Posts filed under 'Hanged'

1664: Elsje Christiaens, Rembrandt model

1 comment May 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On or about this date in 1664, a Danish teenager named Elsje Christiaens was strangled at Amsterdam for murder.

The date is a little shaky; I don’t know if it’s directly documented (the verdict, we know, came down on May 1). Whenever the execution took place was, it culminated an extremely short stay in Amsterdam for the young woman.

This was boom time for the Dutch Republic, the last apex years before it all went to hell. Naturally, wealthy Amsterdam drew immigrants: for a penniless Jutland 18-year-old like Elsje Christiaens (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), here was opportunity.

In mid-April 1664, she took a room to lay her head while she looked for domestic employment.

Two weeks later, she still hadn’t found a job but her landlady expected rent. When she came to demand it and Christiaens tried to stall her, the confrontation turned tragic: the landlady started thwacking her shiftless boarder with a broomstick, and Christiaens defensively grabbed a nearby hand-axe and knocked the poor woman down a flight of steps — to her death.

The sentence called for her killer to be strangled while being beaten with the very same axe. Then her body was to be hung up publicly with the same weapon, and left “until the winds and birds devour her.”

Of course that happened long ago. But at this time, veteran corpse-painter and Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt van Rijn was hanging out in Amsterdam, living in reduced circumstances after creditors dunned him into the poorhouse.

This was the first woman executed in 21 years, and Rembrandt did not mean to miss his opportunity to sketch it. On May 3, presumably the same day as Elsje Christiaen’s execution, he hired a boat to row him out to the Volewijck moor where the body had been hung up. That day the master sketched the immigrant girl’s freshly-executed corpse, and its shameful axe.

The novelist Margriet de Moor has dramatized the sketchy backstory of Elsje Christiaens and her chance intersection with one of the art world’s greatest names in De schilder en het meisje. Unfortunately for most, this book appears to be available only in Dutch, which is also the language of these reviews: 1, 2, 3.

Rembrandt wasn’t the only Dutch painter haunting Amsterdam’s execution-grounds in 1664.

In this landscape — serene despite its landmarks — Elsje Christiaens is visible on the right. The little copse of gibbets she’s a part of comprises prisoners executed since 1660, according to Michiel Plomp.*


Anthonie van Borssom‘s 1664 ink-and-watercolor painting of the Volewijck execution site.

The gallows stood at the Volewijck until 1795. Today, that once-hard-to-reach peninsula is a residential district in Amsterdam-Noord.

* “Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2006.

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1883: Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann, oldest hanged in Montana

Add comment May 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1883, Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann was hanged in Helena in the then-territory of Montana. He was the first person hanged in that city, and at seventy years old, the oldest person ever executed in Montana.

A non-English-speaking German national who walked with a cane, Furhmann was tiny. There was even speculation that at less than 100 pounds, he didn’t weigh enough to stretch the rope.*

Furhmann was executed for the murder of his son-in-law, Jacob Kenck, whom he’d shot three days before Christmas the previous year. While Kenck was standing in the doorway of his saloon on upper Main Street, talking to another man, Furhmann walked up to him from behind and shot him in the head.

The victim collapsed immediately, but didn’t seem to realize what had happened: as a crowd gathered around him, he said, “Boys, what is the matter? Is somebody hurt?” He passed out and was carried home, where a doctor was summoned to tend to his wound.

Furhmann was arrested immediately and, when told Kenck might survive, said he was sorry and would kill him again if he could.

But Furhmann’s disappointment didn’t last long: Kenck died within hours.

The old man had moved to Montana from his native country a decade before, after his daughter, who had emigrated before him, raised the money for his passage. She sickened and died several years after his arrival and Furhmann blamed her husband, Kenck, and nursed a bitter grudge against Kenck the way Kenck hadn’t nursed his late wife back to health.

After the emigre’s arrest he admitted he’d been plotting the murder for a year and had been carrying a gun everywhere he went, waiting for his chance.

News of the murder rocked the community, and that night a crowd gathered in front of the jail. Tom Donovan, in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana says they were a mixed lot: “interested citizens trying to maintain law and order as well as angry members of the community who wanted to take care of business, with a sprinkling of curious folks wanting to see how it would all turn out.”

There was quite a lot of shouting, but no actual attempt to storm the jail, and eventually the mob dispersed. The curious, perhaps, went home disappointed.

Given the fact that Furhmann shot the victim at literal high noon on literal Main Street in front of witnesses, it’s surprising that the jury deliberated a full 24 hours before convicting. When jurors returned with the condemnation — after it was translated for the defendant — he responded indifferently, “It is what I expected.”

He didn’t hope for clemency, just for the more-honorable death of a firing squad. Nein!

Furhmann died with a smirk on his face. His last words, referring to Jacob Kenck’s brother, were, “Now Chris Kenck will laugh.”

After his death, doctors removed and examined his brain, which turned out to be of average size and perfectly ordinary in appearance.

* Not that it was being used in Big Sky Country, but the classic drop tables/formula would potentially imply a fall of more than three meters to develop the necessary force to break such a slight man’s neck.

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1897: John Gibson, under Jim Crow

Add comment May 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1897, John Gibson was hanged for murder.

In its particulars, the case itself was as minute and forgettable as a homicide ever could be: Gibson got into a spat with a plantation overseer over the theft of 20 or 25 cents from his wages. Later that night, still steaming and now drunk, he called the boss out through the window. The overseer went out to the confrontation armed (Gibson wasn’t), and wound up shot dead by his own gun in the struggle.

This literal two-bit crime became national news, however, and went twice to the Mississippi Supreme Court and twice to the U.S. Supreme Court as a vehicle to challenge Mississippi’s new Jim Crow constitution.

After Reconstruction but especially in the 1890s, the dreadful regime of American apartheid reversed black civil rights gains.

Mississippi’s all-white* constitutional convention of 1890 was a signal event for this nadir of race relations — the first of a wave of new southern constitutions aimed at setting up a color bar. In addition to mandating segregated schools, that constitution imposed a few, ahem, reasonable requirements for voting, which lacked any overt racial language but just so happened to disenfranchise the black electorate almost to a man. (Don’t even get started about women.**)

  • every voter must pay “a uniform poll tax of two dollars”;
  • “every elector shall … be able to read any section of the constitution of this State.” Now, lest one miss the intent here, Mississippi added a clause permitting anyone descended from a legal voter pre-1867 to cast a ballot without passing the exam: if your grandfather could vote, you could vote too … too bad if your grandfather couldn’t vote on account of being property. This one-two punch throughout the South kept poor whites on the right team, and bequeathed to English the phrase “grandfather clause”.

Both these gratuitous hurdles to voting are now confined to the history books, but two other important techniques of disenfranchisement remain very much in use today.

  • a needlessly onerous voter registration process;
  • and, the franchise is reserved for upstanding voters who have “never been convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.” In a context where wholesale incarceration of African Americans was a matter of policy.

Plus of course, brute force up to and including lynch law for political terrorism. “In those days,” one black Mississippian said, “it was ‘Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another.’ They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season.”

From 1901 to 1973, the South never once seated a black lawmaker in the U.S. Congress.

So it’s a grim scene for racial justice in the twilight of the 19th century. But we dwell on the voting-rights aspect because jurors were drawn from the voting rosters: all the filters that excluded African Americans from the ballot box likewise excluded them from the jury box. And here’s where we get back to John Gibson.

Gibson’s case was taken up by African-American attorneys† Cornelius Jones and Emanuel Hewlett, who argued it all the way to a Supreme Court. R. Volney Riser argues in Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 that they weren’t just trying to save their client — they were mounting a cagey attack on the Mississippi constitution and the pillars of Jim Crow law. If Jones and Hewlett

could show a racial motive in refusing potential black voters (and likewise potential black jurors), they would have a reasonably strong case.

The elements of a strong, jury-based anti-disfranchisement case were in place for Jones and Hewlett and all that they really wanted was to have his case remanded to a U.S. district court. That might seem anticlimactic, but it would have meant that southern judges, sheriffs, and voting registrars would find themselves standing before federal district judges to justify their administration of jury selection and voter registration. In the immediate short term, there would almost surely be some benefit for disfranchised African Americans.

They argued the cases on December 13, 1895, and the Supreme Court announced decisions in Gibson and [a companion case] Smith on April 13, 1896, little more than one month before [Jim Crow landmark] Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote both opinions and dismissed each case on jurisdictional grounds. The problem lay in the evidence, which was conspicuous by its paucity … Mississippi did not exclude blacks in terms … [and] in Gibson, Jones had not shown that Mississippi’s courts committed “any error of law of which this court may take cognizance” or that his client’s murder conviction “was due to prejudice of race.”

Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1895

In the real world, where rights need enforcement if they are to thrive, this ruling had the effect of giving a free hand to white power so long as it had the sense God gave a vegetable and didn’t directly declare that any of its universally all-white juries (or electorates) were constituted as a matter of explicit race prejudice. Just a marvelous coincidence! Nothing to see here, you federal judges.

As the Southwestern Christian Advocate editorialized after the ruling (Apr. 23, 1896)

Proof need hardly be asked that there was a deliberate purpose on the part of the persons charged with that responsibility [i.e., seating juries] to absolutely ignore the colored man as a juror. This is the cold truth, that the sheriffs and other court officers who have charge of the impanneling of juries will not select colored men. The persistency with which they deny such intent is one of the most gigantic mysteries of the age.

Of course, there is no constitutional enactment on the statute books of the State of Mississippi denying the right of jury service to Negroes, yet they do not serve, and for the simple reason that they are not chosen. It is the easiest matter in the world to keep Negroes out of the jury box in Mississippi. It is one of their sovereign rights.

There is no enactment against it, nothing for it, so there it is. And what is the Supreme Court or the Federal government going to do about it? Why, simply render its decisions upon what it does not permit. The fact is that the amendments to the Constitution, so far as the black man is concerned, are not worth the paper they are written upon without the moral sentiments of high minded and noble people behind it. And this will apply to State, Federal and Supreme Courts as well.

Meanwhile, the black man is expected to be an intelligent and a loyal citizen, notwithstanding the rights which he fought and bled for are now almost exclusively in the hands of those who at one time sought to pull the fair fabric of our Constitutional liberties to the ground.

It’s still to this day the case that defendants have very little scope to scrutinize potentially prejudicial jury composition. It’s still to this day the case that the Supreme Court has nothing but a toothless remedy. And it’s still to this day the case that some state’s attorneys can and do craft racially discriminatory juries more prone to convict by excluding blacks … so long as it’s “not in terms” and instead for literally any other pretext.

* Except for one black man.

** Representative sentiment of a Mississippian: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.” Mississippi only ratified female suffrage in 1984.

† There are some claims out there that the first black attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court did so only in 1910; I may be overlooking a nuance in the manner these issues were presented to the high court, but so far as I can discern, Gibson was argued by black attorneys. This source suggests that it was hardly the first.

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1899: Not J.M. Olberman, spared by Oregon’s governor

1 comment April 28th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.

But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.


SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:

I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’

To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.

Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.

I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.

Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.

Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.

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1900: Bill Brown, Sonnie Crain and John Watson

1 comment April 25th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1900, Sonnie (or Sonny) Crain and William “Bill” Brown, both 40, and John Watson, 59, were hanged side by side a quarter-mile from the Warren County Jail in McMinnville, Tennessee.

This was an integrated execution: Brown and Watson were white, and Crain was black.


From the April 27, 1900 American Citizen (Kansas City, Mo.)

The gallows was contained in a 30-by-30-foot enclosure and had been built especially for this day’s event. There were twenty official witnesses. A crowd of about two thousand waited outside the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution, but their view was obscured by a canvas curtain drawn hanging from the top of the gallows.

John Watson

Watson, a Civil War veteran who’d fought at Shiloh, had committed his crime on December 21, 1898. He shot a neighbor, 40-year-old James Hillis, white, after an argument about some corn and some fence rails.

Hillis walked away from the fight. Watson fetched his shotgun, waited for his chance then shot Hillis on the road that evening, in front of the victim’s daughter. Hillis lived for a few hours after the shooting and named Watson as his attacker.

The killer had a reputation for violence; he’d allegedly shot and seriously wounded a black man in a drunken rage in 1893, but was acquitted at trial. He had also served a term in federal prison for making and selling moonshine, and he was stone drunk on his own apple brandy at the time of Hillis’s murder.

His defense, one of temporary insanity caused by alcohol, didn’t fly with the jury.

Bill Brown was an illiterate tenant farmer; his victim was his wife of ten years, Mary Fults Brown. Bill was tired of his wife and attempted to leave her, but everywhere he went she just followed him. He and his brother, John “Bud” Brown, decided she had to die.

On May 5, 1898, In accordance with the plan, Bill invited a friend, Bill Rogers, to spend the night. Bill made sure to leave the door unlocked, and while Mary and the guest were sleeping, Bud Brown sneaked into the house, shot his sister-in-law and fled. Bill then woke up Rogers, crying, “Lordy, lordy, someone’s shot Mary!”

Bill told Rogers the shooter had fired through the open window, but this didn’t make sense because Mary had been asleep beside her husband and Bill was lying between her and the window. He claimed he didn’t own a gun, but a search of the house turned up a recently fired pistol hidden in a trunk.

It didn’t take long for Bill to crack. He confessed to his role in Mary’s death and implicated his brother Bud (who, incidentally, had a prior record for beastiality with a mare).

The brothers were to be tried separately and Bill went first. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was appealed on the grounds that one of the jurors had mistakenly believed he was sitting at the trial of Bud Brown, not Bill Brown. (Like Sauron and Saruman, they’re easily confused.)

Seriously?

The appeals court judge couldn’t believe it when Bill’s attorney made this ludicrous assertion, and threatened to hold him in contempt for making a mockery of the proceedings and wasting the court’s time. Then Bill’s attorney brought in the juror in question, who admitted his error. (The confusion arose in part because Bill and Bud, neither of whom testified at the trial, were sitting next to each other at the defendant’s table.)

While Bud Brown was awaiting his first trial, Bill was waiting his second trial, and John Watson was awaiting the outcome of his appeal, they were all housed in a jail cell with Sonnie Crain.

Crain had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Will Snellings in a dispute over a craps game, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was housed in the jail while his case was under appeal.

On May 22, 1899, as the Brown brothers slept, Crain bludgeoned them both in the head with a piece of his bed, killing Bud and critically injuring Bill. He later said the brothers had threatened him and he’d acted in self-defense, but the authorities had another theory as to motive.

The jailer was away at the time of the murder and had placed his wife in charge, and there was some evidence that Watson and Crain had conspired together to murder their cellmates in order to create a diversion so they could escape when the jailer’s wife came to get Crain.

Crain (who denied any plan to escape from jail and insisted to his dying breath that he’d acted in self-defense) was convicted of Bud Brown’s murder and sentenced to death. Although Bill Brown’s wounds were very serious and he was not expected to live, he recovered from his injuries in time to be hanged alongside the man who’d tried to kill him and the other man who’d possibly conspired in his attempted murder.

So now that no one is confused … the three ultimately set to die in this labyrinthine affair were hanged at 11:50 a.m. on April 25, attended by two black ministers and two white ones. Crain and Brown were stoic, but Watson’s nerves failed him on the scaffold and he cried and shook as the noose was placed around his neck.

It was the last public(ish) hanging ever in McMinnville.

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1886: Joseph Jackson and James Wasson, at Fort Smith

Add comment April 23rd, 2013 Headsman


St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1886

America’s most notorious “hanging judge” Isaac Parker issued the sentences resulting in this date’s double hanging at Fort Smith, Ark.

A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.

In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)

Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.

* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)

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1945: The children of Bullenhuser Damm

3 comments April 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, as Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday within a Red Army cordon, one of the Second World War’s more tear-jerking little crimes against humanity happened in Hamburg.

Bullenhuser Dammstill to be found today — was a former Hamburg school which fell out of use as World War II progressed, owing to the devastation Allied bombings wrought on the surrounding area.

The school itself sustained little damage, however, which eventually facilitated its appropriation as a satellite building for the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp.

Over at Neuengamme, the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer had been conducting a litany of horror medical experiments on 20 Jewish children — mostly from Poland — culled from the concentration camps, seeking medical evidence for Nazi racial theories further to a cushy professorship. But as April 1945 was obviously endgame for the Third Reich, thoughts naturally turned to disposing of evidence of indictable offenses.


Photos of the eventual Bullenhuser Damm victims showing their surgical scars after Heissmeyer injected them with tuberculosis.

Bullenhuser Damm was just the place for disposal.

On April 20, the 20 kids were loaded up on trucks with their four adult caretakers — two French, two Dutch — plus six Soviet prisoners of war.

At Bullenhuser Damm, the kids were parked in a room and hung out, blissfully ignorant of their danger. “They had all their things with them — some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc,” physician Alfred Trzebinski later recalled at his own trial. “They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”

In the next room, the 10 adults were being hanged.

According to Admitting the Holocaust, Trzebinski was impressed with his own compassionate use of this bit of down time: he generously gave the children morphine shots to sedate them before their own executions. Or rather, their murders … since the doctor could not but agree that “you cannot execute children, you can only murder them.”

I must say that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake — the others were already sleeping … Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten. (Trzebinski, again)

The other 19 children were disposed of in like manner, and then all 30 corpses cremated overnight … just in time for what must have been a much-needed 5 a.m. coffee.

After the war, the facility went back to use as an actual (creepy!) school, but it was eventually renamed Janusz Korczak School, for a Polish-Jewish educator gassed with his young charges at Treblinka. There’s a permanent exhibition (German) at the site, as well as a memorial rose garden with a variety of plaques commemorating the victims of Bullenhuser Damm.

Trzebinski’s take on his conduct this horrible night might have been good enough for his conscience, but it didn’t pass muster with his judges: he was hanged on a war crimes rap prominently including Bullenhuser Damm on October 8, 1946. Kurt Heissmeyer, however, avoided detection until 1959 and only received a long prison sentence in 1966, shortly before his death.

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1928: Charles Birger, bootlegger

Add comment April 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, colorful gangster Charles Birger was hanged in Benton, Illinois.

A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.

Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.

While Al Capone‘s Tommy Guns were tearing up Chicago, Birger set up shop in southern Illinois. A literal shop: from his famous speakeasy Shady Rest, he did three-way battle with the (pro-Prohibition) Ku Klux Klan and the rival Shelton Brothers Gang.

This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.

That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.

Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.

“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)


Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman”
by Phil Hanna.


Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.

Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.

This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.

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1680: John Marketman, jealous chirurgeon

Add comment April 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1680, an unusual public execution took place in West Ham.

John Marketman (Manchetman) was a ship’s surgeon, which he spelled “chirurgeon” because it was olden days. Being away at sea gave him a lots of time to picture how his wife Mary Snerlin back home might be cuckolding him, and when he arrived back one time to apparent corroborating information, he went a little nutso.

According to the trial record from the spring 1680 Chelmsford Assizes,

the circumstances of the bloody Deed was sworn to as followeth, the Prisoner being newly come on Shore, having been at Sea for a considerable time, was informed that she had been over lavish of her Favours to a Neighbour of hers, being by profession a Shoemaker; he being newly come from Sea and coming home as it is said surprized her too familiar with the said Shoemaker, whereupon he in a Rage threatned [sic] her, yet notwithstanding the Rage of Jealousie, he seemed reconciled, but to the contrary retaining an inward hatred, which she perceiving, fled to a neighbours house, thinking to stay whilst his Anger was overpast, yet he with a seem’d Reconciliation, came to invite her home, and came up to her as if he would imbrace her, but with his bloody hands he stab’d her with a Knife under her Right Breast, about four inches deep,* of which Wound she in a little time died, only confessing her innocence, at his Trial he did not deny the Fact, and after his being convicted did confess his Rashness in proceeding on such Cruelty, without the least remorse, after he was found Guilty of wilful Murder and received Sentence of Death, he seemed exceeding Penitent, and did bewail his cruel Crime, shedding many Tears, that he had given himself over to the suggestions of the Prince of darkness, and so continued to the utmost.

There are somewhat different twists on the underlying facts of the case from different sources — like the profession of the alleged lover, and the question of whether Marketman caught them in flagrante delicto or merely heard town gossip, and the matter of whether he took revenge with cold calculation or in more of a drunken fury. Fill it out however you like; in outline we have one of the stock classics of homicide.

But at receiving his sentence, Marketman did something remarkable: he asked the judge to alter the sentence and be hung not at the usual execution spot in Chelmsford, but in West Ham — “the town where he did perpetrate the wicked act.”

Marketman, you could say, really went all-out from that very first moment to put on a full-dress, no-holds-barred scaffold performance par excellence. He should have been in the business of scripting deaths.

Besides hanging in West Ham, Marketman had his mother (“poor Soul drowned in Sorrow,” in the words of a pamphlet titled “True Narrative of the Execution of John Marketman”**) lead him personally to the gallows. There a minister preached on 2 Corinthians 7:9, “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting” — demonstratively comforting Marketman that his imminent strangulation would stand “a monument to divine justice … in and thorow you, God sheweth the consequences of a sinful and wicked life.”

This was the evolving principle of executions as exemplary deterrence, and Marketman was ready to play the part in his final turn. He spoke for a long time, with the swooning mother right there as evidence, on how he

had been very disobedient to his too indulgent parents, and that he had spent his youthful days in profanation of the Sabbath and licentious evils of debaucheries beyond expression, and that he had been over penurious in his narrow observance of his wive’s ways, desirous that all should pray to the Eternal God for his everlasting welfare, and with many pious expressions ended this mortal life.

In focusing on the theatrical aspects of Marketman’s execution, we don’t mean to suggest that the sea-chirurgeon’s encounter with his death was in any way insincere: present-day executions too comprise a ritualized performance in which a good many dying prisoners are very willing to participate. (Modern American executions behind prison walls don’t map to the take-warning-from-my-fate discourse, but it’s quite common for those on the gurney to offer victims’ witnesses the “closure” shibboleth.)

The early-modern condemned were widely expected to give a pedagogical account of themselves before execution, and widely complied with the expectation. Marketman simply underscores the surprising extent to which a fellow will not only comply but actively assert his part in his own death. Marketman wanted his hanging to embody redemption, instruction, and the majesty of the law that hanged him. Maybe in his heart of hearts he even wanted that before he knifed poor Mary Snerlin.

The chirurgeon went so far as to write a prison letter to his supposed rival: “As for the injury you have done me, I freely from my heart forgive you, begging God to give you grace that you may unfeignedly repent of all your sins, that God may have mercy on your soul.”

See J.A. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past & Present, May 1985.

* Say what you will about chirurgeons, they know about killing.

** This source also says his wife was pregnant, which must have added some vinegar to Marketman’s cuckoldry suspicions.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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1921: Mailo Segura, a Montenegrin in Alaska

1 comment April 15th, 2013 Meaghan

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

At noon on this day in 1921, Mailo Segura was hanged in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In 1918 he had murdered a miner, J.E. “George” Riley, near the gold rush town of Flat, in a dispute over money. His was the second execution in Fairbanks history.

George Riley was in charge of the mining operations along Orter Creek near Flat. Segura was a lumberjack and, together with some other men, had sold $300 worth of cordwood to Riley on credit.

In early 1918, Segura confronted Riley with the bill and demanded to be paid. By then, the bill had been outstanding for two years. Riley, however, refused to pay. He said he wasn’t going to hand over any money until Segura either brought his wood-chopping partners along with him to collect the sum in person, or brought a statement from his partners authorizing Segura to take the full amount.

As witnesses at his trial later testified, Segura was furious with Riley and said he would kill him if Riley didn’t give him the $300. On March 2, he withdrew his life savings of $1,800 from his bank account and later that day went looking for the deadbeat.

Segura found his quarry at the mining claim and waited patiently, assisting with the mining work so he wouldn’t look suspicious.

When all the other miners had gone inside the boiler house, Segura shot Riley in the back without warning. The miners heard the shots — there were three, any one of which would have been fatal — and ran outside to find their employer lying stone dead on the ground and Segura running away.

It didn’t take much effort to catch him. Once he was surrounded, Segura raised his hands in surrender and shouted, “Me no kill no more.”

Seeing as how Mailo Segura had repeatedly threatened Riley’s life and then shot the unarmed man from behind, his claim of self-defense didn’t go very far at his trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder on July 18 and was supposed to be hanged on October 8, but Segura put his $1,800 life savings to use filing appeals, and thereby prolonged his life by three years.

When his time came, he was terrified and unable to walk to his death. The authorities had to strap him to a board to keep him upright while they fastened the noose around his neck.

A matter of minor interest: Mailo Segura hailed from halfway around the world in the tiny Balkan kingdom of Montenegro; he might be the only Montenegrin ever executed in North America. (Montenegrins were then and still are today a sizable minority in Alaska.) In spite of his European descent, in trial documents he was referred to as “black,” and possible racial prejudice on the part of the jury was an issue in his appeals.

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