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 magnetism was entrusted with the impossible task of organizing an armed forces for the Soviet 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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1919: Felipe Angeles

11 comments November 26th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Mexican hero General Felipe Angeles was shot at dawn in Chihuahua, hours after a military tribunal condemned him for rebellion.

Angeles, a humane and cosmopolitan socialist, had tacked a unique course through the dangerous Mexican Revolution. The career artillerist’s military counsel was a high card in the hands of the revolutionaries, and helped to make the coruscating career of Pancho Villa. Crucially, Angeles advised Villa to seize the mines of Zacatecas, dealing a mortal blow to the putschist Huerta government by throttling its currency at the source.

But that brilliant maneuver countermanded an order of the Revolution’s moderate political face, Venustiano Carranza, and both personality conflicts and support for more radically redistributionist measures soon sundered the Villa factions’ alliance with Carranza.

Angeles hitched his destiny to Pancho Villa and is historically recalled as the “angelic” opposite number to the famed guerrilla’s other top military henchman, the murderous Roberto Fierro. The three lend themselves almost implausibly to allegorical literature — “the decisive biographical proof of Villa’s duality … found in the two men closest to him, equidistant and extreme extensions of his nature.” (Enrique Krauze)

Angeles aimed, perhaps, at a statesmanship that might have remembered him the father of his country.

‘It was the recurrent dream of the impotent revolutionary intellectual: to play Plato to some powerful but pliant popular caudillo.’ This may well be an accurate analysis of Angeles, who probably had ambitions to be president of Mexico, with Villa as the power behind the throne but based in Chihuahua, allowing Angeles free rein to implement radical reforms in the capital

… Angeles probably saw Villa as a tabula rasa on which he could imprint his ideology. The problem was that Villa had no taste for abstract thought; as [John] Reed remarked ironically: ‘You had to be a philosopher to explain anything to Villa.’

To the grief of both, Villa neglected Angeles’ expertise when the Villists faced Carranzo at arms. Against advice, Villa abandoned Mexico City, failed to attack when the constitutionalists were tenuous, then spurned guerrilla operations for a frontal assault into the teeth of a foe with numerical superiority and lethal tactical advances culled from the slaughterhouse of World War I.

All was postscript after the Battle of Celaya — Villa maintaining for a few years as a bandit force and famously raiding New Mexico while his strategist drifted into exile in Texas before returning to Mexico on a quixotic peacemaking mission that led him instead to a show trial.

Angeles’ end came with the all the dignity of his romantic age. Before his judges — before all the world — he gave “full and clear expositions of his history and his ideas about everything from politics to ontology. It was clear that he knew this was his end, and he seems to have written a kind of intellectual memoir in the protracted answers … he was not defeated morally so much as physically.”

Angeles himself arranged particulars of his own execution with the Carranza men detailed to shoot him. He enjoys posthumous esteem commensurate with his qualities in life:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Notable Participants,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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