Archive for August, 2008

1833: Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, sodomite

13 comments August 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1833, Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls was hanged in London for sodomy.

Sodomy — “buggery,” in the more evocative British phrase, often bowdlerized in court records as b-gg–y or the like — was a capital offense in England until 1861, when the penalty was reduced to “merely” life imprisonment.

The London Courier reported the event:

Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was one of the unnatural gang to which the late Captain Beauclerk belonged, (and which latter gentleman put an end to his existence), was convicted on the clearest evidence at Croydon, on Saturday last, of the capital offence of Sodomy; the prisoner was perfectly calm and unmoved throughout the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him. In performing the duty of passing sentence of death upon the prisoner, Mr. Justice Park told him that it would be inconsistent with that duty if he held out the slightest hope that the law would not be allowed to take its severest course. At 9 o’clock in the morning the sentence was carried into effect. The culprit, who was fifty years of age, was a fine looking man, and had served in the Peninsular war. He was connected with a highly respectable family; but, since his apprehension not a single member of it visited him.

The popular broadside on the case was scarcely more sympathetic. [Here’s another version of the gallow lit]

Even though once or twice a year someone would hang for it and the scandal would send family fleeing his name, Old Blighty still had a vigorous underground gay scene in the 19th century. While Lord Byron was enjoying the easier same-sex access of the Ottoman lands, a friend wrote to him, “that what you get for £5 we must risque our necks for; and are content to risque them.” (Cited here)

Quite accidentally, the senseless destruction this day of a respectable veteran helped set the put-upon gay underground upon its long march towards mainstream acceptance.

A first-person narrative written* in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.**

It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:

Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.

The author — whose identity is still debated† — continues writing more or less autobiographically of Byron’s life, and using his illicit desires and lifestyle (with digressions into historical precedent) to defend homosexuality as ultimately natural and harmless.

The tree we plant will, when its boughs are grown,
Produce no other blossoms than its own;
And thus in man some inborn passions reign
Which, spite of careful pruning, sprout again.
Then, say, was I or nature in the wrong,
If, yet a boy, one inclination, strong
In wayward fancies, domineered my soul,
And bade complete defiance to control?

Though law cries “hold!” yet passion onward draws;
But nature gave us passions, man gave laws,
Whence spring these inclinations, rank and strong?
And harming no one, wherefore call them wrong?
What’s virtue’s touchstone? Unto others do,
As you would wish that others did to you.
Then tell me not of sex, if to one key
The chords, when struck, vibrate in harmony.
No virgin I deflower, nor, lurking, creep,
With steps adult’rous, on a husband’s sleep.
I plough no field in other men’s domain;
And where I delve no seed shall spring again.

Look, how infected with rank disease
Were those, who held St. Peter’s holy keys,
And pious men to whom the people bowed,
And kings, who churches to the saints endowed;
All these were Christians of the highest stamp-
How many scholars, wasting over their lamp,
How many jurists, versed in legal rules,
How many poets, honoured in the schools,
How many captains, famed for deeds of arms,
Have found their solace in a minion’s arms!
Nay, e’en our bard, Dame Nature’s darling child,
Felt the strange impulse, and his hours beguiled
In penning sonnets to a stripling’s praise,
Such as would damn a poet now-a-days.
To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent; and, at once confess,
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent, and, at once confess;
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

Statesmen, in your exalted station know
Sins of omission for commission go;
Since ships as often founder on the main
From leaks unstopped as from the hurricane.
Shore up your house; it totters to the base;
A mouldering rot corrodes it; and the trace
Of every crime you punish I descry:
The least of all perhaps is sodomy.

I stand a monument, whereby to learn
That reason’s light can never strongly burn
Where blear-eyed prejudice erects her throne,
And has no scale for virtue but her own.

* Don Leon circulated initially in manuscript form, and was not published in England until years later — a known printing in 1866, and possibly another lost edition from before 1853.

** Here lagging well behind France, which had burned only a bare handful of homosexuals under monarchist anti-sodomy laws in the 18th century, and decriminalized homosexuality full stop in 1791. In Philosophy in the Boudoir the Marquis de Sade preened casually triumphant over the bad old days while Lord Byron was still a boy.

We wonder that savagery could ever reach the point where you condemn to death an unhappy person all of whose crime amounts to not sharing your tastes … Nature, who places such slight importance upon the essence that flows in our loins, can scarcely be vexed by our choice when we are pleased to vent it into this or that avenue.

† Candidates include parliamentarian William Bankes, who was arrested for sodomy in 1833 but acquitted later in the year; fellow MP John Cam Hobhouse; and playwright and Byron-idolizer George Coleman.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Sex,Soldiers

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1978: Antonina Makarova, Nazi executioner

24 comments August 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1978, a young Soviet girl’s desperate collaboration with the Wehrmacht caught up with a 55-year-old mother.

A village girl and the first in her family to go to school, young Antonina Parfenova was dubbed “Makarova” (after her father, Makar) by a teacher when the girl forgot or was too shy to say her surname. This childhood switcheroo would follow her into adulthood and ultimately buy her half a lifetime and a family to mourn her.

At 19, she had moved to Moscow when the German onslaught against the Soviet Union erupted, and like many young people in similar straits, she volunteered to help fight the Nazis. But as the front swept past her, she found herself in enemy territory, and was nabbed by the SS and persuaded to become the Germans’ executioner of Russians at Lokot, a village near the Ukrainian and Belarussian borders for which a short-lived Nazi-controlled “republic” was named.

A 2005 Pravda article (with a somewhat prurient concern over the young woman’s sexual incontinence) delves into her activities:

Usually Antonina Makarova was ordered to execute a group of 27 people, the number of partisans which a local prison could house. Death sentences were carried out on the edge of a pit half a kilometer from the prison. She never knew people whom she executed and they had no notion who the executioner was either. Antonina executed the first group of partisans being absolutely drunk and the girl could hardly realize what she was doing. She often kept clothes of those whom she killed if the things were good; she carefully washed them and heaped them in her room.

In the evenings after work Antonina loved to dress up and enjoy her time dancing with German officers together with other girls who came there as prostitutes. Antonina boasted she used to live in Moscow that is why other girls kept aloof from her.

At dawn, Antonina often came to the prison and peered into the faces of people whom she was to execute in the morning. The woman just did her job when executing people and believed that the war would write her crimes off.*

“Antonina Makarova” was implicated in some 1,500 executions, and formally charged in around 200 cases with identifiable victims. The KGB turned up scores of women of the right age with the right name, but none of them fit the bill: the real Makarova’s passport said “Parfenova.”

Not until 1976 did the case break, when a relative applying for a travel visa named her in a routine list of relatives. Now named Antonina Ginsburg — she had married a veteran and taken his name — she was living quietly in Belarus, but hardly in hiding: the pair attended parades and town functions in the honor accorded World War II survivors.

Viktor Ginsburg would be in for a bit of a shock.

Even 35 years after her spell with the Germans ended, the wounds of the Great Patriotic War were raw enough to spell her death in very quick order in Briansk, the capital of Lokot’s district. She was the last World War II traitor of any note executed in the Soviet Union, and according to this page, the only Soviet woman ever judicially executed by shooting. (I’d take that claim cautiously without more corroboration.)

The Pravda article cited above is about the only original English source readily available online; Russian speakers (or people prepared to grapple with an online translator’s inelegance) can read much more at her Russian Wikipedia page as well as here, here and here.

Update: Courtesy of Executed Today’s own Sonechka, a translation from this Russian story of Makarova’s daughter’s heartbreaking remembrance of a woman she only knew as a mother:

Pain, pain, pain … She spoiled the life of four generations … You would like to know whether I would take her back if she returned? I would. She is my mother after all… I really don’t know how to remember her — as if she’s alive or dead. According to the tacit law, women were not shot. Maybe she’s alive somewhere? And if not, tell me — I’ll finally light a candle for her soul.

(Candles in Orthodox churches are lit for “zdravie” — literally “good health, well being” — or “upokoi” — “peace of a soul.” The former is intended for living beings, the latter for dead ones.)

* This, at least, is what she told her interrogators.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Germany,History,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,War Crimes,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1862: Nueces Massacre

August 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1862, German immigrants fleeing Confederate conscription were caught near Texas’ Nueces River and slain to a man.

The nomenclature of the “Nueces Massacre” is controversial since this party of Union loyalists making a leisurely pace* for Mexico got its shots off as it was gunned down in a gully by Texas Partisan Rangers in the predawn hours.

But the incident becomes a clear candidate for these pages with the summary execution of the surviving captured and wounded men later this day. Here’s the account of an obviously upset member of the Confederate party:

[S]ome of the more humane of us did what we could to ease the sufferings of the wounded Germans. They had fought a good fight, and bore themselves so pluckily I felt sorry I had taken my part against them. We bound up their wounds, and gave them water, and laid them as comfortably as we could in the shade. Poor creatures, how grateful they were!

He then pauses for breakfast and helps gather up the scattered German horses; we rejoin the narration after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

I hurried over to where we had left the German wounded to see how they were getting on, and was surprised to find them gone. Asking what had become of them, I was told they had been moved to a better shade a short distance away. With this answer I was quite satisfied, and never dreamed the brutes with whom I served would be guilty of foul play, especially after the gallant fight the enemy had made.

Just then one of our wounded called for water, and I brought him some from the cool spring. As I was giving it to him, the sound of firing was heard a little way off. I thought at first they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war; but it didn’t sound like that either. Then, possibly it might be an attack on the camp; so I seized my rifle and ran in the direction of the firing. Presently I met a man coming from it who, when he saw me running, said, “You needn’t be in a hurry, it’s all done; they shot the poor devils, and finished them off.”

“It can’t possibly be they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!” I said, not believing that even Luck [a villainous — to the diarist’s mind — lieutenant] would be guilty of such an atrocious crime. “Oh, yes; they’re all dead, sure enough — and a good job too!” Feeling sick at heart, though I hardly even then credited his report, I ran on, and found it only too true.

It seems they were asked if they wouldn’t like to be moved a little way off into better shade. The poor creatures willingly agreed, thanking their murderers for their kindness. They were carried away, but it was to the shade and shadow of death, for a party of cowardly wretches went over and shot them in cold blood.

More summary justice followed in the weeks ahead against members of the party who had escaped** and others, and Confederate Haengerbande would plague Texas Germans of insufficient southern enthusiasm for the remainder of the war.

Fred Shon Powers offers this detailed account of the affair; there’s another here.

This day’s victims are honored by the Treue der Union obelisk, the only Union monument in Confederate territory, a prominent distinction that (as with all things in the Civil War) invites political football. This conservative article throws cold water on the “Germans-as-antislavery-Unionists” trope, and academic papers from a 1990’s conference gathered in this volume treat Nueces among other topics of “disloyalty” in the Confederacy.


The photo is taken by Steve & Marion Daughtry In Comfort, Texas. Image used with permission.

* An escapee recounted decades later by way of explanation for the party’s fatal inattention to either haste or defense, “Having read a proclamation from the Confederate government announcing that all persons not friendly to it might leave the country, we believed we had a right to do so in large or small bodies, as best suited our convenience, to the border and there cross over into Mexico.”

** About half the group had separated from the main body just before the Confederates engaged them. From this number come the “escapees,” many of them later killed in the hills or while crossing into Mexico. Those who stayed put all died this day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Texas,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1993: Mohamed Mustafa Tabet, serial rapist with a badge

1 comment August 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1993, the police chief of Casablanca was shot in Kenitra Central Prison for abuse of power.

Mohamed Mustafa Tabet (or Tabit) wasn’t exactly Captain Renault.

While Morocco still has prisoners on death row, Tabet’s was the first execution actually carried out in 11 years, and it’s the last execution in Morocco to date. He went on the rocket docket, just five months from his arrest to standing up against a wall.

To earn that rare distinction, Tabet exploited his official power to rape or sexually exploit hundreds of women. Tabet confessed to some 1,500 victims over 13 years; the minimum figure matches the 518 personal identity cards found in his apartment. (Also found: 118 video cassettes — many of them violent — and a computer list of his crimes.)

The “Tabet Affair” — actually called “Tabetgate,” proving that the United States retains the power of exporting ideas — opened a discomfiting window on gender and power in Morocco.

Webster University Prof. Don Conway-Long was in Morocco at the time researching gender and masculinity for his dissertation. His paper “Sexism and Rape Culture in Moroccan Social Discourse” (pdf) is probably the most illuminating readily-available English* document on the affair — and the many contradictory reactions it drew from contemporaries, and the pressure it put on the government to contain the fallout as “a morals case, instead of looking further into overall police corruption.”

Prof. Conway-Long was good enough to spare Executed Today a few minutes to explore power and gender in Morocco, then and now.

ET: The scale of the crime spree seems just unimaginable, that he could get away with victimizing hundreds upon hundreds of women.

DCL: And not that many came forward! It was just a couple of women. If it’s difficult to talk to rape and sexual assault survivors here [in the U.S.], it’s exponentially harder in Morocco.

You were in Morocco in the years leading up to this trial. What was the country like in terms of its gender outlook?

It’s more like our 1950’s in terms of the attitudes towards women. Some educated professors at one point were laughing at the idea that a man could be charged with raping his wife in the West. In some ways, attitudes in Morocco are maybe 20 years behind what we see in the West. We had that same conception in the 1950’s — Missouri actually finally changed that law in 1993. [See here and here -ed.]

Morocco was also probably one of the most liberal countries of the Muslim world in the sense of being more closely connected to the West. Morocco has had more openness, more tourism.

How did the Tabet case impact women’s position?

[In 1995,] about a year after I left, a battered women’s shelter was set up in Casablanca, the first one in Morocco. By comparison, our first shelters in the U.S. and U.K. were set up in 1971, 1972.

In 2004, they passed a new family law that changed a lot of the freedoms that women have — e.g., women can ask for divorce, and don’t have to obey their husbands.

But I have no idea if you can claim there’s any causal relationship between the discovery of Tabet’s crimes and these later events. At the time, some men thought he was this great sexual hero, very virile.

So what lies ahead?

The old king died in 1999; his son Mohammed VI is in there now and he’s young and more aware and one of the rising stars of the monarchs of the middle east, like the king of Jordan. His [Mohammed’s] head is on the right way, but running a country like this with so much variation — there’s 50% illiteracy, the Western Sahara conflict, a certain level of Islamist opposition, and around twenty political parties all the way out to the Communists.

So there’s no certain future, absolutely not.

As far as cases like Tabet’s — let’s hope it’s not happening still, but Morocco when I was there was a place where you pass six different kinds of uniforms walking down the street with Uzis that would be pointed at your body as you passed.

* There’s more in French and Arabic.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Interviews,Milestones,Morocco,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Rape,Scandal,Shot

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1944: Eight July 20 plotters

20 comments August 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Nazi Germany’s juridical vengeance against Hitler’s near-assassins commenced.

Barely two weeks after Col. Stauffenberg‘s bomb had barely missed slaying the Fuhrer, eight of his principal co-conspirators stood show trials at the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) before hectoring prig Roland Freisler.

The outcome, of course, was foreordained.

Apparently orders had come down from on high to make the deaths as degrading as possible; this batch, convicted August 7-8, was hanged naked this day at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison on thin cord (piano wire, say some sources, although it’s not clear to me whether this is literally true) suspended from meathooks while cameras rolled. Video and stills from the ghastly scene were shipped back to Hitler’s bomb-damaged Polish outpost for the edification of the powers that be.

The eight fitted for those nooses were:

Many hundreds more would follow, both at Plotzensee and throughout the Reich where persons distantly connected to the plotters and various miscellaneous resistance figures were swept up in the purge.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1777: A British spy, by Israel Putnam

1 comment August 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1777, a general of the American Revolution laconically asserted his prerogatives with the hanging of a British spy.

A former ranger in the British service, Israel Putnam — he may or may not be the “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” guy — was camped at Peekskill, New York, when he caught one Edmund Palmer stalking the camp.

It was early in the American Revolution, and American spies were being hanged by the British … but the commanders of Albion evidently entertained some notion that the shoe would not go on the other foot. When Palmer was condemned to death for spying, the British General Sir Henry Clinton hurried a missive to his opposite number under flag of truce claiming Palmer as a British lieutenant.

Old Put firmly believed “the speedy execution of spies is agreeable to the laws of nature and nations and absolutely necessary to the preservation of the army.” (According to the unimpeachable sourcing that is the “about” page of an intel e-learning university named for him.)

And Putnam’s reply to Clinton, a terse little masterpiece answering Cicero‘s dictum that “Brevity is a great praise of eloquence,” was one for the ages.

Headquarters, 7th August, 1777.

Sir — Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy’s service, was taken as a spy lurking within our lines; he has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy, and the flag is ordered to depart immediately.

Yours, &c.,

Israel Putnam

P.S. He has accordingly been executed.

(Some versions give the slightly zippier postscript as “afternoon — he is hanged.”)

Read all about this spry American Cincinnatus in Old Put, a now-public-domain book published for America’s centennial celebration; or at this enthusiastic fan page. Also of some now-current relevance: tangential background on the jurisdictional wrangling around military commissions at this period, here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Spies,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1890: William Kemmler, only in America

27 comments August 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1890 the iconic symbol of the American death penalty made its grisly debut upon the person of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison.

The long New World tradition of hanging condemned prisoners came under fire as a barbarism in the late 19th century, leading reformers to look for killing procedures less likely to result in a horrendously protracted strangulation or a midair decapitation. As Empire State Governor David Hill put it,

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner.

On this stage, Executed Today presents a rogues’ gallery of homo Americanus, the salesmen and swindlers who would help the U.S.A. ride the lightning.

The Dentist

A true renaissance man, Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Southwick, applied his active mind to the need to better kill a fellow, and soon hit upon an inspiration — that is to say, a town drunk hit upon an electrical generator and died instantaneously, and the observant Southwick said “eureka!”

Without the subsequent industry of this neglected gentleman, who added to his repertoire scientifically-minded electrical butchery of animals alongside political gladhandings to bring a flutter to a busybody’s heart, the Chair’s entire oeuvre of machismo-sadism might have missed the country altogether. Just imagine living in a world where New York had pioneered its other leading reform alternative: lethal injection.

(This, incidentally, is why the chair is a chair, and not a bed or a stake or a St. Andrew’s Cross: because the guy who thought of it spent all day administering his own tender mercies to seated penitents.)

The Plutocrats

As Southwick nagged his senator and shocked stray cats into the great hereafter, the gears of commerce strove relentlessly ever-onward. The business of America was ever business, and never more so than the Gilded Age.

And the business of killing people was about to become the biggest business there was.

The age of electricity was buzzing into incandescence, and two rival standards were at currents amped over eventual dominance of this stupendous industry. Thomas Edison’s earlier Direct Current (DC) standard was being challenged by Nikolai Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC), backed by the financial muscle of George Westinghouse.

Cheaper and more efficient, AC tilted the playing field against Edison. Seeing his days numbered, the Wizard of Menlo Park fought back the way any dinosaur industry would: dirty.

AC, Edison said, was too dangerous for consumer use — a lurking killer. “Is this what your wife should be cooking with?” And he started taking up traveling road shows zapping large animals with AC to demonstrate the rival product’s deadliness. (This press coined the term “electrocution” from these spectacles.)

This clip of the electric demise of a circus elephant — don’t hit “play” if you’re not up for animal cruelty — is from some years later (Edison kept tilting at windmills and megafauna carcasses as his DC empire disappeared), but it’ll give a sense of the horrifying spectacle.

(Topsy, it should be noted, was being put down as a danger and not strictly for kicks.)

Elephants? Horses? Dogs?

How about a human?

With the New York legislature’s embrace of Southwick’s seated voltage people-eater, Edison turned his PR gears on the state, demanding they adopt his competitor’s “deadlier” current for the contraption. And they did, reflecting a widespread belief inculcated by Edison’s experiments — as this New York Times article on an Edison crony’s public livestock-killing show in the days leading up to the advent of the electrocution law indicates:

The experiments proved the alternating current to be the most deadly force known to science, and that less than half the pressure used in this city for electric lighting by this system is sufficient to cause instant death.

After Jan. 1 the alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this State.

Too bad for Edison that the business he was really trying to kill was made of sturdier stuff.

The Alcoholic Vegetable Merchant

As the 1880’s wane, we come at last to our subject — in several senses of the term — an illiterate nobody of German stock who chanced to kill his common-law wife with just the right timing to join in a new kind of experiment.

William Kemmler mounted a “cruel and unusual punishment” appeal against his sentence funded by Westinghouse himself: no dice. Perhaps appreciating the odd foothold on history he was about to attain, he showed little worry as he entered the execution room and sat himself — “undoubtedly the coolest man in the room,” a journalist present reported.

The End of the Beginning

That reporter’s description for the New York Herald graphically captures humanity’s first horrible encounter with this “humanitarian” machine, beginning with the prisoner’s parting remarks.*

Doubtless he knew that his words will go down in history and he had his lesson well learned. He addressed his audience [in] a commonplace way and without hesitation.

“Well, gentleman, I wish everyone good luck in this world, and I think I am going to a good place, and the papers have been sa[yi]ng a lot of stuff that isn’t so. That’s all I have to say.”

And so with a parting shot at what he was good enough to refer to not long ago as “those d—d reporters,” William Kemmler took his leave of earth. The quiet demeanor of the man as he entered had made a strong impression on those in the room. His self-possession after his oratorical effort simply amazed them. He got up out of his chair as though he were anxious to try the experiment, not as though he courted death, but as though he was thoroughly prepared for it. …

There was no delay. Kemmler constantly encouraged the workers at the straps with “Take your time; don’t be in a hurry; do it well; be sure everything is all right.” He did not speak with any nervous apprehension.

Warden Durston leaned over, drawing the buckle of the straps about the arm. “It won’t hurt you, Bill,” he said, “I’ll be with you all the time.”

A minute later Kemmler said, “There’s plenty of time.” He said it as calmly as the conductor of a streetcar might have encouraged a passenger not to hurry.

Kemmler was pinioned so close that he could hardly have moved a muscle except those of his mouth.

The Warden took a last look at the straps. “This is all right,” he said.

“All right,” said Dr. Spitzka, and then bent over and said, “God bless you, Kemmler.”

“Thank you,” said the little man, quietly.

“Ready?” Said the Warden.

“Ready,” answered the doctors.

“Goodbye,” said the Warden to Kemmler. There was no response.

GAVE THE SIGNAL.

The Warden stepped to the door leading into the next room. It was then forty-three and one-half minutes past six o’clock by the prison clock. “Everything is ready,” said the Warden to some one hidden from view in the next room.

The answer came like a flash in the sudden convulsion that went over the frame of the chair. If it seemed rigid before under the influence of the straps, [it] was doubly so now has it strained against them.

The seconds ticked off. Dr. McDonald, who was holding the stopwatch, said “Stop.”

Two voices near him echoed, “Stop.”

The Warden stepped to the door of the next room and repeated the word “Stop.”

As the syllable [passed] his lips the forehead of the man in the chair [grew] dark [in] color, while his nose, or so much of it as was exposed, appeared a dark red.

There was very little apparent relaxation of the body, however. [A] fly lighted on the nose and walked about unconcernedly. The witnesses drew nearer to the chair.

“He’s dead,” said Spitzka, authoritatively.

“Oh, yes, he’s dead,” said McDonald.

“You’ll notice,” said Spitzka, “the post-mortem appearance of the nose immediately. There is that remarkable change that cannot be mistaken for anything else, that remarkable appearance of the nose.”

The other doctors nodded [assent]. They looked at the body critically for a minute and then Spitzka said, [“]oh, undo that now. The body can be taken to the hospital.”

“Well, I can’t let you gentlemen out of here until I have your certificates,” said the Warden.

FOUND SIGNS OF LIFE.

It was while this businesslike conversation was going on that Dr. Balch made a discovery.

“McDonald,” he cried, “McDonald, look at that rupture,” he pointed at the abrasion of the skin on Kemmler’s right thumb. In the contraction of the muscles the figurehead[?] scraped against it and removed the skin, and from that little [wound] blood was flowing-[an] almost certain indication of life.

A low cry of horror went through the assemblage.

“[Turn] on the current,” excitedly cried Dr. Spitzka. “This man is not dead.”

The crowd fell back from the chair, as though they were in danger. The Warden sprang into the closed door and pounded on it with his hand.

“Start the current!” he cried. As he spoke of fluid began to drop from Kemmler’s mouth and to run down his beard; a groaning sound came from his lips, repeated and growing louder each time.

It seemed [an] age before the card was again turned on. In fact it was just seventy-three seconds from the end of the first contact when the first sound was heard to issue from Kemmler’s lips, and it was not more than a half [minute] before the card was again turned on.

RECOVERING CONSCIOUSNESS.

But every second to that time the horrible sound from those groaning lips was becoming more distinct, [a straining] of the chest against the leather harness stronger and more evident.

The man was coming to life. The spectators grew faint and sick. [Men] who had stood over dead and dying [men] and had cut [men] to pieces without an emotion [grew] pale and turned their heads away.

One witness was forced to lie down while one of the doctors fanned him.

But [the end] came at last. There was another convulsion of the body, and … it became rigid with the rigidity of iron.

“That man wasn’t dead,” cried Spitzka excitedly. As he spoke the body twitched again. The electrician had given the current gain new alternation and now 2,000 volts [were] playing in short, successive shocks down Kemmler spine. The sound ceased with the first convulsion, but the fluid continued to trip from the mouth and down the beard, making the body a sickening spectacle.

“Keep it on now until he’s killed,” said one of the doctors. …

“Keep it on! Keep it on!” Cried Warden Durston through the door.

Silence reigned for a moment. A bell without began to [toll] solemnly. …

BURNED BY THE CURRENT.

Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.

There was a cry from all the members of the little group, and Warden Durston cried through the door leading to the next room to [turn] the current off.

(Also of interest: the New York Times‘ (non-eyewitness) report on the affair.)

More shocking — so to speak — papers ran the next day’s headline “Kemmler Westinghoused,” the verb “to Westinghouse” being another shameless Edisonian bid to stamp his marketing project onto the Queen’s English. This fine, rounded, archaic neologism the right sports anchor could resuscitate as a fresh synonym for thrashing, horsewhipping, poleaxing, or else (in greater justice) for moderation and decency as the only principal in the sordid affair that rejected death-dealing by electricity.

(Officially, Edison also opposed the death penalty. Like Dr. Guillotin, he was doing his part for humanity in the meantime … just with a little skin in the game. Did we mention the business of America is business?)

Westinghouse, for his own part, thought the Kemmler debacle would nip the electric chair in the bud, and he was scarcely the only one.

Official reviews for the “art of killing by electricity” were, ahem, mixed.

“They could have done better with an axe.”**
-George Westinghouse

“Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”
-New York Herald

“Revolting … a disgrace to civilization.”
-New York Times

“We live in a higher civilization from this day on.”
-Alfred Southwick

Books (remarkably numerous!) about the creation of the electric chair

It should, in fairness, be noted that the U.S. was not the only country (pdf) to mull an electrocution chair in the 19th century … but it was (and for a long time remained) the only one to actually use one.

* The Herald excerpt, along with several other articles from the same paper about the Kemmler execution, is here, but the text has obviously been generated from a scan with uneven results. As I do not have access to the originals, [bracketed] remarks in the excerpt indicate this author’s own interpretations or interpolations of seemingly mistaken transcriptions.

** Some sources make it “would have done better with an axe.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Language,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Pelf,Popular Culture,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt

6 comments August 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two starkly contrasting women were executed for sorcery in Stockholm.

Anna Simonsdotter Hack — also known as “Tysk-Annika” — is the forgotten one of the pair, who played the expected role of a condemned witch and meekly gave herself over to the judgment. There were rewards for good behavior: Tysk-Annika had her head cleanly lopped off.

Malin Matsdotter, however, did not plan any reciprocal back-scratching with the men who came to kill her.

Accused by her own daughters of carrying their children — Malin’s grandchildren — to Satanic masses, “Rumpare-Malin” obstinately refused to cop to the charge. (Naturally, not confessing was a further indicator to the court that Satan was fortifying her defiance.) Without a confession, the authorities couldn’t assuage themselves by giving her the easy-ish death of decapitation; the law required burning at the stake.* A sack of gunpowder around the neck to speed things up was the best they could offer her.

Matsdotter maintained her innocence to the stake, frustrating the confessors, and when one of her daughters called on her to admit the crime, “she gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”

And maybe it worked. Judges may well have been wearying of the eight-year-old witch craze, but Matsdotter’s discomfiting end was the turning point; the cases dried up, existing sentences were overturned, and the clergy was summoned to draw a line under the proceedings by announcing from the pulpits that witches had been driven out of Sweden for good. Only one more witchcraft execution ever took place in Sweden — and that in 1704.

By the end of 1676, several of the most notorious accusers in the witch trials were being hunted for perjury by those very same courtrooms. Reportedly, Matsdotter’s daughter was herself executed for her fatal accusation.

* Previously, the law had not allowed a witchcraft execution without a confession, and in a notable case a few years before Matsdotter’s burning, two other women had escaped death by refusing to confess. Evidently, they closed that loophole.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2006: Mohamed Amin Mohamed Razali, mystical Malaysian militant

Add comment August 4th, 2008 Headsman

Two years ago today, the strange leader of a mystical Islamic fight club was hanged at Malaysia’s Sungai Buloh prison for waging war on the king.

Caption Contest?: The Headsman could be mistaken, but based on an altogether amateur comparison to the Razali shot on this BBC story, I believe that’s him in the white. Photo from the sect website.

The heretofore obscure Al Ma’unah — just a couple dozen guys — had descended on an army camp in July 2000 and made off with a handsome cache of weapons and a few hostages, apparently the opening gambit in a bid to launch an Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Malaysia.

What actually happened was the army hunted them down and engulfed them a couple of days later.

You’d never know the ambitious designs of this clique from its web site (still online as of this writing), whose English “about us” page rings harmlessly loopy (all grammatical manglings [sic]):

Al-Ma’unah … is a Non-Govermental Organisation (NGO) … involved in the teaching of martial arts particularly the development of one’s inner power and the practice of Islamic traditional medicine.

Literary, the term “Ma’unah” is an Arabic word which means, something extraordinary that happens to an ordinary Muslim individual, for example extra sensory perception or the ability to see “things” in another dimension (paranormal).

“Al-Ma’unah Inner Power” can be defined as “something extraordinary bestowed to a righteous Muslim (in the form of assistance from Allah) in accordance with specific adherence to tradition and proper sequence emphasising on the Islamic principles and Allah’s commandments as stipulated in the holy Quran”.

In teaching the martial art and traditional medicine, the brotherhood placed more emphasis on spiritual development and enlightenment of its members or “ikhwan” as it is known in Al-Maunah, in order to achieve the highest level of proficiency in the art and to attain great healing powers.

… although a section entitled “The Usage of the Inner Power” suggests the training achieves the sorts of useful martial superpowers more commonly found on a Dungeons & Dragons treasure table:

Among the benefit of Al-Ma’unah Inner Power can be listed as follows:

o For health and vitality, both physically and spiritually.
o Making an enemy/attacker to freeze on the spot and to be hurled sprawling backwards without being touch.
o Invincible from sharp objects, weapons, boiling water, fire etc.
o To transfer temporarily the inner energy to another object.
o Able to attain healing powers.
o Able to tie enemies without using rope.
o Able to hypnotise a violent aggressor to sleep or forget his intention.
o Able to pull back a fleeing snatch thief or robber from great distance (without physical body contact).
o Able to make attackers to drop to their knees or fall down with the blink of an eye.
o For marital bliss.
o Able to increase influence over others.

Too bad it didn’t protect against hemp.

Most of the 19 who survived the manhunt and went on trial eagerly cut deals, groveled (“Please don’t send us to the gallows!” one said during the hearing), and pointed the finger at the former army private. Razali didn’t say boo at trial and died stoically at about 6 a.m. this morning.

Although there were 359 executions in Malaysia from 1970 to 2001, the practice has dropped into disuse in this decade; Razali appears to be the last person executed in Malaysia as of this post’s publication. Amnesty International has suggested that Malaysia’s zero figure might conceal some secret (presumably extrajudicial) executions. While the government angrily denied that suggestion, the death penalty has come under growing scrutiny in Malaysia.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,Malaysia,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Soldiers,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1916: Sir Roger Casement

7 comments August 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Roger Casement was hanged for treason by the British crown that had knighted him only a few years before.

Casement died for his part in the Easter Rising, but this Irish nationalist hero’s layered story has long made him a very different sort of cultural marker than, say, James Connolly.

Casement came to public prominence for his damning report on Belgium’s atrocious treatment of natives in its Congo colony, e.g.:

[T]he great decrease in population, the dirty and ill-kept towns, and the complete absence of goats, sheep, or fowls — once very plentiful in this country — were to be attributed above all else to the continued effort made during many years to compel the natives to work india-rubber. Large bodies of native troops had formerly been quartered in the district, and the punitive measures undertaken to his end had endured for a considerable period. During the course of these operations there had been much loss of life, accompanied, I fear, by a somewhat general mutilation of the dead, as proof that the soldiers had done their duty.

. . . Two cases (of mutilation) came to my actual notice while I was in the lake district. One, a young man, both of whose hands had been beaten off with the butt ends of rifles against a tree; the other a young lad of 11 or 12 years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist. . . . I both these cases the Government soldiers had been accompanied by white officers whose names were given to me. Of six natives (one a girl, three little boys, one youth, and one old woman) who had been mutilated in this way during the rubber regime, all except one were dead at the date of my visit.

[A sentry in the employ of one of the concessionary private companies] said he had caught and was detaining as prisoners (eleven women) to compel their husbands to bring in the right amount of rubber required of them on the next market day. . . . When I asked what would become of these women if their husbands failed to bring in the right quantity of rubber . . , he said at once that then they would be kept there until their husbands had redeemed them.

Casement’s is an honorable name in the campaign for the Congo, an early human rights and anti-colonial struggle; in this 92-minute BBC documentary on the notorious depredations in the Congo, the Casement report’s creation and impact are treated from about 1:15:15 through the end:

A similar investigation undertaken in Peru — where the lens focused on British employers, rather than strictly the malfeasance of foreign states — earned him knighthood in 1911, but Casement’s personal evolution from loyal Protestant* imperial operative with a sympathy for the Irish cause to revolutionary nationalist was already underway. “This journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her destiny, her reality,” he wrote his sister. “I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.”

He resigned from the consular service and began recruiting for the Irish Volunteers.

As World War I opened, Casement identified British aggression as its cause, an extension of the violent imperial hegemony he chronicled in The Crime Against Europe:

The British Empire was not founded in peace; how, then can it be kept by peace, or ensured by peace-treaties? It was born of pillage and blood-shed, and has been maintained by both; and it cannot now be secured by a common language any more than a common Bible. The lands called the British Empire belong to many races, and it is only by the sword and not by the Book of Peace or any pact of peace that those races can be kept from the ownership of their own countries.

While any Irish Republican would have agreed with that sentiment, the resulting moral and tactical calculus for the Irish cause to ally with the German was not universally embraced — and was certainly anathema to the British.

“In the Streets of Catania”
by Roger Casement

All that was beautiful and just,
All that was pure and sad
Went in one little, moving plot of dust
The world called bad.

Came like a highwayman, and went,
One who was bold and gay,
Left when his lightly loving mood was spent
Thy heart to pay.

By-word of little street and men,
Narrower theirs the shame,
Tread thou the lava loving leaves, and then
Turn whence it came.

Ætna, all wonderful, whose heart
Glows as thine throbbing glows,
Almond and citron bloom quivering at start,
Ends in pure snows.

Casement spent the first two years of the Great War in Germany itself, and arranged a shipment of guns that would have supported the Easter Rising, but thought the aid too little and too late. He had a German U-boat drop him at Ireland, trying to get word to the Republican leadership to postpone the revolt.** Instead, he was picked up three days before the doomed rising and hanged after a sensational trial.†

His “treason” — and of course, the very crime of which he was convicted imports a British legitimacy in Ireland that Casement explicitly rejected — shocked many old associates, but he still had friends in high places. To dampen the international clemency campaign, England circulated the notorious “Black Diaries,” photographs of supposed Casement diary pages detailing the author’s homosexuality.

This dirty (and successful) trick brings a personal-is-political quality to Casement’s legacy as well as an enduring debate over the diaries’ authenticity. Since Irish nationalism gained mainstream acceptance well before homosexuality, right-thinking folk long held the Black Diaries a forgery, and time was you solicited a black eye by saying otherwise in the wrong company.

The gay rights movement has seen a posthumous redefinition of Casement; although homosexuality was not on the indictment against him, one could argue that it was the reason he hanged. Given recent handwriting forensics that support the diaries’ authenticity, the general‡ consensus about the Black Diaries has inverted with the effect of only heightening sympathy for their alleged author, albeit at the expense of some tension over how to situate that characteristic within the whole of Casement’s life and thought.

And that is only one aspect of the shifting place of Casement in the firmament of Republican martyrs since his death. His hagiography waxed in the interwar years, with Yeats among those calling for the return of Casement’s remains in The Ghost of Roger Casement”.

But the humanitarian’s German ties were an inconvenience as World War II raged, and not until afterward was that cause renewed. When his body was finally returned in 1965, an Irish state funeral elided the matter of the diaries.

Even Casement himself, who would be the last to die for the Easter Rising, had a hand in the myth-making. His last mission’s purpose to avert the Easter Rising fit neither the government’s interest in maximizing his perfidy nor Casement’s own in identifying with the Irish cause; he himself therefore owned the Rising fully in his defense which made him fine fodder for Republican hymns like “Lonely Banna Strand”:

RTE radio’s What If? series recently explored Casement’s complex legacy:

[audio:http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-240208-27m06-whatif.mp3]

As Casement put it in his voluminous personal writing, “It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding — misapprehending — and to be silent forever.”

* Casement’s father was Protestant and his mother was Catholic; he lived with a somewhat split identity between the two faiths, but formally converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution (which surely did not hurt his memory to the Irish cause) and his last meal was simply the Host.

** The guns themselves were interdicted by the British navy and ended up scuttled to the ocean floor.

† Since Casement’s incitements to rebellion had occurred on foreign soil, there was some fine legal parsing over whether he could be tried for “treason.” The dispute resolved to the placement of a comma in a medieval law — leading to the epigram/-taph that Casement was “hanged by a comma.” In the midst of war and before an English jury, however, punctuation was an even weaker defense than it sounds.

‡ But still not universal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts Previous Posts


Calendar

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!