Posts filed under '20th Century'

1925: The Egyptian assassins of British Gen. Lee Stack

Add comment August 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1925, “seven men were led from their cells and executed at intervals of 40 minutes,” reported the Evening Independent — all for the assassination the of the British proconsul governing Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt had theoretical sovereignty at this point, but under British occupation — a tense situation that had frequently spawned deadly riots. It’s hardly surprising in such an atmosphere that the British high military commander Sir Lee Stack was gunned down along with his driver and an aide motoring through Cairo.


This photo captures only a staged reconstruction of Stack’s murder, not the actual shooting.

The British did not take kindly to this anti-colonial propaganda of the deed. In a furious diplomatic note handed by Lawrence of Arabia supporting character Edmund Allenby to the pro-independence Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul* they accused Egypt’s native leaders of “a campaign of hostility to British rights and British subjects in Egypt and Sudan, founded upon a heedless ingratitude for benefits conferred by Great Britain, not discouraged by Your Excellency’s Government.”

Indeed, His Excellency’s Government would only outlive the murdered sirdad by five days, for Zaghloul resigned (but urging calm) in the face of London’s demands to “vigorously suppress all popular political demonstrations,” a £500,000 fine levied on Egypt, and the seizure of customs houses.

Meanwhile, there was the most immediate reprisal of all: the search for Stack’s assassins. Sydney Smith, a self-educated New Zealander and pioneer of forensic science, had a star turn in the investigation by positively connecting the firearms and the bullets** to some of the suspects.

Smith published an analysis of this affair that became one of the foundational texts of the emerging firearm forensics field — and not incidentally helped to propel Smith’s own fame to household-name levels.

* Zaghloul had formerly been imprisoned by the British for his nationalist agitation.

** The bullet points had been hand-flattened by the shooters in an attempt to make them into dumdum (expanding) projectiles.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism

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1946: Vojtech Tuka, Slovakian Prime Minister

Add comment August 20th, 2015 Headsman

Slovak fascist politician Vojtech Tuka was hanged on this date in 1946 by the postwar Czechoslovakian government.

A lawyer, academic, and journalist, Tuka spent the decade leading up to World War II in prison for inciting Czechoslovakia’s Slovakian half to break with the Czechs.

These calls found their footing in 1938-39 when the Third Reich’s expansion crippled Czechoslovakia; a newly autonomous Slovak region under Prime Minister Jozef Tiso soon began pushing for outright independence.

In fact, one of the last actions of the pre-war Czechoslovakian state was to deploy troops to occupy Slovakia under martial law and (momentarily) depose Tiso on March 9, 1939. This desperate attempt to preserve Czechoslovakia was the action triggering Germany’s outright takeover of Czech territory. Tiso was in full support, and in reward he got restored as leader of the now “independent” Slovakia … in reality a German client state.

Tuka was right there for the ride.

In October 1939, Tiso became President of Slovakia, and appointed our man Vojtech the Prime Minister. Tuka would hold that office for the bulk of the coming war years, until ousted by the Slovak National Uprising late in 1944, and distinguish himself early for his enthusiasm in deporting Jews to German camps — and implementing comprehensive domestic anti-Semitic laws.*

But that decade in prison had not done Tuka’s health any favors. He suffered a stroke late in the war, and emigrated, wheelchair-bound, to Austria. He was arrested there and returned to Slovakia; by the time of his trial, he had suffered multiple strokes and was partially paralyzed.

Nevertheless, he was condemned as a war criminal for throwing Slovakia into war against the Soviet Union and for the defeated Slovak Republic’s anti-Jewish measures.

* Dieter Wisliceny, an Eichmann assistant, was a key German liaison to the Slovaks.

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1901: Three Boer rebels against the Cape Colony

Add comment August 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Petrus Jacobus Fourie, Jan van Rensburg, and Lodewyk Francois Stephanus Pfeiffer were shot by the British at Graaff-Reinet.

They were among the numerous subjects of the British Cape Colony whose sympathy with the independent Boer republics which Britain was in the process of conquering extended so far as aiding their Dutch brethren’s resistance. In this case, the young men joined the famed Boer guerrilla Gideon Scheepers — and whatever one might say about the fuzziness of ethnic and national identity in a frontier region, this rated in London’s eyes as rebellion.

On July 6, 1901, Scheepers executed a raid on the town of Murraysburg — “Scheepersburg”, he called it — and put loyalist houses to the torch.

The British Gen. John French sent columns of men into the rugged Camdeboo Mountains in an effort to trap the irksome commando. Scheepers and most of his troop of about 240 men escaped, but about 27 or 28 Cape Colony rebels were captured (along with a few free staters, who could not be charged as rebels).

A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word “present,” which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them “‘pulled off” before the command “fire” was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man’s head.

-British guard Wilfrid H. Harrison in his Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa

Eight of these people were executed as rebels over the ensuing weeks, with the aid of Jan Momberg, one of their erstwhile mates who turned Crown’s evidence against them to save his own life.

After Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer were shot on Aug. 19, Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen — both teenagers — died at Graaff-Reinet on August 26; and, Hendrik van Vuuren, Fredrick Toy and Hendrik Veenstra were shot at Colesberg on September 4.

Though the British made an effort to obscure the final resting-places of these potential martyr figures, their graves were located. Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer, along with Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen, are among the men subsequently exhumed and placed in a collective grave. A monument in Graaff-Reinet honors these and three other guerrillas executed there … one of whom is Gideon Scheepers himself, who was captured in October of 1901 and executed the following January.

There’s a good deal more about Scheeper’s rebels, and these men in particular, in a two-part article by a descendant of van Rensburg here: part 1 | part 2.

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

1 comment August 17th, 2015 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Franks was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.

Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.

The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.

Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.

Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.

But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.

Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that

my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.

This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)

In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)

By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.


Mary Phagan was killed on Confederate Memorial Day, the “holiday” this ballad alludes to.

Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.

Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …

This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …

lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.

But that mob would still have its say. On the eve of Frank’s scheduled June 22, 1915 hanging, outgoing governor John Slaton commuted the sentence.

“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†

Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.

Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.

* Frank was a chapter president of the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith; the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was founded in 1913 as a direct outgrowth of the Frank campaign.

As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):

The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.

** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.

† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.

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2000: Brian Roberson, “Y’all kiss my black ass”

Add comment August 9th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. 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.)

“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”

—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000

Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”

Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.

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1990: Sam Cayhall in Grisham’s “The Chamber”

Add comment August 8th, 2015 Headsman

In John Grisham’s The Chamber, it is on August 8, 1990 that the titular enclosure receives its victim in a cloud of lethal gas.

In The Chamber, Sam Cayhall, a Ku Klux Klansman who had long avoided conviction for bombing a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967, has at last been condemned in Mississippi twenty years later.

The action centers around the futile and increasingly hopeless efforts of Cayhall’s grandson Adam Hall to save the old man working pro bono for a Chicago law firm.

Adam comes to learn that his grandfather has a long and bloody Klan history, even killing children. (We also find that the missing link in this generational drama, Adam’s father, committed suicide after Sam was sent to death row.)

But Sam is in no way a good guy: still an unreconstructed racist, he refuses to inform on any ex-confederates. As grandpa wends his way towards his date with the executioner, Adam’s torrent of judicial appeals go nowhere and the politically sensitive nature of the case makes executive clemency a non-starter. (When The Chamber was published in 1994, the death penalty was at an acme of popularity.) This is to be expected, of course; as Chekhov might observe, you can’t call the book The Chamber if someone isn’t going to go sit in said chamber by the end.

This bestseller was made into a 1996 film starring Gene Hackman as the grizzled Klansman. (In the film version’s execution scene, the date is changed to April 13, 1996.)

There’s an excerpt of the novel available on Grisham’s site here.

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1933: The Simele Massacre of Iraq’s Assyrians begins

1 comment August 7th, 2015 Headsman


(Via)

August 7 is Assyrian Martyrs’ Day, in remembrance of the Simele Massacre that began this date in 1933.

A Mesopotamian Christian people* whom the past century has hard pressed, Assyrians were in the post-World War I aftermath of the Ottoman Empire angling for some form of a self-governing enclave in the British Mandate, and were highly alarmed at being consigned to the tender mercies of an independent Iraq after 1932.

The Assyrian Nation which is temporarily living in Iraq, having placed before their eyes the dark future, and the miserable conditions which are undoubtedly awaiting them in Iraq, after the lifting of the mandate, have unanimously held a Conference with me in Mosul … At the conclusion of lengthy deliberations, it was unanimously decided by all those present that it is quite impossible for us to live in Iraq.

WE ARE POSITIVELY SURE THAT IF WE REMAIN IN IRAQ, we shall be exterminated in the course of a few years.

WE THEREFORE IMPLORE YOUR MERCY TO TAKE CARE OF US, and arrange our emigration to one of the countries under the rule of one of the Western Nations whom you may deem fit. And should this be impossible, we beg you to request the French Government to accept us in Syria and give us shelter under her responsibility FOR WE CAN NO LONGER LIVE IN IRAQ AND WE SHALL LEAVE.

-A (disregarded) 1931 petition by the Assyrian patriarch to Great Britain (via this topical book)

Assyrians have a tragically voluminous register of atrocities endured; the one in question for this date perhaps resonated deeply enough to emblazon the date on the calendar because it ground up Assyrian bodies and national aspirations alike during the formation of the modern Middle East.

WE SHALL LEAVE, the petition said; in July 1933, 600-plus Assyrians crossed into French Mandate Syria, seeking asylum. They were refused, and sent back to Iraq — and encountered a hostile Iraqi army unit, resulting in a firefight with 33 Iraqi casualties.

This date’s massacre was the army’s revenge — or rather the start of a five-day bloodbath featuring numerous summary executions of Assyrian civilians. And not only that, but for the army and for Iraqis, even a unifying communal experience to strengthen adherence to the unfamiliar new state of Iraq. “The Assyrian pogrom,” Kanan Makiya opined, “was the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire.”

For those on the receiving end of the incipient national consciousness, the experience was quite different. One observer described Assyrian refugees he met later in August as “utterly panic-stricken … their spirit was completely broken.”

Simele was also among the major inspirations for jurist Raphael Lemkin, who later in 1933 — and citing the Assyrian experience as well as the earlier Ottoman slaughter of Armenians — presented to the League of Nations his concept of the Crime of Barbarity. This idea Lemkin would eventually develop into the concept of genocide (he’s the guy who coined the term).

* Saddam Hussein‘s ex-Foreign Minister, the late Tariq Aziz, was an Assyrian.

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1941: Ben Zion bar Shlomo Halberstam, the second Bobever Rebbe

1 comment July 28th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.

Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.

During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.

He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.

As Yad Vashem records,

Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.

They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**

Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.


Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.

* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed hands repeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.

** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.

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1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

Add comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.


Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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1934: Not Walter Lett, To Kill a Mockingbird inspiration

3 comments July 20th, 2015 Headsman

July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.

Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.

“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”

Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.

We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.

In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.

Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.

Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”

* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.

** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.

† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.

See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”

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