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.
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 handsrepeatedly 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.
Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.
Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”
Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.
With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.
She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.
She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.
July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.
Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.
“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”
Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.
We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.
Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”
* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.
** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.
† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.
See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”
…has got to be one of the most agonizing exits from the world we can imagine… Its effects are horrific… The sensations experienced have been described as the sense of having a burning ball of hot metal in the gut; on top of that, the victim has vicious diarrhea, vomiting and spasms in the joints, dizziness and consequent depression.
Frederick Bryant was to die that way.
Charlotte was born and raised in Ireland. She and Frederick met there in 1922, where he was serving with the military police. Charlotte, who was only about nineteen at the time, had the reputation as a girl who would sleep with anyone. Frederick didn’t seem to mind her reputation, though, and they so they married and moved to a tiny, rural village in Dorset, and he sought work as a farm laborer.
Charlotte’s open promiscuity continued, and soon evolved into prostitution. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her for her gallantries. It was said that, when someone asked Frederick how he felt about this, he pointed out he was earning less than said £2 a week as a cowman and said, “Four pounds a week is better than thirty bob [shillings]. I don’t care a damn what she does.”
Charlotte ultimately bore five children, some of whom may have been Frederick’s.
This situation continued until 1933, when Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a man who was himself married, and fell in love. Not only did the easygoing Frederick accept this relationship, he actually invited Parsons to live with them. Parsons did, and things actually went quite well for some time. Parsons paid the Bryants room and board, which made Frederick happy. Parsons and Charlotte got to have sex all the time, which made them happy. Win-win.
But finally Frederick asked Parsons to move out.
Frederick Bryant became inexplicably ill in May 1935 after eating tea Charlotte had prepared for him. He recovered within a few days and he and his doctor shrugged and passed it off as gastroenteritis. In August he got sick again with the same symptoms as before, and as before, he soon recovered.
In November, Leonard Parsons told Charlotte he was going to leave her and find another job somewhere else. She was devastated.
By the time the Christmas season rolled around, Frederick was sick again. This time his symptoms were serious and he writhed in agony, “saying there was something inside him like a red-hot poker that was driving him mad.” He was sent to Sherbourne Hospital for treatment, but died a few days before Christmas.
Frederick’s doctor, who had treated him through these mysterious bouts of gastric illness, was suspicious: the symptoms the dead man had complained of corresponded exactly to arsenic poisoning, and like everyone else in the area he knew Charlotte as something less than the good wife. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and notified the police of his suspicions.
A very thorough investigation began. A chemistry expert from Scotland Yard was given
complete organs, including the stomach and contents, small and large intestines, urine in the bladder, vomit and excreta, complete lungs, portions of skin and hair, brain and nails. In addition, these were taken from the area around the body: samples of soil from above the coffin, below the coffin and from the adjacent ground, sawdust from the coffin, and a portion of the shroud.
Sure enough: the results showed that Frederick’s flesh and the environs of his corpse were positively dripping with arsensic. Altogether 4.09 grains were discovered. Anywhere between 2 and 4 grains comprises a fatal dose.
While the chemist was at work analyzing his myriad of evidence, the police were questioning Charlotte. She denied having harmed her husband and said she had not recently purchased arsenic or anything containing it. However, a friend of the couple had some interesting things to say: Charlotte had a tin of arsenic-laced Eureka brand weed killer and said “I must get rid of this … If nothing is found, they can’t put a rope round your neck!”
After a search, the police found a partially burned tin of Eureka weed killer. Dirt and ash samples from the rubbish heap where it had been discarded tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic.
But they still had to prove Charlotte bought that tin of weed killer.
The Scotland Yard analyst had a look at Charlotte’s coat and found arsenic dust in the right-hand pocket at a staggering 58,000 parts per million. (By comparison, the average amount of arsenic found in ordinary soil is about 18 parts per million.)
Records showed that someone had purchased Eureka weed killer from a local chemist’s shop at around the right date, signing their name on the poison register with only an X. Charlotte was illiterate and could not have signed her name, but would have used her mark instead. The chemist said he knew the woman who came in to buy the poison but claimed that in spite of this, he would be unable to identify her now. He was probably trying cover his own tracks: it was illegal for a chemist to sell arsenic to anyone they didn’t know.
Parsons was questioned about Frederick’s murder. He had an alibi and was cleared of suspicion, but the police decided they’d accumulated enough against Charlotte, and arrested her for murder.
At her trial in May 1936, her attorney stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence and warned the jury not to take Charlotte’s promiscuity into account. After all, she was on trial for murder, not for sleeping around. No one had seen Charlotte poison any food or give poisoned food to her husband, and the chemist still couldn’t or wouldn’t identify her as the woman who bought the weed killer at his shop.
Nonetheless, the verdict was guilty. Desperate efforts were made on her behalf to get her a new trial; some people believed the chemistry expert’s evidence had been faulty. These efforts came to nothing. Charlotte wrote a letter to the King, begging for a royal pardon, but this was ignored. She died protesting her innocence.
A footnote to this sad and sordid story: Charlotte left a pitiful estate worth 5 shillings, 8½ pence and willed it all to her five children. (She’d learned to write her name in jail; her will was the first legal document she signed with her name rather than her mark.) Her children were trucked off to an orphanage. Mrs. Violet van der Elst, a noted anti-death penalty activist, heard of their plight and vowed to make sure they were cared for. (Van der Elst featured this case among numerous others in her 1937 tract On the Gallows.)
She also started a charitable fund for the children of executed convicts. The first donation to the fund, from van der Elst herself, was £50,000. As for the Bryant children, nothing further is known of them.
On this date in 1909, two-time murderer Garry Barrett was executed at the Alberta Penitentiary, a federal prison in Canada. To quote the Edmonton Journal, he’d made the least of his second chance.
Barrett, an American born in Michigan, had been a farmer who lived with his wife and stepchildren in Saskatchewan. He had a fairly normal existence but was prone to bouts of severe depression. It was during one of these times, on October 16, 1907, that he flew into a rage, pointed a gun at his wife, and pulled the trigger.
The gun failed to go off.
Barrett’s stepson, Burnett, threw himself in front of his mother. Barrett pulled the trigger again. This time the gun did go off. Burnett was shot and ultimately died of his injuries.
There was little he could say for himself at his murder trial, given the evidence against him, and he was accordingly convicted and sentenced to death. However, the jury recommended mercy, and the authorities commuted his sentence to life in prison and sent him to the Alberta Penitentiary in Edmonton.
On April 15, 1909, less than a year later, Barrett was working in the prison carpentry shop when he suddenly picked up a hatchet and planted it in the skull of Deputy Warden Richard Stedman.
There seemed to be no motive for his actions, as Stedman was well-liked and popular among the prison inmates. However, that day Barrett had asked to see a doctor and Stedman hadn’t gotten one for him.
One month and two days later, Barrett found himself again before a judge facing a murder charge. This time there would be no recommendation of mercy.
Rather than summon a professional hangman to execute the condemned man, the prison used one of its own guards. Barrett’s last words were, “Gentlemen, I am going to be hanged, but I killed the deputy warden in self-defense. Had I not done so my flesh would now be the food for vultures.” He then began denouncing members of the Masonic Order, until his speech was cut short and the chaplain commenced with the Lord’s Prayer.
Barrett’s execution was badly botched, as the Edmonton Journal records:
It was a long, slow death. The noose wasn’t properly tied, and the knot slipped out of position when the trap was sprung. The hangman twice began to cut down the body, but both times the doctor stepped in because Barrett wasn’t yet dead. He was finally declared dead of strangulation 15 minutes later.
The guard/executioner then cut the rope into pieces and distributed it to his fellow guards as souvenirs.
Barrett’s body was claimed by his son, who buried it in Butte, Montana.
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.
On this date in 1936, Earl Gardner, a “pint-sized” Apache Indian from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, hanged for the murders of his wife, Nancy, and baby son, Edward. Gardner had, for no apparent reason, axed them both to death the previous December.
This wasn’t his first time, either; in the 1920s he’d served seven years in prison for stabbing another man to death.
He tried to plead guilty to Nancy and Edward’s murders, but the judge refused to let him in spite of Gardner’s preference that the government should “take a good rope and get it over with.” Better to “die like an Apache” than die a little every day in prison, he said. With his heart never in his own defense, it’s no surprise he was convicted; appeals filed by his attorney proceeded against Gardner’s wishes, and without success.
Finding a gallows was difficult as the state of Arizona was using the gas chamber exclusively for executions, so U.S. Marshal Ben J. McKinney improvised a gallows using an old rock crusher from the Coolidge Dam project. The crusher had been abandoned within a deep gorge on the Indian reservation. A rope was strung from a crossbeam and a hole cut in the floor for the trapdoor. After there were rumors of an Indian uprising McKinney deputized a force of men and armed them to prevent any interference, and they guarded the gallows for days before the execution date.
As he stood on the contraption’s trapdoor before forty-two witnesses, Gardner was asked if he had anything to say. “Well, I’ll be glad to get it over with,” was all he could come up with. It took longer to get it over with than anyone could have anticipated. A witness recalled:
Earl went to the gallows without apparent concern and died a ghastly death. I was crouched in a corner of the crusher on a pile of gravel and damn near went through the trap after him. Earl’s shoulder struck the side of the trap and broke his fall. He hung at the end of the rope gasping … until Maricopa County Sheriff Lon Jordan, a giant of a man, stepped down through the trap and put his weight on Earl’s shoulder to tighten the noose and shut off his breathing.
When the trap sprung at 5:06 a.m., the noose slipped around to the front of Gardner’s throat, causing him to fall off-center and hit the side of the opening. His head snapped backwards but his neck didn’t break and he thrashed around for over half an hour. It wasn’t until 5:39 that his heart ceased to beat.
Earl Gardner’s death was the last legal hanging in Arizona.
Born to a globetrotting journalist, the young polyglot Saadeh was living abroad in Brazil when his native Lebanon fell from the collapsing Ottoman Empire into French hands.
He returned in 1930 to Lebanon an irredentist on the make and churned out a prodigious literary output: fiction, newspaper stories, political pamphlets.
It was his vision for a “Greater Syria” that would define the man’s legacy, and cause his death. In 1932 he secretly founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to advocate for a vast Syrian state encompassing what now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At its most ambitious this prospective state dreamt itself inscribed upon the whole Fertile Crescent from the Tauras Mountains to the Persian Gulf.
The SSNP still exists in Syria and Lebanon to this day, but it was a big cheese in the French Mandate by the late 1930s — when the imminent end of colonialism put the future shape of the entire region into question. Saadeh, harried by French authorities who had clapped him in prison a couple of times, emigrated to Argentina and carried on the struggle through exile publications.
In 1947, Saadeh returned to a rapturous reception in now-independent Lebanon:
But his pan-Syria idea was distinctly at odds with what had happened on the ground. Whatever the colonial roots of the borders that had been set down, they defined not only zones on a map but elites with an interest in their maintenance. Lebanon’s founding “National Pact” arrangement among Christians and Muslims also committed all involved to Lebanon as an independent state not to merge with Syria.
So despite (or rather because of) Saadeh’s popularity, the SSNP faced renewed crackdowns in 1948. Revolutionaries, reformers, and pan-Arabist types were surging throughout the region thanks to the distressingly shabby performance of Arab armies in their 1948 war to strangle Israel in its crib. (Lebanon fielded only a tiny force in this fight which also won no laurels; instead, Israel began its long tradition of occupying southern Lebanon.) Saadeh was certainly alarmed by the birth of a Zionist state so inimical to his own programme; “Our struggle with the enemy is not a struggle for borders but for existence,” he declared in 1948.
On July 4, 1949, the SSNP put its muscle to the test by attempting to seize state power in Lebanon — and disastrously failed. Saadeh had traveled to Damascus hoping to gain the support of the Syrian military dictator Husni al-Za’im;* instead, al-Za’im simply handed Saadeh right back to Lebanese authorities who had him tried in secret and swiftly executed.
On this date in 1911, still professing his innocence, Daniel “Nealy” Duncan hanged in the county jail at Charleston, South Carolina.
“Short, thick set and very black,”* Duncan was, at length, arrested for the murder of a King Street tailor named Max Lubelsky. Poor Mr. Lubelsky had been discovered on June 21, 1910 as he lay dying of a fractured skull — the bloody cudgel rudely enhanced with a nail abandoned beside its victim was the only clue, besides someone in the neighborhood who thought they noticed “a negro, dressed in a blue suit, wearing a derby hat”** who left the store around the time of the midday attack. The attacker’s purpose was robbery.
Granting that we find ourselves at this moment at the nadir of race relations in the Jim Crow south, these officers conceived themselves acting in good faith, torture and all. They were not utterly indiscriminate; several of the beaten-up suspects were able to produce an alibi and were duly released with their newly acquired welts. But in the absence of a witness (or knuckle-assisted self-incrimination) they had little to work with.
And so the assailant remained a mystery.
There matters still stood on July 8 when the widow Mrs. Lubelsky came racing out of her late husband’s store with blood streaming down her own face, crying murder at the top of her lungs.
To take up the narration reported in the next day’s edition of The State,
Just then a negro emerged and two men, Isaac Goodman and Moses Needle, who were passing, gave chase of the negro. He was caught a few blocks distant and promptly turned over to Police Officer Stanley and Detective Levy, who had also taken up the chase. Protesting his innocence and declaring that another negro had attempted to kill the woman, Daniels was taken to the station house amidst great excitement and the patrol wagon did not roll off any too soon from the excited neighborhood …
The State has given us an incriminating narration, but if we begin from our suspect’s denial it is not too difficult to conceive the scene otherwise — a bystander swept into the chaos as the panicked Mrs. Lubelsky barges out of her shop, the sudden attention of a crowd which the newsman gives us to understand was wound up enough for a lynching. You’d run, too.
The traumatized Mrs. Lubelsky insisted that it was Duncan who attacked her; this is one of the few pieces of palpable evidence we have in the case, though eyewitness error is a frequent factor in wrongful convictions. She would have glimpsed her assailant for a moment, dashed out of the store in a panic, then a fleeing man was chased down and hauled back to her — perfect cues for her memory to fix this man with all sincerity as the picture of her assailant.
And whatever the cliche about criminals returning to the scenes of their crimes, few are bold enough to repeat a literally identical attack days apart. It was basically just by analogy that the July 8 assault was held to place Duncan at the scene of the murder 17 days before; the vague description of the blue-suited man who might or might not have had anything to do with the murder could have fit Duncan or numerous other people. A local black man said that Duncan had been in the area on the day Max Lubelsky was killed, which would scarcely rise to the level of circumstantial even were one to discount the possible confirmation bias (or police pressure) introduced by Duncan’s arrest.
One would like to think (forlorn hope!) that a jury in 2015 would demand better than this to stretch a man’s neck … but in Charleston in 1910, it was enough to surpass reasonable doubt.†
The State, Oct. 8, 1910.
Duncan’s insistence on innocence was passed down in his own family and in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church whose congregation the hanged man once belonged to. In these halls, he is widely understood to have been an innocent man and this conclusion has not wanted for latter-day advocates.‡
The case surfaced to the broader public recently, with a push around the centennial of Duncan’s hanging to have him posthumously exonerated. The measure failed on a 3-3 vote in 19112011.
Left: Dead Weight, a historical novel based on the Duncan case; right: Charleston’s Trial, a nonfiction account.
Duncan was the last person hanged in Charleston, but not the last in South Carolina; there was a double execution in December of 1911 before the Palmetto state adopted electrocution beginning in 1912.
* The State (Columbia, S.C.), June 11, 1911.
** The State, June 22, 1911.
† The supernaturally inclined took notice from the August 1911 hurricane that devastated Charleston as a portend of Duncan’s innocence — and nicknamed it “the Duncan storm”.
‡ 2010-2011 media accounts indicated that the victim’s descendants did not share such confidence in Duncan’s innocence.
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.
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.