Archive for January, 2013

1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890′s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-”hindrance,” that man-”obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

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1913: John Williams, the Case of the Hooded Man

1 comment January 30th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, John Williams was hanged at Lewes Gaol for murdering a police officer.


Not this John Williams.

Williams was supposed to be the mysterious prowler spotted lurking outside a Hungarian countess’ Eastbourne home on October 9, 1912. The prowler was treed on the portico of the house by a responding police officer, but shot that cop dead and made good his escape.

The ensuing “Case of the Hooded Man” — the branding is not quite Sherlock Holmes, but it suits this blog — concerned the legal contest over whether John Williams was that prowler/shooter.

Circumstantial though it was, quite a lot of evidence supported that conclusion.

The day after the murder, Williams was informed upon by a young friend, Edgar Power, who knew him by his real name of George McKay. Williams/MacKay had passed Power a note on the night the policeman died reading, “If you would save my life come here at once to 4 Tideswell Road. Ask for Seymour [the name of Williams's girlfriend]. Bring some cash with you. Very Urgent.”

Power set up a meeting with Williams where the police could nab him. (Power would later testify at trial that his friend had bragged specifically about his “good shot” that hit the policeman.)

Not yet done, our busybody stool pigeon then called on Williams’s girlfriend and persuaded her to move the murder weapon she had hidden with her beau … enabling police to grab that piece of evidence, too.

That gun made its mark in the emerging science of forensic ballistics. Seminal ballistics expert Robert Churchill was able to conclusively link this firearm to the portico murder by means of an early application of a now-familiar technique.

Churchill fitted a new hammer and springs and then test-fired [the gun]. Those test bullets had the same rifling pattern as the bullet used to kill Inspector Walls, and Churchill had no doubt about his conclusions that it was a gun of that very same make which had fired the fatal bullet.

In order to demonstrate the technicalities of Churchill’s evidence, Sergeant William McBride, one of the very first police photographers at Scotland Yard, used close-range photography to illustrate the pattern of the grooves on the bullets. He also collaborated with Churchill in placing dentist’s wax inside the gun barrel, then withdrawing it when it had cooled and set hard. This enabled him to photograph the pattern in the wax, caused by the grooves of the inside of the gun barrel, showing the same profile that would match a lead bullet fired through that gun barrel.

A nationwide petition for Williams’s pardon would circulate after his conviction upon the production of some dubious evidence throwing suspicion upon another (phantasmal, so far as anyone could determine) party. The Home Secretary replied to those appeals in the House of Commons a week before the execution:

The house will understand that there is no part of the Home Secretary’s duty which throws greater responsibility upon him or is indeed more painful, then that which has to be exercised in connection with the prerogative of mercy. Of course, any man would be only too glad to find a scintilla of evidence or reason, or I might say to invent a reason, which would enable him to save a human life. But my duty, as I understand it, is to act in accordance with the law and the traditions of my office … the whole story [of a man's alleged twin brother committing the crime] is an invention because [the man], having known John Williams in the past, he did not like to think of his being hanged.

Thought-of or no, hanged John Williams was.

Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.

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1913: Edward Hopwood, clumsy suicide

1 comment January 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1913, Edward Hopwood was hanged for the murder of his girlfriend, Florence Silles.

Silles was an actress and music hall songstress who had broken off her relationship with the 45-year-old manager when she found out that, contrary to his representations, Hopwood was (a) still married; and (b) not wealthy.

Hopwood contrived to track his ex down in a hotel bar, and after an evening’s drinking and talking, the two got into a cab together. There, Hopwood shot her point-blank through the head.

It sounds — and was — pretty open-and-shut, but Hopwood’s bootless defense took the case through a brief detour of an odd cul-de-sac of English jurisprudence. Hopwood claimed that he’d been trying to commit suicide, and that Silles caught her bullet accidentally as she attempted to stop him killing himself.

While it’s clear that nobody else in the court believed this, it’s also the case that suicide is a felony by law. And up until 1957, it was legal doctrine that anyone who, in the course of commission of this felony, managed to kill another person, could be held liable for homicide. (Source)

Accordingly, as the London Times reported on Dec. 10, 1912, that with respect to the attempted-suicide claim, “even if the prisoner’s story were true, the prosecution submitted that in law his crime would be at least manslaughter, and in all probability murder.” Hopwood attempted to appeal his conviction on the basis of botched suicide, and an appellate ruling wrote this very doctrine into precedent.

Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.

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Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties

2 comments January 29th, 2013 Headsman

Hangings on consecutive dates in 1913 — neither a show-stopper on its own, but each with a curious legal twist — mark our next two dates.

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1656: Joris Fonteyn, anatomized and painted

2 comments January 28th, 2013 Headsman

“On January 28th 1656, there was punished Joris Fonteyn [or Fonteijn] of Diest, who by the worshipful lords of the law court was granted to us an anatomical specimen. On the 29th Dr. Joan Deyman made his first demonstration on him in the Anatomy Theatre, three lessons altogether”.”

-Records of the Amsterdam Anatomy Theatre (cited in this pdf)

Dr. Joan Deyman had succeeded Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in the redoubtable position of the guild’s Praelector Anatomiae — the physician entrusted with the guild’s once-per-year public anatomical reading over the dissection of an executed criminal. In his day, Tulp and his dissection had been painted by Rembrandt.

With the new praelector in the wealthy city came its guild’s need for fresh art to keep up with the Joneszes.

New subject, new work … but the same artist. A mere sapling when he rendered Dr. Tulp, Rembrandt was a fully mature painter of 50 when he put this scene to canvas.

Sadly, this painting was damaged in a 1731 fire, destroying most of its figures, including the titular one.


Braaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiinnnnnssssssssss! Dr. Deyman’s hands are all that remain of him. The cadaverous Joris Fonteyn, however, belongs to the ages.

Since it was part of the anatomization law for the unfortunate subjects to be given a decent burial, Fonteyn’s exit from the annals of history is another entry (pdf) in the surgeon’s guilds records:

Wednesday, February 2, at 9 o’clock in the evening the body was interred with fitting dignity in the South Churchyard.

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1565: Benedetto Accolti, would-be papal assassin

Add comment January 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1565, four men who schemed to assassinate Pope Pius IV were put to public death at the Capitol.

Detail (click for the full painting) of Parnassus by Raphael, the Vatican’s “Raphael Rooms”. According to Jonathan Unglaub,* this figure is the then-acclaimed, today-obscure poet Bernardo Accolti, our failed assassin’s great-uncle.

Pius was a pope of the counter-reformation; it was he who brought the Council of Trent to its conclusion.

And though generally noted for his moderation (and his enthusiasm for building), he was not above striking heads from shoulders. Upon his ascension a few years prior he had dealt harshly with the nephews of his predecessor.

Accolti hailed from a prominent Florentine noble family; his father and namesake was a scheming cardinal.

Young Benedetto, clearly, could scheme a little himself, since he roped several buddies (Italian link) into a plot to murder the pontiff. In December 1564, they presented themselves at a papal audience, but apparently got cold feet. One of their number, a Cavalier Pelliccione, ratted the lot of them out before they could muster their nerve a second time: the good cavalier might have been motivated by having possession of treasonably pre-written letters to be sent to various dignitaries upon the pope’s violent deposition.

Pelliccione accordingly skated with a pardon, but two co-conspirators were sent to the galleys for life.

Benedetto Accolti, Antonio Canossa, and Taddeo Manfredi were dragged to the Capitol on January 27 and put to the gruesome public butchery — “like cows” — of the mazzolatura.

There are several resources that claim the plot was among Catholic ultras who found Pius a little on the heretical side. This Italian encyclopedia entry attributes to the astrologically-inclined Accolti a more nutty-prophetic ambition of a “papa angelico” who would unify Christendom.

Maybe he should have just exercised a little patience. Pius IV died in December 1565.

* Jonathan Unglaub, “Bernardo Accolti, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ and a New Portrait by Andrea del Sarto,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 149, No. 1246, Art in Italy (Jan., 2007).

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1909: Remy Danvers

Add comment January 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1909, French double-murderer Remy Danvers was guillotined in Carpentras.


From Le Matin, January 27, 1909.

Danvers, already a career criminal, signed on as a farmhand at age 22 in 1907 — a period when capital punishment in France was in abeyance owing to the presidency of a death penalty opponent who systematically blocked executions.

On February 1, 1908, he shot that farmer dead to steal some money he learned was available in the house … and for good measure shot his wife too, as she begged him on her knees for her life. He got caught trying to dump the burlap-sacked corpses in the Rhone. (Here’s a French-language summary, from the original Le Figaro report.)

Because of the de facto death penalty moratorium, Danvers didn’t sweat his death sentence too much. However, the outrages of the Pollet gang finally restored the guillotine to the French criminal justice scene earlier in January of 1909. Danvers turned out to be the very next victim in its path.

Shortly before the sentence was carried out, the public prosecutor appeared in Danvers’ cell to advise the doomed man of his appeal’s rejection, and the consequent imminent removal of his head. Fortified by rum, a visibly upset Danvers managed to get through it, but execution-starved French crowds crowded a scene that authorities attempted to restrict, and snapped this photo:

The unruly public, the New York Times opined, “undoubtedly will hasten Parliamentary action toward making future executions private.”

That date was still some years away, but a France increasingly discomfited by its history of public executions did institute laws forbidding attendees from filming or photographing executions. (Those laws didn’t work, but there they were just the same.)

There’s more about Remy Danvers in this guillotine.cultureforum.net thread (French).

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2010: Chemical Ali

Add comment January 25th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2010, American-occupied Iraq hanged Ali Hassan al-Majid — Saddam Hussein‘s cousin and longtime aide, better known as Chemical Ali.

Ali Hassan al-Majid as the King of Spades in the U.S. invasion force’s playing-card deck of wanted Iraqis.

Al-Majid acquired his chilling nickname for the notorious March 1988 attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja.

That day, after an appetizer of conventional bombing, Iraqi jets dropped a cocktail of multiple chemical weapons — mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and VX, give or take — killing up to 5,000 people.

“It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame,” wrote the ethnically Iranian BBC correspondent Kaveh Golestan,* who arrived on the scene after the bombardment.

“It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (…) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.”

It was the most emblematically ghastly event in a running ethnic cleansing campaign of the late 1980s, also headed by al-Majid.

The Halabja attack was the last of four separate death sentences Chemical Ali racked up after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it was handed down just a week before he stood on the gallows. The larger Kurdish genocide campaign as a whole was a separate death sentence from Halabja; there were also two others for his brutal suppressions of Shia uprisings in the 1990s.

He met all his tribunals defiantly, refusing to enter a plea and then openly embracing the atrocities imputed him. “I am the one who gave orders to the army to demolish villages and relocate villagers,” he once spat in court. “I am not defending myself, I am not apologizing. I did not make a mistake.”

* Himself a casualty of the Iraq War: Golestan was killed when he stepped on a landmine in 2003.

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1846: Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, in her rocking chair

Add comment January 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”

She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.

The key original documents from her trial, including the death sentence and the rejection of clemency (a petition to which 10 of Valkenburgh’s 12 jurors subscribed) are preserved here.

Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.

With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.

I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.

Right.

Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.

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1985: Vladimir Vetrov, Farewell

Add comment January 23rd, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1985 spelled farewell for the KGB agent Vladimir Vetrov … code-named Farewell by the western handlers to whom he passed Soviet secrets.

Vladimir Vetrov was a career officer in Soviet intelligence who grew disgruntled* and in 1980 went to work for the West.

And he was no ordinary spy. Think Aldrich Ames, to the power of ten.

Vladimir Vetrov oversaw the entire KGB directorate charged with a critical program: Line X, which surveilled western R&D and passed its fruits back to Mother Russia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Line X stole jaw-dropping volumes of military, computer, and industrial advances.

And by 1980, all that information passed through Vetrov’s hands for distribution within the USSR. His betrayal blew the entire thing to smithereens.

When he turned, Vetrov gave 3,000 pages of top-secret documents to his French handlers, information which also made its way to the CIA. “The Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States,” recalls the gobsmacked American defense advisor who reviewed the file. “Our science was supporting their national defense.”

Book CoverSergei Kostin calls his book about the man Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century, and Vetrov has surely got a claim on that title. (It’s either Vetrov or Sorge when it comes to the annals of Soviet espionage.)

The Farewell dossier exposed the entirety of the Soviet technology-stealing infrastructure, with a couple of enormous consequences.

One, it influenced Cold War strategy in the West, supporting the Reagan administration’s view that the Soviet economy (absent its stolen technological advances) could be pushed into collapse.

And two, it facilitated Langley’s most spectacular counterespionage coup, brainchild of Gus Weiss. Rather than smashing up the Line X network, the CIA turned the enormous (and in Moscow, trusted) apparatus against its creators.

By feeding Soviet agents promising but subtly flawed technology, the Americans infiltrated sabotage points into the USSR — a Trojan Horse for the information age. In 1982, software running the Soviet Trans-Siberian Pipeline allegedly escalated gas pressure fatally on the Urengoy-Surgut-Chelyabinsk pipeline, triggering an explosion so large (three kilotons) that some foreign monitoring stations initially suspected a nuclear detonation. Weiss just told them not to worry.

Meanwhile, goes the story (and one must discount appropriately here for triumphalist spin), other crapware started failing elsewhere in the Soviet Union. “Pseudo-software disrupted factory output. Flawed but convincing ideas on stealth, attack aircraft and space defense made their way into Soviet ministries.” Suddenly, the Russians couldn’t know which Line X acquisitions were dependable and which were time bombs.


From Farewell, a 2009 film.

Vetrov’s candle burned bright, but brief: he stabbed his mistress (non-fatally) during a drunken argument in 1982, then stabbed to death the man who knocked on his window to intervene. Vetrov got a trip to Siberia, but while serving his time, he casually revealed that he’d authored maybe the most spectacular inside betrayal of Russian intelligence in the 20th century. He was duly recalled for a new trial and, eventually, a bullet in the head in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Even in the post-communist state, he’s still considered a villain in his homeland.

More about Vladimir Vetrov and the Farewell dossier in this BBC Witness podcast.

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* Vetrov didn’t betray the Kremlin for money. Sergei Kostin believes it was professional frustration — the revenge of the underappreciated nebbish whose merits couldn’t break through the nepotism ceiling at the clubby KGB. However — though the explanations are not necessarily inconsistent — Vetrov also wrote a pre-execution “Confession of a Traitor” savaging the Soviet system: “My only regret is that I was not able to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to France.”

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