On this date in 1947, U.S. Army Private Garlon Mickles was hanged at a place called “execution gulch” in Honolulu’s Schofield Barracks.
Mickles had enlisted three years before, the 16-year-old son of a St. Louis laundress. (“Tell my mother I died like a man,” were his reported words to the chaplain.)
According to Associated Press reports, army engineers frustrated peeping eyes by “put[ting] up a smoke screen to shield the gallows from the view of the curious.”
He was convicted of raping and robbing a female War Department employee on Guam, where he was stationed with the Twentieth Air Force — from which staging-point the unit conducted bombing raids on mainland Japan. (The Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was part of the 20th.)
Mickles appears to be the last person ever executed on the Hawaiian islands, and also an unusual overlook by the Espy File of U.S. executions, from which he’s totally absent.
Retreating from the Philippines in early 1942, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously vowed, “I shall return.” To Homma’s grief, he did just that.
While MacArthur cogitated his revenge, Homma was finishing off the remnants of his last great stand in the Battle of Bataan. Bataan was a victory for Japan, but a bloody and protracted one; it cost the lives of some 7,000 Japanese, and the three-month battle has sometimes been credited with slowing the Japanese advance sufficiently to safeguard Australia; it also left the occupiers with an unexpectedly huge complement of POWs.
On April 9, 1942, the very day fighting ended at Bataan, transfers began for these prisoners, who would be driven by train and then marched overland some 60+ miles to Camp O’Donnell. More than 60,000 Filipinos and about 15,000 Americans endured this harrowing five- or six-day slog — the Bataan Death March.
A few books about the Bataah Death March
Early reports of the death march made grist for this wartime propaganda poster in the U.S.
This crucible of endurance, both physical and spiritual, came by its evil repute honestly; in the age of the Internet, numerous appalling testimonials are within easy reach of a web search. They recount battle-wearied men enervated by hunger and thirst, liable to be summarily shot or bayoneted for making themselves the least bit conspicuous to captors who already disdained them for having the weakness to surrender in the first place.
Some were murdered at the outset: having any Japanese “trophies” on one’s person when captured was liable to be worth a summary bullet, or a quick flash of an officer’s katana. An even more certain death sentence was falling behind on the march, and wounded prisoners could expect no quarter: they had to keep up with their compatriots or the Japanese “buzzard squad” trailing a few score meters behind every marching peloton would finish them off with any other stragglers. In different groups POWs might be thrashed or killed over any trifling annoyance; meanwhile, those suffered to live trudged under a wasting sun, nearly unnourished but for fetid handfuls scooped from mud puddles, dying on their feet hour by hour. Dehydrated to the point of madness, some snapped and ran suicidally for the tantalizing nearby village wells that marchers were prohibited from accessing.
Something like a quarter, and maybe nearer to a third, of the souls who set out on the Bataan Death March never reached Camp O’Donnell. Those who did entered new portals of torment: rent by dysentery and crowded cheek to sunken jowl, prisoners died off daily by the dozens until they were finally dispatched — often crammed like sardines into the bowels of “hell ships” — to different Japanese work camps.
Homma had segued directly from the Battle of Bataan to the succeeding Battle of Corregidor after which he had been cashiered for a homeland desk job.
Ironically, it was an excess of leniency that helped earn Homma his enemies among the brass — the opposite of the thing that hanged him. For many who observed the postwar trial slating him with 48 war crimes violations related to the Death March, Homma was a figure more tragic than wicked, prey to returning victor MacArthur’s pique at the defeat Homma had once inflicted upon him.
Little reliable evidence could show that Homma blessed or even knew of the atrocities committed in the march, but he himself allowed during trial that “I am morally responsible for whatever happened in anything under my command.” According to Homma’s American defense attorney Robert Pelz — a biased source to be sure — the general slipped into genuine disgust and remorse during the trial as a parade of witnesses remembered their ordeals. “I am horrified to learn these things happened under my command,” Homma wrote in a note passed to Pelz at one point. “I am ashamed of our troops.”
The hanging verdict was controversial then and remains so now. “If the defendant does not deserve his judicial fate, none in jurisdictional history ever did,” MacArthur complained. He honored the mercy application of Homma’s wife Fujiko only insofar as to permit the general a more honorable execution by musketry, instead of hanging.
The bulk of the U.S. Supreme Court okayed the procedure by which the U.S. military brought that fate about, although Justice Frank Murphy issued a scorching dissent urging that in the haste and partiality of the proceedings against both Homma and General Tomoyuki Yamashita “we abandon all pretense to justice, let the ages slip away and descend to the level of revengeful blood purges.”
One who would share that sentiment was an 18-year-old Navy man who observed the trial, Bob Perske. Perske would remember this his experiences on the Philippines at the end of World War II “sharpened his sensitivies toward vulnerable persons” and influenced a subsequent career advocating for people with disabilities as well as those caught in the toils of the criminal justice system. Executed Today formerly interviewed Mr. Perske in connection with the wrongful execution of a mentally disabled man in Colorado, Joe Arridy.
In Philadelphia this date in 1778, “Lyons, Ford and Wilson, late Lieutenants, and John Lawrence, late gunner, in the navy of this State, were taken from the gaol to one of the gallies lying off Market Street wharf, where the two former were shot agreeable to their sentence, but the two latter reprieved.” (Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 2, 1778)
Samuel Lyons, Samuel Ford, John Wilson and John Lawrence all served on various of the American “row galley” fleet that gave the American revolutionaries at least some seaborne presence in their fight against the world’s preeminent naval power.
The four, executed and pardoned alike, had deserted the American garrison when that preeminent power put Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River under siege the previous autumn. (There’s a very detailed account of this operation here; the British eventually captured the fort from its badly outnumbered defenders.)
While desertion between the antagonists was a common phenomenon in the American Revolution, this made for an especially bad look a year later once the British abandoned Philadelphia to the aggressively triumphalist Patriots.
Even so, the last-minute clemencies alongside the actual shootings were also very much a part of the Continental Army’s delicate enforcement of discipline, in an environment where it feared that being either too lenient or too harsh could fatally undermine the tenuous morale of the rank and file. Every enforcement was considered in the light of its public impression.
“The number of spectators was very great,” our short report in the Evening Post concluded. “And it is hoped the melancholy scene will have a proper effect upon the profligate and thoughtless, who do not seriously consider that the crime of desertion is attended with the dreadful consequences of wilful perjury.”
(Thanks to Robert Walsh for the guest post. Mr. Walsh’s home page has a trove of articles about historical executions, including another American serviceman hanged at Shepton Mallet. -ed.)
VE (Victory in Europe) marked the official end of hostilities in the European theatre of operations and quite possibly the largest and most joyous celebration in human history.
Unless, of course, you happened to be former US Army Air Forces Private George Edward Smith.
While most of the rest of the world basked in the joy of victory and the relief of the European war being over, Private Smith had a rather more pressing engagement to think about. The rest of the population might be about to enter a brave new world, but Smith was about to depart rather suddenly from the old one.
It was his execution day.
Smith, previously serving at RAF Attlebridge in Norfolk with the US Air Force’s 784th Bombardment Squadron, wouldn’t be celebrating the end of the European war. He’d be watching the clock tick relentlessly down to 1 a.m. when he’d be escorted from the Condemned Cell at Her Majesty’s Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (loaned to the US military for the duration of the war). He’d be sat near the gallows pondering a past that was about to cost him his life while hoping for a reprieve that wouldn’t arrive and a future that was already lost.
While most of the world celebrated, George Edward Smith was going to die.
Smith’s guilt wasn’t in any doubt. Near RAF Attlebridge lay the sleepy Norfolk town of Honingham and the stately home named Honingham Hall (demolished in the 1960s).
Honingham Hall and the adjoining land were home to distinguished diplomat Sir Eric Teichmann, a long-serving figure vastly experienced in the Far East and serving as advisor to the British Embassy at Chungking. He’d noticed, as so many country gentlemen do, that he had a problem with poachers. December 3, 1944 would be the last time he had a problem with anything. It was in the small hours of the morning that he met George Edward Smith.
Smith and his accomplice Private Wijpacha had ‘borrowed’ a pair of M1 carbines from the base armoury and decided to do a spot of illicit hunting. Teichmann, familiar with the fact that poachers aren’t usually violent offenders and will usually run if challenged, heard gunshots from nearby woodland and went out to investigate. He went out unarmed, challenged Smith and Wijpacha — and Smith promptly shot him once through the head with his M1. Both men fled hurriedly back to their base, hoping that their absence wouldn’t be noticed.
Of course, a senior British diplomat lying murdered in the woodland was noticed.
Before long both men were arrested and questioned, during which Smith confessed, a confession he later retracted claiming that it was made under duress. That, not surprisingly, cut no ice whatsoever with either the American military or the British authorities. Smith and Wijpacha were court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge and Wijpacha (who hadn’t fired a shot) received a lengthy prison sentence. Smith, the triggerman, drew the death penalty.
Under the Visiting Forces Act, 1942 the Americans were free to try, imprison and condemn their own criminals independent of the British system of justice, not that it would have made any difference to Smith’s case. Murder was then a capital crime in Britain regardless of the criminal’s nationality. If Smith hadn’t been condemned by an American court-martial then a British trial would have seen the judge don the legendary ‘Black Cap’ and pass what British reporters once called ‘the dread sentence’ especially given the status of the victim.
Smith was promptly shipped to the prison at Shepton Mallet in the county of Somerset to await a mandatory review of his case and, if clemency was refused, execution.
View of Shepton Mallet (left) and its execution shed (right)
Shepton Mallet had been a civilian prison for centuries before being turned over to the British military, who then lent it to the Americans as part of the Visiting Forces Act. Until its final closure a few years ago Shepton Mallet remained the oldest prison in the UK still operational, a dubious distinction now belonging to Dartmoor. There were, however, a few difficulties with the arrangement.
The Americans carried out 18 executions at Shepton Mallet during their tenure between mid-1942 and September, 1945. Two (Alex Miranda and Benjamin Pyegate) were by firing squad, upsetting local people, who knew very well what it meant to live next to a military prison and hear a single rifle volley at 8 a.m. The American military also preferred hanging common criminals to allowing them to be shot like soldiers.
The problems were simple. The locals didn’t like firing squads made no secret of it. Not surprisingly, there were complaints. The US military felt being shot was too good for most of its condemned and the British didn’t like the methods and equipment used by American hangmen, who had acquired a nasty and thoroughly-deserved reputation for using badly-designed scaffolds, the wrong type of rope and the antiquated standard drop instead of a drop length scientifically calculated by the prisoner’s weight.
The British also regarded American hanging equipment as outdated, while American military hangmen John Woods and Joseph Malta were entirely unfamiliar with the British kit. And British hangmen had evolved hanging to almost an art, needing mere seconds to complete the procedure.
Another problem was that the gallows at Shepton Mallet hadn’t been used since March, 1926. By 1942 it was considered unfit for service and needed replacing. A compromise had to be reached, and was.
The Americans could continue executions at Shepton Mallet, but the vast majority (16 out of 18) were performed by British hangmen using a British gallows in an extension built onto the end of one of the cellblocks. The Americans were permitted their usual practice of having the condemned stand strapped, noosed and hooded on the gallows while their death warrant and charge sheet were read out and then being asked for any last words. This caused executioner Albert Pierrepoint, master of the speedy hanging, to complain at what seemed to him a cruel, unnecessary delay in ending the prisoner’s misery.
Pierrepoint also complained about overcrowding in the gallows room during executions. At a British hanging there would be the prisoner, the hangman, his assistant, the prison Governor, the Chief Warder, the doctor, the Chaplain and two or four prison officers. At an American military hanging there were usually twenty or so people clustered around the trapdoors and lever. He felt a hanging should be both quick and perfect and that a crowded gallows room invited disaster.
Hangman Thomas Pierrepoint.
By VE Day the arrangement was well-established. Thomas Pierrepoint, uncle of Albert and brother of Henry (both of whom were also hangmen) performed 13 of the 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet while Albert performed the remaining three when he wasn’t busy elsewhere.
Their assistants were Steve Wade, Herbert Morris and Alexander Riley. Tom Pierrepoint had performed the last hanging at Shepton Mallet in 1926 (that of murderer John Lincoln) assisted by Lionel Mann. While the two firing squads were performed at 8 a.m., the hangings would be carried out at 1 a.m. which was discreet enough not to arouse neighbors’ ire.
Smith’s case was reviewed. Not surprisingly, his appeal was denied as were other requests including (most generously, under the circumstances) one from Lady Teichmann, widow of his victim. His date was set for 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the very day Europe’s guns fell silent. Tom Pierrepoint would do the job assisted by Herbert Morris. Smith was transferred to the Condemned Cell a few days prior to the execution date where he was granted free access to the military Chaplain.
When the time came, while the rest of the population celebrated the arrival of a new world and Smith contemplated his departure from the old one, it went as smoothly as could be expected. Smith was taken from his cell wearing standard military uniform, from which any badges or flashes marking him as a soldier were deliberately removed. Paperwork was completed signifying his dishonourable discharge from the US military as a common criminal and the US military were determined that he should die like one.
Given the delays caused by the reading of the charge sheet and death warrant and Smith being asked for his last words (he apparently had none) it took 22 minutes between Smith being taken from his cell and being certified dead by the prison doctor. Compare this with a standard British execution (minus the bureaucracy and speechifying) where 22 seconds would have been considered twice as long as was needed to do the job. Smith’s punishment, however, wasn’t done yet. Executed American servicemen were initially buried at Brookwood cemetery, but then moved to the notorious ‘Plot E’ of the Oisne-Aisne Military Cemetery in France. Plot E is deliberately hidden from the rest of that cemetery. Its residents have no names on their graves, only numbers. They have no headstones or crosses, only flat stone markers. No American flag hangs in their plot. It doesn’t appear on the plan of the cemetery even today and the markers are placed facing away from the graves of other Americans. Visits to Plot E are still discouraged and it wasn’t until a Freedom of Information request in 2009 that the names of those buried there were released.
A view of the “Dishonored Dead” in Plot E, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. (cc) image by Stranger20824.
Whatever they may have done, and some committed truly dreadful crimes, it seems distasteful to virtually deny their existence and shame them even after death. It also denied their families and friends the chance to visit and grieve, despite the fact that they themselves had committed no crime.
That said, it’s no different to the routine imposed on condemned British criminals. In fact, the British death sentence expressly demanded that inmates be buried in unmarked graves within the prison walls inflicting the same suffering on their friends and relatives. The British hanged were officially designated ‘Property of the Crown,’ many of whom were not properly reburied until after abolition. At many British prisons they still remain in unmarked graves according to the following sentence:
Prisoner at the Bar, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.
The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.
On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.
They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.
We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.
At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of August 8, 1944, Watson and Wimberly, both of them already drunk, arrived at the farmhouse and bartered for a liter of apple cider. They spoke no French but were able to get their point across. The farmer and his daughter were wary of the inebriated pair and, after they left, barricaded the door.
Five minutes later, the two soldiers returned and battered it down.
Wimberly hit the man on the head with his Tommy gun and Watson forced the woman into a chair. Then, just like that, they left again. The two victims went upstairs, barricaded themselves into another room and double-locked it.
A few hours later the two soldiers returned and fired at least twenty .45 submachine gun rounds through the upstairs door, wounding both of the French civilians.
The farmer staggered downstairs and went to get help, but his daughter’s tibia was fractured and she was unable to flee. She was raped in turn by each of the men while the other held her at gunpoint.
At trial she couldn’t identify either of her attackers. The farmer identified Wimberly out of a lineup of six black soldiers, but wasn’t sure about Watson.
Their identification wasn’t really needed, however. Watson was found passed out at the crime scene in the morning, still wearing his bloodstained pants, with the fly unzipped. Wimberly had left, but he left his helmet liner (marked with a unique serial number) on the steps of the farmhouse.
When questioned, Wimberly blamed the entire thing on Watson. Watson made several contradictory statements about the night of the crime before pulling the old amnesia gag. He admitted he’d gone to the farmhouse with Wimberly and added, “I must have gotten drunk because the next thing I knew I was in the yard with a Colonel, two Lieutenants and two MPs.”
Given the circumstances, there wasn’t much either man could say to show why he should not be convicted and executed.
Justice was quick: they were hanged less than three months after their crime. Wimberly went first and was pronounced dead at 10:29 p.m. Watson followed and was dead by 10:48. Eight days later, General George S. Patton had a letter sent to the rape victim, apologizing for what she’d been through and for the soldiers’ part in it.
According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,
The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.
An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.
On this date in 1807, the British navy hanged Jenkin Ratford from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax off the coast of Maryland — an incident destined to become a rallying cry for the United States in the ill-fated War of 1812.
The U.S. at this moment was an upstart young country and naturally enough chafed at the lordly interpositions of her recent mother country. Great Britain had the navy, however, so the Americans could chafe all they liked. In the words of the tune that had emerged in the 18th century with Britain’s globe-straddling sea power
The Britons who got to do the grunt work of wave-ruling might disagree.
Seaman in the Royal Navy, and that huge navy needed many seamen, was a harrowingly brutal position often filled by press gangs empowered to grab anyone not able to produce immediate evidence of exemption and have them by next morning swabbing the nearest frigate on a ration of wormy hardtack. Desertion was correspondingly popular and more radical resorts not unheard-of; the mutiny on the Bounty had occurred in 1789; two other mutinies much more alarmingly proximate to Old Blighty took place in 1797.
Britain’s willingness to extend impressment to stopping American ships and seizing crew members who couldn’t produce American identity papers made a great affront to the young Republic — an insulting reminder of its third-rate* place among the nations. Years before while American colonists were kicking redcoat ass in the Revolution, they had dreamt among other things of correcting America’s aggravating dependence on the British fleet. “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense. “Ship building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world.”
Congress got a start on that project with a 1794 naval act creating the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. The USS Constitution is the most famous of these; one of her five sisters, the Chesapeake, will figure in the action of this date’s post.
In 1806, two French ships, the Cybelle and the Patriot, struggled into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay for repairs after being crippled by a storm at sea — stalked by British ships that blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake to trap them there.
The proximity of American soil proved an irresistible inducement for at least four sailors on the British ships to desert. Three of them — William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan — were American victims of British impressment. The fourth, our man Jenkins Ratford, was a Limey. They then enlisted in the American Navy.
Great Britain’s demands for their return met with steady refusal on the American side. Knowing that the deserters had been posted to the Chesapeake, which was then outfitting for deployment to the Mediterranean, British ships in the vicinity of the North American coast were ordered to stop the Chesapeake on sight to recover the absconders.
This the HMS Leopard did do on June 22, 1807, and with a singular lack of subtlety: the Leopard battered the Chesapeake with broadsides. Shocked and unprepared, the Americans couldn’t even fire back before striking colors and yielding to a humiliating British search that hauled off Ware, Martin, Strachan and Ratford.
The HMS Leopard (easily recognizable since it’s the only ship firing!) vs. the USS Chesapeake.
While these unfortunates were sailed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia** for their trial, outrage spread on American shores — immediately advised of the incident since the Chesapeake† had had to limp directly back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Outrage at the British, but also outrage at the captain who failed to so much as resist the attack (he was court-martialed, and suspended from command for five years), and outrage for the national honor. Some, more vengeful than sensible, wanted immmediate hostilities with Great Britain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” U.S President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the French emigre Dupont de Nemours.‡
Ratford, the only actual British citizen among the shanghaied sailormen, was the only one executed. The Americans “merely” got prison sentences.
At the political level, President Jefferson had a thorny problem. The British could in no way be induced to meet the American demand to end impressment, for simultaneous with the scandal Napoleon was finalizing victories that would knock Britain’s continental allies out of an altogether more urgent war. No derogation of security interests could be entertained, and so for America, no diplomatic satisfaction could be forthcoming.
Instead of war, Jefferson responded by convincing Congress to enact an embargo on trade with Europe. It proved to be a counterproductive policy that damaged the U.S. far more than the European export markets it had intended to punish.
The U.S. and U.K. would come to blows soon enough, and if the War of 1812 was hardly fought because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, that incident was certainly among the contributing grievances.
Injuries more directly attributable were not hard to come by, however. When James Barron, the suspended former commander of the Chesapeake, sought reinstatement to the navy, early American naval hero Stephen Decatur opposed him with vehemence sufficient to induce Barron to challenge Decatur to a duel. Decatur was slain in the fight, shockingly pinching out one of America’s leading military figures at the age of 41.
The Chesapeake herself fared little better. The ship was captured by the British in the ill-fated War of 1812, and recommissioned into the hated Royal Navy. Sold off for scrap in 1819, its timbers were repurposed for a long-lived (and now historic) Hampshire watermill — the Chesapeake Mill.
In view of the coming draft the Government has found it necessary to hang a man.
The victim selected was a poor man, with a wife and children living in Perkiomen township, Montgomery county. He was a small farmer, with six acres, and engaged occasionally in the manufacture of tobacco and cigars. He lived in a Democratic county and township, where trouble was possible as to the draft, and certain at the election.
He was a man of good character, and ordinarily of gentle disposition. His dying words were: “I commend my wife and little ones to the charity of the world, and I ask pardon of those I may have injured and hope they will forgive me and pray for my soul.”
He was a brave man, had proved it on the battle-field, and as the press report says he told his counsel, “he faced the last music like a soldier.”
Such, in brief, was William H. Howe, of Montgomery county, who, on Friday last, was hanged at Fort Mifflin, where, one of the “loyal” newspapers of this city remarks, “the proceedings were conducted most harmoniously.”
Fort Mifflin as it appeared in 1870. William Howe was the only prisoner ever known to have been executed there.
But this is not all: the Government, in selecting this victim and making this example, was determined to show the Democrats of Montgomery county, that no antecedent merits or services could soften its heart or mitigate its doom of vengeance.
Howe was one of those unfortunate men who, excited by prevalent enthusiasm, and imagining that the authorities would protect their soldiers, enlisted two years ago in a Pennsylvania volunteer regiment. He entered the service in August, 1862, just before Antietam — when Pope‘s army was defeated, and Washington was threatened, and Mr. Lincoln frightened out of his wits.
Howe was one of those of whom Mr. Seward wrote to Mr. Dayton: “Our new levies are coming in in great numbers and in high spirits.” He went through the whole campaign at Fredericksburg, being
one of the five men who came off the field with the colors of his regiment! He exchanged his musket for an Enfield rifle, and again went upon the field with our skirmishers, and remained there all night till next day. He escaped by swimming the Rappahannock river.
Such were his merits, who was ignominiously hanged last Friday.
Now, a word as to his delinquencies. We again quote the loyal reports:
At the time he left the regiment he was suffering from inflammation of the bowels, and the regimental hospital being burned down, and having neither surgeons nor medicines, he, with some twenty others, determined to look out for themselves for treatment and reported themselves to the hospitals at Washington. Afterwards he and Augustus Beiting, a member of his company, returned to their homes.
For some two months afterwards Howe was confined to his bed.
This, we presume, was called “desertion.”
Two poor fellows, wasted by the most agonizing of diseases, with no hospital roof to cover them, and, mark this! gentle reader, who hear of champagne dinners and tableaux in our suburban hospitals, “having neither surgeons nor medicines,” wander back to their homes, and lay their wearied limbs and throbbing temples on the humble bed in Perkiomen. This was the initiate crime, though not the one for which he died. Let us see what that was, for we have no wish to do injustice to the executioners. We do not at all agree with the Press, which says “that having once given the facts, a further statement is superfluous.”
The scene of the crime was his home in Montgomery county.
That county has a Perkiomen township, and a Chiltern township, not many miles apart. Little over a year ago, in the latter township, a poor but most respectable white man, Mrs. Butler’s gardener, walking quietly on a public road, was shot down like a dog by a negro soldier, and died in agony.
For this dark deed of blood, the penalty was a mild conviction for manslaughter, — which it as much resembled as it did arson or burglary, — a sentence for a few years, and, if we mistake not, a pardon.
The negro ruffian, unlike poor Howe, had never done a deed of valor, or probably fired a musket till he pulled the trigger at the wayfarer on the Chiltern lanes. He was one of the League pets — a Chestnut street darling, and had a claim on the sympathy and mercy of those who judge always gently a negro’s fault.
Not so William H. Howe, the white Perkiomen soldier.
His deed of wrong was this: About midnight of the 21st June, 1863, he was awakened from a deep sleep — till then the sleep of innocence — by an alarm supposed to be given by the companion who had accompanied him home, that the Provost Marshal was coming to arrest him.
The first impulse was incredulity. The next, to try to escape. The last, resistance.
The words Provost Marshal, associated in a soldier’s mind with thoughts of severity, and cruelty, and sternness, have an awful sound by day or night. Those who think all Provost Marshals resemble the effeminate fribbles who superintend the draft in our streets, can form no idea of the real spectre.
Howe seized his musket, probably the one he brought in triumph from the bloody field of Fredericksburg, and fired it in the darkness, killing the enrolling officer.
The negro’s deliberate homicide is manslaughter. The white man’s rash or passionate misadventure is capital murder.
“I never,” said Howe on the scaffold, “sought the life of the man I killed. I never wished it, and I feel God will pardon me for taking it as I did.”
This, then, is the deed for which this poor fellow was condemned and died — and for which, in view of the draft, no mercy was found in the hearts of Joseph Holt and Abraham Lincoln.
Of the trial by some unknown, irresponsible military court, of which the prisoner’s prosecutor was the President, we do not care to speak. We think of it as history does of the judges who, a hundred years ago, sent to his bloody grave, according to the forms of martial law, a gallant English sailor, whom the hard-hearted monarch of that day refused to pardon, but executed “to encourage the others.” It is a sad record altogether.
And then the feeble attempt at a habeas corpus in the Federal Court, and the citation of Wolfe Tone‘s case, with its suggestive hint at suicide! The whole thing seems like a hideous mockery.
The Judge’s idea that Howe, like Tone, had waived the writ by appearing before the court martial, seems a little odd, but we do not presume to criticise judicial action, and we are very sure the Judge must have been reluctant to deny relief to a Montgomery county man, one of his former constituents. The writ, however, was refused, and last Friday, the white man was hanged, and the enrolling officer was avenged.
Howe died like a brave man. He parted with his wife and three little children with deep emotion, and then his work was done.
He was taken in an ambulance by a back way from the Penitentiary, now, it seems, used as a military prison, to the river and thence in a boat to Fort Mifflin.
“Neither guard nor prisoner,” says the North American, “uttered one word during the run down to the Fort.” There was quite a crowd to welcome him.
“The steamer Don Juan,” says the Press, “was chartered for the purpose and took down the members of the Press club.”
“The gallows,” kindly loaned by the Inspectors of the County Prison, says the same paper, “was the one on which the Scupinskis, Arthur Spring and Maddocks were hanged.” In other words, the brave Fredericksburg soldier — the Perkiomen volunteer — was ostentatiously disgraced by being put on a level in this respect with mean, mercenary murderers — and Howe died without a murmur or complaint, keeping his word that “he would face the music like a soldier.” And thus the hideous narrative concludes: “The body was taken down and placed in charge of Mr. Black, the Government undertaker, who had it embalmed yesterday afternoon and sent to Howe’s widow.”
And it will be carried to his home — and the embalmer, proud of his skill, will take off the coffin lid, and the widow and the three little children will look at the swollen and blackened features of him they loved so well, and they will think of the pride with which he used to tell, and the interest with which they used to listen to the tale of his rescuing the regimental flag at Fredericksburg — and the neighbors will come and look, and in many a lacerated and agonized heart the question will be asked, “why was there no mercy for him?”
To us the whole thing seems simply horrible; and badly as we think of it, doubly atrocious will have been the deed, if the reason given for this execution be the true one. The Press, which may certainly be considered the organ of the Administration here, thus accounts for the severity in this case:
The deceased exhibited great bravery at the first battle of Fredericksburg, and after several color bearers had been shot down, he seized the standard and bore it through the heat of the contest. These were noble traits, which he is yet entitled to. It is very evident that he did not intend to kill Mr. Bartlett, but society at that time, in that part of Pennsylvania, was tainted with Copperheadism, and it may be well supposed that the draft resisting, dark lantern conspirators had the effect to instil in the mind of Howe some of the poison for which their victim was hung instead of themselves.
According to this, this brave soldier was hanged because he lived in a Democratic region. The negro of the Chiltern Hills was spared because Government bankers, and Abolition lecturers and shoddy contractors there do congregate, and the township gives a Republican majority.
The patience of the people of Pennsylvania really seems inexhaustible; and all we can hope to do is to help to make up the awful record of atrocity for the long deferred, but inevitable day of retribution.
On this date in 1945, in Le Mans, France, Pvt. George Green Jr. of the 998th Quartermaster Salvage Collecting Company was hanged for the murder of his corporal the previous year.
Green was married, with one child.
The story of Corporal Tommie Lee Garrett’s senseless death began with a urine can. The soldiers of the platoon used a can at night rather than venture out into the open to answer nature’s call, and at 7:30 a.m. on November 18, 1944, Green knocked the can over accidentally. Corporal Garrett grabbed him by the shirt collar and told him to clean up the mess.*
Green stewed over what happened for the next hour and was heard to mutter darkly that he was “going to get” someone. At 8:30, as everyone was at a salvage dump sorting clothes, Green calmly raised his M1 carbine and fired it at Garrett’s chest from twelve feet away. The corporal was struck in the heart and died within minutes.
The incident was totally uncharacteristic of Green. He had a reputation as a good, efficient soldier who didn’t cause trouble. His supervisor from his civilian job (he’d been a janitor at a factory in Texarkana, Texas) submitted a sworn statement as to his good character. He had one prior court-martial for being drunk and disorderly but no other convictions in either military or civilian life.
Nevertheless, there were no mitigating circumstances in the case: Green had shot his victim in cold blood, without provocation, while he was stone cold sober. Even though he claimed he hadn’t intended to kill Corporal Garrett, there could only be one punishment.
In his final statement before he was hanged, Green said, “A person has no fear of death if he is right with God. Death is an honor. Jesus died for a crime he did not commit. I really did a crime, a bad crime.”
He’s buried at the American Military Cemetery at Oise-Aisne, along with the poet Joyce Kilmer and Eddie Slovik, the last American soldier ever executed for desertion.