Posts filed under 'Florida'

1865: The Jacksonville Mutineers

Add comment December 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1865, six African-American infantrymen were shot in Fernandina, Florida, for the Jacksonville Mutiny.

Formed in 1863, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops served in the trenchworks around Fort Wagner — the grinding siege in the summer of 1863 that followed the bloody attempt to storm the fort immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.

The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.

All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.

Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.

From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.

“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†


The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.

Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?

Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.


From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.


From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”


From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.


From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.

In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?


Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))

For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.

A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.

Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”

Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.

Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.

Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”

Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.

This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.

In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.

The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.

And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.

On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.

The other five shot by musketry this date were:

  • Joseph Green
  • James Allen
  • Jacob Plowden
  • Joseph Nathaniel
  • Thomas Howard

Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.

The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.

* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.

** See I Freed Myself, or this podcast interview with its author, David Williams.

† See here for a fascinating instance of this at sea in June 1865, by the author of Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era

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1929: James Horace Alderman, Prohibition rum-runner

Add comment August 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1929, James Horace Alderman, the “King of the Rum Runners” or the “Pirate of the Gulf Stream”, was hanged at a custom-built gallows a a Florida Coast Guard base.

Alderman grew up in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and therefore became at home on the sea — even taking Teddy Roosevelt out as a fishing guide at one point, according to Florida Pirates: From the Southern Gulf Coast to the Keys and Beyond.

But as he came into his own, his business on the high seas was smuggling, often Chinese immigrant workers trying to sneak into the U.S. from Cuba. It’s rumored that Alderman killed some of these people, too.

Either way, Prohibition made for a much more profitable racket hauling liquor from Caribbean manufacturers to the Everglades, where it could take a train ride and be distributed all the way up the Atlantic coast.

On August 27, 1927, a Coast Guard cutter stopped and boarded Alderman’s speedboat and seized fifty barrels of whiske. Even worse, Alderman shot two of the cutter’s boarders dead.

Alderman’s case might look pretty open and shut, but Floridians proved to be extremely resistant to hosting a federal execution. (The feds at this point generally administered executions in their own name, but at the execution sites of whatever state the malcreant happened to live with. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for example, simply died in New York state’s iconic electric chair.

The final judicial decision on this strange question so far from the long-ago deliberations at Liberty Hall came down like this: Florida’s facilities could be barred to the federal government, and that they should carry out the execution on nearby federal property. The U.S. Coast Guard was forced to build a temporary gallows for Alderman inside its seaplane hangar and base no. 6. (Here’s Alderman’s detah warrant, if you’re into that sort of thing.) A short drop from the platform led to an agonizing 12-minute strangulation.

Because Florida itself had only a few years prior ditched hanging in favor of the electric chair, Alderman’s execution was the last judicial hanging in (but not by!) the state of Florida.

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2005: Glen James Ocha, poorly endowed

Add comment April 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Glen James Ocha took a lethal injection on account of his tiny penis.

It’s true. Ocha on Ocober 5, 1999 picked up a Kissimmee, Fla., barmaid named Carol Skjerva and got her (consensually) into bed.

But Skjerva sent his manhood meter to half mast by busting on Ocha’s unimpressive junk and threatening to tell her boyfriend, who was probably the kind of guy who wouldn’t stand for another man rogering his girl with a mere gherkin.

It’s sad but true that we can’t all wear magnums, and probably most on the hung-like-a-mouse side of the spectrum would prefer not to broadcast the fact to the wide world. But here’s a tip it might have done Glen Ocha well to reflect upon: one good way of keeping strangers in the dark about the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas is not to get yourself arrested for strangling and beheading a woman who makes fun of the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas.

Adolescent chortling aside, this was obviously quite a horrible tragedy for Carol Skjerva, as well as the boyfriend (actually her fiance). Nor was genitalia the only compromised characteristic of the murderer, who was high on ecstasy at the time this all happened and had a history of psychiatric problems and suicidal ideation, all circumstances that comport well with Ocha’s decision to sit his victim’s decapitated head in his lap for a little post-mortem conversation.

This gentleman went right onto suicide watch in the prison, but they needn’t have worried: Ocha was more than ready to work within the system. He confessed to the murder, pled guilty at trial, and dropped all appeals past the minimum required by law, hastening his trip to Florida’s gurney. (Along the way he legally changed his name to Raven Raven.)

His final statement:

I would like to say I apologize to Carol Skjerva, the girl that I murdered, her family and her friends. This is the punishment that I deserve. I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I want everybody to know I’m not a volunteer but this is my responsibility I have to take.

(Meanwhile, he released a last written statement, reading “I unjustly took the life of Carol Skjerva. I have made my peace with my God and go now to face His judgment.”)

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Catholic just as Ocha was, said he was actually prepared to delay the execution out of respect to the April 2 passing of Pope John Paul II. Ocha, the determined volunteer, had no interest in any delay.

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2011: Oba Chandler

2 comments November 15th, 2012 Meaghan

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

A year ago today, Oba Chandler was executed by lethal injection in Florida for the brutal triple homicide of a Willshire, Ohio mother and her two teenage daughters.

Thirty-six-year-old Joan Mae “Jo” Rogers and her daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were vacationing in Florida when they vanished on June 1, 1989. Three days later their bodies turned up in the Tampa Bay. All three were naked from the waist down and had their hands and feet bound, their mouths taped shut, and concrete blocks tied to their necks. Michelle had managed to free one arm before she drowned.


The victims (left to right): Joan, Michelle, and Christe Rogers.

The police initially suspected the girls’ uncle, John Rogers, even though he was in prison at the time.

Rogers had been incarcerated for rape; one of his victims was Michelle, and authorities theorized he had a third party kill her and her mother and sister. Eventually that gentleman was cleared, as was his brother Hal, husband and father of the victims.

The sexual abuse, which had gone on for years, had torn the family apart, and part of the reason for the Florida vacation was so that everyone could relax and get some distance from what had happened. Hal had wanted to join his wife and daughters on their trip, but he had to stay and look after the family’s dairy farm.

The murders and subsequent investigation were covered in heartbreaking detail in St. Petersburg Times reporter Thomas French‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning series here.

Characteristically, local gossip pursued Hal and John for years, particularly Hal. His neighbors in Ohio thought he didn’t appear traumatized enough,* noting that he never cried in public and that he continued to take care of his farm in the wake of the murders.

They didn’t care that the farm was Hal’s livelihood, that cows could not milk themselves. They didn’t care that there was no evidence that he’d left Ohio during the critical time period, and that the police had very quickly cleared Hal as a possible suspect in Jo, Michelle and Christe’s deaths. They didn’t know that he was too traumatized to sleep in his own home and spent months couch-surfing at friends’ houses. They didn’t know that he was devastated, that he’d tried to take his own life at one point so he could be with his family.

As Hal’s sister-in-law said, “There’s no protocol here. There’s no Murder 101 class. No Grief 101 that anybody thinks to give you.”

Stranger-on-stranger crimes are incredibly difficult to solve. It wasn’t until October 1989 that the police linked the Rogers family’s murders to the rape of a Canadian tourist that had happened in May, two weeks before the triple homicide. The rapist had lured the woman out onto a boat, threatened to kill her, and threatened to duct-tape her mouth if she didn’t stop screaming. After the rape he apologized to her, threw up over the side of the boat, took her to shore and let her go.

Police released a composite sketch of the woman’s attacker, whom they believed was the same man who killed the Rogerses. That got over 400 tips from the public, but none of them panned out.

Twice, the case appeared on the popular television show Unsolved Mysteries.

The authorities found some driving directions written on a brochure in Jo’s car which were not in her handwriting and which they thought were written by the murderer; they released samples to the public in the hopes that someone would recognize the writing.


Composite sketch of the suspect (top); Oba Chandler as he looked around the time of his 1992 arrest (bottom).

Finally they got a break: one of Chandler’s neighbors recognized the sketch of the rape suspect and turned his name over to the police. That same neighbor had hired Chandler to build out her porch, and she had a copy of the contract he’d written out for her. She turned the contract over to the authorities, and handwriting experts determined it was written by the same man who wrote the driving directions found in Jo’s car. Investigators also found Chandler’s palm print on the brochure.

In September 1992, convinced that they were on the right track, the police flew to Canada to interview the rape survivor from May 1989. She picked Chandler’s photo out of a line-up. With that, the authorities finally had enough evidence to make the arrest.

Chandler, an Ohio native like his victims, gave the impression of an ordinary, mild-mannered sort, but he was in fact a career criminal: he went by many alias names and had an arrest record dating back to when he was fourteen years old, for a wide range of offenses including car theft, robbery, kidnapping, receiving stolen property, possession of counterfeit money, and various sex crimes. By the time of his 1992 arrest he had racked up six felony convictions.

Chandler testified at the murder trial, against the advice of his attorney, and admitted he had met the three victims and given them directions. He could hardly deny that, given the handwriting and fingerprint evidence.

He did deny having ever seen them again after that, and he swore he’d never taken them out on his boat and never harmed them. He called the very idea “ludicrous.” In fact, he maintained his innocence until his death.

But the prosecution eviscerated him during cross-examination. Chandler claimed that on the night of the murders he’d gotten stuck out in Tampa Bay when his boat’s fuel line sprung a leak and he ran out of gas. A boat mechanic employed by the Florida Marine Patrol examined the vessel and determined that this story was impossible: the boat had an anti-siphon valve that would have prevented a leak.

The Canadian rape victim was permitted to testify. She didn’t cry as she described what happened to her, but some of the jurors did. One of Chandler’s adult daughters (he had eight children by seven different women) also testified, saying her father had told her he’d raped a foreign tourist and also killed some women in Florida.

The judge who presided over the trial later said Chandler was “the vilest, most evil defendant I ever handled.” When the jury retired, they took an initial poll among themselves and discovered that all twelve believed he was guilty. For form’s sake, however, they waited an hour and a half before returning with their verdict.

There’s some speculation that Chandler was involved in other murders besides those of the Rogers family.

Linda Lois Little, a Daytona Beach woman, disappeared on his birthday in 1991 and was never found. One of Little’s sisters thinks saw him at her apartment complex a few days before Little disappeared. Chandler refused to answer law enforcement’s questions about Little’s disappearance and his involvement has never been proved one way or the other.

During his seventeen years on death row, Chandler never had a single visitor, not even any of his own relatives. The execution, which went smoothly, was attended by Michelle and Christe’s cousin, as well as a reluctant Hal Rogers. He remarried more than a decade after his family’s murder and became a stepfather of four, but wasn’t able to have any more children.

When asked if he had any last words, Chandler simply answered, “No.” He did leave a written statement that simply said, “You are killing an innocent man today.”

No one believed him.

* “Didn’t display the right kind of grief in the right kind of way for the right amount of time” was also one of the raps on wrongly executed “arsonist” Cameron Todd Willingham.

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2006: Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper

8 comments October 25th, 2012 Headsman

During the first week of classes in August 1990 at the University of Florida’s city of Gainesville, five college students were brutally murdered during a terrifying burglary-rape-murder spree.

On this date in 2006, serial killer Danny Rolling finally paid for the murders.

The face of evil in our community” and Florida college towns’ most infamous serial killer since Ted Bundy made the FSU Chi Omega sorority his last port of call, Rolling was a 26-year-old with sociopathy born of an abusive home life. (Here’s a pdf profile of the guy.)

After shooting his hated father in the face — the Shreveport, La., policeman lost an eye but lived — Rolling headed east to Florida. He would later say that he aspired to become a “superstar” criminal — just like Bundy.*

Little did anyone know that Rolling was already a murderer. Only after his grisly turn in Gainesville was he linked back to a theretofore unsolved 1989 Shreveport triple homicide that saw a man, his daughter, and his son stabbed to death. Rolling had posed young Julie Grissom for investigators.

It was a signature behavior the Gainesville police were about to know all too well.

Out of nowhere, the horror murders leaped onto Florida front pages: 18-year-old Sonja Larson and 17-year-old Christina Powell, stabbed to death on August 24, 1990 (Larson was raped, too): both girls’ bodies theatrically posed.

The very next day, 18-year-old Christina Hoyt raped, stabbed to death, and decapitated — the severed head positioned as if scrutinizing its former torso.

Terrified students began taking what protective measures they could against the hunter in their midst, but just two days later 23-year-old Tracy Paules was raped, knifed, and posed … after Rolling also killed the boyfriend that she had staying over for safety.

Arrested soon thereafter on an unrelated burglary, Rolling’s campsite turned up the evidence linking him to the Gainesville Ripper’s predations. Superstardom was on the way: Rolling’s murders helped inspire the Wes Craven slasher classic Scream.**

When the much-delayed case finally came to trial in 1994, Rolling unexpectedly pleaded guilty without any deal to avoid the death penalty. Why dilute his infamy by denying it? “There are some things you just can’t run from, this being one of those,” Rolling told the judge in his singsong drawl.

Maybe had he come of age just a few years later, the Gainesville Ripper might have scratched that itch for notoriety holding forth on the coming age of new media channels instead of butchering humans.

Certainly Danny Rolling, arranger of mutilated corpses, had the character of a performer; recordings of his own renditions of folk songs were among the artifacts police recovered from the killer’s campsite. Later, in prison, Rolling became a prolific death row artist and his “murderabilia” art can be found for sale on the Internet.

He also personally illustrated The Making of a Serial Killer, a book about his crime spree that Rolling co-authored with Sondra London — a true crime author who fell in love with her subject.

A few books about (and by) Danny Rolling

Whatever charms people perceived in Danny Rolling have understandably been lost on those who survived the victims. And Rolling’s wicked “superstardom” remains yet a sensitive subject in Gainesville, where many residents still remember those days of panic the Gainesville Ripper sowed in 1990.


Memorial to Danny Rolling’s victims painted on Gainesville’s 34th Street Wall. Image (c) hecht 801 and used with permission.

* There was a more direct link between Bundy and Rolling as well: (non-death-row) murderer Bobby Lewis, who became Bundy’s friend while the latter was in prison, later also befriended Danny Rolling, even acting as a go-between for Rolling’s dealings with investigators.

** There’s also a 2007 (posthumous to Danny) horror film directly about the Gainesville murders.

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1985: Marvin Francois, back to Africa

Add comment May 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1985, Florida electrocuted Marvin Francois (to the disappointment of this unknown anti-death penalty protester).

Francois’s last statement, via Last Words of the Executed:

“I am as a grain of sand on the beach of the black race. The black race has lost its pride and dignity and is slowly dying from within and without. My death ends my tears, and the fortune of watching my race slowly die. If there is such a thing as an Antichrist, it ain’t one man, but the whole white race.”

Francois had donned a mask and, with a couple of confederates, stuck up a drug house in 1977.

The mask slipped, exposing Francois’s face — and the home invaders decided to murder the eight prisoners to keep them from making the ID. All were shot in the head execution-style.

Somehow, two survived to identify Marvin Francois. It was an easy conviction. (A confederate, Beauford White, was executed for the same crime in 1987.)

Once the death sentence was on the books, appellate attorneys developed a genuinely sympathetic profile of Francois’s background, if not his crime. A federal appeals court on the day before Marvin Francois died could not help but agree that

[t]he proffered evidence shows that Francois was the product of a sordid and impoverished childhood environment. His parents were not married. His father was a habitual heroin addict who never worked, who brought other addicts into the home for the ingestion of heroin in front of Francois when a child, and who beat Francois because he would not fight with other children when he was a boy. Francois’ mother often worked as a prostitute and was of little benefit to Francois during his childhood. She married but Francois’ step-father abused him. Francois grew up as a child of the street. At the same time he was smart, and although not finishing school, he obtained his G.E.D.

The behavioral scientists in their affidavits posit that “… some offenders, like Marvin Francois, are themselves victims of circumstances that shape their lives in ways beyond their deliberate control.” They suggest that given Francois’ chaotic antisocial upbringing, “clear mitigation of punishment compellingly surfaces.”

Nevertheless, the panel concluded that, given the extent of the crime (and his existing history of violence), all this sob-story stuff “would not have affected the sentencing outcome in this case had it been submitted to the jury.”

That was that.

It was a touching parting for at least one good friend on death row with him. “We wanted to send him out on a high,” a fellow-prisoner later remembered of sharing a last cigarette with Francois while imagining it a joint. “It took a little out of me when they killed him. I’d grown real attached to him.”

According to David von Drehle’s Among the Lowest of the Dead, that disattachment was rather unusually distant: Marvin Francois’s final resting place is … the sea off Dakar, Senegal.

Francois had asked that his ashes be scattered in Africa. Susan Cary, the longtime activist … was determined that this last wish would be honored. But it was one thing to find bus fare for a condemned man’s family, and quite another to raise the money for a trip to Africa. Cary collected the cremated remains of Marvin Francois and put them in a shoebox in her closet, where they sat for two years while she tried to figure out how to get them across the ocean.

In 1987, Michael Radelet, Cary’s frend and fellow activist, announced that he was going to Senegal to visit a relative. Take Marvin, Cary suggested. Radelet was game, but there were rules — human remains can’t just be toted from country to country. Uncertain as to the relevant legalities, Radelet contacted John Conyers, a prominent black congressman from Detroit; Conyers strongly opposed the death penalty, he was well known in Africa, and he had offered more than once to help Florida’s anti-death penalty crusaders any way he could. The congressman pulled the right strings, and shortly before his trip Radelete received an official letter announcing that the Senegalese government would be happy to welcome “Brother Marvin” home.

… Radelet had a darkly comic view of the world. Traipsing around Senegal, shoebox in hand, he would place the box on the opposite chair at restauants and say things like “Marvin, would you like some water?” On sightseeing jaunts, he would take snapshots of the shoebox in front of important buildings and picturesque vistas. Finally, Radelet carried the box to a bluff outside Dakar, a lovely spot with the city in the distance and the Atlantic spread out below. He took one more snapshot – “Marvin at the seashore” — then opened the box and sprinkled the ashes on the sun glittered waves. As he gazed into the oceanic expanse, it occurred to him that this very water might have rocked and sloshed all the way from Florida; now, the waves lapped the shores of Africa, bearing the remains of Marvin Francois to his dreamland.

The aforementioned Michael Radelet — now at Colorado University, not Florida — holding forth on more up-to-date death penalty trends:

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1921: Jake Martin and Putnam Ponsell

Add comment September 23rd, 2011 Headsman

One needn’t look to far to find venom and cruelty around the institution of capital punishment.

But the human potential is wonderfully plastic, and without unduly romanticizing the act of strangling on a hemp rope a fellow who has committed homicide, even this extremity carries the potential for catalyzing reconciliation across the threshold of death itself.

This date’s public hanging in Crestview, Florida of Jake Martin and Putnam Ponsell was marked by a remarkable display of contrition and forgiveness that symbolically brought the hanged men back into the community they had wronged even as they were dropped to their deaths.

Martin and Ponsell had hitched a ride with a local and then beaten him to death and rifled the body — that was on July 4, less than 12 weeks before execution.

We will venture to impute to these fellows genuine repentance. At court, Ponsell confessed to the crime without any guarantee from the state. He then testified against Martin, who denied the charge and then “broke down and made a full confession.” (Macon Telegraph, Sep. 8, 1921)

(Martin, granted, broke down only after conviction. Ponsell’s firm and open-hearted embrace of responsibility was openly admired by observers.)

This human sentiment would be reciprocated. Here’s the remarkable newspaper report from execution date (a wire story run in a number of papers, this version from the Augusta Chronicle, Sep. 24, 1921).

Murderers Pay Death Penalty While Crowd Boosts Collection.

Crestvew, Fla., Sept. 23 – A double execution took place here today when Putman[sic] Ponsell and Jake Martin, paid the death penalty for the murder of John Tuggle on July 4th, near this place. The trap was sprung at 19 minutes past 12 and the men were pronounced dead in 18 minutes.

A crowd estimated at 10,000 persons had gathered to witness the hanging which was a public one.

Both Ponsell and Martin admited their guilt just before the execution and a letter from the mother of John Tuggle was read to the men in which she said that she had forgiven them.

A collection was taken up in the rod for the benefit of the wife and two children of Ponsell and he wife and one child of Martin who are destitute and more than a thousand dollars was contributed.

(No doubt this touching reconciliation with the gallows crowd was greatly aided by the circumstance of Martin and Ponsell’s whiteness.)

According to this recent news story, our quiescent bludgeoner Ponsell left behind a letter addressed “To Young Mankind.” The actual contents of this straighten-up-and-fly-right manifesto do not appear to be available online, unfortunately.

Martin and Ponsell didn’t save their lives. But maybe a Dostoyevsky might have hoped that they saved their souls.

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1924: Frank Johnson, the first electrocuted in Florida

Add comment October 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1924, “colored male” Frank Johnson was electrocuted in Florida.

He was, in fact, the very first to die in the Sunshine State’s electric chair.


The original Florida electric chair.

“Old Sparky” (numerous electric chairs shared this nickname) was brand new here in the Roaring Twenties, a jerry-built contraption outfitted with “homemade accessories” to replace the icky old gallows with a brave new world’s brave new mankiller.


Top: a scantily-detailed penitentiary “personnel card” for Frank Johnson. Middle: details of the execution. Bottom: Florida’s official typed list of its early executions.

All images are from this Florida Department of Corrections page.

This same furniture that killed Johnson would ultimately take the lives of 265 men and one woman — notables from Giuseppe Zangara to Ted Bundy, milestones like John Spenkelink, and scores of strange and forgotten perps among them.

Notoriously error-prone by the end of its run, the device was finally replaced in 1999.

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1951: Charlie Gifford, politician-killer

3 comments February 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Charlie Gifford was electrocuted in Florida’s Raiford Prison for murder.

The murder victim was popular young Florida legislator/war hero Charles Schuh, whose promising political career ended abruptly on April 24, 1950, when the 71-year-old Gifford strode into his St. Petersburg offices and shot him dead over some head-scratching private grievance relating to Schuh’s legal practice. (Schuh represented Gifford’s ex-wife in a divorce proceeding.)

An insanity defense didn’t fly, though Gifford’s purchase on reality seems to have been … hit and miss. The septuagenarian perp didn’t seem to mind the death sentence.

The murdered legislator’s son, Charles E. Schuh, grew up into a political career of his own, eventually becoming mayor of St. Petersburg. Charles E. Schuh’s recent passing brought out this fascinating story by a former reporter who witnessed Gifford’s execution.

The electric chair was in the center, but the controls were behind a glass-enclosed area. I was repelled by the sight of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair. I was even more horrified to see that the executioner, a local electrician, wore a black hood reminiscent of the Inquisition. …

Today I am a decade older than Gifford was then, but to a 22-year-old reporter he seemed to be just a frail old man with a shaved head.

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2002: Aileen Wuornos, Monster

5 comments October 9th, 2009 Headsman

“Thanks a lot, society, for railroading my ass!”
-Aileen Wuornos

On this date in 2002, the tragically, horrifically iconic serial killer Aileen Wuornos checked out at Florida’s Starke Prison (and into an afterlife as an Academy Award-winning role) with the appropriately bizarre last words,

“I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back like Independence Day, with Jesus June 6. Like the movie, big mother ship and all, I’ll be back.”

Her sensational FBI-bestowed reputation as America’s “first” female serial killer rests on exaggeration,* but there’s something of the larger-than-life about prostitute/manslayer Aileen Carol Wuornos.

Heck, Aileen herself sold rights to her story within weeks of her arrest. So did investigators who worked the case. A year before our day’s perp faced lethal injection, her surname titled “the world’s first opera about a lesbian prostitute serial killer survivor of child abuse who is now on death row.” (Here’s the opera’s home page.)

That’s not the sort of legacy usual for a seven-time murderer. But there wasn’t much usual about Aileen Wuornos.

Wuornos — “Lee,” to her friends — projects for all her trail of bodies an irrepressibly humanity; Charlize Theron played her in Monster as the most sympathetic serial killer ever put to celluloid, her crime spree a desperate and impossible cry after human love that her life’s many travails had warped but never drained.

Still professing love for the lover who had sold her out and thereby ducked prosecution, Wuornos resigned her appeals and went her own way out this date in 2002.

Books and Films about Aileen Wuornos

* Or, if you like, a precision of definition not likely shared by the majority of her headline-reading public. What made Wuornos distinctive was killing strangers in a pattern over time; the stereotypical female multiple-murderer kills in a single spree, and/or for distinct pecuniary motives, and/or kills family members or other intimates.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

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