Posts filed under 'Georgia'

1946: Twice double executions around the U.S.

Add comment November 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.

North Carolina

Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,

got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.

Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.

The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.

The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”

Georgia

Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.

Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.

Arkansas

There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Gassed,Georgia,Murder,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1883: Margaret Harris

Add comment October 19th, 2016 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I am going to tell the truth before God. I am innocent of the charge…My kin people brought me to this, and I want them to pray to meet me in heaven. I have heard they said hanging was too good for me, that I ought to be burned…I hope this poor man will be released, as he is innocent before God.”

(Turning to her sister on the scaffold:)

“I want to be buried by the side of my mother, but they will not allow it. They don’t care what becomes of my body. Good-bye! Sister, good-bye!”

— Margaret Harris, convicted of murder, hanging, Georgia.
Executed October 19, 1883

Servant Harris, age eighteen, was accused of poisoning the family she worked for in order to leave and live with David Dukes, her alleged accomplice, whom she referred to as “this poor man.” Prosecutors said she first added the poison to coffee, which only sickened her mistress, widow Nancy Barnwell, and Barnwell’s two grandchildren. She then added poison, procured from Duke, to rice, killing one of the grandchildren. A commutation was requested from the governor, but it was refused “as there has lately been a perfect avalanche of poisoning cases and an example needed to be made of it,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. At the hanging, “In the Sweet By-and-By” was sung by the four clergymen attending. The condemned and spectators joined in the song.

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1881: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment October 14th, 2016 Headsman

Four hangings from the four corners of a continental empire darkened American jurisprudence on this date in 1881.

Sageville, New York

Edward Earl hanged in this Adirondacks hamlet for stabbing to death his wife (never named in any press account I located) four years before

Earl attempted (and obviously failed) an insanity defense, which was an interesting tidbit since Charles Guiteau was at this moment gearing up to do the same after assassinating President Garfield earlier this same year.

Dawson, Georgia

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 15, 1881:

ATLANTA, Oct. 14 — Frank Hudson, colored, was hanged at Dawson, this state, to-day, for the murder in August last of David Lee, Mrs. Lee and a negro girl. His purpose, according to his confession, was robbery. He was taken to the gallows under guard of a military company and appeared calm and unmoved. He acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his sentence, and hoped he had been forgiven. He was dead in ten minutes from the time the trap was sprung. This is the first execution that has taken place in Kerrell county.

Ukiah, California

For the background of this murder in the heart of hops country, we’ll crib the meandering but compulsively specific testimony of the event’s only third-party witness in original old-timey cant, as quoted by an appellate court:

Harvey Mortier was speakng angry to Richard Macpherson about a wedge ax that Harvey Mortier accused him with stealing, accused him for taking a wedge ax, and Richard Macpherson says to him, he didn’t do it. He says he would go to Hi Stalder and find out who took the ax. The ax belonged to a man named Hi Stalder.

Well! says Harvey Mortier to him, why don’t you come down now and find out who took the ax? Now, says Richard Macpherson, I won’t go till this evening. He says, you had better come now. He says no, he won’t.

“I will find somebody down in the woods that will put a good head on you; give you a good licking.” This last was said by Mortier to Macpherson. Macpherson didn’t go down to Hi Stalder’s to find out who took the ax. He remained with me chopping, and I was chopping at the time and Richard Macpherson was working with me.

He started to work and Harvey Mortier (the defendant) went away, passing where we were. He went on a little, small trail. Before he left he asked me if I see any deers? I said, yes sir. I says, I seen some deers over there in that direction; so he passes along that little trail going that way, towards that way, and I was chopping wood. Didn’t pay no attention to it.

In a few minutes the gun was fired and I looked and seen Macpherson and Mortier. I saw Harvey Mortier shooting. I seen the smoke and the gun in front of him, and he taking the gun down from him. He was standing in bushes that were chopped down, about two feet high.

(The witness here showed the position of Mortier when the shot was fired, which was a stooping one.)

I saw the smoke in front of his face, and he was trying to hide himself. Mortier was thirty-four yards from Macpherson at the time the shot was fired. I measured in the next day with a six-foot pole.

The smoke was right at the end of the gun. I saw Mortier’s face distinctly and recognized him. I had known him five or six years.

After the shot, Macpherson and I ran away. He ran two hundred and thirty-five steps after he was shot. We ran as soon as the shot was fired.

The last I saw of him he was leaning against a fence. He fell down. I then went after help to bring him home.

At the time the shot was fired Macpherson was standing in front of Mortier and I was standing on one side. Macpherson was chopping a tree about six inches through. Macpherson lived about half an hour after the shot was fired.

Silver City, Idaho

We cannot improve on the correspondent who reported Henry MacDonald’s hanging* in Silver City’s local Owyhee Avalanche the very next day:

* Note that the findagrave.com link misdates this hanging as of this post’s publication. In 1881, October 14 (not the 15th) was the Friday, and I trust that the article reproduced here will constitute evidence that “October 15” did not appear in the original text of the story.

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1767: Obadiah Greenage, colonial gangster

Add comment July 31st, 2016 Headsman

From the Newport (R.I.) Mercury, September 7-14, 1767:

CHARLESTOWN, South-Carolina,

August 3. The gang of villains from Virginia and North-Carolina, who have for some years past, in small parties, under particular leaders, infested the black parts of the southern provinces, stealing horses from one, and selling them in the next, notwithstanding the late public examples made of several of them, we hear, are more formidable than ever as to numbers, and more audacious and cruel in their thefts and outrages.

‘Tis reported, that they consist of more than 200, form a chain of communication with each other, and have places of general meeting, where (in imitation of councils of war) they form plans of operation and defence, and (alluding to their secrecy and fidelity to each other) call those places Free-Masons Lodges.

Instances of their cruelty to the people in the black settlements, whom they rob or otherwise abuse, are so numerous and shocking, that a narrative of them would fill a whole gazette, and every reader with horror.

They at present range in the Forks between Broad, Saludy, and Savannah rivers. Two of the gang were hanged last week at Savannah, viz. Lundy Hust, [sic] and Obadiah Greenage: Two others, James Ferguson and Jeffe Hambersam, were killed when those were taken.

The Georgia Gazette of August 5, 1767 confirms the date of the execution for Obadiah Greenage at Savannah, but noted that Lundy Hurst was in fact not hanged, but reprieved by the governor.

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1946: The Moore’s Ford Bridge lynchings

2 comments July 25th, 2016 Headsman

A quadruple lynching in rural Georgia on this date in 1946 shocked America.

These murders of two African-American couples near Moore’s Ford Bridge are described even to this day as America’s last unresolved mass lynching; that dubious milestone distinction also forms the subtitle of Laura Wexler’s Fire in the Canebrake, a 2004 book about the incident.

Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.

The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.

Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.

[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.

Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”

Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.

“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”

The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.


There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.

By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.

So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:

140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.


Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.

Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.

The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.

Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will

Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”

To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …

When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.

Philadelphia Tribune, Sept. 24, 1946 (Via)

While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.

Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†

Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.

The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.

The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.

Come 1956, he was hailed before the House Un-American Activities Committee.


This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.

No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.

By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.

But they were not forgotten.

A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.

All these years later, Howard remains the diligent custodian of the lynching’s memory, and he founded the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee which among other things has established a historical marker near the site.

* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.

** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.

† All part of the great sausage-making of governance: Truman had met with a more moderate NAACP delegation a few days prior and set up one of those blue-ribbon commissions name of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Its manifold business affiliations and scanty deliverables were both considerably more welcome in Washington than was Robeson. See Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Georgia,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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2016: Brandon Astor Jones

3 comments February 3rd, 2016 Headsman

Forty-six minutes after midnight this morning, the U.S. state of Georgia executed its oldest death row inmate, Brandon Astor Jones.

Jones was a prolific penpal correspondent who had won a worldwide following as he fought his death sentence over half a lifetime.

His accomplice Van Roosevelt Solomon was electrocuted all the way back in 1985 for the same convenience store robbery-murder;* as Liliana Segura recently noted in The Intercept, Jones’s case is heavy with the arbitrariness of capital cases — not only that Jones outlived Solomon by three decades, but also that in that span many other Georgians have committed homicides equal to his in tragic banality, served a term of years for it, and been released. It needs hardly even be said that Jones, like 54 of the other 60 people executed by Georgia since the 1970s, had a white victim: that’s a disparity that courts have washed their hands of even though it was one of the constitutional concerns that led a former incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes in 1972.

While Jones’s death is headline news, his case dates to the earliest years of what is dignified the “modern” death penalty period and as such might more closely resemble the preceding era than the one we inhabit today.

It’s almost a time capsule of the jurisprudence — and sociology — touching capital punishment, even including Jones’s unluckily-timed appeal victory that led to a new sentencing hearing during the gung-ho-to-execute 1990s. Even if the distance of time is extreme, more typical death penalty lags of 8, 10, 15 years mean that most present-day executions are ripples of receding public policy sensibilities — “zombie cases” in the words of Southern Center for Human Rights director Stephen Bright. People like Brandon Jones “almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today,” when prosecutors, judges, and juries all show growing reluctance to don the black cap. But it’s a very different story for those is already tangled in the coils of the system.

* A policeman happened to be arriving right to the same store on a coincidental errand when the crime went down, so the culprits were arrested before they made it off the parking lot.

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1834: James Graves, Trail of Tears precursor

Add comment November 21st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1834, the Cherokee James Graves was hanged in Spring Place, Georgia, for murder. He’s the only person ever executed in Georgia’s Murray County.

But he was also a sad waymarker on the way to a much larger tragedy.

It happened that in 1834 the state of Georgia’s long-simmering conflict with the indigenous Cherokee nation was coming to a nasty head. In the infancy of the American Republic, it had made a pact placing the Cherokee under the protection of the United States.

By the 1820s, however, Cherokee land had been nibbled away and the white citizens of Georgia started clamoring for a proper ethnic cleansing: forcibly expelling the Cherokee to the western frontier.

The immediate territorial conflict became joined to a conflict over federal jurisdiction, because the Cherokee had their treaty with the United States (not with Georgia) and its terms were supposed to be guaranteed by Washington (not Milledgeville). As the Georgia legislature enacted laws stripping the Cherokee of land and self-rule, the Cherokee appealed in federal courts.

The Cherokee notched a major win in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Indian affairs were the domain of the federal government and individual states had nothing to say in the matter.

But to give a sense of where the wind was blowing, this is the very decision about which U.S. President (and notorious Indian-killer) Andrew Jackson is supposed to have remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” The quote itself is probably apocryphal but the atmosphere of lawless confrontation was very real indeed.

James Graves was convicted by a Georgia jury in September 1834 of murdering a white man several years prior on Indian land … or rather, on what Georgia said was now no longer Indian land.

The Supreme Court directed Georgia to stay the hanging and appear at a January 1835 hearing.

Governor William Lumpkin* would have none of it. Grandstanding in a communique to an all but universally supportive legislature, he vowed to ignore the court’s order.

Any attempt to infringe the evident rights of the State, to govern its entire population, of whatever complexion, and punish all offences committed against its laws within those limits … I consider a direct usurpation of power. … Such attempts demand the determined resistance of the States … I shall wholly disregard all such unconstitutional requisitions, of whatever character or origin, and, to the utmost of my power, protect and defend the rights of the State, and use the means afforded me to maintain the laws and Constitution of the same. (Nov. 7, 1834)

Two weeks later, Georgia hung James Graves, stay or no stay. There would be no hearing in Washington that January.

“What is to be done with Georgia?” lamented the Nantucket Inquirer (Dec. 13, 1834). “Will another presidential proclamation, full of big words and bombastic threats, be issued against her, for having nullified the U.S. claim of sovereignty over the Indians, and for having hanged the copper-skinned citizen Graves, in defiance of the interdict of one of Gen. Jackson’s judges?”

They already knew the answer: “O, no! — Why? Van Buren counts upon the vote of Georgia at the next presidential election!” (Van Buren did not in fact carry Georgia.)

In 1835, the U.S. foisted a dubious new treaty on the Cherokee by getting a minority faction to sign off on Indian removal, and shortly thereafter forced the Cherokee west on the Trail of Tears.

* Lumpkin County, Georgia is named for him. That’s not too shabby, but he almost hit big-time when the city of Terminus proposed to rename itself Lumpkin. Lumpkin declined and the city is today known as Atlanta.

** Georgia conducted another execution, that of George Tassels, under similarly contested circumstances a few years before Graves.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1996: Ellis Wayne Felker

1 comment November 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Ellis Wayne Felker was elecrocuted for a rape-murder that — despite his classic middle name — he always maintained he did not commit.

Felker was fresh off his release from prison for aggravated sodomy in 1981 when he opened a leather shop at which a Macon Junior College student named Evelyn Joy Ludlam solicited work. Felker had none to give her — the business was failing — but he still invited her to interview.

Sometime after Ludlam interviewed at Felker’s shop on Novemer 24, 1981, her car ended up parked in the lot of the Trust Company Bank with Joy nowhere to be found. She remained missing until December 8, when a passerby found her body in Scuffle Creek outside of Macon. She had been raped, sodomized, and throttled.

Evidence incriminating Felker was circumstantial but suggestive: Felker was the last person who could be shown to have seen Joy Ludlam alive, and that under duplicitous circumstances; he had shifted his account of his contact with Ludlam during the crucial hours as evidence came in; he had gone out for an unexplained drive late the night of her disappearance; some bruises on the victim’s body suggested bondage sex and Wayne, a BDSM aficionado, had suspiciously disposed of some leather restraints shortly after Joy vanished. Plus, of course, there was that previous sexual assault conviction.

On the other hand, the initial autopsy and some expert testimony concerning the body’s condition suggested that Joy had died just a few days before she was pulled out of the creek — a timeline which would have ruled Felker out as a suspect since he was under police surveillance from the evening of November 25. (The revision of the autopsy’s initial, Felker-exonerating timeline, and the subsequent expert dispute over the expected state of a body submerged in water after X number of days forms a sizable part of the record. We at Executed Today have no ranks in this coroner’s science, but would note that she was found wearing the clothes she donned for her November 24 visit to Felker’s leather shop.) And years after the trial, boxes of evidence that the state had illegally failed to disclose to Felker’s defense team were discovered. They contained interviews with other witnesses, a highly dubious signed confession by a mentally disabled man, and human tissue.

The last really sticks in craw: courts in 1996, when DNA was still only emerging as a forensic force, refused to allow the sample to be tested on the Kafkaesque procedural grounds that the request had not been made earlier in the process — you know, before the defense knew there was such a sample to test, and/or before DNA testing was a thing. Partial credit for the frustration of Felker’s appeal routes goes to that relic of 1990s death penalty mania, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, which limited (and still limits) capital defendants’ access to federal habeas corpus relief was actually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1996 via Felker’s own case: the key ruling is Felker v. Turpin.

He wasn’t through making history after he died, either.

In what was thought to be a first in 2000, a consortium of media organizations footed the bill for posthumous DNA testing of those recovered hair and fingernail samples, with the potential to deliver an embarrassing four-years-too-late exoneration.

The result: inconclusive.

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1996: Larry Lonchar, bad gambler

Add comment November 14th, 2015 Headsman

Minutes after midnight on this date in 1996, Georgia electrocuted Larry Lonchar

Ten grand in the red on gambling debts, Lonchar in 1986 raided the home of the bookie he owed and gunned down that bookie, his female partner, and his two sons. (One of the sons survived by playing dead.)

A DeKalb county 911 call recorded the horrifying last moments of Margaret Sweat:

911: DeKalb Emergency 911.

Caller: Police.

911: What address?

Caller: [redacted]

911: What’s the problem?

Caller: Everybody’s been shot.

911: Who’s been shot?

Caller: Me — and —

911: With a gun?

Caller: Yes.

911: Who did it?

Caller: I don’t know.

911: Is that a house or an apartment?

Caller: It’s a condominium. . . .

911: Okay. Now you say everybody’s been shot, I already got you help on the way, but when you say everybody’s been shot, how many?

Caller: Uh, me.

911: Where are you shot at?

Caller: In the living room — I’ve crawled to the phone.

911: I mean what part of your body, Ma’am.

Caller: I think my stomach — they’re coming back in — please-(inaudible)

911: Who did it? Give me a description of them!

Caller: Why are you doing this. Please — (inaudible). Please, please, I don’t even know your name. Please — please Larry. I don’t even know your n –.

Lonchar had little stomach to fight a death sentence he acknowledged deserving — an execution date in 1993 had been averted only at the last moment when his brother’s suicide threat induced Lonchar to reluctantly pick up his appeals — and by the end he was holding out strangely for only a late delay. It seems that he wanted to donate his kidneys, but the wrack of the electrical chair promised to damage the tissue past using. That situation had even led Georgia lawmaker Doug Teper to introduce legislation to conduct executions by guillotine: say what you will about the iconic French razor, it’s easy on the organs.

The spectacle of legal beheadings was spared America, then and since — though who knows what may someday come of the ongoing breakdown of the lethal injection process.

Lonchar’s execution was witnessed by British human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who had come to represent him: Smith wrote about the experience for the Guardian here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Georgia,Murder,Pelf,USA,Volunteers

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

8 comments August 17th, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Jews,Lynching,Mature Content,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Rape,USA,Wrongful Executions

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