Posts filed under 'Entertainers'

1941: Karel Treybal, Grand Master

1 comment October 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1941, chess grand master Karel Treybal was shot in occupied Czechoslovakia as a suspected subversive for illegally stockpiling weapons.

The Bohemia-born Treybal was one of the great Czech players from the turn of the century.

Competing as an amateur — his day job was as a barrister — his attacking play made him one of the world’s best for most of his adult life. (Chess aficionados can browse his big matches here and here, or take in some Treybal chess puzzles. It says here that Treybal once played countryman Franz Kafka.)

Like everyone else standing between the great imperial powers come wartime, grand masters were just so many pawns.

The particulars of Treybal’s death seem murky: whether or not he received a nominal Nazi trial before his execution; whether there was anything to the weapons charges against him. Word, nonetheless, got right around.

According to a UP report datelined this very day that ran in the New York Times on Oct. 3,

German occupation forces have executed nearly 1,000 persons in Europe, in some cases shooting them by the carloads, in reprisal for a mounting tide of violence in the occupied countries, a compilation showed tonight.

German dispatches said eighteen persons were executed in Bohemia-Moravia today [Thursday, Oct. 2 -ed.], and thirty-nine yesterday. Six were executed Sunday, twenty Monday and fifty-eight Tuesday, according to earlier German announcements, making the total so far this week 141.

Those executed today were said to include Josef Benes, manager of the Farmers’ Association at Raudnitz; Anton Kvarda, manager of the trades school at Rakonitz; Karel Treybal, salesman; Josef Smrkovsky, business man, and Manzel Svoboda, former Czech Army lieutenant.

From Norway to Greece the executions have been Germany’s answer to all forms of opposition — sabotage, espionage, armed resistance, murder, treason, arson, aiding the enemy, listening to the foreign radio, operating illegal markets, dynamiting and the ill-inclusive “Communist” activity.

A postwar tournament was played in tribute of Treybal and the great Czech women’s champion Vera Menchik.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Lawyers,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1952: Night of the Murdered Poets

2 comments August 12th, 2009 Headsman

As night fell this evening in Moscow, 13 prominent Soviet Jews were shot in Lubyanka Prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets”, as it’s come to be remembered, wasn’t so much about the poetry; “only” five of the victims fit that description.

But as Joshua Rubenstein put it, “only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations; the other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor Lina Shtern, are rarely if ever remembered, perhaps because their careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor … Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

Falling victim to Stalin was such a particularly tragic fate because they were, in the main, good Communists:* good enough to have been part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a World War II organ dedicated to rallying support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Such national particularism — any port in a storm! — was all well and good when Moscow had the Wehrmacht at its gates and a short supply of friends, but it increasingly ran dangerously afoul Soviet officialdom as the 1940’s progressed. It was a bastion of sectarian identity rather than socialist universalism; its celebration of the Jewish soldier and of Jewish wartime travails cut against the narrative of Soviet sacrifice and heroism; its overseas links to the United States (where it toured in wartime) and the new state of Israel made it suspect, or at least vulnerable.

Thin excuse for mass execution, to be sure, but in a structure of generalized antisemitism run by a trigger-happy dictator …

In 1948-49, fifteen JAC members were arrested. One would die in prison; the aforementioned Lina Stern, a scientist, would receive a term of exile and return to Moscow when this purge’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

The thirteen others were tortured and condemned by a rigged (but secret, since many of the accused wouldn’t cop to public self-denunciations) trial

Years before his arrest, Markish would write words to make a eulogy for many a disillusioned Soviet citizen … and literally so in his case, since the verse was cited at his trial as evidence of his “pessimism”:

Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.

Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.

* Naturally, being a good Communist did not keep one safe from Uncle Joe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Women,Wrongful Executions

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305: Feast Day of St. Philemon the Actor

1 comment March 8th, 2009 Headsman

This is the feast day for St. Philemon the actor, supposed to have been hurled into the sea at Alexandria, Egypt, during the persecutions under Diocletian.

The fate of this otherwise obscure saint — he’s not to be confused with the first-century prelate to whom St. Paul addressed the shortest of his canonical epistles — is, of course, a byproduct of Christianity’s centuries-in-coming overthrow of the pagan world in which it incubated.

And in fact, Philemon the Actor’s martyrdom would have occurred towards the very end of the reign which saw the very last major anti-Christian persecutions. Already by this time, the young man whose sword arm would bear Christianity to its political triumph was a major political figure in the Empire.

The very next year, Constantine received the imperial purple, and over the ensuing years overcame his partners and rivals in that station to win unchallenged hegemony over the Roman World.

Laurels for Philemon and many others of his ilk would soon be policy for the empire that had put him to death, as celebration (perhaps exaggeration) of such travails cemented the newfound legitimacy of the formerly illicit religion elevated by Constantine.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,Egypt,Entertainers,Execution,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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1946: William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw

4 comments January 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1946, fascist William Joyce, famous by the nickname “Lord Haw-Haw” for his English-language Nazi propaganda broadcasts, was hanged at Wandsworth Prison for treason.

As a pugilistic young anti-Semite with the unusual credential of being a Unionist Irish Catholic, Joyce had been a moving spirit in the interwar British fascist party. (Since audio broadcasts would define Joyce’s life, it seems appropriate to refer the reader for a fuller biography to this recent Oxford biography podcast.)

But because time loves a good laugh, it had the guy haranguing his countrymen for insufficient patriotism marked out for the last treason execution in British history, and unrepentant about it by the time he got there.

The Brooklyn-born Joyce (he never lost his American citizenship) who naturalized as a German in 1940 had a rather tenuous claim on the patriotic high horse to begin with, and after the war, that meant the treason charge proceeded on legally doubtful grounds: speaking the King’s English didn’t mean he owed allegiance to the king. Prosecutors ultimately hung him with a British passport he’d obtained fraudulently, and the legal principle has never since sat well with jurists.

It was just the tool at hand. The British government really hated the guy.*

However limited the resources at his disposal — sparse intelligence, paltry staff, and of course, after 1942, a disastrously collapsing war effort — he had fashioned them into broadcast spin to twist the British lion’s tail in countless British homes throughout the war.

Here’s one episode, with Joyce savaging Winston Churchill, selected from archive.org’s library of Joyce broadcasts (1-7, 8-16, 17-23).

[audio:William_Joyce_Churchill.mp3]

Joyce’s star shone brightest and his invective cut deepest early in the war. Once everything at the front stopped coming up Teutons, he descended into irrelevance and self-parody, albeit without professing the slightest doubt in his fascist convictions.

This last broadcast, prepared just a few days before Germany capitulated, has our day’s principal ramblingly drunkenly from the besieged Nazi capital.

[audio:William_Joyce_final_broadcast.mp3]

Content-wise, not much had changed eight months later, but at least he managed to make his gallows statement coherently.

In death as in life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the power of darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the crushing imperialism of the Soviet Union. May Britain be great once again and the hour of the greatest danger in the West may the standard be raised from the dust, crowned with the words — you have conquered nevertheless. I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.

There’s a thorough, and lavishly illustrated, history of Joyce here.

* Authorities passed on prosecuting his wife Margaret, who’d also appeared on some Lord Haw-Haw broadcasts. Under the circumstances, Joyce’s daughter (by his first marriage) Heather Iandolo turned out pretty balanced.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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2001: Mona Fandey, witch doctor

6 comments November 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2001, former pop singer and shaman Mona Fandey was hanged with two accomplices at Kajang Prison outside Kuala Lumpur, closing the noose on one of the world’s weirdest and most sensational recent crimes.

Aging B-list pop crooner Maznah Ismail — “Mona Fandey” was her stage name — had transitioned to a gig as a high-rent spiritualist and healer, known locally as a bomoh.

In that capacity, she and hubby Mohd Affandi Abdul Rahman landed a politician with more money than sense. After collecting a bunch of cash from him, they got him to lie down with his eyes closed as part of a ritual that was supposed to make money fall from the skies. Instead, the couple’s assistant Juraimi Hussin chopped off his head, and Mona went on a shopping spree.

The effect of the grisly celebrity murder was heightened by Mona’s cheery demeanor throughout the trial and thereafter, as if a murderess’ notoriety was the pinnacle she never achieved as an entertainer.

She and her husband maintained an unsettling placidity about their demise to the very end. Some sources say she uttered the mysterious remark, “I will never die” just before her hanging. (Others have everyone silent.)

The end of the three killers was hardly the end of such a headline-grabbing case in the public memory. Her cell is becoming a protected “heritage site”, and her story has been treated on screens both small and silver.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Infamous,Malaysia,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Women

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1917: Mata Hari, femme fatale

6 comments October 15th, 2008 Headsman

At 5 a.m. this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.

She died in a muddy drill field outside Paris, facing a firing squad as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, her eyes (she refused a blindfold) open.

For the oldest profession, it may be there is nothing truly original, nothing new under the sun. But Mata Hari — thanks in no small part to her genuinely fatale end — redefined it for the dawning age of mass visual media and tapped the power of sexual allure for a commercial century.

She was already pushing 30 when she got into the exotic dance game, with a failed May-December marriage behind her from what a wag might call her first sexual bargain, to get out from under the thumb of her family and see the world. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier. Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.

She exploited her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood — and claimed to be an Indian princess; her talent for repackaging oriental exoticism with just the right amount of otherness combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.

Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two.

She comes at the start of our own era: sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product; celluloid was just coming online, and 14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:

That’s her with the last object of her affections, a Russian aviator young enough to be her son, and a reminder that the birth of Greta Garbo’s era was also the death of Mata Hari’s own.

She was aging, for one thing. For another, of course, war shattered Europe. Famous, decadent, polyglot … those things that had been her passport suddenly became her liabilities. Globetrotting travel? Payoffs from a multinational cast of officers for her companionship?

There’s no take here on whether she was really, as convicted, a German spy of any variety at all — she seems to have been approached, to have tried her hand clumsily or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence, or simply to have behaved indiscreetly. Once she was caught up against events, her maneating reputation did her no favors.

Spying, she was terrible at. Commanding men’s attention? As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last.

The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.

The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.

‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.

She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.

Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.

Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:

‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.

The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.

Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.

The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.*

The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.

She did not move a muscle.

The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.

It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.

Mata Hari was surely dead.

* Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Language,Netherlands,Popular Culture,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1973: Victor Jara, among thousands in Chile’s September 11

7 comments September 15th, 2008 Headsman

At an unknown time on this evening in 1973, or else the early hours of the following day, Chilean putschists ushering in the Pinochet dictatorship machine-gunned folk singer Victor Jara near the Santiago stadium that today bears his name.

“I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger of Allende’s election. Victor Jara had another idea.

Four days before, Chile’s September 11 had seen General Augusto Pinochet topple the elected leftist government of Salvador Allende, murdering the president in his palace. (Or, go some accounts, Allende committed suicide — “pausing only twice to reload.”)

A long pall of evil settled over the country, with all the accustomed chilling familiars: “disappeared” people, mirrored shades, Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The day after the CIA-backed coup, popular folk singer and activist Victor Jara, a pioneer of the Nueva Cancion (“New Song” movement) then teaching at Santiago’s Technical University, was among thousands of undesirables rounded up and packed off to a makeshift prison camp at the city’s Chile Stadium — a stadium Jara had performed at.*

Left there to the tender mercies of a thuggish Chilean officer, Jara was beaten and tortured over the intervening days — evocative but possibly undependable tradition holds that the guitarist’s hands were cut off, shattered or otherwise destroyed. According to the U.S.-based United States Institute of Peace,

[t]he the last day Víctor Jara was seen alive was September 15. During the afternoon he was taken out of a line of prisoners who were being transferred to the National Stadium. In the early morning of the next day, September 16, shantytown dwellers found his body, along with five others, including that of Littré Quiroga Carvajal, near the Metropolitan Cemetery. As the autopsy report states, Víctor Jara died as a result of multiple bullet wounds (44 entry wounds and 32 exit wounds).

The Commission came to the conviction that he was executed without due process of law by government agents, and hence in violation of his fundamental human rights.

To say the least.

And as the text implies, Jara was only the most recognizable name among unknown hundreds killed as the military cemented its control of the country.

Jara remains larger-than-life martyr figure in Latin America and liberation movements worldwide, but he’s almost unknown north of the Rio Grande. Pinochet was our bastard; in the weird way history writes its own geography, Jara became a political emblem behind the Iron Curtain for the perfidy of the capitalist powers: obscure in Peoria, but a household name in Potsdam, as the credit roll from this 1978 East German film suggests.**

That’s Jara himself on the soundtrack, of course. The pat conclusion for such a figure is that his art is his legacy, and that Jara’s body of work as against Pinochet’s will be a walkover in posterity. Is that enough? Pinochet died in his bed at age 91; earlier this year, the Jara case was closed in underwhelming fashion. Thirty-five years down the road, most authors of Pinochet’s human rights depredations are dead or lost or decrepit. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Victor’s widow, Joan Jara — today director of the Fundacion Victor Jara (it’s a Spanish-only site); you can hear her interviewed on Democracy Now! for the 25th anniversary of her husband’s death in 1998 — managed to leave the country with some of his works.

Her publication of a poem he wrote while imprisoned, an untitled, unfinished work generally known as “Estadio Chile,” made it a signature cry of hope amid desperation. Here it is in the Spanish rough-hewn under the shadow of death; there’s an English translation here.

Somos cinco mil
en esta pequena parte de la ciudad.
Somos cinco mil
¿Cuantos seremos en total
en las ciudades de todo el pais?
Solo aqui, diez mil manos que sembran
y hacen andar las fabricas.

¡Cuanta humanidad
con hambre, frio, panico, dolor
presion moral, terror y locura!

…¡Y Mexico, Cuba y el mundo?
¡Que gritan esta ignomonia!

Somos diez mil manos menos
que no producen.
¿Cuanto somos en toda la Patria?
La sangre del companero Presidente
golpea mas fuerte que bombas y metrallas.
Asi golpeara nuestro puno nuevamente.

¡Canto que mal me sales
cuando tengo que cantar espanto!
Espanto como el que vivo
como el que muero, espanto.

De verme entre tanto y tantos
momentos de infinito
en que el silencio y el grito
son las metas de este canto.
Lo que veo nunca vi,
lo que he sentido y lo que siento
hara brotar el momento…

Whether or not it’s enough, his work is his legacy after all.

* Some 7,000 people were held at Chile Stadium in the days after the coup, most later moved in with other detainees at the larger Estadio Nacional. The USIP excerpt alludes to Jara being pulled out for execution during such a move.

** In a similar vein, Stanford has a small online exhibit of Jara-themed East German propaganda art. Not to be outdone, there’s a Soviet rock opera about Jara, and an asteroid discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named in Jara’s honor within a week of his execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Torture

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1943: 186 prisoners at Plotzensee Prison

1 comment September 7th, 2008 Headsman

As dark fell on the evening of September 7, 1943, a mass execution of 186 death row prisoners — including six with unresolved clemency appeals — began at Berlin’s bomb-damaged Plotzensee Prison, continuing by candlelight until the following morning.

An Allied air raid the night of September 3-4 had struck the facility, allowing four prisoners to escape and damaging the guillotine and execution shed where sentences were normally carried out. Coincidentally, that had come hours after Hitler had (as was his wont, in common with many a politician to the present day) castigated the judiciary for the dilatory rigmarole that allowed the condemned to delay their fate with legal appeals.

Converging circumstances generated sensible elite consensus:

That is the last thing we need, that after the air raids a few hundred condemned to death would be let loose on the population in the Reich capital.
-Goebbels

Instead, at the order of Reich Minister of Justice Otto George Thierack, cases were quickly tied up for a night of mass hangings.

Protestant pastor Harold Poelchau described (pdf) what he witnessed.

As darkness fell on September 7 the mass murders began. The night was cold. Every now and then the darkness was lit up by exploding bombs. The beams of the searchlights danced across the sky. The men were assembled in several columns one behind the other. They stood there, at first uncertain about what was going to happen to them. Then they realized. Eight men at a time were called by name and led away. Those remaining hardly moved at all. Only an occasional whisper with my Catholic colleague and myself … Once the executioners interrupted their work because bombs thundered down nearby. The five rows of eight men already lined up had to be confined to their cells again for a while. Then the murdering continued. All these men were hanged. … The executions had to be carried out by candlelight because the electric light had failed. It was only in the early morning at about eight o’clock that the exhausted executioners paused in their work, only to continue with renewed strength in the evening.

And as Poelchau intimates, the fearful harvest of September 7-8 was not the end of the massacre. Dozens more followed over the ensuing days, for a total of more than 250 executions at Plotzensee September 7-12.

Notable among the victims was 27-year-old German-Dutch concert pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, memorialized at this German page. He’d been a little too loose with his distaste for Hitler and been arrested on the eve of a concert a few months before.

In 2003, Dutch composer Rudi Martinus van Dijk debuted his Kreiten’s Passion, an excerpt fo which can be enjoyed on the composer’s homepage.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,Theft,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1979: Two former dictators of Ghana with four of their aides

3 comments June 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the putschist government of Ghana shot former military rulers Frederick William Kwasi Akuffo and Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa along with four others at the Teshie Military Range for corruption.

Twenty-two years before, Ghana had become the first black sub-Saharan former colony to gain independence, but after a 1966 coup it had staggered through political and economic chaos. Six different men had been head of state in that span, three of them deposed by coups. By 1979, General Fred Akuffo‘s government was the target of explosive anger.

Enter Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who had actually failed in a coup attempt in May and was in line for execution himself before his mates toppled the government on June 4.

Seeking to stabilize the situation — and, Rawlings himself has said, riding the tiger of popular fury — the new government served up a few high-profile morsels on charges of pilfering the treasury in order to forestall a general slaughter of senior officers by the armed forces’ lower ranks.

There was no alternative. We had to contain it within the military so it didn’t spill into the civil front — if it had it would have been terrible.

We had no choice but to sacrifice the most senior ones — the commanders.

Another former head of state, Gen. Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, had been shot earlier in the month; on this date, Akuffo and Gen. Akwasi Afrifa, one of the original 1966 plotters who had ruled Ghana in 1969-70, followed him. Afrifa, ironically, had written to Acheamphong worrying that political upheaval and military discipline could find them … well, where it eventually found them:

I feel greatly disturbed about the future after the government … In order to discourage the military from staging coups in the future, how about if they line all of us up and shot us one by one? I do not certainly want to be arrested, given some sort of trial and shot.

All these shootings had an unseemly character of haste and summary justice; charges against the four senior ministers* shot along with the former rulers have struck an especially sour note. Rawlings has claimed that he only wanted the two former heads of state shot and tried unsuccessfully to stop the other four executions.

I attempted to prevent it and sent an officer but the firing squad shot the officers before their commander could give the order … you must understand our country was in a state of rage then, not different from what Russia was when it had its revolution.

I was a partial hostage to that situation. I had no force. The authority that I enjoyed was my moral authority with the people. Their action (the execution of the senior officers by the boys) was to curtail the anger of the nation.

Rawlings would hand power over to a civilian government, which he then overthrew again in 1981 — looking like this:

He would run Ghana for the next two decades, the last eight years after winning elections. Rawlings’ legacy is much up for debate, but to many he cuts the figure of a benevolent dictator (how many former strongmen have fan pages?) whose human rights abuses were mild in the scheme of things and helped usher in a relatively prosperous and democratic Ghana that stands a very far cry from the country he took over in 1979.

Rawlings himself has graduated to a sort of global elder statesman — for instance, he recently called for fair elections in Zimbabwe. And he has not been hesitant to justify his political actions, as in this interesting BBC interview from 2005 — in which, pressed on the executions of the former state ministers, he concedes:

There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way. There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.

The bodies of all the officers executed in June of 1979 were exhumed for “fitting burial” under Rawlings’ successor in 2001.

* One of the aides held the Ghanaian high jump record at the time of his death, a mark not surpassed until 1996.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ghana,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Pelf,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Shot,Soldiers,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1955: Leslie George Hylton, a better bowler than liar

1 comment May 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Test cricketer Leslie George Hylton was hanged in Spanish Town, Jamaica, for murdering his wife.

Hylton represented the West Indies in six grueling Test cricket matches in the 1930’s. (Career statistics.)

And apparently he had a thing about adultery, because when he found out his wife was having an affair, he shot her dead. Trying to shoot himself, he told John Law, but his alibi was even worse than his aim: she’d been shot seven times, meaning the fast bowler had reloaded.

Hylton is the only Test cricketer known to have suffered the death penalty. Fans took his death in stride:

Australia were touring the West Indies, and when the Jamaican opener JK Holt followed a run of low scores by dropping two catches in the Test at Bridgetown, a play card urged “Save Hylton, hang Holt.”

Cricket officialdom, though, kept such a stiff upper lip that Hylton’s obituary in its leading publication managed not to mention that his passing had involved a noose.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Jamaica,Murder

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