Author Archive

1928: William Charles Benson

Add comment November 20th, 2018 Headsman

William Charles Benson hanged at Wandsworth prison on this date in 1928, the murderer of his ice cream factory co-worker’s wife.

Benson in 1925 had moved in with his mate Sidney Harbor in Kentish Town where the quarters were so close that everybody shared the same bedroom.

The savings in rent were drawn from the heart’s account, once Sidney’s wife Charlotte — the couple had two children together — took a shine to the boarder in the other bed. Benson in 1927 lost job and side piece alike when he was fired from Wall’s and also kicked out of the house by the suspicious Sidney; Charlotte, however, continued the affair and eventually even took an apartment nearby Benson’s new place to facilitate assignations.

Early on the morning of September 6, 1928, Benson hailed a constable with the words, “I want an ambulance, I have just killed my girl.” Apparently, she had proposed putting the adultery to an end and returning to Sidney.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Sex

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1936: The Seven Martyrs of Madrid

Add comment November 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Seven Martyrs of Madrid became martyrs.*

These sisters of Catholicism’s Visitandine or Visitation Order were the last remaining to watch over their convent, which had been mostly evacuated for fear of anti-clerical violence in the unfolding Spanish Civil War.

Indeed, even these seven felt it wiser to stay in a nearby apartment where they secreted the convent’s treasures and kept their holy orders as quiet as possible.

Their precautions were justified — but insufficient. On the night of November 17, weeks after the Spanish capital was besieged by the Francoists an anarchist militia tossed the place, interrogated them, and then returned the next day to have them summarily executed on the outskirts of town.

“I beg God that the marvelous example of these women who shed their blood for Christ, pardoning from their hearts their executioners,” Pope John Paul II said when beatifying these sisters in 1998, “may succeed in softening the hearts of those who today use terror and violence to impose their will upon others.”

* Technically, only Sisters Gabriela de Hinojosa, Teresa Cavestany, Josefa Barrera, Ines Zudaire, Engracia Lecuona, and Angela Olaizola were shot on the 18th. Sister Cecilia Cendoya escaped her captors but later turned herself in and obtained the crown of martyrdom a few days afterwards.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1541: Claude Le Painctre, giving himself willingly to be burned

Add comment November 17th, 2018 Headsman

A French evangelical named Claude Le Painctre — on mission evangelizing back in his dangerous homeland after previously escaping to exile in Geneva — was burned at the stake in Paris on this date in 1541, after having his tongue torn out.

A Prussian-born student resident in Paris in those years, named Eustache Knobelsdorf, witnessed this execution and recorded the event in his memoir.

His striking impression of a joyous martyrdom captures not only the agonies of a 16th century heretic’s execution, but the ecstasies by which those same heretics turned the whole spectacle to evangelizing effect.

This translation of Knobelsdorf comes via
Bruce Gordon’s 2009 biography Calvin

I saw two burnt there. Their death inspired in me differing sentiments. If you had been there, you would have hoped for a less severe punishment for these poor unfortunates … The first [Claude Le Painctre] was a very young man, not yet with a beard … he was the son of a cobbler. He was brought in front of the judges and condemned to have his tongue cut out and burned straight afterward. Without changing the expression of his face, the young man presented his tongue to the executioner’s knife, sticking it out as far as he could. The executioner pulled it out even further with pincers, cut it off, and hit the sufferer several times on the tongue and threw it in the young man’s face. Then he was put into a tipcart, which was driven to the place of execution, but, to see him, one would think that he was going to a feast … When the chain had been placed around his body, I could not describe to you with what equanimity of soul and with what expression in his features he endured the cries of elation and the insults of the crowd that were directed towards him. He did not make a sound, but from time to time he spat out the blood that was filling his mouth, and he lifted his eyes to heaven, as if he was waiting for some miraculous rescue. When his head was covered in sulphur, the executioner showed him the fire with a menacing air; but the young man, without being scared, let it be known, by a movement of his body, that he was giving himself willingly to be burned.

Such spectacles had palpable effect for snowballing the evangelical project. Another onlooker in the crowd was a 21-year-old just out of university named Jean Crespin … present with some “several who had a stirring sense of truth.” We can’t draw anything so dramatic as a direct causal line to Claude Le Painctre, but sometime during Crespin’s stay in Paris in the early 1540s he converted to the reformed faith — and in this guise he would in time become a notable Protestant publisher. (Of interest to these grim annals, he Le Livre des Martyrs.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,USA,Women

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1822: Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt, Junior, slave-slayer

Add comment November 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt was executed at the Dutch-founded South African settlement of Paarl. His offense, unusual but not unheard-of in our executioner’s annals: killing his slave.

According to Alex Mountain in An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery, the 21-year-old Gebhardt, who managed the farm belonging to his father, Rev. Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt Sr., had ordered a slave named Joris flogged “for not working properly.”

the flogging was done repeatedly by a slave called November who had been warned by Gebhardt, who remained present throughout the torture, that he too would be severely punished if he did not flog Joris properly. The flogging was done with a variety of instruments and from time to time salt and vinegar were rubbed into his wounds.

It was only when Joris lost consciousness that the torture stopped.

Joris died that night.

The western Cape had recently been taken under British management, and these looked with surprising hostility on the murder of Joris. Gebhardt was not suffered to plead to manslaughter in order to escape his fate.

Mountain reproduces a photo of Gebhardt’s gravestone (found “being used as a small bridge across a ditch”) with the lines

Rest in Peace
Unfortunate Youth
Your Career was short
and you were led Astray
Few were the Pleasures of your Life
And many your Sufferings!

There’s no gravestone for Joris, of course.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,South Africa

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2018: The Sultan of Coins

Add comment November 14th, 2018 Headsman

Iran today hanged two men for financial crimes.

Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed “the Sultan of Coins”, was arrested in July with two tons of gold coins in his possession. He was condemned with accomplice Mohammad-Esmaeil Qassemi of comprising a “smuggling gang”.

Iran’s currency has collapsed in recent months ahead of the bad-faith U.S. nuclear sanctions, leading Iranians to rush for precious metals.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Organized Crime,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines

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1989: Rohana Wijeweera

Add comment November 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1989, Sri Lankan Marxist revolutionary Rohana Wijeweera was — by at least some accounts, properly disputed by the authorities — summarily executed

Moscow-educated at Lumumba University, Wijeweera showed his leftist bona fides by forming a splinter party breaking with the Ceylon Communist Party.

Wijeweera wasn’t there to do the People’s Front of Judea thing; his still-extant Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party aimed straight at revolution.

An abortive 1971 rising landed Wijeweera a long prison sentence, but he was amnestied in time to run a distant third in Sri Lanka’s 1982 presidential election.

The JVP — which increasingly also verged towards Sinhalese nationalism — then proceeded foment a second and much more vigorous rebellion that ran from 1987 to 1989 which was suppressed in the usual ways. There’d be no prison amnesty for Rohana Wijeweera this time.

Officially, Wijeweera’s death in captivity is attributed to crossfire during an ambush shootout with his partisans. Sure. Here’s what Sri Lankan General (and later M.P.) Sarath Munasinghe had to say about Wijeweera’s end:

The time was 11.30pm [on November 12, 1989]. We reached the premises of HQ ‘Operation Combine’. There were many officers of other services too. We were conducted to the conference table where Rohana Wijeweera was seated. I was given a chair just opposite Wijeweera across the table. I commenced having a conversation with him. Mr Ernie Wijesuriya, director, National Intelligence Bureau, his deputy and some others were present. I spoke to Rohana Wijeweera at length.

Whenever I questioned him in English, he answered in Sinhalese. In fact, he asked me whether I knew the Russian language. I replied in the negative. Rohana Wijeweera told me that his second language was Russian. He told me all about his personal life, initially at Bandarawela and later at Ulapane in Kandy. He was reluctant to talk about the activities of the JVP.

While this discussion was going on, the ‘Operation Combine’ commander was with his deputy in the adjoining room, which was his office. Just past midnight, the deputy Defense Minister General Ranjan Wijeratne walked in and sat at the head of the conference table. Gen Wijeratne asked few questions, but Rohana Wijeweera did not respond. Gen. Wijeratne joined the ‘Operation Combine’ commander in his office. We continued with our conversation. We had many cups of plain tea (dark tea), while talking. I made a request to Rohana Wijeweera to advise his membership to refrain from violence. He agreed after persuasion. So we managed to record his words and also his picture in still camera.

After some time, a well-known Superintendent of Police arrived at the HQ Operation Combine. As the police officer walked in, he held Rohana Wijeweera’s hair from the rear and gave two taps on Wijeweera’s cheek. Wijeweera looked back, and having identified the officer said, ‘I knew it had to be a person like you’. The police officer joined the Minister and Operation Combined Commander. We continued with our conversation. Wijeweera related a few interesting stories. One day, a group of JVP activists had visited the residence of Nimal Kirthisri Attanayake [Rohana Wijeweera] at Ulapane. They demanded money for their movement. Wijeweera responded quickly by giving Rs 100. The youngsters did not have a clue about their leader. Wijeweera was full of smiles when he divulged this story.

The time was around 3.45am on 13 November 1989. I was informed to conclude the questioning and to take Rohana Wijeweera downstairs. Together we walked downstairs and were close to each other. Wijeweera held my hand and said, ‘I am very happy I met you even at the last moment. I may not live any longer. Please convey my message to my wife’. Rohana Wijeweera’s message contained five important points. They were all very personal matters concerning his family.

Moments later, Wijeweera was blindfolded and helped into the rear seat of a green Pajero. Two people sat on either side of Wijeweera. There were others at the rear of the vehicle. Just then a senior police officer arrived near the vehicle. I politely rejected his invitation to join them. The Pajero took off. I joined Col Lionel Balagalle standing near the main entrance of the Operation Combine HQ building. We were having a brief chat when a senior officer came downstairs to get into his car. We greeted him. He was in a very good mood. But the atmosphere changed all of a sudden. A military police officer appeared in front of us. The senior officer blasted him for not accompanying Wijeweera and party. The military officer dashed towards his vehicle and sped away. The senior officer departed. We also went home thinking of a good sleep.

Late in the morning I was busy getting Wijeweera’s photograph printed. No one would recognise Wijeweera without his beard. So I had to seek help and add the beard to Wijeweera’s photograph. It was done very well. Late in the afternoon there was a press conference at the Joint Operation Command. Minister Ranjan Wijeratne briefed the press. ‘Wijeweera and HB Herath [another JVP leader] had been taken to a house just outside Colombo, where the JVP had hidden part of their treasure. While the search was in progress, Herath pulled out a pistol and shot Wijeweera dead’. The minister went on to give more details. Subsequent to the killing of Wijeweera, violence by the JVP ceased gradually and there was peace in the country, except in the north and east. [i.e., the zone of the entirely separate Tamil Tigers insurgency -ed.]

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Sri Lanka,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1717: The witch-children of Freising

1 comment November 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1717 a witch hunt in the Bavarian town of Freising concluded with the beheading of three beggar children as magicians.*

The accusations of other kids in the city against two youths named Andre and Lorenz got the snowball rolling with the aid of adults credulous enough to believe the pubescent warlocks could conjure piglets and mice.

Andre and Lorenz, naturally, then supplied confessions and additional accusations, as a result of which several more children aged 9 to 14 were arrested, all of them cajoled and tortured towards symoptic allegations. Thirteen-year-old Andre eventually hanged himself; Lorenz and two others were put to sword and fire on November 12, 1717.

Notably, two other boys were spared execution but forced to watch their fellows’ fate. One of those, Veit Adlwart, would stand at the center of a second Kinderhexenprozess in Freising that claimed eight boys and three adults in the early 1720s. Veit Adlwart was put to death on December 15, 1721.

* Street children were at great risk of catching the witch stigma given the wrong place at the time.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft

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1779: Robert Young

Add comment November 11th, 2018 Headsman

This date in 1779 saw the execution in Worcester, Mass., of one Robert Young, a schoolteacher who favored the occasion with the following verse from his very own quill.

The man’s offense one may derive from his confessional, but apart from rapist who was this doomed poet? We refer the reader to the biography at friend and sometime guest-poster Anthony Vaver over at Early American Crime. (Vaver’s book Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America comes recommended for those interested in the period.)

ATTEND, ye youth! if ye would fain be old,
Take solemn warning when my tale is told;
In blooming life my soul I must resign,
In my full strength, just aged twenty-nine.

But a short time ago, I little thought
That to this shameful end I should be brought;
But the foul fiend, excepting God controuls,
Dresses sin lovely when he baits for souls.

Could you the monster in true colours see,
His subject nor his servant would you be;
His gilded baits would ne’er allure your minds,
For he who serves him bitter anguish finds.

Had I as oft unto my Bible went,
As on vain pleasures I was eager bent,
These lines had never been composed by me,
Nor my vile body hung upon the tree.

Those guilty pleasures that I did pursue,
No more delight — they’re painful to my view;
That monster, Sin, that dwells within my breast,
Tortures my soul and robs me of my rest.

That fatal time I very well remember,
For it was on the third day of September,
I went to Western, thoughtless of my God,
Though worlds do tremble at his awful nod:

With pot-companions did I pass the day,
And then direct to Brookfield bent my way,
The grand-deceiver thought it was his time,
And led me to commit a horrid crime.

When it was dark I met the little fair,
(Great God forgive, and hear my humble pray’r)
And, O! dear Jane, wilt thou forgive me too,
For I most cruelly have used you.

I took advantage of the dark’ning hour,
(For beasts always by night their prey devour)
This little child, eleven years of age,
Then fell a victim to my brutal rage;

Nor could the groans of innocence prevail;
O pity, reader, though I tell the tale;
Drunk with my lust, on cursed purpose bent,
Severely us’d th’unhappy innocent.

Her sister dear was to have been my wife,
But I’ve abus’d her and must lose my life;
Was I but innocent, my heart would bleed
To hear a wretch, like me, had done the deed.

Reader, whoe’er thou art, a warning take,
Be good and just, and all your sins forsake;
May the Almighty God direct your way
To the bright regions of eternal day.

A dying man to you makes this request,
For sure he wishes that you may be blest;
And shortly, reader, thou must follow me,
And drop into a vast eternity!

The paths of lewdness, and these base profane,
Produce keen anguish, sorrow, fear and shame;
Forsake them then, I’ve trod the dreary road,
My crimes are great, I groan beneath the load.

For a long time on sin should you be bent,
You’ll find it hard, like me for to repent;
The more a dangerous wound doth mortify,
The more the surgeon his best skill must try.

These lines I write within a gloomy cell,
I soon shall leave them with a long farewell;
Again I caution all who read the same
And beg they would their wicked lives reclaim.

O THOU, Almight GOD, who gave me breath,
Save me from suffering a second death,
Through faith in thy dear SON may I be free,
And my poor soul ascend to dwell with Thee.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Soldiers,USA

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1945: The Rüsselsheim Massacre perpetrators

6 comments November 10th, 2018 Headsman

The U.S. Army hanged five German civilians as war criminals at Bruchsal Prison on this date in 1945. Their crime: lynching the crew of a downed American bomber, the day after Allied bombing raids devastated the manufacturing town of Rüsselsheim.

The lynching is known as the Rüsselsheim Massacre, and it claimed the lives of six of the nine flyers of a B-24 Liberator cheekily christened Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma’m!. One of their number survived thanks to his shrapnel wounds, which saw him safely to hospital while his comrades were being transported.

The other two were simply lucky to survive the beatings administered by a mob of enraged civilians who caught sight of the Americans under the escort of only two German soldiers. On the night of August 25-26, Britain’s Royal Air Force had dumped more than 1,600 tons of explosives on Rüsselsheim to destroy the Opel factory and rail lines there. It was only the latest, and ultimately the largest, of several raids on the town dating back to July. A later U.S. study reckoned 315 Opel workers killed and 277 injured during the July-August raids, to say nothing of the devastation on other townspeople and on Opel’s slave labor.* A POW, Frenchman Pierre Cuillier, recorded of the August 25-26 attack that “a bomb fell on the dug-out for Russian women. We hear of 119 victims, a number that in reality is surely much higher.”

Under the circumstances, the good folk of Rüsselsheim were not pleased on the morning of the 26th to see Allied airmen in their town being marched to a train transfer … even if, and surely the distinction must fail to impress amid the smoldering rubble of one’s own hometown, this particular American crew had not been part of this particular British bombing. (The Americans had been shot down two days earlier en route to do a similar thing to Hanover.)

“There are the terror flyers. Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death! They have destroyed our houses!” cried Margarete Witzler and Käthe Reinhardt. As the Americans protested, the crowd overpowered the guards and took its rough revenge with whatever bludgeons were ready to hand.

At last, Joseph Hartgen, an air raid warden, finished them off with his pistol … or at least, finished off six before his chamber went empty.


Spoiler alert: it will not go well for Herr Hartgen.

Somehow the two un-shot men, Sgt. William M. Adams, and Sgt. Sidney E. Brown, still drew enough breath by the end of the ordeal to sneak away when they were being dumped into a mass grave. Captured again a few days later, they survived the war in a POW camp.**

Eleven Rüsselsheimers stood trial in Darmstadt for these Lynchmorde by July, when war was still raging in the Pacific: it was the very first war crimes proceeding under U.S. occupation.

The defendants tried out a pre-Nuremberg version of the “only following orders” defense, blaming Nazi propaganda against bomber crews for inciting the murders. The U.S. prosecutor† scoffed: “They were all grown men and women. If they are called on to commit the murder and they do, they are just as responsible as any other murderers.”

Harten and six others of the 11 caught death sentences, but the two women — Witzler and Reinhardt — both had their sentences reduced.

Warning: Although not graphic, this is a video of actual hangings.

* Quotes and figures from Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany During the Second World War, which is topical because Opel was a General Motors subsidiary.

** Brown lived long enough to return to Rüsselsheim at official invitation in 2001 for a formal apology. However, at the time of the trial, it was still mysterious how there came to be only six exhumed bodies from eight lynched airmen: Adams and Brown only emerged out of the mass of returning POWs after convictions had already been secured.

† The army prosecutor at the proceeding was one Lt. Col. Leon Jaworski, but he’s better known for hunting larger game later in his career as the special prosecutor during the Watergate investigations. (Jaworski is the guy embattled President Richard Nixon appointed after firing Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre.) Jaworski’s eventual legal victory over the White House in United States v. Nixon obtained the incriminating Watergate tapes in late July of 1974, forcing Nixon’s resignation just days afterwards, on August 9, 1974.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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