Posts filed under 'Entertainers'

1973: Mimi Wong Weng Siu, jealous hostess

1 comment July 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.

“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)

On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.

The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.

While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.

The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.

According to an October 2013 AsiaOne profile, Singh had an unusually close pre-execution relationship with the first woman hanged in the only recently (since 1965) independent Singapore.

In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.

“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.

The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.

Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.

“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.

Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Sex,Singapore,Women

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1703: Tom Cook, Ordinary’s pet

Add comment August 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1703,* Thomas Cook was hanged at Tyburn.

Cook — or the Gloucester Butcher, to use the sobriquet that advertised his prize fights — was convicted of giving a constable a fatal rapier thrust during a mob affray.

As he faced execution in prison, Cook continued to insist that he didn’t do it. But he still gratified the ministrations of the Newgate Ordinary Paul Lorrain by admitting to a life of sinfulness:

that he had frequently stoln [sic] Sheep, and done many ill things … He acknowledg’d he had been a grievous Sinner, a great Swearer and Drinker, an Adulterer, a Prophane and Lewd Wretch, and a sworn Enemy of those who were employ’d in the Reformation of Manners; and that for some years past he had made it his great Business to Fight for Prizes; an Exercise which the Pride of his Heart carry’d him to, which he now looks upon as most Heathenish and Barbarous, and which, with all other the wicked Practices of his Life, especially his slight of Religion, he does detest and abhor … and in the Words of a Dying-Man (who by the just Providence of God, came to suffer a shameful and untimely Death, in the primer of his years) he exhorts all those of his Acquaintance, and others that live loosely and particularly that follow this Wicked Sport of Prize playing, to reform betimes, and apply themselves to that which is virtuous and laudable, lest if they cdo continue any longer in their ill way, the Wrath of God fall upon them, and they come to the same, or worse Punishment thatn himself.

But still, he didn’t kill the cop, he said. (This, actually, was a common enough dodge among the Ordinary’s patients: it enabled them to satisfy the confessor, and the weight of social conventions he pressed on them, while also persisting with a denial of this crime one might be invested in maintaining. Whether true or no, Cook must have been unusually persuasive to pass off a story that would ordinarily be held to characterize an “obstinate” prisoner.)

Paul Lorrain, who held the Ordinary of Newgate office from 1700 to 1719, absolutely adored a good conversion story; his profession after all was ministering to prisoners. Lorrain ate all this reform-themselves-betimes stuff right up.

Two days after Cook’s execution, Lorrain compared the hanged pugilist to the Biblical patriarch Enoch at an overwrought funeral sermon (titled “Walking With God”): proof positive that even the most wretched sinner could taste God’s redemption. Cook’s “Soul is now enjoying an honourable and happy Life in God’s Glorious Kingdom,” Lorrain averred.

This was mainstream theology, but not a universal opinion.

Cook’s fellow convicts in Newgate regarded the repentant condemned as an unctuous hypocrite and didn’t share the Ordinary’s susceptibility to the actual-innocence claim Cook smuggled into his big confession of general lifelong sin.**

One of those fellow convicts in 1703 was Daniel Defoe, who met Lorrain while incarcerated and took a violent personal dislike to the prelate.

Defoe (who would later put a dismissal of the Ordinary in the mouth of his great heroine Moll Flanders) retorted to Lorrain’s published sermon with a scathing pamphlet titled “A Hymn to the Funeral Sermon”. In it, he mocks Lorrain’s racket peddling the public† broadsheets which almost invariably celebrate the gallow’s-foot conversions of his innumerable malefactors. After all, when

Men of Infamy should rise,
By Ladders to Ascend the Skys …
What need we Mortifie and Pray
If Gibbets are the Shortest Way?
In what disguise Religion may be drest,
The crooked Paths of Priest-craft Paint?
Where lies the Secret, let us know,
To make a Sheep-stealer a Saint?
Or bid me tell them that ’tis all a Jest;
What need they point out other ways,
Since Earthly Rogues can Merrit Holy Praise?
If this Wise Precedent the World receives,
Newgate shall ne’re be call’d a Den of Thieves.


Not related to Cook or to Defoe, this 1882 Puck cartoon (via the Library of Congress) makes Defoe’s same discomfiting point graphically: the soul of the hanged murderer ascends into angelic choirs, his crimes literally wiped away by his confessor — while that of his victim, slain unawares while unpurged sin weighs his conscience, wallows in hell. “The Murderer’s Straight Route to Heaven — Bringing Religion into Disrepute,” runs the caption.

* Cook had had a last-minute reprieve from joining a July 21 hanging date; in his account for that date, Paul Lorrain called out Cook by name to take “a happy Warning” from the right conduct of those gallows-birds.

** In 1706, two other men coming up for hanging made a point of insisting to Lorrain that the fighter who “with such an Air of seeming Repentance to his last breath deny’d his crime” did commit the murder.

† According to Lincoln Faller (“In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime”, Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976), Lorrain left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719. His salary as Ordinary was something in the neighborhood of £35 per annum. Defoe overtly accuses Lorrain in “Hymn” not merely of profiteering but of taking payola to frame a gratifying obituary for a hanged criminal: “Pulpit praises may be had / According as the Man of God is paid.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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1751: James Field, pugilist

1 comment February 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.

He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)


“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)

Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.

Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to run Field to ground for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.

Field lives on in William Hogarth‘s anti-animal cruelty engravings Four Stages of Cruelty, published later in 1751. He’s the model for the hanged corpse being carved apart in the dissection theater in the last plate.

Second Plate:

In Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty, a small poster in the background advertises a James Field bout against George Taylor.
Fourth Plate:

In Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, the hanged corpse laid out for dissection (and dog food) is modeled on James Field.

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1946: Chu Minyi, collaborationist Foreign Minister

Add comment August 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1946, China executed Chu Minyi for serving as the Foreign Minister of the wartime Japanese puppet government.

Chu was a nationalist dating back to the Qing dynasty, though he spent most of the first decade after the revolution at European universities.

He returned to China as a Koumintang supporter in the 1920s.

The guy had the bad luck to be the brother-in-law of notorious quisling figure Wang Jingwei, who enjoyed the title of President of China under the Japanese aegis.

For what’s generally interpreted as reasons of personal more than political loyalty, Chu accordingly agreed to serve in Wang’s cabinet as Foreign Minister. “Chen Gongbo‘s mouth, Zhou Fuohai‘s pen and Chu Minyi’s legs” was the government’s tagline. (Chu was also a noted martial artist.)

But it was Hirohito’s guns they relied upon, and none of them would much outlive Japan’s surrender. Chu was tried as a traitor in April 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Treason

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1935: Del Fontaine, punch drunk boxer

1 comment October 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Canadian pugilist Del Fontaine was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, “the bravest fellow we ever saw go to the scaffold.”

Winnipeg-born as Raymond Henry Bousquet, Fontaine twice won the Canadian middleweight belt.

But a grueling, 98-fight career took its toll on the man.

By the end — when he had crossed the pond for a couple years traversing the English rings — Del Fontaine was visibly punch-drunk. The onetime champion lost 12 of his last 14 fights.

Punch drunk — scientific name dementia pugilistica — is just the classic diagnosis for “concussed all to hell,” afflicted by traumatic brain injury and its mind-altering long-term effects: Depression, violence, mood swings, loss of judgment and impulse control. Those are the kinds of behavior patterns that tend to brush up against the criminal justice system.

The syndrome’s popular name suggests its most visible injury, to motor skills — a symptom Fontaine’s colleagues in the business could readily diagnose.

Del shouldn’t have been in the ring at all for his last fight. He wasn’t in a fit state,” fellow prizefighter Ted Lewis testified at Fontaine’s trial, recalling a Newcastle bout that ended in a flash on three first-round knockdowns. “As a boxer, he has received more punishment than anyone I have ever seen.” The house doctor at a Blackfriars venue Fontaine had appeared at earlier in 1935 said the fighter complained of double vision and sleeplessness, and couldn’t walk straight. (London Times, Sep. 17, 1935)

If 1935 was a few decades’ shy of our present-day understanding of concussions, it was still well-enough known to those who had experience of the punch-drunk that psychological changes accompanied the physical impairments. Those who knew Del Fontaine knew he wasn’t right in the head.

The reason this tribunal had to sit for the humiliating public probe of Fontaine’s mental crevasses was that Fontaine had left his wife and kids behind when he crossed the Atlantic. Once he got to the Isles, he took up with an English sweetheart in Bristol.

This Hilda Meek, a West End waitress a decade the junior of her lover, became the object of an obsessive infatuation. In a fit of jealous rage, Fontaine gunned her down (and her mother too, although mom survived) when he caught Meek making a date with another man.

Fontaine was captured, unresisting, dolorously on the scene, and openly admitted his actions. Acquittal on the facts would be a nonstarter; diminished responsibility because of dementia pugilistica was the best defense gambit available.

The highly restrictive legal bar against an insanity defense aced out the legal maneuver: however impulsive and moody a lifetime of concussions had left him, they couldn’t be said to have prevented him “knowing right from wrong.” Still, his case attracted a fair bit of public sympathy, and when a petition for clemency went nowhere, hundreds of people, including a number of other boxers, turned up at Wandsworth to protest on the morning the punch-drunk Del Fontaine hanged for murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Canada,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex

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1891: Four to save the electric chair

3 comments July 7th, 2011 Headsman

After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.

Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.

The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.

But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!

There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”

New York Times, July 8, 1891

“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.

Consequently,

every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.

The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?

But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.

There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.

Wait, what!?

If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.

I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.

You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.

For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:

  • James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife
  • Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
  • Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
  • Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades

History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.

* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.

** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.

Thanks to @LisaWinston for the tip to Slocum’s sports career.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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2005: Shanmugam Murugesu, for the chronic

2 comments May 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Singapore hanged a 34-year-old for pot.

Shanmugam Murugesu, an ethnically Tamil Singaporean, was nabbed carrying a kilo of marijuana.

Your basic “wtf drug war” case study, this divorced father actually represented Singapore at international watersports competitions and otherwise led a productive, non-criminal life.

The city-state: a mite crazy over drugs. (And over the death penalty.) Mere mary jane is among the substances that can get you a death sentence there — carrying 500 grams or more is supposed to trigger automatic execution.

While awaiting that fate, Shanmugam befriended the young Australian drug mule and “simple soul” Van Tuong Nguyen, who was bound to follow in his footsteps; Shanmugam’s last appeal to his lawyer was “to save Nguyen Tuong Van’s life at all costs.”

(No luck, but it’s the thought that counts.)

Shanmugam Murugesu’s hanging was also notable as a civic event in Singapore for the landmark public protest (organized in large measure by the hanged man’s own family) it generated — a rarity for that “Disneyland with the death penalty”.

Public Forum on Death Penalty and Campaign for Shanmugam Murugesu from Jacob George on Vimeo.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Singapore

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1872: Yoarashi Okinu, geisha

Add comment March 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, geisha Yoarashi (“Night Storm”) Okinu was beheaded at Tokyo’s Kozukappara execution grounds after killing her lover to run away with a kabuki actor.


Via

A notorious dokufu, so-called “poison-women” that captivated that country in the late 19th century, Night Storm (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was of humble origins but became a sought-after geisha in Edo.

Her celebrity affairs are treated here (reliability: unknown), but the reason she’s in this here blog is poisoning off the second-last of them with arsenic in order to get free to run off with kabuki actor Arashi Rikaku.

Rikaku himself was up to his eyeballs in this same plot, and was arrested — our source says, during a kabuki performance! — and initially condemned to death. Since Okinu was pregnant, however, her execution was put off pending childbirth; eventually, Rikaku’s sentence was moderated from capital punishment altogether.

Okinu’s head was cut off, and displayed in public for several days. Her lover served three years in prison, then rebuilt his kabuki career as Ichikawa Gonjuro.

* The date was the “20th day of the 2nd month of the fifth year of Meiji”, using Japan’s system of dating years from the start of the current emperor’s reign. Helpful in nailing down the date: Tokyo’s first daily newspaper published its first issue on the very next day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Japan,Murder,Notably Survived By,Scandal,Sex,Women

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1944: Not Sim Kessel, Jewish boxer

7 comments December 27th, 2010 Meaghan

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

“In December 1944,” begins Sim Kessel’s Holocaust memoir, “I was hanged at Auschwitz.”

He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.

Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.

The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.

Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:

Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!

Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:

“Boxer?”

“Boxer? Ja!”

He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.

Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:

This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.

In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”

The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.

Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.

And then the rope broke.

Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]

I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.

In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.

Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:

So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.

Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.

Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.

It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.

Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,Executions Survived,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Poland,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1909: Valgrand in place of Fantomas

1 comment December 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1909, in the first novel of the hit French Fantomas crime serial, the title character escapes the guillotine by having a duped actor beheaded in his place.

Fantomas’s Wikipedia entry calls the character “a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 19th century to modern-day serial killers“: he’s a swashbuckling anti-hero who’s a master of disguise and perfectly okay with getting his hands bloody.

His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)

The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.

That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.

Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.

“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”

The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.

There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!

But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.

“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.

“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”

And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.

Fantomas on the silver screen

This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.

In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.

* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.

It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)

Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.

** Juve is a big fan of the then-trendy, now-discredited system of Bertillonage; Fantomas consistently runs circles around this “scientific” crime-fighting. Academics, if you please?

Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.

-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Escapes,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers

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