Posts filed under '20th Century'

1921: Fanya Baron, anarchist lioness

Add comment September 30th, 2020 Emma Goldman

(Thanks to American anarchist Emma Goldman for the guest post — not her first in these pages — on her friend Fanya Baron, an anarchist whom Goldman had known in Chicago but who was enticed by the horizon opened by the Russian Revolution to return to her homeland. Goldman, too, was in Moscow at this time, with her partner Alexander Berkman (“Sasha” in the narrative below); decisively disillusioned and frightened by the violent suppression of anarchists, the two left the USSR that December. Goldman’s recounting of Fanya Baron’s arrest and execution comes from Volume II, Chapter 52 of her memoir, Living My Life. A similar narrative, albeit misdated to August 30, appears in her My Further Disillusionment in Russia.)


Then the blow came and left us stunned. Two of our comrades fell into the Cheka net — Lev Tchorny, gifted poet and writer, and Fanya Baron! She had been arrested in the home of her Communist brother-in-law. At the same time eight other men had been shot at on the street by Chekists and taken prisoners. They were existy (expropriators), the Cheka declared.

Sasha had seen Fanya the preceding evening. She had been in a hopeful mood: the preparations for Aaron‘s escape were progressing satisfactorily, she had told him, and she felt almost gay, all unconscious of the sword that was to fall upon her head the following morning.” And now she is in their clutches and we are powerless to help,” Sasha groaned.

He could not go on any longer in the dreadful country, he declared. Why would I persist in my objection to illegal channels? We were not running away from the Revolution. It was dead long ago; yes, to be resurrected, but not for a good while to come. That we, two such well-known anarchists, who had given our entire lives to revolutionary effort, should leave Russia illegally would be the worst slap in the face of the Bolsheviki, he emphasized. Why, then, should I hesitate? He had learned of a way of going from Petrograd to Reval. He would go there to make the preliminary arrangements. He was suffocating in the atmosphere of the bloody dictatorship. He could not stand it any more.

In Petrograd [where Goldman and Berkman were visiting to explore options for fleeing Russia -ed.] the “party” that traded in false passports and aided people to leave the country secretly turned out to be a priest with several assistants. Sasha would have nothing to do with them, and the plan was off. I sighed with relief. My reason told me that Sasha was right in ridiculing my objection to being smuggled out of Russia. But my feelings rebelled against it and were not to be argued away. Moreover, somehow I felt certain that we should hear from our German comrades.

We planned to remain in Petrograd for awhile, since I hated Moscow, so overrun by Chekists and soldiers. The city on the Neva had not changed since our last visit; it was as dreary in appearance and as famished as before. But the warm welcome from our former co-workers in the Museum of the Revolution, the affectionate friendship of Alexandra Shakol and of our nearest comrades, would make our stay more pleasant than in the capital, I thought. Plans in Russia, however, almost always go awry. Word reached us from Moscow that the apartment on the Leontevsky where we had stayed had been raided and Sasha’s room in particular had been ransacked from top to bottom. A number of our friends, among them Vassily Semenoff, our old American comrade, had been caught in the dragnet laid by the Cheka. A zassada [a safehouse lair used by law enforcement in the context of, e.g., a stakeout or staging for an ambush -ed.] of soldiers remained in the apartment. It was apparent that our callers, who did not know we were away, were being made to suffer for our sins. We decided to return to Moscow forthwith. To save the expenses of our trip I went to see Mme Ravich, to inform her that we were at the call of the Cheka whenever wanted. I had not seen the Petrograd Commissar of the Interior since the memorable night of March 5 when she had come for the information Zinoviev had expected from Sasha regarding Kronstadt. Her manner, while no longer so warm as before, was still cordial. She knew nothing about the raid of our rooms in Moscow, she said, but would inquire by long-distance telephone. The next morning she informed me that it all had been a misunderstanding, that we were not wanted by the authorities, and that the zassada had been removed.

We knew that such “misunderstandings” were a daily occurrence, not infrequently involving even execution, and we gave little credence to Mine Ravich’s explanation. The particularly suspicious circumstance was the special attention given to Sasha’s room. I had been in opposition to the Bolsheviki longer than he and more outspoken. Why was it that his room was searched and not mine? It was the second attempt to find something incriminating against us. We agreed to leave immediately for Moscow.

On reaching the capital we learned that Vassily, arrested when he had called on us during our absence, had already been liberated. So were also ten of the thirteen Taganka hunger-strikers [fellow anarchists -ed.]. They had been kept in prison two months longer, despite the pledge of the Government to free them immediately upon the termination of their hunger-strike. Their release, however, was the sheerest farce, because they were placed under the strictest surveillance, forbidden to associate with their comrades, and denied the right to work, although informed that their deportation would be delayed. At the same time the Cheka announced that none of the other imprisoned anarchists would be liberated. Trotsky had written a letter to the French delegates to that effect, notwithstanding the original promise of the Central Committee to the contrary.

Our Taganka comrades found themselves “free,” weak and ill as a result of their long hunger-strike. They were in tatters, without money or means of existence. We did what we could to alleviate their need and to cheer them, although we ourselves felt anything but cheerful. Meanwhile Sasha had somehow succeeded in communicating with Fanya in the inner Cheka prison. She informed him that she had been transferred the previous evening to another wing. The note did not indicate whether she realized the significance of it. She asked that a few toilet things be sent her. But neither she nor Lev Tchorny needed them any more. They were beyond human kindness, beyond man’s savagery. Fanya was shot in the cellar of the Cheka prison, together with eight other victims, on the following day, September 30, 1921. The life of the Communist brother of Aaron Baron was spared. Lev Tchorny had cheated the executioner. His old mother, calling daily at the prison, was receiving the assurance that her son would not be executed and that within a few days she would see him at liberty. Tchorny indeed was not executed. His mother kept bringing parcels of food for her beloved boy, but Tchorny had for days been under the ground, having died as the result of the tortures inflicted on him to force a confession of guilt.

There was no Lev Tchorny on the list of the executed published in the official Izvestia the next day. There was “Turchaninov” — Tchorny’s family name, which he almost never used and which was quite unknown to most of his friends. The Bolsheviki were aware that Tchorny was a household word in thousands of labour and revolutionary homes. They knew he was held in the greatest esteem as a beautiful soul of deep human kindliness and sympathy, a man known for poetic and literary gifts and as the author of the original and very thoughtful work on Associational Anarchism. They knew he was respected by numerous Communists and they did not dare publish that they had murdered the man. It was only Turchaninov who had been executed.”

And our dear, splendid Fanya, radiant with life and love, unswerving in her consecration to her ideals, touchingly feminine, yet resolute as a lioness in defence of her young, of indomitable will, she had fought to the last breath. She would not go submissively to her doom. She resisted and had to be carried bodily to the place of execution by the knights of the Communist State. Rebel to the last, Fanya had pitted her enfeebled strength against the monster for a moment and then was dragged into eternity as the hideous silence in the Cheka cellar was rent once more by her shrieks above the sudden pistol-shots.

I had reached the end. I could bear it no longer. In the dark I groped my way to Sasha to beg him to leave Russia, by whatever means. “I am ready, my dear, to go with you, in any way,” I whispered, “only far away from the woe, the blood, the tears, the stalking death.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

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2000: Ricky McGinn

Add comment September 27th, 2020 Headsman

“I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about the things I’d seen less, but it was quite the opposite. I’d think about it all the time. It was like I’d taken the lid off Pandora’s Box and I couldn’t put it back on.

I’d open a bag of chips and smell the death chamber, or something on the radio would remind me of a conversation I’d had with an inmate, hours before he was executed. Or I’d see the wrinkled hands of Ricky McGinn’s mother, pressed against the glass of the death chamber, and I’d dissolve into tears.

Michelle Lyons, former spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, on the burden she carries from witnessing some 300 executions. McGinn was executed by lethal injection on September 27, 2000, for raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Texas,USA

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1965: The Carrillos, by the ELN

Add comment September 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1965, a Peruvian guerrilla movement called National Liberation Army (ELN) seized the Chapi hacienda and executed the gamonal Gonzalo Carrillo Rocha and his nephew Miguel Carrillo Cazorla. In the words of the military report on events quoted in this doctoral thesis:

On September 25th at 5.00 am, the workers of the hacienda heard successive detonations and firearms. They were communicated that strange men had arrived at the estate armed. They heard two bells (…) so they went into the courtyard of the hacienda house and found several gunmen, only one of those who spoke Quechua. He ordered to stay in the yard, to let them know that they had killed the Carrillo and since that moment Chapi’s land would be theirs, as well as all the products. They also said that they could have the cattle and every good the hacienda had.


Video “La ejecución de los hacendados Carrillo a manos del ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional 1965) en la provincia Ayacuchana de La Mar” as posted here.

This decidedly extrajudicial killing took place against a background of years of conflict between these mighty owners and the peasantry. The ELN’s founder Hector Bejar, in his his Notes on a Guerrilla Experience written during his subsequent imprisonment, described the grievances held against these provincial lords, “distinguished by their harsh and ruthless methods”:

The response to the claims of the workers whom the Carrillos forced to provide services for free had always been violent. The rebels were hanged, flogged, and shackled in the hacienda house.

In January 1963, Miguel Carrillo personally strangled and then slaughtered Julián Huamán, a settler from Orónjoy, one of the hacienda’s “payments”: he had dared to claim a bull that Carrillo had sold without belonging to him. Not happy with that. He threatened to do the same to any future complainer. …

Among innumerable other abuses, [peasants] accused the Carrillos of having raped the following peasant women: Ignacia Orihuela, Lorenza Balboa de Huamán, Mercedes Pacheco de Huamán, Rosa Santa Cruz de Sánchez, Evarista Sánchez de Cose, the settler’s wife and youngest daughter Emilio Contreras. They accused Miguel Carrillo of having mistreated, causing serious injuries, Mrs. Catalina Orihuela de Ccorahua and of having stolen the cattle and horses of 10 settlers.

As is the custom in these cases, a long and tedious file was started. Despite being guilty of a homicide perpetrated in the presence of numerous witnesses, Miguel Carrillo was immediately released and the complainants were arrested “for attempting against Mr. Carrillo’s freedom.”

The judicial machinery in the power of the gamonales in the area quickly began to work: the claimants were accused of the theft of 20 thousand soles and imprisoned for four years.

While the Carrillos might have been exceptional in their cruelty, the gross concentration of wealth and power in the hands of landowners was what made such exceptions possible — and it was this systematic wrong that motivated the ELN.

Great property yes, but its extension is not synonymous with wealth but with hoarding and criminal negligence. Greedy, ignorant and miserable, the landlord is the main obstacle to progress. He not only stubbornly opposes schools and fights teachers; he prevents his workers from prospering more than he sees fit, punishes those who raise excess livestock and uses fierce retaliation. Their spiritual misery is translated into the irremediable poverty of hundreds of families and their material misery is the result of it. He fears the competition of his servants, he knows he is useless and parasitic, but fiercely defends his parasitism.

A speedy counterinsurgency push by the army following the Chapi affair dispersed the ELN by the year’s end, but their legacy yet lives. Bejar is still a public intellectual in Peru, a university professor and newspaper columnist. Several ELN veterans went on to fight with Che Guevara in the latter’s fatal Bolivia campaign.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions

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1947: Yoshio Tachibana, ravenous

Add comment September 24th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Japanese Imperial Army Lt. Gen. Yoshio Tachibana was hanged as a war criminal.

A career officer whose own star rose along with Japan’s empire, Tachibana (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was one of the youngest generals on the squad and had command of the garrison on Chichijima, a Pacific island that’s part of the same archipelago as Iwo Jima.

According to Timothy Maga* evidence at the subsequent war crimes trials portrayed a monstrous pattern of routine murder of POWs and even a “cannibalism craze” driven by the unchecked sadism of Tachibana and some of his fellow officers.

Tachibana had beheaded his victim before the feast. Human flesh, he had boasted to his men, toughened him up, making him ‘strong for battle’. The Tachibana trial was truly an amazing spectacle, although it never received the press attention of less disturbing cases in Tokyo. The prosecution even charged that Tachibana’s example influenced young officers in his command, creating a certain reign of horror on Chichi Jima throughout late 1944 and early 1945. Yet finding ‘smoking gun’ evidence against Tachibana was difficult, and Rear-Adm. Arthur Robinson who presided in this case demanded evidence rather than damning tales. In August 1946, a team went to Chichi Jima and scoured the island. They found the bodies of eight of Tachibana’s victims. The torture, murder and cannibalism accusations against Tachibana numbered in the hundreds, but there was little left to prove any of them. Fourteen of Tachibana’s junior officers had been similarly charged, but, in the madness that was Chichi Jima, it was also difficult to assign specific murders to specific individuals …

Capt. Hiro Kasuga, who was briefly on Chichi Jima while en route to Tokyo near the end of the war, told the commission that one of the first things he saw on the island was several American POWs tied to stakes near Tachibana’s headquarters. All were starving, and, at one point, he dared to give one of the men a rice cake and water. The confusion of an American air raid had permitted him this action, for Tachibana, Kasuga learned, tortured all POWs in his keeping … he saw only one American servicman live longer than a couple of weeks on Chichi Jima. That soldier, Kasuga testified, had a decent command of the Japanese language, and Tachibana used him to translate American radio broadcasts. The wireless operator bayoneted him after ‘he was no longer of any use’, and Tachibana commended this subordinate for his action. Kasuga claimed that Tachibana and his officers regarded ‘human life of no more value than an old post at a dusty crossroads’. He said he ‘had been to hell’, and it was Tachibana’s Chichi Jima.

Kasuga’s credibility was in some doubt but corroboration came by way of an amazing character named Fumio Tamamuro. An American of Japanese descent, Tamamuro had the ill luck to be visiting relatives in Japan when the Pearl Harbor bombing abruptly opened war between the countries, and he was drafted into the Japanese army. He’d been under Tachibana’s command on Chichijima at the end of the war.

His testimony was in flawless English. Tamamuro claimed that he had befriended an American POW wireless operator translator. He also claimed to have witnessed the man’s execution, describing in detail the leather jacket and scarf that the victim was wearing at the time. This was critical, for the prosecution had found such a jacket and scarf near a road in Chichi Jima. They also found what was left of a body there, although identification was impossible. Tamamuro described the road and grave site in detail, noting that the victim had been ordered to dig his own shallow grave before the execution. When asked why he needed to be present during this murder, Tamamuro tearfully explained that he had promised his ‘friend’ that he would b there to the end.

The naval facilities and long-range radio there made Chichijima a regular magnet for U.S. bombing raids, which in turn assured a steady supply of captives to abuse courtesy of the island’s anti-aircraft batteries. The eight exhumed bodies referenced above formed the basis of the Tachibana’s eventual hanging, and it is these killings that are known as the Chichijima Incident — even though they might simply have been the latest and best-documented among many similar horrors.

In September 1944, eight downed flyers were captured by Chichijima’s defenders.

In the mischance of war, the Fates deal out good and ill luck by their own inscrutable logic. A ninth flyer might have numbered in this same batch, for he too was downed over Chichijima on the same mission. But 20-year-old Navy Lt. George Herbert Walker Bush bailed out of an exploding bomber, and somehow defied a head injury, the force of the tides, the pursuit of Japanese boats, and the monsters of the deep for a fascinating life that culminated as the 41st U.S. president. In his book about the Chichijima Incident, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, James Bradley sketches the sliding door to an alternate timeline.

He splashed down about four miles northeast of the island and swam to a collapsible yellow one-man life raft dropped from another plane. He inflated it and climbed in. He had no paddles, and the wind was blowing him toward Chichi Jima.

“I could see the island,” Bush told me. “I started paddling with my hands, leaning over the front of the raft, paddling as hard as I could. A Portuguese man-of-war had stung my arm and it hurt. I had swallowed a few pints of water and I was vomiting. My head was bleeding. I was wondering about my crewmen. I was crying. I was twenty years old and I was traumatized. I had just survived a burning plane crash. I was all alone and I was wondering if I’d make it.”

Chichijima’s defenders had seen him go down too, and launched boats for him. The other pilots on the mission, running low on fuel, were able to strafe them away from the chase but as their fuel dwindled they had to abandon him, radioing his situation on to friendly forces.

For what seemed like an eternity, George paddled and hoped and paddled some more. “I had seen the famous photo of the Australian pilot being beheaded,” Bush told me, “and I knew how Americans were treated at Bataan. Yes, I had a few things on my mind.”

But the radio ping fired off by his fellow aviators spared the future president from those fates and worse, summoning for a rescuer the submarine USS Finback.


George Bush being fished out of the drink on September 2, 1944.

* “‘Away from Tokyo:’ the Pacific Islands War Crimes Trials, 1945-1949”, The Journal of Pacific History, June 2001. This book develops the evidence in greater detail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Japan,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Not Executed,Soldiers,Torture,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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1959: John Day Jr., Korean War casualty

Add comment September 23rd, 2020 Headsman

From Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History:

Day, John E., Jr.
September 23, 1959

On December 23, 1950, twenty-two-year-old John E. Day, Jr., a black private serving in Korea, made sexual advances toward the wife of Korean civilian Lee Hak Chum, sometimes given as Lee Mak Chun, in Seoul. Chum came to her defense but Day pulled a pistol and shot Chum to death. Day was immediately arrested, and in January 1951 he faced a general court-martial. Day was found guilty of murder and on October 1, 1951, he was sentence to hang at Fort Leavenworth, the first American to receive a death sentences during the Korean conflict. He was transported to the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth while the case was under review. The verdict and sentence were approved by the general staff and then the appeals process commenced. The case was considered numerous times but finally the U.S. Supreme Court, after eight years, approved the verdict and sentence, and the matter was forwarded to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president carefully considered the matter before issuing an executive order to proceed with the execution and set the date for execution at September 23, 1959.

Just before midnight Commandant Colonel Weldon W. Cox appeared at the cell door and escorted Day into the power plant building and onto the gallows platform. The prisoner took his place on the trapdoor where Colonel Cox read the warrant for execution of sentence. When the reading concluded Day declined to speak to the witnesses, and, while the chaplain prayed for his soul, Colonel Cox retired and turned preparations over to three sergeants. While the chaplain continued praying the three sergeants bound the prisoner’s limbs with straps, adjusted the noose, and pulled the black cap over his head. At 12:02 a.m. the trap was sprung and Day dropped, breaking his neck in the fall. An Army physician was in attendance and he pronounced Day dead in fifteen minutes, and then the remains were lowered into the coffin provided. He was buried in the military portion of the cemetery later that day.

Sources: Daily Herald (Utah County, UT): September 23, 1959. Dallas Morning News (TX): September 25, 1959.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Korea,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Korea,U.S. Federal,USA

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1943: The officers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, during the Villefranche-de-Rouergue mutiny

Add comment September 17th, 2020 Headsman


Inscription: ICI REPOSANT LES COMBATTANTS YOUGOSLAVES QUI TOMBERENT LOIN DE LEUR PATRIE SOUS LES BALS DE L’ENNEMI NAXI A LA SUITE DE L’INSURRECTION DE VILLEFRANCHE DE ROUERGUE DU 17 SEPTEMBRE 1943

The monument pictured above in the southern France commune of Villefranche-de-Rouergue honors a group of Balkan soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar who attempted a bold mutiny on the night of September 16-17, 1943 … which began with the arrest and execution of their German commanders.

The mutineers were ethnic Bosniaks recruited and/or conscripted via the Third Reich’s fascist Croatian puppet state. Many were unenthusiastic about their situation, whether due to bigotry from their German officers, rumors of a redeployment to the frightful eastern front, or prior left-wing ideological commitments. Pressed by desperate manpower needs, Berlin could not be so choosy about the political orientations of its cannon-meat.

Some like Ferid Dzanic, actually volunteered out of captivity still in a prisoner of war camp. In Dresden, during the summer of 1943, he met Bozo Jelenek (under the pseudonym Eduard Matutinovic) and Nikola Vukelic at the pionir leaders course. Their plans were to “either desert or organize an uprising against the Germans” Another lesser known ring leader was Luftija Dizdarevic.

The ambitious plan was to have all of the German officers in the town arrested and executed, disarm all of the remaining Bosnians and Germans, assemble them and depart towards the town of Rodez (1st Regt garrison) with the sympathetic French police and deal with the rest in a similar manner. Further plans called for the liquidation of the entire divisional staff. Dzanic spoke of two options following the success of the mutiny, sailing to Northern Africa and putting themselves at the disposal of the western Allies or crossing the Alps and liberating Croatia. (Source)

Shortly after midnight on the big night, the mutineers seized and disarmed German non-commissioned officers, and arrested higher-ranking Germans. Five officers, including SS-Obersturmbannführer Oskar Kirchbaum, were executed within hours, but a deficiency of ruthlessness hamstrung the operation by sparing two men who would be key organizers of the German rally as that morning unfolded: a junior medical officer who was able to talk his way out of their clutches, and the unit’s chaplain-imam* who shammed sympathy long enough to release the NCOs. There was a fearsome firefight through the streets of Villefranche as that bloody Friday unfolded.

Soon reinforced from without, the Germans overwhelmingly prevailed; in the week or so that followed some uncertain number of them — thought to range well over 100 — were hunted to ground and killed in no-hope fight-to-the-death shootouts, or captured and executed in their own turn. But not all of the mutineers. A few managed, with the aid of the sympathetic French civilians, to escape the manhunt; one of the mutiny’s leaders, Božo Jelenek, even reached the French Resistance and earned the Croix de Guerre for his service in that cause over the balance of the war.

After Allied forces liberated the town, Villefranche named a street the Avenue des Croates — the mutineers being perceived by the French as “Muslim Croats” rather than distinctly Bosnian — and marked the 17th of September for annual commemoration of the “revolt of the Croats”. The postwar Yugoslavian government vainly implored Villefranche to recategorize both street and celebration to the honor of “Yugoslavs”.

* After making his way to a company of confused or wavering Bosniak soldiers, Halim Malkoč said, “All of the men looked at me as if they were praying for my help, or hoping that I would protect them. They wanted to hear my word. I stood before them, explained the entire situation, and demanded that they follow me. At this time I took command. I then freed the German men, who were being held in a room. They looked at me with astonished eyes and apparently had little faith in me. I called out to them “Heil Hitler! Long Live the Poglavnik!” and told them that all weapons were to be turned against the communists. They then followed me.” He was executed by the communist Yugoslavian government on March 7, 1947.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Croatia,Execution,France,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1927: Pascual Ramos, the last execution in Puerto Rico

1 comment September 15th, 2020 Headsman

The last hanging in Puerto Rico history took place on this date in 1927.

Like most such instances, it was more remarkable as a milestone than as a crime. Pascual Ramos, piqued that he’d been fired from a night watchman job upon his boss’s accusation of theft, revenged himself upon that man:

According to eye witness accounts, on December 23, 1926, Pascual Ramos went to the Hacienda Sabater and “[n]ervously … circled the oxcart where Rosso was working. He stalked his prey for forty minutes, waiting for the proper moment to strike the mortal blow.” Those present were unaware of [Carlos] Ramos’ “fierce intentions” and, because of this “unfortunate circumstance, Pascual [Ramos] was able to close in reepeatedly, machete in hand, where Carlos Rosso was working.” Ramos tarried, “waiting for the moment in which Rosso was more exposed so as not to miss and make the blow more effective” …

The “lethal instant came” when Rosso kneeled to unscrew the wooden slab usually placed below an oxcart to keep it horizontal, lightened the load for the oxen while the cart was at rest. As Rosso “lowered his head” Ramos, “with the agility fo a beast, with the speed of a lightning bolt, lifted the weapon and let it fall with all his strength” in the center of Rosso’s neck, “miraculously not completely severing it … The head was left dangling from a thin muscle and, as Rosso’s body fell, lifeless, it resembled a heap of human flesh”.

Twenty-seven people were executed in Puerto Rico under American auspices, after the U.S. seized the territory during the Spanish-American War — including at least five via the holdover Spanish execution method of garroting.

The Puerto Rico legislature abolished the death penalty in 1929, and that prohibition was enshrined in the island-territory’s constitution in 1952. (Article 2, Section 7: “The right to life, liberty and the enjoyment of property is recognized as a fundamental right of man. The death penalty shall not exist.”)

The death penalty remains broadly unpopular in Puerto Rico, and the fact that one of the most prominent recent wrongful conviction cases on the mainland involved a Puerto Rican man, Juan Melendez, surely does the executioner’s standing no further favors. U.S. federal death penalty prosecutions there have a tough row to hoe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Puerto Rico,USA

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1951: Robert Dobie Smith, suicide by Pierrepoint

1 comment September 13th, 2020 Headsman

On the 22nd of May 1951, after an argument with Joan, [Robert Dobie Smith] persuaded his brother Andrew to write a rambling letter to explain his intended actions and then make a phone call to the police. The letter stated that he would shoot the first policeman he came into contact with. Smith had earlier stolen a double barreled 12 bore shotgun and 25 cartridges from his father’s home.

From the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page … click through for the rest of the story.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1917: Sgt. John Wall, Passchendaele casualty

Add comment September 6th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Sgt. John Thomas Wall of the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was shot at dawn during the horrific Battle of Passchendaele, for cowardice.

Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres) was a futile, weekslong attempt by the western allies to break through in Flanders, a stalemate bought at the price of hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side. Pounding August rains that turned trenches and no-man’s-lands into sucking bogs amplified the misery, and perhaps factored into Wall’s situation.

At 2 a.m. on August 10, Wall’s platoon crawled out of trenches and up Bellewarde Ridge. Theirs was a part of the 25th Division’s attack on Westhoek and while this attack would capture that village, it did so at the cost of 1,291 casualties — and an exposed right flank that left Westhoek open to withering German fire from the adjacent Glencorse Wood.


Detail view of the section of the battlefield attempted by Wall. Click for a wider, but still local, perspective.

John Wall had enrolled in the army in 1912, as a 16-year-old drummer boy. He made sergeant during the Great War, which means that by this point he’d already survived three years of this hell and no disciplinary lapse prior to his fatal one suggests that he was anything other than exemplary soldier.

But on this occasion, Wall turned up on the evening of August 11 not at Westhoek but back in the reserve trenches.

Evidence to his field court-martial a few days later established that his platoon had become lost in the dark and at a lieutenant’s order huddled for safety in a small concrete dugout under German bombardment. Several of their number were requisitioned for a patrol, leaving only Wall and two other men — but the onset of more German fire pinned them down until 5 or 6 p.m. on August 11th. Exhausted and seeing no friendly forces, they fell back under a thunderstorm to their starting position. This was Wall’s whole defense: one of good-faith soldiering, with no recourse to excusing a failure by dint of fatigue or shellshock.

This detailed and sympathetic-to-Wall telling speculates that the remarkably severe punishment Wall received might have been a statement by brand-new regimental commander Alexander Johnston — he was a famous Hampshire cricketer before the war — to assert his authority, given that this, his very first operation in charge, had been such a bloody disaster.

The same post also produces this at-ease letter from Wall to his sister on the eve of his trial, either hoping to soothe his family from the mouth of the grave or else completely oblivious to the impending danger his officers posed to his own life and the future happiness of a forever nameless Belgian girl.

I now take the pleasure of writing these few lines in answer to your most kind and ever welcome letter which I received quite safe. Pleased to hear that you are in the best of health as it leaves me quite well at the present time of writing. Well dear Emily, I received the photo alright and I think he looks very nice it is as you say he does look wicked. Its a nice little boy all the same. Dear Emily, I received the tobacco alright. I wrote back and answered your parcel. They must have crossed on the way. Well dear Emily I had a letter from home the other day they are all getting on alright there at present. We are having soon lovely weather over here very hot the people are all busy harvesting now. You asked me if I have heard about the draft well yes. I have heard about them. Well dear Emily I haven’t married that Belgian girl not yet. I don’t think I shall not till after the war nor where we are because we are not allowed to. Well dear sister, I think I have said all for this time and I will close my short letter in sending my best hope and kisses from your loving brother Jack XXXXXX

P.S. Remember me to all. Thanks very much for the tobacco and photo.

And as an opposite keyhole glimpse from the far side of the dread procedure, this Warfare Magazine article* captures the testimony of a Private Eustace Rushby of the 1/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, who was apparently part of Sgt. Wall’s firing squad.

The first execution I saw was at Kandis, not far from Doullens, in September 1916, near a Flying Corps aerodrome, and the other occasion was behind Poperinge, and this was September 1917. The firing squad consisted of eighteen men and the witnesses would be anything up to fifty, including ten men from four regiments. I was in the firing party at Poperinge. We found out afterwards that he was from a Worcester Regiment. There were six men lying, six kneeling, and six standing, and we were rehearsed before the victim arrived. We would receive instructions beforehand, but during the actual event there was not a word, not a sound, it was all done by signal. As soon as we fired, we dropped our rifles down where they were, and stepped back clear in our three ranks, and they would come along and check to see that we’d fired. Anyone who refused to fire or fired wide would be severely dealt with. The shooting took place in an orchard. The man was led out by two red caps with a gas helmet round the wrong way. They would warn you it was an order, but they knew it was no good choosing someone who would point blank refuse to fire or whose nerve wouldn’t allow them to do it. We were excused fatigues or guard duty for a week.

* We would be remiss on a site such as this not to excerpt another story from the same article, of a nearby farmer who was suspected of signaling the Germans under guise of his routine labors, and was summarily shot.

There was a windmill at Reninghurst, near Ypres, and the guard who was on duty that day noticed that the sail started to go around, stopped, then started to go round again. And he said, ‘That’s funny, there’s no wind, but it keeps stopping and starting.’ He couldn’t understand it, so he got it into his head to call out the guard. The duty officer took some men and observed what was going on and then went and arrested a Belgian who was using the position of the sails to signal to the enemy. I’d seen this farmer on several occasions going about his normal work. Anyway, they took him away and about half an hour afterwards somebody came along and said, ‘They’ve shot that bloke,’ and we said, ‘Really?’ He said they must have tried him straightaway and brought up a firing squad and shot him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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