10 executions that defined the 1970s

The transitional years from the era of liberation and revolution to the rising tide of reaction and neoliberalism, the Seventies are an embarrassment of execution riches. Too much was at stake for too many not to generate a trove of memorable deaths: the Vietnam War ended and the (Soviet) Afghan War began; Nixon went to China; the Cold War swung from detente to sharpened confrontation.

In the West, the death penalty was ending. France and Spain saw their last executions in the Seventies; Great Britain, Canada, and Australia had already left off the long Commonwealth tradition of hanging the decade before. Even the U.S. spent most of the 1970s in a de facto death penalty moratorium and carried out only two executions. (Although the present-day death penalty system in the U.S. dates to these years, as does the drug war and its terrifying expansion of the prison state.)

Death penalty or no, remarkable criminals surely plied their trade — indeed, it was a golden age (since passed) for serial killers: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, the Hillside Strangler, the BTK killer, the Yorkshire Ripper … all got started and left most or all of their bodies in the swinging Seventies.

Terrible crimes, to be sure, some of them authored by eventual clientele of the executioner.

But in years the history books have etched with blood, our eye is drawn most of all to the lives ground up in epoch-shaping transformations.

10. Deniz Gezmis

A handsome student radical hanged by Turkey’s military government in 1972, Gezmis has become a Che Guevara-like revolutionary icon.

9. Gary Gilmore

The first U.S. execution in nearly a decade and the first under the re-rigged capital punishment statutes that have governed the American death penalty ever since, Gilmore made headlines — and a cultural footprint — by volunteering enthusiastically for his speedy execution by firing squad.

8. The Balibo Five

Three days after recording this broadcast, reporter Greg Shackleton was dead.

With a leftist government taking shape in recently-decolonized East Timor, neighboring Indonesia bloodily invaded with the west’s blessing in December 1975. Australia has been a good enough neighbor never to kick up much of a diplomatic stink about several of its nationals believed to have been summarily executed by Indonesian forces while reporting from menaced Timor-Leste.

7. Western mercenaries in Angola

In a post-colonial warning from the (putatively) revolutionary “Third World”, four British and American mercenaries were shot as illegal combatants after a show trial for taking soldier-of-fortune gigs in Angola.

6. Salvador Puig Antich

The young Spanish anarchist and worldwide cause celebre was — along with the much less-remembered Heinz Ches — the last person garroted in Franco’s, or anyone else’s, Spain. (Not the last executed in Spain, however.)

5. Ghana’s former military rulers

The 1979 Jerry Rawlings coup in Ghana saw the execution of the country’s former dictators Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, Fred Akuffo, and Akwasi Afrifa, along with various other aides and officers of the former regime(s). Putschists shooting their predecessors isn’t news, of course, but the fact that this coup and these shootings set Ghana up for transition to prosperity and a stable democracy? That’s news.

“There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way,” explained Jerry Rawlings in his latter-day elder-statesman guise. “There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.”

4. Victor Jara

The great Chilean folk singer was extrajudicially executed days after Cold War vampire Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende. Jara remains a poignant emblem of those tortured, killed, and “disappeared” in the dark times that followed.

3. Long Boret

The ghastly Cambodian genocide was too many executions to comprehend, too many even to number — fallen elites, everyday people, even the guards and executioners themselves.

The arrest and immediate execution of the country’s former Prime Minister Long Boret at the outset of the Khmer Rouge conquest set the tone for the years of the Killing Fields.

2. Revolutionary Iran’s firing squads

Another emblem: the fall of the hated Shah of Iran brought many executions in its train, but none so vivid as those captured in this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (anonymously attributed until recently) of 11 men mid-topple as they are fusilladed by a squatting firing detail almost within reach of their flailing arms.

1. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Pakistan’s polarizing prime minister who was toppled by a military coup and controversially hanged. The dictator who ordered Bhutto’s death would be succeeded as head of state by Bhutto’s own daughter, Benazir Bhutto.

Honorable Mentions

There were so many shocking, memorable, and history-making executions in the 1970s that a respectable top-10 list for the average decade could be culled from Seventies’ honorable mentions alone. At least punk will never die.

On this day..

1862: Samuel Calhoun, antebellum serial killer

On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.

(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)

“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”

If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable

Read on for the full story in a post at Civil War Medicine guest-authored by one of our favorite crime-history bloggers, Robert Wilhelm of Murder by Gaslight.

On this day..