On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.
Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.
By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.
Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.
Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.
Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”
Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.
After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.
But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.
Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.
Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.
On this date in 1571, Anneken Hendriks was martyred in Amsterdam as an Anabaptist.
She was about 53 years old and illiterate, and had come to Amsterdam from Frisia. Considering her outlaw faith could have done better than to move in next to the underbailiff. He soon apprehended his neighbor for “having forsaken the mother, the holy church, now about six years ago and having adopted the cursed doctrine of the Mennonists, by whom she had been baptized on her faith.”
Anabaptists — practitioners of adult baptism — were heavily persecuted in the Low Countries and throughout Europe, particularly after right-thinking folk were shocked by the short-lived Anabaptist commune at Muenster. Anneken Hendriks, sure enough, had by the words of the sentence against her “not been for six or seven years at confession, or at the holy, reverend sacrament, but went to the meetings of the cursed sect of Mennonists or anabaptists, so that they have even held secret meetings or assemblies at her house.” She also threatened traditional marriage by “marrying” her husband “by night, at a country seat, after the manner of the Mennonists.”
Our source here notes that Anneken Hendriks was tortured by rack and strappado for the names of other Anabaptists. She refused to divulge any, but she was chatty enough on the way to her burning — warning her former neighbor that God would punish him if he kept up the Judas act, and spurning her Catholic would-be confessors — until they stuffed her mouth with gunpowder to still her heretical tongue.
Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.
This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)
Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”
Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:
Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.
According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.
On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.
But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.
Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.
McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.
A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.
Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.
“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”
A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.
Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.
Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.
The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.
Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.
When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)
Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:
That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.
Very Norman Batesian.
Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.
Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
Colin Campbell was said on that fatal May 14 to be en route to expel the Stewarts from the village of Duror so that Campbells could move in. But even Campbell’s everyday job of extracting resentful rents from estates repossessed from Jacobite sympathizers would have turned many a murderous eye his way.
Someone that day shot Colin Campbell in the back from wooded cover, then vanished, murderous eye and trigger finger and all, never to be never apprehended. So they got James Stewart to answer for it instead.
This wasn’t a tragic case of well-intentioned police developing tunnel vision on the wrong suspect so much as repaying tit for tat in a family feud. The trial was held at the Campbells’ Inverary Castle. Its presiding judge was the Campbell alpha male, the Duke of Argyll. Eleven more Campbells sat on Stewart’s jury. But then, from the Campbells’ side, or London’s for that matter, what was to say that this one murder might not be the germ of a new rebellion if not ruthlessly answered?
Still, there was “not a shred of evidence,” says present-day Glasgow barrister John Macauley, who is pushing for an official reversal of the verdict. “The whole thing from start to finish was a farce.” (Judge for yourself here.)
James Stewart was, however, the foster father of a man who actually was suspected of firing the shot, Allan Breck Stewart, a former Jacobite fighter who had returned from exile in France to collect rents for the Stewarts. Known to have threatened the Campbells previously, Allan was also tried and condemned to death — but only in absentia, since he suspiciously fled to France immediately after the so-called Appin Murder.
Many years later, Robert Louis Stevenson would use this dramatic crime, and Al(l)an Breck’s flight to safety, in Kidnapped. “I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art nor part, act nor thought in it,” Stevenson’s Alan says to the fictional protagonist in the novel, just after both have witnessed the murder.
And in reality, Alan too is thought by those who know the case to be clear of guilt in the matter. The Stewart family reputedly knew all along which of their number was Campbell’s real killer, but refused to give him up and kept the family secret for generations. It’s even said that that man had to be forcibly held down on execution day to prevent him giving himself up.
To judge by the most recent research, that man was likely Donald Stewart, the son of Stewart of Ballachulish and the best shot among a group of several young hotheads who resolved together to slay the Campbells’ hated Factor. The conspiracy also goes as the reason — or at least excuse — for keeping Donald silent, since in giving himself up he might see all four of them to the gallows. The late Lee Holcombe makes a comprehensive case for Donald Stewart as the gunman in the 2004 book Ancient Animosity: The Appin Murder and the End of Scottish Rebellion; Donald Stewart was also fingered publicly in 2001 by a matriarch of the Stewarts of Appin, though others of her family have not publicly confirmed that that’s the secret name.
James Stewart’s decaying corpse remained gibbeted on the spot of his execution for 18 months after, a rotting warning to the Stewarts or any late Jacobites. In 1754, a local halfwit called “Daft Macphee” finally tore down the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe … but its former position overlooking the modern Ballachulish Bridge is still marked by a mossy stone monument to James of the Glen, “executed on this spot Nov. 8th 1752 for a crime of which he was not guilty.”
On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.
Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.
A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.
Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.
Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:
Going AWOL on September 29
Deserting on October 4
“Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4
When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”
The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.
Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.
Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.
Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.
He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:
I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:
Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
He is worthless as a soldier.
During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
His example is a disgraceful one.
Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.
After a stint in the army in the first years of the 20th century, the Polish Catholic Malinovsky went to work as a lathe operator in a St. Petersburg factory, in one of the militant pockets of Russia’s small urban proletariat.
Malinovsky proved a gifted labor organizer — enough that under the Stolypin crackdown, he was arrested in 1909 and expelled from St. Petersburg. Then he was arrested in 1910 in Moscow.
No later than this point, though possibly even before it, he was recruited by tsarist Russia’s secret police. Now Malinovsky’s considerable energies were turned to spying on the communists, and to deepening mistrust between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “The whole purpose of my direction [to Malinovsky] is summed up in this: to give no possibility of the Party’s uniting,” the police director Beletsky later explained.
Malinovsky was an adroit mole.
He got himself elected to the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and ingratiated himself with Lenin so thoroughly that when Malinovsky was openly accused of spying for the Okhrana in 1913, Lenin came to his defense.
Malinovsky’s proximity to Lenin enabled him to cc the police on the latter’s correspondence, but for posterity the mystery is on the other side of the relationship. Was Lenin in denial? Or did he already know that Malinovsky was a spy?
The double games being played around Malinovsky fade into a fog in the 1910s. The Okhrana mysteriously forced Malinovsky to resign from the state Duma — another powerful seat he had obtained — which was such a grievous loss for the Bolsheviks that it further multiplied the suspicions of his leftist comrades. Did the Okrana take this seemingly counterproductive step because Malinovsky was compromised as a spy, or was this just a change of policy? When Malinovsky was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War I, his agitations among fellow-POWs earned Lenin’s admiration. Was this sincere conviction after all, or a maneuver?
Accounts of associates paint Lenin as horribly torn on the accusations against a man whom Lenin plainly admired, even rationalizing that Malinovsky’s organizational talents on behalf of the movement had still outweighed the injury he might have done it by spying.
Nor was this merely a personal consideration, since accusations against Malinovsky — an uncompromising Bolshevik in his party persona, further to the cause of preventing intra-party reconciliation — had emerged earliest from Mensheviks. Their eventual vindication on this matter was an obvious irritant to Lenin, and even late in the war years Lenin downplayed the spying charges.
Most mysteriously of all — at least in retrospect — Malinovsky voluntarily returned to post-Revolution Moscow knowing that his role as an informant had been definitively exposed in Russian newspapers following a sack of the Okrana offices and its revealing files. It was to “wash away the sins of his life with blood,” he told his interrogators, agents of the new secret police — the Cheka. Or was it that he thought he had, via Lenin (who had even sent clothes to the disgraced Malinovsky’s POW camp) an angle on rehabilitation?
Maybe in the end Malinovsky was the victim of his own con. Ralph Carter Elwood’s biography suggests that Malinovsky took Lenin’s surprisingly congenial behavior to mean that he had been forgiven since the fact could no longer be denied … when it might really have meant that Lenin was in denial about the fact itself, almost to to the last. “The last” being, in this case, the courtroom* of Nov. 5 which Lenin himself attended. Malinovsky defended himself for hours, but admitted all; if he anticipated clemency, he did not receive any more of it than the few hours necessary to put his affairs in order.
More tantalizing still, though well into the realm of speculation, is the idea that Lenin did indeed understand what Malinovsky was up to, but wanted to keep the door closed on espionage and counter-espionage vis-a-vis the tsarist police for fear of disgracing old Bolshevik revolutionaries with compromised pasts who had now become men of state. Stalin himself might have been in this same boat, perhaps making this moment yet another missed opportunity to pre-empt the terrifying era yet to come.
“I couldn’t see through that scoundrel Malinovsky,” Lenin later told Gorky, a sentiment we might today echo in retrospect. “It was a very fishy affair, that Malinovsky business.”
* His prosecutor was former comrade Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko ultimately died in 1938; you may well guess how.
In this unsettled environment, an able man could rise. Few were abler than Hem Chandra, more familiarly known to posterity as Hemu.
Born to a family of Hindu priests in a time when Hindu kings had not ruled his homeland for centuries, Hemu first came to prominence as a merchant supplying provisions, and later armaments, for the imperial army. He proved so capable that Islam Shah took him on as an adviser.
Now, despite the Mughal conquest, Islam Shah was actually an Pashtun. A weak succession after Babur had thrown the Mughals into retreat, and most of their once and future territory was now under the temporary authority of the Sur Empire.
Following Islam Shah’s death in 1554, the political situation for the Sur Empire fell into confusion. A boy-emperor successor was murdered to give way to a drunk, and Hemu emerged as the de facto authority in the chaotic realm … which in practice meant racing around dealing with various military threats.
Hemu put down the many internal revolts that flowered after Islam Shah’s death, but his greater problem was the resurgent Mughals.
Babur’s heir Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia years ago. Now he returned at the head of an army to retake his patrimony. Even when Humayun himself died in the process (he fell down a flight of stairs*), he bequeathed Hemu a potent foe in the form of his teenage heir Akbar — the sovereign who would eventually be esteemed the Mughals’ greatest emperor.
Even so, Hemu was routing all who stood against him. The onetime merchant had proven himself “one of the greatest commanders of the age,” in the words of Victorian historian John Clark Marshman. “He never shrank away from the battlefield and when the fight was most fierce, he did not bother for his personal safety and always fought with his adversaries courageously along with his comrades.”
On October 7, 1556, Hemu whipped Akbar at the Battle of Delhi. Entering the ancient capital, Hemu proclaimed himself emperor under the regnal name Raja Vikramaditya. And why not, after all? The kingdom already only maintained itself by Hemu’s own brilliance; he’s reputed to have had an undefeated combat record at this point.
But sometimes a single loss is all that’s needed.
Hemu was the first Hindu emperor in 350 years, but he only held the position for a month.
The new emperor again met Akbar (and Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan) on the fifth of November at Panipat, and this time the Mughals won. Hemu’s valorous exposure to danger proved his undoing when he was struck in the face by an enemy arrow.
As his once-unconquerable army routed, the captured Hemu was taken as a prisoner to his rival ruler — unconscious, and already dying. Again, the accounts vary;** in the classical version, Akbar nobly refuses to put the captive to death. Elphinstone‘s History of India, glossing some earlier Muslim historians, writes that
Bairam was desirous that Akbar should give him the first wound, and thus, by inbruing his sword in the blood of so distinguished an infidel, should establish his right to the envied title of ‘Ghazi’ or ‘Champion of the Faith'; but the spirited boy refused to strike a wounded enemy, and Bairam, irritated by his scruples, himself cut off the captive’s head at a blow.
However, there are other versions of this story in which the 14-year-old Akbar is not so reticent.
Whoever chopped it, the severed head was sent to Kabul to cow Hemu’s Pashtun supporters, while the torso was publicly gibbeted outside Purana Quila. Hemu’s followers were massacred afterwards in numberless quantities sufficient, so it is said, to erect minarets of their skulls.
Akbar ruled the Mughal state until his death in 1605.
** See Vincent A. Smith, “The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1916). Smith’s opinion is that Akbar probably did cut off Hemu’s head personally, but might later have spun the incident in a less distasteful direction.
He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.
The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.
Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.
A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.
Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.
Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.
“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”
As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.
Once recruitment in the German secret services was suspected, evidence was needed to carry out an arrest. The general rule was to delay arresting suspects so as to be able to tail them to find out who their contacts were and the exact nature of their activities. This is what happened with Alfredo Castoldi, an Italian working for the Germans. Castoldi made the acquaintance of someone named Perez in a bar and tried to convince him to provide military information. Perez pretended to accept but the next day he went to tell all to the local police chief. The police did not arrest Castoldi right away but asked Perez to maintain contact with him and to earn his trust and find out the nature of his intentions and his network. The evidence acquired in this way was so convincing that on 3 November 1941, at 7:30 in the morning, Castoldi was executed by a French army firing squad in Algiers.
Castoldi was not an outlier. Several dozen German spies may have been shot by Vichy France in the 1940-42 period. Kitson notes that it is
difficult to ascertain the exact number of German spies sentenced by Vichy military courts who were actually executed by the firing squads of the French army. [Paul] Paillole claims there were forty-two of them. In research for the present study, I found formal proof of eight such executions, but Paillole’s figure seems credible for two reasons. Firstly, during the postwar trial of Marshal Philippe Petain, Ernest Lagarde, the former director of political affairs in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, claimed there were about thirty such executions in 1941, which does not exclude a total of forty-two for the years 1940-42. Secondly, there is a register of Petain’s decisions concerning appeals for clemency from individuals condemned to death for activities ranging from Communism to army mutinies to espionage. In espionage cases, the registry does not specify for which country a particular spy was working, but it would seem that, after cross-checking the names listed with other sources used for the present study, there were twenty-seven confirmed cases of Axis spies having their appeal for clemency refused. A further twenty-three cases in which clemency was refused also appear to involve Axis spies. Of course, in a handful of instances where the appeal for clemency was rejected, executions may still not have been carried out as a result of the invasion of the southern zone by the Germans, which brought a sudden end to official executions. This registry nevertheless adds credibility to Paillole’s estimate.
The first execution of a woman* in the U.S. “modern” death penalty era took place at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Central Prison on this date in 1984 when 52-year-old Velma Barfield received a lethal injection for poisoning her fiance.**
Barfield was already twice a widow in 1977 when her prospective third spouse Stuart Taylor began suffering agonizing stomach pain at church. He died shortly after.
A thorough coroner and a tip call to police by Barfield’s sister each independently flagged arsenic as the cause. Exploration of her past uncovered a disturbing pattern of people near to Velma Barfield who died in spells of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
She would confess when confronted to poisoning off not only her late fiance, but also her mother and two elderly people for whom she was a paid caregiver, all during the 1970s — a period when she was afflicted by addictions to numerous prescription drugs. There are at least two other probable murders she may have authored during this time.† “It’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” one of her sons remarked innocently at Taylor’s service, before the criminal suspicions surfaced.
Like the second American woman executed — Karla Faye Tucker more than 13 years later — Barfield was mediagenic, devoutly Christian, and white. Like Tucker, Barfield made national news as she approached her execution date. Time magazine, 60 Minutes, even international press descended on Raleigh.
The bespectacled, crocheting grandmother ended up declining to appeal to the Supreme Court or file other delaying actions that were available to her so that she could meet her execution with greater dignity, but she still sought mercy from the governor. Her sterling prison record was her strongest card; staff routinely broke a “no contact with other inmates” rule (the entire death row women’s section consisted of Barfield alone) in order to put the matronly “Mama Margie”‡ around inmates whom her ministrations could help.
Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, her clemency pitch was addressed to Gov. Jim Hunt at the peak of his ferocious 1984 U.S. Senate run against Jesse Helms, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history up to that point. Hunt wasn’t about to go soft on arsenic killers four days before the polls opened. (He still lost by 86,280 votes.)
In the small morning hours this date in 1984, dressed in pink cotton pajamas and an adult diaper, Velma Barfield gave a last statement apologizing for “all the hurt that I have caused,” laid down on a gurney to receive the IV lines, and was put to sleep.
* The last execution of any woman in the U.S. prior to Velma Barfield’s was all the way back in 1962.
† Her first husband, and the father of her children, died in a suspicious fire in 1970; shortly before her execution, Velma admitted to her family that she had started it. Singer Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of the apparent first poisoning victim, whose death Barfield only confessed very late in the game to the minister who helped her write her book: Jennings Barfield was already afflicted with emphysema and diabetes when the two wed in 1971, so his death a few months later failed to raise any eyebrows. Byrd eventually composed a song about his grandfather and his deadly bride, titled “Velma”.
‡ Full name: Margie Velma Barfield. She was born Margie Velma Bullard.