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A Child of Christian Blood – Murder & Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel

On March 20, 1911, the body of a thirteen-year-old boy named Andrei Yushchinsky was found in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev. He had been stabbed some four dozen times. Four months later, Russian police arrested Mendel Beilis, a 37-year-old father of five who worked as a clerk in a brick factory nearby, and charged him not only with boy’s killing but with the Jewish ritual murder of this Christian child. There was no evidence linking Beilis to the murder and he had a solid alibi, but the state had decided to charge a Jew with this horrible crime and Beilis was the most convenient choice.

As a handful of Russian officials and journalists searched for the real killer, the rabid anti-Semites known as the Black Hundreds whipped into a frenzy men and women throughout the Russian Empire who fanatically believed that this was only the latest example of centuries of Jewish ritual murders of Christian children.

Beilis was imprisoned for more than two years in horrific conditions before his trial in the fall of 1913, which made worldwide headlines.

Some of the era’s most esteemed personages rallied to Beilis’s defense, including Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Anatole France, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jane Addams and Booker T. Washington. Pro-Beilis rallies in the U.S. drew thousands but nothing could stop the case from going forward.

With the full backing of Tsar Nicholas II’s teetering government, the prosecution called an array of “expert witnesses”—pathologists, clergymen, a psychological profiler—whose laughably incompetent and, in some cases, perjured testimony horrified liberal Russians and Beilis’s supporters in the West.

Among the witnesses the prosecution presented to the jury were: a pathologist who was paid a 4,000 ruble bribe; a drunken couple who had been plied with alcohol by an investigator; and a Catholic priest, pseudoscholar, and sometime con man who testified to the reality of the blood ritual. A star witness for the defense was a detective known as “Russia’s Sherlock Holmes” who tried to prove Beilis’s innocence and find the real killers, but was imprisoned by a vengeful state for his efforts. But the most sensational witness was the dark diva of the Beilis affair, Vera Cheberyak. A character worthy of one of the great Russian novelists, she was the leader of a criminal gang, and was very probably the mastermind behind the boy’s murder. Astonishingly, the state drafted her to become a star witness against Mendel Beilis.

Beilis’s fate rested in the hands of a largely peasant jury. After thirty-four days the trial came to a dramatic and ambiguous conclusion. The consequences reverberated far beyond the day of the verdict – into the Nazi era and beyond. A hundred years after the trial of Mendel Beilis, the blood libel is still with us.