Politics, Poverty, and Plagues: Why we must learn from the town that beheaded their mayor in 1911

Is the alarm bell ringing?

Mural from G Siega. Photo via Siviaggia

I wonder, as I sit here and type, what my grandmother’s grandmother would think of the current state of the world and what her response would be for the upcoming election. Undoubtedly she would have her biases as we all do, but I imagine her looking into my eyes and probably those of all her descendants, decreeing a concise and powerful statement about what could come next if we didn’t properly vote. I imagine her worriedly describing the dangers of nationalism and how poorly those become when illtreated within its system. Politics like this become the great mystifier and that I should warn those around me before it’s too late. She’d probably turn while walking down Via Santa Maddalena and ultimately leave me saying, “when it’s combined with strong propaganda and poor misinformed people, it becomes more dangerous than drugs and more spreadable than fire.”

The instant you open your phone or turn on the tv you are reminded of the constant barrage of world uneasiness both at home and abroad. Unemployment rates are still hirer than those of the Great Depression, riots and police violence against Black Americans, and the shocking prompt that many world superpowers are not only issuing far-right rhetoric but also pointing at ambitions for former “glory” with nationalistic pre-WWI colonial attitudes with expansionism from the South China Sea to the delicate situation developing in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In late August of 1911, Verbicaro, a rural hillside village of 5,000 in Italy’s mountainous extreme southern region of Calabria erupted with unimaginable violence. The concept of Italy as a nation and the acceptable identifiers of an “Italian” still had an ever-present existence in the conversation of everyday elites of the infant nation. The Risorgimento-or unification- of Italy had only been forced 50 years prior, only by the efforts of the internationally-famed revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.

This, coming nearly 100 years after the independence and unification of the United States from Great Britain.

In the 50 years since then, Italy, a young state wanting to join the party of “civilized” European nations in the scramble for colonizing Africa, was battling with image issues, appalling inequality, and a frightful north-south economic and cultural divide. Giovanni Giolitti, the then Prime Minister, was tasked with addressing the pivotal issue on what to do with this “Southern Question”; something sadly still not resolved today. The south of Italy which had run its course entirely different from the north both after the fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution, was extremely underdeveloped and a product of centuries-old isolation, invasions, and corrupt sharecropping practices. Today, many in the north of Italy still refer to anything south of Rome as “Africa’’. And back in 1911 after the gruesome beheadings of the town’s mayor and clerks, and the destruction of the town hall, journalists from around Italy arrived to find ghastly conditions. Verbicaro, like other remote villages of this era, lacked sewers, drinkable water, and animals and humans lived together under the same roof. The villagers were projected to be only 7% literate and bigoted claims became commonplace in all of the news stories published.

Most journalists divulged in prejudiced wordplay and would then spin this story and tie it into Italy’s upcoming war with Turkey and the invasion of nearby Libya in North Africa- which would conveniently happen one month later. Those in power thought that this colonial “redemption” would lead back to the former glory of the Roman Empire and would bring light to those who were still in the dark. Ominously similar to the current “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Children play in Verbicaro in 1930. Photo by Gerhard Rohlfs

So why is that important and even relevant to today’s world?

Well for one, we have seen the eerie reminder that despite technology advancing, the blame, portrayal in the media, and more importantly the impact of diseases, policies, and violence is often felt by those on the edges of society. And in the wake of constant police brutality, the world’s most unforeseen pandemic and an election year nonetheless, many of these issues persist not in developing nations like expected, but right here in the United States.

Not so different from the likes of Donald Trump, Giovanni Giolitti expunged, and ignored many warning signs. He was given several private telegrams warning of the dire situation and of what may come next. Something Donald Trump probably also received at the very beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Both leaders also shared similar pride in their economical successes, namely the Stock Market for Trump and the advancement of infrastructure for Giolitti. And like Trump, Giolitti created tough tariff policies with the hopes of nationalist admiration and when the revolt in Verbicaro occurred, vouched that he would repress the violence and “make an example for all of Italy”. Something Trump has incessantly used in his playbook by threatening to send in federal troops to several American cities throughout the current social unrest.

So let’s return to history to see how and why this all unfolded and why it’s applicable to November’s election...

For context purposes, Verbicaro was a place familiar with tragedy. In 1855 there had been another cholera epidemic that killed 400 out of the 4,000 people in the village. In the years leading up to the 1911 revolt, there had also been several deadly earthquakes and famines that set back most of the villager’s lives decades, while power and wealth were confined to only two families. And predictably noted, there was no relief or assistance from those in the capital and that the official stance after the revolt occurred was that it was wholeheartedly the fault of the villagers. Despite the region being the cradle of Ancient Greek society in Pre-Roman Italy, the media and the government created a one-sided narrative that painted the cause of the event as the lack of civilized society in Verbicaro, rather than decades of dehumanizing neglect and that the government failed to provide any sort of respectable or even humane living conditions for its citizens.

So in the blistering August summer heat of 1911, after dozens of new deaths, the Verbicarèsi reached a boiling point. Several important factors led to what happened next. To start, after the deaths began to multiply, the people noticed the arrival of new police members rather than more doctors, and that the nobles of the village were fleeing. New rumors circulated that Verbicaro was overpopulated and that some saw members of the military add a poisonous solution to the water supply to kill off the undesirables. Something not too entirely far fetched, especially when you consider that all official telegram communications omitted the word “cholera” from the deaths and that they never were met with warm embracing arms when coming into contact with authority figures. I for one love a good conspiracy theory, but in reality, the authorities were most likely rushing to add last-minute solvents to help minimize bacteria from spreading and similarly to what had happened in Flint, Michigan, curtail any sort of news about the situation getting out to the general public. Sadly they were too late.

On August 27th, 1,200 ‘rebels’ encroached the town hall while the mayor and his cabinet were in a meeting. The villagers wanted answers and demanded justice. As tensions rose, many chanted death threats to those involved. The first to be taken hostage was a clerk, who several months earlier had been involved in drafting the town’s census. He, as a result of the rumors, was the mastermind behind the government’s plot to rid the country of the poor. A woman who had just lost her husband struck his head with a stick, another shot him and a third hacked his head off with a pruning knife. The military convened swiftly, using a machine gun to quell the rebels, resulting in the deaths of several people. In response and armed to the teeth with spades, knives, sticks, and agricultural tools, women, boys, and men knocked down and cut the wires from telegraph poles, destroyed the courthouse and town hall, burnt its archives, and released prisoners from the jail. The mayor, another town clerk, and a judge fled immediately. A group of 11, including three women, caught the clerk and ‘hacked him to pieces’. Upon reaching the train station, the judge ‘died of fright’. Fearing death from the authorities, over half of Verbicaro’s population, the majority who were innocent, fled to the mountains — leaving their loved ones cholera contaminated corpses strewn through streets and without a proper burial. Most would live their lives for the next three years in the mountains while the military occupied the village. After the initial violence, the mayor sneakily escaped, but two days later was ordered to return and was immediately murdered. Repeating the fate of his grandfather, mayor of Verbicaro in 1855, who was in charge during the last cholera epidemic and was strangled by way of being dragged through the alleys via a mule.

Thus the combination of the spread of false information and neglect becomes extremely dangerous. Similar to the developments of what we have seen during the Coronavirus, distrust of the media and government, the lack of assistance, and faulty and unfair institutions had created a vortex of rage by those living in Verbicaro. Tragedies like this, often take a life of its own when combined with these factors. For them, they had developed hundreds of years of distrust for authority figures because of maltreatment and blame. With the constant change of political rule, attacks from Turkish pirates, and unfair taxes collected by local mafia chieftains, the Verbicarèsi, and other Calabrians knew that they would have to pay the ultimate price and yet never receive a single thing.

The home my grandmother grew up in. Photo by John Vincent

If you’ve stayed along and read to this point, you may be asking how I came to know such a story. Like the bombing of Tulsa, Verbicaro’s tragic history has seemingly been forgotten by most from the outside world. It wasn’t until I reread the masterfully documented chronicles of this event by Felice Spingola in his book, The Fear of the South, that I would see the blatant and shocking similarities between that of pre-WWI and the current state of affairs between COVID-19 and the spread of nationalism.

In leaving you, I hope that you can see both perspectives of this story and why it is applicable and should be learned from today. Ultimately, history is subjective, and like anything can be something silenced and sadly forgotten if the powers at be, desire it so. I personally object to the use of any deadly force and detest the current state of affairs by both sides of this extremely divisive political aisle. Yet despite the inherent problems I have with some of the riots in places like Portland, I can deeply understand the utter helplessness some may feel and why they are so frustrated with their current situation. The many around the world who woke up one morning in Beirut to find a shattered life after the government failed them yet again, or those who have to live in fear walking the streets just because of their skin color. After all, the person who gave me the book, my grandmother, never got the opportunity of meeting her grandmother whom she was named after. A woman who lived in inhospitable and tragic conditions and who died in Verbicaro in August of 1911. She not only left this world a 6-month-old orphaned daughter, but also a valuable story in why it is our duty to elect officials that can bring better equality and never allow another soul to perish by a preventable death, again.

Avid city boulevardier. Marketer. Winemaker.

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