Posts filed under 'Electrocuted'

1991: Andrew Lee Jones, the last electrocuted in Louisiana

Add comment July 22nd, 2018 Headsman

Gruesome Gertie galloped her last on this date in 1991, when that Louisiana mercy seat claimed her final soul, Andrew Lee Jones.

Gertie’s reign in the Bayou State ran fifty years and 87 successful electrocutions (out of 88 attempts), although it was cheated of cinematic immortality when the Dead Man Walking film depicted a lethal injection where voltage had done the real work.*

Art was merely imitating life for by the time that film dropped in 1995, Louisiana had long since mothballed Gertie in favor of the the needle.**

As is usually the case, the the criminal himself was only an accidental distinction for the milestone. Andrew Lee Jones in 1984 had abducted eleven-year old Tumekica Jackson, the daughter of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. He raped and strangled to death the little girl — while drunk, he said. In the days after the crime, Jones had hinted to a friend that recently “he did something he didn’t want to do” and he “done fucked up.” But he seems to have had an inkling from death row that he was marked, telling a British pen-friend — more on her in a bit — “I’m definitely hoping that I won’t be the last one to set in that chair. I got the feeling that they are trying to get one more before they put an end to it.

Capital defense attorney David Dow, who joined Jones’s appellate team in its final weeks, remembered Jones’s last hours in his Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime:

Several of us sat with Andrew throughout the evening in a large room directly outside the execution chamber. In addition to Andrew and me, Debra Voelker (our investigator), Neal Walker, and Michelle Fournet were there. We sat around a table talking. There were guards in the room as well, but they kept their distance. Andrew was handcuffed and shackled at the waist throughout the evening. His feet were also shackled. We would talk for a while, then Andrew would get up and shuffle away to go call his family, and the rest of us would pull ourselves together. We tried as much as possible to take our cues from Andrew. More than anything he seemed to want distraction, and we took turns providing it. Surreal is the only word that comes to mind when I think about that evening. Yet it was real.

One of the most difficult times for Andrew in the long wait came at 9:30 p.m. when we received word that his last appeal had been denied by the Supreme Court. Andrew refused to talk to Nick, who had called from the office to give him the news, because Nick was crying. Andrew had forbidden any tears. He came back from the phone to the waiting room and sat down quietly. Then he looked straight into my eyes and asked, “Why can’t they just do it now? How am I going to get through the next few hours?” I had no answer. I tried to imagine that in a few hours his life would be over while mine would be beginning a new day. i tried to imagine what it was like for him to look at me, knowing this. We stared at each other, and I shook my head. Someone suggested that Andrew purchase something else from the vending machine, and we all laughed thankfully. For Andrew, one of the great thrills of the last day of his life was his ability to put coins in a vending machine, punch a button, and receive food or drink. It had been over seven years since he had come in contact with coins or a vending machine.

Forty-five minutes before Andrew was executed, guards removed him from the visiting room, saying he would return soon. Fifteen minutes later, he walked back in with that smile of his, but awkward and blinking ferociously. In preparation for attaching the electrodes, the guards had shaved his head, one leg, and, as Andrew pointed out, “even my eyebrows.” He was embarrassed. He wondered how he looked. Of course there were no mirrors. Andrew kept blinking. He explained that there were tiny bits of hair from his shaved eyebrows that were getting in his eyes. He was shackled at the waist and couldn’t reach his eyes. Neal pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and asked if it would be okay to wipe Andrew’s eyes for him.

One of the many silences crept over the table where we sat. Andrew laughed. “At least,” he said, “they let me keep my Air Jordans. I thought they’d take those too, but they didn’t. I’ve spent my whole life running and I want to hit the other side running.” Michelle reminded Andrew that he’d always dreamed a plane would crash at Angola, setting him free. Andrew said it wasn’t too late. We all laughed.

The worst moment came when Andrew was led into the execution chamber. It stays with me. Andrew had passed by us in the hall on the way to the door to the chamber. He gave a strained smile and flapped his shackled hands at us. I watched his back after he passed. At the door to the execution chamber, the guards stopped and made Andrew take off his Air Jordans. As he bent to do so, he looked back, directly into my eyes. I will never forget the raw fear in his eyes. There were tears in mine. All pretenses were gone.

After the execution, that British penpal we mentioned, Jane Officer,† co-founded an NGO to support capital appeals in Jones’s memory. Formerly called the Andrew Lee Jones Fund, it’s now known as Amicus. Officer’s book If I Should Die … (review) describes her correspondence and relationship with Jones.

* Artistic license: director Tim Robbins wanted to keep the focus on capital punishment as such instead of permitting the audience to get away with revulsion only at a “less humane” method.

** Ironically that circumstance has latterly jammed up the state’s death chamber; as of this writing, Louisiana hasn’t executed anybody since 2010 owing in large measure to problems with procuring the drugs. Reintroducing the electric chair has been one of the solutions bandied.

† Officer reportedly began writing to Jones after seeing the documentary 14 Days in May, about an egregious wrongful execution in Mississippi.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Louisiana,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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1941: Pittsburgh Phil

Add comment June 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Brooklyn gangster Pittsburgh Phil went to the Sing Sing electric chair.

The smart-dressed Pittsburgh Phil* — “Harry Strauss” to his parents or just plain “Pep” to his friends — was the most notorious contract killer of the Springsteen-worthy crime syndicate Murder, Inc.. He racked up an alleged body count well north of 100 — possibly several multiples of that figure — popping whomever some organized crime figure needed to be rid of. (Like this guy.)

Pep eschewed any single m.o., murdering with blades and bullets and garrotes and lungs full of water, and he rarely even carried a weapon lest it incriminate him on a chance arrest. Well did he know this tradecraft, for he beat no fewer than 17 prosecutions in New York. The man also took hit assignments all around the country, for other crime lords in cities whose patrolmen did not recognize him by name and reputation.

And fittingly, it took another assassin to kill him.

Fellow Murder, Inc. killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles — a childhood buddy with whom he’d come up in the Prohibition crime world via Meyer Lansky‘s organization — got caught in the government’s sights and realized that his only probable purchase on life involved giving evidence against his mates.

We’ve seen that his testimony did in Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione, even though Reles had “fallen out of a window” before those goons sat in the mercy seat. Reles likewise gave up Pittsburgh Phil, who in Raymond Chandler’s was “electrocuted with a sneer on his face” on this date along with his fellow Murder, Inc. plugger Buggsy Goldstein.

* Why did they call him “Pittsburgh Phil”? Who knows! He is at any rate not to be confused with groundbreaking horse bettor George “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,USA

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1995: Nicholas Ingram

Add comment April 7th, 2018 Headsman

British-American Nicholas Ingram was electrocuted in the U.S. state of Georgia on this date in 1995.*

Born in England to a British mother and an American father, Ingram at age 19 had invaded the Cobb County home of J.C. and Mary Sawyer. The Sawyers complied with the armed intruder’s demands for money ($60) and the keys to their pickup truck, but Ingram still marched them to a nearby woods and executed them. J.C. Sawyer was killed; Mary Sawyer feigned death and survived to give evidence against their tormenter.

Thanks to his nationality and his legal representation (British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who would later found the anti-death penalty NGO Reprieve), Ingram’s prospective execution because a cause celebre in Old Blighty. British MPs and the Archbishop of Canterbury issued appeals for mercy, although Tory Prime Minister John Major gave a chilly refusal when solicited for intervention by Ingram’s family:

I found your letter very moving and I can imagine the profound distress you must be feeling. But I have concluded, with deepest regret, that there are no proper grounds for the British Government to intervene with the State of Georgia.

The Georgia prison commissioner who conducted this execution, Allen Ault, later turned against capital punishment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Georgia,Murder,Theft,USA

1964: Jack Ruby condemned

Add comment March 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Dallas nightclub owner Jacob Rubenstein — notorious to history as Jack Ruby — was condemned to the electric chair for the dramatic live-televised murder of accused John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, captured by snapping shutters in one of the 20th century’s indelible images.

Ruby would never sit on that mercy seat.

For one thing, his punishment arrived as the American death penalty lulled into hibernation. Had he lived his sentence eventually would have been vacated by the 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling. But instead of seeing that juridical landmark, the enigmatic Ruby died in prison inside of three years, awaiting retrial after an appeal.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Infamous,Jews,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Organized Crime,Popular Culture,Texas,USA

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1952: Wallace Ford, horrible in-law

Add comment October 30th, 2017 Headsman

Wallace P. Ford, Jr., a former Buffalo steelworker, was electrocuted by New York on this date in 1952.

His crime, “a senseless, meaningless affair, without motive or purpose,”* in the words of his own court-appointed attorney, was the sad culmination of family woes.

The man had been left by his wife, Frances, who returned to her mother’s house with the couple’s infant daughter in tow. Not long after, in June of 1951, Ford accosted Frances’s kid sister, Nancy, age 15, when the latter was picking up some groceries.

Nancy told him to get lost or something — Ford would later say that it was the girl’s insisting that their family would keep his little son that made him snap — and the extranged brother-in-law bashed her with a rock. Here the horror really begins. Blood racing, Ford must have careened from panic to despair to resolution as he contemplated the crumpled but still-living girl, his already-poor judgment scrambled by stress. The assailant packed Nancy Bridges’s stunned and bloodied form into his vehicle and sped out of Buffalo looking for some way to dispose of his mistake. In that moment, for a disordered mind, that meant to finish her off.

Ford said he thought about drowning the girl in Lake Erie, or pitching her off an elevated railroad. Every possible means would carry its own special horror, to be sure, but Ford settled on a truly vile expedient: he dumped her in a deserted stretch of rural Townline Road and pitilessly drove over her limp form … then popped into reverse and backed over her, too, crushing her chest and driving rib splinters into her liver and lungs.

Nancy Ford’s mangled body was discovered in the adjacent woods by a teenage hunter the next afternoon. Wallace Ford must have been the first name on the lips of the family when investigators asked if they had any enemies, and he didn’t bother to evade responsibility when the police came for him. But he would have served himself better and the Fords too had he reached his epiphany of resignation a little earlier in this process.

* New York Times, Aug. 26, 1952.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1964: James Coburn, George Wallace’s first death warrant

Add comment September 4th, 2017 Headsman

James Coburn was electrocuted on this date in 1964 in Alabama’s “Yellow Mama”.

He’d been condemned for a Dallas County robbery … and only for that. He has the distinction of being the very last human being executed in the United States for any non-homicide crime; at a stretch one could perhaps reckon him the most distant echo of the Anglosphere’s long-ago “Bloody Code” days, when the sturdy Tyburn tree strained with mere burglars and pickpockets.

Such draconian laws were not enforced in England any more, not for a very long time. (Great Britain abolished the death penalty for purely property crimes in the 1830s.) In fact, the last British executions for any kind of crime at all had occurred weeks before Yellow Mama destroyed James Coburn for robbery.

Presiding over this anachronistic penal event was a knight of the nascent American reaction: Alabama Governor George Wallace. He’d been sworn in just the previous year with the infamous vow, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Coburn’s was the first death warrant to bear Governor Wallace’s signature, but it’s a small surprise that it was the first of just four — considering that Wallace served 16 total years in three separate stints as a conservative executive in a southern state.

One reason was simply because, like his contemporary Ronald Reagan, Wallace’s political star reached its height during the the death penalty’s late sixties to early eighties lull.

But another is that, despite musing inclusively about “a lot of bad white folks and a lot of bad black folks who ought to be electrocuted,” Wallace nurtured gnawing doubts about capital punishment that seem to have grown throughout his strange career.

As a young law student, Wallace had assisted a capital defense for a man who had murdered his wife by dynamiting the house — the charge “blew her through the roof, and she fell down a mass of meat,” in Wallace’s words. The defense seemed hopeless, but Wallace conjured a strategy to keep this particular bad white folk out of the electric chair.

One morning before court opened, just as Beale and Wallace thought all was lost, a relative brought the defendant’s son to see his father. “He was about ten or eleven,” Wallace remembered, “but he looked younger than that. He was a sallow-looking boy, like he had hookworms, and he ran over to his daddy when he came into the courthouse and hugged him and kissed him.” Wallace, who witnessed the scene, told Beale they could use the boy to try to whip up some sympathy among the jurors. Beale agreed; the two took the boy into a room, and Wallace asked him if he understood what was going on. “Do you understand that people in that courtroom are asking that your daddy be electrocuted? That they want to do away with him? Do you understand that?” And Wallace said that every time he would mention it, the boy would break down and cry. So Wallace sat the boy right behind the defendant’s table. “Every time Attorney Beale was asking questions of a witness,” Wallace said, “I would lean over and whisper to this young boy, ‘Son, they’re trying to kill your daddy.’ He would immediately break down in sobs, and the judge would have to recess the court.”

After the testimony concluded, Beale addressed the jury on the circumstantial nature of the state’s evidence; then he asked Wallace to make a final statement for the defense. “I pinned it all on the boy,” Wallace recalled. “I put my arms around him and I said, ‘Now listen, this fellow here has nobody left in the world but his father. His father is no good, he’s no account — but his son still loves him; you saw that in the courtroom. So I am pleading with you for this boy. Save his daddy’s life so he’ll have somebody in the world who loves him, even though he’s in prison.'” The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty, Wallace told the jury. “He said, ‘If anybody deserves the electric chair, this man deserves it.’ If we were trying this man on whether he is a sorry, no-good individual, I would agree: he’s no good; he’s no account; he’s killed his wife for no good reason. But I ask you to let this man live so the son will still have a father.” Wallace then brought the boy to the jury box and said: “Gentlemen, think of this child when you are making that decision. He comes from a poor family. He has not had many good things in life. But he still loves his daddy, whether or not he has committed this horrible crime. I plead with you for this little boy.” After the judge’s charge, Wallace and Beale went to a cafe, but they had barely finished a cup of coffee when the bailiff rushed over and told them the jury was coming back in. “We find the defendant guilty,” the foreman said, “and we fix his punishment at life in prison.” Wallace was elated — so much so that he refused the hundred-dollar fee that Beale offered him. “I would have given you a hundred dollars for the experience this gave me,” he told Beale.

-George Wallace: American Populist

Cynical, sure. (Even Wallace’s ultra-segregationist persona was cynical, adopted after he lost an earlier election as the moderate running against a Klan-endorsed opponent.) But whatever his other faults, he genuinely didn’t seem to delight in the executioner, and by the end of his life his acquaintance with this character had put him in fear for his soul.

Governor Wallace signed one other death warrant in 1965, and — after an interim of three presidential bids on the white ressentiment ticket plus a near-assassination that left him wheelchair-bound — found himself governor again in the 1980s. The first death cases under the “modern” Alabama law that Wallace himself had signed in 1975 were just then beginning to reach the end of the line.

And we find, via this post channeling Evan Mandery’s A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America, that Wallace was agonized before doing what he was always going to do.

George Wallace was beginning his final term as Alabama’s governor when he was asked to sign [John Louis] Evans’s death warrant. Wallace’s notoriety, of course, rests primarily on the day in 1963 that he stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to keep black students out. But it is also worth noting that his 1968 third-party presidential campaign perfected the “tough-on-crime” sloganeering that would dominate much of American electoral politics into the 1990s.

Privately, George Wallace had long harbored doubts about capital punishment. In 1964, he told his law clerk that he thought it should be ruled unconstitutional. By 1983, Wallace had survived a shooting, converted to born-again Christianity, and recanted his segregationism. In Mandery’s words, his “reservations about the constitutionality of capital punishment had evolved into full-blown opposition.” The night before Evans was due to be executed, Wallace telephoned his lieutenant governor “in tears,” Mandery recounts. Wallace said that “he had been up all night ‘praying the Bible,’ and couldn’t bring himself to sign the warrant.” That lieutenant governor was the former law clerk, Bill Baxley,* with whom Wallace had shared his reservations 20 years before. Baxley was a liberal Democrat — as Alabama’s attorney general, he had earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan for his investigation and prosecution of civil rights cases — who supported the death penalty. He convinced George Wallace that there was no political choice but to sign the warrant … Evans was strapped into an electric chair and, after two botched jolts that left him burned but alive, was shocked to death on the state of Alabama’s third attempt.

* Baxley is famous for investigating a notorious 1963 church bombing, and relatedly for deploying Alabama state letterhead in one of its very best uses ever.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Milestones,Theft,USA

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1966: James French, fried

1 comment August 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1966, James French went to the Oklahoma electric chair, clinching his spot in perpetuity on last-words listicles by cracking to the press pool, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”*

French had enjoyed five years to work out this chill fare-thee-well since the calculated murder of his cellmate in 1961, back when he, French, was already serving time for murder.

It’s alleged that French committed this ruthless deed in pursuit of the mercy seat, as a form of suicide by executioner; whether this is or isn’t so he had certainly embraced the consequence by the time he presented himself to the judiciary.

“He deserved to die,” the expansive French once informed an interviewer. “And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the rules are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”

It’s just that his letters imploring speedy implementation of justice could not override procedural errors in his first trial (they biased the jury by presenting French in manacles) nor his second trial (bad jury instruction by the judge) until the third time charmed in 1965.

The man could have lived a long life punning on his surname — perhaps he would have insisted on going by James Freedom as a post-9/11 America blundered into Iraq? — had he chosen to fight his death sentence, for even then the law’s French frying apparatus was grinding to a halt. Just two more executions — Aaron Mitchell and Luis Monge, both in 1967 — would take place in all the land before capital punishment went into a decade-long hiberation during which all previously existing death sentences were invalidated. French’s was the last death by electric chair until John Spenkelink in 1979 and the last ever electrocution in Oklahoma (which has used lethal injection in the modern, post-1972 era).

* His actual, and better, last words in the death chamber were by way of declining to make a final statement: “Everything’s already been said.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1942: Six German saboteurs

Add comment August 8th, 2017 Headsman

Seventy-five years ago today, six German saboteurs were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C. jail … a failed World War II operation that bequeathed its target nation a controversial legal landmark.

On June 13 of 1942 — just eight weeks before they faced the electric chair — Herbert Hans Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herman Neubauer, Richard Quirin and Werner Thiel, all of them German nationals who had returned to the Fatherland after previous emigration to the U.S., were dropped by U-Boats along with two other men, Ernest Peter Burger and George John Dasch, in two quartets on the eastern fringe of Long Island and the Florida coast.

“Operation Pastorius” to sabotage war industries on the U.S. mainland would never even have time to get its land legs; spied in Long Island by a Coast Guard watchman whom they clumsily attempted to bribe, the agents scattered themselves to New York and Chicago. Burger and Dasch — who for this reason were not in the end electrocuted* — had their reservations about the Third Reich to begin with and guessed after the Coast Guard encounter where this fiasco was heading. They rang up the gobsmacked FBI to shop themselves and their comrades, enabling the feds to pick up the other six men in short order.

The eventual fate of the Nazi saboteurs is no surprise, but the means to obtain it was controversial then and remains so to this day.

On a substantive level, the Germans had landed in uniform for the explicit purpose of asserting POW status were they to be apprehended immediately; this didn’t cut much ice since all had then discarded their uniforms and attempted to melt away in the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle successfully cited the American Revolution precedent of John Andre, whom patriots hanged as a spy after detaining him out of uniform behind their lines. That they hadn’t yet done anything yet was a bit beside the point.**

Much thornier was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to try the Germans using a seven-member military tribunal that he conjured for this purpose, and seemingly with the objective of assuring the harshest possible sentence. (Bear in mind that these events transpired only months after Pearl Harbor.) Such a commission is explicitly anticipated by the U.S. Articles of War† whose 81st and 82nd provisions the saboteurs were charged with violating:

ART. 81. RELIEVING, CORRESPONDENCE WITH, OR AIDING THE ENEMY. — Whosoever relieves or attempts to relieve the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other thing, or knowingly harbors or protects or holds correspondence with or gives intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

ART. 82. SPIES. — Any person who in time of war shall be found lurking or acting as a spy in or about any of the fortifications, posts, quarters, or encampments of any of the armies of the United States, or elsewhere, shall be tried by a general court-martial or by a military commission, and shall, on conviction thereof, suffer death.

However, the military commission did not seem very well in keeping with the American preference for regular jurisdictions as expressed by Ex parte Milligan, the post-Civil War decision forbidding the use of military courts anywhere that civilian courts are functioning.‡ The signal Milligan precedent formed the basis of a furious objection by Army defense lawyer (and future Secretary of War) Kenneth Royall, who fought his clients’ hopeless corner so vigorously that the doomed men signed a letter praising his efforts. (“unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion.”)

Already recessed for the summer, the Supreme Court hastily reconvened to cut this Gordian knot: the only forum of judicial review the case would ever receive. Its decision, Ex parte Quirin — titled after one of the defendants — spurned Royall’s Milligan claim and upheld Roosevelt’s statutory authority to determine this case for a military tribunal by a unanimous vote.

The court’s common front concealed a variety of stances on the reach of executive authority. While the whole court agreed that “Congress has explicitly provided … that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases,” a concurring memorandum by Justice Robert H. Jackson — later famous for his role prosecuting the Nuremberg trials — proposed to carry the argument well beyond this point. Jackson claimed in a concurrence that he would eventually withdraw that “the Court’s decision of the question whether it complied with the Articles of War is uncalled for … it is well within the war powers of the President to create a non-statutory military tribunal of the sort here in question.” This was by no means the consensus of his colleagues.

The later publication of a “Soliloquy” memorandum by one such colleague, Felix Frankfurter, throws a less than dispassionate light on deliberations. Writing to smooth over internal disputes between the blackrobes, Justice Frankfurter shows himself personally hostile to the Germans — “You’ve done enough mischief already without leaving the seeds of a bitter conflict involving the President, the courts and Congress after your bodies will be rotting in lime,” he chides them in his own voice. “That disposes of you scoundrels.” In the end, the court took his advice to sidestep the potentially deep jurisdictional question.

But that question has not been left rotting in footnotes (they never are). Quirin in general and Jackson’s expansive claims of executive power in particular have been relied upon by 21st century Presidents to justify muscular and controversial innovations like the Guantanamo Bay prison and the drone war.

A few books about Operation Pastorius and Ex parte Quirin

Pierce O’Donnell, author of In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America, discussed his book on C-SPAN here.

Jurisprudence is not the only artifact of the Nazi saboteurs’ failed infiltration.

Bizarrely, a tributary slab “in memory of agents of the German Abwehr” was discovered in 2006 illicitly placed on National Park Service land in southeast Washington DC, the same vicinity where the saboteurs had been secretly buried after their electrocution. There it had seemingly reposed some twenty-odd years, unknown but to its devotees … who if the stone’s carvings are to be credited must consist of the heirs of the (defunct since 1983) National Socialist White People’s Party, also known as the American Nazi Party.

* They would be condemned to death along with the rest, but Roosevelt commuted their sentences: a fine boon but far short of the outright pardons they had been promised for their cooperation. In 1948, President Truman had Burger and Dasch deported to Germany, where many saw them as traitors.

** After unsuccessfully attempting to trade Andre for Benedict Arnold, whose defection Andre had facilitated, and whom the American revolutionaries would have much preferred to Andre for a hanging.

† Enacted by Congress in 1920, these Articles of War are no longer operative in the U.S.: they were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.

‡ Haupt and Burger were also U.S. citizens, further complicating the commission’s suspension of their constitutional habeas corpus rights.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Soldiers,Spies,Terrorists,U.S. Federal,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1920: Rickey Harrison, Hudson Duster

Add comment May 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Rickey Harrison of the Greenwich Village “Hudson Dusters” went to the electric chair for a murder committed in the course of an armed robbery.

As befits a gaggle of old time New York hoodlums this crowd was rife with colorful nicknames — Goo Goo Knox, Circular Jack, Ding Dong — and hired out its thrashings in service of Tammany Hall‘s rude electoral manipulations. Their signal achievement was earning a popular doggerel tribute that rang in the streets in its day, by beating senseless a beat cop who’d had the temerity to arrest some of their number.

Says Dinny [patrolman Dennis Sullivan], “Here’s me only chance
To gain meself a name;
I’ll clean up the Hudson Dusters,
And reach the hall of fame.”*
He lost his stick and cannon,
and his shield they took away.
It was then he remembered,
Every dog had his day.

At their peak the Hudson Dusters could rank as one of the brighter stars in the dizzying constellation of Big Apple crooks. Herbert Asbury’s classic The Gangs of New York notes that “perhaps fifty small groups … operated south of Forty-second street [and] owed allegiance to the Gophers, Eastmans, Five Pointers, Gas Housers, and Hudson Dusters … Each of these small gangs was supreme in its own territory, which other gangs under the same sovereighty might not invade, but its leader was always responsible to the chieftain of the larger gang, just as a prince is responsible to his king.” Allegedly future Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day, then a teenage radical journalist just moved to New York City, enjoyed carousing with the Dusters in the 1910s.

Despite political pull through Tammany (and heavenly pull through Dorothy) arrests and gang wars dusted the Dusters over the first two decades of the 20th century.

Our man Rickey Harrison, a pipsqueak Irishman with a substandard nickname (“Greenwich Village Terror” … lame), led a gangland raid on a high-stakes poker game at the Knickerbocker Waiters Club on September 7, 1918, and shot dead a Canadian soldier who refused to give up his boodle. Harrison would go to his grave insisting that it was not he who fired the fatal shot, although he was markedly less scrupulous about accounting the undetected and unprosecuted crimes of his career.

As a last indignity, Harrison and another murderer named Chester Cantine — who preceded the gangster to the electric chair — had to brace themselves for eternity within earshot of a raucous Sing Sing vandeville show where prisoners and 800 visitors were “applauding and roaring with laughter in an improvised theatre a few feet away … comic sketches [and] jazz music resounded throughout the prison.” (New York Times, May 14, 1920)

Harrison’s last sentiment — “Let us hope and pray they will never do this thing to another man, innocent or guilty” — still awaits fulfillment a century later.

* The apparent allusion is to the Hall of Fame for Great Americas, a civic pantheon opened in 1900 that is now part of Bronx Community College. This outdoor colonnade, still extant but largely forgotten, imported its busts-of-great-men concept from Bavaria; the Hall’s popularity in its time makes it the ancestor of the innumerable Halls of Fame that have since come to litter the North American civic landscape.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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