Iran’s Yankee Hero

NY Times: Few Americans have heard of Howard Conklin Baskerville, but most Iranians know his name. A native of Nebraska, Baskerville graduated from the Princeton Theological Seminary and moved to Iran as a Presbyterian missionary. He was 23. The year was 1907. Baskerville was an idealist at a time of idealism in Iran.

The year before Baskerville’s arrival, the ailing king of Iran, Mozaffar ud-Din Shah, had bowed to popular demands for a constitutional monarchy and Iranians had drafted the first Constitution of their 25-century-long history. A parliament, the Majlis, was established and each city elected an assembly, or Anjoman. Tabriz — where Baskerville worked as a schoolteacher — was the capital of the constitutionalists and its assembly assumed a national role in the movement. Many Iranians presumed that the time for change had finally arrived.

But the shah died in January 1907, and his son Muhammad Ali Shah was a Russophile and despot who opposed the Constitutional Revolution. His Cossack brigades, commanded by Russian officers, attacked and bombarded the Majlis. The constitution was suspended. Politicians, journalists and the leaders of the constitutionalists were hanged.

Surrounded by royalist troops, the people of Tabriz fought back. And instead of choosing the safety of the American consulate, Baskerville joined the outgunned and outnumbered constitutionalists. The young Nebraskan has been quoted as saying, “The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and this is not a big difference.”

Baskerville was given command of a contingent of 150 men whose job was to defend the city’s fortifications. Three weeks later, on April 19, 1909, while he was leading a mission to break through the royalists’ siege and bring food into the city, a bullet tore through his heart and he was killed instantly. He was 24 years and 9 days old.

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of his death and, despite the Iranian government’s estranged relationship with the United States, Baskerville is still revered and honored as a symbol of American ideals and principles. In 2005, President Mohammad Khatami unveiled a bust of Baskerville in Tabriz’s Constitution House. Someone still leaves fresh yellow roses on his gravestone in Tabriz. To Iranians, Howard Baskerville is their American martyr.

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