Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

1916: Four French soldiers of the 96 RI

Add comment May 22nd, 2016 Headsman

Four French soldiers of the 96th Régiment d’Infanterie were shot 100 years ago today for resisting an order to return to their World War I trenches on the western front. Their names (per French Wikipedia’s tragically lengthy entry on World War I executions) were Émile Frédéric Lhermenier, Lucien Baleux, Félix Louis Milhau, and Paul Pierre Regoult. Baleux was only 19 years old.

We have an affecting memory of the demoralizing effect of this shooting upon their fellow soldiers in the 55th division courtesy of a remarkable epistolary war memoir. Titled Émile et Léa : Lettres d’un couple d’instituteurs bourguignons dans la tourmente de la Grande guerre (Emile and Lea: Letters of a Burgundy teacher-couple amid the turmoil of the Great War), the book was lovingly assembled in the early 200s by Emile and Lea’s grandson Michel Mauny, from a box marked “GUERRE” that turned out to be heavy with over 1200 letters exchanged by husband and wife during Emile’s years at the front. (See French review here)

Two days after the quadruple execution, Emile heartbreakingly wrote

Four soldiers of the 96th having been sentenced to death, the companies of the 5th Battalion 246th [regiment] were responsibe for providing the four firing squads. Of my company, we had five soldiers, four corporals, and five sergeants. Fortunately I was not designated for this horrible work.

Our comrades described the scene to us. It was mournful, poignant. All were stunned to have participated in the execution. Perhaps those unhappy four deserved it (I do not know), but we should find another way to enforce the law in the century we live in. One of them it seems had only 18 or 19 years. I think I, who used to live with children and young people, I would have gone crazy had I been forced to participate in this drama.

According to Michel Mauny’s commentary on the incident, a machine-gun captain in the regiment was so overwhelmed he became fixated on the nightmare of being executed himself, and eventually had to be relieved from his duties with dementia. “After twenty months on campaign, the commanders must be truly cruel to put four of our comrades to the post!”

That man, Captain Paul Tuffrau, wrote in a letter a few days afterwards

In the first days of the week, there was a morning where four soldiers were shot … I did not hear the volley, but I knew from Bourgoeois and Geoffroy that we had taken the prisoners an hour early before the guns. One of them, a strong lad of nineteen, committed to the war, as strong as an ox, bellowing out “Kill me? Go ahead! It’s impossible!”

Bayon directed the execution; he had prepared four pole with ropes, for he guessed they would resist. It was quickly done, everyone in haste to finish; once all were bound the four platoons were lined up facing left, took aim, and there was not even a command for the first shot caused all the others. Afterwards Bayon imposed eight days’ punishment on a sergeant who was to represent the division and arrived four minutes late: “You made these men die twice, you!”

Such records as remain do not make clear why this quartet joined the 600-plus French troops shot for military offenses during the Great War, but three other soldiers from the same regiment accused of the same offense in the same incident did not have the honor of dying for France but suffered only demotion. Was it that four sufficed “pour encourager les autres” — that three would show a want of backbone, and five would be barbarity?

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1650: James Graham. Earl of Montrose

Add comment May 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this day in 1650, James Graham, Earl of Montrose, was hanged in Edinburgh.

The tragic “Great Montrose” was renowned for his tactical genius on the battlefield during the civil wars that cost King Charles I both crown and head. Although Montrose would die as a royalist he first entered the lists in the 1630s’ Bishops’ War as part of the Covenanter army resisting the king’s bid to impose top-down religious governance on Scotland.

But Montrose was the moderate and post-Bisops War found himself a leading exponent of the pro-reconciliation faction, bitterly opposed by the chief of the Campbell clan, the Marquess of Argyll.

These two became the opposing poles for the ensuing civil war in Scotland, at once a local clan war and the vortex of a border-hopping conflict that sucked in Ireland and England too. Although Montrose, now King Charles’s lieutenant-general in Scotland, could kick tail in battle his faction was divided and ultimately outnumbered by the Covenanters. Montrose had to flee Scotland for exile in 1646.

The execution of Charles I opened the door for Montrose’s own untimely end, in one of those classic affairs of double-dealing. The exiled Charles II, having now inherited the claim, named Montrose his lieutenant in Scotland and dispatched his family’s longtime paladin back to native soil to try to raise an army. But even as he did so, he was negotiating with Argyll’s Covenanters, who saw a chance to make good their political and religious objectives by playing kingmaker with their former enemy.

So when Montrose landed in 1650, he found little support and was overwhelmed at the Battle of Carbisdale. After several days’ wandering he sought refuge with a former friend who he did not realize was now also on the government’s side, and was promptly arrested and given over to his enemies for execution and for posthumous indignities: his head was mounted on a pike atop Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, and his four limbs nailed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen.

After the end of Cromwell‘s Protectorate, and the actual restoration of Charles II, these scattered remains were gathered up and interred with reverence at St. Giles Cathedral. The present-day Dukes of Montrose are his direct descendants.

James Graham, Earl of Montrose and his execution have the still more considerable honor of a verse tribute by legendary dreadful poet William McGonagall. (Montrose himself was known to try his hand at poetry, too.)

The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
A Historical Poem

‘Twas in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,
The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay
By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,
That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.

Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,
Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,
That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,
The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.

Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?
Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,
But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,
Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.

After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,
Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.
And while in the act of combing his hair,
He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,

When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,
For in a few hours he would be dead;
But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.

He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,
But, alas! for him they had no pity.
He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;
And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.

From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate
To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,
Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,
All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.

Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,
But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;
And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,
Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.

As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,
He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,
But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,
Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.

Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,
And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;
Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,
But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.

He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,
But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;
Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,
He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.

On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,
His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,
Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,
Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.

Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,
Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,
And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,
While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.

And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.

Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,
And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home
And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,
Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.

Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;
A commander who had acquired great military glory
In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1691: Mark Baggot, Jacobite spy

Add comment May 20th, 2016 Headsman

On May 20, 1691, Captain Mark Baggot was hanged as a spy in Dublin.

Baggot had maintained loyalty to King James II when that sovereign was deposed in the 1688 Glorious Revolution that elevated William of Orange to the English throne.

Though deeply unpopular in England, the Catholic James — still to this day England’s last Catholic monarch — had sympathetic subjects to flee to in Ireland. Apart from the religious sympatico, the Irish were still smarting from ravages dating back to Cromwell and before, authored in the main by factions who were direct ancestors of the Whigs, King James’s staunchest domestic foes.

In 1689, James landed in Ireland backed by the French and kicked off the Williamite-Jacobite War between the rival kings. This war was so nasty it even survived the flight of King James himself in 1690:* William refused to guarantee amnesty for a wide swath of the Jacobite leadership, who consequently saw no odds in laying down their weapons.

The latter months of 1690 and the early months of 1691 had the now-outnumbered Jacobites girding the defenses of the cities they held against the coming Williamite attacks that were sure to come. Intelligence was critical under such conditions, and here our man Mark Baggot enters the stage.

Baggot was dispatched from the Jacobite stronghold of Limerick to Williamite-held Dublin to scout the enemy, but there had the embarrassment of being captured trying to escape notice in women’s clothes.** (You may be certain that the Williamite press included this emasculating detail on every available occasion.)

A court-martial condemned Baggot to hang the very next day, March 25.†

But the secret agent bought himself two months’ respite by cooperating with his captors — making the whole mission a clear intelligence win for the Williamites, especially since they still got to hang their spy in the end.

The resulting document has copy nearly as long as its unwieldy title …

The Discovery Made by Captain Mark Baggot, the Person Lately Taken in Womans Clothes, Coming from Limerick to Dublin, where He was Apprehended, and Tried as a Spy, by a Court-Martial ... at which He Received Sentence of Death: But Upon this Confession, Execution was Respited.

That the Irish army consists of forty thousand men of all sorts; that Tyrconnel was reducing them to thirty thousand; but Sarsfield

That Tyrconnel and Sir Richard Nagle are pensioners of France.

That there is no good understanding between Tyrconnel and Sarsfield, having great jealousies of one another.

That King James has correspondence with, and intelligence from some persons in considerable places of trust here in England every ten days.

That the French fleet is hourly expected with thirty pieces of cannon, ammunition, provisions and arms; a French general, some marine men, but none of the army; they resolve to maintain their greatest force against the confederates in Flanders next campaign.

That the Irish army intends to move towards the frontiers, their greatest design being against Cork more than ny other place; what is left of the suburbs they intend to burn; they expect a great many deserters at their approach to the town. The commanders of the parties for this service are Colonel Dorrington and Colonel Clifford.

A spy, taken at Limerick, was hang’d here [Dublin], and confess’d that Major Corket was in particular favour, and held correspondence with the English, who was carried prisoner to Limerick, and suppos’d to have suffer’d death.

That the contributions paid to the new Irish are one peck of wheat or meal, 12 pound of butter every fortnight out of each plow lands.

That there is express order that no guns be removed from Limerick; that the English deserters are only paid and encouraged, but no pay given to the Irish.

That they are still fortifying Limerick.

That Ballyclough and Castletown, with some other places, were to be made garrisons by the Irish; that Sir Michael Creagh’s regiment of foot, under command of Colonel Lacy, are at Ballyclough, which places they are fortifying; that Strabane’s regiment of horse are at Charleveel and Buttifant, &c.

Baggot’s less than flattering report of the Jacobite forces’ condition proved bang-on: that July, the Williamites dealt a fatal blow to the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Aughrim — thanks to forcing a defile that the dug-in Jacobites ought to have held but for want of ammunition.‡ Shortly thereafter, Limerick capitulated to Williamite siege — its last Jacobite garrison escaping into exile, never to stir in Ireland again.

* He’s remembered in Ireland as “James the Shit” (Seamus a Chaca) because he ditched his supporters mid-war.

** Not the only Jacobite with a cross-dressing escapade to his name.

London Gazette, March 26-30, 1691, which calls the spy Baggot “a Person very well known.”

The Baggot(t)s (Bagods, Baggetts) were an English family that could trace lineage back to the age of William the Conqueror, with a very longstanding branch in Ireland. (Dublin still has streets that bear that name.) The 17th century Irish Baggots took it on the chin for their loyalty to the Stuarts, several dying in that service or being dispossessed. The family’s Baggotstown Castle in County Limerick was seized and razed by the Williamites months after the events in this post.

The date of Baggot’s execution is reported in the Gazette for May 25-28, 1691.

‡ “All the day, though he was sincking in his center and on his left, [the Williamites] yett durst not once, for his relief, attempt to traverse the cawsway, till despayr at the end compelled him to trye that experiment at all hazards … they confidently ventured to goe through, notwithstanding the fire from the castle on their right, which fire was insignificant; for it slew but a few in the passage. The reason of it was given, because the men had French pieces, the bore of which was small, and had English ball, which was too large. Here is a new miscarriage thro’ heedlessness. Why was not this foreseen and the dammage prevented?” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1548: Giulio Cybo, Andrea Doria disaster

Add comment May 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Giulio Cybo was beheaded in Genoa for plotting against his father-in-law Andrea Doria.

Cybo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a babe of barely 20 when he died, the whole of his short life lost to frustrating defeats in the skein of peninsular and familial politics.

His parents were the original Cybo and Malaspina whose union founded the Cybo-Malaspina house that until the 18th century ruled the small Duchy of Massa and Carrara where Liguria meets Tuscany.

Successful though their line might prove, theirs was a house divided and the parents’ rivalry for precedence in their territory transferred to their two sons. Thus Giulio, the father’s favorite, makes his first appearance on history’s stage invading Massa with a cohort of gendarmes to seize power from his own mother.

The success of his rude maneuver was short-lived and mom soon restored her authority — backed by the imperial forces haunting the land during the interminable Italian Wars. Although Giulio was married to the daughter of the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria,* whose word was law in that city, the in-laws frustratingly stiffed him out of the dowry payment that Giulio intended to use to restore his Freudian conquest.

These material grievances, and a young man’s wide streak of tragic impetuousity,** drove Giulio into the arms of Giovanni Luigi Fieschi. The latter was a Genoese nobleman whose dramatic plot to topple Doria failed with operatic† absurdity in 1547 when Fieschi mid-coup fell off a gangway and drowned in the harbor. Only in Genoa.

Cybo’s complicity in this scheme could not be proven because he arrived too late to do anything other than make a politic show of support for the already-victorious Doria. But now, encouraged by the French — the Habsburg empire’s enemy in the aforementioned Italian Wars and therefore the sponsor of its every rival faction — Cybo gathered some fellow malcontents in Venice and began working up a plot to oust Doria, restore the liberty of Genoa, and really put all the parents in their place. Once bitten, however, the wily old Doria was on the lookout for these troublemakers and had Cybo’s circle infiltrated early. The young man was arrested en route back to Genoa to implement his design.

The letters of the Fieschi [family] which were found on his person left no room to doubt his guilt. Some tell us that he was several times tortured and confessed that Farnese, Maffei, Ghisa and the Pope himself were accomplices in the plot, and that the Fieschi and Farnese were its instigators.

The emperor did not wish to execute Cybo; and we find evidence in documents of the period that even the bloodthirsty Gonzaga made every exertion to save him. On the other hand Graneville and Doria laboured with all their power to secure his punishment. In fact, so soon as Doria heard of this plot, committed rather in intention than act and excusable by the youth of the conspirator, “the prince (I use the words of Porzio) inflamed to wrath by the offence and full of vengeful animosity, disregarded the double tie which bound him to the young man, and made incessant appeals to Caesar for the blood of his relative.”

Many Italian and foreign princes asked grace for the prisoner, and the emperor was at first undecided; but severity triumphed over mercy — Doria desired vengeance and he obtained it. The victim met his fate with manly intrepidity. He was beheaded and his body exposed between two wax candles in the public square … on the 18th of May, 1548. He was scarcely twenty years of age.

Porzio says: —

His courage and military capacity inspired all who knew him with the conviction that, if he had not perished in boyhood, he would have become one of the first captains of his age. He made a single mistake: that of endeavouring to expel one foreigner with another — to drive out the Spaniards in order to establish the French in Italy.

* This man, one of the great naval captains of his age, was of course the namesake of the Genoese ocean liner Andrea Doria that sank in 1956.

** Cybo “liked not to rest contented in the battle of life,” was James Bent’s judgment, although it is difficult to tell that he ever had the option to do so.

** Well, stage-worthy at any rate: Fieschi’s fiasco is the basis of Schiller’s play Fiesco.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Genoa,Gibbeted,History,Italy,Nobility,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1815: William Sawyer, guns and roses

Add comment May 15th, 2016 Headsman

William Sawyer hanged on this date in 1815* at London’s Newgate Gaol for a murder he committed while in Portugal.

Dispatched to Iberia during the 1814 mopping-up stages of the Peninsular War, Sawyer preferred to make time with a young Englishwoman named Harriet Gaskett who was supposed to be there as the mistress of Sawyer’s friend and fellow-officer. (Both of the men in question had wives back in Blighty.)

When this third wheel discovered their liaison,** Sawyer and Gaskett fell into that death-seeking tragic mooning that lovers do and after dinner one night in April they wandered off to the garden. Other guests soon heard three pistol shots crack the evening air. The reports proved to correlate with a dead Harriet, and a severely (but not mortally) wounded William.

After he was cleaned up — and after he once more failed to kill himself by slashing his own throat — his friends solicited a forthright confession.

Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum and my discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.

William Sawyer

Besides doing the tragic lover thing, Sawyer was obviously intent on doing the officer-and-a-gentleman thing. His friends did very well believe the convenient-sounding version of events that he presented, such was his rectitude and lovesickness.

But under any construction of motive and circumstance, this narrative of “discharging a pistol at her head” amounted to confession to a hanging crime and Sawyer was convicted with ease.

Sympathetic to a fault, the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough who personally tried the case reserved judgment as to the penalty pending a review by a panel of the king’s judges of several technical legal points. These were all defeated as entirely as was Sawyer’s wife’s attempt to see him in prison.

Despite his avoiding such an awkward interview Sawyer went to the gallows “very dejected,” in the words of the Newgate Calendar.

During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o’clock the body was taken to Bartholomew’s Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and [it] was not ironed.

* The Newgate Calendar, whose command of detail is often unreliable, mistakenly gives May 22 as the execution date — a week later than the true event.

** Intent on layering on the melodrama, Sawyer’s story was that the friend had actually given the two lovebirds leave to go live together. Great! Except Gaskell was convinced the permission was insincere and that he meant on killing himself once they did so and “although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.” Anything for love.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Portugal,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1945: Pvt. George Edward Smith, on VE Day

Add comment May 8th, 2016 Robert Walsh

(Thanks to Robert Walsh for the guest post. Mr. Walsh’s home page has a trove of articles about historical executions, including another American serviceman hanged at Shepton Mallet. -ed.)

VE (Victory in Europe) marked the official end of hostilities in the European theatre of operations and quite possibly the largest and most joyous celebration in human history.

Unless, of course, you happened to be former US Army Air Forces Private George Edward Smith.

While most of the rest of the world basked in the joy of victory and the relief of the European war being over, Private Smith had a rather more pressing engagement to think about. The rest of the population might be about to enter a brave new world, but Smith was about to depart rather suddenly from the old one.

It was his execution day.

Smith, previously serving at RAF Attlebridge in Norfolk with the US Air Force’s 784th Bombardment Squadron, wouldn’t be celebrating the end of the European war. He’d be watching the clock tick relentlessly down to 1 a.m. when he’d be escorted from the Condemned Cell at Her Majesty’s Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (loaned to the US military for the duration of the war). He’d be sat near the gallows pondering a past that was about to cost him his life while hoping for a reprieve that wouldn’t arrive and a future that was already lost.

While most of the world celebrated, George Edward Smith was going to die.

Smith’s guilt wasn’t in any doubt. Near RAF Attlebridge lay the sleepy Norfolk town of Honingham and the stately home named Honingham Hall (demolished in the 1960s).

Honingham Hall and the adjoining land were home to distinguished diplomat Sir Eric Teichmann, a long-serving figure vastly experienced in the Far East and serving as advisor to the British Embassy at Chungking. He’d noticed, as so many country gentlemen do, that he had a problem with poachers. December 3, 1944 would be the last time he had a problem with anything. It was in the small hours of the morning that he met George Edward Smith.

Smith and his accomplice Private Wijpacha had ‘borrowed’ a pair of M1 carbines from the base armoury and decided to do a spot of illicit hunting. Teichmann, familiar with the fact that poachers aren’t usually violent offenders and will usually run if challenged, heard gunshots from nearby woodland and went out to investigate. He went out unarmed, challenged Smith and Wijpacha — and Smith promptly shot him once through the head with his M1. Both men fled hurriedly back to their base, hoping that their absence wouldn’t be noticed.

Of course, a senior British diplomat lying murdered in the woodland was noticed.

Before long both men were arrested and questioned, during which Smith confessed, a confession he later retracted claiming that it was made under duress. That, not surprisingly, cut no ice whatsoever with either the American military or the British authorities. Smith and Wijpacha were court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge and Wijpacha (who hadn’t fired a shot) received a lengthy prison sentence. Smith, the triggerman, drew the death penalty.

Under the Visiting Forces Act, 1942 the Americans were free to try, imprison and condemn their own criminals independent of the British system of justice, not that it would have made any difference to Smith’s case. Murder was then a capital crime in Britain regardless of the criminal’s nationality. If Smith hadn’t been condemned by an American court-martial then a British trial would have seen the judge don the legendary ‘Black Cap’ and pass what British reporters once called ‘the dread sentence’ especially given the status of the victim.

Smith was promptly shipped to the prison at Shepton Mallet in the county of Somerset to await a mandatory review of his case and, if clemency was refused, execution.

View of Shepton Mallet (left) and its execution shed (right)

Shepton Mallet had been a civilian prison for centuries before being turned over to the British military, who then lent it to the Americans as part of the Visiting Forces Act. Until its final closure a few years ago Shepton Mallet remained the oldest prison in the UK still operational, a dubious distinction now belonging to Dartmoor. There were, however, a few difficulties with the arrangement.

The Americans carried out 18 executions at Shepton Mallet during their tenure between mid-1942 and September, 1945. Two (Alex Miranda and Benjamin Pyegate) were by firing squad, upsetting local people, who knew very well what it meant to live next to a military prison and hear a single rifle volley at 8 a.m. The American military also preferred hanging common criminals to allowing them to be shot like soldiers.

The problems were simple. The locals didn’t like firing squads made no secret of it. Not surprisingly, there were complaints. The US military felt being shot was too good for most of its condemned and the British didn’t like the methods and equipment used by American hangmen, who had acquired a nasty and thoroughly-deserved reputation for using badly-designed scaffolds, the wrong type of rope and the antiquated standard drop instead of a drop length scientifically calculated by the prisoner’s weight.

The British also regarded American hanging equipment as outdated, while American military hangmen John Woods and Joseph Malta were entirely unfamiliar with the British kit. And British hangmen had evolved hanging to almost an art, needing mere seconds to complete the procedure.

Another problem was that the gallows at Shepton Mallet hadn’t been used since March, 1926. By 1942 it was considered unfit for service and needed replacing. A compromise had to be reached, and was.

The Americans could continue executions at Shepton Mallet, but the vast majority (16 out of 18) were performed by British hangmen using a British gallows in an extension built onto the end of one of the cellblocks. The Americans were permitted their usual practice of having the condemned stand strapped, noosed and hooded on the gallows while their death warrant and charge sheet were read out and then being asked for any last words. This caused executioner Albert Pierrepoint, master of the speedy hanging, to complain at what seemed to him a cruel, unnecessary delay in ending the prisoner’s misery.

Pierrepoint also complained about overcrowding in the gallows room during executions. At a British hanging there would be the prisoner, the hangman, his assistant, the prison Governor, the Chief Warder, the doctor, the Chaplain and two or four prison officers. At an American military hanging there were usually twenty or so people clustered around the trapdoors and lever. He felt a hanging should be both quick and perfect and that a crowded gallows room invited disaster.

Hangman Thomas Pierrepoint.

By VE Day the arrangement was well-established. Thomas Pierrepoint, uncle of Albert and brother of Henry (both of whom were also hangmen) performed 13 of the 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet while Albert performed the remaining three when he wasn’t busy elsewhere.

Their assistants were Steve Wade, Herbert Morris and Alexander Riley. Tom Pierrepoint had performed the last hanging at Shepton Mallet in 1926 (that of murderer John Lincoln) assisted by Lionel Mann. While the two firing squads were performed at 8 a.m., the hangings would be carried out at 1 a.m. which was discreet enough not to arouse neighbors’ ire.

Smith’s case was reviewed. Not surprisingly, his appeal was denied as were other requests including (most generously, under the circumstances) one from Lady Teichmann, widow of his victim. His date was set for 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the very day Europe’s guns fell silent. Tom Pierrepoint would do the job assisted by Herbert Morris. Smith was transferred to the Condemned Cell a few days prior to the execution date where he was granted free access to the military Chaplain.

When the time came, while the rest of the population celebrated the arrival of a new world and Smith contemplated his departure from the old one, it went as smoothly as could be expected. Smith was taken from his cell wearing standard military uniform, from which any badges or flashes marking him as a soldier were deliberately removed. Paperwork was completed signifying his dishonourable discharge from the US military as a common criminal and the US military were determined that he should die like one.

Given the delays caused by the reading of the charge sheet and death warrant and Smith being asked for his last words (he apparently had none) it took 22 minutes between Smith being taken from his cell and being certified dead by the prison doctor. Compare this with a standard British execution (minus the bureaucracy and speechifying) where 22 seconds would have been considered twice as long as was needed to do the job. Smith’s punishment, however, wasn’t done yet. Executed American servicemen were initially buried at Brookwood cemetery, but then moved to the notorious ‘Plot E’ of the Oisne-Aisne Military Cemetery in France. Plot E is deliberately hidden from the rest of that cemetery. Its residents have no names on their graves, only numbers. They have no headstones or crosses, only flat stone markers. No American flag hangs in their plot. It doesn’t appear on the plan of the cemetery even today and the markers are placed facing away from the graves of other Americans. Visits to Plot E are still discouraged and it wasn’t until a Freedom of Information request in 2009 that the names of those buried there were released.


A view of the “Dishonored Dead” in Plot E, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. (cc) image by Stranger20824.

Whatever they may have done, and some committed truly dreadful crimes, it seems distasteful to virtually deny their existence and shame them even after death. It also denied their families and friends the chance to visit and grieve, despite the fact that they themselves had committed no crime.

That said, it’s no different to the routine imposed on condemned British criminals. In fact, the British death sentence expressly demanded that inmates be buried in unmarked graves within the prison walls inflicting the same suffering on their friends and relatives. The British hanged were officially designated ‘Property of the Crown,’ many of whom were not properly reburied until after abolition. At many British prisons they still remain in unmarked graves according to the following sentence:

Prisoner at the Bar, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.

Remove the prisoner …

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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2004: Nick Berg, by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Add comment May 7th, 2016 Headsman

Twenty-six-year-old American communications contractor Nick Berg was beheaded a hostage in Iraq on this date in 2004 — allegedly by the personal hand of Al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A veteran of the mujahideen who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Zarqawi spent most of the 1990s in a Jordanian prison but was amnestied just in time to rejoin militant Islam before it became a post-9/11 boom industry.

Zarqawi’s Jordanian terrorist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, founded in 1999, transitioned with the American invasion of Iraq into the Al-Qaeda franchise in that country, a feared prosecutor of the sectarian civil war there, and the lineal forbear of the present-day Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

It also became a lusty early adopter of the emerging beheading-video genre: an ancient penalty perfectly adapted for the digital age.

This ferocious group was a severe mismatch for Berg, a Pennsylvanian freelance radio tower repairman (and pertinently, a Jew) who set up his Prometheus Methods Tower Service in the northern city of Mosul* in the months following the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was also around the time that American occupation forces’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light — a powerful excuse for blood vengeance.

Berg vanished from Baghdad in April 2004, and was not seen in public again until the whole world saw him: the unwilling feature of a May 11 video titled Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughters an American infidel with his hands and promises Bush more.

“We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls,” a voice says. “You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins … slaughtered in this way.”

Warning: Mature Content. This is both a political document of our time, and a horrifying snuff film. Notice that Berg appears in an orange jumpsuit, a seeming allusion to Muslim prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.

Twenty-five months later to the day, Zarqawi was assassinated by a U.S. Air Force bombing.

* As of this writing, Mosul is occupied by Zarqawi’s creation, the Islamic State.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,Iraq,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1943: Rev. Leonard Kentish, kidnapped Australian civilian

Add comment May 4th, 2016 Headsman

On lonely scrubland at the Aru Islands port of Dobo on this date in 1943, the Japanese military beheaded kidnapped Australian Rev. Leonard Kentish.

Nobody knew his fate at the time — his wife spent years tring to discover it — but the so-called “Kentish Affair” was one of the true oddities of the Pacific War: a civilian of no particular import to the war effort who was snatched from Australian territorial waters.

On January 22, 1943, the civilian Kentish, chief of Northern Territory Methodist missions to the aboriginal peoples, had hitched a ride on the HMAS Patricia Cam, a wooden tuna trawler that had been requisitioned as a wartime naval transport. The Patricia Cam wasn’t running any blockades — she was strictly for local cargo runs, in this instance shuttling among Elcho Island and the Wessel Islands just off Arnhem Land.

She had no radar capacity, and no inkling at all of her fate that afternoon when the Aichi E13A floatplane dove out of the sky and skimmed above the Patricia Cam, within 100 feet of the mast — dropping a bomb amidships that ripped open the trawler’s belly and sent her to the bottom.

While survivors scrabbled in the Arafura Sea for “overboard drums, planks, boxes — anything that would float” the raider circled for another pass, splintering with a second bomb an emergency canoe that men were crowding into, then strafing the waves with machine gun fire. Finally, the victorious seaplane set down in the waves.

And then mysteriously, the pilot gestured Rev. Kentish into the vacant seat of his plane, and took off. Kentish was the only prisoner taken, and his countrymen never again laid eyes on him.

Sixteen other people survived the attack and were rescued a few days later. But poor Mrs. Violet Kentish remained entirely in the dark as to the fate of her husband. “I know that Len is not beyond God’s love and care wherever he may be,” she vainly pleaded to the Minister of the Navy. “But you will understand because we are only weak humans, the heartache and longing for one we loved so much.” (Quoted in Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War Two)

After World War II, she desperately resorted to firing letters to newspaper editors, until an intelligence officer chanced to read one published in the Argus and made the necessary inquiries via U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo to unravel the mystery. In the clipped official findings:

1. The Rev KENTISH was taken on board a Jap float plane on Jan 22 43 after it had sunk the patrol vessel HMAS “PATRICIA CAM” off WESSEL IS.

2. Unfortunately no info can be obtained of the whereabouts of the Rev KENTISH until 13 Apr 43, when he arrived at DOBO.

3. The Rev KENTISH was held at DOBO as a prisoner till the 4 May 43. Throughout this period he was subjected to ill treatment by severe bashings, the most common being punches in the nose and eyes to such an extent that his nose was broken, and he had great difficulty in seeing. His diet, as such, was just sufficient to keep him alive.

4. On the morning of 4 May he was taken in to the scrub, (a distance of under 200 yds from the township of DOBO) where a grave had been prepared, and executed.

5. The execution was carried out by the order of 1st Lieut SAKIDJIMA.

6. The remains of the Rev KENTISH have been recovered, and handed over to Capt STOCKWELL, of the War Graves Unit. They will be transported to AMBON, and buried in the Internees cemetery there.

7. This case is now considered closed. All dates must be treated as approx.

The consequence of this inquiry was a 1948 war crimes case against Lt. Sagejima Maugan, who was hanged in Hong Kong on August 23, 1948 for conducting Rev. Kentish’s execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,Indonesia,Japan,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Torture,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1803: Michael Ely, personator

Add comment April 27th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Michael Ely hanged at Newgate Prison for feigning a bit of glory in the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

The crime was no stolen valor stuff, but “personation” — fraudulently presenting oneself as a different person, in this case with a plain pecuniary objective.

After the HMS Audacious returned from campaigning against Napoleon in the Mediterranean, where she had the honor to capture the 74-gun French man-of-war Genereux near Malta, Audacious crew members were entitled to shares of a royal prize bounty for their acquisition. (Genereux thereafter flew the Union Jack until the ship was broken up in 1816.)

Ely presented himself to the crown’s prize agent as the Audacious seaman Murty Ryan to collect Ryan’s jackpot of one pound, 12 shillings.

One problem: Francis Sawyer was actually acquainted with the crook personally and (so he testified later) “I told him I knew his name was not Murty Ryan.” Ely countered by alleging that he had changed his name to avoid punishment after deserting a previous impressment — a phenomenon that Sawyer agreed was “quite common” and a good enough excuse that Sawyer paid him out, albeit suspiciously. But once the real Murty Ryan showed up looking for his share, Audacious crew members were able to verify that whatever his name might be, that first guy had never been aboard their ship.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,Wartime Executions

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1012: St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury

1 comment April 19th, 2016 Headsman

April 19 was the death date in 1012, and the feast date in perpetuity, of Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian saint Aelfheah (also known as Alfege or Alphege).

When harrying Danish invaders under Thorkell the Tall put Canterbury cathedral to the sack in 1011, they seized this Anglo-Saxon cleric too in expectation of adding a VIP’s ransom to their sacrilegious pillage of candelabras and jeweled chalices.

Aelfheah turned out not to be the render-unto-Caesar type — or at least, not unto Ragnar — and stubbornly refused to raise his own ransom or to permit one to be paid for him. Seven months on into his captivity, some ill-disciplined Vikingers with their blood (and blood alcohol) up for an Easter pillage just decided to get rid of him — as detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which also helpfully provides us the date:

1012. Here in this year, there came to London town Ealdorman Eadric and all the foremost councillors of the English race, ordained and lay, before Easter — that Easter Day was on the 13 April. And they were there until after Easter, until all the tax was paid — that was 8 thousand pounds.

What we have here is the unprincipled nobleman Eadric Streona — destined for an Executed Today entry of his own — celebrating Christ’s resurrection by squeezing hard-pressed Londoners for the Danegeld needed to buy off Thorkell’s rampaging army. And beside that in the ledger, a vicar declines to save his own life at the cost of incrementing his flock’s suffering. The ransom-refusing Aelfheah is a patron saint of kidnap victims; he ought to be taxpayer ombudsman, too.

Then on Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’ on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. And in the morning the bishops [of Dorchester and of London] Eadnoth and Aelfhun and the inhabitants of the town took up the holy body, and carried it to London with all honour and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and there now [i.e., to this day] God reveals the holy martyr’s powers.

Aelfheah was canonized by Gregory VII in 1078 — and was one of the rare clerics of the Anglo-Saxon era still officially revered after the Norman conquest.* It is said that Thomas a Becket had just prayed to Aelfheah before he too attained his predecessor’s martyrdom.

The British History Podcast hasn’t reached this incident as of this post’s publication, but it should do anon. Its Vikings coverage begins with episode 176.

* A thousand years on, a church named our man marks the purported spot of his execution/murder.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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