Posts filed under '20th Century'

1954: Lucretiu Patrascanu, purged Romanian

Add comment April 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Lucretiu Patrascanu was shot in Jilava Prison outside Bucharest.

The widow’s-peaked longtime pol was one of the first inductees of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) after its 1921 founding. Patrascanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was 21 years old then: the spirited politicking within the Communist movement would define the whole of his adult life.

By the 1930s, he held a position of national leadership. Patrascanu served in the Romanian legislature, and became a party representative to the Comintern.

It might have been at a Comintern road trip to Moscow in the 1930s that Patrascanu’s disillusionment with Stalin began. If so, it was beside the point: leftists in Romania (like everywhere else) had the more immediate threat of fascism to contend with.

After spending most of the war years under arrest, Patrascanu re-emerged as a state minister. He personally helped to author the August 23, 1944 coup that flipped Romania out of the Axis camp. But by the very next year he was under police surveillance.

He fell in the Soviet-driven late 1940s purge of Eastern European Titoists, for having such insufficiently internationalist notions as “before we are Communists, we are Romanians.” His time in prison was long enough for authorities to model his show trial on the 1952 Czechoslovakian Slansky trial, though Patrascanu himself disdained to denounce himself, or even to dignify the proceedings with a defense.

I have nothing to say, except [that I] spit on the charges brought against me.

He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1968 by Nicolae Ceausescu.

* Poignantly, Patrascanu was said to have read Koestler’s dystopian novel of the Soviet purges, Darkness at Noon, while an envoy to the 1946 Paris Peace Conference.

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1922: George Hornsby

1 comment April 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, George Hornsby was hanged in Belton, Texas.

We pick up the George Hornsby’s trail 18 months before his execution, when the bludgeoned body of car dealer J.N. Weatherby was discovered outside Brownwood, Texas, on October 19, 1920.

The mysterious crime was unlocked by 16-year-old Willie Carter, who told authorities that he was the accomplice of the murderer George F. Hornsby* — Carter’s sister’s lover. The motive, Carter said, was theft.

Hornsby was arrested some weeks later in Birmingham, Alabama. He would insist from that time until the trap dropped under his feet that he had already been en route to Birmingham when the crime was committed.

The warring eyewitness testimony** attempting to situate Hornsby’s whereabouts on the days surrounding Weatherby’s murder defined the case both within the courtroom and without. A jury in Belton — where the trial had been moved owing to prejudice against Hornsby in Brownwood — bought Willie Carter’s version.

This did not cinch the case in the court of public opinion, especially since Hornsby vociferously adhered to his original story.

In the weeks leading up to the execution, after Hornsby’s legal team had fought its corner and the matter was in the hands of Gov. (and pioneer tough-on-crime pol) Pat Neff, Carter recanted his testimony.†

Then, a few days later, Carter recanted his recantation.

With the evidence in such a muddle, 7,000 sympathetic Texans — heavily residents of the trial venue Bell county as against those of Brown county, where the murder occurred — petitioned Gov. Neff for Hornsby’s life. Neff ended up personally interviewing Carter to try to figure out what was what. In the end, Neff wasn’t buying what the clemency campaigners were selling, and took a lonely stand against mobs of vigilantes roaming the Lone Star state imposing summary mercy.

No finer example can be had of criminal hero-worship than when a few months ago seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight persons in Bell County signed a petition that I either pardon or commute the death sentence adjuded by court and jury against one George Hornsby. Hornsby was a man 29 years of age, a deserter from the American army, went under an assumed name to avoid identity, a transient fellow without vocation, lived with a woman not his wife on a negro street in Brownwood, and for the purpose of robbery, murdered, if human testimony is to be believed, one of the substantial citizens of Brown County. That he might have an impartial trial, removed from local influence, the case was sent to Bell County. The jury assessed the death penalty, and from the evidence as I found it to be, any other verdict would have been a travesty on justice. No sooner was the verdict of guilty rendered than there was begun by men and women, among them the very best citizens of Bell County and the equal of those of any other county, a campaign closely resembling hero-worship of the convicted murderer. Eighty per cent of the voting strength of Bell County protested to me against the punishment assessed against him. Reports stated that admiring hands brought to his cell the delicacies of life, flowers were strewn for him to walk on to the scaffold and fair women coveted the privilege of holding his hands while the black cap was being adjusted.‡ By public contributions a costly casket was purchased and flowers were piled high above his grave, even as the grave of one who had fallen in defense of his country. The murderer was praised as a hero and the Governor who refused to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeals, all declaring him guilty, was held up to scorn and ridicule.

To these more than seven thousand petitioners I made no apology then and I make none now. In the administration of the law, I am for the courthouse, its judgments and its decrees. It is the one tribunal whose sole function is to make life sacred and property secure. It is the outgrowth of the centuries, the ripened product of civilization. When people ignore the courthouse and defy the law, they are blasting with the dynamite of destruction at the very foundation of their government. Without the courthouse the weak would be made to surrender to the strong. I am for the courthouse and against the mob. If civilization is worth preserving on the battlefield when war shakes her bristling bayonets, it is worth maintaining in the courthouse, where justice, when properly supported, holds forth her delicately balanced scales. In this deluge of lawlessness and disrespect for governmental authority which has submerged the State, the courthouse will prove to be the Mount Ararat upon which the ark of the law must finally rest, to send forth the dove of peace and civilization.

Hornsby’s Ararat was the gallows. He went calmly, with a short address reiterating his innocence.

People, I don’t know many of you, but lots of you know me. People, I stand before you a saved man. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I am going to leave you people, but I am going to a better land. I am going to where we will all be treated alike. We will all be charged alike, and I want to tell you people I am going as an innocent man.

I have lived a sinful life, but I have not committed any murder, so help me God. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1922)

A crowd estimated at three to four thousand turned up for Hornsby’s funeral.

The next year, state Senator J.W. Thomas from the little Bell County town of Rogers sponsored the legislation that would centralize all Texas executions (formerly conducted, as was Hornsby’s, by local authorities) in Huntsville.

* Here are two interesting facts about George Hornsby: first, he went by “George Scott” in Brownwood before all the trouble, since he was trying to distance himself from a dishonorable army discharge; second, his search results are complicated by his case unfolding during the simultaneous emergence of baseball great Rogers Hornsby.

** Some of it is discussed in Hornsby’s (unfavorable) appellate ruling, here.

† Sign of the times: after Carter’s first recantation — before he recanted the recantation — Hornsby was moved from the Bell county jail as “a precautionary measure owing to reports that efforts to bring about a commutation of sentence were distasteful to friends of Weatherby.” (Wire report in the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Aprkl 2, 1922.)

The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a major revival in Texas during the 1920s.

‡ Actually, a high wooden palisade shielded Hornsby from public view of the flower-strewing masses. A Mrs. Bennett Smith of Temple, Texas, who helped lead the clemency campaign did offer to stand on the scaffold with Hornsby, but Hornsby seems to have declined the favor.

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1923: Paul Hadley

5 comments April 13th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1923, Paul V. Hadley was executed for murder in Arizona.

His story, however, actually begins on March 20, 1916, when Paul Hadley and his wife Ida Lee — fugitives from Beaumont, Texas on an assault with intent to commit murder charge — were taken into custody in Kansas City, Missouri. He was running a movie theater by then, living under an alias.

Hadley seemed resigned to his fate after his arrest, and didn’t fight extradition. Sheriff W.J. “Jake” Giles was charged with transporting the fugitive and his wife back to Texas on a train. (Ida wasn’t facing any charges and was accompanying her husband at her own request. They said she could come if she paid for her own ticket.)

Sheriff Giles had known the Hadleys for years. He trusted them and didn’t bother to search Ida, and at some point during the ride he removed Paul’s handcuffs. He paid for his negligence with his life: just before the train entered Checotah, Oklahoma, Ida retrieved a gun she’d hidden in the women’s toilet and shot the sheriff in the back of the head. He died within minutes, leaving nine children orphaned.

Paul took the dead man’s gun and used it to persuade the engine driver to stop the train. He and Ida jumped off and disappeared.

The pair were arrested by a posse the next day, however, and charged with Sheriff Giles’s murder. Ida was judged insane, but she wanted to share her husband’s fate and insisted on pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge, so she got sent to prison for ten years rather than to a mental hospital.

Paul was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed his conviction, but the verdict was upheld in 1918.

But Paul found another way to get out of the pen: in 1919, he persuaded the state of Oklahoma to furlough him for a sixty-day period. Accounts vary as to the reason why; it may have been so he could visit his dying mother, or it may have been because he’d invented some gadget and needed to find investors for it.

Either way, it seems that, as long as he pinky-swore he would come back, the prison authorities had no trouble granting a leave to a cop-killer with a history of escaping from custody.

You’ll be shocked to hear that Paul Hadley didn’t turn up for re-incarceration. By the time the police went looking for him, the trail was two months’ cold. Hadley was gone.

By November 1921, he was going by the name William S. Estaever and hitchhiking his way west. In Denver, Colorado he got picked up by an elderly married couple named Peter and Anna Johnson, who were driving to California. Southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Hadley pulled a gun on Peter Johnson and forced him to pull over.

He ordered the couple out of the car and shot them, killing Anna instantly and seriously wounding her husband.

Leaving Peter for dead on the roadside, Hadley took their car and drove on. The vehicle broke down, however, and as he was hoofing it to Yuma, Arizona, he was arrested. He was still carrying the murder weapon, a .32 caliber Mauser pistol.

One A.J. Eddy matched the Mauser with bullets taken from the victims’ bodies and shell casings found in their car. The defense moved to strike his testimony on the grounds that Eddy was “not an expert.” He was a lawyer by trade and his research into the area of bullet identification was only as a sideline. The judge decided, however, to grant Eddy “semi-expert” status: good enough to present his evidence in court.

Hadley claimed he and the Johnsons had been attacked by a gang of bandits and he had returned their fire, but Peter Johnson recovered from his injuries and testified against him at the trial.

The first jury was unable to reach a verdict. Hadley was convicted after a second trial, however, and sentenced to death. It was only then that authorities realized the criminal William Estaever was the fugitive from Oklahoma Paul Hadley.

Estaever/Hadley’s conviction was appealed all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court, with his appeals attorney arguing Eddy’s testimony should never been allowed into evidence. The court upheld the conviction, however, in a historic ruling: this was the first time a state supreme court had recognized ballistics evidence as valid and admissible.

The day before his death, Hadley was baptized by the Reverend J.W. Henderson and the prison doctor, James Hunter, who was a former minister. Dr. Hunter remained with Hadley the whole night and the condemned man slept fitfully and spent a long time praying and singing hymns.

He refused a final meal early that morning and calmly walked to the scaffold after the warden read the death warrant at 5:00 a.m.

His last words were, “I am innocent and ready to meet my death.” The trap sprung at 5:10 and Hadley pronounced dead five minutes later. Nobody claimed the body and so it was deposited in the prison cemetery.

As for Ida Hadley: Paul never tried to get in touch with her in the two years of his extended release from prison in Oklahoma. She remained his dutiful wife, however, and when she found out he had been convicted of murder in Arizona and sentenced to death, she begged the Oklahoma governor to pardon her so she could be with him in his last days.

She got her pardon on July 22, 1922 and went immediately to her husband’s side so she could help with his appeal. A week after Paul’s execution, the widow Hadley married Jack Daugherty of Wichita Falls, Texas. She enjoyed her second marriage for less than a year, however: Ida Lee Hadley Daugherty died on March 21, 1924.

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1979: Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, Iranian Prime Minister

Add comment April 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, just days after a referendum overwhelmingly voted revolutionary Iran an Islamic Republic, its former Prime Minister was convicted by a drumhead tribunal in Qasr Prison. Minutes after the trial closed, he was shot to death in a prison courtyard.

The western-educated Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (or Hoveida) shimmied up the diplomatic ranks in the 1940s and 1950s, and became Prime Minister after Hassa Ali Mansur was assassinated in 1965.

Hoveyda held the office for twelve and a half years, longer than anyone in modern Iranian history. He had been noted as a progressive young statesman interested in reforming Iran. But his years in government notably failed to restrain Iran’s endemic corruption and state violence. That he was a debonair polyglot with a discerning taste in whisky cut more ice with his foreign admirers than his future judges.

Not long after the economic crisis of the 1970s forced him from office, the Iranian Revolution collapsed the entire state to which he devoted his public service.

Embracing either martyrdom or naivete, Hoveyda turned himself into the authorities of newborn revolutionary Iran, and soon found his name on the marquee for a spate of revolutionary trials. From mid-February, every day or two would bring fresh headlines of six or eight or 11 more shot for complicity in the ancien regime. Away from the capital, others suffered the same fate, mostly hidden from the world.

Revolutionary Iran’s first Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan — a raving bleeding heart by the yardstick of what was to come — forced a halt to the bloodbath by threatening to resign and denouncing the trials as “irreligious, inhuman and a disgrace” on national television. Revolutionary tribunals suspended on March 16, interrupting Hoveida’s prosecution — or merely protracting his death rattle.

But Bazargan had less weight to throw around than he might have thought. He would accede himself unhappily to the resumption of the revolutionary courts in early April, and eventually resign late in 1979 over the U.S. embassy hostage-taking.

Unimpeded now, those courts stayed busy with near wall-to-wall prosecutions of hundreds of former officials of the hated Shah.

It was, indeed, technically that same day — around 1 a.m., following a marathon 15-hour court session — that a half-dozen former military men met the same fate in Qasr Prison. Gen. Iraj Amini-Afshar, Gen. Mohammed-Javad Molavi Taleghani, Col. Mashallah Iftikhar Manish, Col. Hadi Gholestani, Lt. Bhadour Bahadouri, and a rank-and-file soldier named Mustafa Sadri were all shot for having fired on revolutionary crowds in Isfahan the previous December.

After a good night’s sleep, they were ready to have done with Hoveyda.

The notorious revolutionary “hanging judge” Sadeq Khalkhali ordered the execution shortly before 6 p.m. that evening, for immediate dispatch. Khalkhali is even been rumored to have personally finished off the former Prime Minister.*

* I’m skeptical of the anecdote in Khalkhali’s current Wikipedia page that the judge shot Hoveyda to pre-empt a possible stay. Virtually all the pre-execution 1979 reporting I’ve seen agreed that Hoveyda had no prospect of clemency given the political situation, and that the end of the Bazargan moratorium and resumption of the trials was tantamount to his death sentence.

Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk remembered a somewhat topical anecdote about the judge; it’s from Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East:

I had sat at the feet of Hojatolislam Sadeq Khalkhali, the “hanging judge”, as he listed those of the Shah’s family sentenced to death in absentia. Khalkhali it was who had sentenced a14-year-old boy to death, who had approved of the stoning to death of women in Kermanshah, who earlier, in a mental hospital, would strangle cats in his prison cell. “The Shah will be strung up; he will be cut down and smashed,” he told me. “He is an instrument of Satan.”

Weeks later, in Evin prison, he discoursed again on the finer details of stoning to death. I still have the cassette of our conversation, his lips smacking audibly on a tub of vanilla ice cream as he spoke.

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1901: Filipino insurgents on Luzon

2 comments April 5th, 2014 Headsman

The American occupation of the Philippines from 1899 spawned a widespread indigenous resistance whose “hatred of our people is as bitter as it is groundless,” one American general puzzled.

Not all Americans saw it that way. William Jennings Bryan‘s populist magazine The Commoner slagged the U.S. Army for its liberal use of “the methods best calculated to give them new reasons for hating us.”


Cartoon on the cover of Life magazine’s May 22, 1902 issue (click for larger image) shows colonial European powers chortling, ‘Those pious Yankees can’t throw stones at us any more’ as they watch Americans apply the water cure to a Filipino captive. Torture by water cure was widespread during the Philippines-American War.

“The native is tied down flat on the ground and his mouth forced open with sticks or a string,” one soldier described it (pdf source; it’s on page 23). “Water is poured down his throat through a bamboo tube, which is nearly always handy. The native must drink the stuff, and it is poured down him until he can hold no more. As much as a gallon can be forced into a man that way. Then the water is pumped out of him by stamping on his stomach or rolling him over. When he comes to the native is always ready to talk.”

Apart from guerrillas in the field, Filipino insurgents opposed the occupiers’ superior firepower with the nasty asymmetrical tactics of assassination and terrorism, and that’s what brings us to today’s post.

Filipino terrorists known as Ducots, Mandoducots, or Sandathan on August 28, 1900 murdered a wealthy Los Banos landowner named Honorato Quisumbing who served as a town “presidente” under the American occupation.

A U.S. military court found that nine prisoners at the bar (in combination with “other natives whose names are unknown”) made “an assault upon the said Honorato Quisumbing with clubs, knives, bolos, and daggers, and did then and there wilfully, feloniously, and with malice aforethought kill and murder the said Honorato Quisumbing by striking, cutting, and stabbing the said Honorato Quisumbing with the said clubs, knives, bolos, and daggers.”

The decedent was a Visayan doing business as a merchant at Santa Cruz and Los Banos … formerly loyal to the Spanish Government and transferred his loyalty, active assistance, and cordial good will to the succeeding Government of the United States … Because of his friendshipfor, and willingness to aid, the forces of the United States, he was made a marked man, and the order went forth from the insurgent chiefs that he should be secured, dead or alive; and, as the sequel shows, a money reward was offered for his life.

General Arthur MacArthur — father of World War II General Douglas MacArthur — commuted four of the sentences to prison terms, and approved the remaining five executions for April 5, 1901.

Honorato Quisumbing’s widow was compensated by American authorities to the tune of $1,500. One of the victim’s seven sons, Eduardo, grew up to become his country’s leading botanist.


Further north on Luzon that same date, the pueblo of Mexico witnessed the hanging of insurgent captain Isabello del Rosario, also by authority of the American military government.

He’d been convicted of various depredations as what his prosecutors called “a notorious outlaw,” the most shocking of which was buring alive a man who had been reported to have made suspicious inquiries as to the whereabouts of the guerrillas. (He was also convicted of rape, extortion, and the most egregious war crime, fighting out of uniform.)

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1949: Dr. Chisato Ueno, because life protracted is protracted woe

Add comment March 31st, 2014 Headsman

The Truk Atoll, in Micronesia, is more commonly known today as Chuuk. It’s a hot diving location notable for the many sunken World War II Japanese hulks to be explored there — the legacy of its once-pivotal position in the Pacific War.

Japan used Truk as forward naval base in the South Pacific, and armored up its little islands like an armadillo.

Rather than capture it outright, the U.S. Navy bombed Truk right out of the war in February 1944, leaving that enormous warship graveyard and a stranded stronghold of starving soldiers who were left to wither on the vine. At war’s end, it was just a matter of circling back to collect 50,000 surrenders.

Unfortunately, the castaway Truk garrison did not pass the last months of the war with sufficient care for its foreseeable postwar situation.

According to testimony given the postwar Guam war crimes tribunal, 10 American prisoners were murdered on Truk in 1944 “through injections, dynamiting, tourniquet applications, strangling and spearing.” (Source) Hiroshi Iwanami was executed for these gruesome experiments/murders in January of 1949.

Ueno, a lieutenant surgical commander, hanged for two other killings that read quite a bit murkier.

Five American POWs were being held in a temporary stockade that was hit by an American bombing raid in June 1944 — killing three of those prisoners.

The surviving two were severely injured, eventually leading Dr. Ueno on June 20, 1944, to perform what he characterized as a legitimate exploratory surgery on one of those men. His prosecutors framed it instead as a fiendishly gratuitous vivisection.

During that procedure, an order arrived for the execution of both the prisoners. The other guy, the one Dr. Ueno wasn’t operating upon, he never had in his care at all; that unfortunate fellow ended up being bayoneted to death. The man on the table (both men’s names were unknown to the prosecuting court) Dr. Ueno stitched back together well enough that subalterns could stretcher him out to a swamp and chop off his head.

Here’s the difficult part: Ueno actually gave the immediate order to execute his ex-patient.

As described in the National Archives’ Navy JAG Case Files of Pacific Area War Crimes Trials, 1944-1949, the physician’s barrister mounted a quixotic philosophical defense of this deeply indefensible order, noting the principled acceptability of euthanasia in Japanese hospitals (so he said), the inevitability of the prisoner’s approaching execution via superior orders, and the agony the man was already in from his wounds.

[Dr. Ueno] had expected that some other person would dispose of this prisoner. But he could not find anyone who looked like the person to carry this out … the thought dominated his mind that all hope is lost to save this prisoner. His fater has been determined. Yet the prisoner is in pain …

He was faced with the predicament of killing by his order the prisoner which he had treated as hiw [sic] own patient. What sarcastic fate was this that he had to face? As the Napoleon, described by George Bernard SHAW, and as McBeth [sic] described by William SHAKESPEARE, the accused, UENO was also “a man of destiny.”

A certain English poet wrote, “Life protracted is protracted woe.” If the life of the prisoner in the present case was protracted one second, he would have so much more suffering to endure. Should it be condemed [sic] so severely to shorten one’s life under such circumstances and shorten his last woe in this world?

There were in all either 10 or 13 official executions of Japanese war criminals on Guam from 1947 to 1949. It’s devilishly difficult to find those 13 enumerated by name and date, but it appears to me that Truk and his boss Admiral Shimpei Asano were the very last to achieve that distinction.**

The readable little history on Truk island and the U.S. Navy operations against it, Ghost fleet of the Truk Lagoon, Japanese mandated islands”, captures the scene.

Shortly after eight o’clock on the humid, tropical evening of March 31, 1949, according to War Department Pamphlet #27-4 Procedure For Military Executions, the 5’6″ Japanese surgeon with extremely strong neck muscles was escorted up the nine steps to the gallows. The handcuffs were removed by a Marine guard and a strap placed to secure his arms to his side and another placed around his legs. A black hood was placed over his head and at 8:26 p.m. the floor panel on which he was standing fell from under his feet and Ueno dropped 94 inches to eternity. He was the last to die, as Rear Admiral Shimpei Asano* had preceded him only moments before. Under the dubious honor that rank has its privileges — the Admiral went first.

* Executed for these same two murders on Truk, as well as two other POWs killed at Kwajalein, in the nearby Marshall Islands.

** Angered by Naval administration of the island, Guam’s Congress had staged a walkout earlier in March 1949. This action did successfully force an end to Naval government.

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1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

Add comment March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

-Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

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1913: Henry Lovell William Clark, Raj poisoner

Add comment March 26th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1913 saw the hanging of Henry Lovell William Clark for a sensational pair of domestic murders in the British Raj.

The half-Indian Lieutenant Henry Lovell William Clark of the Indian Subordinate Medical Department struck up a sweltering affair in colonial Agra with the bored memsahib Augusta Fullam.

Their trysts over three-odd years from 1909 would become the scandal of British India — the specifically British part — after Clark’s wife Louisa was sabered to death in her home in November 1912 by a quartet of native assailants* who turned out to have been hired by her faithless husband.

The police inquiry soon uncovered a much deeper passion and depravity.

A trunk full of adulterous correspondence incautiously retained by Fullam documented months of her frustrated attempts to poison off her husband over the course of 1911.

The plan had simply been to infiltrate arsenic doses into Edward Fullam’s food. Arsenic poisoning was so popular precisely because the symptoms were so difficult to isolate from natural causes of death; off in India, it could easily be passed off as heat stroke or cholera.

“I give him half a tonic powder every day in his Sanatogen, lovie darling, because it lays on the top of the white powder quite unsuspiciously,” Augusta cooed to her doctor-lover in one letter.

Despite Augusta’s best efforts, lovie darling, Edward’s constitution proved to be as tenacious of his life as it was unsuspecting of his wife.

For month after harrowing month, his helpmate tried to kill him at dinner and teatime and anywhere else she got the opportunity to administer a packet of the “tonic powders” Dr. Clark supplied. He would often vomit and fall ill — Fullam recorded one occasion in June where her husband puked ten times in a single evening — but it wasn’t until October that Edward finally succumbed. Clark himself topped the arsenic wallop for that fading patient with a lethal dose of gelsemine just to make sure, then put his professional signature to the death certificate.

One spouse down. One to go.

It might have been wise for the lovers to stick with this potentially subtle method of homicide for Louisa Clark. While “murdered by swarthy intruders” is a classic, it can’t be signed off quietly by some random member of the medical professional. Neighbors had figured out the love affair, and when police pursued that line of inquiry, everyone’s alibis fell apart. Not to mention that trunk full of lovey-dovey bloodthirst.

Though Henry Clark hanged for the murder on March 26, 1913, he left his mistress pregnant — and this sufficed to save Augusta Fullam from the gallows. She died in Naini prison in 1914.

* According to this book, three of the four hired assassins were also executed.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1963: Frederick Charles Wood, “Let me burn”

6 comments March 21st, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1963, hardened killer Frederick Charles Wood, 51, became the next-to-last prisoner to be executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York.

Although he came from a respectable, law-abiding family, Wood had a terrible temper and was very experienced at homicide. The man’s murderous career makes him the perfect poster child for the death penalty.

He committed his first murder while he was in his mid-teens, poisoning a girlfriend. He was out in only a few years, however, and fell back into crime: in 1933, he committed another horrific slaying. This time his victim, also female, was a stranger. Wood reportedly beat her with an iron bar and crushed her skull, and stabbed her over 140 times.

He served seven years and was paroled in 1940. In 1942, he killed again — for the third time. Wood attacked a man, hit him with a beer bottle, stomped on his head and slashed his throat. The victim, he said, was bothering his girlfriend.

This time he served almost twenty years before he was paroled again in 1960.

Mere weeks after his release from custody, in New York City, Wood beat and slashed a 62-year-old acquaintance to death, supposedly because his victim had made a pass at him. He then slaughtered the man’s 78-year-old sleeping roommate.

(When he was arrested the next day, Wood gave his occupation as “wine sampler.”)

Newspapers condemned the state parole board for letting him go so many times. Wood himself seemed to realize how stupid and pointless it all was, and refused any attempts to put off his much-deserved death sentence. He wrote that he wanted to “ride the lighting without further delay,” and added, “I do not welcome any intrusion into this stinking case of mine.”

Although Wood claimed he had schizophrenia and requested electroconvulsive therapy, three psychiatrists found him sane. A member of the Lunacy Commission asked him, “Is there any way we can help you?” Wood replied, “Let me burn.”

This article provides a detailed account of his crimes and execution, comparing him with Timothy McVeigh.

As he stood in the death chamber waiting to be strapped into the electric chair, he grinned at the witnesses and said, “Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood. Enjoy yourselves.”

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1905: An unknown spy in the Russo-Japanese War

Add comment March 18th, 2014 Headsman

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Russia’s imperial ambitions in the east drew it inexorably towards conflict with Japan. This was the period when Russia began constructing the continent-spanning Trans-Siberian Railway linking Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

Russian troops came right along with the rails.

On the pretext of protecting its construction gangs, Russian troops occupied Manchuria — and the weakened Chinese Qing dynasy couldn’t do much about it.

But the Japanese could.

Manchuria and Korea (which Russia’s presence also threatened) Tokyo conceived as her sphere of influence. The rising hegemon in East Asia would serve notice in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War that it had now to be reckoned among the world’s great powers.

The decisive land battle in this conflict was the Battle of Mukden, February 20 through March 10, 1905 — a gigantic engagement involving more than 600,000 troops.

In it, Japan cleaned the Russian clock.

The defeat sent a shattered Russian army on a disordered retreat north, to the city of Tieling. The Japanese followed in hot pursuit, so defensive regrouping became impossible and within a couple of days the Russians abandoned Tieling, too.

We are everywhere driving the Russians before us to Kaiyuan,” gloated an official Japanese telegram of Thursday, March 16.

The underwhelming Russian general Aleksey Kuropatkin was there just long enough to get word that Moscow had relieved him of command. By Saturday, March 18, Kaiyuan too was in Japanese hands.*

So it was likely on or about this date in 1905 that a handful of those Japanese forces harrying the Russian flight paused on the outskirts of Kaiyuan to behead an alleged spy.

If this individual’s name is known, I have not been able to locate it — but small wonder. In the charnel house of Russia’s catastrophic defeat, the dead were too numerous to bury.

After Mukden, there would not be many more. It was the last major land battle, and after Japan followed it up with a crushing naval victory that May, hostilities came to a close.


“On the Hills of Manchuria”, a mournful 1906 waltz by Ilya Shatrov.

* The pursuit didn’t last much longer; Japanese forces were themselves too battered and exhausted from the Battle of Mukden.

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