Saturday, 31 December 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Old Vauxhall

When you find yourself thinking back to childhood, doesn’t the tape in your head automatically rewind to the same topics - the house(s) you lived in…  the food you ate… the cars your parents had? 

I’ll tell you one day about one of the houses, and the less I say about the food I consumed the better, since I’ve covered it pretty comprehensively in this blog – alas.  However there is a car I’d like to tell you about, our black 1946 Vauxhall 12.
1946 Vauxhall 12 (internet)
Dad bought it in 1954 when I was a year old and it was of British manufacture, though the steering wheel was on the left hand side so it must have been made for export.  He was the third or fourth owner, and none had been of the ‘careful’ variety, so it had seen better days.  Its maximum speed was 60 km per hour, and my sister remembers Dad with his foot to the floor doing 58, and Mum shouting querulously at him to slow down his 'breakneck speed'.
The problem with the Vauxhall was the difficulty in obtaining spare parts, which had to come from England.  When he was involved in an accident at one point, the only second hand mudguard/wheel arch that my father could obtain was dark red in colour.  No problem – he had the whole car resprayed dark red. 
However there were parts you couldn’t get, particularly those responsible for keeping it going.  Your only hope was to contact some Anglo-Argentine friend who worked at the Blue Star Line shipping company offices in town, and get him - through his contacts - to get one of the stewards on board a passenger ship to bring a part with him on his next trip, and then you waited for six months.  In fact it was well known that the stewards supplemented their income by bringing Scotch whisky, British tobacco and chocolate over with them to sell to the people anxious for imported luxury goods who would be waiting at the quayside of the Buenos Aires docks.
The old Vauxhall’s engine was started by means of a button behind the steering wheel which was temperamental in the mild and damp winters and during the summer thunderstorms of Buenos Aires.  When it refused to cooperate you had to hunt for the starting handle which fitted into a slot outside the car above the front bumper, and turn it energetically until it sparked into life.  The muttering of oaths and curses throughout this procedure was essential.   
My sister still remembers the embarrassment she felt as a six year old when they stopped at a set of traffic lights on Montes de Oca Avenue.  When the lights turned to green the car stalled, and our mother had to brave angry drivers sitting on their horns while she climbed out of the car in her faux fur coat and high heels, hunted for the starting handle and yanked it round in fury until it coughed back to life, while my sister glanced around her fearfully in case she saw anyone they knew.
This was the car which, during my early days at boarding school when I was five, took us up and down the many hours of sticky, muddy track - otherwise known as the main road - on the first and last day of term, when we felt we were setting out into the unknown at the mercy of both the weather and drivers in other more powerful cars which would have to haul us out.  On one occasion even a car transporter loaded with new farm vehicles stopped to help.  We were hoisted onto the top level and while our parents shared the cabin with the driver, we travelled on the top in swaying, towering splendour, seeing the land from a very different perspective and feeling terribly important.
This was the car in which my parents were earnestly discussing their impecunious existence, unaware that little-pitchers-have-big-ears until my five-year old sister piped up tearfully offering the contents of her piggy bank. 
This was also the car which developed a loud and very ominous rumbling sound underneath which defied all examinations by my father and a couple of skilled mechanics.  It went on for some time and all my father could identify was that it was particularly bad when going round corners.  The spectre loomed of yet more expenses to come out of a meagre budget, and as they agonised over what terrible thing was happening to their car, my mother reminded him that the spare mangle roller of our Hoover washing machine which she had asked him to take to be repaired still had not been returned. 
Hoover washing machine, 1950's. Internet picture

He finally remembered that he’d forgotten to take it – and from there it was just a step to realising that it was on the floor of the back seat, rolling merrily from side to side as he drove.  The story did the rounds at dinner parties for a while.
All this was in the mid 1950s, a time of great uncertainty politically in Argentina when it was not safe to venture out at night in the capital city to areas other than those known for entertainment and restaurants.  One evening my mother had prepared dinner and my father was late.  It overcooked and then got cold, and he still wasn’t home.  There had been rumours that week of gangs assaulting unwary pedestrians in town, and knowing my father was apt to decide on the spur of the moment to pop into the cinema when he left work, she started to fret.  She was a worrier anyway and by 11 p.m. she was beside herself, convinced he was lying bleeding somewhere, stripped of his wallet and small change.
She rang The Buenos Aires Herald, the English language newspaper where in his free time my father would go to submit his report on the latest cricket match under the pseudonym “Cover Point” – but he had not been in that evening.  There was no point in ringing the police, since they were known to take bribes and could be relied upon to show little interest, and she did not feel she could contact any of his friends in view of the late hour.
By 1 a.m. the carpet was worn out and her frenzy had turned to fury, so when he walked through the door beaming all over his face half an hour later he was lucky she didn’t greet him with the meat cleaver. 
“Look darling!” he exclaimed “Look what I’ve got.  I’ve been so lucky.  The Argentina Star is in port, Dougie rang to tell me today so I went down there after work, and guess what – the pistons for the Vauxhall have arrived!  Isn’t it wonderful?  So I stayed and had a drink or two with them and….”
His voice trailed off as she burst into tears as he stood there with packages in his arms and a nonplussed look on his face.
By his reckoning ‘a drink or two’ was the least he could do to thank them for their trouble, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about…

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Valencia and Chiva, Spain


Happy New Year!


Saturday, 24 December 2011

Tales from Elsewhere - The Leg of Lamb

At the recently built institute located within the hospital where I worked there is a very smart seminar room with state of the art conference facilities which is much in demand for meetings by people from all over the hospital. 

The now retired professor of the institute particularly liked using it not only because of its modern and technological image, but one suspects also because it had been called after him in recognition of the worthy work carried out in his field as a consultant surgeon, and for all he had done to set up the institute.  His name figures large and bold above the double doors and given his personality one almost expected him to turn as he reached the entrance, spread his arms and bow to his adoring public before entering.  I always felt we were expected to speak to him with ‘ill-concealed’ respect and awe in our voices, and to say his manner was dignified was an understatement.  We used to debate whether he said ‘excuse me’ when he asked patients to remove their clothing.

While he was some 6’2” in height, (1.90m), his wife was a feisty little lady of 4’10” (1.50m).  She was very supportive, and could be counted upon to organise dinners and events to help his career along.

On this particular day he was chairing a surgeons’ meeting when the administration office took a call from another hospital in the area urgently needing to speak to him. 

“Is it really an emergency?” the secretary asked.  “He’s chairing a large meeting and I’m not supposed to interrupt him.”

“Up to you” said the impatient voice at the other end, and breaking the rule of confidentiality in these matters, he continued “his wife was shopping at Sainsburys this afternoon and was trying to get a leg of lamb out of the freezer box, but it was a bit out of her reach and she balanced wrongly on the edge of the box and fell in.  Thing is, she had been struggling to get a grip on the lamb and it came free just at that moment, and somehow she managed to knock herself out at the same time.  The staff didn’t dare move her while they called an ambulance, and as a result she had frostbite as well by the time they got her out and took her to the Infirmary.  So she’s a bit poorly, and it’s up to her husband if he wants to come and see her.”

Asking the person to hold on, the secretary lost no time in hurrying to the seminar room and whispering in the professor’s ear that she had taken a call from the Infirmary advising that his wife had been brought in not feeling well, and could he come out and speak to them.

They went back to the office together, and the professor picked up the telephone, speaking very quietly and soberly, with his lips carefully pursed together.

“Hell-low?  Yairs it is… oh… oh I see… aaah… yairs.  Well thenk you for telling me, I’ll be theah as soon as possible, but it may take a while.  Goodbye.”

The secretary meanwhile busied herself with her back to him, determined to keep a straight face and not reveal that she knew what was being said on the other end of the phone.  It was a relief when the professor departed, walking in the opposite direction to the seminar room to the exit door, and she was able at last to give way to the most undignified, disrespectful and unkind mirth that was bubbling up within her.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Gilbert & Sullivan's "Ruddigore",
Bristol G&S Operatic Soc, 2007 (digital)

Merry Christmas!


Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Opposite to a "Non-Scale Victory?"

I'm afraid my sabbatical continues as usual, though I'm grateful that the band carries on working, keeping me under some form of control. 

I have a new interpretation of the phrase bandits are fond of when they say "I eat or drink something small before I have my meal because you have to prime the band"  It sounds good, a neat expression, but I've never really understood what it means.  I now think it's lateral thinking:  the problem with the first mouthful after no food for several hours is that it's very difficult to chew it properly because you're so anxious to get it down.  And that's when you're at your greatest danger of PB-ing.  So by tasting some food or drink a little earlier, what you're actually priming is not your band but your salivary glands.  Get them used to something before the main meal comes along and your brain will calm down in time. 

I've written another article for the Bariatric Surgery Source website (see it here) commenting that there aren't enough formal studies going on and papers written about the problems with the gastric band, it's just mostly anecdotal at the moment.  There are lots of other inspiring stories on there too, worth taking a look.


One day this will be an ‘after’ story, but not yet...

I travelled from Bristol to Portland on the south coast last weekend to visit my friend Gaby.  I was on my own, as John had a concert to attend at which he was singing in the chorus. 

The lighthouse at Portland

After a lunch at a café near the lighthouse and a good natter, I started to drive her home.  On the way she asked me if we could stop at the local Tesco supermarket as she needed to get herself some food for dinner.  She didn’t take long, but as soon as we were through the checkout she suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to buy teabags.  She asked me to hold on to the things she had purchased, and to wait for her there while she dashed back in looking for the correct shelf.

While I waited, I looked around for somewhere to sit down – I hate standing around unless there’s a good reason.  At the end of one of the checkouts I spotted a flat metal surface at just the right height, and gingerly lowered myself down on it, in the knowledge that it was going to be cold.  And it was, shiny, metallic and freezing.  As my bottom was getting used to it a young lady in Tesco uniform came up to me and said in a loud voice -

“Madam, could I ask you please not to sit there.  It’s a scale, and your weight is flashing up on the screen” – pointing to the large screen above my head which I had not noticed before.

Naturally I got up with not even a glance at the screen as if I was quite used to this sort of thing and was waaaay slim enough to be quite unconcerned by whatever rubbish was flashing on it.  Sigh.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

The first two flower pictures are taken in England,
the rest are of Northern Patagonia.


Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Story of Clorinda Sarracán (Part 3 of 3)

(Double click to enlarge)

Part Three – Prequel and Sequel

Before the murder

Jacobo Fiorini

Jacobo Fiorini and his brother Vicente were born in Ferrara, Italy, and during the 1820’s they made plans to emigrate to Argentina.  Joining them in this undertaking were 3 Descalzi brothers, one of whom, Gaetano, was a friend.  They were both painters, but their country was at war with France, and they had been making their living as best they could with casual labour. 

Cayetano Descalzi

One day they were carrying out repairs to a church together when they were told to flee because the enemy was approaching.  The priest had been killed some days earlier so they wasted no time in abandoning the church, but not before they had on impulse stolen a small ancient altar tablet, a 15th century painting of the Madonna in which she was wearing a jade serpent on a ribbon around her neck, which they hurriedly wrapped in a cloth.  They calculated that the French would destroy everything anyway and the priest was no longer around to miss it. 

Thus it was that the two men and their brothers found themselves all bound for Buenos Aires in 1825.  The friendship didn’t last, and when they reached Argentina they decided to go their separate ways, drawing straws to settle who should have the altar painting.  Jacobo won.

At the time Jacobo was a handsome lad; he both painted and played the piano, which opened doors.  He delighted the circles in which he moved with his delicately painted miniatures, though that work had to stop when he was unable to obtain ivory without extreme difficulties. 

Some paintings by Jacobo Fiorini:


He turned to portraits instead, and it was not long before he was getting commissions, including from the most powerful and despotic man in the country at that time, the Governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Manual de Rosas.  A carriage would be sent to collect Jacobo and take him to Rosas’ home, and this work made him a household name for a while.  It is not known whether Rosas liked his portrait, but it was rumoured that he was angered by the fact that Fiorini had signed the picture, taking it as an affront and a challenge to his authority.  Fiorini was never paid.
Gaetano meanwhile had adopted the Spanish spelling of his name and was henceforward known as Cayetano Descalzi.  He too made a name for himself as a gifted portrait painter, and on balance was in his time more successful than his compatriot.  His portrait of Rosas is well known… and is unsigned.    The two painters and former friends must have run into each other from time to time for they were both successful within the society of the well-to-do. 

Juan Manuel de Rosas, by Cayetano Descalzi.
(I have unfortunately been unable to find Fiorini's version)

It was said that Cayetano always harboured resentment towards Jacobo for having kept the altar painting, which he felt he had been cheated out of when they had drawn straws. 

They began to lose their powers at about the same time.  After 1852 the commissions declined for Cayetano, who had been known as a supporter of the Rosas regime, and in addition his eyesight deteriorated and he eventually went blind and was unable to keep himself.  It is known that he fell on hard times, but no further details exist in public records.

Jacobo’s hands started to stiffen and he found that he could not perform his usual miracles with the paintbrush – clients complained and demanded their money back, and pictures were abandoned incomplete.  For a time he kept himself going by teaching painting and providing a daguerreotyping service to the wealthy of the city who wanted to be both painted and photographed, but as he too felt the effect of being on the wrong side after the disappearance of Rosas, he eventually decided to cut his losses and abandon Buenos Aires altogether, purchasing a smallholding in Santos Lugares, where he could keep pigs and chickens.
A daguerrotype of Gervasio Posadas
and his grandaughter by Fiorini

Clorinda Sarracán

Clorinda on the other hand had an extremely impoverished childhood where finding enough to eat was a daily struggle.  Her father Carlos Sarracán was rarely if ever at home, and her mother scraped a meagre living by washing the clothes of the rich down by the river.  One day when Clorinda was six her mother returned with good news – a wealthy portrait painter by the name of Fiorini had taken her on as a housekeeper of his home, and she, Clorinda and her brother would all be able to sleep together in a comfortable big bed. 

The children used to play in the attic, and Fiorini was kind to them, though he didn’t allow them to leave the house.  One night her mother told them Don Jacobo was not well and she had to look after him, and that they should go to bed without her.  A pattern was gradually established and it soon came to pass that their mother never again returned to sleep with them.

When Clorinda was eight he took her by the hand one day and led her to his studio to show her his paintings, and shortly afterwards she was sent away to a nuns’ school to get an education.  It was while she was there that she learned her mother had died.  She was sent home, and found that her brother had been taken away to live with relatives, leaving her alone with Don Jacobo.  She was moved downstairs and he began to get her to pose so he could paint her.  Shortly after that she found herself in a church where papers were signed and she was told he was now her tutor and she must obey him in everything.

At just 15 Fiorini told her that she was now a woman and he would marry her.  He took her to a couturier and dressed her up in corseted dresses which pinched at the waist and she hated, making her cry, and showed her off at the theatre.  On their wedding day he allowed her to see her brother again.

What the girl was going through was unimaginable, and it was probably just as well from Fiorini’s point of view that he had kept the brother and sister apart, and that she therefore had no confidante. 

There was no one with whom to share the desperate unhappiness of having to deal with her mother’s terrible legacy to her, for Clorinda had known for some time that she was not merely Fiorini’s ward, but also his natural biological daughter. 

When her mother had moved in with him 10 years earlier it was because her own husband had abandoned her and she had persuaded Jacobo by appealing not to his responsibilities as a father, but to another side of his nature.  In taking them in he would get two for the price of one with Clorinda:  the little girl would be his ‘ward’, and he could marry her once she reached 15 if he wished to.  The child owed him everything, and knew that she could not survive without him.  If she felt helpless, trapped and burning with anger and disgust at her treatment she was able to conceal her feelings for many years.

Over the next ten years she gave him five children, and Jacobo’s personality started to change.  It is possible that his exposure to the chemicals of his chosen career – solvents and the like – eventually ruined his health without anyone understanding it or perhaps even being aware.  Several people, including the young servants, testified at the trial to his general bad temper and frequent towering rages when he would beat his wife, and other times when he would closet himself in the attic which was now his studio and where he continued obsessively to paint although his hands were so stiff that he was no longer good enough to sell his work.   

Clorinda said that during this period he painted many pictures of her.  During his ugly times she often had to run with her children to the neighbours for protection.  It is likely that her misery reached a pitch that she snatched at happiness wherever she could find it.

As he told his brother Vicente, Fiorini knew he was not her only partner, and this in addition to his failing powers, intensified the cycle of temper and rejection.   They probably ended up loathing each other.  Clorinda sought to divorce him and started the process through the Catholic Church courts, as was the procedure in those days, but her request was refused. 

In Clorinda’s statement (which she later retracted) she claimed that Jacobo had told her that the pedlar who was occasionally wandering about the farm was in fact the now very down at heel Cayetano Descalzi, who had been reduced to begging, but who had chosen a route that would take him past their house because he kept insisting to his former friend that they needed to draw straws again and the 15th century painting of the Madonna with the jade serpent around her neck was really his.  Fiorini felt sorry for him and would give him some food and let him sleep in the dovecote in the garden.  He disappeared after the murder.  Crispín had indeed claimed to have purchased from a pedlar the pistol which was one of the weapons used to kill Fiorini, but as she had retracted her statement the information could not be used at the trial.

Her lawyer Carlos Tejedor used the information about her origins at the conclusion of the trial, when he faced the judge and said, indicating Clorinda with his hand –

“This woman killed her own father.  Her father, not her husband, because at some point she had to put an end to the tragedy.”

He went on to tell the story about her being Fiorini’s daughter and spouse.  Jacobo had had an affair with Clorinda’s mother in 1830, and the result was the accused they saw before them.  Carlos Sarracán had given them his surname to save the honour of both the adulterous wife and the child.


Many years later

A writer by the name of Eduardo Gutiérrez was a popular novelist in the 1880s who tended towards sensationalist true stories which were serialised in the newspapers of the day.

One such story was published in 1883 called “The Murder of Fiorini” as part of a series entitled “Great Crimes”.  However, after five instalments it was withdrawn suddenly and without explanation, and a new story put in its place.  There was such an uproar amongst his reading public that he was forced to explain that he had had to pull the story because it had been brought to his attention that too many people would be hurt if further instalments were published.  Three years later in 1889 he died very suddenly at the age of 36 as a result of imbibing a very cold drink on a very hot day.
Among his personal effects was an oil painting measuring 30x40cm of a dark haired woman with a jade serpent pendant on a ribbon around her neck, and on the back the inscription read “To Mr E Gutiérrez, with my eternal gratitude.  C.S.  23 Sept 1883.”  There was also a letter dated 22nd May 1883 from his brother Ricardo, a doctor, and near the end he says (my translation)

“…The truth is that I didn’t know that you had started to tell the tale of the Fiorini crime, because what with so many sick patients and heavy workload at the hospital I haven’t time to read newspapers, not even my brother’s, if it had not been for my friend and colleague Dr Florencio Escardó, who came up to me the other day and related to me what I will summarise for you herewith. 

On Agüero Street in Lower Palermo, a suburb which I came to know as an area inhabited by mazorqueros (Note: i.e. a rough neighbourhood) there lives a patient of Escardó’s called don Juan Soto, a fire-fighter.  Some years ago, during the fire at the shop “A la Ciudad de Marsella”, this man suffered terrible burns and as a result his right leg had to be amputated at the knee.  Escardó saved him from bleeding to death, and since then Soto reveres him.  Recently Soto visited Escardó at his surgery, desperate to reveal to him a secret. 

The reason I am now writing to you, and I know you will forgive the inconvenience this will cause you, is because Soto and his wife have felt very upset since they learned that you were planning to revive that buried story and thus destroy the happiness of two human beings.  I can imagine your mischievous yet kind smile.  I can imagine that you have guessed it all and that you will act accordingly. 

Because the fire-fighter’s real name is not Juan Soto but Crispín Gutiérrez, and his wife’s name was not Elsa García de Soto but Clorinda Sarracán, and they have been happily married for 14 years.”



I am grateful to the Argentine writer Álvaro Abós for much of the information in these posts and particularly the final one, and recommend his book as a wonderful read:  El Crimen de Clorinda Sarracán, Editorial Sudamericana, 2003, ISBN 950-07-2205-4 (in Spanish).  The images of Clorinda Sarracán, Crispín and Remigio Gutiérrez also come from his book, with many thanks.  The remaining images come from the internet.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

More pictures of Argentina


Sierra Grande, Provincia de Córdoba

Taken at Estancia "El Chorro" - Sierras de Córdoba

...and a seasonal picture to finish.


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Story of Clorinda Sarracán (Part 2 of 3)

Part Two – The Trial

(Double click to enlarge)

On the day of the trial Claudia and Nicolasa wept and wailed through their evidence, and provided one of the few lighter moments.  Claudia stated that when the mistress and Crispín slept in the same bed, in the mornings they were expected to bring them their first mate (tea) of the day.  And what did they say to you when you brought it?” asked the prosecutor.  Claudia shrugged her shoulders and said “It’s hot”…  To gasps of horror she revealed that they were usually in the nude.

By contrast Clorinda was described by all as enigmatic and cold, or fresh and serene, according to who was making the comment.  Stoic might have been nearer the mark - she could hardly speak during the trial and fainted several times. 

The prosecution asserted that Clorinda had bewitched Crispín, and got him to do her bidding.  Fiorini’s brother Vicente testified that his brother’s relations with his wife were not good.  On one occasion he met Jacobo on the road and said “So – I hear you’re going to be a father again”, to which he replied “It may well be my wife’s child, but it won’t be mine”.  When Vicente had last visited them she was out, and Jacobo vowed she was no longer his wife.

She had planned the murder with her lover, they said, and on the day had been instrumental in persuading him to descend the stairs from behind the locked door of the attic.  When she served him his dinner – a thin polenta made with water and oil – as soon as he had put the bayonet aside and was concentrating on his meal, she had gone to the door and given the pre-arranged signal to Crispín and Remigio, then removed herself to the garden with the maids and the children. 

The men then entered and did the deed.  Subsequently she brazenly slept in the marriage bed with Crispín while her husband’s corpse – hardly cold – lay behind the house, and then made the trip to Buenos Aires a few days later to cover her tracks by pretending to be concerned at his disappearance.  She probably had not anticipated the interest Fiorini’s death had evoked, nor that policemen and a detective should have been sent from the capital to investigate, and found the body.

Clorinda listened to this impassively, her composed demeanour doing little to present her as a shocked, grieving widow.  She even laughed when remarks were made about her relationship with Crispín, which produced indignant murmurs from the public gallery.

Miguel Navarro Viola, judge

Her lawyer did his best to defend her, but could see that the judge was in a hanging mood.  In his summing up Tejedor revealed a surprising bit of information he had withheld thus far – that Clorinda was pregnant.  This was pure sensationalism on his part, and untrue, but he hoped to garner sympathy from the public and the judge.   It didn’t work, and it did not take Judge Navarro Viola long to hand down a sentence to all three of death by firing squad – the men at a location outside the city, but Clorinda at the then named Plaza Veinticinco de Mayo, in the centre of town, and all simultaneously on 12th December 1856 at 6 a.m.  All would be strung up for a period afterwards, as a public warning.  Clorinda fainted as this was read out, and had to be carried away.

However unimpressed the judge may have been, the revelation turned out to be a stunning manoeuvre on a completely different level:  a wave of support among the society ladies of Buenos Aires was gathering strength outside the courts, for they were remembering Camila O’Gorman’s execution 8 years earlier, and she too had been pregnant…


I have told Camila’s story in full on this blog (under Tales from Argentina, The O’Gormans), but let me summarise it by saying that during the dictatorship in Argentina by Juan Manual de Rosas (1829-1852), a despot who ruthlessly crushed dissent, Camila was a young, wealthy society Argentine girl of Irish and French parentage who in the late 1840’s fell in love with a young Catholic priest.  The feeling was mutual, but was too shocking for the time to be permitted, particularly as she had made friends with Rosas’ daughter and had been welcomed to government house on many occasions.  The lovers went on the run to be together and for a brief time were able to lead normal lives as a couple, during which she got pregnant.  However Rosas’ men eventually caught up with them, and they were returned to Buenos Aires in shackles.  As an example to others and a show of government strength they were executed by firing squad in 1848 despite many representations by respected Argentines and foreign dignitaries for clemency, since they were not guilty of any specific crime and not two, but three people would be killed.  Camila was 8 months pregnant at the time of her death.

This brutal act was one of the factors that lead to Rosas’ downfall in 1852.


There were some similarities with the Camila O’Gorman case.  The very name of the village where the Fiorinis lived – Santos Lugares – would have made people shudder as they remembered that this was the location of the military detention centre to which Camila O’Gorman and her lover Ladislao Gutiérrez were taken to be executed in 1848.  It was also the place where the battle of Caseros was fought, finally defeating the dictator Rosas in 1852.

Both were young, attractive and intelligent women who were facing execution while in a pregnant condition (although it was later revealed not to be true in Clorinda’s case) and who claimed to be innocent of any crime.  They had upset contemporary mores of society and would be punished to set an example to others who might be contemplating similar behaviour. 

There had been a public outcry after the deaths of Camila O’Gorman and the Catholic priest Ladislao Gutiérrez, particularly among the members of high society in Buenos Aires – and here they were, eight years on, with the tyrant vanquished and exiled, democracy restored, and yet history was about to repeat itself.  To the society ladies of the Sociedad de Beneficencia (the Charitable Society) this was intolerable.

They were led by Mariquita de Mendeville, or to give her her full title, María Josefa Petrona de Todos los Santos Sánchez de Velazco y Trillo de Thompson y Mendeville.  During the period of the struggle for independence (1810-1816) her salons had gathered all the leading personalities of the day. She was now an indomitable dowager of 70 known as “a storm in skirts”, who knew how to influence public opinion when necessary. 

Mariquita in her heyday, early 19th century

The writer Domingo Sarmiento who later became president of the republic, when referring to the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the state, was known to quip that Mariquita was the fourth power in skirts.  One of the lady’s favourite sayings was (loosely translated) “God spare me from prudish women.  A woman with no passions is a bag of envy.”  (“Líbreme Dios de las castas Susanas.  Mujer sin pasiones es un saco de envidia.”).

Mariquita at 70 during this case

She visited Clorinda in jail and came away in tears, convinced that she was an abused wife and a good mother who deserved a second chance, and she was prepared to fight for the cause.  By dint of hard work and the sheer force of her personality she and her helpers organised a petition, gathering 7,000 signatures opposing the death penalty for Clorinda Sarracán de Fiorini, driving home the point to all who would listen that Camila O’Gorman’s case should not be forgotten, and that she should be the last woman in Argentina to be executed.  If Clorinda suffered the same fate, she declared, it was a bloody memory of the tyranny.  The total number of inhabitants in Buenos Aires at that time was close on 95,000 souls, and 7,000 signatures was a tremendous feat. 

The case was suspended.  Clorinda, Crispín and Remigio were given jail sentences, although during the trial the men were part of a riot and jailbreak, and were never recaptured.  Clorinda served 12 years in jail.  In 1868 the Legislature of Buenos Aires approved a new law abolishing the category of premeditated crime and gave wider powers to the executive to commute the death penalty to life imprisonment.  This enabled Clorinda to apply for a pardon, which she got the following year, on the condition that she lead a quiet and moral life. 

She was never heard of again.

The consideration given her when the case was suspended and when she was finally pardoned was not only because of the sterling work by her lawyer Carlos Tejedor and the efforts of the Damas de Beneficencia.  More became known about her and Fiorini’s earlier lives which had a bearing on the case.  In order to explain the circumstances, it is necessary to go back in time and tell their individual stories.

To be continued…. Next time, Jacobo and Clorinda’s early stories, and a postscript.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

More pictures of Argentina, 1994 

Statue by Lola Mora, Buenos Aires (detail)

in Palermo park

Jacaranda bloom

Cachi, Salta

Andes foothills, province of Salta

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