Posts filed under 'Milestones'

1731: Catherine Repond, the last witch burned in Switzerland

Add comment September 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Catherine (or Catillon) Repond was burned at the stake in Freiburg — the last person executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, more or less.*

Repond (English Wikipedia entry | the somewhat more detailed German) got caught out on some serious crazy.

A bailiff named Montenach while out hunting near Lake Gryere claimed to have wounded a fox on the foot, which shouted back at him in a human voice as it scampered away. Later, Repond, a 68-year-old vagabond with a pre-existing witchcraft reputation, turned up at a nearby farm where she sometimes hired out for odd jobs. Repond had a foot injury just like the fox.


It would be irresponsible not to speculate. (Image via SomethingAwful.com)

Montenach arrested and tortured Repond on this basis, aggravating the demonaic-shapeshifter charge with villager superstitions that the old crone wrecked their cheeses and blighted their herds. As late as the date was, this still conformed to the old witch-burning pattern of yestercentury, where idle gossip became evidence once some luckless person entered into an official investigation — evidence that thumbscrews would then confirm. She was transferred to Fribourg for execution.

It’s never been completely clear just why this one particular case navigated the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the stake — whether that was just the breaks, or if there was some larger interest at work that made Repond’s mouth worth closing.

Fribourg, in any event, adopted a 2009 resolution expressing regret for the execution, although it declined to issue a formal exoneration on the grounds that as the state itself was several times discontinuous with the one that put the “witch” to death, such a gesture would be intrinsically meaningless.


A fountain in the village of Gibloux pays tribute to the area’s resident hag. From this French pdf all about the curious case of Catillon.

* Anna Göldi is the conventionally recognized “last witch executed in Switzerland,” and even the last in all of Europe — she has her own museum and everything. But if you want to split hairs about it, Göldi was accused as a witch and tortured as a witch but her formal judicial condemnation was “merely” on the basis of poisoning (accomplished by witchcraft). Not a distinction with a great deal of difference for Göldi, or Repond for that matter, but there it is. Since Göldi was beheaded, Repond does have the sure consolation of ranking the last Swiss burned for witchcraft. (Although as was often the practice, Repond was mercifully strangled at the stake in preference to literally burning her to death.)

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1944: Three Soviet infiltrators, the last in Finland

Add comment September 3rd, 2014 Headsman

The last executions in Finland occurred on this date in 1944, claiming the lives of three Soviet spies who had been parachuted behind Finnish lines.

I have been unable to locate the names of these men. They’re invariably presented simply in connection with — or as the denouement following — the September 2 execution of Finnish deserter Olavi Laiho.

The next morning (Russian link), Finland announced its disengagement from its problematic German alliance, an arrangement brokered by the western Allies who wanted to keep Finland democratic and non-communist despite sitting in Russia’s back yard and joining the wrong team in World War II. The Soviet Union immediately redeployed its forces away from the Finnish theater; a formal armistice was signed before September was out and prisoner transfers began in October.

Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.

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1944: Olavi Laiho, the last Finn executed in Finland

Add comment September 2nd, 2014 Headsman

Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944.

Laiho (English Wikipedia entry | Finnish) was conscripted to the Finnish Navy to fight in Finland’s theater of war against the Soviet Union.

As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.

While Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers that followed his fate the next day. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.

Readers with Finnish proficiency might enjoy the Laiho biography En kyyneltä vuodattanut (I Never Shed a Tear).

While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are the last ever put to death in Finland.

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Daily Double: The last executions in Finland

Add comment September 2nd, 2014 Headsman

Days before tapping out of the “Continuation War”, a bid to retake lost territory from the Soviets that put Finland in the discomfiting World War II position of Third Reich ally, its military conducted the last executions in that country’s history.

Finland had fought the bitter Winter War against the USSR in 1939-1940, a war that stalemated in the field but saw the Soviets push back the Finnish border — most particularly out of Finnish Karelia, which for Russia had always been worryingly close to Leningrad.

The cost of the USSR’s cozier security perimeter was, for Finland, 26,000 dead,* 420,000 refugees, about one-eleventh of the Finnish land mass, and one hell of a grudge. The period following the Winter War is known as the “Interim Peace,” and the interim lasted until Nazi Germany attacked the USSR on June 22, 1941. As German tanks raced across the frontier further south, the Finns — who had been armed by the Germans during the temporary peace — surged back into the Karelian isthmus. The reader will notice, as many did at the time, that despite the “continuation” branding, this installment of the conflict was an offensive war of Finland’s choosing, which put it in a different light from the foregoing heroic defense of the homeland.

In the three years that followed, while all of Europe fell into a bloodbath, Finland fought the Soviet Union almost privately, a side event in which the respective countries’ allied coalitions only barely intervened. Finland had been banking on the German attack delivering a quick knockout that would leave the Russian-controlled territories of a prospective greater Finland there for the gathering. When that proved not to be the case, the two old adversaries were back into the same brutal slog they’d had in the Winter War, heavy with irregular warfare. (Future Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov fought as a partisan in this conflict.)

In terms of the military-political outcome, Finland managed to extricate itself from the war much more gracefully than most of the Axis-allied countries who tangled with the Red Army. It struck a September 19, 1944 armistice that restored most of Karelia to the USSR (along with some new territory) and cut ties with Berlin, while avoiding postwar Soviet occupation. As a western democracy, Finland was still quite friendly with the many western Allies with which it was formally at war, and everyone — except the Russians, of course — preferred to keep the country out of Stalin’s orbit for the years to come.

But almost up the eve of that armistice, Finnish forces conducted hundreds of executions — the true number is uncertain — both of their own deserters and draft-resisters, and of captured Soviet irregulars.** In the field, these were often summary or nearly so, just as they had been when the Russian Revolution spilled over into a Finnish civil war with Communist “Red Guards”.

As rude as these last-second executions were, they turned out to be the very last executions in Finnish history: that country’s postwar turn towards social democracy where capital punishment is practically unthinkable is well-known. Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.

* The Soviets lost far more — something like 5 times the number dead — to the rugged Finnish defenders. Had Finland’s defenses broken, it’s possible Moscow could have overrun and annexed the whole country.

** Finland captured over 60,000 Soviet soldiers. Some 30% of them died in Finnish POW camps, and some were executed by the Soviets upon repatriation.

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1948: Ragnar Skancke, the last executed in Norway

Add comment August 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1948 at stately Akershus Fortress, a firing squad carried out the last execution in Norwegian history — that of Ragnar Skancke.

Skancke (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) was an electrical engineer in academia, and the very first posts he held in his political life were the ministries that Vidkun Quisling named him to in the wartime Third Reich client government. That doesn’t exactly mean the man was apolitical; he had joined Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling fascist movement in 1933.

As Minister for Church and Educational Affairs for most of the war years, Skancke got to do things like purge books in service of a fascist-friendly curriculum, and maneuver Norway’s reluctant Lutheran clergy into better compliance with the new order.

Since he was just an academic, and in matters of state an administrator outside the security apparatus — not a guy ordering executions or deploying the paramilitaries — Skancke wasn’t really expected to draw the severest punishment at the postwar trials of collaborators. Skancke himself shared this view, and mounted a slight and indifferent defense that he would come to regret when he heard the shock sentence.

A two-year appeals process would explore in numbing (literally so, for Skancke) detail the precise legal stature of Norway’s 1940 capitulation to the invading Germans, and whether or not that document cast the pall of treason over further collaboration with the Nazis. In fine, the government and the king fled the country and delegated a general to make the knuckling-under arrangements recognizing German victory, but simultaneously averred that Norway as a state — meaning its exiled remnants — remained at war with Germany. All well and good for the so-called “London Cabinet” strolling gardens in Buckingham Palace, but what’s that supposed to mean for the Norwegians still in Norway? As a minister, Skancke’s collaboration was considerable in degree; the question remained, was it treasonable in kind? The reader may discern the answer given by courts, but the conduct of the purge trials as a whole has remained a going controversy long after the last gavel fell.

As public distaste for the death penalty in general was also mounting, and the entire legal apparatus by which Norway conducted its postwar purges came under some scrutiny — among other things, Norway’s “capitulated” government had specifically reintroduced the already-abolished death penalty from exile with a view to these proceedings — Skancke’s increasingly frantic appeals were mirrored by a public campaign for clemency among the clergy that he had so recently pushed around.

Norway fully abolished the death penalty in 1979 and today registers consistently overwhelming public opposition to its reintroduction.

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1962: James Dukes, philosophical

Add comment August 24th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

A circled passage in the section “He Is Sentenced to Death,” in Plato’s Apology:

The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways,
I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

— James Dukes, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois.
Executed August 24, 1962

Dukes was executed for killing Detective John Blyth Sr., who had pursued him after he had beaten his girlfriend in church and shot two other men who tried to stop him. On Dukes’s execution day, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, who took part in the final gun battle, told a newspaperman, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this night.”

Dukes made no oral statement but left behind a copy of the Apology for the press.

(Dukes was the last person executed in Illinois prior to the national death penalty hiatus of the late 1960s. He was also the last person electrocuted in Illinois, and the last put to death in Chicago’s Cook County. -ed.)

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1851: John McCaffary, the last hanged by Wisconsin

2 comments August 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1851, the domestic abuser John McCaffary (or McCaffrey) was publicly hanged in Kenosha, Wisconsin.* His crime — singularly ill-concealed — was a noisy row with his wife Bridgett that ended with him tipping her into a rain barrell and holding her in it until she stopped moving.

Neighbors alerted by Bridgett’s shrieks arrived to find the newly-minted widower redwet-handed, and his late wife stuffed in the backyard butt.

There had been a few executions in Wisconsin before McCaffary’s, but this was the first one after Wisconsin attained statehood in 1848. It was attended by a large crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers — a third of them female, to the special chagrin of newsmen.

And those 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers, as it turned out, witnessed something never to be repeated. From that day until this, the state of Wisconsin has never again put a human to death.**

The crowd played a part in that eventuality. Wisconsin was a reforming northern state — in a few years, the anti-slavery Republican Party would be founded there — and the spectacle of public enjoyment under the gallows struck as regrettable the sorts of people who, say, write Madison Democrat editorials. (“Murder before the people, with its horrors removed by the respectability of those engaged in its execution.” (Source))

Christopher Latham Sholes, a Kenosha publisher whose main claim to historic fame was later inventing the first commercially successful typewriter,† was seated in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1852 as a Free Soiler. He too had denounced the execution in his newspaper — “the crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man … we hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.” (See It Happened In Wisconsin, 2nd, or this link.) As a legislator, he put his political capital where his editorials were and spearheaded a successful campaign to get rid of capital punishment.

On July 12, 1853, Wisconsin followed the example of its neighbor, Michigan, and abolished the death penalty full stop.


Burial marker for McCaffary in Kenosha’s Green Ridge Cemetery, erected in 2001. ((cc) image from Matt Hucke.) The McCaffary house on Court Street is also a registered historic landmark, and possibly haunted by Bridgett’s ghost.

There’s a handy roundup of resources related to the McCaffary execution here.

* The present-day name. Kenosha was then known as Southport.

** According to Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States, there was an 1868 Wisconsin execution under Oneida (not Wisconsin) law, conducted on tribal lands.

† Said typewriter also debuted the now-standard QWERTY keyboard layout.

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1738: Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmans, inviolable dignity

1 comment August 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the last victims of witch trials in the Lower Rhine were burned at the stake in Gerresheim, an ancient German city today subsumed by Düsseldorf.

More eccentric than demoniacal, the sicky 14-year-old Helena Curtens reported having seen some ghostly apparition during a curative pilgrimage to Kevelaer, and received from him some towels with weird occult inscription. (She actually did have such towels.)

This adolescent attention-seeking turned into a whole thing when judge Johann Weyrich Sigismund Schwarz’s long ears caught hold of Gerresheim’s wagging tongues.

The whole idea of witches and witchcraft was trending ever less fashionable at this time, but not for Schwarz: he routed Curtens’s occult encounter into the judicial Hexenprozess and got on record an accusation against her neighbor Agnes Olmans as well as the usual stuff about playing the harlot with a visiting devil.

Their case extended for more than a year; Helena Curtens was 16 by the time she burned.

In that time, Curtens stayed curiously committed to her crazy story, even knowing that it was putting her under the shadow of the stake.

Olmans, by contrast, fought with every fiber the allegations that her young neighbor kept confirming. Olmans even fell ironic victim to the uneven development of rational witch-law reform when she tried to demand that she be put to the ordeal of water to prove her innocence: it turned out that this backwards practice of pseudo-forensics had been barred in 1555, so Schwarz could not order it. At trial, her denials were easily overcome by the gossip of neighbors, and even her own husband — who recalled that the mother-in-law had a distinctly witchy reputation. Hey, ’til death do us part, babe.

Today, there’s a public stone monument to these milestone sorceresses, the Gerresheimer Hexenstein (“Gerresheim witches’ stone”)

Its inscription reads:

Human dignity is inviolable.
For Helene Mechthildis Curtens and Agnes Olmanns.
Burned in Gerresheim on August 19, 1738.
After the last witch trial in the Lower Rhine
and for all those tortured and outcast

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1883: Ah Yung

Add comment August 16th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1883, Chinese immigrant Ah Yung, aka Ah Kee, was hanged in Missoula, Montana.

As Tom D. Donovan notes in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, his execution had three distinctions:

  • The first (of nine) legal executions in Missoula County;
  • The first Chinese person hanged in Montana;
  • The quickest reported hanging, with death declared in only a minute and a half.

Ah Yung was condemned for the January 29, 1883 murder of Chung Yu, the paymaster of the Wing See Company.

However, the authorities believed his murder was the least of Ah’s crimes; he was suspected of killing no fewer than seventeen people, two whites and fifteen Chinese.

Ah Yung shot and killed Chung Yu and wounded another man during a botched robbery, then fled the scene. The authorities offered a $400 reward for his arrest, and he was captured a month after the murder at Frenchtown, Montana. But, as Donovan records, “because of some bizarre reason, there was a question whether or not the reward was going to be paid for his captor released the prisoner.”

Fortunately, the murderer remained free for only a few days and didn’t have the opportunity to commit any more crimes before he was captured again, and this time sent to jail in the newly incorporated city of Missoula.

Chinese immigrants, especially drawn by gold strikes,* were a sizable constituent in frontier Montana as throughout the American West. A Montana travelogue in the Nov. 25, 1882 Utah Salt Lake Tribune

“Gangs of Chinamen clearing away the forest and underbrush … laboring with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.” This was the Northern Pacific then under frenetic construction through forbidding Rocky Mountain terrain in subzero temperatures. In Missoula itself, “Celestials” were “numerous enough to form a Chinese quarter. They have an eye to business, and where you find a live, busy camp or town in this remote region, there, too, you find the inevitable Chinaman.”

A Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest attempted to offer pastoral counsel to the condemned man, only to discover that he was utterly ignorant of religion. Pressed to confess, Ah Yung refused and kept repeating, “Me no kill him,” — a statement he held to his dying moments.

* Welcomed initially, the Chinese were an increasingly contentious presence in Montana (and elsewhere) in the 1880s. Still, there were over a hundred independent Chinese mining operations known in Montana at this time.

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1973: Mimi Wong Weng Siu, jealous hostess

1 comment July 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.

“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)

On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.

The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.

While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.

The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.

According to an October 2013 AsiaOne profile, Singh had an unusually close pre-execution relationship with the first woman hanged in the only recently (since 1965) independent Singapore.

In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.

“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.

The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.

Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.

“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.

Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.

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