Posts filed under 'Summary Executions'

1920: Triple lynching in Duluth, Minnesota

6 comments June 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1920, a white mob perhaps 10,000 strong swarmed into the Duluth, Minn. jail and extracted three young African-American circus workers accused of gang-raping a white woman. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie stood an immediate drumhead trial, then were lynched in the heart of Duluth as they vainly protested their innocence.

The self-congratulatory posed photograph of mob members with the bodies was made into a horrifying postcard, a frequent practice in lynch law America.


“What this looks like is the kind of photo you would see at a hunting lodge, where the guys had been out shooting bear, and they came back and they said, ‘We got three.’ You can see people on tip-toe. They’ve crowded into this shot. These are not people who are ashamed to be seen here. This is, ‘I want to be in this picture.'”

-Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth

Nineteen-year-old Irene Tusker and her boyfriend James Sullivan had attended the one-day circus the evening before. What transpired that night remains unknown to this day: Irene eventually took the streetcar home without incident. Hours later, James Sullivan’s father claimed that the couple had been held at gunpoint by black carnies as Irene was gang-raped.

By the evening of the 15th, a vengeful mob had surrounded the police station/local lockup. Officers were ordered not to use deadly force against the townsfolk, so the battle to push into the premises was waged with brickbats against firehoses, and eventually with ineffectual pleas to let the law take its course.*

The incident drew nationwide reaction — usually condemnation (with a couple of exceptions). Occurring as it did in one of the continental states’ northernmost towns, it also underscored lynching as a nationwide problem rather than “merely” a southern one.

“Duluth has disgraced herself and has, by reason of her geographical position, disgraced the north,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized (June 17, 1920) — just one of innumerable newspaper editorials in the days following the Duluth outrage. “A city that has no more backbone than to submit to the rule of riot cannot be held blameless. But it will be surprising if Duluth and the state of Minnesota do not take steps to punish the murderers. The method of procedure was so deliberate and so brazenly open that identification and conviction of the ringleaders should be an easy matter.”

Brace for a surprise: according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s excellent site on the Duluth lynchings, only three whites served prison time (a shade over one year apiece) for rioting. Nobody was ever convicted for murdering Clayton, Jackson, or McGhie.

One black man, Max Mason, caught a long prison sentence for the supposed rape. He was paroled after five years on condition that he leave Minnesota for good.

“I was just short of nineteen the night that the bodies of McGhie, Jackson, and Clayton swung from a light pole in Duluth. I read the stories in the newspapers and put them down feeling sick, scared, and angry all at the same time. This was Minnesota, not Mississippi, but every Negro in the John Robinson Show had been suspect in the eyes of the police and guilty in the eyes of the mob … I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us — and white people as an unpredictable, violent them.”

-Minnesota-raised Roy Wilkins, the eventual director of the NAACP, in his autobiography (via)

The great-grandson of one of the lynch mob’s members wrote this book about the hangings’ legacy

The lynching was practically written out of the official state history most white children consumed at school in the middle part of the 20th century,** though the nine-year-old Lithuanian Jewish boy Abram Zimmerman who lived nearby the execution site later told his son all about it. Young Robert Allen Zimmerman tapped his father’s lynching stories under his subsequent nom de troubadour of Bob Dylan, and the Duluth atrocity is alluded to in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.†

Latter-day Duluth has, to its credit, tried to manage something a little bit more overt.

In 2003, a monument commemorating Duluth’s moment of infamy was dedicated opposite the place where the young men were strung up and photographed. Minnesota Public Radio produced a series on the lynching during the construction of this monument which is still available online.


All images (cc) ArtStuffMatters. The photographer has a thoughtful recent blog post on the [dearth of] public lynch memorials in the United States.

* The law in Minnesota had no death penalty on the books, and still has none today.

** To be fair to the state, its immediate response did include passing anti-lynching legislation in 1921.

† “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Lynching,Minnesota,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Summary Executions,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1884: Charles Henry, iced in the Arctic

2 comments June 6th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1884, U.S. Army Private Charles B. Henry of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (LFBE) was summarily executed in the distant northern reaches* of present-day Nunavut.


It’s waaaaaay up there. Click to view larger map, but don’t expect details.

The “Greely expedition” — so called after its commander, Adolphus Greely — was dispatched from Washington in the enthusiasm of the First International Polar Year. This was a multinational collaborative to gather scientific data about the globe’s frigid polar reaches; technically, this first IPY spanned 1882 to 1883, but the ill-starred Greely mission set out in 1881.

The LFBE was headed for a narrow icebound inlet named for a woman who lost her explorer husband on an Arctic voyage. That bay juts like a dead tree limb out of the Robeson Channel into the remote northern wildernesses of Ellesmere Island.

The mission laid down for the 25 men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in 1881 was to establish a weather station, and to collect astronomical and geomagnetic data.

But long before the starving remnants of that crew put Private Henry to sudden death, they had supplanted that noble endeavor with the classic objective of polar adventure: mere survival.

Matters started promisingly enough: the ship that ferried these men to their ordeal dropped them without incident at a natural harbor in Lady Franklin Bay, where the intrepid men built Fort Conger — a sturdy frame house 65′ x 21′ x 14′. They would spend the next two years making scientific measurements, exploring, and awaiting planned resupply ships in the summers.

Ice-choked waters, however, do not open reliably to this location. The resupply missions in both 1882 and 1883 failed — and left the mission with a life-or-death choice.

Per prearranged contingency, the supply ships, should they not be able to reach Camp Conger, were to drop their provisions at a backup location. Much against his men’s will, Greely gave up Camp Conger to chase this hypothetical cache. Camp Conger was more difficult for any future ships to reach but was secure, warm enough, and blessed with seal-hunting enough to keep the team in good health.

Camp Sabine was reached only after a terrifying and near-fatal float down the coast in an ice floe (!) and it proved when they reached it a much less congenial spot for wilderness survival. The resupply missions that hadn’t reached Camp Conger had failed so thoroughly that only a very small drop had even made it to Camp Sabine. Conditions prevented the party from returning to Camp Conger or from crossing the water to another inhabited Arctic station: instead, they wintered in the mouth of hell; seal-hunting here was not favorable, and most days they were only able to supplement their dwindling cache of life-giving calories with a few shrimp and scraps of lichen peeled off the frozen rocks.

Not only ravenous hunger afflicted the party, but scurvy too, and still worse a morale collapse among party members who regarded Lieutenant Greely’s leadership very lightly. Huddled in a makeshift stone hut, three years gone from hearth and home, bored and helpless and stretching out less-than-subsistence rations as far as possible and farther, nerves began to fray … and party members began to succumb to conditions.

Charles Buck Henry did not wear well on this desperate party.

“Henry” was actually the new alias of a German immigrant formerly known as Charles Henry Buck. Buck had served time for embezzling whiskey money from a frontier cavalry company, then escaped and slew a Chinese man in a Deadwood, S.D. brawl. Henry stole from the expedition’s small store of food: he was not the only one, but he was perhaps the baldest thief and the one with the fewest redeeming features that would balance this behavior. He’d been confined in March to his sleeping bag as the closest thing to punishment that Greely could visit on him. Still, Henry stole more. Resentful comrades ostracized him, while silently sizing up the discomfiting likelihood that the hulking German would be odds-on to kill any man among them in a fair scrap.

This day, Greely finally caught him stealing once too often.

Notwithstanding promises given by Pvt C.B. Henry yesterday [to stop stealing] he has since as acknowledged to me tampered with seal thongs if not other food … This pertinacity and audacity is the destruction of this party if not at once ended. Pvt Henry will be Shot today all care being taken to prevent his injuring any one as his physical strength is greater than that of any two men. Decide the manner of death by two ball and one blank cartridge. This order is imperative & absolutely necessary for any chance of life.

A.W. Greely
1 Lt. 5 Cav. ASO & Asst
Cmdg. L.F.B. Expd

That order Greely issued to his able assistant, Sgt. David L. Brainard. Brainard proceeded to gather two other men who contrived to “execute” Henry by a stratagem of approaching Henry armed, but casual, and distracting the unrestrained condemned man long enough to get the drop on him. They shot him dead just as Henry recognized his danger and started to lunge for a nearby axe — an incredibly chancy engagement that could easily have turned the whole expedition into a hyperboreal edition of “The Most Dangerous Game” had the mountainous Henry avoided or survived that gunshot.

Instead, his body with its fatal bullet wound was discovered by accident when the Greely party was at long last rescued later that June, and returned along with just seven** (barely) living souls out of the 25 who set sail in 1881. Those fortunate survivors — the relief mission’s commander reported them “crying like children, hugging each other, frantic with joy”† as their rescue vessel pulled into view — would be forever defined by their participation in the LFBE: toasted for their survival story while also dogged by dark rumors of cannibalism.

According to polar and maritime historian Glenn Stein, FRGS, who spent several years researching this jaw-dropping case,‡ they also closely husbanded the story of their one-time mate’s execution. Mr. Stein is also U.S. Liaison a present-day polar journey, the South 2014 Expedition, and he was gracious enough to speak with Executed Today about the LFBE’s execution.


ET: The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was a U.S. expedition launched as part of the first International Polar Year. Could you situate the LFBE in the context of polar expeditions at this time?

GS: In the years following the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition, it was suggested that nations should stop competing for geographical discoveries and instead dispatch a series of coordinated expeditions dedicated to scientific research. Eleven nations took part in the first International Polar Year (IPY) 1882-83, and the United States contributed two components to its first participation in an international scientific effort. In 1881, it was decided that the U.S. Army Signal Corps would establish one scientific station 500 miles from the North Pole, at Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land. The other station was at Point Barrow, Alaska.

The executed man in this instance is Charles Henry, formerly known as Charles Buck. This man had a pretty disreputable history. How was he able to get on this expedition? – And, how did he become the Chicago Times correspondent for this journey? Did he actually file any stories?

Buck enlisted in the Fifth Cavalry under the alias Charles B. Henry, and wrote to Lieutenant Greely from Fort Sidney, Nebraska, in April 1881, volunteering for the expedition. Henry had the strong recommendation of his company commander, Captain George T. Price, to back him up. Greely and Price were friends, so Greely leaned toward taking Henry (who repeatedly telegraphed Greely with reminders of his availability). Another story is that Henry joined from Fort Sidney when one of the original expedition members deserted just before it was to leave. However, as far as I’m aware, there was only one desertion from the LFBE, and that person was replaced by Private Roderick R. Schneider, First Artillery.

Supposedly, since Henry was the only volunteer from the Fifth Cavalry, with a strong recommendation from post commander Lieutenant Colonel Compton, Greely decided to take him.

According to A.L. Todd’s Abandoned (1961), before joining the expedition back East, Henry “got permission to stop off in Chicago to visit relatives, and managed to make an arrangement with the Chicago Times to act as that paper’s special correspondent with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.” In his Ghosts of Cape Sabine, Len Guttridge (2000) made references to Henry’s newspaper articles: “One or two eventually published in the Chicago Times attested to an effective if florid command of the English language.”

This expedition lasted three years, 1881-1884, and it came to a considerable amount of grief. Could you sketch out what happened to the LFBE, and how it found itself in such a perilous situation in its last months?

By the end of August 1881, a frame house was constructed at Lady Franklin Bay and named Fort Conger. Over the next two years scientific data was collected and sledging parties were sent out, discovering many new geographic features, and setting north, east, and west “farthest” records. Because of the mismanagement of resupply expeditions from the United States, expedition members initiated a planned retreat by boat to Cape Sabine in August 1883 — but the journey turned into a nightmare. The party eventually ended up at Cape Sabine, where the men constructed a stone house for the winter, with an upturned boat for a roof. It was christened Camp Clay. Throughout the following months, the men’s spirits and energy dwindled, and constant hunger was now their companion. Worse, food was being stolen from the commissary storehouse. More than once, angry accusations flew back and forth within the party. The daily ration for each type of food was measured out to hundredths of an ounce.

The first death occurred on Jan. 18, 1884, when Sergeant William H. Cross died of starvation. In spite of the privations, only one man died that winter, even though scurvy was also present. In the spring Death returned with a vengeance.

So by the end, there’s a party near to starvation, just scraping by on a starvation diet. Naturally there’s a temptation for people to steal from the camp rations.

Henry wasn’t the only person to have stolen, but it seems from your description like he was the most distinctly resented by the rest of the party. Why was that?

During his time at Fort Conger, Henry was the originator of many profane remarks, misdeeds, and lies, so Greely and others had learned not to trust him.

Until the publication of my article, “An Arctic Execution,” LFBE historians consistently wrote that no one on the expedition knew of Henry’s criminal history as a forger, thief and accused murderer. However, I discovered within Sergeant Brainard’s unpublished daily notes that he definitely knew of Henry’s past — so who else knew as well? In consequence, although others also stole food, Henry would have been treated with less tolerance.

The specific details of the execution, and the variations on the story that are given later, are quite fascinating. The execution was ordered by the camp commander, but Henry was not confined and had no idea what was coming, because the shooting party could have been in some danger as well. Given the rough and ready circumstances, why then, does the execution party go to such elaborate ends to anonymize the shooter? There’s the “three guns, two balls” order, and then they can’t comply with that since there’s only one usable rifle, so they swear an oath among themselves never to tell.

Firing squad duty obviously preys upon the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s possible that passing the rifle around and swearing an oath replaced the anonymity provided by the “three guns, two balls” order. Keep in mind that, if the three men survived their Arctic ordeal, their participation could impact them for the rest of their lives — in and out of the Army.

This was particularly true of Sergeant Brainard, who was promised a commission by Greely. Decades after the execution, Brainard declared that “no matter what the provocation, the family of a man doesn’t want to think of him as an executioner.”

As a factual matter, it was either Brainard or Francis Long who pulled the trigger, since Frederick distracted Henry and lured Henry into the trap.


Charles Henry (left), and his two potential executioners: David Brainard (center) and Francis Long (right).

What’s left of Henry is buried in New York. If you really wanted to find out what happened, you would have to exhume the remains. Henry’s sister, Dora Buck, did request the exhumation and autopsy of his body, but these were never allowed to take place. Officially, as my article notes, Henry’s remains were buried with full military honors. What we are left with today are cemetery records, which state that Charles Henry “Died of Starvation.”

And you think Brainard carefully managed the way the dangerous execution story got out.

Brainard is like a historian’s dream. Not only was he there, not only was he a very intelligent individual — but he made a record of many things, keeping daily notes that go from start to finish.

I hand-copied each page, three years of field notes, and I referenced these in my article. Those notes represent his impressions at the time they were written, not edited versions. One crucial thing Brainard recorded about Henry was that he “is a born thief as his 7th Cavalry name will show — a perfect fiend.” That’s significant, because it doesn’t appear in Brainard’s published writings. Why omit that piece of information? There’s one reason: Brainard knew beforehand that Henry was a criminal, and if it was known Brainard possessed this information, then he may appear prejudicial regarding the decision to shoot Henry.

It starts to add up, because who had control of the expedition members’ journals on the passage home? Brainard.

Who wrote up an incomplete journal on the way home — and then, many months later, turned in writings covering several more months — but ending in March 1884? Brainard.

I’ve examined the three volumes of his original journal. Everything was very carefully written, and Brainard made sure the story he wanted told got into these journals.

And what transpired afterward?

Sgt. Brainard had been promised a commission by Greely for his leadership on the LFBE. That’s a huge deal — to get commissioned from the ranks for gallant and meritorious service, and not even in wartime, but peacetime. At that time, and for many years thereafter, he was the only living officer of the Army, active or retired, holding a commission awarded for specific distinguished services. I believe Brainard was a “good guy” and a stand-up guy, but at the same time, would he really chance ruining his opportunity to get that commission? The whole execution business could have made things really difficult for him.

When they evacuated Fort Conger, and later on were literally floating south on a piece of ice, there was almost a mutiny. The mutineers went to Brainard, saying Greely had to be relieved of command, that he was going to get everyone killed. But Brainard wouldn’t go along with it — in part, he probably realized it would destroy his future.

You have to start looking at these motivations; and it’s not an entirely unsympathetic view, because people in these positions had jobs to do.

It took a lot of pushing to get Brainard’s commission to Second Lieutenant approved, and this didn’t happen until October 1886. In 1917, when he was near the end of his career, he was actually appointed Brigadier General. Brainard went from buck private to Brigadier General!

After the LFBE’s rescue later in 1884, how was the matter of the execution handled? I’m reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that, while it was not a secret, it was also downplayed as a public matter in the immediate aftermath — Henry buried with full military honors, that sort of thing. As it emerged more publicly thereafter, was there ever any controversy or a significant sentiment that Greely had handled the situation improperly? Was there ever a question about the legality of his order?

Greely made a verbal report regarding the execution to his departmental superiors several days before Henry’s burial. He then wrote to Adjutant General of the Army R.C. Drum in August 1884, to report Henry’s execution and request that a court of inquiry be ordered or a court martial convened regarding the matter. Drum responded in November 1884 that after examining the expedition’s records, “the Secretary of War entertains no doubt of the necessity, and the entire propriety of your action in ordering the execution of Private Henry, under the circumstances and in the manner set forth in your report.”

It was understood that any military officer operating in the field possesses a fair degree of discretion in carrying out orders, and Greely had Henry executed in order to preserve lives.

Newspaper articles certainly featured Henry’s execution, but stories of cannibalism (including the condition of Henry’s remains) and the political scandal related to the mishandling of the attempted relief of Greely prior to his rescue were much more high profile stories.

You have a professional interest in polar exploration, and obviously starvation risks are endemic to these situations when matters go awry. Have you encountered any similar instances of a polar party executing one of its members for the sake of maintaining discipline?

A somewhat similar execution scenario, also an attempt to preserve the lives of starving men, had played out during Sir John Franklin’s 1819-22 Arctic Land Expedition. A detachment of four men from the expedition, including Surgeon John Richardson, discovered that their comrade, Midshipman Robert Hood, had been murdered by an Iroquois voyageur named Michel Teroahauté (also known as Ferohaite).

Under the circumstances, Richardson shot Michel to save their own lives.

How did you come to find out about this story and why did you decide to research it in such depth? Over a century on from the events themselves, what does the fate of Charles Henry have to tell us today?

I can trace back my knowledge of the execution to at least September 1988, when I bought a copy of The Polar Passion, by Farley Mowat (1967). Several years later, I acquired a large collection of items once belonging to General Brainard, which included most of his medals and orders, photographs, books, and a bone knife he brought back from the Arctic. Brainard is a fascinating historical figure and human being (I like to call him the quintessential American), and I spent a good deal of time researching and writing about his life. In the process I discovered there were many contradictory details about the execution.

On July 13, 2005, I was sitting at an outside bar in Jamaica, when it dawned on me that if I dug deep enough, I just might be able to figure out what really happened during the execution of Private Henry.

So, I began jotting down notes on three 4″ x 5″ pieces of paper — “1. Primary Question: Who was the shooter?” Of the three men involved, the evidence dictates the trigger man must have been either Brainard or Long — but in the absence of conclusive evidence we’ll probably never know which one. And I ultimately decided that’s okay, because it’s the way the three wretched souls wanted it to be on that fateful summer day in 1884, and I needed to respect their wishes.

The events during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, especially Charles Henry’s fate, are reminders of how crises bring out the best — and worst — in human nature. At various times in our lives we’re all confronted with personal crises: how we deal with them is what counts. Writing “An Arctic Execution” forced me to stretch my mind beyond what I thought were its limits to attempt to understand defining moments in the lives of human beings who were at the brink of oblivion.

A few books about the Greely expedition

* This expedition established a “farthest north” record: it was for the next several years the most northerly latitude that any explorer could document ever attaining.

** One of the seven retrieved by the Thetis, Sgt. Joseph Elison, was at death’s door. Wasted to 78 pounds and stricken with frostbite and gangrene that required his rescuers to amputate both hands and both legs, Elison died at sea — leaving just six survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition who would ever again set foot on American soil.

San Francisco Bulletin, July 18, 1884, quoting Winfield Scott Schley — later famous as a Spanish-American War hero.

‡ Glenn M. Stein, “An Arctic Execution: Private Charles B. Henry of the United States Lady Franklin Bay Expedition 1881-84,” Arctic, Vol. 64, No. 4 (December 2011). Read it here (pdf).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arctic,Borderline "Executions",Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Interviews,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Polar,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Theft,U.S. Military,USA

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1937: Camillo Berneri, anarchist intellectual

Add comment May 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri was kidnapped from his home by in Barcelona by armed paramilitaries. Berneri was shot that night.

Berneri (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish | timeline) had once been a University of Florence professor, but was forced into exile for opposing the fascist conquest of power in Italy.

When a coup threatened a similar right-wing conquest of power in Spain, Berneri organized the first column of Italian volunteers to oppose it.

International brigades poured into Spain to fight for the Republican government, but not everybody in the “popular front” was on the same side — a fact which became horrifyingly clear during Barcelona’s “May Days”, a week of internecine bloodletting in Republican Catalonia.

Anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT party and anti-Stalinist communists of POUM were the ones whose blood was mostly let; indeed, it might better be called a purge. The Moscow-backed Communist Party opposed the power of its putative comrades as much as or more than that of Franco. During the May Days, the Communists’ Catalan ally, a party called the PSUC, essentially took over Barcelona with the help of thousands of Assault Guards and killed, arrested, or dispersed the anarchists and Trotskyites.

Berneri clearly saw it coming, quoting Pravda in an April 1937 letter to the anarchist Health Minister criticizing his participation in the Popular Front government: “As for Catalonia, the purging of Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist elements has begun; this work will be carried out with the same energy with which it was done in the USSR.”

The British writer George Orwell served in a POUM unit, and the last third or so of his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia attempts to make sense of the chaotic scene.

Smitten when he arrived in Barcelona the previous December — “the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”* — the writer scoffed at the Communists’ official justification that anarchists and friends were a “counter-revolutionary” element, or even in actual league with their nationalist enemies.

It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out.

I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Cataluña the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath.

Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line.

Also a fighter of the liquidated POUM, Orwell too was proscribed: he had a job to make it out of Barcelona without winding up in someone’s dungeon or firing range. His disgust with what revolutionary Barcelona had come to would help to inform his subsequent anti-Soviet literary efforts.

Berneri, too, was an outspoken anti-Communist. Long a major intellectual in the anarchist camp, he was clearly targeted by name, and hauled from his house along with his brother-in-law Francesco Barbieri by a death squad. Their bodies turned up riddled with bullet holes the next morning.

There’s a collection of Berneri’s writings in English translation here, including one piece dated to the very day of his disappearance; also see this pdf of Berneri’s work. He was survived by his daughter, Marie-Louise Berneri, who herself became a noted anarchist activist of the 1940s.

* Orwell on Barcelona circa December 1936: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’ … Tipping was forbidden by law … revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Shot,Spain,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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998: Crescentius the Younger

Add comment April 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.

In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.

Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.

Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.

He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.

Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.

But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.

Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.

Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.

This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.

Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.

* Here’s an attempted family tree (pdf). They would evolve into the Crescenzi.

** Gibbon speculated that this period of female domination of the papacy might have lived on in popular memory as the medieval legend of Pope Joan.

† But not executed, more’s the pity for me.

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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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1942: Four Jews from Bedzin and Sosnowiec

Add comment April 13th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, two Jewish men were hanged in the city of Sosnowiec (pronounced sos-no-vitz) in Nazi-occupied Poland, and two more were hanged in the nearby city of Bedzin (pronounced ben-jin).

These executions were witnessed by thousands of people and carefully choreographed, as historian Mary Fulbrook records in her book A Small Town Near Auschwitz:*

The hangings in Bedzin and Sosnowiec had been orchestrated in advance, in meticulous detail, by the Police President in Sosnowiec. The execution in Bedzin was to take place one hour later than the one in Sosnowiec. As much thought was given by the police authorities to questions of security and seating arrangements as might be appropriate for a modern open-air musical concert: this was not to be a simple punishment for an individual offense, as had happened innumerable times, but rather a mass spectacle, intended to have a major impact on the audience…

The identities of the executed Jews in Bedzin have been lost to history. (Correction: Per Yad Vashem, they were Jehuda Warman and “Feffer” (no first name).) They were hanged at the old Jewish cemetery on the corner of Zawale Street, before a crowd of about 5,000, at 5:00 p.m. Jewish workers in the Bedzin Ghetto had their work identity cards confiscated that day and were let out of work early, at 4:00 p.m., and ordered to watch the hangings. Only after they witnessed the executions did they get their work cards back. The bodies remained hanging on the scaffold until 7:30 p.m.

The condemned men in Sosnowiec were 30-year-old Mayer Kohn and his father, Nachun or Nahum.

Nachun (left, with wife) and Mayer.

They’d been caught trading on the black market, probably trying to feed their families, as no one could live long on the official rations. But as Fulbrook points out, the actual offense didn’t matter much to the Nazis:

These coordinated public spectacles of mass hangings do not seem … to have been in direct response to a particular crime; it seems there was a policy of ‘any Jew will do’, although infringements of German rules (including not only black market dealings but also very trivial ‘offenses’) were adduced as the ostensible ‘reason’ for these executions.

Thousands of people, both Jews and Germans, watched Mayer and Nachun Kohn die, then quietly went home.

Although virtually the entire Kohn family perished at the hands of the Nazis, Mayer and Nachun Kohn can claim a bit of immortality by virtue of being mentioned in Maus, Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel about the Holocaust: the author’s father, Vladek, hailed from Sosnowiec.

* The author of A Small Town Near Auschwitz is interviewed in this New Books In History podcast.

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1912: Tom Miles lynched

Add comment April 9th, 2013 Headsman

From the Montgomery Advertiser (April 10, 1912)

Lynched After Acquittal

SHREVEPORT, La., Apr. 9 — Tom Miles, a negro, aged 29, was hanged to a tree here and his body filled with bullets early today. He had been tried in police court yesterday on a charge of writing insulting notes to a white girl, employed in a department store, but was acquitted for lack of proof.

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1944: Roger Bushell and others for the Great Escape

16 comments March 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the dashing Royal Air Force adventurer and prisoner of war Roger Bushell was shot for his key role orchestrating World War II’s most famous prison break — the Great Escape.


Richard Attenborough plays the Bushell-based character “Roger Bartlett” in The Great Escape, the film based on the story.

South African-born, Cambridge-educated, a pitch-perfect speaker of German and French, Bushell turned in his barristers’ briefs for fighter wings when World War II got underway.

But he was not meant to add Knight of the Air to his c.v., for his Spitfire was downed in its first engagement in May 1940. Bushell wound up in German custody, where he proved to possess a preternatural aptitude for escape.

He slipped German custody in June 1941 and made it within steps of Switzerland before a border guard nabbed him.

Nothing daunted, Bushell escaped again in October 1941 and successfully laid low in Czechoslovakia for months … long enough to finally get swept up in the reprisal roundups following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

By now he’d wound up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp adjacent the Silesian town of Sagan (today, Zagan, Poland). Here Bushell would author his breakout masterpiece.

In truth it was a collaborative effort of astonishing scale. Captured soldiers characteristically fled custody, as Bushell himself had before, in ones or twos, or in small groups.

In this camp, Bushell conceived and rigorously managed an industrial-scale operation aiming to bust out more than 200 inmates. “Only” 76 ultimately got out, more than enough for the utter consternation of the Third Reich.

Bushell was going to go big to go home; in fact, his alpha-male code-name among the escape plan’s initiates was “Big X”. Big X mobilized some 600 prisoners to work on three simultaneous escape tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Sunk 9 meters underground to stymie German anti-digging seismographs, the tunnels entailed a complex, months-long logistical operation for disposing of dirt, buttressing walls, pumping air. Nor did the escape plans end at the camp wire: teams prepared clothing, papers, maps, money. Every escaping prisoner had a plan and a cover story.

We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times.

-Jimmy James

One of the tunnels was found, and one was abandoned, but “Harry” was completed. 102 meters long, it stretched just beyond Stalag Luft III’s outer perimeter, and agonizingly shy of the nearby tree line. On the night of March 24-25 1944, 76 men (Bushell included) slipped out of “Harry” at intervals minutes apart, and into the freezing dark, scurrying into the woods with silent prayers that the nearby guard tower would not throw a spotlight in their direction. The 77th escapee was finally spotted emerging by camp sentries and captured, shutting down the whole operation.

Despite their prepared plans, the runners were very deep within German territory, and in the dead of a moonless night. Successfully completing their escapes would require crossing land on foot in the snow, navigating multiple Reich train platforms without catching the eye of now-hyper-vigilant inspectors, crossing hundreds of kilometers of territory, and passing off accents and forged papers with credible aplomb.

Not many could really manage this: the honor — the duty, as Bushell and many others thought — was in the attempt.

In all, 73 of the 76 escapees in this caper were recaptured within days. (Click here for the stories of the three who actually got away.)

A furious Adolf Hitler personally ordered everyone concerned executed when news broke of the escape, a flagrant violation of the laws of war. His advisors, concerned at triggering possible reprisals, managed to talk the boss down to the nice round number of 50 executions, a … 31.5% less extensive flagrant violation of the laws of war? Germans too suffered the regime’s fury; Hitler was talked off executing the camp commandant, but that guy lost his job. Some workmen from whom the escapees had stolen electrical cable for work on the tunnel were shot for having failed to report the theft.

And the 50 whom the Reich’s leadership had decided to kill* were shot out of hand at various times and places from March 29 to April 12.**

Their somewhat reduced ranks did not much lessen the ferocity of the Allies’ postwar manhunt for the parties involved in conducting it; the “Stalag Luft III murders” were announced in Parliament as soon as May 1944 and became the subject of a dedicated trial in 1947. The convictions in that case led to a mass hanging for war crimes in Hameln, Germany on February 27, 1948.

For his part, Bushell takes his final rest in Posnan, Poland. Although the men shot on this and succeeding nights for the Great Escape are interred at various spots, a monument near the old camp site at Sagan/Zagan permanently honors “the 50″.

* The specific 50 were chosen by Artur Nebe, who would later be executed by the Nazis himself. The selections were heavy on happenstance; while eastern Europeans and the escape leadership were predictably included, many others were in or out by the feeblest of reasons. For example, the Germans are thought to have passed on shooting escapees named “Nelson” and “Churchill” for no better cause than their conceivable relationship to the famous Britons of those names.

** Meanwhile, Germany menacingly warned POWs that further escape attempts would likely cost a man his life. (Image from this page.)

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1656: The Chief Black and White Eunuchs of Topkapi Palace

Add comment March 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1656, an Istanbul mutiny against debasing coinage resulted in thirty-odd high officials hanged at the gates of the Blue Mosque.

In Ottoman periodization, 1656 is the end point of the Sultanate of Women — a century-plus span stretching all the way back to Roxelana when powerful harem women consistently defined Topkapi Palace intrigue, often alongside shaky male executives.

Many of the sultans in that span were minors, as was the the putative head of state for our scene, 14-year-old Mehmed IV. Their succession was invariably achieved by the skillful maneuvering of their mothers, who then figured to graduate to Valide Sultan, “Mother Sultan” and wield considerable power in their own right. In Mehmed’s case, Mother Sultan was a Ukrainian former slave named Turhan Hatice … but you can just call her the power behind the throne.

(Actually, Turhan was initially aced out of the powerful Valide Sultan gig by Mehmed’s paternal grandmother when Mehmed inherited the throne at the age of six; Turhan herself was only about 20 years old at that time. Turhan had that woman assassinated in 1651 to swipe the position.)

Come the 1650s, the Ottomans were mired in a long war with Venice over control of Crete — ultimately a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans in view of the enormous cost.

One of the ongoing costs of that conflict was currency depreciation; silver coins were so hard to come by that European traders made tidy money hauling debased silver-coated copper coins to sell in Istanbul — and had no shortage of buyers who knew exactly what they were getting and were happy to have it. According to Caroline Finkel, “1000 aspers of [official coinage] was valued at less than one hundred aspers in the market-place.”

Janissaries* aggrieved at being paid in rubbish “marched to the Hippodrome, vociferously demanding that those who had deceived Sultan Mehmed by implementing the debasement be killed.”

That’s an experience to drop your gonads when you’re 14 years old. The Janissaries, the capital’s elite warrior clique, had the sultanate by the short and curlies and were known to enforce their whims to the detriment of the empire’s interests. They had, indeed, revolted over currency depreciation in the 1580s; they also deposed Mehmed’s uncle, 17-year-old Sultan Osman II, when that young man tried to curb Janissaries’ dangerous power.

Undoubtedly these mutinous Janissaries would have enforced their demands with similar desperation. Jenkins says that the execution of the Mother Sultan was one of those demands, but at least the teen sultan was able to cross her name off the hit list. The various attendants, aghas, and eunuchs who irritated the Janissaries were not so fortunate.

Ah, the eunuchs.

We’ve titled our post with the most titillating of this date’s targets of Janissary wrath. Ottoman Eunuchs** came in the “Black” and “White” varieties, as in black and white races; because Islam prohibited castration, they were obtained by slavers in Africa or in the Balkans, where Christians and Jews did the dirty work.

European “White Eunuchs” from the Balkans had their testicles removed; these were sought by the hundreds as palace bureaucrats in Istanbul. African “Black Eunuchs” from Egypt or Ethiopia typically had their entire genitalia cut off, and had the more powerful position of serving the royal persons. (They had usurped that role in the late 16th century from the formerly preeminent white eunuchs.)

Each racial set had its own hierarchy and its own chief. The Chief Black Eunuch was the master of the harem and a powerful, trusted emissary of the Valide Sultan: it was her black eunuch that Turhan Hatice had sent to murder Mehmed’s original Valide Sultan.


A black eunuch — I think? — looms over a new concubine in Alexander Russov’s 1891 Bought for the Harem. Lest one think this sort of lascivious Orientalism is solely the relic of a bygone age, check out the Harlequin bodice-ripper of the same title.

These chief eunuchs, and especially the chief black eunuchs, were among the sacrificial executions the Janissaries required for their obedience. Mehmed did not attempt to protect them; one doubts that he could have done so.

The sultan’s acquiescence in these executions set him up for a 39-year reign, the longest since Suleiman the Magnificent. But it was also under Mehmed that the Sultanate of Women gave way to the civil administration. Later that same year of 1656, continuing crisis forced the appointment of Koprulu Mehmed Pasha as Grand Vizier.

The Albanian Koprulu wielded virtually dictatorial powers and founded a whole dynasty of Ottoman Grand Viziers† that dominated Ottoman politics into the 18th century.

* The Janissaries were infantry; their less-(in)famous cavalry counterpart, the Sipahis, also participated in this 1656 mutiny.

** Eunuchs persisted in the Ottoman sultanate right up until the end of World War I, and ex-eunuchs (well, still eunuchs) of the ex-Sublime Porte were still to be found in Turkey as late as the 1970s. One of them recounted the experience of being kidnapped and castrated in Ethiopia for export to the Ottoman palace.

† Including Kara Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman commander executed for losing the Battle of Vienna.

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1969: The peasants of Thanh Phong (allegedly)

4 comments February 25th, 2013 Headsman

Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*

At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.

Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.

In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.

Gregory Vistica’s disturbing investigation brought this story to wide public attention in 2001; he subsequently expanded his investigation into a book.

Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.

On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.

After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.

Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey’s men, described the SEALs’ actions that night in this interview with 60 Minutes’ Dan Rather:

Rather: What’d you do this time?

Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.

Rather: What was the make-up of this group?

Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.

Rather: So you got all the people out of there.

Klann: We herded them together and in a group.

Rather: Were any of these people armed?

Klann: I don’t believe so.

Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?

Klann: I didn’t see any.

Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?

Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?

Rather: What did you do then?

Klann: We killed them.

Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?

Klann: We shot them all.

Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?

Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.

Rather: What was the order?

Klann: To kill them.

Rather: Why?

Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.

Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?

Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.

Rather: Do you remember him saying that?

Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.

Rather: And then what happened?

Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.

Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?

Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.

Rather: At roughly what range?

Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.

Rather: Then did the shooting stop?

Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.

Rather: Was it quiet?

Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.

Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?

Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.

Rather: What happened to that baby?

Klann: Shot like the rest of em.

Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.

Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.

Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.

Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.

Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)

In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.

“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.

For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)

Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”

Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.

“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”

It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.

Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.

February 25, 1969 has a dedicated exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum.


A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.

* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.

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