Posts filed under 'Spies'

1935: Benita von Falkenhayn and Renate von Natzmer, Germany’s last beheadings by axe

Add comment February 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Germany conducted its last axe-beheadings.

The axees were impecunious noblewomen Benita von Falkenhayn (English Wikipedia entry | German) and Renate von Natzmer (English | German), spies for Poland recruited via society love affairs with Polish envoy Jerzy Sosnowski.*


Benita von Falkenhayn (left) and Renate von Natzmer.

At 6:00 a.m. on February 18th, Benita von Falkenhayn was brought in a state of near-collapse to a courtyard of Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison. There a red-clad prosecutor read out her condemnation espionage and treason and gave her over to longtime Prussian headsman Carl Gröpler.** The old Scharfrichter bent van Falkenhayn over a rude block and crashed his heavy blade cleanly through her neck, dropping her head into a basket. After a hurried clean-up, they repeated the same ritual for Renate von Natzmer.

The Reich had within living memory to folks of Herr Gröpler’s age still remained a quiltwork confederation of small states; one artifact of its unification was penal codes that used beheading for executions yet no further specificity on the manner of beheading. The most usual means was the fallbeil, a small guillotine, but it was ultimately a matter for the jurisdiction where the sentencing took place — and antiquated manual cleavers were still sometimes deployed by the state of Prussia, which included Berlin.

In October 1936, Nazi Justice Minister Franz Gürtner successfully prevailed upon Adolf Hitler to codify the fallbeil as the explicit means of beheading throughout the Reich, putting an end to the archaic reliance on Gröpler’s brawn and aim.

* Sosnowski was released back to Poland in a prisoner exchange and there tried for treason on grounds of getting too friendly with Germany. After the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Third Reich and the USSR, he appears to have come into Soviet custody and pressed into cooperation; various reports have him thereafter dying in custody, being executed by the NKVD, or returning to the field and dying in action or after capture by the Polish Home Army.

** Four days shy of his 67th birthday at this moment, Gröpler was coming into a pension windfall courtesy of the Third Reich’s liberal expansion of capital punishment. He retired in 1937 with 144 documented executions to his name; he died in Soviet custody in January 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Nobility,Prussia,Spies,Treason,Women

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1940: Carl Heinrich Meier and Jose Waldberg, the first hanged under the Treachery Act

Add comment December 10th, 2019 Headsman

I went into this with both my eyes open, telling myself that a man who has an ideal must be willing to sacrifice everything for it or else the ideal isn’t an ideal at all, or the man isn’t a man at all, but a humble creature who deserves only pity.

-Carl Heinrich Meier, last letter to his fiancee (Source)

On this date in 1940, Great Britain carried out the first two executions under its brand-new-for-wartime Treachery Act of 1940.

Raced into the books in May of 1940 amid Nazi Germany’s onslaught on France, the Treachery Act made it a capital crime if, “with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty’s forces, or to endanger life.” Naturally the realm had centuries of treason statutes to fall back on; the intent in creating this new capital crime of treachery was to target spies and saboteurs who might not themselves be British citizens — and therefore evade “treason” charges on grounds of not owing loyalty to the British Crown. Instead, the Treachery Act explicitly governed “any person in the United Kingdom, or in any British ship or aircraft.”

Carl/Karl Heinrich Meier and Jose Waldberg were textbook cases. They had rowed ashore at Dungeness on September 3 intending to pose as Dutch refugees while reconnoitering ahead of a potential German cross-channel invasion. With them were two other Abwehr agents with the same intent, Charles Albert van der Kieboom and Sjoerd Pons.

While his comrades were noticed by routine coastal patrols and picked up near the beach, Meier picturesquely showed up that morning at a public house in Lydd where his clumsy command of contextual slang and etiquette led the proprietress to turn him in.

They were tried in camera weeks later, by which time the Luftwaffe was systematically bombing the jurors; despite this radically prejudicial context, Sjoerd Pons was actually acquitted — successfully persuading the court that he’d been forced into the mission on pain of a concentration camp sentence for smuggling. (Pons was detained as an enemy alien despite the acquittal.)

The other three men were not so fortunate. Perhaps most to be pitied was “Waldberg” who was really a Belgian named Henri Lassudry: although he had not presented Pons’s same defense to the court it appeared that he also had been coerced into the operation, in his case by Gestapo threats against his family. But none of the three death sentences was to be abated. A week after Meier and Waldberg/Lassudry hanged at Pentonville Prison, van der Kieboom followed them to the gallows.


“Jose Waldberg” aka Henri Lassudry.

The Treachery Act would be used against German agents repeatedly through the war years and in time had the distinction of noosing the last person hanged in Britain for a crime other than murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Milestones,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1915: Fernando Buschmann, certified

Add comment October 19th, 2019 Headsman

Brazil-born, German-descended businessman turned World War I spy Fernando Buschmann was shot for espionage at the Tower of London this date in 1915. Don’t believe us, Francis Woodcock Goodbody will vouch for the lethal effect of “gunshot wounds on the chest.”

Court martialled in September and unable to satisfactorily explain his dealings with known German agents, his woeful business record, trips to Southampton and Portsmouth, and the presence of invisible ink in his record books, he was found guilty. In his defence, he argued “I was never a soldier or a sailor, and I am absolutely ignorant of all military matters. I am not a good businessman as I am more wrapped up in my music than business.”

Buschmann was sentenced to death by firing squad and transferred to the Tower on 18th October. He was permitted the solace of his violin which he played throughout the night. The sentence was carried out at 7:00am on the 19th October at the Tower Rifle Range.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Shot,Spies,Wartime Executions

1915: Augusto Alfredo Roggen, World War I spy

Add comment September 17th, 2019 Headsman

Uruguay-born World War I spy Augusto Alfredo Roggen was shot in the Tower of London on this date in 1915.

Like most German-on-British agents during the Great War — at least, the ones we know about! — he didn’t have much of a run. Although this son of a German national did it by the book by arriving legally and properly registering as a foreigner, he whistled on the security services’ frequency by sending a couple of postcards to a known-to-be-suspect address in the wartime espionage hub of Rotterdam.* The cards were copied and their sender was flagged.

After a few weeks of quietly monitoring his movements, British cops raided his hotel room while Roggen was on “holiday” at Loch Lomond. He had in his possession a revolver and equipment for writing in invisible ink; apparently he’d been intending to photograph facilities at Arrochar Torpedo Range.

Instead, he was tried at Middlesex Guildhall where he gave no evidence and made no defense. The intervention of the Uruguayan embassy on behalf of its national was to no avail.

* The Netherlands’ wartime neutrality made Dutch citizens — who could travel throughout Europe — natural spy recruits. The best-known monument of that era is the executed exotic dancer Mata Hari, who was actually a Dutchwoman named Margaretha Zelle.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Shot,Spies,Uruguay,Wartime Executions

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1775: Not Richard Carpenter, strong swimmer

Add comment July 21st, 2019 Headsman

20th [July 1775]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole — upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day, — his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.

-from the diary of Boston selectman Timothy Newell

On or around this date in 1775, an immigrant wig-maker was faux-executed by the British garrisoned in a besieged Boston.

Richard Carpenter was not a figure of decisive importance to the onrushing American Revolution but the excellent and venerable blog Boston 1775 by J.L. Bell has made a wonderful little microhistory of the man by cobbling together his appearances across different sources from his first 1769 business advert until his 1781 death in a British prison hulk.

Carpenter swam across Boston harbor to escape to patriot lines, then swam back into Boston; the Brits who captured him naturally took him for an enemy agent who could have been hanged … but from multiple reports (sometimes with muddled dates) this fate was “merely” visibly prepared for him only to be abated shortly before execution. In Bell’s speculation, hostilities were still not yet fully matured and “neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.”

For an extraordinary snapshot of this revolutionary everyman, click through the full series:

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,England,Espionage,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Spies,USA,Wartime Executions

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1915: Carl Frederick Muller, fluent in languages but not in espionage

1 comment June 23rd, 2019 Headsman

57 year old Carl Frederick Muller was a fluent linguist, able to speak English, Russian, German, Dutch and Flemish. In October of 1914 he was living in Antwerp in Holland and had German soldiers billeted in his house. He was recruited into the German Secret Service in late 1914.

-From the June 23, 2019 Facebook post of the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page. Click through to find out how Muller’s abortive attempt to put his gifts to use for spycraft saw him standing in front of a British firing squad by June 23, 1915. He was the second of 11 German spies to meet that fate during the Great War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1949: Li Bai, PLA spy

Add comment May 7th, 2019 Headsman

Red spy Li Bai was executed in the Pudong district of Shanghai on this date in 1949.

Li Bai and his circuitry immortalized in stone in Shanghai’s Century Park. (cc) image from (checks notes) “Kgbkgbkgb”

A survivor of the Party’s epic Long March Li Bai (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) was a Party-trained wireless operator who was detailed to Shanghai with the 1937 outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

He was fortunate to survive arrest by the Japanese while transmitting from occupied Shanghai in 1942. (The Japanese took him for a mere enthusiast.) Even more fortunate from his handlers’ standpoint was the interest his radio skills subsequently attracted from the nationalist Kuomintang, which recruited him into service that Li Bai was only too happy to accept.

For the next several years, he sent to the Communists voluminous inside information about the disposition of their opponents in the endgame stage of the Chinese Civil War. He was detected in the last days of 1948, sending to the People’s Liberation Army the troop dispositions that would enable it to overrun the capitals in the subsequent months. Not three weeks after Li Bai’s execution in Shanghai that city fell to the Communists; by year’s end, the Kuomintang had evacuated the mainland for its so-far permanent Formosan redoubt.

There’s a 1958 Chinese biopic about him, titled The Unfailing Radio Wave; the embed below is one of many subsequent readaptations:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Martyrs,Shot,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1749: Fontauban, spy

Add comment March 5th, 2019 Headsman

A spy named Fontauban was hanged at the northern city of Lille on this date in 1749.

From the scanty information to be had he appears among the more pathetic traitors. Disinherited by his father he had gone into his peculiar trade to great effect during the continent-spanning War of Austrian Succession.

Demobilization was a tough transition for spooks as for everyday soldiers; needing to maintain his income, he made an fatally unsuccessful attempt to engage service with the British — and not for any mere document-copying, but for betraying the king himself.

Despite having been open to outright regicide in exchange for a few grotes, Fontauban’s sentence was commuted to hanging (from the proposed burning and quartering) as a gesture of mercy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Spies,Treason

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1562: Sophie Harmansdochter, “Gele Fye”

Add comment March 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Sophie Harmansdochter, aka Gele Fye, a notorious fink, was executed at The Hague on this date in 1562.

She was the daughter of an Anabaptist martyr, but where she might have taken her heritance in zeal for the evangelium she settled instead for for taking the contact list. By 1537, three years after her father lost her head for the faith, Harmansdochter was informing on his ex-associates; resulting in several more executions and several hundred guilders’ worth of rewards. As late as 1552-53 her information triggered Mennonite hunts across the Low Countries touching not only Amsterdam but Leiden, Friesland, and Antwerp.

This was also about the time when her husband died and left her with four whelps to raise, and the need for her pieces of silver became extremely pressing. But in a pattern similar to many witch hunt informers, Gele Fye’s snitching was abruptly terminated by attempting to point the finger at a person of actual power — namely the former mayor of Amsterdam, who had also once been her paymaster. She was arrested as a perjurer in 1556 and spent six years in prison in The Hague, giving birth to her fifth child while behind bars.*

On March 3, 1662, Sophie Harmansdochter had her tongue — the source of her false witness — cut out, then her scaffold put to the torch.

She survives in Dutch literature as an emblematic deceitful mole.

* A collaborator, Volckje Willems, was also arrested but died in her dungeon before she could qualify for Executed Today treatment.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Netherlands,Public Executions,Spies,Women

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1788: Levi and Abraham Doan, attainted Tories

Add comment September 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Pennsylvania highwaymen-cousins Levi and Abraham Doan(e) were hanged on Windmill Island, Philadelphia.*

A whole clan of outlaws turned Revolutionary War Tories, the Doans — brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Joseph and the aforementioned Levi plus their cousin Abraham — “were all of the Quaker faith and did not believe in war,”** according to a descendant, but “The new government levied a tax upon Joseph, Sr., the father of the Tory Doan boys, confiscated his farm, threw his wife, 3 daughters and youngest son off of the land, jailed Joseph Sr. for non payment of taxes and branded him on his hand as a criminal. This was the given reason for the start of the notorious group known as the Tory Doans.” During the Revolutionary War they served their pecuniary interest by pillage, and their political interest by informing for the British army, in an exciting sequence of adventures. (A public domain history of the Doans amid the revolution can be enjoyed here.)

None of these activities being well calibrated to earn sympathy in the independent United States that emerged and Pennsylvania hit the lot with a judicial attainder issued by the Supreme Court and ratified by the General Assembly.

In a few years’ time the newborn country’s constitution would prohibit acts of attainder but for a few short years this heritage from the mother country — enabling some organ of the state to levy legal penalties on some outlaw party by decree, absent any sort of trial — incongruously continued in that land of the free. In these very pages we have previously noticed an attainder controversially invoked by brand-name founding fathers of Virginia, also against bandits with a pronounced Tory lean.

Likewise in Pennsylvania the Doan attainder “provoked a constitutional test.” (Source) When gang leader Aaron Doan was arrested, he faced the prospect of immediate execution; however, he was able to produce an alibi relative to the specific incident charged — the robbery of a county treasurer in 1781 — and “to the disappointment of many, he was reprieved under the gallows.” (Maryland Journal, Aug. 19, 1788) He later emigrated to Canada. (His brother Joseph did likewise.)

The kinsmen were not so lucky, this time coming out on the short end of the constitutional test case — as described by patriot statesman Charles Biddle, who made an unsuccessful intervention on their behalf in the Supreme Executive Council that wielded executive power in the commonwealth until 1790.†

The Legislature were inclined to pass a bill in their favor, and appointed a committee, consisting of Mr. Lewis, Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Rittenhouse, to confer with the Supreme Executive Council on the subject of their pardon. This I believe was what proved fatal to these young men. Several of the members of the Council thought the Legislature had no business to interfere, as the power of pardoning, by the Constitution, was given to the Council. They refused to pardon or extend the time fixed for their execution. It was in vain the members of the Legislature and the minority in the Council urged the peculiar situation of these unfortunate men; the majority were jealous of the interference of the Legislature, and it was carried by a very small majority, that they should suffer. Going to the Council the day afterwards, I met them going in a cart to the gallows, followed by their relations and friends. It was a very affecting sight. They died with great firmness.

* An island in the Delaware River which was later bisected by a ferry channel, dividing it into Smith’s Island and Windmill Island. Both islands were removed by civil engineers in the late 19th century as an aid to the Philadelphia port.

** To revolutionary patriots, Quakers looked a rather suspiciously British-friendly bunch.

† The body’s president at the time of the Doan hangings was no less than the $100 bill guy himself, Benjamin Franklin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s son William Franklin had during the war years been the Tory governor of New Jersey in which capacity he had signed off on some political executions of his own.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Outlaws,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Spies,Theft,USA

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