Sunday, 15 May 2011

Tales from Argentina – The O’Gormans......... (Part 6 of 6)


They were received like royalty at the party.  Esteban Perichon took a shine to Camila when she encouraged him to talk about his family and he even found himself commenting on her chipped tooth, telling her they had a good dentist in the village.  She knew he was her great uncle, and though unable to say so, felt particularly happy to have met him at last.  Fortune was truly smiling upon them.

But like sand in an hourglass their fortune very suddenly ran out.  An Irish priest by the name of Father Michael Gannon was present at the party and he had recognised them instantly.  As in a dream Camila heard Gannon say to Ladislao “I know you are the apostate Ladislao Gutiérrez and that woman is Camila O’Gorman” and Ladislao’s reply “You must be mistaken, I am Máximo Brandier and I’m from Jujuy” and then Gannon brushing past him to speak to the hosts.

The party was thrown into disarray.  Ladislao kept repeating that he was Máximo Brandier from Jujuy, and Camila kept repeating that she was Valentina San from Buenos Aires, but nobody seemed to listen.  She thought she would wake from a nightmare, but she didn’t.

“What’s going on?” she asked Ladislao.

“Our punishment has begun” he replied.

As she was ushered out of the house into a waiting carriage, old Perichon put a shawl around her shoulders.  “It might get cool later” he said.  Those were the last kind words she was ever to hear.


The Governor of Corrientes decreed that they should be interrogated locally first and all their belongings confiscated and catalogued precisely.  Father Gutiérrez was to be kept in shackles at all times, and Camila to be put in a separate secure establishment.

The list of their belongings was pathetically short – they had so little.  Seeing the list was particularly humiliating for Camila and she felt violated.  When ransacking their home the officers had not noticed or cared to see the evidence of the love or the courage with which they had lived their lives. 
Her complaints however were in vain, as were her demands to see her husband.  She began to realise that their situation was far more serious than she had at first supposed.  She worried for her baby.  Then they put shackles on her too and she sensed that all three of them were to be used as scapegoats.

There is an unsubstantiated rumour from around this time that they were offered a means of escape to the border, but that they turned it down because they trusted to the fact that an honest explanation and apology to the Governor of Buenos Aires would resolve the matter.

In Buenos Aires the news spread that they had been caught.  The gossip was about whose fault it was, what jewels had been stolen, that she was merely 23 and must therefore have been raped, that there would be an illegitimate child.  No one gossiped about love.

Camila was allowed to write to her friend Manuelita, and she asked her to intercede with her father on her behalf, for she did not believe that what she had done deserved an excessively cruel punishment.  This unfortunately told Rosas that she was unrepentant, and hardened his resolve to send them straight to Santos Lugares, a military detention centre for criminals and Rosas’s political opponents on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. 

Manuelita replied to her, but along the lines instructed by her father.  She felt lacerated by her friend’s pain, she would do what she could, but in the meantime she told her to be strong, and sent her a thousand kisses as her affectionate and loving friend.  Also following instructions she saw to it that the cell where she was to be put was redecorated and made as comfortable as possible, with even a piano installed.

There were only two people close to Rosas who did not turn their backs on Camila.  His dead wife’s sister María Josefa Ezcurra entreated him by letter to send her to a convent, and she offered to see to it herself.  It was the O’Gormans’ fault, she said, they had not monitored her actions closely, and had now abandoned her to her fate. 

María Josefa Ezcurra,
sister-in-law to Rosas

The other was Eugenia Castro, Rosas’s humble mistress and Camila’s erstwhile pupil who tried to reason with him and got shouted at for her pains.  Recognising the danger they were in, she did all that was in her power to do – she sent a messenger to La Matanza to warn Blanquita and Pedro.

The lovers saw each other briefly as they boarded a river boat that would return them to Buenos Aires, but they were not allowed to speak and she was shoved unceremoniously on board.  The very last time they were able to hold each other was later on the journey thanks to the kindness of the captain, who allowed them some time alone.  They shared bittersweet moments safe in each other’s arms, wondering what the future would hold for their child, but trusting that justice would prevail.  When a storm closed in the boat was forced to seek shelter on the river bank, and they had to continue their journey shackled and in separate carts.

Ladislao wept for his broken vows, his sin, his love for Camila and for the child she was bearing.  He longed for the warmth of her body yet wished he could be in Quilmes on a spiritual retreat.  He was very lonely.

So was Camila, but she hugged her belly and spoke to her child, and somehow there were two of them together facing the nightmare.  She was determined to be strong enough for all three of them.

When the messenger reached Rosas and reported to him that the runaways were in Santos Lugares, he sent him back immediately with the order that they should both be executed without delay.

The general in charge of the camp, a hardened man, found this haste unseemly and cruel, accustomed though he was to carrying out these sorts of orders.  He awoke the doctor of the camp and asked him if it was not illegal to execute a pregnant woman.  This being confirmed he sent another carriage back to Rosas to inform him that Camila was eight months with child and that they should wait until the child was born. 

This second carriage crossed with Blanquita, Pedro and Belisario, who were making their way to Santos Lugares to find out what was going on, and in the hope that they would be able to see Camila.

Rosas was furious that his orders had been questioned and sent the messenger back again with the instruction that the couple should be shot immediately after they had received whatever spiritual assistance was appropriate.

A way round the delicate spiritual issue was found.  If the problem was that it was illegal to kill an innocent child, then baptising the unborn child by ensuring that water reached it, would ensure its purity as it entered the next life.  The couple were told separately of Rosas’s verdict.

Camila was forced to drink a substantial amount of water and ashes were put on her head, which she was told was baptising her unborn child.  Shielding her belly with her hands, she cried inconsolably.  She wept for his unborn innocence, for her own in not understanding what was happening to her, for the man she loved.

Camila is forced to drink holy water
to baptise her unborn child 

Ladislao, who had been more fearful of celestial than earthly punishment, now felt at peace.  He would die with Camila and he felt a sense of serenity coming over him.  He asked to see her once more but this was denied, so he wrote to her instead.

“Camila my darling, I have just learned that you are to die with me.  As we could not live together on earth, we will be united in heaven before God.  I embrace you.  Your Gutiérrez.”

At 9.30 the following morning, Friday 18th August 1848, they sat Camila and Ladislao in carrying chairs and put blindfolds on them.  It was observed that two rows of tears were sliding down the girl’s face from under the blindfold as they were carried.  Neither of them saw the firing squad, though they could hear them.

Camila and Ladislao are transported blindfolded
in chairs to the scene of their execution.
Lithograph by Rodolfo Kratzenstein

The blindfold made her remember the moistened handkerchief her mother wore on her forehead when she suffered from her headaches, and she called to mind her grandmother’s legacy – all the love still unused within her.  She too would die without having used a fraction of it.

When she felt the chair being put to rest on the floor she called out  -

“Ladislao, are you there?”

“At your side, Camila.”

He shouted at them “Murder me without a fair trial, but not her, not in her condition, you scoundrels!”

They executed him first, and it was said that the squad had hesitated when it came to executing Camila, and the Captain had to shout at them to do their duty.  On the other side of the wall where Blanquita, Pedro and the baby stood uncomprehendingly, wondering who was being shot. Blanquita nearly fainted when she recognised her charge’s cry of anguish when her lover was shot and then her supplication that they should shoot her quickly, and then her final high-pitched scream. 



Such an atrocity could not however be the end of the story.  While recognising that such defiance to family, church and state would not have gone unpunished, the contemporary view was that the case had been mishandled and the law ignored.  More importantly for a devoutly catholic country, Rosas had wanted to punish two people but had killed three.

Camila O’Gorman was the first woman ever to be executed by the state in Argentina.  It was illegal to execute a pregnant woman, and in a democracy it would have been illegal for the head of state, personally and without challenge, to order the death of another human being.  Finally, it was illegal for these two people to have been executed peremptorily without due legal process, whatever that may have been at the time.

This small stone marks the spot
 where they were shot

Juan Manuel de Rosas would not be disrespected, and certainly in the short term he made his point.  This stance, confirmed by him on many subsequent occasions as being the right decision and his alone, eventually cost him dear and was one of the factors that lead to his downfall four years later in 1852 when he was defeated by Urquiza at the battle of Caseros. Even Rosas’s staunchest supporters could not defend the death of an innocent unborn child – the ‘Restorer of the Law’ had gone too far. 

This was also the year when Joaquina died at 55, finally yielding to the accumulated stress and her headaches.  Her husband, Adolfo O’Gorman Perichon de Vendeuil, Camila’s father, had died two years earlier aged 57.  No doubt the scandal had led to their early demise.  No doubt they were buried with all the honours due to high society people known for their rectitude, in the O’Gorman vault at La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, where all such people are buried.  Not so Camila O’Gorman.  Like her grandmother Anita, La Perichona, there are records to show that her name is listed as being there, but no one knows where her grave is, and present-day O’Gormans confirm she is not in their vault either.

A composite picture showing the front of the
O'Gorman vault at the cemetery of La Recoleta,
Buenos Aires

Feelings remained strong after 1852.  Camila’s death sparked off a series of international protests against the dictator.  They were both known to be staunch Federalists, she of the cream of society, he the nephew of the Governor of Tucumán.  And yet it was shocking to 19th century sensibilities, and the story was effectively banned for generations.

After the battle of Caseros, when Rosas was defeated by Justo José de Urquiza, he went into exile in England.  The British Government applied a principle which had worked well before, which was to hold your enemies close to you.  By keeping him under surveillance they could ensure that he did not return to Argentina.  He rented a farm with 20 acres in Swaythling near Southampton, where it has been recorded that he repaired the leaky roof and constructed various outbuildings and corrals until – so it was said - the property almost looked like a farm in Argentina. 
The farmhouse in Swaythling near Southampton,
England where Rosas lived for the last 25 years of his life.

He ran out of money after a few years and did all the work himself, eventually dying in relative poverty of pneumonia in 1877.  His daughter Manuelita was exiled with him, and she married a fellow Argentine and had two children; she was with him at his death. 
Manuelita and her two sons
round about the time of Rosas' death

Throughout those years, when asked he defended his actions in the O’Gorman-Gutiérrez case, remarking bitterly that at the time everybody urged him to execute them, but later turned against him.  The issue of the double standards during his time of office was never dealt with.

Today in Argentina her story is now very well known, and the subject of two films, the most recent of which being in 1984.  Rosas as a ruler has been the subject of much revisionism by historians, but no one is in doubt as to the rights and wrongs of his treatment of these two lovers who perished by his orders.


1.  Wikipedia;
2.  Google images, with artists of paintings given where known;
3.  Stills from the film Camila, 1984, directed by María Luisa Bemberg.
4. Camila O’Gorman, La Historia de un Amor Inoportuno by Marta Merkin, Editorial Sudamericana, 1997: (my principal source)
The story of Camila has been partly fictionalised by Marta Merkin, an Argentine writer and journalist who died in 2005.  She has used her excellently written version expertly as a device to link episodes, but her story is based on contemporary documents and newspaper articles when witnesses had been interviewed.  I have incorporated my own research from the internet to try and include in this story as much as is known about the affair, and I have told it in my own words – but much of the story is Ms Merkin’s interpretation of it, and I am indebted to her for that.  The only parts of my story which contain direct translations from Ms Merkins's book are in some of the spoken dialogue. 


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive



Joyful said...

Sad and scandalous. How could they murder a pregnant woman?

Carla said...

I knew some stuff about Argentine history but I did not know about this! The story of Camila is pretty sensitibe and most people don´t like to talk about it in Argentina, I have realized that. There was a huge rivalry in the 1800s with the Federals and Unitarians, and that rivalry is still present in some parts of the country. I had a Buenos Aires temporary rent and people is very passionate about their story, but they do not get involved emotionally, they just tell you their objective version, without taking sides. it is politically correct, isn´t it?

Lonicera said...

Carla, many thanks for your comment, which I've only just seen. I appreciate that you've taken the trouble to read it, although you've left me a marketing link...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...