On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.
Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.
A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”
But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**
Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.
His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.
* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.
** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.
One last coda to our recent Iraqi coup series occurred after a day’s pause in the hecatombs, as reported by the New York Times on Jan. 25, 1970:
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 24 — Three more men were executed in Baghdad at dawn today bringing to 44 the number shot or hanged since the leftist Baath Government in Iraq headed off a rightist plot on Tuesday.
The three-man special court that has sentenced 37 conspirators said the three were the last of those apprehended. Others, it added, are still at large.
An Iraqi military aircraft landed here this afternoon with a token gift of 30 submachine guns confiscated from the plotters. Iraq has promised to turn over all 3,000 submachine guns captured to the Palestinian commandos.
More blood was spilled in Baghdad this week than after any comparable attempted coup since World War II, and many Arab commentators expressed dismay and horror.
OTHER MASSACRES RECALLED
The nearest approach was 18, shot after a Nasserite rising against a Baathist Government in Syria in July, 1963.
The Baghdad executions fitted the context of Iraq’s violent history, which has led some historians to compare the current regime with that of the eighth-century Abbasid governor Al Hajjaj Ben Yussef, who declared, when he took office, that the Iraqis were a mean people and he was “going to wring their necks.” Great numbers of executions followed.
In more recent times the Iraqis in 1933 killed several thousand Assyrians who had volunteered for armed service with the British. In 1941 several hundred Jews were killed in a major pogrom in Baghdad.
In contrast to Egypt’s bloodless overthrow of King Farouk, the Iraqis in 1958 shot King Faisal and his family in the garden of their palace and went on to drag the bodies of Prince Abdul Illah and Premier Nuri al Said through the streets.
Iraq’s execution mill worked without let-up today with 36 people put to death in 24 hours — all but seven of them accused of plotting to overthrow the Government.
Seven of the men, not connected with the plot, were convicted in November of spying for the U.S., Radio Baghdad said.
It identified one of them, Albert Nounou, as a Jew.
The 29 people who were accused of trying to overthrow the leftist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al Bakr on Tuesday night and early yesterday faced firing squads or hangmen.
Mr. Bakr addressed crowds outside the Presidential palace, saying that any plot against his Government would “only lead to the cutting of the plotters’ throats,” Radio Baghdad said.
The executioners worked past midnight yesterday, carrying out death sentences given to 22 persons convicted of the coup attempt.
Then at dawn, the seven people convicted in November were put to death. A few hours later, Radio Baghdad said six Army officers and a civilian were doomed by a special court for taking part in the attempted coup. Shortly thereafter, the military men were shot by firing squad and the civilian was hanged.
The Government newspaper, “Al Thawra,” said firing squads were using the plotters’ own weapons for the executions.
The Baghdad broadcast said that in addition to the six military men and civilians executed this morning, the court had sentenced three other people to life imprisonment. –U.N.I.
From the Jan. 23, 1970 London Times, under the headline “Toll of executions in Iraq reaches 41″:
Baghdad, Jan. 22. — The abortive coup d’etat in Iraq on Tuesday was engineered with the assistance of the Israel, American, and Iranian secret services, the Iraq news agency said tonight. It made the accusation after the executions of two more soldiers and three civilians, bringing to 41 the total number of alleged plotters executed in Baghdad either by firing squads or hanging since yesterday morning.
Two more men were waiting execution after sentence.
Some 3,000 sub-machineguns, 650,000 rounds of ammunition, and a mobile radio transmitted had been seized, the agency stated.
Earlier today Iraq accused the Iranian Ambassador and four members of his Embassy staff of being implicated in the coup attempt, and ordered them to leave the country within 24 hours.
In Teheran, Iran retaliated by giving the Iraq Ambassador, the military attache, and his three assistants 24 hours to leave Iranian soil. It also ordered the closure of all Iraq consulates in Iran. — Agence France Presse and Reuter
Baghdad, Jan 21. — Twenty-two people were executed in Baghdad today for plotting to overthrow the Iraq Government.
First of all three retired Army men and two serving officers were executed by firing squad. Seventeen more executions were carried out tonight and Baghdad radio said a special three-man tribunal set up to try the plotters was still meeting.
The radio had interrupted its programmes to announce the discovery of a plot, crushed by tanks last night, against the ruling Baath Party. All the plotters were arrested, it said.
Two Government soldiers had died in putting down the conspiracy, the radio said. An official funeral for them will be held in Baghdad tomorrow, and the radio called on the people to attend in thousands.
Although there were no details of how many plotters were arrested, the fact that clashes occurred suggested to observers that an actual attempt had been made against the Government when the Army moved in. Tanks from Rashid Army camp, on the fringes of the capital’s suburbs, foiled the plot, according to the official Iraq news agency.
The radio claimed that the United States, Britain and West Germany were behind the attempted coup.
The Middle East News Agency said some Army officers pretended to join the conspirators and then reported them to the authorities.
The executed men were accused of plotting against the socialist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in the interests of “imperialism and Zionism”. –Reuter, A.P. and U.P.I.
On this day in 1922, Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano were hanged in New Mexico’s Grant County Jail in Silver City for the 1921 murder of a prison guard.
Corral (left) and Losano (right).
Losano and Corral were serving time in the Grant County Jail for robbery (Corral) and attempted larceny (Losano) in the spring of 1921. Losano had only fifteen days days left to go on his sentence. Nevertheless, on April 2, 1921, the two young men decided to make a break for it. The jailer, sixty-year-old Ventura Bencoma, had been sick with the flu and during the early morning hours he decided to have a lie-down. While Bencoma slept, Corral and Losano were able to get out of the cell they shared.
A nearby cell was unoccupied and used for storing coal and firewood, and had an ax. The two convicts sneaked up on Bencoma and brained him with the ax, took his gun and keys, and threatened to shoot the other prisoners if they made any noise. They tried to use the keys to release another prisoner, Jesus Rocha, but weren’t able to get the lock undone and gave up. As soon as the pair had run off into the darkness, the others started screaming for help and woke up the sheriff, who was also enjoying a siesta of his own up on the second floor and had missed the entire jailbreak.
Both Eleuterio and Rumaldo bragged out loud of their escape and short freedom. Both men told Sheriff Casey it was Jesus Rocha who planned the escape and was to have joined them. Sheriff Casey learned from the two that after Jailer Bencoma’s keys and pistol were removed, they were to unlock the steel cell door to Jesus Rocha. Once he was released, the three were to go up to the second floor where Sheriff Casey’s quarters were and call him to the door. Once the Sheriff opened the door, he would be shot and killed with the jail’s pistol. The three would then arm themselves with the Sheriff’s rifles and ammunition. They planned to saddle the horses in the Sheriff’s corral and flee to Mexico. The plan began to fall apart after both failed to unlock the cell door to Jesus Rocha.
In light of this information, Jesus Rocha was charged with murder alongside his criminal colleagues. At trial, Losano and Corral recanted their statements about his involvement and claimed Rocha had not been a part of the escape plan. All three were convicted and sentenced to hang, but the Supreme Court of New Mexico subsequently reversed Rocha’s conviction, leaving Corral and Losano to face the noose without him.
Their families in Mexico pleaded for mercy, claiming that at the time of the murders, Corral was just sixteen years old and Losano seventeen. However, three physicians who examined them judged Corral was least nineteen and Losano was probably older than twenty.
A few days prior to the execution, the deputy warden conducted a surprise search of the condemned men’s cell. Both of their mattresses contained hacksaws and makeshift knives: they’d been planning another violent escape attempt. Unsurprisingly, the state governor, Merritt C. Mechem, refused to commute the sentences, telling Sheriff Casey, “Every guard’s life out there would be in danger with those two in the penitentiary.”
Officials set up the scaffold only about fifty feet from where Bencoma was murdered. Corral went first, then Losano. Both of them were calm and offered the standard prayers, apologies for their crimes and pleas for forgiveness.
On this date in 1983, Wang Zhong, once the Communist Party Secretary and district head of Haifeng county, Guangdong, was executed for corruption.
The first official of his rank to be so punished, Wang did business on a truly paltry scale relative to the titanicgraft compassed by China’s latter-day oligarchs: his first booty was a 17″ black-and-white TV in 1979. In the end, between payola extorted and contraband expropriated, Wang sold his life for 69,000 yuan — a little over US $10,000.
His crimes were read out and his sentence before more than 17,300 people at a rally at Swatow, 200 miles east of Canton.
Wang then was driven in a truck to an execution ground about 25 minutes away.
Between 600 and 700 bicycles were parked near the execution ground, and some people ran on foot to watch after the truck and its escorts passed by thousands of spectators along the route.
A cold wind blew and a light rain fell as the convoy arrived and a policeman asked Wang if he had any last words. It [was?] said he asked police to tell his children not to follow his examples.
At 2:45, Wang Zhong knelt facing south. The policeman carrying out the execution once again confirmed his identity. Then he picked up an automatic rifle and, ‘peng,’ a bullet pierced Wang Zhong’s heart.
Jack Gilbert Graham was gassed* on this date in 1957 in Colorado for a cold-blooded mass murder in the skies.
Just a petty crook until his turn towards cinematic infamy, Graham fell badly in debt and looked to the friendly skies to recover his financial footing.**
When his mother, Daisie King, flew to Alaska to visit family on November 1, 1955, Graham purchased a $37,500 life insurance policy on her at the airport,† knowing that 25 sticks of dynamite had been packed into her luggage. When Graham’s bomb exploded minutes after departure, mom went down in the wreckage … and 43 other people besides. Nobody survived. Chillingly, it appeared to be a crime copied from a notorious 1949 Canadian airline bombing that sent twopeople to the gallows over an affair of the heart.
These cardinal sins turned literally deadly were bad enough when folks in the way got quietly poisoned off, but one could hardly fail to be alarmed at the prospect of an actual trend developing out of random private grievances turning into terror in the skies with bystanders killed by the (at least) dozens.
Once Colorado authorities zeroed in on Graham, they sought a quick trial and maximum sentence for deterrent effect. Graham halfheartedly retracted his confession but otherwise did little to fight the result; if anything, his callous indifference to the fates of a whole planeload of people stood him in a very poor light.
“As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it,” he told a Time magazine reporter. “Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”
He was easy to find, and even easier to hate.
The bombing happened on the first of November in 1955. Twelve days on, he had confessed to the FBI.‡ By May of the following year, Graham was convicted in a sensational trial — one of the first ever televised — and his appeals wrapped up a mere eight months after that.
Graham is also the reason Lenny Bruce is on the no-fly list.
* Graham died hard, screaming and thrashing against the straps in the gas chamber. The warden assured observers (accurately) that this sort of thing, horrible as it was to behold, was not uncommon.
† Air travel was regarded as a much more perilous venture at this time, and insurance was commonly sold at airports.
‡ Though the feds helped the investigation, there were at that time no applicable federal statutes under which to charge Graham — so the judicial proceedings were strictly Colorado’s affair. Formally, he was charged with only one count of murder: that of his mother. It was charge enough for the task at hand.
Laszlo Bardossy, one of Hungary’s several wartime Prime Ministers, was shot on this date in 1946.
Bardossy was a longtime diplomat who had become Minister of Foreign Affairs under Pal Teleki — the Count fate tragically cast to lead Hungary into the Second World War’s meatgrinder.
An esteemed geographer in his non-political life, Teleki foresaw the whirlwind Hungary might reap should she ally herself with Germany. But the conservative governments he affiliated with drew much of its vitality from a restive irredentist movement wishing to retrieve for “Little Hungary” remnants of its historical empire that had been stripped away after World War I.
Under Teleki’s predecessor Bela Imredy, Hungary gratefully reclaimed sovereignty over parts of Slovakia and Ruthenia as its price for supporting Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938; two years later, German arbitrators returned northern Transylvania from Romania to Hungary.
These were halcyon days for Hungary: for the pleasure of doubling its territory it had not been required to accept German occupation or political direction.
But those days changed for Teleki, whose ministry from 1941-1942 was characterized by an increasingly uphill struggle to maintain a free hand in the shadow of Berlin’s growing strength. In the end he couldn’t manage it, and when (with the support of Hungary’s regent and many of his peers in government) Germany marched into Hungary in 1941 en route to invading Yugoslavia, a country Hungary had a peace treaty with, Teleki shot himself and left behind an anguished note: “We broke our word, out of cowardice … we have thrown away our nation’s honor. We have allied ourselves to scoundrels … We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.”
With Teleki’s death, Hungary now became a firm partner of the Axis powers — a move personified by the immediate elevation of our man Bardossy.
His first order of business was joining the invasion of Yugoslavia, once again snatching back a piece of territory Budapest considered rightfully hers. He also tightened Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws — Bardossy’s Third Jewish Law basically attempted to cut Jews out of the economic life of the kingdom — and began approving deportations to Germany and direct massacres by Hungarian troops.
The enthusiasm of Bardossy’s participation in Germany’s project might have been his undoing — in the immediate political sense as well as his eventual fate. By the next spring, with Hungarian troops taking casualties as the junior associates in a dangerous invasion of the Soviet Union, Prince Regent Miklos Horthy was again looking to put some daylight between Hungarian policy and German, and he sacked Bardossy. Bardossy joined the leadership of a fascist party that eventually supported the pro-Nazi government installed by German invasion in 1944.
On this date in North Carolina, a middle-aged man named Asbury Respus was executed for the murder of nine-year-old Vera DeWitt Leonard.
And that wasn’t all: though virtually forgotten today, Respus was a serial killer with eight confessed murders to his name.
He claimed that he fell from a barn rafter as a youth and was never quite the same after that, being prone to “spells” of homicidal rage. This story may well have been true; he had a noticeable indentation in his skull.
According to Respus’s confession, he killed his first and second victims in Northampton County in the early 1900s. Their names were Lizzie Banks, whom he shot, and Zenie Britt, whom he beat to death with a stick. The third victim was Becky Storr, killed in Boydton, Virginia around 1910; she too had been bludgeoned with a stick.
These early murders are attested only by Respus’s own confession; the first verifiable homicide by his hand took place in 1912. Sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Northampton County man named Ed D. Wynne, Respus escaped from a road gang in 1916 and began life as a drifter.
They can’t have hunted this fugitive very hard. He never went far, always staying in the vicinity of Greensboro, North Carolina.
All four victims prior to his incarceration had been African Americans, as was Respus himself. On January 14, 1918, Respus crossed the color line to axe to death a 56-year-old white woman named Jennie Brown in her home, which he then burned to the ground. So thoroughly did his arson consume the premises that no evidence of a crime remained … leaving Respus free to continue his murder spree. From here on out, by whatever happenstance, all victims were white.
On July 22, 1920, he came across a little boy named Robert Neal Osborne and drowned him in a stream, just for kicks. Again he got lucky: little Robert’s death was recorded as accidental. On July 17, 1925, he murdered 80-year-old widow Eunice Stephenson by striking her on the head and hanging her body from a ceiling beam. This homicide was recognized as such but went unsolved for years.
Vera Leonard was Respus’s youngest female victim and his undoing. Respus may have killed her with rape on his mind. As it was, he went with his old standby, a blunt instrument to the head; afterwards, he burned her body “to a char.” He did not blame his “homicidal spells” for Vera’s murder but instead said he’d been out of his mind on drugs.
Respus expressed gratitude that he was going to his death. “I’d rather he dead and in heaven,” he said, “than here on earth being tormented to death.”
It was a busy day for U.S. executioners. Headlines from the Jan. 8, 1932 edition of the New York Sun.
On this date in 1927, Robert Greene Elliott — the “state electrician” who wired the majesty of the law to condemned men and women from Rockview, Pa. to Windsor, Vt. — had the busiest day of his illustrious career.
Once just a regular prison electrician, Elliott graduated himself to the euphemism in 1926 and was soon the go-to angel of electric death throughout the northeast. He pulled the lever a reported 387 times for men and women who sat in the new killing device in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and (just one time) Vermont; when John Dos Passos wrote that “they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch,” well, he could have been talking about Elliott’s $150-per-head bounty.
January 6, 1927 was a full and lucrative day for Elliott.
He started the day off with a triple execution in Boston’s Charleston Prison — the first triple electrocution in Massachusetts history.* Then he took a train to New York — relaxed with family — took in a picture — and then conducted the Empire State’s triple execution in the evening. (All six of his luckless subjects in either state had been sentenced for various robbery-murders.) His $900 in wages between the two occasions would be the equivalent of a $12,000+ payday today.
Friend of the site Robert Walsh has a wonderful post detailing this character’s remarkable career; venture if you dare into the world of a prolific killer of the Prohibition and Depression eras, here.
Elliott also wrote an autobiography, Agent of Death, which is out of print and difficult to come by.
* Elliot would return there a few months later for a more famous trio: Sacco and Vanzetti, along with their accomplice Celestino Madeiros. Some other noteworthy clients of Elliott: alleged Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann and illicitly photographed femme fataleRuth Snyder.