Posts filed under '20th Century'

1960: Anthony Miller, the last hanged at Barlinnie

Add comment December 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1960, 19-year-old Anthony Miller became the 10th and last person executed at Scotland’s Barlinnie Prison.*

Miller worked in a team with a 16-year-old accomplice in a “queer-rolling” racket: the younger James Denovan would lure a mark with the promise of an assignation, then Miller would jump him and turn a 2-against-1 robbery. Artless, but effective.

With such a crude m.o., it’s no wonder Miller and Denovan beat a man all the way to death in the course of one of their shake-downs. Since he was a minor, Denovan drew a prison term. Miller … not so lucky. His plaintive last words, “Please, Mister …” form the title of a play about his life written by Patrick Harkins.

Tour Barlinnie’s capital punishment environs with one of its old death-watch officers in this David Graham Scott short film, “Hanging With Frank”:

* Not to be confused with the last executed in Scotland full stop. Miller was the second-last in Scotland.

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1939: Fifty-six Poles shot in retaliation at Bochnia

1 comment December 18th, 2014 Headsman

We owe this discomfiting executioner’s-eye view from the ranks of German soldiers as they gun down Poles in the town of Bochnia on December 18, 1939 to a partisan attack two days prior by a Polish underground organization called White Eagle. Fifty-six civilians were executed in retaliation.

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1954: Eugen Turcanu, torturer

Add comment December 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Eugen Turcanu and 16 other Romanian political prisoners were executed at Jilava prison.

Turcanu et al were noted as the truncheon arm of one of 20th century’s more blood-chilling torture programs, the Pitesti experiment. (Named for the facility where it began, Pitesti prison.)

As if taking Orwell’s 1984 as a paragon instead of a grim dystopian warning, the Pitesti experiment subjected several thousand political and religious dissidents to a savage course of ideological re-engineering. The object was to beat and brainwash undesirables into model Communists.

“Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation,” Orwell’s torturer-apparatchik O’Brien in the novel. “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

Turcanu knew from the inside just what that sort of transformation entailed. He was by all appearances a proper Communist and a member of the right clubs thereto when, on the cusp of his 23rd birthday in 1948, he was arrested for a youthful prewar affiliation with the fascist Legionary movement.

He caught a harsh seven-year sentence but found his (short) life’s work in prison. His wheedling convinced wardens of his ideological suitability, and his Herculean physique suggested tasks that could only be entrusted to a co-founder of the Organization of Convinced Communist Detainees.

From late 1949 into 1952, Turcanu and a team of fellow goons were employed dishing out near-lethal thrashings on a wholesale scale to wrongthinkers. One thousand to five thousand souls are thought to have passed through the hands of Turcanu’s team; Soviet gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Pitesti “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”

As is customary with torturers, the ordeals extended far beyond brute force to invasive ritual debasement: people forced to eat shit, sexually humiliated, and manipulated into themselves turning torturer on their fellow prisoners and former friends. There’s a video documentary about this program (forcusing especially on its religious persecutions) embedded in its entirety here.

Obviously such practices, enacted on a nigh-industrial scale, were not the freelance initiatives of a few bad apples in the prison system. But no reader of the 21st century will be surprised that it was only the kapos like Turcanu who were punished for it once Stalin’s death relaxed the oppressive ideological terror in eastern Europe. While 22 prisoners were condemned (and 17 ultimately shot), the officers of Romania’s state police who had overseen them “suffered” things like reprimands and amnestied misdemeanor convictions.

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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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1949: John Wilson and Benjamin Roberts, Syd Dernley’s first(s)

2 comments December 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1949, two young miners from northern England were hanged together at Durham prison for unrelated crimes of passion: one had ravaged and strangled another man’s wife when his attempts to seduce her were met with a demand for money; the other had murdered a local girl (and then botched his suicide) when he found himself on the third point of a love triangle.

Both crimes happened on the same weekend, just a few miles apart — so they were tried at the same assizes and advanced through the process from murder to hanging-date together. Double executions were already quite rare at this point: this date’s affair was among the last such events in UK history.*

However, it was the very first execution in which Syd Dernley participated.

Dernley was an assistant executioner for 20-odd hangings, and while he’s far from the most noteworthy man to tread the scaffold, his 1989-90 The Hangman’s Tale: Memoirs of a Public Executioner might interest the person who takes up the pen for a labor history of the modern death penalty.

Dernley, a Nottinghamshire pit welder by day, gives an inside look at the recruitment process and on-the-job operations for a minor-league hangman. Bored with his job, he wrote the Prison Commission cold in January 1947 offering his services (“I feel sure that I could do the job”), got a generic polite dismissal, and then was one of several rookie volunteers summoned in October 1948 for a training course — a rationalization of the qualification process to go with the rationalization of hangings themselves.

Dernley had to wait a full year and then some to actually get into the act.** The basic hanging protocol featured a lead executioner and an assistant who would together escort their man to the gallows platform and perform the hanging; since this was a double execution, there are two such pairs involved. Dernley here is the assistant of veteran hangman Steve Wade. The other pair has Henry Kirk as the lead hangman, assisted by Harry Allen.†

Britain didn’t have the volume of executions for anyone to be a full-time hangman, although some hangmen, like Kirk, were also prison officers.

Jobs were farmed out by the Prison Commission among its small roster of active executioners, and would begin for the hangman with the receipt of a package from the Commission with two copies of a Memorandum of Conditions for executioners’ employment — one for the executioner’s records, and one to return to the Commission when formally accepting the assignment.

The day before the hanging, the executioners traveled to the prison where the sentence was to be carried out. The hanging team would not leave the prison’s walls until the execution was complete: after their prep work on execution’s eve, they slept in the jail.

Although prisoners rarely realized this until the last moment, the gallows platform stood just steps outside the condemned cells, the better for the instant performance of the actual hanging. They waited until Wilson and Roberts were safely out of earshot at chapel or in the exercise yard to set up the ropes.

The lead executioner Wade “controlled and double-checked everything from the moment he opened the execution boxes and took out the three ropes. He examined each of them minutely before rejecting one of them which was immediately coiled up and returned to the box. He measured the drop along the rope and marked it with chalk. I was allowed to shackle the rope to one of the chains hanging down from the beam and I had to go up the steps to adjust the chain as we got the chalk mark to the height of the man’s head, but [Wade] went up the steps to check both the shackling and the chain when I had finished.”

Once both ropes had been prepped, they noosed two sandbags approximating the respective weights of the prisoners, summoned the prison governor, and performed an actual test hanging. Everything went off without a hitch.

They dined that night, and breakfasted the next morning, on prison mash — it was invariably eggs and bacon for breakfast, Dernley remembered later in his career. After stealing silently back into the execution chamber, practically in the shadow of the last devotions of their unwitting prey, they repositioned the ropes which had been (intentionally) stretched out by half an inch from being left dangling their sandbags overnight. The ropes, and their supporting chains, needed to be positioned such that the noose dangled at convenient head height — again, the efficiency of the actual hanging was paramount — and so that, when the trap was released, the rope provided a drop of the precise length necessary to break the neck.

The next forty-five minutes as we waited in our quarters for the call were about the worst of my life. Everything that needed to be said had been said and it was clearly no time for social chit-chat, so we sat there and waited. There was fear afoot in the prison; you could almost smell it. The whole place was silent, waiting.

The butterflies in my stomach, which had disappeared when we went to the execution chamber and had something to do, were back with a vengeance. A jumble of thoughts flitted through my mind. Questions: Would we do a good job? Would I put up a good showing? Would we be quick? There were fears too: Will he fight? How will I handle it if he does?

The door opened and a warder took a step into the room. Wade got to his feet. “It’s time,” he said simply. “Are you ready?” I nodded. I don’t think I could have said anything. Kirky looked across at me and smiled. “Make it a good job, young ‘un,” he said quietly.

In those last few moments I was most conscious of faces, faces turned towards us … screws standing quite still at strategic points, all staring at us … the people standing near the doors of the condemned cells watching us approach … the faces of the official party as they glanced over their shoulders … but above all the face of the clock hanging on the wall at the end of the wing. It was a gigantic thing, about three feet across, and the minute hand was now just a fraction away from nine o’clock.

We were halfway to the condemned cells when the silence was broken and my blood froze. The sound was faint to begin with but it rapidly swelled — singing!

I could not believe my ears. “Jesu … lover … of my soul,” croaked the quavering voice.

Another stronger voice joined in: “Let me to thy bosom fly.”

“Who the hell is that?” I asked one of the screws who was walking along beside me.

He looked shattered but he was not going to admit it. “It’s one of them you’re going to top in a minute,” he replied, trying to sound cool.

With that eerie sound ringing round the wing, we arrived outside the condemned cells. The singing was coming from number two cell, and for the next thirty seconds we stood listening to the doomed man and his priest singing in harmony. In other circumstances it might have been lovely. Here, now, it was weird and unreal.

Everyone was in position as the hands of the huge clock moved the last fraction of an inch to nine o’clock: Wade and I outside the number one cell; Harry and Kirky a few steps away across the landing outside the number two cell …

From the instant the cell door cracked open, the prisoner should have just a few seconds left to live — although the prisoner wouldn’t realize that fact since his guards were under strict orders to brush off the doomed fellow’s inevitable questions about procedure. The two executioners would walk to the center of the cell, stand the prisoner up, and each taking an arm, efficiently pinion them behind his back. Then they whisked him out a secondary door which opened directly to the execution chamber, where they’d glide right into the waiting head-height noose. The name of the game for the hangmen was calm and firmness: don’t scare the man unnecessarily, just enter with professional inevitability and have the man on his noose in less time than it would take him to find the wit for panic or swoon or fight.

The double job complicated matters, but only slightly. The plan was for Wade and Dernley to enter cell number one only moments before Kirky and Allen entered cell number two. That way, both Wilson and Roberts would enter the scaffold singly and the respective hanging teams wouldn’t be in one another’s way — but it would only entail an extra second or two on the traps for the dead men as they were positioned in rapid sequence. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Wade moved straight through the door and I followed him into the cell. It seemed quite crowded with the two warders backing clear and the white-faced priest sitting on the other side of the table looking up at us. The condemned man was positioned as per the book, sitting at the table with his back to the door.

By the time I got to him, he was on his feet and Wade was bringing his left arm behind his back. There was no resistance as I caught hold of his right arm. He just let me bring it behind his back and Wade was waiting for it.

Things were moving incredibly quickly, there was hardly time to take anything in. Wade was walking through the yellow doors. Our man had turned to watch him but had not moved so I just put my hand on his shoulder and, with only the gentlest of pressure, he started to follow. A warder either side of him, we walked through and on to the trap. Wade stopped him and I slipped the legstrap out of my pocket, bobbed down and fastened it round his ankles.‡ I doubt I had ever done it so quickly but by the time I stood up and took a pace off the trap, Wade had finished and the man was standing with his head hidden under the bag and the noose round his neck.

Just the way they drew it up … except the Kirky-Allen team was nowhere to be found.

They should have been on the trap by now and there was no sign of them!

They were having some sort of trouble, but what? As the seconds ticked away, I strained to hear what was going on, but there was not a sound coming from the other side of the landing. That at least was reassuring because whatever was going wrong it was not some massive fight. We would have heard that.

I looked around the cell. Wade was staring through the open door, brow creased in a frown, with wide, worried eyes. By God, he looked worried. The governor and the under-sheriff looked as white as a pair of sheets.

In the centre of all this, the hooded and noosed figure of our man — who should have been dead by now — stood waiting patiently without a sound.

I looked back through the door. Still nothing. I felt so helpless; I wanted to run through and help or do something, but I knew I had to stand just where I was.

A double hanging should take around fifteen seconds from start to finish; we had now been standing with our man ready to go for at least forty-five seconds, although it felt like hours.

A sound to my right brought my eyes back from the door into the execution chamber. One of the screws seemed about to take a pace towards our man, a look almost of horror on his face. The hooded figure was starting to sway. He was going to faint!

At that moment Kirky rushed through the door followed by the lover and Harry. Kirky, looking red-faced and flustered, immediately peeled off to the left and Wade in a blur of motion was stopping the man on the chalk T. In what seemed almost one motion, he whipped the white hood over the man’s head and flicked the noose on. I didn’t even see Harry get the legstrap on before Wade was hurling himself off the trap. The lever went over and away the whole lot went with that massive boom.

Allen later told Dernley that their man, the singing one, “just wasn’t ready” and while he didn’t fight the executioners he also didn’t comply with them as they tried to get his arms into their straps. “In the end we just had to force him.”

His nerves none the worse for the off-script debut, Dernley would remain an assistant executioner — he was never the head man — until another one of his hobbies came embarrassingly to light.


From the April 28, 1954 London Times.

Dernley published his book in 1989, by which time the British hangman was almost as archaic as the smut bust. (The poor lech died in 1994, just short of the Internet revolution.) But Dernley, unlike Pierrepoint, never evinced any second thoughts about his career on the gallows and had an unabashed pro-capital punishment position.§

“I have no regrets about what I did and I sleep pretty soundly in my bed,” he sums up. “I do not believe that my career as a hangman has had any ill-effect on me. Not that you ever get away from it so far as people are concerned — once a hangman always a hangman, it seems. Even after all these years I am still pointed out to people and I have a little chuckle to myself when I find somebody in a pub staring at me in that familiar way and I wonder who has been talking to them.” The inference from his lines, and the photos of Dernley jovially showing off his private model gallows, is that the old hangman made it a point to keep the talk going.

* Per the extremely useful Capital Punishment UK page, there was a double execution in 1950, another in 1951, another in 1952, and the last in 1954.

** Dernley did avail himself of an opportunity to witness personally the March 29, 1949, hanging of James Farrell.

† A man named Harry Allen, from Manchester, would one day be dignified Britain’s Last Executioner. In the 1960s, Allen literally did conduct one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland. However, Dernley’s counterpart in this execution is a different Harry Allen, from Birmingham.

‡ “As assistant your job will be to strap [the prisoner’s] ankles and get yourself off the trap; the number one will do everything else,” Dernley had been told at his training the year before. “If you’re still mucking about when he’s ready, the number one will tap you on the shoulder and then you don’t bugger about … you get off or go down — and it’s a nasty drop even if you haven’t got a rope round your neck.”

§ Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant for the hanging of Timothy Evans, for a murder that, three years later, would be imputed to a serial killer living in his building. Dernley’s autobiography backs the government’s whitewash conclusion that Evans was probably guilty too on the weak grounds that Evans didn’t declared his innocence at his hanging.

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1965: Andrew Pixley

Add comment December 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Andrew Pixley was gassed in Wyoming for butchering the two young daughters of a vacationing Illinois judge.

A 21-year-old high school dropout with a few petty thefts to his name, Pixley on the night of August 5-6, 1964 broken into the Jackson hotel room occupied by 12-year-old Debbie McAuliffe, her 8-year-old sister Cindy, and 6-year-old Susan.

Their parents were relaxing in the hotel lounge at the time, but would return to a nightmare scene: Debbie dead in her bed, beaten to death with a rock; Cindy, strangled; and this slight stranger drunk or insensible lying on the floor of their room covered in their daughters’ gore. Both girls also appeared to have been sexually assaulted. (Somehow, the youngest daughter was not attacked.)

Judge Robert McAuliffe seized the stranger, while police — and soon behind them, an angry mob calling for Judge Lynch — followed his wife’s screams to the scene.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Teton County attorney Floyd King later said. Pixley claimed that the night’s events were a blank in his mind.

Remembered for this one night of madness as one of Wyoming’s most brutal criminals, Andrew Pixley reputedly still haunts Wyoming’s Old Frontier Prison, and gives tour guides at facility (it’s a museum now) the heebie-jeebies.

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1975: Isobel Lobato, wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister

2 comments December 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1975, the wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister was publicly executed on the docks of her conquered country’s capital.

By the happenstances of colonial expansion, East Timor, a 15,000-square kilometer half-island in the Lesser Sundas, chanced to have the Portuguese flag planted on its soil instead of (as characterized the rest of its surrounding Indonesian archipelago) the Dutch.

Because of this, Timor-Leste did not walk the same path trod by Indonesia: it did not share in Indonesia’s 1945 revolution breaking away from the Netherlands, nor in the 1965 coup d’etat that put the Suharto military dictatorship in charge of that country.

While these years of living dangerously played out throughout the vast island chains, and even in West Timor, little East Timor remained Portuguese property into the 1970s.

But by that time, colonialism was wearing out its welcome in that onetime maritime empire. A long-running, and ever more unpopular, war against independence fighters in Portugal’s African colonies finally helped to trigger the mother country’s 1974-75 Carnation Revolution and a new regime interested in immediate decolonization.

Abruptly — arguably, too abruptly — Portugal began divesting herself of her onetime empire’s onetime jewels, including not only East Timor but Goa on the coast of India (oops), and the African states of Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola. These would immediately become contested violently by proxies backed by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Though easily the least lucrative and strategically essential of these forsaken colonies, Timor too felt the the Cold War’s hand.

Western-allied Suharto eyed warily the Timorese left-wing insurgent movement turned political party that went so far as to declared Timorese independence in November of 1975. In response, Indonesia gathered the main opposition parties under its own umbrella and had them produce a declaration calling for — wouldn’t you know it? — unification with Indonesia.

By that time, the fall of 1975, it was becoming apparent that such a unification would soon be a fait accompli. Indonesian commandos were penetrating East Timor, even making bold enough to murder western journalists. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the blessing of Washington, D.C.*

The ensuing 24-year occupation was a notorious bloodbath, and Indonesian troops set the standard right from day one … or, in this case, day two.

On December 8, in the now-occupied capital city of Dili, dozens of Timorese elites were marched to the quay under the frightened gaze of their countrymen and -women, and there publicly shot into the harbor. Notable among them was Isobel Lobato, the wife of Nicolau Lobato, who had been the prime minister of Timor’s brief moment of independence in 1975.

Nicolau Lobato himself did not hare his wife’s fate, however. He escaped into the bush where he helped lead a remarkably persistent anti-occupation guerrilla movement until he was finally killed in a firefight in 1978. Post-independence, Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport was re-named in his honor.

* President Gerald Ford and his fell henchman Henry Kissinger flew out of Jakarta hours before the invasion, arriving in Hawaii where they would demur on reporters’ inquiries as to whether they had green-lighted the unfolding incursion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at that time America’s U.N. envoy, boasted in his memoirs that “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

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1985: Carroll Edward Cole

Add comment December 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1985, serial killer Carroll Edward “Eddie” Cole was executed in Nevada.

A smart and troubled Iowa boy, Cole‘s earliest memories were of his mother’s thrashings to scare him into keeping quiet about the affairs she had while dad was away fighting World War II.

One never knows how trauma will work its way with this or that child. In Cole’s case, it twisted him early on: he nursed a deepening hatred for women and a callousness to his fellows that would one day be diagnosed as psychopathy. Cole’s final body count is not known for sure, but while in prison he would claim that the first of them was a bullying schoolmate named Duane whom he drowned. Duane’s death had been ruled by examiners as an accident.

Carroll tested with a genius-level I.Q., but his criminal career was not one of devious brilliance. Alcoholism and petty crime — soon not so petty at all — consumed him in his adolescence and put him on his way to a rootless, lonely life alternating dead end jobs, catastrophic relationships, jail terms, and mental institutions.

The latter two did not acquit themselves well for their frequent contact with the budding butcher. Over and over, Cole was discharged without the benefit of either treatment or restraint even though Cole himself sought help on several occasions. In 1963, a psychiatrist at Stockton State Hospital in California observed that Cole “seems to be afraid of the female figure and cannot have intercourse with her first but must kill her before he can do it.” Then, that doctor approved Cole’s release. It happened again in 1970 when he checked into a Reno facility begging doctors to help him control his fantasies of misogynist violence. The doctors didn’t buy his act and sent him on his way.

Self-medicating from the bottle, Cole drifted to Texas; he married an alcoholic stripper* there, then ended it by torching in a jealous rage the hotel where she resided. Then on to Missouri and a five-year sentence for trying to strangle a little girl there — then Nevada — then back to California. In San Diego in 1971 he finally embarked on his career in homicide, Duane notwithstanding. He picked up a woman in a bar and strangled her to death. Later he would explain that Essie Buck had proven herself faithless to her real partner: vicarious revenge against his adulterous mother.

Again, an institutional failure: Cole was questioned in this murder, but released uncharged.

And thanks to that police misstep, Eddie Cole drifted through the 1970s in a drunken fog, detained several times for the minor crimes he had been committing since his teens, but murdering often without repercussion. Soon enough he experimented with necrophilia and cannibalism, too. “In the case of a woman he murdered in Oklahoma City,” according to Charlotte Greig, “he claims he came out of an alcoholic blackout to find slices of his victim’s buttocks cooking on a skillet.”

Crime Library has a detailed biography of Cole and his murders. “Spree”, with its undertones of passion and energy, doesn’t feel like quite the right word to use for this man’s self-loathing crimes. Few serial killers better exemplify the ease with which one preys on people on the fringe, the police lethargy in investigating a suspicious death that nobody cares about.

In San Diego in 1979, he strangled one woman at his own workplace, then murdered his latest alcoholic wife Diana a few weeks later. Cole was arrested digging his wife’s grave: they still ruled the death accidental. How much simpler just to close the file on the “drunken tramp”?

Cole left California after that and returned to Dallas (pausing long enough in Las Vegas for one of the two murders that would supply him his death sentence). There he slaughtered three women in the span of 11 days and was once again on the verge of being cleared as a suspect when he simply confessed to the police. His existential scream was lost in America’s trackless underbelly; in the end, he had to beg for someone, anyone, to catch and kill him. He would claim to have killed about 35 women but even then investigators, ever skeptical, would chalk more than half that tally up to bravado.

Despite what one might think about Texas’s suitability for culminating a career in self-destruction, Cole caught only a life sentence there. Fortunately for him, his wandering ways made possible a bit of venue-shopping for the death sentence he sought.

In 1984, after his own mother died, he waived extradition and voluntarily went to face two murder charges in Nevada. There he simply pleaded guilty to capital murder.

The careworn killer rocketed from conviction in October 1984 to execution in a today-unthinkable 14 months, steadfastly repelling the attempts of outside advocates to intervene on his behalf or convince him to pick up his appeals. “I just messed up my life so bad that I just don’t care to go on,” he said.

At 1:43 a.m. this date, Cole entered Nevada’s brand-new lethal injection theater. He was not the first executed in Nevada’s (post-Gary Gilmore) “modern” era: Jesse Bishop had earned that distinction in 1979. But he was the first to die in Nevada by that modernized killing technology, lethal injection. Nevada had cribbed the idea from Texas after the Silver State’s last cutting-edge killing apparatus, the gas chamber, started leaking.

It took Cole about five minutes to finally achieve his death wish … 47 years, six months, 27 days, and those five minutes.

Emerging from the spectacle, Cole’s Nevada prosecutor enthused, “It is enjoyable to see the system work.”

* Billy Whitworth worked at a club owned by Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

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1917: Lation Scott lynched

2 comments December 2nd, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.

For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.

He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:

Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.

No trouble resulted.

In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.

The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.

The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.

And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.

These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”

Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”

Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.

Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.

The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.

The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.

Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.

It took three and a half hours for the man to die.

Margaret Vandiver wrote in Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South, “The lynching of Lation Scott was the most ghastly of all those I researched.”

This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.

Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.

According to The Crisis,

Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”

A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”

One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”

Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.


Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.

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1948: Hans Karl Möser, for rocketry

Add comment November 26th, 2014 Headsman

In 1943, punishing Allied bombing had chased Germany’s brilliant rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team away from the Baltic port of Peenemünde where their pioneering work on the V-2 rocket had taken such a heavy toll on London.

Casting about the Third Reich for a suitable spot to base the missile team, the rocketeers settled on the Kohnstein, a hill in Thuringia already hollowed out by gypsum mines. This tunnel network was readily adapted into a subterranean munitions factory called Mittelwerk — difficult for the Allies to find, and once they found it, difficult to bomb.


A U.S. Army soldier poses with a half-assembled V-2, one of about 250 such rockets found in the Mittelwerk labyrinth when the facility was captured.

With the facilities and the big brains in place, only one thing was missing: millions of man-hours of labor.

Nazi Germany had that in plentiful supply.

Beginning in late 1943, concentration camp inmates at Buchenwald began to be funneled out to a new facility, Mittelbau-Dora. Initially just a Buchenwald sub-camp, Dora grew over the course of 1944 into an immense facility holding 50,000 prisoners — a handful of German undesirables, but mostly captured foreign nationals: French, Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Russian. Short of food, sleep, and clothing for the 1944-1945 German winter, they were systematically worked to death in the Mittelwerk shafts to build a better bomb.

Our day’s principal, Hans Möser/Moeser (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an SS-Obersturmführer who made a living throughout the war years pulling guard detail in a number of concentration camps.

On May 1, 1944, Möser was transferred from Auschwitz to Mittelbau-Dora. It was the last job he would ever hold, but were Möser on the market today his C.V. would laud his team-player orientation and project management skills on a high-priority initiative. No doubt he was just the sort of reliable agent who understands how things are done that the world’s mad bombers need at their back.

“Ninety percent of the prisoners lived and worked in the tunnel of the mine,” testified one German who worked at Dora as a secretary and doctor’s aide.

As a result of the uninterrupted work in the mines and the absence of any installation for forced draft and ventilation, there prevailed a stuffy cold atmosphere, which made breathing difficult. The prisoners also slept in the subterranean tunnel in big chambers hewed out of the rocks, in five beds on top of each other. Already in 1944 3,500 prisoners used to sleep in such a room. In the tunnel of the mine there was no ater, the prisoners got absolutely insufficient quantities of tea for drinking purposes. But for weeks they were not able to wash themselves. As a result of the heavy work in the mines and of the bad food numerous prisoners died from exhaustion during their work.

According to that same testimony, the camp received a frightful order on Good Friday, which fell on March 30 in 1945: drive every last prisoner into those tunnels and bring down the caves around them. “No prisoner should be allowed to fall into Allied hands alive.”

The speedy arrival of the American 3rd Armored Division and 104th Infantry Division just days later prevented that order from taking effect.

The facilities themselves, too, were to be destroyed as part of Hitler’s scorched-earth “Nero Decree” intended to deny the benefit of German industry and infrastructure to the arriving conquerors. But Hitler’s War Production Minister Albert Speer was intentionally ignoring that order, a decision that might well have helped him avoid hanging at the Nuremberg trials.

Mittelwerk was a valuable capture indeed for the Allies. The Americans who first occupied it, and then the Russians who took it over a few months later, ransacked it for parts and technical specifications. The V-2 was the first man-made object to reach space, blasting at the speed of sound to the edge of orbit before plummeting back with its payload into the heart of London or wherever. It’s the ancestor of the long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles that would come later, as well as the space programs of the countries who could build such missiles.

And of course, it wasn’t just the parts.

Wernher von Braun himself was the top prize of all — the young genius (he was just 33 when World War II ended) with the weapons of the future in his skull. As Germany collapsed in 1945, von Braun and his team of engineers had resolved to surrender themselves to the Americans rather than the Russians, but they too were subject to an order given the SS to execute the scientists if their capture appeared imminent. The Fuhrerbunker knew as well as the Allies how valuable this asset was.

In the event, von Braun managed to give himself up to a surprised American private. He disappeared into American custody, the crown jewel of “Operation Paperclip” that grabbed some 1,500 scientists from Germany and helpfully whitewashed their past misdeeds — misdeeds like Nazi party affiliation, and participating in slave labor camps.

Firing guided rockets into space was one thing. Unfortunately for our man Möser, his own skill set of bullying subordinates was not in short supply for either of the Cold War antagonists.

Möser was the one defendant (among 15) condemned to death at the resulting trial of Dora camp personnel. Rocket scientists, naturally, were not present for the occasion; Wernher von Braun and his team were hard at work at this time at Fort Bliss, Texas adapting the V-2 to the American Hermes program.

But at Dora, it had been Möser’s job to oversee camp discipline and labor strength for the slaves doing the grunt work manufacturing von Braun’s brainchild. Testimony convinced the court that the SS man had done this far too brutally, and perhaps with sadistic pleasure.

Several witnesses testified Möser frequently beat prisoners and participated in executions, often shooting at the men who were hanged for camp infractions — while they were hanging, or after they were taken off the gallows. (And of the latter, some already dead and some still alive.) “The accused told the twelfth witness that it was a pleasure to give the mercy shots, like shooting a deer.”

Möser for his part countered that he took no joy himself in the beatings and killings that he had to conduct as part of his job — and that the camp commandant had early on reprimanded him for leniency, threatening that “in view of the importance of the V-weapons operation, this could be interpreted as sabotage because it reduced the work efficiency.” How’s that for a hostile work environment?

(There’s a large .pdf of the entire trial summary here. Möser’s section begins on page 36 of the pdf (page 68 per the numbering in the scanned book pages).)

His presence on this here site betrays the outcome. On this date in 1948, Hans Möser was hanged at Landsberg Prison along with several other (unrelated) convicted war criminals.

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