Posts filed under '20th Century'

1944: Olavi Laiho, the last Finn executed in Finland

Add comment September 2nd, 2014 Headsman

Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944.

Laiho (English Wikipedia entry | Finnish) was conscripted to the Finnish Navy to fight in Finland’s theater of war against the Soviet Union.

As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.

While Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers that followed his fate the next day. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.

Readers with Finnish proficiency might enjoy the Laiho biography En kyyneltä vuodattanut (I Never Shed a Tear).

While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are

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1916: Kosta Kromphold

Add comment September 1st, 2014 Headsman


According to the Portland Oregonian, Kosta Kromphold mellowed to a phonograph in his jail cell on the eve of his execution — including “If I Had a Thousand Lives to Live.”

A Russian native, the forgettable Kosta Kromphold had left his dear mum in New York City and chased his fortune to the Pacific coast, where he found it at gunpoint in the money-box of a Chinese restauranteur in Marysville.

Kosta really got himself into the egg drop soup during the subsequent chase by two bicycle (of course — this is California!) cops. Firing back at his pursuers, he shot officer John Sperbeck dead, right through the mouth.

According to April Moore’s Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men, “A Mrs. A. Meyers of New York City wrote to Governor Hiram Johnson on behalf of her housekeeper, Johanna Kromphold, the condemned man’s mother, saying that Mrs. Kromphold had already lost two of her three children. Mrs. Meyers’s message continued, ‘By taking this young boy’s life, you not only take one but two, as I am positive she will never live through this terrible ordeal.’”

This appeal didn’t work, and on September 1, 1916, Kromphold imparted a dying plea to the Folsom Prison chaplain: “Write my mother. I haven’t the heart to do it.”

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1948: Ragnar Skancke, the last executed in Norway

Add comment August 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1948 at stately Akershus Fortress, a firing squad carried out the last execution in Norwegian history — that of Ragnar Skancke.

Skancke (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) was an electrical engineer in academia, and the very first posts he held in his political life were the ministries that Vidkun Quisling named him to in the wartime Third Reich client government. That doesn’t exactly mean the man was apolitical; he had joined Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling fascist movement in 1933.

As Minister for Church and Educational Affairs for most of the war years, Skancke got to do things like purge books in service of a fascist-friendly curriculum, and maneuver Norway’s reluctant Lutheran clergy into better compliance with the new order.

Since he was just an academic, and in matters of state an administrator outside the security apparatus — not a guy ordering executions or deploying the paramilitaries — Skancke wasn’t really expected to draw the severest punishment at the postwar trials of collaborators. Skancke himself shared this view, and mounted a slight and indifferent defense that he would come to regret when he heard the shock sentence.

A two-year appeals process would explore in numbing (literally so, for Skancke) detail the precise legal stature of Norway’s 1940 capitulation to the invading Germans, and whether or not that document cast the pall of treason over further collaboration with the Nazis. In fine, the government and the king fled the country and delegated a general to make the knuckling-under arrangements recognizing German victory, but simultaneously averred that Norway as a state — meaning its exiled remnants — remained at war with Germany. All well and good for the so-called “London Cabinet” strolling gardens in Buckingham Palace, but what’s that supposed to mean for the Norwegians still in Norway? As a minister, Skancke’s collaboration was considerable in degree; the question remained, was it treasonable in kind? The reader may discern the answer given by courts, but the conduct of the purge trials as a whole has remained a going controversy long after the last gavel fell.

As public distaste for the death penalty in general was also mounting, and the entire legal apparatus by which Norway conducted its postwar purges came under some scrutiny — among other things, Norway’s “capitulated” government had specifically reintroduced the already-abolished death penalty from exile with a view to these proceedings — Skancke’s increasingly frantic appeals were mirrored by a public campaign for clemency among the clergy that he had so recently pushed around.

Norway fully abolished the death penalty in 1979 and today registers consistently overwhelming public opposition to its reintroduction.

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1944: Durga Malla

Add comment August 25th, 2014 Headsman

Seventy years ago today, the British in Delhi hanged Gurkha soldier Durga Malla for spying against them — and on behalf of the army of the Japanese-backed nationalist provisional government, the Azad Hind.

World War II catalyzed India’s long-running national movement and helped lead directly to postwar independence. But during the war itself, it was a delicate relationship with the British Empire that still ruled the Raj.

Activists at the time took different views of how to proceed in wartime. For Gandhi, and this was also the predominant position of his Congress Party, India’s national rights overrode the mother country’s wartime exigencies: India must be free to choose her own part in the affair, as a coequal nation.

Unsurprisingly, London saw it differently. (The Raj sent over two million soldiers into the British ranks in these years.)

This led in August of 1942 to the Quit India movement, an attempted civil disobedience campaign against continued British rule. It was suppressed with difficulty — and with mass detentions, including of Gandhi himself. But hours before the arrest that would land him in British custody for the balance of the war, he delivered his Quit India speech, which warned in part against

hatred towards the British among the people. The people say they are disgusted with their behaviour. The people make no distinction between British imperialism and the British people. To them, the two are one. This hatred would even make them welcome the Japanese. It is most dangerous. It means that they will exchange one slavery for another.

Which brings us to Durga Malla.

For Gandhi himself, there was no question of going so far as to collaborate with Britain’s wartime enemies to force the issue. But not everyone eschewed the “enemy of my enemy” line, and behavior at once treasonable and intensely patriotic has excited controversy from the moment the guns stilled down to the present day. Azad Hind established itself as a government-in-exile in Japanese-occupied Singapore, making plans to invade British India. The fervidly patriotic Durga Malla joined that exile government’s army, and was eventually caught reconnoitering British deployments, then given a military tribunal and hanged. His last words on the gallows affirmed his purpose, and would be vindicated with the passage of just a few years.

“I am sacrificing my life for the freedom of my motherland … The Sacrifice I am offering shall not go in vain. India shall be free. I am confident, this is only a matter of time.”

There are public monuments in present-day India to Durga Malla.

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1962: James Dukes, philosophical

Add comment August 24th, 2014 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.)

A circled passage in the section “He Is Sentenced to Death,” in Plato’s Apology:

The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways,
I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

— James Dukes, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois.
Executed August 24, 1962

Dukes was executed for killing Detective John Blyth Sr., who had pursued him after he had beaten his girlfriend in church and shot two other men who tried to stop him. On Dukes’s execution day, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, who took part in the final gun battle, told a newspaperman, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this night.”

Dukes made no oral statement but left behind a copy of the Apology for the press.

(Dukes was the last person executed in Illinois prior to the national death penalty hiatus of the late 1960s. He was also the last person electrocuted in Illinois, and the last put to death in Chicago’s Cook County. -ed.)

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1912: Sing Sing’s seven successive sparks

Add comment August 12th, 2014 Headsman

New York’s electric chair handled record traffic on this date in 1912: seven successive electrocutions.

The first two men committed unrelated and isolated crimes.

  • John Collins got drunk and started firing a pistol in his Manhattan apartment. Police responded, and Collins shot a patrolman through the chest when they entered his domicile and tried to arrest him.
  • Joseph Ferrone, a violent wife-murderer who reacted to his guilty verdict by smashing a glass and slashing a juror with the jagged edge before he was restrained.

The last five were the culmination of another record: six people (these were nos. two through six) executed for one homicide. More specifically, and this was their newspaper billing, “Six Italians”.

Ringleader Lorenzo Cali

Lorenzo Cali, Santo Zanza, Vincenzo Cona, Salvatore DeMarco, Angelo Giusto and Filippo DeMarco were all Sicilians who were among the million-plus emigres to leave the island in the wake of the devastating 1908 Messina earthquake, had washed up at Croton Lake outside of New York working on the aqueducts that supplied that swelling metropolis with its fresh water.

It was backbreaking work at less than $2 a day, with tent barracks for recuperation because it was a prohibitive two-hour train ride back to the last stop on the New York subway.

In 1911, Cali caught wind of the passing of a nearby farm owner — Henry J. Griffin, whose comfortable home (usually occupied by boarders from the aqueduct’s managerial ranks) must have looked a fair sight from the muddy workers’ tents. It was said that he had left his wife not only that property but a $3,000 insurance policy. That would be a good four times the average annual earnings of a workingman at the time: had that policy been cashed out, grabbing the proceeds would be a better day’s labor by far than tending the aqueduct.

On the night of November 8-9 of that year, our Six Italians — led by Cali, who had made a point of casing the house over the preceding weeks — stole by moonlight into the woods near the house and waited for the male residents to leave for the day. Once they did, the Italians raided the farm.

Though they easily overpowered the three women left there, they didn’t find any $3,000. One of the women, Mary Hall, the young wife of an aqueduct superintendent, lost her composure in the face of the bandits screaming at her to produce more money; desperate to control her sobbing and shrieking, Santo Zanza stabbed her fatally in the chest.

But as the men fled the house with pennies on their hoped-for fortune and a dying woman at their back, the other two matrons of the house summoned police — Aqueduct Police, actually, a special force detailed to keep order in the unruly laborers’ shanties. Four of the men were arrested in the vicinity that afternoon; Cali, the ringleader, made it back to his Brooklyn tenement but was caught there two days after the murder. Only Salvatore DeMarco, known to his confederates as “Penolo”, remained on the lam.

A speedy succession of four different trials (Filippo DeMarco and Cali opted to be tried together) commenced at the Westchester County courthouse in White Plains before the month was out. Heavy guard (“Black Hand” notes kept arriving at the judge’s door; for fear of a possible rescue attempt by underworld characters, Italians were barred from attending the trial) did not in the least encumber their rapidity.

Angelo Giusto had implicated Santo Zanza as the killer (“the confession was wrung from the prisoner by up-to-date third-degree methods,” a newspaper reported) and a cycle of desperately competing confessions and accusations ensued among the lot to easily doom them all. The general thrust of the non-Zanza defendants was that the whole thing was a robbery only, and that Zanza had gone rogue in knifing Mary Hall to death. Even if true, however, those statements amounted to confessing capital crimes under felony murder rules imputing to all participants in the criminal enterprise joint liability for all its consequences. There was one death by one man’s hand, but all six were murderers.

Twenty-six days after Mary Hall’s death, all five Italians stood together in the courtroom to receive their death sentences. The trials had taken just a few hours apiece; jury deliberations consumed less than a quarter-hour for all cases save that of the youngest, Giusto.


New York Times headlines from November 29 (left) and December 6 of 1911. “Less than thirty hours’ actual court time was used in the four trials,” the latter article reported by way of high-fiving the state’s attorneys. “It is believed that Westchester has established a new record for the quick disposal of murder cases in this State.”

Two days after that, the last fugitive Salvatore DeMarco was finally arrested at his East Flatbush apartment. He was tried, convicted, and condemned all in a single day on December 19.

As the short appeals process unfolded over the ensuing months, public pressure for mercy was exerted by the Italian consulate specifically on behalf of the men who had not bloodied their own hands. Even Santo Zanza, who was executed separately from the rest on July 12, climbed aboard, and gave statements designed to accentuate his own culpability and underscore his fellows’ innocence of his design. But considering the sensational nature of the crime, and its context of growing public fear of violent crime rife among New York’s Italian immigrants, this was not one to recommend itself to the governor‘s clemency.

There is a detailed Crime Library summation of this case that begins here; note that most of its navigation links insert a gratuitous (and link-breaking) space after the phrase /croton in the web address; clicking through the 15-page story requires some annoying manual url manipulation.

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1943: Red Orchestra members, in the Nazi Paradise

Add comment August 5th, 2014 Headsman

From 7 to 8 p.m. on the evening of August 5, 1943 the Fallbeil at Plotzensee Prison destroyed 17 members of the Berlin Red Orchestra resistance circle.

We have touched previously on Die Rote Kapelle in the context of the first 11 executions that claimed its leadership on December 22, 1942.

But the Gestapo had a much wider network than that to break up; ultimately, there would be nearly 50 death sentences associated with Red Orchestra, for activities ranging from outright espionage to merely dissident leafletting, and other rounds of executions had taken place over the preceding months.

The executions this date were more of the sad same, and noteworthy for some sincere and ordinary citizens so sympathetic that even the Reich Military Court recommended mercy for some. Adolf Hitler refused it across the board. The victims, predominantly women who had been moved to Plotzensee for execution that very morning, included

  • Cato Bontjes van Beek, an idealistic 22-year-old ceramicist.
  • Liane Berkowitz. Two days short of her 20th birthday when she was beheaded, Berkowitz had given birth to a child while awaiting execution.
  • Eva-Maria Buch, who translated propaganda leaflets destined for illicit distribution to the forced laborers employed in German munitions factories.
  • Else Imme, an anti-fascist whose sister had emigrated to the Soviet Union.
  • Ingeborg Kummerow.
  • Anna Krauss, a 58-year-old businesswoman.
  • Klara Schabbel, a Comintern agent who in her youth had fought against the French occupation of the Ruhr after World War I.
  • Rose Schlosinger.
  • Oda Schottmuller, a dancer and sculptor who used her arts-related trips to act as a courier.
  • Writer Adam Kuckhoff. His widow Greta would go on to head the East German central bank.
  • Emil Hubner, an 81-year-old retiree, along with his daughter Frida Wesolek and her husband Stanislaus.

Besides the above, at least three others among the condemned in this group paid with their lives for an arts activism attack on Das Sowjetparadies (The Soviet Paradise), a Reich exhibition in May-June 1942 that used photographs and captured artifacts from the war’s eastern front to depict “poverty, squalor and misery” in the USSR. This associated propaganda film gives a taste of the vibe:

The Orchestra orchestrated an “attack” littering the exhibition with counter-propaganda


“Permanent Exhibition
The NAZI PARADISE
War Hunger Lies Gestapo
How much longer?”

This act of wehrkraftzersetzung was a factor in the sentences of –

  • Hilde Coppi, one of the circle’s principal members and the wife of the previously executed Hans Coppi. Like Liane Berkowitz, she was spared the first rounds of executions to bear and nurse her child.
  • Maria Terwiel, a Catholic barrister with a Jewish mother.
  • Ursula Goetze.

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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1938: Vladimir Kirshon, Bulgakov antagonist

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Soviet playwright Vladimir Kirshon was shot at the Kommunarka “special object” shooting range outside Moscow.

Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.

In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.

In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)

This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.

Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.

The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.

21 April 1937

A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?

23 April 1937

Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.

(These entries, quoted via J.A.E. Curtis’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Michael Bulgakov: a Life in Letters and Diaries, refer only to Kirshon’s professional fall. He was not arrested until that August.)

Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.

* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.

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1973: Mimi Wong Weng Siu, jealous hostess

1 comment July 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.

“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)

On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.

The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.

While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.

The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.

According to an October 2013 AsiaOne profile, Singh had an unusually close pre-execution relationship with the first woman hanged in the only recently (since 1965) independent Singapore.

In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.

“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.

The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.

Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.

“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.

Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.

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