Archive for April, 2020

1731: Elizabeth Needham fatally pilloried

Add comment April 30th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1731 the English madam Elizabeth Needham stood in the pillory at Park Place, St. James’s, London. It wasn’t a death sentence de jure … but it became one de facto.

“Mother Needham” kept one of London’s most renowned brothels, far more exclusive than the dives of Covent Garden, and she made herself famous enough in the 1710s and 1720s to rate a place in the burgeoning print culture: Alexander Pope makes sly reference to her in The Dunciad, and as Hogarth seems to have modeled the titular courtesan of his Harlot’s Progress plates upon her.


Needham was famous for her recruiting talent. Here, Hogarth’s pockmarked Needham figure inveigles a pretty lass — the series’s central character, “Moll Hackabout” — freshly arriving to London from the hinterlands, while actual Needham client (and notorious sex-beast*) Francis Charteris leers from the stoop. In a subsequent panel in this same series, Hackabout as a seasoned whore encounters another Executed Today customer.

In her heyday a variety of japes, capers, and scandals unfolded in her precincts, beyond the obvious that was her stock in trade. For a number of years she carried out business unmolested by any chastisement from the law, but she suffered a couple of arrests in the 1720s and the heat on London’s brothels escalated uncomfortably with the onset of the 1730s. Thus it was that the wily old procuress earned a conviction for keeping a disorderly house on April 29, 1731.

Her punishment included a small fine and the duty to stand twice in the pillory, exposed to public obloquy. We have already noted in these pages that the horrors of such an ordeal extended beyond the reputational to an outright threat to life and limb. While it was not unheard-of for the pillorying to invert into a ritual of celebration and triumph for its sufferer were the crowd in sympathy, “it would seem that the default crowd at the pillory attended in expectation of an aggressive event.” (“Sodomites in the Pillory in Eighteenth-century London” by Peter Bartlett, Social & Legal Studies, December 1997)

This image of a crowd expecting to abuse the convict is consistent with the report in Fogg’s Weekly Journal in November 1728:

One Mitchel stood in the Pillory in Little Britain, for designing to extort Money from a Gentleman, by threatening to swear a detestable Sin against him [i.e., sodomy] — It was reported that he was to stand again in Aldersgate-street, upon which Occasion the Populace assembled, having furnish’d themselves with dead Cats, and other Ammunition used upon such Occasions, but the Person who was to make all the Sport not appearing, they diverted themselves with throwing their dead Cats at one another.

Elizabeth Needham had a wide notoriety that would have been especially charged in a mob’s eyes by her association with a villain like Charteris: we see her in Hogarth’s illustration above (not yet completed as of the time of her death) as the corrupt agent of predatory magnates. Moreover, she was apparently already weakened by illness. And although she was suffered simply to lie face down on the stage rather than standing dangerously exposed in the apparatus — and although she could afford to hire bodyguards to keep the crowd somewhat at bay — she received the aggressive version of the crowd whose abuse proved fatal to her.

Rictor Norton’s invaluable compilations of reporting on eighteenth century crime capture grub street’s coverage of the frightful end of Mother Needham (and one unfortunate spectator):

The famous Mother Needham was set before the pillory facing Park-place. She was so very ill, that she laid along under the pillory, notwithstanding which she was severely pelted, and it is thought she will die in a day or two … A boy getting upon a lamp post near the pillory, fell from the same upon iron spikes, and tore his belly in so violent a manner, that his bowels came out, and he expired in a few hours in great agonies …

Tuesday, May 4. Yesterday morning died Mother Needham … She declared in her last words, that what most affected her was the terror of standing in the pillory to-morrow in New Palace-Yard, having been so ungratefully used by the populace on Wednesday … They acted very ungratefully, considering how much she had done to oblige them.

* Charteris caught his own death sentence in 1730 for raping a servant, although he had the pull to obtain a royal pardon — with the aid of one of those familiar squid-inking campaigns of smearing his victim and casting doubt on the circumstances. “All the world agree he deserved to be hanged long ago, but they differ whether on this occasion,” one noble confided to his diary.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,History,Public Executions,Sex,Torture,Women

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1972: King Ntare V of Burundi

Add comment April 29th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1972, (former) King Ntare V of Burundi was summarily executed at the outset of the 1972 genocide of ethnic Hutus.

He was the son of Mwambutsa IV, whose half-century reign dated all the way back to the German colonial period which gave way (in 1916) to the Belgian colonial period and finally to independence in 1962. He had a job all the while to manage relations between the majority Hutus and the elite Tutsis: it was this conflict that would write the unpleasant end of this family’s dynasty.

In 1965, a Hutu coup attempt forced Mwambutsa to flee into exile — although the coup did not succeed, and our principal Crown Prince Charles Ndizeye succeeded him as Ntare V. Ntare was all of 18 years old, the only surviving son of his generation but a mere shadow of the half-brother who had seemed destined for this inheritance until an assassin‘s bullet struck him down in 1961. He was not equal to the tumultuous political situation.

Before 1966 was out, Ntare too had been chased into exile by a coup executed by officer-turned-prime minister Michel Micombero — Burundi’s military dictator for the subsequent decade. In 1972, Burundi lured the expatriate prince back to his homeland with a pledge of safekeeping — in the words of the note conveyed to Uganda, whose government arranged to helicopter him back to Burundi,

Your excellency can be assured that as soon as Mr. Charles Ndizeye returns to my country he will be considered an ordinary citizen and that as such his life and his security will be assured. I will do all that I can so that he may participate in the building of Burundi’s society as an honest citizen.

But he was quickly placed under house arrest in Gitega, accused of attempting to invade Burundi at the head of an army of mercenaries.

On April 27, 1972, a Hutu rebellion became the trigger for a genocidal crackdown thought to have claimed 100,000 to 300,000 lives and the cream of the Hutus’ intelligentsia — teachers, civil servants, and community leaders who were systematically hunted by death squads working from kill lists. Hundreds of thousands more preserved their lives only by escaping from Burundi.

Sometime the night of April 29, Mr. Charles Ndizeye became one of the earliest casualties in this bloodbath. The circumstances of his killing have never been entirely clear; the official line at the time was that he was shot spontaneously when supporters tried to liberate him from custody; the counterclaim is that he was lined up and gunned down in cold blood.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burundi,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Royalty,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1876: Louis Thomas, gallows builder

1 comment April 28th, 2020 Headsman

This musing on the torments for condemned prisoners of seeing their own rickety gallows put up in their own prison yard comes via Ken Leyton-Brown’s The Practice of Execution in Canada … and culminates with a Winnipeg execution that took place on April 28, 1876.

In principle, hanging may be said to have begun when the procession arrived at the scaffold, at which point the hangman took control of proceedings, and to have ended with the death of the condemned. During what was supposed to be a brief time, the hangman was to perform a number of tasks. First, the condemned had to be positioned over the trap. In the years just after Confederation, this might be delayed while he made a short address to the assembled onlookers, but in later years, the address was rarely permitted. Second, the hangman would secure his ankles and sometimes his knees. Third, what was called a cap, but was actually a bag, was placed over his head, and the oose was put about his neck and tightened. And lastly, the trap would be released, allowing him to drop through the platform.

This seems a fairly simple set of operations, and it might be expected that hanging was generally quite straightforward, but in fact, problems could arise at every stage. The first of these sprang from the fact that hangings occurred at the prson where the condemned person had been held during trial. An inevitable consequence of this was that they took place in a large number of small facilities across the country, frequently in locations that had never conducted them before. This meant that the required apparatus had to be built from scratch, virtually always by people who lacked either plans or experience to guide them. Thus, predictably, it was not always a great success: a hastily erected scaffold might not work properly, and its construction could be unsettling, sometimes even cruel, to prisoners waiting to be hanged.

Even a hurriedly built gallows took some time to assemble because it had to be a substantial structure, able to meet the demands that would be placed upon it. It required a platform large enough to accommodate the various civic officials, one or more spiritual advisors, the hangman, and the condemned; it must include a trap door and a stout overhead beam; and it needed enough clearance underneath to allow for both the body to hang and the subsequent examination to ensure the death had occurred. None of this would be difficult for skilled carpenters, provided they had enough wood and nails, but the task did not necessarily appeal to them. Therefore, a gallows was often built to less than the desired standard, and on occasion this adversely affected its functioning. More serious, though, was that its construction meant for the condemned, and for everyone in the prison. It was a noisy project, and the sound of sawing and hammering, combined with the certain knowledge of what was being built and what would happen when it finished, preyed on people’s minds, especially, one supposes, on that of the condemned. Worse, they could sometimes see its manufacture, either from their cell or was they went for exercise, and could watch it take shape, knowng that they would die upon it. A Winnipeg Free Press discussion of the preparation of a scaffold for Philip Johnston and Frank Sullivan illustrates this well:

Reverberating through the precincts of the provincial jail today are the sounds of the hammer and saw and to the two men these sounds mean the beginning of the end of their existence. Formal announcement is expected today from Ottawa that no reprieve can be granted Frank Sullivan and Philip Johnson, the two men condemned to pay the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Constable Snowden.

Yesterday’s word from Ottawa that John Stoike had been reprieved and the fact that no announcement was made in regard to a new trial for the other two men caused a start to be made on the erection of the scaffold. Unless Minister of Justice Doherty grants a stay of execution today in order to listen to a new witness the men will be executed at 7 o’clock Friday morning.

Ellis, the executioner, is expected to reach the city tomorrow. Last night the floor of the double scaffold had been constructed and the framework will be completed in time for a thorough test to be made by noon tomorrow.

A scaffold had to be a sturdy affair, and it was often left standing for long or short periods as a mute reminder to prisoners of what their future might hold if they were unlucky or did not mend their ways. Usually, though, the scaffold was taken apart after a hanging and the wood either salvaged or stored. A stored scaffold could be reassembled when next it was needed, a detail typically mentioned in newspaper accounts. The hanging of Louis Thomas in 1876 provides an example. In 1874 Joseph Michaud had been hanged at Winnipeg, and it appears that the scaffold had been dismantled and the pieces stored. Two years later, when Angus McIvor was executed, it was taken out of storage and reassembled. The scaffold was then left up, and four months later Thomas became the third person to die on it. The most macabre feature of this was that, while in jail, Thomas was required to help raise McIvor’s scaffold, all the while knowing that his life would probably end on the same apparatus.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder

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1663: Gustav Skytte, pirate

Add comment April 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1663, the Swedish pirate Gustav Skytte caught a fusillade.

A nobleman of illustrious lineage* during the height of Sweden’s great-power glory, Skytte (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) larped as a murderous buccaneer with some cronies from 1657, when he hijacked a Dutch ship.

The Baltic swash he buckled for the next several years from his secret refuge in Blekinge recommended him in time as the focus of a Romantic-era novel by Viktor Rydberg, The Freebooter of the Baltic. (You’ll need your Swedish fluency.)

He was survived by his 18-year-old sister and her husband, who had both been partners in his piratical enterprise but were able to flee to Denmark. They suffered property confiscation but were permitted to return to Sweden in 1668.

* His grandfather was a tutor of the great King Gustavus Adolphus.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Piracy,Pirates,Shot,Sweden

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3rd Century BCE: Grauballe Man

Add comment April 26th, 2020 Headsman

We’ll never have the actual execution date, of course, but April 26 in 1952 was the date that researchers in Jutland hauled out of a peat bog the 3rd century BCE body of Grauballe Man, so spectacularly preserved that his fingerprints could still be taken. His throat slashed, Grauballe Man is thought to have been subjected to either an execution or a ritual sacrifice, and his body dumped into this oxygen-sparse slough so congenial to natural mummification.

The Grauballe Man
By Seamus Heaney

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.


Grauballe Man on display at Denmark’s Moesgaard Museum. (cc) image from Colin.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

These same bogs have yielded other eerily well-preserved time-travelers from antiquity, including Tollund Man (believed to have been hanged in the 4th century BCE) and Elling Woman (believed to have been hanged in the 3rd century BCE). Peat bogs ranging from Ireland and England to Germany and the Low Countries have overall yielded numerous other specimens, ranging up to 10,000 years old — quite a few of them victims of evident violence.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Denmark,Execution,Known But To God,Put to the Sword,Uncertain Dates

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1328: Pierre de Remi, royal treasurer

Add comment April 25th, 2020 Headsman

French royal treasurer Pierre de Remi was hanged on the Montfaucon gibbet on this date in 1328.*

A commoner made good, Pierre de Remi ascended, descended, and finally depended with the chance fortunes of his courtly protectors.

He couldn’t say that he ought not have seen it coming. As the trusted aide of Louis of Navarre, our Pierre took the helm of the royal treasury after that man ascended the throne as Louis X, upon which occasion the new king executed dad’s faithful treasurer on spurious charges to appease his factional rivals.

Death came at this crowd fast, for Pierre de Remi had only a few months in his post before Louis X also shuffled off the mortal coil — and the treasurer was promptly sacked (but at least not killed) by his successor. No problem: Pierre de Remi just cozied up to the new king’s younger brother and waited for a bout of dysentery to turn over the succession card once again.*

When this young man attained the crown as Charles IV at the age of 27 and immediately reinstated Pierre de Remi as Treasurer of France, the latter must have clapped himself on the back for playing the long game expertly. Now to reap the rewards: a lucrative seigneury, sinecures for his kids, lands and luxuries of every description. Under the aegis of his royal patron, he’d set up his family for a good long — wait, it says here that King Charles died suddenly in February 1328.

With the surprise executive turnover, all of Pierre’s easily peculation became the indictment to hang him — to offer him to the ire of a populace whose currency he had painfully devalued. Per the Chronique latine de Guillaume de Nangis, he

had been accused by many people of having in many circumstances made unfaithful use of the king’s property and of several pieces of furniture and buildings; so that many and important people maintained that his prodigious spoliations had raised the value of his goods to more than twelve hundred thousand pounds. As he possessed an immense treasure, he was summoned to account for his management; and having been unable to find any satisfactory answer, he was condemned to be hanged. Being near the gibbet, in Paris, he confessed that he had betrayed the king and the kingdom in Gascogne; that is why, because of this confession, he was tied to the tail of the horse which had brought him to the gallows; and immediately dragged the small gibbet to a large gibbet which he had recently had himself made, and of which he is said to have given the workers the plan with great care, he was the first to be hanged there. It is by just judgment that the laborer collects the fruit of his work. He was hanged on April 25, the feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, in the year 1328.

* While the boys in this family kept dying young, their “she-wolf” of a sister, Isabella, cast a long shadow over England.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Pelf,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,The Worm Turns,Theft

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1935: Three Venizelist officers

Add comment April 24th, 2020 Headsman

Greek Venizelist generals Anastasios Papoulas and Miltiadis Koimisis, and major Stamatis Volanis, were shot on April 24, 1935, for a failed coup attempted weeks earlier.

The Liberal titan of the Greek polity over the preceding quarter-century, Eleftherios Venizelos had forged and politically dominated the post-monarchy Hellenic Republic. The last of his several turns as Prime Minister had ended two years previous amid the wrack of the Great Depression; now, Greece was led by the center-right government of Panagis Tsaldaris who seemed keen on midwifing the return of the deposed ex-king.*

The tense relations between monarchists and republicans were catalyzed by an unsuccessful 1933 assassination attempt on Venizelos …

… and this in turn drove the republican/Venizelist faction to contemplate more desperate measures. General Nikolaos Plastiras, who had the considerable credential of having led the successful 1922 rising against the monarchy, led a failed coup in 1933 and then from exile coordinated with a second putsch attempt on March 1, 1935. Venizelos himself had coordinated with the latter attempt in the preceding months and supported it when it was launched — triggering a furious backlash that included the release from prison of his would-be assassins.

More importantly, the coup failed to command critical mass of loyalty from the armed forces.

Although the casualties of this rising numbered in the single digits, the revenge upon it was wide-ranging.

Two officers committed suicide and three more were court-martialled and executed. Among them were the leading figures of Republican Defence, Generals A. Papoulas and M. Kimissis, who had done nothing during the evening of 1 March 1935 … their death sentence was an act of anti-Venizelist vengeance. Both Papoulas (a royalist before 1922) and Kimissis had in different ways been instrumental in the execution of the six prominent royalists in 1922 [after Greece attempted to seize parts of Asia Minor from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, with disastrous results -ed.]. Cavalry Major S. Volanis, who was left to rebel alone against the authorities of Thessaloniki, was also executed. Between 10 March and 14 May, when martial law was finally lifted, 1130 officers and civilians were tried. Sixty were sentenced to death, of whom fifty-five — including Venizelos and Plastiras — had already fled abroad, and two were pardoned. Fifty-seven were sentenced to life imprisonment and seventy-six were given light terms.

-Paschalis M. Kitromilides, Eleftherios Venizelos: The Trials of Statesmanship

The failure of their attempt and the wide purge that followed opened the path for the return of the monarchy that they had so feared: after a rigged plebiscite, Greece had her king back on November 30 of that same year. Venizelos died in exile a few months later.

* Chased into exile repeatedly throughout his reign — during World War I, by Venizelos’s Republic, and again during World War II — King George II was famous for his quip that “the most important tool for a King of Greece is a suitcase.” He’s the cousin of current British royal consort Prince Philip.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Greece,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1935: Fred Blink, with hatred on his lips

Add comment April 23rd, 2020 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)


Headline from the Auburn (N.Y.) Citizen-Advertiser, April 23, 1935.

“I wish I had Corrick and Wynn on my lap.”

—Fred Blink, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois. Executed April 23, 1935

The men Blink addressed in his final statement were Tim Corrick, the husband of one of his victims, and L. L. Wynn, the prosecutor in the case. Blink claimed that Corrick gave him poisoned whiskey, which caused his murder spree. The World War I veteran was convicted in the shooting deaths of his former business partner and four other people. After the verdict was pronounced, Blink had to be lifted from his chair and forced from the courtroom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1986: David Funchess, Vietnam War veteran

Add comment April 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1986, Vietnam War veteran David Livingston Funchess was electrocuted in Florida for a double stabbing committed in the course of robbing a liquor store.

A late casualty, with his victims, of America’s imperial exertions in Indochina, Funchess had returned from the Vietnam War with leg wounds that earned him the Purple Heart, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eventually an addiction to self-medicating drug addiction.

“But for Vietnam, all indications were that he was well on his way to entering Florida’s middle class,” in the words of the late anti-death penalty attorney Michael Mello.*

In addition to the horrors of jungle combat, Funchess was exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which has since been linked to a wide range of serious health problems in Vietnam veterans. Among the common symptoms among many Vietnam veterans has been neuropsychological damage.

After his return from Vietnam, Funchess was a deeply disturbed and confused young man. Compounding these problems, the medication he was receiving for his painful leg wounds eventually led him onto a debilitating heroin habit.

Understanding of PTSD — within the clinical, juridical, and public realms — advanced significantly during the course of 11-plus years from Funchess’s crime in December 1974 until his execution. In one of those perverse technicalities of the U.S. death penalty system, this issue was so little understood that it was not litigated at all at the time of his initial conviction … and by the time his appeals had run his course, it could only be litigated in the court of public opinion because its irrelevance to the 1970s trial court had procedurally disbarred it.

By the end, the toll of PTSD upon Funchess was being taken up by Vietnam veteran advocacy organizations, but it cut no ice with Governor Bob Graham, whose unilateral power of executive clemency was the man’s best hope of avoiding the electric chair.

* Mello wrote the anti-death penalty book Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,USA

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1976: Bayere Moussa, Niger putschist

Add comment April 21st, 2020 Headsman

Countrymen, Brothers and Sisters of Niger,

In the name of the Nigerien officers and soldiers aware of the incessant evil perpetuated by a regime of men who are unstable, cowardly, who are enslaved by a dictator inspired by Satan, I, who speak to you, Major Bayere Moussa, announce to you that from this moment, liberty is recovered at the end of this incompetent and tyrannical regime. I would like to assure you that this noble action comes from the “base,” that is to say inspired and wanted by conscientious soldiers and countrymen.

-Note announcing the attempted March 1976 coup against Niger military dictator Seyni Kountche (Sourcebeen one of Kountche’s cabinet ministers until weeks prior, was executed on April 21, 1976; Kountche ruled Niger until his death in 1987.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Niger,Power,Soldiers,Treason

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