On this date in 1946, eleven men convicted by a British war crimes court of war crimes at the Neuengamme concentration camp hanged at Hamelin prison.
Neuengamme held about 106,000 prisoners from 1938 until the British overran it on May 3, 1945. (In a tragic coda, many of the last prisoners died when the ships to which they had been transferred were mistakenly strafed by the Royal Air Force that same day.)
Though its primary purpose was slave labor — Neuengamme inmates cranked out bricks and armaments — rather than extermination, close on half of its residents died of the maltreatment. Anne Frank’s elderly roommate-in-hiding “Albert Dussel” (his real name was Fritz Pfeffer) died there of enterocolitis in 1944; Suriname national hero Anton de Kom succumbed to tuberculosis at Neuengamme days before it was liberated.
Nor was Neuengamme above more direct methods — of course it wasn’t. As the Third Reich collapsed, Neuengamme was used to dispose of 71 leftists for no better reason than the Nazis begrudged their potential postwar life; meanwhile, Jewish children who had been subjected to medical experiments were hanged by their stonehearted SS doctor.
That gentleman, Alfred Trzebinski, was one of the men in the dock for Neuengamme, and ultimately, one of the men on the scaffold.*
In honor of the 90th anniversary year of the war’s end back in 2008, the National Archives produced a podcast series titled “Voices of the Armistice”. The episode “Court Martial” dramatizes Knight’s face via readings of archive records, and can be found here.
East Germany executed sociopath Hilmar Swinka* on this date in 1970 for three murders in Berlin.
Swinka’s trial and execution were conducted in great secrecy — the Communist bloc being oft lothe to acknowledge such bourgeois monsters as serial sex-killers. Hans Girod describes him in his German-language study of DDR criminals, Blutspuren (Bloodstains), using the pseudonym Henry Stutzbach.
Swinka/Stutzbach wasn’t the type where you say nobody could have seen it coming.
A disaffected loner abandoned by his violent father, he dropped out of his apprenticeship and rotated unskilled jobs through his twenties while passing his time with pugilism of both the sweet science and the barroom brawl varieties.
His last job, as an assistant at a pathology institute, creepily set up his crimes — where he made a nauseating mockery of dissection by strangling and then carving open two ex-lovers on February 13, 1969. The next day, Swinka honored St. Valentine by doing the same thing to his lawfully wedded wife.
Swinka was shot at a secret execution facility in Leipzig, by Hermann Lorenz — East Germany’s last executioner.
There’s a truncated version of this documentary about the Leipzig death chambers here.
According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,
The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.
An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.
On this date in 1923, two anarchists were garroted in the Catalan city of Terrassa.
Terrassa was unwillingly under new management, having been occupied by the Captain-General of Catalonia Miguel Primo de Rivera* upon the latter’s coup just days prior to the events in this post.
In historical periodization, Primo de Rivera’s six-year dictatorship marks a last stage of the Restoration, a decades-long social struggle bridging the span between Spain’s twilight years in the imperial-powers club and the onset of the Spanish Civil War.
Spain and especially the notoriously insurrectionary Catalonia had been riven by conflict in the first years of the 1920s. One of our principals for this day’s execution, Jesus Saleta, had been a leader of the intermittently outlawed anarchist trade union CNT,* whose gunmen fought ferocious street battles with police and company enforcers.
He was not averse to dirtying his own hands. In 1922, Saleta had stood trial (he was acquitted both times) for running a bomb factory and for orchestrating an attack on businessman Joan Bayes. After the murder of CNT executive Salvador Segui early in 1923, Saleta helped organize the reprisals. Tension and bloodshed rose throughout the year.
On September 18, he committed the crime for which he would die less than a week later: together with Pascual Aguirre and several other anarchists, he robbed a bank to finance his underground operations; a man was shot dead in the process. Saleta, Aguirre, and a third collaborator, Joaquin Marco, were arrested in the ensuing chase.
Marco was acquitted — he had not been identified clearly enough — but both Saleta and Aguirre were condemned to the firing squad, a sentence the military unilaterally amended to the garrote on the grounds that shooting was too honorable a death for these terrorists.
Both went boldly to the scaffold on this date. (There’s a full narration of proceedings in a Spanish newspaper (pdf) here, and a plain-text equivalent here) “This is the way anarchists die!” a proud Saleta exclaimed to the executioner as he was seated.**
The cry “Viva anarchy!” was the last thing each man uttered as the metal ring wrung the life from his throat.
* We’ve already met Primo de Rivera’s Falangist son in these pages.
Irish lance corporal Peter Sands was shot as a deserter one hundred years ago today at Fleurbaix, near Armentières.
Sands, a nine-year veteran age 26 or 27, left the Royal Irish Rifles with another soldier on a home leave pass in February 1915 and returned to his family in Belfast.
Sands had a pass for four days. Instead, he stayed for five months — openly living with his wife, and wearing his military uniform, until some unknown busybody turned him in as a deserter that July.
He would tell his court-martial that he had lost his travel documents to return to the horrible front, and had been blown off when he visited a Belfast barracks to see about a replacement. He did not aim to desert, he insisted; “Had I intended to desert I would have worn plain clothes, but up to that time I was arrested I always wore uniform.” It is not so hard to reach Corporal Sands, psychologically — a man perhaps indulging a lethal opiate of denial. Suppose his “desertion” began with a good-faith mishap and thereafter did not last for five months, but just for one day more … day upon day.
He had no pass, so what was he to do next? He stayed in Belfast with his wife and daughter wearing his service duds while he contemplated that question. (Who can say whether he contemplated it in bemusement or terror.) He stayed every day in March, and it became every day in April, and every day in May and June, too. Nobody came for him on any of those days.
Had his war ended, then? Had he somehow slipped the toils of the machine back to a domestic idyll?
Maybe he truly had … but for that anonymous snitch.
Even if it had to be reminded of its prodigal corporal’s absence, His Majesty’s royal meatgrinder expected a little more hustle from its meat than one barracks call in five months: while Sands was at home, his mates had gone out of the trenches in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (11,000+ British casualties), and the disastrous* Battle of Aubers Ridge (another 11,000+).
His commanding officer “consider[ed] this a bad case of desertion and I recommend that the sentence be carried out.” And it was.
Sands was buried at a nearby churchyard, but his resting-place was lost during the war. He has a marker at Cabaret-Rouge Military Cemetery at Souchez.
Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.
Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.
And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.
Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!
Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.
When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.
“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”
As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.
And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*
It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.
Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”
Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?
Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.
“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”
Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.
And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.
Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.
So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.
Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”
It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.
* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.
John C. Best was put to death by electricity this morning at Charlestown State Prison at 12.22 o’clock, paying the supreme penalty of the law for the murder of George E. Bailey of Saugus on Oct. 8, 1900. He maintained the air of coolness, and even indifference, which has marked his conduct since his arrest, to the the [sic] last. He walked to the chair unassisted and without even being held by the guards in attendance; sat down composedly, as one would waiting for a train at a station; assisted the guards even in the operations of confining his hands and legs, and awaited the shock of the current in perfect composure.
He had no word to say at the end, uttered no groan, and was pronounced dead by the attending physicians at 12.27. The witnesses were Dr. Joseph F. McLaughlin, prison physician; Dr. Robert A. Blood, Surgeon General of the State; Dr. George Stedman, Associate Medical Examiner of the District; Deputy Sheriff William Cronin, the presence of whom is prescribed by the Statutes; Rev. I. Murray Mellish of Salem, attending to the spiritual wants of the prisoner, and a representative of the press.
The Crime of Best.
The crime for which Best was executed was the murder of George E. Bailey, the caretaker of Breakheart Farm, Saugus. The murder took place in October, 1900, and Best was condemned by the Superior Court sitting at Salem June 14, 1901.
In the early part of October, 1900, Bailey was missed. Best was employed on the farm, and his replies as to the whereabouts of Bailey gave the impression that the missing man had gone to Maine. Inquiry failed to locate him, and until the morning of Oct. 17 nothing definite was known of his whereabouts.
On that morning the dismembered body of a man was found in Floating Bridge Pond, the mutilated torso encased in a sack. Later the arms, legs and head were found and the body was identified as that of George E. Bailey.
Suspicion pointed toward Best, and he was arrested Oct. 18, the day after the gruesome find at the pond. He appeared in the Lynn Police Court Oct. 20, and was remanded to Salem Jail, pending the hearing, which was held Nov. 8.
Judge Berry of the Lynn Police Court after a prolonged hearing, found “probable cause,” and Best was sent to jail to await the action of the Grand Jury which, on Jan. 25 following, indicted him for murder.
In Superior Court.
Best was arraigned in the Superior Court Jan. 30, and entered a plea of not guilty. The trial began March 18, and continued until March 29, when a verdict of murder in the first degree was rendered. The prosecution was conducted by Attorney General Knowlton, District Attorney Peters and his assistant, Roland H. Sherman. Best was represented by James H. Sisk and N. D. A. Clark of Lynn.
The day after the verdict was returned, counsel for Best filed exceptions and offered a motion for a new trial. Oct. 18 counsel conferred with Presiding Justices Sherman and Fox, and on Nov. 23 the exceptions were approved and allowed to go to the Supreme Court.
A hearing was given in the Supreme Court Jan. 6, 1902, and on Feb. 27, a rescript overruling the exceptions was filed. March 29 other exceptions were taken to a denial of amotion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court heard the arguments on May 19.
On June 3, in a rescript, the Court said:
After the exceptions in this case were disposed of a motion for a new trial was made upon the ground that one of the jurors was deaf. Evidence was put in on the subject before the Judges who had taken part in the trial, a portion of the evidence being an examination of the juror himself. The motion was denied, the Judges stating that they were satisfied that the juror heard substantially all the evidence. The argument addressed to us is a pure argument of fact as to what the proper finding would have been, a question with which we have nothing to do, and upon which the Judges considered not merely the testimony reported but what they saw at the time, as it was proper that they should. Assuming every proposition of law that could be urged in favor of the defendant, there is no ground for an exception.
After the first motion had been overruled another motion was made that the hearing be reopened and the defendant be allowed to introduce further evidence, cumulative in character, being the testimony of a doctor who had been consulted by the juror a little more than three months before the trial. The Judges refused this motion on the ground that the doctor’s statement did not change their opinion. The defendant’s counsel again attempted to save an exception. Apart from what else might be said, the same answer may be made to this as to the other exception. It is perfectly plain that the defendant had no ground for bringing his case here a second time. Exceptions overruled.
Counsel’s Great Fight.
All that could be done by devoted counsel to save Best from death sentence has been done, save an appeal to the Governor for a commutation of the final decree of the Court this forenoon, and it is understood that this will be made.
Of late Best has had frequent conferences with his spiritual adviser, Rev. Isaac M. Mellish of Salem. He steadfastly maintained his innocence of the crime.*
* In a last letter to his parents that later hit the presses, Best maintained his innocence: “One thing I would like to impress on the mind of you, my father and mother, is that it is not God’s will that I lose this life that he has given me, but through the vengeance and ignorance of men … I am not afraid to die, but I would like to live. I don’t compare myself to Christ, our Savior, but my condemnation is on the same line as His, and I will meet death as calmly as he did. If these lines, my dear father and mother, will give you any comfort, I am well paid for writing them.”
This excerpt is from The Evening Times (Pawtucket, R.I.), Sept. 20, 1902 — which also reported that Best felt out the prison physicians as to the prospect of their attempting a post-electric chair reanimation experiment. (The doctors turned him down.)
In the German-occupied city of Przemysl, Poland on September 6, 1943, Michal Kruk and several other non-Jewish Poles were publicly executed for their roles sheltering Jews being rounded up for the local ghetto — bound, naurally, for worse fates thereafter.