Menahem Mendel Beilis was born into a hassidic family in Kiev in 1874. He married his wife Esther relatively young and they had five children. He served in the army and by 1911 was working as a superintendent at the Zaitsev brick factory in Kiev.
On March 12, 1911 (old Russian calendar), in Kiev, a thirteen year old boy, Andrei Yushchinsky went missing while walking to school. The local police and community hunted for the boy and his body was discovered eight days later in a cave near the brick factory. He had been murdered and the body mutilated. A local lamplighter stated that he had seen Andrei being taken away by a Jew. The local police interviewed the lamplighter and suspicion fell on Beilis. This was reported to the local judiciary who reported to the Tsar that Beilis was the murderer and he was arrested. When questioned he denied any involvement in the murder.
For the next year Beilis sat in prison waiting trial. Many antisemitic stories circulated in the press regarding ritual murders. These were countered by arguments from several prominent writers such as Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Korolenko and Alexander Blok. After he had been in prison for a year, a delegation led by a military officer officer informed Beilis that he would soon be freed due to a manifesto pardoning all katorzhniks (convicts at hard labor) on the tercentenary jubilee of the reign of the Romanov dynasty. Beilis refused this possible pardon as he was innocent and asked for his day in court.
While Beilis was in prison the murder was investigated by Nikolay Krasovsky, of the Kiev Police Department. Krasovsky came under increasing pressure from senior officers to complete his investigation showing Beilis’ guilt and present his report to the courts. Eventually this pressure became so intense that Krasovsky was fired. Convinced of Beilis’ innocence, Krasovsky continued his investigation privately, assisted by some of his former police colleagues. Krasovsky determined that the real murderers were a group of professional criminals: Rudzinsky, Singayevsky, Latyshev, and Vera Cheberyak. Just after this, Krasovsky was arrested on charges of official misconduct. He was later acquitted of all charges.
Beilis remained in prison for a further year before he was finally brought to trial in September 25 1913. Professor Sikorsky of Kiev State University, a medical psychologist, was brought forward by the prosecution team to testify that it was a case of ritual murder. He stipulated that the body had thirteen wounds on it. Justinas Pranaitis, a virulently antisemitic Catholic priest, stated that the number thirteen was important in “Jewish rituals”. The defence showed that there were actually fourteen wounds.
Beilis’ defence team comprised Vasily Maklakov, Oscar Gruzenberg, N. Karabchevsky, A. Zarudny, and D. Grigorovitch-Barsky. The defence introduced testimony from two prominent Russian professors, Troitsky and Kokovtzov, who exposed the lie of the Jewish ritual element of the murder. Aleksandr Glagolev, philosopher and professor of the Kiev Theological Seminary of the Orthodox Christian, and, Rabbi Mazeh, the rabbi of Moscow quoted passages from the Torah, the Talmud and many other books to conclusively destroy the blood ritual murder theory of the prosecution.
The defence team introduced Beilis’ alibi, that he had been at work on the day of the boy’s disappearance. Several of Beilis co-workers confirmed his presence at the brick factory. The prosecution argued that Beilis could have left the factory abducted the buy and then returned to his work.
Finally, the defence team cross examined the lamplighter, who’s initial testimony had started the investigation into Beilis. He admitted that he had been put under pressure by the secret police.
As the evidence mounted showing Beilis’ innocence, the chief prosecutor A.I. Vipper made a last ditch attempt to sway the jury. In his closing address he reiterated the blood libel and supposedly guilt of all Jews. He relied on the presumed prejudices of the jurors. These antisemitic statements were not challenged by the judge. After several hours, the entirely Christian jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty.
The Beilis trial was followed worldwide and the antisemitic policies of the Russian Empire were exposed and severely criticised. After his acquittal, Beilis gained a great degree of publicity. However, he preferred to remain living a quiet life with his family. He decided to move to Palestine and he and his family moved to a farm purchased for them by Baron Rothschild who had read about the trial and made the offer to help the family.
Although happy in Palestine, Beilis had difficulty making ends meet in on the farm and in 1921 the family moved to New York, in the United States. In 1925 Beilis wrote an account of his experiences titled The Story of My Sufferings.
Beilis died on July 7, 1934 and was buried two days later at the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens. His funeral was attended by over 4,000 people.