On this date in 1902, Joe Higginbotham was hanged for raping and slashing the throat of a Mrs. Ralph Webber.
The State (Columbia, S.C.), Jan. 24, 1902
This headline-making outrage occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the town was on the verge of living up to its name before officers spirited the black janitor away to Roanoke for safekeeping; in Roanoke, military guardsmen were scrambled for security against a rumor that Higginbotham’s life would be attempted even there.
One might well wonder why the bother, as the formal proceedings against the culprit blessed by the law entailed very little deliberation beyond Judge Lynch. Mrs. Webber survived her injury and once her condition stabilized, she was brought to the jail on January 21 to make an identification. “She at once identified him as the man who assaulted her. The negro broke down and confessed to the crime with which he is charged, and further stated that he had attempted some months ago to assault a white girl who was a patient in a Lynchburg hospital.” (Charlotte Observer, Jan. 22, 1902)
Two days after that meeting, Higginbotham pleaded guilty at a short trial under heavy guard back in Lynchburg. The sentence was imposed for exactly one month out — plus one more day so as not to fall on a Sunday — and it went off as scheduled, undisturbed by any appeal or reprieve.
Judge Higginbotham grew up in New Jersey but census records confirm that his father Aloysius was in fact born in Virginia to a family with deep roots in Amherst County. Aloysius’s move to the Trenton, N.J. area in the first decade of the 20th century would have put him on the leading edge of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities.
Suggestive as that might be, Golde’s search through Aloysius’s family did not appear to turn up any clear link to a Joseph Higginbotham; indeed, Higginbotham the criminal assailant was reportedly himself an adopted or foster child whose lineage appears obscure. The trail from this point dissipates in history’s marshes. The Higginbotham name is quite widespread in the Lynchburg area; family ancestries for the African-American Higginbothams appear to trace back to slavery among the white family of Captain John Higginbotham, a Revolutionary War officer whose own father relocated to Amherst, Va. from Barbados. (Different English Higginbothams made good in India.)
A generalist site such as ours leaves off short of the close reading of archival records or research into family lore that would required here. (Perhaps there are some readers prepared to shed some light?) In the end, of course, any hypothetical family connection between these two very different men would count as little more than historical curiosity.
* Full disclosure: this author never had the privilege of meeting Judge Higginbotham, but counts as a mentor to his death penalty interest one of the judge’s proteges.
Steele was 35 at the time of death and was noted for his “amiable character.” He had a warehouse in London and a lavender plantation in the country at Feltham, and business was going well.
On Friday, November 5, 1802, he set out from his London townhouse to Feltham. He didn’t say exactly when he was coming home, but it was his wife’s birthday on Sunday and the family assumed he’d be back by then.
He didn’t arrive home by Saturday, and everyone figured he’d stayed overnight at his plantation. But when he missed his wife’s birthday party the next day, they got worried. On Monday they sent a messenger to investigate.
Steele, it turned out, had arrived in Feltham, and by 7:00 Saturday evening he was ready to return to his London house. He wasn’t able to procure a carriage, however, and decided to walk across Hounslow Heath, then a notorious haunt of bandits and highwaymen. It was not the sort of place a man with money — Steele was carrying about 26 shillings on him — should be at night.
He had paid for his want of caution with his life.
Searchers subsequently found Steele’s bloodstained coat on the heath, in a gravel pit ten or fifteen yards off the road. His corpse was under a clump of trees in a ditch 200 yards from the road. It had not been buried, but turf had been laid over it to conceal it. He’d been beaten and strangled to death, and the leather strap used to choke him was still tied tightly around his throat. His boots and hat were missing, his pockets had been cut away from his clothes and all his money was missing.
The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown. Forensics in the early 1800s basically didn’t exist, and with no witnesses to the crime, it seemed very unlikely that Steele’s murder would ever be solved. As Linda Stratmann records in Middlesex Murders,
Letters were sent to justices in Rutland and Leicester, urging that the most strenuous efforts should be made to apprehend [suspects], but they were never found. Steele’s family placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward of £50 for information leading to the capture of the murderers. Several known criminals were arrested on suspicion, but after questioning they were released. Four years went by and all hope of finding the guilty persons was gone.
In 1806, 26-year-old thief Benjamin Hanfield was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. While awaiting transfer to a convict ship to take him to Australia, he mentioned Steele’s murder to some other prisoners and said three men were involved in the slaying.
Word got around to the authorities, and they took him to Portsmouth by coach for questioning. He implicated John Holloway and Owen Haggerty. It had been Holloway’s idea, he said; he’d somehow found out that a gentleman with money would be at Hounslow Heath on Saturday, November 6, and had recruited the other men to help him commit a robbery.
The three of them went to Hounslow Heath that Saturday, as according to plan, and waited for Steele. When Hanfield accosted their mark and demanded money, Steele was cooperative at first, handing over his cash. But when the robbers demanded his pocketbook as well, he claimed he didn’t have it and begged them not to hurt him. Holloway struck him with his stick, and as Steele began to struggle, Holloway said, “I will silence the bugger,” and beat him several times about his head and body.
They left him lying dead on the heath.
Hanfield ran away first, ahead of the others. He waited for nearly an hour at The Bell public house for them to catch up. After his accomplices arrived, they all went to an inn, the Black Horse. It was midnight and inn was closed for business, but its proprietor was still awake and the three men convinced him to serve them. They shared half a pint of gin there before parting ways.
Hanfield’s story had some evidence to support it. While he was being transported to Portsmouth for questioning, the coach passed the place where Steele had been killed and Hanfield pointed it out. After confession, he was taken back the heath and pointed out the clump of trees where Steele’s body had been located. This was enough to get Holloway and Haggerty arrested. Both men, when apprehended, said they were innocent.
By December 8, Haggerty and Holloway were brought together and Hanfield’s statement was read to them. The two men denied knowing each other, denied any knowledge of the murder, and denied having ever been on Hounslow Heath in their lives.
Hanfield’s story had another problem: he said Holloway knew well in advance that Steele would be on the heath that fatal Saturday. But, although Steele visited his Feltham plantation regularly, he didn’t have a fixed day of the week for doing it, and his own family wasn’t sure when he would be returning when he left London on Friday.
But in spite of the discrepancies, the flat denials from the alleged accomplices, and the lack of evidence supporting Hanfield’s statement, the authorities were sure they had the right men — tunnel vision that presents in many wrongful convictions. Hanfield was granted a free pardon for turning King’s Evidence against his co-defendants, and his previous sentence of transportation was commuted. At the trial, he was chief witness for the prosecution.
The defense argued that Hanfield was a liar and a professional criminal who had implicated innocent people for personal gain. But the defendants could not prove where they had been on a random autumn night five years earlier, and both had clearly lied about being strangers to each other.
Multiple witnesses testified that Haggerty and Holloway had known each other for many years. One of those witnesses was Officer Daniel Bishop, who worked at the jail. The two prisoners had been placed in separate cells side by side, and the partition between them was so thin that they could easily converse with each other. This had been a trick, and Bishop had been hiding in a nearby privy, writing down everything they said. From Haggerty and Holloway’s conversation it was obvious the men were good friends.
That much was true. But it was also true that when they thought they were alone together, neither of them implicated themselves in Steele’s slaying, and in fact they said Hanfield was a liar and that he, and not they, should be hanged.
As the Newgate Calendar said, “There was a great body of evidence adduced, none of which tended materially to incriminate the prisoners, except that of Hanfield, the accomplice, who, under the promise of pardon, had turned King’s evidence.”
The verdict, nevertheless, was guilty, after fifteen minutes’ deliberation. The sentence was death.
Holloway and Haggerty went to the scaffold invoking God and insisting they had not been involved in Steele’s murder. The execution was a memorable one; the Reaper got a bountiful harvest that day. Linda Stratmann describes the awful events in detail:
The crowds that assembled were unparalleled and estimated at about 40,000 people. By 8 a.m. there was not an inch of ground around the scaffold unoccupied. Even before the prisoners arrived the crush was so great that people trapped in the crowd were crying out to be allowed to escape …
At the corner of Green Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the Debtors’ Door, two piemen were selling their wares when one man’s basket was knocked over. He was bending down to pick up his wares when surging crowds tripped and fell over him. There was an immediate panic, in which people fought with each other to escape the crush. It was the weakest and the smallest in the crowd who suffered. Seven people died from suffocation alone, and others were trampled upon, their bodies mangled. A broker named John Etherington was there with twelve-year-old son. The boy was killed in the crush, and the man was at first thought to be dead and placed amongst the corpses, but he survived with serious injuries. A woman with an infant at her breast saved her baby by passing it to a man and begging him to save its life. Moments later she was knocked down and killed. The baby was thrown from person to person over the heads of the crowd and was eventually brought to safety …
Gradually the mobs dispersed and the bodies, thirty in all, were taken up in carts, twenty-seven to Bartholomew’s Hospital, two to St. Sepulchre’s Church and one to The Swan public house. Numerous others were injured, including fifteen men and two women who were so badly bruised that they were taken to the hospital, one of whom died the following day.
As it turned out, the landlord of The Bell didn’t remember any strangers coming to the pub on the night of the murder, and the landlord of the Black Horse didn’t remember three men coming at midnight and asking for gin. There were no details of the murder in Hanfield’s confession that he couldn’t have learned from common gossip. Furthermore, he had a history of making false confessions. A lawyer, James Harmer, actually compiled a pamphlet (Google Play | Google Books) of evidence that supported Haggerty and Holloway’s innocence.
But none of this exculpatory evidence surfaced until after the executions.
In yet another twist, in 1820, John Ward, alias Simon Winter, was indicted for John Cole Steele’s murder. Ward had a bad reputation in the area and was suspected of robbery and livestock theft. It was said he participated in the search for Steele, and one witness said he had seemed to be trying to lead the search party in the opposite direction from where the corpse was found.
The paper-thin murder case against Ward was dismissed for lack of evidence, and rightly so. But by indicting him in the first place, the authorities had as much as said Haggerty and Holloway had been wrongfully convicted.
“The fate of Holloway and Haggerty,” Stratmann notes in her book, “was often referred to in subsequent trials as an example of how little weight could be given to accomplices to a crime. The tragedy which had attended their execution also gave rise to considerable anxiety for many years.”
Hanfield disappeared without a trace after the murder trial; it’s unknown whether he continued his criminal ways.
PENDLETON, MARCH 21. — We regret to announce that Captain Jehu Orr, who was stabbed on the 12th of February by Uriah Sligh, died on Sunday morning last of the wound.
Captain Orr has been long an inhabitant of the district, and has been very generally esteemed as an upright man and respectable citizen. His sufferings from the period of the infliction of the wound to that of his death, are represented to have been severe, and to have been borne with the most Christian fortitude.
Sligh, who was some time since admitted to bail, has been recommitted, and will probably be tried at the ensuing Court, which will commence on Monday next.
From Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), March 13, 1828:
Pendleton, (S.C.) February 27, 1828.
On Friday last pursuant to the sentence of the law, Uriah Sligh was executed at this place for the murder of Jehu Orr.
As usual on such occasions, a large concourse of people assembled to witness the last pangs of a suffering fellow creature. It is certainly a strange curiosity which prompts people to attend the execution of a criminal, but it has so happened that the three occurrences of the kind which have unfortunately taken place here within two years, have severally collected together a more numerous assemblage than we have observed on any other occasion.
The following has been handed us by a gentleman who was present; the address being as nearly as can be remembered in the words uttered by the criminal on the eve of execution: —
After some religious exercises, he rose and addressed the crowd as follows.
Fellow-Citizens of Pendleton District — You see me in this situation. It is intemperance has brought me here. I was an honest and industrious man and strove to maintain my family in honesty and comfort.
I have no recollection of the action for which I am now suffering. I never had any ill-will or intention of killing that man.
And I now warn all of the danger of a habit of intemperance; particularly the poorer class who have it not always in their power. When they have an opportunity they will go to great excess.
I would exhort all to seek religion as the only sure guard against such awful practices. If you were always in the discharge of your duty and serving your God, you would be in no danger of coming to an end like mine.
He then knelt down and prayed with much earnestness that the Lord would pardon his sins and receive him to happiness; expressing a strong hope that as the blessed Saviour had promised that none who came to him should be cast out, he would also receive his spirit, and cleanse him by his blood.
Comprised of foreign communists whose backgrounds amply motivated them to desperate resistance, FTP-MOI was a notably aggressive partisan unit; a few months before this date’s executions, it had stunningly assassinated SS Col. Julius Ritter on the streets of Paris. Risky tactics, including larger-scale operations like the one that claimed Ritter (these required more partisans to know each other) entailed greater risk of penetration, and the November 1943 arrest of the Armenian commander Missak Manouchian and his group devastated FTP-MOI. After the customary interlude of torture, these were subjected to a show trial with 23 condemned to execution.*
As a gaggle of foreign terrorists, heavily Semitic, this clique looked to the occupation like a marvelous tar with which to blacken the Resistance. To that end the Germans produced a scarlet poster denouncing the Resistance as an “Army of Crime,” its soldiery labeled with strange names and alien nationalities converging on the swarthy Manouchian.**
Soon known as l’Affiche Rouge, the poster instead apotheosized its subjects. In the postwar period it became an emblem of the best of the Resistance — its multinational unity, France as an idea powerful enough that men and women of distant birth would give their lives for her. (Not to mention the postwar French Communists’ claim on le parti des fusillés.)
To this day in France, the backfiring propaganda sheet is one of the best-recognized artifacts of the Resistance.
The executions were naturally conducted quietly; the Germans strictly forbade public access to or photography of Resistance heroes in their martyrdoms for obvious reasons.
That made it especially surprising when a few pictures of this execution surfaced recently, surreptitiously snapped from an overlooking vantage by German motorbike officer Clemens Rüter, who kept them hidden for decades. They are to date the only known World War II photos of French Resistance members being executed.
* The 23rd, and the only woman in the group, was Romanian Olga Bancic, also known by the nom de guerre Pierrette; she was not shot on this date but deported to Stuttgart and beheaded there on May 10, 1944. There was also a 24th, a man named Migatulski, who was initially part of the same trial; he was instead remanded to French custody. (See coverage in the collaborationist La Matin from Feb. 19, 1944 and Feb. 22, 1944.)
** We’ve noted before that a Polish Jew named Joseph Epstein who was part of the same cell (and a prime candidate for racist demagoguing) avoided a place on l’Affiche Rouge thanks to his preternatural talent for remaining mum under interrogation.
On this day in 1906, Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller were hanged together in Chicago, Illinois. Both were multiple murderers, with six deaths between them.
Newcomb, who was, described as “crazed” and “maddened,” hanged for the murder of Chicago police sergeant John Peter Shine.
On October 10 the previous year, Shine heard reports of a gunman terrorizing people on the streets of Englewood. Newcomb had already shot three people and one, a woman named Florence Poore who was the wife of Newcomb’s friend, was dead. Shine found out the gunman had barricaded himself in his apartment. Although he was off duty, he decided to make the arrest himself.
When he knocked on the apartment door and demanded entry, however, Newcomb simply fired through the closed door, hitting Shine in the abdomen and mortally wounding him. The officer died two hours later at Englewood Union Hospital, at the age of 42. Walter Blue, one of the others Newcomb had shot, also died of his wounds.
After Shine was shot, over 100 police officers surrounded Newcomb’s apartment and fired into it, hoping to apprehend or kill the gunman. After a long siege, Newcomb surrendered to an equally certain death in the judiciary.
“The day was remarkably calm, serene and placid, for the season — as was also, the mind, the countenance, and the conduct of the prisoner” on February the 13th of 1818 when “more than ten thousand persons” witnessed the execution of Samuel Godfrey on Woodstock (Vt.) Green.
That’s per A Sketch of the Life of Samuel E. Godfrey, which is reproduced in full in this post; some version of the publication was sold on Woodstock Green on the day of the hanging, presumably without the final appendix actually reporting the execution’s result.*
Alternating between mariner and hatter, with frequent brushes against authority and a keen feel (up to and including the transaction that cost him his own life) for the injustices visited upon him by the powerful, Samuel Godfrey emerges episodically as an American picaro on the Canadian frontier — which he is made to cross thanks to the hated British practice of seizing and impressing American seamen.
Although the man’s personal history is impossible to audit, the historical events in which he situates his autobiography were quite real: the dramatic naval battle of the HMS Cleopatra and the Ville de Milan is narrated here; there were American-British skirmishes at Odelltown, Quebec during the War of 1812; and certainly his audience would have been familiar with the flood that devastated Woodstock in 1811.
* Despite the extensive prepared “valedictory address” printed in the document in this post, Godfrey’s scaffold statement was actually quite cursory thanks to a planning snafu. According to the Amherst, N.H. Farmers’ Cabinet (Feb. 21, 1818), he said only: “I have no remarks to make, only that I declare before God and man, that I am innocent of the crime for which I am about to suffer. I had an address prepared for the occasion, but it is not here; if it was, I should be glad to have it read.”
The devil made him do it, he said. Or, rather, Tokoloshe, an evil spirit in Zulu folklore.
Msomi had not been successful in earning a living at witch-doctoring, so he consulted an experienced colleague for advice. According to Msomi, the man introduced him to Tokoloshe and said, “Get me the blood of 15 people.”
Over the next year and a half, Msomi stalked KwaZulu Natal, slaughtering victims as the demon pointed them out, and collecting their blood in bottles. He would attack them with a knife, hatchet or knobkierie after luring them to an isolated area.
The first victim was a young girl. To prove to the demon just how dedicated and obedient he was, Msomi hacked his victim to death in front of his girlfriend. Tokoloshe was delighted, but the girlfriend was horrified. She went straight to the cops and had Msomi arrested. Then he escaped from custody … with Tokoloshe’s help, he said.
Msomi followed up on his first act by slaying five children. In April 1955, he was linked to multiple murders and arrested again, but again he escaped and picked up where he’d left off.
Serial killers seldom stop killing of their own accord, but that is exactly what happened with Elifasi Msomi. Having collected the blood of his fifteenth young victim, he said that Tokoloshe thanked him for his service, then bathed with him in the river before they parted company.
Without Tokoloshe to help him anymore, Msomi soon came to police attention again when he was arrested for petty theft. In custody once more, he freely confessed to the murders and led authorities to some bodies, but he said he wasn’t responsible for his actions and was only following Tokoloshe’s orders.
There was, however, the problematic fact that he had raped some of his victims and robbed others; Tokoloshe hadn’t requested THAT. At the trial, two psychologists testified that Msomi was very intelligent and got sexual pleasure by causing pain to other people.
Such was the reputation of the witch doctor’s power of channeling the Tokoloshe that prison officials granted permission to a deputation of tribal chiefs and elders to view Msomi after he had been hanged on February 10, 1956. These men were thus able to return to their respective tribes and proclaim that the witch doctor was really dead and that Tokoloshe had left him to seek out another host body.
Milton Yarberry was one of those belt-notching Wild West gunmen badass enough to be worth deputizing for a frontier town with a spiraling crime problem — which Albuquerque was experiencing as the just-completed railroad boomed its population. A number of crimes had been attributed to him in a career that took him from stage-robbing in his native Arkansas, to the Texas Rangers, to a Colorado saloon, to a New Mexico cathouse, a veritable bucket list of spaghetti western tropes packed into 34 roughhewn years with bodies planted at nigh every stop. Yarberry was even reputed to have fought alongside Billy the Kid.
The last of these tropes, of course, was as the bad hombre upon whom the townspeople foist a badge.
It will not surprise that even when minted as a peace officer, Marshal Yarberry continued his manslaying ways. Still, nobody in our present age of impunity could well imagine a lawman standing trial for murder twice in the space of a year.
Yarberry in early 1882 defeated a charge for wasting his lover’s paramour during a row in the street, as witnesses said Harry Brown shot first, just like Greedo.
There was no administrative leave or counseling after that, just straight back on the beat — and barely a month later, the copper gunned down a guy whom he was trying to stop for questioning. It was a confusing encounter in which the Marshal insisted that he fired when the victim, Charles Campbell, wheeled on him with a gun. A single state’s witness was able to establish in the court’s mind that there was no gun in Campbell’s possession.
Our hard-living triggerman would never waver from his self-defense story as his appeals were made;** he had many supporters who believed that he was being railroaded on account of the public relations hit the city was taking for employing a dude who had so liberally populated the Republic’s Boot Hills — and those advocates included the sheriff who recruited Yarberry as a Marshal, Perfecto Armijo, who was also the sheriff detailed to hang Yarberry in the end.
The local Albuquerque podcast City on the Edge has an episode dedicated to Yarberry here.
* In the anarchic game of telephone that was 19th century reporting, some editor somewhere mistakenly understood a story of Yarberry’s condemnation in 1882 as an actual report of his execution; as a result, there were news stories (themselves repeated by multiple papers) announcing Yarberry’s hanging in June 1882. In this business, once one wrong date is out there it’s bound to be echoed into eternity, so it’s still possible to find sources that misdate the execution to June 16, 1882. Past the question of the calendar, the fact that these stories actually expanded with details about the fictitious hanging scene strongly underscores the degree to which the hang-day bulletin had become colorfully but generically abstracted from any save accidental relationship to the actual scene at the gallows.
Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 17, 1882, vividly peopling an imaginary scene.
** Because New Mexico was still just a territory — it was only admitted to the Union as a state in 1912 — Yarberry’s clemency decision went to the U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur.
On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British
They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.
Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**
The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.
Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.
But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.
Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:
Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger
Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.
McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”
The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.
Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.
* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.
** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.
On this date in 1967, Sunny Ang hanged in Singapore for murder.
“This is an unusual case insofar as Singapore, or for that matter Malaysia,* is concerned,” said the prosecutor. “This is the first case of its kind to be tried in our courts that there is no body.”
The missing corpse did not present anything like the difficulty the barristers might have anticipated for this landmark conviction.
For one thing, everyone knew where and how 22-year-old waitress Jenny Cheok Cheng had died: on a diving trip near the Sisters’ Islands, Cheng had slipped under the waves while her betrothed waited in the boat … and she had never resurfaced. Frogmen combing the area could find only a single swimming flipper: it had been sliced with a knife to make it slip off during the swim, the inference being that the bladehandler had been interested in the inexperienced diver “accidentally” losing her maneuver while the forceful straits currents went to work on her.
Loverboy Sunny Ang, a vain wastrel facing bankruptcy,** just so happened to be in line to benefit, having insured his bride-to-be to the tune of nearly $1 million over several policies — including one which he had extended mere hours before the murder, and extended by only five more days. One imagines here that the tampered flipper might have been just one of several innocuous-looking accidents, each one a little lure for the Angel of Death, slated to cross Jenny Cheng’s path during the couple’s seaside canoodle courtesy of her own personal Final Destination.
In his young life, Ang had washed out of teacher school, pilot school, and law school. Ang’s laziness went on full display in the murder caper because the hired boatman who took the couple out diving — a witness whom Ang was probably expecting to provide his alibi — took the stand to describe the amazing extent of his guest’s unconcern about his lover going missing.
In a situation where the reasonable homicidal villain would anticipate means, motive, and opportunity all implicating him like blazing klaxons, Ang couldn’t be arsed to allay suspicion with the duest of panic-stricken diligence, like putting on his own suit and jumping in the water to look for her, or even raising his voice a few decibels to feign alarm. He did not, however, neglect to file his insurance claims very promptly.
Small wonder with bloodless banter like this that his jury only needed two hours to convict him, body or no body.
Justice Buttrose: Did you realise that this girl, whom you love and whom you were going to marry, had gone down and disappeared, and you calmly turn round to the boatman and said, ‘All right. Go to St John’s’?
Ang: If she was anywhere around the boat we would have seen her air bubbles.
Justice Buttrose: It didn’t occur to you to go down and search for her?
Justice Buttrose: Why?
Ang: Because I thought there was obviously a leak and also if she was anywhere around the boat, we would have seen her air bubbles.
Mr Seow: You had skin-diving equipment with you in the boat?
Mr Seow: The girl you were going to marry was obviously in difficulty, if not actually dead already. Why didn’t you use your skin-diving equipment to go down?
Ang: I was not quite sure what sort of difficulties she was in. It occurred to me — it was a vague thought — that she might have been attacked by sharks. In fact, I remarked upon that to Yusuf [the boatman]. Not then, but long after the incident.
Justice Buttrose: You could have gone down to find out?
Ang: She might have been attacked by sharks.
Mr Seow: When did you change back into your street clothes?
Ang: I think I remember I put them on, on my way to St John’s Island.
Mr Seow: So that when the Malay divers were going in, you were then in your street clothes, and you saw no point in joining them?
Ang: I do not say I saw no point. I was in my street clothes and there were more experienced skin-divers, and there were five of them. Besides I knew the chances of finding her were very slim.
Justice Buttrose: You never got into the water at all that day? You never got your feet wet?
Ang: That is so.
* Ang went on trial in April 1965, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia — hence the reference to the scope of the country as a whole. By the time Ang hanged, Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia and become an independent polity.
** He had also previously stolen from his father and police already knew that, so he didn’t enter his capital trial with much existing credence for rectitude.