Posts filed under 'Pelf'

1929: Homer Simpson

Add comment September 11th, 2014 Headsman

Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.

WORST. EPISODE. EVER.

Other Simpsons characters to face the electric chair include Snake, an unnamed Convicted Man in a hurricane, and (appropriately for this post) Police Chief Wiggum

Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.

That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.

Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.

Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.

The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.

The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, brushing with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.

The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.

We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.

The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.

This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.

As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.

And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)

Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.

But there was no relief for either prisoner.

On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.

To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.

After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.

Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.

He’s buried back home in Fort Hill Cemetery

Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.

* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.

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1817: James Lane

Add comment September 9th, 2014 Headsman

I was born near Goshen, in the state of Connecticut, about the year 1793. My father was a show-man, and his business leading him much from home, I was neglected, and suffered to follow my own inclinations … I chose for my companions the most vicious boys, and spent most of my time in quarrelling, fighting, sabbath-breaking, and other vices. I was indeed sent to school a short time; but, disliking restraint and study, made but little progress in learning. Thus by parental neglect on the one hand, and bad example on the other, were sown those seeds of vice, which, as will be seen in my narrative, produced such a dreadful harvest of crimes.

-From the Narrative of the life of James Lane: who was executed at Gallipolis (Ohio), September 9, 1817, for the murder of William Dowell, with some observations on his behaviour under condemnation : to which is added the address of the court, on pronouncing sentence of death upon the prisoner.

The gallows narrative commenced thereby will arrive on this date in 1817 at a hangman’s tree in Ohio. But it begins, as is customary, delving into the miscreant’s youthful forays into theft, through which he soon “stifled the voice of conscience, which cried against it.” He suffered 10 lashes at the public whipping-post of Litchfield for robbing a schoolhouse of books, and had a couple of close brushes for his habit of walking into unattended farm houses and making off with clothes.

The War of 1812 gave Lane the opportunity to mend his ways, or at least collect enlistment bonuses, which he did on at least three occasions. Being caught in desertion attempts one time, Lane was “sentenced to be cobbed two mornings, fifteen strokes each time. This mode of punishment is very severe. It is performed by laying the offender across a barrel, and whipping him with rods. Five or six others suffered the same punishment with me, some of them much worse than I.”

At last, following more successful desertions, he found his way up the Hudson to

Catskill, [where] I fell in with one Church, as hardened as desperate as myself. We formed an acquaintance with each other, and travelled together to a place near the city of New York. Here we went into a store to buy some small article; and the store keeper suspecting our money to be bad, I flew into a violent passion, snatched the watch from his pocket, and stamped it under my feet. Church then seized a scythe and drove him out of the door. We then locked ourselves in and in spite of the danger which threatened us, ate and drank our fill of the good things we found. By this time, a number of people had assembled in the chamber over our heads, and were making their way down the trap door to take us. Hardened, insensible, and enraged with liquor and passion as we then were, it would have been no wonder if we had put fire to some barrels of powder there. This we might easily have done; but either did not think of it at the time, or were prevented by some other circumstance. I thank God for preventing this dreadful crime; for preserving my life and the lives of so many people as would have been thus destroyed, and giving me a space for repentance.


But it seems so idyllic in Thomas Cole’s 1833 “Catskill Scenery”.

They got a three-year sentence in the penitentiary for this brazen raid, and Lane piously averred that “the time spent there was the happiest of my life.”

“But such deep rooted habits as ours are not to be cured by a few years of confinement,” the narrator continues, rubbishing the penitentiary movement without which he might have been hanged already. “No sooner were we at liberty, than we betook ourselves to our old course of life.”

The old confederates burgled in Albany, then wandered to New York, and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, separating along the way. Lane lived hand to mouth, moving town to town, working a day or two here and there, stealing when the opportunity arose, and wasting whatever money he laid hands upon “in drinking, carousing, and every other species of vice.”

Following the Ohio River, he made his last call at the river hamlet of Gallipolis, Ohio where he “first met with Dowell, removing from Virginia, for whose murder I am so justly condemned to suffer death.”

The next morning I went to his house, or shed, about six miles from Gallipolis, on my way to Chillicothe, entered, sat down, and talked in a friendly manner with him and a female slave, his house keeper. I then walked on to Mr. Ryan’s, about a quarter of a mile from Dowell’s, where the latter soon came in to buy some meat. We were both asked to breakfast, and accepted the invitation. When Dowell had paid for the meat, I perceived that he had about forty dollars left. To possess myself of this, I resolved to commit the horrid crime of murder! and this on a man who had never done me any injury, whose house I had entered an hour or two before as a friend, and been treated as such, and with whom I had just partaken at the table of the bounties of Providence; and not only on him, but on the woman also, and her four children, and then set fire to the home. Astonishing and incredible wickedness!!! Six human beings were to be sent to their final account, in a sudden and awful manner, and perhaps unprepared — and for what? That I might have a few dollars to throw away, or worse than throw away, as I had done with all my former ill gotten money!!? I can plead no excuse. I was able to work, and not ashamed to beg, till I could find employment. — Shall I say I was urged on by the devil? No doubt I was; but his temptation could have been of no avail, if I had not lent a willing ear to him. I had never resisted him. I was completely his slave! Just, I repeat it, is the sentence of death pronounced against me!!

Lane executed his exclamation-mark plan that night, stealing a cudgel from yet another farm and slipping back to ol’ Moneybags Dowell’s. When the house was asleep, he crept into the house and to Dowell’s very bedside, and slew him unawares with a mighty two-handed smash.

The blow woke Dowell’s slave — who is never referred to by name in this narrative — and after a struggle she managed to escape out the door and elude her murderous pursuer, and we presume her four children did likewise since they were also not murdered. When Lane returned to the emptied Dowell house, he could find no money — “for it since appears he had left it with Mr. Ryan.” He fled over the river into Virginia (today West Virginia), but was captured a few miles away, and as will be readily perceived, was thoroughly worked over before his execution by the local divine.

Since a small town like Gallipolis (population as of the 1850 census: 1,686) didn’t exactly have regular traffic to the gallows, this was a big occasion for the ministers as well. To Lane’s confession, the Rev. Gould appends a two-page summary modestly reviewing his soul-saving offices. Lane’s own biography traces the classic gallows narrative, from sabbath-breaking to the noose; the like formula for Gould’s review ought to be taking Lane from his initial condition, “destitute of all religious knowledge, insensible of his sinfulness, and unconcerned about futurity” to the hope of eternal salvation.

Gould, however, remained skeptical of Lane’s histrionics of religiosity. After the prisoner was sentenced, he “broke off profane swearing, acknowledged his guilt, and became sober,” but as Gallipolis’s pious citizens held prayer meetings in the jail or read the Bible to him, Gould thinks it was his narcissism as much as his conscience that was excited and “the increasing attention which he received from every kind of character, elated him, and did much to divert his mind from the thoughts of death.” Although sometimes “under lively representations of his situation and of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, his feelings were softened into tears,” these interludes “lasted but a few moments” and “he showed no pleasing signs of repentance, no attachment to the Saviour.”

The evening before execution, like careless sinners, he was unwilling to be disturbed with the thoughts of his unpreparedness and danger. He said he had left off swearing, and had prayed a good deal; and therefore believed that God would pardon him. This appeared to be the foundation of his hope to the last. On the day of execution, his sensibility nearly or quite left him. He appeared not to realize his situation. When he was first placed upon his coffin, at divine service, however, he was affected … [but] on the gallows, he expressed his willingness to die, saying he had made his peace with God; but manifested little sense of the importance of death and of eternity.

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1971: Ishola Oyenusi, smiling to his death

Add comment September 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1971, the Nigerian robber Ishola Oyenusi — “smil[ing] to his death,” in the words of the next day’s paper — was publicly shot with his gang at Lagos Bar Beach.

Dubbed “the most dangerous criminal of this decade” even though the Seventies were barely underway “Doctor” Oyenusi — as he liked to style himself — sprang out of the wreckage of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, a charismatic, cocksure gangster whose lordly disdain for the law cast the terrifying portent of social breakdown.

Beyond Oyenusi loomed a systematic breakdown in social order that would long outlive him. In years to come, other celebrity crime lords would follow him; eventually, armed robbery would proliferate into a frightfully ubiquitous feature of life in Lagos. Maybe the Doctor smiled at the stake because he foresaw his legacy.

Disturbingly unable to combat the plague systematically, authorities would resort to occasional high-profile executions instead, provided, of course, that the culprit’s misappropriations were of the retail street-crime variety, rather than the fruits of wholesale corruption.

Oyenusi was never in the same universe with such exalted impunity. He got into the robbery business back in 1959, boosting a car (and murdering its owner into the bargain) to make it rain for his broke girlfriend. While he eventually expanded his operations into a brutal syndicate, he was still just a hoodlum; the infamy that packed the Bar Beach with 30,000 fellow humans who booed and jeered Oyenusi to the stake was merely enough to make him worth the quashing. (He was condemned to death specifically for a raid on the WAHUM factory in March 1971 that also claimed the life of a police constable.)

Six members of Oyenusi’s crime ring went with him to the stake on the same occasion. An eighth man was also shot in the batch for an unrelated armed carjacking.

There is a 1977 film by Nigerian director Eddie Ugbomah based on this flamboyant gangster’s life, The Rise and Fall of Dr. Oyenusi.

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2009: Li Peiying, corrupt aviation kingpin

Add comment August 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2009, China executed Li Peiying, the former chairman of a vast airport conglomerate that managed, among many others, Beijing Capital International Airport.

Li was convicted on corruption charges that netted £11 million in bribes and embezzled public funds from 1995 to 2003. Li’s case for leniency was that he gave it all back; the court’s case for aggravation was that Li had solicited (and not merely accepted) the bribes, an “extremely serious crime” resulting in “large economic losses.” For instance, nightclub mogul Qin Hui* was able to secure through Li $90 million in loans and guarantees

The state-owned Capital Airports Holding Co. that Li managed was reported at the time of his execution to employ 38,000 people and handle 30% of China’s air traffic.

In 2011, the successor to the corporate titancy Li was deposed from, Zhang Zhizhong, was himself convicted of wholesale corruption.** Perhaps in deference to China’s ongoing gradual de-escalation of penalties imposed for white-collar economic crimes, Zhang received only a 12-year prison sentence.

* Qin Hui shares a name with a villain in the classical story of Yue Fei. Our Qin Hui just owned the Paradise club in the Great Wall Sheraton.

** China’s aviation industry as a whole is notorious for corruption.

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1896: John Pryde, Brainerd murderer

Add comment July 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, John Pryde hanged in Crow Wing County jail for a Brainerd murder over a little bit of money.

Pryde had worked all the preceding winter in a lumber camp but closed his engagement (so he said) with a Valentine‘s Day jaunt to Lothrop — abandoned in the present day but then the terminal stop on the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway, where the lumber he’d been hewing would be loaded up for the Brainerd sawmill. According to this site about Minnesota ghost towns, Lothrop “was a typical hell-raising, end-of-tracks town.”

Some of the hell so raised consisted in the timeless pastime of wagering on small cardboard rectangles, and to hear Pryde’s (possibly suspect) account of it he got sharked at the poker table: ” I knew nothing about cards, only what I had found out by looking on. I tried the game and won, at one time being $100 ahead, and if I had known enough to quit then I would not be where I am today. But I was flush and my companions urged me to keep right on, saying that luck was with me and I could win everything in sight. I did so, to my regret, and lost all my winnings and also my winter’s wages, having but a few dollars in my pocket when I reached Brainerd, and I was all broke up.”

Back in Brainerd so penniless and broke up, Pryde decided a buddy from the logging camp could supply him and sent Andrew Peterson a letter urging him to hie to Brainerd immediately for a job that was waiting him. Peterson did so; Pryde met him on his return on Feb. 24 and escorted his victim around the outskirts of the city to a spot sufficiently remote to shoot him in the back of the head and rummage through his possessions.

Pryde found one dollar.

Unfortunately for Pryde, Peterson survived — not for good, just long enough to be found and identify his killer before he succumbed and made it a murder charge.

By the time authorities took Pryde into custody on this intelligence, he had already made arrangements for another logger to come on down for another “job”, with the same object in mind. (But hopefully more than a dollar in his pockets.)

With that pleasing want of artifice that can characterize the Upper Midwest at its finest, Pryde admitted everything and lodged a guilty plea just days after Peterson’s March 3 death. He did add that he regretted the mistake he made in not slashing Peterson’s throat to finish him for sure, and then burning the body to hide the crime.

Pryde’s fall — from an employed and relatively flush young man on the make to a condemned murderer — took all of three weeks.

There were suggestions that Pryde might have pulled the same trick on a different fellow who had disappeared from the work camp. He rejected that quite indignantly.

This story from his last days, and including his gallows address (blaming gambling) and his written last statement (blaming gambling) shows a man really locking in a narrative.

What we know about John Pryde is that he killed in cold calculation someone who was in no way connected to his gambling woes, and he was preparing to do the same a second time. There’s really only so much misbehavior one gets to write off to tilt. But Pryde was a young man and we might allow that a sense of guilt (however belated) and a wish to reconcile himself to his loved ones (however hypocritically) are not of themselves discreditable qualities. There were no protracted appeals or dramatic stays of execution to grow him into any other person but the one who shot his work chum dead for a buck. He had a bare five months to make sense of it all: one wonders if his parents in Chicago, who received this last missive from him, ever did.

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, but I know that it was a hard thing for you to hear what I have done. Well, mother, I have thrown my whole life away, and not only that, how I have disgraced you and pa, and my only sister for the rest of your life; it is true that I made an awful mistake in life. Dear mother, my life was thrown away by the gambling hell hole, there is nothing in the world but that, and it would break most anyone up. It was my first time to gamble, and I was led away by one of my companions and was led into an eternal destruction, that is what put me in the place I am in now. Now my lot is a hard one, but I have made my peace with the Lord, and am prepared to meet my father in Heaven. God will forgive the most sinful if we only believe in Him. The Bible says that God has forgiven the greatest of sins.

I am very sorry over this matter, but it can’t be helped now. There is one thing, that I hope this will warn other young men and will put them on the straight road and show them what gambling will lead a young man to do, first from one thing and then to another.

Dear mother, now I have given you all the news that I have. Oh, dear mother, I cannot reward you for your kindness. You always stuck up for me, and if I had only taken your advice, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is true what you said. I had a good home, and did not realize what a home was. I know I ought not to have left home but we young men do not pay enough attention to our mother and father. Now, father and mother, don’t take this matter too hard, as it won’t help it in the least. We all have go to go some time, sooner or later. There is a home prepared for us all and there we will have peace and joy. Now I will bring this letter to a close, hoping it will find you all well, as I remain, your most loving son,

JOHN PRYDE.

Now, I will bid you good bye, good bye. Father, forget me not, keep this letter to remember me.

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2013: Zeng Chengjie, China’s Bernie Madoff

1 comment July 12th, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, China executed self-made millionaire Zeng Chengjie for corruption.

Once the subject of glowing media profiles (Chinese link) for his entrepreneurship, Zeng was convicted of bilking 57,000-plus investors out of RMB 2.8 billion (US $460 million) which he in turn used to lock up lucrative urban development projects in Jishou.

The case stirred an uproar in China and overseas because Zeng’s daughter vigorously protested the execution on her Weibo page.

Zeng Shen said she was notified of her father’s execution only two days after it took place. The official story would be that Zeng never requested the family meeting; that story was met with incredulity. (And widespread speculation that Zeng’s organs were harvested for medical transplantation.)

“If one day, I’m sentenced to death and told that I have the right to meet my family, I guarantee that I will absolutely ask to see my family,” wrote IT venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee on one of the country’s most-followed microblogging accounts. “If the court claims that I didn’t make such request after the execution, it must be a lie.”

Moreover, Zeng Shen charged that the whole affair was a political fix-up orchestrated by the successors of Hunan province officials that Zeng pere worked with — and that as a result the executed man’s assets had been snapped up for yuan on the renminbi.

China has made a point in recent years of dialing back capital punishment for white-collar “economic” crimes; most similar cases of fraud or theft result at worst in suspended death sentences, which are de facto prison terms.

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

Add comment July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

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1879: Troy Dye and Ed Anderson, estate salesmen

Add comment May 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Sacramento County public administrator Troy Dye was hanged for murder, along with the Swedish goon whom he’d hired to do the dirty work.

A 36-year-old father of three, Dye was a prosperous tavern owner in the California capital who volunteered at the Sunday school. In 1877, voters entrusted him with the necessary public office of managing intestate estates.

In retrospect one can safely say that Dye was not cut out for the public trust.

The position entailed a percentage claim on the estate so handled, which meant in practice that it was a thankless burden for long periods when only paupers died without their wills made out, punctuated by rare jackpots when the occasional wealthy fellow kicked off without heirs.

San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 16, 1878.

All Dye did was speed that cycle up a little, by arranging to murder a fifty-five-year-old bachelor in order to lay hands on his 650-acre farm and plunder the “rich old son of a bitch.”

Dye hired a Swedish sausage-maker named Ed Anderson and a young tough named Tom Lawton at three grand apiece to handle the labor.

For six hot summer weeks, Anderson and Lawton built a boat on Dye’s property with the one mission in mind. On July 30, they put it into the Sacramento River and rowed it downstream to the Grand Island orchards of their target, Aaron Moses Tullis. Under the guise of soliciting work, Anderson approached Tullis in his groves, and when the man’s back was turned, clobbered him with a blackjack. In the ensuing melee, Lawton, leaping into the fray from hiding nearby, shot Tullis through the throat, then felled him with a shot in the back, and finished him off with an execution-style coup de grace.

The two killers fled two miles down the river, where they ditched the boat. Their employer, signaling furtively by whistling, picked them up in a buggy and rode them back to Sacramento for celebratory oysters.

They wouldn’t be celebrating for long.

News of the murder puzzled the community as it got out. Tullis was wealthy all right, but his assailants had stolen nothing; he wasn’t known to have any enemies; and nobody had seen the riverborne assassins slip onto the property.

But within a few days, discovery of the abandoned boat led to the lumberyard that stamped its planks, and that led to the fellows who purchased it. Tom Lawton wisely used this tiny interval to leave California; Ed Anderson and Troy Dye stuck around and made national wire copy with their confessions before August was out.

Having spilled all the beans, Dye had only the feeblest of gambits remaining to avoid the noose.

At trial, Dye argued that the whole plan was the idea of the other two men, and he, Dye, was was just too damn weak-minded to say them nay.

At sentencing, Dye whined that the district attorney had induced him to confess by dint of a promise to let him walk.**

And during his appeals and clemency process he inconsistently shammed insanity, fooling nobody.

“A more pitiable object than Troy Dye, the assassin, never marched to the scaffold,” one observer noted of the pallid, stocking-footed figure whom the ticketed observers saw on execution day. (Quoted in this pdf retrospective on “one of the most shocking and melancholy episodes in the history of Sacramento.”)

Against Dye’s wheedling and quailing, Anderson cut a picture of manfulness. Even on the eve of the execution, while Dye was just this side of collapse, Anderson noticed the sheriff toting the hanging ropes and insisted on inspecting them, then shocked the lawman with a cool off-color joke.

But this was calm and not mere bravado. Time that Dye wasted in his simulated spasms was spent by Anderson with his spiritual counselor; his gracious last statement from the gallows confessed his guilt and begged forgiveness. “Troy Dye Dies, Anderson Ascends” ran the headline afterwards.

* A county clerk reached by the Sacramento Record-Union recalled a conversation that clouded suspiciously in retrospect: “he said that unless something turned up, that he would not make enough out of it to pay his expenses … I said to him: ‘You cannot tell when some one will die and leave a good estate.’ … he said he did not know of any one who was likely to die that was worth any amount except Mr. Tullis, down the river. He said he was an old man and drank a great deal, and was likely to die at any time, and that he was rich. If he should drop off and he got the estate, it would help him out.” (Reprinted by the San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 15, 1878)

** That was indeed the case, as it seems that Dye’s confession revealed himself much more deeply involved than the prosecutor had previously assumed. This is why it’s much better to just shut up already.

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1913: Andriza Mircovich, by a shooting-machine

Add comment May 14th, 2014 Headsman

101 years ago today, a Serbian immigrant was shot for murder in Carson City, Nevada.

It was an ordinary murder, by an ordinary man: his cousin died in a mining fire in 1911, and Andriza (or Andrija) Mircovich, feeling he got stiffed on the resulting inheritance, stabbed to death the probate attorney (a fellow South Slav named Gregorovich).

The execution, however, was extraordinary — and has never in history been repeated.

The march of science had lately made possible whole new methods of execution heretofore uncontemplated — like electricity and poison gas. At the same time, mechanical engineering had improved old standbys like beheading and hanging from slipshod, error-prone affairs to efficient operations worthy of an age of industry.

Somewhere between those categories we find he firing squad. Firearms, of course, were new technology relative to the noose and a big ol’ axe, but we do find executions by shooting back to the 17th century at least.

Though the guns themselves had been updated, Nevada was forced by circumstances to do for firing squads what Dr. Guillotin had done for headsmen.

Nevada law at the time allowed inmates to choose between hanging and shooting. The state had all the accoutrement for the former, but it hadn’t ever conducted one of the latter. When Mircovich insisted on being shot, and prison officials couldn’t find people willing to pull the trigger, Nevada actually built a “shooting gallery of steel” — an entire contraption to automate the lethal fusillade.


Image from this history of Nevada capital punishment.

The 1,000-pound gallery of steel, whose arrival caused the prison warden George Cowing to resign in horror,* consisted of a shed with three protruding mounted rifles, which would be individually sighted on the heart of the restrained prisoner and fired when guards cut a string to release a spring mechanism.

In a macabre Rube Goldberg parody, it was improved for the consciences of the guards by having three strings that would be simultaneously cut, only one of which actually triggered the gallery. A redundant layer of plausible deniability was added, since each of the three guards had aimed only one of the three rifles, by loading only two of the three guns with live ammunition.

Mircovich went to his death still fulminating profanely against the judge who condemned him and the injustice of it all. The scene, it must be said, was not exactly the finest hour in penal history.

But the device itself? It worked perfectly, killing Mircovich nigh-instantly with two balls straight to his heart.


From the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1913.

Nevada got rid of this inconvenient execution option not long after, and Mircovich remains the only human being put to death by shooting (whether by human hands or mechanical ones) in the Silver State’s history. The guns from this weird artifact currently reside at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City; the scaffolding that once surrounded them is in some aircraft carrier or tank, having been donated as scrap metal during World War II.

* Cowing was replaced by former governor Denver Dickerson, who would later oversee Nevada’s pathbreaking gas chamber debut. Digression: Dickerson’s turn as governor had been notable for his arranging a boxing match in Reno between the black champion Jack Johnson and the “great white hope” James Jeffries, which resulted in a legendary Johnson victory and — another sign of the era’s dismal condition of race relations — a nationwide wave of racial violence.

According to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Dickerson was the kind of guy who could see past skin color well enough to make bank wagering on Johnson.

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1883: Henry De Bosnys, bane of Elizabeths

Add comment April 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Henry De Bosnys was hanged in Elizabethtown, New York, for murdering his wife.

De Bosnys was an immigrant near to 50 years old who turned up in 1881 in a little town on Lake Champlain as a farm hand. As we will see, this humble station contrasted sharply with the life De Bosnys claimed he had formerly led.

With him was “a colored woman who passed as his wife,” Eliza — but not for long. Soon after, De Bosnys took her away on his boat claiming that he had found work for her elsewhere on the lake. De Bosnys returned, but Eliza never did.

Whatever suspicions this might have aroused about the French farmhand did not suffice to deter another Eliza, the local widow Elizabeth Wells, from marrying De Bosnys only a few weeks later.

Their short union was characterized by terrible quarrels when the wife declined to place her small farm in the husband’s name. On August 1, 1882, she became the second Essex County woman to go for a ride with De Bosnys and fail to return.

At 122 meters deep, Lake Champlain is an oblivion where a corpse might vanish without trace. This is less true of a pile of leaves along a country lane — which is where Mrs. De Bosnys turned up, shot twice in the head with 22 calibre bullets and her neck gashed all the way to her spine.

When arrested, De Bosnys had a .22 pistol with two shots discharged, and a bloody knife. His story was that the couple had run into a Scotsman they knew, got drunk together on whisky, and that he, Henry, had fallen right asleep and knew nothing of what became of the wife. “His story,” the New York Times observes almost unnecessarily (Aug. 6, 1882), “is regarded as very improbable, and he is thought to be an escaped criminal who is concealing his identity.”

De Bosnys initially said he had come to the New World at age 17. By the time he went to the gallows — still insisting on his innocence — he had improved his biography considerably. The Times, possibly short of column-inches that day (Apr. 28, 1883), freely narrated the murderer’s compounded embellishments.

His education was thorough and extensive, and he could write and speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese, and could less perfectly speak and understand several other languages. While yet a mere lad he sailed with a north polar expedition under Leclaire, and was gone nearly two years, from February, 1848, to October, 1850. [I am unsure if this corresponds to any actual known polar expedition. -ed.] In 1854, with his father and brother, he volunteered for the Crimean war, and served in the French army in the Crimea for a couple of years. A few years of peace followed, in which De Bosnys completed his education, but on the breaking out of the war with Austria, in 1859, he joined MacMahon‘s army, in which he saw a few months’ service, sailing in the Autumn to China with the French contingent. Returning to France he joined the French expedition to Mexico in 1861, and after a few months joined the Mexican side, becoming a Captain of guerrillas under Lopez. In this service he was severely wounded in an engagement. He came North, and, being cured of his wound, enlisted in the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1863. He was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and discharged from the army. Returning to France he was married, but after two months’ matrimonial experience sailed on another arctic expedition. After an absence of two years he returned to this country, where he led a roving life until the outbreak of the Franco German war. He entered the French Army, rising by successive promotions until he became a Colonel under Gen. Boubaki. He served all through the war with varying fortunes, at its close escaping to Marseilles, whence he shipped for America.

One would think a man with that history would have a vision wider than squeezing 15 acres out of a widow, or at least the perspicacity to clean up his murder weapons — but then again, he really did speak all those languages. Maybe this was the date Elizabethtown hanged the Most Interesting Man in the World. If so, history records that the man’s savoir faire extended so far as cannily inspecting the apparatus of his own execution a few hours before hanging on it, and offering the hangman a few engineering tips (De Bosnys thought the rope needed more soaping).

Henry De Bosnys’s skull is preserved at Elizabethtown’s Adirondack History Center Museum — and, it is said, his spirit haunts that place too.

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