1915: 22 Singapore mutineers

2 comments March 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”

A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.

This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.

The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*

On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)

Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.

Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.

And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.

And not only in the event, but in the aftermath. Prof. C.M. Turnbull noted (pdf)

In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.

* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,India,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Singapore,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1915: Thomas and Meeks Griffin, ancestors of Tom Joyner

4 comments September 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, a quintet of African Americans died in South Carolina’s electric chair during a 70-minute span.

Joe Malloy was put to death for killing two white men four years before; the other four executed on this date were convicted together of murdering 73-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. They were John Crosby, Nelse Brice, and — our principal concern today — Thomas and Meeks Griffin.

The Griffins were among the wealthiest blacks around, and we’ve already seen where that’s a dangerous profile to keep in South Carolina.

In this case, and even though public opinion was predictably inflamed at the aged veteran, the Griffins weren’t lynched: indeed, prominent white people in the community, such as the mayor and the sheriff, rose to the Griffins’ defense to the extent of signing a petition for executive clemency. They didn’t believe then that the thief whose accusation condemned the brothers was credible.

More than likely they suspected Lewis’s 22-year-old black mistress, Anna Davis, and/or her husband — and undoubtedly, they would have known exactly why this scandalous angle was not pursued in court.

Still, South Carolina’s governor reckoned that they’d had their day in court, the victims deserved closure, and whatever other equivalents of the familiar modern-day rationales one might care to name.

Almost surely, this distant injustice would be lost to time were it not for the Griffins’ famous great-nephew, the radio host Tom Joyner.

Joyner only recently discovered (via Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s research for a PBS documentary*) his kinship with these executed men; his grandmother had moved away to Florida to bury the family tragedy.

But the broadcaster exhumed it with gusto, and, two years ago, was able to secure a posthumous pardon from South Carolina based on the weakness of the original case. It’s thought to be the first official posthumous pardon the state has granted to any executed persons.

But we do want to extend the Palmetto State the credit due to all its sons whose signatures graced the disregarded clemency petition way back when. More than that: The State editorialized, confusedly but forcefully, against the manifest racial discrepancies in capital sentencing on the occasion of this quintuple-execution. (Oct. 1, 1915) These questions, ever present, are more sincerely grappled with in this column than we can manage today.

* You can watch the big reveal when a flabbergasted Joyner first hears about his ancestors: it’s quite a moment.

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1915: George Joseph Smith, Brides in the Bath murderer

7 comments August 13th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1915, serial uxoricide George Joseph Smith was hung by the capable John Ellis at Maidstone Prison in the UK.

Smith had committed three murders and various forms of larceny as well; he’d earned his noose several times over.

Two things tend to trip people up when they’ve seemingly committed the perfect crime: either they brag about it to impress others, or they repeat the crime using the same methodology as before, since it worked so well the first time. Either of those actions greatly increases the risk of the criminal’s getting caught.

Smith made the latter mistake. He was in a sense a victim of his own success.

Smith was born on January 11, 1872. His criminal record began when he was sent to a reformatory at nine and served a seven-year sentence. In young adulthood he was in and out of prison on theft- and fraud-related convictions.

His complicated marital career began when he married Caroline Beatrice Thornhill, a domestic servant, in 1898. Smith persuaded her to steal from her employers. Caroline served time in prison as a result, and implicated her husband, who got two years for his role in the thefts.

After George Smith’s release, Caroline thought it wise to put a few thousand miles between herself and her estranged husband, and so she left the UK for Canada. She never filed for divorce, however.

Smith remained legally married to her for the rest of his life, so none of his numerous other marriages were legal.

Unlawfully Wedded …

The guy wasn’t good-looking, but he could charm like any good con artist. A year after his marriage to Caroline, Smith bigamously married another woman. He cleaned out her saving account and then deserted her.

Between 1908 and 1914, he married no fewer than seven additional women, usually under an alias, and deserted most of them after a short time, sometimes only a matter of days — but not before he helped himself to their possessions and bank accounts.

As true crime writer Harold Schechter tells it in his book The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers:

Smith initially limited himself to scamming gullible spinsters out of their life savings by luring them into bigamous marriages … The moment Smith had his hands on his new bride’s money, he would disappear. Usually telling her he was going out on an errand — to pick up a newspaper or buy a pack of cigarettes — he would never return. On one occasion, he brought his newlywed wife to the National Gallery of Art and, after viewing some paintings, excused himself to go to the bathroom. She never saw him — or her life savings — again.

That particular bride was named Sarah Faulkner. Smith had already plundered £350 in cash from her and her jewelry as well, and while she was waiting for him to return from the loo he was back at their hotel, swiping her clothing and the rest of her money.

The only wife that didn’t fit this pattern was Edith Pegler.

Smith was away from her side for months at a time on “business trips” and when he returned it was always to ask for money, but he never left her for good and they remained together for seven years. As to whether he actually harbored some form of affection for her or whether he just didn’t want to kill his cash cow while it was still milkable, we can only speculate.

Yet all these women were, in a sense, lucky.

Smith may have broken their hearts and taken their cash, but he left them their lives.

… ‘Til Death Do Us Part

The first unlucky wife was Bessie Mundy, whom Smith murdered on July 13, 1912.

They’d married in August 1910, but he left her after persuading her to give him £150 in cash. On the way out the door, he accused her of giving him a venereal disease.

Eighteen months later, Bessie ran into Smith on the street. Somehow, the charmer got his ex to forgive him and resume their relationship.

In fact, Smith wanted to get his hands on Bessie’s £2,500 inheritance, but it was in trust and he couldn’t touch it.

After their reunion, the couple drew up mutual wills, naming each other as beneficiaries. Bessie willed her husband £2,579. Less than a week later, she was mysteriously dead.

Smith rented a house for them in Herne Bay and had a new cast-iron bathtub installed. Tragically, Bessie drowned in the bath. Her husband said he’d been out buying dinner and returned to discover the body.

Since Smith claimed his bride suffered from epilepsy and that she’d had a seizure the day before she died, it was easy to believe she’d simply had an unfortunate accident.

In spite of his newfound wealth, Smith had Bessie consigned to a pauper’s grave and even returned the slightly-used bathtub to the ironmonger for a £1 17s. refund.

This, perhaps, is where Smith might have counted himself lucky and checked out of the homicide business — or at least thought about a different m.o. Instead, hubris and habit got him hanged.

The Brides of Bath murder victims: from left to right, Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty.

Next to go was Alice Burnham, who was making a goodly living as a nurse. Smith married on November 4, 1913, and became her widower on December 13.

Alice and her new husband were honeymooning at a seaside boardinghouse in Blackpool when she drowned in the bathtub while he was supposedly out getting eggs.

Smith, who claimed she had a weak heart, had insured her life for £500. She too was buried on the cheap.

Margaret Elizabeth Lofty died in her London home a little over a year later, on December 18, 1914. Newspapers reported she had drowned in the bathtub while her husband — identified as Robert Lloyd — was out buying tomatoes. He and the landlady found the body. Lofty and “Lloyd” had married only the day before and, appropriately enough, the ceremony was performed in the city of Bath.

Although it was initially classified as death by misadventure, Margaret’s murder ultimately lead to Smith’s downfall.

Rotten luck, it was: Alice Burnham’s father read an account of her death in the newspaper and, even though the husband had a different name, he couldn’t help but notice that Margaret’s death was suspiciously similar to his daughter’s.

Joseph Crossley, who was the couple’s landlord at the time of Alice’s death, noticed the same thing. Since both the Burnhams and Crossleys had taken a dislike to Smith from the get-go, they both wrote the police, asking them to open an investigation.

Authorities quickly determined that George Joseph Smith and Robert Lloyd were the same man. They sure had the same playbook.

Margaret had made out a will just hours before she died, naming her husband the sole heir to her estate. She had also withdrawn her life savings from the bank the same day, and three days before she had taken out a £700 life insurance policy on herself, with her husband as the beneficiary. Ka-ching.

When the grieving widower showed up at the insurance office to collect on Margaret’s policy, he was arrested. Lloyd/Smith was initially charged with putting a false name on a marriage certificate, but bigamy and murder charges would follow fast.

When news of the arrest was published, a police chief from Kent read the story and told the London police about Bessie Mundy’s death, which was strikingly similar to the other two.

Forever Hold Your Peace

But how could he could have drowned the women in the tub, without leaving marks of violence on their body?

Margaret had only a small bruise on her elbow. For answers, the police turned to renowned pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. The first thing he did was exhume the bodies to determine whether the women had, in fact, drowned. They had.

After experimenting with the very same bathtub Margaret Lofty died in, he determined how it might have happened. John Brophy, a crime writer, describes it chillingly:

With honeymoon playfulness he would enter the room where his bride was already in the bath, admire her naked beauty, bend over her fondly, and, still murmuring endearments, hold her feet. Suddenly, he would tug her feet upward, jerking her head at the end of the bath, below the water, so that in a few moments she would be drowned with no bruises on the body or other signs of assault or resistance.

Effective. Actually, you can see why he stuck to his system.

When Smith went to trial, it was only for the murder of Bessie; British law didn’t permit him to be tried for multiple murders in one go. However, the prosecution wanted to bring evidence in the Lofty and Burham deaths into the trial, arguing that they indicated a criminal “system.”

The judge allowed it, setting a precedent that would be used in later criminal cases.

In pretrial investigations later described in court, Spilsbury demonstrated his murder theory using Bessie’s bathtub and a female police officer in a bathing suit. It worked all too well: she lost consciousness immediately and they had to drag her out of the tub and perform artificial respiration to revive her.

No wonder the jury was only out for twenty-two minutes before it delivered a guilty verdict.

Caroline Thornhill, Smith’s legal wife, returned to Britain for his trial. She married a Canadian soldier the day after his execution.

The “Brides in the Bath” case has remained vividly alive in British memory.

The historian Harold Nicholson compared Smith’s behavior to Adolf Hitler’s in his 1939 book, Why Britain is at War; Smith was mentioned in novels by Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and in 1952 the case was made into an episode for the true-crime radio show The Black Museum.

[audio:http://www.archive.org/download/OTRR_Black_Museum_Singles/BlackMuseum-03-TheBathTub.mp3]

More recently, in 2003 the murders were featured into made-for-TV movie called The Brides in the Bath.

Warning: Video contains NSFW naked ladyparts. Oh, and homicide.

At least two plays, Tryst and The Drowning Girls, are based on the story. In 2010, the author Jane Robins published a book about the case, called The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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1915: Charles Becker

Add comment July 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, New York City cop and New York City mafioso Charles Becker was electrocuted at Sing Sing for engineering a hit on bookie Herman Rosenthal.

This case of police corruption and gangland gunplay owned the Big Apple’s headlines in the early nineteen-teens — it even gets a callout in The Great Gatsby. Whether it was rightly decided has been hotly contested ever since.

Author Mike Dash, who maintains a dashing historical blog, delved into this Jabba’s Palace in Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Political Corruption and New York’s Trial of the Century. He was generous enough to grant Executed Today permission to excerpt Satan’s Circus for the narration of Becker’s last hours.


Sing Sing had already prepared for Becker’s death.

Invitations had been despatched in the middle of July to those chosen to witness the execution. There were three dozen in total, and they went to doctors and to a sanitary engineer, to representatives of the press, and to the operators of several wire services. One, scarcely surprisingly, was sent to Swope of the World, but the reporter — to his undoubted chagrin — was recuperating from a bout of rheumatic fever and his doctor had forbidden him to attend. Swope despatched another World reporter in his stead; the man arrived at Ossining bearing a large sheaf of handwritten instructions setting out in considerable detail exactly how the story should be covered. Preparations were also made to cater for the needs of the large body of newsmen expected to descend on Sing Sing without the benefit of invitations. Linemen spent several days installing additional telegraph wires and Morse code senders in a shack opposite the death–house.

Inside the condemned cells, white curtains were fitted across the bars of all the cells that Becker would have to pass on his way to the execution chamber, so that the other inmates would not be able to see him as he walked by. In the execution chamber, guards tested each piece of equipment. The lieutenant’s electrocution was scheduled to be the first at which a new system of signals would be used, as the New York Times reported:

Instead of the old method, by which the executioner signalled with his arm to the man in charge at the power plant, there is a little electric button behind the chair, and above it is tacked a placard bearing the following gruesomely suggestive instructions: “Five bells, get ready; one bell, turn on the current; two bells, turn on more current; three bells, turn on less current; one bell, shut off current; six bells, all through.”

New York’s newspapers remained predominantly hostile to the condemned man. The Times spoke for most of the Manhattan press when it observed that Becker’s death sentence was a punishment not just for Herman’ s death, but for the arrogance Rosenthal’s killer had displayed during his strong–arm days: ‘He paid for the times when “Big Tim” called him “Charlie”. He paid for his one–time power, that almost of a dictator, over the underworld of New York. And he paid for his pride in all this.’ Several dailies had issued their reporters with instructions to study Becker carefully for signs of weakness or incipient collapse; in the end, opinion seemed evenly divided between those who thought that the policeman continued to display an ‘iron nerve in the face of doom’ and those who discerned the onset of a nervous breakdown.

The lawyers were more generous. [Williiam] Bourke Cockran paid tribute to his client’s astounding self–control: ‘His hand is just as cool and his voice as steady as can be.’ John McIntyre said that he had never previously doubted the verdict of a jury in a murder trial. ‘But in this case I say that if Becker is executed tomorrow I will carry to my grave the conviction that at least one innocent man has suffered the death penalty.’ And Joseph Shay, another of the lieutenant’s old attorneys, released a statement of his own: ‘I believe that Becker is dying a martyr, and that his innocence will be established in time, perhaps by the deathbed confession of Vallon or Webber. Rose is too low to confess even on his deathbed.’

Becker himself was woken early on his last morning. At 8am his prison clothes were exchanged for special black cotton shirt and trousers, made without metal buttons or wire stitching; he was given black felt slippers instead of shoes. A guard shaved a spot on his temple, ready for the electrode. Another appeared carrying a pair of shears and neatly slit Becker’s trouser leg almost to the knee. When the time came this would allow the death–house guards to affix a second wire to the condemned man’s calf.

The next portion of the day was passed in writing: a love letter for his wife, a final statement for the press. At two in the afternoon the policeman saw his relatives for the last time. His brothers John, the detective, and Jackson, now a Wall Street broker, found him sitting in his cell, gazing at a small photograph of Helen that he kept on the wall. The meeting was so difficult that the two men were relieved when one of the other prisoners along death row broke the awkward silence by singing ‘Rock of Ages’. Becker joined in with the chorus.

Helen Becker reached Sing Sing, pale and breathless from her journey, soon after 11pm. Her husband had been waiting for her with increasing anxiety for most of the evening. Becker was so popular in the death–house that he had received special permission to spend more than an hour and a half with his wife in the warden’s room. The guards, who had been given strict instructions to keep their eyes on the prisoner at all times, turned their backs as the couple embraced for the final time. ‘No condemned man at the prison had ever had such sympathetic treatment,’ observed the World.

Helen left the prison at 1.30 in the morning, and Becker was returned to his cell. ‘I am tired of the world and its injustice to me,’ he told Father Curry, the New York priest. ‘My happy life has been ruined; I have not been given a chance a mere dog would get.’ Warden Osborne, coming to say good-bye at 2.30am, found his prisoner awake and sitting on the edge of his cot, ‘his chin sunk in his hands’. At four, Father Cashin heard Becker’ s last confession, which contained no admission of guilt and ended with the firm assertion: ‘I am sacrificed for my friends.’

The execution was set for 5.45am. Outside the walls, a double line of guards poked long sticks through the fence that marked the limit of the prison grounds to keep back the crowds assembling there. Inside, the executioner – a small, sharp-faced, balding electrician dressed in a baggy grey sack suit, a striped shirt, polka–dot tie and pointed patent leather shoes – checked his equipment for the final time.

Becker was the one hundred and sixteenth prisoner to die at Sing Sing since electrocution was first used to execute a man in August 1890. The victim on that occasion had been an axe-murderer named William Kemmler, who was accidentally subjected to ‘a far more powerful current than was necessary’ and died ‘in convulsive agony’, flames jetting from the base of his spine and purplish foam spewing from his lips. The technique for electrocuting a man had been refined somewhat since then, but it was still common for the death-house to fill with the odour of burning flesh and scorched hair as the moistened electrical conductors placed against the condemned man’s skin dried out. A lengthy electric shock could ‘turn blood into charcoal and boil a brain’. When a prisoner was ready to enter the chamber, he was issued with thick muslin underwear, and little wads of cotton would be forced into his ears and nostrils to prevent scalding brain fluids spurting forth uncontrollably when the current was applied.

Thomas Mott Osborne, who had vowed never to be present when a man in his charge was being executed, walked away from the death–house at 5am, leaving Deputy Warden Johnson to bring the policeman from his cell. Becker, who was still awake when Johnson came for him, went quietly to his death. A dozen steps took him from his cot to the door leading to the execution chamber. At 5.42 the witnesses clustering inside saw a narrow red door swing open, and the condemned man entered the room. He walked with a strange, hobbled gait, his knees locking involuntarily. His face was a mask. The chair, surprisingly insubstantial, stood on a thick rubber mat almost in the centre of the room. There was no glass and no partition to separate Becker from the witnesses who had come to watch him die, the nearest of whom sat only 10 feet away. The electric chair itself, the man from the American observed, ‘had had a double coat of varnish and its metal fixtures had been burnished for the occasion.’ Straps dangled loosely from its arms and legs, and a heavily–insulated wire hung from a goose-necked fixture above it. The policeman’s guards, anxious to spare the condemned man the agony of a lengthy wait, hurried so much with the buckles that they neglected to secure one of the restraints that stretched over his chest. Becker’s last words, uttered as another leather strap was fastened across his mouth, were a recitation of the Catholic litany: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’

Five bells rang, then one. The executioner took his hands out of his pockets and threw a long wooden lever on the wall. The raucous drone of electricity filled the room, a green flash shot from the equipment and Becker’s muscular body lurched forward against the straps, his head twisting sideways and upwards as though attempting to escape the shock.

Charley Becker was the largest man ever brought into the execution chamber at Sing Sing, and it may be for this reason that his electrocution was horribly botched. Too little current was applied at first, so that the death agonies became protracted. The temperature within the dying man’ s body rose to 140 F, the loose strap across his chest burst open, flames were seen to spurt from his temple, and despite the administration of 1,850 volts for a full 60 seconds, Charles Farr, the death–house doctor, found Becker’s heart ‘not only still beating, but pounding strongly.’ In the end it took nine minutes and three separate jolts to kill the prisoner, though the representative of the World observed that ‘to those who sat in the grey-walled room and listened to the rasping sound of the wooden switch lever being thrown backward and forward, and watched the greenish-blue blaze at the victim’s head and feet and the grayish smoke curling away from the scorched flesh, it seemed an hour.’ The whole affair was described in later years as ‘the clumsiest execution in the history of Sing Sing.’

As the reporters gathered to witness the execution filed out of the chamber, they were handed copies of Becker’s final letters. The first was addressed to Governor Whitman:

You have proved yourself able to destroy my life. But mark well, Sir, these words of mine. When your power passes, the truth about Rosenthal’s murder will become known. Not all the judges in this State, nor in this country, can destroy permanently the character of an innocent man.

The second letter was a final testament. Becker had spent much of the night memorising it, in the hope of being allowed to deliver it himself, but the guards had not permitted this.

‘I stand before you,’ this statement began,

in my full senses knowing that no power on earth can save me from the grave that is to receive me, and in the presence of my God and your God I proclaim my absolute innocence of the crime for which I must die. You are now about to witness my destruction by the State … And on the brink of my grave, I declare to the world that I am proud to have been the husband of the purest, noblest woman that ever lived, Helen Becker. This acknowledgement is the only legacy I can leave her. I bid you all goodbye. Father, I am ready to go.

CHARLES BECKER

When most of the reporters had left, Becker’s corpse was removed to the autopsy room for the usual examination, arms dangling, head hanging back, legs swinging. Dr Farr stripped the black cotton shirt from the lieutenant’s hulking body, and was startled to discover that it concealed the little photo of Helen that Becker had kept on the wall of his cell. The dead man had pinned it to his undershirt, with the face turned inward, over his heart.

I have no idea.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,Other Voices,Pelf,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1915: Private Herbert Burden, memorial model

Add comment July 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Private Herbert Burden was shot for desertion — at age 17, still too young to even legally enlist in the Northumberland Fusilliers he’d deserted from.

This teenager rashly joined up at the outbreak of hostilities, fudging his age up by two years to qualify. It’s more than likely that he, and his real age, were known to the recruiters who signed him up. (He wasn’t the only child soldier in that war.)

A few months on into this less-noble-than-advertised perdition, with friends and comrades becoming burger meat all around him at the dreadful Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge,* the kid panicked and ran.

Burden is the “model” for the memorial statue a later, more soft-hearted British Empire put up in 2001 commemorating 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers shot during the first World War for desertion and cowardice.

* Here’s a book about an Irish battalion that was nearly annihilated in the battle.

Shot at Dawn memorial/Herbert Burden likeness photo (cc) Noisette.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1915: Eleven Arab nationalists

1 comment August 21st, 2009 Headsman

On August 21, 1915, the Turkish governor of Syria had 11 Arab nationalists publicly hanged in Beirut for seditious contacts with the French.

A larger and more famous batch would follow these the next year, like today’s victims the fruit of the French consul‘s leaving an incriminating list of potential allies in its embassy when it bugged out.

According to Charles Winslow,

[i]n all, fifty-eight individuals were tried and sentenced to death; forty-five of these were either out of the country or avoided arrest; two were given reprieves; and the other eleven, ten Muslims and one Christian, were disgracefully hanged. This public display of terror was only a prelude to additional steps taken as part of the wartime policy of repression…

Lightly defended, Jemal argued that he had no means other than those of terror to hold the area. He claimed that the executions had, in fact, forestalled a rising in Syria. Others, however … see Jemal’s actions in Syria as turning the tide against Istanbul, “causing the Arab Muslims in the area to make up their minds once and for all to break away from the Turkish Empire.” Jemal had perpetrated a “Remember-the-Alamo” for the Lebanese. Throughout the country, the story of his perfidy was passed from person to person and from village to village … One can hardly measure the significance of these hangings in stimulating people to abandon their Ottoman attachment.

By the next year, Arabs had risen in revolt, in alliance — as Pasha had feared — with the Triple Entente.

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1915: 167 Haitian political prisoners

7 comments July 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had his predecessor* Oreste Zamor, and 160 or so of his closest proximity, executed in Port-au-Prince.

Within hours, Sam himself was dead at the hands of an outraged mob — and Haiti on its way to 19 years of American military occupation.

Haiti in the 1910s was a dangerous place to aspire to political authority; Sam was the 7th different man to hold the presidency since 1911. Like many others, he gained it by force, and held it tenuously against rivals who planned to do likewise.

The hecatomb that did in Sam, who had been head of state for less than five months, was seemingly intended to shore himself up in the face of an advance upon Port-au-Prince by one Rosalvo Bobo — or else just done for the principle of the thing. Either way, it left a mess.

A few minutes after 4 a.m., Charles Oscar Etienne, the chief military officer of the Haitian government and a close friend of the President, hurried to the national prison, where ensued the bloody massacre of some 167 prisoners who were held only as political suspects without being even charged with any crime. Among the victims were members of the most prominent families of Haiti …

Stephen Alexis, one of the political prisoners who escaped death in the massacre, has testified before the claims commission that on the morning of the twenty-eighth [sic] of July he has awakened by the prisoner who shared his cell and told that there was firing in town. He heard shots being fired with increasing intensity, and at twenty minutes past four the sound of voices in the conciergerie and the order, “To arms, sound the bugle, prepare for action; fifteen men, forward march.” As the firing squad reached the first cell, Alexis heard Chocotte, the adjutant of the prison, say, “Fire close to the ground; a bullet in the head for each man,” and when the second cell was reached a loud voice cried, “Every one of the political prisoners must die. The arrondissement’s orders are that not one be left standing” …

Except for the very few who escaped by a miracle, the political prisoners were all slaughtered like cattle, their bodies slashed and horribly mutilated, limbs hacked off, the skulls of some of the corpses smashed in, and the bodies of others disembowelled …

The report of the claims commission says: “The barbarous act perpetrated in the prison in Port-au-Prince is all the more inexplicable in that it had no act of war for excuse. There had been no revolt in the interior of the prison. The prisoners were locked into their cells. The prison had not been attacked. The bureau of the arrondissement, which adjoined the prison, had not had to repulse any offensive on the part of the revolutionists. It was with appalling cold-bloodedness that Haitian officers, in whom military authority had been vested, to whom the care and security of the prisoners had been entrusted, perpetrated, with the assistance of their subordinates, the wholesale slaughter of July 27.”

An incensed mob invaded the French embassy (where Sam had taken refuge) and literally tore apart the president.

On July 28, marines from the American ship USS Washington landed in Port-au-Prince to do the usual restore-peace-and-freedom thing. (Greeted as liberators? Surprisingly, “Haitians Dislike[d] Landing of Marines”.)

As a happy side effect, the American occupation froze out French and German commercial interests who had made Haitian inroads, secured debt repayment from the bankrupt country, and allowed Washington to reorder its neighbor to its liking.

From 1915 to 1929 U.S. military tribunals made rulings on political cases. A treaty that provided for American control of customs and construction of roads, as well as supervision of schools and the constabulary, was approved by the Haitian legislature under threat that American troops would remain in the country. American officials dissolved the Haitian legislature when it refused to approve a new American-sponsored constitution, which was then ratified by a referendum supervised by the U.S. military.**

* Zamor was not Sam’s immediate predecessor; rather, Sam had deposed the man who had deposed Zamor.

** Filed under “everything old is new again,” here‘s the American chattering class circa 1921 making a familiar-sounding case for giving the occupation a few more Friedman units on behalf of the Haitian

people, all of whom, less the native ruling class, a small group, recognize the benefits of the American occupation and are grateful for the peace and security they now enjoy … The United States, [Admiral Knapp] says, has only made a start for the good of Haiti, and five years of healing occupation would be lost if the Americans withdrew.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Haiti,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wrongful Executions

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1915: Veljko Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic and Misko Jovanovic, Archduke Ferdinand’s assassins

12 comments February 3rd, 2009 Headsman


“Executions as a consequence of the Sarajevo assassination”. From the Visual Archive of Southeastern Europe.

On this date in 1915, three of the Black Hand conspirators who had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo the previous June were hanged for treason and murder as the World War that assassination ignited engulfed Europe.

You could say it was too little, too late.

Ironically, the gunman who actually got the Archduke, Gavrilo Princip, was too young to receive the death penalty under Austro-Hungarian law — barely short of his 20th birthday,* a more liberal standard for capital responsibility than even present-day human rights standards require.

In fact, that was true of five of the eight student nationalists convicted; the Slavs’ barbarous oppressor accordingly punished them for murdering the heir to its throne and involving it in a ruinous war with prison sentences of no more than 20 years. Three of the underaged five (Princip included) contracted fatal tuberculosis cases in custody during World War I; the other two, Cvijetko Popovic and Vaso Cubrilovic, outlived the Habsburg Empire by decades.

Three remained, old enough to swing for turning Europe into a charnel house: Vaso’s older brother Veljko (a schoolteacher), Danilo Ilic (a newspaper editor) and Misko Jovanovic (a businessman).

But if their names aren’t familiar, and their comedy assassination plot succeeded almost in spite of themselves, these forgotten radicals still rank among the midwives of modernity for the global cataclysm unleashed by their deed, for its calamitous aftershocks of nationalism and ideology, and for the second war that succeeded the horrors of the first.

According to John S. Craig’s Peculiar Liaisons, Gavrilo Princip left his poetry scrawled on the wall of his cell.

Our ghosts will walk through Vienna
And roam through the palace
Frightening the lords

All things considered, he sold himself short.

* There seems to be some uncertainty as to Princip’s actual date of birth, so he might in fact have been 20 years old. The court, at any rate, took him for 19.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Terrorists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1915: Nurse Edith Cavell, “patriotism is not enough”

2 comments October 12th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1915, the German military occupying Belgium shot aid worker Edith Cavell at Brussels for aiding the British war effort.

The matronly nurse had been condemned only the day before by a German military court for helping Allied soldiers escape from behind German lines — charges Cavell readily admitted. The British chaplain who attended her the night before her death reported her saying (not actually her last words, but recalled as her parting sentiment, as it were):

But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward any one.

So naturally, she immediately became the Entente’s bloody banner of the barbarous Hun, helping dramatically ramp up recruitment for the other team’s set of moral cretins.

The thing is, the Germans actually had a point. Cavell ran a nursing school in Brussels, and courageously stuck around when the Germans smashed through Belgium as World War I opened. She’s sometimes remembered as getting in hot water for treating the wounded regardless of nationality, but she did a lot more than that: she got involved with an underground railroad funneling Allied soldiers back to enemy countries.

It was one of those impossible trials of conscience that wartime brings: Cavell, whose hospital was subsumed by the Red Cross during the war, should technically have remained neutral; her actions did bring material aid to Germany’s foes.

However, Belgian, French and English troops caught behind lines by the Germans’ lightning advance were in danger themselves of summary execution, as were civilians who harbored them. Neutrally treating them and handing them over as POWs might have been tantamount to killing many of them, especially in the first few months of the war. Though Edith Cavell said that “I am happy to die for my country,” her actions look more humanitarian than nationalistic — the best choice to be made when no good ones are available. Patriotism of a higher order, if you like.

Probably Cavell’s was a case tailor-made for executive clemency, but Germany was keen to send one of those proverbial messages: civilians in occupied countries had best stay out of the war. Despite the frantic lobbying of England’s ambassadors (and, ominously for Germany, those of the United States), the sentence was carried out on both Cavell and a fellow-traveler in her network, Belgian Philippe Baucq.

Clumsy propagandists, the Kaiser’s boys badly misjudged the message so sent.

In the face of intense international outcry, Germany soon found itself defending its actions (.pdf), and then commuting the sentences (.pdf again) of Cavell’s other collaborators.

None of this abated Cavell’s stupendous propaganda value to Germany’s enemies. And — holy wow, the graying 49-year-old gets made over into quite the heartbreaker in most of these.

The nurse’s repute — and she was said to have struck a Joan of Arc-like chord in those parts — caused a renaissance for the name “Edith” among French and Belgian newborns, most notably singer Edith Piaf (born in December 1915). While Cavell’s sacrifice did nothing to stem her name’s declining Anglo (or at least American) popularity, there is a Mount Edith Cavell named for her in Canada, and a plethora of monuments and public spaces dedicated to her throughout the Allied powers’ lands. (Here are just a handful.) And she still packs enough symbolic punch for the current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deploy her in the propagandist’s subtler modern arts.

There’s plenty more about her online, but world headquarters (with information about the Cavell Festival) is edithcavell.org.uk. There’s also a stupendous collection of text and images (several already used in this post) at the sometimes slow-loading but endlessly fascinating site The Great War in a Different Light.

Dutch speakers might enjoy this podcast:

[audio:http://veertienachttien.web-log.nl/mijn_weblog/files/068_va_edith_cavell.mp3]

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,History,Language,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1915: Four French Corporals, for cowardice

10 comments March 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1915, four French corporals were shot at a farm in Suippes for refusing to advance out of their trenches through the carnage of a World War I no man’s land.

It was not only Corporals Theophile Maupas, Louis Lefoulon, Louis Girard and Lucien Lechat who had refused. The entire 21st Company of the 336th Infantry regiment, exhausted and already decimated by combat, was ordered over the trench at dawn on March 10.

Under withering machine gun fire, and with French artillery carelessly dropping shells just in front of their own lines, the 21st stayed put. Frantic to force the advance, the French commander ordered artillery to drive the troops ahead by shelling his own trenches — an order the artillerists refused to carry out unless someone put it in writing.*

In that slaughterhouse of trench warfare, insubordination in the ranks met stern reprisals. Generals with no strategy but to make mincemeat of their countrymen could not well abide the meat’s reluctance to be minced. Examples must be made, especially inasmuch as the impracticality of executing entire companies impressed even the brass.

On March 16, six corporals and 18 soldiers of the intransigent company faced military trial in the Suippes town hall; the four condemned were shot the next day and buried under dishonorable black crosses.

According to Shot At Dawn, a campaign for rehabilitating soldiers executed during World War I, France carried out some 600 military executions during those bloody years, more than any other country. A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. In an essay in Handbook on Death and Dying, Prof. J. Robert Lilly suggests that many more “unofficial” executions may have taken place, especially during the war’s panicked opening stages.

Whatever their precise number, the shootings, around Europe, of hundreds of men for cowardice — most in obscurity, many chosen arbitrarily, some whose descendants still struggle for recognition to this day — is one of the enduring legacies of World War I: the collision of that most individual penalty with that most faceless and indiscriminate war. A witness to a different French military execution discomfitingly describes the near-total dehumanization of the victims:

The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.

The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”

The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.

The shootings this day became emblematic of those lost and obscured legions. The circumstances of the “crime” — the senselessness of the advance, the order to bombard their own troops, the fury of the reprisal — recommended it to novelist Humphrey Cobb, and subsequently to a young Stanley Kubrick who adapted a fictionalized form to the 1957 film Paths of Glory. (The title comes from this poem.)

In the film, three soldiers face a firing squad under circumstances very similar to this day’s backstory, including the detail of the general ordering his own men shelled (and that of the order being refused). Kubrick renders the insanity of the resulting court-martial against hapless soldiers each of whom did little but what anyone in their situation would have done, with one of their officers, Kirk Douglas, mounting a vain defense.

This day’s executions, as with many of the others carried out across Europe in those years, sparked a long campaign for posthumous exoneration, in this case led by Maupas’ widow. In 1934, a French panel did exonerate them — awarding the surviving widows a symbolic one franc apiece.

Maupas himself was reinterred in a cemetery in Sartilly, where a monument was erected in honor of the four; just last year, opposite the courthouse where the Frenchmen were condemned, a life-sized white stone sculpture was dedicated, showing Maupas, Girard, Lechat and Lefoulon on their execution posts just after they have been shot.

The surety of the corporals’ posthumous exoneration contrasts intriguingly with the rigor of their sentence and points to the complex and shifting terms upon which the First World War entered subsequent national consciousness in France (and elsewhere) — the never-definitive story of the individual’s right place amid social structures hopelessly beyond individual control.

The history of the struggle over these men’s memory is extensively covered on this French website and the French blog Monuments aux morts pacifistes. The affair also has its own entry on the French wikipedia.

* Wisely.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Military Crimes,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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