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1946: One sex killer and four POW camp murderers

Add comment December 18th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1946 saw the largest mass execution in Alberta: five men all hanged for murder.

One of these, Donald Sherman Staley, was a hated sex-murderer who had raped and killed boys in Calgary and Alberta that summer. But he is the undercard in this event.*

The remaining four were all German prisoners of war from the lately concluded world war. They did not, as their onetime commanders in Europe, face judgment for war crimes: no, Bruno Perzonowsky, Walter Wolf, Heinrich Busch and Willi Mueller had while marking time in the Medicine Hat POW camp contrived to execute a fellow-prisoner as a subversive.

Naturally this camp “execution” was rank murder from a legal perspective. But the day-to-day reality of the Medicine Hat camp was that the few Canadian officials banked on the 12,000 or so German detainees to run the place themselves.**

Medicine Hat’s German leadership consisted of Nazi ideologues, but the politics and life experiences of its inmates, regular grunts snatched from various battlefields, deviated widely from the Reich’s ideal. In 1943, convinced that the less fascist elements in camp were cogitating a plot to displace the Nazi silverbacks in camp, that clique convened a drumhead trial and hanged August Plaszek, a Catholic and former French Foreign Legionnaire.

After the war ended, this murder too resulted in a hanging — but as of the second killing that is the focus of this post, the Canadian investigation was being stonewalled and the true believer types still bossed Medicine Hat with near-impunity.

The second murder was triggered by a threat not to Nazi authority in Medicine Hat — but in Berlin.

After the shock of the Valkyrie plot that came within a whisker of assassinating Hitler, the Fuhrer publicly demanded a purge of traitors, anywhere and everywhere.

The POW Karl Lehmann was just such a one, to Hitlerian eyes. Another Catholic — a dubious class for sure — Lehmann was a husky former languages professor who had been dragooned into the military and subsequently captured in Tunisia.† He had been in Medicine Hat for two years when Col. Stauffenberg’s bomb went off in Wolfsschanze, growing ever bolder vilifying the Third Reich and anticipating its approaching defeat.

In September 1944, our quartet of future gallows-fodder lured Lehmann to a room where he sometimes gave lectures, and there began browbeating him about communists in camp. As Lehmann vainly denied any such connection, his assailants got a noose around him and hoisted him to his death.

Having now had two political assassinations on their watch, Canada finally got serious and threatened the entire population of prisoners with the prospect of being punished as murderers were they merely to fail to report a murder plot to which they had become privy. They also started reshuffling the prisoner population in an effort to break up the Nazi prison gang. Both measures worked — aided, of course, by the advance of Allied armies in the European theater — and nobody had the ill fortune to follow Karl Lehmann’s fate.

Lethbridge Gaol had to be outfitted with a whole new condemned bloc just to hold the prisoners bound for their end this date. (Its existing capacity was only two.)

* Staley’s desperate argument for clemency was that he was a “sexual insane” who could not govern his compulsions: “I must have been born this way and should not be held responsible for what I done, but should receive treatment of some kind instead of being condemned to die for something I can’t help.” “Merciful” proposals ran towards employing him as a guinea pig for mental health hospitals’ experiments with, e.g., lobotomy.

** Canada’s deference to German detainees also made it party to a scandalous execution of Wehrmacht deserters conducted by a surrendered German army in Canadian custody in 1945. (Canada helpfully supplied their prisoners the necessary guns.)

† Under Field Marshal Rommel‘s command, no less: though he was perhaps Hitler’s ablest general, the Desert Fox all but openly disdained national socialism. He was himself implicated in the July 20 plot, and made to commit suicide.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Soldiers

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1591: Elisabeth von Doberschütz, Stettin witch

Add comment December 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Elisabeth von Doberschütz was beheaded at Stettin (Szczecin) as a witch.

Elisabeth (English Wikipedia entry | German), whose husband Melchior was a lesser son of a minor noble house and (since his tiny patrimony did not afford him the ease of the great aristocrat) a somewhat favored captain of the Duke of Pomerania, was accused a sorceress on the grounds that a draught she had concoted for the duchess some years before when the latter was abed following a miscarriage had rendered the lady permanently infertile. Rumors to the effect that Elisabeth’s potionmaking ran wider still completed the customary witches’ brew.

Elisabeth being a person of consequence and not some spinster midwife or family of beggars, it is typically supposed that the “real” cause of her execution can ultimately be found in rivalries among the elites: calumnies loosed abroad by Melchior’s rivals dating from the early 1580s in a (successful) campaign to separate him from a lucrative appointment to govern Neustettin. It was under Melchior’s successor in that post that Elisabeth was ultimately brought to trial.

Melchior was not caught up in the accusation. He married another woman in 1600, then faded out of history’s annals.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Nobility,Poland,Public Executions,Women

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1897: John Morgan, the last public hanging in West Virginia

Add comment December 16th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1897 marked the last public hanging in the history of West Virginia.

The chief character in the dramatic milestone was a fellow named John Morgan,* condemned for murdering an aged widow named Chloe Greene and her two children near Ripley, W. Va. It was a mean trick indeed, as Mrs. Greene had taken in Morgan when the latter was an orphan, and raised him to manhood; Morgan had married and moved out of the house, but was on good terms with his adoptive family.

On the morning of November 3, as Mrs. Greene’s children James Greene and (by a previous husband) Alice and Matilda Pfost puttered around with their routine chores, Morgan — having spent the night at the house — suddenly took up a hatchet and started slashing. Matilda and James were slain, along with the 70-year-old Mrs. Greene; Alice survived a skulll-fracturing bash from the hatchet and managed to escape when her assailant turned his attention to her sister. Were it not for Alice’s eventual testimony, the author of this ghastly and seemingly purposeless carnage might never have been known. As best one could determine, he butchered his lifelong benefactors for no better reason than to steal the $56 they had in the house thanks to the recent sale of some horses.


Wheeling Register, Nov. 6, 1897.

In a triumph of the “speedy trial” system, Morgan was condemned a mere two days after the murder — “one meting out the swiftest justice to a murderer ever known in the annals of criminal history in West Virginia,” the admiring Wheeling Register reported on Nov. 6. (Not neglecting to note that a greater delay might have invited the verdict of Judge Lynch.)

He hanged just six weeks after that, but proved himself a cool customer in that short time. He sold a confession of the crime for $25, so that he could afford a suit to wear on the gallows … and then made a brave bid to balk gibbet and suit alike of its big occasion.


Boston Journal, Dec. 4, 1897.

It seems that one evening about two weeks before his scheduled (and, since we already know how this ends, his actual) death, Morgan was playing checkers in the jail corridor with one of his guards. He made a great show of exhaustion, and when the guard ducked out to pick up Morgan’s supper, Morgan stuffed a dummy into his bed in a posture of deep sleep, then climbed himself on top of the cell while the guard quietly left the meal for his “sleeping” captive. Once the cell was locked up for the night, Morgan just slipped right out.

The escape was not discovered until morning, but Morgan was recaptured after only a couple of days abroad — not nearly enough to interfere with the execution. His bravado cracked at the end; press reports have him in a state of collapse on that morning. “The scene in the jail this morning beggars description,” the Baltimore Sun reported on Dec. 17. “His spiritual advisers were praying, singing and pleading with the doomed man to surrender his soul to its Maker, while Morgan was a pitching, crying, agonizing man.” He managed to pull himself together well enough to die game.

If only Morgan’s avarice could have abided a little patience! December 16 would have been an excellent day to rob the good citizens of Jackson county, since practically all of them — a reported 5,000 souls at least — turned out for the first hanging in that locale for 47 years. (Ripley had only 700 residents and not nearly enough rooms to handle the swell, so impromptu campings sprang up all around the outskirts of town.)


Baltimore Sun, Dec. 17, 1897.

The uncouth scene, with the usual horror of drinking and carousing even compassing 2,000 women unladylike enough to present themselves led West Virginia to abolish public executions in 1898.

* His actual name by birth was John Raines. Perversely, he used the surname of a man whom his father, Andy Raines, had murdered when Raines was a tot; it was because his father was subsequently killed resisting capture that Raines/Morgan was an orphan.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,USA,West Virginia

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1889: Abushiri, German East Africa rebel

Add comment December 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.

European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.

Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.

But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.

Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.

One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.

The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.

Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.

Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.

This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.


(Via)
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.

They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.

And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.

The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.

-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†

This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**

Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.

But that isn’t what happened.

The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.

Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.

* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)

The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.

** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.

† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)

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Entry Filed under: Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1556: A canon’s servant

Add comment December 14th, 2015 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages on the appealing diary of Felix Platter, a youth from Basel, Switzerland, studying medicine in Montpellier, France.

This was published in English as Beloved Son Felix; sadly, it’s now out of print, though it can be perused for free on archive.org.

A murderer was executed on the 14th of December. Three years earlier he had been a servant with a canon, who lived alone in his house, and carried a quantity of gold sewn into his clothes. The servant plotted with another man to kill his master. One evening, when the canon was sitting in a corner of the hearth, roasting a partridge, the servant felled him with a blow of a club on the back of the head. The villains then cut his throat and fled with the money, which came to a good sum. When the crime was discovered a sergeant was sent after them; but he allowed himself to be corrupted, and instead of arresting them he accepted a bribe and left them free to take the road to Spain. There they were too ostentatious with their wealth, and as a result they were robbed by brigands. However, the servant continued on his way, now alone. Without resources, he took employment with a Spanish shoemaker, and remained there three years. He let his beard grow, and believing that he would no longer be recognized he returned to France, and went to Lunel by way of Montpellier, but he was arrested there and brought back to Montpellier.

Although buried three years, the canon was disinterred, so that the murderer could be confronted with his victim. However, there were none of the signs they expected to see on such an occasion — as for example the opening of the wound and the gushing forth of blood; although it should be added that the corpse was very wasted. The accused man made a full confession and was condemned to the punishment they call massarer.* He appealed to Toulouse, succeeded in escaping as he was being taken across a river, was recaptured, condemned anew to that cruel punishment, and brought back to Montpellier for the sentence to be carried out. After the judgment had been read aloud, the executioner put the man on a cart, where he was laid on the lap of the executioner’s wife. He then began to pinch him with red-hot tongs, and this treatment continued until they came to the canon’s house. There the executioner cut off both the man’s hands on a block placed on the cart for that purpose. The woman held him with his eyes blindfolded, and as each hand was cut off she pulled a pointed linen bag over the stump, from which shot a jet of blood, and tied the bag on tightly to stop the bleeding. The man was taken afterwards to the Cour du Bayle, and there he was beheaded. His body was cut in quarters, and the pieces were hung up on the olive trees outside the town.

The sergeant who had taken the bribe, and who had been betrayed by the murderer, was tied to the cart, his body bare to the waist. The executioner scourged him until the blood came, several times over. After this he was banished.

Felix Platter noted a number of different executions in his five-year diary of Montpellier, but he didn’t let them get him down. The following February 27, Platter finally “with a heavy heart quitted this beloved town, in which I had lived for so long” and made for Basel where a respectable life as a doctor awaited him. (Felix was well-qualified for this from his coming of age in Montpellier, having dissected frequently: his journal records with something approaching glee the numerous midnight grave-robbings he undertook to secure subjects.)

* Massarer was the local version of the widespread and horrible “breaking” punishment of smashing the offender’s limbs one by one. Platter had earlier noted such an execution in 1554, and explained that it was carried out upon “a Saint Andrew’s cross … with two hollowed-out balks of timber.” Once the condemned murderer was trussed to the cross, the executioner “took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it … The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Torture

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Feast Day of St. Lucy

1 comment December 13th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.

As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)


Lucy Before the Judge by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523-32.

Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.

Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.

Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Burial of St. Lucy — which was painted for the church in Syracuse that stands on the spot of her purported martyrdom by the fugitive genius Caravaggio.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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2013: Jang Sung-taek, North Korean purgee

Add comment December 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2013, according to North Korea’s state news organ, Kim Jong-un‘s uncle was sentenced to death and directly executed.

Days earlier, Jang Sung-taek (alternatively, Song-taek, Sung-thaek, and various similar transliterations) had suffered an extremely visible fall when, in a Saddam-like twist, he was arrested on live television in the midst of a politburo meeting.


Image from KCTV (North Korea) shows Jang Sung-taek being arrested during a politburo meeting in Pyongyang.

Even so, the severity of his treatment was a surprise given his family tie to the supreme leader (he was the husband of Kim Jong-il‘s sister).

Long one of the secretive state’s top officials — his prestige recovered from two previous falls from favor in the late 1980s and early 2000s — Jang was among the officials involved in the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il to the young dictator Kim Jong-un. Though it is uncertain exactly what brought about his destruction — speculation ran to differing philosophies of economic development and/or raw power rivalry — a denounced by North Korea as “despicable human scum … worse than a dog” for his “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” and “decadent capitalist lifestyle.”

Jang was executed by shooting: machine gun fire in the “normal” version, or the more spectacular novelty of anti-aircraft fire by some accounts. (Reports to the effect that Jang was executed by being fed to a pack of wild dogs can still be found, but this story was fabricated by a satirist and its subsequent circulation cautions against a propensity to give credence to every lurid rumor about North Korea.)

Jang’s fall reportedly also brought about the execution of “all relatives” and hundreds of officials who were considered members of his faction.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Korea,Mass Executions,North Korea,Politicians,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Treason

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1812: John Rickey but not Benjamin Jackson

Add comment December 11th, 2015 Headsman

The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.

On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.

They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.

We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Last Minute Reprieve,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1919: Not Joseph Cohen

Add comment December 10th, 2015 dogboy

This day in 1919 was the closest Joseph Cohen came to the electric chair in Sing Sing. His walk may have been 7 minutes, or possibly 11 minutes, away, but Cohen was not to die this day at the hands of the State of New York, nor at the hands of any state on any day. Instead, he would be gunned down 13 years later as a free man.

Cohen was a wealthy, influential poultry merchant in New York City, and he had a bone to pick with fellow poultryman Barnet Baff, also known as the “Poultry King”. Baff had repeatedly rebuffed other poultry merchants in their efforts to fix prices and charge an exorbitant per-truck fee for poultry handling. That was probably because Baff was making this kind of bonus cash by feeding starving chickens sand and gravel immediately before slaughter. His shady practice was great for sale and terrible for resale.

This did him no favors among other poulters of the city.

By 1913, Baff had become the target of the collective ire of several people in the poultry industry, including Cohen, Ippolito Greco, Tony Zaffarano, and Antonio Cardinale — and possibly still more rivals in the New York Live Poultry Dealers’ Association. That year, a cadre of poultry merchants took up a collection to either frighten or kill Baff.*

Initially, a bomb was placed at his home, allegedly only to “frighten” him. In August of the following year, with Baff insufficiently frightened, the group actively sought to kill their target. At least one attempt was foiled, but on November 24, Baff was gunned down at the West Washington Market in Harlem.**

(c.f. this book for information.)

The murder nearly ended in a trio of executions and several long prison sentences. Instead, it cost just two men modest prison terms and uncovered the sordid underbelly of New York poultry sales.

Details about what actually happened are muddled significantly by various parties coaching witnesses in testimony.† As the story unfolded in the press, several investigators were accused of trying to push blame from Italians to Jews. Ultimately, the New York Attorney General managed to build up a case against several major players in the New York poultry scene and the then-lightweight New York mob scene.

The first break came in 1916 when Carmine diPaolo was arrested for an assault in the Bronx. He mentioned to police that he had been approached by Greco about carrying out the murder, but had backed out before it could be finished. DiPaolo then saw Giuseppe Archiello get paid by Greco after the killing. Archiello’s interrogation implicated Frank Ferrara, Cardinale, Zaffarano, Greco, and Greco’s brother, but it did not point to a source of the estimated $4,500 that was dispersed among the participants in the murder. Archiello was tagged as one of the gunmen and sentenced to death.

Ferrara was next on the docket, charged with driving the getaway car for the two killers. This was when Gaetano Reina was fingered as the other gunman. Ferrara’s story changed repeatedly and significantly, though, and he later insisted that Reina’s name had been fed to him. Ferrara’s conviction led to a death sentence that the state hoped to use to get Ferrara to name names at the top of the food chain.

The breakthrough witness was Cardinale, who had joined the Italian Army during World War I but was involved in the plots against Baff from the start. He was taken to New York by way of a somewhat shaky international agreement that circumvented the American/Italian extradition treaty, and his lawyer — not coincidentally the same as the lawyer for Ferrara and Archiello — convinced him to give up the big names: Joseph D. Cohen, brother of Chief Chicken Inspector Harry Cohen (aka “Kid Griffo”); his brother Jacob Cohen; Moses “Chicken Moe” Rosenstein; David Jacobs; William Simon; and Abe Graff. (Cardinale smartly moved back to Italy after giving testimony.)

Ferrara also decided to “come clean”, telling investigators that Ignazio “Jack” Dragna and Ben “Tita” Rizzotta were in his getaway vehicle. He also noted that he had left this duo out of his original story for fear of reprisal, going with the state-fed names of the gunmen instead.

The six conspirators were brought into court, with the court leaning on testimony of Cardinale, Ferrara, and Joseph Sorro, whom Cardinale said was also involved in several attempts to intimidate Baff. Simon’s indictment was thrown out, while Jacob Cohen and Jacobs were acquitted. Rosenstein pled guilty and helped New York gain a death sentence for Cohen and 10-20 years for Graff.

The convicted Cohen went after the state repeatedly, pointing out the massive inconsistencies in the witness testimony that led to his indictment and conviction. Indeed, Cardinale — who dragged Cohen into this in the first place — claimed two gunmen, neither of whom was currently in Sing Sing. Sorro, meanwhile, was brought up on multiple perjury charges.

Cohen’s execution was postponed seven times, then commuted to life in prison on February 4, 1920, by Governor Al Smith. Cohen was released on November 24, 1921. Officially, he could have been retried, but the state refused.

Archiello’s lawyer‡ insisted that, thanks to Sorro’s perjury, it was no longer clear that Archiello was a gunman. The court agreed to a second trial, and Archiello — who had significant connections in the Harlem mob — pled guilty to manslaughter, receiving a suspended sentence instead of death.

Meawhile, Dragna, Rizzotta, and Reina all walked. Dragna moved to Los Angeles and headed the Los Angeles crime family until the 1950s; he may have had a hand in former leader Joseph Ardizzone’s disappearance. Reina became kingpin of the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn, and got killed by Lucky Luciano.

The Baff murder was atypical in the mob world, in that it featured Italian families doing their dirty work in the traditionally non-Italian field of poultry. The unusual arrangement made the murder an awkward affair that uncomfortably exposed a lot of powerful people. Organized crime was significantly more, well, organized by the time that Prohibition rolled around, and future gangland business murders were handled with a more diligent eye toward shielding bankrollers from blame.

Cohen and Jacob opened up a tailor shop in Manhattan, which put them right in the Italian mafia’s business wheelhouse. He and brother Barney were both shot to death in 1932, and their killers have never been identified.

* In an unusual twist to this already twisted case, Baff may have even partially paid for his own murder.

** Baff was killed just weeks after 18 members of Cohen’s Live Poultry Dealers’ Protective Association were indicted on fraud and racketeering charges.

† The state even employed one Philip Musica, a sort of proto-Barry Minkow with his own zany criminal story. His first foray into business was attempting to sell $250 of human hair to the tune of some $370,000. It’s not clear what the link between “Step 1: Get Hair” and “Step 3: Profit” was, but his misrepresentation of the goods was enough to earn him a federal sentence. Musica spent little time in prison, turning instead into a paid investigator in New York State’s employ during the Baff affair.

He jumped straight to Step 3 for his services and retired around 1916. Musica changed his name to Frank Donald Coster and in 1920 started Girard & Co. — a hair tonic company that was likely a front for a bootlegging operation. Right around the time the old Musica was indicted for perjury in the Baff case, F. Donald Coster bought the pharmaceutical company McKesson & Robbins. Musica expanded its drug enterprise but also did side business of building up paper assets and phantom sales to bolster the company’s apparent value by about $18m. It came crashing down when the company’s treasurer tried to find out why McKesson & Robbins didn’t insure their drug warehouse (turns out “it doesn’t exist” isn’t a good reason to give your accountant).

Musica committed suicide in 1938 as federal agents closed in, and the episode spawned new accounting regulations. McKesson is now the 14th-largest business in the U.S.

‡ The lawyer for Archiello and Cardinale, Walter Rogers Deuel, was brought up by the New York State Bar Association for suborning perjury, but he continued to practice law. And Deputy Attorney General Alfred Becker, who, according to one article, “was conspicuous during the war for uncovering German and Red plots,” was also accused of misconduct, though nothing appears to have come of that charge.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,New York,Not Executed,Organized Crime,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,USA

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1754: Eleanor Connor, rogue

Add comment December 9th, 2015 Headsman

Seven people were hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1754.

For these minor malefactors — six thieves and a murderer, the latter of whom was ordered for posthumous anatomization — we simply cull from the day’s ordinary’s account, and focus on one Eleanor Connor.

A Catholic Irishwoman “about 35 years of age” and familiar by several aliases, she evidently refused to confide in the Protestant divine whose business it was to harrow the doomed prisoners’ souls. “How, or to what she was brought up, we have no authority to say,” her interlocutor puzzles. “No other account can be given of her, than what her behaviour has afforded, since she has been in England.”

She had been in London from a decade or so since, an inveterate pickpocket haunting “the theaters, and Covent Garden” and indeed “any public places … convenient for carrying on such practices.”

Arrested in Bristol in 1748, the hanging sentence was moderated to convict transportation. But an indenture to a distant master on the fringe of the New World wilderness was itself such a frightful fate that prisoners were occasionally known to prefer death outright; Eleanor Connor was just this side of such desperation, for she made bold to depart her prison ship shortly after it set sail by hurling herself off the deck under cover of poor weather to be retrieved from the waves by some boats hired by her partners in the underworld. While the Ordinary passes over this extraordinary gambit in a sentence or two, surely such a desperate and dangerous escape has as just a claim on poetic commemoration as any adventure of Turpin. A brine-drenched Eleanor Connor and her friends must have drank off the chills of the sea that night beside an exultant hearth.

Here she disappears from the annals of the courts, and hence from the Ordinary’s capacity to track her; by rumor he understands that she has changed her location often and her husbands nearly so much, navigating the margins as a picaro in both England and Ireland.

Around 1752 she appeared in Liverpool, making an honest go of it as a chandler. Into her thirties now and having passed through who knows what scrapes in the meantime, perhaps she was considering the limitations a criminal career based on manual dexterity might impose upon her once youth slipped away. But whether due to old habit or the capital requirements of a business startup, she did not yet abandon her diving profession and was caught picking the pocket of a gentlewoman at the marketplace. Once again she was imprisoned, and once again the camaraderie of the criminal caste came to her rescue, overpowering the turnkey on a pretended jail visit and liberating Eleanor. Whatever else one might say of this woman, she inspired the loyalty of her friends: one very much wishes we somehow had a record of her many adventures outside the gaze of the law.

Whatever they were, there were not many more of them. Soon after the band had relocated to London, our habitual cutpurse was recognized as a fugitive and taken up once more. It was a simple matter to reinstate her old suspended death sentence from that original Bristol conviction.

Condemned in February, she convinced a jury of matrons that she was quick with child … but after several months it became apparent that this was a ruse. The Ordinary is small enough to sneer at this intrepid character’s unavailing attempts to rescue her life yet again by making herself sympathetic to the magistrates: “she was not yet without some excuse, she pretended to be very weak after labour, and begged the court would take it into consideration, (a common expression, without any real meaning, among these unhappy wretches) and transport her for life; but she was ordered now to her former sentence.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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