Category Archives: Kansas

1870: William Dickson, the last in Kansas for a lifetime

On this date in 1870, William Dickson’s hanging in the Leavenworth jail yard accidentally put the kibosh on Kansas executions for the next 74 years.

The Sunflower State entered the Union bleeding and had not shown particularly reticent about capital punishment during its first decade of statehood, the 1860s.

Dickson was just an illiterate laborer who murdered a pedlar in Delaware township — but the public hanging brought out the worst in the mob, and “During the execution order was maintained only by the most strenuous efforts, and repeated threats.” (Leavenworth Bulletin, Aug. 9, 1870)

The distasteful scene moved the legislature to revise the state’s capital statutes, unusually placing the responsibility of actually ordering hanging dates directly on the governor instead of a judge. (Such dates also had to be “not less than one year from the time of conviction.”)

The ensuing decades of Gilded Age governors proved perfectly happy never to do so. So, even though courts kept issuing death sentences, they were never carried out. Kansas finally abolished the death penalty outright in 1907. It was restored only in 1935, and the first hanging under the reinstated statute — the first since Bill Dickson — finally took place in 1944.

1945: Seven German POWs

On this date in 1945, the U.S. Army hanged seven German submariners for their “traitor slaying” of a Werner Dreschler at the Arizona POW camp they all inhabited.

Their victim Werner Drechsler had been captured when his U-Boat was sunk of the Azores. Having no great love for the Nazi government which had tossed his father in a concentration camp, Drechsler willingly went to work for the Americans as a mole in the POW camps, scavenging his captive countrymen for whatever particles of actionable intelligence they might be willing to blab to a fellow prisoner.

Parked in Fort Meade, Maryland, Dreschler’s war figured to be long over. However, a careless (or worse?) March 1944 transfer to a different POW camp at Papago Park, Arizona put the turncoat into a prisoner pool that included his former U-Boat mates, and these men knew that Dreschler was “a dog who had broken his oath.”

Mere hours after his arrival to Papago Park, a drumhead court had convened to “try” Drechsler in absentia and when his fellow Kriegsmariners doomed him a traitor, he was attacked, beaten senseless, and then hanged in a prison shower.

Helmut Carl Fischer, Fritz Franke, Gunther Kulsen, Heinrich Ludwig, Bernhard Reyak, Otto Stengel, and Rolf Wizuy, were sentenced on March 15, 1944 for carrying out this murder, and all owned the deed upon their honor as Germans and soldiers.*

Still, they outlived the war — cynically dangled, Richard Whittingham argues in Martial Justice: The Last Mass Execution in the United States, as bargaining chips to protect American POWs in Berlin’s hands, and then cynically released to the executioner when the Third Reich’s disappearance dissipated their value as prisoner swap currency. (Seven different German POWs had been executed earlier that same summer.) It was the least the U.S. military could do after having more or less tossed poor Drechsler into a pit of crocodiles.

“The trap was sprung on the first man at 12:10, and the last man went to his death at 2:48 a.m.,” read the bulletin in the Fort Leavenworth News, army paper at the Kansas penitentiary where our day’s principals paid their forfeit. (Via) “A new system for mass hangings has been devised at the institution which saved more than an hour in the procedure.”

But mass hangings too were going out of fashion faster than Hitlerism, and this great leap forward in the executioner’s efficiency has never since been required again at Fort Leavenworth.

* It wasn’t necessarily a given that duty to German martial orders would cut no ice with the western Allies.