1919: Frank Willis, but not by Bill Fisk

3 comments May 27th, 2019 Headsman

The futile last appeal of Australia-born artillerist Frank Willis — before his execution at La Havre a century ago today for killing a British policeman — ran thus:

I am 20 years of age. I joined the Australian Army in 1915 when I was 16 years of age. I went to Egypt and the Dardanelles. I have been in a considerable number of engagements there, & in France. I joined the British Army in April 1918 and came to France in June 1918. I was discharged from the Australian Army on account of fever which affected my head contracted in Egypt. I was persuaded to leave my unit by my friends and got into bad company. I began to drink and gamble heavily. I had no intention whatever of committing the offences for which I am now before the Court. I ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future.

This young man’s shooting detail was to have been commanded by Second Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the King’s Liverpool Regiment the father of the great Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. Fisk has written frequently about his father’s refusal to conduct the execution, which the son says cost his father his military career and was also “the noblest act of his life” although it made no difference at all to the fate of Frank Willis.

Thanks to the investigatory exertions of the Great War Forum, it appears that “Frank Willis” was a pseudonym, and the true name under which this man joined and deserted the Australian army before his British enlistment was Richard Mellor. Mellor’s mother spent the rest of her life vainly petitioning authorities for information about her son’s fate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,History,Murder,Shot,Soldiers

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1919: Seven Thule Society hostages

Add comment April 30th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, seven hostages taken from the German pre-Nazi Thule Society were executed by the short-lived Munich Soviet just before it was crushed by right-wing militias.

The Thule Society (logo at right) was a Bavarian volkisch club with a profound interest in stuff like crackpot race theory and Teutonic mythology; its very name alludes to a legendary territory hypothesized since antiquity to lie at the fringes of the world, often associated with Scandinavia and with the origins of the Aryan race.*

Society members figured in the founding of the German Workers’ Party (DAP), the party which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazis. Former Thuler Hans Frank was among those eventually hanged via the postwar Nuremberg trial.

One will readily imagine where this lot stood in relation to the Soviet Republic that was declared in Bavaria in early April, and the sentiment was fully returned. As right-wing Freikorps paramilitaries intent on destroying the Red Bavarian statelet surrounded Munich, the Communists seized seven Thule Society members — notably Countess Haila (or Hella) von Westarp and Gustav Franz Maria, Prince of Thurn and Taxis and held them in the basement of the Luitpold Gymnasium.

On April 30, 1919, all these seven were executed by order of the Communist sailor Rudolf Egelhofer, together with either two or three captured Freikorps prisoners, an affair known as the Münchner Geiselmorde (“Munich hostage-murder”).


Countess Haila von Westarp

The very next day, the Freikorps broke through Munich’s defenses and commenced the bloody rout that destroyed the Munich Soviet.

The Thule Society as a body survived and briefly prospered after its brush with the revolutionaries’ muzzles — the eventual Nazi party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter was previously a Thule Society-owned periodical called the Münchener Beobachter — but it fizzled out into a memory during the 1920s.

Still, this esoteric nursemaid to the infancy of national socialism features prominently in histories of Third Reich occultism; aficionados might wish to browse some of its iconography in this Pinterest gallery, or just punch their distinctive name into your search environment of choice and feel that third eye opening.

* The element Thulium is named for Thule, because it was discovered by a Scandinavian chemist. More recently, the word made the news when astronomers controversially christened the most distant observed trans-Neptunian object “Ultima Thule”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,Hostages,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1919: The Pinsk Massacre

Add comment April 5th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, a Polish army major had 35 Jews executed in Pinsk.

After the devastation of World War I, Poland and now-Soviet Russia fell into war in early 1919 over the oft-trod lands between them.

In late March of that year — still the opening weeks of the conflict — the Polish 34th Infantry Regiment commanded by Major Aleksander Narbut-Luczynski captured the town of Pinsk which today lies just on the Belarus side of the Belarus-Ukraine border. This town had seen occupying armies cross it to and fro during the recent bloody years: Germany captured it from Russia in 1915; the Soviets recaptured it shortly after World War I; now, the Poles expelled the Red Army.

They weren’t exactly greeted as liberators. Town and occupiers alike were on edge when Major Narbut-Luczynski caught word of about 75 Jews holding a meeting. Believing them to be Bolshevik agitators, he had the lot arrested and — according to a subsequent report on events by former U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr.

conducted to the market place and lined up against the wall of the cathedral. With no lights except the lamps of a military automobile, the six women in the crowd and about twenty-five men were separated from the mass, and the remainder, thirty-five in number, were shot with scant deliberation and no trial whatever. Early the next morning three wounded victims were shot in cold blood as soon as life revealed itself in them.

The women and other reprieved prisoners were confined in the city jail until the following Thursday. The women were stripped and beaten by the prison guards so severely that several of them were bedridden for weeks after, and the men were subjected to similar maltreatment.

Morgenthau’s and history’s verdict on the Pinsk Massacre was that the town’s Jews were meeting legally to discuss distribution of relief packages received from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “Incredibly brutal,” Morgenthau wrote of Major Narbut-Luczynski in his memoirs. “And even more incredibly stupid.”

The still-extant kibbutz Gvat in northern Israel was founded by settlers from Pinsk — and dedicated to the victims of this massacre.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1919: Heinrich Bosse

Add comment February 16th, 2019 Headsman

German pastor Heinrich Bosse died for the evangelium at Bolshevik hands 100 years ago today.

Bosse followed his grandfather and father into the clergy and took up a posting to Riga in the last years of the 19th century. Today Riga is the capital of Latvia; at the time, it was a port in the Russian empire — but the former Hanseatic city was heavily German-populated, as it had been for centuries.

This was not an ideal vocation when Latvia’s declaration of independence at the end of World War I triggered Bolshevik invasion. By March 1919, Red forces controlled most of the country. Now, over the months to come the civil war would expel the Communists and secure independence for Latvia, at least for the interwar period.

But none of that big-picture stuff would help Reverend Bosse.

Latvian Bolsheviks had a grudge against Bosse for (so they believed) informing on one of their number who’d been executed by German forces occupying the city during the late World War. A revolutionary tribunal accordingly condemned him to death after a bout of torture; he was taken out of his cell on February 16, 1919, and shot in an unknown location.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Latvia,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Shot,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1919: Rudolf Egelhofer, Bavarian Soviet commandante

Add comment May 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1919, the commandante of the “Red Army” of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic was shot by the German soldiers and Freikorps that had just overrun the revolutionary republic.

The son of a pauper basketweaver, Rudolf Egelhofer enlisted in the navy in World War I and was involved in a naval revolt in the war’s closing days. Transplanting to Munich in the chaotic postwar environment, Egelhofer joined the Communist Party and became a fixture of the revolutionary movement; the socialist writer Oskar Maria Graf would record of Egelhofer’s stature at a parade that he stood “determined and sincere, in a sailor’s uniform, sometimes raising his fist. Those who heard him, had to believe in him.”

After a left-wing coup claimed Bavaria in early April, Egelhofer’s steel and magnetism received the impossible mandate of organizing a Red Army before Munich went the way of the Paris Commune. But the Bavarian Soviet was overwhelmed in less than a month.

In the first days of May, Egelhofer’s fate was shared by something like 700 supporters of the defeated Soviet.


The fierce “victim” dominates his executioner in Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer, by Heinrich Ehmsen (1931). This is only the central panel of a triptych depicting the White storming of Red Munich; the piece is described in this post.

Ehmsen has a similar idea about relative stature at work in Execution by Firing Squad (Red Jacket) (1919).

Though little memorialized at the place of his glory and martyrdom — which fell on the western side of the Iron Curtain — numerous East Germany streets, public buildings, and naval vessels bore Egelhofer’s name in tribute during the Cold War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1919: Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, “Atticus Finch” clients

Add comment December 19th, 2016 Headsman

From the Monroeville (Ala.) Monroe Journal reported on Christmas Day 1925:

For the second time within a period of forty years, Monroe County has had a legal execution for the commission of crime. Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, on Friday, December 19, expiated on the gallows under the sentence of the court the murder of Mr. William H. Northrup.

Morbid curiosity drew a large crowd to town on the fateful day, but few were admitted within the prison walls, while those outside could catch but an occasional word that fell from the lips of the accused men and realize only in imagination the gruesome task that fell to the lot of Sheriff Russell and his assistants.

Both negroes made statements on the gallows, the older man protesting his innocence of any complicity in the crime. The younger made full confession, asserting that he alone was responsible and that his punishment was just. The Journal spares its readers the frightful details of the execution. Let us hope that there may never again be occasion for a similar sentence of law.

This story arrives to us via Kerry Madden’s Harper Lee: Up Close, a biography of the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird … and it is noteworthy in that context because Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, were defended in this case by 29-year-old lawyer A.C. Lee: Harper Lee‘s father.

The future author would not be born until 1926, but this traumatizing event still troubled her father years later: it was his first criminal case, and his last. As another biographer, Charles Shields, remarked, “[T]his was fairly typical of the time. This method of doing business in the courts was informally called ‘Negro Law,’ which means that you get a young, inexperienced white attorney to practice on some hapless black client. Some of those trials took as little as half an hour.”

The family memory of the father’s futile defense, combined with Harper Lee’s own firsthand experience of a troubling miscarriage of justice, were influences that she channeled into To Kill a Mockingbird, modeling the heroic defense attorney Atticus Finch on her own father.

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

-Atticus Finch

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1919: Not Joseph Cohen

Add comment December 10th, 2015 dogboy

This day in 1919 was the closest Joseph Cohen came to the electric chair in Sing Sing. His walk may have been 7 minutes, or possibly 11 minutes, away, but Cohen was not to die this day at the hands of the State of New York, nor at the hands of any state on any day. Instead, he would be gunned down 13 years later as a free man.

Cohen was a wealthy, influential poultry merchant in New York City, and he had a bone to pick with fellow poultryman Barnet Baff, also known as the “Poultry King”. Baff had repeatedly rebuffed other poultry merchants in their efforts to fix prices and charge an exorbitant per-truck fee for poultry handling. That was probably because Baff was making this kind of bonus cash by feeding starving chickens sand and gravel immediately before slaughter. His shady practice was great for sale and terrible for resale.

This did him no favors among other poulters of the city.

By 1913, Baff had become the target of the collective ire of several people in the poultry industry, including Cohen, Ippolito Greco, Tony Zaffarano, and Antonio Cardinale — and possibly still more rivals in the New York Live Poultry Dealers’ Association. That year, a cadre of poultry merchants took up a collection to either frighten or kill Baff.*

Initially, a bomb was placed at his home, allegedly only to “frighten” him. In August of the following year, with Baff insufficiently frightened, the group actively sought to kill their target. At least one attempt was foiled, but on November 24, Baff was gunned down at the West Washington Market in Harlem.**

(c.f. this book for information.)

The murder nearly ended in a trio of executions and several long prison sentences. Instead, it cost just two men modest prison terms and uncovered the sordid underbelly of New York poultry sales.

Details about what actually happened are muddled significantly by various parties coaching witnesses in testimony.† As the story unfolded in the press, several investigators were accused of trying to push blame from Italians to Jews. Ultimately, the New York Attorney General managed to build up a case against several major players in the New York poultry scene and the then-lightweight New York mob scene.

The first break came in 1916 when Carmine diPaolo was arrested for an assault in the Bronx. He mentioned to police that he had been approached by Greco about carrying out the murder, but had backed out before it could be finished. DiPaolo then saw Giuseppe Archiello get paid by Greco after the killing. Archiello’s interrogation implicated Frank Ferrara, Cardinale, Zaffarano, Greco, and Greco’s brother, but it did not point to a source of the estimated $4,500 that was dispersed among the participants in the murder. Archiello was tagged as one of the gunmen and sentenced to death.

Ferrara was next on the docket, charged with driving the getaway car for the two killers. This was when Gaetano Reina was fingered as the other gunman. Ferrara’s story changed repeatedly and significantly, though, and he later insisted that Reina’s name had been fed to him. Ferrara’s conviction led to a death sentence that the state hoped to use to get Ferrara to name names at the top of the food chain.

The breakthrough witness was Cardinale, who had joined the Italian Army during World War I but was involved in the plots against Baff from the start. He was taken to New York by way of a somewhat shaky international agreement that circumvented the American/Italian extradition treaty, and his lawyer — not coincidentally the same as the lawyer for Ferrara and Archiello — convinced him to give up the big names: Joseph D. Cohen, brother of Chief Chicken Inspector Harry Cohen (aka “Kid Griffo”); his brother Jacob Cohen; Moses “Chicken Moe” Rosenstein; David Jacobs; William Simon; and Abe Graff. (Cardinale smartly moved back to Italy after giving testimony.)

Ferrara also decided to “come clean”, telling investigators that Ignazio “Jack” Dragna and Ben “Tita” Rizzotta were in his getaway vehicle. He also noted that he had left this duo out of his original story for fear of reprisal, going with the state-fed names of the gunmen instead.

The six conspirators were brought into court, with the court leaning on testimony of Cardinale, Ferrara, and Joseph Sorro, whom Cardinale said was also involved in several attempts to intimidate Baff. Simon’s indictment was thrown out, while Jacob Cohen and Jacobs were acquitted. Rosenstein pled guilty and helped New York gain a death sentence for Cohen and 10-20 years for Graff.

The convicted Cohen went after the state repeatedly, pointing out the massive inconsistencies in the witness testimony that led to his indictment and conviction. Indeed, Cardinale — who dragged Cohen into this in the first place — claimed two gunmen, neither of whom was currently in Sing Sing. Sorro, meanwhile, was brought up on multiple perjury charges.

Cohen’s execution was postponed seven times, then commuted to life in prison on February 4, 1920, by Governor Al Smith. Cohen was released on November 24, 1921. Officially, he could have been retried, but the state refused.

Archiello’s lawyer‡ insisted that, thanks to Sorro’s perjury, it was no longer clear that Archiello was a gunman. The court agreed to a second trial, and Archiello — who had significant connections in the Harlem mob — pled guilty to manslaughter, receiving a suspended sentence instead of death.

Meawhile, Dragna, Rizzotta, and Reina all walked. Dragna moved to Los Angeles and headed the Los Angeles crime family until the 1950s; he may have had a hand in former leader Joseph Ardizzone’s disappearance. Reina became kingpin of the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn, and got killed by Lucky Luciano.

The Baff murder was atypical in the mob world, in that it featured Italian families doing their dirty work in the traditionally non-Italian field of poultry. The unusual arrangement made the murder an awkward affair that uncomfortably exposed a lot of powerful people. Organized crime was significantly more, well, organized by the time that Prohibition rolled around, and future gangland business murders were handled with a more diligent eye toward shielding bankrollers from blame.

Cohen and Jacob opened up a tailor shop in Manhattan, which put them right in the Italian mafia’s business wheelhouse. He and brother Barney were both shot to death in 1932, and their killers have never been identified.

* In an unusual twist to this already twisted case, Baff may have even partially paid for his own murder.

** Baff was killed just weeks after 18 members of Cohen’s Live Poultry Dealers’ Protective Association were indicted on fraud and racketeering charges.

† The state even employed one Philip Musica, a sort of proto-Barry Minkow with his own zany criminal story. His first foray into business was attempting to sell $250 of human hair to the tune of some $370,000. It’s not clear what the link between “Step 1: Get Hair” and “Step 3: Profit” was, but his misrepresentation of the goods was enough to earn him a federal sentence. Musica spent little time in prison, turning instead into a paid investigator in New York State’s employ during the Baff affair.

He jumped straight to Step 3 for his services and retired around 1916. Musica changed his name to Frank Donald Coster and in 1920 started Girard & Co. — a hair tonic company that was likely a front for a bootlegging operation. Right around the time the old Musica was indicted for perjury in the Baff case, F. Donald Coster bought the pharmaceutical company McKesson & Robbins. Musica expanded its drug enterprise but also did side business of building up paper assets and phantom sales to bolster the company’s apparent value by about $18m. It came crashing down when the company’s treasurer tried to find out why McKesson & Robbins didn’t insure their drug warehouse (turns out “it doesn’t exist” isn’t a good reason to give your accountant).

Musica committed suicide in 1938 as federal agents closed in, and the episode spawned new accounting regulations. McKesson is now the 14th-largest business in the U.S.

‡ The lawyer for Archiello and Cardinale, Walter Rogers Deuel, was brought up by the New York State Bar Association for suborning perjury, but he continued to practice law. And Deputy Attorney General Alfred Becker, who, according to one article, “was conspicuous during the war for uncovering German and Red plots,” was also accused of misconduct, though nothing appears to have come of that charge.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,New York,Not Executed,Organized Crime,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,USA

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1919: Eugen Levine, Bavarian Soviet leader

1 comment June 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Bavarian communist Eugen Levine (or Levien) was shot by the Freikorps for his role in the Munich Soviet.

Levine (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a St. Petersburg Jewish bourgeois whose early idealism led him to a Socialist Revolutionary (SR) terror cell. He did time in Siberia after Russia’s 1905 revolution was smashed.

Having moved to Germany to study, Levine became involved in World War I’s antiwar struggle, which in turn positioned him to be a key player in the communist movement in postwar Germany.

With the end of the Great War, Germany’s destiny was settled with bare knuckles. The now-communist Russian government, whose safety was imperiled from every direction, looked hopefully to a revolutionary proletariat in the more advanced neighboring economy of Germany to consolidate its own position as well as to meet the Marxist mandate for transnational revolution.

The Bolshevik Karl Radek urged an audience of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s KPD that “without the socialist revolution in Germany the Russian workers’ revolution, dependent on itself, would not have sufficient strength to build a new house on the ruins left behind by capitalism.” (Source)

Others saw these revolutionaries in a less flattering light.

Nonetheless, Munich mounted a revolt breaking away an independent Bavarian state that would eventually usher in a Bavarian Soviet Republic. This state Eugen Levine seized control of on April 12, 1919, with a communist putsch against the expressionist playwright who had served as its first head of state.* Levine would be the second, and last, in that office.

In the end, the KPD in Munich — and not only there, but throughout Germany — simply lacked the organizational strength or the mass mobilization to sustain the attempted revolution(s) against its inevitable foes. By May of 1919, its threadbare forces had been overwhelmed by right-wing soldiers and paramilitaries.** Defenders of the city and actual or perceived revolutionaries were shot out of hand by the hundreds.


This obviously staged photo purports to depict a Freikorps execution of a (theatrically unfazed) Bolshevik in Munich in 1919. (Source)

Levine’s treatment was, if equally certain, at least marginally more ceremonial.

Captured in hiding a few days after the incursion, Levine was saved for a show trial† at the start of June.

He met it in impressively good cheer, despite a good idea what was coming.

We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join [the late] Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped … Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They — and I together with them — we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.

Left and center parties raised a pan-Germanic outcry to stay the executioner’s hand, but Levine was shot two days after condemnation.‡

Munich transmuted, with this conquest, from an outpost of the revolutionary vanguard into a veritable far-right hothouse: just weeks after Levine’s execution, Adolf Hitler would make his fateful acquaintance with the NSDAP in Munich. Within a few years he and his germinated their own Bavarian revolution. Munich and its beer hall (which the Freikorps had used for summary executions in May 1919) were long hallowed of the Third Reich.§

* The deposed president, Ernst Toller, “hanged himself” in 1939. Auden paid him tribute in moving verse.

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

** The aide-de-camp of the Freikorps Epp that marched into Munich that first week of May was the future SA chief Ernst Röhm. Also participating in this sortie: early Nazi leaders (and eventual Hitler rivals) Gregor and Otto Strasser, and future Wannsee Conference participant Wilhelm Stuckart.

† The young lawyer Max Hirschberg drew first dibs on defending the doomed Levine before his drumhead court, but faint-heartedly passed the assignment off. Hirschberg would remember the moment with shame: “I was too insecure and too cowardly to confront the scornful sneer of the reactionaries,” he wrote.

Maybe Hirschberg’s harsh self-judgment steeled his soul, for soon the “orgy of brutality, bloodthirstiness, and injustice aroused in me a decisive transformation.” He began to aggressively seek out hated revolutionaries to represent in the teeth of the political winds. Hirschberg had a notable mano-a-mano courtroom confrontation with Adolf Hitler in 1930; he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1934, but built a career in New York where he blazed trails with his work on wrongful convictions. There’s a summation of his career in this pdf; or, see the 2005 biography Justice Imperiled.

‡ Primary newspaper coverage (e.g., London Times, June 9, 1919) confirms the date; the “July 5” widely cited in online articles is mistaken.

§ The Nazis erected a memorial to the Freikorps who crushed the Bavarian Soviet; its remains can still be seen today.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1919: Boonpeng Heep Lek, the last public beheading in Thailand

2 comments August 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Thailand — in the sunset years of its absolute monarchy — conducted its last-ever public beheading.

Boonpeng Heep Lek apparently killed his own mother, but the crime takes a back seat here to the visuals. We have these grainy-but-grisly images of the man, and then … just the trunk of the man.

This execution took place, as many did, at the grounds of the Wat Phasi or Wat Phasee temple complex in Bangkok (then, at the edge of Bangkok); bizarrely, said complex today preserves a shrine to our milestone matricide, where devotees visit to … seek better luck?!. Okay.

(This temple isn’t much on the standard tourist beat for Bangkok despite a central location and gorgeous architecture and the creepy history. It appears to be, as of this writing, completely absent even from the usually-encyclopedic Flickr.)

If the executioners in this case followed the procedures promulgated in recent years, then after the victim was tied down seated at a small wooden cross — visible in the pictures above — he would have had his ears and mouth filled with clay, and clay likewise used to mark the base of his neck.

The two-man execution team would then contrive to get a sword through that valuable protuberance via a strange ceremony, with one man performing a hypnotic sword dance in front of the prisoner — apparently meant to relax or distract him, although it seems like it would do better for ratcheting up the panic — while the second man bided his time for the opportunity to dart in unseen with a leaping decapitation slash from behind, “a quick rush, a circle of light in the air, and a sudden jet of crimson.” After that, they chopped the guy’s feet off in order to remove the manacles, and left the corpse as carrion for the local vultures.

We’ve followed those birds’ lead by scavenging a variety of pictures of old Siamese executions (not Boonpeng Heep Lek’s specifically), at least one of which certainly merits the Mature Content Warning. Image credits via here and the series of posts beginning here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mature Content,Milestones,Public Executions,Thailand

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1919: Mehmed Kemal, for the Armenian genocide

3 comments April 10th, 2010 Headsman

Ninety-one years ago today,* the tottering Ottoman Empire hanged one of its officials in Istanbul for his role in the mass slaughter of its Armenian minority during the First World War.

Kemal Bey’s hanging in Bayezid Square occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Here, on its last legs, the remains of a sultanate splintered apart in the war instituted tribunals for wartime offenses by the Young Turks who had run the government during the war — a sop to the British occupying forces making worrying noises about international trials for much bigger fish.

Much testimony at the trial pointed to the governor’s fervor for massacres; an Armenian priest who survived the slaughter later wrote that a Turkish officer had told him that Kemal “made a vow on the honor of the Prophet: I shall not leave a single Armenian alive in the sanjak of Yozgat.”

A response to the New York Timesreport of the hanging noted that “his part was that of an executioner. The originators of the plan to exterminate the Armenians were primarily Enver, Tallat, and Djemal.”

These “Three Pashas” who had driven Ottoman policy during the war had fled abroad. They would be condemned to death in absentia, and though none would hang, neither would they outlive Mehmed Kemal by as much as four years.

They were among the many unpunished perpetrators of the slaughter hunted down by Armenian assassins. The latter two were avenged by Operation Nemesis; Enver Pasha died in battle in Tajikistan during the Russian Civil War.

Though overshadowed in historical import by those three, our day’s principal is distinguished as the first person executed for “crimes against humanity.”

This novelty, combined with the trial’s victor’s-justice character, were immediately controversial, and remain so in the fraught politicking around the genocide. (This genocide-denialist paper describes, on page 13, the rowdy funeral scene that erupted the next day, also attested** by annoyed British officials.)

Events would soon outstrip these tribunals and lay waste to all parties’ plans for the Ottoman carcass, incidentally leaving the Armenian issue permanently unresolved.

The month after Mehmed Kemal swung, western allies went one dismemberment too far by backing the irredentist Greek state’s landing at Smyrna — an intervention that was to backfire catastrophically for the Greeks, and help birth the Turkish Republic.

* A few secondary sources say April 12 rather than April 10, but the earlier date appears much better attested.

** e.g., a diplomatic note cited in The Burning Tigris, p. 337: “Not one Turk in a thousand will think that any other Turk deserves to be hanged for massacring Christians.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Politicians,Public Executions,Turkey

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