On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.
Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.
Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.
Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.
Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”
The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”
A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.
“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”
Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.
Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.
Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”
Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”
After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.
In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.
Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”
Prior to the war certain European nations, and especially those now ranged against us, regarded our Easern Dependency as a country where the great Mutiny would be surpassed in horror by the upheaval that would inevitably follow the entanglement of Britain in a great war, and at the outset of the conflict the German Press confidently relied upon trouble in India as a large factor on their side. Even among a not inconsiderable section of our own countrymen, too, there seemed to be a feeling of doubt. The moment Germany threw down the gauntlet, however, his Majesty’s dusky subjects forgot their little quarrels, closed their ranks, and offered all they possessed in defence of the Empire to which they are all so proud to belong, and with which their future prosperity and advancement are bound up.
-Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette, Dec. 31, 1915
One century ago today, seven of his Majesty’s “dusky subjects” submitted to the noose at Lahore Central Gaol in preference to submitting to his Majesty.
These partisans of the two-year-old expatriate Ghadar party — the word means “revolt” — had been cogitating the subcontinent’s independence since its founding two years prior in the United States.
With the onset of World War I, the Ghadarites began returning to India by the thousands with a view towards ejecting the British Raj. For an ambitious objective, an ambitious plot spanning multiple interlocking conspiracies and reaching to the sepoy bunkers of Singapore.
The project was a logistical nightmare: no surprise considering the distances and communications lags involved. German-supplied munitions arrived late or (when intercepted in North America) not at all. The movement was penetrated by counterintelligence, and many of its adherents arrested.
Full of the desperate recklessness of patriotism, the remains of the conspiracy tried to go ahead with a rising in February 1915: this too was compromised, and easily squelched.
The resulting Lahore Conspiracy Case saw nearly 300 who were not quite so proud to belong to the Empire as the crown had hoped — seven of whom hanged on November 16:
On this date in 1996, Ellis Wayne Felker was elecrocuted for a rape-murder that — despite his classic middle name — he always maintained he did not commit.
Felker was fresh off his release from prison for aggravated sodomy in 1981 when he opened a leather shop at which a Macon Junior College student named Evelyn Joy Ludlam solicited work. Felker had none to give her — the business was failing — but he still invited her to interview.
Sometime after Ludlam interviewed at Felker’s shop on Novemer 24, 1981, her car ended up parked in the lot of the Trust Company Bank with Joy nowhere to be found. She remained missing until December 8, when a passerby found her body in Scuffle Creek outside of Macon. She had been raped, sodomized, and throttled.
Evidence incriminating Felker was circumstantial but suggestive: Felker was the last person who could be shown to have seen Joy Ludlam alive, and that under duplicitous circumstances; he had shifted his account of his contact with Ludlam during the crucial hours as evidence came in; he had gone out for an unexplained drive late the night of her disappearance; some bruises on the victim’s body suggested bondage sex and Wayne, a BDSM aficionado, had suspiciously disposed of some leather restraints shortly after Joy vanished. Plus, of course, there was that previous sexual assault conviction.
On the other hand, the initial autopsy and some expert testimony concerning the body’s condition suggested that Joy had died just a few days before she was pulled out of the creek — a timeline which would have ruled Felker out as a suspect since he was under police surveillance from the evening of November 25. (The revision of the autopsy’s initial, Felker-exonerating timeline, and the subsequent expert dispute over the expected state of a body submerged in water after X number of days forms a sizable part of the record. We at Executed Today have no ranks in this coroner’s science, but would note that she was found wearing the clothes she donned for her November 24 visit to Felker’s leather shop.) And years after the trial, boxes of evidence that the state had illegally failed to disclose to Felker’s defense team were discovered. They contained interviews with other witnesses, a highly dubious signed confession by a mentally disabled man, and human tissue.
The last really sticks in craw: courts in 1996, when DNA was still only emerging as a forensic force, refused to allow the sample to be tested on the Kafkaesque procedural grounds that the request had not been made earlier in the process — you know, before the defense knew there was such a sample to test, and/or before DNA testing was a thing. Partial credit for the frustration of Felker’s appeal routes goes to that relic of 1990s death penalty mania, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, which limited (and still limits) capital defendants’ access to federal habeas corpus relief was actually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1996 via Felker’s own case: the key ruling is Felker v. Turpin.
He wasn’t through making history after he died, either.
In what was thought to be a first in 2000, a consortium of media organizations footed the bill for posthumous DNA testing of those recovered hair and fingernail samples, with the potential to deliver an embarrassing four-years-too-late exoneration.
Minutes after midnight on this date in 1996, Georgia electrocuted Larry Lonchar
Ten grand in the red on gambling debts, Lonchar in 1986 raided the home of the bookie he owed and gunned down that bookie, his female partner, and his two sons. (One of the sons survived by playing dead.)
A DeKalb county 911 call recorded the horrifying last moments of Margaret Sweat:
911: DeKalb Emergency 911.
911: What address?
911: What’s the problem?
Caller: Everybody’s been shot.
911: Who’s been shot?
Caller: Me — and —
911: With a gun?
911: Who did it?
Caller: I don’t know.
911: Is that a house or an apartment?
Caller: It’s a condominium. . . .
911: Okay. Now you say everybody’s been shot, I already got you help on the way, but when you say everybody’s been shot, how many?
Caller: Uh, me.
911: Where are you shot at?
Caller: In the living room — I’ve crawled to the phone.
911: I mean what part of your body, Ma’am.
Caller: I think my stomach — they’re coming back in — please-(inaudible)
911: Who did it? Give me a description of them!
Caller: Why are you doing this. Please — (inaudible). Please, please, I don’t even know your name. Please — please Larry. I don’t even know your n –.
Lonchar had little stomach to fight a death sentence he acknowledged deserving — an execution date in 1993 had been averted only at the last moment when his brother’s suicide threat induced Lonchar to reluctantly pick up his appeals — and by the end he was holding out strangely for only a late delay. It seems that he wanted to donate his kidneys, but the wrack of the electrical chair promised to damage the tissue past using. That situation had even led Georgia lawmaker Doug Teper to introduce legislation to conduct executions by guillotine: say what you will about the iconic French razor, it’s easy on the organs.
The spectacle of legal beheadings was spared America, then and since — though who knows what may someday come of the ongoing breakdown of the lethal injection process.
Lonchar’s execution was witnessed by British human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who had come to represent him: Smith wrote about the experience for the Guardianhere.
On this date in 1954, railway official Ewald Misera and civil engineer Karli Bandelow were beheaded in Dresden as West German spies.
They had been recruited to inform for the West German Gehlen Organization, an intelligence apparatus directed, as its name implied, by former Third Reich spymaster Reinhard Gehlen.
Gehlen had the honor to be dismissed by Hitler in the war’s closing days for his accurately defeatist reports on the overwhelming strength of the advancing Red Army, but for the western Allies — to whom he savvily surrendered — his expertise on and contacts in eastern Europe were very well worth having as the Cold War took shape.
East Germany, of course, was equally keen to undermine the Gehlen network’s moles and after the alarm of the June 17, 1953 rising it implemented a concerted effort to bring root out western spies known as Operation Arrow (Pfeil). Mass arrests beginning in October of 1953 swept up hundreds of suspected agents not only for Gehlen but for British, French, and American intelligence.
The consequent trials, or more particularly those targeting West German assets, are collectively known as the Gehlen-Prozess. Its We have indeed encountered some of its victims already: Elli Barczatis and Karl Laurenz, who would be executed a year after the principals in this post for their own work in Gehlen’s service.
Barczatis and Laurenz had alarmingly close access to the Prime Minister himself, and their trial was a secret one. Bandelow and Misera, by contrast, were civil servants fit for the sort of show trial that the Communist bloc was in these years raising to an art form.
In an orchestrated juridical performance piece from November 1 through 9, Communist Germany aimed “to expose the Gehlen organization as a gang of war criminals, fascists and revenge-seekers that threaten the peace of Germany and the world.”* Five other Gehlen informants besides Bandelow and Misera were convicted at the same proceedings, and sentenced to various prison terms.
Vainly playing for the mercy of the court, Bandelow offered to the spectacle that classic Stalinist flourish, the auto-denunciation of the doomed.
My Judge! I do not wish to speak a last word on my behalf … only to remark that I deeply regret my actions and I am ready for the harshest punishment. …
I call upon all those who like me have betrayed the nation and state to put an end to their criminal activity which threatens to unleash an insane war — call upon them to accept the leniency offered by the government and turn themselves in at once. I wish to cry out to them, take this generous offer so it does not go for you like has gone for me! (Source, in German)
Having done their last duty by the state, Bandelow’s frightened, penitent lips were closed by the fallbeil within 48 hours.
On this date in 1944, the Gestapo publicly hanged 13 men without trial at an S-Bahn station near Cologne.
Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the Rhineland industrial center had spawned two overlapping anti-Nazi movements both represented in this evil baker’s dozen. Their purchase on posterity’s laurels of anti-Nazi “resistance” has been debated ever since.
Often derogated as mere “delinquents”* — who failed to articulate “a positive view of goals”** — the heavily working-class Edelweißpiraten were expressly delinquent from the Third Reich’s project of youth indoctrination.
“Our banding together occurred primarily because the HJ was dominated by a certain compulsion to which we did not want to submit,” one “pirate” declared to Gestapo interrogators. Another said that his clique simply wanted “to spend our leisure time going on trips as free boys and to do and act as we pleased.”†
Many looked longingly back on the Bündische Jugend, romantic and far less authoritarian traditions of youth outdoorsmanship that the new regime had suppressed.‡ These pirates shirked their Hitler Youth “responsibilities” and did their rambling without odious political officers, repurposing old hiking tunes into confrontational subversive songs that they backed up with a penchant for fistfights with the HJ. A song of one band, the Navajos, ran:
Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains.
But we will smash the chains one day.
We’ll be free again.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
For the freedom of youth
The Navajos fight.
We march by the banks of the Ruhr and the Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love, and life.
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.
The discourse parsing the degree of “criminality” in youth defying a criminal society strikes the author as an all too precious critique from the security of the postwar world. These pirates might make for less congenial martyr figures than the likes of Sophie Scholl but in the end, they took desperate risks to maintain a sphere of freedom in circumstances of inconceivable peril. Not much adult opposition to Hitlerism with proper manifestos did better than they.
And the Pirates had a handle on larger stakes than their own jollity. Many gangs listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts, committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage, and hid army deserters or Jews. Certainly the authorities viewed them politically when they were subjected to Gestapo torture.
Some current and former Edelweiss Pirates were among the young people in increasingly war-ravaged Cologne who in 1943-44 came under the sway of an escaped concentration camp prisoner named Hans Steinbrück. His “Steinbrück Group” (or “Ehrenfeld Group”, for the suburb where they had their headquarters and, eventually, gallows), the second faction represented in the November 10 hangings, had a more distinctly criminal cast — stealing food and trading it on the black market.
Steinbrück, who claimed anti-fascist motives of his own, was also ready to ratchet up the associated violence past adolescent brawling. He stockpiled illegal weapons and had his gang shoot several actual or suspected gendarmes on a “Nazi hunt” shortly before their arrest. He would ultimately be accused of plotting with Eidelweiss Pirate Barthel Schink to blow up a Gestapo headquarters. The activities of the Ehrenfeld Group in particular have been controversial for many years: were they resisters, or merely gangsters who conveniently appropriated a patina of anti-fascist activism?
Under whatever label, their activities were far too much to fly as youthful transgression; Heinrich Himmler himself ordered the Ehrenfeld gang busted up in the autumn of 1944. Sixty-three in all were arrested of whom “only” the 13 were extrajudicially executed: Hans Steinbrück, Günther Schwarz, Gustav Bermel, Johann Müller, Franz Rheinberger, Adolf Schütz, Bartholomäus Schink, Roland Lorent, Peter Hüppeler, Josef Moll, Wilhelm Kratz, Heinrich Kratina, and Johann Krausen. (Via)
* They would survive the end of the war and prove defiant of the Allied occupation authorities too, which is one reason they had to fight until 2005 for political rehabilitation. Perry Biddiscombe explores this Pirates’ situation in occupied postwar Germany in “‘The Enemy of Our Enemy': A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History, January 1995.
On this date in 1945, stripped down to his socks and underwear, 35-year-old truck driver and double murderer Charles Silliman was gassed in Colorado’s death chamber. He died for the murder of his wife, Esther Corrine Silliman, and their four-year-old daughter.
Charles and Esther had been married for nine years and didn’t have any relationship problems that anybody knew about. After dinner on January 22, 1944, he poured her nightly glass of brandy. He also gave a small amount to little Patricia Mae. Both mother and child became violently ill and quickly expired.
Charles said he had no idea what had caused their deaths, and suggested food poisoning as a possible answer. When the cops arrived on the scene, they found the grieving husband and father studying his wife and daughter’s life insurance policies.
The police were suspicious, especially after Charles began weeping and pulled out a handkerchief marked with lipstick. He said the lipstick was his wife’s, but … she never wore makeup.
Chemical analysis showed the brandy had been laced with strychnine, and a bottle of the poison turned up hidden in the tire kit in Silliman’s car. The police theorized he had committed the murders to collect on the insurance and be with “a woman whom he met in a beer tavern in Denver and later … while his wife was absent, he rather frequently visited.”
Charged with murder, Silliman admitted to the poisonings and said he and his wife, plagued by poor health and debt, had jointly decided to commit suicide and take both their children with them — but that he chickened out and was unable to go through with it. (Son Charles Jr. was not harmed, as he was living with his grandparents at the time of the murders.)
Silliman was tried for his wife’s murder only, and he told the jury about the unfinished suicide pact. The prosecution pointed out that, even if his story was true, the deaths of Esther and Patricia still constituted first-degree murder.
His insanity plea didn’t go anywhere either. “We are convinced from the record,” ruled the appellate court, “as the jury must have been from the evidence, that defendant’s insanity was an afterthought and conceived by him as a means of escaping the penalty which, under the evidence, he merited.”
Silliman did, however, gain an extra two hours of life: executions at the Colorado prison normally took place at 8:00 p.m., but at that time there was a Chamber of Commerce banquet going on and 550 guests were chowing down on turkey. The warden delayed the execution until 10:00 p.m., after dinner was over and everyone had left the prison.
His last words were, “I do not fear. I am going to a better world.”
(An aside: elsewhere in the United States on that same November 9, 1945, Jesse Craiton and Noah Collins were electrocuted in Georgia for robbery-homicide, and Cliff Norman died for rape in Oklahoma’s electric chair.)
At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of August 8, 1944, Watson and Wimberly, both of them already drunk, arrived at the farmhouse and bartered for a liter of apple cider. They spoke no French but were able to get their point across. The farmer and his daughter were wary of the inebriated pair and, after they left, barricaded the door.
Five minutes later, the two soldiers returned and battered it down.
Wimberly hit the man on the head with his Tommy gun and Watson forced the woman into a chair. Then, just like that, they left again. The two victims went upstairs, barricaded themselves into another room and double-locked it.
A few hours later the two soldiers returned and fired at least twenty .45 submachine gun rounds through the upstairs door, wounding both of the French civilians.
The farmer staggered downstairs and went to get help, but his daughter’s tibia was fractured and she was unable to flee. She was raped in turn by each of the men while the other held her at gunpoint.
At trial she couldn’t identify either of her attackers. The farmer identified Wimberly out of a lineup of six black soldiers, but wasn’t sure about Watson.
Their identification wasn’t really needed, however. Watson was found passed out at the crime scene in the morning, still wearing his bloodstained pants, with the fly unzipped. Wimberly had left, but he left his helmet liner (marked with a unique serial number) on the steps of the farmhouse.
When questioned, Wimberly blamed the entire thing on Watson. Watson made several contradictory statements about the night of the crime before pulling the old amnesia gag. He admitted he’d gone to the farmhouse with Wimberly and added, “I must have gotten drunk because the next thing I knew I was in the yard with a Colonel, two Lieutenants and two MPs.”
Given the circumstances, there wasn’t much either man could say to show why he should not be convicted and executed.
Justice was quick: they were hanged less than three months after their crime. Wimberly went first and was pronounced dead at 10:29 p.m. Watson followed and was dead by 10:48. Eight days later, General George S. Patton had a letter sent to the rape victim, apologizing for what she’d been through and for the soldiers’ part in it.
One century ago today, California hanged two men at San Quentin: Earl Loomis, who murdered a Sacramento candy store proprietress in the course of a robbery, and Louis Bundy, who slew a Los Angeles messenger boy to steal a few dollars he could use to splurge on his girl.
Loomis, a hardened criminal, attracted the lesser notice; it was Bundy, who was an 18-year-old high schooler when he became a murderer, who drew a torrent of futile clemency appeals because of his youth and naivete. His crime dated to December of 1914, when he rang up the pharmacist and place a bogus order, along with a request to bring change for a $20 coin. The idea was to steal the change and buy his sweetheart a Christmas gift.
When the lackey turned up, it turned out to be a chum of Bundy’s, 15-year-old Harold Ziesche: Bundy bludgeoned him with a rock and an ax handle (sans ax) “because he knew me and would have squealed on me.”
As the San Jose Evening News reported in its hanging-day submission,* those appellants included former lieutenant governor A.J. Wallace among other political figures, numerous name-brand ministers (and even the strange Mormon boy-prophet Archie Inger), plus hundreds of Los Angeles schoolchildren.
All were bound for disappointment.
The Golden State was not averse per se to grants of mercy; a week prior to this date’s hanging, California’s pardons board spared three other condemned men, all murderers — and surely even in spurning Bundy in the same batch, the board’s action gave the young man’s supporters a thrill of hope for the intervention of Progressive Party governor (and death penalty skeptic) Hiram Johnson. Johnson had already reprieved Bundy in June, and then a second time in August.
He did not do it in November.
“I have done a great wrong and am sorry,” Bundy said on the scaffold. “I had hoped the law would see a way to let me have a chance, because I would like to have shown the world what I could do.” (Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, Nov. 7, 1915.)
* Also the source of the headline image that surmounts this post.
Minutes after midnight on this date in 1949, Washington state hanged Arthur Bruce Perkins for stabbing and bludgeoning to death an Olympia couple during the course of a robbery two years prior.
An alcoholic delinquent from his teen years, Perkins moved to Olympia after being paroled from a stretch in the state reformatory on November 11, 1947. One of the victims living there, Geneva Jessup, “had practically been a foster mother to” Perkins, according to court records. “‘I called Mrs. Jessup Aunt Neenie.'”
Perkins and a friend were peacably repairing a broken-down vehicle near the Jessup home when Perkins got a phone call at that house. Precisely how events escalated so dramatically from this everyday neighborly scene into a bloodbath is not very well-developed, and Perkins did not seem inclined to elaborate on the point beyond what was necessary to expedite his conviction. (He had no last words on the gallows. “Some time perhaps, the truth of this whole affair will be known,” he had mused enigmatically in the hours before.) The best one can present by way of conflict is that Mrs. Jessup attempted to dissuade her “nephew” from an ill-considered marriage. The confession that he gave police suggests that a moment of heartbreak that became a mad and horrible crime.
[Mrs. Jessup] kept talking about [the woman Perkins intended to marry] and I slapped her first. I then realized what I had done and knew I could never face her again. The rock I used was in a flower pot or was used as a door jam. I remember the old man coming into the room and I knew right then I would have to kill him as he saw the whole thing. I think the knife was on the kitchen table or drain board. I don’t know how many times I stabbed them. I think I choked Mr. Jessup until he was unconcious and I think I hit him once or twice with my fist and then I remember stabbing him. She was standing up when I hit her and when it was all over I picked her up and put her on the davenport.
He fled towards Centralia, and was picked up within days. By then, he preferred to throw away his own life rather than confront in court the enormity of his deed. While driving Perkins to jail, the sheriff said,
he was in the back seat and he spoke up rather loud and asked me what my suggestion or what my advice would be to getting this thing over with as quick as possible, get it straightened around and he didn’t want to spend any long time in jail; said he wanted to be executed … I told him the best thing for him to do to simplify it would be to sign a confession, a short statement of the facts and then hire the poorest lawyer he could find.