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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