Posts filed under 'Washington DC'

1942: Six German saboteurs

Add comment August 8th, 2017 Headsman

Seventy-five years ago today, six German saboteurs were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C. jail … a failed World War II operation that bequeathed its target nation a controversial legal landmark.

On June 13 of 1942 — just eight weeks before they faced the electric chair — Herbert Hans Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herman Neubauer, Richard Quirin and Werner Thiel, all of them German nationals who had returned to the Fatherland after previous emigration to the U.S., were dropped by U-Boats along with two other men, Ernest Peter Burger and George John Dasch, in two quartets on the eastern fringe of Long Island and the Florida coast.

“Operation Pastorius” to sabotage war industries on the U.S. mainland would never even have time to get its land legs; spied in Long Island by a Coast Guard watchman whom they clumsily attempted to bribe, the agents scattered themselves to New York and Chicago. Burger and Dasch — who for this reason were not in the end electrocuted* — had their reservations about the Third Reich to begin with and guessed after the Coast Guard encounter where this fiasco was heading. They rang up the gobsmacked FBI to shop themselves and their comrades, enabling the feds to pick up the other six men in short order.

The eventual fate of the Nazi saboteurs is no surprise, but the means to obtain it was controversial then and remains so to this day.

On a substantive level, the Germans had landed in uniform for the explicit purpose of asserting POW status were they to be apprehended immediately; this didn’t cut much ice since all had then discarded their uniforms and attempted to melt away in the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle successfully cited the American Revolution precedent of John Andre, whom patriots hanged as a spy after detaining him out of uniform behind their lines. That they hadn’t yet done anything yet was a bit beside the point.**

Much thornier was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to try the Germans using a seven-member military tribunal that he conjured for this purpose, and seemingly with the objective of assuring the harshest possible sentence. (Bear in mind that these events transpired only months after Pearl Harbor.) Such a commission is explicitly anticipated by the U.S. Articles of War† whose 81st and 82nd provisions the saboteurs were charged with violating:

ART. 81. RELIEVING, CORRESPONDENCE WITH, OR AIDING THE ENEMY. — Whosoever relieves or attempts to relieve the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other thing, or knowingly harbors or protects or holds correspondence with or gives intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

ART. 82. SPIES. — Any person who in time of war shall be found lurking or acting as a spy in or about any of the fortifications, posts, quarters, or encampments of any of the armies of the United States, or elsewhere, shall be tried by a general court-martial or by a military commission, and shall, on conviction thereof, suffer death.

However, the military commission did not seem very well in keeping with the American preference for regular jurisdictions as expressed by Ex parte Milligan, the post-Civil War decision forbidding the use of military courts anywhere that civilian courts are functioning.‡ The signal Milligan precedent formed the basis of a furious objection by Army defense lawyer (and future Secretary of War) Kenneth Royall, who fought his clients’ hopeless corner so vigorously that the doomed men signed a letter praising his efforts. (“unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion.”)

Already recessed for the summer, the Supreme Court hastily reconvened to cut this Gordian knot: the only forum of judicial review the case would ever receive. Its decision, Ex parte Quirin — titled after one of the defendants — spurned Royall’s Milligan claim and upheld Roosevelt’s statutory authority to determine this case for a military tribunal by a unanimous vote.

The court’s common front concealed a variety of stances on the reach of executive authority. While the whole court agreed that “Congress has explicitly provided … that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases,” a concurring memorandum by Justice Robert H. Jackson — later famous for his role prosecuting the Nuremberg trials — proposed to carry the argument well beyond this point. Jackson claimed in a concurrence that he would eventually withdraw that “the Court’s decision of the question whether it complied with the Articles of War is uncalled for … it is well within the war powers of the President to create a non-statutory military tribunal of the sort here in question.” This was by no means the consensus of his colleagues.

The later publication of a “Soliloquy” memorandum by one such colleague, Felix Frankfurter, throws a less than dispassionate light on deliberations. Writing to smooth over internal disputes between the blackrobes, Justice Frankfurter shows himself personally hostile to the Germans — “You’ve done enough mischief already without leaving the seeds of a bitter conflict involving the President, the courts and Congress after your bodies will be rotting in lime,” he chides them in his own voice. “That disposes of you scoundrels.” In the end, the court took his advice to sidestep the potentially deep jurisdictional question.

But that question has not been left rotting in footnotes (they never are). Quirin in general and Jackson’s expansive claims of executive power in particular have been relied upon by 21st century Presidents to justify muscular and controversial innovations like the Guantanamo Bay prison and the drone war.

A few books about Operation Pastorius and Ex parte Quirin

Pierce O’Donnell, author of In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America, discussed his book on C-SPAN here.

Jurisprudence is not the only artifact of the Nazi saboteurs’ failed infiltration.

Bizarrely, a tributary slab “in memory of agents of the German Abwehr” was discovered in 2006 illicitly placed on National Park Service land in southeast Washington DC, the same vicinity where the saboteurs had been secretly buried after their electrocution. There it had seemingly reposed some twenty-odd years, unknown but to its devotees … who if the stone’s carvings are to be credited must consist of the heirs of the (defunct since 1983) National Socialist White People’s Party, also known as the American Nazi Party.

* They would be condemned to death along with the rest, but Roosevelt commuted their sentences: a fine boon but far short of the outright pardons they had been promised for their cooperation. In 1948, President Truman had Burger and Dasch deported to Germany, where many saw them as traitors.

** After unsuccessfully attempting to trade Andre for Benedict Arnold, whose defection Andre had facilitated, and whom the American revolutionaries would have much preferred to Andre for a hanging.

† Enacted by Congress in 1920, these Articles of War are no longer operative in the U.S.: they were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.

‡ Haupt and Burger were also U.S. citizens, further complicating the commission’s suspension of their constitutional habeas corpus rights.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Soldiers,Spies,Terrorists,U.S. Federal,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1900: Benjamin Snell, electricity in his head

Add comment June 29th, 2015 Robert Elder

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

As the rope was placed around his throat:

“Oh, I’ll smother with that on. I’ve got electricity in my head now.*”

– Benjamin Snell, convicted of murder, hanging,** Washington, DC.
Executed June 29, 1900

“A man of education and good family,” Snell was convicted of murder after breaking in to the house of child Lizzie Weisenberger and cutting her throat with a razor. Other prisoners shunned Snell, and when Frank Funk heard that he was to be executed on the same day and scaffold as Snell, he petitioned the courts to change the day. President McKinley reprieved Funk for several days, and Snell and Funk maintained “bitter hatred” until Snell’s death.


* Snell, who pursued an insanity defense that was not persuasive to the jury but was convincing enough to induce the entire Congressional delegation of his home state of Georgia to petition President McKinley for a commutation, regularly complained of electricity buzzing in his brain. “I told a physician about it and he laughed at me,” Snell complained (Washington Evening Star, June 28, 1900) of the incredulity this complaint elicited. -ed.

** A giant at two meters tall and a reported 17 stone on the day of his execution, Stone was nearly decapitated by the noose — presumably the consequence of the characteristic American practice of making an impressionistic guess at the right length of the drop, rather than scientifically calculating it.


San Jose (Calif.) Evening News, June 30, 1900.

The victim’s father had the goriest seat in the house for this, standing “directly at the foot of the scaffold, within a few feet of where the body swung after the fall” (Evening Star, June 29, 1900) at the private hanging. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,U.S. Federal,USA,Washington DC

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1880: James Madison Wyatt Stone, landing on his feet

2 comments April 2nd, 2014 Headsman

The wonderful blog Ghosts of D.C. calls our attention (via SanhoTree) to a fabulously gruesome botched hanging in the nation’s capital on this day in 1880.

James Madison Wyatt Stone was condemned for a brutal double-throat-slashing attack on his estranged wife, Alberta, and her sister, Lavinia Pitcher. Those two women lived together in Northwest D.C. along with Alberta’s two children by Stone; they had already had to shoo away the husband on previous occasions.

On Oct. 5, 1878, Stone forced his way into their residence and attacked Lavinia — she just happened to be in the sitting room when Stone burst the door. Pursuing her into the yard, Stone slashed her throat with a razor. Alberta came rushing down the stair to her shrieking sister’s aid, and Stone turned on her and delivered a similar injury. Alberta died the next morning; Lavinia survived.

Stone was chased down by neighbors who had been roused by the very noisy assault, which citizen captors then fended off attempts to exact summary justice until police arrived to take Stone into custody.

So that’s the crime. But get a load of the punishment.

Stone was hanged in a prison courtyard from a gallows 20 feet high, with just a five-foot drop of the rope. The details are important here because you might think from the story that follows that he was dropped almost all the way to the ground: the violence of the noose striking tends to cause a hanged body to oscillate. “He’s only got to be an inch or two off-centre and he’ll swing like a bloody pendulum when he’s dropped,” the executioner Syd Dernley remembered being told during his 20th century training program.

You can see pretty easily why that’s pertinent from the Washington Post‘s account of what happened when the trap was dropped.

Instead of the dangling and possible convulsed form of the dying man being as expected, all were horrified at seeing the body standing for a moment headless on the ground, the blood spurting in thin jets from the neck. Before anyone had time to realize what had occurred the decapitated trunk fell back, prone. The head had shot backwards also and bounded against the frame of the scaffold, falling about four or five feet from the body, the bleeding base being uppermost.

Falling 20 feet to land arrow-straight upright while your black-bagged head is torn off by a rope must be something like tossing a coin and having it come up … sides.

Physicians coolly retrieved the head from its bloodied sack, and found Stone’s visage “placid, and the lips moved as if about to say something.” (New York Times) It was sewed back to the murderer’s formerly blood-jetting neck for burial.

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

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1943: Jarvis Catoe

2 comments January 13th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1943, serial killer Jarvis Theodore Roosevelt Catoe was fried in the federal chair for the murder of Washington D.C. resident named Rose Abramowitz.

The 25-year-old victim, who had married only a month before, had hired Catoe to wax her kitchen floor.

Instead he raped and strangled her, left her sprawled on her bed and made off with $20.

Abramowitz wasn’t Catoe’s first victim and she would not be his last — although she was his first white victim; the previous ones had been black like Jarvis himself. This article summarizes Catoe’s career: homicides in New York City and Washington, beginning in 1935, as well as multiple robberies, rapes, indecent exposures and attempted kidnappings. To add insult to injury, an innocent man, James Matthew Smith, was convicted in his first murder and had already served several years of a life sentence by the time of Catoe’s arrest.

Time magazine called him a “one-man crime wave.” The D.C. police’s failure to catch him resulted in serious public embarrassment for the department and a dressing-down before Congress. Not bad for a killer so obscure his name isn’t even in Wikipedia.

Catoe’s last victim was Evelyn Anderson, a waitress in the Bronx. After he strangled her and left her body in an alley he took her purse and watch and gave it to a lady friend, who gave it to another friend, who gave it to a man who pawned it for $20. The New York Police, who had been checking the local pawn shops, found the watch and traced it through its various handlers, finally landing on Catoe, who had moved back to Washington by then.

He confessed to seven murders that he could remember, but reckoned the real body count was “about ten.” Most, but not all, of his victims had been sexually assaulted. A classic sexual sadist, Catoe stated he suffered from “spells” where he had an uncontrollable urge to kill. These spells tended to happen after he’d been reading detective stories and looking at pornography.

Catoe later retracted all his statements, saying he’d been “sick and weak” and the police and badgered him into making up stories. The jury didn’t buy it: in the Abramowitz trial, they were out for only eighteen minutes before voting for conviction and the death penalty.

He walked into the death chamber singing.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Serial Killers,USA,Washington DC

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1861: William Johnson, impulse deserter

Add comment December 13th, 2011 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, a now-long-forgotten deserter from the Union Army was shot in Washington, D.C. This sad event in the then-novel American Civil War received lavish coverage in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which we reproduce below.

THE EXECUTION OF JOHNSON.

ON page 828 we illustrate the military execution of Johnson, who was shot at Washington for desertion on 13th. The culprit’s crime is clearly described in the following extract from his confession:


Contemporary illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when out watering my horse, I thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk and he said he had none, and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know, except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted from the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity I asked where it was that the five rebels I had heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left-hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to. He said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along on the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey regiment, with his scouting party. I thought they were the rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him, “I’m all right, then.” “Why so?” said he. “Because we are all friends,” said I; “I am rebel too—I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.” Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at the same time said, “Let me see your pistol.” I handed him my revolver. Colonel Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me, “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!” I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. 1 dismounted, delivered up my belt and sabre, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of an old New York Ledger, I believe. Then he tied my hands behind me, and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.

He was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The sentence having been approved, it was ordered that it be carried into effect on 13th. The following extracts from the Herald report complete the melancholy history:

The spot chosen for the impressive scene was a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division. The troops fell into line, forming three sides of a square, in the order designated in the programme, precisely at three o’clock P.M.

In the mean time the funeral procession was formed at the quarters of Captain Boyd, Provost Marshal of the Alexandria division, near the head-quarters of General Franklin. Shortly after three o’clock it reached the fatal field.

The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men—one from each company in the regiment, selected by ballot—who constituted the firing party. The arms—Sharp’s breech-loading rifle—had been previously loaded under the direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood stained, and without any inscription, came next, in a one-horse wagon. Immediately behind followed the unfortunate man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson presented a most forlorn spectacle. He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father M’Atee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Farther Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.

Arriving on the ground at half past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended from the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his place beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.

While the order was being read Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost inaudible voice spoke as follows: “Boys,—I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow-men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from all such sin!”

He was then placed beside the coffin again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the intensest interest. Then the Marshal and the chaplains began to prepare the culprit for his death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin. Captain Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready the Marshal waved his handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots fired by the reserves took effect in his head, and he died instantly. One penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, while two entered the brain just above the left eyebrow. He died at precisely a quarter to four o’clock.

The troops then all marched round, and each man looked on the bloody corpse of his late comrade, who had proved a traitor to his country.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1861: Not William Scott, the Sleeping Sentinel

3 comments September 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1861, Vermont private William Scott of the new-formed Army of the Potomac, then fortifying Washington D.C. for the unfolding Civil War in the aftermath of Bull Run, was led out for execution for having fallen asleep at his post.

The so-called Sleeping Sentinel took a sick comrade’s watch even though he himself was bushed, and … well, you know the rest.

Condemned for a dereliction of duty which “may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army” (the words of the army’s commander Gen. McClellan), Scott still attracted widespread sympathy due to the obviously sympathetic nature of his situation. He was a youth new to war, with an exemplary military record outside of his forty winks.

“The American people,” reckoned the New York Times, “are quite unprepared to hear of a measure of such fearful and unwarned rigor as that which was awarded private SCOTT.”

Appeals went straight to the White House, which was conveniently located in the Army of the Potomac’s back yard, and freshman president Abraham Lincoln magnanimously spared the lad.

Still, wanting to use the case to impress military discipline upon the rabble of corn-fed conscripts, that clemency was delivered with a terrifyingly dramatic flourish. Scott was left to contemplate his last hours on the earth, and, Dostoyevsky-like, marched out to the stake ostensibly to face the firing squad. Only then did he and his fellow-soldiers hear the commutation order.*

This exhilarating climax did not long stay the hand of the Reaper, as it transpired.

Scott died in battle the following spring. In death he lives on, as befits the habitues of these pages: fellow Vermonter Lucius E. Chittenden, who was serving in the U.S. Treasury when all this sleeping sentinel stuff went down, commemorated William Scott for posterity in a subsequent entry to the merciful-Lincoln mythology, a postwar volume titled Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel.

The story was also made into a 1914 silent film, which sadly doesn’t seem to be available online: but never fear, this syrupy poem will amply represent our Sentinel’s contribution to the canon.

But God is love – and finite minds can faintly comprehend
How gentle Mercy, in His rule, may with stern Justice blend;
And this poor soldier, seized and bound, found none to justify,
While war’s inexorable law decreed that he must die.

‘Twas night. In a secluded room, with measured tread and slow,
A statesman of commanding mien paced gravely to and fro.
Oppressed, he pondered on a land by civil discord rent;
On brothers armed in deadly strife: it was the President!

The woes of thirty millions filled his burdened heart with grief;
Embattled hosts, on land and sea, acknowledged him their chief;
And yet, amid the din of war, he heard the plaintive cry
Of that poor soldier, as he lay in prison, doomed to die!

‘Twas morning. On a tented field, and through the heated haze,
Flashed back, from lines of burnished arms, the sun’s effulgent blaze;
While, from a somber prison house, seen slowly to emerge,
A sad procession, o’er the sward, moved to a muffled dirge.

And in the midst, with faltering step, and pale and anxious face,
In manacles, between two guards, a soldier had his place.
A youth, led out to die; and yet it was not death, but shame,
That smote his gallant heart with dread, and shook his manly frame!

Still on, before the marshalled ranks, the train pursued its way,
Up to the designated spot, whereon a coffin lay-
His coffin! And, with reeling brain, despairing, desolate-
He took his station by its side, abandoned to his fate!

Then came across his wavering sight strange pictures in the air:
He saw his distant mountain home; he saw his parents there;
He saw them bowed with hopeless grief, through fast declining years;
He saw a nameless grave; and then, the vision closed-in tears!

Yet once again. In double file, advancing, then, he saw
Twelve comrades, sternly set apart to execute the law-
But saw no more; his senses swam-deep darkness settled round-
And, shuddering, he awaited now the fatal volley’s sound!

Then suddenly was heard the sounds of steeds and wheels approach,
And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach.
On, past the guards, and through the field, its rapid course was bent,
Till, halting, ‘mid the lines was seen the nation’s President!**

He came to save that stricken soul, now waking from despair;
And from a thousand voices rose a shout which rent the air!
The pardoned soldier understood the tones of jubilee,
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand that made him free!

A few letters from Scott’s own hand are preserved here. A (defunct) mini-blog exploring the case in detail can be perused here.

* There was actually American precedent for this sort of stagey non-execution in a case from the War of 1812.

** Obviously, Lincoln did not actually bring his presidential person to the execution grounds to issue this pardon in the flesh: in fact, the presiding officer on-site simply read out the pardon: “the President of the United States has expressed a wish that as this is the first condemnation to death in this army for this crime, mercy may be extended to the criminal.”

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Milestones,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1946: A triple execution in Washington, DC

Add comment December 20th, 2010 Headsman

“Death, administered in the law’s deliberate way, exacted a three-fold toll in the District [of Columbia]’s electric chair” on this date in 1946, announced the next day’s Washington Post.*

It was as many people as the nation’s capital had put to death in the previous four years combined. The clientele: three unconnected men, condemned for unconnected murders.

“Joseph Dunbar Medley, suave slayer of a Washington divorcee,” was the most (in)famous of the three. “The debonair man who blazed a trail of crime from the Middle West” had that April made a daring escape from District Jail — which was rather renowned for its escapability, but still, this was a guy on death row, and who was only a few weeks from his then-scheduled electrocution.

Medley and another condemned man, Earl McFarland, charmed their way into their guards’ confidence. During a card game played in one of the guards’ rooms, they imprisoned their jailers, nicked their clothes, and cut their way into a ventilation shaft and out to the roof.

Medley himself was captured hours later hiding in a sewer pipe on the Anacostia River, pithily remarking to reporters, “You can’t blame a guy for trying, and I’m going to try again.” (Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1946) If he did try again, he didn’t make it.

But the bloodhounds couldn’t pick up McFarland, whose manhunt made nationwide headlines for more than a week until he was finally tracked down in Knoxville, Tenn. (He was executed solo in July.)

While [Medley] waited [for three hours of last-second appeals to clear], the chair claimed two other slayers, both Negroes.

William Copeland, 38-year-old slayer of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Dora Johnson, walked into the chamber, jauntily smoking a cigar which he clenched in his teeth while he smiled. He helped guards adjust the straps and the leather face mask smothered his last smile …

Second to die was Julius Fisher, 32, convicted of beating to death Miss Catherine Reardon, librarian at the Washington Cathedral … bludgeoned to death with a piece of firewood and her body hidden in a sub-basement crypt. He strangled and struck her after she had complained about the way he had cleaned under her desk.

* Charles J. Yarbrough, “Death Hour Delayed by Futile Court Maneuver,” The Washington Post, Dec 21, 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Washington DC

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1865: Henry Wirz, for detainee abuse

1 comment November 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. for running a notorious Confederate prison camp.

A Swiss-born doctor (“Henrich” was the real handle) whom time and tide found practicing in Louisiana at the onset of the Civil War, Wirz apparently got into the prison-guarding ranks when a war injury left him unfit for the front lines.

But it was front-line fitness in the northern army that would set the scene for his controversial hanging.

The North’s advantage in men and materiel shaped Union strategy as the war progressed, and it eventually caused the Union to halt prisoner exchanges. Exchanging casualty for casualty was a winning strategy on the battlefield, so why return to your enemy a man for a man? Besides,

[Grant] said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us.

Benjamin Butler (we’ve met him before)

As designed, then, the South began piling up more and more POWs to maintain with its ever-straitened resources late in the war. And if exchange was out, that really only left one form of “release”.


Andersonville Prison survivor John L. Ransom’s view of the prison, from the Library of Congress.

Andersonville — officially, Camp Sumter, located near the tiny Georgia town of Andersonville — was only established in 1864, but acquired considerable notoriety in northern propaganda for the year and change that Wirz ran it. The prisoners didn’t enjoy it much, either.

Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.

Union prisoner diary, July 1864. Note the prisoner’s anger at Washington — whose refusal to exchange naturally infuriated its stranded POWs

Out of some 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during its existence (not all at one time), nearly 13,000 succumbed to disease and malnutrition.* After the war, photos of wasted survivors inflamed (northern) public opinion, already tetchy over Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman wrote of Andersonville,

There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.

Damnation is up to higher powers, of course, but the North wanted somebody to answer for Andersonville on this mortal coil. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson overruled mooted charges against Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War James Seddon, leaving — in that great American tradition — Heinrich Wirz holding the bag.**

Shatner sighting!

The trial had an undeniable aspect of victor’s justice.† Even at the gallows, the Union guards chanted, “Wirz, remember Andersonville!” as the condemned man was readied for the noose, and then dropped. The hanging failed to break the man’s neck, and he strangled as the chant continued.

Southern efforts to reshape the story of Andersonville began in the lifetimes of Wirz’s contemporaries; this fulsome volume supporting the charges answered Jefferson Davis in terms that sound strikingly contemporary:

So long as Southern leaders continue to distort history (and rekindle embers in order to make the opportunity for distorting it), so long will there rise up defenders of the truth of history … To deny the horrors of Andersonville is to deny there was a rebellion. Both are historic facts placed beyond the realm of doubt.

But of course, it does not require denying the horrors of Andersonville to notice the circumstances — the privation of the entire South late in the war — and to wonder that Wirz and Wirz alone was held to account. Plenty of people think he got a bum rap.


Daughters of the Confederacy monument to Wirz. (cc) image from divemasterking2000.


Pro-Wirz marker in Andersonville, Ga. (Click for easier-on-the-eyes version, reading in part, “Had he been an angel from heaven, he could not have changed the pitiful tale of privation and hunger unless he had possessed the power to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes”). (cc) image from Mark D L.

Recommended for general reading: the UMKC Famous Trials page on this case, several of whose pages have been linked in this entry. A number of nineteenth-century texts by (or citing) Andersonville survivors are available from Google books, including:

Since this is a controversy of the Civil War — and one that can be engaged without having to get into that whole slavery thing — there have been thousands of published pages written about it, with many more sure to come in future years.

A few books about Henry Wirz and Andersonville

As an interesting aside, Civil War POW camps including Andersonville (but not only Andersonville) gave us the term “deadline,” which had a more startlingly literal definition in the 1860s — a perimeter beyond which prisoners would be shot on sight, which policy could make a handy stand-in for walls. Gratuitously killing an insane prisoner who crossed Camp Sumter’s “dead line” was one of the atrocities laid to Wirz, who we take it would not have been at home to the word’s decreasingly urgent appropriation in the wider culture.

* Wirz’s defense showed, to no avail, that the prisoners and the guards received the same rations, with similarly deleterious effects among both, and that the commandant was on record pleading with his superiors for more.

** Wirz’s attorney claimed that his man was offered (and refused to take) a last-minute pardon on November 9 in exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis.

† Wirz and borderlands guerrilla Champ Ferguson were the only Confederates executed for their “war crimes”. There was at least one other prison guard who faced similar charges of prisoner maltreatment, John Henry Gee; Gee was acquitted and released in 1866. (For more on the latter, see “A Little-known Case from the American Civil War: The War Crimes Trial of Major General John H. Gee” by Guénaël Mettraux in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2010.)

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1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination

July 7th, 2008 Headsman

On a sweltering July 7, 1865, a mere 12 weeks after Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, four of his assassin’s accomplices were hanged in the courtyard of the District of Columbia’s Washington Arsenal — present-day Fort McNair, and specifically its tennis courts.

Booth, on the far left, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar opposite his brothers. He had Brutus’ example in mind, as he wrote in his diary while on the run: “with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.”

The exact nature of the conspiracy against the man who had seen the North to victory in the Civil War has been debated ever since actor John Wilkes Booth lodged a ball from his one-shot Derringer behind Honest Abe’s ear. But it was a conspiracy — an astoundingly bold one.

Simultaneous with Booth’s successful attack upon Lincoln, there was an unsuccessful attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward; it would emerge in the investigation that another man had been detailed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got drunk and chickened out. The apparent upshot: with the President and Vice President dead, new national elections would be required to replace the Senator who would become acting president — and with the Secretary of State dead too, there’d be nobody to implement them. Booth was trying to paralyze the North with its own constitutional machinery in some desperate hope of reviving the defeated South.

Ten Against D.C.

Hundreds were detained in the stunning assassination’s immediate aftermath, but ten would ultimately be the federals’ targets. A massive manhunt pursued Booth through southern Maryland and into Virginia, where he was killed in a shootout. John Surratt, who had conspired with Booth in an earlier plot to kidnap the president — that failed plot had been reconfigured into the assassination — escaped from the country.

The other eight were rounded up and stashed at the Arsenal to face a military tribunal. It was a highly controversial arrangement: the war had entered a gray area — Robert E. Lee’s surrender just days before the murder had effectively ended the war, but when the trial opened in May Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still at large, and the last Southern general wouldn’t lay down his arms until late June. The District of Columbia was still technically under martial law … so would it do to use a military court?

Military Tribunal

So the government asked itself: government, would you rather have looser evidentiary rules and a lower bar of conviction than you would have in civil court? The government duly produced for the government an opinion that the military characteristic of the assassination — that is, to help whatever southern war effort still obtained — licensed the government to use the military courts.

That didn’t sit well with everyone. One former Attorney General griped:

If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.

Indeed, a year later, the Supreme Court’s landmark ex parte Milligan ruling would forbid the use of military courts where civilian courts are open — which they were in Washington, D.C.

That, of course, was too late to help Booth’s comrades. It would be a military trial, with a majority vote needed for conviction and no right of appeal but to the president for the most infamous crime of the Republic. Everyone had a pretty good idea what the results would be.

A cartoon depicting the defendants as Gallow's (sic) Birds.

Rogues’ Gallery

Two of the four today were doomed from the outset under any juridical arrangement imaginable: Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine or Lewis Payne) had made the attempt on Secretary of State Seward; David Herold had guided him there with the getaway horse, and later escaped along with Booth. They were in way past their eyeballs. George Atzerodt, the schmo who couldn’t rise to the occasion of popping Andrew Johnson, looks a bit more peripheral from the distance of a century and a half, but in the weeks following the assassination he was much too close to the action to have any hope. All received death sentences.

Two others — Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold — had been involved in Booth’s earlier scheme to kidnap the president, but didn’t seem to have much to do with the murder. Still another two — Ned Spangler and Dr. Samuel Mudd* — were lesser participants. They all received long prison sentences for their pains, and the three of them still surviving were pardoned by Andrew Johnson as he left the presidency in 1869.

That left Mary Surratt, mother of the fugitive John and the only woman in the dock, the focus of attention and controversy. The 42-year-old widow owned a downtown boardinghouse, plus a tavern of sufficient importance at a Prince George’s County, Maryland, crossroads, that its community was called Surrattsville.**

The conspirators met frequently in her lodgings; Surratt maintained her innocence beyond that, but evidence and witness testimony began to pile up heavily against her … especially when Seward assailant Lewis Powell wandered into her place looking for refuge right while the police were questioning her. Booth and Herold turned out to have made a pit stop at her Surrattsville tavern to pick up a package of guns that Mary had prepared for them.

Though Surratt’s avowal of ignorance was not widely believed, a gesture of presidential mercy was anticipated — many thought (and think) she went on trial as a virtual hostage for her absconded son, who declined to take the bait. Strangely, five members of the nine-judge panel who condemned Mary Surratt turned around and asked President Johnson for clemency. Johnson claimed never to have seen the memo, but his mind seemed pretty made up — when Surratt won a habeas corpus stay on the morning of her scheduled hanging, he promptly “specially-suspended” the writ specifically to hang her:

I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States do hereby declare that the writ of habeas corpus had been heretofore suspended in such cases as this; and I do hereby specially-suspend this writ, and direct that you proceed to execute the order heretofore given upon the judgment of the Military Commission.

Harsh treatment, and possibly well-deserved, for the first woman executed by the U.S. government. Even so, it does seem a curious thing when all is said and done that the mother of “the nest that hatched the egg” was worth a special suspension of the Great Writ, and even the stagehand who just held Booth’s horse for him caught six years, but old Jeff Davis — who apart from having figureheaded a treasonous four-year insurrection was implicated for giving Booth’s kidnapping plot official Confederate sanction — got to retire to write his memoirs.

Fine pages on the Lincoln assassination are here, here and here. There are also contemporary newspaper accounts posted online as filed for The Boston Post and The New York Herald.

The Surratt houses, by the way, are still standing. The Maryland tavern is kept as the Surratt House Museum by the Surratt Society. The downtown boarding house is a Chinese restaurant … marked with a plaque remembering more momentous doings than bubble tea.

The Chinatown restaurant where Mary Surratt had her boarding house ...

... as marked by plaque ...

... and how it looked back then.

* The panel voted 5-4 to hang Mudd, a Maryland doctor who not only set the leg Booth broke when he leaped onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, but then misdirected Booth’s pursuers. However, the rules for the trial said a two-thirds majority was required for execution.

** They changed the name after the unpleasantness. Today, it’s Clinton, Maryland.

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1882: Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s colorful assassin

12 comments June 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, America’s weirdest assassin recited fourteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew and (sans requested orchestral accompaniment) a poem of his own composition entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” and was hanged in the District of Columbia jail for shooting forgettable Gilded Age president James Garfield.

Mad as a march hare, Charles Julius Guiteau had irritated the obscure reaches of the Republic near four decades, trying his hand at free love, law, newspapering* and evangelism. A contemporary account of his religious flimflammery survives:

Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.

Having failed at each characteristic American monkeyshine more comprehensively than the last, he naturally gravitated to politics; while today Guiteau might tilt with his psychoses on some vituperative blog, in 1880 he published and delivered as a speech a widely-ignored crackpot encomium** for his eventual victim. Guiteau reckoned the GOP carried the 1880 elections on the strength of such rhetorical thunderbolts as “some people say he [Garfield] got badly soiled in that Credit Mobilier transaction but I guess he is clean-handed.”

Stunned that his contributions did not earn him a diplomatic posting to France, Guiteau stepped out of obscurity and into this blog’s pages by shooting the ungrateful (and unguarded) executive in the back at a Washington, D.C. train station (since demolished, and today occupied by the National Gallery of Art).

“To General Sherman: I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau.” (Click for the full image.) From the Georgetown Charles Guiteau collection.

Thoughtfully, he had already hired a cab to take him to jail, where he expected to be liberated by General William Sherman.

Malpractice

The bugger of Garfield’s assassination is that Guiteau was no better at killing presidents than he was at electing them. Despite his exultation “Arthur is President now!”, he actually inflicted what could have been a non-fatal flesh wound that through ten-thumbed medical intervention became an agonizing eighty-day Calvary for the miserable Garfield.

Doctors jabbed unwashed hands into the the wound, failing to dig out the bullet they were looking for but successfully turning the three-inch wound into a crater, puncturing Garfield’s liver, and passing him Streptococcus. Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find the missile, but the damn thing gave a bad reading … because Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs. His doctors, feuding with one another and with the press, instituted a regimen of rectal feeding — “Nutritive enemas — consisting of beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and several drops of opium … Garfield’s flatulence became intolerable,” according to one biographer — that “basically starved him to death.”† He lost 100 pounds before succumbing; the autopsy concluded that Garfield probably would have lived if not for the medical attention, which didn’t stop the doctors from submitting a sizable invoice to the feds for services rendered.

(In a moment of lucidity, Guiteau defended himself with the observation “The doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him.”)

Not Ha-Ha Funny

Horribly hilarious, this American Absurdistan. “Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History,” Sarah Vowell put it.

Guiteau’s circus trial — with the defendant constantly interrupting to harangue participants, object to his own attorneys or converse with the spectators, plus the macabre appearance of the late Garfield’s actual vertebrae (now at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Medicine) as an exhibit — was for all that a landmark test of evolving law around criminal insanity.

Just as Garfield probably would have survived his injury had he been treated by the next generation’s medical norms, Guiteau probably would have survived his brush with the law if treated by the next generation’s legal norms.

Against an almost-too-strict-to-achieve earlier bar for legal insanity, a more accommodating jurisprudential norm called the M’Naghten Rules or M’Naghten Test was even then being adopted from English courts: essentially, did the “criminal” realize his act was wrong? Still the basis for legal insanity claims in much of the U.S. today, the first trial of a presidential assassin would be the M’Naghten standard’s trial by fire.

While the judge gave ample leeway for the defense to use M’Naghten, the legal standards it implied were still not widely understood and the medical testimony about Guiteau’s mental condition was (embarrassingly, for the profession) wildly contradictory. Ultimately, the judge cued the jury that “the law requires a very slight degree of intelligence indeed” on Guiteau’s part to impute him with sufficient criminal culpability to hang. There were cheers in the courthouse when the jury took an hour to decide that Guiteau had that very slight degree of intelligence indeed.

In the final analysis, as Charles Rosenberg observes in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age, the jurors’ prompt conviction of the widely hated, barking-mad defendant underscored the real-life constraints of dry legal theory as applied by an outraged community to a notorious offender:

[T]he Guiteau case demonstrated anew that the circumstances of a particular case had ordinarily as much to do with its disposition as the precise injunctions of rules of law … Many observers agreed after the trial that if an individual of Guiteau’s marked eccentricity had killed an ordinary man … he would almost certainly not have been convicted; very likely he would not even have been brought to trial. Similarly, while Garfield lay on his sickbed, it was commonly assumed that his assailant would be institutionalized if the President should survive. But if not, then not.

Reckoning the gesture could cost him the 1884 Republican nomination, Chester A. Arthur declined to spare his “benefactor” (“Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of this nation,” was Guiteau’s reaction, picturing fire and brimstone) and left Guiteau to his strange and lonely fate. The latter was talked out of an early plan to go to the gallows in the Christlike garb of only his undergarments, but did insist upon delivering his incoherent parting ramble in a high-pitched childlike tone (“the idea is that of a child babbling to his mama and his papa”).

Wrapping up this surreal historical episode in a neat little bow, Charles Guiteau got his own bluegrass tune:‡

For more adventures through Guiteau’s looking glass, there’s a fine page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

* One of Guiteau’s failed newspaper ventures was to exploit the telegraph to reprint original content from other outlets. That one looks a lot less harebrained in retrospect: it’s a primitive model of the wire service, and latterly of RSS-based distributors like Google News.

** Scans of Guiteau’s apologia for Garfield — via Georgetown’s Charles Guiteau collection — are here: cover, pages 1-2, page 3.

† You really want to know more about the South Park-esque practice of rectal feeding? Garfield’s quack physician published this pamphlet in 1882.

‡ The “Charles Guiteau” ditty is actually a rather shameless knock-off of a murder ballad for James Rodgers, an Irish immigrant hanged in New York in 1858.

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