Graf was a conscientious Catholic whose disaffinity for Naziism manifested in an early refusal to join the Hitler Youth: he did a short stint in prison in 1938 for having continued associating with a banned Catholic youth league.
This subversive fellow might have been destined for the chop regardless in the black years to come, but for a thoroughgoing radicalization, he was drafted into the army as a medic and got a front-row seat on the Holocaust and the horrors of the eastern front.
He was arrested within months and condemned on April 19, 1943 to die as a traitor — though actual execution of the sentence waited several months on the Gestapo’s vain exertions to extract from their prey actionable information on other collaborators.
A number of schools around Germany are named in Graf’s honor.
On this date in 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged at England’s Wandsworth Prison for poisoning his brother-in-law in pursuit of an inheritance.
Once decorated for his volunteer medical practicioning in the benighted lands of eastern Europe, Dr. Lamson fell prey upon his return to England to morphine addiction which cleaned out his assets.
Desperate to resolve his debts, he administered a lethal aconitine dose to the paraplegic 18-year-old Percy John.
Apparently, the good doctor had learned all about this efficacious chemical at the knee of Queen Victoria’s own physician, Robert Christison.
Unfortunately, Lamson hadn’t been keeping up with his technical journals in the meantime: Christison had taught him that aconitine poisoning was undetectable, but a forensic technique to identify it had subsequently been developed.
(Minor-league milestone: Lamson’s was the first recorded criminal defense that attempted to blame ptomaine poisoning, a now-discredited theory that death can be induced by alkaloid toxins from decomposing food. But the lawyer making that defense would later write that he not only believed his client guilty, he also thought Lamson had iced his wife’s older brother, Herbert.)
The particulars of Lamson’s trial are recounted at length in this free book, from which we excerpt the interesting description of executioner William Marwood’s craft in arranging the scene.
Lamson was a more powerfully built man than he appeared, weighing upwards of 11 stone 12 Ibs., and the executioner, evidently fearing that hie strength would operate somewhat against a sharp and quick fall, fastened back his shoulders in a manner which precluded all possibility of the culprit resisting the action of the drop …
When the convict was pinioned the procession moved on, the clergyman the meanwhile reading the service of the Church appointed for the burial of the dead, the doomed man respondnig almost inaudibly to the words as they were uttered by the chaplain. It was with great difficulty now that he could walk at all; indeed, it is certain that had he not been supported by the two warders who stood on either side of him, he would have fallen to the earth. Suddenly he came in sight of the gallows, a black structure, about 30 yards distant. The grave, newly dug, was close at hand. The new and terrible spectacle here acted once more with painful effect upon the condemned man, for again he almost halted and fell. But the warders, never leaving hold of him, moved on, while Marwood came behind. At last the gallows was reached, and here the clergyman bade farewell to the prisoner, while Marwood began his preparations with the rope and the beam overhead. With a view to meet any accretion of fear which might now befall the culprit, a wise provision had been made. The drop was so arranged as to part in the middle, after the fashion of two folding doors ; but, lest the doomed man might not be able to stand upon the scaffold without assistance, two planks of deal had been placed over the drop, one on either side of the rope, so that up to the latest moment the two warders supporting the convict might stand securely and hold him up, without danger to themselves or inconvenience to the machinery of the gallows. In this way Lamson was now kept erect while Marwood fastened his legs and put the cap over his eyes. He must have fallen had the arrangement been otherwise, for his effort to appear composed had by this time failed. Indeed, from what now occurred it is evident that the convict yet hoped for a few moments more of life, for, as Marwood proceeded to pull the cap down over his face he pitifully begged that one more prayer might be recited by the chaplain. Willing as the executioner possibly might have been to listen to this request, he had, of course, no power to alter the progress of the service, and was obliged to disregard this last demand of the dying man. Signalling to the warders to withdraw their arms, he drew the lever, which released the bolt under the drop, and so launched the prisoner into eternity, [the] clergyman finished the Lord’s Prayer, in the midst of which he found himself when the lever had been pulled, and then, pronouncing the benediction, moved slowly back to the prison.
Though aconitine poisoning dates back to antiquity (the Greeks figured that the original dog from hell, Cerberus, drooled aconitine) and has been used as a literary device by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and J.K. Rowling, Dr. Lamson’s was long the last known case of criminal homicide by aconitine — until the 2009 conviction of a west London woman for slipping this illustrious mickey to her paramour in his chicken curry.
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.
[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.
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 — 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.
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.**
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.
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.
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.)
On this date in 1948, seven SS men were hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison, condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the so-called Doctors Trial.
Four of the hanged were doctors; three were non-physicians who assisted them. Their trial (which included 16 others, variously acquitted or sentenced to prison terms) by an American military tribunal was a conscious attempt to establish criminal responsibility among the medical profession.
To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. Some of them may be sadists who killed and tortured for sport, but they are not all perverts. They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some of them are distinguished scientists. Yet these defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts, and most of whom were exceptionally qualified to form a moral and professional judgment in this respect, are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.
It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.
Some of this was combat-related. How long can a downed pilot survive in the North Sea? Throw a POW into freezing water and find out.
Some was more conventional medical advancement, shorn of any ethical sense. How can we treat malaria? Inject some untermenschen and start testing.
And some of it was straight from the Nazis’ racial purification theology: euthanizing the disabled, castrating and murdering Jews and Gypsies, that sort of thing. It’s all a rich tapestry.
The doctors hanged this date included
Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the co-director of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program**
SS hygienist Joachim Mrugowsky, for experiments with concentration camp prisoners
SS surgeon and German Red Cross head Karl Gebhart, who enjoyed experimenting with operations on unanaesthetized prisoners
Waldemar Hoven, chief doctor at Buchenwald
They kept company with three others who didn’t see the “patients” but pushed around the paper for those who did.
* In 1970, Telford wrote Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, arguing that American officials had committed war crimes in Vietnam because “we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg.”
** Karl Brandt was actually condemned to death by a Nazi court in the closing days of the war and only narrowly avoided execution. His crime? Moving his family out of Berlin so that they could surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.
On the run from the Gestapo — as a Jew or a Gypsy, a common criminal or a Resistance fighter whose cover is blown — you get wind of a man who can help.
“Dr. Eugène” will (for a fee) spirit you over the Pyrenees and thence to South America. In his house at rue le Sueur, you make the arrangements. One small matter: the tropics requires an inoculation, which le bon docteur will readily provide. One small prick of the needle and then …
The needle contained cyanide and the destination turned out to be a lime pit, and so “Dr. Eugène” — Marcel Petiot — was guillotined this date in 1946.
His opportunistic exploitation of the dangerous Vichy years is what he’s famous for, but Petiot had decades of crime behind him by the time he got his phony “underground railroad” up and running.
From youthful compulsive thieving, Petiot graduated into a shady medical practice in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne where he was the resident black market abortionist.
He’s thought to have killed a mistress there, and maybe a couple of others, but was able to segue into a political career by winning the mayoralty of Villaneuve when he sabotaged his opponent’s campaign appearances. The sticky-fingered Petiot naturally plundered the town treasury and was forced out of office in 1931.
By the time the war years had rolled around, Petiot had judiciously relocated to Paris where he retained his capacity for professional advancement in the face of profoundly disturbed behavior: he was institutionalized for kleptomania the same year he was appointed an official médecin d’état-civil.
So he had the requisite two-faced background for his whackadoodle wartime “escape route”, which he creepily code-named “Fly-Tox.”
Twists and turns elided — trutv.com and crimemagazine.com both have detailed biographies/case histories — Petiot’s enterprise was quasi-exposed early in 1944 when the stink of incinerating bodies prompted neighbors to summon the police and uncover his charnel house.
Amazingly, Petiot was able to beg off with the claim that he was a Resistance activist — these were French police — and that the victims were Nazis or collaborators who had been eliminated by his network on orders. The Gestapo had sniffed him out too late in the war to do anything about him, but its judgment that Petiot was a “dangerous lunatic” actually turned out to bolster the deranged doctor’s case that he was an anti-fascist.
The alibis fell apart as the war wrapped up, and Petiot was finally recognized in a Paris manhunt and brought to trial for 27 homicides. Police thought 60-plus was more like it — maybe even into the hundreds — but secured 26 of the 27 counts. That’s more than enough to do a man to death, especially since they were the for-fun-and-profit murders of desperate people already on the run from the late and hated occupying army. Bit of a touchy subject in France in ’46.
But there was good news.
This London Times (May 27, 1946) observed that Petiot’s beheading marked
the first time that the guillotine has been used since the war. Until now executions have been by firing squads. Although gruesome, it is one more indication of the return of this country to normal civil ways of life.
On this date in 1845, John Tawell was publicly hanged in Aylesbury (while broadsheets were hawked beneath the scaffold to the crowd of thousands) for the murder of his mistress — making history as the first criminal apprehended with the use of the telegraph.
Tawell had had an interesting 60-plus years on the planet. He did well as a young banker on the make to avoid the halter for the capital crime of forging banknotes.*
In those sanguinary days of our penal code, this crime, if brought home, would have led to his certain condemntion and ignominious execution as a felon. The particulars of the affair were, however, suppressed as far as possible, on account of the insuperable disinclination of the bankers to be in any way instrumental in taking away human life.**
Clapped in irons and sent to Australia, he waxed wealthy — “by his fortunate, and, it is to be presumed, honest trading,” our wry biography remarks. (As a pharmacist. That’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)
Tawell returned to England in 1831, got Sarah Hart as a bit on the side (she’d initially been hired to nurse Tawell’s dying wife), and then married a respectable Quaker woman. To conceal the affair — or perhaps because the payola Tawell was obliged to send for the maintenance of his mistress and the kids he begat with her was chewing into his straitened finances — Tawell poisoned Hart on New Year’s Day 1845.
Unfortunately for him, he was noticed leaving the scene of the crime by a neighbor, who found the victim before she had even expired.
Tawell had hopped a slow train for London ahead of apprehension, but it transpired that the station had installed the newfangled telecommunications device, the telegraph, which was requisitioned to dispatch to Paddington station a famous missive.
A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.
(The telegraph didn’t have a “Q”, so they had to improvise a phonetic spelling. k l8r.)
(This landmark police event is not to be confused with the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal — the next century’s very similar philandering-apothecary-on-the-lam case of Dr. Crippen.)
Caught, convicted,† condemned. (And confessed, secretly, to the prison chaplain.) The usual. Botched strangulation hanging. Hardly unusual. Love triangle murder? Downright trite.
But still: Tawell’s strange and variegated life left a strange and variegated legacy. (pdf)
In Australia, the memory of Tawell lingered for many years after his death because considerable legal argument took place about the validity of the Crown’s hndling of his property there. The Governor, Sir William Denison, affixed the Great Seal of the colony to the grant documents on his own initiative, which creted a serious difference between him and his chief minister. Known as the “Great Seal case”, it dragged on for some 16 years before it was resolved. It provided a dramatic epilogue to Tawell’s activities.
John Tawell had pharmacy qualifications of a sort, and he was no better or worse than many of the doctors around Sydney at the time who had received no regular professional instruction. When Tawell ventured into competition with the medical establishment in the colony it was a huge gamble because until 1820 many government doctors saw private patients and had clerks to do their dispensing, usually from hospital stores. He showed that independent pharmacy could thrive away from the medical shadow, but the commercial nature of his success also showed that the founding of independent pharmacy in Australia occurred as a retailing activity rather than as a needed profession.
* As a teen, Tawell was friends with a Quaker linen-draper who was himself ultimately executed for forgery, Joseph Hunton.
** This claim for bankers’ gentility is advanced in the context of the story of a banker who in fact went on to commit murder. Aside from that obvious paradox, it will come as no surprise to any denizen of the post-bailout neoliberal era that bankers proved more than ready to involve themselves in human misery, sufficiently remunerative. If Tawell’s sweetheart plea bargain reveals anything about the financier class, it’s that bankers aren’t keen on precedents for taking away bankers’ lives.
† John Tawell’s trial lawyer, the eminent jurist and politician Sir Fitzroy Kelly disputed the coroner’s poisoning conclusion by arguing that Sarah Hart might have just eaten too many apple seeds. (Prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, does occur naturally in many fruits.)
This attempted Chewbacca defense earned the barrister the nickname “Apple-pip Kelly”. However, since the cutting-edge technology of the day was only telegraph and not Twitter, the case does not appear to have launched any of Apple-pip Kelly’s progeny into lucratively pointless careers as famous-for-being-famous socialites.
This date’s observance marks the systematic execution by (West) Pakistani forces of the intellectual class of East Pakistan at the end of the civil war which would detach the east as the independent nation Bangladesh — an unavenged war crime as cynical as it was brutal.
Executed intellectuals in the Dhaka Rayerbazar, 1971.
This was not a single discrete massacre, but a continuing policy during the March-December 1971 war. December 14, just two days before the Pakistani army surrendered, was the peak date of a dreadful endgame paroxysm that saw hundreds of scholars, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, writers, engineers, and the like rounded up and summarily executed in a bid to decapitate the new Bengali state’s intelligentsia.
Though the martyrs were subsequently venerated in Bangladesh, the higher-stakes regional geopolitics have always made effective redress a nonstarter.
On this date in 1823, French physician Edme Castaing expiated upon the scaffold history’s first conviction for murder with morphine.
The good doc used the drug, a new twist on an ancient remedy only recently brought to market, apparently to poison off one of two wealthy brothers with the connivance of the other wealthy brother, the latter of whom stood in danger of being disinherited.
And then, the beneficiary of that crime wrote a will of his own to the profit of the poisoner.
Do not try this at home.
Castaing, naturally, poisoned off the other brother, too, and relieved some considerable financial distress along with, one must think, the burdensome company of a complete dullard.
“The science of toxicology,” however, “was not greatly advanced at this time, and … the above conclusion was based on presumption rather than fact.”
While today, such a case might be ripped from CSI, in 1823 it entailed an uncertain trial with varying (and wrong) medical testimony and a circumstantial trail of witnesses drawing flailing rebuttals from the accused that ran towards the unconvincing and the contradictory. (Follow the twists and turns from a contemporary chronicle here.)
Quite convicted in the public eye (a verdict history has had little cause to revisit), Castaing was judicially acquitted of the murder of Hippolyte Ballet, and doomed by the barest 7-5 majority verdict for the second Ballet boy. The London Times complained in its report of the execution (printed Dec. 9, 1823), that
[t]he faculty speak in very harsh and unmeasured terms of Dr. Pellatan, who neither described with care and accuracy, what he himself observed on opening of the body of Ballet, nor gave them the means of forming an opinion themselves, by bringing to Paris the intestines of the deceased. The physicians join the rest of the world in ascribing Ballet’s death to substances administered by Castaing, but they regret that criminal justice could not, owing to the neglicence or ignorance of Pellatan, obtain more satisfactory proofs of the crime. Beyond his own confessions, contradictions, and admissions, there was confessedly no ground to convict him.
After losing the subsequent civil war, the former President was trapped for a nervous few years in Kabul — blocked from joining his family in flight to India by the offices of former Soviet client and present-day American client Abdul Rashid Dostum.
When Kabul finally surrendered to the Taliban in 1996, the hated onetime Communist viceroy — whose stepping-stone to that post was heading the hated Afghan secret police — had a problem.
At the instigation of future Taliban second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, Najibullah and his brother were hauled out of the U.N. compound where they had taken refuge, publicly beaten, tortured and castrated, and strung up on a traffic barricade.