One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.
And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.
The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.
Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.
So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.
Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.
Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)
Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.
From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.
Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.
China on this date in 2009 executed two men for trafficking kidnapped children.
“The crimes of children trafficking are on the rise,” said a spokesman for the Supreme People’s Court. “Children trafficking gangs now have clearer division of work and more children of migrant workers have been abducted.”
Kidnapping has been a major problem in China for many years, one which authorities have fought in vain with ever-strengthened legal sanctions. Needless to say the executions marked this date hardly abated the trend.
Up to 70,000 children are thought to disappear by abduction in China every year — particularly boys, for whom there is a lucrative market.
The men executed Nov. 26, 2009 seem to have emerged right from this unfortunate suq: 55-year-old 55-year-old Hu Minghua of Yunan Province was condemned for trafficking seven different children, plus heroin besides; 27-year-old Su Binde of Henan Province had six child abductions to his name over the course of just 10 months. (Su also led an armed robbery gang in Liuyuan Township that killed at least one man.)
On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.
Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.
Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.
Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.
Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”
The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”
A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.
“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”
Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.
Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.
Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”
Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”
After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.
In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.
Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”
On this date in 1834, the Cherokee James Graves was hanged in Spring Place, Georgia, for murder. He’s the only person ever executed in Georgia’s Murray County.
But he was also a sad waymarker on the way to a much larger tragedy.
It happened that in 1834 the state of Georgia’s long-simmering conflict with the indigenous Cherokee nation was coming to a nasty head. In the infancy of the American Republic, it had made a pact placing the Cherokee under the protection of the United States.
By the 1820s, however, Cherokee land had been nibbled away and the white citizens of Georgia started clamoring for a proper ethnic cleansing: forcibly expelling the Cherokee to the western frontier.
The immediate territorial conflict became joined to a conflict over federal jurisdiction, because the Cherokee had their treaty with the United States (not with Georgia) and its terms were supposed to be guaranteed by Washington (not Milledgeville). As the Georgia legislature enacted laws stripping the Cherokee of land and self-rule, the Cherokee appealed in federal courts.
The Cherokee notched a major win in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Indian affairs were the domain of the federal government and individual states had nothing to say in the matter.
But to give a sense of where the wind was blowing, this is the very decision about which U.S. President (and notorious Indian-killer) Andrew Jackson is supposed to have remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” The quote itself is probably apocryphal but the atmosphere of lawless confrontation was very real indeed.
James Graves was convicted by a Georgia jury in September 1834 of murdering a white man several years prior on Indian land … or rather, on what Georgia said was now no longer Indian land.
The Supreme Court directed Georgia to stay the hanging and appear at a January 1835 hearing.
Governor William Lumpkin* would have none of it. Grandstanding in a communique to an all but universally supportive legislature, he vowed to ignore the court’s order.
Any attempt to infringe the evident rights of the State, to govern its entire population, of whatever complexion, and punish all offences committed against its laws within those limits … I consider a direct usurpation of power. … Such attempts demand the determined resistance of the States … I shall wholly disregard all such unconstitutional requisitions, of whatever character or origin, and, to the utmost of my power, protect and defend the rights of the State, and use the means afforded me to maintain the laws and Constitution of the same. (Nov. 7, 1834)
Two weeks later, Georgia hung James Graves, stay or no stay. There would be no hearing in Washington that January.
“What is to be done with Georgia?” lamented the Nantucket Inquirer (Dec. 13, 1834). “Will another presidential proclamation, full of big words and bombastic threats, be issued against her, for having nullified the U.S. claim of sovereignty over the Indians, and for having hanged the copper-skinned citizen Graves, in defiance of the interdict of one of Gen. Jackson’s judges?”
* Lumpkin County, Georgia is named for him. That’s not too shabby, but he almost hit big-time when the city of Terminus proposed to rename itself Lumpkin. Lumpkin declined and the city is today known as Atlanta.
** Georgia conducted another execution, that of George Tassels, under similarly contested circumstances a few years before Graves.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. 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.)
I then went to Boston, and got in company with one John Sullivan … we went to Winter’s-Hill, and there robbed one Mr. Baldwin, for which crime Sullivan and myself are to suffer Death, as being the just reward of our demerits.
— Richard Barrick, convicted of highway robbery and murder, hanging, Massacusetts. Executed November 18, 1784
Richard Barrick was born in Ireland in February 1763 and brought up in the Foundling Hospital. He was an apprentice to a silk-weaver and lived with him for three years. But during those years, he was treated poorly and so he eventually left the silk-weaver and joined a gang of thieves. When he was caught, the authorities agreed to pardon him if he entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships. After arriving in New York, Barrick and some others robbed many people and became a notorious and wanted man. He was an accomplice to murder of a man they first robbed. He was eventually caught by a British Colonel and convicted.
On this date in 1813, 19-year-old Ezra Hutchinson was hanged in the western Massachusetts village of Lenox for raping a 14-year-old named Lucy Bates.
Hutchinson passed the girl by (mis)chance on the road on his way home, and arriving there reflected what an inviting target she made — so he turned and followed her path into the wilderness until he overtook her.
Reproduced here is the pamphlet issued over his signature on the day of his execution with the informative title, “The solemn address and dying advice of Ezra Hutchinson: who was executed at Lenox, Mass. November 18, 1813, for a rape on the body of Miss Lucy Bates.” In it, we find a mostly penitent Hutchinson, who owns and laments his adolescent lewdness, still bold enough to “forgive” his victim her testimony against him. A footnote by the pamphlet’s editor explains:
for several weeks previous to his execution, he was uniform in declaring, that he supposed the girl had really consented to what was done. The girl in her testimony had said that having resisted to the utmost of her power, until her strength failed, she finally, through weariness and fright, sank almost lifeless to the ground. Here is an apparent contradiction; but it is easily reconciled in the eye of charity, by supposing, that when she fainted, and ceased any longer to resist, he honestly thought that she yielded her consent, though in truth she did not.
(As this blog has often enough bestowed its disdain on Puritan holy roller Cotton Mather, one of the never-apologetic architects of the Salem witch trials, we thought it only fair to permit the man to vindicate himself in his own words. What follows his Mather’s own accounting of the sermon he thundered in Boston at an unreceptive infanticide known only as Sarah. The text — presented with only some slight tidying and added line breaks — derives from Mather’s own histories, here and here. -ed.)
On November 17, 1698. There was executed in Boston, a miserable Young Woman, whose Extraordinary circumstances rung throughout all New England.
On this Day of her Execution, was Preached the Sermon: Because the last passage of that Sermon, gave a summary Narrative, of what it is fit the publick should know concerning that Criminal, I have Transferr’d them, into this place. The Sermon Concluded in these words.
Be astonished, O Congregation of God; Stand astonished, at the Horrible Spectacle, that is now before You: This House, and perhaps this Land, never had in it a more Astonishing Spectacle.
Behold, a Young Woman, but an Old Sinner, going this Day to Dy before her time, for being Wicked over much! Behold, One just Nineteen Years Old, and yet found Ripe for the Vengeance of a Capital Execution. Ah, Miserable Soul, With what a swift progress of Sin and Folly, hast thou made Hast unto the Congregation of the Dead!
Behold a Person, whose Unchast Conversation appear’d by one Base Born Child many months ago! God then gave her a Space to Repent, and she repented not: She repeated her Whoredomes, and by an Infatuation from God upon her, She so managed the matter of her next Base Born, that she is found Guilty of its Murder: Thus the God, whose Eyes are like a Flame of Fire, is now casting her Page into a Bed of Burning Tribulation: And, ah, Lord, Where wilt thou cast those that have committed Adultery with her, Except they Repent! Since her Imprisonment, She hath Declared, That she believes, God hath left her unto this Undoing Wickedness, partly for her staying so profanely at Home sometimes on Lords-Dayes, when she should have been Hearing the Word of Chirst, and much more for her not minding that Word, when she heard it.
And she has Confessed, That she was much given to Rash Wishes, in her Mad Passions, particularly using often that ill Form of speaking, “He be Hang’d,” if a thing be not thus or so, and, “I’ll be Hanged,” if I do not this or that; which Evil now, to see it, coming upon her, it amazes her! But the chief Sin, of which this Chief of Sinners, now cries out, is, Her Undutiful Carriage towards her Parents. Her Language and her Carriage towards her Parents, was indeed such that they hardly Durst speak to her; but when they Durst, they often told her, It would come to This. They indeed, with Bleeding Hearts, have now Forgiven thy Rebellions; Ah, Sarah, mayst thou Cry unto the God of Heaven to Forgive Thee! But under all the doleful circumstances of her Imprisonment, and her Impiety, she has been given over, to be a prodigy of still more Impenitent Impiety.
A Little before her Condemnation, she Renewed the Crimes of her Unchastity: she gave her self up to the Filthy Debauches, of a Villain, that was her Fellow-Prisoner; and after her Condemnation, her Falshoods, and her Furies have been such, as to proclaim, That under Condemnation she has not Feared God. Was there ever seen such an Heighth of Wickedness? God seems to have Hanged her up in Chains, for all the Young People in the Countrey, to see, what prodigies of Sin and Wrath it may render them, if once they Sell themselves thereunto. Behold, O Young People, what it is to Vex the Holy Spirit of God, by Rebelling against Him. This, This ’tis to be Given over of God! And yet after all this Hard-hearted Wickedness, is it not possible, for the Grace of Heaven to be Triumphantly Victorious, in Converting and Pardoning so Unparallel’d a Criminal? Be astonished, Miserable Sarah, and Let it now break that Stony heart of thine, to Hear it; It is possible! It is possible! But, O thou Almighty Spirit of Grace, do thou graciously Touch, and Melt this Obstinate Soul, and once at last, mould her Heart into the Form of thy Glorious Gospel. The Glorious Gospel of God, now utters unto thee, Undone Sarah, that Invitation, Tho’ thou hast horribly gone a Whoring, yet Return unto me, saith the Lord, and I will not cause my Anger to fall upon thee. The Lessons of this Gospel have been both privately and publickly set before thee, with a vast variety of Inculcation. If all the Extraordinary pains that have been taken for the softening of thy Stony Heart, be Lost, God will dispense the more terrible Rebukes unto thee, when He anon breaks thee between the Milstones of His Wrath.
Oh, Give now a great Attention, to some of the Last Words, that can be spoken to thee, before thy passing into an astonishing Eternity.
The Blessed Lord JESUS CHRIST hath been made a Curse for Us; there has been a most Acceptable Offering and Sacrifice, presented by the Lord Jesus Christ unto God, for all His Chosen: there is a Fountain set open for Sin and for Uncleanness: and thou, O Bloody Sinner, art Invited unto that Open Fountain. Such is the Infinite Grace of God, that thou mayst come as freely to the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the Forgiveness of thy Sins, as they that have never Sinn’d with a Thousandth part of so much Aggravation; Come, and Welcome, says the Lord, who Receiveth Sinners. If God Enable thee Now, to Lay Hold on the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, tho’ thy Faults are Infinite, thou wilt yet before Sun-set Stand without Fault before the Throne of God. Thy Soul is just sinking down, into the Fiery Ocean of the Wrath of God, but the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, is cast forth unto thee, once more, for thee, to Lay Hold upon.
Oh! Lay Hold upon it, and Live! If God help thee, to do so, Then, as it was said, “The Mary whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her,” So it shall be said, “The Sarah, whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her!” Then, as it was said, Rahab the Harlot perished not, so it shall be said, Sarah the Harlot, perished not! Tho’ the Blood of thy murdered Infant, with all thy other Bloody Crimes, horribly Cry to God against thee, yet a louder and better Cry from the Blood of thy Saviour, shall drown that formidable Cry. Yea, then, There will be Joy in Heaven this Afternoon among the Angels of God; the Angels of Heaven will stand amazed, and say, “O the Infinite Grace, that can bring such a Sinner unto Glory!”
But if ever the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, be applied unto thy Heart, it will immediately Dissolve that Heart of thine; it will cause thee to Mourn for every Sin, to Turn from every Sin, to give thy self entirely unto God. It will be impossible for thee, to Go on in any Known Sin, or to Dy with a Ly in thy mouth: No, thou wilt rather Dy than commit any Known Sin in the World. If this Disposition, be not produced in thee, before Three or Four short Hours more are Expired, thy Immortal Spirit, will anon pass into Eternal Torment: thou wilt before To morrow morning be a Companion of the Devils and the Damned; the Everlasting Chains of Darkness will hold thee, for the Worm that never dies, and the Fire that never shall be Quenched: thou shalt fall into the Hands of the Living God, and become as a glowing Iron, possessed by his Burning Vengeance, throughout Eternal Ages; the God that made thee, will not have mercy on thee, and He that formed thee will show thee no Favour. But for his Mercy, and Favour, while there is yet hope, we will yet Cry unto Him.
On this date in 1996, Ellis Wayne Felker was elecrocuted for a rape-murder that — despite his classic middle name — he always maintained he did not commit.
Felker was fresh off his release from prison for aggravated sodomy in 1981 when he opened a leather shop at which a Macon Junior College student named Evelyn Joy Ludlam solicited work. Felker had none to give her — the business was failing — but he still invited her to interview.
Sometime after Ludlam interviewed at Felker’s shop on Novemer 24, 1981, her car ended up parked in the lot of the Trust Company Bank with Joy nowhere to be found. She remained missing until December 8, when a passerby found her body in Scuffle Creek outside of Macon. She had been raped, sodomized, and throttled.
Evidence incriminating Felker was circumstantial but suggestive: Felker was the last person who could be shown to have seen Joy Ludlam alive, and that under duplicitous circumstances; he had shifted his account of his contact with Ludlam during the crucial hours as evidence came in; he had gone out for an unexplained drive late the night of her disappearance; some bruises on the victim’s body suggested bondage sex and Wayne, a BDSM aficionado, had suspiciously disposed of some leather restraints shortly after Joy vanished. Plus, of course, there was that previous sexual assault conviction.
On the other hand, the initial autopsy and some expert testimony concerning the body’s condition suggested that Joy had died just a few days before she was pulled out of the creek — a timeline which would have ruled Felker out as a suspect since he was under police surveillance from the evening of November 25. (The revision of the autopsy’s initial, Felker-exonerating timeline, and the subsequent expert dispute over the expected state of a body submerged in water after X number of days forms a sizable part of the record. We at Executed Today have no ranks in this coroner’s science, but would note that she was found wearing the clothes she donned for her November 24 visit to Felker’s leather shop.) And years after the trial, boxes of evidence that the state had illegally failed to disclose to Felker’s defense team were discovered. They contained interviews with other witnesses, a highly dubious signed confession by a mentally disabled man, and human tissue.
The last really sticks in craw: courts in 1996, when DNA was still only emerging as a forensic force, refused to allow the sample to be tested on the Kafkaesque procedural grounds that the request had not been made earlier in the process — you know, before the defense knew there was such a sample to test, and/or before DNA testing was a thing. Partial credit for the frustration of Felker’s appeal routes goes to that relic of 1990s death penalty mania, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, which limited (and still limits) capital defendants’ access to federal habeas corpus relief was actually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1996 via Felker’s own case: the key ruling is Felker v. Turpin.
He wasn’t through making history after he died, either.
In what was thought to be a first in 2000, a consortium of media organizations footed the bill for posthumous DNA testing of those recovered hair and fingernail samples, with the potential to deliver an embarrassing four-years-too-late exoneration.
Minutes after midnight on this date in 1996, Georgia electrocuted Larry Lonchar
Ten grand in the red on gambling debts, Lonchar in 1986 raided the home of the bookie he owed and gunned down that bookie, his female partner, and his two sons. (One of the sons survived by playing dead.)
A DeKalb county 911 call recorded the horrifying last moments of Margaret Sweat:
911: DeKalb Emergency 911.
911: What address?
911: What’s the problem?
Caller: Everybody’s been shot.
911: Who’s been shot?
Caller: Me — and —
911: With a gun?
911: Who did it?
Caller: I don’t know.
911: Is that a house or an apartment?
Caller: It’s a condominium. . . .
911: Okay. Now you say everybody’s been shot, I already got you help on the way, but when you say everybody’s been shot, how many?
Caller: Uh, me.
911: Where are you shot at?
Caller: In the living room — I’ve crawled to the phone.
911: I mean what part of your body, Ma’am.
Caller: I think my stomach — they’re coming back in — please-(inaudible)
911: Who did it? Give me a description of them!
Caller: Why are you doing this. Please — (inaudible). Please, please, I don’t even know your name. Please — please Larry. I don’t even know your n –.
Lonchar had little stomach to fight a death sentence he acknowledged deserving — an execution date in 1993 had been averted only at the last moment when his brother’s suicide threat induced Lonchar to reluctantly pick up his appeals — and by the end he was holding out strangely for only a late delay. It seems that he wanted to donate his kidneys, but the wrack of the electrical chair promised to damage the tissue past using. That situation had even led Georgia lawmaker Doug Teper to introduce legislation to conduct executions by guillotine: say what you will about the iconic French razor, it’s easy on the organs.
The spectacle of legal beheadings was spared America, then and since — though who knows what may someday come of the ongoing breakdown of the lethal injection process.
Lonchar’s execution was witnessed by British human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who had come to represent him: Smith wrote about the experience for the Guardianhere.