On lonely scrubland at the Aru Islands port of Dobo on this date in 1943, the Japanese military beheaded kidnapped Australian Rev. Leonard Kentish.
Nobody knew his fate at the time — his wife spent years tring to discover it — but the so-called “Kentish Affair” was one of the true oddities of the Pacific War: a civilian of no particular import to the war effort who was snatched from Australian territorial waters.
On January 22, 1943, the civilian Kentish, chief of Northern Territory Methodist missions to the aboriginal peoples, had hitched a ride on the HMAS Patricia Cam, a wooden tuna trawler that had been requisitioned as a wartime naval transport. The Patricia Cam wasn’t running any blockades — she was strictly for local cargo runs, in this instance shuttling among Elcho Island and the Wessel Islands just off Arnhem Land.
She had no radar capacity, and no inkling at all of her fate that afternoon when the Aichi E13A floatplane dove out of the sky and skimmed above the Patricia Cam, within 100 feet of the mast — dropping a bomb amidships that ripped open the trawler’s belly and sent her to the bottom.
While survivors scrabbled in the Arafura Sea for “overboard drums, planks, boxes — anything that would float” the raider circled for another pass, splintering with a second bomb an emergency canoe that men were crowding into, then strafing the waves with machine gun fire. Finally, the victorious seaplane set down in the waves.
And then mysteriously, the pilot gestured Rev. Kentish into the vacant seat of his plane, and took off. Kentish was the only prisoner taken, and his countrymen never again laid eyes on him.
Sixteen other people survived the attack and were rescued a few days later. But poor Mrs. Violet Kentish remained entirely in the dark as to the fate of her husband. “I know that Len is not beyond God’s love and care wherever he may be,” she vainly pleaded to the Minister of the Navy. “But you will understand because we are only weak humans, the heartache and longing for one we loved so much.” (Quoted in Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War Two)
After World War II, she desperately resorted to firing letters to newspaper editors, until an intelligence officer chanced to read one published in the Argus and made the necessary inquiries via U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo to unravel the mystery. In the clipped official findings:
1. The Rev KENTISH was taken on board a Jap float plane on Jan 22 43 after it had sunk the patrol vessel HMAS “PATRICIA CAM” off WESSEL IS.
2. Unfortunately no info can be obtained of the whereabouts of the Rev KENTISH until 13 Apr 43, when he arrived at DOBO.
3. The Rev KENTISH was held at DOBO as a prisoner till the 4 May 43. Throughout this period he was subjected to ill treatment by severe bashings, the most common being punches in the nose and eyes to such an extent that his nose was broken, and he had great difficulty in seeing. His diet, as such, was just sufficient to keep him alive.
4. On the morning of 4 May he was taken in to the scrub, (a distance of under 200 yds from the township of DOBO) where a grave had been prepared, and executed.
5. The execution was carried out by the order of 1st Lieut SAKIDJIMA.
6. The remains of the Rev KENTISH have been recovered, and handed over to Capt STOCKWELL, of the War Graves Unit. They will be transported to AMBON, and buried in the Internees cemetery there.
7. This case is now considered closed. All dates must be treated as approx.
The consequence of this inquiry was a 1948 war crimes case against Lt. Sagejima Maugan, who was hanged in Hong Kong on August 23, 1948 for conducting Rev. Kentish’s execution.
On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.
“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”
James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.
Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.
In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.
From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.
In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.
The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.
Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.
James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.
Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.
The insurers paid.
Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.
James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.
In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.
Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.
They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.
Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.
Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?
Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.
He appeared to have gotten away with it again.
However, several months later, it came undone.
A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.
This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”
Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.
The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”
James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.
The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.
And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.
The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.
When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
Thanks for a million things. Thanks for a million things. I’ve got a son, six foot three inches, one hundred and seventy pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas right now. … So I’ve left something good—one decent thing out of a dirty life …
— Lloyd Edison Sampsell (aka “the Yacht Bandit”), convicted of robbery and murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed April 25, 1952
Sampsell and an accomplice plundered Pacific Coast banks before stealing away in his yacht. He pilfered a total of $200,000 in his career but died with only $5.27 to his name. Sampsell, age fifty-two, was convicted of killing Arthur W. Smith in a San Diego finance company robbery.
Before the gas took its effect, he turned to the nearly one hundred witnesses gathered and winked.
Berlin’s policy, too, was for an independent Slovakia — in fact, more stridently than Tiso himself, who mapped as a moderate within his own party, more supportive of gradual methods than revolutionary ones. “A Czech state minus Slovakia is even more completely at our mercy,” Goering mused in October 1938. “Air base in Slovakia for operation against the East very important.”
In secret negotiations with Slovakian leaders during the autumn and winter of 1938-39, the Third Reich’s brass made clear that its intention to guarantee Slovakia’s independence was an offer that could not be refused. When Slovakian separatist movements triggered the Prague government’s military occupation of Slovakia on March 9, 1939, Tiso was summoned to Berlin where Hitler gave him an ultimatum on March 13:
The question was: Did Slovakia want to lead an independent existence or not? … It was a question not of days but of hours. If Slovakia wished to become independent [Hitler] would support and even guarantee it … (Shirer)
The next day, Tiso was back in Bratislava, reading the terms to the Slovak Diet — with the clear undertone that the deed would be accomplished by Wehrmacht boots if it were not done by parliamentary votes. Tiso became the Prime Minister of the First Slova Republic that very evening (he became President later in 1939), and soon implemented an enthusiastically rigorous anti-Semitic line. (Tiso had been on about the Jews right from the start of his public career in the early 1920s.)
Slovakia is not a populous country, so its deportations made only a modest contribution to the Holocaust in absolute numbers. But from a prewar census population of 88,951 Jews, some 70,000 were deported to German camps and over 90% of these died. Thousands of others fled Slovakia as refugees; today, Slovakia’s Jewish populace has all but disappeared.
Captured in Bavaria after the war, Tiso was extradited by the Americans back to Communist Czechoslovakia where a court condemned him for collaboration, judging that he had been “an initiator, and, when not an initiator, then an inciter of the most radical solution of the Jewish question.” He was hanged in his priestly garb three days after that verdict.
Louise Peete died in the Caliornia gas chamber on this date in 1947.
Stock of “cultured, educated people” — her words — she turned teenage delinquent, got kicked out of her private school, and commenced a colorful career as an itinerant prostitute and scam artist. Her gallantries — and larcenies — are supposed to have driven two early husbands to suicide, though given her subsequent career one can’t help but wonder.
Lofie Louise Preslar (as she was born) or Louise Gould (as she came to style herself) got the surname by which she is best known from a Denver salesman named Richard Peete. Though this pair fought wantonly and soon separated, Louise still bore his name when her wealthy lover Jacob Denton mysteriously went missing, days after Louise moved into his Los Angeles mansion. Eventually, he turned up … under the floorboards. Louise had been signing checks in his name, and when her bad forgeries were noticed concocted a cockamamie alibi about a “Spanish woman” who had got the man’s arm amputated.
This wasn’t even the murder that Ms. Peete was executed for, but it made her a national celebrity: a black widow who had preyed on a magnate from the shadow of yellow journalism’s newbuilt Xanadu.
American Newspapers (Hearst and otherwise) from sea to sea ran breathless updates from the trial of the “Tiger Woman”, and local interest in Tinseltown — well, it was intense.
Olympia (Wash.) Daily Recorder, Jan. 19, 1921.
In a 2½-week trial, Peete was convicted of Denton’s murder, but the all-male jury declined to hang her and ordered a life sentenced instead. While she served it, a despondent Richard Peete — who continued to profess his absconded wife’s innocence — shot himself. She just had some way with men.
Paroled for good behavior in 1939, Louise proved that prison had not sapped her gift for attracting convenient deaths to her proximity.
The notorious Tiger Woman, now nearing 60, was a sensation of the past but Peete still had advocates who believed in her innocence, worked for her release, and took her in when she was paroled. Peete went to work for one of those advocates as her housekeeper (until the advocate died), and then got the same gig for her parole officer (until the officer died), and then moved in as the live-in caregiver for two more of her jailyears advocates, Arthur and Margaret Logan.
This couple had actually taken in Peete’s daughter for a time during her prison sentence, and in gratitude, Peete reprised for them all her greatest hits.
In June 1944, Margaret Logan disappeared (just like Mr. Denton had); then, posing as his sister, Peete had the dementia-addled Arthur committed.
Living now in the victims’ house (as with Denton’s), Peete began plundering their assets (as with Denton’s). Eventually (as with Denton) someone noticed the forged signature, and when that happened the inquiry brought Tiger Woman into the light yet again: Margaret Logan’s corpse was mouldering away in the back yard.
First as tragedy, then as farce. Even her new lover when all this stuff broke proceeded to commit suicide.
She still claimed innocence — sans “Spanish woman” this time — but the evidence at hand coupled with the suspicious pall of violent death that had always seemed to shadow her career made that an impossible sell. A jury of mostly women sent her to death row.
She was the second (of four) women gassed in California.
On this date in 1985, North Korean Major Zin Mo was hanged in Buma’s Insein prison.
Eighteen months earlier nearly to the day, a huge bomb ripped apart Rangoon’s monumental mausoleum tribute to martyred founding hero Aung San.
The bomb was meant for visiting South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan,* who planned to lay a wreath at the site. But the infernal machine detonated too early, sparing its target — though 21 others lost their lives, 17 of them Korean, including Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok.
The ensuing manhunt turned up three North Korean commandos, each of whom had been detailed short-fused grenades to commit spectacular suicide to evade capture.
Zin Kee-Chu started pulling stuff out of his bag. First a pile of money came out and while the policemen were temporarily distracted by the cash he then pulled out a hand grenade and detonated right there.
Their hand grenades had short 1 second fuses unlike our M-36 hand grenades with the longer 4 seconds fuses. So the explosion was immediate and some policemen and Captain Zin Kee-Chu himself were killed there. (Source)
But Major Zin Mo survived his explosives, albeit with devastating injuries, and fellow-captain Kang Min Chul lacked the fortitude to make the suicide attempt at all. Under none-too-gentle interrogation, Zin Mo kept his mouth shut and accepted his secret execution for the People’s Republic. Zin Kee-Chu didn’t have any better stomach to hang for his country than to blow himself up for it; he didn’t hang and lived out his life in Burmese captivity, having apparently cut a deal to tell all in exchange for his life.
There’s a phenomenal firsthand retrospective on these events, liberally illustrated, here, written by a present-day Burmese exile who was in Rangoon on the day the mausoleum was bombed.
On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.
Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.
Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.
The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.
On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.
Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.
When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.
He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”
Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.
Less than a year passed between murder and execution.
One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.
Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.
Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*
“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”
Although it would not be publicly known until two years later, the retired Soviet Gen. Dmitri Polyakov was on March 15, 1988 executed for treason.
A World War II artillerist, Polyakov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a military intelligence officer working as an embassy attache when he made contact with American agents in New York in 1961. For the next quarter-century — across assignments to Burma, India, the U.S., and back in Moscow — he would ship to the CIA and FBI some of its choicest morsels of the Cold War.
“Polyakov was the jewel in the crown,” former CIA chief James Woolsey lamented of his loss. Polyakov-supplied documents underscoring the extent of Russia’s split with China have been credited with spurring Richard Nixon’s overtures to Beijing.
The spy code-named Bourbon, Roam, and Top Hat had idiosyncratic motivations; he was not an ideological true believer like a Sorge nor a man afflicted by demons like a Vetrov. He accepted only a little bit of money from his handlers, mostly to support an innocuous wordworking hobby.
This Russian article indulges a variety of hypotheses — contempt for Khrushchev, the death of a son, an appetite for risk-taking — but nothing his U.S. contacts could learn of him rebutted the presentation he made of himself as a Russian patriot chagrined at the prospect that the corrupt Communist state could win the Cold War.
His revelations did much to check that possibility.
Polyakov retired as a general in 1980, having operated under the Kremlin’s nose for a phenomenally long period of time. (His U.S. contacts made sure to feed him some career-advancing secrets, too.) But he was betrayed in the 1980s by the USSR’s own moles, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and arrested in 1986.
His fate, imposed by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, thereafter was a mystery to his former handlers. Two months after his secret execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought Polyakov’s pardon or his exchange for a captured Soviet mole at his May-June 1988 arms control summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The solicitation was politely deferred.
The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.
German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**
Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.
For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.
** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”
† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.