Archive for February, 2008

1942: Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione, mob hitmen

3 comments February 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1942, mobsters Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione were electrocuted in New York’s Sing Sing prison for murder.

The two had risen together from an Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, gang to help weld together Murder, Inc. in the 1930’s — which, as its press-conferred moniker suggested, executed hits for the mob.

Dozens of corpses were left in their trail, and it was long odds that the spectacularly mangled body of a minor loan shark and suspected police informant killed in 1937 would be the one to haunt them. But when the government brought the heat against Murder, Inc., a collaborator in that hit turned state’s evidence and testified against Abbandando and Maione.

Pep has an ice pick. Happer has meat cleaver. It is the kind you chop with, you know, butcher cleaver. Abby grabs Rudnick by the feet and drags him over to the car. Pep and Happy grab it by the head. They put it in the car. Somebody says “It don’t fit.” Just as they push the body in it gives a little cough or something. With that, Pep starts with the ice pick and starts punching away at Whitey. Maione says “Let me hit the bastard one for luck.” And he hits him with the cleaver some place on the head.

Convicting mobsters was no mean feat — after all, they tended to whack informants — and the arrogant Abbandando in particular was shocked that his powerful connections didn’t manage to rig the trial.

But he and Maione were not altogether bereft of underworld consolation in their hour of need.

Three months before they were electrocuted, the stool pigeon in their trial “fell” to his death from a New York hotel room. It was just hours before he was to testify against Cosa Nostra boss Albert Anastasia, who would escape his fortuitously weakened prosecutors and eventually take over Murder, Inc., in its mid-1940’s twilight.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Common Criminals,Electrocuted,Infamous,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,USA

1873: Vasil Levski, for Bulgarian independence

1 comment February 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1873, Bulgarian revolutionary Vasil Levski was hanged by the Ottoman Empire in Sofia — just a few years before that city became the capital of the independent Bulgarian state the hanged man fought for.

“If I win — the entire nation wins; if I lose — I lose only myself.” Vasil Levski, honored on a plaque in Sofia. Image courtesy of dickcherry.

The “Apostle of Freedom” was born with the surname Ivanov near a Sofia nearing 500 years of Ottoman rule. Thanks in great part to his efforts, it would never celebrate that anniversary.

The Ottomans were in their youthful vigor when they first absorbed Bulgaria; within a century of that conquest, they would besiege Vienna. But by the 19th century that empire once capable of terrifying Christendom was well into its decline, an advanced state of decrepitude that made it “the sick man of Europe.”

In the age of nationalism, provinces began breaking away.

The steward of an independent Bulgaria initially took clerical vows — he would always carry the nickname “the Deacon” — but was soon swept up in Bulgaria’s patriotic stirrings and took up with revolutionary Georgi Rakovski. A stupendous leaping feat during his training as a soldier earned him the name “Levski” — “lion-like”.

He proved worthy of that name.

Over the 1860’s, he developed into a principal theorist and organizer of the revolution, latticing Bulgaria with local insurrectionary networks under central control and dedicated to civil equality in an eventual Bulgarian state. When Levski was arrested, that network was his legacy: his self-conscious refusal to betray it set the stage for a national uprising a few years later — and for Bulgaria’s eventual return to the community of nations following the Russo-Turkish war.

The logo of Sofia-based football club Levski.

He remains a national hero and his name adorns streets, landmarks, even football clubs throughout the country.

The poet Hristo Botev, one of Levski’s heirs in revolutionary leadership, marked this day’s hanging in verse:

O my Mother, dear Motherland
Why weep you so mournfully, so plaintively?
And you, raven, cursed bird –
On whose grave croak you with such a dread?

Ah, I know – I know you’re weeping, Mother
Because you are a dismal slave,
Because your holy voice, Mother
Is a helpless voice – a voice in the wilderness.

Weep! There, near the edge of Sofia town
Stretches – I saw it – a dismal gallows
And one of your sons, Bulgaria
Hangs from it with a terrible power.

The raven croaks dreadfully, ominously
Dogs and wolves howl in the fields,
Old people pray to God with fervor
Women weep, children cry.

Winter croons its evil song,
Gales sweep thistle across the field
And cold and frost and hopeless weeping
Heep sorrow on your heart.

Others throughout Bulgaria on this date still lay flowers at his monuments and pay every manner of tribute. And for the Bulgarian diaspora, his name remains a source of pride … and an occasional flashpoint.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Bulgaria,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason

2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

37 comments February 17th, 2008 David Elliot

(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

Update: Heartbreaking New Yorker article shreds the state’s case.

Polling data reveals interesting things about U.S. public opinion and the death penalty. If you ask an open-ended question about the death penalty –- for example, “Do you feel the death penalty is appropriate for certain egregious crimes?” –- then you usually see somewhere around a 65 to 35 percent split in favor. On the other hand, if you ask which is preferred – the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the results tend to be closer to 50-50.

Upon occasion, another question is asked: Do you feel an innocent person has been put to death in the U.S.? The results are pretty emphatic: Americans don’t trust their government to get it right, and they do believe innocent people have been executed, by a ratio of about three to one.

So the question fairly arises: Have innocent people been executed in the U.S. in what we sometimes refer to as the “modern era,” i.e., since executions were allowed to resume in 1976?

Enter Cameron Todd Willingham.

On Feb. 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was strapped to a gurney in a Texas death chamber as he declared his innocence for the last time. Minutes later, he was executed by lethal injection. In December of the same year, the Chicago Tribune uncovered secrets behind the Willingham case, addressing questions left unanswered and raising doubts left unacknowledged.

The Fatal Fire

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his purported victims — his daughter, Amber.

On Dec. 23, 1991, Willingham was at home with his three daughters. His wife, Stacy, left their home in the morning to pay the bills and shop for Christmas gifts at a Salvation Army store. The family had been struggling that year; Todd, as everyone called him, had recently been laid off, and Stacy was supporting the family with her wages from a bar. The Willinghams were two months behind on rent, and they had even stopped paying some bills in order to save money for Christmas.

Willingham recalled waking up briefly as his wife was leaving the home around 9 a.m. When he heard their one-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron, crying, he woke up to feed them and went back to sleep. About an hour later, his two-year-old daughter Amber woke him with her cries, and the house was already full of smoke. Willingham remembers not being able to see “anything but black” toward the front of the house.

The circuits were popping throughout the home as Willingham frantically went to his daughters’ bedroom. At this point, his hair caught on fire, and he was able to see little more than the glowing of the ceiling. Willingham called out for his children and felt along the floor and bed for them, but he could not find them. This is when debris began falling from the ceiling, causing him to burn his shoulder. He fled the home through the front door.

After fleeing his house, he asked his neighbors to call the fire department and screamed to them, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.” A neighbor, Mary Barbee, then asked other neighbors to place the call because her own telephone was disconnected. Willingham reported that, while this was happening, he tried to re-enter his home, but it was too hot. Then, he knocked out two bedroom windows with a pool cue, but could not get into the bedroom.

Buvin Smith arrived on the scene after hearing the neighbor’s call over a radio scanner. Smith remembered restraining Willingham from going onto the porch, and heard him yelling that his “babies were in the house” and noticed that he was “acting real hysterical.”

A Circumstantial Case

Almost immediately, Willingham became a suspect. According to the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors often are able to rely on circumstantial evidence in cases when a child dies and the parent survives. In this case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Willingham killed his children because they interfered with his beer-drinking, dart-throwing lifestyle. The jury believed it.

Neighbors told investigators that they did not believe Willingham tried hard enough to save his children. In fact, Barbee said that she saw Willingham standing by the fence as heavy smoke came out of the windows. Also, she told investigators that Willingham seemed more concerned with moving his car away from the burning house as the windows blew out than with saving his children.

Willingham’s wounds were treated shortly after the fire. Firefighters did not think that his burns were severe enough had he indeed searched for his daughters in the manner he described. His shoulder, back, and hair were burned, but his bare feet were not burned at the bottom.

Police stated that, the day after the fire, Willingham complained about not being able to find a dartboard in the wreckage of his home. Others mentioned hearing loud music and laughter in the following days as the couple attempted to salvage their belongings.

A police chaplain grew suspicious that Willingham’s hysterics during the fire were not genuine. The chaplain, George Monaghan, noted that Willingham seemed “too distraught.”

In addition to these evaluations of Willingham’s behavior, fire investigators reported over 20 indicators of arson. These include the “crazed glass,” or the web-like cracks in the glass. Until more recent research was completed, arson specialists believed this to be a clear indication that an accelerant had been used in the fire. The fire experts also noted that the fire had reached a stage known as flashover, when a fire reaches such a high temperature that an explosion results. This further supported their reasoning that an accelerant had been used.

Willingham was charged with murder on Jan. 8, 1992, just two weeks after the fire. In August of the same year, his trial began, after Willingham turned down a deal from the prosecution and insisted that he was innocent. During the trial prosecutors presented inmate Johnny E. Webb as a witness. He testified that Willingham confessed at the county jail to killing his children in order to cover up the fact that his wife, Stacy, had been physically abusing them. Webb, a recovering drug addict, was taking psychiatric medication to relieve post-traumatic stress syndrome. The prosecution also presented as witnesses the neighbors who claimed that Willingham should have done more. Fire investigators Doug Fogg and Manuel Vasquez also testified at Willingham’s trial. Both of these investigators testified in court that the fire was caused by arson.

Both of these investigators testified to assumptions about fire that have been scientifically proven to be wrong.

Forensic Evidence Reconsidered

When the Chicago Tribune investigated the case, several experts reviewed documents, trial testimony, and video documentation of the fire scene and concluded that the original investigation was terribly flawed. Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist, and John Lentini, John DeHaan, both private consultants specializing in fire investigation, along with Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland, examined the materials. They suggest that this fire may have been simply accidental.

After the Chicago Tribune investigation, Lentini worked with the Innocence Project to assemble an independent, peer-review panel of arson experts. The five-member panel –- with a combined 138 years in high-level fire investigation experience –- issued a 44-page report (.pdf) on the case.

They determined that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations made by the state’s experts at Willingham’s trial was not scientifically valid. For example, the original investigators determined that an accelerant was used because wood cannot burn hot enough to melt aluminum. In fact, according to these leading experts, it can.

The 1991 investigators also claimed that the brown rings on the Willingham’s front porch indicated accelerant usage. Experts called this “baseless speculation,” explaining that fire-hose water often leaves brown rings on surfaces after evaporation.

Was it Known Before the Execution?

This information didn’t only come to light recently. Shortly before Willingham was executed, Hurst reviewed the case and issued a report that dismissed every single indicator of arson Fogg and Vasquez had originally cited. What was done with this report? Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned it aside, confident of Willingham’s guilt.

Jury members are less confident now. One jury member asked, “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”

In fact, a similar debunking of arson forensics by the same expert resulted in another Texas death row inmate’s exoneration and release — just seven months after Willingham was put to death.

Have innocent people been executed in the U.S.? Indeed they have. You can read more about other cases at www.InnocentAndExecuted.org


Update: After a 2009 New Yorker expose made Cameron Todd Willingham a byword for wrongful executions, our guest author’s former shop, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, took a cue from Justice Antonin Scalia‘s scornful dismissal of the prospect.

There has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1973: Francisco Caamaño, the Dominican Republic’s would-be Fidel

2 comments February 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1973, Col. Francisco Caamano was (perhaps*) captured by forces of the Dominican dictatorship and summarily executed while trying to organize a guerrilla resistance.

Caamano was heir to a long family military tradition; his father had been a Defense Minister for the dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Unsteady governments followed Trujillo’s 1961 assassination. Caamano came to prominence by mounting a 1965 coup against a military junta and in favor of the constitutional regime it had overthrown two years earlier. The coup was an initial success — Caamano was temporarily the de facto head of state — but also triggered an American intervention against the distrusted leftist government.

Caamano licked his wounds in Cuba for a few years before mounting a small landing in early February 1973 with a handful of followers, looking to foment a peasant revolution — a play right out of the Cuban Revolution, but considerably less successful. Harried by the military, the operation was crushed within weeks with only three survivors.

A Spanish-language tribute to Caamano is here. Another more general educational page (also in Spanish) is here.

* This is the guerrillas’ version. The government’s version was that Caamano was killed in battle.

Note: Title corrected.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cuba,Dominican Republic,Famous,Heads of State,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1839: Five Patriotes Canadiens, leaders of the Lower Canada Rebellion

3 comments February 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1839, five French-Canadian Patriotes were hanged at Montreal’s Pied-du-Courant Prison for their parts in an abortive rebellion against British authority.

Conflict between the Francophone territory Britain seized from France in the Seven Years’ War and the colonial government had been brewing for years, sometimes read as a parallel to the self-determination struggle that had shaped the American Revolution decades before.

Except for the outcome. When the Lower Canada Rebellion erupted in 1837-38, the British crushed it.

This day’s hangings were the result. And while Britain would keep Canada unified, it would never seamlessly absorb her French subjects. So the men who mounted the gallows this day, and others who fought the British, are commemorated on Quebec’s National Patriotes Day, intentionally scheduled to oppose the national — and distinctly English-flavored — Victoria Day in May.

Filmmaker and Quebec independence activist Pierre Falardeau honors the martyrs in their final hours in February 15, 1839 (review):

Accounts — which also recorded that one of the hanged men was able to free a hand and resist the rope with it, and to get his feet to a supporting beam from which he had to be pushed — recalled Charles Hindelang‘s final words thus:

I declare that I die with the conviction of having fulfilled my obligations with dignity. The sentence that struck me is unjust; I forgive those who bore it.

The cause for which I sacrifice myself is noble and great. I am proud of it. I don’t fear death. The blood that is spilled will be washed away with blood. Let the responsibility fall on those who deserve it.

Canadians, my final farewell is the old French cry:

VIVE LA LIBERTÉ!

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Canada,England,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Quebec,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Treason

270: St. Valentine

3 comments February 14th, 2008 Headsman

(Every February 14, Abe Bonowitz at the U.S.-based Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty sends out this history of St. Valentine as a death penalty victim. Thanks to Abe for allowing us to republish it here.)

Lupercalia: A “Feverish” Festival

We may owe our observance of Valentine’s Day to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a festival of eroticism that honored Juno Februata, the goddess of “feverish” (febris) love. Annually, on the ides of February, love notes or “billets” would be drawn to partner men and women for feasting and sexual game playing.

From Sinful to Saintly?

Early Christians, clearly a dour bunch, frowned on these lascivious goings-on. In an attempt to curb the erotic festivities, the Christian clergy encouraged celebrants to substitute the names of saints. Then, for the next twelve months, participants were to emulate the ideals represented by the particular saint they’d chosen. Not too surprisingly, this prudish version of Lupercalia proved unpopular, and died a quick death.

Easier to Do: Substitute Romance for Eroticism

But the early Christians were anything but quitters, so it was on to Plan B: modulate the overtly sexual nature of Lupercalia by turning this “feast of the flesh” into a “ritual for romance!” This time, the Church selected a single saint to do battle with the pagan goddess Juno — St. Valentine (Valentinus). And since Valentinus had been martyred on February 14, the Church could also preempt the annual celebration of Lupercalia. The only fly in the ointment was Valentinus himself: he was a chaste man, unschooled in the art of love.

Putting the Right “Spin” on St. Valentine

To make the chaste St. Valentine more appealing to lovers, the Church may have “embellished” his life story a little bit. Since it happened so long ago, records no longer exist. But even if it didn’t happen this way, it certainly makes for a better story …

According to one legend, Valentinus ignored an imperial decree that forbade all marriages and betrothals. Caught in the act, Valentinus was imprisoned and sentenced to death for secretly conducting several wedding ceremonies. While imprisoned, the future Saint cured a girl (the jailer’s daughter) of her blindness. The poor girl fell madly in love with Valentinus, but could not save him.

On the eve of his execution, Valentinus managed to slip a parting message to the girl. The note, of course, was signed “From your Valentine.”

Another version:

In Rome in C.E. 270, Valentine enraged the emperor Claudius II,* who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. Claudius felt that married men made poor soldiers, because they would not want to leave their families for battle. The empire needed soldiers, so Claudius abolished marriage.

Valentine, bishop of Interamna, invited young couples to come to him in secret, where he joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. Claudius learned of this “friend of lovers,” and had the bishop brought to the palace. The emperor, impressed with the young priest’s dignity and conviction, attempted to convert him to the roman gods, to save him from certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity and boldly attempted to convert the emperor.

History also claims that while Valentine was in prison awaiting his fate, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius. Through his faith he miraculously restored her sight. He then signed a farewell message to her “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that would live long after its author.

Valentine was clubbed to death, then beheaded, on February 14 around 270 C.E. during a Christian persecution. In a way, it could be said he died for love and it may be for this that his feast day, named in 496 C.E. by Pope Gelasius, has become associated with romance.

Here’s an official Catholic version.

* Unfairly accused?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Famous,God,Guest Writers,Italy,Martyrs,Myths,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Sex

1942: Patrick Stanley Vaughan Heenan, Japanese spy

7 comments February 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1942, with the British about to abandon Singapore to the Japanese, turncoat officer Patrick Stanley Vaughan Heenan was summarily executed at Keppel Harbour.

Heenan, who had taken a long leave in Japan in 1938-39, used a wireless set to feed intelligence aiding the Japanese army’s invasion of Southeast Asia.

Heenan was caught on December 10, but there was little werewithal to handle his case as the defenders’ situation deteriorated desperately — less for anything Heenan had on offer than for the comprehensive weakness of the British position. He never seems to have been judicially sentenced, but he was shot by a guard chosen by lot two days before Britain surrendered Singapore. Something of an outsider to begin with, Heenan had begun taunting his guards on their impending defeat.

The particulars of Heenan’s betrayal, and even his identity, were covered up until long after the war. His name was even listed on Britain’s Battle of Singapore memorial.

Part of the Themed Set: Unruly Britannia.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,England,Espionage,Infamous,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Singapore,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

1942: Avraham Stern, a strange bedfellow

4 comments February 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Zionist freedom-fighter — or was he a terrorist? — Avraham Stern was captured by British colonial authorities and summarily executed.

Stern, as pictured on a 1978 Israeli stamp.

Born in 1907 in a part of eastern Poland then in Russian hands, Stern immigrated to British Palestine in 1925 and became an adherent of Revisionist Zionism — a maximalist strain of the fermenting Jewish homeland movement.

Various threads and factions within the Zionist movement pursued different territorial and political goals with different strategies; Stern was among the most militant foes of anything with the whiff of collaboration with the British. When the armed underground movement Irgun opted in 1940 to suspend attacks against British targets during World War II, Stern created a splinter organization with a programme of continuing anti-British violence.

The “Stern gang,” as imperial authorities knew it, had its reasons — controversial enough that some more moderate Jewish elements were happy to help the British hunt it, but reasons with their own logic, premised on the notion that London was the fundamental enemy of Jewish national interests while Berlin, for all its anti-Semitism, was not.

Between those two lay the room for wartime collaboration with Hitler against Britain with the object of establishing a Jewish state in the Levant open to unlimited immigration from a Reich eager to be rid of its Jews. In one fell swoop, it would solve Germany’s “Jewish question,”* realize Zionist state-building aspirations, and disrupt the Nazis’ wartime enemy. Stern, who had cultivated an affinity for fascism while studying in Italy and pitched a similar bargain to Mussolini, offered a pact with the devil: “the establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich.”

Berlin never took up the offer. Stern himself would have only a year to live, and his tiny splinter group didn’t get very far off the ground during it, carrying out a few murders and trying to raise money through crime. A high-profile bank robbery in January of 1942 that left several Brits and Jews dead brought down an intense manhunt that caught up with Stern on this day. He was handcuffed and shot on the spot.

His organization would come into its own after his death under leadership that included future Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, carrying out a campaign of assassinations in the mid-40’s as Palestine slid towards the civil war that would give birth to Israel. In that incarnation, it valorized its creator:

He was a lion, and the cravings of the foxes were foreign to him. He was an eagle who did not know how to fly low … He was not of those who live and die, like all human beings. He was a Prometheus, one who appears but once over many generations. (Source)

That valorization has been contested but nonetheless lasting. The Knesset, just days ago as of this writing, voted laurels for Stern’s hundredth birthday. There’s almost no apolitical way to write his story, and given Israel’s persistence as a flashpoint — and its own ironic inheritance of a rebellious subject population reminiscent of pre-1948 Palestinian Jews — the radicalism of his words, deeds and persona invite debate.

Books about the Stern gang in the founding of Israel

There’s a fascinating first-person apologia from a former member of the Stern gang here.

Stern also dabbled as a poet, and wrote this anthem to the struggle with his wife:

Part of the Themed Set: Unruly Britannia.

* Germany itself was tarrying with “faraway Jewish homeland” plans at this time, specifically considering relocating European Jewry to Madagascar. The Final Solution would be implemented later, once these proved unavailing. Stern, for his part, also expected the Axis to win the war.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Assassins,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,History,Infamous,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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Themed Set: Unruly Britannia

3 comments February 12th, 2008 Headsman

The United Kingdom came out on the winning side of World War II, but its hold on its globe-spanning territorial dominions was irrevocably weakened. As its own imperial offspring, the United States, took up the hegemon’s place, British colonies started breaking free — and those social and political sunderings frequently brought violence.

The next two days’ executions were true calendar neighbors, merely hours apart in 1942, as an empire at the end of its run fought for its survival.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles,Themed Sets

1869: Patrick Whelan, Canada’s first assassin?

2 comments February 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1869, Irish immigrant Patrick Whelan was hanged at Ottawa’s Nicholas Street Gaol for the assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

McGee, a Father of the Confederation — Canada as a self-governing dominion was only months old when he was gunned down in Ottawa — was the first politician assassinated in the country, and for a century more, the only one. He may have been a sort of proto-Michael Collins, shot by onetime fellow-travelers in the Irish nationalist movement for going legit with the English.

It’s an open question whether the tailor convicted of his murder was actually one of them. Whelan, like McGee, was an Irish immigrant and supposedly a Fenian sympathizer. He also matched the gunman’s description.

Whelan was snatched up within 24 hours and convicted on essentially circumstantial evidence.

Hanged in a snowstorm before thousands, he maintained his innocence to the end — a plea that has had its advocates in posterity, including a high-profile recent play. Whelan bolsters his own case by haunting the jail where he met his fate … a structure which still stands today, now serving as a (singularly atmospheric) hostel.

Whelan is sometimes reported as the last man publicly hanged in Canada, although apparently he is not. (Officially, that honor belongs to Nicholas Melady.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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