Posts filed under 'Execution'

1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Executioners,History,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1942: Not Hersh Smolar, saved by Genesis

2 comments April 1st, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, the Nazis issued an ultimatum to the Judenrat of the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus: turn over Hersh Smolar for torture and execution by noon, or they would all face execution themselves.

Smolar, a dedicated Communist who was a writer and editor in civilian life, had been a problem for the Germans for quite some time. He was a leader in the resistance of the Minsk Ghetto, and that resistance was a force to be reckoned with. Smolar and others like him formed an underground organization that printed leaflets about Soviet successes in the war, occasionally hid non-Jewish Communists and escaped Russian prisoners of war within the ghetto (the infectious disease ward of the hospital was a great hiding place: the Germans never went there), and above all tried to save the lives of as many Jews as possible.

The Minsk Ghetto underground formed links with underground resistance organizations on the outside and they worked together. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, the general population of Belarus was as a whole sympathetic and helpful to the Jews. The result was that Jews were able to escape the ghetto and join partisan groups in the forest by the thousands, surviving and taking out Nazis at the same time.

The Minsk Ghetto leaked like a sieve. By the time it was liquidated, 10,000 of its residents had joined partisan groups in the forest.

Smolar, of course, had tried to keep his activities a secret from the Nazis, but he couldn’t avoid their attention forever. Unfortunately the Minsk Ghetto Underground wasn’t very good at keeping itself a secret and twice it was decimated by mass arrests.

By the spring of 1942, Smolar was a hunted man, and in hiding. On April 1 he was in the hospital’s infectious disease ward, disguised as a typhus patient, meaning his face could be covered. (Typhus patients suffer extreme sensitivity to light.) The Judenrat paid him a visit and told him about the Nazis’ ultimatum.

Some of the Judenrat members were prepared to turn Smolar in, so only one person would have to die. Of course, the ideal solution would be where no one would die. They turned to the Tanakh for guidance, specifically the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt and told their father he had died, they dipped his coat in the blood of a kid and presented this as proof of his death.

Displaying the sincerest and brassiest form of flattery, one of the Judenrat members took a blank passport, filled it out with Smolar’s photograph and details, smeared it with blood from a recent Nazi victim, and took it to the Gestapo officers. He explained that they had apparently gotten Smolar in a random shooting, as the passport had just been found on a mutilated body at the cemetery.

And the Germans actually fell for this. April Fools!

Barbara Epstein’s excellent book The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism records the rest of the story: Smolar remained in hiding in the hospital for another four months. Eventually he left the infectious disease ward and moved to a specially constructed hiding place in the attic chimney, which was only large enough to stand in.

Presumably he was very happy in August 1942, when the time came for him to leave the ghetto and join a partisan group in the forest. He survived the war … as did about 4,500 other Jewish partisans from the Minsk Ghetto.

Smolar wrote a memoir about his experiences and the Minsk Ghetto Underground in general, titled The Minsk Ghetto: Soviet-Jewish Partisans Against the Nazis. He died in Israel in 1993, age 88.

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1984: Ronald Clark O’Bryan, candyman

4 comments March 31st, 2011 Headsman

Halloween lovers can thank Ronald Clark O’Bryan, executed just after midnight on this date in 1984,* for a major buzzkill.

O’Bryan spiked his own kids’ Halloween Pixy Stix with cyanide in an effort to kill off the urchins and collect the insurance. His 8-year-old son died.

Although O’Bryan was after his own kids, he might have given some out to the neighbors as well.

Nobody else died, or even got sick, but this was the era of the after-school special and satanic hysteria, so this pedestrian malefactor’s incidental connection to Halloween — after all, he could have just poisoned the kids’ Cheerios instead — metastasized into baseless urban legends of Stephen King villains spiking candy corn with rat poison and candy apples with razor blades.**

“The crime changed the way Texas youngsters, particularly those in the Houston area, celebrate Halloween,” the A.P. reported. “Some neighborhoods informally banned distribution of candy.”

Some nutbar kills his offspring for the insurance money back in the Ford administration, and that’s why you’re still getting crayons in your pillowcase sack. Crayons.

Siouxsie and the Banshees turned this creeper scenario to good effect in the 1986 song “Candyman”.

Beware the masked pretender
He always lies, this candyman
Those lips conspire in treachery
To strike in cloak and dagger, see!

Apparently you can lay a Rice Krispies treat at his grave in Forest Park East Cemetery.

* There are some reports out there of a March 30 execution, but newspaper accounts do appear to confirm that O’Bryan was put to death in the early moments of March 31, a Saturday.

** O’Bryan’s prosecuting attorney also still hates Halloween.

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2011: Three Philippines drug mules in China

5 comments March 30th, 2011 Headsman

Today in China, overseas Filipino workers Ramon Credo, 42, Sally Villanueva, 32, and Elizabeth Batain, 38, were executed by lethal injection in China as drug smugglers — the first two in Xiamen, and the last in Shenzhen.

The three had been arrested in 2008 and convicted in 2009 for carrying heroin — they said unknowingly — into the People’s Republic.

The fate of these three aroused an outpouring of sympathy in their native land, where economics drives up to 10% of the population to work overseas, often at a hazard.

Vice President Jejomar Binay, who personally traveled to China to plead their case, called it “a sad day for all of us.” (Unusually, China actually granted a few weeks’ reprieve from the original February execution dates. This was viewed as a concession, and why not? China has rolled stronger countries in similar cases before without even that courtesy.)

While this case was in the headlines for weeks in the Philippines and around the world, the condemned at the heart of it seem not to have realized their deaths were imminent until relatives flew in from China to meet with them on this very day, just hours before execution.

These seem to be the first known Philippines nationals executed in China for drug trafficking, and if that’s a surprising milestone for the world’s most aggressive executioner to be setting with a regional neighbor noted for its many overseas workers … it bears remembering that it’s only China’s stupendous economic growth in the past generation or so that has made it such an especially attractive migrant worker destination.

This execution date also happens to be the 40th anniversary of another landmark event in Sino-Filipino relations, the hijacking of a Philippines airliner by six students, who diverted it to China. Those illicit airborne arrivals were greeted with considerably more leniency than our present-day drug couriers enjoy.

Seventy-two more Philippines nationals are reportedly under sentence of death in China for drug crimes(or not), and around 120 more for various offenses throughout the world.

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1946: Phillip and William Heincy, father and son

2 comments March 29th, 2011 Dick Haws

(Thanks to author Dick Haws for graciously allowing us to reprint this chapter from Iowa and the Death Penalty: A Troubled Relationship, 1834-1965. Check out the book for more on the other 44 men (no women) hanged in the Hawkeye State. -ed.)

Phillip and William Heincy established several firsts when they were hanged on the same scaffold at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. They were the first — and only — father and son team to be executed by the State of Iowa. And Phillip, at 72, was the oldest. But it was the two men’s ignorance, their dim-wittedness, that also must have set some kind of record. Together, they had lived well over 100 years on the planet yet they had remained sublimely ignorant of the world around them. Phillip, or “Dad” to William, testified that he had gone to school off and on through the second grade, that he couldn’t write, couldn’t read, had never placed a long-distance telephone call, didn’t know the significance of Easter nor the number of months in a year, nor the number of days in a week, nor anything special about the Fourth of July, except that “I have to work every Fourth of July.” For his part, William, or “Bill” to “Dad,” testified he was born on Christmas Day 1900 but never knew the significance of that day nor Easter nor the Fourth of July. He said he had attended school for “parts of four years.” Their defense attorney, K. B. Welty, summed up his clients’ plight. “These men came into this world with very limited capacities, never attending Sunday School or church except for a few times, and school was limited, and society in which they traveled was limited and opportunities were limited because their intelligence did not permit them to get into proper society.”?

But that isolation didn’t prevent them from becoming ruthless criminals, and, in the end, murderers. Dad didn’t enter prison until he was 51, which suggests, as their Catholic priest on death row observed, that son Bill “apparently is the dominant personality and the father seems to follow his lead.” The two were Missourians and, in 1924, were arrested for the first time for stealing a Ford touring car and escaping from jail. Dad got seven years in a Missouri prison, Bill, four years. After their release, they headed north in to Iowa, and in 1931, near Iowa Falls, they held up a couple at gunpoint, kidnapped them and stole their car. About two weeks later, they shot it out with Mason City police and were apprehended. They were convicted under the false names they gave — P. H. Smith for Dad, W. H. Baker for Bill — and sentenced to a maximum of 25 years at the Iowa State Penitentiary. Dad was paroled after nine years, Bill got out after about 10 years.

In 1944, they were back together and ready to attack again. On the evening of Dec. 14, 1944, Bill and Dad boarded a train out of Quincy, Ill., bound for Spirit Lake in northern Iowa. During an earlier spring Dad had worked for a short time on a farm near Spirit Lake while Bill had helped out at a nearby resort on West Lake Okoboji, run by Robert and Esther Raebel, a prominent, deeply religious, childless couple who were known for the hours they spent with the children of the Spirit Lake Methodist Church. The Heincys would later claim they had headed to northern Iowa to retrieve a car they had stored there and to make some money hiring out to pick corn. Dickinson County Attorney W. B. Bedell never believed them; he maintained their only reason for coming to Spirit Lake was to steal and murder. Bedell cross-examined Dad, getting him to admit that he didn’t know where the car was, that he and his son carried no luggage with them, no extra clothes, no work gloves, but that they did bring along a gun and a billy club. “You didn’t expect to pick corn with a billy and a gun, did you?” Bedell asked. After arriving in Spirit Lake, Bill said in his confession, they loitered around the railroad depot for a few hours, undecided about what to do next. They went to a tavern and had a beer, then ate a sack of donuts. Then, almost by chance and with apparently little forethought, the two said in their confessions they decided to walk the four and one half miles to the Raebel resort, planning to rob the couple of the large amounts of money they believed they had on hand. Bill and Dad said they watched through a resort window as the Raebels ate supper, washed the dishes, and moved into the living room, where Esther addressed Christmas cards at a card table. When Robert got up to go down the basement to check the furnace, the Heincys struck, breaking into the resort. Bill, who was carrying both the .22-caliber revolver and the billy club, shot Robert just as he was coming back up the stairs. He staggered into the living room and fell on the floor, almost at his wife’s feet. The bullet entered his neck below the right ear and severed his aorta, causing him to bleed to death. From Esther, the Heincys demanded money and the car. She gave them all the money she had — about $28 — and the car keys. Before fleeing, Bill slugged the woman several times over the head with the billy club, knocking her unconscious to the floor. In their confessions, the Heincys said they believed they had killed both the Raebels, but, within about two hours, Mrs. Raebel had recovered enough to call the Okoboji telephone operator, who spread the alarm. Mrs. Raebel was also able to identify her assailants.

“Have you ever seen the men before?” she was asked at the coroner’s inquest.

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” she responded. “I just know it is those men, see, that worked at our place.”

“Both men worked at your place?”

“No, no, just the one. The old man stayed with Jens.”

“Jens Anderson?”

“Yes. He worked on the farm there. That is right.”

“Would you know the man’s name?”

“Well, his name, Heinke, something like that.”?

“Was it Heincy?”

“Yes, that is right. Yes,” she repeated and identified photographs of the two.

The Raebels’ car was found the next day abandoned in downtown Storm Lake. Nineteen days later, the Heincys were arrested without incident in Quincy, Ill. They were returned to Iowa, quickly confessed, pleaded guilty and awaited sentencing from Judge Fred M. Hudson. The Heincys hoped to escape the death penalty by arguing that they intended only to rob the Raebels, not kill them, that Robert’s death was unintentional. But Judge Hudson was unpersuaded. “If robbery was all they intended,” he asked rhetorically at their sentencing hearing, “why did they not stop there? The facts of these cases warrant the finding that these defendants completed their robbery and then in order to make good their escape and avoid detection and identification, purposely inflicted what they thought were fatal injuries upon both the victims of their robbery, and killed one victim and thought they had killed the other. In so doing they thought they had eliminated the only two persons who knew them and who could identify them as the robbers.” The judge said he also tried to determine whether one of the Heincys was more guilty than the other. “The younger man apparently did the shooting and most if not all of the beating,” Judge Hudson said. “However, the older man planned the robbery with him, entered upon the perpetration of it armed and knowing the younger man was armed and in what manner, demanded and received the money of at least part of it, handed the billy to the young man to use. How can it be said under our law that both are not equally guilty and responsible?” Bill and Dad were sentenced to be hanged on March 29, 1946.

The effort to spare the lives of the Heincys focused on Gov. Robert Blue, not the Iowa Supreme Court, because the Heincys’ attorney, K. B. Welty, did not believe his clients had been treated unfairly in the court process. “They (Dickinson County authorities) did a grand job,” he told the governor. The appeal to Gov. Blue didn’t come to a head until March 4, 1946 — only 25 days before the scheduled executions — and it raised arguments about the mental acuity of the Heincys. “Actually,” Welty told the governor, “these men are poor, wretched, depraved souls and, although you may feel there is no value of them to society, I say to your honor, we should not hang them. As you well know, we have institutions all over this country where we keep our mentally defective and crippled people.” Welty suggested that if the Heincy defense had had the money to hire psychiatrists, “possibly and probably a different result could have been obtained.” Welty also blamed society for allowing the Heincys freedom in the first place. “Perhaps they should have been kept in the penitentiary long ago and I presume that society has laxed in not seeing to it.” But the governor bored in on the question of the Heincys’ insanity, asking Welty whether the Dickinson County judge had heard any testimony about it. “No, your honor,” Welty responded. “You didn’t call any local doctors that would have any knowledge of psychiatry?” the governor asked. “No, sir,” Welty responded. “Did you raise that question with the court?” the governor continued. “No, sir,” Welty answered. “Do you feel they know the difference between right and wrong?” the governor asked. “Yes, sir, at times, but I think there are times in their lives that they were so crazed that they lost control of themselves,” Welty responded. “Any feeling on your part that they are insane, or are they uneducated persons who lack self-control?” the governor asked. “In respect to the elder Heincy, I have sensed that he is rather unbalanced,” Welty responded. “I think the younger fellow is not that bad.” The governor didn’t delay in announcing his decision. “Their whole history has disclosed that they were at war with society,” Gov. Blue said. “I can find in statements made to me no reason for granting executive clemency.”

But Welty battled on. Only days before the scheduled execution, he asked for a sanity hearing. Arguing that Dad Heincy had “the mentality of an 8-year-old boy,” Welty said, “we certainly would not hang an 8-year-old boy in this state. I can’t believe that the great State of Iowa, on the eve of its one hundredth birthday, will bloody its hands by taking lives in this manner. The time will come when this state will follow other intelligent states and do away with executions.” Welty was partially successful. The Iowa Board of Control ordered an immediate sanity examination of the Heincys. Two psychiatrists and a psychologist questioned the two men for more than two hours on the Wednesday before they were scheduled to be hanged. Their conclusion? Neither of the Heincys was insane nor feebleminded.

The hangings went off as scheduled. Dad and Bill, on the night before their executions, got baths, shaves and haircuts, and the prison-made suits, hats, shoes and ties. The traps were sprung by Dickinson County Sheriff Joe McQuirk at 6:01 a.m. Bill dropped a split second before Dad. Dad was pronounced dead after 11 minutes, Bill after 12.

Sources include Governor’s Correspondence on Criminal Matters, Phillip Heincy file, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; Governor’s Correspondence on Criminal Matters, William Heincy file, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; the Spirit Lake Beacon; the Des Moines Tribune; the Des Moines Register.

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1872: Yoarashi Okinu, geisha

Add comment March 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, geisha Yoarashi (“Night Storm”) Okinu was beheaded at Tokyo’s Kozukappara execution grounds after killing her lover to run away with a kabuki actor.


A notorious dokufu, so-called “poison-women” that captivated that country in the late 19th century, Night Storm (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was of humble origins but became a sought-after geisha in Edo.

Her celebrity affairs are treated here (reliability: unknown), but the reason she’s in this here blog is poisoning off the second-last of them with arsenic in order to get free to run off with kabuki actor Arashi Rikaku.

Rikaku himself was up to his eyeballs in this same plot, and was arrested — our source says, during a kabuki performance! — and initially condemned to death. Since Okinu was pregnant, however, her execution was put off pending childbirth; eventually, Rikaku’s sentence was moderated from capital punishment altogether.

Okinu’s head was cut off, and displayed in public for several days. Her lover served three years in prison, then rebuilt his kabuki career as Ichikawa Gonjuro.

* The date was the “20th day of the 2nd month of the fifth year of Meiji”, using Japan’s system of dating years from the start of the current emperor’s reign. Helpful in nailing down the date: Tokyo’s first daily newspaper published its first issue on the very next day.

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1677: Giles Bland

Add comment March 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1677, Giles Bland was hanged in the Virginia colony for the late Bacon’s Rebellion.

Bland was in that remote colony as the agent of his father, the London merchant John Bland.

This John Bland fellow had an interesting career — as suggested by the title of Neville Williams’s “The Tribulations of John Bland, Merchant: London, Seville, Jamestown, Tangier, 1643-1680″ in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Jan. 1964). We elide here the former two and the last one except to observe that they made John Bland a very wealthy man, and landed him in Samuel Pepys’s diary.

Accordingly, John Bland’s New World interests were considerable, and we suppose that his son Giles, dispatched thither after John’s brothers had died in the New World, was a bit too conscious of the weight his surname carried.

He griped about colonial corruption, put about “malicious reports” of royal governor William Berkeley, “bespattered with … dirt … thrown upon the whole government of Virginia,” and — foreshadowing alert! — got into the drink to the detriment of his good judgment:

[G]oing to the house of Thomas Ludwell in company with Sir Henry Chicheley after they had drank plentifully there happened a discourse in which Giles Bland thought Ludwell’s speech too severe in relation to his father, and told Ludwell’s that he dealt basely and unworthily to cast such aspersions upon his father and himself, and being transported with passion upon “further exchange of language” came to blows, and exchanged gloves to meet in the morning. His son slept not all night, and continuing hot headed, hastened to the place appointed, where, missing Ludwell, he nailed the glove on the door of the Grand Assembly [house] writing some words under it. Ludwell more wisely sought reparation before the Governor and Council, where Giles Bland was ordered to ask forgiveness which he performed, and the Court fined him 500l. for his abuse done to the Assembly, the payment to be suspended for two years to enable him to supplicate his Majesty to remit the same, it being intended rather to deter him from the like rash actions in time to come, than to ruin him for what he had unadvisedly committed.

Put Giles down for “undeterred.”

As conflicts between the Virginia planters and Berkeley’s party came to a head — planters were sore about taxes, trade, and overly friendly Indian relations — Bland was tapped to represent the former back in the mother country.

But rather than sail for England, the young hothead hitched onto the rising of Nathaniel Bacon — and then was almost immediately intercepted by his foes. “Those who are best able to render an account of this affair do aver,” we read, “that there was no other treason made use of but their want of discretion, assisted by the juice of the grape.”

(Getting captured while distracted by more hedonistic pursuits was a pattern with these Bacon’s rebels, or at least a pattern of the propaganda written about them.)

Rather than summary execution, Giles Bland faced several months’ ill-treatment in irons. Still, Berkeley was in enough of a hurry to get the lad into the ground as the last of the Bacon’s Rebellion martyrs that he seems to have suppressed the prisoner’s legitimate appeal for royal clemency.

John Bland was in the winter of his years when this grim news arrived in London; he would die there in 1680 — having committed yet one more member of his family, his wife Sarah, to the Atlantic crossing, and “feeling no greater grief under my many adversities and infirmities … than her necessary absence in Virginia about my unhappy affairs and estates there.”

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1918: Emile Ferfaille, the last in Belgium

Add comment March 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1918, Belgium carried out its last execution for ordinary crimes — in fact, its only one since 1863.

Now, that figure excludes a reported 242 people executed from 1944 to 1947, in revenge for the Nazi occupation. (To say nothing of those conducted by the Nazis themselves.) But that’s quite a stunning run, considering that death penalty statutes were on the books until 1996: it’s just that the sentences were routinely commuted.

According to the information in this thread on the lively Francophone (it does what it says in the url), Ferfaille murdered his pregnant girlfriend to further his career tomcatting with his other not-yet-pregnant girls. (This being the fourth year of the Great War, a lot of his competition was fertilizing no-man’s lands.)

And as disreputable as hammering one’s lover to death and stuffing her in the vegetable garden is, we’re comfortable averring that it was probably not the single most villainous act to transpire in Belgium the whole of this past century and a half.

Farfaille’s exceptional fate was a consequence of his committing his particular atrocity during that same Great War that gave him such great odds with Flemish females.

Ferfaille was executed in Veurne, just up the road from Dunkirk in the tiny corner of Belgium not occupied by Germany … and he was executed during Germany’s Spring Offensive on the Western Front, its last desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) gamble* to secure battlefield victory before the recently-committed Americans threw their corn-fed thumbs on the scale.

Despite the venal nature of the crime, Ferfaille’s capital punishment was decreed by military court, since the perp was a soldier. With shells kerploding in the distance, the rakish junior officer was set up to face a tribunal with a particular shortage of patience for his shenanigans. (Belgium also carried out military executions in World War I — it’s just that the others were for military crimes, like desertion.)

Although what remained of Belgium was not jumpy in the execution of its sentence. Quite the opposite.

Actually conducting this beheading** required requisitioning from France prolific belle epoque headsman Anatole Deibler (French Wikipedia entry), and his assistants, and their portable guillotine. (Belgium had a guillotine of its own, but it would have had to cross the front to get to Emile Ferfaille. War is hell that way.)

This party of death made a hazardous journey skirting the charnel house of the Western front, protected by all the might of two nations’ armies for their mission to kill one man in a season where thousands died namelessly day by day … sort of a Bizarro World Saving Private Ryan.

The train took these rather small-time ministers of doom to Dunkirk, where they transferred to a truck for Veurne, then under direct German bombardment. The execution crew stood in only a little less danger than its client, but it carried out the sentence, “publicly” in the town’s all-but-empty square. Due to German shelling, barely anyone in the public witnessed this milestone event.

* The manpower for a western push was facilitated by the recent removal of Germany’s eastern enemy consequent upon the Russian Revolution.

** The penalty demanded by law. Post-World War II executions all seem to have been firing squad affairs even though the letter of Belgian law still apparently prescribed beheading even then.

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1887: William Jackson Marion, who’d be pardoned 100 years later

3 comments March 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1887, William Jackson Marion was executed in Nebraska for the murder of his best friend, John Cameron.

Jackson had always upheld his innocence and his ignorance of Cameron’s fate; he was the picture of “utmost coolness” on the scaffold, declaring only “that I am a sinner, the same as other men. I have made no confession and have none to make. Go to the court dockets and see where men have been tried and acquitted and compare my case with them.”

And then, as given by the Gage County Democrat, the first, last, and only man hanged in Beatrice “stood erect upon the trap-door while his hands and feet were bound, the black cap drawn over his face, and the noose adjusted,” the trap sprung, and after a thousand-plus people had taken the opportunity to view this infamous corpse, it was buried in the potter’s field.

It was then 15 years since young “Jack” Marion and John Cameron had hauled out from Grasshopper Falls, Kansas, looking for work on a railroad.

Somewhere in the wilderness, John Cameron disappeared, and Marion returned to his mother-in-law’s saying his buddy had left. Marion’s whereabouts fade; he’s supposed to have drifted in Indian country: was it flight? It sure looked that way a year later, when a body turned up with clothes that matched Cameron’s … and bullet wounds in the head.

Only a decade after those railroad recruits had rolled out their mule-packs was Marion finally apprehended and tried, and even then, it would take four years (and two trials, and several appeals) to resolve this circumstantial and very cold case.

The matter was indeterminate; the newspapers in town sniped at each other over the proper course — “there is a strong under current of public sentiment that is opposed to hanging, and particularly upon circumstantial evidence, collected ten years after the trial [sic], and connected by the testimony of his mother-in-law who showed … personal malice” complained the Gage County Democrat. Up to the very last, the governor postponed hanging by two weeks in response to a citizens’ petition. As is so often the case, though, the will to grant outright executive clemency went begging.

In 1891, under the headline The Dead Is Alive!, the Beatrice Daily Express delivered a thunderbolt to its readers.

There has always lingered, and always will linger, in the minds of a number of people … a doubt of Jack Marion’s guilt of the murder of John Cameron, and for which crime he was executed in this city four years ago.

The Express has today received almost indisputable information which establishes the startling fact of Jack Marion’s innocence. In other words John Cameron is still alive and was seen at LaCrosse, Kansas, one week ago Saturday, and a statement was obtained of him regarding his whereabouts from the time he and Jack Marion separated … and upon which day the law says Jack Marion killed his boon companion and friend.

The “victim” hadn’t been killed at all — he’s just up and blown town, just like Jack Marion said.

Although John Cameron turned up alive four years after the hanging, it would take another ninety-five for John Law to set things right.

That was when the executed man’s grandson, Elbert Marion, officially petitioned for Jack Marion’s posthumous pardon.*

Considering the century’s wait, the Board acted with relative dispatch on the hand-written petition. The evidence, Elbert pointed out, “has been accepted as fact by many many people including the Nebraska State Historical Society” and the living Cameron’s identity considered well-established by his contemporaries.** Elbert’s documentary history was considerable; in the minutes of the meeting, it’s handled by unanimous vote with no more than a few minutes’ conversation — one board member (the Attorney General, no less) observing of a proposal to kick the can down the road to a later evidentiary hearing, “we have sufficient information now on which to act responsibly.”

Now that’s bureaucracy for you.

In 1986, the Nebraska Pardons Board unanimously voted to issue a posthumous pardon to William Jackson Marion, hanged on March 25, 1887, for the murder of John Cameron. Secretary of State Allen Beermann, a member of the Board, noted that this was only the second request for a posthumous pardon the board has heard during his 16-year tenure. Marion’s grandson, Elbert Marion, requested the pardon, arguing that the coroner had misidentified a skeleton as Cameron, and maintaining that Cameron was seen alive by two of Marion’s relatives four years after Marion’s execution. The Board justified the unconditional pardon by stating “that the public good would be served by granting such application and that a posthumous pardon should be bestowed by the government through its duly authorized officers, as an act of grace.” (Source, a pdf)

Nebraska’s In the Matter of a Posthumous Pardon to William Jackson Marion, under the signature of Gov. Bob Kerrey, took formal effect on the 100th anniversary of its title character’s death — March 25, 1987.

* Elbert Marion’s hypothesis — and it is only that — was that Cameron, fleeing a potential paternity suit, swapped outfits with an Indian who might also have been on the run from his own trouble. Elbert reckons that the trick might have worked a little too well, and Cameron’s pursuers ambushed the Indian by mistake.

** One of Elbert Marion’s letters to the Pardons Board contains an offhanded reference to Kansas’s 1907 abolition of the death penalty; Elbert Marion believed (or had heard) that his grandfather’s execution had helped influence the legislature’s decision, but I have not been able to further substantiate this notion.

With special thanks to Sonya Fauver at the Nebraska Pardons Board and Allen Beermann, Nebraska’s Secretary of State at the time (and one of the signatories on the posthumous pardon) for archival assistance on this story.

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1882: William Heilwagner, onion weeder

Add comment March 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, German immigrant William Heilwagner hanged for murdering his daughter-in-law outside Davenport, Iowa.

“A chain of circumstantial evidence wrapped itself around the old man,” writes Laura James. He “made no real effort to explain or defend himself.”

There was little doubt William resented his son’s wife Annie — “the low livedest thing around” he said on the day of her death. This sportive lass yearned for recreation not to be found on Midwestern onion farms, and the neighbors heard the triangular family dust-ups that resulted. There was not a whit of direct evidence against the defendant, but since Otto was out playing pinochle that night, it really only left one suspect.

After the inevitable conviction, a greenhorn aspiring journalist from Davenport, one Charles Edward Russell, took an interest in the queer case. William Heilwagner’s behavior unsettled him; Russell pressed him for a jailhouse interview.

As described in Russell’s 1914 memoir, These Shifting Scenes (available free here), the taciturn Bavarian gave Russell nothing but aggravation.

“Where were you on the night when your daughter-in-law was killed?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Where were you?”

“Oh, I was in the house”

“Well, did you see her get killed?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t see her get killed.”

“Did you hear her cry out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Did you hear her cry out?”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Did she go to bed as usual that night?”

“Who? Annie? Oh, yes, I guess. She go to bed all right.”

“Did you hear her get up in the night? Did you hear anybody come to the house? Did you hear any talking or fighting?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Well, you knew that she went to bed that night and she wasn’t there the next morning and she never came back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Didn’t I think what was strange?”

“That she had gone away in the night and never come back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t think nothing about it. I just go weed my onions.”

It’s enough to drive a body to distraction. Between the prisoner’s feeble story and apparent disinterest in his fate, Russell figured the old weirdo did it — discounting Heilwagner’s scaffold declaration of innocence.

“Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime.” Not one of us that heard believed him. What guilty man is ever punished? What murderer, however hardened, or however certain his crime, fails to protest on the gallows in the like terms and with the same hardihood? All the experienced reporters there told me they had heard such assertions often on the like occasion and were moved not a whit.

Ten years later, Heilwagner’s son Otto leapt to his death from a bridge in Quincy, Illinois.

Otto left behind a suicide note confessing to the murder of his wife: he had secretly rowed back to the house in the dead of night, enticed Annie out of the house, and murdered her for infidelity. Heilwagners, father and son, kept their peace about the secret while William hanged.

“Who? Me?” the old man had said, in answer to my questions. He knew it all, he knew who killed Annie, and he went calmly to his death to save his guilty son. Dull old man, chill and repulsive, he had in him so much of the hero and so much of love. “For greater love hath no man than this.”

It was a rugged introduction for a novice to the business of crime detecting and legalized life-taking. If I had been expert at my trade I might have saved that man. Post facto illumination — how foolish it is! I can see now the indications and signs and hints that meant nothing to me then. But even though I knew at the time nothing of the full horror of that day the experience sickened me of hangings. I have never since acquiesced in any capital punishment. It is as illogical as it is profitless. I have had in my time more than my share of these spectacles and I take it as a fact worthy of serious reflection that I have seen the state put to death eleven persons and five of these I know to have been absolutely innocent, while of the guilt of a sixth and the mental responsibility of a seventh there were the gravest doubts. Murder upon murder, and if I should be asked what good or advantage society reaped from the death of any or all of these, I should be unable to say, nor has there yet appeared in my range of experience any person more expert than I to make that answer.

Among the innocent Russell reckoned were the Haymarket martyrs, whose hanging he covered a few years later for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

His keen sense of injustice — and a somewhat better-developed nose for a story — led Russell on to a career as the “prince of muckrakers,” credited with some of the signature coups of turn-of-the-century journalism, and a place on the masthead as a co-founder of the NAACP.

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