Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

1941: Ben Zion bar Shlomo Halberstam, the second Bobever Rebbe

1 comment July 28th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.

Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.

During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.

He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.

As Yad Vashem records,

Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.

They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**

Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.


Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.

* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed hands repeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.

** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.

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1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

-diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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1918: Private David Stevenson, repeat deserter

Add comment July 13th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this dayJuly 18 in 1918, in Bully-Grenay in war-torn France, Private David Stevenson* of the Lowland Field Artillery was shot by the British Army for desertion and insubordination. “His record,” notes Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson in their book Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, “is one of the longest amongst all surviving records of courts martial.”

Private Stevenson enlisted on August 17, 1915 and began misbehaving almost immediately. His disciplinary record can be summarized as follows:

September 1, 1915: AWOL, six days
September 13: AWOL, one day
September 18: AWOL, four days
September 30: AWOL, five days
October 5: AWOL, one day
October 7: AWOL, one day
October 11: AWOL, seven days
October 20: Malingering
January 15, 1916: AWOL, twenty-eight days
March 17: Drunk and disorderly
April 2: Drunk and disorderly
April 24: Escaping from a hospital
May 14: AWOL, nine days
May 28: Creating a disturbance, damaging public property
May 30: Noncompliance with an order
May 31: Creating a disturbance, damaging public property
June 7: AWOL, two days
June 14: AWOL, three days
July 15: AWOL, eighteen days
August 19: AWOL, seventy-four (!) days
November 18: AWOL, one day
November 21: Insolence to an NCO
December 1: AWOL, seven days
December 18: AWOL, eighteen days

In 1917, Pte. Stevenson was shipped out to France. Somehow he managed to maintain a clean record for several months, but soon he was back to his old habits again:

August 18, 1917: Lying to an NCO and hestitating to obey an order
August 27: Losing a folding saw by neglect
October 22: Desertion; tried by the Field General Court Martial (FGCM) and sentenced to five years in prison
December 20: Drunk in camp, entering a guard tent without permission, resisting escort.
March 8, 1918: AWOL, fifty-two days.

Apprehended on April 29, Stevenson was locked up at Army headquarters and was admitted to the No. 55 Casualty Clearing Station on May 5. He was supposed to get cleaned up and then returned to headquarters the next day, but instead he flew the coop. He later claimed he had just gone out for a walk and then got afraid he’d get into trouble if he went back, so he just “loitered about” until he was arrested three days later.

At his court martial, David Stevenson pleaded for mercy, saying, “If I could get another transfer to another regiment, I could prove myself a soldier.”

But by then the Army had had quite enough of him. His brigade commander wrote, “To my mind there are no redeeming points in this case.” General Henry Horne, 1st Baron Horne, agreed.

The authors of Blindfold and Alone note that Stevenson’s case left puzzling questions: “With his bad record, Stevenson must have known he was heading for a death sentence, and yet persisted with the behavior which would inevitably lead to his execution.” Why?

Lt. Gen. Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston summed up his superiors’ take on it nicely when he said Stevenson’s conduct could “only be explained by his obvious and habitual tendency to avoid all authority.”

* Not to be confused with the present-day British historian of the First World War also named David Stevenson.

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1941: Numberless Poles and Jews by Felix Landau’s Einsatzkommado

Add comment July 4th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, near the city of Lvov in eastern Poland (now called Lviv and part of Ukraine), an Einsatzgruppe—mobile Nazi killing squad—shot an unknown number of Poles and Jews. We know a little bit about what happened because of Felix Landau, a young SS Hauptscharführer of Austrian origin, who kept a diary of his experiences in the Einsatzkommando.

The diary has been translated and published in several anthologies; this version of it comes from “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, edited by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess.

Landau was a Nazi of the Old Guard who’d been involved in National Socialist activities since the age of fifteen, served time in prison for his role in the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, and ultimately became a naturalized German citizen. He volunteered for the Einsatzkommando on June 30, 1941 — the same day the Wehrmacht arrived in Lvov — and went right to work.

It should be emphasized that Landau was not, by SS standards, a particularly vicious man. He rapidly became disillusioned with the kommando, writing that he preferred “good honest open combat.” In his first diary entry he referred to “scum” who “did not even draw the line at children” and also wrote, “I have little inclination to shoot defenseless people — even if they are only Jews.”

Yet shoot them he did, and he described it in his diary in a flat, matter-of-fact way.

Often he simply put down the dry numbers, as on July 22: “Twenty Jews were finished off.”

Other times, Landau recounted his gruesome work in chilling detail. And so it was on July 4, when over 300 people were killed. His entry describing that day is worth quoting at length:

One of the Poles tried to put up some resistance. He tried to snatch the carbine out of the hands of one of the men but did not succeed. A few seconds later there was a crack of gunfire and it was all over. A few minutes later after a short interrogation a second one was finished off. I was just taking over the watch when a Kommando reported that just a few streets away from us a guard from the Wehrmacht had been discovered shot dead.

One hour later, at 5 in the morning, a further thirty-two Poles, members of the intelligentsia and the Resistance, were shot about two hundred meters from our quarters after they had dug their own grave. One of them simply would not die. The first layer of sand had already been thrown on the first group when a hand emerged from out of the sand, waved and pointed to a place, presumably his heart. A couple more shots ran out, then someone shouted — in fact the Pole himself — “shoot faster” What is a human being? […]

The stench of corpses if all pervasive when you pass the burnt-out houses… During the afternoon some three hundred more Jews and Poles were finished off. In the evening we went into town for an hour. There we saw things that are almost impossible to describe… At a street corner we saw some Jews covered in sand from head to foot. We looked at one another. We were all thinking the same thing. These Jews must have crawled out of the grave where the executed are buried. We stopped a Jew who was unsteady on his feet. We were wrong. The Ukrainians had taken some Jews up to the former GPU citadel. These Jews had apparently helped the GPU persecute the Ukrainians and the Germans. They had rounded up 800 Jews there, who were supposed to be shot by us tomorrow. They had released them.

We continued along the road. There were hundreds of Jews walking along the street with blood pouring from their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken and their eyes hanging out of their sockets. They were covered in blood. Some of them were carrying others who had collapsed. We went to the citadel; there we saw things that few people had ever seen. […] The Jews were pouring out of the entrance. There were rows of Jews lying one on top of the other like pigs whimpering horribly. We stopped and tried to see who was in charge of the Kommando. “Nobody.” Someone had let the Jews go. They were just being hit out of rage and hatred.

Nothing against that — only they should not let the Jews walk about in such a state.

Writing on July 6, Landau described himself as “psychologically shattered” — not due to what he had just seen and done, but because he was homesick and especially missed his girlfriend Trude. He complained of not being able to find stationery to compose a letter to her. (Landau was forever fretting when they weren’t able to write to each other, constantly worried she would leave him.)

He was, however, able to find “a lovely big traveling bag” for only 3.80 reichmarks.

Just another day on the job.

It is often said that the reason the Nazis stopped using the Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews and started using gas chambers was because it was more efficient: they could kill more people in less time using gas. This isn’t true. The Einsatzgruppen’s shooting at Babi Yar, for example, killed more than 33,000 people in two days. Gas chambers could not have done better than that.

In fact, the reason for the switch to the quieter, cleaner method of gassing had more to do with the effect the shootings were having on the Einsatzkommando men themselves. Men would rapidly develop what, in the modern parlance, would be called post-traumatic stress disorder; many were ruined for life. Given the conditions Landau described in his diary, it’s no wonder.

August Becker, a gas van inspector, later stated, “The men in charge of the Einsatzgruppen in the East were increasingly complaining that the firing squads could not cope with the psychological and moral stress of the mass shootings indefinitely. I know that a number of members of these squads were themselves committed to mental asylums and for this reason a new and better method of killing had to be found.”

The first gas vans wouldn’t be created until December 1941, however, and gas chambers came later still. In the meantime, the Einsatzgruppen traveled from town to town, massacring civilians everywhere they went.

As for Felix Landau: in late 1941 he moved in with Trude, and they married in 1943 after Landau divorced his first wife. He and Trude divorced in 1946, though, and that same year he was recognized and arrested for war crimes. Escaping from an American prison camp, he adopted an alias name and lived in plain sight as an interior decorator.

In 1959 he was arrested again and ultimately sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings, but pardoned in 1973. Felix Landau died a free man in 1983, at the age of 73.

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1865: Okada Izo, barbarian-expeller

Add comment July 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the Japanese samurai Okada Izo was dispatched by crucifixion.

He was one of* the “Four Hitokirimanslayers — whose legendary blades coruscated in the Bakumatsu era that marked Japan’s pivot from an isolationist feudal state, one where samurai were big men on prefectures, to a burgeoning modern power ruled by industry and mass conscription.

The irony was that dinosaurs like the Hitokiri helped bring the asteroid down on their own heads.

During the chaotic Bakumatsu period, triggered by Japan’s becoming involuntarily opened to the outside world, the emperor — long a figurehead marginalized by the shogun — entered the political fray under the xenophobic banner “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.”

Warriors/assassins like the Hitokiri were wooed by the imperial camp and the promise of a policy that would maintain the purpose and privilege of elite swordsmen. But once power was conquered, the Meiji emperor repaid those knights’ exertions by doing the modernization thing that Hitokiri types had hoped to avoid.

Okada Izo was among the first barbarian-expellers to be caught up by the policy swing. After a couple of years running amok in Kyoto, the anti-foreigner movement was suppressed and its leader forced to commit seppuku, which was still more deference than Izo received.

The execution, usually conceived as the end, is the jumping-off point for the surreal time-and-space-hopping 2004 Takasha Miike bloodbath Izo, “one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times.”

* Along with fellow-execution victim Kawakami Gensai, and two other guys who met violent deaths that were not (more’s the pity for this site) executions.

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1921: Richard and Abraham Pearson, the Coolacrease killings

2 comments June 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1921, an Irish Republican Army detail detained Richard and Abraham Pearson at their farm in rural County Offaly.

While the Pearson brothers watched in horror along with their mother, three sisters, and other family members, the Republicans readied the kindling to fire the family house. Then, Richard and Abraham were executed by an IRA firing detail.

The shooters were inexperienced as executioners and nobody delivered a coup de grace, so the Pearson brothers took hours to bleed to death from their assortment of debilitating torso wounds; Abraham did not expire until the next morning, some 14 hours later.

It might perhaps be said that few places exemplify like Ireland after its dirty war of independence Faulkner’s bromide that the past is never dead, and it’s not even past.

The Irish network RTE exhumed these once-past Killings at Coolacrease in a 2007 broadcast —

— claiming that the evangelical Protestant Pearsons were essentially targeted by neighboring Catholics on grounds of sectarian bigotry and/or an interest in pinching their 341 acres. (The surviving Pearsons emigrated to Australia and their land was indeed broken up and distributed.)

This line, whose upshot obviously impugns Irish Republicanism, occasioned a furious counterattack from that sector arguing that the Pearsons were punished for a much more prosaic reason: that they had shot at and wounded IRA volunteers who were setting up a roadblock by cutting down trees at the perimeter of the Pearson farm.

The family patriarch, William Pearson, was away at the time and later filed for compensation from London, noting that “I was always known as a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown. I assisted the Crown Forces on every occasion, and I helped those who were persecuted around me at all times.” “Crown Forces” in this instance would have been the hated paramilitaries, the Black and Tans, who pack their own upshots.

Extrajudicial executions might perhaps rate among the inevitable casualties of a tooth-and-claw war over the nation’s destiny, but so too are the clash of interpretive meanings given them by later generations. Even eighty-odd years later, the urgent need to confute RTE’s “revisionist” gloss on the Pearson executions led almost immediately to a book of essays by Republican historians.

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1862: James Andrews’s raiders, for the Great Locomotive Chase

Add comment June 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1862, seven federal raiders were hanged in Atlanta for the daring heist of a Confederate train two months prior. Among them were some of the very first Congressional Medal of Honor awardees.

In terms of its impact on the Civil War, the “Great Locomotive Chase” was a bust. But as pure Americana, you’ll have a hard job to top this caper.

The chase began a year to the day after the first shots had been fired between North and South. Despite the anniversary, the occasion promised nothing but the routine northbound passenger run for the locomotive General from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tenn.

This line was a spur of the Confederate rail network, and we have already noted in these pages the interest that network held for pro-Union saboteurs. Chattanooga was its great hub: telegraph and rail lines from every quarter of the Confederacy converged there like the center of a spiderweb.

For this reason, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, who had just occupied Huntsville, Ala., aspired to swing his army north to strike this vital city. His bold commandos nonchalantly boarding the northbound train this day were part of Mitchel’s larger operation: cut the rail line from Atlanta to prevent timely reinforcement of Chattanooga, then quickly conquer the strategic city.* Gen. Mitchel was 28 miles from Chattanooga on April 12, 1862, and if his special agents could turn their trick then the whole course of the war might change.

Not long after 5 a.m. on that April 12, the General pulled into a depot at Big Shanty (today, Kennesaw, Ga.). It had a short layover there for breakfast at the adacent Lacey Hotel.

But more important to the raiders’ leader James J. Andrews was what Big Shanty did not have: a telegraph.

While the train’s passengers and crew were settling in for the most important meal of the day, Andrews’s raiders efficiently decoupled the locomotive, its coal tender, and three box cars from the passenger cars. Most of the raiders loaded into the boxcars to be ready as muscle for the crazy flight ahead. But the day was to be a match of speed and ingenuity between the Union daredevil Andrews, and the Confederate train conductor William Fuller — who for the start could only watch in astonishment over his coffee as his General unexpectedly pulled away.

With no telegraph in the vicinity, Fuller had no way to send word up the line to stop the General. But umbrage either patriotic or professional carried him from that first moment in a Javert-like pursuit of his commandeered locomotive.

Fuller dashed out of Big Shanty and up the train tracks on foot with his team. It’s not as crazy as it sounds: negotiating hilly terrain, the General would be making only 15 or 20 miles per hour at speed — and she stopped regularly, to foul the rails behind her, and to cut the telegraph wire. Throughout the chase, or at least until its very last stretch, the Union men managed to keep the next station ahead ignorant of the General‘s treasonable mission by snipping telegraph wire, so on the occasions when they had to stop and answer to a Western & Atlantic Railroad official they were able to bluff their way onward with a story about driving a “powder train” requisitioned by General Beauregard himself.

But those stops took time, and Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave Andrews’s raiders much of that to spare.

A couple of miles up the line, Fuller et al found an old handcar, and were able to take to the rails themselves. Near 20 miles into the chase, they were able to commandeer a short-line locomotive, which took them to Kingston where they switched to a mail train. Neither of these vehicles could match the General‘s horsepower; however, Andrews had to keep stopping to cut more telegraph wires or to pry up a rail, and he really got pegged back when the General had to defer to other rail traffic on the single-line route. For instance, the Union commandos spent a frustrating hour on the siding at Kingston waiting out southbound trains.

Andrews’s party did not know for sure at this point that there was a pursuer making good use of this hour. But even so, they had a challenge to spend the scarce resource of time with their hijacked locomotive to best effect.

The objective of the raid was to wreck the Atlanta-Chattanooga rail line, in a way that would put it out of commission for many days and give Gen. Mitchel leave to overwhelm Chattanooga — something like firing a bridge or collapsing a tunnel. The stops they made as they passed various stations to cut the telegraphs or laboriously crowbar up a bit of the rail were essential to give them the ability to cover the next few miles, and bluff past the next station. But thanks to Fuller’s pursuit, there was not after these time-consuming little acts of sabotage a sufficient opportunity to accomplish the tactical purpose of the hijacking.


An extensive collection of links and images relating to the entire route of the chase is here.

In the coolest final stage, the segment most properly called the “Great Locomotive Chase”, Fuller’s gang grabbed a southbound locomotive, the Texas, and without bothering to turn it around they slammed it into reverse in hot pursuit of the northbound General.

The federals in the General tried dropping timbers, and even cutting loose boxcars behind them as railbound battering rams aimed at their inexorable hunter. The Texas kept coming.

By the time the Union boys reached a wooden covered bridge over the Oostanaula, it was apparent that the locomotive would soon exhaust her fuel. Still, the churning plumes of the backward Texas loomed just a few minutes behind. In his last chance to do what he had set out for, Andrews torched his final remaining box car and released it into the wooden bridge, hoping to set the entire structure ablaze and collapse it into the river. Unhappily for the General‘s illicit crew, looking backwards with desperate hope as their ride chugged off, boards sodden by a week’s worth of springtime rain showers stubbornly refused to kindle … and then the Texas arrived to clear away the incendiary.

As its fuel dwindled and its adversary closed, the General came to the end of her legendary run about 18 miles from Chattanooga. Andrews and party abandoned their engine to history and scattered into the woods — but none escaped the immediate Confederate manhunt.


The twenty raiders, plus two others who were supposed to be part of the operation but missed their rendezvous, were all court-martialed as spies: “lurking in and around Confederate camps as spies, for the purpose of obtaining information,” a description bearing very scant resemblance to their actual activities. Eight would hang on this basis.

The intrepid ringleader James Andrews, who was a civilian, was executed in Atlanta on June 7, all alone. His mates only learned of his fate while sitting at their trial in Chattanooga — an experience described in a memoir by one of their number, William Pittenger.

As the trial of different ones proceeded, we had still greater encouragement from the court itself. Members called on us, and told us to keep in good heart, as there was no evidence before them to convict any one. This cheered us somewhat, but there was still one thing which I did not like, and which looked as if something was wrong. The court would not let our boys be present to hear the pleading of counsel on either side, though they urgently requested it. They could neither hear what our lawyers had to say for them, nor what the Judge Advocate urged against them.

The trials proceeded rapidly. One man was taken out each day, and in about an hour returned. The table in the court room was covered with bottles, newspapers, and novels, and the court passed its time during trial in discussing these. This was very well if the trial was, as they said, a mere matter of formality; but if it was a trial in earnest, on which depended issues of life or death, it was most heartless conduct.

At last the number of seven was reached, and they would probably have proceeded in trying others, had not General Mitchel, who was continually troubling them, now advanced, and shelled Chattanooga from the opposite side of the Tennessee river. This at once broke up the court-martial, and sent the officers in hot haste to their regiments to resist his progress. Soon after, General Morgan advanced through Cumberland Gap, and threatened Knoxville, which also rendered it necessary to remove us.

Evacuated to Atlanta, they there “remained for a week in quietness and hope, thinking the worst of our trials were past,” Pettinger wrote. “Little did we foresee how fearful a storm was soon to burst over us.”

For its topicality to our site, we here excerpt Pettinger’s chapter 11 at some length:

One day while we were very merry, amusing ourselves with games and stories, we saw a squadron of cavalry approaching. This did not at first excite any attention, for it was a common thing to see bodies of horsemen in the streets; but soon we observed them halt at our gate, and surround the prison. What could this mean?

A moment after, the clink of the officers’ swords was heard as they ascended the stairway, and we knew that something unusual was about to take place. They paused at our door, threw it open, called the names of our seven companions, and took them out to the room opposite, putting the Tennesseeans in with us. One of our boys, named Robinson, was sick of a fever, and had to be raised to his feet, and supported out of the room.

With throbbing hearts we asked one another the meaning of these strange proceedings. Some supposed they were to receive their acquittal; others, still more sanguine, believed they were taken out of the room to be paroled, preparatory to an exchange.

I was sick, too, but rose to my feet, oppressed with a nameless fear. A half crazy Kentuckian, who was with the Tennesseeans, came to me and wanted to play a game of cards. I struck the greasy pack out of his hands, and bade him leave me.

A moment after, the door opened, and George D. Wilson entered, his step firm and his form erect, but his countenance pale as death. Some one asked a solution of the dreadful mystery, in a whisper, for his face silenced every one.

The raiders hanged June 18, 1862

  • William Hunter Campbell, a civilian
  • Pvt. Samuel Robertson
  • Sgt. Major Marion Ross
  • Sgt. John Scott
  • Pvt. Charles Shadrack
  • Pvt. Samuel Slavens
  • Pvt. George Davenport Wilson

“We are to be executed immediately,” was the awful reply, whispered with thrilling distinctness. The others came in all tied, ready for the scaffold. Then came the farewells — farewells with no hope of meeting again in this world! It was a moment that seemed an age of measureless sorrow.

Our comrades were brave; they were soldiers, and had often looked death in the face on the battle-field. They were ready, if need be, to die for their country; but to die on the scaffold — to die as murderers die — seemed almost too hard for human nature to bear.

Then, too, the prospect of a future world, into which they were thus to be hurled without a moment’s preparation, was black and appalling. Most of them had been careless, and had no hope beyond the grave. Wilson was a professed infidel, and many a time had argued the truth of the Christian religion with me for a half day at a time; but in this awful hour he said to me:

“Pittenger, I believe you are right, now! Oh! try to be better prepared when you come to die than I am.” Then, laying his hand on my head with a muttered “God bless you,” we parted.

Shadrack was profane and reckless, but good-hearted and merry. Now, turning to us with a voice, the forced calmness of which was more affecting than a wail of agony, he said:

“Boys, I am not prepared to meet Jesus.”

When asked by some of us in tears to think of heaven, he answered, still in tones of thrilling calmness, “I’ll try! I’ll try! But I know I am not prepared.”

Slavens, who was a man of immense strength and iron resolution, turned to his friend Buffum, and could only articulate, “Wife — children — tell” — when utterance failed.

Scott was married only three days before he came to the army, and the thought of his young and sorrowing wife nearly drove him to despair. He could only clasp his hands in silent agony.

Ross was the firmest of all. His eyes beamed with unnatural light, and there was not a tremor in his voice as he said, “Tell them at home, if any of you escape, that I died for my country, and did not regret it.”

All this transpired in a moment, and even then the Marshal and other officers standing by him in the door, exclaimed:

“Hurry up there! come on! we can’t wait!”

In this manner my poor comrades were hurried off. Robinson, who was too sick to walk, was dragged away with them. They asked leave to bid farewell to our other boys, who were confined in the adjoining room, but it was sternly refused!

Thus we parted. We saw the death cart containing our comrades drive off, surrounded by cavalry. In about an hour it came back empty. The tragedy was complete!

Later in the evening, the Provost-Marshal came to the prison, and, in reply to our questions, informed us that our friends “Had met their fate as brave men should die everywhere.”


((cc) image from Jason Riedy).

The next day we obtained from the guards, who were always willing to talk with us in the absence of the officers, full particulars of the seven-fold murder.

When our companions were mounted on the scaffold, Wilson asked permission to say a few words, which was granted — probably in the hope of hearing some confession which would justify them in the murder they were about to commit. But this was not his intention. It was a strange stand — a dying speech to a desperate audience, and under the most terrible circumstances.

But he was equal to the occasion. Unterrified by the near approach of death, he spoke his mind freely. He told them that “they were all in the wrong; that he had no hard feelings toward the Southern people for what they were about to do, because they had been duped by their leaders, and induced by them to engage in the work of rebellion. He also said, that though he was condemned as a spy, yet he was none, and they well knew it. He was only a soldier in the performance of the duty he had been detailed to do; that he did not regret to die for his country, but only regretted the manner of his death. He concluded by saying that they would yet live to regret the part they had taken in this rebellion, and would see the time when the old Union would be restored, and the flag of our country wave over the very ground occupied by his scaffold.”

This made a deep impression on the minds of those who listened, and I often afterward heard it spoken of in terms of the highest admiration. When he ceased, the signal was given, and the traps fell!

Five only remained dangling in the air; for two of the seven, Campbell and Slavens, being very heavy men, broke the ropes, and fell to the ground insensible. In a short time they recovered, and asked for a drink of water, which was given them. Then they requested an hour to pray before entering the future world which lay so near and dark before them. This last petition was indignantly refused, and as soon as the ropes could be adjusted, they were compelled to re-ascend the scaffold, and were again turned off!

The whole proceeding, from beginning to end, was marked by the most revolting haste. They seemed to wish, by thus affording no time to prepare for death, to murder soul and body both. Even the worst criminals in our country are allowed some weeks to ask for God’s mercy, before they are thrust into his presence; but our poor boys, whose only crime was loving and trying to serve their country, were not allowed one moment! Could the barbarity of fiends go further?

That afternoon was one of deepest gloom for those who remained. We knew not how soon we might be compelled to follow in the same path, and drink the same bitter cup our comrades drank. Once during the trial we had offered to accept the award of the court in one of the cases as the sentence of all, since we could not see the slightest reason for leaving some and taking others. At that time, however, we believed that all would be acquitted. Now every hope had vanished.

But even without the addition of fear for ourselves, the parting from our loved friends, whose voices were still ringing in our ears, while they themselves had passed beyond the gates of death into the unknown land of shadows, was enough to rend the stoutest heart. There were tears then from eyes that shrank before no danger.

But I could not shed a tear. A cloud of burning heat rushed to my head that seemed to scorch through every vein. For hours I scarcely knew where I was, or the loss I had sustained. Every glance around the room, which revealed the vacant places of our friends, would bring our sorrow freshly on us again. Thus the afternoon passed away in grief too deep for words. Slowly and silently the moments wore on, and no one ventured to whisper of hope.

Fearing they could suffer snap execution at any moment, the remaining raiders made their own hope.

Weeks later, a jail breakout freed eight; all eight covered the hundreds of miles to Union lines safely.

The last six, Pettinger included, were captured in the attempt and remained as war prisoners until the following March, when they were swapped back to the Union in a prisoner exchange.

Strange to say, the United States at the outset of the Civil War did not have a standing military decoration. One of the fruits of this fratricidal conflict was the creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which remains to this day the highest honor bestowed within the U.S. armed forces. Abraham Lincoln signed the enabling legislation in July of 1862; they were minted beginning at the end of that year and formally became available as decorations on March 3, 1864.

Our last six survivors — the six exchanged for Confederate POWs — presented themselves to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on March 25, 1863. In the course of the visit, Stanton presented them with the first six Medals of Honor ever awarded; ultimately, 19 of Andrews’s Raiders received the award — whether living or dead. (Andrews himself was not eligible for it, as a civilian.)


We have included here several clips of the 1956 Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase. This escapade was also the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy, The General, which can be enjoyed in full online:

For a look at the real General in action in 1962 for the Great Chase’s centennial, take a gander at this video. The Texas is on public display at Atlanta’s Southern Museum‘s exhibit on the Great Locomotive Chase.

* In the event Union forces would probe Chattanooga in 1862, but that city was only besieged in earnest and captured at the end of 1863: it was from Chattanooga that Gen. William T. Sherman launched his famous march to the sea.

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1940: 32 innocent Poles

1 comment June 6th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1940, in the tiny village of Celiny in Nazi-occupied Poland, German soldiers and gendarmes stood 32 Polish citizens against the wall of a house and shot them all to death.

The victims of the shooting had, by the Germans’ own admission, done nothing to deserve their fate. They were killed in reprisal for crimes committed by others: namely, the murder of a German gendarme the previous day.

Seventy years later, the inhabitants of Celiny shared their memories of the incident with British historian Mary Fulbrook:*

Two Poles had apparently become involved in a dispute with the gendarme, provoked by a disagreement over the legality of ordering a certain dish in a local hostelry: that particular cut of meat was not supposed to be available to Poles under the rationing system introduced by the German administration. The Poles initially succeeded in escaping from the fracas by bicycle, but were caught up by the gendarme, on a motorbike, in Celiny; here, a further scuffle had ensued, in the course of which the gendarme was fatally wounded.

In a slightly different version of the story, the German gendarme had not even been killed by the Poles but had died as a result of crashing when, somewhat inebriated as well as angry, he took a corner too fast in pursuit of the two Poles. Whatever the truth of the matter, the latter knew they were in for trouble and rapidly escaped; they were nowhere to be tracked down.

The Germans had previously registered prominent local citizens to serve as hostages for just this sort of situation. But everyone on the registration list was forewarned by their friends and family and went into hiding to avoid arrest.

The next morning, unable to find any of their hostages, the local German authorities got together and argued for a full three hours over what to do. In the end they settled on a plan: They went to the prison in the nearby city of Sosnowiec and grabbed 32 inmates who had been “incarcerated for all the manner of reasons, including minor infringements of the most trivial of the new rules imposed by the German occupation, political resistance, and sheer bad luck.”

The men’s bad luck got even worse: the 32 men (29 Catholics and three Jews) were trucked fifteen miles back to Celiny, taken to the scene of the fight from the night before, stood in a row against the wall and shot dead at point-blank range.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Fulbrook visited the site of the massacre:

The wall against which the thirty-two people were shot remains pockmarked by the bullet holes, daubed now with dashes of red paint to intimate their bloody origins; there is a memorial stone, for which money had arduously to be raised among the local community; and fresh flowers were often laid there, to keep the memory of former compatriots and relatives alive.

The memorial stone lists the names of the 29 Catholic victims, but not the names of the Jews, apparently because the townspeople didn’t know who they were.

Fulbrook notes that this incident seems insignificant when put into context of the “enormity of other crimes that were soon to engulf the area.” Indeed, she says, “This incident would scarcely bear mention in comparison with the crimes committed on an infinitely larger scale at Auschwitz.”

But to the tiny village it was devastating and not easily forgotten — a small emblem of the countless nameless Poles casually put to execution in those years.

Andrzej Wróblewski

The Polish Andrzej Wróblewski created this series of eight paintings titled Rozstrzelania (Executions) in 1949, the year he turned 22. (They have no specific connection to the Celiny executions.)

* Mary Fulbrook was interviewed about her Holocaust research in this New Books In History podcast.

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1915: Kassim Ismail Mansoor, purveyor of coffee and treason

Add comment May 31st, 2015 Headsman

A century ago today, an Indian Muslim named Kassim Ismail Mansoor was hanged by the British in Singapore as a traitor.

The treason in question concerned the dramatic mutiny some months previous of Singapore’s 5th Light Infantr — Muslims who had feared that they would be dispatched to World War I’s European charnel house. (Ironically, the British brass had no such intent: they already considered these troops too unreliable, for some reason.)

Many of the mutineers were shot en masse by summary court-martial.

Our man Mansoor was not a fighter but a civilian coffee-shop proprietor. Having come into the confidence of some of his countrymen enough to know the mutinous thrust of their grievances, he made bold put in writing an appeal to the Rangoon consul of the Ottoman Empire — Britain’s wartime enemy — for the intervention of Turkish warships that could pick up their disaffected Muslim brethren and turn together against the British. Unfortunately for Mansor, that missive fell into British hands.

A 1937 retrospective series in the Straits Times on the distinguished career of Mansoor’s defense counsel, Sir Vincent Devereux Knowles, dives into the case here: 1, 2. Knowles, it says, knew his task was quite hopeless.

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1865: Stanislaw Brzoska, Polish patriot priest

Add comment May 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Freedom-fighting Polish priest Stanislaw Brzoska was hanged in the marketplace of Sokolow Podlaski on this date in 1865.

A young firebrand who had already served time in a Russian fortress because of his nationalist harangues, Brzoska (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) put his faith into deeds with the 1863 January Uprising against Russia’s domination of what was once the Polish-Lithuanian Empire.

He fought in several battles, and a 40-man mounted unit he had personally raised was in the field until the end of 1864 — well after Russia had quelled most other resistance.

Finally cornered in April 1865 and captured in a gunfight, he was executed before a crowd of thousands. Later generations, with an independent Poland to call their own, have garlanded Brzoska’s memory with various markers and statues.

Polish speakers might enjoy this presentation of the hero-priest’s life:

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