(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 here. 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.)
“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”
-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864
An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. [but see this post’s comments -ed.] He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.
Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”
The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.
In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.
On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.
Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.
He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.
He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.
By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)
According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.
Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.
What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.
Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.
“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)
Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.
Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”
In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.
It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.
Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.
The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.
In extending [Cesare] Beccaria‘s views on capital punishment to the history of lynching in the West, one begins to see that the “violent passions” of the mob were regularly invoked to justify their actions, but as Beccaria predicted, these passions were often little more than a ruse to justify the cold-blooded — and often premeditated — lynching of an accused criminal. Taken as a whole, the case list demonstrates that by and large, lynching had as much to do with vengeance as with the pursuit of justice.
The frequent invocation of San Francisco’s vigilance committees in many of the case records is clearly intended to link extrajudicial execution to “tradition,” an essential element found in the Tuskegee definition of lynching.* On a formal level, well over 50 percent of lynching cases that give a time, record that the lynching took place between midnight and 2 a.m. when the accused was usually encouraged to confess his or her crimes before being strung up. Sometimes they were allowed to make a statement, to smoke a cigarette, or confess to a priest, and after it was over, the bodies would usually be left to hang through the night. This public display of the body can be found in every case, with the shortest times usually lasting around thirty minutes, and the longest, until the bodies decayed.
In one instance, in the small village of Newtown, an African American man known only as “Brown” was apprehended for stealing money. The evidence was completely circumstantial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung by the mob on March 4, 1852. Unfortunately for Brown, the rope was a little too long, and once he was hanged to the tree, the branch slowly gave way — until his legs dangled to the ground. Struggilng in agony, the poor man was cut down in order to be properly hanged. Once he was fully revived, he was tied to a higher branch and the whole process was repeated. When he was finally cut down, a physician was asked to examine the body, at which point he annunced that if Brown’s body was left above ground for five minutes that he would regain consciousness. As a result, “he was therefore hastily dumped into a grave that had been dug and was half full of water, and quickly covered from sight.” Whether completely true or not, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue that this killing really served the greatest good.
* The Tuskegee lynching definition: “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition,” where “a group” connotes three or more persons.
On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.
Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.
In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.
It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.
He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.
Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.
Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”
This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.
Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.
This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.
Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.
Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.
My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.
He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.
The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).
Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.
* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.
** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.
† Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.
‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.
§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)
The trial in the case of Andrew Tyler, convicted and sentenced to die, at the late term of the Supreme Court held in Williams county, as accesory [sic] to one of the most wanton and singular murders of which the records of depravity and crime presents an example.
From the evidence given on the trial, as well as the confessions of Heckerthorn, the principal, (who awaits his trial in November next,) it appears that Heckerthorn was desirous of learning the art of fortune telling, and that as the initiatory step, Tyler persuaded him to kill Scamp’s child, and hide the body, designing then to leave the country together, and after some months return and get a reward for finding the body of the child, and thus establish a reputation as fortune tellers, by which they would be enabled to make a great deal of money.
A more inadequate cause for so great a crime we never learned of; and, on Tyler’s part, the instigation of the murder can only be explained by the supposition that long habits of deception and falsehood, practiced by him as a fortune teller, had darkened in his mind whatever little sense of right and humanity he ever possessed. -Kalida Venture
The Death Penalty
Horrible Account of a legalized murder in Williams county, Ohio, which took place on Friday week.
(Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 6, 1849)
If we are at times put to the blush for the crimes of our fellow-beings, we are as often shocked at the barbaraties [sic] of our race, who to retaliate for one crime commit another, no less offensive in the sight of God and man. We refer to the barbarous custom of strangling a man to death in cold blood for certain crimes which twelve men believe he has committed.
Here is an account of this legalized murder, committed no the 26th ult. in Bryan, Williams Co., the particulars of which contain enough of the horrible to gratify the most savage. The Spirit of the Age, published at Bryan, says:
About one o’clock, P.M. the prisoner was conducted on to the scaffold, accompanied by Rev. R.R. Walters, who, after the prisoner had taken his seat, delivered some very appropriate remarks from Acts, chap. 5th, verses 2nd, and 3d — a text selected by the prisoner.
A hymn was sung and prayer offered by Rev. Mr. Walters.
The prisoner then made a brief address to the assembly. He asserted his innocence in the strongest terms — declaring that he had nothing to do with the perpetration of the crime, for which he was to be executed. He said he had no anxiety to live — but felt prepared and desired to depart and dwell with his Saviour.
At the close of his remarks, he knelt down, and spent a few moments in audible prayer. He prayed for support in the terrible scene upon which he was immediately to enter — for the forgiveness of all who had sought his hurt, and that he and they might meet in a happier world.
At a quarter past two, the Sheriff adjusted the rope, which was already around the prisoner’s neck, drew the cap over his face, and bade him adieu.
He then descended the stairs, and as he went down, touched the spring with his foot, and the drop fell.
Here followed a scene, which was for a moment, shocking to all beholders — almost beyond description. To set the matter in its true light, it should be mentioned that Tyler had at all times insisted that he should be executed without any slack of rope.
Willing to gratify him so far as duty would permit, and in accordance with this oft-repeated and urgent request, the Sheriff gave him at first only about one foot of slack.
The instant the drop was sprung, the prisoner slightly crouched his body; by this means the hoose slipped around, bringing the knot immediately under the chin, in such a position that with his short fall it did not tighten at all, consequently he was merely suspended by the neck.
Probably his first slight fall suspended sensation and respiration temporarily for he hung quietly for a time; but this suspension was only temporary, and it is certain that nothing like strangulation was produced.
He soon recovered his breath, and commenced groaning and struggling as if suffering excruciating torture.
The spectacle at this moment was too revolting to witness; we noticed many who had thought and said, that they could look on his expiring agonies with a hearty good will, who turned away from the sight with blanched cheeks and looks of commiseration.
The Sheriff, probably somewhat overcome by the fearful duty he had attempted to discharge, did not immediately after springing the drop go around to see the true condition of affairs.
On learning the situation of the prisoner, he promptly ordered the scaffold raised, and no sooner was this done than he was upon it, and taking Tyler by the hand directed him to stand on his feet, which he was able to do without assistance.
Aided by Gen. Gilson, the Sheriff then proceeded to lengthen the rope, giving it about four feet additional slack.
Tyler still fervently begged them to shorten instead of lengthening it, but he was told that his wishes could no longer be regarded.
During this time, Ex-Sheriff Cunningham passed up the stairs, and taking Tyler’s hand, inquired if he still asserted his innocence; he replied, “I am innocent.”
Having adjusted the noose, and all others having left the scaffold, the Sheriff took his hand, and again bade him farewell. His last words to the Sheriff were — “For God’s sake shorten the rope.”
Again the drop was sprung, and Andrew F. Tyler was launched into eternity. He scarcely struggled after the second fall — after about thirty minutes, his body was taken down, placed in the coffin and carried back to an upper room of the jail.
(New York Commercial Advertiser, February 13, 1849)
Andrew F. Tyler, the “fortune teller,” convicted in Williams county, Ohio, as accessary [sic] to the murder of a small child in that county, was executed at Bryan, on the 26th ult. A large concourse of citizens assembled to see the spectacle, and in defiance of the law abolishing public executions, tore down the jail yard erected by the Sheriff. The last words of Tyler were, “I am innocent.”
If we recollect right, Tyler was charged with aiding in the murder of a child in order that the fortune he had preetended to tell might prove true. He declared his innocence of a murder of such strange motive to the moment of the falling of the fatal drop, and would it not have been better for the cause of justice, and just as well for the community to have sent him to life imprisonment as the gallows? His dying declaration may be true, for evidence that appears conclusive of guilt is not always so. -Cleve. Herald
The Popular Taste
(Boston Daily Atlas, February 22, 1849)
A man named Andrew F. Tyler, convicted of murder, was hung recently at Bryant [sic], in Williams county, Ohio.
The Dayton Transcript states that the Sheriff had built a high wood fence around the jail yard, in order to have the execution as private as possible, but the populace were so eager to witness the spectacle, they tore down the fence the night previous.
The brutal taste which prompted this act, is of the same character as that which leads crowds to witness prize fights, and makes momentary heroes of the vilest bullies in creation. -Cincinnati Gazette
(As inchthrift old-time editors were fond of forbidding walls of unbroken text, line breaks and white space have been added to all of the excerpts above. -ed.)
Arundel’s relationship with doomed king had not always been so fatally chummy. That he turned out to be one of the few great nobles to back Edward against his wife’s adulterous coup d’etat would probably have surprised his own younger self — for 15 years before his execution he had joined the Lords Ordainers in opposition to Edward and hated royal favorite Piers Gaveston. Indeed, Arundel was one of the men who eventually condemned Gaveston to execution. Two years after that, he passed on aiding Edward’s Scottish campaign and the upshot of that was the great defeat of Banockburn.
But these two foes were able to see their way to an arrangement as the 1310s unfolded, and Arundel married his son — the boy who would succeed as the next Earl of Arundel when our man got his head cut off* — to the daughter of the next royal favorite, Hugh Despenser.
This dynastic alliance with the man swiftly becoming the most powerful lord in England put Arundel firmly on Team Edward, with very lucrative results. When other nobles who hated the new favorite rebelled in the early 1320s, Arundel helped to put that disturbance down, and pocketed portions of the traitors’ forfeited estates for his trouble — including that of the attainted Mortimer himself.
These enemies were permanent.
Mortimer managed to escape the Tower of London and fled into exile, eventually taking up with the disaffected Queen Isabella, who was a French princess herself. When Mortimer and Isabella mounted an invasion in 1326, Arundell and his brother-in-law Surrey were the only earls to keep the king’s side. (Temporarily: Surrey made peace with the new regime when it carried the day.)
Captured by John Charleton, a Welsh landowner who’d been personally piqued by Arundel’s growing acquisitions in that region, he was hauled before Queen Isabella and put to summary execution. But not too summary: there’s a report by a chronicler that the “worthless wretch” wielding the blade required no fewer than 22 hacks to part head from shoulders.
On this date in 1883, Frederick Mann was hanged for murdering four members of his master’s family.
Frederick was an immigrant from London and worked as a live-in farmhand and manservant to the Cooke family in Little Rideau, Ontario. He was only seventeen years old.
Frederick had been living with the Cookes for only a few months at the time of the murders. He seemed to get on fine with Mr. and Mrs. Cooke and their five children, although he sometimes mistreated their livestock. Then, on January 2, 1883, for no apparent reason, he went berserk.
That morning Frederick followed one of the Cooke family’s adult daughters, Emma, into the granary and tried to rape her. When she screamed for help, he strangled her with a rope. Emma’s cries were heard by her mother, who went running to her aid, but Frederick strangled her too.
Following this he went into the barn and attacked his master Ruggles W. Cooke with an ax, chopping his head to pieces. Frederick then went into the farmhouse and attacked sons George and Willie Cooke, who were both still asleep. He killed Willie with a blow to the head but was only able to wound George on the thigh before the boy got away from him. George and his two sisters wrestled the ax away from Frederick, who then fled the farmhouse. (There are reports that George later died of his leg injury.)
He was arrested the next day, just across the Ottawa River in Quebec.
During subsequent investigation it came out that, when he had been working for a family in Montreal, he’d tried to poison them. Doctors who subsequently examined the defendant determined he had “keen intelligence … but low moral nature.” The press reported Frederick had committed the murders “in revenge for a fancied insult.”
Although his attorney prepared for an insanity defense, in the end there was no trial: Frederick pleaded guilty to all four murders on September 17 when he appeared in court. His lawyer pleaded for leniency, but the judge passed the sentence of death.
The identity of the hangman was unknown but he was clearly inexperienced and the Sheriff had to show him how to properly pinion the prisoner’s legs. The hangman’s level of inexperience was made even clearer when he pulled the lever, sending Mann through the trap. The drop had been miscalculated and Mann hung less than 1?4 of an inch from the ground. To make matters worse, the noose had been placed incorrectly around the condemned man’s neck and the knot slid under his chin. The spectators were left to watch in horror for almost ten minutes as Mann slowly suffocated, his toes almost touching the ground. After death had been declared Mann was buried in the yard of the gaol, but not before his brain had been removed and sent to Montreal to be examined.
On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.
Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.
According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.
His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).
Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.
In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.
Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.
The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”
Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”
What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.
Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. He soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.
A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)
Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”
* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” -Blackstone
** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”
On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.
Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”
Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.
Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.
He met his death through sheer bad luck.
By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,
This Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.
While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.
And then … the SS let him go.
He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.
Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.
The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.
It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”
“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:
After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.
We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!
A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.
After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”
Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.
After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.