Posts filed under 'Executions Survived'

1872: Franks survives Fiji’s first hanging

Add comment May 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, the Melanesian realm of Fiji was favored with its first official public hanging.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

Enjoy this comprehensive botch from the firsthand account relayed by the New York Times:


A Fiji Execution.

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.”

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1689: Patrick O’Bryan, like a dog to his vomit

Add comment April 30th, 2011 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


PATRICK O’BRYAN

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.

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1945: Szymon Srebrnik survives execution at Chelmno

2 comments January 17th, 2011 Meaghan

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

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.

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1818: Robert Johnston, under horrific circumstances

2 comments December 30th, 2010 Meaghan

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

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.

(Here’s the Newgate Calendar entry)

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1944: Not Sim Kessel, Jewish boxer

6 comments December 27th, 2010 Meaghan

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

“In December 1944,” begins Sim Kessel’s Holocaust memoir, “I was hanged at Auschwitz.”

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:

“Boxer?”

“Boxer? Ja!”

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.

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2008: One man pardoned during hanging

Add comment December 7th, 2010 Headsman

There were two hangings reported this date at the prison in the southern Iranian city of Kazeroun (or Kazerun).

One Kourosh was executed for murdering a 52-year-old in 2004.

And someone named Abolfazl — well, he was much, much luckier. The parents of his victim availed their right to pardon him, although they waited until after the hanging had commenced to do so.

I believe (because how often can this happen in one town?) that this is the failed/survived execution attributed by Amnesty International to 2 December — which Amnesty argues “illustrates the inherent cruelty of the death penalty.”

The original link given by the Amnesty press release is now dead, but this source links the same article and says it cites 7 December; this Persian news story positively attributes the event to dawn on 17 Azar on the Iranian calendar, which corresponds to 7 December.

Not seven seconds had passed when the murder victim’s mother gave her pardon. Moments later, the victim’s father gave consent. Thus, immediately the accused was brought down from the gallows and given CPR while he was transferred to hospital.

Abolfazl survived. This story sported the headline “the sweet end of an execution.”

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Feast Day of St. Cecilia, patron of music

Add comment November 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast day of the early Christian saint Cecilia.

There’s more than serendipity in that name’s pop culture connection: Cecilia is the patron saint of music for the rather slight reason that her heart sung only for God even when she was forced to marry the pagan Valerian. Seriously, Christianity didn’t have any early martyr with a stronger biographical context for a portfolio as significant as music?*

Being the go-to divine intermediary for something this big made Cece a popular saint centuries after her martyrdom, supposed to be either later in the 2nd century or early in the 3rd. (As with many other martyrs’ legends, Cecilia survives several executions before the Romans finally manage to cut her head off.)

Musician and songwriter Paul Simon knew enough St. Cecilia lore to explicitly use her in her musical-patronage role in a different song, “The Coast” (lyrics). The song “Cecilia” deepens immensely if it’s understood as mixed frustration and exaltation with the minstrel’s inconstant artistic muse.

Nor would that be the only 20th century musical homage for this accessible saint. In a more traditional vein, Benjamin Britten set to music a W.H. Auden poem about Cecilia, creating the Hymn to St. Cecilia.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Fans of classical music should hit YouTube for Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which appropriately premiered on this date in 1739. Here’s a nibble:

* So far as we know, blogging remains a niche of divine patronage as-yet unfilled. We propose to accept the protection of the patron saint of lost causes.

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1991: Barrios Altos massacre

1 comment November 3rd, 2010 Michael Baney

(Thanks to Michael Baney for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1991, a Peruvian death squad showed up at the wrong party, and altered its country’s history.

In 1980 the Communist Party of Peru, better known as the Shining Path, launched its “People’s War,” which was never actually supported by the majority of Peruvians. Latin America had had its share of Marxist revolts, but this one was different from the others. There was nothing romantic about the revolutionaries, who wore plain clothes rather than uniforms, attacked the civilian population rather than invest significant capital to win them over to the Shining Path cause, and rose up in an effort to overthrow a democracy rather than a dictatorship.

The Shining Path was based mainly in Andean villages, but once they began to take serious losses in their own territory, they made a concerted effort to accelerate the war by pushing into the capital city, Lima. Both the Shining Path and the Peruvian military were committing deplorable human rights violations by the time Alberto Fujimori was elected president in 1990, although the vast majority of the violence had been confined to the hinterlands of the country up until then.

With Fujimori’s election, more urban-based death squad activities began. Perhaps the most famous was the November 3, 1991 massacre in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima, a poor barrio only a few minutes’ drive away from the Congress and the Presidential Palace.

The murders are described in great detail in this old US government document (pdf) once classified as secret, but since declassified thanks to the efforts of expert Tamara Feinstein of the National Security Archive.

This date’s incident occurred when members of Grupo Colina (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a death squad that was part of the Army Intelligence Service, believed that they had identified a group of Shining Path militants having a pollada, which is a traditional fundraiser in Peru where a party is held so that chicken and beer can be sold to the neighbors. (Here’s a description, in Spanish)

A Grupo Colina squad drove to the building where this terrorist pollada was supposed to be taking place, lined the partygoers up, and extrajudicially executed them with submachine guns with silencers that the army had provided the group for the operation. Then the leader of the group, Santiago Martin Rivas, shot a young child who came running over to the body of his father. The troops got back into their vehicles, turned on their sirens to appear like they were the police in an effort to shift blame over the killings, and got drunk at the beach to celebrate.

Almost immediately it became clear that the death squad members had completely screwed up their hit.

The people who had been murdered were indeed having a pollada … not to fund the Shining Path’s Maoist agrarian war, but to fix the pipes in their building

And it transpired that that fateful night of Nov. 3, there was a different pollada being held on a different floor in the very same building. The participants of that other party fled the building, never to return. There were reports that upon searching the rooms of those who fled, police uncovered many issues of El Dario, the Shining Path newspaper.

If Grupo Colina indeed crashed the wrong party, then it not only slaughtered a bunch of innocent people — it helpfully tipped the Shining Path to the fact that the army was onto them.

In any event, the executions became a media spectacle and the police had to at least go through the motions of investigating them. At first, the government suggested that the murders might have been actually carried out by the Shining Path, and as evidence of this theory they showed that one of the people who had been killed was previously a member of a Ronda, which is a peasant patrol group that fought against cattle rustling and, in some cases, the Shining Path. But it later turned out that the man had been a member of the Rondas many years before and hundred of miles away from the killings, and it seemed extremely improbable that the Shining Path would even bother to target him.

By December 4, 1991, the US embassy in Lima was informing the Secretary of State that the Peruvian government lacked the political will to investigate the murders, and had lied about whether or not the guns used in the extrajudicial executions were equipped with silencers in “an apparently deliberate attempt to obfuscate the situation.”

The Congress created a committee to investigate the crimes, which was a real threat to the Fujimori government because the Fujimoristas did not have a majority in Congress.

This ceased to be a problem on April 5, 1992, when Fujimori suspended the Congress, permanently disbanded the Senate, and fired a good number of the judges in the country, all in total violation of the Constitution. That ended the investigation.

Under pressure from the international community, a new Congress stacked with Fujimoristas was convened to write a new Constitution, and the investigation of the Barrios Altos killing nominally restarted. When the Congress called Nicolas Hermoza Rios de Bari, the Chairman of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces to testify, he took the oppotunity to remind the Congress that the military would never tolerate being “insulted.” When hearings continued, Hermoza Rios held an impromptu tank parade directly in front of the Congress. The few brave Congressmen and women who actually desired to expose the truth about the killings got the message loud and clear: the case would never go anywhere as long as Fujimori remained president.

When it finally looked like the perpetrators might be punished, for example, Fujimori rammed a law through the Congress that provided a general amnesty to everyone who had violated human rights “in defense of the fatherland.” When a judge ruled the amnesty law unconstitutional, Fujimori’s Congress stripped the power of judicial review from the courts in cases of amnesty laws.

In a very real sense, the Peruvian government had legalized illegality. Fujimori created a system in which there was no way to punish — or even investigate — murder so long as someone, somewhere considered the crime to have been committed for patriotic reasons.

All that changed in 2000, however, when Fujimori’s government collapsed amid scandal.

An opposition figure who vowed to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was sworn in as into office, and Peru reaffirmed its commitment to the American Convention on Human Rights. In 2001, in a groundbreaking decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in its Barrios Altos case that countries cannot issue an amnesty for “serious human rights violations.” The amnesty was thrown out and Grupo Colina members were arrested.

In 2007, Alberto Fujimori was extradited from Chile, where he had traveled, to Peru. In 2009, the Peruvian courts convicted Fujimori of a number of human rights abuses, including ordering the Barrios Altos murders. Just last month, justice was finally served when the members of Grupo Colina were convicted of murder, kidnapping, forced disappearance, and conspiracy, and were given various sentences ranging up to 25 years of prison. After 19 years, the Peruvian government has finally acknowledged that the extrajudicial executions that took place during that country’s cold war were crimes that must not go unpunished.

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1941: Babi Yar massacre begins

9 comments September 29th, 2010 Meaghan

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

Between September 29 and September 30 in 1941, the Nazis, specifically Einsatzgruppe C, shot some 34,000 Jewish people at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of the Ukrainian city of Kiev.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives a suspiciously specific death count of 33,771. This is considered the single largest mass murder of World War II, and for Kiev it was just the beginning.

In the days prior to the massacre the Nazis put up posters around the city reading:

Kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity! On Monday, September 29, you are to appear by 08:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables, and warm clothing at Dorogozhitskaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery. Failure to appear is punishable by death.

The Jews believed they were being resettled. They had no knowledge of Nazi atrocities, as the Soviet press had supressed such accounts. By the thousands they arrived at the cemetery with their belongings, expecting to be loaded onto trains.

Instead they were forced to strip naked and leave their clothes, shoes and possessions at designated places, all while being beaten by the Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices.

A Ukrainian truck driver and innocent bystander described the scene:

The naked Jews were led into a ravine which measured approximately 150 m long, 30 m wide and 15 m deep. Two or three narrow entrances led to the ravine, through which the Jews were driven. When they arrived at the edge of the ravine they were taken by Schupo officers, and laid down on top of Jews who had already been shot. All this happened very quickly. The corpses were neatly stacked. As soon as a Jew lay there, a Schupo marksman came with an mp and shot him in the neck. The arriving Jews were so shocked when they saw this horrible scene that they were absolutely submissive. It even happened that some lay themselves down and awaited the shot.

There were only two marksmen who carried out the shootings. One marksman was at one end of the ravine, the second one at the other end. I saw the marksmen standing on the already piled-up corpses while shooting one person after another. As soon as a Jew was killed by a shot, the marksman climbed over the corpses of the killed to the next supine Jew, and shot them. This went on again and again, without any distinction being made between men, women, and children. The children were led to the ravine with their mothers, and killed with them.

Babi Yar survivor Dina Pronicheva

Much of what is known about the massacre comes from Dina Pronicheva, a survivor who later testified at the war crimes trials in 1946 and whose story is told in the most graphic terms in Anatoly Kuznetzov‘s memoir/documentary history Babi Yar: a Document in the Form of a Novel.

Contrary to popular belief, Pronicheva was not the only survivor — there were at least three or four others — but she is the most famous one and the only one to testify at the war crimes trials.

Pronicheva, an actress at the Kiev Puppet Theater, tore up her identity card when she realized what was happening. Her last name and her appearance were not typically Jewish, and she told one of the Nazis that she was a Ukrainian who had been seeing someone off and gotten caught up in the crowd.

She was told to stand aside with a group of other people in the same situation. The Nazis decided to shoot them anyway, however, as they could not allow witnesses to come back to the city and tell what they knew.

When it was her turn, Pronicheva jumped into the ravine without waiting to be shot, and played dead among the mass of bodies. As Kuznetzov put it:

It seemed to her she fell for ages — it probably was a very deep drop. When she struck the bottom she felt neither the blow nor any pain, but she was immediately spattered with warm blood, and blood was streaming down her face, just as if she had fallen into a bath of blood. She lay still, her arms stretched out, her eyes closed.

All around and beneath her she could hear strange submerged sounds, groaning, choking and sobbing: many of the people were not dead yet. The whole mass of bodies kept moving slightly as they settled down and were pressed tighter by the movements of the living.

The Germans went around the ravine firing their revolvers into anyone who appeared to be still alive. One SS man got suspicious of Pronicheva’s appearance. He kicked her hard in the chest and then stomped on her hand until the bones cracked, but she managed to remain limp and silent and he went away without shooting her. Eventually she was able to crawl out of the ravine and make good her escape.

Babi Yar continued to absorb bodies throughout the Nazi occupation of Kiev: Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, political activists and basically anyone who pissed the Nazis off. The total number of victims will never be known because before they were driven from the area by the Russians, the Nazis dug up the ravine and burned the corpses.


Mass execution of Soviet civilians at Babi Yar. (Source)

A guesstimate would be between 70,000 and 120,000, but some accounts run as high as 300,000. Some traces were left, as Kuznetzov remembers:

The river bed was of good, coarse sand, but now for some reason or other the sand was mixed with little white stones. I bent down and picked one of them up to look at it more closely. It was a small piece of bone … in one place we saw that the sand had turned to gray. Suddenly we realized we were walking on human ashes …

Nearby there had been a fall of sand, following the rains, which had exposed an angular projection of granite and a seam of coal about a foot thick. There were goats grazing on the hillside with three little boys, each about eight years old, looking after them. They were hacking away diligently at the coal with little picks and breaking it up on a granite block.

The coal was brown and crumbly, as though it was a mixture of ashes from a railway engine and carpenter’s glue.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“See here!” And one of them pulled from his pocket a handful of something that glittered where it was not covered in dirt, and spread it out in his hand.

It was a collection of half-melted gold rings, earrings and teeth. They were digging for gold.

Babi Yar was filled in after the war and the site is now part of a residential neighborhood in Kiev. There were many international protests in 2009 after the city’s mayor announced plans for a hotel on the site, but he changed his mind.

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1736: Both John Vernham and Joshua Harding survive a hanging

Add comment September 3rd, 2010 Headsman

Bristol, September 4.

Yesterday at 12 o’Clock, Vernham and Harding, were carry’d from Newgate to the Place of Execution on St. Michael’s hill, attended by the Under-Sheriff, and his Officers, and the Constables of the City, (in a Cart, with Halters about their Necks;) the Divine who attended them, having finish’d his last Office, the Cart drew away: But to the Surprize of every one, after hanging the usual Time, and being cut down, Vernham was perceived to have Life in him, when put into the Coffin; and some Lightermen and others, who promis’d to save his Body from the Surgeons, carried him away to a House; and a Surgeon being sent for, immediately open’d a Vein, which to recovered his Senses, that he had the Use of Speech, far up, robb’d his knees, shook Hands with divers persons that he knew, and to all seeming Appearance, a perfect Recovery was expected.


Appropriately metaphorical image of a gateway on St. Michael’s Hill in Bristol, (cc) Daniele Sartori.

The Rumour of this, soon came to the Under-Sherif’s Ears, who, with Mr. Legg, and several Officers armed, went to know the Truth, and finding it certain, were about to remove him to a proper Place, in order to have him again under their Care for a second Execution,and finishing the Law; which we hear would have been done in a private Manner, without any Ceremony: But whether any secret Method was used to dispatch him, or not, he died about Eleven o’ Clock, in great Agony of Pain, his Bowels being very much convls’d, as appeared by his rolling from one Side to the other, and often on his Belly.

{He was bout 20 Years of Age; while [under] Sentence of Death he behaved very penitent, laying the whole of his Misfortune upon a fatal Companion,* particularly as to the breaking open Mrs. Atherton’s House. Harding behaved very unconcerned, charging his Wife with being the chief Inset to his Misfortunes, and even curs’d her just before he received the Sacrament that Morning.}

And to our second Surprize, Joshua Harding is also come to Life again, and is actually now in Bride-well, where great Numbers of People resort to see him, Particularly Surgeons, curious of Observations. He lies in his Coffin, covered with a Rug, has Pulsation, breathes freely, and has a regular Look with his Eyes; but he has not been heard to speak, only motions with his Hand where his Pain lies. ‘Twas thought he would be executed a second Time {to the finishing his unhappy Fate by a private Execution, at the same Tree he was cut down from}; but we are now told, he is to be provided for in some convenient House of Charity, with Restraint, he being to all Appearance defective in his Intellects. Two such Resurrections happening at one Instant in the World, was never heard of in the Memory of man.**

-The Virginia Gazette, Dec. 24, 1736. {Curly-braces portions from an otherwise largely identical report in The South Carolina Gazette, Jan. 15, 1737.}

Coverage from The Daily Gazetteer is available here. The London Magazine adds the detail that all those curiosity-seekers visiting Harding “give him Money” and “are very inquisitive whether he remembers the Manner of his Execution: to which he says, he only can remember his being at the Gallows, and knows nothing of Vernham’s being with him.”

* This Annals of Bristol says that Vernham nearly refused to plead until the prospect of judicial pressing caused him to chicken out. (And ironically, to the extent it forwarded his execution date to this evidently felicitous occasion, almost saved his life.)

** Two hanged men reviving at once is remarkable indeed, but it was not so strange at this time for individual prisoners to survive their executions.

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