1918: Captain Alexey Schastny

Add comment June 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, Captain Alexey Schastny received the cold thanks of the Bolshevik government for saving its Baltic fleet.

Icebound in the city of Helsingfors (Helsinki) across the Gulf of Finland from his Red homeland, Schastny (English Wikipedia entry | the more substantial Russian) orchestrated an emergency speedy breakout just ahead of a German incursion that seized the city in April and could have grabbed the Soviet Baltic fleet.

Schastny’s decisive action brought 236 vessels, including six battleships, across the frozen sea and safely home to Kronstadt.

The heroism of this operation at a moment of such low ebb for Russian prestige made Schastny a potentially dangerous element, should the onetime tsarist sailor choose to exercise his great prestige in the navy to the detriment of the Bolsheviks. This was the winter of the Russian Civil War, when White insurgents tore at the nascent Revolution.

Leon Trotsky, at this same moment scrambling to organize the Red Army to stabilize the situation, had Schastny arrested as a counterrevolutionary barely a month after the celebrated ice voyage. So grave a threat did this sea dog present that the Soviet state, having briefly abolished the death penalty, restored it in June 1918 specifically so that Schastny could be shot.

Schastny makes his appearance in the slick 2017 serial Trotsky, where he’s played by Anton Khabarov; the first half of episode 7 focuses heavily on Schastny’s arrest, court-martial, and execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1918: Bolo Pasha

Add comment April 17th, 2020 Headsman

French adventurer Bolo Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | French) was shot at Fort Vincennes on this date in 1918 as a World War I German agent.

Paul Bolo was his proper name, and a striving, wandering soul was his fatal curse. “A rolling stone that gathered no moss,” says this chronicler of the Great War’s spies, “and for sheer audacity, bold resourcefulness and indifference to fate his career matched, if it did not surpass, the strangest characters depicted by the master pen of Dumas.”

He’d spent his youth in Marseilles, and subsequently Lyon, repeatedly going bust in several attempted businesses — barber, soap-seller, lobsterman, photographer, silk manufacturer. But his charm and enterprise successfully landed him the hand of a wealthy Parisian widow and with the inheritance she eventually left him, he took himself to Cairo and made himself a good chum of the European-friendly Khedive who ruled that place as an Ottoman viceroy.

‘Twas this gentleman who bequeathed upon Paul the Turkish honorary under which he would pass for the balance of his years.

Those years accelerated upon the onset of the Great War in 1914. The Khedive was deposed in Egypt by the British, and his friend the Pasha segued from sharing Nile pleasure cruises to expatriating the former ruler’s wealth.

And upon this financial chicanery he pivoted — as he had formerly done with crustaceans and straight-razors — into a jag as a wartime operative.

What was alleged against him was an attempt to sow “defeatist,” pro-peace editorial lines in French papers via the influence of laundered German money. The evidence in his eventual military tribunal was circumstantial and firmly rejected by the proud Pasha — “I am the master of money, not its slave!” — but he had attracted the attention of Entente spies with his shuttling from Rome to Geneva to Paris and then on to New York. Financial footprints in the U.S., investigated by New York at the behest of France while diligently exonerating the cooperating bank (“so skillful had been the cunning of the German agent that Morgan & Company was utterly innocent of having been made a cat’s-paw of German intrigue”) showed his suspicious manipulation of $1.7 million apparently received from the German ambassador. His defense counterattacked with some effect, contending that his prosecution was a self-interested attack by the proprietor of Le Journal, Senator Charles Humbert, after the latter unsuccessfully tried to buy back Bolo’s own shares in his paper at a wartime discount.

Humbert was subsequently arrested himself on a similar suspicion of fifth-columnist machinations; he defeated the charge. It sounds like the Third Republic basically just had a beef with the inadequate bellicosity of Le Journal.

Wartime Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau had sharp words for any Frenchmen (or their new American allies, just entering the war) similarly disinclined to the fight after the Asiatic schemer stood before his firing squad:

This Bolo Pasha, who had had his way with everybody and in almost every situation, had met a strong man at last! Bolo Pasha was one of those gentlemen who began life by betraying women; he ended it by betraying nations. There is a great difference between betraying women and betraying nations! Women forgive and forget, but nations never, never! And so at the conclusion of their little interview Mr. Clemenceau escorted Bolo Pasha to the Forest of Vincennes, and placing him with his back to a wall, compelled him to face the business end of twelve French rifles. Bolo Pasha will never betray another nation. I want to tell you Americans that that is the only way to treat a traitor!


Sketch of Bolo Pasha being escorted to his firing squad, by Jean-Louis Forain.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,History,Shot,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1918: Paul von Rennenkampf, tsarist general

Add comment April 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, General Paul von Rennenkampf dug his own grave by the side of the railway tracks near Taganrog, then was shot by the Bolsheviks for declining a promotion.

The Baltic German with the glorious Hungarian had spent a career in the tsarist officer corps; he took part in the multinational suppression of China’s Boxer Rebellion, and then the entirely domestic suppression of the abortive 1905 revolution.

Less well did the motherland fare against the Japanese in 1904 (where Rennenkampf’s shin and Russia’s infantry were both shattered) or against history in the Great War (which saw Rennenkampf sacked for command failures in the Battle of Lodz).

Although it seems that the latter result was the consequence of political infighting moreso than verifiable incompetence, the man was still cooling his heels in forced retirement when the revolutions of 1917 arrived. Both the February and the October revolutionaries detained him for a time and then released him, finding insufficient interest in those weighty days in a cashiered sexagenarian no matter how backwards his political priors.

But the Bolsheviks found him interesting when they took over Taganrog, where Rennenkampf was parked. This was his wife’s home town, near the southern industrial center Rostov-on-Don — a place that would be intensely contested in the unfolding civil war between communist Red and tsarist White armies. Such moments entail a choice of sides, so when the Bolsheviks offered this veteran senior commander a role in the Red Army, it was understood to be an offer he couldn’t refuse. He refused it, with bold words that were patriotic but not prophetic.

I’m old. I have not much left to live, for the salvation of my life, I will not become a traitor and will not go against my own. Give me a well-armed army, and I will go against the Germans, but you have no army; to lead this army would mean leading people to slaughter, I will not take this responsibility on myself.

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1918: Victor Manson Spencer, Otago Regiment deserter

Add comment February 24th, 2020 Headsman

Text from New Zealand’s Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act of 2000. Spencer was one of four New Zealand enlistees shot for cowardice during World War I,* all of whom were posthumously exonerated by this legislation.

Pardon of Private Spencer

Private Victor Manson Spencer, regimental number 8/2733, a member of the 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment, —

  1. who was charged with having committed on 13 August 1917 the offence of desertion; and
  2. who was, by a Field General Court Martial held on 17 January 1918, convicted of that offence and sentenced to death; and
  3. who was again sentenced to death on 29 January 1918 after the Field General Court Martial had revised its finding and had convicted him of having committed the offence of desertion not on 13 August 1917 but on 25 August 1917; and
  4. who was, after the sentence of death imposed on him on 29 January 1918 had been confirmed, executed by firing squad in accordance with that sentence on 24 February 1918, —

is, by this Act, granted a pardon for that offence of desertion.

He’s buried in Belgium. Spencer was also covered by the UK’s 2006 Armed Forces Act, pardoning 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed during the Great War.

Spencer’s pardon cleared the way for his family to receive several decorations that had been deprived him: the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, New Zealand Certificate of Honour and Anzac Commemorative. These items were recently in the news when the family accidentally sold and then successfully retrieved them.

* Another Kiwi, Jack Braithwaite, was executed for mutiny in 1916. He was also included in Wellington’s posthumous pardon bill.

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1918: The Cattaro Mutineers

Add comment February 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, four sailors who were ringleaders of a failed Austrian naval mutiny were executed at the Montenegrin port of Kotor.

It’s been largely forgotten beyond its Balkan environs — indeed, reports of its very existence were hushed up at the time it occurred — but it prefigured the more famous, war-ending Kiel mutiny later that year in Austria’s Entente ally. It was a heyday for radical sailors, taking heart from the inspiration of the famed Russian cruiser Aurora, whose guns launched Russia’s October Revolution.

The mariners in question for this post were the crew of the SMS Sankt Georg,* stationed in the aforementioned Kotor — aka Cattaro, which is commonly how this mutiny is named.

On February 1, this crew, gnawed by hunger, deposed their officers and ran up the red flag, chanting for bread and peace.

Although about 40 other ships in the Austrian fleet there responded with revolutionary flags of their own, the mutiny collapsed within two days. Alas, the sailors of this flotilla were not so determined as their Russian counterparts upon any particular course of action: they waffled upon considerations like defecting in the war or firing on the naval base, and deferred action until morale and common purpose dissipated. The Austrian military kept a tight lid on news of the rebellion, frustrating any prospect of catalyzing a wider insurrection among landlubbers.

Some 800 participants in the mutiny were arrested and some of them tried months afterwards; forty leader figures, however, were prosecuted within days by a summary court-martial and four of them executed on February 11: Franz Rasch, Jerko Šižgoric, Anton Grabar and Mato Brnicevic.

There’s a 1980 Yugoslavian film about events, Kotorski mornari.

* Aptly, Montenegro is among the innumerable places answering to the patronage of Saint George. There’s a St. George Island right there in Kotor Bay, the apparent inspiration for the Arnold Böcklin painting and Sergei Rachmaninoff symphonic poem Isle of the Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Military Crimes,Montenegro,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1918: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment May 24th, 2019 Headsman

From the Pueblo Chieftain (May 25, 1918):

Salt Lake City, May 24. — Howard H. Deweese, who was shot here today for the murder of his wife, Fannie Fisher Deweese, left a grim legacy for his wife’s former husband. It is a silk handkerchief and the bullets which passed thru the heart of Deweese, first passed thru the bit of silk which he had pinned over his chest.

Before his execution Deweese secured the promise of the warden of the state prison to forward the handkerchief, together with a note to Fisher in New York. The letter, dated at the Utah state penitentiary last Monday, reads:

Mr. H.W. Fisher, 150 Second avenue, New York:

Greetings:

In accordance with customs observed by certain people, I herewith conform with precedents and law governing the conduct of aforesaid people. I have rigidly adhered to my vows. You have violated yours. Therefore, put your house in order. The allotted time customary in such cases is yours. The souvenir enclosed herewith (by the warden of this institution) will doubtless serve to convince you that time, distance, political influence or money cannot change the inexorable workings of things decreed by men who do not hesitate in risking all, even life, for things they have sworn to uphold.

The U.B.C. thru one who has proven loyal, bids you ‘prepare.’ It is written.

(Signed)
J.E.W.

The initials affixed at the bottom of the note stand for Deweese’s alias — J.E. Warren. The “U.B.C.” Deweese explained just before his execution, was the initials of the “Universal Brotherhood Club of New York.”


From the Kansas City Star (May 24, 1918):

DALLAS, TEX. May 23. — A claim that the idea for the Red Cross poster, “The Greatest Mother in the World,” originated in the mind of Leonard Dodd, who with Walter Stevenson is sentenced to hang here tomorrow for murder, was placed here today before the state board of pardons at Austin as part of a plea for commutation of sentence.

Council for Dodd informed the board a draft of the poster had been sent by him to the Red Cross headquarters at Washington and that it was later drawn by an Eastern artist. Dodd, Stevenson, and Emmett Vestal, also convicted of murder, will be hanged tomorrow unless Governor Hobby commutes their sentences. [Dodd and Stevenson hanged; as for Vestal’s … read on. -ed.]


From the Arizona Republic, Jan. 1, 1955:

Evangelist Emmett T. (Texas Slim) Vestal, a man twice condemned to die in the electric chair, is in Phoenix conducting a revival, and illustrating that “no matter how low a man can get, he still can be saved by following Christ.”

For more than 20 years, Mr. Vestal has been preaching in churches throughout the country, and recounting his experiences as bank robber, drug addict, and gang member.

Services will be conducted every night through next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Revival Center, 902 N. 24th St.

In 1917 he shot a rival gang leader who tried to ambush him near Victoria, Tex. and was sentenced to die May 24, 1918. Five minutes before the hanging, he was granted a reprieve by the late Governor W.P. Hobby.

He returned to prison, contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a state hospital from which he escaped. Law officials found him in 1926 in St. Louis and took him back to Texas for a new trial because the state had changed his sentence from hanging to electrocution.

He was again convicted and sentenced to die, this time in the electric chair. Three days before the electrocution, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the late Governor Miriam (Ma) Ferguson. Three days after that she granted him a full pardon.

Methodist church workers taught him to read and write and gave him Christian education while he was in prison. After his release he began his evangelic career. He was ordained a baptist minister.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,Texas,USA,Utah

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1918: Boris Donskoy, Left SR assassin

1 comment August 10th, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, the Germans hanged Russian revolutionary Boris Donskoy.

Donskoy was not a Bolshevik but a Left Social Revolutionary — the party faction most closely aligned with Team Lenin. And his offense was a revolutionary crime, but one that events soon swept into irrelevancy.

In March of that same year, Russia’s revolutionary government had fulfilled its promise to exit the charnel house of World War I, ceding in exchange for peace the huge territorial gains that Germany had exacted in the bloodlands in-between empires.

These prospectively gigantic territorial gains were not long held by Berlin, whose wartime government would collapse suddenly before the year was out … but in the short interim where we lay our post, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine are under firm German control.

The last of these stood under the authority of Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn. Donskoy, a radical sailor who had served on the Executive Committee of Kronstadt when it demonstrated against the Revolution’s initial, too-moderate Provisional Government, on July 29 assassinated the field marshal — declaring to his captors that the old Prussian warhorse had been condemned by the Left SRs for suppressing the Ukrainian revolution.

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1918: Edla Sofia Hjulgrén, Finnish parliamentarian

1 comment May 22nd, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, former Member of Parliament Edla Sofia Hjulgrén was shot during the Finnish Civil War.

A labor activist for many years, Hjulgrén (English Wikipedia entry | the vastly more detailed Finnish) won election to the Eduskunta in 1913 as a Social Democrat.*

At the time, Finland was still a Grand Duchy within tsarist Russia. When the Russian revolutionaries who conquered power in St. Petersburg in 1917 proved reluctant to agree to Finnish independence, the Finns just declared it, and a civil war ensued in the first months of 1918 — between Soviet-backed Red Guards and German-backed White Guards.

The Whites won a nasty war thick with atrocities on both sides. Although she was a pacifist, our Sofia Hjulgrén was among hundreds of Red supporters swept up after the decisive Battle of Vyborg clinched White victory. She was shot there — it’s Viipuri to the Finns, and Vyborg to the Russians — in the cemetery. The Soviets got Vyborg back in a subsequent war with Finland, and erected a monument there to the hundreds of victims of the Whites’ April-May 1918 Vyborg Massacre.


(cc) image by Olga.

* Finland boasts of being the first legislature in the world with full gender equality — meaning that, as of 1906, women enjoyed full equality both to vote and to stand for office. Women comprised above a tenth of its parliamentary delegates on the eve of Finland’s independence.

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1918: Private Harry James Knight, deserter

Add comment October 6th, 2015 Headsman

“Owing to the state of my nerves, I find that I cannot carry on as I should. I’ve tried my best all through but four years has been a little too much.”

-British Private Harry James Knight of the The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment 1st Battalion — shot as a deserter on October 6, 1918, five weeks before the armistice.

In honor of the 90th anniversary year of the war’s end back in 2008, the National Archives produced a podcast series titled “Voices of the Armistice”. The episode “Court Martial” dramatizes Knight’s fate via readings of archive records, and can be found here.

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1918: Private David Stevenson, repeat deserter

Add comment July 13th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this dayJuly 18 in 1918, in Bully-Grenay in war-torn France, Private David Stevenson* of the Lowland Field Artillery was shot by the British Army for desertion and insubordination. “His record,” notes Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson in their book Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, “is one of the longest amongst all surviving records of courts martial.”

Private Stevenson enlisted on August 17, 1915 and began misbehaving almost immediately. His disciplinary record can be summarized as follows:

September 1, 1915: AWOL, six days
September 13: AWOL, one day
September 18: AWOL, four days
September 30: AWOL, five days
October 5: AWOL, one day
October 7: AWOL, one day
October 11: AWOL, seven days
October 20: Malingering
January 15, 1916: AWOL, twenty-eight days
March 17: Drunk and disorderly
April 2: Drunk and disorderly
April 24: Escaping from a hospital
May 14: AWOL, nine days
May 28: Creating a disturbance, damaging public property
May 30: Noncompliance with an order
May 31: Creating a disturbance, damaging public property
June 7: AWOL, two days
June 14: AWOL, three days
July 15: AWOL, eighteen days
August 19: AWOL, seventy-four (!) days
November 18: AWOL, one day
November 21: Insolence to an NCO
December 1: AWOL, seven days
December 18: AWOL, eighteen days

In 1917, Pte. Stevenson was shipped out to France. Somehow he managed to maintain a clean record for several months, but soon he was back to his old habits again:

August 18, 1917: Lying to an NCO and hestitating to obey an order
August 27: Losing a folding saw by neglect
October 22: Desertion; tried by the Field General Court Martial (FGCM) and sentenced to five years in prison
December 20: Drunk in camp, entering a guard tent without permission, resisting escort.
March 8, 1918: AWOL, fifty-two days.

Apprehended on April 29, Stevenson was locked up at Army headquarters and was admitted to the No. 55 Casualty Clearing Station on May 5. He was supposed to get cleaned up and then returned to headquarters the next day, but instead he flew the coop. He later claimed he had just gone out for a walk and then got afraid he’d get into trouble if he went back, so he just “loitered about” until he was arrested three days later.

At his court martial, David Stevenson pleaded for mercy, saying, “If I could get another transfer to another regiment, I could prove myself a soldier.”

But by then the Army had had quite enough of him. His brigade commander wrote, “To my mind there are no redeeming points in this case.” General Henry Horne, 1st Baron Horne, agreed.

The authors of Blindfold and Alone note that Stevenson’s case left puzzling questions: “With his bad record, Stevenson must have known he was heading for a death sentence, and yet persisted with the behavior which would inevitably lead to his execution.” Why?

Lt. Gen. Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston summed up his superiors’ take on it nicely when he said Stevenson’s conduct could “only be explained by his obvious and habitual tendency to avoid all authority.”

* Not to be confused with the present-day British historian of the First World War also named David Stevenson.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Military Crimes,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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