Archive for February, 2009

1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

11 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without inconveniencing him.

The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.

Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches, the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.

Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by sudden execution — proved insoluble; so, they had to build a little airtight room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.

That little airtight room was used for the first time ever on this date in 1924.

Its occupant was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.

A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from outside the cell.

Good enough for government work.

The gas chamber would win a fair following in the American South and West, notably California.

However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness” — including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners, and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give them a snort of HCNnever matched the dream of the zipless kill, and the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely) much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from the scene in the 1990’s.

Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1920: The White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak

3 comments February 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, White commander Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak was shot in Irkutsk.

Absent the Russian Revolution, Kolchak‘s epitaph would read “naval officer and arctic explorer.”*

After the Russian Revolution touched off civil war, Kolchak became Supreme Ruler — and ruthless dictator — of an anti-Bolshevik government stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean.

It didn’t last.

Fleeing east, Kolchak was arrested by a Bolshevik-allied government in Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. The White army mounted an offensive to retrieve him — leading the Soviet government to order his immediate execution, along with one of his government ministers, Viktor Pepelyayev. Unable to bury them in the frozen soil, their captors unceremoniously dumped the corpses in the Ushakovka River.


A monument to Admiral Kolchak in Irkutsk, Russia. Image courtesy of Jack Sheremetoff of Baikaler.com.

* An inhospitable Arctic island he helped explore was named (and is now again named, following a Soviet change of moniker) for Kolchak.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1945: Robert Brasillach, intellectual traitor

3 comments February 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, and notwithstanding a partial outcry in French literary circles, fascist intellectual and Vichy collaborator Robert Brasillach was shot for treason in Montrouge.

Novelist, journalist and llitterateur Robert Brasillach (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the “James Dean of French fascism,” fashionable apostle of the interwar far-right movement Action Française.

A proper James Dean dies young, which fate was supplied courtesy of Brasillach’s editorship of the anti-semitic rag Je Suis Partout (“I Am Everywhere”) and enthusiastic support of the Vichy government.

Inasmuch as his collaboration had been in the form of ideas propagated, Brasillach’s case engaged the French polity in the challenging question of whether “intellectual crime” — and even “intellectual treason” — could exist categorically.

Given another year, when occupation was not so fresh a memory and the Nazis were no longer knocking at the door, the puzzle would probably not have been a life and death one.

But then, ideas are sometimes life and death matters themselves, and nowhere is that more true than in France.

Many anti-fascist intellectuals appealed to de Gaulle for Brasillach’s life — many, but not all. Death penalty opponent Albert Camus signed the petition for clemency; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused.

Between fellow-feeling among the literary set, ideological enmity, and the searing experience of the occupation only just lifted lay a test for the conscience of many a French thinker — aphorized by the very words de Gaulle would use in turning aside the appeal.

“Talent is a responsibility.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1894: Auguste Vaillant, bomb-throwing anarchist

5 comments February 5th, 2009 Headsman

“For too long a time, our voice is responded to with prison, the rope or the fusillade, but don’t delude yourselves: the explosion of my bomb is not only the cry of Vaillant in rebellion, but is the cry of an entire class that calls for its rights and will soon join its acts to its words.”

Auguste Vaillant

On this date in 1894, bomb-throwing anarchist — literally — Auguste Vaillant was beheaded in France.

The preceding December, the young Vaillant (French Wikipedia link) went from impoverished obscurity to national bogeyman by hurling a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies — reprisal for the 1892 execution of the anarchist Ravachol.

This bomb’s symbolic effect greatly exceeded its injury to life and limb: Vaillant said he had not been intending to kill, and in fact he did not. (Vaillant himself was among the wounded. His nose was blown off.)

But his political affiliations brought a suppression of anarchists and their press, and, of course, this day’s operation of the guillotine.*

“Mort à la société bourgeoise! Vive l’anarchie!”

Vaillant’s dying sentiment was taken up by Emile Henry, who bombed a Paris cafe the next week, and Sante Geronimo Caserio, an Italian immigrant who assassinated French President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot four months later.

* “Between the time of Vaillant’s arrival at the guillotine and the closing of the baskets containing his remains,” says the New York Times’ account, “scarcely more than twenty seconds elapsed.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Terrorists

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1703: 47 Ronin forced to commit seppuku

1 comment February 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1703, Japan’s most renowned epic of bushido vengeance reached its endgame with the condemned ronin who had avenged their executed master forced to commit seppuku.

So compelling an allegory of conflicting loyalties could hardly have been so skillfully constructed as outright fiction. The 47 Ronin owed personal fealty to a daimyo who drew his blade when provoked by the insolence of a shogunate official, and was condemned to death for the offense.

For the shogun, it was a just assertion of a central state’s prerogatives.

For the samurai made ronin by the death of their lord, it was a test of honor.

Knowing that the offending shogun retainer would be well-defended on the lookout against retribution, forty-seven of them (or possibly more at first; in any case, not the entirety of the samurai force) feigned dissipation and indifference for over a year … then raided his palace and slew him once he dropped his guard.

The ronin were condemned to death, but authorities “allowed” them the more honorable route of seppuku — which they committed to a man.*

Theorists of bushido honor may dicker over whether this plot fulfilled the demands of honor, but less philosophically exacting interlocutors have made the tale among the most beloved in Japanese history — like these illustrations of a traditional adaptation, or several films.

Their graves can be honored by the discerning Tokyo visitor at the popular Sengakuji Temple.

* Actually only 46 of the 47; the other was sent as a messenger, or perhaps fled, but was otherwise separated from his party, and ended up spared.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Murder,Myths,Popular Culture,Soldiers,Treason

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1915: Veljko Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic and Misko Jovanovic, Archduke Ferdinand’s assassins

12 comments February 3rd, 2009 Headsman


“Executions as a consequence of the Sarajevo assassination”. From the Visual Archive of Southeastern Europe.

On this date in 1915, three of the Black Hand conspirators who had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo the previous June were hanged for treason and murder as the World War that assassination ignited engulfed Europe.

You could say it was too little, too late.

Ironically, the gunman who actually got the Archduke, Gavrilo Princip, was too young to receive the death penalty under Austro-Hungarian law — barely short of his 20th birthday,* a more liberal standard for capital responsibility than even present-day human rights standards require.

In fact, that was true of five of the eight student nationalists convicted; the Slavs’ barbarous oppressor accordingly punished them for murdering the heir to its throne and involving it in a ruinous war with prison sentences of no more than 20 years. Three of the underaged five (Princip included) contracted fatal tuberculosis cases in custody during World War I; the other two, Cvijetko Popovic and Vaso Cubrilovic, outlived the Habsburg Empire by decades.

Three remained, old enough to swing for turning Europe into a charnel house: Vaso’s older brother Veljko (a schoolteacher), Danilo Ilic (a newspaper editor) and Misko Jovanovic (a businessman).

But if their names aren’t familiar, and their comedy assassination plot succeeded almost in spite of themselves, these forgotten radicals still rank among the midwives of modernity for the global cataclysm unleashed by their deed, for its calamitous aftershocks of nationalism and ideology, and for the second war that succeeded the horrors of the first.

According to John S. Craig’s Peculiar Liaisons, Gavrilo Princip left his poetry scrawled on the wall of his cell.

Our ghosts will walk through Vienna
And roam through the palace
Frightening the lords

All things considered, he sold himself short.

* There seems to be some uncertainty as to Princip’s actual date of birth, so he might in fact have been 20 years old. The court, at any rate, took him for 19.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Terrorists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1940: Vsevolod Meyerhold

1 comment February 2nd, 2009 Headsman

It is thought to be on this date in 1940 that the Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold was shot on a fabricated espionage charge.

Meyerhold costumed as Ivan the Terrible.

Meyerhold (English Wikipedia page | Russian) was one of Russia’s great theatrical innovators in the early 20th century.

Pioneering non-representational theater — and a training method, “biomechanics”, to facilitate them — his star shone bright in the avant garde firmament of the early Bolshevik Republic.

But Meyerhold’s schtick was most definitely not Uncle Joe’s fave, socialist realism.

And that meant, come the 1930’s, Meyerhold had a problem.

His career (Russian link) died out over that chill decade and the director himself was arrested in 1939 and tortured into confessing to spying.

(Shortly after his arrest, his wife was “mysteriously” killed.*)


Meyerhold in custody.

Meyerhold recanted the confession and sent Foreign Minister Molotov a pitiable appeal detailing his treatment.

I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap … For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal haemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain … When I lay down on the cot and fell asleep, after 18 hours of interrogation, in order to go back in an hour’s time for more, I was woken up by my own groaning and because I was jerking about like a patient in the last stages of typhoid fever

The director was officially rehabilitated in the post-Stalin thaw, but some of his work — like a collaboration with another artistic heretic, Prokofiev, on Boris Godunov — is only now being found and staged.

More about Meyerhold at the Moscow Meyerhold Memorial Museum

* According to The Secret File of Joseph Stalin:

Her body had 17 knife wounds, and her eyes had been cut out, apparently from the superstitious fear that they retained the image of her murderers. The only things taken from the apartment were documents.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1968: Nguyen Van Lem

24 comments February 1st, 2009 Headsman

Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured perhaps the war’s most unforgettable image.

An American cameraman also captured it in on celluloid. Caution: This clip shows … well, a man being shot in the head at point-blank range.

Though the image brought Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he would express discomfort with it later in life, and eulogized General Loan in Time magazine when he died in the U.S. in 1998.

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian family members; that Loan was a good officer and not a cold-blooded killer.

Adams’ editor has said that many such summary executions were taking place during the Battle of Saigon — a broader context to the image no matter its specific fairness to the executioner.

But of course, the shot gained its deeper resonance from the growing disgust with the Vietnam War … and from its concise tableau of a century’s brutality. Here is a frozen image of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Like any great work of art, Adams’ serendipitous photograph took on a life of its own … and a tapestry of meanings richer than its creator could ever have intended.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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