Search Results for ‘1953’

1953: Istvan Sandor, underground Catholic

1 comment June 8th, 2015

On this date in 1953, Istvan Sandor was hanged in Communist Hungary

Sandor was a printer noted as a mentor to younger Catholics — including the orphanage that shared his print-shop’s building.

When his Salesian order was suppressed in 1950, Sandor had to continue this work underground, practically but inviting martyrdom. At one point his superiors in the order urged him to flee Hungary; Sandor stubbornly stuck around under an alias.

This shadow existence was bound to be a fleeting one. The Hungarian secret police kept close tabs on him, and when it found that he was in contact with a guard close to the party leadership, it made a national security case out of the affair — arresting nine of its own spooks, five priests, and several civilians.

In a secret military trial, Sandor and three others were condemned to death by hanging for plotting against the state. One of those sentences was modified to life imprisonment, but the other three hanged on June 8th. Their families only got definitive word of their fate in 1955.

Sandor was officially rehabilitated by the post-Communist government in 1994. In 2013, Pope Francis beatified him.

“We celebrate in him the hero who was true to his calling as a Salesian brother, even at the cost of his life,” Cardinal Peter Erdo said at a mass on that occasion. “We respect in him the exceptional labourer who taught youth the love of work. We stand deeply moved before the victim of a show trial who was tortured, sentenced to death and executed based on false testimony.”

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Religious Figures

1953: Louisa May Merrifield, elder abuser

Add comment September 18th, 2013

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1953, housekeeper Louisa May Merrifield, the so-called Blackpool Poisoner, was hanged at Machester’s Strangeways Prison for killing her employer.

She was the third-last woman hanged in Britain and the very last woman to be executed at that particular prison, which now houses only men; the job was performed by Albert Pierrepoint.

Born in 1906, Louisa had already served prison time for ration book fraud by the time of the murder, and she lost custody of her four children due to her excessive drinking and neglect.

She couldn’t seem to hold on to a man (she was married three times) or a job (she had 20 in three years).

She took her final position on March 12, 1953, after she and her husband of one month, 71-year-old Alfred Edward Merrifield, became housekeepers and live-in companions to Sarah Ann Ricketts, a spinster who was nearly eighty years old. Sarah Ricketts owned a bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, North Shore, Blackpool.

The Merrifields indulged in elder abuse and neglect, and Sarah Ann complained she didn’t get enough to eat and that her housekeepers swilled rum on her dime. Meanwhile, Louisa was going around boasting that she’d inherited a £3,000 house.

When someone asked her who had died, she answered, “She’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.”

Louisa’s prophecy was eerily accurate: Sarah Ann Ricketts expired on the night of April 14, 1953, only a month after she’d hired the Merrifields and three days after Louisa’s prediction … but not before drafting a new will which left her bungalow to the Merrifields.

Louisa didn’t call a doctor until the next morning. She said that, as the old woman was clearly beyond help, she didn’t want to drag anyone out of bed in the middle of the night.

The suspicious GP refused to sign a death certificate and insisted on an autopsy, which revealed the cause of death as phosphorus poisoning, administered in the form of a rat poison called Rodine.

Although a police search of the bungalow didn’t turn up any Rodine, a check at the local pharmacy showed Louisa had recently purchased the stuff and signed the poison register.

The Merrifields found themselves charged with murder. Louisa was arrested first, two weeks after Sarah Ricketts died, and Alfred a few days later.

At their trial in July 1953, Louisa was convicted and sentenced to hang. The judge called her crime “as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.”

The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on Alfred, however, and the district attorney decided not to prosecute again. He was released and in due time inherited a half-share in Mrs. Ricketts’s bungalow. He died in 1962 at the age of 80.

Louisa Merrifield’s ghost is said to haunt the cell she once inhabited at Strangeways Prison.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,The Supernatural,Women

1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers

7 comments June 18th, 2012

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

In June 1953, some discontented young citizens of Magdeburg, East Germany revolted and began demonstrating against the repressive Communist regime. On June 17, in the spirit of totalitarian governments everywhere, the authorities ordered a platoon of soldiers to open fire on a crowd of protesters.

Incredibly, the soldiers refused.

Every one of them vanished shortly thereafter, never to be seen again.

It was long assumed that the entire platoon had been executed for insubordination. This wasn’t confirmed until 1998, however. Four years previously, Magdeburg construction workers digging the foundation for a new building accidentally unearthed a mass grave containing 32 bullet-riddled skeletons. From the condition of the remains, authorities determined the victims — all of them young men — had died sometime between 1945 and 1960.

They could have been the missing Soviet platoon, but they could also have been prisoners executed by the Gestapo mopping up in May 1945, just before the Germans fled the city in advance of the Red Army.

As Jessica Snyder Sachs noted in her 2001 book Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, the victims all had extensive tooth decay and no sign of dental work, which was consistent with Russia but not central Europe. This was hardly conclusive, however.

To solve the mystery, investigators turned to Reinhard Szibor, a biologist at the nearby Otto von Guericke University.

Szibor had helped in criminal cases before and was famous for using pollen to link suspects to crime scenes. Pollen clings to people’s hair, skin and clothes and is, of course, also inhaled. The stuff is nearly indestructible and will remain long after human remains have disintegrated. Authorities hoped Szibor could use pollen samples from the mass grave to determine what time of year the victims died.

Discover Magazine explains how he did it: Szibor rinsed out the skulls’ nasal cavities, had a look, and found pollen from lime trees, plantains and rye, all of which release their pollen during June and July. In other words, the Magdeburg victims had died during the summer months, the time when the Soviet platoon was reportedly executed, and not in the springtime when the Nazis retreated from the city.

Though we still don’t know the precise date of their deaths, and likely never will, the soldiers who paid for their humanity with their lives had finally been identified.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,USSR

1953: Miss Earle Dennison, the first white woman electrocuted in Alabama

2 comments September 4th, 2011

On this date in 1953, Earle Dennison became the first white woman electrocuted in Alabama history.*

The 55-year-old widow had a sort of Arsenic and Old Lace and Orange Drink thing going on: that sugary refreshment administered by kindly old Auntie Earle on a visit to her niece Shirley Weldon was the delivery vehicle for that venerable poison.

Puking her guts out, little Shirley was raced to the hospital where Earle Dennison had her day job as a nurse. But while the child lay dying, the aunt slipped away so that she could make a payment on a $5,500 life insurance policy she had taken out on the kid — a policy that would have expired the very next day.

This whole affair could hardly fail to cast an incriminating light on the death two years prior of Shirley’s older sister … whose body, upon exhumation, also showed traces of arsenic.

Dennison was indicted but never tried for that previous possible murder; Shirley Weldon’s case would more than suffice to secure the landmark visit to Yellow Mama. The main question was really whether Dennison had been, juridically speaking, plum off her rocker.

Not far enough off it to help her.

Shirley’s parents subsequently won a $75,000 judgment against the insurance company for issuing the policy to an in-law with no insurable interest in the young victim, thereby “plac[ing] the insured child in a zone of danger, with unreasonable harm to her and … the defendants in issuing the alleged illegal contracts.”

But that was a different era. As of today, vast tranches of collateralized policies among suspicious parties with no insurable interest, issued by bankers as rich as Croesus and implicitly guaranteed too big to fail, might well constitute a forward-thinking investment opportunity for troubled economic times.

* There had been only one woman of any racial category electrocuted in Alabama full stop, according to the Espy file of historical U.S. executions: African-American Silena Gilmore in 1930. Prior to that, Alabama had not executed a woman at all since the Civil War.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,USA,Women

1953: John Christie, a little late in the day

3 comments July 15th, 2010

On this date in 1953, English serial killer John Christie was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for the murders of six women.

The sex-killer is most infamous, though, for a different death: that of Timothy Evans, a neighbor and fellow client of Pierrepoint whom Christie had stitched up three years before for strangling Evans’s wife and child.

Back then, the respectable Christie was the star witness against Evans. Evans tried in vain to blame Christie (“this perfectly innocent man,” Evans’s prosecutors scoffed) for the murders.

Nobody knew then that Christie had strangled an Austrian prostitute during sex back in 1943, nor that he had done a gassing-strangulation-rape job the following year.

Both their bodies were both buried in the garden at 10 Rillington Place: the first inhabitants of what would be the British Isles’ most notorious corpse hotel.

Strangulation sex killings would become the definitive Christie m.o. after Evans hanged. He got himself a no-fault divorce by throttling his wife in bed late in 1952, then raped and strangled at least three other women whom he had invited back to his pad. The remains of each were secreted in the apartment’s nooks and crannies.

This is Richard Attenborough as Christie doing his thing to Evans’s wife (he’d later confess to that crime) in the 1971 flick 10 Rillington Place.

Christie seemingly could’ve gotten away with it all, if it weren’t for his penny-wise and pound-foolish decision to move out of the charnel house early in 1953 and let someone else stumble upon the remains. (Christie had quit his job the previous December, and hocked his strangled wife’s stuff to make ends meet for a while. He was homeless when the subsequent manhunt tracked him down.) There was even a human femur being used to prop a fence.

Having quite a lot of damning evidence, and Christie’s confession besides, his lawyer went for a hail-Mary insanity defense, but Christie didn’t even bother with an appeal when that didn’t take.

But there was the small matter of that other gentleman hanged back in the day for a strangulation murder, all the while unsuccessfully accusing his then-respectable neighbor Christie.

An inquiry launched by the government very conveniently concluded that (Christie’s confession notwithstanding) Evans was indeed guilty of killing his wife. Two stranglers in the same place at the same time, and the one had just happened to try to blame the other one when he was accused.

For obvious reasons, this whitewash was greeted skeptically and — though the two-killers theory does still have its defenders — officially reversed when Evans was posthumously exonerated in 1966.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Sex

1953: Marguerite Pitre, the last woman hanged in Canada

3 comments January 9th, 2010

Thirty-five minutes past midnight this date in 1953, the 13th and last woman executed in Canada, Marguerite Pitre, was hanged in Montreal’s Bourdeaux gaol.

Pitre was condemned an accomplice to Albert Guay in the latter’s 1949 airline bombing, which killed 23 people just to get rid of Mrs. Guay.

The “dark and buxom go-between in Guay’s affair”* with a teenage waitress had rented Guay a room to install the nymphet when the girl’s father got wise to the frolicking and kicked her out of the house.

Pitre actually testified against Albert Guay in his trial, describing how she bought dynamite at his instruction and delivered a “mystery parcel” to the air freight on the doomed plane.

In fact, she helped blow open the case at the outset by attempting suicide 10 days after the crime and blabbing in the hospital how Albert had made her do it. Pitre insisted, though, that her own involvement was unintentional, and that she thought the box held a statue even though it was her own brother who had fashioned the explosives into a time bomb.

But after Guay’s conviction, both Pitre and her brother were arrested and separately tried for the plot themselves — both of them to follow Guay to the gallows for the audacious crime.

* Chicago Tribune, Jan. 9, 1953.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

1953: Lavrenty Beria, Stalin henchman

6 comments December 23rd, 2009

On this date in 1953, Stalin’s feared minister Lavrenty Beria was shot — finally on the receiving end of the cruelty he had administered to countless Soviet citizens.

Lavrenty Pavlovich was, like Stalin, a Georgian peasant, albeit one generation younger.

He won his way into Stalin’s confidence from the 1920’s, and in 1938 replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the KGB predecessor NKVD. Yezhov did much of the bloody work of the Great Purge, and was himself in turn purged. The cunning Beria must have taken note.

Though his initial project was to clean up the excesses of the Yezhovshchina — releasing thousands of innocent convicts, making the gulag camps less homicidal and more effective and keeping prisoners alive long enough to get some work out of them, that sort of thing — it wasn’t long before Beria cast a terrifying shadow of his own. (Beria was Yezhov’s deputy, so it’s not like he walked into the job without the requisite qualifications for mass murder.) He wrote the memo proposing the execution of Polish officers that led to the Katyn massacre.

To the more everyday repressive operations of the Soviet secret police, Beria added his notorious (perhaps propagandistically exaggerated?) personal peccadilloes: nothing to trouble the boss, just a little penchant for seducing, or raping, and at his pleasure murdering, comely young lasses.

Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov sketched his character in this imagined vignette (translated by Executed Today friend Sonechka from the Russian original here):

As is well known, winsome high school girls were delivered to Lavrenty Beria’s house. Then his chauffeur presented a bouquet of flowers to the next victim. And rendered her home. This was an established ceremony. Suddenly, one of the damsels became unruly. She began to struggle and scratch. In short, held her ground and did not succumb to the charms of the Internal Affairs minister. Beria told her:

-You can leave.

The young woman descended the stairs. The chauffeur, not expecting such a turn of events, handed her over the prepared bouquet. The girl, somewhat more composed now, addressed the minister who was standing on the balcony:

-You see, Lavrenty Pavlovich! Your chauffeur is more courteous than you are. He gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Beria sneered and dully uttered:

-You are mistaken. It is not a bouquet. It is a funeral wreath.

More consequential for his fate was his position among the handful of Stalin’s closest associates, in which capacity he maintained himself for a remarkably extended period of time. This made him one of the people with a shot at succeeding Stalin, which in turn put him in the middle of the furious political infighting Uncle Joe was pleased to subject his subordinates to.

And the natural enmity between sovereign and heir — the one whose interest is the other’s death — may have even led Beria to poison Stalin in March 1953 when he was on the verge of a falling-out himself. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the pact, and the cocktail) remembered in his memoir Beria boasting after Stalin’s sudden and mysterious death,

“I did him in! I saved all of you!”

Briefly the official #2 man in the post-Stalin state, he would again preside over a political liberalization that belied his monstrous personal reputation.

But this pallbearer of Stalin soon followed his former master to the grave. Outmaneuvered by rivals Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, and Molotov, Beria was purged as a traitor in the summer of 1953 and secretly executed Dec. 23, 1953 with six confederates after a summary trial before the Supreme Court. (One of the expedients laid at his feet in that affair was a set of executions he had ordered in a 1941 purge).

According to a chapter by Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson in Memory, Brain and Belief, after Beria’s fall, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages.

Beria’s heirs actually applied to the post-Soviet government for a reversal of the conviction under laws granting victims of politically motivated prosecutions right of redress. The Russian judiciary turned them down.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

1953: Derek Bentley, controversially

3 comments January 28th, 2009

On this date in 1953, Derek William Bentley was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint in London’s Wandsworth Prison for a murder committed by a friend.

The execution of the mentally impaired 19-year-old was a lightning rod when it was pronounced the previous December and remained so over a half-century struggle for his posthumous pardon.

He had been caught robbing a warehouse with an underage friend in November 1952, and in the gunfight that ensued, a police officer was shot — 15 minutes after Bentley was arrested.

In a welter of confusing evidence, the essential fact was that the two youths had engaged a criminal enterprise and thus became jointly liable for every consequence of the crime, regardless of who pulled the trigger. Nevertheless, it rankled as a manifest injustice that the young man should hang for a murder that happened after he was in custody, while the triggerman should not. There was a sense that Bentley faced a maximal punishment in the state’s frustration that the shooter was too young to hang; and, that since the two boys’ ages were barely on either side of 18 and the 17-year-old Christopher Craig arguably the dominant member of the duo, the effect was a great injustice.

The jury’s recommendation for mercy was not taken up, and Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe — a Nuremberg prosecutor fresh from crafting the European Convention on Human Rights — declined to extend a reprieve.

This morning’s hanging was hotly protested. Several hundred rallied outside the prison; 200 MPs presented a petition for Bentley’s clemency, and afterwards several were rebuffed attempting to debate the hanging in Parliament. The medical journal Lancet assayed the general disquietude at the situation and opined that

[W]e are obliged to ask ourselves whether in holding to the letter of justice we are letting the spirit escape … To the English, at any rate, revenge is seldom a fully satisfying experience; it carries too much guilt with it. In the case of Bentley the public sense of guilt seems to have been strong — far stronger than the desire for vengeance.*

Bentley’s 21-year-old sister Iris vowed to her brother the night before his death that she would clear his name, and she fought for the rest of her life to do so. She would win that fight in 1998 (one year after her own death) when the conviction was overturned.

In the meantime, Bentley’s fate entered the public conscience, generally but not universally in the capacity of miscarriage of justice.

Bentley is the subject of an Elvis Costello song, “Let Him Dangle”:

… and a 1991 film:

* Lancet also said that “in our view the perpetual public preoccupation with the condemned cell and the gallows is harmful to the mental health of society.” Executed Today does not endorse this position.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Wrongful Executions

1953: Dmytro Bilinchuk, Company 67 of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army

3 comments June 24th, 2008

On this date in 1953, a guerrilla with the nom de guerre “Khmara” was shot in Kiev’s Lukianivka Prison for his involvement in a still-controversial resistance movement.

Dmytro Bilinchuk on the forest moon of Endor. UPA regs supposedly strictly prohibited photography; being rebels by nature, they snapped enough to fill up this page.

History is lived forward but understood backward. Therein lies the ambiguity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist organization that operated in Galicia and environs after the Nazi invasion and persisted several years afterwards.

At its height, the UPA is said to have had up to 100,000 members, famously operating out of subterranean forest bunkers. This day’s victim was the captain of one of its companies; there is very little about him available online in English — principally his death date — but Ukrainian sites add the folklorish but poignant detail of his supposed adoption of an orphaned bear cub.

But about his organization, the name alone is sufficient to invite the most acrimonious debate:* were these partisans Nazi collaborators? Ukrainian patriots? Both?

Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of a man who had abandoned socialism for a fascist national ideology (everyone was doing it), entered the World War II era having conspicuously failed to grasp independence in a period when nationhood was being handed out like candy to small European states.

The specific kettle for Ukraine’s stewing ethnic aspirations was Galicia, the northeastern shoulder of the Carpathian mountains presently in western Ukraine. Galicia had been at the heart of both Polish and Ukrainian national movements, and they fought for it after World War I — a war won by Warsaw. (Meanwhile, Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War forestalled national ambtions further east.)

Brewed with the movement’s right-wing ideology, Ukrainian nationalism developed an anti-Polish, anti-Russian, anti-Communist programme, and it gazed around 1930’s Europe wondering if it couldn’t find an aggressive great power with a similar outlook that might take Ukraine under its wing.

Fast forward to the eve of World War II: by the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin carved up the Ukrainians’ rival and thrust Galicia into Soviet hands, incidentally exposing its inhabitants to the pleasures of life under Stalin.

For Ukrainian nationalists, the altered situation of the Poland partition — followed shortly by Hitler’s initially successful invasion of Russia — offered an apparent opportunity to realize the dream of statehood under the patronage of a somewhat congenial Nazi government.

Though there’s a great deal of contention this author is not remotely qualified to referee about precisely which organs collaborated with or resisted the Nazis in precisely which ways, it seems fair summation to say that Ukraine’s nationalist movement was happy to treat with Berlin. Berlin being more reserved about a Slavic nationalist movement in its conquered territory, the UPA’s proposed institutional alliance with the Wehrmacht never quite came to pass as such, but that left many nationalists as freelance collaborators instead.** The hypothetical Ukrainian state in a Nazi-dominated Europe was not going to come about by sabotaging the Germans.

Instead, the UPA got busy laying the groundwork for an ethnically homogeneous Ukrainian homeland by fighting a reciprocal dirty war of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Galicia (most notoriously and emblematically, at Volhynia) — eventually developing into inter-partisan civil warfare against both Polish and Communist units (who had their own differences) with the odd brush with the Wehrmacht mixed in, and giving way to full concentration upon Soviet authorities as Red Army drove out the Germans.

The fact of having engaged German troops is a loudly bandied point in the UPA’s modern defense — the elevator pitch is that they “fought the Nazis and the Communists,” though it sure looks like they fought the one a lot harder than the other, and fought both less eagerly than they fought the Poles. There may be no cause to call UPA fighters other than sincere patriots of a nation whose aspirations were no less worthy than any other, who under beastly circumstances and for motives they believed noble committed sins no uglier than many other nationalists: even so, the thing separating that militia and its movement from, say, the Croatian Ustashi looks like opportunity rather than principle. Most perceived at the strategic plane a clear choice between Nazi victory with Ukrainian independence and Nazi defeat without, and most consciously preferred the former. No doubt the UPA would retort that its only other option was worse.

While Ukraine had a predictable exodus of anti-communist types as World War II drew to a close,† thousands of UPA guerrillas stuck around to keep up their fight (already underway) against the Soviets — including Dmytro Bilinchuk, whose biography can be enjoyed by readers of Ukrainian here.

It took a decade or more for Russia to extirpate this movement by hunting down its Bilinchuks. Buried in obscurity for the remainder of the Cold War, however, the martyrs of the OUN and UPA have pried open their tombs since Ukraine separated from the USSR in 1991 and become a contentious symbol in present-day Ukraine.

The OUN successor Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists has been part of Ukraine’s governing alliance since the Orange Revolution, and has pressed to treat its dead forebears as national heroes — renaming streets and attempting to rehabilitate UPA veterans into a class with those of the Red Army, a problematic enterprise since the two groups spent years killing one another. Old warriors may never reconcile, but the self-conscious reconstruction of the Ukrainian partisan movement in the service of shaping modern Ukrainians’ identity is a going concern:

Proving Faulkner’s old aphorism that the past isn’t dead and isn’t even past, this latter-day party and others of the Orange coalition remain electorally rooted in the UPA’s old western Ukraine stomping grounds, and tend to lean towards western Europe in outlook; eastern Ukraine remains more heavily Russian-oriented, and more inclined to the Russians’ distasteful view of the OUN and UPA.

* See, for instance, this Axis History thread, or the UPA’s Wikipedia discussion page.

** Late in the war, Germany would eventually form its own Galician SS Division. UPA proponents take pains to separate this German-officered formation from UPA guerrillas.

† Ironically, Ukrainians who bolted west — including the Galician SS division, which undertook a forced march to surrender in Italy rather than to the Soviets — profited greatly from having been “occupied” by Poland before the war, and from bloodily moving the border during the war. A refugee screening report (cited in Poland’s Holocaust — a source hostile to the UPA, as the title suggests) commented that Ukrainian detainees

are really having the best of both worlds. They do not qualify as Soviet citizens because their place of birth and/or habitual domicile on 1.9.39 were in Poland, and they therefore by our definition escape all punishment by the Russians for their having assisted the enemy; and they are not presumably eligible now for punishment by the Polish authorities because that part of the country from which they came is no longer part of Poland.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Ukraine,USSR

1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “the first victims of American fascism”

June 19th, 2008

On this date in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair as Soviet spies.

Divisive since it was handed down — or more precisely, since a famous article in London’s Guardian challenged the verdict and helped elevate it into a latter-day Dreyfus case — the Rosenbergs‘ sentence has inspired so much acrimony over several generations that merely to observe the date is to invite a debate capable of eminently more heat than light.

Where to begin with a case so towering in the recent cultural milieu?

A textbook might say that Julius and Ethel were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, that they maintained their innocence and their defenders carried that flame years after their deaths, and that intelligence files opened after the Cold War — notably the Venona project — apparently confirmed that Julius was a spy after all, though Ethel seems to have been little more than an approving bystander and Julius, come to think of it, never had anything so worthwhile as atomic secrets to share with Moscow. This information (which does have its own skeptics, albeit a small minority) undermines the maximal “absolute innocence” position that this day’s victims always asserted, but it’s a curious leap to take it as vindicating the legal outcome.

“My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism.”

Half a century on, juridical guilt or innocence seems distinctly secondary in the lasting importance of the Rosenberg trial, the two-year battle to save them, and their potent symbolic afterlives.

The Rosenbergs are the only stateside judicial executions for espionage since the Civil War.* That is a remarkable distinction, after all; so, how comes it that it is held by — to state the case against them in its strongest imaginable terms — two enthusiastic but bush-league players, and not by the likes of Aldrich Ames? How was it that a judge with a largely center-liberal career on the bench would read them a sentence of death hysterically accusing these Lower East Siders of causing the Korean War?

[Y]our conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.

I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.

It is here in the age of McCarthyism, in the shadow of the USSR’s balance-altering A-bomb test in 1949, that the Rosenbergs stand in sharpest relief — not because of “guilt” or “innocence”, but as the ne plus ultra of that era’s range of social discipline.

A few years before, the United States and the Soviet Union had made common cause against Hitler in World War II, the United States pumping war materiel to Russians bearing the brunt of the fighting.

No longer operative.

The Communist Party USA enjoyed membership rolls pushing six figures; other socialist parties and movements had found niches in American life in the interwar years.

As the Great War gave way to the Cold War, the great powers remained nominal allies (that’s the reason the Rosenbergs weren’t tried for treason), but shifted rapidly into conflict. The American polity organized to expel the red menace by rendering it foreign and criminal — ideological rigging for the forty years’ imperial contest ahead. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee … in the whole of the self-conscious construction of communism as “contagion”, the power and willingness of the state to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg formed the tip of the spear, and an ugly contrast to that same state’s solicitous handling of Nazi scientists then developing the vehicles to deliver atomic technology to Moscow in mushroom cloud form.

Though different in many particulars, the thrust will be familiar to any sentient denizen of post-9/11 America: the extreme penalty enforces a wall between the suspect and abject (but tolerated) loyal liberal and the enemy left. Depend upon Ann Coulter for the most brutal articulation:

We need to execute people like John Walker [the American-born soldier captured fighting for the Taliban in 2001] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.

Like most symbols, the Rosenbergs came by their exaltation by accident; at the strictly personal level, their deaths are nearly operatic performances of human stubbornness and bureaucratic inertia. Investigators rolling up a spy ring** were looking for confessions and names to keep the indictments coming.

Julius refused to provide either, so his wife was arrested for leverage against him on the reasoning that he would confess to protect her. The gambit failed: both prisoner and hostage remained obstinate. The government’s bluff had been called, and it ruthlessly executed its threat.

Had the two really been responsible for starting a war, execution would hardly begin to cover the bill — yet to the very foot of the chair, the condemned, and Julius especially for the sake of his wife, were pressed with offers of mercy for confessing and “naming names”.

Abjure or expire: show trial logic.

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An Execution in the Family

Given names to name, the personal mystery of their silence — the ultimate heroism or folly or tragedy or transcendence — only deepens the resonance of their fate both for contemporaries and posterity, the poignance of their orphaned children’s subsequent path, the contrast with Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who has since admitted to perjuring testimony against Ethel in order to shield his own wife. (Greenglass says the Rosenbergs died from the “stupidity” of not copping a deal of their own.)

Even before Julius and Ethel went to the chair this date,† they had become the emblem of a paranoid age. In the days following, Sartre savaged the United States for trying “to stop scientific progress by a human sacrifice”:

Your country is sick with fear. You’re afraid of everything: the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans. You’re afraid of each other. You’re afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.

Decades later, the shadows haven’t faded altogether. In playwright Tony Kushner’s imagination, the spirit of Ethel stalks her real-life prosecutor, closeted McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, as he succumbs to AIDS in the 1980’s.‡

Rosenberg resources — and vitriol — are in plentiful supply online and off. A good starting point on the case is this page at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Be sure to check the tale of a last-ditch legal maneuver that almost succeeded.

* There is one partial exception in the unusual case of six German saboteurs electrocuted in Washington, D.C., during World War II on a charge sheet that included espionage. The hearing was held by a military commission and only one of the six was an American citizen, so it was far from the regular judicial process — if one can call it that — the Rosenbergs faced.

** Originating in the investigation of Klaus Fuchs, the man who actually did what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of doing — passing atomic secrets to Moscow — although with debatable ultimate effect for the Soviets’ research. Fuchs served nine-plus years in a British prison and was released to East Germany; more than a few were galled at the difference between his sentence and the Rosenbergs’.

† Julius first, then Ethel. Her execution was botched; repeated shocks were required to kill her.

‡ Cohn’s posthumous autobiography did acknowledge illegally rigging the Rosenberg trial, as his Kushner character does.

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Spies,U.S. Federal,USA,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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