Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.
And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.
After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”
Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.
* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.
** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.
Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,
got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.
Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.
The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.
The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”
Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.
Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.
There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
Thanks for a million things. Thanks for a million things. I’ve got a son, six foot three inches, one hundred and seventy pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas right now. … So I’ve left something good—one decent thing out of a dirty life …
— Lloyd Edison Sampsell (aka “the Yacht Bandit”), convicted of robbery and murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed April 25, 1952
Sampsell and an accomplice plundered Pacific Coast banks before stealing away in his yacht. He pilfered a total of $200,000 in his career but died with only $5.27 to his name. Sampsell, age fifty-two, was convicted of killing Arthur W. Smith in a San Diego finance company robbery.
Before the gas took its effect, he turned to the nearly one hundred witnesses gathered and winked.
Louise Peete died in the Caliornia gas chamber on this date in 1947.
Stock of “cultured, educated people” — her words — she turned teenage delinquent, got kicked out of her private school, and commenced a colorful career as an itinerant prostitute and scam artist. Her gallantries — and larcenies — are supposed to have driven two early husbands to suicide, though given her subsequent career one can’t help but wonder.
Lofie Louise Preslar (as she was born) or Louise Gould (as she came to style herself) got the surname by which she is best known from a Denver salesman named Richard Peete. Though this pair fought wantonly and soon separated, Louise still bore his name when her wealthy lover Jacob Denton mysteriously went missing, days after Louise moved into his Los Angeles mansion. Eventually, he turned up … under the floorboards. Louise had been signing checks in his name, and when her bad forgeries were noticed concocted a cockamamie alibi about a “Spanish woman” who had got the man’s arm amputated.
This wasn’t even the murder that Ms. Peete was executed for, but it made her a national celebrity: a black widow who had preyed on a magnate from the shadow of yellow journalism’s newbuilt Xanadu.
American Newspapers (Hearst and otherwise) from sea to sea ran breathless updates from the trial of the “Tiger Woman”, and local interest in Tinseltown — well, it was intense.
Olympia (Wash.) Daily Recorder, Jan. 19, 1921.
In a 2½-week trial, Peete was convicted of Denton’s murder, but the all-male jury declined to hang her and ordered a life sentenced instead. While she served it, a despondent Richard Peete — who continued to profess his absconded wife’s innocence — shot himself. She just had some way with men.
Paroled for good behavior in 1939, Louise proved that prison had not sapped her gift for attracting convenient deaths to her proximity.
The notorious Tiger Woman, now nearing 60, was a sensation of the past but Peete still had advocates who believed in her innocence, worked for her release, and took her in when she was paroled. Peete went to work for one of those advocates as her housekeeper (until the advocate died), and then got the same gig for her parole officer (until the officer died), and then moved in as the live-in caregiver for two more of her jailyears advocates, Arthur and Margaret Logan.
This couple had actually taken in Peete’s daughter for a time during her prison sentence, and in gratitude, Peete reprised for them all her greatest hits.
In June 1944, Margaret Logan disappeared (just like Mr. Denton had); then, posing as his sister, Peete had the dementia-addled Arthur committed.
Living now in the victims’ house (as with Denton’s), Peete began plundering their assets (as with Denton’s). Eventually (as with Denton) someone noticed the forged signature, and when that happened the inquiry brought Tiger Woman into the light yet again: Margaret Logan’s corpse was mouldering away in the back yard.
First as tragedy, then as farce. Even her new lover when all this stuff broke proceeded to commit suicide.
She still claimed innocence — sans “Spanish woman” this time — but the evidence at hand coupled with the suspicious pall of violent death that had always seemed to shadow her career made that an impossible sell. A jury of mostly women sent her to death row.
She was the second (of four) women gassed in California.
On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.
Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.
Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.
The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.
On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.
Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.
When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.
He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”
Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.
Less than a year passed between murder and execution.
Jack Gilbert Graham was gassed* on this date in 1957 in Colorado for a cold-blooded mass murder in the skies.
Just a petty crook until his turn towards cinematic infamy, Graham fell badly in debt and looked to the friendly skies to recover his financial footing.**
When his mother, Daisie King, flew to Alaska to visit family on November 1, 1955, Graham purchased a $37,500 life insurance policy on her at the airport,† knowing that 25 sticks of dynamite had been packed into her luggage. When Graham’s bomb exploded minutes after departure, mom went down in the wreckage … and 43 other people besides. Nobody survived. Chillingly, it appeared to be a crime copied from a notorious 1949 Canadian airline bombing that sent twopeople to the gallows over an affair of the heart.
These cardinal sins turned literally deadly were bad enough when folks in the way got quietly poisoned off, but one could hardly fail to be alarmed at the prospect of an actual trend developing out of random private grievances turning into terror in the skies with bystanders killed by the (at least) dozens.
Once Colorado authorities zeroed in on Graham, they sought a quick trial and maximum sentence for deterrent effect. Graham halfheartedly retracted his confession but otherwise did little to fight the result; if anything, his callous indifference to the fates of a whole planeload of people stood him in a very poor light.
“As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it,” he told a Time magazine reporter. “Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”
He was easy to find, and even easier to hate.
The bombing happened on the first of November in 1955. Twelve days on, he had confessed to the FBI.‡ By May of the following year, Graham was convicted in a sensational trial — one of the first ever televised — and his appeals wrapped up a mere eight months after that.
Graham is also the reason Lenny Bruce is on the no-fly list.
* Graham died hard, screaming and thrashing against the straps in the gas chamber. The warden assured observers (accurately) that this sort of thing, horrible as it was to behold, was not uncommon.
† Air travel was regarded as a much more perilous venture at this time, and insurance was commonly sold at airports.
‡ Though the feds helped the investigation, there were at that time no applicable federal statutes under which to charge Graham — so the judicial proceedings were strictly Colorado’s affair. Formally, he was charged with only one count of murder: that of his mother. It was charge enough for the task at hand.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I have nothing to say except that I am innocent. It’s easier to convict a Negro than a white person. So long everybody.”
—Robert E. Folkes, convicted of murder, gas chamber, Oregon.
Executed January 5, 1945
Folkes, age twenty-three, was convicted of slashing a woman’s throat on a Southern Pacific train while working as a cook. The Associated Press described him as “the first condemned man to see the chamber,” as Folkes was the first prisoner to ever walk into the Oregon gas chamber without a blindfold on.
One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.
And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.
The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.
Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.
So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.
Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.
Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)
Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.
From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.
Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.
On this date in 1945, stripped down to his socks and underwear, 35-year-old truck driver and double murderer Charles Silliman was gassed in Colorado’s death chamber. He died for the murder of his wife, Esther Corrine Silliman, and their four-year-old daughter.
Charles and Esther had been married for nine years and didn’t have any relationship problems that anybody knew about. After dinner on January 22, 1944, he poured her nightly glass of brandy. He also gave a small amount to little Patricia Mae. Both mother and child became violently ill and quickly expired.
Charles said he had no idea what had caused their deaths, and suggested food poisoning as a possible answer. When the cops arrived on the scene, they found the grieving husband and father studying his wife and daughter’s life insurance policies.
The police were suspicious, especially after Charles began weeping and pulled out a handkerchief marked with lipstick. He said the lipstick was his wife’s, but … she never wore makeup.
Chemical analysis showed the brandy had been laced with strychnine, and a bottle of the poison turned up hidden in the tire kit in Silliman’s car. The police theorized he had committed the murders to collect on the insurance and be with “a woman whom he met in a beer tavern in Denver and later … while his wife was absent, he rather frequently visited.”
Charged with murder, Silliman admitted to the poisonings and said he and his wife, plagued by poor health and debt, had jointly decided to commit suicide and take both their children with them — but that he chickened out and was unable to go through with it. (Son Charles Jr. was not harmed, as he was living with his grandparents at the time of the murders.)
Silliman was tried for his wife’s murder only, and he told the jury about the unfinished suicide pact. The prosecution pointed out that, even if his story was true, the deaths of Esther and Patricia still constituted first-degree murder.
His insanity plea didn’t go anywhere either. “We are convinced from the record,” ruled the appellate court, “as the jury must have been from the evidence, that defendant’s insanity was an afterthought and conceived by him as a means of escaping the penalty which, under the evidence, he merited.”
Silliman did, however, gain an extra two hours of life: executions at the Colorado prison normally took place at 8:00 p.m., but at that time there was a Chamber of Commerce banquet going on and 550 guests were chowing down on turkey. The warden delayed the execution until 10:00 p.m., after dinner was over and everyone had left the prison.
His last words were, “I do not fear. I am going to a better world.”
(An aside: elsewhere in the United States on that same November 9, 1945, Jesse Craiton and Noah Collins were electrocuted in Georgia for robbery-homicide, and Cliff Norman died for rape in Oklahoma’s electric chair.)
In John Grisham’s The Chamber, it is on August 8, 1990 that the titular enclosure receives its victim in a cloud of lethal gas.
In The Chamber, Sam Cayhall, a Ku Klux Klansman who had long avoided conviction for bombing a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967, has at last been condemned in Mississippi twenty years later.
The action centers around the futile and increasingly hopeless efforts of Cayhall’s grandson Adam Hall to save the old man working pro bono for a Chicago law firm.
Adam comes to learn that his grandfather has a long and bloody Klan history, even killing children. (We also find that the missing link in this generational drama, Adam’s father, committed suicide after Sam was sent to death row.)
But Sam is in no way a good guy: still an unreconstructed racist, he refuses to inform on any ex-confederates. As grandpa wends his way towards his date with the executioner, Adam’s torrent of judicial appeals go nowhere and the politically sensitive nature of the case makes executive clemency a non-starter. (When The Chamber was published in 1994, the death penalty was at an acme of popularity.) This is to be expected, of course; as Chekhov might observe, you can’t call the book The Chamber if someone isn’t going to go sit in said chamber by the end.
This bestseller was made into a 1996 film starring Gene Hackman as the grizzled Klansman. (In the film version’s execution scene, the date is changed to April 13, 1996.)
There’s an excerpt of the novel available on Grisham’s site here.