“Death, administered in the law’s deliberate way, exacted a three-fold toll in the District [of Columbia]’s electric chair” on this date in 1946, announced the next day’s Washington Post.*
It was as many people as the nation’s capital had put to death in the previous four years combined. The clientele: three unconnected men, condemned for unconnected murders.
“Joseph Dunbar Medley, suave slayer of a Washington divorcee,” was the most (in)famous of the three. “The debonair man who blazed a trail of crime from the Middle West” had that April made a daring escape from District Jail — which was rather renowned for its escapability, but still, this was a guy on death row, and who was only a few weeks from his then-scheduled electrocution.
Medley and another condemned man, Earl McFarland, charmed their way into their guards’ confidence. During a card game played in one of the guards’ rooms, they imprisoned their jailers, nicked their clothes, and cut their way into a ventilation shaft and out to the roof.
Medley himself was captured hours later hiding in a sewer pipe on the Anacostia River, pithily remarking to reporters, “You can’t blame a guy for trying, and I’m going to try again.” (Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1946) If he did try again, he didn’t make it.
But the bloodhounds couldn’t pick up McFarland, whose manhunt made nationwide headlines for more than a week until he was finally tracked down in Knoxville, Tenn. (He was executed solo in July.)
While [Medley] waited [for three hours of last-second appeals to clear], the chair claimed two other slayers, both Negroes.
William Copeland, 38-year-old slayer of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Dora Johnson, walked into the chamber, jauntily smoking a cigar which he clenched in his teeth while he smiled. He helped guards adjust the straps and the leather face mask smothered his last smile …
Second to die was Julius Fisher, 32, convicted of beating to death Miss Catherine Reardon, librarian at the Washington Cathedral … bludgeoned to death with a piece of firewood and her body hidden in a sub-basement crypt. He strangled and struck her after she had complained about the way he had cleaned under her desk.
* Charles J. Yarbrough, “Death Hour Delayed by Futile Court Maneuver,” The Washington Post, Dec 21, 1946.
His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)
The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.
That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.
Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.
“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”
The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.
There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!
But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.
“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.
“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”
And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.
Fantomas on the silver screen
This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.
In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.
* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.
It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)
Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.
Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.
-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)
The Invincibles were ultimately collared — and then hemp-collared — with the assistance of one of their own number who turned queen’s evidence and put five of his former confederates in the noose.
Now in peril of life and limb himself, the turncoat James Carey got a new identity and a ticket on a passenger ship from his recent British enemies. But Carey either got sloppy and blew his cover — provoking O’Donnell to take the opportunity to kill him — or was found out by the Fenians before he left — and O’Donnell sent to stalk him.
The matter is still disputed, and it was disputed at O’Donnell’s trial (further to the question of motive and premeditation; the defense claimed that O’Donnell killed in self-defense during an affray).
That defense didn’t fly. Even advancing it, O’Donnell’s defenders would rather celebrate the intrepidity of his action than plead its extenuating circumstances; riotous celebrations with Carey burned in effigy were reported in Ireland when the news of Carey’s murder broke.
O’Donnell was apparently an American citizen, and his case generated a considerable groundswell from the ample Irish immigrant community stateside.*; he had lived in the anthracite mining regions of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania O’Donnells were big players in the shadowy Irish labor-terrorist-revolutionary Molly Maguires.
Now he’s dead, he’s laid to rest,
Let honour be his name,
Let no one look upon him
With scorn or disdain;
His impulse it is human,
Which no one can deny,
I hope he’ll be forgiven
By the infinite Lord on high.
If every son in Erin’s Isle
Had such a heart as he,
Soon they’d set their native land
Once more at liberty;
They’d unfurl their flag unto the British,
Their rights they would redeem
In unity and friendship,
In the lands far over the sea.
O’Donnell was one of the very few hanged by the great English executioner William Marwood‘s subpar successor Bartholemew Binns. Binns and his assistant were arrested in the process, having attempted to skip the fare for the train to London.
* For instance, the Dec. 10, 1883 Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser in Dublin reported that President Chester A. Arthur received a deputation urging him to press for clemency consisting of congressmen “Cox and Robinson, New York; Mirrosn, Springer, and Sinertz, Illinois; Lefevre and Foran, Ohio; Murphy, Iowa; Mabury, William Lamb, Indiana; M’Adoo, New Jersey; Collins, Massachusetts, and O’Neill and Burns, Missouri.”
On this date in 1952, Steve Suchan and Lennie Jackson were hanged at Toronto’s Don Jail for the murder of a policeman.
Lennie Jackson (top) and Steve Suchan
Both Such and Jackson were members of the Boyd Gang, a swashbuckling troupe of show-stealing bank robbers in post-World War II Toronto … but in the timeless mold of the folkherooutlaws.
Not hanged with them (or ever; he died in British Columbia in 2002) was the gang’s leader and namesake, Edwin Alonzo Boyd.
The wartime commando legendarily launched his stick-up career by robbing a bank so unrecognizably made-up that he was able to walk back in and change a $20 without notice a few days later.
Boyd’s further exploits (and occasional close scrapes: he seemed to have a gift for not getting hit when people shot back at him) plundering banks, and then escaping jail with the cohorts who became the “Boyd Gang” to plunder some more, threw a splash of color across the headlines of staid 1950s Ontario that moved newspapers.
When the Boyd Gang stuck up a bank and it made the front page, people started cheering for them, because it put some excitement in their lives. And of course the interesting thing about Edwin was, if there is such a thing, he was a “good” bad guy.*
Jackson and Suchan were two of that group who helped author the Boyd Gang’s most notorious larcenies. And they put a screeching halt on the “fun” of the Boyd gang’s crime spree in March 1952 when they shot a Toronto cop dead at a traffic stop.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just the banksters getting hurt. The crooks couldn’t dodge the ensuing manhunt.
But somehow the quartet of criminals locked up in the Don Jail with this murder rap hanging over them actually managed to escape again, hours ahead of their arraignment. It turned out to be the bandits’ last great exploit, worth only a few days of liberty before they were recaptured.
Jackson and Suchan went from trial to gallows — said to be a badly botched hanging — in mere weeks. Boyd and another gang member named Willie Jackson (the two Jacksons weren’t related) drew long prison sentences from which they were paroled in 1966.
While the putschists were unsurprisingly executed, the Tutsi-authored backlash cast a much wider net, ultimately claiming up to 5,000 lives. (It was only a dress rehearsal for a similar scenario — Hutu rebellion triggering massive Tutsi crackdown — that resulted in a full-on genocide in 1972.)
Various executions peppered the weeks after the intended coup; this date’s was one of the last of the particularly noteworthy. The New York Times (Dec. 21, 1965) described those “executed in the Central African kingdom Wednesday after mass trials” as “Joseph Bamina,* a former Burundi Premier … [and] 23 others included two prominent political leaders.”
Burundi did not live happily ever after.
* Lamarchand calls Bamina one of the “hard-core Hutu opposition.”
On this date in 1930, two Spanish soldiers were shot for an abortive mutiny against the crown.
Fermin Galan (Spanish Wikipedia entry; most of the available online material about him is in Spanish) earned his military spurs in the Rif War in Morocco, and earned his revolutionary spurs participating in an attempted 1926 rising evocatively named La Sanjuanada. The resultant prison term shoulder to shoulder with Barcelona anarchists only radicalized Galan further. (It also gave him a chance to write.)
After an amnesty, Captain Galan was back in his fatigues commanding the garrison at Jaca.
And he was positively a firebrand; other left-leaning activists who knew he was cooking up a mutiny struggled to restrain him knowing the time was not ripe. When strikes swept Spain in November, followed by violent police suppression, Galan forced the issue, wanting waffling “revolutionaries” to commit themselves.
Galan, as he expressly stated during those feverish days, was fed up with the failures of 1926 and didn’t want to rely on pseudo-revolutionary generals in the style of Blazquez, or on the opportunistic politicians … The majority of the Jaca soldiers adored him and would follow him wherever he led. (Quoted here)
One will discern that that commitment was not forthcoming. Galan’s rising Dec. 12 was quashed; a more general rebellion slated for Dec. 15 fizzled, and Galan and one of his fellow-officers were court-martialed and quickly put to death.
According to Robin Warner,*
If authorities’ intention had been to discourage Republican support by making an example of Galan, the burgeoning legend of his self-sacrifice achieved quite the opposite effect. In the context of a well organised campaign for the release of imprisoned Republican leaders, the dead officer was given the status of a martyr. Clandestine journals and street ballads were quick to provide details of the bravery of his last moments and blame his death on royal intervention … With the accession to power of the provisional Republican Government on 14 April the figure of Galan had a place of honour at the official — and unofficial — celebrations. One of the first acts of the new regime was solemnly to honour the memory of the December martyrs and order a revision of their trial …
Galan had few illusions about the nature of the broad Republican movement which was to exploit his death. He roundly denounced “la ficcion hueca y pomposa que constituye la democracia moderna”, whose rhetoric serves to conceal the aim of perpetuating traditional privileges and blocking genuine change.
If one likes, that sojourn in a functioning republic firmed up Dorrego’s commitment to federalism — the principle that would animate a decades-long internal conflict over division of power in the newly independent state.
Argentina’s federalists approved a distribution of power to its constituent regions; the opposing unitarians wanted a strong central government in Buenos Aires.
And they did not confine their disputes to pamphlets.
Resistance from the provinces to overweening Buenos Aires and Argentina’s unitarian first president Bernardino Rivadavia helped precipitate that gentleman’s fall from power and the dissolution of the national government.
Dorrego became Governor of Buenos Aires in August 1827, and exercised de facto head of state powers — for instance, he formally accepted the treaty ending hostilities in the Argentina-Brazil War.*
But a rough customer of the unitarian camp, Gen. Juan Lavalle, overthrew Dorrego’s government and mounted a terrifying purge of federales.**
Beginning, of course, with Dorrego himself, who was given one hour’s advance notice of his entirely extrajudicial shooting.
Most of the detailed information available online about this martyr is in Spanish — see here, here, here, and here, for instance.
* The fruit of this treaty was the independent state of Uruguay, as each side gave up trying to take that territory from the other by force.
Nazarova was a 21-year-old Komsomol member in the town of Ostrov when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
The Germans overran Ostrov’s Pskov oblast en route to Leningrad for that city’s legendary siege, leaving Nazarova to apply her leadership talents to the finer points of partisan warfare.
She was captured with five other resistance members in November 1942, and the six executed in a traveling spectacle of the macabre this date: Nazarova and another young woman, Nura Ivanova, were hanged together in the main square of Ostrov; then, the party rolled out to the neighboring village of Nogino for the hanging of a middle-aged husband-and-wife couple; last, Nikolai Mikhailov and Konstantin Dmitriev got that treatment in yet another nearby village, Ryadobzha.
Nineteen-year-old shoe-shiner Hosni Ramadan Mahmoud Ahmed and his friend Ramadan Abu Al-Magd Azab were hanged in Qena, Egypt on this date in 2006 for murdering Ahmed’s two-year-old stepdaughter.
“Apparently infuriated that the crying baby was disrupting their viewing of a football match on television,” read the crime blotter. “Ahmed smashed the two year old’s head against a wall and electrocuted her.
“The two men then dumped her body in a nearby school.”