What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it.
-Lena Baker’s final statement
The state of Georgia has only ever electrocuted a single woman: African-American maid Lena Baker, put to death on this date in 1945 for murdering her abusive employer.
Baker was a sharecropper and a former sex worker hired to care for white mill owner Ernest Knight as he recuperated from a broken leg. This, as Baker’s biographer Lela Bond Phillips puts it, “developed into a sexual relationship.”
Both Knight and Baker were alcoholics, and the Knight liked to keep his domestic in the gristmill for days on end.*
As an interracial liason, it was also entirely taboo; Knight’s son tried everything to separate his dad from this scandalous arrangement, including moving the family and beating up Baker.
Knight pere was even more committed to keeping her.
On the night of April 29-30, 1944, the elder Knight locked Baker up in the mill, after she’d attempted to flee him. Baker testified that after Knight got back from church — it was Sunday, after all — Baker tried to leave over Knight’s threats. The two fought over Knight’s pistol, and the fight ended when the pistol discharged through Knight’s head. As to how it went off or who pulled the trigger, Baker said she didn’t know.
Although the irascible, hard-drinking Knight wouldn’t have won any popularity contests among his white neighbors, this breach of the color line was prosecuted both vigorously and speedily: a one-day trial that August (the all-white, all-male jury goes without saying, right?) sufficed to send the maid to her death.**
** In 2005, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — which turned down Baker’s clemency application in early 1945 — issued a posthumous pardon suggesting that a non-death penalty manslaughter charge would have been the more appropriate conviction. Baker’s family and defenders read that as vindication; there’s a detailed NPR story about it here.
On this date* in 1561, the once-powerful Cardinal Carlo Carafa was put to death by strangulation in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — victim of deadly Vatican politics.
Fruit of a powerful Neapolitan noble house — it was a Carafa who stuck fig leafs on Michelangelo nudes — Carlo Carafa went out on campaign in the dynastic wars chewing up the peninsula in the 16th century. In some outlandish vindictive pique, he elevated an offense from a Spaniard into not only a reason to switch sides to the French, but a reason to do stuff like massacre Spaniards in a captured hospital. Class act all the way.
In this capacity, he had the whip hand in Vatican foreign policy in the late 1550’s … until the growing reports of his reprobate lifestyle led Paul IV to demote him. Virulently anti-Protestant, the obnoxiously upright Paul had been preoccupied intensifying the Inquisition. He took personal umbrage once convinced of his relative’s unworthiness: “He had planned to make his reign the period of great reforms,” writes Kenneth Meyer Setton. “The corruption of Cardinal Carlo Carafa had made a travesty of his efforts.”
now you should mourn
handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity!
Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes:
Ascanio, whose face was handsomer
than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods
(Carafa had a plentiful menu of heterosexual scandals attributed, too. And other good stuff like starting an idiotic war of choice — with Spain, of course — that despoiled Church coffers and reversed the Vatican’s strategic interests.)
In such a state of disgrace — and more importantly, having been stymied in their anti-Spanish foreign policy — the Carafa house and faction was in line for something more serious than public humiliation when the disappointed octogenarian pontiff passed away later in 1559.
Upon the succession of a rival Medici pope, Pius IV, Carlo Carafa was hailed before a kangaroo court with his brother and partner-in-dissipation Giovanni on a rap sheet with every real and imagined indiscretion of their wild years.† Carlo was strangled and Giovanni Carafa beheaded.
Despite the nephews’ undoubted viciousness, their executions were basically about power and policy.
And though they had also screwed up policy, the next pope decided to look forward-backward, not backward-backward. In 1567, Pius V posthumously rehabilitated the naughty dead Carlo; today, you’ll find his now-vindicated remains interred at the family chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva cathedral.
“The people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”
On this date in 1865, the Confederate forces defending Galveston, Texas shot Antone Richers for desertion.
With the U.S. Civil War into its mopping-up phase, the Texas port was bracing for the Union to land an irresistible force. Many soldiers inclined less to brace than to bow: with the handwriting on the wall for any fool to see, the grey army suffered an epidemic of judicious desertions.
Antone Richers was one of these. Just, maybe not so judicious.
Richers was retrieved from the drink when the stolen boat he was attempting to ride out to the Union blockade capsized, and the upright Confederate officer who pulled him out wouldn’t take a bribe to keep keep quiet about it.
A sharp rattle of musketry, and the prisoner fell dead, several balls having passed through his breast … The saddest part of the story remains to be told. The friends of [the prisoner] had sent Rev. Father Ansteadt on the day before the execution, by hand car, to Houston, as bearer of documents addressed to General Walker, showing that [Richers] was not of sound mind, and setting forth other reasons why he ought to be respited. The telegraph line between [Galveston] and Houston broke down the evening before the execution, and remained down [until] fifteen minutes after the execution. No intelligence from General Walker could therefore reach [Galveston]. But as soon as the telegraph operated, a dispatch was received from General Walker, dated the night before, containing an order for the respite of Anton [Richers]. It was too late — the man was dead.
It was Galveston’s second and last military execution of the war.
On this date in 1942, on the first day of Purim, Jakub Lemberg was executed together with his family in the Nazi ghetto in Zdunska Wola, Poland.
Lemburg, a 43-year-old internist and pediatrician, was head of the Judenrat in Zdunska Wola and thus it was his task to do the Nazis’ dirty work, such as putting together lists of his fellow-Jews for deportation.
The Gestapo chief ordered Dr. Lemberg to deliver ten Jews to be hanged for the ten hanged sons of Haman. Dr. Lemberg replied that he could deliver only four Jews: himself, his wife and their two children. Hans Biebow, “the Butcher of Lodz,” seized Dr. Lemberg and turned him over to the executioners, who killed him in the cemetery.
The Zdunska Wola ghetto was liquidated five months later. And in 1947, Biebow got his.
Here’s an image of Lemberg testimony (in Hebrew) from the Yad Vashem database.
The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.
Dover Milles, Civil War era illustration
The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.
… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.
Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.
This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.
The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”
Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.
Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.
There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:
Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.
That is some blowback.
Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination
* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.
** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.
That date, February 27, also happens to be the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day celebration — because a year to the date before her death, Maria Sanchez, her brother, and others of the anti-colonial La Trinitaria proclaimed independence from a bloody 22-year Haitian occupation.
Maria Sanchez, together with another woman named Concepcion Bona, made the first Dominican Republic flag.
Sanchez and Bona’s original flag for the Dominican Republic.
This was all well and good, until the resulting head of state steered the Dominican Republic towards recolonization by Spain, as a hedge against reconquest by Haiti. La Trinitaria types took an understandably dim view of this gambit, so busting them up was part of the deal.
Many of the country’s founding heroes, including brother Francisco, were chased into exile; Maria was rounded up by the new government and tortured for information about the Trinitarian “plots” against the new regime. She refused to name any names, and was shot on the country’s first independence anniversary.
On this date in 1897, all Versailles turned out to witness the beheading of recidivist pedophile Henri-Osime Basset, a 23-year-old who had kidnapped and strangled to death (French link) 13-year-old Louise Millier the previous summer.
Executioner Anatole Deibler and crew arrived at 3:30 a.m. to erect the portable guillotine at the pont Colbert* for the occasion, under the eyes of a curious pre-dawn crowd restrained by dragoons; by 4:45 la sinistre machine was fully installed.
About an hour after that, the prisoner Basset was awoken from his fitful sleep — he’d been plagued by restless guillotine-themed dreams lately, for some reason — and advised that his application for presidential clemency had been denied.
Le Petit Parisien nevertheless found the prisoner in steady enough spirits for his expiatory moment. He took the bad news with equanimity, received communion, and stuck close by the comforting priest to whom he had already given his last confession. (And who helpfully steeled the doomed man’s nerves with a steady supply of rum, cigars, and Bourdeaux wine.)
In any event, the practiced French executioners did not give Basset long to stew on his fate. After the toilette to prepare him for the blade, he was out the door shortly after 6 a.m. — broad daylight by now, and the crowd swollen in anticipation of the show. The blade fell at 6:33, and the remains of the late Henri-Osime Basset were immediately deposited at the Cimetirie des Gonards.
* This is pont Colbert in Versailles, not the cool then-new steel bridge in Dieppe, which is now the last hydraulic turn bridge still in use in Europe.
On this day in 1942, the Nazis shot five Jewish men from Sokal, which was then part of Poland and now belongs to the Ukraine.
During the first years of the war, the Germans had designated Sokal as a Judenstadt (literally “Jew-town”), a central destination point for all Jews expelled from nearby towns and villages. Or, as diarist Moshe Maltz put it, “A solitary island in a sea of blood.”
It was Maltz, an Orthodox Jew and native of Sokal, who recorded the executions described in this entry. He kept regular notes throughout the war about the plight of Sokal’s Jews — not a diary exactly, but a chronicle, meant for the benefit of history.
On February 24, five Jews from Sokal were taken to a place somewhere on the outskirts of town and shot. One of them was Yeshaye, son of Yankel the coachman. In 1940, during the period of Soviet occupation, Yeshaye had been a coachman working for the NKVD. Now the Gestapo called him and ordered him to turn over to them the reins of his horses. They said to him, “We’ll give you three days to deliver those reins to us. If we don’t get them by that time, we’ll have you shot.” Yeshaye thought that the Gestapo must be joking. How could he go on working as a coachman without his reins? Unfortunately for Yeshaye, the Gestapo men were in dead earnest.
Also among the five shot was Dr. Knopf, a lawyer who had converted to Christianity. The Germans had ordered him to dismiss his Gentile maid so that she could be sent to work in Germany. Knopf petitioned the Gestapo to let him have his maid back. That’s why the Germans shot him. Despite his baptism, he was simply not an Aryan. The third victim was blind Yankel, who was found guilty of buying and slaughtering a calf. Under German occupation regulations, cattle can be slaughtered only by officially approved butchers.
In October 1942, the Jews of Sokal were confined to a ghetto. The following month Maltz wrote, with the same dispassionate tone, of the murder of his fourteen-month-old daughter at the hands of the Nazis.
Later in November he escaped from the ghetto with his wife and surviving son. They had made an arrangement with a Polish woman who lived nearby, and moved into her hayloft, above the pigsty.
Eventually fourteen people from three families in all would come to live in the hayloft. All of them survived except Maltz’s sister, who died of fever while in hiding. The others staggered out into daylight, barely able to walk, when the Russians liberated the area in July 1944.
Maltz and his entire family eventually emigrated to the USA.
On this date in 1906, still implausibly claiming his innocence, “Johann Otto Hoch” was hanged for the murder of his wife.
Though Hoch died “merely” for that one homicide, he was suspected of numerous others in a prolific career of avaricious bigamy.
Born as Jacob Schmidt in Germany a half-century or so before he hanged, Hoch immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s and started wife-hopping for fun and profit, recycling names almost as frequently. (Hoch just happens to be the alias he was using when arrested: actually, it was the name of one of his victims, “a warped keepsake stored in an evil mind.”)
It’s a classicscam, really: woo, wed, and walk out — taking the spurned spouse’s assets with. Rinse and repeat. In 1905, Charlotte Smith of the Women’s Rescue League estimated that “no less than 50,000 women who have been married, robbed and deserted by professional bigamists.” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 5, 1905)
“Marriage was purely a business proposition to me,” Hoch eventually admitted.
Sometimes Hoch was content to vanish with the cash (with nice twists, like a hat left by a riverbank to suggest drowning). Other times, he went above and beyond the standard in the professional-bigamy industry and availed the expedient of loosing the matrimonial bonds (and the purses of life insurers) by graduating himself to widowhood.
Precisely how many women he poisoned off with arsenic isn’t known exactly, but it’s thought to range into the double digits. And when he was on his game, he was known to churn through the ladies at breakneck speed. His last murder victim, and the one he hanged for, was Marie Walcker of Chicago … but as Marie lay dying of her husband’s expert ministrations, Johann, bold as brass, proposed to Marie’s sister Amelia. Those two “lovebirds” married a week later and within hours, the groom had disappeared, pocking $1,250.
Call Amelia doltish if you will, but she went straight to the police. It turned out it was Hoch who recklessly set himself up for capture with this whirlwind double-dip courtship, and the very freshly buried evidence of his recent malignity was easily retrieved from his late ex’s stomach. When arrested in New York, Hoch had a hollow pen full of arsenic.
Naturally, the marriage proposals poured in as Hoch awaited trial early in 1905.
Hoch was actually within moments of hanging in July 1905 when his defense team finally managed to raise the last $500 necessary to lodge an appeal. That’s right: justice with a co-pay. The legislature had considered, but had not passed, a law giving every death-sentenced person the right to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, and in lieu of such a measure, an appellant had to pony up for the privilege.
22 February 1684. — After dinner I went to the Laigh Council house, where the three condemned men were brought before Baillie Chancellour, who inquired if they had any more to say for themselves, and if they would bid God save the King? They said, they were not now come to answer, neither would they answer questions, and the refused not to obey all the King’s lawful commands. They refused to hear one of the town curates pray; but he beginning, not desired, George Martin offered to interrupt him the time of his prayer, by saying, ‘Let us be gone, what have we to do here?’ but he ended his prayer without stopping. They were hanged in the Grassmarket, but I went not to the place of execution.