Posts filed under 'Mass Executions'

1771: Mary Jones, hanged for shoplifting

Add comment October 16th, 2017 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Mary was thought to be about eighteen or nineteen years old but was already married with two children when her husband, William, was press ganged into the Navy to go to the Falkland Islands, leaving her virtually destitute. She lived with her friend Ann Styles in Angel Alley in the Strand and was at times reduced to begging to feed herself and the infants. It is said that she had her baby with her in the cart as she was taken to Tyburn to be hanged.

There had been a spate of shoplifting incidents in Ludgate Street area of London during 1771 and the shop keepers were on high alert and keeping watch for suspects. On Wednesday the 7th of August Mary, with one of her children in tow and Ann Styles went on a shop lifting expedition in the Ludgate Street. They may have other accomplices with them although no one else was arrested. Mary and Ann were observed going in and out of a large number shops. Thomas Ham, a shopkeeper himself and a witness at the trial, was suspicious of their activities and kept a close eye on them. He estimated that he had seen them go into as many as fifteen shops in the street, between three o’clock and six o’clock that afternoon. Finally the pair went to the drapery shop owned by a Mr. William Foot and expressed interest in buying a child’s frock. Nothing that they were shown appeared to be what they wanted and Mary made to leave the shop but Mr. Foot’s assistant, Christopher Preston, noticed that she had something concealed under her cloak. He went after her and brought her back into the shop where he discovered she had concealed four pieces of worked muslin which she had taken from the counter. Christopher Preston told the other assistant, Andrew Hawkins, to fetch a constable while he kept the women in the shop. The constable arrested them both and they were taken to the Compter (a local lock up jail).

Both women were charged under the Shoplifting Act with the theft of the muslin which was valued at £5. 10s. (£5.50) The actual offence at this time being called “privately stealing in a shop”. The value of the goods stolen, being more than five shillings (25p), made it a capital crime. The pair were tried at the Sessions of the Old Bailey held on Wednesday the 11th of September 1771, Thomas Ham, Christopher Preston and Andrew Hawkins each giving evidence for the prosecution.

Mary and Ann were permitted to speak in their own defence. Mary told the court of her struggle to support two children without her husband and that she had always been an honest woman.

Ann told the court that she had merely gone with Mary to by the child’s clothes and that she had nothing to do with the theft.

The trial lasted no more than two hours and Mary was convicted as she was actually in possession of the stolen items but Ann was acquitted. Mary received the mandatory death sentence and was transferred to Newgate to await her trip to Tyburn. When the Recorder of London prepared his report for the King and Privy Council there was no recommendation to mercy for Mary, despite her age and circumstances. As was normal for non murder cases she was to spend some time in the Condemned Hold until the next “hanging day”. She would have been regularly attended by John Wood, the then Ordinary (Newgate’s prison chaplain) and would have been expected to attend Sunday religious services. She and the other condemned criminals had a special area in the centre of the chapel, surrounded by a high partition so that they could not be seen by or communicate with the other prisoners. On the table in front of them was a coffin!

On the morning of Wednesday the 16th of October she was brought to the Press Yard of Newgate where the halter noose was put round her neck and her arms tied to her body with a cord above the elbows. She was made to get into the cart and sit on her own coffin.

With her for her last journey were four men, James Allen who had been convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, William Penn, Richard Thompson and John Hughes who had all been convicted of highway robbery.

The procession consisting of a court officer responsible for prisoners, Reverend John Wood, the Ordinary, the hangman and his assistants and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn, about two and a half miles away. The procession made its slow and bumpy passage along Holborn, St. Giles, and the Tyburn Road (now called Oxford Street), to Tyburn itself near what is now Marble Arch. A stop was often made at St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell would be tolled, and the minister would chant, “You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls.” As the procession passed on, the minister would tell the audience, “All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls.” Here friends might present the criminals with small nosegays (bunches of flowers).

Stops were made at two public houses along the way, probably the Bowl Inn at St Giles and the Mason’s Arms in Seymour Place, where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink. Once they left the second pub it was a short journey to the gallows.

On arrival at Tyburn around noon, some two to three hours after they had left Newgate, the prisoners were greeted by a large crowd.

Mary’s cart was backed under one of the three beams of the gallows and Edward Dennis, the hangman, uncoiled the free end of the rope from her body and threw it up to one of his assistants balanced precariously on the beam above. They tied the rope to the beam leaving very little slack. The Ordinary prayed with her and when he had finished the hangman would have pulled a night cap over her face if she had been able to afford one. As you can imagine the preparations took quite some time where a batch of five prisoners was being hanged.

When everything was ready, the City Marshall gave the signal and the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop, at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air — “dancing the Tyburn jig” as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end. It is not recorded whether or not Mary struggled or was one of the fortunate few who quickly became still. The five bodies were left to hang for an hour before being cut down and claimed by relatives or friends and taken for burial.

One can well understand why the law in this period in history is now referred to as the Bloody Code. Of the two hundred and ninety four people executed at Tyburn in the decade from 1765 to 1774 only twenty five were to die for murder and three for rape. The rest mostly suffered for various types of property related crime, such as highway robbery, burglary, housebreaking and forgery.

It seems amazing today that a young mother should be hanged for what would now considered to be a minor crime, yet in 1771 nobody would have thought anything of it — it was a regular and perfectly normal event. If it was Mary’s first offence, as she claimed, she would probably get a community service order now, especially as he had dependant children. However Georgian justice was being applied increasingly severely at this time. Sixty-two men and six women received the death sentence during this year, of whom thirty four of the men and one of the women, Frances Allen, were to share Mary’s fate. Frances Allen was hanged on Wednesday the 7th of August for housebreaking.

A few years later her case was raised in Parliament by Sir William Meredith, the Whig Member for Liverpool, when he was opposing a motion to make yet another offence capital. He told the House that he did not believe “a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law”. His eloquence was to no avail however and the Bill was carried.

It is a circumstance not to be forgotten, that she was very young, (under nineteen) and most remarkably handsome. She went to a linen draper’s shop, took some coarse linen off the counter, and slipped it under her cloak. The shopman saw her, and she laid it down again. For this she was hanged. Her defence was, ‘that she lived in credit, and wanted for nothing, till a press-gang came, and stole her husband from her—but since then she had no bed to lie on, nothing to give her two children to eat, and they were almost naked: and perhaps she might have done something wrong, for she hardly knew what she did.’ The parish officers testified the truth of this story. But it seems there had been a good deal of shop-lifting about Ludgate; an example was necessary — and the woman was hanged for the comfort and satisfaction of some shopkeepers in Ludgate-street. When brought to receive sentence, she behaved in such a frantic manner as proved her to be in a distracted and desponding state; and the child was sucking at her breast when she set out for Tyburn gallows! Let us reflect a little on this woman’s fate. The poet says, “An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” He might have said, with equal truth, that a beauteous woman is the noblest work of God. But for what cause was God’s creation robbed of its noblest work? It was for no injury, but for a mere attempt to clothe two naked children by unlawful means. Compare this with what the State did, and what the law did. The State bereaved the woman of her husband, and the children of a father, who was all their support: the law deprived the woman of her life, and children of their remaining parent, exposing them to every danger, insult, and merciless treatment, that destitute and helpless orphans suffer, Take all the circumstances together, I do not believe that a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law.

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1989: Jimmy Chua and his Pudu Prison siege accomplices

Add comment October 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1989, six men went to Malaysia’s gallows for orchestrating a notorious prison revolt three years earlier.

The Pudu Prison siege began on October 17, 1986, when the inmates in question rushed a prison clinic, taking hostage a doctor and a laboratory technician using improvised shanks. For nearly six tense days, the desperados held the medics to ransom in the former British colonial gaol, demanding their own release along with getaway cars and cash.

The ringleader was one Jimmy Chua (pictured at right), a former policeman turned gangland figure who had been detained on a murder charge; accomplices Ng Lai Huat, Sin Ah Lau , Lam Hock Sung, Yap Chee Keong, and Phang Boon Ho were all in prison on various firearms violations. The intrinsic impossibility of their position was underscored over the course of the siege, as Kuala Lumpur gawkers began to join the armed soldiery surrounding the jail: the prisoners who had made themselves centers of attention did not dare trust food sent by the guards, eating only the dwindling provisions that were left on hand at the time of their clinic attack. So how exactly were they ever going to come to an endgame where they would trust assurances to walk out the gates to a mystery car?

This distant hypothetical never crested the horizon, because with the help of a signal from another inmate, Malaysian special forces were able to slip into the facility while the prisoners’ guard was down and take the lot by storm, unharmed and without firing a shot. That meant everyone was around to face trial for kidnapping, which just so happened to carry a maximum sentence of death by hanging despite the absence of a fatality.

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1737: Five Johns

Add comment October 5th, 2017 Headsman

October 5 was a hanging-date at Tyburn in 1737.

The most self-evident oddity of this routine bulk execution was that five of the six men executed upon the occasion bore the same Christian name to the gallows, which is an even better hit rate than the classic middle name: wife-murderer John Totterdale, thief John Cotton, highway robber John Goswel, highway robber John Richardson (“indicted with John Lovell, not taken”), and highway robber John Purdey.* The sole exception was Goswel’s accomplice Robert Barrow, who “was miserably Poor and naked, and was in so very pitiful a Condition, that he declar’d he was willing rather to die than live.”

The name John dominated English christenings for centuries in a way that your latter-day Olivers, Noahs, and (quelle horreur!) Muhammads could never dare to dream. For the best part of a millennium, the post-Norman tongue thrilled to curl around this solid monosyllable by which Christ himself had flanked his movement via a beheaded forerunner and an apocalyptic evangel.

Overall, the pool of names in common usage on Blighty in centuries past was smaller and more static than today’s faddish kaleidoscope; according to Chris Laning in the 16th century “there were only about 30 to 40 common names in circulation for each gender, with perhaps another 100 or so that you would run across from time to time.” And among boys and men, the name “John” towered above all others.

A study of funerary brasses from 1107 to 1600 suggests that something like a staggering 30% of males might have carried this name; a study from the Agincourt Honor Roll agrees, its list concentrated to about one-third for Johns, a second third for Williams and Thomases, and the remaining third for all other names.** While this data is well before the hanging we feature in this post, John reigned supreme from Plantagenet through to Windsor … until just a few decades ago, in fact, when it began a precipitous and continuing tumble.†


Source: Office for National Statistics

But in the 18th century, the ubiquitous John rode tall in the saddle, often robbing the other travelers as it would seem. A search of Executed Today‘s data based on the British hanging rolls kept at capitalpunishmentuk.org gives the name a better than 20% market share of the 18th century gallows. If anyone remarked all the Johns gone to Tyburn this October 5, it was a statistical certainty that they also had in mind a few kinfolk and buddies with the same moniker who would soon come in for a grim spot of ribbing.

Not so contemporary readers, particularly among the younger generation; unthinkably, the once-invincible John has in the present bleakness plummeted all the way outside the top 100 boys’ names.

* The roads were a dangerous adventure in these Bloody Code days; we have formerly noticed the lament of Horace Walpole that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle.”

** Curious that for all the bargemen, beggars, ploughmen, pages, shepherds, shopkeeps, scriveners, tinkers, archers, chandlers, M.P.s, hatters, mariners, grenadiers, bakers, day-traders, coal-heavers, fox hunters, yeoman warders, and, yes, doomed criminals to claim the name … there has been only the one King John.

† The name John has taken a similar plunge in the United States.

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1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

Add comment September 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

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1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

Add comment September 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Perhaps on this date in 1653 — it is, at any rate, the date saluted by a festival that honors him — the peasant Sakura Sogoro was crucified for protesting the oppressive taxation of his local lord.

Sogoro — familiarly known as Sogo-sama — was a village head man who dared to take his complaints about his daimyo‘s heavy hand right to the shogun himself. As punishment for this effrontery, the daimyo had the peasant executed (which punishment the sacrificial Sogoro anticipated in making his appeal) along with his wife and sons (which was an outrage).

As classically described, Sogoro from the cross damns the cruelty of the punishment and promises to revenge himself as a ghost, destroying the daimyo‘s house within three years. A century or so after his death, a shrine was erected to his memory which attracted pilgrims throughout the realm and made Sakura Sogoro “the patron saint of protest” (Anne Walthall, whom we shall hear more from later.) The tale has earned popular staging in Japanese culture from the kabuki stage to television.


The great 19th century kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji as the avenging specter of “Asakura Togo”, the Kabuki character based on Sakura Sogoro. Image from this gorgeous collection.

As one might infer from the sketchy account here, the story’s historicity is shaky despite its popularity down the centuries in Japan. According to one an academic paper by Walthall,*

The archetype of the peasant martyr, a man who deliberately sacrificed himself on behalf of his community.”

More has been written about Sakura Sogoro than about any other peasant hero, but the evidence of his existence is extremely circumstantial. Written accounts of him remain fragmentary until the 1770s …

The first mention of the Sogoro legend appears in Sakura fudoki (a record of provincial lore on Sakura), compiled by a Sakura domain bureaucrat, Isobe Shogen. He recounts how an old man had told him that Sogoro’s vengeful spirit caused the downfall of a seventeenth-century lord. This emphasis on revenge after death is common to many Japanese folktales. Its constant recurrence as a theme in Japanese history reflects a widely held belief in the power of strong emotions to wreak havoc after a person has died. At this point Sogoro was hardly a martyr for the peasants — they remembered not his own deeds, if any, but what had happened to the lord.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the story gains more detail. After the death of the just lord, Hotta Masamori, his retainers take control of domanial administration, treat the peasants unjustly, and increase the land tax. To save the people, Sogoro makes a direct appeal to the shogun … becom[ing] an exemplar of righteous action, a man who placed community welfare above individual self-interest …

In narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the plot becomes still more elaborate. Sogoro is described as a man of scholarship, deeply religious, respectful of his superiors, mindful of his subordinates, esteemed by his neighbors. “He was intelligent, tactful, and did not look like he was peasant born. Everyone said he must be the descendant of a warrior” … As the savior of his village, he represented the peasants’ aspirations; as an angry spirit, he reflected their resentment of those in authority.

The most modern version of the legend omits all reference to revenge by angry spirits. Now the story depicts the courage of Sogoro and his supporters among the peasants and his heartrending renunciation of his family when he resolves to sacrifice himself for the community. He still puts his appeal directly in the hands of the shogun, even though modern historians have long argued that a meeting with the shogun was impossible for a peasant. In contrast to the “good king,” (the shogun Ietsuna) the villain, Hotta Masanobu, executes not merely Sogoro, but his four children. Even the cruelty of this command has become further elaborated. To evade the bakufu prohibition on the execution of women, officials pretend that Sogoro’s three daughters are actually sons and cut off their heads. In short, today people know only a lachrymose tale of tyranny and heroism.

English speakers can grab a couple renderings of this story in the public domain:

* Walthall, “Narratives of Peasant Uprisings in Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1983.

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1810: Santiago de Liniers

Add comment August 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1810, a French officer in Spanish service became an Argentine martyr.

Jacques de Liniers — or Santiago de Liniers, in the Hispanized form* — was a cavalryman turned naval officer descended of a storied noble house,** and he made his bones serving Bourbon princes on either side of the Pyrenees.

Bumping out of the French service in his early twenties, Liniers (English Wikipedia link |French | Spanish) entered his life’s destined course when he took the Spanish colors to fight the Moors in Algiers in 1774.

Progressing thence to the navy, Liniers enjoyed a variegated career at sea in the last quarter of the 18th century, participating among other engagements in the Bourbon-backed American Revolution, and in the Barbary Wars.

By the 1790s he had washed up in the Spanish possessions in the cone of South America, then organized as the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Here he would achieve both glory and death, coming to the fore of the colony when a surprise 1806 British attack seized lightly-defended Buenos Aires during the Napoleonic Wars. Vowing to make an offering of this interloper Home Riggs Popham‘s Union Jacks to the Dominican convent where he took refuge, Liniers escaped from the occupied city to nearby Montevideo (present-day Uruguay) where he marshaled a local militia that successfully stormed Buenos Aires.

As a result, that convent still holds the captured British flags to this day … and the white-haired Liniers (he was 53 years old at this point) stands front and center in triumph in a famous painting accepting the rosbif surrender:


La Reconquista de Buenos Aires, by Charles Fouqueray (1909).

With the official leadership having fled the place, a “cabildo abierto” — an “open council” assembly of all the city’s heads of household† — anointed the re-conqueror Liniers the new viceroy.

We catch in this easy conversion of military success to populist support a foreshadowing of the caudillo political character that would so color the coming centuries of post-independence politics, writes Lyman L. Johnson in Workshop of Revolution: Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776-1810 — “the first appearance of personalist politics in Buenos Aires … While his closest allies worked the crowd in the Plaza Mayor to demand the substitution of the viceroy, Liniers was conveniently absent in the suburbs, an absence that forced the crowd to march en masse to return him in triumph to the city.” Thereafter, “[l]eaders elevated by contested and irregular means, Liniers the prime case, would now legitimze their claims to power on the massed authority of the transformed porteno plebe.”

Buenos Aires wasn’t the only thing transforming. Across the ocean, Napoleon’s invasion had the Spanish crown on the run. King Charles IV of Spain had recognized Liniers as “Count of Buenos Aires” before Charles’s forced abdication in 1808; however, the Junta of Seville that tenuously asserted itself the Spanish rump state dispatched a different guy as viceroy and Liniers accepted that fellow’s appointment and resigned his post. It’s a surprising decision in retrospect, one that reminds of Liniers’s Old World, ancien regime roots: this very moment in time, with the Spanish crown reduced to a bauble and the Peninsular crises leaving the empire’s overseas possessions to their own devices, saw the advent of breakaway movements throughout South America. Many of Spain’s former colonies there date independence to the 1810s or 1820s as a result.

Argentina marks its independence from July 9, 1816, but that event was product of a separatist war that began with the 1810 May Revolution. This affair deposed the post-Liniers viceroy upon news of French gains in Iberia that had collapsed even the Junta of Seville. If nobody’s left in charge — why not us? (The May Revolution continued to govern in the name of the occulted Spanish king, which is why it doesn’t get the independence day laurels.)

At this, Liniers came out of retirement like an aging pugilist for one fight too many, and mounted an ill-fated royalist counterrevolution. Instead of re-creating the glories of his campaign against the British, Liniers saw his soldiers desert him to an anticlimactic capture.

He was shot together with Juan Antonio Gutierrez de la Concha and three officers of their late unreliable militia at a small town between Cordoba and Buenos Aires called Cabeza de Tigre (“Head of the Tiger”; today it’s known as Los Surgentes‡).

Despite his dying in an attempt to stand athwart Argentinian independence, his heroism against the British has secured him posthumous honor in a country he never wanted to exist. There’s a Liniers neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and a town of Santiago de Liniers; his former estate in Cordoba is preserved today as a museum and UNESCO heritage site.

* The name in either form is “James”; he got it because his birthday, July 25 of 1753, was the feast of St. James.

** The letters of U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson — present in Paris as an envoy from 1784 to 1789 — preserve an invitation from another Liniers (Santiago’s older brother, the comte de Liniers?) “to a game of chess with pear and melon.”

† As distinct from the regular (“closed”) municipal council, comprising just a few handpicked grandees.

‡ Los Surgentes is unfortunately also known for an infamous 1976 massacre of disappeared leftists.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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1945: Seven German POWs

Add comment August 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1945, the U.S. Army hanged seven German submariners for their “traitor slaying” of a Werner Dreschler at the Arizona POW camp they all inhabited.

Their victim Werner Drechsler had been captured when his U-Boat was sunk of the Azores. Having no great love for the Nazi government which had tossed his father in a concentration camp, Drechsler willingly went to work for the Americans as a mole in the POW camps, scavenging his captive countrymen for whatever particles of actionable intelligence they might be willing to blab to a fellow prisoner.

Parked in Fort Meade, Maryland, Dreschler’s war figured to be long over. However, a careless (or worse?) March 1944 transfer to a different POW camp at Papago Park, Arizona put the turncoat into a prisoner pool that included his former U-Boat mates, and these men knew that Dreschler was “a dog who had broken his oath.”

Mere hours after his arrival to Papago Park, a drumhead court had convened to “try” Drechsler in absentia and when his fellow Kriegsmariners doomed him a traitor, he was attacked, beaten senseless, and then hanged in a prison shower.

Helmut Carl Fischer, Fritz Franke, Gunther Kulsen, Heinrich Ludwig, Bernhard Reyak, Otto Stengel, and Rolf Wizuy, were sentenced on March 15, 1944 for carrying out this murder, and all owned the deed upon their honor as Germans and soldiers.*

Still, they outlived the war — cynically dangled, Richard Whittingham argues in Martial Justice: The Last Mass Execution in the United States, as bargaining chips to protect American POWs in Berlin’s hands, and then cynically released to the executioner when the Third Reich’s disappearance dissipated their value as prisoner swap currency. (Seven different German POWs had been executed earlier that same summer.) It was the least the U.S. military could do after having more or less tossed poor Drechsler into a pit of crocodiles.

“The trap was sprung on the first man at 12:10, and the last man went to his death at 2:48 a.m.,” read the bulletin in the Fort Leavenworth News, army paper at the Kansas penitentiary where our day’s principals paid their forfeit. (Via) “A new system for mass hangings has been devised at the institution which saved more than an hour in the procedure.”

But mass hangings too were going out of fashion faster than Hitlerism, and this great leap forward in the executioner’s efficiency has never since been required again at Fort Leavenworth.

* It wasn’t necessarily a given that duty to German martial orders would cut no ice with the western Allies.

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1811: Five at Shrewsbury, “but a ten minutes job”

Add comment August 24th, 2017 William Allen

(Thanks to Quaker humanitarian William Allen for the guest post, originally published in Allen’s early 19th century periodical The Philanthropist — a journal intended “to stimlate to virtue and active benevolence, by pointing out to those who have the disposition and the power the means of gratifying the best feelings of the heart.” We dated the quintuple hanging referred to via CapitalPunishmentUK.org. -ed.)

Remarks on a late Execution at Shrewsbury

As one object of THE PHILANTHROPIST is to diffuse knowledge respecting capital punishment, it may, perhaps, afford a place for the following particulars.

At the last Shrewsbury assizes, George Taylor, aged 43, William Turner, aged 53, Abraham Whitehouse, aged 23, James Baker, aged 19, and Isaac Hickman, aged 19, were, convicted of burglariously breaking into a dwelling-house, and stealing some bank notes and other articles of value. They were all left for death. The three first were considered as old offenders. The two others, however, were understood to have borne a good character; their parents were said to be respectable; the offence, as far as appeared, was the first they had committed; and they were only nineteen.

A general persuasion therefore prevailed, that these unfortunate youths would be permitted to live. Under this impression, it seems, some kind-hearted person, a stranger to them, climbed to the top of the wall overlooking the press yard behind the Shire-hall, where the prisoners were waiting on the day of their condemnation, and cried out, “You are all condemned, but only three of you will suffer.”

The poor young fellows eagerly embraced the assurance. They knew how often mercy was extended to persons under sentence of death, and could not suppose they should be selected as fit objects of peculiar severity.

While they were comforting themselves in confinement with the daily hope of a reprieve, the time appointed for the execution drew near. Two days before that time, one of them received a message from his mother, intended to console him under the expectation of a miserable death, that she would send to fetch away his body! Not till then, had they given themselves up for lost. But from that moment all hope was over. From that moment they had but two days — two days of consternation and despair, to fit themselves for death and eternity. Those two days, the shortest they had ever known, were but too soon gone. The morning of execution came. On that day, the five prisoners, even the two lads of nineteen, were all hanged! The two poor fellows who were executed together, immediately as the drop fell from under them, caught hold of each other’s hands, and expired in a mutual embrace! What a feeling has pervaded the county, among all who could feel, hardly need be described.

The extraordinary circumstance of five men being executed at once, for one offence, attracted vast multitudes of people, of the lower order, from all parts of the country. To see five of their fellow creatures hanged, was as good as a horse-race, a boxing-match, or a bull-baiting. If nothing was intended but to amuse the rabble, at a great loss of their time and a considerable expense, the design was undoubtedly effected. If a public entertainment was not the object, it may be asked, What benefit has a single individual derived from beholding the destruction of these miserable victims? Perhaps that question may be answered by stating, that many of the spectators immediately afterwards got intoxicated, and some cried out to their companions, with a significant gesture in allusion to the mode of punishment, “It is but a ten minutes job!” If such is the sentiment excited on the very spot, it cannot be supposed to be more salutary at a distance; and notwithstanding the sacrifice of these five men, the people of Shropshire must still fasten their doors.

But if, on the other hand, in time to come, a compassionate Shropshire jury should rather acquit some unhappy young culprit, when charged with a capital felony, and suffer hm to go unpunished, rather than consign him to the executioner, — if house-breakers should learn to think lightly of human life, and adopt the precaution of committing a murder the next time they commit a robbery, since the danger of detection would be less, and the punishment no greater, — what will the inhabitants of the county have to thank for it, but this very spectacle! — a spectacle which cannot soften one heart, but may harden many; which confounds moral distinctions, and draws away public indignation from the guilt of the offender, to turn it against the severity of the law.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1941: Sheyna Gram and the Jews of Preili

Add comment August 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, fifteen-year-old Sheyna Gram and her parents and younger brother were murdered, together with approximately 1,500 Jewish people from the town of Preili in the occupied Latvian SSR. Nearly the entire Jewish population of Preili was wiped out by the ever-diligent Einsatzgruppen.

During World War II the Nazi death squads moved from town to town in Poland and Eastern Europe. They had one job and they performed it very well, slaughtering Jews and other “undesirables” by their thousands, most notably at Babi Yar outside of Kiev in Ukraine, where 33,771 people were killed in two days.

Preili, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Latvia, was a much smaller community than Kiev; when the German invasion began, it had a population of less than two thousand, around half of whom were Jewish.

Latvia as a whole had a prewar Jewish population of just under 100,000. Only a few thousand of them survived, mostly those who were evacuated deep into Soviet territory and beyond the reach of the Wehrmacht. Of all the Jews in Preili, only six survived the war.

Preili was no different than any of the other Soviet Jewish communities wiped out in the Holocaust, but we know details about what happened there because Sheyna Gram left a diary behind. She chronicled the day-to-day events of the German occupation from June 22, the day the Nazis invaded the USSR, until August 8, the day before she and her family were killed.

Shortly after the war, noted Soviet journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman traveled all around the USSR, interviewing people and collecting eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, and other documents to bear witness to the Soviet Jewish experience during the German occupation. The result, titled The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, it wasn’t actually published until 1993, and even then it was nowhere near “complete.” In 2008, Indiana University Press translated and published The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories, which consists of accounts and documents that didn’t make it into the first Black Book; the second book is nearly as long as the first.

Among the documents included in the second volume is Sheyna Gram’s diary, translated from Yiddish. It somehow survived the war even though its author had not, and even seventy-plus years later, Sheyna has not been forgotten. Several books about the Holocaust in Latvia have referenced her diary, comparing its writer to Anne Frank, and at least one play based on the diary was performed in Latvia in around 2012.

Per The Unknown Black Book, the Gram family consisted of Itzik, a 60-year-old tailor, his 52-year-old wife, and their four children: sons Gutman, 18, and Leyba, 12, and daughters Freya, 20, and Sheyna. Evidence in the diary suggests they were not a particularly observant Jewish family.

The Unknown Black Book reports that Gutman survived the war, serving in the Red Army, but Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims has a page of testimony for him stating he was killed in military service. Although Mrs. Gram is unnamed in The Unknown Black Book, a search of the Database of Shoah Victims turns up a Sara Gram née Zangvil who lived in Preili and was the right age. The same person, Shmuel Latvinskiy, submitted Sara and Gutman Gram’s testimonies, and Sheyna’s as well; he names himself as Sara Gram’s nephew, Gutman’s cousin, and Sheyna’s relative, making it all but certain that Sara Gram was Sheyna’s mother.

What little information is available about Sheyna indicates she was an ordinary enough teenager. She was a good student, “an intelligent girl of good spiritual development,” and had just finished the sixth grade at school when war broke out. She started her diary that very day with a few sentences, and wrote entries regularly until her death:

June 22. At twelve o’clock, the radio announced, “Germany has declared war on the USSR. At four o’clock this morning, German aircraft bombed several Russian cities.”

Toward evening, I went to Ribenishki [seven kilometers from Preili]. I sit by the radio all the time until midnight. They tell you how to protect yourself from an air raid.

The next day, Sheyna recorded that Daugavpils* had been bombed and “a state of siege has been declared.” Wanting to do her part to help with the war effort, she signed herself up for first aid lessons. “New people are coming into town all the time,” she wrote. “Each person has something new to report. The Germans are successfully advancing.” Over the following days there was an 8:00 p.m. curfew and various new rules: radios were confiscated, freedom of assembly was curtailed, and windows had to be covered.

By July 2, the Germans had arrived in Preili. The following day Sheyna wrote,

The first day went quietly. On the second day, the Germans smashed the shops and looted everything. They broke into the synagogue, hauled out the Torah scrolls, and trampled on them. In other streets, they go on various sorts of rampages. […] We are living in a state of great fear. Many Germans have stopped in our town. There are some proper gentlemen among them as well. They keep on reassuring us that they are not going to touch the workers. A decree is published that Jews and Russians do not have the right to fly their national flags. Walking on the street is permitted until 10:00 p.m., but no one dares poke their head out the door.

As per standard operating procedure, the Nazis ordered Jews to wear a six-pointed yellow star, “twelve centimeters wide and long. Men are to wear it on their backs, their chests, and their legs, just above the knee. Women will wear them on their chests and on their backs.” For the rest of the month, Jews were regularly rounded up for forced labor. Sheyna was assigned to a work party cutting peat; roll call was at five in the morning and work didn’t stop until 7:00 p.m.

Except when she was working, she didn’t leave home. She whiled away the empty hours sleeping, studying Russian, reading back issues of the Jewish magazine Yidishe bilder, and writing in her diary.

On July 27, she wrote:

This is a bloody Sunday for the Latvian Jewish people.

Morning. All the Jews in Dvinskaya Street are ordered to put on their best clothes, take some provisions with them, and go out into the street. Searches of the homes are carried out. At twelve o’clock, all the Jews are herded into the synagogue. One group of young Jews is sent to dig graves behind the cemetery. Then the Jews of two more streets are driven into the synagogue.

It is 3:30 in the afternoon. All the Jews are chased out beyond the cemetery and shot there. All 250 Jews: men, women, and children.

This is terrible. We did not expect things to end this way. The handful of survivors expects death at any moment.

Iossif Rotchko’s untranslated book about the Holocaust in Latvia describes in detail what happened that terrible day. According to his account, the killers were not German but Latvian, local collaborators, and he names names:

The unfortunate [Jews] were ordered to stop at a stone quarry. They were ordered to take off their clothes and remain in underclothes, then they were led to the edge of the pit by groups of 8-10 persons. The executioners killed them by firing at their backs, as if they were afraid to look in their eyes a final time. After all, they were neighbors. The killers were conducted to the killing ground by carts driven by the farmers I. Prikulis, J. Litaunieks, as well as others…

Whomever the perpetrators were, this was the first such massacre Sheyna was personally affected by, although she’d probably heard rumors of others. One of her friends had been among the victims, and she was understandably terrified. “We look at each other,” she wrote, “and are amazed that we are still alive.”

On July 30, she reported that the Germans had said “they are not going to touch the Jews again. They are satisfied with the 250.” She was skeptical, however, writing the next day:

Every day there are new persecutions, and there is no end in sight. We have lived this long, but we do not know whether or not we will manage to survive. They send Jewish girls to clean freed-up Jewish apartments for those who have been killing them. They do not take me. But when they clean out the apartment of my murdered friend Mery Plagova, which they are preparing for a police officer, I go. I gather up her photos and keep them with me. I cannot believe that my friends the Plagovas are dead.

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’av on August 3 found the young diarist still contemplative.

I have never fasted on this day or ever fasted at all. Today, however, a week after the great catastrophe, after that bloody Sunday, when so many innocent victims fell, I have decided, keeping it a secret from the authorities, of course, to fast the entire day. At 1:30, they come to see me and register me for the peat work. Mama orders me to eat something, otherwise I will not be able to work. I obey her. Then they change the list and send my little brother instead of me.

Three days later the Gram family was ordered out of their apartment, but “there are no apartments to move to. It is as though we are living up in the air … Yet another commission comes and decides that we can stay where we are.”

August 8 was her last entry:

The peasants say that lots of airplanes flew over during the night. At seven o’clock we go to wash the floors of the police station. The boss is in a bad mood today. It rains the entire time. At twelve o’clock they arrest three Jewish representatives. They demand that they send thirty people out to work. Twenty-one turn up, leaving nine short. The commandant demands the nine; otherwise things will go badly. The nine have hidden themselves. We are all dreadfully worried.

Rain the entire day. They want to select nine other Jews, but he insists only on the ones from before. From the moment, the representatives are under arrest. No one knows when our sufferings will end. I feel as though the next awful thing is getting closer and closer to me.

Her intuition was right: the next day, the 1,500 Jews from Preili and the surrounding area were murdered in the Jewish cemetery, among them Sheyna, Itzik, Sara and Leyba Gram. The Unknown Black Book notes that Freya Gram survived for another week: she was “kept back after work that day by the commandant, who, when he had had his fill of her, had her killed on August 16.”

A memorial with Latvian, Hebrew and English text, marks the spot where the Preili Jews died. It was funded by David Silberman, a Holocaust survivor from Preili, and dedicated on August 8, 2004, sixty years almost to the day after the massacre. The central obelisk has a quote from Sheyna Gram’s diary, and buried beneath it is an urn with a list of the names of the victims, pieced together by the aforementioned Shmuel Latvinskiy, who wrote pages of testimony for the Gram family. Additional photos of the memorial can be seen at the bottom of this page.

* Sheyna calls this city by its Yiddish name, Dvinsk. An 832-page list of Jewish people from Daugavpils who died in the Holocaust can be found here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Latvia,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1942: Six German saboteurs

Add comment August 8th, 2017 Headsman

Seventy-five years ago today, six German saboteurs were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C. jail … a failed World War II operation that bequeathed its target nation a controversial legal landmark.

On June 13 of 1942 — just eight weeks before they faced the electric chair — Herbert Hans Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herman Neubauer, Richard Quirin and Werner Thiel, all of them German nationals who had returned to the Fatherland after previous emigration to the U.S., were dropped by U-Boats along with two other men, Ernest Peter Burger and George John Dasch, in two quartets on the eastern fringe of Long Island and the Florida coast.

“Operation Pastorius” to sabotage war industries on the U.S. mainland would never even have time to get its land legs; spied in Long Island by a Coast Guard watchman whom they clumsily attempted to bribe, the agents scattered themselves to New York and Chicago. Burger and Dasch — who for this reason were not in the end electrocuted* — had their reservations about the Third Reich to begin with and guessed after the Coast Guard encounter where this fiasco was heading. They rang up the gobsmacked FBI to shop themselves and their comrades, enabling the feds to pick up the other six men in short order.

The eventual fate of the Nazi saboteurs is no surprise, but the means to obtain it was controversial then and remains so to this day.

On a substantive level, the Germans had landed in uniform for the explicit purpose of asserting POW status were they to be apprehended immediately; this didn’t cut much ice since all had then discarded their uniforms and attempted to melt away in the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle successfully cited the American Revolution precedent of John Andre, whom patriots hanged as a spy after detaining him out of uniform behind their lines. That they hadn’t yet done anything yet was a bit beside the point.**

Much thornier was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to try the Germans using a seven-member military tribunal that he conjured for this purpose, and seemingly with the objective of assuring the harshest possible sentence. (Bear in mind that these events transpired only months after Pearl Harbor.) Such a commission is explicitly anticipated by the U.S. Articles of War† whose 81st and 82nd provisions the saboteurs were charged with violating:

ART. 81. RELIEVING, CORRESPONDENCE WITH, OR AIDING THE ENEMY. — Whosoever relieves or attempts to relieve the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other thing, or knowingly harbors or protects or holds correspondence with or gives intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

ART. 82. SPIES. — Any person who in time of war shall be found lurking or acting as a spy in or about any of the fortifications, posts, quarters, or encampments of any of the armies of the United States, or elsewhere, shall be tried by a general court-martial or by a military commission, and shall, on conviction thereof, suffer death.

However, the military commission did not seem very well in keeping with the American preference for regular jurisdictions as expressed by Ex parte Milligan, the post-Civil War decision forbidding the use of military courts anywhere that civilian courts are functioning.‡ The signal Milligan precedent formed the basis of a furious objection by Army defense lawyer (and future Secretary of War) Kenneth Royall, who fought his clients’ hopeless corner so vigorously that the doomed men signed a letter praising his efforts. (“unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion.”)

Already recessed for the summer, the Supreme Court hastily reconvened to cut this Gordian knot: the only forum of judicial review the case would ever receive. Its decision, Ex parte Quirin — titled after one of the defendants — spurned Royall’s Milligan claim and upheld Roosevelt’s statutory authority to determine this case for a military tribunal by a unanimous vote.

The court’s common front concealed a variety of stances on the reach of executive authority. While the whole court agreed that “Congress has explicitly provided … that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases,” a concurring memorandum by Justice Robert H. Jackson — later famous for his role prosecuting the Nuremberg trials — proposed to carry the argument well beyond this point. Jackson claimed in a concurrence that he would eventually withdraw that “the Court’s decision of the question whether it complied with the Articles of War is uncalled for … it is well within the war powers of the President to create a non-statutory military tribunal of the sort here in question.” This was by no means the consensus of his colleagues.

The later publication of a “Soliloquy” memorandum by one such colleague, Felix Frankfurter, throws a less than dispassionate light on deliberations. Writing to smooth over internal disputes between the blackrobes, Justice Frankfurter shows himself personally hostile to the Germans — “You’ve done enough mischief already without leaving the seeds of a bitter conflict involving the President, the courts and Congress after your bodies will be rotting in lime,” he chides them in his own voice. “That disposes of you scoundrels.” In the end, the court took his advice to sidestep the potentially deep jurisdictional question.

But that question has not been left rotting in footnotes (they never are). Quirin in general and Jackson’s expansive claims of executive power in particular have been relied upon by 21st century Presidents to justify muscular and controversial innovations like the Guantanamo Bay prison and the drone war.

A few books about Operation Pastorius and Ex parte Quirin

Pierce O’Donnell, author of In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America, discussed his book on C-SPAN here.

Jurisprudence is not the only artifact of the Nazi saboteurs’ failed infiltration.

Bizarrely, a tributary slab “in memory of agents of the German Abwehr” was discovered in 2006 illicitly placed on National Park Service land in southeast Washington DC, the same vicinity where the saboteurs had been secretly buried after their electrocution. There it had seemingly reposed some twenty-odd years, unknown but to its devotees … who if the stone’s carvings are to be credited must consist of the heirs of the (defunct since 1983) National Socialist White People’s Party, also known as the American Nazi Party.

* They would be condemned to death along with the rest, but Roosevelt commuted their sentences: a fine boon but far short of the outright pardons they had been promised for their cooperation. In 1948, President Truman had Burger and Dasch deported to Germany, where many saw them as traitors.

** After unsuccessfully attempting to trade Andre for Benedict Arnold, whose defection Andre had facilitated, and whom the American revolutionaries would have much preferred to Andre for a hanging.

† Enacted by Congress in 1920, these Articles of War are no longer operative in the U.S.: they were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.

‡ Haupt and Burger were also U.S. citizens, further complicating the commission’s suspension of their constitutional habeas corpus rights.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Soldiers,Spies,Terrorists,U.S. Federal,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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