Archive for December 18th, 2015

1946: One sex killer and four POW camp murderers

Add comment December 18th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1946 saw the largest mass execution in Alberta: five men all hanged for murder.

One of these, Donald Sherman Staley, was a hated sex-murderer who had raped and killed boys in Calgary and Alberta that summer. But he is the undercard in this event.*

The remaining four were all German prisoners of war from the lately concluded world war. They did not, as their onetime commanders in Europe, face judgment for war crimes: no, Bruno Perzonowsky, Walter Wolf, Heinrich Busch and Willi Mueller had while marking time in the Medicine Hat POW camp contrived to execute a fellow-prisoner as a subversive.

Naturally this camp “execution” was rank murder from a legal perspective. But the day-to-day reality of the Medicine Hat camp was that the few Canadian officials banked on the 12,000 or so German detainees to run the place themselves.**

Medicine Hat’s German leadership consisted of Nazi ideologues, but the politics and life experiences of its inmates, regular grunts snatched from various battlefields, deviated widely from the Reich’s ideal. In 1943, convinced that the less fascist elements in camp were cogitating a plot to displace the Nazi silverbacks in camp, that clique convened a drumhead trial and hanged August Plaszek, a Catholic and former French Foreign Legionnaire.

After the war ended, this murder too resulted in a hanging — but as of the second killing that is the focus of this post, the Canadian investigation was being stonewalled and the true believer types still bossed Medicine Hat with near-impunity.

The second murder was triggered by a threat not to Nazi authority in Medicine Hat — but in Berlin.

After the shock of the Valkyrie plot that came within a whisker of assassinating Hitler, the Fuhrer publicly demanded a purge of traitors, anywhere and everywhere.

The POW Karl Lehmann was just such a one, to Hitlerian eyes. Another Catholic — a dubious class for sure — Lehmann was a husky former languages professor who had been dragooned into the military and subsequently captured in Tunisia.† He had been in Medicine Hat for two years when Col. Stauffenberg’s bomb went off in Wolfsschanze, growing ever bolder vilifying the Third Reich and anticipating its approaching defeat.

In September 1944, our quartet of future gallows-fodder lured Lehmann to a room where he sometimes gave lectures, and there began browbeating him about communists in camp. As Lehmann vainly denied any such connection, his assailants got a noose around him and hoisted him to his death.

Having now had two political assassinations on their watch, Canada finally got serious and threatened the entire population of prisoners with the prospect of being punished as murderers were they merely to fail to report a murder plot to which they had become privy. They also started reshuffling the prisoner population in an effort to break up the Nazi prison gang. Both measures worked — aided, of course, by the advance of Allied armies in the European theater — and nobody had the ill fortune to follow Karl Lehmann’s fate.

Lethbridge Gaol had to be outfitted with a whole new condemned bloc just to hold the prisoners bound for their end this date. (Its existing capacity was only two.)

* Staley’s desperate argument for clemency was that he was a “sexual insane” who could not govern his compulsions: “I must have been born this way and should not be held responsible for what I done, but should receive treatment of some kind instead of being condemned to die for something I can’t help.” “Merciful” proposals ran towards employing him as a guinea pig for mental health hospitals’ experiments with, e.g., lobotomy.

** Canada’s deference to German detainees also made it party to a scandalous execution of Wehrmacht deserters conducted by a surrendered German army in Canadian custody in 1945. (Canada helpfully supplied their prisoners the necessary guns.)

† Under Field Marshal Rommel‘s command, no less: though he was perhaps Hitler’s ablest general, the Desert Fox all but openly disdained national socialism. He was himself implicated in the July 20 plot, and made to commit suicide.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Soldiers

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