will avenge us.”
The speech that Sophia Bardina delivered was done in a measured, controlled, and lucid manner, and was for the courts one of the biggest embarrassments of the entire trial. Illegal transcripts of the speech were widely circulated amongst the revolutionaries still left at large, and a number of arrests were made. Owing to the ex-patriate community of Russians abroad, it also found its way to an eager and receptive international audience. For Sophia Bardina, this was to prove one of her last great attempts at resisting the state. Following the trial she was transferred with a number of her old comrades and student friends from the Frichi circle to Siberia. After subsisting in poverty for several years, Bardina escaped in December 1880 by making the long cold walk across the countryside. Although news of here escape had reached Moscow and her imminent arrival was awaited expectantly, Bardina decided to return to Geneva where her troubles had all began. After a few weeks in the city, she sourced a cheap second hand revolver. In an anonymous room, the then twenty seven year old Sophia Bardina broken in both spirit, and devoid of hope of change, turned the gun on herself and committed suicide. And she was not alone. Of the Moscow Organisation, many of the accused were either declared insane, died of disease, or else committed suicide. Very few survived and those that did were embittered and for a time, politically disengaged.
The trial of the Moscow Organisation had for the Russian state proved somewhat disastrous. The defendants had used the trial as a platform to declare their concept of a free Russia unbound by autocratic rule, and rampant corruption. Worse yet, they had elicited sympathy from not only the public gallery, but also from the press both foreign and domestically. The Russian government, legal authorities and indeed, the Tsar himself were annoyed at this unforeseen development, and thus for the next major trial, namely that of the 193, proceedings would be enacted in camera with no public access. Indeed when the trial began in October of 1877 not even a court stenographer was present. All may have gone to plan were it not for the fact that Tsar Alexander had previously implemented legal reforms meaning that secret trials could not be held. This was eagerly pointed out by not only the Narodniks in the dock, but also by their supporters outside who much to the frustration of the government were growing not only larger in number but also increasingly vocal. Indeed in 1876 in St. Petersburg, a large public demonstration of several hundred students and young people had been held to protest the coming trial. This had led to violence and arrests, and the police who arrived late to the scene had advised local shopkeepers that the agitated students may well turn their illegal intentions to their premises. Thus it was that angry shopkeepers and their staff engaged teenagers in a series of running battles, before the police eventually arrived on scene and arrested the bloodied political youngsters. The trial of the 193 was for all its intent, less dramatic than many had been expecting. Of the defendants, half received sentences of up to ten years with exile for life in the harsh environs of Siberia. Those who did not share this fate were acquitted. For many idealist youngsters they had spent years in the harsh conditions of the Russian Tsarist prison system, endured beating during questioning, sat in silence in solitary confinement, and seen their friends either driven mad, commit suicide, or shipped off to a slow death in Siberian poverty. Many of the Narodniks that had set off in 1874 wanting peaceful change and increased democracy were now back on the streets of Russia, and filled with anger.
The St. Petersburg protest marked the first public appearance of the Zemlya i volya (Land and Freedom) party. Formed by disillusioned Narodniks and those that had been spared the attentions of the Third Section, Zemlya i volya sought to operate along populist lines and use the Russian peasantry as a political base. Using the same tactics as the Narodniks before them and members of the ill-fated Frichi circle, members of Zemlya i volya printed radical literature and spread it amongst urban industrial and rural workers in order to spread awareness of the societal ills of Russia of the period, as well as organisation. Although their platform and operating procedures were mostly non-violent, they were still considered a credible threat to the autocracy and treated as such. In light of the trial of the 193, the attitudes of the revolutionaries and of the state hardened, and it led to Zemlya i volya sanctioning the physical elimination of prominent and harmful members of the Russian government. Although the earlier Russian Nihilists had called for such, it was not until Zemlya i volya codified it that such actions became part of an organised resistance. On the day of the verdict being handed down in the trial of the 193 (24 January 1878), these actions were to begin in earnest. Two young women, Vera Zasulich and Maria Kolenkina were amongst the first to act. On July13 1877, a young man by the name of Alexei Bogolyubov joined over three hundred political prisoners in Predvorika prison. Bogolyubov had been arrested for his part in a non-violent protest, and in keeping with the harsh sentencing of the period has been found guilty and was at the start of what was due to be a fifteen year sentence. That fateful July morning he was in the exercise yard with a number of his comrades, enjoying the touch of the sun on his face. Unfortunately for Bogolyubov, the yard was being crossed by General Dmitri Trepov. Treprov was an upstanding member of Russian society, and had for a number of years been involved in the Third Section and the suppression of student protests. In July 1877, he was the Head of Moscow police, and famed for his brutality. As his crossed the exercise yard, all the prisoners that noticed him, quickly removed their caps and bowed their heads in deference, all that is apart from Bogolyubov. It may have been that Bogolyubov was absorbed eyes closed in the rays of the sun falling on his face, or merely failed to react in time, but for whatever reason, Trepov bellowed out the command that he be flogged. Corporal punishment in Russia had been declared unlawful in 1863, however for the brutal Trepov this did not matter. In full view of the rest of the prisoners, Bogolyubov was stripped and dragged to the centre of the exercise yard, where he was whipped into unconsciousness. The prisoners reacted as best they could, and throughout that July night they banged metal cups against bars, and shouted their resistance. These protests were brutally subdued when prison guards arbitrarily burst into cells and beat inmates insensible, including a political prisoner who having spent years previously was deaf, and who was not even aware of the chaos caused by the extra-legal beating of Bogolyubov. For the Zasulich, Kolenkina and other members of the Zemlya i volya, the action of Trepov in addition to his position as head of the Moscow police made him a viable target. It was decided that Zasulich would focus upon his assassination, whilst Kolenkina would turn her attentions to Vladislav Zhelekhovskii, the prosecutor in the Trial of the 193.
Vera Zasulich was born on 8 August 1849, in Mikhaylovk and like many of her peers in the radical political milieu of the period was the offspring of minor nobility. In her case, her father was impoverished and had four daughters. When Zasulich was only three years old, her father died and her poverty stricken mother unable to care for the children financially, sent them to live with rich relatives, the Mikulich family. After graduating high school, Zasulich moved to St. Petersburg where she was able to secure employment as a clerk. Sometime in 1866 – 1869 she met Sergei Nechaev and began to hold literacy and political classes for factory workers. It was not long before her associations and actions bought her to the attention of the Third Section, and in 1869 she was arrested and imprisoned. Following her release in 1873, Zasulich moved to Kiev, where she quickly found herself working with other insurgents and followers of Bakunin. Following the actions of Trepov in 1877, Zasulich decided to act. After purchasing a Bulldog revolver, Zasulich decided to assassinate Trepov in St. Petersburg. The assassination of the Chief of Police in what was then the hub of the Russian media, and law courts, was virtually guaranteed to make press, and would allow for the revolutionary message and motivations to spread. In January 1878, Trepov was sat in his office, when a young woman entered wearing a long cloak. The twenty nine year old Zasulich quickly withdrew the revolver from beneath her cloak and attempted to fire upon Trepov. Fortunately for the General the revolver initially misfired, after pulling back the trigger a second time, Zasulichs’ aim was shaky, and the bullet only grazed him. Before she could fire again, Zasulich was wrestled to the ground, and was quickly detained.
Zasulich found herself charged unsurprisingly with the attempted murder of Trepov. What did prove surprising was her trial. During the trial which was not held in camera, the defence team provided evidence of police abuses including the illegal beating of Bogolyubov. For many it seemed that the Chief of Police and his charges were on trial rather than the young woman who responded courteously and with great dignity to all enquiries no matter how hostile from the prosecution. Perhaps because of this, or arguably more likely as a show of defiance towards the overbearing forces of law and order, Zasulich was acquitted. Leaving the court, Zasulich was almost arrested again, but her enthusiastic supporters were able to protect her from the police, and she was rapidly spirited away and into hiding.
The attempt by Maria Kolenkina against the life of the prosecutor of the 193 was to prove less successful than that of Zasulich. Kolenkina was born in the provincial town of Temryuk to a merchant family, and soon found both the town and her family environment stifling. Like many young women of the period, Kolenkina wanted more education that Russia was willing to provide, and her family was willing accept. Defying the aspirations and demands of her family, Kolenkina left home at age twenty and started to study midwifery. In 1873 like many of other idealists of her age group, she joined with the Narodniks, and went to the people. Unlike many other Narodniks, Kolenkina was able to avoid arrest, and had been living with her fellow radical and friend Zasulich in a dilapidated three bedroom flat in St. Petersburg when they hatched their assassination plans. Like Vera, Maria planned to store a revolver beneath a cloak, enter the premises of her would be victim on the same day and time, and when admitted commence firing. Unlike Zasulich, Maria was not admitted and she was unable to fire. Following the release and evasion of another arrest by Vera, police turned their attentions to her friends and comrades. Inevitably, Kolenkina came to their attention. On 11 October 1878, the police attempted to gain entry to the flat to enact an arrest. Maria turned the revolver she had attempted to use against the prosecutor against them. Following a brief gun fight in which there were no injuries (the police had only to wait for Maria to use the few bullets she possessed) she was placed into custody. Zasulich had been spared the brutalities of Russian justice, but Kolenkina was not to be so fortunate and she was sentenced to ten years of hard labour followed by internal exile to the harsh conditions of Siberia. Zasulich and Kolenkina were amongst the first radicals to seek to enact assassinations in Russia but they were not to be the last. Just as Kolenkina is sadly obscured by the more historically well detailed Zasulich, both women are frequently overlooked in favour of those later actions enacted by Sergey Stepnyak-Kravchinsky.
Unlike Zasulich and Kolenkina, the life of Stepnyak-Kravchinsky is far more defined and he is often cited as being the first to enact violence on behalf of Zemlya i volya. Unlike the assassination attempts enacted by his female comrades, those enacted by Stepnyak-Kravchinsky were however to be successful. Born 13 July 1851, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky was the son of an army doctor and another impoverished noble woman in what is now Ukraine. He was trained in both military academy and achieved the rank of second lieutenant in the Russian army before resigning his commission in 1871. Like a surprising number in the serving military, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky felt both empathy and sympathy at the plight of the peasants in Russia, and was moved to both resign his commission and seek to enact social change. Although arrested in 1874 for his efforts at spreading literacy and promoting democratic change amongst peasants, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky was able to make his escape first travelling to the Balkans, and then joining am uprising that occurred in 1877 in the Italian province of Benevento, where thanks to his military training he was able briefly to lead an armed insurgency. Ultimately the short lived rebellion was brutally extinguished, and by 1878 he found himself not only back in Russia, but ensconced in Zemlya i volya and acting as an editor of the party publications. Appalled by the actions of the state in response to the Narodniks, and indeed the treatment of his comrades, Zasulich and Kolenkina, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky decided to take matters into his own hands. This certainly was not something Stepnyak-Kravchinsky was averse to as both his earlier actions in Benevento and indeed his own words show. As he himself was to state;
“Upon the horizon there appeared a gloomy form, illuminated by a light as of hell, who, with lofty bearing, and a look breathing forth hatred and defiance, made his way through the terrified crowd to enter with a firm step upon the scene of history. It was the Terrorist.” (Underground Russia; Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life, with a preface by Peter Lavrov. SM Stepniak-Kravchinskii – 1973 – Westport, Conn.: Hyperion)
Although Kravchinsky had started life as a propagandist, it was the treatment of his fellow members of Zemlya i volya as well as continued State abuses, such as protracted periods of solitary confinement for political prisoners that drove them to an early grave or insanity, that in all probability pushed him towards direct and bloody actions. It is also worthy of note that Kravchinsky also attended the trial of Bardina and the other members of the Frichi circle and had witnessed the ensuing fate of those involved. As a result of all of these injustices, or merely because for many in nineteenth century Russia, hope appeared to be a commodity as fleeting as a stable diet, Kravchinsky enacted his plan. In August 1878, on the busy streets of St. Petersburg, the head of the secret police and member of the State Council of Imperial Russia, General Nikolai Mezentsov had just left his office. The elegantly dressed figure of Kravchinsky walked briskly up to the general and plunged a dagger into his chest. As the General collapsed to the street, and a cry punctuated the noise of the passing pedestrians, Kravchinsky turned swiftly and ran. The General did not survive, and Zemlya i volya had claimed its first victim. Oddly considering the choice and position of the victim, Kravchinsky was able to live underground in Russia until he finally sought refuge in Switzerland in 1880. His stay in Switzerland was brief however and by 1882, he was like many political radicals of the period resident in London. Kravchinsky found a thriving hot pot of members of the political underground, and in 1882 published his recollections of his time in Russia in the book, Underground Russia. Although well regarded by many members of the disposed European and Russian radicals that were resident in London during the period, Kravchinsky was to meet a fate as bloody and brutal as that which befell Mezentsov. On 23 December 1895 between ten and eleven in the morning on a pedestrian crossing near what was to become Woodstock Road Station on the Hammersmith Line, Kravchinsky was struck by a North London Railway passenger train. He was not to survive. In Russia, perhaps because of the actions that were to follow, Kravchinsky was not to be remembered with the fondness he had found amongst many in London. Indeed Vera Figner was to state of him much later in her seminal memoir;
“Kravchinsky… declared that all methods were fair, but they created a cult of dynamite and the dagger, and crowned the terrorist with a halo. Murder and the scaffold acquired a magnetic charm and attraction for the youth of our country, and the weaker their nervous system, the more oppressive the life around them, the greater their exultation at the thought of revolutionary terror. For since the effects of ideas are hardly perceptible to a revolutionary during the brief span of his lifetime, he wishes to see some concrete palpable manifestation of his will, of his own strength.” (Vera Figner, Memoirs of a Revolutionist)
Following the attacks by Zasulich, Kolenkina, and Kravchinsky, and the ensuing police reprisals left many in Zemlya i volya deeply uncomfortable. There was widespread disagreement amongst party members and associates of the best way forward. Many sought to return to the propagandist approach favoured by the earlier Narodniks, but for those that had been radicalised by harsh prison conditions, and seeing many of their peers forced into an early grave by state repressions, terrorist methods including assassination was favoured to escalate the rate and pace of change. In August 1879, a year after the attack by Kravchinsky, Zemlya i volya formerly fractured into two separate and distinct organisations, that although they shared a common goal had very differing approaches towards its fulfilment, namely, Chornyi peredel (Black Repartition) and Narodnaya Volya (Peoples’ Will).
The fracture in Zemlya i volya saw the creation of two separate organisations, both driven for the desire to enact the social change they perceived as being necessary to combat the corrupt autocracy of the period. Chornyi peredel had perhaps the more confusing name. In the context of the Russian language, the black in their name did not have negative connotations, and its more literal meaning is ‘universal’ and relating to the fertile soil of the rural Russian landscape. Although their goals with in alignment with their rival faction, the methods for promoting what they saw as being an inevitable revolution, were chiefly concerning agitation and dissemination of propaganda, and had much in common with the mechanisms already attempted by the earlier Narodniks. Although many of those involved in Chornyi peredel were to be incarcerated in a wave of arrests unleashed by the Third Section, those that survived, ultimately embraced Marxism and helped to establish the first Russian Marxist organisation, the Emancipation of Labour group in 1883. Following the establishing of the latter group, the Marxist texts they focused upon translation of into Russian, were to prove influential in the development of pre-revolutionary factions such as the Social Democrats, and provide a competing ideology to that which inspired the Narodniks. Although important to the political development of Russia and the ensuing revolutionary movements, traditionally Chornyi perdel are overshadowed by the descendent Social Democrats, or by their more explosive peers in Narodnaya Volya.
Narodnaya Volya was directly inspired by the actions of Zasulich, Kolenkina, and Kravchinsky and indeed those of Alexander Soloviev. Although earlier attacks associated with Zemlya i volya had selected targets that in some cases were easy to access (sitting as they were in their offices), Soloviev decided individually to target the root cause of much of the corruption and repression in Russia during the nineteenth century, namely Tsar Alexander II. This would not be the first attempt on the life of the Tsar, as in 1866 a minor noble, and suicidal revolutionary student, by the name of Dmitry Karakozov would also try and fail. Ironically, Karakozov was prevented by taking a good aim at the Tsar with his cheap double barrelled pistol when he was jostled by a peasant born apprentice. Although the 1866 attempt resulted in monarchist triumphalism, it was the assassination attempt by Soloviev that helped galvanise many members of Narodnaya Volya and in all probability played an integral part in its formation.
Little is known of Alexander Soloviev today, and he remains an elusive figure in the history of Russia. There are contradictory reports even of his place of birth, with some historians claiming his place of birth as St. Petersburg, and others as the town of Luga some ninety miles to the South. In addition to the place of his birth being muddled, so too is the date of birth of Soloviev, with many placing it only to the year of 1846. What is known is that Soloviev was in all likelihood the son of a government official of some description. Although there are scant details of the life of Soloviev many positioning him as an inept loner, given his age it is likely that he was amongst those who were to end up further radicalised by Russian autocracy. Soloviev attended university in St.Petersburg, and following graduation allegedly became a school teacher, which was a popular career choice for young Russian idealists of the period. By 1879, Soloviev although employed as a school teacher was also radicalised by the events in Russia, and the ensuing repression by the state. Although there is limited evidence to suggest he was associated with Zemlya i volya he was certainly sympathetic to their aims, and perhaps inspired by the earlier abortive attempts of Karakozov was driven to enact his own assassination of the Tsar of all the Russias.
On the morning of 20 April 1879, Tsar Alexander II was taking his morning stroll. Despite the failed attempt on his life by Karakozov some thirteen years previously, the Tsar had not altered his common practice of walking the streets of St. Petersburg, typically with only a few retainers and security in tow. In the world of the Tsar, no matter how egregious and undemocratic his actions, he was beloved by the people, and this view was encouraged and supported by the staunch and fervent monarchists that surrounded him. Indeed, it was his very predictability of routine that was to be his undoing. As the Tsar neared the Square of the Guards Staff in St. Petersburg, he found himself face to face with the revolutionary schoolteacher. In his hands, Soloviev held a cheap revolver. Initially shocked by the gaunt and moustachioed figure in front of him, Tsar Alexander was more shocked by what he was holding, and what was pointing at him. In a not particularly regal manner, the Tsar bolted away from the gun toting Soloviev. As the Tsar fled, Soloviev fired five times, missing the Tsar as he weaved a hasty path (as taught to Russian troops under fire) before he was quickly subdued. Of the five bullets fired none reached the Tsar, and Soloviev soon found himself quickly bought to trial before he was hanged in front of seven thousand spectators on 28 May 1879. Other than scarce biographical details and his poor aim, what motivated Soloviev is a largely unknown quantity, as indeed is much of his past. It is easy to ascribe his motivation as being the repression of the Narodniks and their later peers, but his actions could however abortive were certainly to bear a considerable influence on the emergent Narodnaya Volya.
For many associated with Zemlya i volya, the actions of the would-be assassins were seen as destructive acts that only served to bolster support for the monarchy and ruling classes. For many however the radical musings of the earlier Russian Nihilists and Chernyshevsky had captured their attentions. From this group, Narodnaya Volya was born, in an attempt to spark a revolutionary movement, by whatever means, violent or otherwise, it had at its disposal. Many of the early members doubtless saw themselves as the avenging spirit of Rakhmetov, however many were perhaps drawn to violence as peaceful measures had resulted only in further repression, insanity, exile, and death. Indeed the early days of Narodnaya Volya were for the most part peaceable. During the initial months of their formation, Narodnaya Volya members and sympathisers sought to establish workers study circles throughout Russia. Unlike those founded by the Narodniks, those associated with Narodnaya Volya would be used to foster and support a radical agenda that called for a complete freedom of conscience. Although driven by the altruism of the Narodniks, Narodnaya Volya also drew heavily for the aggression of the earlier Nihilist movement.
It was pointless creating worker study circles, if they workers had nothing to study, and within rapid order, Narodnaya Volya had also established an illegal press. As well as producing proclamations and leaflets in support of their cause, Narodnaya Volya also produced a short print run (consisting of five issues) of an eponymous journal. Although largely autonomous in nature, Narodnaya Volya had learned from the earlier mistakes of the precedents and formed an executive committee, which consisted of a number of notable revolutionaries including Vera Figner and Sophia Perovskaya. Although at its peak this executive committee was to be formed of some fifty young men and women, the overall core membership of Narodnaya Volya was arguably no more than five hundred people. Despite their use of a self-selected executive committee, most of the membership and supporters of Narodnaya Volya were formed into small cells owing to the incessant surveillance and repression of the Russian government. Their stated goal was to break apart just this government, and some months after the abortive assassination attempt by Soloviev, on 28 August 1879 the executive committee issued a proclamation calling for the death of the Tsar for crimes committed against the Russian people. Members of the organisation were quick to answer the call to action.
In the late summer of 1879, members of Narodnaya Volya commenced what was to be a wave of failed assassination attempts. It was common knowledge at the time that the Tsar frequently utilised the Russian railway network to move across his vast empire, and it was here that the revolutionaries first concentrated their efforts. Following the proclamation, Vera Figner obtained employment as a domestic servant for the head of the Odessa railways in order to establish the schedule of the Tsars movements. Figner was one of the few members of Narodnaya Volya to escape the ensuing chaos they would unleash. Born on July, 1852 Vera Figner was the daughter of minor nobility whose father had worked in the forestry service and controlled lands formerly worked by serfs who were liberated in 1861. Originally educated in Kazan, Figner had aspirations towards a career in medicine. These aspirations were to be thwarted when one of the few institutions that accepted female students, the St. Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy closed its doors, and like many of her background and aspiration, Figner sought to continue her studies in Geneva, and was loosely associated for a period with the Frichi circle. She had been politicised by the closure of education to her, and by the savage treatment of the Russian peasantry, and having survived a spell as a propagandist in the country side, and been further radicalised by the conviction of old friends from Geneva had joined the executive committee of Narodnaya Volya and was amongst those plotting the prospective assassination of the Tsar.
Following her installation as a servant, Figner was able to secure a schedule of the train travels of the Tsar, and other members of Narodnaya Volya were able to find positions as a signalman. Within days, the group had mined with dynamite which they had stolen previously, the prospective route that the Tsars train was due to travel upon. Although the Tsar was predictable in his modes of transportation, he was sadly far from reliable when it came to routes, and Vera soon learned that the planned route had been altered at the last moment. The group quickly retrieved the dynamite that would have exploded if the Tsar had followed the tracks as planned, and quietly disappeared back into the St. Petersburg underground. This was not to be the last abortive attempt on the life of the Tsar, and following an incident where a member of Narodnaya Volya failed to properly a carriage laden with dynamite as that carrying the Tsar due near, another plan concerning use of dynamite on the railway network was hatched by Figner and her co-conspirators.
In November of 1879, two members of Narodnaya Volya, namely Lev Gartman and Sophia Perovskaya moved to a suburban house in Moscow situated near to the major arterial railway line. Posing as a young married couple by the name Sukhorukov, Gartman and Perovskaya began the construction of a tunnel from the cellar of the house towards the nearby tracks, whilst Gartman posed as a railway inspector. They made an attractive couple but their backgrounds were decidedly different. Lev Gartman was born the Arkhangelsk Province, a land of fertile lands and driving arctic snow in 1850. Details of his early life are fragmentary at best, but what is known is that he was the son of a member of the bourgeoisie, and the scant Russian middle classes. He joined Zemlya i volya as a twenty six year in 1876, and lived in a number of their settlements where he worked as a propagandist. When the group fractured, Gartman was initially associated with the Chornyi perdel faction, however it was not long before he grew disillusioned with them and joined with former comrades who had also switched allegiances to Narodnaya Volya. The life of his counterfeit wife, Sophia Perovskaya is far better documented, and stands as a contrast.
The daughter of an aristocratic family who could trace their lineage back to the Empress of Russia, Elizabeth Petrovna, Sophia was born on 13 September 1853 in St. Petersburg and raised initially in a lavish mansion in the grounds of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Her father had for a period been the military governor of St. Petersburg and her grandfather had for a time been the Russian Minister of Interior. Unlike the humble roots of Gartman, Perovskaya was very much a product of the nobility of her time. Following a youth in the Crimea where she had chosen to reside on the estates of her mother to escape her overbearing father, and in which her studies were infrequent, Sophia began attending the Alarchinsky University for Women in 1869 following the families return to St. Petersburg. Here she quickly found herself accepted and indeed educated by other young women who were involved in the radical movement, and following the objections of her father to her new found friends, abandoned the palatial family home aged sixteen. After moving in radical circles for a number of years, Sophia was arrested in January 1874, and tried as part of the Trial of the 193. Like many of her peers she was acquitted but rather than return to the family that had in large part disowned their prodigal daughter became involved with Zemlya i volya. In 1878 she was arrested again, and this time sentenced to exile and banishment. On route to the savage environment of Siberia, Sophia escaped, returning to St. Petersburg, and going underground with former comrades as part of the far more radical Narodnaya Volya, where she promptly became a member of the executive committee. A year later, she was residing in Moscow with a fellow radical, and assisting with the digging of a tunnel which went all the way to the train tracks running from the station and into the Russian countryside.
For two months in winter of 1789, members of Narodnaya Volya were frequent visitors to the home of the young couple known to their neighbours as Sukhorukov. Working during the day when the noise of their excavations would remain unheard, members of the group slowly and inexorable inched their tunnel closer to the tracks. Although there was a nearby house fire that almost led to the discovery of the group, eventually they had reached their goal. Using intelligence that they had gathered they knew that the Tsar was due to be travelling from Livadia to Moscow in December 1879. Having opened up the tunnel to allow for access to the train track, the group carefully laid bottles of nitroglycerin nearby and prepared to detonate it as the Tsars’ train due near. Their preparations made, Perovskay and Gartman quietly packed their scant belongings and moved from the house, leaving two other members of Narodnaya Volya to blow up the Tsars’ train.
According to all the information the group had been able to gather, the Train carrying the Tsar was one of two trains that were due to the use the tracks on the approach to Moscow between ten and eleven at night. As the time approached, a train sped past. As it was before the expected time the Tsar was due to be travelling, the bombers let it pass, assuming that it was in all probability an advance train, often despatched in front of that carrying the Tsar and his household, and bearing security. Their patience was rewarded when shortly afterwards, a second train approached them. Quickly and efficiently the conspirators detonated the nitroglycerin and retreated back into the safety of the tunnel that was to provide their escape route as the train burst into flame, and smoke and twisted metal filled the cold night air. The explosion was to convulse the Russian aristocracy and unleash a further crackdown on suspected political dissidents however it was to prove a spectacular failure in other ways. In a change from protocol, the train carrying the Tsar had proceeded into Moscow, and the would-be assassins had failed to destroy a train carrying his household servants. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg the response by the authorities was swift and another wave of arrests was unleashed. In response, Lev Gartman escaped abroad. Although later arrested in Paris on 23 January 1880, at the behest of the Russian authorities, Gartman was to be released owing to pressure from public figures no less laudable than Victor Hugo, before proceeding to London where he met and became friendly with both Marx and Engels. In 1881 he was appointed by the executive committee as the foreign representative of Narodnaya Volya, however owing to the later actions of the group this was not to be a position that would last, and he left London in late 1881 for New York where he was to die in 1908. Undeterred by the possibility of arrest, Sophia Perovskaya returned to St. Petersburg dedicated to continuing to realise the proclamation issued on 28 August 1879.
Following the detonation of the wrong train, members of Narodnaya Volya began to prepare for their next assassination attempt. During this period Sophia Perovskaya also was to fall in love with Andrei Zhelyabov. A fellow member of the executive committee, Zhelyabov would later be compared by Lenin to other staunch revolutionaries such as Maximilien Robespierre. For now he and Perovskaya risked the ire of many of their comrades by marrying in secret. The marriage revitalised both the couple and they used their new found commitment to invigorate those members of Narodnaya Volya whose commitment was flagging. One member of the group that remained steadfast in his beliefs was Stefan Khalturin. Born of peasant stock unlike many in the group, or indeed the executive committee, Khalturin was able to find employment as a carpenter making repairs to the Tsars’ Winter Palace in November 1879. On the night of 17 February 1880, Khalturin detonated pounds of dynamite he had been slowly positioning beneath the palace dining room. This explosion also failed to assassinate the Tsar, and resulted in deaths of both guards and civilians. For the members of Narodnaya Volya it was another dismal failure (this episode is addressed in more detail in my forthcoming book, Bombs, Bullets and Bread: The Politics of Anarchist Terrorism Worldwide, 1866-1926). It was to be their last.
There was a renewed sense of urgency to the actions of Narodnaya Volya given the failed attempts at the aggressive scrutiny of both the police and the Third Section. The executive committee gathered and discussed their options. It was common knowledge that for years, every Sunday had seen the Tsar travelled by carriage to witness the military roll call at the Mikhailovsk barracks in the heart of St. Petersburg. It was decided that members of the group would again to fulfil their proclamation on this route. This was an attack that need not have happened. Following the failed bombing by Khalturin, Narodnaya Volya had issued a proclamation that all attacks against the Tsar would be called off if only he and his government would consider granting a constitution that allowed for free elections, and bought an end to censorship. In February 1880 following the explosion that ripped through the Winter Palace, the Tsar stated publicly that such demands would be granted consideration. In the interim, the Russian police formed what was later to become the notorious Okhrana, and sought to position undercover agents and informants amongst the ranks of both the political radicals and indeed progressive movements throughout Russia. By the following year, although details of a regional congress had been discussed with the Tsar, no tangible progress had been made in allowing for either democracy or freedom of communication, and Narodnaya Volya began to slowly enact their plans. The route along the street to Mikhailovsk barracks was mined, and it was agreed that should that fail to find its mark, members of the group would throw bombs at the royal carriage, and if that too should meet with failure would attack with both knives and revolvers. Those involved knew that if they succeeded or failed they would either be killed during the attack or shortly afterwards. Put in charge of the operation was the daughter of the aristocracy, Sophia Perovskaya whilst the bomb makers who were now becoming adept, occupied the flat of Vera Figner and rapidly assembled the necessary armaments. The route mined, and the bomb throwers prepared for what was in all likelihood due to be a suicide bombing owing to the range of the explosives they had been equipped with, the executive committee decided that the morning of Sunday 13 March 1881 was their most propitious chance.
The members of Narodnaya Volya involved in waiting for the Tsar could not be certain either of his route, or if he would venture out. Repeated attempts on his life had made his closest advisors nervous however the Tsar himself was still largely unconcerned. Thus it was that the royal carriage set off with an escort of six Cossack outriders. Rather than proceeding down the normal route to Mikhailovsk barracks, the procession instead passed along the Catherine canal, thus making the mines that had been so carefully laid by the assassins useless. The attack now would be in the hands of the bomb throwers. Having heard of the Tsar choosing to travel to the barracks, it was decided by Sophia Perovskaya that in all probability that the cortege would in all likelihood return the way it had come. After installing the bomb throwers at regular intervals alongside the railings that ran along the Catherine canal, she began an agonising wait on the other side of the canal where she could view the procession if it was to come into view, and signal to her comrades. At approximately 2.15pm, Perovskaya signalled that the procession was in range and travelling at speed. As the cortege drew along the canal, one of the bombers, a nineteen year old one time engineering student Nikolai Rysakov threw his device. His bomb had been thrown too late, and failed to make much of an impact on the bullet proof carriage the Tsar was seated in. It resulted in serious injury to one of the Cossacks, and a passing delivery boy who had been walking along the canal. Following the loud explosion that ripped through the quiet street, the procession drew to a halt, and Rysakov was quickly wrestled to the ground by the still shaken Cossacks. In a spectacular display of lack of awareness, the uninjured Tsar got out of the bullet proof carriage, and surveying the scene of carnage reportedly stated “Thank God, I am untouched!” His declaration had barely cleared his lips, when a second bomber, a twenty four your old former mathematics student and son of minor nobility, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, stepped closer and shouted “It may too soon to thank God” as he heaved a second device in the direction of the Tsar.
As the smoke gradually cleared, the shattered bodies of both Tsar Alexander and Hryniewiecki could be seen strewn across the street. The Tsar was bleeding profusely from serious wounds to his legs, stomach and face, and following a brief and panicked hunt for a carriage was relayed at speed to the Winter Palace, where at 3:30pm he was to die. His assassin Hryniewiecki was also dragged back to the infirmary attached to the Winter Palace, where after regaining consciousness at 9pm he was questioned by the police before dying from his own wounds at 10:30pm. The third bomber, Timofey Mikhaylov a twenty one year old factory worker and labourer from Smolensk, and Sophia Perovskaya melted away into the busy crowds who had been drawn by the smoke and explosions to the canal.
After multiple attempts on his life, and a concentrated campaign of terrorism, the Tsar was dead. Far from prompting the revolution that the members of Narodnaya Volya had for so long envisioned, the death of the Tsar led to an uncompromising and predictably repressive response from the Russian forces of law and order. The dispossessed industrial factory workers of the cities and the serfs in all but name of the country, failed to rise up en masse against the aristocracy and the ruling Russian elite. Members of Narodnaya Volya that had so long held on to the fantasy of a revolution being bought about by acts of terrorism were in a precarious situation, made more so by the arrest of the youngest and least experienced of their group, Rysakov. Predictably the questioning of Rysakov was brutal, and perhaps equally predictably he broke under it. In rapid fashion, the Third Section had rounded up and detained all those involved principally involved in the plot, Nikolai Kibalchich (the groups explosives expert), Timofei Mikhailov, Sophia Perovskaya, and her husband, Andrei Zhelyabov. Rather than face arrest some members of Narodnaya Volya killed themselves, but once the conspirators were detained the authorities turned their attention to other members of the group. Of those arrested and sentenced to exile for life was Vera Figner who was freed in 1905, and was one of the executive committee who survived to old age. The members of the group that Rysakov had confirmed in the assassination of the Tsar did not. Following a brief trial that commenced in March 1881, all of the accused were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. On April 3, two carriages filled with the accused left the prison and headed towards the place of execution. At a little after nine in the morning, the executions began. Sophia Perovskaya was hung next to her husband, and was the first woman to be executed in Russia for terrorist offences. It was an unfortunate end for them all, but perhaps worst of all for the humble factory worker Mikhailov. His executioners had not taken into consideration a life of hard labour, and owing to his muscular frame, the first two ropes they attached to his neck broke in rapid succession. After finding a reinforced rope, Mikhailov was finally hung next to the lifeless bodies of his former comrades.
The death of Tsar Alexander II had failed to achieve what was hoped for by the members of Narodnaya Volya and had only served to destroy the group. His fathers’ death saw the succession of his son Alexander III of Russia, who spent thirteen years as Tsar. Nicholas III was even more autocratic and brutish than his father and possessed little of his liberalism. The conditions many in Russia endured continued to worsen, as the new Tsar attempted to undo some of the reforms that his assassinated father had implemented. In a quirk of fate, the surviving revolutionaries in Russia drew from the earlier example of Narodnaya Volya and began to plot against the new Tsar. Their conspiracy was discovered by the increasingly powerful Okhrana and this led to the execution of those involved including Alexander Ulyanov, the elder brother of the man Russia and the world would later come to know as Vladimir Lenin.
The history of Russia is littered with rebellion. In this the centennial year and month of the Red October (which ironically occurred in November) many only consider 1917 and 1905 as being emblematic of this Russian fight for democracy. The events that were to unfold in the early part of the twentieth century have their roots established in the nineteenth, when an autocratic and dissociative regime sought to limit basic human rights for its citizens. Those involved in the ensuing acts of terrorism and violence were young men and women drawn from a variety of backgrounds. All shared a common experience of being idealists that the state had sought to repress. It was the very nature of this repression that arguably led to an increase in acts of violence and carnage. Many of those involved have been forgotten or neglected by history and rarely do they feature in conversations regarding the events of Red October. Without them however, the revolution and ensuing change in Russia would not have occurred. Although many of their efforts did not meet with success, their actions were to inspire those that followed, and finally the autocracy was to fall. Unfortunately for history, and the people of Russia, it was to be replaced by another society based which eventually was also to be based upon subservience and repression.
It was a calm Saturday morning, and her duties were thankfully limited. Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was relieved of that. For as long as she could remember in the majority of her sixty one years she had always abhorred ceremonial duties. Today she had to travel, which was one of the things that Elisabeth (commonly called Sisi by some members of the press) enjoyed in her advancing years; and had been denied her for much of her life. Far from the first flush of youth, Sisi still maintained a vigorous and exacting beauty regimen that saw her having to peel a leather mask from her face in her bedroom of the suite of the Hôtel Beau-Rivage. Throughout the night in had held in place the crushed strawberries she used to soften her skin. Following her morning wash, Sisi as was typical would spend the next several hours with her hairdresser, styling her floor length hair. She would not eat this morning, preferring instead to endure her fast that had seen her so famed for the nineteen inch waist of her youth. Although she had stopped sitting for the steady procession of portrait artists when she was thirty, and rarely appeared at public formal occasions, Sisi still possessed a streak of vanity that regularly saw her suffering for her looks.
Although a famed beauty when younger, Elisabeth had a life touched by tragedy. Born on December 25, 1837, Sisis was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria. Regarded as eccentric in his own lifetime, her father would go on to sire ten children including Sisi, popularise Bavarian folk music, and in a trip to Egypt and Palestine a year following the birth of Elisabeth purchase and liberate slave children in a Cairo market. For his daughter however, he was an aloof figure, and also responsible for many of the problems of her later life. Aged twenty, Elisabeth had entered an arranged marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Although this marriage made her both the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary, it was far from happy. Franz Joseph was a rigid, unimaginative, and sober man, who although he indulged his new wifes’ retreat from court duties and obligations, and her introverted hyperactivity was far from her ideal (indeed it has been suggested by some historians that his youthful philandering may have resulted in her contracting syphilis). Far from a regular sleeper in her youth, the emotional distance of the couple grew as Sisi barely slept. As Franz Joseph slept, Sisi would sit up through the night, reading, writing, and most shockingly of all for the age, smoking liberally. All of her nocturnal activities resulted at her attempts at poetry. Although not particularly gifted, Sisi writing under the alias of Titania (the fairy queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) expressed her longing for both travel and the adventurous life that her rank had denied her.
As befitting and expected of her rank, Sisi soon gave birth to four children. Two of her daughters, Sophie and Gisela were all but abducted by Sisis’ mother in law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, with their mother refused access to even wet nurse the infants. This was not to be the last of the problems Elisabeth was to have with her children. Following the death of the younger Sophie of typhus in 1857, Sisi was denounced for not producing a male heir, with her domineering mother in law composing and printing an anonymous pamphlet. In 1858, Sisi was to give birth to Crown Prince Rudolf who was later to further add to her woes. In 1889, the Mayerling incident was to occur which was to have a momentous impact on nineteenth European history, but on a personal scale, was to devastate Elisabeth.
By 1889, Rudolf was a married man to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. By all available accounts this marriage like the one of his mother before him was an arranged and largely loveless affair. Although an unhappy marriage, the couple became parents to Archduchess Elisabeth Marie of Austria (known as Erzsi) in 1883. The birth of a child failed to repair the relationship however, and by 1889 it was common knowledge amongst the court, to his wife, and his mother Elisabeth that Rudolf had been engaged in a number of affairs, most recently with the seventeen year old, Baroness Mary Vetsera whom he had met several months earlier in November 1888. On the evening of 29 January 1888, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph held a formal family dinner at which Rudolf was present. At some point during the dinner he left citing ill health and travelled to the Imperial hunting lodge in Mayerling, Austria some fifteen miles from the capital. Here he was due to go shooting with Count Joseph Hoyos on the morning of 30 January.
When the morning came there was no answer from the room of the Crown Prince. After repeated attempts from the royal valet, Loschek he called on Hoyos, and together they broke down the thick and immobile bedroom door with an axe. The scene that greeted them was far from pleasant. Laid on top of Rudolfs’ bed was the motionless, rigid, and lifeless body of Mary. Next to her was the slumped body of the Crown Prince, who was bleeding profusely from his mouth. The first thought of the valet and the Count is that Rudolf had murdered his young mistress and then poisoned himself by drinking strychnine. Royal protocol dictated that the death of the heir be reported first to Sisi, before she informed the Emperor of their loss. This was followed, and it by all available accounts impacted on her heavily. As so did the later reporting and very brief police investigation, of the incidents in Mayerling. The story that soon took hold is that Rudolf had been involved in a murder and suicide pact with his mistress. In the initial conjecture it was surmised that the Crown Prince had suffered a fatal heart attack and Mary overwhelmed by grief had committed suicide. This quickly changed to Rudolf having murdered his vivacious young mistress and then committing suicide himself following protracted arguments with his father about the affair. On 31 July 2015, the National Library of Austria finally solved the mystery of the Mayerling incident when it revealed a series of letters that Mary had sent to her mother and had been stored in an Austrian bank safe deposit box since 1926. Given the reaction of Franz Joseph to their affair, the couple had decided upon a suicide pact, and had ended their lives by mutual agreement. Thought by many to be a murder suicide, the evidence from the letters shows instead that it was merely a tragic suicide caused by the demands of family, position, and adherence to immobile nineteenth century morality. The death of Rudolf was to fracture the line of succession for Austro-Hungarian Empire which ultimately led to the son of the emperor’s brother, Karl Ludwig, Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 was a precipitating factor into plunging the world into a bloody and fruitless conflict that led to the death of millions.
Following the death of her son, Elisabeth began to wear the long black gowns associated with mourning. These were to remain the sole staple of her wardrobe for the rest of her life. A marriage that had been strained before the death a child, all but fractured following it. Elisabeth found refuge in a constant cycle of travel including to such locations as Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Turkey, and Egypt, and was an infrequent visitor at best at court in Vienna. Although Sisi and the Emperor frequently corresponded, they led separate lives with the Emperor residing in Austria, and his wife residing in a succession on international hotels, often incognito so as to avoid the pomp and ceremony she had come to despise. It was in such a manner that she found herself staying in the Hôtel Beau-Rivage in Geneva Switzerland during September 1898.
After her morning beauty routine, the Empress and her travelling companion, the Hungarian Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály left the hotel at 1:35pm on 10 September 1898. Although they were travelling incognito as was Elisabeths’ standard of the period, earlier a thief had attempted to rob their suite following information leaking out about the identity of the slim elderly female guest who always dressed in mourning clothes and finding its way into the pages of the Tribune de Genève a few days prior. As such the Empress had been warned by the local police about public appearances, but as had become typical, such warnings went unheeded. She and the Countess had a ship to catch, namely the steamship Genève bound for Montreux. Foregoing a procession with her entourage, the Empress and the Countess decided to walk the short distance to the ship along the fashionable Genevan promenade. As the ship bell announced its imminent departure and the empress hurried towards the gangway, a moustachioed young man appeared to stumble into the Empress. In reality he was driving a four inch sharpened needle file into her left breast that would ultimately result in her death only moments later. The twenty five year old responsible for the death of the black clad Empress was Luigi Lucheni.
The life of Elisabeth had been tinged with the loss of children, however in her assassin she found someone who had lost parents, a factor that was later to play a part in her death. Luigia Lucchini was a young woman from the town of Albareto situated in the Montana Valley of Taro and Ceno, Italy. Employed as a laborer by a local land owning family, at a young age she began a clandestine relationship with the son of the landowner, Luigia Lacchini di Tombeto. Falling pregnant, she was forced to travel to France to give birth to the child on 22 April 1873 in Paris. Following the birth, Luigia abandoned the child at the Hospice des enfants assistés, a Parisian hospice for abandoned children before eventually emigrating to the United States, possibly ending up in San Francisco where she worked as a bartender, never to be seen again. Thanks to a clerical error when the child was registered, Luigi Lucchini was to become forever known as Luigi Lucheni. Following his arrival at the Parisian hospice and the rapid departure of his young mother, Luigi was transferred to the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvé for foundlings, abandoned children, and orphans. Although accidentally French by birth Luigi soon found himself, in an unsolved mystery of history, back in his mothers’ native Albareto. It may have been that his mother left details of relatives in Italy, and typically authorities were always keen to find relatives however distant as it furnished them with one less mouth to feed. Whilst still an infant Luigi found himself being returned to Italy, to the mercies of distant relatives. Rural life in Italy during the nineteenth century was bleak in all but scenery. Employment was precipitous and for the most part subject to effectively feudal whim. Hunger and privation and death were common. For a bastard such as Luigi in a staunchly Catholic environment, life may have been even bleaker. According to all available records (of which there are few), Luigi was regularly shuffled around the Albareto area from one distant relative to orphanages and back again. With no parental support, Luigi experienced some of the worst of rural life of the period. He regularly experienced bouts of hunger resulting malnutrition, and was forced to work from a young age for what scant provisions he received. Although evidence suggests much of the work he was forced to engage in there in also some that suggests that he may have been forced to act as a child beggar appealing to the charity on behalf of a temporarily adopted family. After spending his formative years in penury and privation, quite in opposition to the dazzling opulence of the childhood of his later victim, Luigi left Albareto aged fourteen in search of employment, and a chance at a life that had thus far been denied him.
As with his younger years, Luigi found gaining meaningful employment difficult, and for a period drifted through Italy in a succession of manual jobs which included brief stints as a chimney sweep and labourer in the Parma-La Spezia railway yard. These were precarious at best, and there must have been spells of loneliness and the hunger that was common for many of the time. Eventually after a period of drifting from job to job and town to town, Luigi was conscripted into the Italian army whilst in Naples. Perhaps surprisingly given his background, Luigi found himself still barely out of his teens as a mounted cavalry soldier in the Horseback Regiment of Monferrato. Although he was to serve in Eastern Africa during the first Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895-96 which was an imperialist attempt distract from the problems back in Risorgimento Italy and indeed was awarded an African Campaign Medal much of his employment in the army was as a valet to the squadron commander Prince Raniero de Vera d’Aragona. Following the conclusion of the Italians rampaging around Ethopia, Luigi found himself back on Italian soil, jobless again. He continued to drift, and seek employment unfortunately he was less successful in the second of these activities. Remembering his days with de Vera d’Aragona, he managed to track down his ex-commander in Naples and found employment briefly as his man servant and valet. Indirectly, Luigi was exposed to the environs and excesses of Bourbon society which contrasted bitterly with his earlier privations. Seeing the glittering society of his current employer, and remembering the grime of much of his past, Luigi requested a raise on his small salary. The Prince refused, and Luigi soon found himself again jobless. According to some accounts, Luigi was briefly considered for the role of a prison director probably due to his new connections, but this was refused. Either as a result of this refusal, or annoyance at the economic constrictions of serving in the Princes’ household, Luigi for whatever reason found himself unemployed and wandering again. His earlier experiences of finding employment repeated themselves and as noted by Luigi in his later memoirs, “most of the time I suffered hunger and cold”.
As well as suffering from the cold, it was during this period that Luigi first came into contact with anarchists in Milan, most probably Pozzi and Borbotti (however he somewhat unsurprisingly is not referenced in Living Like Nomads: The Milanese Anarchist Movement Before Fascism by Fausto Butta). Through his associations with Milanese internationalists, Luigi was able to make contact with comrades in Switzerland such as Gualducci and Silva when he moved to Lausanne in his continuing search for a steady income after briefly considering following the path of his mother to the United States, and being unable to afford his passage. Luigi was able to briefly find employment in the construction of the new town post office. Like with all his previous jobs; it was not to last.
Luigi was at best a peripheral figure in the Italian and Swiss Anarchist movements. For much of his youth he had been forced to constantly wander in search of employment. After being abandoned by his mother, he endured a childhood wherein meaningful education was denied him (accounts highlight that Luigi may have been expelled from education at an early age, ironically because he threw a hat, that inadvertently caused a portrait of the then King to fall and shatter) and abuse and hunger became the norm. Involved in a bloody foreign conflict, he was briefly exposed to a world of wealth and indolence he had never known. All too briefly, he found himself unemployed however this world being snatched back from him. Many people in nineteenth century Europe had endured similar backgrounds and experiences as Luigi. Many workers were forced to endure conditions that were brutal, and wages that were both pitiful and scarce. The disparity between the rich and the poor was a vast gulf, and for many, including the Anarchists, Socialists, and Internationalists one that desperately needed to be addressed (the same sadly holds true in our own age). With these like minds, Luigi may have found a community and connections he had not known since his army days, but he was never embedded as an overt political figure, organizer, writer, or even particularly vocal supporter regardless of what has been conventionally claimed. Indeed, some writers (amongst them Brigitte Hamann) have posited Luigi barely understood much at all about Anarchism, and that many of his peers referred to him as “the stupid one”. At some point however, Luigi seized on the idea of the propaganda of the deed. By action, however criminal, he could potentially enact change, and better yet, exact revenge. It was probably during his time in Switzerland, that Luigi, whom Cesare Lombroso was later to classify in 1902 as hysterically depressed, formulated the idea of committing an assassination.
Initially considered for assassination was King Umberto of Italy and Prince Philippe of Orléans, Count of Paris. The former was to prove too distant a target for Luigi, and the latter was known to be visiting Switzerland, specifically Geneva. By the time Luigi had arrived however, the Duke of Orleans had returned to Paris. Regardless of his departure, Geneva of the period was a favourite of European monarchies, and Luigi knew it would only be a matter of time before he could enact his homicidal plan against someone of import. According to accounts that were to emerge later, he did not have long to wait. After a few weeks spent wandering the streets of Geneva, Luigi made contact with Giuseppe Abis della Clara. This individual was from an Italian noble family, and was in Geneva in charge of horses for a transport company. Possibly through Abis della Clara or one of the many chauffeurs that he knew, Luigi found out that Empress Elisabeth was staying at the Hôtel Beau Rivage before the local papers published this news. An Empress seemed as good a target to Luigi as anyone else on his mental list.
Before he could murder anyone however, Luigi first needed to acquire a weapon. His initial plan was to purchase a stiletto blade for his purposes, but he lacked the twelve francs that its purchase required. He was able to fabricate a cheap implement of death by sharpening a file to a point and attaching it to a piece of firewood. Although crude in its construction, it was to prove devastating in its use.
Luigi watched closely on the afternoon of 10 September 1898 as the Empress and her solitary female escort left the Hôtel Beau Rivage and hurriedly made their way across the promenade to the waiting paddle steamer, Genève. As the elderly women neared the ship, it sounded out a horn of departure, and the women increased their pace, so as to make it on board in time for their trip to Montreux across the expanse of Lake Geneva. Luigi saw his chance, and lurched forward towards the Empress, plunging the sharpened file into her breast, and in the process breaking off its tip. Initially, Sisi thought a mere accident had occurred, and owing to the tightness of her corsets which she always wore to retain her youthful slimness, hurried up the gangway before collapsing on board as the ship as it steamed across the lake. Uncertain if his efforts at assassination had met with any success, Luigi quickly fled the scene of his attempt. His route took him down the along the fashionable promenade and along the Rue des Alpes, where he discarded his home made weapon in the doorway of number 3. Meanwhile, Sisi had collapsed into unconsciousness and after having her corset removed by a doctor on board ship, the Genève had returned to port, and her body had been carried by stretcher back to the Hôtel Beau Rivage. Doctors were immediately summoned to try and revive the stricken Empress, however their efforts were to prove fruitless and Sisi was declared dead at 2:10pm. A commotion had been caused owing to Luigis’ attack and as the screams of Hungarian Countess Irma Sztáray punctuated the Swiss afternoon, Luigi was pursued by some nearby cab drivers. The chase was eventually joined by a gendarme and a passing sailor, and eventually the group caught up with Luigi who had already discarded the blade and his was unceremoniously detained.
Following the death of the Empress, the local police had the murderer in custody, but as yet no motive, and no weapon. The latter of these was soon to be addressed when a concierge recovered the home made blade when cleaning number 3 Rue des Alpes the following morning. Initially he assumed that the file potentially belonged to a labourer who had recently moved from the premises, however reading the news of the assassination and the missing murder weapon deposited it with the police two days after the attack. As to the motivation of Luigi, initially it was assumed that he was an Anarchist (and indeed this remains the popular conception) something he was later to confirm by his own purported statements during police interview in which he allegedly stated that he had committed the attack “because I’m anarchist. Because I’m poor. Because I love the workers and I want the death of the rich”.
The trial of Luigi began days following the assassination of Sisi, and was like many of the period a quick affair. Testimony indicated that he had attempted to purchase both a revolver and a knife from someone by the name of Pozzo (presumably the supplier of the overpriced stiletto blade). Throughout the trial Luigi also frequently made appeals for the death penalty so as to achieve the martyrdom he wished for. He also used to it as an opportunity to expound on his reasons for the attack, namely that those who did not work did not deserve to live, and the victim far from being a frail and neurotic elderly woman, was symbolic only of a crown. Despite his protestations to be tried in Lucerne which still retained the death penalty, Luigi was tried in Geneva which did not. Unsurprisingly he was to receive the longest available sentence for his actions, life imprisonment, with the first six months of it to be spent in solitary confinement.
The actions of Luigi Lucheni were one of a long line of supposedly Anarchist outrages that rocked Europe during the nineteenth century (as discussed in my forthcoming book). Facing growing pressure from the media concerning the wave of politically inspired attacks (that were often resultant of egregious state actions themselves) various nations used the pointless death of Sisi to commence the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense Against Anarchists in November 1898. The Conference gathered representatives from the governments of twenty one countries and resulted in a swathe of measures in an attempt to combat the supposed insurrectionary threat posed by Anarchists. From it was also born an agreed definition of Anarchism as being “any act that used violent means to destroy the organization of society”. As well as providing an incorrect definition, the conference also resulted in measures such as blanket surveillance of supposed or alleged Anarchists, and making illegal membership of Anarchist organisations, and possession of Anarchist literature. Various states rapidly adopted identification of Anarchists across borders, and sought to share information between national police forces. The wave of repression that followed the Rome Conference did little to address the simmering resentment of many of the urban poor, and thousands soon found themselves convicted and imprisoned often on the flimsiest of evidence, which further exacerbated social conflicts. Far from being a success in countering terrorist threat, the Conference resulted in continued attacks in response to increasingly aggressive and belligerent nation states.
As for the fate of Luigi Lucheni, whilst in prison, he taught himself to read French and began working on his memoirs, ‘Mémoires de l’assassin de Sissi’. According to some accounts, in October 1910 after twelve years in prison, this manuscript was confiscated by the prison authorities, and on 19 October 1910 was found hanging dead in his cell, having committed suicide by attaching his belt to the bars. As remains standard in our own time, upon being incarcerated all belts were confiscated from prisoners upon internment, which does prompt the questions as to where Luigi obtained the belt upon which he ended his days. Murder or suicide, the result was the same, and his end was inglorious. Following a forensic examination, his head was removed from his body, the former being preserved in a jar of formaldehyde which was stored in the Institute of Forensic Science of the University of Geneva until 1985. It was only in 2000 that this grisly artifact was finally buried in Vienna.
When discussing Anarchist propaganda of the deed, the assassination of Sisi is often cited as one of the most egregious examples. Although the monarchy were utterly divorced from the grinding poverty that blighted much of nineteenth century Europe, and responsible for all manner of outrages often against their own unarmed civilians, the elderly Empress arguably did not fall into this latter camp. As such her assassination was particularly damaging for the positive social change desired by the Anarchists. Many rapidly turned against the actions of the assassin, particularly Emma Goldman who was appalled that the victim regardless of social status was a woman. Thanks to the missing memoirs which were recovered in 1938 by Santo Cappon following years of historical detective work, the motivations of Luigi seem to be less inspired by Anarchist thought, but more about making a name for himself. Seeking to redress the injustice he felt following the abandonment of his mother, and a life of almost constant poverty and insecurity, Luigi Lucheni sought to strike out at the established social order of his time. By doing so, he was perhaps seeking to bring attention to social conditions but also to make himself a martyr. Additionally, as posited by Cappon, he was by driving a knife into the heart of an Empress seeking to punish the mother than had abandoned him to his largely joyless and isolated fate. As with many supposed Anarchist proponents of propaganda of the deed, an examination of Luigi Lucheni obscures more than it reveals in terms of certainty. Whether his motives were political or pathological will perhaps never be known. What can be established is that they resulted in the death of an elderly woman whose own life had been touched with tragedy and the establishment of a wave of repressive measures that resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of thousands. Ultimately his actions were as futile and brutish and as much of his life. For a would-be martyr; there can be no worse epitaph.
The evening of 14 January 1858 was bustling in Paris. The crowds were present and packed for a procession from Napoleon III, the then Emperor of the Second French Empire and the nephew and direct heir of Napoleon I. This evening he was due to attend, alongside his cousin and fiancée, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte a performance of Rossini’s William Tell at the Opéra Le Peletier. His arrival was scheduled for half past eight in the evening and the crowds were eager to witness the procession as it passed. For some the mounted cavalry stirred deep rooted feelings of patriotic fervor, for others the crowds provided an excellent mechanism for petty thefts and larcenies. For others still, the crowd served to provide excellent cover. A few hours before the Emperor was due to arrive with his retinue the Parisian police had spotted an individual in the crowd they had been searching for some time. Shortly after 7pm a police inspector by the name of Hérbert spotted Giovanni Andrea Pieri lurking amongst the gathered crowds near the opera house on the Rue Le Peletier. Acting swiftly, he and some constables moved behind the angular frame of the Italian, and roughly held his arms to his side, before taking him into custody. Only a few years prior on 28 April 1855, there had been an assassination attempt on the Emperor by another Italian by the name of Giovanni Pianori who had managed to unleash a few shots from the revolvers he had carried which had ultimately failed to find their mark. Pieri was well known to the police having immigrated to France as a youth, served in the French Foreign Legion, and been resident in Paris for years. In 1848, Pieri had taken part in the Paris Revolution, and had returned to his native Italy to take part in the first Italian War of Independence. A noted and known radical, he was aggressive in his demands for Italian independence, and his distinctive features were easily identified by the sharp eyed Parisian police inspector. When arrested, Pieri was found to be in possession of a loaded six shot revolver, a German passport in another name, and an explosive device the likes of which the police had never seen. Staying silent on the threat so as not to create alarm, the police assumed that the radical was acting alone, and that no other threats were present. As it transpired, Pieri was not alone in his plans, and the actions that were to occur later that evening would lead to an international crisis, the downfall of a government, and unleash onto the global stage a device designed and delivered from Birmingham, UK.
At 8:30pm the Imperial procession appeared on the Boulevard des Italiens heading towards the opera house. At its head was a company of lancers, the tricolour wafting from their steel. Behind them came the Emperor in his steel walled carriage, with his fiancée bringing up the rear, some thirty feet behind. As the group turned left onto the Rue Le Peletier where Pieri had earlier been detained, and came to a stop in front of the opera house, an explosion ripped through the evening, felling both horses and riders. Shortly afterwards a second explosion rang out. This was quickly followed by a third. Shouts and screams filled the streets as above the crowd windows broke and glass shards exploded outwards. As the smoke cleared, it was found that over one hundred people had been injured, and eventually between eight and twelve would die. Although Princess Mathilde had been thrown from her carriage, she was found on the street covered in blood, but unharmed. As too was the Emperor save for a small cut to his nose, who was able to step out of his carriage unaided. In the panic, and smoke, and chaos, the would be assassins had managed to slip away. For some it was not their first escape.
One of those involved that fateful January night was Felice Orsini (or Orso Teobaldo Felice Orsini to give his full name). Born in Mendola in the Papal States (which were later to become Italy) on 10 December 1819, Orsini was the son of an Italian nationalist, and was to become an ardent nationalist revolutionary himself. Giacomo Andrea Orsini was originally from Lugo and had been an officer in the Napoleonic Russian campaign of 1812, and following the conflict found employment as a member of the papal police, whilst at the same time continuing as a Carboneria, or member of the Carbonari, who were active in Italy between 1800 and 1831 and sought Italian unification and independence. Originally from Florence, Orsinis’ mother Francesca Ricci was to die when he was only twelve years old in 1831. Following the death of his mother, the young Felice was moved to the home of his uncle Orso Orsini in Imola in Northern Italy. Far more conservative than his brother, Orso had been made wealthy by the cultivation and trade of hemp for use in ropes, and raised his nephew in both an orthodox and strict environment. It seems that the way in which Orsini was raised was not strict enough however. At the age of 16, on 5 July 1836, Orsini was involved in a fatal shooting. The family cook, Domenico Spada had come across a teenage Orsini playing with a revolver that belonged to his uncle Orso. According to the record of the events as described by Orsini in his later memoirs, he had been so surprised by Spada that he accidentally discharged the revolver at close range resulting in the death of the unfortunate cook. Whatever the truth of this, Orisini soon gathered enough of his wits to flee both the scene and the home of his uncle. Initially charged in absentia with voluntary homicide, luckily for Orsini his uptight uncle was friends with the then Bishop of Imola, Mastai Ferretti. Ferretti as well as being the local bishop was highly enough regarded by the Catholic church that he would later go on to become Pope Pius IX. Perhaps because of the ministrations of uncle Orso, or the high standing of Giacomo in the papal police force, Felice was able to return to the home of his uncle and face a sentence of six months in prison for the accidental murder of the family cook. Following proclamation of the sentence, the Orsini family sent a plea to Pope Gregory XVI requesting clemency on the proviso that the troublesome Felice entered the seminary. Clemency was granted, and although Orsini completed some religious training, he did not become a priest. After a few years in the seminary Orsini first returned to his fathers’ home in Mendola, before again returning to the home of his uncle Orso.
Following the completion of both school and university studies, Orsini graduated and began to practice as a lawyer and became involved in the Italian nationalist movement. At the time of Orsini, Italy as we know it today did not exist. It was not until the Risorgimento that Italy as a country came to be. Before the unification, Italy consisted of a collection of independent states, including those controlled by the papacy. With the end of direct Napoleonic rule in 1815, Italy would be occupied by a variety of foreign nation states, including the Austrians, before it became a nation state in 1861. Orsini was involved in the radical Carbonari movement which consisted primarily of the middle classes and intellectuals who inspired by the French Revolution sought to enact Italian unification by the violent overthrow of all foreign occupiers, including Napoleon III. Whilst still practicing as a lawyer, Orsini founded a secret society by the name of Congiura Italiana dei Figli della Morte (Italian Conjuration of the Sons of Death). Although vaguely sinister in tone, the society probably served as little more than a debating shop, however this did not prevent his arrest. After spending several years in custody, Orsini was released under a general amnesty for political prisoners, which was declared by the bishop who had interceded in his earlier shooting, who had now become Pope Pius IX.
Following his release from Civita Castellana in Lazio in 1846, Orsini moved to Florence which was the birth place of his mother. Here Orsini continued with his earlier Carbonari activities as well as operating a legal practice and in 1848 joined Livio Zambeccari in the first Italian War of Independence. Lasting from March 1848 until August 1849, the First War of Independence saw Sicily first rebel against the rule of the Bourbon Empire before spiraling out from Milan, with Italian nationalists engaged in strikes, rabble rousing, and armed conflict with the Austrian authorities. During this period of tumult, Orsini found time to return to Florence, and marry Assunta Laurenzi on June 28 1848. Following the lead of Giuseppe Mazzini and seeking to bring about the unification of the Italian state by Republican means, Orsini, carried out revolutionary activities and attacks both within the Papal States and throughout the Tuscan region in which he was resident. Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in February 1849 where the rebels were able to temporarily (very temporarily it transpired as the Roman Republic lasted only five months in total) seize power from the Austrians, Orsini was elected as a deputy to the short lived Constituent Assembly. Following armed French interference at the behest of the Pope, the Assembly was disbanded and the short lived experiment in an Italian Republic fell apart, leaving Orsini and many of his peers to flee from invading French troops.
In March 1850, Orsini and his wife settled in Nice. Here he opened a business ostensibly to supply the hemp ropes supplied by his uncle Orso, however he still kept in contact with other Republicans and was in regular contact with Mazzini during this period. His revolutionary and mercantile activities did not impact upon the family growing however, and in 1851, Orsinis’ first daughter Ernestina was born. She was joined in early 1853 by her sister, Ida. Life as a small time merchant was frustrating for Orsini who like many of his generation longed for an Italian that was administered and controlled by the people of Italy rather than aggressive foreign powers. In September of 1853, Orsisin attempted to stage armed revolts in both Sarzana and Massa. Both of these resulted in failure and attracted the attentions of local legal enforcement agencies. Following this debacle, Orsini was forced to leave both his small business and small family behind, and escaped from Italy with the police close at heel, finally finding refuge in London. Life in the British capital was not particularly unpleasant (apart from the grey skies) for Orsini as he was still acting as an agent on behalf of Mazzini and was in frequent contact with other revolutionaries. Although exiled from both his country and his family, Orsini was not isolated, as England at the time had a wide variety of political exiles, including numerous Italian Republicans. Orsini was also not in England long. In 1854 on orders of Mazzini he travelled to Austria where he attempted to start a rebellion amongst troops and in doing so influence their actions within Italy. His attempts did not meet with success, and again Orsini was forced to flee to Hungary with the Austrian police and military in hot pursuit. Here his luck ran out and he was arrested in 17 December 1854. Orsini soon found himself detained for life in the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua, Lombardy.
Although imprisoned for life, Orsini was far from bereft. He was still in regular communication with the outside world, including friends and acquaintances in the United Kingdom, and fellow followers of Mazzini in Italy. As well as communication with the outside world, Orsini was also able to have goods smuggled to him whilst imprisoned, and it was thanks to these that he was able to make a series of increasingly ludicrous escape bids. Initially, Orsini was able to get opium smuggled into his cell. This he used to drug the guard on duty. Unfortunately the small quantity of opium with which he was able to drug the guard with failed to have a particularly soporific effect and when the guards changed duty it was assumed that their drugged up colleague was merely drunk. Not to be disheartened, Orsini then had morphine smuggled in. Unfortunately the quantity provided was insufficient to drug all the prison guards and turnkeys on duty and so this plan too was aborted. Finally on 29 March 1854, in scenes reminiscent of low grade prison movies, Orsini was able to saw through the bars of his cell with a smuggled blade, and after constructing a rope from torn up bedding, shimmy down the 100 feet of the exterior walls of the Castello di San Giorgio. Somehow reaching the ground without breaking his neck, Orsini was met by his contacts, and after quickly changing into peasant clothing made off into the night. Eventually with the support of both friends in the UK and followers of Mazzini in Italy, Orsini was able to make his way back to London using false documents.
Despite the ease with which Orsini was able to make his escape, the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio had a reputation for being impregnable. A physical manifestation of the Austrian state, it was assumed that escape was impossible for those detained within. Much to the chagrin of the Austrians, and the delight of international members of the press, its defenses had been trivially bypassed using a saw, some torn up bedding, and possibly a small bribe to ensure the relevant guards looked the wrong way. Orsinis’ escape was the topping of much conversation, and he quickly exploited it producing two volumes concerning his adventures with Austrian jurisprudence, ‘The Austrian Dungeons in Italy’ (1856) and ‘Memoirs and Adventures of F. Orsini Written by Himself’ (1857) which were widely and enthusiastically read by an amused British public. Orsinis’ time in the United Kingdom was not just spent churning out epistles of his escape, and he was able to contact many fellow Italian nationalists. Included in their number was Giovanni Andrea Pieri who had been a resident of Birmingham since 1853, and Carlo de Rudio (about more later) was living nearby in Nottingham. As well as being in regular contact with those Italian Republicans in the Midlands, Orsini was also briefly a member of the ‘Muswell Hill brigade’ which centered around the radical English solicitor, William Henry Ashurst. Opposed to capital punishment, and slavery, Ashurst was a proponent of the political and social equivalency of the sexes, and established the ‘Friends of Italy’ which welcomed refugees to the fold such as Orsini. Following a acrimonious dispute with another member of the Friends of Italy, James Stansfeld (who would later go on to be Sir James Stansfeld, MP for Halifax and President of the Local Government Board) and the issuance of an invitation to duel by Orsini, the latter fractured his long held association with Mazzini.
It seems odd, on first glance that Orsini would cease his adherence to the cause of Mazzini. He had after all, acted as an agent, an instigator, revolutionist, and briefly member of the Constituent Assembly and for years had adhered to both the cause and strategies outlined by Mazzini. The rift is possibly to do with the acrimony he encountered from the Friends of Italy, the influence of the French exile Simon François Bernard, or merely because Orsini perceived that the current strategy had resulted in little more than privation and exile. Simon François Bernard was like Orsini and exile in London, having taking flight from his native France, and was a committed revolutionary. Although at one point a military doctor in the French navy, by the time of Orisinis’ arrival in England, Bernard was very much associated with European radical movements and was perceived by many to be a martyr in search of a cause, and may have discussed with Orsini the plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise wherein a small group had plotted to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte by use of explosives in 1800. Although he was not to find a cause in Italian Republicanism, the fatalism of Bernard may have proved contagious to Orsini especially considering the latters displacement from many supposed radical circles in London. It was following his break with Mazzini, that Orsini first formulated a somewhat convoluted plan. If he could successfully assassinate the French head of state, the French armed forces would be temporarily rudderless. The death of the French Emperor could perhaps lead to widespread revolt in France, which would spill into the rest of Europe, which could result in the formation of an Italian state as neither the French nor Austrians would be in a position to provide resistance having troubles of their own to consider and address. Fully convinced in the logic of his cause, Orsini sought out both supplies and co-conspirators who could help him enact his plan.
Orsini found likeminded radicals who supported his aspiration in Giovanni Andrea Pieri, Carlo de Rudio and another Italian nationalist, Antonio Gomez who was at the time also a resident of Birmingham. As well as being home to both Gomez and Pieri, Birmingham at the time was also a major manufacturing hub, and it was upon this expertise that Orsini was to draw. In his travels, Orsini had attempted to learn as much as he could with regards both improvised explosives and chemistry and it was a Birmingham gun maker to which he was to turn to develop his invention. Conventional explosives of the period relied upon a fuse or a timer, and it was Orsini who was to provide the world with an alternative. By appending pins filled with mercury fulminate to a casing filled with explosives and shrapnel, the device could be detonated by merely throwing it and causing the pins to come into contact with a solid object.
Birmingham as highlighted was a hub of heavy industry and had a thriving market for gun makers who were at the time of Orsinis’ visit famed throughout the Empire and beyond. Taking the designs of his improvised ordinance around the city, Orsini was able to find a Birmingham gunsmith and manufacturer by the name of Joseph Taylor. According to Graces’ Guide to British Industrial History a likely suspect for the original maker of the Orsini bomb could be found at the time on 49 Lawley Street (which presently in known as Lawley Middleway) or later working as an engineer in an Iron Foundry situated on Broad Street Following construction and testing of the device, Joseph Taylor provided several working devices to the conspirators who smuggled them into France under the auspices of medical equipment.
With newly created fragmentation explosives in tow, the band of assassins arrived in Paris in 1858. On the evening of 14 January 1858, Pieri found himself detained, however Orsini, Gomez and de Rudio were able to detonate their Birmingham made devices with devastating effect. As a result of the explosions that shattered the Parisian evening, Orsini was injured himself by shrapnel and bleeding copiously from a jagged wound to his cheek made his way laboriously back the lodgings of the group after first seeking treatment from a local pharmacy. Although the suspicions of the pharmacist may have been raised, ultimately the group was undone by their youngest member Gomez, who prior to the attack had sought to steady his nerve in a nearby Italian restaurant and was questioned by the police who noticed his nervousness. They could hardly not, as his behavior in the restaurant had what was prompted the police to be called in the first instance. After running around the restaurant in a highly agitated state, Gomez had eventually slammed himself down at a table and ordered meal after meal in rapid succession, failing to finish any of them. When questioned by the police prior to the attack, he helpfully provided the address of the hotel he was staying at for his tenure in Paris. Within hours of the attack, the Parisian police had gathered descriptions of the suspects, and Gomez, de Rudio, and Orsini soon found themselves woken from their hotel beds and marched into police custody to face justice for an attack that left eight people dead, and one hundred and fifty eight injured, and the Emperor of France with a grazed nose.
French justice was swift, and the group was bought to trial on 25 February 1858. Following a two day trial in which the defendants all shifted culpability to Orsini, the judgements were handed down. Although their cause has created some sympathies in French radical circles, Orsini, Pieri, and de Rudio were all sentenced to death, with only Gomez (who was considered largely idiotic) was condemned to a life of penal servitude at the prison of Cayenne in French Guyana. Following the trial, de Rudio was also sentence to a life of penal servitude a decision that may have been as a direct result of his noble birth as he was in actuality the errant son of the Italian nobles, Count and Countess Aquila di Rudio. During his brief detention Orisini composed a number of eloquent letters, however for all his eloquence, sentence was carried out and on 13 March 1858, both he and Pieri were executed by guillotine in Roquette Square. Although Orsini had left a will and requested that his body be buried in Chiswick cemetery in London that was also the resting place of the Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, the French state was in no mood to honor his request and his remains, along with those of Pieri were dumped in a common pit at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.
And here, the story of a Birmingham bomb designed by an Italian radical and thrown at a French Emperor that sadly resulted in civilian carnage would end, were it not for the oddities of history. One of these can ultimately be found in the life of Orsinis’ co-defendant de Rudio. Carlo Camillo Di Rudio (commonly called de Rudio) has a life that has unsurprisingly failed to attract either serious historical research outside of Italy, or the attentions of a Hollywood screenwriter. Born on 26 August 1832, Carlo was the son of Italian nobility, the Count Ercole Placido and Countess Elisabetta de Domini. He enlisted in the Italian military at the tender age of fifteen, and during the Milan uprising referenced earlier in this article was responsible for killing an Austrian soldier who had himself killed and raped two local women. Inspired by the injustice he saw around him, he took part in a number of failed rebellions and met Mazzini and Garibaldi before like Orsini having to seek refuge in the United Kingdom. Following his involvement in the Orsini plot, de Rudio was sentenced to a life of penal servitude in French Guyana. Within a year he had managed to escape from a seemingly inescapable tropical hell, and after surviving a storm which battered his raft as he floated free of Devils Island found his way eventually to England. To escape the diplomatic pressures that the French were bringing to bear on the UK authorities, de Rudio then immigrated to the United States, arriving just as the civil war broke out. Enlisting on the Union side was wounded on multiple occasions and rose to the rank of Captain. Following the civil war, de Rudio stayed in the military and was sent to the Western frontier joining the command of the 7th Cavalry and a certain George Armstrong Custer. On 25 June 1876, de Rudio was present for the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn. One of the few survivors of this seminal event in the history of the American West, de Rudio was transferred subsequently to Texas where he got to know Geronimo. Eventually in 1896 he retired before becoming a successful and prosperous vineyard owner producing wines grown from grapes he had imported from his native Italy.
The somewhat implausible life of de Rudio aside, the Orsini bomb was to live on owing to the later actions not of nationalists and Republicans, but of European Anarchists. On the evening of 7 November 1893, the Spanish Anarchist, Santiago Salvador hurled two Orsini bombs from the balcony at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona which ironically was also staging a performance of Rossini’s William Tell (the same opera the French Emperor had been on his way to observe). The attack by Salavdor left 22 dead and 35 wounded and resulted in a crackdown by Spanish legal authorities that led to the detention, brutal torture, and death of hundreds of Spanish Anarchists. Rather than prompt a revolution against the bourgeoisie, the bloody attack by Salavador led to a bloody reprisal by the Spanish state.
Salvador was not alone in his use of the fragmentation grenade designed by Orsini, and its malignant spread resounded around Europe for decades after its creation in a Birmingham workshop. It remains perhaps one of the most barbarous and bloody exports from Birmingham, and its origins are arguably of interest to not only historians of political violence and terrorism, but those concerned with local history and its impact on the world as a whole. Although Joseph Taylor could not have known at the time, the ordinance he created was to leave a bloody stain on the pages of history, that are now for the most part neglected, however relevant to our own disappointingly fractured and bloody age.
The concept of outsider art is a contentious one. Comparatively recent in definition, it is linked both to the work of psychiatrists and their study of art work presented by patients (for example, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler who in 1921 published his book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) about Adolf Wölfli), or isolated self-taught artists who have little to no contact with the artistic world, however as a term it was first unleased on the world by UK based art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972. It is both a loaded term, and arguably one that seeks to differentiate between the amateur and the professional, and in doing so reinforces differentials that the art world (especially in relation to commerce) has historically thrived upon. There are many noted ‘outsider’ artists, but one of the most noted was from the East End of London, who grew up in poverty, and would go onto to produce works which are now displayed in galleries around the world; Madge Gill.
Madge Gill was born in 1882, apparently named Maude Ethel Eades. According to the research conducted by Roger Cardinal, who as well as coining the term outsider art is also one of the few to write about Madge, she was born in East Ham in Essex. A records search shows that a Maude Eades was also registered in West Ham in 1882 however. Regardless of the confusion of her place and time of birth, what is known is that Madge was born an illegitimate child to her mother, Emma Eades. How old Emma was and what happened to the father of Madge seems to be lost to history, but it is known that Madge was bought up in the house of her grandfather by her mother, and her aunt Clara who also resided in the property. For an illegitimate child in late Victorian England, life typically was unpleasant. To be born illegitimate was to be born a second class citizen, and many families were embarrassed by the presence of such in the home environment. It may have been as a result of this embarrassment, or as a result of financial difficulties of the family (or even something as seismic as the death of the patriarch) but for whatever reason, a probably isolated Madge, found herself placed into the Dr Barnardos’ Village Home for Orphan, Neglected and Destitute Girls in Barkingside, Essex. Detained in the austere environs of a girls home with hundreds of her peers, Madge was later to become part of one of the worst abuses ever suffered on the children of the poor.
Starting in 1869, a child migration scheme for the poor was founded by Scottish evangelical Annie MacPherson. Under the auspices of the Home Children scheme some 100,000 children from the British Isles were transported to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand to alleviate labour shortages. Sourced from the ranks of orphanages and the urban poor, many children were transported across the globe. Many Home Children were either orphaned or from families in poverty. They were placed with settlers or within industrial settings that were often poorly supervised and regulated. Many of the forced young migrants were exposed to lives of privation and abuses of all kinds thousands of miles away from any support networks that they may have once had access to. The Home Children and other forced child resettlement schemes have left dark marks on the history of the United Kingdom and its former colonies, and many of the countries have formally recognized and apologized to the victims. One such was Madge.
Following three years in the home, Madge was transported with 254 other children on the ship, Scotsman headed to Quebec in Canada where it arrived in port on 8 August 1896. Accompanied by a Mr. Owen from Barnardos, these hundreds of children travelled across Canada before arriving eventually in Toronto. Luckier than some who travelled with her across the length of Canada, Madge who was only twelve years old and travelling under the name Maud Jago, found employment or rather had it found for her as a domestic servant and baby minder on a series of farms around Ontario. Many of the Home Children were routinely abused (physically, sexually, and mentally) and it is very likely that in the unsupervised environs that Madge found herself in as a young teenager she was subject to such abuses. Thankfully her time in Canada was comparatively brief and in November 1900, the eighteen year old Madge (now going by the name of Maud Eades) returned to the UK onboard the ship Corinthian. Back in London, Madge was according to Cardinal able to secure work as a nurse at the Whipps Cross hospital, Leytonstone and moved in with her aunt Kate, who was instrumental in introducing the teenager to Spiritualism.
To modern readers, Spiritualism may seem to be something of an historical oddity, but between the 1840s and 1920s, a belief in Spiritualism and mediumistic practice was widespread in the English speaking world. According to reports published in the New York Times as of November 1897, Spiritualism had over eight million followers around the world. Although sceptical minds had begun to question the bahaviours of mediums and their supposed claims, by the time of Madges’ arrival back in the United Kingdom, Spiritualism was both popular and practiced across all sectors of society. For a young adult, who had led a life of privation, it may have offered a raft of belief to cling to. For Madge it was to become part of who she was to become and remain for the rest of her life.
Following her return to the UK and several years living with Kate, Madge was to marry Kates’ son (and thus her cousin) Tom Gill who was employed as a stockbroker when she was twenty five. Here the subject of Madge, like much of her life gets somewhat blurred. According to her Wikipedia entry, the photo below shows a young Madge Gill:
Further research however illustrates that whoever it is in this photograph it may not be Madge Gill. According to the Victoria Horticultural Library this photograph shows a widower by the name of Madge Williams who married the Portland, Oregon based farmer Edward E. Gill in 1914.
Although Madges’ marriage to Tom was far from happy, they rapidly had three sons, Laurie, Reggie and Bob. Reggie was to fall victim to the influenza outbreak of 1918 aged only eight years old. Considered by many to be the most brutal medical pandemic in history, the 1918 flu outbreak has been said to have killed more individuals than the Black Death resulting in the deaths of some 3 – 6% of the worlds’ total population. Although young Reggie was only one of many millions of victims, his death would leave his mother bereft and would be further compounded less than a year later. In 1919, Madge gave birth to her only daughter who was stillborn, and was also to suffer complications herself which left her bedridden, and resulted in the loss of an eye, which was later to be replaced with a glass replacement. It was around this period that Madge according to her own words first felt the urge to express herself artistically. In a 1937 interview published by Prediction magazine (and later reprinted in Madge Gill Medium & Visionary, published by Orleans House Gallery, ISBN 1-902643-17-8), Madge stated:
“It was in 1919 when I first started my work. I then had an inspiration to take up my pen and do all kinds of works of an artistic type. I felt that I had an artistic faculty seeking expression. It took various forms. First of all, knitting – even without any pattern. Then came a flow of all kinds of inspirational writing, mostly Biblical. Then I felt impelled to execute drawings on a large scale on calico. I simply couldn’t leave it and I did on average 20 pictures a week, all in colour. All the time I was in quite a normal state of mind and there was no suggestion of a ‘spirit’ standing beside me. I simply felt inspired. Sometimes I would be dissatisfied with the work and tear it up or burn it. But I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force, though I could not say what its actual nature was.”
Following her initial artistic outpouring, according to the brief biography that is available on Madge from Roger Cardinal it was in March 1920 that she first began to interact with Myrninerest, her supposed spirit guide with whom she was to maintain contact with for the rest of her life, and with whom she would commune in a trance state, and under whose supposed guidance she would produce her works.
Her now daily artistic endevours as well as the depression she arguably suffered following the loss of two children in rapid succession in an unhappy and strained marriage may have led Madge to seek refuge with Myrninerest. It seems likely that she may have begun to suffer from schizophrenia or other delusions, or potentially be utilising her spirit guide as an outlet to allow her artistic creation. Her behaviours definitely were a cause for concern however and in 1922, Madge found herself confined in the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children in Hove which used the then nascent psychotherapy to treat neurosis.
It was in this clinical environment that Madge passed on a packet of postcards she had illustrated under the guidance of Myrninerest to a female doctor. The doctor passed the illustrations to the Society for Psychical Research, where they were pronounced according to the London Review of Books to be “more of an inspirational than an automatic kind”. Art critique aside, Madge was soon released from the Hove hospital and found herself returned home to the house she shared with her husband and children in Upton Park. Here, relations with Tom grew even more strained, and he spent more and more time away from home, potentially as suggested by Roger Cardinal with a number of mistresses. Unfortunately, Madges’ ills did not cease. Her youngest son, Bob was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him an invalid for two years. Madge was to spend her evenings sitting by his bedside illustrating and creating under the thrall of Myrninerest by the dim light of a gas lamp.
In 1932, Tom Gill was diagnosed with cancer, however, it was also during this year that the Whitechapel Gallery started holding their annual East End Academy Show. Open to all amateur artists in the East End, the gallery had received entries for exhibit from both Bob and Laurie, and it may have been at the urging of her sons, that the self-taught Madge submitted too. Her entry stole the show, and as later reported by The Times of London (and quoted by the London Review of Books):
“One of the most remarkable works in the exhibition – a work that would be remarkable in any exhibition, both in form and technically – is a pen and ink drawing on calico, measuring no less than 17ft by 5ft 6in., entitled Reincarnation by Mrs M.E. Gill. For convenient description, it is something between the work of modern Dutch and Belgian mystics and that of Mr Stanley Spencer.”
Madge was to continue to exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery nearly every year until 1947, however she both refused to exhibit at larger venues, and also steadfastly refused to sell any of her voluminous output for fear that it would disturb or upset Myrninerest to whom she was to claim the work rightly belonged.
From 1919 onwards Madge continued to produce illustrations, paintings, and tapestries all guided by Myrninerest. Following the death of her son Bob in 1950, she continued to live with Laurie who was to be her faithful carer until she ended her days. Madge was to spend her last days a virtual recluse, however she developed an increasing reliance on alcohol and was prone to both irascible and erratic behaviour and remarks. Through it all until she finally stopped producing art in 1958, Madge produced hundreds of unique artworks.
Many of the artworks produced by Madge feature female figures, and have been interpreted by some critics as representing the relationship between herself and her daughter. Although often obsessively and quickly applied, many of them are also haunting. Scratched, etched and inked, the art that Madge created all too easily can be considered amateur and the preserve of the obsessive. Although many of her behaviours were certainly obsessive, Madge was clearly driven to create. Whether governed by the voice of Myrninerest which she alone could hear or by the desire to create art to address her demons, Madge produced over a period of decades thousands of individual works.
Following her death in 1961 just before her seventy ninth birthday Madges’ small house was found to be crammed with thousands of unique art pieces. Stored in cupboards, behind wardrobes, and under beds, her surviving loyal caretaker Laurie donated hundreds of pieces to the London Borough of Newham, where they are still stored in archival and controlled conditions. In 1968 a retrospective of some of Madges’ work was held at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, and in 2012, a small selection of the work gifted to Newham was exhibited by the Nunnery Gallery in London drawing both praise and adulation.
At the time she was creating her art, Madge was considered an eccentric by the press, her neigbours, and the art establishment. Sadly, history has been equally unkind to her, and she is most commonly considered to be an outsider. This arguably is a phrase that possesses negative connotations. Outsider art is sometime considered as being “less” than that of conventional art, and when considering Madges’ prodigious output and style this certainly does not hold true. Coming from a background of privation and probable abuse, Madge wrestled with the urge to create for the majority of her adult life. As well as potentially struggling with depression, neurosis, loss, and a strained marriage, Madge fought her own demons to leave a rich and sadly largely undervalued artistic legacy that deserves a broader audience.
In 1941 Orson Welles unleashed his vision of William Randolph Hearst upon a largely disinterested cinema going public. Now rightfully considered one of the finest films ever made, the fictionalised biography Citizen Kane sees the titular character seeking eventual refuge in his Xanadu. In Kane, Welles mirrored the reality of much of the life of Hearst including the eventual retreat of the yellow journalist and press magnate to the extravagant property that cost $40 million to construct and that he called La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) and that was known more colloquially to friends, and enemies alike as Hearst Castle. In the nineteen twenties and thirties, invitations to the sprawling one hundred room Mediterranean revival castle and grounds were sought after by the great, the good, and the Hollywood elite. Following the death of Hearst in 1951, the estate became a California State Park in 1954 before being opened to members of the public in 1958. Nearly twenty years later in February 1976 a bomb that had been planted on the veranda of the three story castle blew a three foot hole through a six inch thick concrete wall. Shortly after the explosion ripped through the estate causing an estimated million dollars’ worth of damage (at least according to the estimates provided by the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune) a female caller telephoned a nearby San Francisco television station, and claimed responsibility for the bombing on behalf of one of the most prodigious left wing radical groups of the period, the NWLF.
Largely unknown today, the NWLF (or New World Liberation Front) were one of many radical groups of the sixties and seventies. Unlike the Symbionese Liberation Army who would go on to kidnap the granddaughter of Hearst, Patricia (known to the SLA as Tania, but to everyone else as Patty) and the Weatherman / Weather Underground about whom numerous books and documentaries have been created, the NWLF have largely faded into obscurity. This is surprising given not only the fate and history of the group, but also because it was one of the most prolific exponents of domestic terrorism in the United States, and responsible for more explosions on US soil than any of its more well-known peers. To date there has been little investigation of the group, its motivations, and its downfall, and beyond a few rogue historians, their story remains largely obscured.
It is arguably not possible to discuss the NWLF or their actions without first putting them into historical and social context. The nineteen sixties and seventies were a politically tempestuous time in the United States. In Indo-China, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon oversaw a conflict that was raging beyond their control. On the home front, a generation of young people was becoming politically aware and engaged. Starting with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that formed in Ann Arbor in 1960, the “new left” emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The reaction of the state in sending more young men to their almost certain demise in Vietnam, the international televised coverage of the horrors of war, and the illegal actions of government programs such as COINTELPRO, as well as the chasm of both experiences and understanding that existed between the young and the old, did nothing to reduce tensions. As a direct response to the war in Vietnam, as well as the disparities and inequalities of life in Capitalist America, a range of groups sprang up. Many were non-violent in form however many were to be radicalised by the constant harassment and violence of the police and federal authorities. Some groups eventually resorted to violent mechanisms in an attempt to overthrow the machinery of the state and the wider society. Both the East and West coast (most notably New York and San Francisco respectively) were hotbeds of revolution, with all points in between being impacted.
Donald DeFreeze was a one time car thief who joined the revolution when in 1970 he met visiting students from the University of California Berkeley who established the Black Cultural Association in Vacaville prison where he had been imprisoned a year earlier for a short gun battle outside a bank he had been attempting to rob. The association sought to assist prisoners with tuition and also impress upon them the widely held left leaning political beliefs of the period. The student volunteers found a welcome convert in DeFreeze who sought an economic explanation for his frequent brushes with the law. In 1972, DeFreeze was transferred to the Soledad Prison in California, where on March 5 1973 he escaped, before making his way to Oakland, and the homes of contacts he had made with the Vacaville BCA. Embracing the political tumult of the time, DeFreeze trading on a romanticised image of the black radical ex-convict and outlaw formed what was later to be known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Best remembered today as being behind the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst., the SLA mixed freely with other underground radicals of the period, and were suspects in at least one murder of a public official, namely the former Oakland Deputy School superintendent, Robert Blackburn. The SLA was far from the only urban guerrillas that were operating in the United States during the seventies, and were joined by groups as diverse as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN, and a host of others. One of the most prodigious in terms of sheer volume of incidents that they created was the NWLF.
It was in 1973 that the NWLF first emerged onto the radical stage in the United States. That year saw the SLA gaining all manner of negative coverage and criticism in the press, and in was also the year that one time actress turned urban revolutionary and active member of the SLA, Kathleen Ann Soliah started a study group in California by the name of the Bay Area Research Collective. Commencing in August 1975, BARC began publishing a mimeographed journal by the name of Dragon. Truly a product of its time, Dragon published news of bombings, communiques from predominantly West Coast radical groups, political cartoons, incomplete bomb making instructions, and occasional extracts of poetry. For both law enforcement officials and radicals of the period, Dragon was mostly associated with the SLA, but also the New World Liberation Front. For many it was assumed that this latter mysterious group was either a direct outgrowth of the SLA, or else existed purely on paper as many other supposed revolutionary organisations did during the period. Both of these theories were to be proven incorrect by history.
The pages of Dragon in their first issue were to reveal the extent of the actions of the NWLF up until its publication, and the majority of these claims are further supported by one of the few writers to investigate the group with any depth, Bryan Burrough, whose book Days of Rage is rightfully considered the most comprehensive manuscript to address seventies left wing terrorist groups in the US. According to the NWLF themselves the chronology of some of their early actions is as follows:
“5/31/74: May 19th Combat Unit issues a greeting to the people and a statement of solidarity with the SLA.
9/3/74: Peoples Forces bomb the S.F. brokerage offices of Dean Witter & Co. and issue Communique 1 explaining the firm’s complicity with B of A, ITT and Standard Oil in the exploitation and oppression of the people. Solidarity expressed with the BLA, WUO, and SLA.
9/?/74: Peoples Forces Unit III bombs ITT Harper in San Leandro. Communique declares unity with the Chilean people and indicts ITT for its role in bringing the military junta to power.
10/2/74: Unit II bombs S.F. Sheraton Palace Hotel
10/5/74: Second Sheraton Hotel bombing. Communique names Sheraton chain as an ITT subsidiary and further indicts and documents the ITT role in the creation of the Chilean military government. Response is demanded.
10/30/74: Unit III bombs Los Altos home of ITT Jennings president Robert Hallock. Communique reiterates ITT role in Chile.
11/6/74: Unit I firebombs a Berkeley garage containing government cars. Communique discusses ITT in Chile and further explain Hallock bombing.
12/19/74: Unit I bombs S.F. office of General Motors’ Overseas Operation Division. Communique indicts GM’s labor practices and history of exploitation of the people. A general explanation of the NWLF is made by the Peoples Forces, Communication Division.
2/3/75: Unit III bombs GM office in San Jose, the Pillar Point Radar Station, and Chevron plant in Oakland. Communique ties in different aspects of the capitalist-imperialist system.
2/6/75: Unit III bombs KRON-TV in S.F. Communique indicts the station as a mouthpiece for the ruling class.
3/20/75: Units I & IV bomb an East Bay PG&E tower. Communique denounces PG&E as a “parasite corporation which feeds on the misery of the poor”.
3/27/75: Unit III bombs PG&E Hicks substation in San Jose. Communique makes further indictment of PG&E and salutes the CLF, FALN, SLA, BLA, WUO and locked down comrades.
4/7/75: Lucio Cabanas Unit bombs Hicks substation and issues another statement on PG&E.
5/1/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs Department of Corrections in Sacramento. Communique discusses Joe Remiro and Russ Little and includes educational material about clandestine activity.
5/9/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs PG&E offices in Berkeley. Communique briefly discusses PG&E attempts to raise rates.
5/18/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs gun shack in San Quentin. Communique sends “warmest revolutionary love to Russ Little, Joe Remiro, Ruchell Magee, San Quentin Six, all comrades trapped behind enemy lines and to all our fallen comrades of Attica and the SLA”.
6/3/75: Peoples Forces issue an open letter to Popeye Jackson containing four criticisms of / questions about Popeye’s lifestyle, what the NWLF sees as his privileged treatment by the Adult Authority and his possibly provacateurish criticism of the underground. They ask for a response.
6/11/75: Peoples Front issue a communique denying responsibility for the murders of Popeye Jackson and Sally Voye; this is in response to a pig “NWLF” communique taking credit for the killings. Criticism of Popeye is restated.
(pub 6/27/75): Peoples Forces issue an open letter to the BARB criticizing the paper as basically a servant of the ruling class.
6/27/75: NWLF bombs the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alameda and firebombs two houses in Piedmont. Communique expresses solidarity with the Indians of Pine Ridge.”
As their own statement reveals, the NWLF were responsible for a wave of bombings across the West Coast. According to the research conducted by Bryan Burrough however rather than being a well-oiled and practiced underground militia, their first device failed to detonate correctly when it was left outside the offices of General Motors Acceptance Company in Burlington, California. As well as expressing solidarity with popular causes of the period and other radical left wing groups, the NWLF also publicly decried Wilbert “Popeye” Jackson. The one time convict who had spent nineteen of his fourty four years in the US prison system was the leader of the California based United Prisoners Union and was suspected by some of being a police informer (including the NWLF), and was killed either by agents of the state or an individual or group on which he had informed. The UPU was active in seventies prison reform and were able in conjunction with the Weather Underground associated organisation Prairie Fire Organizing Committee able to lodge petitions for US prisoners to the UN during the period (the radical prison movement is covered in some detail in ‘The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement’ by Eric Cummin). The murder of a radical organizer and that of local teacher, Sally Voye as they were sat in Johnson’s car at 2am in the morning, was a major talking point of in the West Coast of the period however, it was the NWLF who made front page news in the Berkeley Barb (who they were later to criticise) in June 1975.
Although the NWLF was to be accused of the murder of a fellow California based radical, ultimately it seems according to Kohn and Weir (Howard Kohn, David Weir: Tania’s World: The Inside Story of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Part Two: People in Need, November 20, 1975) that it was the SLA that were responsible and sought to position blame on the NWLF who had unleashed a wave of bombings, and as a result were garnering far more coverage and sympathy from left leaning Californians. The explosions that were ripping through California were not to end with the death of a prison activist however, and estimates for the 1970 – 1978 period in which the NWLF was active range from 80 to 120 bombings (the accepted figure is typically somewhere around 85 as detailed in the Global Terrorism Database from the University of Maryland). In an era tainted by regular politically inspired explosions on American soil, the NWLF were amongst the most active groups, and was responsible for a sheer volume of explosive attacks that had not been seen before or indeed since.
The targets of the NWLF were varied but all focused either upon broad political targets or those that could readily be associated with life in California. The group targeted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) sub stations and transformers, Safeway stores, TV stations, Court houses, military installations and the California department of corrections. Although these targets may at first glance appear to be arbitrary in nature, in their communiques, the NWLF either expressed solidarity with other radical groups or populist causes, or else focused on injustices in the local San Francisco area, such as the high price of utilities, poor housing conditions endorsed and supported by slum lords, or labour disputes that were taking place at the time. For residents of San Francisco, the bombings of the NWLF during the period they were active became as persistent and almost as reliable as the fog that frequently blanketed the streets.
Following the arrest of Patty Hearst and the televised pitched battle between the SLA and the Los Angeles Police Department, the NWLF escalated their campaign of bombings, and also altered their modus operandi. Up until 1975, the NWLF had distributed their communiques by mailing them to radio stations, newspapers (both of the above and underground variety) and friendly Californian / Bay Area journalists. However this altered in 1975 when the NWLF established an above ground communications platform. To head this up they needed public supporters that were not concerned with the media and law enforcement exposure that would result. They soon found a likely candidate. Following the death of Popeye Jackson, in which the NWLF was a prime suspect, a tall ex-convict using the name Jaques Rogiers convened a ‘Peoples Court’ to investigate. According to research conducted by Bryan Burrough, Rogiers’ real name was Jack Rogers and he had been imprisoned in San Quentin on drug related charges. Upon his release from jail in 1974 he moved to San Francisco, and after hearing of the death of Jackson and the impact it made on radical circles decided by way of his ‘Peoples Court’ to investigate.
The fourty four page document that Rogiers produced exonerated the NWLF of all involvement with the death of Popeye Jackson (the document itself is available via the Internet Archive) and the group clearly liked what they saw. According to statements provided to the Berkeley Barb and San Francisco Chronicle, the NWLF approached Rogiers following the publication of his investigation into the death of Popeye Jackson, and appointed him as their public facing courier, and the man in charge of Public Information Relay-1 (PIR-1). Working in tandem with an Oregon native by the name of Marlene Tobias, he initially opened a print shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco, before moving a year later to 423 Oak Street. Here the PIR-1 published TUG (The Urban Guerilla) a mimeographed journal in the same vein as the competing Dragon that was largely a platform for the NWLF and allowed for their communiques, observations, and rationalisations to be published.
Law enforcement and federal investigators were largely baffled by the NWLF, having no idea about how large the group was, how they were being funded, how they were finding their explosives that were detonating with such regularity, and indeed what their next targets would be. This was largely due to the model of the NWLF itself. As would be revealed later, the group (such as it was) appealed to all members of the urban guerilla movement in the US of the period, allowing any and all actions to be attributed to it. Although some other groups did potentially brand themselves as the NWLF, the core group such as it was, was small in number. For both the media and law enforcement, Jaques Rogiers and other public members of PIR-1 such as Marlene Tobias (the editor of TUG), Kit Bowden, and Ande Lougher (the ex-wife of Jaques and the mother of his child) who also distributed communiques on behalf of the NWLF) made attractive targets for gathering information.
On 14 July 1976, the twenty five year old Ande Lougher headed from the Haight to the Grand Jury chambers of the City and County of San Francisco. With her she took a communique purporting to come direct from the NWLF and threatening retaliation should the Grand Jury continue investigating the group as the local rumour held that they were. Delivering what could be interpreted as a bomb threat to a government building was contentious even in the heady environment of the nineteen seventies West Coast, and Lougher soon found herself arrested. Held on a $100,000 bail, she was eventually bought to trial in October and following a defence from her court appointed lawyer, J. Tony Serra and a fifteen hour deliberation she was found not guilty of the charge of intimidation of a jury and released without charge.
Just as the bombings of the NWLF failed to cease, so too did the legal troubles of the above ground cadre that made up the PIR-1. On 26 January 1977, Rogiers was arraigned on four counts of threatening public officials and one count of threatening for proposes of extortion in connection with his work distributing communiques on behalf of the NWLF. Held on a $100,000 bail like Lougher before him, the then thirty eight year old Rogiers did not initially enter a plea to the Municipal Court Judge, Judge Ollie Marie-Victoire having taken a vow of silence upon arrest on January 23 like one of his heroes Meher Baba (an Indian philosopher and mystic who publicly criticised the use of psychedelics as distracting from true spirituality in 1966). Again like Lougher, Rogiers found himself being represented by the public defender, J. Tony Serra.
According to accounts provided by Burrough, the defense strategy Serra and Rogiers utilised was an odd one. Before his court appearances, and during recesses throughout, the defendant and attorney would gather together and frequently and largely consistently engage in smoking marijuana. Although highly unusual, the strategy seems to have reaped dividends, in as much as on June 7, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. And this is where the story of Rogiers takes a very odd twist. On the day of his release from detention, a large party was planned at which the former defendant was to be the guest of honour. Although friends, acquaintances, comrades, and his lawyer waited for his appearance, it never came. Indeed following his release Rogiers disappeared from public view. To this date, his whereabouts are unknown, and what happened to the former leader of PIR-1 remains a mystery.
Despite the disappearance of their above ground courier, the attacks and explosions by the NWLF continued ceaselessly. Before the Patty Hearst trial commenced, the NWLF sent a package to a San Francisco city council member by the name of John Barbagelata. In it was a bomb. A few days late on January 25, 1977 four shots were fired into the windows of real estate office that he owned and operated. Over the course of the next few weeks, the NWLF also sent what were later to be referred to as “candy box” bombs to the homes of San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Supervisor Quentin Kopp and numerous other Bay Area politicians. As revealed by the San Francisco Chronicle, at the time “No messages accompanied the devices, but yesterday local newspapers and radio and television stations received copies of an ‘Open Letter to the Board of Supervisors’ ostensibly from the New World Liberation Front. The terrorist organization did not claim responsibility for sending the bombs but reiterated frequently expressed demands for improved health care at the county jail” (source: Berkeley Barb, January 16-22, 1976, Page 6). And still the attacks came.
Local law enforcement and the FBI finally caught a break in February 1976. Police were called to a house in Marin County in which as shoot out had been happening. Two members of the New Dawn Collective which ran a local bookshop and also published communiques for the Emiliano Zapata unit of the NWLF had been attempting to rob a local drug dealer. As drug dealers typically do not embrace expropriations of their profits, they resisted and a gun fight broke out. A search of those arrested, pointed the police and FBI at houses in Richmond and Oakland, where more NWLF literature was recovered and a 21 year old by the name of Anthony Joseph Baker and several other would be domestic guerillas were arrested (source: FBI find factory for bombs, The Stanford Daily, Volume 169, Issue 15, 23 February 1976, Page 1). The FBI thought they had finally broken the back of the NWLF and yet the bombings continued.
Up until March 1978, the NWLF continued with a wave of bombings throughout California and beyond. The exact composition of the group will perhaps never be known, but at least one source indicates that the SLA may well have played a part in the composition of the NWLF. According to a 1977 book (The Voices of Guns, Vin McLellan, Putnams) about the SLA, following her arrest by the FBI, Patty Hearst claimed that two members of the radical group, James Kilgore and Kathy Soliah had been involved. According to statements from Hearst to law enforcement the duo of Soliah and Kilgore had “used the NWLF signature for the dozens of bombings in 1974 and 1975”. This suited the agenda of the NWLF perfectly. One of the primary drivers of the group had been to make itself appear bigger than it was. Any radical guerilla operating on US soil was free to utilise the NWLF provided that its goals were in accord with those of the group. For modern historians it is impossible to determine how many attacks were conducted by the core group of the NWLF or by sympathisers such as the remnants of the SLA. Following a cessation of their attacks and explosions in 1978, the NWLF would have vanished back into obscurity were it not for a seemingly unrelated and shocking murder which again thrust their name back into the public and media consciousness.
In either 1971 or 1972, a young woman by the name of Maureen Minton met a man by the name of Ronald Huffman. Born in Mountain View California, Maureen was the daughter of a lumber company owner who was later to attend and graduate from Berkley. At the time he met Maureen, Ronald was according to Burrough “a small time marijuana dealer in the San Jose area” (Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage, Page 385). At some point, the man known to all and sundry as ‘Revolutionary Ron’ met Maureen and after a brief spell they moved together to a small rented bungalow in the remote mountainous area of Bonny Doon some ten miles away from San Francisco. Although the bungalow at 350 Martin Road was small, it had a number of advantages, in as much as it came with land, and the neighbours did not pry into the lives of the young couple that had rented it. This suited Huffman and Minton perfectly. Although Maureen was later to become a nursing student at a nearby college, most of here interests and those of Ron, were centred on two key activities, namely the cultivation of marijuana and the construction of bombs.
According to evidence that was later to be gathered by the FBI and prosecution and detailed by Burrough, Minton and Huffman were the core of the NWLF. Although members of the SLA were involved and there was a scattering of other cells throughout California, this young couple was liable for over seventy explosions during the seventies. And they would have probably remained unknown were it not for tragic actions that were to unfold in the backyard of their bungalow. According to later testimony, either due to mental illness or his frequent and consistent marijuana use, Huffman was to become convinced that Minton was possessed by the spirits of “demon dogs” (source: April 25, 1983, Santa Cruz Sentinel, California, Page 2). At the time, Bonny Doon was overrun with both coyotes and feral dogs which frequently howled long into the night, their cries echoing around the hilly community. Prior to her possession, Huffman had already developed a long string of complaints against Minton. According to a local man and long-time acquaintance of Huffman by the name of Dennis Morgan, Maureen was responsible for running his crop, or failing to medicate his dog, Che. Morgan was also involved in the tending of the thousands of marijuana plants the couple were cultivating on their property and according to his later testimony would turn down and offer of $20,000 to help them bring in a harvest. According to Burrough, another reason for a growing sense of acrimony between the couple may have been because Minton had “had an abortion against his wishes” (Burrough, Page 358). Add to this the paranoia caused by long term drug use as well as being sought after because of their explosive antics throughout California, and there was an inevitability to what was to come later.
On the morning of September 23, 1979, Huffman dragged Minton into the rear of the property. After forcing her to kneel, he bought down an axe on her head. She died instantly. Not satisfied, Huffman beat her body with a nearby plank of wood, before removing a section of her brain. Packing quickly, Huffman dashed from the property in the car he had shared with Minton, taking with him $30,000 in cash, and a paper sack which held the portion of Maureen he had removed. After picking up a male hitchhiker from Germany he had found on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, Huffman continued his flight. After rambling at the confused and understandably terrified young German for some time, Huffman pulled the car to a stop and slashed at his passenger with a knife. Thankfully the young man escaped and sought refuse at a nearby market. Police were called.
Approximately an hour after the savage murder of his long term partner, Huffman was forced to stop by California highway patrol. Huffman emerged from his vehicle, swearing and sweating profusely, and as the police drew their revolvers, held aloft the paper bag containing the mortal remains of Maureen as if attempting to ward off the bullets that may have wended their way towards him. Huffman was subdued without being shot, and soon found himself in police custody. Initially set for trial in San Francisco, Huffman was defended by J. Tony Serra who had previously defended other members of the NWLF. At first Huffmans’ ties to the group were unknown but eventually the FBI were able to confirm that the fingerprints of both Huffman and Minton matched those that had previously been found on communiques distributed to the media throughout the course of NWLF activities. It was not until 1983, when the trial commenced in Monterey (Serra having forced the change in trial location owing to potentially prejudicial pre-trail reporting) that the links between Huffman, Minton, and the NWLF became known.
Although the crux of the defence offered by Serra was that his client was insane and thus not culpable for his actions either in the murder of his girlfriend, cultivating bales of marijuana, or causing multiple explosions around the Bay Area, the jury was not convinced. Huffman who was described by Serra as “stark raving mad” (Burrough, Page 360) was following a guilty plea sent to a Californian state prison, in which he was to die unknown and forgotten in 1999.
Between them, Huffman, Minton and various other Bay Area radicals (including the remains of the SLA) were to be responsible for a wave of attacks that caused widespread alarm during the nineteen seventies. They were one of the most successful domestic terrorist groups that operated in the United States, and many core members of the NWLF were utterly unknown to both local law enforcement and federal investigators. Outside of a few articles and references in local media, they were also largely forgotten until the publication of Days of Rage in 2015. Both the Weather Underground, and the SLA who were active in nineteen seventies California have had a wealth of books, films, and other reference materials produced since the days of their activities. The NWLF who were even at the time considered a fringe group of radicals, have like others in their milieu (such as Popeye Jackson) been largely ignored by social and political historians. Even stranger, their activities and the viciousness and pointlessness of the death of Minton, have been ignored by even true crime authors. The activities of the NWLF and their associated groups caused more explosions on American soil than any other terrorist organisation before or since. Using a loose network of affiliates operating under unified banner their actions confounded investigative authorities for years. Although the majority of their attacks were not deadly, they had devastating economic impacts, and the chilling effect of their actions impacted upon regional and national politics of the period. In a modern age that is fraught with the threat of terrorism by domestic radicals, the actions of the NWLF and their ilk should arguably be investigated closely. As our own age seems to drifting into a terrorist frenzy, consideration of earlier progenitors is arguably both vital and necessary if effective mechanisms are to be found in reducing the impact, reach, and dangers posed by the actions of those that put beliefs ahead of the safety of innocent civilians.
They had been lucky so far. The four friends, Robert Hart, Bob Farmer, Fred Payne, and Tommy Willetts had managed to avoid detection as they wandered through the woods. Spotting a large elm tree, the four approached, thinking it would be a good place to search for what they had come looking for. The year was 1943, and the world was at war, which left many, including the working class young friends who were walking through the woods, hungry. Too young to be conscripted, the boys (all of which were in their teens) had decided to try and assuage their hunger pangs by poaching on private land. Although the tree was old, largely hollow and had been cut so aggressively and frequently that the branches resembled wispy hair, in April they were confident that it may hold both nests and eggs. Reaching the base of the tree, Bob volunteered to climb it. At fifteen he was both a competent and confident climber. As he neared the top of the tree, Bob happened to glance inside the hollow. What he saw inside would remove some of his confidence, and leave a mystery that continues to baffle local historians, anthropologists, and journalists alike.
Hagley Wood is situated in Worcestershire, UK. Running along the boundary of Clent Hill, the woods are part of the estate of Lord Cobham who also owns the nearby Hagley Hall. The history of the Cobham clan can be traced back to Sir Thomas Temple, 1st Baronet, of Stowe who was the uncle of James Temple, a radical puritan and participant in the English civil war who would later be held responsible for the regicide of Charles I. It wasn’t until his grandson, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham was awarded the estate owing to his actions in Ireland, and in capturing and holding the city of Vigo in North Western Spain for ten days in September 1719 that the estate of Hagley came into the family. Many locals of the nearby village of Hagley, may have been unaware of the history of the Temple family, but they knew that at the heart of the second world war when rationing was at its peak, and food at its scarcest, that the woods made an excellent poaching spot, which was the explanation for the activities of the four local boys.
As he glanced into the hollow of the elm, young Bob Farmer saw what he thought was a pile of animal bones. Ironically the elm has always been a tree that has had long connotations with death and the underworld. In the Aeneid by Virgil for example, the elm occurs as a motif as Aeneas is led to the Underworld by the Sibyl of Cumae. For the Romans and Greeks, the elm tree was perceived as being a representation of ill omen, and some of this belief has leaked into British folklore. The tree that Bob saw the bones in was a wych elm, and many assume that this species gets its name from an association with witchcraft, however some etymologists claim that rather than wych being a derivation of the word witch, that it actually means pliant, which the wood of the elm distinctly is. Driven by curiosity, Bob pulled what he thought was an animal skull from the confines of the tree. Seeing two empty eye sockets staring back at him, Bob also saw strands of human hair attached to the skull, crooked front teeth, and a patch of rotting flesh. Dropping his gruesome discovery back within the hollow of the elm, Bob jumped down from the tree and joined his friends, all of whom agreed to keep their find to themselves rather than admitting they had been poaching in the private woods.
Three of the boys kept their word, but for the seventeen year old Tommy (who is often reported as having been the youngest in all but historical sources of the time such as the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 24 April 1943) the events of the afternoon proved too concerning to keep to himself. At some point on the evening of 18 April 1943 he told his father what he and his friends had found in the woods. The following day, Mr. Willets, reported the gruesome discovery to the Worcestershire County Police Force who were on the scene the following morning. Inside the elm tree they discovered a full set of small skeletal remains, rotting clothes, and nearby to the corpse a crepe soled shoe. Widening the search from the location of the discovery the day before, the police also discovered an empty bottle that was suspected as being attached to the case. In addition the investigators also found a number of small bones that were missing from the body. According to the more lurid accounts of this strange case, the remains of a severed hand were buried close to the base of the tree, however a review of the available documentation of the period which sadly is limited to press reports indicates that the working assumption of the police was that such bones as were recovered not attached to the body has been “carried away by squirrels or foxes that habitate the woods” (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 24 April 1943, ‘Summer Night Scream may be Woods Riddle Pointer’, Pg.4). It also fell to the local police who were soon joined by Detective Inspector Inight, and Superintendent Hollyhead (who was in charge of the investigation as reported by the press at the time) from the County Criminal Investigation Department to remove the body from its resting place. Once carefully extricated the body was transferred to the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands where it was examined by Professor James Webster. During his investigation, Professor Webster was able to determine that the body was that of a young woman, no older than thirty five, who was five feet tall, and had mousy brown hair. She also had irregularities with her lower teeth, and had given birth at least once. Whoever she had been, she had been in the tree for at least eighteen months before she was discovered by the boys, dying at some point in 1941.
Oddly considering where the body had been found, there were no marks of violence on the body itself. In the throat and mouth of the body, Professor Webster found a lump of taffeta, which was in his estimation the cause of her death by asphyxiation. The current location of the skeleton and the accompanying autopsy report are not known however, and so it is problematic for interested parties to review what additional data may have been collected. The body in the tree was the likely result of a murder, and had been positioned in the hollow when she was still warm, as the onset of rigor mortis would have made insertion into the narrow elm impossible for her attacker. As well as determining the cause of death, and rough description of the victim, Professor Webster was also able to determine what she had been wearing at the time of her untimely death, and noted that she was also wearing a cheaply produced wedding ring. This allowed the police to circulate a description to the local media and community.
Police enquiries and appeals largely led to naught. Although Professor Webster was able to establish that the victim had distinctive unaligned teeth, and had visited a dentist recently, appeals to local dentists and indeed even a description as printed in widely circulated dental journals (as revealed the Birmingham Daily Gazette on 4 May 1943), failed to result in identification. The clothing worn by the victim also proved to be a dead end from an investigatory perspective. All labels had been removed from the clothing, which was common for second hand clothing sold during the period. The footwear recovered was eventually traced to a market stall in Dudley which only dealt in cash, and had no memory of anyone fitting the victims’ description having purchased them. The police were left with a working class female victim discovered in a highly unusual location and with no motive for her death.
As reported in the Birmingham Daily Gazette at the time of the investigation, a clue to the identity of the victim and the circumstances of her untimely demise may be found a year prior to gruesome discovery in the woods. In July, 1941 several witnesses including a local schoolteacher reported hearing a piercing scream from within Hagley Woods. Although these reports were investigated at the time, no trace of their cause could be found. Some have assumed that this was because that there was nothing untoward to discover, and that the screams heard were actually mating foxes. Although the noises made by foxes can prove terrifying for the residents of cities, for those in the country, they would be a common noise, and not one that long term country residents may ordinarily confuse with the piercing screams of a woman in distress. Perhaps rather than foxes, the noise was more indicative of more suspicious and potentially deadly activities. Like so much with this case, the truth of the cause of the screams may never be known.
According to some accounts of the case, the police were presented with another series of clues that commenced in December 1943. On a wall in the Old Hill area of Staffordshire, block printed graffiti written in chalk was discovered that stated “who put luebella in the wych elm?”, however it is worth noting that seems to be little to support this claim directly. As reported by the media of the period (Evening Despatch, 30 March 1944, ‘Hagley Wood Bella’, Pg.1) the graffiti was joined in March 1944, by further on Upper Dean Street in Birmingham which stated “Who put Bella down the Wich elm Hagley Wood?”. On the same wall of the empty premises that had previously been targeted a few days before on Dean Street, the phrase “Hagley Woods Bella” was found scrawled high up on 30 March. The name ”Lue-Bella” was reportedly first seen on the side of a house in Haden Hill Road in Old Hill (Birmingham Mail, 1 April 1944, ‘Mysterious Writing on Walls, Pg. 1). At the time the theory of the graffiti writer as favored by the local police, was that it was the work of one individual the handwriting being consistent across all three occurrences, and someone who came into Birmingham in the early hours with farm produce for sale in the cities markets. Up until the present time and starting in the seventies when the case of the body in the woods began to enter local legend, graffiti still intermittently appears in the area local to Hagley Woods, typically on the Hagley Obelisk which stands in Hagley Park near the summit of Wychbury Hill (it is worth noting that the last time that this monument was reportedly defaced was in 1999).
There were numerous theories for the unknown victim, who would come to be known to all as Bella owing the activities of a potential hoaxer, and these are worth examination in detail. Perhaps the most lurid is that Bella was the victim of a witchcraft inspired sacrifice. This was seemingly first suggested by the anthropologist and Egyptologist, Margaret Murray who was the author of ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Europe’. Noted for her examination, Murray assumed that the case of Bella was linked to that of Charles Walton, whose badly mutilated body was found in the hamlet of Lower Quinton in Warwickshire on 14 February 1945. According to the theory proposed by Murray, Bella has either transgressed the ordinances of a local coven she was a part of, or been the victim of a sacrifice, and her missing bones, were sufficient to establish as much. Murrays’ theory is that whoever was responsible for the death of the woman in the woods, had taken the opportunity to remove her hand and construct a ‘hand of glory’. This theory was repeated by the British journalist and popular historian, Donald McCormick in his 1968 book, ‘Murder by Witchcraft: A Study of the Lower Quinton and Hagley Wood Murders’ (Murder by Witchcraft. London: Long, 1968) and has been repeated on numerous occasions since Murrays initial theories were published. A hand of glory is a dried, pickled, or otherwise preserved hand that is utilised in witchcraft that supposedly made immobile all those that were presented with it. In some instances the hand of a gallows victim is preserved and made into a candle. Unfortunately for Murray, McCormack, and later lurid researchers into the Hagley Wood incident, a hand of glory according to all the eighteenth and nineteenth century sources that first popularised belief in such, is always traditionally made from the left hand of a male victim of violence, commonly those that died upon the gallows. As shown in the articles of the period, unlike what many later researchers have claimed “Bella” was not allegedly missing a hand, but merely a number of finger joints. It seems far more plausible that such damage as occurred against the body was enacted post mortem, and rather than being as a result of the actions of a clandestine cabal of country witches was a result of natural decal and scavenging.
Another popular theory is that the mysterious body in the woods belonged to that of a war time spy. This theory first came to prominence ten years after the discovery in 1953, when the Wolverhampton Express and Star journalist, Wilfred Byford-Jones writing under the pen name of Quaestor began to compose and publish a series of articles about the case. In one of his initial articles, it was claimed by the local church warden A.H. Hodgetts that the woman found in the woods (now known to all and sundry as Bella) was actually a Roma gypsy that had been punished for an indiscretion of offence. Although more than a little racist by modern standards, it was this theory that was largely locally believed and initially posited by Byford-Jones. He changed his opinion however when he posted a reward of one hundred pounds leading to information concerning the death of Bella. One hundred pounds was a significant sum in nineteen-fifties Britain, and the journalist soon found himself deluged with letters. Of the number that flooded into the offices of the Express and Star, one stuck out from the many cranks, which stated:
“Finish your articles re the Wych Elm crime by all means. They are interesting to your readers, but you will never solve the mystery.
The one person who could give the answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of the earthly courts. The affair is closed and involves no witches, black magic or moonlight rites
Much as I hate having to use a nom-de-plume, I think you would appreciate it if you knew me.
The only clues I can give you are that the person responsible for the crime died insane in 1942, and the victim was Dutch and arrived in England illegally about 1941. I have no wish to recall any more – ANNA, Claverley”.
Anna was subsequently to meet both Byford-Jones and the police, and tell a tale of a spy ring that was operating in the Midlands area according the accounts provided by McCormick. The actual story she told (which has been conflated with that of Josef Jakobs which will be outlined later) was far more prosaic however. Anna, it transpired was really Una Mossop. According to Una, there were a number of pro German conspirators operating in the Midlands during the war and regularly passing on intelligence about munitions and aircraft factories. One of these was her ex-husband Jack. Although a black marketer, Jack also worked in a munition factory, and occasionally dressed as an RAF officer (even though he was a civilian). According to the confession he was later to make to Una, Jack had been drinking with a Dutchman by the name of Van Ralt, in a pub by the name of the Lyttleton Arms in Hagley. Van Ralt had been with a Dutch woman who was drunk and insensible. According to the accounts later provided when driving back from the Lyttleton Arms, Van Ralt had argued with the woman and killed her and then he and Jack Mossop had deposited her body in a the elm. In another account, the pair had left their victim alive and gagged in the tree, owing to her drunken state. The guilt proved to be too much for Mossop, and he was subject to frequent hallucinations concerned with a face in a tree, prior to his committal to a Stafford mental hospital and alleged death in 1943. In all probability, Mossop may have been committed to St George’s Hospital (known as the Stafford Mental Hospital between 1929 and 1948) however a review of the archives from the 1913 – 1960 Board of Control and Patients Admission Register as available online do not show an admission for either Jack or John Mossop (this may have more to do with the absence of searchable records via the Internet than their absence from the archives in Kew). Although the details provided by Una Mossop to Byford-Jones are intriguing, they have been muddied as highlighted by conflation with the case of Josef Jakobs.
As with the witchcraft theories proposed by Murray the espionage explanation for unknown woman in the woods has been latched upon by a number of people including McCormack. He claimed in 1968 that the body in the woods belonged to a German female spy by the name of Clarabella and sometime occultist that had parachuted into the Midlands in 1941, and lost radio contact with her handlers before for some reason ending up entombed in a tree (possibly as a result of being murdered by locals who subsequently hid the body rather than reporting that they had captured an enemy spy). Utterly unconfirmed, this theory was further confused by the release of MI5 war time records as pertaining to Jakobs. Josef Jakobs was born in Luxembourg in 1898 and by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War was a German citizen. Imprisoned by the Swiss legal authorities for selling counterfeit gold between 1934 and 1937, Jakobs eventually joined the Abwehr, the intelligence department of the German Army. In January 1941, Jakobs parachuted into the UK in Huntingdonshire in Cambridgeshire, but upon landing promptly broke his ankle. Quickly detained by the authorities, Jakobs faced a military court martial and was the last person to be executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on 15 August 1941. During his interrogation, military authorities recovered a photograph of the cabaret singer and German movie actress, Clara Bauerle who Jakobs admitted was his lover. According to statements released later, Bauerle had met Jakobs at the Café Dreyer where she was performing. As well as being as being a singer and sometime actress, Bauerle allegedly was also in close contact with leading Nazis and had like Jakobs been recruited into the Abwehr. According to statements that Jakob provided, Bauerle had a distinct advantage one many wartime agents, in as much as she had spent two years working in West Midlands music halls before the war, and spoke with a convincing Birmingham accent. According to reports published in the Independent Online (‘Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk’, 22 March 2013) Jakobs claimed during his interrogation that Clara had been due to parachute into the Midlands in Spring 1941 and had subsequently lost radio contact with the Abwehr. Clarabella or Clara Bauerle could well or so it was assumed be the mysterious Bella in the wych elm and the unsubstantiated claims made by McCormack could hold a ring of truth. Owing to the research of Giselle K. Jakobs researchers now know that not to be the case. In September 2016, revealed how after years of dedicated research she had managed to establish that rather than parachuting into the Midlands in 1941, Bauerle had died on 16 December 1942 at a Berlin hospital of complication caused by Veronal poisoning. Varonal was the first commercially available barbiturate marketed until the 1950s and it may have been the case that Bauerle may well have been the victim of a suicide possibly in reaction to the death of her lover Jakobs at the hands of the British authorities.
So, if “Bella” was not a spy, a sacrificial victim, an unfortunate Dutch immigrant, a gypsy, or a former coven member, who was she? One theory that has been suggested is that the body in the woods belonged to a prostitute from the Birmingham area that had been taken to the woods and subsequently murdered. This theory too seems unlikely. Although prostitution was rife in Birmingham during the Second World War, for a woman to travel from a secure location where she may have had the protection of her peers to an isolated wooded area which would have required a car ride seems doubtful. Alternatively, it has been suggested whoever she was, she was seeking refuge from a nearby air raid, and in doing so climbed voluntarily into the wych elm. Others have suggested that owing to the wedding ring “Bella” was a local resident who had an abusive spouse or partner who was responsible for her death and the disposal of her body. Still other theories have suggested that “Bella” may have committed suicide in mysterious circumstances akin to those of Elisa Lam in 2013. All of these theories, and those others outlined in this article, are of course conjecture, and they arguably do the victim a disservice.
Whoever “Bella” was, she ended her days in circumstances that were truly hellish. She was a small woman at only five foot. She was also in all probability a financially poor woman. She wore clothes from which the labels had been cut out which was common practice for second hand clothing purchased from markets. She wore shoes that had also been purchased on a market stall. She may have gone to the woods by choice, or by force, alive, or recently dead, but it was where her journey ended. She died on an estate controlled by a family that had huge influence in the local area. She died in an environment where poaching was a dangerous pursuit and where trespassers may have been shot by overzealous gamekeepers. She may have died as the result of a violent attack, or as a result of exposure, or as a result of a gunshot wound that failed to impact upon her skeletal remains, but she died alone and possibly in pain. Although her death remains mysterious it looks likely to remain so. In a final indignity, both the autopsy report and her skeleton have vanished from the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands or Birmingham University where they were believed to be present. Advances in DNA testing will never be applied to the remains of the woman found in the elm tree. In 2005 the West Mercia Constabulary (successors to Worcestershire Constabulary) officially closed the file on “Bella” owing to a lack of investigative opportunities. She deserves better than spurious theories, wild conjecture, and to be related to the category of “creepy” local legend. It is my hope that this post can dispel some of the mythos that has been built up around the unfortunate end to a life, and prompt a more serious consideration and examination that may finally produce tangible answers.
Blogs are passé or so the theory holds. People don’t read information or opinion in large chunks of text on the Internet anymore, rather they watch cat videos, embrace only supporting opinions supplied by corporate algorithms, masturbate, and buy goods from online retailers (hopefully not all at the same time). The Internet has become Soma and the Big Brother all rolled into one convenient, high definition, streaming package. I have never been one to accept the accepted wisdom however, and this is where this blog comes in.
By trade, inclination, and the fact that I am massively unsuitable for a real job, I run a computer security company based in the United Kingdom. We perform penetration testing, which sounds considerably ruder than it is, engage in IT security research and provide other services to those that pay us. Also I say, I run, but in actuality the company is more a collection of peers that are all working towards a collectivist goal rather than an actual grown up company.
When not at the day job, I have always been a writer by disposition, and this year, a publisher was unwise enough to accept my first manuscript. Concerned with the history of propaganda of the deed from 1866 to 1926, it contains all manner of details about regicides, assassinations, and explosions that was international in scope and created widespread hysteria. Unlike most history books, I have attempted to look beyond the often cited acts, and instead examine the individuals who committed them as they have long suffered from misconceptions that are not out of place in our own harried age.
One of the drivers behind the creation of this blog, rather than the self-publicity that seems to lie at the heart of many, is largely to vent about the things I find interesting. It will principally address history, but will also be liberally littered with political opinion, and other random assorted nonsense. I make no promises as to its quality or otherwise, but it is my sincere hope that some of you find it interesting. And with that, I’m off for now…