Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1739: Seven of nine Williamsburg malefactors

3 comments November 23rd, 2012 Headsman

No, not that Seven of Nine. We have no further details on offer about these poor souls, but we thought the assortment of crimes — a mother for murdering her bastard child; a highwayman; an overseer for whipping a slave to death — and the editorial rant about the governor‘s abus’d Clemency, made for a colorful slice of life.

Image: Account of a Williamsburg, Va. mass hanging on Nov. 23, 1739

(Virginia Gazette, Nov. 23, 1739.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Virginia,Women

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR

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2012: Ajmal Kasab, 26/11 Mumbai terrorist

November 21st, 2012 Headsman

At 7:30 this morning at Yerwada jail in Pune, Maharashtra, the sole surviving author of 21st century India’s most notorious terrorist plot was put to death.

Ajmal Kasab was captured alive after the deadly November 26, 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The “26/11″ date will live quite a while in infamy on the subcontinent … as will the chilling CCTV images of the armed and armored Kasab prowling the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Kasab and his partner in the rail station attack slew more than 50 people that evening, and another dozen-plus policemen in running gun battles as they fled the scene.

This was only one of a multitude of Mumbai targets hit in an audacious attack on that 26/11 by a ten-man team of Lashkar-e-Taiba* Islamic militants, trained in Pakistan. They had sailed in from Karachi (murdering the crew of a small fishing boat they hijacked) just for the occasion.

Kasab’s confederates elsewhere in town achieved a similar body count hitting a pair of five-star hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi Trident, each of which turned into a multi-day hostage standoff only resolved by a bloody to-the-death shootout with paramilitaries.

Attacks on a cafe and a Jewish center, as well as several timed bombs, also took place. In all, some 166 people — plus nine of the ten terrorists responsible — died, with hundreds more wounded and a nation of more than a billion shaken and angry. It’s one of those cases that make people say, “if ever there was a death penalty case …” Kasab’s speedy dispatch has been a hot political topic since he was first handed a death sentence on May 6, 2010, and the whole affair has not done any favors for the ever-touchy India-Pakistan relationship.

The (usually) sluggish India death penalty process requires that cases cleared by the judiciary receive executive clemency consideration — a stage of the process that often takes years. Recent presidents have tended to stand on only considering such applications in the order they are submitted, and then either granting those clemencies after ponderous review, or scarcely prioritizing any review at all, with further judicial interventions and a shrinking pool of trained hangmen also gumming up the works.

It’s been a recipe for virtual death penalty abolition: the last hanging prior to Kasab’s was in 2004, India’s only other execution this century. This is in a country with one-sixth of the world’s population.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s new president, took office with a number of presidential clemency applications still pending, some dating back to the late Nineties. While there’s no guarantee that he’ll break with the glacial pattern established by his predecessors when it comes to backlogged everyday criminals, Mukherjee advanced this exceptional petition right to the front of the line and turned it down flat even as Kasab was secretly transferred from his unusual egg-shaped bombproof Mumbai cell to the hanging facility at Yerwada.

“His execution,” said Maharashta Home Minister R.R. Patil, “is a tribute to the victims.”

* Lashkar-e-Taiba also masterminded a 2001 massacre at the Indian Parliament, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Murder,Pakistan,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists

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2010: Mohsen bin Faisal Al Barik Al-Dossary, Saudi cop-killer

Add comment November 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2010, a Saudi Arabian man named Mohsen al-Dossary or al-Dussari was beheaded in Riyadh for having shot dead a police officer in nearby Kharj who tried to stop him driving the wrong way on a street.

That’s some costly road rage.

Islamic sharia law provides the victim’s family the right to pardon an offender and stop an execution; implicit in that right is the need for the offended family to make a legally supportable determination to withhold pardon in order for an execution to proceed. In an interesting twist on that jurisprudence, the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Dossary had to wait several years in prison while the policeman’s sons grew to majority and could legally consent to having the murderer put to death.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Public Executions,Saudi Arabia

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1929: Myles Fukunaga

1 comment November 19th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1929 saw the hanging of a Shakespeare-quoting, suicidal kidnapper for “the most brutal murder in the history of Hawaii”. It was among the last civil executions in Hawaii.

As detailed in the 1991 essay “A Short History of Hawaiian Executions, 1826-1947″ (pdf) by Joseph Theroux, a resource we’ve touched on before and which also includes a full list of 75 known legal executions in Hawaii during that period:*

[I]n the death of Gil Jamieson, who had been kidnapped by a mad youth who filled his ransom letters with quotations from the Shakespearen play [Macbeth]: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more …”

The victim had his skull chiseled in and was strangled and left near Seaside Avenue in Waikiki.

The murderer and author of the letters was captured some days later, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, all within three weeks. This feat was facilitated because his lawyers, Beebe and Huber, offered no defense and called no witnesses. The jury included members who were part of the search party and the victim’s bodyguard and gravedigger. A Navy psychiatrist offered to testify for the defense but was rebuffed. The medical examiner was also the prosecution psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Faus. He testified that past suicide attempts by Miles Fukunaga were “normal.” Despite protests and appeals, Fukunaga was hanged.

Ten years earlier, a well-known local haole athlete, David Buick, found himself down on his luck. He ordered a taxi driver, one Ito Suzuki, to drive out of Honolulu proper to a place called Red Hill. He ordered the man to stop the car and get out. He pointed a gun at the driver and robbed him of one dollar. When Suzuki turned to flee, Buick shot him in the back. Before he died, the taxi driver identified Buick a the gunman. The charge was eventually reduced to second degree murder, and Buick is said to have returned to the Mainland following his jail time.

In both cases, there was premeditation, kidnapping, murder, and flight. Fukunaga willingly confessed and indeed showed extreme remorse. Buick never confessed or showed the slightest regret over his actions. But Fukunaga had murdered a fine boy of a prominent haole family.** Buick had only murdered a middle-aged Japanese taxi driver.

This shocking crime — Fukunaga openly cited the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder and the more recent Hickman kidnapping as his models — ratcheted up ethnic tensions in Hawaii between whites, especially elite whites, and Japanese.

The Japanese community’s newspaper Hochi mounted a vigorous clemency campaign emphasizing sentencing differences like that vis-a-vis Buick. “If Myles Fukunaga is hanged it will not be because he killed a human being,” the paper editorialized. (pdf) “It will be because he killed the son of the vice-president of one of our big trust companies and because his victim was a white boy.”

* Ethnic data of those 75 executed: 24 Hawaiian; 24 Filipino; 9 Japanese; 6 Korean; 5 Chinese; 3 Puerto Rican; 3 unknown; 1 Caucasian.

** Gill Jamieson’s father, Frederick Jamieson, was a vice president of the Hawaiian Trust Company (since folded into the Bank of Hawaii). According to Kokugo Gakko in, the targeting of a bankster family by a frustrated working-class youth (Fukunaga was reportedly logging 80-hour weeks in menial jobs, having been forced to quit school in his teens to support his family) was no coincidence at all.

In terms of his motives he said that revenge had been foremost in his mind. In 1928 his parents had been unable to meet monthly rental payments. The Hawaiian Trust company served as the collecting agent for their landlord and had sent a rent collector to the Fukunaga family to demand full payment of back rent. Humiliated and ashamed, Fukunaga bitterly resented the bank’s action and, on learning that Vice President Frederick W. Jamieson had a son, he decided to seek revenge … by kidnapping and murdering the boy. Fukunaga also confessed to another motive. As the eldest son of seven children, Fukunaga stated that he had felt a filial obligation to help his poor parents … he had hoped to accomplish this filial act with the ransom money.

All this might tend to militate against the “insanity” defense, which Fukunaga himself energetically rejected.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Hawaii,Kidnapping,Murder,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,The Supernatural,USA

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1646: Twelve at an Evora auto da fe

Add comment November 18th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1646, the city of Evora, Portugal, celebrated an auto-da-fe — one of those festivals of Catholic orthodoxy in which penitents were paraded and the most wicked amongst them burnt to death.

They were also fine times for the Inquisitors who prosecuted them, and a burden on the public treasury only made sustainable by the contemporary looting of the New World. We turn for this account of profligacy to The Marrano Factory, a book whose thesis is that the alleged “Judaizers” these displays were meant to showcase were mostly just regular Catholics caught up by the chance factors of torture-adduced accusations or the presence of some remote Jewish ancestor on the family tree.

It’s not hard to see from what follows why the guys running them might have been convinced they were doing God’s work. It’s difficult, after all, to get a man to understand something when his sweetmeats and rabbit feast depend on his not understanding it.

With time and experience, the auto-da-fe publico and its minutely regulated ceremonial grew into a grand and pompous pageant. It was attended by the top brass, often by the king and the royal family and, much as a carnival, it galvanized the whole city into communal bustle …

All defendants appearing at autos-da-fe, public or private, had to wear a sanbenito. At the Evora public auto-da-fe of November 18, 1646, 165 covados (one covado = 0.66 meters) of red and yellow cloth were used, i.e., about 87 meters of cloth for 115 penitents and persons to be executed, costing a total of 62,700 reals at 380 per covado. On the two sides were painted the insignia corresponding to the offenses. In the case of those on death row, painters called in by the Inquisition had — seeing but unseen — to sketch their features and then paint on one side of the sanbenito their portrait, head engulfed by flames.

The day on which a forthcoming auto-da-fe publico was announced in the palace of the Holy Office was a festive one, as we can ascertain from the quantity of compotes and various pastries, procured from neighboring convents and delivered on that day to the secret chambers of the Inquisition. According to the List of Expenses for the Evora auto of November 18, 1646, 64,820 reals were spent on these dainties, hence more than on the 87 meters of cloth for the sanbenitos … and more than triple the cost of feeding a prisoner during an entire year (20,000 reals). It is worth noting that prison fare included meat, in order to test whether the prisoners were observing Jewish dietary laws. This fabulous quantity and variety of foodstuffs was destined exclusively for higher echelons of lawyers and clergy, i.e., three Inquisitors, four deputies, four notaries and a prosecutor, besides the six Jesuit fathers who confessed the six persons sentenced to death …

The feasting did not stop there. Since Friday was a “fast” day on which Catholics abstain from meat, six varieties of fish (sole, mullet, eel, pollock, snapper and sardines) as well as flour and olive oil to cook them in and seasonings for fish-cakes, to the tune of 27,546 reals, were delivered at the Palace of the Inquisition, to be eaten on that day and the left overs [sic] on the Saturday preceding the auto. This fish was distributed to everyone, including the guards who received also rations of bread, meat, wine and fruit, for a total value of 760 reals. The day of the ceremony proper saw the “auto-da-fe supper,” which we are coming to, by and by.

When they were done killing, it was time for the “auto-da-fe supper,” served at the estaus. In the Evora account of November 18, 1646 it comprised about 14 kilos of lamb, 20 young chickens and pullets, 12 roasting chickens, 4 ducks, 4 rabbits, 3 turkeys (each one cost more than what was paid to the painter for one portrait of a prisoner condemned to death); one sow “which was divided by the Gentlemen Inquisitors and the notaries” and one large fruit basket, containing Bosc pears, bergamots, chapel apples and rennets. Like the sweatmeats and compotes which had arrived at the palace of the Holy Office a fortnight before the auto, this repast was meant for the higher officials … it is a curious thing that there were as many turkeys as Inquisitors, as many duck and rabbits as deputies and notaries. This evokes both the idea of an alimentary hierarchy and a kind of remuneration in commodities. However that may be, the total expense of these men in food on the occasion of the auto came to about 110,000 reals (not to mention the porcelain and cutlery), or more than half of the total expense of the auto-da-fe.

The count of 12 executed people comes from a footnote in the text attributing a 3,600-real bill to the painter Miguel Fernandes for sanbenitos of hellfire made for the condemned. However, “executed” people “could refer to live people (‘executed in the flesh’) and to dead or otherwise unavailable people (‘executed in effigy’ or ‘executed in statue’) and in the latter case their effigies (‘statues’) were to be decked out and then ‘executed’.” So, call it a total of 12 flesh-and-bones people and effigies, in some combination; if there’s a firm accounting of who was executed (and whether they were alive, dead, or absent at the time) at this particular auto, I have not yet been able to locate it.


Unrelated: Evora’s Bone Chapel.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,God,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Portugal,Public Executions,Torture

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1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy

2 comments November 17th, 2012 Headsman

Remember, remember, the fifth of … August?

If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*

They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”

Did they deserve it?

Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.

I am murtherit!

The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”

While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”

Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.

(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)

“… if it be true”

“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.

Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors'” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.

Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.

French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.

“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”

The jury’s still out

Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?

And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.

One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡

We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.

Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.

* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”

The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy.

** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.

† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.

With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.

‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1724: Willem Mons, head grafter

1 comment November 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.

Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.

Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.

“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.

There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.

Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.

“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.

Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.

These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.

On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)

The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Russia,Sex

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2011: Oba Chandler

5 comments November 15th, 2012 Meaghan

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

A year ago today, Oba Chandler was executed by lethal injection in Florida for the brutal triple homicide of a Willshire, Ohio mother and her two teenage daughters.

Thirty-six-year-old Joan Mae “Jo” Rogers and her daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were vacationing in Florida when they vanished on June 1, 1989. Three days later their bodies turned up in the Tampa Bay. All three were naked from the waist down and had their hands and feet bound, their mouths taped shut, and concrete blocks tied to their necks. Michelle had managed to free one arm before she drowned.


The victims (left to right): Joan, Michelle, and Christe Rogers.

The police initially suspected the girls’ uncle, John Rogers, even though he was in prison at the time.

Rogers had been incarcerated for rape; one of his victims was Michelle, and authorities theorized he had a third party kill her and her mother and sister. Eventually that gentleman was cleared, as was his brother Hal, husband and father of the victims.

The sexual abuse, which had gone on for years, had torn the family apart, and part of the reason for the Florida vacation was so that everyone could relax and get some distance from what had happened. Hal had wanted to join his wife and daughters on their trip, but he had to stay and look after the family’s dairy farm.

The murders and subsequent investigation were covered in heartbreaking detail in St. Petersburg Times reporter Thomas French‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning series here.

Characteristically, local gossip pursued Hal and John for years, particularly Hal. His neighbors in Ohio thought he didn’t appear traumatized enough,* noting that he never cried in public and that he continued to take care of his farm in the wake of the murders.

They didn’t care that the farm was Hal’s livelihood, that cows could not milk themselves. They didn’t care that there was no evidence that he’d left Ohio during the critical time period, and that the police had very quickly cleared Hal as a possible suspect in Jo, Michelle and Christe’s deaths. They didn’t know that he was too traumatized to sleep in his own home and spent months couch-surfing at friends’ houses. They didn’t know that he was devastated, that he’d tried to take his own life at one point so he could be with his family.

As Hal’s sister-in-law said, “There’s no protocol here. There’s no Murder 101 class. No Grief 101 that anybody thinks to give you.”

Stranger-on-stranger crimes are incredibly difficult to solve. It wasn’t until October 1989 that the police linked the Rogers family’s murders to the rape of a Canadian tourist that had happened in May, two weeks before the triple homicide. The rapist had lured the woman out onto a boat, threatened to kill her, and threatened to duct-tape her mouth if she didn’t stop screaming. After the rape he apologized to her, threw up over the side of the boat, took her to shore and let her go.

Police released a composite sketch of the woman’s attacker, whom they believed was the same man who killed the Rogerses. That got over 400 tips from the public, but none of them panned out.

Twice, the case appeared on the popular television show Unsolved Mysteries.

The authorities found some driving directions written on a brochure in Jo’s car which were not in her handwriting and which they thought were written by the murderer; they released samples to the public in the hopes that someone would recognize the writing.


Composite sketch of the suspect (top); Oba Chandler as he looked around the time of his 1992 arrest (bottom).

Finally they got a break: one of Chandler’s neighbors recognized the sketch of the rape suspect and turned his name over to the police. That same neighbor had hired Chandler to build out her porch, and she had a copy of the contract he’d written out for her. She turned the contract over to the authorities, and handwriting experts determined it was written by the same man who wrote the driving directions found in Jo’s car. Investigators also found Chandler’s palm print on the brochure.

In September 1992, convinced that they were on the right track, the police flew to Canada to interview the rape survivor from May 1989. She picked Chandler’s photo out of a line-up. With that, the authorities finally had enough evidence to make the arrest.

Chandler, an Ohio native like his victims, gave the impression of an ordinary, mild-mannered sort, but he was in fact a career criminal: he went by many alias names and had an arrest record dating back to when he was fourteen years old, for a wide range of offenses including car theft, robbery, kidnapping, receiving stolen property, possession of counterfeit money, and various sex crimes. By the time of his 1992 arrest he had racked up six felony convictions.

Chandler testified at the murder trial, against the advice of his attorney, and admitted he had met the three victims and given them directions. He could hardly deny that, given the handwriting and fingerprint evidence.

He did deny having ever seen them again after that, and he swore he’d never taken them out on his boat and never harmed them. He called the very idea “ludicrous.” In fact, he maintained his innocence until his death.

But the prosecution eviscerated him during cross-examination. Chandler claimed that on the night of the murders he’d gotten stuck out in Tampa Bay when his boat’s fuel line sprung a leak and he ran out of gas. A boat mechanic employed by the Florida Marine Patrol examined the vessel and determined that this story was impossible: the boat had an anti-siphon valve that would have prevented a leak.

The Canadian rape victim was permitted to testify. She didn’t cry as she described what happened to her, but some of the jurors did. One of Chandler’s adult daughters (he had eight children by seven different women) also testified, saying her father had told her he’d raped a foreign tourist and also killed some women in Florida.

The judge who presided over the trial later said Chandler was “the vilest, most evil defendant I ever handled.” When the jury retired, they took an initial poll among themselves and discovered that all twelve believed he was guilty. For form’s sake, however, they waited an hour and a half before returning with their verdict.

There’s some speculation that Chandler was involved in other murders besides those of the Rogers family.

Linda Lois Little, a Daytona Beach woman, disappeared on his birthday in 1991 and was never found. One of Little’s sisters thinks saw him at her apartment complex a few days before Little disappeared. Chandler refused to answer law enforcement’s questions about Little’s disappearance and his involvement has never been proved one way or the other.

During his seventeen years on death row, Chandler never had a single visitor, not even any of his own relatives. The execution, which went smoothly, was attended by Michelle and Christe’s cousin, as well as a reluctant Hal Rogers. He remarried more than a decade after his family’s murder and became a stepfather of four, but wasn’t able to have any more children.

When asked if he had any last words, Chandler simply answered, “No.” He did leave a written statement that simply said, “You are killing an innocent man today.”

No one believed him.

* “Didn’t display the right kind of grief in the right kind of way for the right amount of time” was also one of the raps on wrongly executed “arsonist” Cameron Todd Willingham.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1943: The Zalkind family

4 comments November 13th, 2012 Meaghan

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

Sometime in the autumn of 1943, a refined actor had a family of Vilna/Vilnius Jews summarily hanged on a public gallows.

Vilna* was one of the major Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

Noted for its rich cultural life, the Vilna Ghetto, which at its peak contained approximately 40,000 people, lasted from September 6, 1941 to September 24, 1943. By the end of its existence, however, through starvation, overwork, disease, and bullets, the ghetto’s population had been reduced by three-quarters.

In late September 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. Most of the inhabitants were taken to the nearby forest in Ponar and shot, or sent to extermination camps in Poland or work camps in Estonia, where almost all of them died.

The convivial Bruno Kittel

The liquidation was supervised by German Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. (He is not to be confused with Otto “Bruno” Kittel, the Luftwaffe flying ace.)

Kittel was an actor. He graduated from the theater school in Berlin and from the plundering school in Frankfurt. On Sundays he played songs on his saxophone at the Vilna radio station. Kittel was not only the youngest of his colleagues; he was the most zealous … [His] reputation extended from Riga to Lodz to Warsaw.

At first glance, you would never guess that Kittel was an executioner. Constantly smiling with his dazzling white teeth, he was perfumed, elegant, polite, and refined.

After the ghetto was no more, a few skilled craftsmen and artisans whose work was essential to the war effort remained within the city at one of three labor camps.

Karl Plagge, a German major in charge of the HKP 562 camp, was sympathetic to the plight of his workers and worked to save their lives, albeit without much success. For this, he would later be honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.

During the liquidation, in an attempt to avoid capture, many of the Vilna Jews concealed themselves in hiding places and bunkers, called “malines” or “malinas”. Sadly, the Nazis caught almost all of them, but a few were able to wait out the carnage and then escape.

The Zalkind family were among the fortunate people who were able to remain in hiding throughout the liquidation.

But they did not survive for very long afterwards.

Their final days are described in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a collection of accounts of atrocities in the Soviet Union from which the observation about Kittel above is also drawn.

Journalists and historians began gathering eyewitness statements before the war was even over, and Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman assembled and edited the accounts and finished the Black Book in 1946. It was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, Stalin refused to allow its publication and had the type-plates and galley proofs destroyed in 1948.

A few copies survived, and the book was finally published in Russian in 1993. The English translation came out in 2002.

The full names of the Mr. and Mrs. Zalkind and their son are not recorded. Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names lists a Masha Zalkind, age 34, a store manager who was married to Moshe, and Hone Khona Zalkind, 2, whose parents were Masha and Moshe. Both lived in Vilna during the war and were killed in 1943; they might well be the mother and son from this story.

There are several Moshe Zalkinds listed. One, a tailor who was born in 1907, lived in Vilna and was married to Masha. He’s the closest match, but it says he was in Estonia during the war and was killed in 1944.

In any case, the Zalkinds were on the Aryan side of Vilna, probably posing as Christians with forged identity papers, when they were spotted in the street by Bruno Kittel. The Black Book records::

Suspecting they were Jews, Kittel stopped them and had them sent to the concentration camp [at 37 Suboch Street], where he determined that their name was Zalkind and that up until now they had been hiding in a malina. He ordered a gallows to be erected in the middle of the yard and summoned sixty SS men from the Gestapo. When everything was ready and the yard was full of SS surrounding the doomed Zalkinds — husband, wife and child — Kittel said:

“For having violated my order and hiding in the city, you will now be hanged in front of everyone.”

Kittel went over to the gallows to be sure that the rope was strong; then he began the execution process. The child was the first to be hanged. Then the mother. When the noose was tightened around the father’s neck, the rope broke.

Kittel ordered a new noose to be made. But as soon as Zalkind was hanging from it, the rope broke again.

Kittel was simply amused by it all.

“If the rope should break a hundred times, I’ll hang you a hundred times,” he said. And he ordered the hangman to prepare another rope.

Following the rule of collective responsibility, after Mr. Zalkind finally died, Kittel randomly selected fifty inmates of the camp, loaded them into a van and hauled them off to their deaths at Ponar.

Only a few hundred of the Vilna Ghetto’s Jews, mostly those assisted by Major Plagge, survived the Nazi era. Some of the Germans who helped wipe out this city’s once-vibrant Jewish community were apprehended after the war and prosecuted.

Bruno Kittel, however, disappeared without a trace and was never found at all.

* At the time, Vilna was part of Poland. Vilna was its Yiddish name; the Polish name was Wilnow. The city is now the capital of Lithuania and called Vilnius.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,Lithuania,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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