After raiding the home of thirty-nineyear- old Mendel Beiliss, and dragging him to jail on a trumped-up murder charge, the Russian authorities needed to build up their feeble case against him before putting him in front of a judge. They had to prove two things: first, that Beiliss had committed the crime and, second and even more important, that the murder was part of a Jewish ritual.
A major obstacle to this second goal was that the autopsy, conducted by the City Coroner, indicated no evidence whatsoever that the young victim had been deliberately drained of blood, a conclusion confirmed by a second autopsy that yielded the same results. In desperation, the authorities turned to an anti-Semitic psychiatrist, Professor Sikorsky, for his learned opinion and, this time, they hit pay dirt.
“Professor Sikorsky, basing his opinion on considerations of a historical and anthropological character, and judging by basic and other indications (in the autopsy), considers the murder of Yushchinsky typical of many similar murders which occur, from time to time, in Russia as well as in other countries,” they recorded. “The psychological basis of this type of murder, according to Professor Sikorsky, is ‘the racial revenge and vendetta of the Sons of Jacob.’”
To get medical backing for the case, the prosecution hired the services of Dr. Kosorotov, professor of forensic medicine at the St. Petersburg University, for a fee of 4,000 rubles. He conveniently attested that, “The wounds were afflicted during the life of the victim… All this makes one think that the wounds were inflicted with the purpose of obtaining the largest quantity of blood, possibly for some special purpose.”
However, this assessment contradicted the previous autopsies. To solve this impasse, the coroners who had conducted the second autopsy were prevailed upon to add a few lines to their report of six months earlier, and they reluctantly complied. Russian doctors who dared to protest against these violations of science and common sense were cowed and silenced.
Two days after the Kharkov Medical Society dared to pass a resolution that “It considers it shameful and degrading to the high standards of a physician to display racial and religious intolerance and to attempt to base the possibility of ritual murder on pseudo-scientific arguments,” the city governor suspended its activities. Psychiatrists in St. Petersburg assembled to analyze Sikorsky’s claims. Two of them were warned that if their activities sparked off a student riot, they would be fired.
For religious testimony relating to blood libels, the authorities turned to Russian Orthodox priests. The first one they dug up was so ridiculous that even the prosecution judged him hopeless.
“I, the Archimandrite Ambrosius, am of the Orthodox faith…” he announced. “I had numerous occasions to talk on this subject (of blood libels)… in particular with two Orthodox monks who had been converted from the Jewish religion… All these discussions, as far as I can recall, gave me reason to believe that… it is the custom to obtain blood.”
A year later, Ambrosius’ dossier was thrown out when he revealed exactly whom those Jewish converts were.
“The two monks who had converted from the Jewish to the Russian Orthodox faith were Cantonists (youngsters conscripted at the age of about five to serve twentyfive years in the Russian army), people who were not well-educated. In conversations, these monks did not show a background of reading from Jewish books of ritual but simply gave me their observations from life.”
The prosecution finally uncovered a willing priest, Father Justin Pranaitis, who had fled to Tashkent to escape the police after committing petty crimes. His claim to fame was that, in 5653/1893, he had written a pamphlet called, “The Secrets of the Teachings of the Rabbis about Christians.”
During the trial, a London Times correspondent described him as, “One of the most striking members in the court. A lean churchman with beetling brows, dressed in a cassock and with a large golden cross… suspended at the waist with a silver neck chain.”
A FAILURE BEFORE IT STARTED
Actually, the people cooking the case knew all the time that it might very well blow up in their faces but it was too late to backtrack because the Czar had already been assured that the Jews were behind the murder. These confessions remained hidden in sealed archives until they were unearthed, after the Russian Revolution.
For example, in February 5672/1912, Colonel Shredel, head of the Kiev police, sent a top-secret letter to the vice-director of the Department of Police in St. Petersburg:
“It is a probable assumption that the boy, Yushchinsky, was an involuntary witness to one of the criminal acts [of a local criminal gang], and that on account of fear, it was necessary to do away with him…,” he wrote. “Considering the insufficiency of the evidence against him, and the universal interest in the case which has acquired almost European prominence, the accusation of Mendel Beiliss may cause a great deal of unpleasantness to the officials of the Department of Justice and may lead to just rebuke for the hastiness of their conclusions, nay, the one-sidedness exhibited during the investigation.”
While Beiliss was moldering in jail, anti-Jewish sentiment took a turn for the worse when a young Jew, Dmitri Bogrov, assassinated the Russian Premier, Pyotr Stolypin, in Kiev during the Czar’s visit to the city. Intriguingly, it was rumored that Bogrov had undertaken this murder under the commission of the secret police because Stolypin had made many enemies in his attempts to make Russia liberal, including improving the conditions of its Jews.
A NEW BREAKTHROUGH
One year and five months after Beiliss’ arrest, the case had another breakthrough. The nine-year-old daughter of the ringleader of the criminal gang mentioned earlier suddenly remembered vital evidence that she had somehow forgotten to mention during her earlier questioning.
“They (she and some other children) penetrated to the factory grounds through a hole in the fence and began to ride on the clay mixer,” her deposition read. “Suddenly they saw Beiliss, accompanied by two Jews, running towards them. They jumped down and ran away but Andryusha (Yushchinsky) and Zhenya were seized by Beiliss… The two Jews started dragging Andryusha towards the kiln.”
After two-and-a-half years of preparation, the trial started with the reading of a rambling forty-one-page indictment. A public prosecutor and two private attorneys, who had volunteered their services gratis in the holy cause of anti-Semitism, were arraigned against Beiliss. One of them was an infamous lawyer, Schmakov, who boasted that he had never accepted a Jewish client and covered his office walls with anti-Semitic depictions of Jewish noses.
To compromise for the weak indictment, a jury of ignorant and illiterate jurymen was carefully assembled.
“Seven peasants, three townsmen, two government clerks…” a newspaper commented. “For a university city, the choice is certainly extraordinary… I learned that for a minor crime (being judged in the same building), there were two or three professors, ten educated men and only two peasants. This would mean that the type of people for the Beiliss jury was formulated in one of the early stages. How did it happen? How was it done?”
After the overthrow of Czarist Russia a few years later, an investigative commission discovered that no member of the jury was chosen until he had been carefully screened by the secret police and, during the trial, secret agents disguised as ushers kept a close surveillance over them. In fact, seven of the jurors were members of the anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People organization.
In charge of defending Beiliss was one of the best legal teams in the country, led by Oscar O. Gruzenberg, the leading criminal lawyer of his time. In 5663/1903, he had successfully defended a Vilna Jew accused of ritually murdering a servant and, in this case too, he drove the presiding judge into a corner many times until his only effective retort was, “Don’t argue with me!”
The other members of the five-member defense team were non-Jews who were eager to further the cause of justice. The first witness was Yuliana Shakhovsky, a lamplighter’s wife, who claimed to have evidence that a Jew seized the victim on the morning of the murder. She fell apart under cross-examination (cited in Maurice Samuel’s book, Blood Accusation).
Karabchevsky (Beiliss’ defense lawyer): Did the detectives advise you to accuse Beiliss?
Shakhovsky: They gave me vodka. They told me to say this and that.
Karabchevsky: Did they tell you to accuse Beiliss?
Karabchevsky: You were questioned seven times. You also testified that Zhenya told you how he and Andryusha were chased by a black-bearded man. Didn’t you later admit that Zhenya (son of the woman gang leader) never told you such a story and that you had invented it?
Shakhovsky: I don’t remember.
Unfortunately, the chief prosecutor was not impressed by this and subsequent contradictions and retractions of key witnesses. His thesis was that such witnesses had obviously been bribed or frightened by Jews.