On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*
Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?
Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.
ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?
DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.
I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.
However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.
The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?
You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.
Ironically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.
I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.
William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?
Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.
During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.
This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …
Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?
Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.
Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.
This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?
Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.
As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.
Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.
The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.
The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.
Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.
Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.
So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.
What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?
I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.
Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.
This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.
David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, 
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.
-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place
On this date in 1679, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.
This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.
With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.
In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.
Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.
There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.
It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.
Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?
This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.
The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.
Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.
Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.
With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.
After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”
Thirty-six-year-old Joan Mae “Jo” Rogers and her daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were vacationing in Florida when they vanished on June 1, 1989. Three days later their bodies turned up in the Tampa Bay. All three were naked from the waist down and had their hands and feet bound, their mouths taped shut, and concrete blocks tied to their necks. Michelle had managed to free one arm before she drowned.
The victims (left to right): Joan, Michelle, and Christe Rogers.
The police initially suspected the girls’ uncle, John Rogers, even though he was in prison at the time.
Rogers had been incarcerated for rape; one of his victims was Michelle, and authorities theorized he had a third party kill her and her mother and sister. Eventually that gentleman was cleared, as was his brother Hal, husband and father of the victims.
The sexual abuse, which had gone on for years, had torn the family apart, and part of the reason for the Florida vacation was so that everyone could relax and get some distance from what had happened. Hal had wanted to join his wife and daughters on their trip, but he had to stay and look after the family’s dairy farm.
The murders and subsequent investigation were covered in heartbreaking detail in St. Petersburg Times reporter Thomas French‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning series here.
Characteristically, local gossip pursued Hal and John for years, particularly Hal. His neighbors in Ohio thought he didn’t appear traumatized enough,* noting that he never cried in public and that he continued to take care of his farm in the wake of the murders.
They didn’t care that the farm was Hal’s livelihood, that cows could not milk themselves. They didn’t care that there was no evidence that he’d left Ohio during the critical time period, and that the police had very quickly cleared Hal as a possible suspect in Jo, Michelle and Christe’s deaths. They didn’t know that he was too traumatized to sleep in his own home and spent months couch-surfing at friends’ houses. They didn’t know that he was devastated, that he’d tried to take his own life at one point so he could be with his family.
As Hal’s sister-in-law said, “There’s no protocol here. There’s no Murder 101 class. No Grief 101 that anybody thinks to give you.”
Stranger-on-stranger crimes are incredibly difficult to solve. It wasn’t until October 1989 that the police linked the Rogers family’s murders to the rape of a Canadian tourist that had happened in May, two weeks before the triple homicide. The rapist had lured the woman out onto a boat, threatened to kill her, and threatened to duct-tape her mouth if she didn’t stop screaming. After the rape he apologized to her, threw up over the side of the boat, took her to shore and let her go.
Police released a composite sketch of the woman’s attacker, whom they believed was the same man who killed the Rogerses. That got over 400 tips from the public, but none of them panned out.
The authorities found some driving directions written on a brochure in Jo’s car which were not in her handwriting and which they thought were written by the murderer; they released samples to the public in the hopes that someone would recognize the writing.
Composite sketch of the suspect (top); Oba Chandler as he looked around the time of his 1992 arrest (bottom).
Finally they got a break: one of Chandler’s neighbors recognized the sketch of the rape suspect and turned his name over to the police. That same neighbor had hired Chandler to build out her porch, and she had a copy of the contract he’d written out for her. She turned the contract over to the authorities, and handwriting experts determined it was written by the same man who wrote the driving directions found in Jo’s car. Investigators also found Chandler’s palm print on the brochure.
In September 1992, convinced that they were on the right track, the police flew to Canada to interview the rape survivor from May 1989. She picked Chandler’s photo out of a line-up. With that, the authorities finally had enough evidence to make the arrest.
Chandler, an Ohio native like his victims, gave the impression of an ordinary, mild-mannered sort, but he was in fact a career criminal: he went by many alias names and had an arrest record dating back to when he was fourteen years old, for a wide range of offenses including car theft, robbery, kidnapping, receiving stolen property, possession of counterfeit money, and various sex crimes. By the time of his 1992 arrest he had racked up six felony convictions.
Chandler testified at the murder trial, against the advice of his attorney, and admitted he had met the three victims and given them directions. He could hardly deny that, given the handwriting and fingerprint evidence.
He did deny having ever seen them again after that, and he swore he’d never taken them out on his boat and never harmed them. He called the very idea “ludicrous.” In fact, he maintained his innocence until his death.
But the prosecution eviscerated him during cross-examination. Chandler claimed that on the night of the murders he’d gotten stuck out in Tampa Bay when his boat’s fuel line sprung a leak and he ran out of gas. A boat mechanic employed by the Florida Marine Patrol examined the vessel and determined that this story was impossible: the boat had an anti-siphon valve that would have prevented a leak.
The Canadian rape victim was permitted to testify. She didn’t cry as she described what happened to her, but some of the jurors did. One of Chandler’s adult daughters (he had eight children by seven different women) also testified, saying her father had told her he’d raped a foreign tourist and also killed some women in Florida.
The judge who presided over the trial later said Chandler was “the vilest, most evil defendant I ever handled.” When the jury retired, they took an initial poll among themselves and discovered that all twelve believed he was guilty. For form’s sake, however, they waited an hour and a half before returning with their verdict.
There’s some speculation that Chandler was involved in other murders besides those of the Rogers family.
Linda Lois Little, a Daytona Beach woman, disappeared on his birthday in 1991 and was never found. One of Little’s sisters thinks saw him at her apartment complex a few days before Little disappeared. Chandler refused to answer law enforcement’s questions about Little’s disappearance and his involvement has never been proved one way or the other.
During his seventeen years on death row, Chandler never had a single visitor, not even any of his own relatives. The execution, which went smoothly, was attended by Michelle and Christe’s cousin, as well as a reluctant Hal Rogers. He remarried more than a decade after his family’s murder and became a stepfather of four, but wasn’t able to have any more children.
When asked if he had any last words, Chandler simply answered, “No.” He did leave a written statement that simply said, “You are killing an innocent man today.”
No one believed him.
* “Didn’t display the right kind of grief in the right kind of way for the right amount of time” was also one of the raps on wrongly executed “arsonist” Cameron Todd Willingham.
On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.
The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.
[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.
Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.
Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.
In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.
Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.
Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.
The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.
Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.
Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.
The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§
Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.
their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.
The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.
The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.
Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).
* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.
** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.
† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.
‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.
§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.
This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.
Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.
From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:
high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.
Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.
In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.
They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.
(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)
Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.
“Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.’”
On this date in 1612, Edward Wightman became the last person burnt for heresy in England.*
The clothier’s religious dissension had macerated in Puritanism — which was bad enough — and decanted into a heady potion of “the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manichees, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists and other arch heretics, and moreover, of other cursed opinions belched by the instinct of Satan.” Sort of a cafeteria heretic.
All this made a delectable smorgasbord when Wightman went on spectacular public trial late in 1611. Yet even this was not so much the direct outcome of a strict anti-heretic policy as of political rearrangements of the moment: essentially the Calvinist Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbott vs. anti-Calvinists like the future Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Laud was involved in Wightman’s prosecution.
As these worthies maneuvered for influence, our irrepressible preacher
was batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between the spring and autumn of 1611 … In the first ten weeks of his imprisonment, Wightman was brought before the High Commission four times before being discharged uncondemned in mid-June 1611; after an initial burst of energy and concern, the court appears to have decided to take no immediate action against the accused heretic who remained imprisoned at the king’s pleasure.**
There had not been a person put to death for heresy since 1589. Elizabeth I — she who eschewed “windows into men’s souls” — rarely hunted citizens for doctrinal difference alone. (Catholicism was constructed, rightly or wrongly, as treason: a crime of the state, rather than of the conscience.)
Wightman made himself a target by publicly flaunting his strange beliefs,† and by late in 16121 the anti-Calvinists had control of the process and a perceived opportunity to score political points by prosecuting him. The trial was a cinch, since Wightman made no bones about his dissension.
One is almost so inured to the hagiographic style of the day, martyr unflinchingly thrusting flesh into flame, that one might well forget how very unpleasant burning alive must be.
Wightman, as the heat of the pyre warmed under him on March 9, shrieked out an agonized recantation, or maybe just something of animal pain that the crowd misinterpreted. Infernus interruptus ensued and the stake was actually doused, with the singed near-executee removed to convalesce and formalize his timely abjuration.
But reprieve recovered the recusant’s recalcitrance, and he soon resumed his error, “every day more blasphemous.” So on this date, Wightman
was caried agayne to the stake where feeling the heat of the fier again would have recanted, but for all his crieinge the sheriff tould hyme he showld cosen him no more and comanded faggottes to be sett to him whear roringe he was burned to ashes.
It was not until 1677 that England abolished the death penalty for all religious offenses.
There’s an alleged family connection from Wightman’s descendants to most of the Wightmans and Whitmans in North America. That would include the 19th century U.S. missionary Marcus Whitman, who pioneered the Oregon trail, triggered a notorious Native American massacre against his homestead, and is the namesake of Walla Walla’s Whitman College.
** Ian Atherton and David Como, “The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England,” English Historical Review, Dec. 2005. Recommended reading for anyone interested in really unpacking Wightman’s world and outlook.
† According to interrogators, Wightman “affirmed my selfe to be that prophet promised in the 18 of Deuteronomie. And that Elyas in the 4th of Malachie promised to be sent before the great and fearfull day of the Lord. And that comfortor in the 16th of John which should convince the world of sinne of righteousnes and of Judgment.”
On this date in 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett was executed by lethal injection, with the tart last words,
“I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”
Although Garrett was only 17 at the time a nun from a neighboring Amarillo convent was raped and murdered, and he may have qualified as developmentally disabled to boot — both factors that today would exclude him from execution — that whole innocence story didn’t have much public traction.
“No, no, not at all,” New Mexico attorney Jesse Quackenbush told this site in an interview. “He was villainized from day one: he was a nun-murderer who needed to be executed. The only sympathy really came from the Pope.”
But two decades on, Garrett’s dying profession is one of the more troublesome skeletons in the Texas execution machine’s closet, thanks in no small part to Quackenbush himself.
Quackenbush directed the documentary The Last Word (viewable free on Netflix), a powerful brief not only for Garrett’s innocence* but against the comprehensive rot of the system that shunted hm off this mortal coil — from the front-line investigators all the way through the Lone Star State’s intentionally broken executive clemency farce.
“It was a system-wide failure that caused this kid to die. It wasn’t just the legal system,” Quackenbush said. “The media played a part. The governor was looking more to her own re-election hopes.* There was a dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court wasn’t morally deep enough to realize that executing 17-year-olds and ‘mentally retarded’ prisoners was wrong. There’s the system in Texas that allowed the prosecutors to hand-pick the pathologists to provide junk science.
“It’s a multifaceted failure, and no one facet is more to blame than the others.”
Garrett, a white teenager, disappeared into a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth, after the alleged supernatural vision of a local soothsayer acclaimed him the culprit in the murder of a nun named Tadea Benz. Corporeal indicia of guilt falls somewhere between circumstantial and laughable: fingerprints in a convent he had visited many times, the inevitable jailhouse snitch, and an unrecorded supposed “confession” that Garrett refused to sign.
As in a preponderance of death cases, especially in Texas (pdf), a meek and all-but-unfunded defense team offered scant resistance as prosecutors made the most of this eminently disputable evidence: once the one-sided trial was in the books and the crucial direct appeals likewise slipped past, the proceedings lay beyond the reach of judicial review.
This novel is inspired by the Garrett case.
For all that, there yet remains one un-litigated piece of evidence.
Around the time of Sister Benz’s death, there was another rape-murder of another elderly Amarillo woman, a crime that authorities publicly described as “too similar” to the Benz case not to be part of the same crime spree.
That case went unsolved … but years after Garrett’s execution, DNA databases matched an old semen sample from that second crime to a Cuban rapist (he was among the criminals and undesirables that Castro expelled to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift) named Leoncio Perez Rueda.
More dispositive evidence in the form of still-testable crime scene samples may yet reside in Amarillo’s evidence lockers — semen and blood samples that, in the era of DNA, Quackenbush thinks would exonerate Johnny Frank Garrett.
If testing this sort of thing sounds like a no-brainer, you don’t work for Amarillo.
“The [Garrett] family offered the city of Amarillo complete civic immunity and they still refused to run a DNA test, and threatened to countersue** if the family tried to pursue it,” Quackenbush says. “In the state of Texas there are still only laws protecting DNA access for living people: if you’re already executed, you have no rights.”
Which is a particular pity — since “the chances of executing innocent people are still really high.”
* Quackenbush’s case for Garrett’s innocence is outlined in this legal memo (pdf). This site maintains an extensive archive of resources about the case.
** In this, it’s not unlike the Ruben Cantu case, where post-execution evidence of innocence has also been met with legal threats by the state.
On this date in 1634, a Paris tribunal “declare[d] the said Urbain Grandier duly guilty of the crime of sorcery, evil spells, and the possession visited upon some Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudon and of other laywomen mentioned at the trial, together with other crimes resulting from the above. For redress of these, he has been condemned … to be taken to the Place of Saine-Croix of this said town, to be tied to a post on a pile of faggots that is to be built in the said Place. There his body is to be burned alive … and his ashes are to be scattered to the winds.”
The sentence was immediately enforced.
These Loudon possessions were a disgraceful carnival of simulated enspellment by the local Ursuline nuns engineered to destroy Grandier, a parish priest with a knack for acquiring enemies.
Alexandre Dumas, pere would write about Grandier in his Crimes Célèbres, and later in a stand-alone play. In Dumas’s rendering, Grandier arrived in Loudon as a handsome outsider, eloquent in the pulpit and doubly so in pursuit of a pretty girl,* as inexorable as Shylock in his victorious lawsuits against the local grandees.
Most recklessly of all, he made a foe of Cardinal Richelieu — snubbing him, opposing him politically, and (so it was alleged) authoring a scathing and anonymous lampoon of the Grey Eminence.
When Richelieu’s deputy came to town, the locals got the Ursuline nuns into their fits and got Grandier fast-tracked for hell.
The nuns put on a circus of frothing, profane, hip-thrusting demoniac possession accusing Grandier of bewitchment as they melodramatically underwent exorcism. (Fabulously attended, these public displays of possession and exorcism went on for several years after Grandier’s death as a perverse tourist attraction.)
Richelieu’s guy arranged to try Grandier in his own court (no appeal possible) and threatened to arrest for treason anyone who testified in his defense. In case that were insufficient advantage, a contract with Lucifer — a literal, signed document — was produced for the magistrates’ edification.
In fairness, this “contract” must have been a hell of a lot of fun to forge.
Heck, even nuns who tried to recant were turned away. Must be back under Lucifer’s influence!
Before proceeding to the stake, Grandier was subjected to one last “extraordinary” torture. His holy persecutors, “lest the Devils should have the power to resist the blows of a profane man, such as the hangman was, they themselves took the hammers and tortured the unhappy man” until the bone marrow leaked from his legs. Satan’s subcontractor suffered the blows without confessing or naming an accomplice.
In 1952, Aldous Huxley molded the horrible Grandier story into a non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Huxley’s take helped to popularize the tale — one that polemicists in the 17th century also recognized as an injustice — for the modern era of flesh minced by ideological madness.
From beginning to end, the trial proved a farce in which the condemnation of the accused was a foregone conclusion. By means of a series of trumped-up charges reinforced by an official philosophy and falsified theological dogmas, the resources of the state were mobilized to crush the offending individual. Huxley is not slow to point to the modern counterpart of such proceedings, notably in Fascist or Communist countries.
-Book review by S. van Dantzich, The Australian Quarterly, June 1954
Evidently, it struck a chord.
A 1971 cinematic adaptation of this book, The Devils, a captivating and sacrilegious tapestry of violent, sexual, and religious iconography, won critical praise and censor board bans, as well as an “X” rating in the United States. It’s hard to find, but worth the trouble.
On this date in 1510, the new king Henry VIII had his dad’s most hated tax collectors beheaded on Tower Hill.
Better days: Empson (on the left) and Dudley (on the right) pal around with Henry VII.
When Henry Tudor conquered Bosworth Field to emerge from the War of the Roses as King Henry VII, he brought the baggage of being the son of some Welsh squire.
His shaky legitimacy exposed the newborn Tudor dynasty to existential threats from every quarter; even putative allies proved liable to turn against him.
Henry consequently looked for every opportunity to centralize power away from institutions that could check or threaten him and into his own hands — nowhere more notoriously so than in the realm of taxation.* Aggressive tax collection would not only regenerate the crown’s blasted treasury; it would widen his own scope of action.
Whether Henry’s historical repute for cupidity is well-deserved is a topic beyond the scope of this site, but the fact that he does have such a reputation can be attributed in no small degree to this date’s featured players.
These two persons, being lawyers in science, and privy councillors in authority, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, turned law and justice into wormwood and rapine. … Neither did they, toward the end, observe so much as the half-face of justice, in proceeding by indictment; but sent forth their precepts to attach men and convent them before themselves, and some others, at their private houses, in a court of commission; and there used to shuffle up a summary proceeding by examination, without trial of jury; assuming to themselves there to deal both in pleas of the crown and in controversies civil. Then did they also use to inthral and charge the subjects’ lands with tenure in capite, by finding false offices, and thereby to work upon them for wardships, liveries, premier seisin, and alienations … When men were outlawed in personal actions, they would not permit them to purchase their charters of pardon, except they paid great and intolerable sums; standing upon the strict point of law, which upon outlawries giveth forfeiture of goods; nay, contrary to all law and colour, they maintained the king ought to have the half of men’s lands and rents, during the space of full two years, for a pain in case of outlawry. They would also raffle with jurors, and enforce them to find as they would direct, and if they did not, convent [summon] them, imprison them, and fine them. These and many other courses, fitter to be buried than repeated, they had of preyig upon the people; both like tame hawks for their master, and like wild hawks for themselves; insomuch as they grew to great riches and substance.
Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley were two powerful parliamentarians of less than lordly stature who had been elevated to this bad-cop role for their loyalty and aptitude. There, they became lightning rods for public resentment. It’s a path that had once taken a French counterpart from the common stock to the robes of state to (once his patron monarch died) the scaffold. Empson and Dudley trod it exactly.
Even in Henry’s lifetime, his newly intrusive taxes risked fearful public reaction.
The pretender Perkin Warbeck knocked Henry for the “robberies, extortions, the daily pilling of the people by dismes [tithes], taskes [contributions], tallages [tolls], benevolences, and other unlawful impositions and grievous exactions” he imposed, “agreeable to the meanness of his birth.” Tax backlash helped generate at least some of Warbeck’s popular support.
By the twilight of Henry’s rule in the first decade of the 1500′s, he had mastered these threats and could take advantage of political tranquility to really focus on his accounting. And he’d figured out that by ratcheting up enforcement of already-existing levies, he could avoid the dangerous confrontations that might result from summoning Parliament to ask it for money. It’s from this period most of all that he gets his historical Ebenezer Scrooge image, and the tool he employed for it, the Council Learned in the Law, got its extreme unpopularity.
Henry died in April of 1509 at the age of 52, leaving his son Henry VIII an overflowing treasury and countless grievances against the tax collectors who made it happen.
As the Council Learned’s leading lights, Empson and Dudley — “the king’s long arms with which … he took what was his” — immediately became targets once their royal protector was in the ground. They were hailed before the greenhorn king and the Privy Council to justify themselves within days of Henry VII’s death.
Interestingly, because a royal pardon amnestied all crimes except “felony, murder, and treason,” the malfeasance of these two councilors — whose real offense was unimpeachable loyalty to the last sovereign — had to be exaggerated into rather fantastical charges of treason in order to satisfy petitioners against them while avoiding undue embarrassment for the late king or the other aides who had served him.
In the year or so he lay in the dungeon awaiting his fate, “a pson most ignorant, and being in wordlie vexacon and trowble, also wth the sorrowfull and bitter remembrance of death,” Edmund Dudley wrote a treatise on the right arrangement of a society dedicated to the young new master who held Dudley’s life in his hands. The Tree of Commonwealth can be read here.
Yale professor Keith Wrightson introduces an interesting lecture — “Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts” — with Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth social schema.
Remember both, since now each thrive,
on perquisite ill gotten,
Empson & Dudleys case survives,
when they’re hang’d, dead, & rotten;
-From an 18th century colonial Virginia ballad titled “Remonstrance”, comparing this date’s centuries-old executed to a contemporary politician (Richard Beale Davis, “The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1967))
* The phrase “Morton’s fork” comes from Henry’s extractive machinations. Named for his Lord Chancellor John Morton, the original dilemma was a “fork” the crown used to stick taxpayers: those living high on the hog were made to pay up, since they obviously had enough to spare … and those living modestly were also made to pay, since they perforce must have saved enough to spare.
On this date in 1934, in the coda to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives purge of the Nazi party, the emerging dictator had his longtime ally shot.
Bavarian World War I veteran Ernst Röhm (Roehm) had been a National Socialist brawler of the earliest vintage: after the armistice, he was among the Freikorps paramilitaries to topple the short-lived Munich Soviet. He joined the NSDAP’s predecessor, the German Workers’ Party, before Hitler himself, and he stood trial with the future Fuhrer after helping Hitler attempt the Beer Hall Putsch. They were so tight, Hitler politely ignored Röhm’s open homosexuality.
But most importantly, Röhm was the energetic organizer of the Sturmabteilung, or SA — the party’s private army ready at arms for street battles with Communists, roughing up Jews, Praetorian Guard duty for party brass, and various and sundry other unpleasantries.
An SA brownshirt tosses a book on the pyre at a May 10, 1933 book burning.
Röhm grew the SA like a weed. At well over 4 million men by the time of Hitler’s Chancellorship, it greatly outnumbered the army itself.
This gave Röhm personal designs on absorbing the army into his paramilitary instead of the other way around, and it gave Röhm the literal boots on the ground to manifest his own commitment to the “Socialist” bits of the “National Socialist” project. His noises about the “second revolution” to come after the Nazis had already obtained state power were most unwelcome.
“One often hears voices in the bourgeois camp to the effect that the SA have lost any reason for existence, but I will tell these gentlemen that the old bureaucratic spirit must yet be changed in a gentle or, if need be, an ungentle manner.”
Well, those gentlemen weren’t about to wait around to be changed in an ungentle manner. Hitler was induced to sacrifice the man who raised him to power in favor of those who could keep him there, personally arrested his old friend and aide-de-camp as the June 30 purge got underway.
A sucker for nostalgia, Hitler didn’t have Röhm killed outright — the fate of many others in those terrible hours — but instead shipped him to Stadelheim Prison in Munich.* After due consideration, though, the treacherous chancellor did what he was always going to do.
Hitler ordered a revolver to be left in his cell, but Röhm refused to use it: “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” According to an eyewitness at the 1957 Munich trial of those involved, he was shot by two S.S. officers who emptied their revolvers into him at point blank range. “Röhm wanted to say something but the S.S. officer told him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention — he was stripped to the waist — with his face full of contempt.”
A nice twist of the Long Knife by its wielders: they justified the purge on the grounds of an imminent coup attempt by the dead SA boss,** branding the murders of Röhm and his comrades … the Röhm-putsch.