Posts filed under 'Kansas'

1945: Seven German POWs

Add comment August 25th, 2017 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Kansas,Mass Executions,Murder,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1859: John Stoefel, the first hanged in Denver

Add comment April 9th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the first hanging in Denver — then a nascent mining town known as Denver City.

Denver in 1859 dangled on the far end of a long western extrusion of the Kansas Territory, but had John Stoefel managed to refrain from murder just two years longer he might have had the privilege to be the first to hang in Colorado Territory instead.

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Mass.), April 6, 1859

Indeed, the town had only sprung into existence the previous summer — product of the Pike’s Peak gold rush that drew to the territory thousands of fortune-hunters, desperadoes, and merchants servicing same.

Characteristically for a boom town, Denver grew with more rapidity than order.

On a New York to San Francisco overland odyssey, newsman Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley arrived in Denver in June, missing our milestone hanging by weeks; his annals (being dispatched east for publication) describe a hardscrabble* place that “can boast of no antiquity beyond September or October last.”

Outlaws and fugitives formed a class “not numerous, but … more influential than it should be”:

Prone to deep drinking, soured in temper, always armed, bristling at a word, ready with the rifle, revolver, or bowie-knife, they give law and set fashions which, in a country where the regular administration of justice is yet a matter of prophecy, it seems difficult to overrule or disregard. I apprehend that there have been, during my two weeks sojourn, more brawls, more pistol shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths of them completed, nor two-thirds of them inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of equal numbers on earth.

No surprise, the first outright murder case to blot the infant city implicated two prospectors: our villain John Stoefel, one of a party of German emigres, shot his brother-in-law Thomas Biencroff on April 7 for his gold dust. From that point, Stoefel had 48 hours to live; standing on only the barest pretense of legal nicety, a “people’s court” convened to try and condemn Stoefel on the basis of his own confession, then immediately hanged him to an obliging tree.

The affair was reported in the very first issue of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that debuted two weeks after Stoefel’s execution/lynching and was destined to survive until 2009.

* Greeley: “It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.” You’ve come a long way, Colorado.

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Entry Filed under: Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Colorado,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kansas,Lynching,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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1860: John Guthrie, antislavery horse thief

Add comment February 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1860 in “Bleeding Kansas” — the frontier zone of dirty war by and against the Slave Power where John Brown got his start — a man named John Guthrie was hanged under scant-to-no color of law.

The site of this execution is still known as Guthrie’s Mountain or Mound … and it’s even alleged that the spot is still ill-omened by the event, and that the dying Guthrie “assailed his executioners for lynching an innocent man,” prophesying that “each of them would meet a horrible death” which curse the imminent U.S. Civil War carried into effect.

For a fuller account, see this pdf of a 1982 Kansas History article, “Guthrie Mound and the Hanging of John Guthrie”.


I know a story I think worth preserving of a Bourbon county execution without benefit of clergy, but it was not a lynching. I have had the story from a lot of people, including two eyewitnesses — not participants, of course. Away back in the later territorial days, when Bourbon county was in the ‘region beyant the law,’ a young man named Guthrie was caught up near Mapleton riding somebody else’s horse. Everybody knows that at that time in those parts, horse stealing and nigger chasing and homicide were offenses in a class by themselves. The hardheaded and hard-fisted farmers thereabouts gathered in a hurry. But there were no courts that they respected or had reason to respect. What to do?

Just across the river south of Mapleton in the Little Osage bottom is a little round hill about three hundred feet high shaped almost exactly like an overturned soup bowl. They adjourned to the top of that hill. There they elected a judge and a sheriff and a prosecuting attorney. They selected a jury and tried their man, who admitted his guilt. After the verdict and the proper sentence, the sheriff had no place to keep the man, so he executed the sentence at once by hanging him to the limb of a jack oak tree nearby. His body was buried where it was cut dawn. It is there yet.

From what I have been told I am quite satisfied that that trial was quite as regular and formal as many cases in the regular courts of that day, though not sanctioned by the law.

By the way, that hill is the same ‘pretty little hill’ where Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike ate the fried venison steak that September morning in 1806, as he notes in his journal. It is still called Guthrie mountain, and is one of the real beauty spots of old Bourbon.

-C.E. Cory, 1932

The horse-thief story has different versions, in which Guthrie is either innocent of the charge or not. For what it may be worth, the 1860 New York Times also reported a “very imperfect” version of this take.


However, there’s at least one primary document suggesting that “thieving” may have been a pretext for killing the man over his anti-slavery stance.

Mapleton, K. T., Feb. 12, 1860. “MY DEAR PARENTS: … Last Sunday night about 1 o’clock a man named John R. Guthrie was hanged about a mile and a half from here on the top. of what is known as Tigret Mound. He was left suspended until Monday eve. His corpse was in plain sight from here as he hung. The proslavery’s hung him for an alleged crime of horse stealing. They arrested him without authority or shadow of law and never gave him even a mock trial, as has generally been the case. The country is again in commotion. I know not what will be the result, the probability is that unless Montgomery takes the field again it will soon blow over and give them a chance to hang the next ones that gets in their way.

-Free Stater (i.e., anti-slavery) Alpheus H. Taylor

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Kansas,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1965: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, In Cold Blood subjects

Add comment April 14th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1965 saw the end of the road (and the end of the rope) for Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the drifters who slaughtered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and inspired Truman Capote’s magnum opus In Cold Blood.


Hickock (left) and Smith.

These ex-cons — Smith, the smart Korean War veteran; Hickock, the fallen high school jock turned small-time hood — got a tip from a fellow jailbird that Herbert Clutter’s farm had a well-stocked safe.

On November 15, 1959, they raided the farm, tied up and shotgunned the family of four, and made off with … 40 bucks. Alas: no safe.

The horrific, out-of-nowhere brutality of the crime — “apparently the work of a psychopathic killer” — made national headlines and drew Manhattanite Truman Capote out to small town Kansas (along with novelist Harper Lee, whom Capote used to gain the confidence of locals).

The killers were caught on the lam in Nevada, and as the case unfolded,* Capote’s sympathy for Smith unlocked a spellbinding book that put this day’s murderers in the literary canon.

I really admired Mr. Clutter, right up until the moment I slit his throat.”

– Perry Smith

(Perry Smith was first protrayed on celluloid by actor Robert Blake, who would one day stand trial himself for arranging the 2001 murder of his wife. Blake was acquitted.)

In Cold Blood has drawn criticism from the outset: for its accuracy, or for its problematic relationship between author and subject, or for its pride of place in the true crime genre. (Or the “nonfiction novel” genre Capote claimed it created.)

But as literary milestone, its place is secure.

In Cold Blood, in multiple media

* More detail about Smith and Hickock and Capote and the Clutters in this trutv article.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Kansas,Murder,Popular Culture,USA

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1961: John A. Bennett, the last American military execution (so far)

14 comments April 13th, 2009 Headsman

As of this date, it’s been 48 years since the United States military last carried out an execution — the Fort Leavenworth hanging* of John Arthur Bennett for rape.

An epileptic black soldier with a family history of mental illness, Bennett had enlisted to find a way up out of sharecropping. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1954, he drunkenly raped a 12-year-old girl near his base in Austria.

He spent six years awaiting execution — “six years,” observed the Los Angeles Times, “in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men — many of them multiple murderers — were saved.”

Bennett dodged two execution dates, once receiving his stay during his last meal, but a seemingly compelling plea for clemency — the victim herself, and her parents, asked for mercy — availed Bennett nothing. His last frantic plea to the new president, John F. Kennedy, was dispatched with only hours yet to live.

I beg in the name of God … Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”

No dice. Kennedy was preoccupied.

Coincidentally, but poignantly for this case, the Kirk Douglas vehicle A Town Without Pity opened a month before Bennett’s execution. In that film (trailer here), four American servicemen face capital trial for the rape of a German girl — and Douglas, as their lawyer, struggles to talk pity into someone so he won’t be obliged to humiliate the victim in court in order to save his clients from the noose.

The victim’s father in that movie is so blinded by his lust for vengeance that he forces Douglas to destroy his own daughter: striking contrast with the real-life father of Bennett’s flesh-and-blood victim, who wrote in support of clemency for his daughter’s assailant, “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”

Bennett’s milestone, however, is hardly assured of lasting much beyond this 49th year.

In 2008, President George W. Bush affirmed the death sentence of condemned Army cook Ronald Gray, the first such action by any U.S. president since Bennett’s day. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Death Row USA most current as of this writing,** Gray is one of nine prisoners currently on the U.S. military’s death row.

* Curious to know about the procedure? The Library of Congress has that period’s Procedure for Military Executions — complete with exact diagrams — online in pdf form.

** Death Row USA, Summer 2008 (direct pdf link)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Milestones,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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1930: Carl Panzram, rage personified

September 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1930, one of the most nihilistic criminals in American history was hanged for murder at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — in character to his last breath, a sneer at the hangman about to put him to death:

“Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could hang 10 men while you’re fooling around!”

Panzram — according, at least, to an autobiography which is largely unverifiable — had the chops to back up his taunt.

A Minnesota-born son of German immigrants, Panzram was into the juvenile detention system by adolescence, and at 14 hopped a freight train bound for a life of vagrancy. In Panzram’s recounting, his boyhood was a hellscape — even knowing what he became, it’s possible to feel compassion for the the killer’s remembrance, “Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular.”

Worse was to come for Carl — sexual molestation, a gang-rape by fellow hobos — and much worse by Carl.

The rape may have shattered the restraints on his conscience … or maybe they was already gone by then. “Might makes right” became his credo; to alcoholic and thief he added a portfolio of rape and enthusiastic homicide, crisscrossing the country (with a side trip to Africa), escaping or wheedling out of jails when he was picked up for something, and finding it amazingly easy to slay his fellow men.

A full narrative of Panzram’s grisly career is available at trutv.com. Much of this is, again, sourced only to Panzram himself, so the possibility of bloodthirsty braggadocio cannot be dismissed; even at a fraction of its alleged scope and brutality, his career was a triumph in horror.

While I was sitting there, a little kid about eleven or twelve years old came bumming around. He was looking for something. He found it, too. I took him out to a gravel pit about one-quarter mile away. I left him there, but first I committed sodomy on him and then killed him. His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him, and he will never be any deader.

It was the murder of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Ks., that sealed his fate. Panzram was in his late 30’s by this time, facing a long prison sentence. Something between the fury that fueled him and the desperate reality of not seeing the outside again until he was an old man may have impelled him to check out intentionally: he had warned that he would murder an inmate, and he responded to anti-death penalty campaigners’ attempts to save him by threatening to kill them, too.

In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.

It seems the fate of common criminals, even those as prolific and infernal as Panzram, to shuffle into obscurity in fairly short order. Among devotees of the dark underbelly, Panzram may be well-known; to the larger public, he’s long forgotten.

Panzram’s memoirs, released as Killer: A Journal of Murder, were turned into a 1996 James Woods vehicle of the same title:

Interestingly, Panzram is also name-checked in another more famous literary artifact: In the Belly of the Beast, the tour de force of Norman Mailer protege Jack Abbott, who had conned the litterateur into backing his bid for parole, was rather boldly dedicated to Carl Panzram.* It will not surprise the reader to learn that Abbott, upon his release, killed again.

But a new generation is waiting to rediscover its butchers … and a new documentary, Panzram, is in production to bring the story back to silver screens and Netflix queues of the 21st century.

* Abbott was writing to Mailer while the latter was banging out his book about notable executee Gary Gilmore.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Infamous,Kansas,Minnesota,Murder,Serial Killers,U.S. Federal,USA

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