That day, after an appetizer of conventional bombing, Iraqi jets dropped a cocktail of multiple chemical weapons — mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and VX, give or take — killing up to 5,000 people.
“It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame,” wrote the ethnically Iranian BBC correspondent Kaveh Golestan,* who arrived on the scene after the bombardment.
“It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (…) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.”
The Halabja attack was the last of four separate death sentences Chemical Ali racked up after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it was handed down just a week before he stood on the gallows. The larger Kurdish genocide campaign as a whole was a separate death sentence from Halabja; there were also two others for his brutal suppressions of Shia uprisings in the 1990s.
He met all his tribunals defiantly, refusing to enter a plea and then openly embracing the atrocities imputed him. “I am the one who gave orders to the army to demolish villages and relocate villagers,” he once spat in court. “I am not defending myself, I am not apologizing. I did not make a mistake.”
On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.
Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”
She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.
Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.
With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.
I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.
Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.
This date in 1985 spelled farewell for the KGB agent Vladimir Vetrov … code-named Farewell by the western handlers to whom he passed Soviet secrets.
Vladimir Vetrov was a career officer in Soviet intelligence who grew disgruntled* and in 1980 went to work for the West.
And he was no ordinary spy. Think Aldrich Ames, to the power of ten.
Vladimir Vetrov oversaw the entire KGB directorate charged with a critical program: Line X, which surveilled western R&D and passed its fruits back to Mother Russia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Line X stole jaw-dropping volumes of military, computer, and industrial advances.
And by 1980, all that information passed through Vetrov’s hands for distribution within the USSR. His betrayal blew the entire thing to smithereens.
When he turned, Vetrov gave 3,000 pages of top-secret documents to his French handlers, information which also made its way to the CIA. “The Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States,” recalls the gobsmacked American defense advisor who reviewed the file. “Our science was supporting their national defense.”
The Farewell dossier exposed the entirety of the Soviet technology-stealing infrastructure, with a couple of enormous consequences.
One, it influenced Cold War strategy in the West, supporting the Reagan administration’s view that the Soviet economy (absent its stolen technological advances) could be pushed into collapse.
And two, it facilitated Langley’s most spectacular counterespionage coup, brainchild of Gus Weiss. Rather than smashing up the Line X network, the CIA turned the enormous (and in Moscow, trusted) apparatus against its creators.
By feeding Soviet agents promising but subtly flawed technology, the Americans infiltrated sabotage points into the USSR — a Trojan Horse for the information age. In 1982, software running the Soviet Trans-Siberian Pipeline allegedly escalated gas pressure fatally on the Urengoy-Surgut-Chelyabinsk pipeline, triggering an explosion so large (three kilotons) that some foreign monitoring stations initially suspected a nuclear detonation. Weiss just told them not to worry.
Meanwhile, goes the story (and one must discount appropriately here for triumphalist spin), other crapware started failing elsewhere in the Soviet Union. “Pseudo-software disrupted factory output. Flawed but convincing ideas on stealth, attack aircraft and space defense made their way into Soviet ministries.” Suddenly, the Russians couldn’t know which Line X acquisitions were dependable and which were time bombs.
From Farewell, a 2009 film.
Vetrov’s candle burned bright, but brief: he stabbed his mistress (non-fatally) during a drunken argument in 1982, then stabbed to death the man who knocked on his window to intervene. Vetrov got a trip to Siberia, but while serving his time, he casually revealed that he’d authored maybe the most spectacular inside betrayal of Russian intelligence in the 20th century. He was duly recalled for a new trial and, eventually, a bullet in the head in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Even in the post-communist state, he’s still considered a villain in his homeland.
* Vetrov didn’t betray the Kremlin for money. Sergei Kostin believes it was professional frustration — the revenge of the underappreciated nebbish whose merits couldn’t break through the nepotism ceiling at the clubby KGB. However — though the explanations are not necessarily inconsistent — Vetrov also wrote a pre-execution “Confession of a Traitor” savaging the Soviet system: “My only regret is that I was not able to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to France.”
The Affair of the Placards was the September 11 of the early French Reformation when the overnight posting of anti-Catholic placards sent the polity off the rails, claimed six victims on this date in 1535.
The formerly indulgent Renaissance-king Francis I was obliged by this late-1534 effusion of propagandizing to dissociate violently from heretical tolerance.
And maybe that would have been that. But the first placard incident was repeated by a follow-up posting on the night of Jan. 12-13 of an anti-sacramental pamphlet by Antoine Marcourt — the anthrax mailings to the hijacked planes, as it were — charging (French) that the Catholic “Mass has plunged half the world into an abyss of public idolatry.”
Francis flipped out. He closed bookstores and suppressed publishing. “One does not argue with heretics,” the Sorbonne agreed. What, do you want the terrorists to win?
So on this date in 1535, a grand Catholic procession — representing all the city’s guilds, all its religious orders, all its holy relics, and all its princes of the blood, with Francis himself modestly carrying a penitential taper to absolve his capital — wound through the city, punctuated by the torching of six accused Protestants.
At the ensuing feast, the king announced his intention to destroy heresy.
The procession of January 1535, with the inclusion of the sacrament, the number of holy objects transported, and the involvement of so many notables, was unprecedented. The elaborate character of the ritual is a good indication of the seriousness with which the authorities viewed this most recent evidence of the inclusion of heresy into French territory. The posting of the placards was regarded as a pollution of the king’s realm, the perceived danger being that the disease contaminating and “infecting some of his subjects” would multiply, undermining the very constitution of the social body … An attack upon the holy sacrament, according to the logic of the symbolism employed in the procession, presents a direct threat to the sacral character of the community, to the nation’s well-being, and hence amounts to an oblique attack on the person of the sovereign. Given the close association established between the sacrament and the monarch, it is no wonder that those implicated in the affair of the placards were regarded as being guilty not only of heresy but also of lese-majeste. (Source)
And maybe early modern France had a point with that weird old sacred-monarch stuff. The very same date two and a half centuries later saw a Parisian mob which had clearly lost any sense of the sacral sovereign behead the king himself.
On this date in 1964, Cambodian dissident Preap In was shot in Trapeang Kraleung … an execution so public that every cinema-goer in the country would witness it.
This is the Cambodia of Narodom Sihanouk — “a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king,” in the words of one obituary when he died late last year.
Plucked from the distant branches of the royal family tree and set up on the throne as an 18-year-old French puppet in 1941, Sihanouk cast a long shadow over his country for the balance of his long life. He surprised his colonial overseers by agitating, successfully, for independence, adding to his regal stature the laurels of national patrimony.
He would in 1955 abdicate the throne — settling for “Prince Sihanouk” — to operate as a conventional politician. One who was the father of his country and the shadow-king. Needless to say, Sihanouk dominated the ensuing era of Cambodian politics.
That politics makes for dizzying reading. At one level, Sihanouk was basically an autocrat with a fairly corrupt developing state. But his statecrafting finesse elevated him far above the bog-standard Cold War dictator. Sihanouk dextrously played the French off against the Americans, East off against West, and shifted the tone of his domestic governance from socialism to Buddhism to nationalism with everything in between. He was a consummate survivor steering a small state on an independent course through the dangers of Cold War ideologies and allegiances.
In 1963-64, Sihanouk’s relations with the United States were on the outs.* Although Sihanouk was also a rival of the late Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, he can’t have welcomed that man’s ouster and execution with the blessing of the superpower sitting right next door with so much megatonnage.
A natural suspicion, only heightened by known CIA patronage of the Khmer Serei (“Free Khmer”), right-wing but anti-monarchist guerrillas led by a longtime Sihanouk foe named Son Ngoc Thanh.
Long story short, Sihanouk as part of his geopolitical machinations had been firing demands at the Americans that they prevail upon their Southeast Asian clientele to put the screws to the Khmer Serei — who used extraterritorial bases to send radio broadcasts into Cambodia. In late 1963, the young engineering student Preap In, who had become a Khmer Serei operative, slipped back into Cambodia with a safe conduct from his uncle In Tam.
Though he would later help to overthrow it, In Tam was a powerful political figure in Sihanouk’s state, at this time governor of Takeo. But he was setting up his nephew or else someone else was, and the “safe conduct” proved an utter sham.
On November 19, at a special national congress, Sihanouk announced the arrest of the two Khmer Serei operatives, Saing San and Preap In … After several conversations with officials in Takeo, In and Saing San had been arrested peremptorily, brought to Phnom Penh under guard, and put on display in cages at the national congress. Facing the prisoners and surrounded by thousands of supporters, Sihanouk denied making any special arrangements with them, and the congress soon became an impromptu judicial hearing. Sihanouk asked both men to admit that the Americans were aiding Son Ngoc Thanh and providing the Khmer Serei with radio transmitters. Saing San said yes to both questions and was immediately released. Preap In, apparently in shock, stared straight to the front, refusing to answer. Sihanouk then demanded that he be subjected to the “will of the congress.” Hundreds of spectators stormed the cage where Preap In stood in silence, bombarding him with rubber sandals, debris, and abuse until he was hustled away to face trial at the hands of a military court. (Source)
Sihanouk not only advanced the public shooting of the young Khmer Serei, but he ordered it filmed; the graphic 15-minute newsreel was played before feature attractions in cinemas throughout Cambodia for weeks to come, while still shots of the execution were distributed on propaganda posters.
Authoritarian Sihanouk may have been, but theatrical bloodletting wasn’t otherwise known as his style. Preap In’s lasciviously rough treatment stood out for its novelty and revolted many Cambodians; David Chandler would remark that this event “frequently surfaced in the 1980s when informants sought to date the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.” Despite that onetime multimedia exposure, if the video or still images from it are accessible online I have not found them. This still image from a (I believe) Sihanouk-era firing squad execution is the best I’ve got, but as my Khmer is a little rusty, I’m at a loss to identify the unfortunate fellow on the post.
On this day in 1894, Bomberger was hanged in the four-year-old state of North Dakota for the gruesome mass murder he’d committed the year before. His execution within sight of the Kreider home where he’d slaughtered six people (and raped a seventh) went off smoothly, but it almost didn’t: when the trap was sprung, his feet were only six inches above the ground.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1871, Bomberger left home as a teenager and worked his way west. At some undetermined point, he was hired to work on the Kreider on a farm southeast of Cando, North Dakota, a job that came with his own room within the farmers’ home. Bomberger was apparently a relative of some sort, and hailed from the same part of Pennsylvania the Kreiders were originally from.
The Kreider family was a large one. Besides Daniel S. Kreider* and his wife Barbara, there were eight children: sons Aaron, 12, David, 7, and Henry, 3, and daughters Annie, 15, Bernice, 13, Murby, 11, Mary, 9, and Eva, 5.**
Bomberger became infatuated with the eldest daughter Annie and would not be put off by her rebuffs. After midnight on July 6, 1893, he sneaked into her bedroom, which was next to his own; Annie kicked him out and threatened to tell her parents if he didn’t quit bothering her. Bomberger slunk back to his bed, furious and humiliated, and plotted revenge.
On the morning of July 7, Bomberger found Daniel Kreider asleep in bed and shot him with a double-barreled shotgun.
Then he went down to the kitchen where Mrs. Kreider was fixing breakfast and shot her to death as well.
And last, he penned up Annie, Aaron, Eve and Henry in his bedroom.
With those kids locked up, Bomberger tracked down Murby, Mary and David, and blasted them with a single load of buckshot each.
13-year-old Bernice attempted escape by jumping out a second-floor window and running for help. Bomberger caught her, and she cried and begged to be allowed to see her family again. He obligingly took her inside, showed her each of the dead bodies (Mary turned out to be still alive, so Bomberger slit her throat), then then shot Bernice dead at close range while she cowered in the corner with her hands over her face.
While Bomberger was thus occupied, Aaron, Eva and Henry escaped his room and hid elsewhere in the farm. The murderer wasn’t interested in them anyway; he turned his attentions to Annie. He raped her in her bedroom, took her to the barn, raped her again and then forced her to make his breakfast, give him $50, and pack his lunch.
Bomberger then tied Annie up, put her in the barn’s loft, saddled up and rode straight for the nearby Canadian border on one of the children’s horses.
He did make it to Manitoba, but that didn’t stop Cando’s sheriff from hopping the 49th parallel himself to arrest the murderer. Bomberger had little to say for himself. He seemed indifferent to his fate and, when asked to explain why he’d committed such a horrific crime, blamed booze.
He even pleaded guilty: the entire court procedure lasted fifteen minutes.
Almost 120 years later, amateur historian R. Michael Wilson would say that, of all the criminals he’d written about in his extensive studies of crime in the western United States, Albert Bomberger stood out as one of the most horrible.
The dead Kreiders were buried together in one grave at a Mennonite cemetery in their home state of Pennsylvania. Some 15,000 people attended their funeral. The murder farm was sold at auction; the house where the murders took place burned down in 1917.
As for the surviving children, they stayed in Pennsylvania after the murders. Annie married, had at least two children and lived a long life: she died in 1960, age 82.
* The brother of future Pennsylvania Congressman Aaron Kreider (R).
** Various sources give them different ages; these are the best estimations I could make. It’s also worth noting that Murby’s name is occasionally given as “Merby” or “Melby” and Bernice may be called “Beatrice”. I’m going with the names as they were listed in the cemetery records, but those could well be wrong.
ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens was the scene of a triple execution today. Three terrorists were hanged in a row after having been condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop. Their trial took place before a drumhead court martial.
New York Times Jan 18, 1907
ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens here to-day were the scene of a triple execution. Three Terrorists condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop were hanged in a row. They obtained only $3.50 from the store they robbed.
This atrocity (derogated as “Field Courts Martial which endeavor to confuse ordinary civil offenses with revolutionary acts leading to the almost daily execution of offenders, who in civilized lands would receive only the most trivial sentences.”) appeared in a petition for the U.S. Congress to condemn the Russian crackdown against agitators in the waning 1905 revolution.
We, the undersigned, believe that it is time for civilized nations to protest against the atrocities practiced by the Russian Government in its prolonged warfare against its own people.
The subject is one which interests all nations, as a matter of common humanity. On more than one occasion governments have taken action for the amelioration of termination of abhorrent conditions existing in foreign countries. Many instances might be cited, but we content ourselves, as sufficient for our present purposes in citing the case of the Bulgarian atrocities in 1877, when Russia, in taking advantage of the general horror excited by the inhumanities of the Turkish forces within the dominions of the Sultan, intervened in the name of humanity, to rescue the inhabitants of Bulgaria from their deplorable condition. Fifty years before, various European powers, of whom Russia was one, intervened to redeem the Greek inhabitants of the Sultan’s dominions from barbarities and oppression. In seeking now some entirely pacific means of inducing the Russian Government to ameliorate the condition of its subjects, we are asking for nothing which the Russian Government has not itself in times past afforded a good precedent.
One notices that among the behaviors viewed by this petition’s congressional sponsors as “disregardful of the usual customs of civilized nations” when conducted by tsarist Russia were acts that in other times members of that august body would rise to defend: “Tortures are applied to prisoners within fortresses and prisons to elicit information.”
On this date in 1813, the British intensified their war against machine-wrecking Luddites by executing 14 at York.
We touched last week on Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe, three Luddites hanged for assassinating a wool manufacturer during the dirty war that resulted from mechanizing formerly-artisanal textile production. The Luddite Bicentenary blog was prominently linked in that post; it’s been chronicling the real-time course of the Luddite rebellion from two hundred years’ remove, and is a recommended follow for anyone interested in this period.
Today, the Luddite Bicentenary marks the mass hangings of January 16, 1813, pursuant to sentences issued by that same special tribunal in York. Most had been convicted of an attack on nearby Rawfolds Mill; others, for taking part in two home-invasion robberies for the purpose of obtaining weapons.
Enjoy the full story at Luddite Bicentenary … but here’s a teaser excerpt from the January 23, 1813 Leeds Mercury‘s account of the “inexpressibly awful” sequential mass-hangings, seven upon seven, widowing 13 wives and leaving 56 children (and a 57th on the way) fatherless.
After sentence of death had been passed upon the persons convicted of making the attack on Mr. Cartwright’s Mill, at Rawfolds, and of the Burglaries, fifteen in number, all of them except John Lumb, who was reprieved, were removed to the condemned-ward, and their behaviour in that place was very suitable to their unhappy situation…
if any of these unfortunate men possessed any secret that it might have been important to the public to know, they suffered it to die with them. Their discoveries were meagre in the extreme. Not one of them impeached any of their accomplices, nor did they state, as might reasonably have been expected, where the depot of arms, in the collection of which some of them had been personally engaged, was to be found. When interrogated on this point, some of them disclaimed all knowledge of the place, and others said, Benjamin Walker, the informer against Mellor, Thorpe, and Smith, could give the best information about the arms, as he had been present at most of the depredations. … The principal part of these ill-fated men were married and have left families. William Hartley, has left seven children, their mother, happily for herself, died about half a year ago. John Ogden, wife and two children; Nathan Hoyle, wife and seven children; Joseph Crowther, wife pregnant, and four children; John Hill, wife and two children; John Walker, wife and five children; Jonathan Dean, wife and seven children; Thomas Brook, wife and three children; John Swallow, wife and six children; John Batley, wife and one child; John Fisher, wife and three children; Job Hey, wife and seven children; James Hey, wife and two children; James Haigh, wife, but no children. On the morning before the execution, the eldest daughter of Hartley obtain permission to visit a wretched parent, when a scene took place which we will not attempt to describe. The heart-broken father wished to have been spared the anguish of this parting interval, but the importunate intreaties of his child a last prevailed, and they met to take a long farewell, never again to be repeated in this world. What must be the feelings of an affectionate father, (for such in this trying moment he appears to have shewn himself,) when, though standing on the brink of eternity, he declines to see a darling child; how great an aggravation of his punishment must those parting pangs of inflicted, and how loud an admonition does this melancholy incident suggest to the Fathers of families against entering into combinations that may place them in the same inexpressibly afflicted situations. It was Hartley’s particular request that the public should be informed of the number and unprovided situation of his orphan family.
At 11 o’clock on Saturday morning, the Under Sheriff went to demand the bodies of John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, and Thomas Brook. They were all engaged in singing a hymn:
Behold the Saviour of Mankind,
Nail’d to the shameful tree;
How vast the love that him inclin’d
To bleed and for me, &c.
Which one of them [Luddite Bicentennary notes: John Walker, according to the Leeds Intelligencer] dictated in a firm tone of voice; and in this religious service they continued on their way to the platform, and some time after they had arrived at the fatal spot. They then join the ordinary with great fervency in the prayers appointed to be read on such occasions, and after that gentleman had taken his final leave of them, ejaculations to the throne of mercy rose from every part of the crowded platform.
Joseph Crowther addressing himself to the spectators said, “Farewell Lads;” another whose name we could not collect said, “I am prepared for the Lord,” and John Hill, advancing a step or two on the platform, said, “Friends! all take warning by my fate; for three years I followed the Lord, but about half a year since, I began to fall away; and fell by little and little, and at last I am come to this; persevere in the ways of godliness, and O! take warning by my fate!” The executioner then proceeded to the discharge of his duty, and the falling of the platform soon after, forced an involuntary shriek from the vast concourse of spectators assembled to witness this tremendous sacrifice to the injured laws of the country.
The bodies having remained suspended for the usual time [LB: 12.00 p.m.], they were removed, and while the place of execution was yet warm with the blood of the former victims, the remaining seven, namely, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, William Hartley, James Haigh, James Hey, and Job Hey, were led at half-past one o’clock from their cell to the fatal stage, their behaviour, like that of their deceased confederates, was contrite and becoming; James Haigh expressed deep contrition for his offences. John Swallow said he had been led away by wicked and unprincipled men, and hoped his fate would be a warning to all, and teach them to live a life of sobriety and uprightness. They all united in prayer with an earnestness that is seldom witnessed in the services of devotion, except in the immediate prospect of death [LB: the Leeds Intelligencer said they sung the same hymn as those executed earlier]. A few moments closed their mortal existence, and placed at the bar differing from all earthly tribunal’s [sic] in this infinitely important particular — here, owing to the imperfections of all human institutions, repentance though sincere, cannot procure forgiveness — there, we have the authority of God himself for saying, that the cries of the contrite and broken-hearted shall not be despised. Charity hopeth all things.
The criminal records of Yorkshire do not perhaps afford an instance of so many victims having been offered in one day to the injured laws of the country. The scene was inexpressibly awful, and the large body of soldiers, both horse and foot, who guarded the approach to the castle, and were planted in front of the fatal tree, gave to the scene of peculiar degree of terror, and exhibited the appearance of a military execution. The spectators, particularly in the morning, were unusually numerous, and their behaviour on both occasions, were strictly decorous and unbecoming. [sic]
A miners’ boom town since prospectors struck gold nearby the previous year, Virginia City was even, briefly, the capital of the Montana Territory.
For order, it depended upon a Vigilance Committee of local grandees … and that committee had just days before carried out the hanging of Henry Plummer, the sheriff of the nearby mining town of Bannack and a reputed outlaw gang boss.
Plummer’s supposed “road agents” did the wilderness-trail robbery act familiar of the western milieu, but on a nearly industrial scale: it was suspected that “horses, men and coaches” traveling around Bannack and Virginia City were systematically “marked in some understood manner, to designate them as fit objects for plunder.”
The next act in the Vigilance Committee’s confrontation with these highwaymen and bywaymen was to bust up the Plummer network by seizing and hanging five supposed road agents on this date.
The evidentiary basis for these conclusions was varied, and in most cases less than what you’d call ironclad; the club-footed cobbler George Lane was thought to be marking stages for outlaws to hit, but the crippled rancher Frank Parish? Or Jack Gallagher, who wasn’t even on the list of wanted road agents the vigilantes were working from?
(The Vigilance Committee’s Parish Pfouts would record in his diary “that every man executed by the Vigilance Committee at that time was proved to be a murderer or highway robber.” The unsavory whiff of lynch law notwithstanding, those vigilantes have not wanted for latter-day defenders.)
Thailand uses lethal injection today, but our narrator here was the last to conduct executions by that country’s previous execution method, a unique shooting arrangement that prevailed through 2002.*
The prisoner to be executed was tied to a wooden cross, hands pinned in a prayerful position (wai), and facing a wall; behind him (or occasionally, as in today’s post, her), a screen; behind the screen, Chavoret Jaruboon with a mounted automatic rifle that would discharge a burst of up to 15 bullets into the vicinity of the heart, generally terminating life immediately.
The clientele this date were three members of a kidnap gang. Ginggaew Lorsoungnern, a former domestic for a Pathumwan, Bangkok family, had picked up from school the six-year-old child who was her former charge and delivered her to a bunch of toughs. When the ransom delivery went awry — the parents were supposed to toss the money out of a moving train at the spot of a flag, but missed the flag owing to darkness — the enraged kidnappers stabbed the little boy to death. Ginggaew allegedly flung herself over the child in a vain effort to protect him.
Inasmuch as her inside position was the lynchpin for the whole operation, however, these hystrionics would not save her from reprisal. (It wasn’t quite judicial reprisal since the execution was carried out by executive decree: not uncommon in dictatorial 1970s Thailand.) It probably didn’t help that coroners discovered soil in the victim’s lungs … meaning that when they’d dumped his body into its grave, he wasn’t yet dead.
The case was a media sensation. The late executioner’s 21st century book (copyright date: 2006) says that he was even then still “constantly asked about Ginggaew.” For what it’s worth, he thought the sentence was too harsh for her part in the crime. But executioners don’t get to make these decisions.
Ginggaew was the first woman shot in Thailand since 1942, and the first that Chavoret Jaruboon ever saw executed. In his time, he shot three women; Ginggaew is not among their number because in 1979, he was only a member of the execution team, not the man with his finger on the trigger. He was an “escort”, part of the team that brought the doomed from their cell to the execution chamber and then removed the corpse.
Escort duty was “one of the most emotional roles in the whole process of execution,” he writes. “Even the executioner does not have to see the body after he has done his job.”
And on January 13, 1979, the day Ginggaew died followed by two of her collaborators, the escorts had especially unpleasant duty.
While the men died stoic, Ginggaew was frantic, and fainted repeatedly over the hours before execution. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t kill the boy,” she pleaded. “Please don’t kill me, I didn’t kill him.”
Worse was to come.
At 5pm Ginggaew was selected to be brought to the execution room first. The escorts helped her to her feet but she immediately crumpled to the ground. She sobbed that she felt too weak to stand … As she approached the room she had to be revived from another faint.
I found this very difficult to deal with. Between us [escorts on the execution team] we finally got the stricken woman to the cross. She cried while they bound her at the waist, shoulders, and elbows. Her arms were brought up over the beam in a position of prayer. Still, she struggled and tried vainly to break free. The escorts pulled across the screen and fixed it so that the white square indicated where her heart was. Then they stepped out of range. I walked to the gun to load it and aim it at the target on the screen. I was aware that Ginggaew was still struggling. Normally once the prisoner was fixed to the cross they gave up fighting, but this was not the case with her. I secured the gun over her stifled sobs, locking it into position. When I was satisfied, I nodded at Prathom to take over. He took his position and at 5.40pm exactly he released ten bullets into Ginggaew’s body.
Doctor Porngul went up to her and checked for the pulse and retina response. As expected, he confirmed her dead. The escorts quickly untied her body, which was bleeding profusely from the chest, and laid her face down on the floor. She jerked and twitched a little. This wasn’t out of the ordinary but was distressing to witness. Her chest burst open and the blood looked like it would never stop flowing. They carried her into the morgue, the tiny room that we used just off the execution hall. I followed them just to make sure everything was alright. They placed her gently on the bed and we went out to prepare for the next one. What happened then will never leave me.
As the second prisoner, Gasem, was brought into the execution room, there was a sound from the morgue. I could see everything from where I was standing as the door was wide open — Ginggaew was trying to get up. The shocked escorts and I ran back to her. There was blood everywhere. One of the escorts rolled her over and pressed down on her back to accelerate the bleeding and help her die. Another escort, a real hard man, tried to strangle her to finish her off but I swept his arms away in disgust. We stood there watching her gasp for breath for I don’t know how long, but it could only have been a minute or two. I was filled with pity for her. I couldn’t help thinking that she was dying the way that little boy had died — except suffocating from blood instead of earth.
Meanwhile, Gasem had been shot. He died instantly from ten bullets. He had not resisted his death in any way, and spoke to nobody on the way to the cross. After the doctor confirmed that Gasem was definitely dead he checked on Ginggaew. Amazingly she was still breathing. It was a horrible, horrible situation. He told the escorts to put her back on the cross. The men complied, somewhat relieved to be able to just follow orders. It was a grim, nauseating job and they were covered in her blood when they turned to pull the screen across. This time the full quota of 15 bullets were used, and finally, she was dead.
You might wonder why we didn’t just shoot her where she lay, but it would have been against the regulations. Also, I don’t know that any of us could have stood so close to the young girl and pulled the trigger. As it was, the escorts moved as quickly as possible, each of us was concerned that her suffering should not be prolonged.
Pin had had to wait outside for ten minutes until Ginggaew was carried to the morgue for the second time. He was then brought in and tied to the cross. At 6.05pm Prathom pulled the trigger, sending 13 bullets into his back. The doctor went to check on him and discovered that he too was still alive, only just, but still breathing all the same. I loaded the gun again and Prathom shot a further ten bullets, this time killing him instantly. We were all in need of more than one stiff drink that evening.
There are a couple of reasons why Ginggaew had such a terrible death. Firstly her heart wasn’t on the left side as with most people. She most probably had Kartagener’s Syndrome, which is when a person is born with their heart on the right-hand side instead of the left. And even if it was she wasn’t secured firmly enough to the cross so she was able to move around, therefore the bullets would miss their target. It showed the importance of binding the prisoner as tightly as possible, for their own sake. I had my doubts when she was first pronounced dead. I thought I could detect some strain in her neck, and maybe that’s why I followed the escorts to the morgue. The head should normally flop backwards with the cross being the only support for the limp body.
Ginggaew, Gasem, Pin, and all others who were executed by shooting entered the execution building through this red door … now disused and overgrown since Thailand scrapped shooting. Pic from this Norwegian Amnesty International page.
After Thailand switched to lethal injection, Chavoret Jaruboon retired to a monastery. His books show no disquiet about his career. He explicitly supported the death penalty.
“What I do is empty this story (the executions) from my mind. If I don’t do that I don’t know what (the executions) will do to me.”