Posts filed under '20th Century'

1995: 43 armed robbers

Add comment July 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Nigeria’s military dictatorship struck a bloody blow against the country’s surging crime waves with a mass execution of 43 prisoners at Kirikiri prison in Lagos.

Soldiers dressed in camouflage and with black shoe polish on their faces fired semi-automatic weapons to execute the convicts who were tied to stakes in three groups of 12 and one of seven.

The executions, which lasted 90 minutes, were witnessed by three doctors, who certified the deaths, an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Muslim imam. (Reuters report, in the July 23, 1995 Los Angeles Times)

Armed robbery had since the 1970s been the most feared and high-profile genre of a crime surge that seemed all but impervious to remedies. Organized into aggressive syndicates stealing on an industrial scale, robbers grew so numerous and brazen that they plundered the personal home of the Vice President in 1983; another band raided currency exchange offices at the Lagos airport in 1993. For everyday citizens, the terror of home invasion, often accompanied by rape or gratuitous murder, horribly taxed material and psychological resources. A 1985 Nigerian Herald article (via) reported that

Lagosians now live behind bars, in houses caged with tough iron rods. In such homes, it takes occupants 20 to 30 minutes to get through the barricades each time they want to go out or get in. Driving in Lagos as well is done in a style intended to avoid interception by armed robbers. The basic rule is that no driver allows the vehicle behind him to catch up with his and overtaking at the wrong side of the lane by another motorist is avoided at the risk of death. In Lagos, people live in such terrible fear of armed robbers that those who are not attacked as each day passes regard themselves as fortunate.

The death penalty was decreed for armed robbery in 1970, revoked in 1980, re-introduced in 1983. In the late 1980s, Nigeria tried check points, road blocks, increased police patrols — nothing stemmed the tide.

This date’s demonstrative mass execution made the news, for sure. But it didn’t exactly do the trick either.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Mass Executions,Nigeria,Shot,Theft

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1944: Ferruccio Nazionale, Ivrea partisan

Add comment July 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the fascist frogman unit Decima Mas Flottiglia MAS (English Wikipedia link | Italian) executed and publicly gibbeted the partisan Ferruccio Nazionale in Ivrea.


The placard around his neck claims the hanged man “made an armed attack on the Decima.”

The square where he’s hanging in these images is today named in his honor — Piazza Ferruccio Nazionale.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Italy,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

Add comment July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Pelf,Power,Religious Figures,Sri Lanka

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1999: Gary Heidnik, serial kidnapper

Add comment July 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed in Pennsylvania for a horrific spree that saw him kidnap five African-American women to a makeshift torture dungeon in his Philadelphia basement.

Intelligent but socially maladroit and diagnosed from his youthful U.S. Army service as mentally ill, Heidnik gave a preview of his later notoriety by signing his girlfriend’s sister out of a mental hospital in 1978 and locking her up in his basement to rape. He spent most of his resulting sentence in a mental institution of his own, refusing even to speak for two-plus years after claiming in 1980 that Satan had stopped up his throat.

Afflictions of the infernal and the criminal justice variety somehow failed to impede the growth of Heidnik’s personal sham church and tax dodge, the “United Church of the Ministers of God” from piling up a half-million in assets operating from the mid-1970s until Heidnik’s last arrest in 1987.

Heidnik got out of detention for the 1978 kidnap-rape in 1983. After a short mail-order marriage to a Filipina woman who ditched him in 1986 for beating and raping her, he finally went full Gary Heidnik.

On November 25, 1986, Heidnik authored the first of the abductions that would etch his name in serial killer lore, snatching Josefina Rivera and imprisoning her in the cellar of his house at 3520 North Marshall Street. (Rivera recently published an autobiographical account of her captivity.)

For the next five months, Heidnik’s underdark played host to its owner’s unspeakable depravities. Five women he kept there for various periods, shackled to pipes and subject to the gratifications of his violent sexual predilections. One woman, Sandra Lindsay, died of the maltreatment, leading to Heidnik’s closest accidental brush with the law: the stench of incinerating pieces of her dismembered corpse in his oven attracted the complaints of neighbors. Heidnik coolly shooed away the responding police officers with a story about burning the roast.

His prison’s most distinctive chilling feature was a tomblike hole handy for punishing resistance; a second woman, Deborah Dudley, died when Heidnik flooded and electrocuted this crevasse with her in it.

Considering the diabolically systematic nature of the torture dungeon, it’s actually a lucky job that it didn’t go on much, much longer. Remarkably, Heidnik’s last kidnap victim Agnes Adams was able to talk her way into a spot of temporary leave which she naturally used to summon disbelieving police and arrest Heidnik on March 23, 1987.

Once exposed to public view the Marshall Street monster could scarcely fail to leave a cultural impression. Among other things, Heidnik is one of several serial killers on whom Thomas Harris based the fictional murderer “Buffalo Bill” in his 1988 novel Silence of the Lambs.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Pennsylvania,Rape,Serial Killers,USA

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1914?: K., in Kafka’s The Trial

Add comment July 2nd, 2014 Headsman

This date, the second of July, would in 1914 have been the eve of the thirty-first birthday of Franz Kafka, so it seems a fit occasion — shall we call it the centennial? — to mark the death of the the character “Josef K.” in Kafka’s great novel The Trial. In this captivating work — it does not feel sufficient to call it a dystopia of the emerging bureaucratic state, although this story surely helped as much as any other to put the word Kafkaesque in the dictionary — K. has spent the whole novel since his arrest on his 30th birthday grappling with an absurd trial on charges he is never told and upon evidence he cannot know.

In the last, two insipid functionaries arrive at K.’s apartment to whisk him away to his death.

Historically, Kafka began this book in August 1914, a few weeks yet from our spurious dating. It was only published in 1925 — posthumously.


Chapter Ten: End

The evening before K.’s thirty-first birthday — it was about nine o’clock in the evening, the time when the streets were quiet — two men came to where he lived. In frock coats, pale and fat, wearing top hats that looked like they could not be taken off their heads. After some brief formalities at the door of the flat when they first arrived, the same formalities were repeated at greater length at K.’s door. He had not been notified they would be coming, but K. sat in a chair near the door, dressed in black as they were, and slowly put on new gloves which stretched tightly over his fingers and behaved as if he were expecting visitors. He immediately stood up and looked at the gentlemen inquisitively. “You’ve come for me then, have you?” he asked. The gentlemen nodded, one of them indicated the other with the top hand now in his hand. K. told them he had been expecting a different visitor. He went to the window and looked once more down at the dark street. Most of the windows on the other side of the street were also dark already, many of them had the curtains closed. In one of the windows on the same floor where there was a light on, two small children could be seen playing with each other inside a playpen, unable to move from where they were, reaching out for each other with their little hands. “Some ancient, unimportant actors — that’s what they’ve sent for me,” said K. to himself, and looked round once again to confirm this to himself. “They want to sort me out as cheaply as they can.” K. suddenly turned round to face the two men and asked, “What theatre do you play in?” “Theatre?” asked one of the gentlemen, turning to the other for assistance and pulling in the corners of his mouth. The other made a gesture like someone who was dumb, as if he were struggling with some organism causing him trouble. “You’re not properly prepared to answer questions,” said K. and went to fetch his hat.

As soon as they were on the stairs the gentlemen wanted to take K.’s arms, but K. said “Wait till we’re in the street, I’m not ill.” But they waited only until the front door before they took his arms in a way that K. had never experienced before. They kept their shoulders close behind his, did not turn their arms in but twisted them around the entire length of K.’s arms and took hold of his hands with a grasp that was formal, experienced and could not be resisted. K. was held stiff and upright between them, they formed now a single unit so that if any one of them had been knocked down all of them must have fallen. They formed a unit of the sort that normally can be formed only by matter that is lifeless.

Whenever they passed under a lamp K. tried to see his companions more clearly, as far as was possible when they were pressed so close together, as in the dim light of his room this had been hardly possible. “Maybe they’re tenors,” he thought as he saw their big double chins. The cleanliness of their faces disgusted him. He could see the hands that cleaned them, passing over the corners of their eyes, rubbing at their upper lips, scratching out the creases on those chins.

When K. noticed that, he stopped, which meant the others had to stop too; they were at the edge of an open square, devoid of people but decorated with flower beds. “Why did they send you, of all people!” he cried out, more a shout than a question. The two gentleman clearly knew no answer to give, they waited, their free arms hanging down, like nurses when the patient needs to rest. “I will go no further,” said K. as if to see what would happen. The gentlemen did not need to make any answer, it was enough that they did not loosen their grip on K. and tried to move him on, but K. resisted them. “I’ll soon have no need of much strength, I’ll use all of it now,” he thought. He thought of the flies that tear their legs off struggling to get free of the flypaper. “These gentleman will have some hard work to do”.

Just then, Miss Bürstner came up into the square in front of them from the steps leading from a small street at a lower level. It was not certain that it was her, although the similarity was, of course, great. But it did not matter to K. whether it was certainly her anyway, he just became suddenly aware that there was no point in his resistance. There would be nothing heroic about it if he resisted, if he now caused trouble for these gentlemen, if in defending himself he sought to enjoy his last glimmer of life. He started walking, which pleased the gentlemen and some of their pleasure conveyed itself to him. Now they permitted him to decide which direction they took, and he decided to take the direction that followed the young woman in front of them, not so much because he wanted to catch up with her, nor even because he wanted to keep her in sight for as long as possible, but only so that he would not forget the reproach she represented for him. “The only thing I can do now,” he said to himself, and his thought was confirmed by the equal length of his own steps with the steps of the two others, “the only thing I can do now is keep my common sense and do what’s needed right till the end. I always wanted to go at the world and try and do too much, and even to do it for something that was not too cheap. That was wrong of me. Should I now show them I learned nothing from facing trial for a year? Should I go out like someone stupid? Should I let anyone say, after I’m gone, that at the start of the proceedings I wanted to end them, and that now that they’ve ended I want to start them again? I don’t want anyone to say that. I’m grateful they sent these unspeaking, uncomprehending men to go with me on this journey, and that it’s been left up to me to say what’s necessary”.

Meanwhile, the young woman had turned off into a side street, but K. could do without her now and let his companions lead him. All three of them now, in complete agreement, went over a bridge in the light of the moon, the two gentlemen were willing to yield to each little movement made by K. as he moved slightly towards the edge and directed the group in that direction as a single unit. The moonlight glittered and quivered in the water, which divided itself around a small island covered in a densely-piled mass of foliage and trees and bushes. Beneath them, now invisible, there were gravel paths with comfortable benches where K. had stretched himself out on many summer’s days. “I didn’t actually want to stop here,” he said to his companions, shamed by their compliance with his wishes. Behind K.’s back one of them seemed to quietly criticise the other for the misunderstanding about stopping, and then they went on. The went on up through several streets where policemen were walking or standing here and there; some in the distance and then some very close. One of them with a bushy moustache, his hand on the grip of his sword, seemed to have some purpose in approaching the group, which was hardly unsuspicious. The two gentlemen stopped, the policeman seemed about to open his mouth, and then K. drove his group forcefully forward. Several times he looked back cautiously to see if the policeman was following; but when they had a corner between themselves and the policeman K. began to run, and the two gentlemen, despite being seriously short of breath, had to run with him.

In this way they quickly left the built up area and found themselves in the fields which, in this part of town, began almost without any transition zone. There was a quarry, empty and abandoned, near a building which was still like those in the city. Here the men stopped, perhaps because this had always been their destination or perhaps because they were too exhausted to run any further. Here they released their hold on K., who just waited in silence, and took their top hats off while they looked round the quarry and wiped the sweat off their brows with their handkerchiefs. The moonlight lay everywhere with the natural peace that is granted to no other light.

After exchanging a few courtesies about who was to carry out the next tasks — the gentlemen did not seem to have been allocated specific functions — one of them went to K. and took his coat, his waistcoat, and finally his shirt off him. K. made an involuntary shiver, at which the gentleman gave him a gentle, reassuring tap on the back. Then he carefully folded the things up as if they would still be needed, even if not in the near future. He did not want to expose K. to the chilly night air without moving though, so he took him under the arm and walked up and down with him a little way while the other gentleman looked round the quarry for a suitable place. When he had found it he made a sign and the other gentleman escorted him there. It was near the rockface, there was a stone lying there that had broken loose. The gentlemen sat K. down on the ground, leant him against the stone and settled his head down on the top of it. Despite all the effort they went to, and despite all the co-operation shown by K., his demeanour seemed very forced and hard to believe. So one of the gentlemen asked the other to grant him a short time while he put K. in position by himself, but even that did nothing to make it better. In the end they left K. in a position that was far from the best of the ones they had tried so far. Then one of the gentlemen opened his frock coat and from a sheath hanging on a belt stretched across his waistcoat he withdrew a long, thin, double-edged butcher’s knife which he held up in the light to test its sharpness. The repulsive courtesies began once again, one of them passed the knife over K. to the other, who then passed it back over K. to the first. K. now knew it would be his duty to take the knife as it passed from hand to hand above him and thrust it into himself. But he did not do it, instead he twisted his neck, which was still free, and looked around. He was not able to show his full worth, was not able to take all the work from the official bodies, he lacked the rest of the strength he needed and this final shortcoming was the fault of whoever had denied it to him. As he looked round, he saw the top floor of the building next to the quarry. He saw how a light flickered on and the two halves of a window opened out, somebody, made weak and thin by the height and the distance, leant suddenly far out from it and stretched his arms out even further. Who was that? A friend? A good person? Somebody who was taking part? Somebody who wanted to help? Was he alone? Was it everyone? Would anyone help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? There must have been some. The logic cannot be refuted, but someone who wants to live will not resist it. Where was the judge he’d never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached? He raised both hands and spread out all his fingers.

But the hands of one of the gentleman were laid on K.’s throat, while the other pushed the knife deep into his heart and twisted it there, twice. As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.

The Trial can be enjoyed (if that’s the right word) in a public domain English translation here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Habsburg Realm,Known But To God,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Summary Executions

1927: Jindrich Bazant, killer rake

Add comment June 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1927,* the Bohemian playboy Jindrich Bažant was hanged at Kutna Hora for a murder spree directed at his several lovers.

Thanks to wealthy parents, Bazant‘s major occupation was the pleasures of the flesh.

But really, “I was destined to be a murderer,” he confessed upon arrest. He’d certainly thrown himself into the role once he tired of his girlfriends.

Two women who fancied themselves future Mrs. Bazants were the victims: Marie Safarikova, age 19, lured into a supposed elopement to Slovakia and then coldly shot dead in the woods; and Josefa Pavelkova, who was already pregnant with Bazant’s child.

Yet another lover, Bozena Rihova, almost met the same fate after she threatened Bazant with a criminal complaint for infecting her with a venereal disease. Bazant shot her, bludgeoned her with a hammer, and set her on fire — but Rihova miraculously survived to testify against her former paramour.

Bazant was among the last put to death by Leopold Wohlschlager, one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s five state executioners at the time of its dissolution. Wohlschlager got started in the craft at the tender age of 15, and was well into his seventies when he hanged Bazant.

* I’m going with the plurality (and the best-detailed) of Czech-language articles here, against some cites for the same date in 1926.

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1977: Jerome Carrein, the second-last in France

Add comment June 23rd, 2014 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1977, child murderer Jerome Carrein was guillotined in the courtyard of Douai prison. He was the second-last person executed in France’s history.*

A vagabond ex-convict who slept most nights in the slough of rural Arleux, cadging food enough off relatives and a pitying local barkeep.


The Marsh at Arleux by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1871)

It was a more bestial appetite that saw him into the guillotine’s annals: on October 27, he pursuaded an eight-year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of his benefactor publican, to come along with him. Once he had her in the swamps, Carrein attempted to ravish little Cathy Petit. As Cathy struggled, Carrein later explained — he confessed almost immediately — “I saw red. I felt lost in the idea that she would denounce me, so I threw her in the pond.”

Her drowned corpse was discovered the next day.

The growing reluctance of the French state to slice off heads in the 1970s did not express itself in interminable wait times on death row. Carrein was condemned to death on July 12, 1976, during the run-up to Christian Ranucci‘s execution for a similar abduction/child murder.

That conviction was vacated a few months later for a trial irregularity, but the retrial took place in the wake of another high-profile trial: anti-death penalty crusader Robert Badinter had successfully defended a man named Patrick Henry from the guillotine in yet another nationally known child murder case, winning a life sentence instead. There was no small public outcry over this outcome, and Carrein’s prosecutor explicitly called on the jury in his second case to avenge with severity to Carrein the “rape of public conscience” perpetrated by leniency to Henry. (London Times, June 24, 1977)

Pierre Lefrance, speaking for Carrein’s defense, ventured his own appeal to the jurors’ wider sensibilities — in this case, of the growing likelihood that capital punishment was nearing the end of the line in France: “Were the death penalty to be abolished at last in the next year or two, would you wish that Carrein was the last man guillotined in France?”

The invaluable French-language guillotine.cultureforum.net has a forum thread on this case; be sure to note the appearance on page 3 of a poster claiming to be the daughter of Jerome Carrein’s first wife.

* It was also the first execution of France’s last official chief executioner, Marcel Chevalier.

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1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist

Add comment June 21st, 2014 Headsman

The novel East German polity was coming in the late 1950s to a crossroads that saw security paranoia ratchet up dramatically.

Emigration to West Germany accelerated considerably as the 1960s began, eventually giving rise to the infamous Berlin Wall.

In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.

Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)

Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.

He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.

Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Housefrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.

The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”

Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”

Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).

He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.

* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.

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1979: Bill Stewart, ABC News reporter

Add comment June 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the American Broadcasting Company journalist Bill Stewart was executed at a somocista checkpoint during Nicaragua’s bloody civil war.

And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.

Warning: This is the execution footage.

Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.

“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”

Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.

* Or more precisely by this point, backing Somocismo sin Somoza — ease out the unpopular Somoza but keep the same system.

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1936: Arthur Gooch, the only execution under the Lindbergh Law

Add comment June 19th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1936 marks the first and only occasion that the federal government hanged a (non-murdering) kidnapper under the Lindbergh Law.

Even before the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the “snatch racket” of kidnappings for ransom had claimed a firm foothold among Depression-era America’s moral panics. The bill that would become known as the Lindbergh Law was actually introduced in Congress three months before little Charles Lindbergh, Jr. disappeared out the window of his New Jersey nursery. Its sponsors were Missouri lawmakers concerned that gang-ridden St. Louis was becoming a kidnapping hub, like the high-profile 1931 abduction of Dr. Isaac Kelley.*

The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.

The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.

At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.

Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.

They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.

A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.

Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.

Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.

By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.

But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)

Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.


Arthur Gooch on the gallows

* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Oklahoma,U.S. Federal,USA

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