Posts filed under 'Kidnapping'

1929: Myles Fukunaga

1 comment November 19th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1929 saw the hanging of a Shakespeare-quoting, suicidal kidnapper for “the most brutal murder in the history of Hawaii”. It was among the last civil executions in Hawaii.

As detailed in the 1991 essay “A Short History of Hawaiian Executions, 1826-1947” (pdf) by Joseph Theroux, a resource we’ve touched on before and which also includes a full list of 75 known legal executions in Hawaii during that period:*

[I]n the death of Gil Jamieson, who had been kidnapped by a mad youth who filled his ransom letters with quotations from the Shakespearen play [Macbeth]: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more …”

The victim had his skull chiseled in and was strangled and left near Seaside Avenue in Waikiki.

The murderer and author of the letters was captured some days later, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, all within three weeks. This feat was facilitated because his lawyers, Beebe and Huber, offered no defense and called no witnesses. The jury included members who were part of the search party and the victim’s bodyguard and gravedigger. A Navy psychiatrist offered to testify for the defense but was rebuffed. The medical examiner was also the prosecution psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Faus. He testified that past suicide attempts by Miles Fukunaga were “normal.” Despite protests and appeals, Fukunaga was hanged.

Ten years earlier, a well-known local haole athlete, David Buick, found himself down on his luck. He ordered a taxi driver, one Ito Suzuki, to drive out of Honolulu proper to a place called Red Hill. He ordered the man to stop the car and get out. He pointed a gun at the driver and robbed him of one dollar. When Suzuki turned to flee, Buick shot him in the back. Before he died, the taxi driver identified Buick a the gunman. The charge was eventually reduced to second degree murder, and Buick is said to have returned to the Mainland following his jail time.

In both cases, there was premeditation, kidnapping, murder, and flight. Fukunaga willingly confessed and indeed showed extreme remorse. Buick never confessed or showed the slightest regret over his actions. But Fukunaga had murdered a fine boy of a prominent haole family.** Buick had only murdered a middle-aged Japanese taxi driver.

This shocking crime — Fukunaga openly cited the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder and the more recent Hickman kidnapping as his models — ratcheted up ethnic tensions in Hawaii between whites, especially elite whites, and Japanese.

The Japanese community’s newspaper Hochi mounted a vigorous clemency campaign emphasizing sentencing differences like that vis-a-vis Buick. “If Myles Fukunaga is hanged it will not be because he killed a human being,” the paper editorialized. (pdf) “It will be because he killed the son of the vice-president of one of our big trust companies and because his victim was a white boy.”

* Ethnic data of those 75 executed: 24 Hawaiian; 24 Filipino; 9 Japanese; 6 Korean; 5 Chinese; 3 Puerto Rican; 3 unknown; 1 Caucasian.

** Gill Jamieson’s father, Frederick Jamieson, was a vice president of the Hawaiian Trust Company (since folded into the Bank of Hawaii). According to Kokugo Gakko in, the targeting of a bankster family by a frustrated working-class youth (Fukunaga was reportedly logging 80-hour weeks in menial jobs, having been forced to quit school in his teens to support his family) was no coincidence at all.

In terms of his motives he said that revenge had been foremost in his mind. In 1928 his parents had been unable to meet monthly rental payments. The Hawaiian Trust company served as the collecting agent for their landlord and had sent a rent collector to the Fukunaga family to demand full payment of back rent. Humiliated and ashamed, Fukunaga bitterly resented the bank’s action and, on learning that Vice President Frederick W. Jamieson had a son, he decided to seek revenge … by kidnapping and murdering the boy. Fukunaga also confessed to another motive. As the eldest son of seven children, Fukunaga stated that he had felt a filial obligation to help his poor parents … he had hoped to accomplish this filial act with the ransom money.

All this might tend to militate against the “insanity” defense, which Fukunaga himself energetically rejected.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Hawaii,Kidnapping,Murder,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,The Supernatural,USA

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2011: Three in Shiraz

2 comments April 16th, 2012 Headsman

A year ago this date, three young men identified as Abolfazl Faraei, Reza Roshanfekr and Seyed Rokneddin Karimi were executed by hanging from cranes in Shiraz, Iran, on charges of kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder.

Disturbing images of the public hangings follow; click on any save the last to zoom to a larger disturbing.

Update: Shiraz marked the anniversary date by hanging eight more the day this post was published, April 16, 2012.

Another man was reported hanged the same date for murder in nearby Takhteh Kenar.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iran,Kidnapping,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Theft

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1897: Henri-Osime Basset

2 comments February 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1897, all Versailles turned out to witness the beheading of recidivist pedophile Henri-Osime Basset, a 23-year-old who had kidnapped and strangled to death (French link) 13-year-old Louise Millier the previous summer.

Executioner Anatole Deibler and crew arrived at 3:30 a.m. to erect the portable guillotine at the pont Colbert* for the occasion, under the eyes of a curious pre-dawn crowd restrained by dragoons; by 4:45 la sinistre machine was fully installed.

About an hour after that, the prisoner Basset was awoken from his fitful sleep — he’d been plagued by restless guillotine-themed dreams lately, for some reason — and advised that his application for presidential clemency had been denied.

Le Petit Parisien nevertheless found the prisoner in steady enough spirits for his expiatory moment. He took the bad news with equanimity, received communion, and stuck close by the comforting priest to whom he had already given his last confession. (And who helpfully steeled the doomed man’s nerves with a steady supply of rum, cigars, and Bourdeaux wine.)

In any event, the practiced French executioners did not give Basset long to stew on his fate. After the toilette to prepare him for the blade, he was out the door shortly after 6 a.m. — broad daylight by now, and the crowd swollen in anticipation of the show. The blade fell at 6:33, and the remains of the late Henri-Osime Basset were immediately deposited at the Cimetirie des Gonards.

* This is pont Colbert in Versailles, not the cool then-new steel bridge in Dieppe, which is now the last hydraulic turn bridge still in use in Europe.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Kidnapping,Murder,Public Executions,Rape

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1999: Chen Chin-hsing, Taiwan’s most notorious criminal

10 comments October 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Taiwan put to death a man who, as the Reuters story about his case led it, “shook public confidence in law and government with the kidnap-murder of a TV celebrity’s daughter and a string of subsequent gun battles, killings, rapes and a hostage drama.”

Dramatic enough for you?

This operatic crime spree was the work of three men, Chen Chin-hsing, Lin Chun-sheng, and Kao Tien-min.

They punched their ticket to popular infamy when they snatched 16-year-old schoolgirl Pai Hsiao-yen in New Taipei City on April 14, 1997.

Her family received terrifying photos of the girl stripped naked and bound, a severed pinkie finger, and a demand for $5 million U.S. And they were in a position to get it, because Pai’s mother was celebrity singer and TV personality Pai Ping-ping. (Alternatively: Bai Bing-bing.)

However, despite multiple attempts to drop the ransom, the kidnappers kept not showing up, and the captive, who’d been brutalized and raped during her captivity, was eventually murdered and dumped in a drainage ditch.

Pai Hsiao-yen’s murder not only captivated media but crystallized public backlash against politicians and police who showed as ineffective in the midst of a massive crime wave. It helped cave in the government of Taiwan’s first democratically elected president.

The criminals themselves magnified the case by drawing out the initial public horror into a seven-month drama as they eluded police manhunts. At one point, they forced a plastic surgeon at gunpoint to alter their appearances, then murdered him after he was finished.

Chen Chin-hsing was finally captured (after the other two had judiciously committed suicide when about to be apprehended) after a televised standoff wherein Chen gave self-valorizing media interviews while holding a South African ambassador’s family hostage.

All this made Chen a dead man, and few in the Republic of China much pitied the serial rapist and spree killer’s fate of taking a magazine of automatic rifle ammunition in the chest. (Several others in this dreadful affair also got non-capital sentences for various forms of aiding and abetting.)

It also made Pai Ping-ping into a tough-on-crime social activist. Taiwan’s death penalty has been in the news recently with the government’s admission that it executed an innocent man in an unrelated case. Pai vehemently opposes the resulting abolition efforts that other case has helped along; in 2010, she helped to break a 52-month death penalty moratorium and force a resumption in executions when she threatened to commit suicide if Taiwan went through with abolition. That would be operatic indeed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Kidnapping,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Taiwan

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2011: Martin Link

Add comment February 9th, 2011 Headsman

Minutes past midnight today, Central Daylight Time, Martin Link died by lethal injection at Missouri’s Bonne Terre state prison.

It’s just Missouri’s second execution since 2005, a marked decline from its five-per-year clip over the decade preceding.*

Condemned for raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in 1991, Link “showed little willingness to fight the death penalty,” according to the Kansas City Star. (Not so little that he actually dropped appeals, mind.) He at least once attempted suicide in prison.

In common with many present-day U.S. executions, Link’s was also shaped by the nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, one of the essential drugs in the traditional lethal injection cocktail.

(It’s an anesthetic, the first of three drugs administered and used for the purpose of inducing rapid unconsciousness so the other two can get to the killing business … though the sodium thiopental dose is itself potentially lethal, and some states have experimented with lethal injections using only that one drug.)

While other thiopental-scarce jurisdictions have moved towards alternative chemicals and injection procedures, Missouri did a classic three-drug injection using some of its dwindling stockpile — which was due to expire on March 1, anyway. What the plan might be for the next Show-Me State execution, whenever that might be, nobody seems ready to say. If recent trends are any indication, they’ve got plenty of time to work it out.

The chemical compounds, no doubt, were the last things on the minds of those directly concerned. Both the victim’s family and the investigating police officers reportedly planned to observe the procedure with some satisfaction.

“It was such a horrendous crime,” one of the officers told a reporter. “I’ve got a picture of that in my mind right now … of seeing the little girl and everything. It’s kind of hard to put it out of your mind.”

* Stats per the Death Penalty Information Center’s very handy execution database.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Missouri,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1998: Kenneth Allen McDuff, Texas nightmare

23 comments November 17th, 2010 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

Kenneth Allen McDuff grew from the small-time bully of tiny Rosebud, Texas, to a feared and reviled killer finally apprehended with the help of the America’s Most Wanted television series. By the time of his execution on November 17, 1998, he stood as a symbol of how the best-intentioned prison reforms could bring the most hideous results.*

In 1966, on parole for a string of burglaries, McDuff was first sentenced to death for the brutal murder of three teenagers he kidnapped and killed. The female member of the trio was sexually abused and raped for hours before McDuff used a broomstick to snap her neck “just like you’d kill a possum,” in the words of Falls County Sheriff Brady Pamplin, one of the first generation of Central Texas lawmen to deal with McDuff.

He remained on death row until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman vs. Georgia struck down all death penalty statutes in the United States. McDuff’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which left the possibility of parole.

A rape and attempted murder for which McDuff was never prosecuted resulted in a daughter who at the age of 21 visited McDuff in prison. Her visits ceased after McDuff described his fantasy of taking her to Las Vegas and pimping her out to earn himself a fortune.

A prisoner’s fifteen-page handwritten lawsuit, Ruiz vs. Estelle, exposed conditions in Texas prisons which proved unconstitutionally inhumane, including the use of inmates as guards. (McDuff ascended to the position of boss over fellow convicts following his exit from death row into the general prison population; his perks included a “gal-boy” who traded the usual personal services for McDuff’s protection from white supremacist former gang associates whom he had offended.) Ruling in the Ruiz case, Federal Judge William Wayne Justice placed the Texas prison system under the control of a Special Master and ordered that traditional prison overcrowding must cease.

The Texas parole board was ordered to release 150 prisoners a day, to reduce the prison population to the 50,000 for which there was adequate capacity. Despite a 1982 conviction for attempted bribery of a parole board member, McDuff made parole in early October of 1989. Waco’s U.S. Marshall Parnell McNamara could only ask, “Have they gone crazy?”

Author Gary Lavergne also maintains McDuff information on his website, including this collection of photos and this list of victims.

Kenneth Allen McDuff was a rarity on Texas’s death row: He was a son of the middle class among the poorest of the poor. On parole, his family furnished him with motor vehicles as needed, and a credit card so that he would not have to carry cash in his chancy, drug-ridden haunts along the Interstate 35 corridor of Central Texas.

Even a new arrest in July 1990, after he chased and threatened some black teenagers and then spewed racist invective at his parole revocation hearing, did not suffice to return him to prison. Six women, three of them drug-addicted prostitutes, have been verified as murder victims of Kenneth McDuff between his parole date in 1989 and his arrest as a fugitive in Kansas City on May 4, 1992; there may well be others whose identities will never be known.

McDuff was tried for the abductions and murders of Melissa Northrup, a convenience store clerk, and Colleen Reed, an accountant. He was convicted and sentenced to death in both cases.

Parole requirements for violent Texas criminals were stiffened substantially as a direct result of McDuff’s career, by the regulations of the parole board and by the Texas Legislature. (The statutes are known as the McDuff Laws.) McDuff by all accounts became the most hated man in the Texas prison system; once returned to death row, he was held in administrative segregation for his own protection from his latest arrival in 1993 until his execution.

Progressive Democrat Ann Richards was Governor of Texas at the time of McDuff’s last trial. A recovering alcoholic, she created an unprecedented emphasis on drug and alcohol treatment for Texas prisoners, the overwhelming majority of whose crimes involved substance abuse of one kind or another. No one appreciated the irony more than she: a governor dedicated to rehabilitation of prisoners was forced to kick off the biggest prison building spree in Texas history, to comply with the federal court’s orders on prison overcrowding while trying to ensure that Texas would never again see the likes of Kenneth Allen McDuff.

It took six years for law enforcement officers to persuade McDuff that his continued refusal to reveal where he had hidden the bodies of several of his victims offered him no sort of advantage. Some remains were located by means of hand-drawn maps, but maps did not suffice in every case. A few days before his execution, an unusual excursion party set out from the Ellis I prison outside Huntsville: a caravan of unmarked cars with dark-tinted glass carried McDuff, locked to a back seat and disguised with a baseball cap, on a “clandestine high security move.” Never allowed out of the car, McDuff directed investigators to the shallow grave of Colleen Reed, whom he kidnapped from an Austin car wash on December 29, 1991. Shortly thereafter, McDuff’s nephew received a reduction in his sentence for drug dealing.

McDuff never expressed remorse for any of his crimes. A lifetime of cheap beer and needle drug abuse was catching up to his liver when he climbed on the Walls Unit gurney on November 17, 1998. His last words: “I am ready to be released. Release me.”

* See Gary Cartwright’s “Free to Kill” Texas Monthly, Aug. 1992, Vol. 20, Issue 8, p. 90.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Infamous,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Serial Killers,Texas,USA

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1999: Zein al-Abidine al-Mihdar, Yemeni terrorist

2 comments October 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Yemen executed (in its own inimitable style) terrorist Zein al-Abidine al-Mihdar, for orchestrating a kidnapping of western tourists.

A Xerox executive among the party of kidnapped tourists relates her post-captivity search to understand her ordeal.

The drama had unfolded in December of 1998, when a convoy of 16 (mostly British) foreign tourists spending the traditional Christmas in Yemen was seized by the Islamic terrorist group Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan.

The very next day, a massive Yemeni army raid busted up the kidnappers and freed the hostages — all, except for the four who were killed in the affray.

Tried for the kidnapping (a capital crime itself) and those resulting deaths — although some victims slated the army and its aggressive response for those lost souls — three men were condemned death.

“The only dialogue,” al-Mihdar told his judges, “should be with bullets.” And so for him, a bullet had the last word. (The other two condemned men drew commutations.)


Al-Mihdar’s followers promised revenge were he executed. Given that the Islamic Army of Aden claimed responsibility for the 2000 bombing of the American warship USS Cole while it refueled at Aden — Khalid Almihdhar, one of the 9/11 hijackers allegedly affiliated with the IAA, participated — it might well have done just that. (However, the IAA as a distinct terrorist entity petered out in the 2000s.)

By the by, the U.S. is basically at war in Yemen now. Better still: that tribal country is also a proving-grounds for brave new assertions of heretofore undiscovered American presidential prerogatives, like the right to assassinate other Americans.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Kidnapping,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Shot,Terrorists,Yemen

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1983: Jimmy Lee Gray, drunk-gassed

12 comments September 2nd, 2010 Headsman

Just after midnight on this date in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray gruesomely paid with his life in the Mississippi gas chamber for raping and murdering a three-year-old.

Mississippi’s gas chamber had had a checkered history since its first usage in 1955, and with America just emerging from a long lull in executions, Jimmy Lee Gray was its first client in 19 years.

“Sumbitch took a little three-year-old girl out into the bush and he raped her,” executioner T. Barry Bruce would later explain of the man’s crime. “Then he tried to shove her panties down her throat with a stick, then he pushed her head into a little crick full of running shit and then he broke her neck. So yeah, I feel real sorry for Jimmy Lee.”

Gray was on parole at the time for the 1968 murder of his teenage sweetheart, so no — nobody felt all that sorry for Jimmy Lee, not even his mom.

But the reason that questions about the affair were being directed at the executioner (usually a party as silent in these matters as he is implacable) was that Jimmy Lee Gray’s had been drunk on the job — and the execution was a notorious horrorshow.

“Gasping” or “moaning” a recorded eleven times, Gray convulsed wildly in the Parchman death chair, slamming his unrestrained head “with enough force to shake the chamber” against a metal pole that some user interface genius had positioned right behind the death chair. The witness room was cleared eight minutes into the affair, with Gray still thrashing about.

Though the Magnolia State contended that Gray was clinically dead within two minutes, that head-smashing act disturbed everyone.

As a result, for the third time in a half-century, Mississippi switched to a newer and supposedly more humane method for killing people — adopting lethal injection for anyone sentenced to death after July 1, 1984. (Three more prisoners already condemned under the old sentencing guidelines would die in the gas chamber in the late eighties, however.)

Actual executions in the U.S. were still novel enough in the early 1980s that Gray’s made national news — albeit distinctly second fiddle to the tense Cold War escalation occasioned by the September 1 Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Kidnapping,Mississippi,Murder,Rape,USA

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1939: Eugen Weidmann, the last public beheading in France

24 comments June 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1939, French murderer Eugen Weidmann dropped his head in the basket outside a prison in Versailles. France’s signal history of public beheadings died along with him.

The career criminal Weidmann knocked around prison in his twenties.

Further to the maxim that penitentiaries are the school of crime, Weidmann’s stint for robbery connected him right up with a couple of accomplices who started up a kidnapping-robbery-murder ring when they got out.

They left several bodies (and miles of newspaper copy) in their wake in late 1937 before the inevitable capture, confession, condemnation. (Weidmann’s accomplices all managed to avoid the chop.)

The beheading this day did not come off well; a massive crowd* jostled for a view, a scene belied by the tame crowd photo of the execution’s official witnesses.


Two photographs of Eugen Weidmann’s execution in Versailles 17 June 1939. (Click for larger images.)

The government immediately banned public executions. Although it wouldn’t be the government much longer, the change stuck.

But the crowd scene wasn’t the half of it.

Still photos of the guillotine had been snapped for years, but a delay putting justice into its heavy downward-crashing motion that morning meant the execution took place in plenty of light for an illicit moving picture.

Caution: Mature content. This is video of the guillotine in action.

From the time this film cut, France’s national razor would do its cutting only behind prison walls. It would be another 38 years yet before it trimmed its last client.

* According to his biography, British horror actor Christopher Lee — age 17 — was in the crowd.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Kidnapping,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1960: Caryl Chessman

10 comments May 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.

During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.

He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).

The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.

Not, however, of murder.

Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**

This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.

That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.


Via.

A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.

-Caryl Chessman

So Chessman wrote.

Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.

Books by and about Caryl Chessman

And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.

One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.

But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”

According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.

With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.

Too late.

Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.

A reporter described what was transpiring inside the state’s killing chamber while Law and Ma Bell transacted their tardy business outside.

I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.

A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.

Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.

Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.

Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)

Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)

Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)

(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)

Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)

The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)

In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.

Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.

Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.

I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.

-Caryl Chessman

* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.

** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.

Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.

A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.

† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Rape,Reprieved Too Late,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!