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From John V. Denson, “Slavery Laws in Alabama” (1908), Part I: Emancipation


This text is transcribed from John V. Denson’s 1908 pamphlet, Slavery Laws in Alabama. The booklet was originally published as part of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute Historical Studies series (which had also previously published Meriwether Harvey’s Slavery in Auburn, Alabama). John V. Denson was a member of the Board of Instruction for Alabama Polytechnic for History and Latin. Like most of the historical studies from Alabama Polytechnic (now Auburn University) from the 1900s, the viewpoint of the pamphlet is frankly white supremacist, and romanticizes and apologizes for Southern slavery. It is however an extensive and detailed study of the slave code in Alabama in particular. Here is the first section, on the law of manumission. More to follow.

Slavery Laws in Alabama


John V. Denson.

In this study of the laws of Alabama that related to slavery, it is not my intention to discuss at all the administration of the laws nor the conditions resulting from any maladministration of them, but merely the laws themselves in the abstract. To get the legal facts about their administration would be a matter of great difficulty, for the courts in which the great majority of slave cases were tried, that is, courts of a justice of the peace, were not courts of record, and the only facts accessible concerning them would be the personal statements of old citizens, and however interesting these might be, they would not be authoritative. The study, then, is a discussion of the statutes that have existed from time to time in Alabama relating to the slave and the free negro from 1819 to 1865. Where it was possible I have compared Alabama laws with the laws of other States. *EMANCIPATION:* Leaving aside any moral questions that may be incident to the emancipation of slaves, I shall discuss it solely from the legal standpoint. Slaves in Alabama were considered and dealt with as property, as chattels personal, and since the right of the owner of any property is absolute, it would seem, at first glance, that the owner of slaves should be allowed to deal with them without interference, and certainly to give them freedom if he saw fit. But slaves were a peculiar kind of property, and for the welfare of the public it was necessary that some restraints be placed upon the powers and rights of the master. A man may own a large quantity of gun-powder, and his property rights are absolute, but for the good of the public he is restrained in a degree, and is forbidden to store it in certain places. [2] And so the Legislature restrained the power of the slave master for various reasons. According to the law slaves were property, and creditors had a legal right to look upon them as security for their debts due from slave owners. The right of the creditor was valid and the master was bound to recognize it, the law providing that an emancipated slave was liable to be taken to satisfy a debt contracted before such emancipation. Again, it was necessary to prevent a freed slave from becoming a charge upon the public, and the master must give bond guaranteeing this. There was among slave-holders a very general impression that the influence of a free negro upon slaves was demoralizing, nor was this unreasonable. The slave might become restless under the taunts of his free brother, or encouraged to hope for freedom himself, and so might run away or incite an insurrection. Hence after 1834 the slave when freed was required to leave the State. also there was current in the South an idea that unrestrained emancipation would result in one of two conditions: either the emancipated negro must remain in the condition of the free negro in competition with the white man for his daily bread, or he must become lord of the soil, as he had in Hayti and Jamaica. Southerners, at least many of them, believed that the negro was incapable of providing sustenance for himself in competition with the whites, and they thought that a large percentage of negroes would be without work, almost starving, and the consequence would be plunder and pillage. The alternative of becoming owners of the soil was even more to be avoided, certainly if reports from Jamaica and Hayti were to be believed.[1] Unrestrained emancipation might turn loose upon Southern white men a horde of ignorant creatures, unchecked by wise leaders, and incapable of being controlled. All these things the South feared, and the laws checking emancipation were intended to prevent them. The Constitution of Alabama, formed in 1819, contained [3] the following statements about emancipation: The General Assembly shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves, without the consent of their owners, or without paying their owners, previous to such emancipation, a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated. They shall have the power to pass laws to permit the owners of slaves to emancipate them, saving the rights of creditors, and preventing them from becoming a public charge.[2] The early statute law in Alabama was the act of the Mississippi Territorial Legislature, passed in 1805, when Alabama was included in the Territory, and it remained the law until 1834. That statute provided: That from and after the passage of this act it shall not be lawful for any person or persons holding or owning slaves, to liberate them or any of them, unless they first prove to the satisfaction of the General Assembly, that such slave or slaves have done some meritorious act, either for the benefit of the said owner or for the benefit of this Territory; and in the said case the owner or owners of the said slave or slaves shall give bond or security to the Governor, for the time being, that the said slave or slaves shall not become chargeable to the public. Provided, nevertheless, that all slaves so emancipated shall be liable to be taken by execution to satisfy any debt contracted by the person emancipating them before such emancipation is made. Section 2 of this act provides: That any slave claiming freedom shall proceed by petition to the county or circuit court of his master’s county; the master must enter into a bond approved by the governor, in a sum to be adjudged by the court, that such [4] slave will be subject to the order of the court and abide by the judgment of the court, the slave to remain in the service of the master till the determination of the suit.[3] It will be noticed that this statute contains no provision that the freed slave shall leave the state, and there was no such provision until 1834. Another noticeable feature is that there is nothing contained in the statute that would prevent a person’s directing in his will that slaves be taken out of the state by his executors, to free territory, and there set free, and a provision of this kind did not occur until 1860. So far as I can find no will containing a bequest of this nature was ever declared null and void. In South Carolina the act of 1820[4] was the same as that quoted above, but in 1841 an act was passed which declared void all bequests, deeds, etc., which intended after the death of the owner to remove slaves from the state and liberate them.[4] Goodell, in his American Slave Code, published in 1853, makes the unqualified statement that, In South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, the legislature, only by express enactments, has authority to emancipate slaves, and cites as his authority Stroud, P. 147. Stroud’s work was published in 1827.[5] Mrs. Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1851, makes the same statement, but cites no authority.[6] If these two persons had taken the trouble, they might have found that in 1834 the Legislature of Alabama enacted a law which provided that judges of the county court might, upon petition of the owner, emancipate slaves, in consideration of long, faithful, and meritorious services performed, and for other good causes, provided such slaves should leave the State within twelve months, never to return, and if such slaves should return, they were to be apprehended by the sheriff [5] and were liable to be sold for life as slaves. As in all provisions for emancipation, it was definitely set forth that nothing in the act should be so construed as to prejudice the rights of the creditors of the owner of the emancipated slaves.[7] This act remained in force until the act of 1860, which revoked and annulled all emancipation laws. The method of procedure under this act was simple. The master desiring to emancipate a slave made publication in his county newspaper for at least sixty days previous to making application, giving the name and description of the slave; at the appointed time the petition was filed and the cause tried. If there was proof that the slave had served his master with fidelity, or other good cause was shown, and no sufficient objection was offered, the judge of probate, acting upon authority conferred by the Legislature, declared the slave free.[7] [6] This act remained in force till 1860. At that time a stringent act prohibiting emancipation was passed, and it is natural to find it. Intensified by the sectional conflict in Kansas, and by the raid of John Brown, the antipathy between the South and the North was growing apace. In Alabama, one of the results of this was the sweeping act of 1860, which was as follows:

Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Alabama, in General Assembly convened, That from and after the passage of this act, all clauses, items, words, or directions contained in any last will and testament, or other instrument, made for the purpose of emancipating any negro slave or slaves, either directly or indirectly, is hereby declared to be void and of no effect.

Sec. 2. Be it further enacted, That any and all clauses of any last will and testament or other instrument by which any executor, administrator, trustee, incorporation or society of persons, may be authorized or directed to remove any slave or slaves from the state of Alabama, for the purpose of emancipating such slave or slaves, is hereby declared to be void and of no effect.

Sec. 3. Be it further enacted, That all gifts and bequests by last will and testament, or other instrument, of any slave or slaves to any person or persons, or to any trustee, incorporation or society of persons, upon the trust or condition that such slave or slaves shall be removed beyond the limits of the state of Alabama, and to some state or territory, where African slavery does not exist, shall be utterly null and void.

Sec. 4. Be it further enacted, That all laws and parts of laws authorizing the emancipation of any slave or slaves, by any proceedings before any court in the state of Alabama, are hereby repealed.

Sec. 5. Be it further enacted, That the provisions of this act shall not apply to wills and testaments or other instruments which may have become effectual before its passage.[8]

  1. [1]Stearn’s Notes on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Note 9.
  2. [2]Three clauses seem to have been taken almost verbatim from the constitution of Mississippi (1817), except that the latter forbade the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners unless where a slave shall have rendered to the State some distinguished service, in which case the owner shall be paid a full equivalent for the slaves so emancipated. See Poore’s Charters and Constitutions.
  3. [3]Toulmin’s Dig. of 1807, p. 259. Hitchcock’s Ala. Justice, p. 421.
  4. [4]O’Neal’s article on S. c. laws in DeBow’s Industrial Resources of the South, vol. 2, p. 274.
  5. [5]Goodell’s American Slave Code, p. 341.
  6. [6]Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Key, vol. 2, p. 354.
  7. [7]

    Acts of the Legislature, ’33-34, p. 29.

    Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the State of Alabama, in General Assembly convened, That whenever the owner or owners of any slave or slaves, shall be desirous of emancipating such slave or slaves, such owner or owners shall make publication in some newspaper printed within the county where such slaves reside, (or if there be no paper printed in said county, then in the nearest paper thereto,) for at least sixty days previously to the making application in which shall be set forth the time and place that such application will be made, together with the names and description of the slave or slaves, sought to be emancipated; and at the time appointed the judge of the county court may upon petition filed, proceed to hear and determine upon the application so made, and if, in his opinion, the said slave should be emancipated, in consideration of long, faithful, and meritorious services performed, or for other good and sufficient cause shown, the said judge may proceed to emancipate and set free such slave or slaves; and the clerk of the court shall make record of the same in a book to be kept by him for that purpose: Provided, that such slave or slaves shall remove without the limits of this state, within twelve months after such emancipation, never more to return, and that such emancipation shall not take effect until after such removal.

    Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That if the said slave or slaves shall return within the limits of this state after such removal and emancipation, he, she, or they, shall be subject to be apprehended by the sheriff of the county within which the same may be found and imprisoned, and after having advertised the same for at least thirty days, may be sold to the best bidder for cash as slaves for life; and the proceeds of such sale, after paying all expenses, shall be paid into the county treasury for the use of said county.

    Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all sheriffs, constables and patrols, to apprehend slaves who shall return after having been so emancipated and removed, and bring them before some justice of the peace who shall commit them; and the same compensation shall be allowed in such cases as is allowed for apprehending runaway slaves.

    Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act contained shall be so construed as to prejudice the rights of the creditors of the owner of slaves so emancipated.

    App’d, Jan. 17, 1834.

    See also Clay’s Ala Dig. of 1843, p. 545, secs. 37, 38, and 40. Also Ala. Code of 1852, secs. 2044-2048.

  8. [8]Acts of 1859-60, p. 28. App’d Jan. 25, 1860.

Now available: full text of “Slavery in Auburn, Alabama” (1907)

Now available on the Fair Use Repository website: I have just made available the full, transcribed text of Slavery in Auburn, Alabama, a small 18pp booklet from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute Historical Studies (published by Auburn University, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute) written by Meriwether Harvey.

I found the booklet on the shelves at the Auburn University RBD Library, an aging, decaying reprint booklet carefully tucked into a protective grey cover, and decided that this document of local history deserved preserving. So I have spent the past couple days reading and transcribing the text into digital form.

The booklet was written in 1907, and its viewpoint very emphatically reflects the views common among wealthy white families and former slaveholders (like the Harveys) in and around Auburn, Alabama, a small college town in what was then rural East Alabama. It is romanticized, although concerned enough with points of detail and description that that only causes a problem in some parts of the booklet. At times, the text is oblivious, or frankly racist. It makes some blanket claims about the local slave trade that are almost certainly self-serving lies told by the author’s sources. However, the booklet seems to have been based primarily on first-hand interviews with slaveholding white families and a few interviews with African-American residents who had been born under slavery, and whether intentionally or unintentionally provides fascinating points of detail, and anecdotes reflecting the reminiscences, the self-justifying fantasies, and also the anxieties of white slaveholders in East Alabama, as well as some of the range of experiences of slavery in east Alabama, and the operation of the slaves’ economy, despite its frustrating limitations. Some excerpts:

Slavery in Auburn, Alabama (1907)

By Meriwether Harvey

[…] Corn shucking was another great occasion in the negro’s life. The owner would have all his corn hauled up and thrown on the ground at the crib door in a big pile; then he would invite his neighbors’ negroes to come to his house on a certain night to a corn shucking. Only the men were invited; as they came they could be heard in the distance singing corn songs. I have tried to record some of these songs, but I find they were a jargon; they had no real words, only a tune. Some disinterested man would lay a long pole in the middle of the pile; then two negro men would choose sides, as is done today in spelling matches, and the two sides would enter into a contest to see which could first finish their side of the pile. The leader, dressed in a stove pipe hat and feather, walked up and down on the pile and gave out the corn song. The whole crowd answered him in the chorus. As they shucked, they would throw the corn into the barn in front of them and the shucks behind. When they had finished about half of the pile, corn whiskey was passed; thus they worked till eleven o’clock, when [13] they had a big plain supper. After eating the put the shucks in pens made for the purpose. By twelve they had finished, and then the frolic began. They danced about the great bonfire that had been burning all the time behind them, so that they might have sufficient light to shuck the corn, the lights and shadows making a strange and ghostly scene. After the supper the owner of the plantation, the giver of the corn shucking, or sometimes the overseer, was seized and carried about on the shoulders of some of the negroes. The other negroes followed, all singing at the top of their voices. About two or three o’clock in the morning they all went home.

[…] The treatment of slaves was generally good because the negro was property and was cared for as such. [sic] I have interviewed only one man who ever saw a slave unmercifully beaten. [sic] A great many negroes would run away; some of them were chronic runaways, and were so seemingly without any cause whatever. A few of these chronic runaways were chained at night. Certain people all through the country kept fox hounds for tracking runaway negroes, who would go off into the swamps and woods. It was often impossible to catch them in any way except with dogs. They were seldom bitten by the dogs when over taken; they would climb a tree if one was near at hand, but if they were caught on the ground, the dogs were so trained that they circled around the negroes, without going close to them. Negroes always aided a runaway by slipping to him something to eat. Mr. H. never had a negro to lie out more than three days, and never offered more than ten dollars as a reward for his return. Mr. B., with the aid of another man, caught a negro who had been in the woods seven years. He advertised the negro, and in due time returned him to his master. The slave turned out to be the most faithful of a large number of slaves. Mrs. D. says of her whole [15] number of slaves, which was between one hundred and fifty and two hundred, there was never a runaway; Mr. B. knows several such cases. Uncle West would run from the plantation up to Mr. F. R.’s residence whenever the overseer told him to do what he did not wish to do, or threatened to whip him. None of the negroes ever did any other kind of running away.

The overseers were men selected for their practical farming ability, and their business was to oversee the negroes and look after the farm and the planting. Sometimes an overseer was discharged, or brought to trial, when he mistreated a negro. One of Mr. W. H.’s overseers whipped two of his negroes, who hid in the swamp. Some of the other negroes came from the plantation to Auburn to tell their master. He decided the whipping unjust and paid the overseer up and let him go.

When an overseer was hired it was understood that he was to ride the country as a patrol; also the young white slave-owners of the neighborhood patrolled on certain nights. A negro was not allowed to leave his master’s plantation without a pass stating where he was going and when he was to return. This had to be signed, either by the overseer or the master. If the negro was caught away from home without a pass, he was whipped with a leather strap by these patrols. The usual punishment for being away from home without a pass was ten to twenty lashes, but in exceptional cases thirty-nine lashes might be given. These patrols went usually Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons and nights, but they also went out any night when they thought they might catch negroes roving about. They patrolled the roads, visited the plantations, and searched the cabins; if a negro was caught in a cabin away from home, he was taken off a good way from the negro quarters and whipped. Of course the whipping depended upon the offense, the mood of the patrol, and the negro whipped. Sometimes people who did not own negroes would catch a [16] negro without a pass and beat him badly, but the regular patrol did not do this.

The negroes were punished as a rule, by whipping; the whip was a leather strap so that it would not cut the skin. The foreman was the boss and did the whipping, but the owner, or overseer, was there to witness it. On some plantations the overseer did the whipping, but the master was usually present. Negroes were not whipped for small offenses; a foreman would sometimes dislike a certain negro and would beat that one unmercifully. As a rule, the overseer was more kind and merciful than the foreman. If there was a large number of hands, the foreman spent his whole time bossing; if the number was small, he would work awhile and then boss awhile. He lorded it over the other negroes. The worst whipping was often done by the negro parents.

[…] Slavery was not without its dark side. There were near Auburn several instances of cruel treatment to slaves. In one case they were not properly fed, in another, they were not sufficiently clothed. How far this was due to the lack of means of the masters is now hard to determine. In some cases they seem to have been overworked. In one or two they were treated roughly and punished severely. In one case a slave stabbed his master, but did not kill him. The slave was tried and hanged. Public opinion disapproved of cruelty on the part of masters. One man was indicted three times for ill treatment of his slaves, especially for failing to supply them with sufficient food and clothing. He was fined each time.

[18]There were some old negroes who did as they pleased and went where they pleased. These negroes were too old and infirm to be of any value. Mr. H. had four or five such, two of whom were blind women. They made money by making baskets and selling chickens and eggs. These negroes were not what were called free negroes. Uncle Burl Dillard was in reality a free negro, but he nominally belonged to the Dillards. He made ginger bread and persimmon beer, which he sold. He also had a wagon and mule, and went through the country buying old rags which he took to Columbus and there sold. His wife, Aunt Kitty Dillard, was a slave.

The negroes had the greatest contempt for poor white folks, that is people who owned no negroes. Every one speaks of their faithfulness. They would divide anything they had with their masters and would steal from their neighbor rather than their master. Only cribs and smoke houses were locked. They thought their folks the greatest in the world, and what belonged to the master was always spoken of as theirs. They were respectful to every one except poor white folks. Mr. R.’s negroes came from South Carolina and would not associate with other negroes because they thought South Carolina negroes far superior to any of the negroes in Auburn. In 1847 Aus Harvey went to Mexico with his master. When they left, the mother of Mr. Harvey made Aus promise to bring her son back if he should die. Mr. Harvey died with yellow fever, and true to his promise, Aus brought the body home. He paid his own fare and that of the corpse by cooking and doing various things. He told parties that the corpse was a piece of furniture he was bringing to Alabama. Finally, he got the body as far as Montgomery; then the family sent for it. There were many examples of faithfulness, too numerous to be told.

–Meriwether Harvey, Slavery in Auburn, Alabama (1907)

“Enemies In Almost All Our Institutions”: The Rise and the Tactics of the Cheka under Dzerzhinskii, from W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (1989), 381-385.

The following passage comes from pp. 381-385 of Chapter 11, The Struggle to Survive in W. Bruce Lincoln’s book Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989). The passage is cited as a source in recent revisions of Wikipedia:Cheka, but the text of the passage was not yet fully available online, so here it is, for reference. Hyperlinks have been added; footnotes are from the original text.

[…] Rather than admit the real enemies they faced were an acute lack of civic responsibility among the people they ruled, the Bolsheviks proclaimed bungling, shirking, and sabotage to be the reason for their inability to mobilize the working men and women of Russia in the cause of economic reconstruction. To deal with such spectral foes required a massive invasion of Russians’ daily lives. For the first time in their modern history, the men and women of Russia became responsible not only for what they said and did, but for what they thought.

Now openly acknowledged by the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee as an instrument for fulfilling the will of the Party and the proletariat,[112] Dzerzhinskii‘s Cheka became the Bolsheviks’ chief defense against their inability to mobilize Russians to rebuild their nation’s economic life. Although its brutality against the Whites continued unabated in those areas where Bolsheviks still vied for control, the Cheka now became an instrument to coerce a nation as [382] it began to search for enemies of the people among peasants, Red Army soldiers, workers, bureaucrats, and even loyal Bolsheviks. The form of our struggle against our enemies must change, Dzerzhinskii told the Central Executive Committee in February 1919 as he argued (very prematurely, it turned out) that the battle against the Whites had been won. They now are trying to worm their way into our Soviet institutions so that, once they have infiltrated our ranks, they can sabotage our work. Nothing could have expressed more clearly the Bolsheviks’ increasingly paranoid response to the crises that surrounded them. We know that we have enemies in almost all our institutions, Dzerzhinskii concluded, but we cannot smash our institutions. We have to dig out clues and try to catch them.[113] Its resources now focused upon government offices, trade unions, factories, villages, and party headquarters, the Cheka declared war against the Russians. In this struggle, the organs of the Cheka must become an instrument for realizing the centralized will of the proletariat, Lenin told the Fourth Conference of Provincial Chekas a year later. He therefore insisted that the Cheka must become a weapon for creating the sort of discipline that we have been able to establish in the Red Army [in society as a whole].[114]

Dzerzhinskii shared all the fears of internal enemies that plagued Lenin and his comrades. Power had not softened him physically or morally, for he had continued to live a thoroughly ascetic life, even when others had begun to enjoy the comforts that their newly won positions made possible. Although he had exercised the power of life and death over men under the most trying conditions, Dzerzhinskii still remained true to his once-stated ideal that a Chekist must always have a cool head, a warm heart, and clean hands.[115] His features sharpened by age and the burdens of office, Dzerzhinskii now resembled the Grand Inquisitor more than ever. When his appointment as commissar of internal affairs in March 1919 enabled him to combine the personnel of the Cheka with the much larger institutional and financial resources of one of Soviet Russia’s most important commissariats, he shaped the two into an institution of uniquely pervasive coercive abilities. Eventually, the Cheka became reorganized as the GPU, the acronym for Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie (State Political Administration), which, popular gallows humor bitterly remarked, really stood for the phrase Gospodi, pomilui umershikh, or Lord, have mercy upon the dead.[116] With a clear mandate to act as the Party’s special [383] instrument to rout out sedition and sabotage wherever it might threaten the Bolsheviks’ efforts to move ahead with Russia’s economic reconstruction,[117] Dzerzhinskii‘s Cheka became in every sense the avenging sword of the Revolution.

As the Cheka expanded its work beyond those Civil War fronts where it faced enemies in open battle, it took control of Russia’s railways, waterways, frontiers, cities, large towns, factories, and government offices. Everywhere, it searched for White Guardists, saboteurs, and shirkers who might be trying to undermine Russia from within. Far distant were the days when Dzerzhinskii had carried the Cheka‘s entire files around Petrograd in a briefcase. Now the Cheka‘s dossiers about real, suspected, and imagined enemies numbered in the tens of thousands. How a person’s parents and grandparents had been employed, where and how they had lived, and whom they had entertained in their homes all became important, as things written or said in days long past returned to haunt innocent Russians. Inheritor of the tsarist belief that it was in man’s nature to do evil, the Cheka lived with the frustrating conviction that most crimes inevitably would go undiscovered and unpunished. Its agents always tried to uncover new crimes in the course of every inquiry. One should never … confront [a suspect] … with material evidence convicting him of guilt at the beginning of an interrogation, the Cheka instructed its interrogators. It is important to ascertain first other participants in the case and the possibility of other as yet undisclosed crimes.[118]

As they violated the minds and bodies of their victims, the Cheka‘s inquisitors abandoned every moral principle that guided the behavior of civilized men and women. Usually, prisoners were questioned late at night after they had been kept without sleep and fed starvation rations for long periods. Hunger and disease were part of everyday life in Cheka prisons, but so were physical and psychological tortures. Rapes of female prisoners by Cheka guards and interrogators were so commonplace that they occasioned comment from superiors only if performed in some particularly brutal or perverted fashion. Threats against relatives, whippings, and beatings (during which interrogators sometimes gouged out one of the victim’s eyes) were everyday methods of extracting confessions, but each Cheka headquarters evidently developed certain specialties. The Cheka in Voronezh rolled its prisoners around inside a barrel into which nails had been driven, while the Cheka in Kharkov used scalping as a preferred form of torture. In Armavir, the Cheka [384] used a death wreath that applied increasing pressure to a prisoner’s skull; at Tsaritsyn, they separated prisoners’ joints by sawing through their bones; and, in Omsk, they poured molten sealing wax on prisoners’ faces, arms, and necks. In Kiev, Chekists installed rats in pieces of pipe that had been closed at one end, placed the open end against prisoners’ stomachs, and then heated the pipes until the rats, maddened by the heat, tried to escape by gnawing their way into the prisoners’ intestines.[119]

Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of death hung over every prisoner of the Cheka, not only because interrogators terrorized prisoners with mock executions,[120] but because real executions occurred very often. Estimates of men and women killed by Cheka executioners between 1918 and the end of the Civil War in 1921 vary wildly from a few thousand (Dzerzhinskii‘s lieutenant Martyn Latsis set the total for this period at 12,733)[121] into the hundreds of thousands, and one estimate set the number of Cheka victims for the somewhat longer period between the October Revolution and Lenin‘s death at the astronomical figure of one and three-quarters million.[122] Although they do not take into account those killed when the Cheka suppressed hundreds of insurrections against Soviet authority, the best estimates set the probable number of executions at about a hundred thousand,[123] or about seven times the number killed by the tsarist government during the entire century before the Revolution. That staggering statistic becomes even more appalling if we remember that it does not include those who died in Cheka prisons from disease, hunger, or beatings. To this day, it remains impossible to do more than guess at the number of men, women, and children whose lives were snuffed out by the Cheka between 1918 and 1921.

If any estimate of the Cheka‘s victims must remain an uncertain conjecture, the methods by which they met their deaths are far better known. Chekist executioners sometimes crucified their vctims in Ekaterinoslav and Kiev. In Odessa, they favored chaining White officers to planks and pushing them slowly into furnaces or boiling water. The Sevastopol Cheka preferred mass hangings. In other places, the Cheka beheaded its victims by twisting their necks until their heads could be torn off. Some executioners had their victims stoned to death. Denikin‘s investigators discovered corpses whose lungs, throats, and mouths had been packed with earth. Other victims died after being chopped apart with axes. Still others were skinned alive. Severing arms and legs, disemboweling, blinding, cutting [385] off tongues, ears, and noses, and various sorts of sexual mutilation often prolonged victims’ agonies before the executions.[124]

Most commonly, an executioner fired a single bullet into the base of his victim’s skull. When larger numbers of prisoners needed to be killed quickly, as in cases where sudden advances by White forces threatened their liberation, Cheka firing squads and machine-gunners did the killing. As the armies of General Denikin advanced toward Kiev, more than four hundred Cheka prisoners met their deaths in that fashion on the night of August 26, 1919. In Kharkov, the Cheka killed seventy-nine in a single night, and there were reports that some two thousand died in Ekaterinodar during one twenty-four-hour period in August 1920.[125] The whole of it was coated with blood–blood ankle deep, wisps of hair, and the like, investigators from Denikin‘s forces reported after they visited the main Cheka slaughterhouse in Kiev. A conspicuous object, their report concluded, was the wooden block upon which the victims had to lay their heads for the purpose of being brained with a crowbar, with, in the floor beside it, a traphole filled to the brim with human brain-matter from the shattering of the skulls.[126]

  1. [112]Obrashchenie TsK RKP(b), p. 250.
  2. [113]Dzerzhinskii, pp. 254-255.
  3. [114]Lenin, Rech’ … na 4-i konferentsii, pp. 370-371.
  4. [115]Quoted in Legett, p. 187.
  5. [116]Quoted in Mel’gunov (1925), p. 265.
  6. [117]Obrashchenie TsK RKP(b), p. 250.
  7. [118]118. Quoted in Gerson, p. 150.
  8. [119]119. Mel’gunov (1925), p. 111.
  9. [120]See, for example, Berkman (1925), p. 166.
  10. [121]121. Latsis (1921), p. 9.
  11. [122]Mel’gunov (1925), p. 111.
  12. [123]Chamberlin, II, p. 75; Gerson, pp. 172-176; Leggett, pp. 466-468.
  13. [124]Mel’gunov (1925), pp. 78-81, 172-187.
  14. [125]125. Chamberlin II, p. 83, note 16; Leggett, p. 200; Mel’gunov (1925), pp. 73-74, 174-175.
  15. [126]Ibid., pp. 75-85; Leggett, p. 200.