On this date in 1788, two highwaymen were hanged at Boston Neck: Archibald Taylor, and Joseph Taylor.*
According to a letter later published purporting to be from that Joseph Taylor, however, he and a sympathetic doctor actually engineered one of the most amazing scaffold escapes on record. It all got started when Joseph Taylor found his fellow-condemned Archibald in high spirits one day on death row.
I never, even after my condemnation, realized that I was suddenly to die in so awful a manner, until a gentleman, who I afterwards found was a doctor, came and talked privately with the late unhappy sufferer, and my fellow convict, Archibald Taylor, who, when the gentleman was gone, came to me with money in his hand, and so smiling a countenance, that I thought he had received it in charity. But he soon undeceived me, telling me with an air of gaiety, that it was the price of his body.
This doctor dropped was doing the workaday ghoulishness of procuring imminent corpses for medical cadavers.
Such practices were still highly taboo, viscerally shocking in this case to Joseph Taylor:
This was the first time since my condemnation that I thought what it was to die. The shock was terrible, and Taylor increased it, saying that the doctor had desired him to bargain with me for my body also. The thoughts of my bones not being permitted to remain in the grave in peace, and my body, which my poor mother had so oten caressed and dandled on her knee, and wich had been so pampered by my friends in my better days, being slashed and mangled by the doctors, was too much for me. I had been deaf to the pious exhortations of the priests; but now my conscience was awakened, and hell seemed indeed to yawn for me.
What a night of horror was the next night! — When the doctor came in the morning to bargain for my body, I was in a cold sweat; my knees smote together, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth.
According to the letter, the doctor “perceived the agony of my soul” and in the conversation as it unfolded agreed to try to help Joseph Taylor survive the hanging — advising him, in order to “not dislocate the Vertebrae of the Neck,” to “Work the Knot behind your Neck and Press your Throat upon the Halter which will prevent the Necks breaking and likewise the Compression of the Jugular and preserve the circulations in some degree.” (This is actually sound advice in case you ever find yourself about to be hanged in the 18th century.)
And the doctor — remember, he was only there in the first place to get his hands on some raw materials that he could autopsy the day after the hanging — even agreed to receive the “body” in secret from Taylor’s confederates and try to restore it to life.
This bit is essential to the narrative, but the skeptical reader can’t help but doubt. What an enormous and unprofitable risk for the unnamed physician to take on behalf of a slab of meat!
I want to propose (and this is too delicious to be anything better than baseless speculation) a false-flag operation on behalf of the medical profession, which just days before the Taylors’ hanging had suffered an astounding public relations debacle. Obnoxious Manhattan medical students had wantonly displayed severed limbs from one of their subjects to schoolboys, whose frightened reports of it ultimately set off the “Doctors Mob”.
Ordinary people hated and feared anatomization, and resented “resurrection men” who stole corpses (sometimes madecorpses) for the industry. The mob smashed up the hospital, thrashed the med students, and made off with the human remains.
This is the idiom for Joseph Taylor’s revulsion at being propositioned with the body trade. Although it nevertheless turned out to be his path to salvation, it is evident in his remarks that even then, something in Taylor himself rebels at the coldly utilitarian use to which he himself must put his flesh and bones, and his consequent “reliance on the doctor”, as inimical to the interests of his soul.
The state of my mind after my conversation with the doctor, until the day of execution, it is impossible for me to describe. This glimpse of hope, this mere chance of escaping the jaws of death, and of avoiding the eyes of an offended Judge, at whose bar I was no ways prepared to appear, semed to render my mind but more distracted. I sometimes indulged myself with the thoughts of being recovered t life; and as I had fortunately concealed my real name, that I might return, like the Prodigal, to my parents, and live a life devoted to God and their comfort. But I oftener feared the means might fail to bring me to life: and then I wished that this scheme had never been mentioned, as the hopes of life seemed to prevent my conversion; and then, to be surprised into another world, totally unprepared, how terrible!
Walking out to the gallows with a case of stagefright — he was worried that his demeanor as he thought about worldly subterfuge rather than spiritual salvation would give away the game — Taylor nonetheless
preserved my presence of mind; and when the halter was fastened, remembered the doctor’s directions, and while the prayer was making I kept gently turning my head so as to bring the knot on the back of my neck … When the trap fell I had all my senses about me; and though I have no remembrance of hearing any sounds among the people, yet I believe I did not lose my sense until some minutes after. My first feelings after the shock of falling was a violent strangling and oppression for want of breath: this soon gave way to a pain in my eyes, which seemed to be burned by two balls of fire which appeared before them, which seemed to dart on and off like lightning; settling ever and anon upon my shoulders as if they weighed ten hundred tons; and after one terrible flash, in which the two balls seemed to join in one, I sunk away without pain, like one falling to sleep. [compare to this account from a survived hanging. -ed.]
As promised, his buddies got hold of the body and spirited it away to the doctor. After the application of a conveniently unreported treatment, Joseph Taylor quickened back to life two hours and forty-three minutes after he had been “turned off” with the knot at the back of his neck. The reawakening — “I cannot describe the intolerable agony of that moment. Ten thousand stranglings are trifling to it!” — was no more pleasant than the passing had been.
Now … is this account true? In the completely unverifiable and also completely sensational version that circulated (quite widely) in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, Taylor completed his escape by sailing for the Old World, disappearing thence into obscurity.
However, according to another, killjoy newspaper (Western Star, Feb. 2, 1790) some early-American Mythbusters team got wind of this popular fable and went to dig up Joe Taylor’s alleged grave — finding the highwayman securely taking his dirt nap after all.
That may be so, but the reader will kindly observe that two-plus centuries on, nobody’s posting anything about Archibald Taylor.
* No relation between the two Taylors, to judge by the indifferent way Joseph writes about Archibald.
On this day in 1999, Serbian militants killed approximately 40 to 45 Kosovo Albanians near the village of Reçak in Kosovo. The victims allegedly included a twelve-year-old boy and at least one woman.
Depending on who you listened to, it was either a massacre against innocent civilians, or a military action against guerillas.
The New Kosova Report, adopting the former point of view, summarizes in a 2008 article:
In the early morning of 15 January, 1999, forces from Serbian Interior Ministry (MUP) and Yugoslav Army (VJ) moved into the village with tanks and began to shoot at houses sheltering civilians. After ransacking all the houses, they gathered 28 Albanian men and boys and ordered them to head towards a hill outside the village for questioning. There they were sprayed with machine guns and 23 of them died. Only five survived by pretending they were dead. Another 22 people were shot and/or decapitated at different places in the village. Some in a ravine behind the village, while others in front of their houses.
Policemen — Serbs — were hiding here, expecting them. I heard the Serbs saying, “Anyone under fifteen years old, don’t touch, but upwards of sixteen or seventeen years old, just kill them …” The people, when they were captured here, were made to stay in line, and every one of them was shot, and after that with a … very nice knife … they took eyes from the faces and hearts from the chest, and the Serbs later said, “That’s not true, we didn’t do that,” the mice, they’d eaten them. […]
Serbian police were shooting until four or five in the afternoon. When the observers arrived in the morning, we went with them to see the place where the people were murdered. Three of us stayed here all night to guard the bodies. […] Thirteen members of my family were killed there.
The Serbs denied having murdered civilians and claimed all those killed were all Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, shot during a skirmish with Serbian forces. To this day, many maintain the entire thing was staged, a hoax set up by the KLA in order to get support for their side.
Trying to sort the matter out, the European Union dispatched forensic experts to the scene from Finland. Helena Ranta, one of the experts, concluded that “There were no indications of the people being other than unarmed civilians.” When her opinion was broadcast in a press release, many mistook it for being the opinion of the entire group of scientists.
The Finns’ official report, however, has never been released. Dr. Ranta, a forensic dentist, later accused officials from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of pressuring her to go against the Serbs.
Yugoslav and Belarusian scientists also examined the bodies and said they believed all the dead were KLA combatants. In response, critics blasted them for using allegedly out-of-date and unscientific testing methods.
News of the killings made headlines all over the world and incited NATO to finally get involved in the war. A couple of years later, Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Miloševic was brought up on war crimes charges; ordering the Reçak killings was one of them. It was later removed from the indictment for lack of evidence, however. (Miloševic died before his trial was concluded.)
In 2001, a Kosovo Serb police officer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for participating in the killings. Outside observers, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, criticized the trial proceedings, accusing the Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias and politically motivated decision-making. As of this writing, no one else has been called to account for what happened in Reçak.
Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer — stock, as their name suggests, of vintage Dutch family whose more reputable products ca be found on various Empire State placenames — were doomed for the Christmas Eve, 1901 murder of their uncle.
The family tree’s branching over generations had put family enmities between relatives; in this case, working stiff John van Wormer’s home in Columbia County, N.Y. was mortgaged to his brother-in-law (and the eventual murder victim), richie-rich Peter Hallenbeck. After John passed away, Peter lowered the boom and foreclosed on the widow, booting John’s sons out of the house.
The boys got even with an unsubtle gangland masked home raid, riddling their Uncle Scrooge with bullets.
(Signs of the times: the murder happened mere weeks after William McKinley‘s assassination, and testimony had one of the boys bragging with reference to the fatal gut-shot wound inflicted on the late president. “I made a Czolgosz shot. I shot him in the stomach.”)
Though these three attracted national public sympathy — someone even telegrammed a bogus reprieve signed, “The President of the United States” in a vain stab at delay — their case was pretty open-and-shut.
Since they were doing death as a brother act, it was only fair that they sort out precedence within the family: the condemned themselves decided the order of their execution, with Willis first, Frederick second, and Burton third. The whole thing took 15 minutes.
But leave it to the youngest child to stick out from the crowd. Frederick, the baby of the family, actually managed to survive the electric chair, sort of. Not walk clean away from it like Willie Francis would do, but impolitely revive when he was supposed to be laid out dead like folkused to do back in the bad old hanging days.
The executions went off without a hitch and the brothers were pronounced dead. Later, after they’d been laid out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them, Frederick Van Wormer, move a hand. Then an eye flickered. The prison doctor was immediately summoned. Putting a stethoscope to the “dead” man’s heart, he discovered it was still beating. Frederick’s heart (it was determined later) was bigger than that of anyone executed up to that date, so two charges of full current had failed to kill him. The convict was carried back to the chair and kept in it until he was dead beyond the shadow of a doubt. [he died without actually being re-executed -ed.]
In part because of accidents like these during the early decades of the electric chair, numbers of people weren’t convinced it was as deadly as it was supposed to be. (Source)
They’re not kidding about that brain bit, either.
A fellow by the name of Edward Anthony Spitzka autopsied the van Wormers, “direct[ing] my attention especially to the brains. The opportunity afforded by this triple execution was certainly most rare, and a similar case will not soon occur again,” and found Frederick with a robust 1.6 kg brain, compared to less than 1.4 kg for his siblings. Now that JSTOR has opened its oldest journal content, you can read all about Spitzka’s meddlings in the van Wormer grey matter here.
In this non-chronological story, Peyton Farquhar, “a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family,” is entrapped by a Union spy purporting to be a Confederate agent to attempt an act of sabotage in the face of a hanging warning issued by the Union army.
It can be ballparked in late August or early September based on its location in northern Alabama, which essentially didn’t see Civil War activity until the very end of the war. Except, that is, for the maneuvering building up to the Battle of Chickamauga fought just over the border in southeastern Tennessee September 19-20, 1863.* That also squares with seasonal indicators in the text pointing to summer, e.g.: “the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”
At any rate, the story begins with Farquhar stationed on Owl Creek Bridge awaiting execution … but the rope snaps as he falls, giving him a bid for freedom. As for what happens next: read the story, or take in this economical screen adaptation by French director Robert Enrico aired for American audiences on The Twilight Zone.
Halina’s mother was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon their arrival at Majdanek. The daughter was spared to work and endure the torture that was daily life in the camp. “We were tormented day after day by roll calls, starvation, slave labor, beatings and vermin,” she recalled later in her memoir, Hope Is the Last to Die. “Lice devoured us at night.”
After two months of this, Halina was selected and sent along with her sister-in-law, Hela, and other female inmates to an empty hut in the men’s camp. The women had no idea what the Nazis wanted them for; there was nothing to do but wait.
When it was dark outside, the Storm Troopers locked the hut and switched off the light. I nestled up to Hela, and we both fell asleep on the floor, dreaming of a better camp, easier work, tolerable living conditions…
In the middle of the night, the SS noisily threw open the hut door, arousing us with their shouts and beatings; they began herding us out, making sure that no one hid or escaped. A fearful confusion ensued.
Sleepy, frightened to death, we crowded to the door, pushing and trampling one another in the darkness and panic. The Storm Troopers ran around like mad dogs. They made us form fours, lit electric lamps and counted us, swearing.
“They are taking us to the crematorium!” The terrible news fell on us like a thunderbolt and spread like lightning through the ranks.
My heart beat rapidly. I could not believe it. Once again I could not believe that death was possible, as months earlier, on the WarsawUmshlag, when the Nazis set up a machine-gun in front of us … And I did not yield to the general panic and despair.
The SS gave an order and we moved off … in the direction of the crematorium. Some women were weeping, others tearing their hair, praying, or bidding farewell to mothers or sisters.
They herded us into a hut, the interior of which resembled a bathhouse. Despite the darkness, we observed stacks of empty gas containers on the ground in front of the hut. There was a strange sweetish odor in the air. There was no doubt now that they were taking us to execution. The women went out of their minds … They groaned, wailed, had convulsions.
They herded us into the bathhouse, and barred the door behind us. Now we had to carry out an order given previously: undress and hang out clothes up on hooks on the wall. Obediently we undressed in silence. We knew there was no way out. We hung out clothes up, then sat down on benches along the walls, waiting in extreme agitation … When and how would death come?
Time passed. Hour followed hour. But nothing happened. No one came. It was silent both inside and outside the bathhouse. Perhaps they had forgotten us? A faint hope slowly began emerging … Toward morning they came back; after the nightmare of waiting for death in the gas chamber, we went outside. They counted us again (as though anyone could have escaped from that locked building!), and took us back to the men’s camp, to the same hut as the day before. There we learned from the prisoners that the supplies of gas has unexpectedly run out during the night … We had been spared on account of this accident.
Later that day, Halina and her fellow inmates were put on a truck and taken to Auschwitz.
Several times more she escaped death by the skin of her teeth. She would survive the war, move to Israel, and become a writer, poet and translator.
The first attempt made in Fiji to carry a capital sentence into effect brought about one of the most remarkable incidents to be found in the annals of public executions. The Fiji Times of June 1 furnishes the following account:
“A horrible and brutalizing scene was witnessed last Tuesday morning by a number of persons who went to see the execution of the man Franks for the murder of Mr. Thomas Muir on board the Marion Rennie. He had been sentenced to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, and was to have been hanged on Monday, the 27th ult., but a gross miscarriage of justice was allowed to occur.
“The time appointed came and went, but the execution did not take place, for the simple reason that it did not suit the private convenience of the Sheriff. The poor wretch, who had by anticipation suffered the horrors of death, was then left in all the harrowing and unimaginable anxiety and uncertainty as to his fate from hour to hour until late in the evening, when he was informed that he must be hanged in the morning at 6 o’clock.
“Every preparation was made the previous night, the rope was fixed, and the noose adjusted. Rain fell, however, and wetted the rope, which was a very thick one, and in the morning it had to be dried before a fire. The time came, the rope was again fixed, the culprit and the hangman were on the scaffold, and before slipping the noose over the wretched man’s head the hangman had to sit down and place one of his feet in and pull with all his might to make the knot run; then after placing it over Frank’s head he had the utmost difficulty in making it fit anything like tight, but not nearly so tight as it should have been.
“Then the drop fell, and when the rope tightened with a slow dull thud, Franks was apparently dead for about three minutes, when his limbs began to move and he gave several groans, and then spoke. He prayed of those around him to put him out of his agony, to ‘let him meet his Maker in peace.’
“Then, through being improperly pinioned, he raised one arm and got hold of the rope, and so partly relieved himself from the fearful strain upon his neck. He still continued to beg to be put out of his misery, telling them he forgave them for the ‘black job’ they had made of it.
“But the frightful scene was not yet over.
“One of the officials, (the deputy was not to be found,) on the impulse of the moment, ran and cut the man down, when he fell heavily to the ground, there not being any attempt to catch him in his fall. Franks was then removed to the prison.
“Thus ended this ‘black job,’ which for horror is almost unparalleled. Its effect upon the spectators was such that one strong man actually fainted away.
“Thus the majesty of the law in Fiji has been asserted. Its most terrible sentence, death, has been attempted to be inflicted, and signally failed.
“The wretched man, after the terrible ordeal through which he passed, has been reprieved. Had another attempt been made to hang him, so strong was the feeling of indignation on the beach, we fully believe there would have been a riot.
“The question arises as to what should be done with the man. He has to all intents and purposes suffered the penalty of the law. Twice he has experienced horrors the like of which no man can imagine, and after being hanged and cut down by the officials, surely his punishment has ceased.
“The sentence was that he be hanged until ‘dead,’ but instead of being so hanged the officers of the law cut him down before death. The man should be free, for it must be clear that the law cannot punish him twice for the same offense.
“The best way to do now would be to pay his passage out of the country, and be rid of such a fellow from among us.
“Franks states that when the bolt was drawn and he fell, he thought he felt something break at the back of his neck, and he was praying and thinking of God and heaven. Then the memory of a wreck from which he was rescued passed before his mind. He saw himself cling to the chains till washed away; then seizing a rope attached to a floating spar, and clinging to it until washed back again on deck by a heavy sea. All the details of the wreck passed through his mind, and then came the thought, ‘Why do I not die?’ And finding he could breathe he suspected foul play and an intention to torture him by prolonging his sufferings. Then he spoke and clutched the rope, willing and wishing to die, but not a prolonged death.”
Hanged once for Highway Robbery, but lived to rob and murder the Man for whom he had been executed. Finally hanged 30th of April, 1689
The parents of Patrick O’Bryan were very poor; they lived at Loughrea, a market-town in the county of Galway and province of Connaught in Ireland. Patrick came over into England in the reign of King Charles II, and listed himself into his Majesty’s Coldstream Regiment of Guards, so called from their being first raised at a place in Scotland which bears that name. But the small allowance of a private sentinel was far too little for him. The first thing he did was to run into debt at all the public-houses and shops that would trust him; and when his credit would maintain him no longer, he had recourse to borrowing of all he knew, being pretty well furnished with the common defence of his countrymen — a front that would brazen out anything, and even laugh at the persons whom he had imposed on to their very faces. By such means as these he subsisted for some time.
At last, when he found fraud would no longer support him, he went out upon the footpad. Dr Clewer, the parson of Croydon, was one of those whom he stopped. This man had in his youth been tried at the Old Bailey, and burnt in the hand, for stealing a silver cup. Patrick knew him very well, and greeted him upon their lucky meeting; telling him that he could not refuse lending a little assistance to one of his old profession. The doctor assured him that he had not made a word if he had had any money about him, but he had not so much as a single farthing. “Then,” says Patrick, “I must have your gown, sir.” “If you can win it,” quoth the doctor, “so you shall; but let me have the chance of a game at cards.” To this O’Bryan consented, and the reverend gentleman pulled out a pack of the devil’s books; with which they fairly played at all-fours, to decide who should have the black robe. Patrick had the fortune to win, and the other went home very contentedly, as he had lost his divinity in such an equitable manner.
There was in Patrick’s time a famous posture master in Pall Mall; his name was Clark. Our adventurer met him one day on Primrose Hill, and saluted him with “Stand and deliver.” But he was mightily disappointed, for the nimble harlequin jumped over his head, and instead of reviving his heart with a few guineas, made it sink into his breeches for fear, he imagining the devil was come to be merry with him before his time, for no human creature, he thought, could do the like. This belief was a little mortification to him at first; but he soon saw the truth of the story in the public prints, where Mr Clark’s friends took care to put it, and then our Teague’s qualm of conscience was changed into a vow of revenge if ever he met with his tumblership again; which, however, he never did.
O’Bryan at last entirely deserted from his regiment, and got a horse, on which he robbed on the highway a long time. One day in particular he met Nell Gwyn in her coach on the road to Winchester, and addressed himself to her in the following manner: “Madam, I am a gentleman, and, as you may see, a very able one. I have done a great many signal services to the fair sex, and have in return been all my life long maintained by them. Now, as I know you are a charitable w— —e, and have a great value for men of my abilities, I make bold to ask you for a little money, though I never have had the honour of serving you in particular. However, if an opportunity should ever fall in my way, you may depend upon it I will exert myself to the uttermost, for I scorn to be ungrateful.” Nell seemed very well pleased with what he had said, and made him a present of ten guineas. However, whether she wished for the opportunity he spoke of, or no, cannot be determined, because she did not explain herself; but if a person may guess from her general character, she never was afraid of a man in her life.
When Patrick robbed on the highway he perverted several young men to the same bad course of life. One Claudius Wilt in particular was hanged at Worcester for a robbery committed in his company, though it was the first he was ever concerned in. Several others came to the same end through his seducements; and he himself was at last executed at Gloucester for a fact committed within two miles of that city. When he had hung the usual time, his body was cut down and delivered to his acquaintance, that they might bury him as they pleased. But being carried home to one of their houses, somebody imagined they perceived life in him; whereupon an able surgeon was privately procured to bleed him, who by that and other means which he used brought him again to his senses.
The thing was kept an entire secret from the world, and it was hoped by his friends that he would spend the remainder of his forfeited life, which he had so surprisingly retrieved, to a much better purpose than he had employed the former part of it. These friends offered to contribute in any manner he should desire towards his living privately and honestly. He promised them very fairly, and for some time kept within due bounds, while the sense of what he had escaped remained fresh in his mind; but the time was not long before, in spite of all the admonitions and assistance he received, he returned again to his villainies like a dog to his vomit, leaving his kind benefactors, stealing a fresh horse, and taking once more to the highway, where he grew as audacious as ever.
It was not above a year after his former execution before he met with the gentleman again who had convicted him before, and attacked him in the same manner. The poor gentleman was not so much surprised at being stopped on the road as he was at seeing the person who did it, being certain it was the very man whom he had seen executed. This consternation was so great that he could not help discovering it, by saying: “How comes this to pass? I thought you had been hanged a twelvemonth ago.” “So I was,” says Patrick,” and therefore you ought to imagine that what you see now is only my ghost. However, lest you should be so uncivil as to hang my ghost too, I think it my best way to secure you.” Upon this he discharged a pistol through the gentleman’s head; and, not content with that, dismounting from his horse, he drew out a sharp hanger from his side and cut the dead carcass into several pieces.
This piece of barbarity was followed by another, which was rather more horrible yet. Patrick, with four more as bad as himself, having intelligence that Lancelot Wilmot, Esq., of Wiltshire, had a great deal of money and plate in his house which stood in a lonely place about a mile and a half from Trowbridge, they beset it one night and got in. When they were entered they tied and gagged the three servants, and then proceeded to the old gentleman’s room, where he was in bed with his lady. They served both these in the same manner, and then went into the daughter’s chamber. This young lady they severally forced one after another to their brutal pleasure, and when they had done, most inhumanly stabbed her, because she endeavoured to get from their arms. They next acted the same tragedy on the father and mother, which, they told them, was because they did not breed up their daughter to better manners. Then they rifled the house of everything valuable which they could find in it that was fit to be carried off, to the value in all of two thousand five hundred pounds, After which they set the building on fire, and left it to consume, with the unhappy servants who were in it.
Patrick continued above two years after this before he was apprehended, and possibly might never have been suspected of this fact if one of his bloody accomplices had not been hanged for another crime at Bedford. This wretch at the gallows confessed all the particulars, and discovered the persons concerned with him; a little while after which, O’Bryan was seized at his lodging in Little Suffolk Street, near the Haymarket, and committed to Newgate; from whence before the next assizes he was conveyed to Salisbury, where he owned the fact himself, and all the other particulars of his wicked actions that have been here related.
He was now a second time executed, and great care was taken to do it effectually. There was not, indeed, much danger of his recovering any more, because his body was immediately hung in chains near the place where the barbarous deed was perpetrated. He was in the thirty-first year of his age at the time of his execution, which was on Tuesday, the 30th of April, in the year 1689.
On the night of January 17-18 in 1945, Szymon Srebrnik was shot in the head, along with 46 other Jewish prisoners, at the Chelmno Extermination Camp near the village of Chelmno in central Poland.
Szymon (whose name has also been spelled Simon, Shimon, Shi’mon, etc.), was fifteen short years of age … but he had sixty-one more years to live.
Relatively little is known about Chelmno, simply because there were so few survivors. At least 150,000 people, and possibly as many as 300,000, died there. The victims included Gypsies and probably Russian prisoners of war in addition to Jews, notably most of the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto.
There were three survivors. Count’em, three. Szymon was one of them. And there were one or two others who successfully escaped Chelmno but did not survive the war.
The operation went like this: the victims would be taken to the camp and told they were being sent to work camps where they would be treated well, but first they had to clean up. They undressed, and they were supposed to give their valuables to one of the Nazi officers for safekeeping.
To maintain the pretense, they were even given receipts or claim tickets. Once the naked Jews left the undressing room, however, all pretense was over. Kicked, shoved, whipped and beaten with rifles and clubs, they were forced down a ramp into a waiting van. After no more could get inside it (the capacity was about 60-80 people per van, with a few of the larger vehicles having space for 100), the van was sealed and driven away. The carbon dioxide emissions from the engine were pumped into the back of the van, and by the time the driver had reached the burial site in a nearby forest, all of the Jews would be dead. If any of them happened to still be alive, they were shot. The bodies were disposed of by either burial or burning.
Not everyone was killed at once, however.
A small number of strong, healthy men were kept alive for awhile in order to help dispose of the bodies and sort through all the belongings of the dead Jews. They were kept in iron shackles 24 hours a day to prevent escape. They slept in the granary.
These people were usually killed within days or weeks and replaced by others from new transports. Our Szymon, however, lasted for about ten months.
There were several reasons for this. The Nazis at Chelmno, for their own amusement, sometimes forced the prisoners to have athletic contests like racing and jumping, and Szymon was good at that and often won.
He also had a beautiful voice, and they enjoyed listening to him sing. The Hauskommando chief, who was in charge of the work site inside the camp itself, liked Szymon and helped keep him alive.
But all things must come to an end.
Szymon and his fellow sufferers were the last prisoner-workers left at Chelmno, and they were shot as part of a clean-up operation by the Nazis. The Russians would arrive within days; the camp itself had been destroyed, and they had to leave no witnesses behind.
Unexpectedly, the Jews put up a fight and actually killed two of the Nazis inside the granary, hanging one and shooting the other with his own gun. Mordechai Zurawski was able to fight his way free and escape. He was the second survivor (a third, Michal Podchelbnik, had escaped the camp in 1942) and testified about his war experiences alongside Szymon. The rest were all killed.
At his testimony in Lodz in June 1945, Szymon recalled:
When the Soviet Army was advancing quickly, one night we were ordered to leave the granary in groups of five … Lenz ordered us to lie down on the ground. He shot everybody in the back of the head. I lost consciousness and regained it when there was no one around. All the SS-men were shooting inside the granary. I crawled to the car lighting the spot and broke both headlights. Under the cover of darkness I managed to run away. The wound was not deadly. The bullet went through the neck and mouth and pierced my nose and then went out.
Szymon made his way to a Polish farm nearby, and the farmer agreed to hide him in his barn until the Russians came two days later. A Soviet Army doctor treated his wound, and he made a complete recovery.
In September 1945, Szymon went to Israel, one of the first Holocaust survivors to arrive there. He met his future wife en route.
Szymon went on to testify at Adolf Eichmann‘s trial in 1961, and in 1978, he went back to visit Chelmno for Claude Lanzmann’s film documentary Shoah.
Those events aside, Szymon lived a long and surprisingly normal life in Israel, marrying, having a couple of kids and living in relative obscurity. He died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 76.
On this day in 1818 in Edinburgh, Scotland, 22-year-old Robert Johnston faced capital punishment for the robbery of a candlemaker. The authorities were nothing if not zealous: that day, Johnston would be hanged no less than four times.
Alex Young, in his book The Encyclopaedia of Scottish Executions 1750 to 1963, provides an account of the gruesome debacle that was Robert Johnston’s execution:
After praying and shaking hands with the clergymen, he mounted the scaffold and looked boldly around him, before helping the executioner adjust the rope, and giving the signal.
The drop fell – but the excessively short length of rope enabled him to stand on the platform. As the Magistrates ordered carpenters to cut a wider opening, cries of “Murder” came from the crowd.
The cries were followed by a shower of stones, which sent the Magistrates and the carpenters to the shelter of the Tolbooth Church doorway, through which they passed into the police office.
Almost every window glass in the church suffered from the stones, as did Johnston who had been abandoned on the platform.
“Cut him down—he’s alive!” rang out, as the crowd took possession of the scaffold. Johnston, despite hanging many minutes, was alive, and after taking the rope from his neck and arms and the cap from his head, he was carried off towards High Street. The scaffold structure proved too robust, but Johnston’s waiting coffin was broken up and thrown through the church windows.
The police and military combined forces to wrest the hapless Johnston from his would-be saviors and took him, unconscious, to the police office, where a surgeon bled him until he was determined fit to be re-hanged.
This time Johnston was carried by six men and the scaffold, surrounded by soldiers.
Again the executioner made a bungle of it. The rope was now too long and Johnston had to be lifted while the rope was shortened by winding it around the hook.
Again, shouts of “Murder!” and “Shame! Shame!” rang out, and only the military presence prevented another riot. Johnston struggled for many minutes before passing into eternity.
The next day, the Magistrates fired both the master of works and the executioner, who was named John Simpson. They also issued a fifty-guinea reward for information leading to the identification of Johnston’s rescuers. It went unclaimed.
He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.
Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.
The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.
Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:
Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!
Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:
He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.
Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:
This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.
In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”
The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.
Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.
And then the rope broke.
Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]
I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.
In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.
Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:
So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.
Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.
Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.
It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.
Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.