The Truk Atoll, in Micronesia, is more commonly known today as Chuuk. It’s a hot diving location notable for the many sunken World War II Japanese hulks to be explored there — the legacy of its once-pivotal position in the Pacific War.
Japan used Truk as forward naval base in the South Pacific, and armored up its little islands like an armadillo.
Rather than capture it outright, the U.S. Navy bombed Truk right out of the war in February 1944, leaving that enormous warship graveyard and a stranded stronghold of starving soldiers who were left to wither on the vine. At war’s end, it was just a matter of circling back to collect 50,000 surrenders.
Unfortunately, the castaway Truk garrison did not pass the last months of the war with sufficient care for its foreseeable postwar situation.
According to testimony given the postwar Guam war crimes tribunal, 10 American prisoners were murdered on Truk in 1944 “through injections, dynamiting, tourniquet applications, strangling and spearing.” (Source) Hiroshi Iwanami was executed for these gruesome experiments/murders in January of 1949.
Ueno, a lieutenant surgical commander, hanged for two other killings that read quite a bit murkier.
Five American POWs were being held in a temporary stockade that was hit by an American bombing raid in June 1944 — killing three of those prisoners.
The surviving two were severely injured, eventually leading Dr. Ueno on June 20, 1944, to perform what he characterized as a legitimate exploratory surgery on one of those men. His prosecutors framed it instead as a fiendishly gratuitous vivisection.
During that procedure, an order arrived for the execution of both the prisoners. The other guy, the one Dr. Ueno wasn’t operating upon, he never had in his care at all; that unfortunate fellow ended up being bayoneted to death. The man on the table (both men’s names were unknown to the prosecuting court) Dr. Ueno stitched back together well enough that subalterns could stretcher him out to a swamp and chop off his head.
Here’s the difficult part: Ueno actually gave the immediate order to execute his ex-patient.
As described in the National Archives’ Navy JAG Case Files of Pacific Area War Crimes Trials, 1944-1949, the physician’s barrister mounted a quixotic philosophical defense of this deeply indefensible order, noting the principled acceptability of euthanasia in Japanese hospitals (so he said), the inevitability of the prisoner’s approaching execution via superior orders, and the agony the man was already in from his wounds.
[Dr. Ueno] had expected that some other person would dispose of this prisoner. But he could not find anyone who looked like the person to carry this out … the thought dominated his mind that all hope is lost to save this prisoner. His fater has been determined. Yet the prisoner is in pain …
He was faced with the predicament of killing by his order the prisoner which he had treated as hiw [sic] own patient. What sarcastic fate was this that he had to face? As the Napoleon, described by George Bernard SHAW, and as McBeth [sic] described by William SHAKESPEARE, the accused, UENO was also “a man of destiny.”
A certain English poet wrote, “Life protracted is protracted woe.” If the life of the prisoner in the present case was protracted one second, he would have so much more suffering to endure. Should it be condemed [sic] so severely to shorten one’s life under such circumstances and shorten his last woe in this world?
There were in all either 10 or 13 official executions of Japanese war criminals on Guam from 1947 to 1949. It’s devilishly difficult to find those 13 enumerated by name and date, but it appears to me that Truk and his boss Admiral Shimpei Asano were the very last to achieve that distinction.**
Shortly after eight o’clock on the humid, tropical evening of March 31, 1949, according to War Department Pamphlet #27-4 Procedure For Military Executions, the 5’6″ Japanese surgeon with extremely strong neck muscles was escorted up the nine steps to the gallows. The handcuffs were removed by a Marine guard and a strap placed to secure his arms to his side and another placed around his legs. A black hood was placed over his head and at 8:26 p.m. the floor panel on which he was standing fell from under his feet and Ueno dropped 94 inches to eternity. He was the last to die, as Rear Admiral Shimpei Asano* had preceded him only moments before. Under the dubious honor that rank has its privileges — the Admiral went first.
* Executed for these same two murders on Truk, as well as two other POWs killed at Kwajalein, in the nearby Marshall Islands.
** Angered by Naval administration of the island, Guam’s Congress had staged a walkout earlier in March 1949. This action did successfully force an end to Naval government.
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.
Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.
General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.
Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.
This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)
Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”
Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:
Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.
According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.
On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.
But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.
Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.
McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.
A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.
Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.
“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”
A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.
Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.
Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.
The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.
Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.
When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)
Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:
That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.
Very Norman Batesian.
Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.
Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
On this day in 1864, Private George Nelson of Company F of the 13th United States Colored Troops was hanged for rape in Nashville, Tennessee.
He committed his crime on November 13, 1863. Nelson and two other men were on Nashville Pike outside of the town of Dickson when they encountered an unmarried white woman named, no lie, Indiana Jones.
They asked her where she lived and she said her house was about a mile away. The men claimed they’d been fighting with some rebels near her house and said she must go with them.
Miss Jones refused, and Nelson threatened to shoot her if she did not comply. She went with him for about 250 yards, begging him to release her. Private Nelson put a bayonet to her side and told her to come into the woods with him or he would run her through. Miss Jones started crying then, and he threatened to strangle her with a rope if she did not shut up. They went into the woods together while the other two men held the horse.
As Miss Jones later testified, “I again begged of him to let me go, when he cocked his gun and said if I did not be still he would blow my brains out. He then took hold of me, threw me down, and committed a rape on my person.”
When he was done he robbed her of $1.50, but the other soldiers made him give the money back. Then they let her go.
George Nelson’s accomplices were tried separately, and on cross-examination the victim was asked, “Did you use your utmost endeavors to prevent him from executing his desires, or did you simply cry out, thus yielding a tacit consent?”
As if she could have done anything else with a gun trained on her!
The three defendants were all court-martialed. President Lincoln approved the death sentence for Nelson in August 1864 and he hanged the following month. His partners-in-crime got twelve and ten years in prison respectively.
The Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers by an all-white Mississippi jury were among the American civil rights movement’s pivotal events.
For a certain indecent number of people, however, the passion of the 14-year-old youth — alleged to have flirted with a white woman — was to be mourned only insofar as it confirmed the menace that insatiable Negro libidos posed to southern way of life.
Further to that end, the months following Emmett Till’s death brought to the headlines the formerly obscure* July 2, 1945 hanging of an American G.I. in Italy: Emmett’s father, Louis Till.
The violent Louis Till ruined his marriage to Emmett’s mother Mamie shortly after his son’s birth. Repeatedly violating her restraining order eventually landed Till pere before a judge, who gave him a choice between hard time and enlistment. Till joined the U.S. Army.
In 1945, he was court-martialed for murdering an Italian woman and raping two others. His execution near Pisa — he’s buried in Europe in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the same final resting place as Eddie Slovik — was the no-account end of a no-account man for many years thereafter. Mamie Till said that she wasn’t even told what happened to her ex-husband, and was stonewalled when she sought information.
By the end of 1955, everyone knew.
In Jim Crow’s backlash against nationwide condemnation of the Till lynching, Louis Till came back to life in newsprint all that autumn to visit the sins of the father upon his late son: here was the mirror of the young predator all grown up, violating Italian women. Mississippi’s white supremacistsenators used their rank to obtain his army file, and leaked it to reporters.
According to Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy’s study of the Mississippi media’s conflicting reactions to the events of 1955, “Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens’ Councils.”
The pawn’s sacrifice did not figure in the endgame.
Crude attempts to impose blood guilt for Louis Till’s crimes aside, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues in her Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement that it was Emmett Till’s shocking death that catalyzed the civil rights movement — that the horrifyingly mutilated face at his open-casket funeral and the insouciant confession of his killers once they had been acquitted shook southern blacks and northern whites alike so profoundly as to dispel any confidence that legal briefs or political incrementalism could grapple with America’s race problem. Civil rights lion Joyce Ladner was an 11-year-old Mississippi girl when Emmett Till was lynched; she would tell Hudson-Weems of the shock it delivered in her world coming on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools.
A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It’s like the Whites said that they don’t care what rights we were given … So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst.
Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for autopsy and DNA testing in 2005, in part to dispel the old story first promulgated by the attorneys who defended Till’s murderers — that the body wasn’t Emmett Till’s at all. On the corpse’s finger was a ring inscribed with the initials of his father: L.T.
* Louis Till did have one small claim to fame prior to his son’s murder: the fascist poet Ezra Pound chanced to be imprisoned with Till; he mentions the later-famous execution in his Pisan Cantos:
Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings
“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”
On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.
That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Painewrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.
George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.
Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.
In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.
Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.
A fith-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
A plot against the person of George Washington himself.
Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.
Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.
“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”
The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.
No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.
Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.
The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.
Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.
Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)
The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.
Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.
It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.
* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.
** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.
This dispatch to the New York Herald was published on June 16, 1863.
Mr. W. Young’s Letter.
Near Beallton Station, Va., June 14, 1863.
THE DESERTER J.P. WOOD.
John P. Wood, of Company F, Nineteenth Indiana, who had deserted once or twice before, again deserted on the 28th of May, and was subsequently arrsted at Aquia Creek, tried by court martial, and sentenced to be shot on Friday last.
Wood was about nineteen years old, quite intelligent, and when arrested was dressed in rebel uniform and represented himself as belonging to the Nineteenth Tennessee.
He alleged that he deserted because he had come to the conclusion that the war was not right, and he could not therefore go into action. He admitted that when he volunteered his views were somewhat different, and that he enlisted because he did not wish to see the Union dissolved.
He regarded his sentence as just, and expressed the belief that his execution for desertion would be of more service to the army than he could render it in any other manner.
THE EXECUTION, AND THE EFFECT UPON THE ARMY.
As this is the first instance of an execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac, it created considerable sensation.
The sentence was executed upon the prisoner on Friday, near Berea church. About two P.M., near Berea church, the corps was halted. The First brigade was ordered out, with the balance of the division to which the prisoner belonged, the First brigade in advance.
Two ambulances, in the first of which was seated the prisoner, and the other containing his coffin, at the head of the division, advanced about half a mile, when the division was drawn up, occupying three sides of an oblong parallelogram. On the fourth side were placed the coffin, the criminal and the guard. The men were selected to do the firing, and received their muskets from the guard properly loaded.
HIS LAST MOMENTS.
A clergyman —- was with the prisoner, who displayed no emotion. General Wadsworth then went to the men who were to perform the duty of execution, and spoke to them in regard to the disagreeable nature of the duty to be performed — the shooting of a comrade — and urged them, as a matter of humanity, to take good aim.
The General then returned to the right, Colonel Morrow to the left. The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his knees tied together and his breast bared.
All having retired, except the executions and the Provost Marshal, the order to take aim was given. Before the order to fire was given two pieces were discharged, but without effect.
At the order to fire, the remainder of the men — ten in number — fired. The prisoner fell backward, and the Provost Marshal went up to him. He struggled for an instant, and then all was over.
An additional detail from the Pioneer corps were called up and began to dig the grave, and the division marched off in perfect order, much impressed by the solemn scene which they had witnessed.
The “Greely expedition” — so called after its commander, Adolphus Greely — was dispatched from Washington in the enthusiasm of the First International Polar Year. This was a multinational collaborative to gather scientific data about the globe’s frigid polar reaches; technically, this first IPY spanned 1882 to 1883, but the ill-starred Greely mission set out in 1881.
The mission laid down for the 25 men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in 1881 was to establish a weather station, and to collect astronomical and geomagnetic data.
But long before the starving remnants of that crew put Private Henry to sudden death, they had supplanted that noble endeavor with the classic objective of polar adventure: mere survival.
Matters started promisingly enough: the ship that ferried these men to their ordeal dropped them without incident at a natural harbor in Lady Franklin Bay, where the intrepid men built Fort Conger — a sturdy frame house 65′ x 21′ x 14′. They would spend the next two years making scientific measurements, exploring, and awaiting planned resupply ships in the summers.
Ice-choked waters, however, do not open reliably to this location. The resupply missions in both 1882 and 1883 failed — and left the mission with a life-or-death choice.
Per prearranged contingency, the supply ships, should they not be able to reach Camp Conger, were to drop their provisions at a backup location. Much against his men’s will, Greely gave up Camp Conger to chase this hypothetical cache. Camp Conger was more difficult for any future ships to reach but was secure, warm enough, and blessed with seal-hunting enough to keep the team in good health.
Camp Sabine was reached only after a terrifying and near-fatal float down the coast in an ice floe (!) and it proved when they reached it a much less congenial spot for wilderness survival. The resupply missions that hadn’t reached Camp Conger had failed so thoroughly that only a very small drop had even made it to Camp Sabine. Conditions prevented the party from returning to Camp Conger or from crossing the water to another inhabited Arctic station: instead, they wintered in the mouth of hell; seal-hunting here was not favorable, and most days they were only able to supplement their dwindling cache of life-giving calories with a few shrimp and scraps of lichen peeled off the frozen rocks.
Not only ravenous hunger afflicted the party, but scurvy too, and still worse a morale collapse among party members who regarded Lieutenant Greely’s leadership very lightly. Huddled in a makeshift stone hut, three years gone from hearth and home, bored and helpless and stretching out less-than-subsistence rations as far as possible and farther, nerves began to fray … and party members began to succumb to conditions.
Charles Buck Henry did not wear well on this desperate party.
“Henry” was actually the new alias of a German immigrant formerly known as Charles Henry Buck. Buck had served time for embezzling whiskey money from a frontier cavalry company, then escaped and slew a Chinese man in a Deadwood, S.D. brawl. Henry stole from the expedition’s small store of food: he was not the only one, but he was perhaps the baldest thief and the one with the fewest redeeming features that would balance this behavior. He’d been confined in March to his sleeping bag as the closest thing to punishment that Greely could visit on him. Still, Henry stole more. Resentful comrades ostracized him, while silently sizing up the discomfiting likelihood that the hulking German would be odds-on to kill any man among them in a fair scrap.
Notwithstanding promises given by Pvt C.B. Henry yesterday [to stop stealing] he has since as acknowledged to me tampered with seal thongs if not other food … This pertinacity and audacity is the destruction of this party if not at once ended. Pvt Henry will be Shot today all care being taken to prevent his injuring any one as his physical strength is greater than that of any two men. Decide the manner of death by two ball and one blank cartridge. This order is imperative & absolutely necessary for any chance of life.
That order Greely issued to his able assistant, Sgt. David L. Brainard. Brainard proceeded to gather two other men who contrived to “execute” Henry by a stratagem of approaching Henry armed, but casual, and distracting the unrestrained condemned man long enough to get the drop on him. They shot him dead just as Henry recognized his danger and started to lunge for a nearby axe — an incredibly chancy engagement that could easily have turned the whole expedition into a hyperboreal edition of “The Most Dangerous Game” had the mountainous Henry avoided or survived that gunshot.
Instead, his body with its fatal bullet wound was discovered by accident when the Greely party was at long last rescued later that June, and returned along with just seven** (barely) living souls out of the 25 who set sail in 1881. Those fortunate survivors — the relief mission’s commander reported them “crying like children, hugging each other, frantic with joy”† as their rescue vessel pulled into view — would be forever defined by their participation in the LFBE: toasted for their survival story while also dogged by dark rumors of cannibalism.
According to polar and maritime historian Glenn Stein, FRGS, who spent several years researching this jaw-dropping case,‡ they also closely husbanded the story of their one-time mate’s execution. Mr. Stein is also U.S. Liaison a present-day polar journey, the South 2014 Expedition, and he was gracious enough to speak with Executed Today about the LFBE’s execution.
ET: The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was a U.S. expedition launched as part of the first International Polar Year. Could you situate the LFBE in the context of polar expeditions at this time?
GS: In the years following the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition, it was suggested that nations should stop competing for geographical discoveries and instead dispatch a series of coordinated expeditions dedicated to scientific research. Eleven nations took part in the first International Polar Year (IPY) 1882-83, and the United States contributed two components to its first participation in an international scientific effort. In 1881, it was decided that the U.S. Army Signal Corps would establish one scientific station 500 miles from the North Pole, at Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land. The other station was at Point Barrow, Alaska.
The executed man in this instance is Charles Henry, formerly known as Charles Buck. This man had a pretty disreputable history. How was he able to get on this expedition? – And, how did he become the Chicago Times correspondent for this journey? Did he actually file any stories?
Buck enlisted in the Fifth Cavalry under the alias Charles B. Henry, and wrote to Lieutenant Greely from Fort Sidney, Nebraska, in April 1881, volunteering for the expedition. Henry had the strong recommendation of his company commander, Captain George T. Price, to back him up. Greely and Price were friends, so Greely leaned toward taking Henry (who repeatedly telegraphed Greely with reminders of his availability). Another story is that Henry joined from Fort Sidney when one of the original expedition members deserted just before it was to leave. However, as far as I’m aware, there was only one desertion from the LFBE, and that person was replaced by Private Roderick R. Schneider, First Artillery.
Supposedly, since Henry was the only volunteer from the Fifth Cavalry, with a strong recommendation from post commander Lieutenant Colonel Compton, Greely decided to take him.
According to A.L. Todd’s Abandoned (1961), before joining the expedition back East, Henry “got permission to stop off in Chicago to visit relatives, and managed to make an arrangement with the Chicago Times to act as that paper’s special correspondent with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.” In his Ghosts of Cape Sabine, Len Guttridge (2000) made references to Henry’s newspaper articles: “One or two eventually published in the Chicago Times attested to an effective if florid command of the English language.”
This expedition lasted three years, 1881-1884, and it came to a considerable amount of grief. Could you sketch out what happened to the LFBE, and how it found itself in such a perilous situation in its last months?
By the end of August 1881, a frame house was constructed at Lady Franklin Bay and named Fort Conger. Over the next two years scientific data was collected and sledging parties were sent out, discovering many new geographic features, and setting north, east, and west “farthest” records. Because of the mismanagement of resupply expeditions from the United States, expedition members initiated a planned retreat by boat to Cape Sabine in August 1883 — but the journey turned into a nightmare. The party eventually ended up at Cape Sabine, where the men constructed a stone house for the winter, with an upturned boat for a roof. It was christened Camp Clay. Throughout the following months, the men’s spirits and energy dwindled, and constant hunger was now their companion. Worse, food was being stolen from the commissary storehouse. More than once, angry accusations flew back and forth within the party. The daily ration for each type of food was measured out to hundredths of an ounce.
The first death occurred on Jan. 18, 1884, when Sergeant William H. Cross died of starvation. In spite of the privations, only one man died that winter, even though scurvy was also present. In the spring Death returned with a vengeance.
So by the end, there’s a party near to starvation, just scraping by on a starvation diet. Naturally there’s a temptation for people to steal from the camp rations.
Henry wasn’t the only person to have stolen, but it seems from your description like he was the most distinctly resented by the rest of the party. Why was that?
During his time at Fort Conger, Henry was the originator of many profane remarks, misdeeds, and lies, so Greely and others had learned not to trust him.
Until the publication of my article, “An Arctic Execution,” LFBE historians consistently wrote that no one on the expedition knew of Henry’s criminal history as a forger, thief and accused murderer. However, I discovered within Sergeant Brainard’s unpublished daily notes that he definitely knew of Henry’s past — so who else knew as well? In consequence, although others also stole food, Henry would have been treated with less tolerance.
The specific details of the execution, and the variations on the story that are given later, are quite fascinating. The execution was ordered by the camp commander, but Henry was not confined and had no idea what was coming, because the shooting party could have been in some danger as well. Given the rough and ready circumstances, why then, does the execution party go to such elaborate ends to anonymize the shooter? There’s the “three guns, two balls” order, and then they can’t comply with that since there’s only one usable rifle, so they swear an oath among themselves never to tell.
Firing squad duty obviously preys upon the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s possible that passing the rifle around and swearing an oath replaced the anonymity provided by the “three guns, two balls” order. Keep in mind that, if the three men survived their Arctic ordeal, their participation could impact them for the rest of their lives — in and out of the Army.
This was particularly true of Sergeant Brainard, who was promised a commission by Greely. Decades after the execution, Brainard declared that “no matter what the provocation, the family of a man doesn’t want to think of him as an executioner.”
As a factual matter, it was either Brainard or Francis Long who pulled the trigger, since Frederick distracted Henry and lured Henry into the trap.
Charles Henry (left), and his two potential executioners: David Brainard (center) and Francis Long (right).
What’s left of Henry is buried in New York. If you really wanted to find out what happened, you would have to exhume the remains. Henry’s sister, Dora Buck, did request the exhumation and autopsy of his body, but these were never allowed to take place. Officially, as my article notes, Henry’s remains were buried with full military honors. What we are left with today are cemetery records, which state that Charles Henry “Died of Starvation.”
And you think Brainard carefully managed the way the dangerous execution story got out.
Brainard is like a historian’s dream. Not only was he there, not only was he a very intelligent individual — but he made a record of many things, keeping daily notes that go from start to finish.
I hand-copied each page, three years of field notes, and I referenced these in my article. Those notes represent his impressions at the time they were written, not edited versions. One crucial thing Brainard recorded about Henry was that he “is a born thief as his 7th Cavalry name will show — a perfect fiend.” That’s significant, because it doesn’t appear in Brainard’s published writings. Why omit that piece of information? There’s one reason: Brainard knew beforehand that Henry was a criminal, and if it was known Brainard possessed this information, then he may appear prejudicial regarding the decision to shoot Henry.
It starts to add up, because who had control of the expedition members’ journals on the passage home? Brainard.
Who wrote up an incomplete journal on the way home — and then, many months later, turned in writings covering several more months — but ending in March 1884? Brainard.
I’ve examined the three volumes of his original journal. Everything was very carefully written, and Brainard made sure the story he wanted told got into these journals.
And what transpired afterward?
Sgt. Brainard had been promised a commission by Greely for his leadership on the LFBE. That’s a huge deal — to get commissioned from the ranks for gallant and meritorious service, and not even in wartime, but peacetime. At that time, and for many years thereafter, he was the only living officer of the Army, active or retired, holding a commission awarded for specific distinguished services. I believe Brainard was a “good guy” and a stand-up guy, but at the same time, would he really chance ruining his opportunity to get that commission? The whole execution business could have made things really difficult for him.
When they evacuated Fort Conger, and later on were literally floating south on a piece of ice, there was almost a mutiny. The mutineers went to Brainard, saying Greely had to be relieved of command, that he was going to get everyone killed. But Brainard wouldn’t go along with it — in part, he probably realized it would destroy his future.
You have to start looking at these motivations; and it’s not an entirely unsympathetic view, because people in these positions had jobs to do.
It took a lot of pushing to get Brainard’s commission to Second Lieutenant approved, and this didn’t happen until October 1886. In 1917, when he was near the end of his career, he was actually appointed Brigadier General. Brainard went from buck private to Brigadier General!
After the LFBE’s rescue later in 1884, how was the matter of the execution handled? I’m reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that, while it was not a secret, it was also downplayed as a public matter in the immediate aftermath — Henry buried with full military honors, that sort of thing. As it emerged more publicly thereafter, was there ever any controversy or a significant sentiment that Greely had handled the situation improperly? Was there ever a question about the legality of his order?
Greely made a verbal report regarding the execution to his departmental superiors several days before Henry’s burial. He then wrote to Adjutant General of the Army R.C. Drum in August 1884, to report Henry’s execution and request that a court of inquiry be ordered or a court martial convened regarding the matter. Drum responded in November 1884 that after examining the expedition’s records, “the Secretary of War entertains no doubt of the necessity, and the entire propriety of your action in ordering the execution of Private Henry, under the circumstances and in the manner set forth in your report.”
It was understood that any military officer operating in the field possesses a fair degree of discretion in carrying out orders, and Greely had Henry executed in order to preserve lives.
Newspaper articles certainly featured Henry’s execution, but stories of cannibalism (including the condition of Henry’s remains) and the political scandal related to the mishandling of the attempted relief of Greely prior to his rescue were much more high profile stories.
You have a professional interest in polar exploration, and obviously starvation risks are endemic to these situations when matters go awry. Have you encountered any similar instances of a polar party executing one of its members for the sake of maintaining discipline?
A somewhat similar execution scenario, also an attempt to preserve the lives of starving men, had played out during Sir John Franklin’s 1819-22 Arctic Land Expedition. A detachment of four men from the expedition, including Surgeon John Richardson, discovered that their comrade, Midshipman Robert Hood, had been murdered by an Iroquois voyageur named Michel Teroahauté (also known as Ferohaite).
Under the circumstances, Richardson shot Michel to save their own lives.
How did you come to find out about this story and why did you decide to research it in such depth? Over a century on from the events themselves, what does the fate of Charles Henry have to tell us today?
I can trace back my knowledge of the execution to at least September 1988, when I bought a copy of The Polar Passion, by Farley Mowat (1967). Several years later, I acquired a large collection of items once belonging to General Brainard, which included most of his medals and orders, photographs, books, and a bone knife he brought back from the Arctic. Brainard is a fascinating historical figure and human being (I like to call him the quintessential American), and I spent a good deal of time researching and writing about his life. In the process I discovered there were many contradictory details about the execution.
On July 13, 2005, I was sitting at an outside bar in Jamaica, when it dawned on me that if I dug deep enough, I just might be able to figure out what really happened during the execution of Private Henry.
So, I began jotting down notes on three 4″ x 5″ pieces of paper — “1. Primary Question: Who was the shooter?” Of the three men involved, the evidence dictates the trigger man must have been either Brainard or Long — but in the absence of conclusive evidence we’ll probably never know which one. And I ultimately decided that’s okay, because it’s the way the three wretched souls wanted it to be on that fateful summer day in 1884, and I needed to respect their wishes.
The events during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, especially Charles Henry’s fate, are reminders of how crises bring out the best — and worst — in human nature. At various times in our lives we’re all confronted with personal crises: how we deal with them is what counts. Writing “An Arctic Execution” forced me to stretch my mind beyond what I thought were its limits to attempt to understand defining moments in the lives of human beings who were at the brink of oblivion.
A few books about the Greely expedition
* This expedition established a “farthest north” record: it was for the next several years the most northerly latitude that any explorer could document ever attaining.
** One of the seven retrieved by the Thetis, Sgt. Joseph Elison, was at death’s door. Wasted to 78 pounds and stricken with frostbite and gangrene that required his rescuers to amputate both hands and both legs, Elison died at sea — leaving just six survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition who would ever again set foot on American soil.
After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality”vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodilycontested frontier march between the rival governments.
With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.
In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.
Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”
This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.
General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†
Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.
At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.
Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:
That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …
After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.
To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.
After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)
** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.
† Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.
According to some newspaper accounts deemed credible enough by almanacs and registers of the time, a British officer named Hamilton Ballendine was hanged by the Americans during the Siege of Charleston. The good colonel had thought he was approaching his own British sentries after a reconnoiter of Charleston’s defenses, and when hailed he provided this name.
His name, or his alias, or his password — whatever it was, it was not recognized by the sentries, who turned out in fact to be the colonial pickets. At that point, he was a spy caught red-handed, and these folks tended to get short shrift during the American Revolution.
This event has struck some observers as conspicuous by its absence from any of the numerous firsthand diarists’ accounts within the besieged city. The account in this footnote, recopied in its entirety below, appears to be the sum of the information on the matter. Judge accordingly, gentle reader.
In the Siege of Charlestown (Munsell), 68, we find the following: —
EXECUTION OF COLONEL HAMILTON BALLENDINE.
(From Dunlop’s Packet of April, 1780.)
WILLIAMSBURG IN VIRGINIA, APRIL 18.
On the 5th Ult. was hanged at Charlestown, South Carolina, Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, for drawing Draughts of the town and Fortifications. He was taken by a Picquet Guard, which General Lincoln sent out that Night to Stono, as he was making his Way to the enemy; and when he was hailed by the Guard his Answer was, ‘Colonel Hamilton Ballendine.’ The Guard told him that would not do, and carried him to the commander of the Picquet, upon which he pulled out of his pocket the Draughts. The Officer told him he was mistaken, and carried him to General Lincoln, who ordered him for Execution.” –New York Royal Gazette, April 16.
See, also, Moore’s Diary of the Revolution, vol. II, 260. The story is also incorporated in the text of the Annual Register for 1780 (London), vol. XXIII, 222, in which it is said that Ballendine suffered “the unpitied death of a traitor.” Both Simms (So. Ca. in the Revolutionary War, 177) and Draper (King’s Mountain and its Heroes, 22, note) call attention to the fact that the story is mentioned by none of the South Carolina historians, nor any of the Charlestown diarists or letter writers. Draper seems to doubt if there was any such person. In the So. Ca. and Am. Gen. Gazette, June 9, 1775, Hamilton Ballentine advertises a power of attorney to receive a legacy due and collect the assets of an estate. There was therefore doubtless such a person, but what became of him is not further known. His name is not on the list of those whose estates were confiscated (Statutes of So. Ca., vol. VI), where it probably would be found had the story been true. It is scarcely possible that such an event would have been overlooked by all the writers and diarists of the time, and not have been preserved by local tradition; and yet the particularity of the statement, and its acceptance by the Annual Register at the time, would suggest that there must have been some foundation for the statement.