1920: Rickey Harrison, Hudson Duster

Add comment May 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Rickey Harrison of the Greenwich Village “Hudson Dusters” went to the electric chair for a murder committed in the course of an armed robbery.

As befits a gaggle of old time New York hoodlums this crowd was rife with colorful nicknames — Goo Goo Knox, Circular Jack, Ding Dong — and hired out its thrashings in service of Tammany Hall‘s rude electoral manipulations. Their signal achievement was earning a popular doggerel tribute that rang in the streets in its day, by beating senseless a beat cop who’d had the temerity to arrest some of their number.

Says Dinny [patrolman Dennis Sullivan], “Here’s me only chance
To gain meself a name;
I’ll clean up the Hudson Dusters,
And reach the hall of fame.”*
He lost his stick and cannon,
and his shield they took away.
It was then he remembered,
Every dog had his day.

At their peak the Hudson Dusters could rank as one of the brighter stars in the dizzying constellation of Big Apple crooks. Herbert Asbury’s classic The Gangs of New York notes that “perhaps fifty small groups … operated south of Forty-second street [and] owed allegiance to the Gophers, Eastmans, Five Pointers, Gas Housers, and Hudson Dusters … Each of these small gangs was supreme in its own territory, which other gangs under the same sovereighty might not invade, but its leader was always responsible to the chieftain of the larger gang, just as a prince is responsible to his king.” Allegedly future Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day, then a teenage radical journalist just moved to New York City, enjoyed carousing with the Dusters in the 1910s.

Despite political pull through Tammany (and heavenly pull through Dorothy) arrests and gang wars dusted the Dusters over the first two decades of the 20th century.

Our man Rickey Harrison, a pipsqueak Irishman with a substandard nickname (“Greenwich Village Terror” … lame), led a gangland raid on a high-stakes poker game at the Knickerbocker Waiters Club on September 7, 1918, and shot dead a Canadian soldier who refused to give up his boodle. Harrison would go to his grave insisting that it was not he who fired the fatal shot, although he was markedly less scrupulous about accounting the undetected and unprosecuted crimes of his career.

As a last indignity, Harrison and another murderer named Chester Cantine — who preceded the gangster to the electric chair — had to brace themselves for eternity within earshot of a raucous Sing Sing vandeville show where prisoners and 800 visitors were “applauding and roaring with laughter in an improvised theatre a few feet away … comic sketches [and] jazz music resounded throughout the prison.” (New York Times, May 14, 1920)

Harrison’s last sentiment — “Let us hope and pray they will never do this thing to another man, innocent or guilty” — still awaits fulfillment a century later.

* The apparent allusion is to the Hall of Fame for Great Americas, a civic pantheon opened in 1900 that is now part of Bronx Community College. This outdoor colonnade, still extant but largely forgotten, imported its busts-of-great-men concept from Bavaria; the Hall’s popularity in its time makes it the ancestor of the innumerable Halls of Fame that have since come to litter the North American civic landscape.

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1920: Gerald Smyth, Royal Irish Constabulary officer

Add comment July 17th, 2016 Headsman

Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.

A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).

The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.

The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.

Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …

Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.

The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”

Mee quit on the spot, and 13 of his comrades quit with him.

This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”

Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.

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1920: Lee Monroe Betterton, three strikes and you’re out

Add comment July 9th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1920, Lee Monroe Betterton (addressed by his middle name) was electrocuted in Oklahoma for the murder of his wife, whose unusual name has been given variously as “Elzeana,” “Aldazia” and “Elzadah.” (This account will use the latter spelling, which was the one used in Betterton’s Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals syllabus.)

Little is known about Monroe Betterton’s background, other than that he was born in Missouri and was the seventh of twelve children, ten of whom survived to adulthood.

He was a heavy drinker and his violent nature was self-evident: Elzadah was, sadly, not the first wife Betterton killed. Nor was she even the second wife Betterton killed.

Betterton killed his first wife, Laura Elizabeth, in Barry County, Missouri in 1904. They had four young children together, two sons and two daughters. During an argument he beat her unconscious and she was taken to the hospital, where she soon died. For some reason, her husband was not prosecuted.

By 1908, Betterton had remarried and was living with Rosie, Wife #2, in Neosho, Missouri. They were walking to nearby Monett to visit some of his relatives when they started quarreling. Both of them had been drinking. About two miles outside of town, Betterton suddenly pulled out a knife and stabbed Rosie in the heart. She died instantly and he laid her body beside the railroad tracks.

This time he was arrested and charged with the crime. Betterton maintained that “I was guilty of that woman’s death, but it was an accident.” He got 99 years in prison, but served only ten before he was paroled in 1918.

He was 48 by then, and he returned to Monett and began courting Elzadah Lockwood, a widow close to his own age who was unfamiliar with the old adage that while once is a coincidence, twice is a trend. They got married, but their relationship turned rocky almost immediately and they argued constantly.

The couple separated after only a few months and filed for divorce. However, they reconciled after Betterton’s son Clifford married Elzadah’s daughter Mamie. In the first week of July 1919, a mere week after their divorce was final, Monroe and Elzadah remarried and settled in Vinita, Oklahoma.

Their previous problems resurfaced, however, and within days they were fighting like cats.

On July 9, 1919, Elzadah was preparing to leave her son-in-law Arthur Thomas’s house after yet another argument when Betterton shot her three times in the back. One of the bullets blew away the whole right side of her heart, and she was dead before authorities arrived at the scene.

When questioned, Betterton implicated everyone: the son Clifford; the son-in-law Arthur; even Elzadah herself as a phenomenally effective suicide. Mamie had been present at the scene, though. She and Elzadah’s eight-year-old son Raymond saw the whole thing, and both testified against their stepfather at his trial.

The case was pretty open-and-shut: As the Vinita Daily Journal noted, “The prisoner seems to be the least [a]ffected of the family and pays close attention to the testimony for or against him … There was practically no defense.”


Hobart (Okla.) Daily Republican, June 21, 1920.

Less than an hour before his execution, Betterton gave an interview in his cell and continued to assert his innocence: “I am not guilty of the crime with which I am charged. I am ready to die. I am ready to meet my God. I do not fear death, but I do not want to die for a crime which I did not commit.”

Approximately 100 people witnessed his execution. He had no final statement.

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1920: Triple lynching in Duluth, Minnesota

6 comments June 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1920, a white mob perhaps 10,000 strong swarmed into the Duluth, Minn. jail and extracted three young African-American circus workers accused of gang-raping a white woman. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie stood an immediate drumhead trial, then were lynched in the heart of Duluth as they vainly protested their innocence.

The self-congratulatory posed photograph of mob members with the bodies was made into a horrifying postcard, a frequent practice in lynch law America.


“What this looks like is the kind of photo you would see at a hunting lodge, where the guys had been out shooting bear, and they came back and they said, ‘We got three.’ You can see people on tip-toe. They’ve crowded into this shot. These are not people who are ashamed to be seen here. This is, ‘I want to be in this picture.'”

Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth

Nineteen-year-old Irene Tusker and her boyfriend James Sullivan had attended the one-day circus the evening before. What transpired that night remains unknown to this day: Irene eventually took the streetcar home without incident. Hours later, James Sullivan’s father claimed that the couple had been held at gunpoint by black carnies as Irene was gang-raped.

By the evening of the 15th, a vengeful mob had surrounded the police station/local lockup. Officers were ordered not to use deadly force against the townsfolk, so the battle to push into the premises was waged with brickbats against firehoses, and eventually with ineffectual pleas to let the law take its course.*

The incident drew nationwide reaction — usually condemnation (with a couple of exceptions). Occurring as it did in one of the continental states’ northernmost towns, it also underscored lynching as a nationwide problem rather than “merely” a southern one.

“Duluth has disgraced herself and has, by reason of her geographical position, disgraced the north,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized (June 17, 1920) — just one of innumerable newspaper editorials in the days following the Duluth outrage. “A city that has no more backbone than to submit to the rule of riot cannot be held blameless. But it will be surprising if Duluth and the state of Minnesota do not take steps to punish the murderers. The method of procedure was so deliberate and so brazenly open that identification and conviction of the ringleaders should be an easy matter.”

Brace for a surprise: according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s excellent site on the Duluth lynchings, only three whites served prison time (a shade over one year apiece) for rioting. Nobody was ever convicted for murdering Clayton, Jackson, or McGhie.

One black man, Max Mason, caught a long prison sentence for the supposed rape. He was paroled after five years on condition that he leave Minnesota for good.

“I was just short of nineteen the night that the bodies of McGhie, Jackson, and Clayton swung from a light pole in Duluth. I read the stories in the newspapers and put them down feeling sick, scared, and angry all at the same time. This was Minnesota, not Mississippi, but every Negro in the John Robinson Show had been suspect in the eyes of the police and guilty in the eyes of the mob … I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us — and white people as an unpredictable, violent them.”

-Minnesota-raised Roy Wilkins, the eventual director of the NAACP, in his autobiography (via)

The great-grandson of one of the lynch mob’s members wrote this book about the hangings’ legacy

The lynching was practically written out of the official state history most white children consumed at school in the middle part of the 20th century,** though the nine-year-old Lithuanian Jewish boy Abram Zimmerman who lived nearby the execution site later told his son all about it. Young Robert Allen Zimmerman tapped his father’s lynching stories under his subsequent nom de troubadour of Bob Dylan, and the Duluth atrocity is alluded to in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.†

Latter-day Duluth has, to its credit, tried to manage something a little bit more overt.

In 2003, a monument commemorating Duluth’s moment of infamy was dedicated opposite the place where the young men were strung up and photographed. Minnesota Public Radio produced a series on the lynching during the construction of this monument which is still available online.


All images (cc) ArtStuffMatters. The photographer has a thoughtful recent blog post on the [dearth of] public lynch memorials in the United States.

* The law in Minnesota had no death penalty on the books, and still has none today.

** To be fair to the state, its immediate response did include passing anti-lynching legislation in 1921.

† “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.”

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1920: Maria Bochkareva, Russian Joan of Arc

9 comments May 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1920, the Cheka shot famed female soldier Maria Bochkareva (or Botchkareva).

The “Russian Joan of Arc” was a peasant woman from Novgorod by way of Siberia.

She’d been in the workforce since the age of eight, and had passed almost continuously through abusive male relationships (violently drunken father, marriages to two wife-batterers). She’d also in that time shown herself a natural leader, and become a construction foreman.

It seems the great war came for Bochkareva as a liberating, almost redemptive, force: at least, that is the conclusion of hindsight.

In her memoir Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier (freely available here), she recalls the spirit of patriotism that swept Russians into war, just as it did German and French and British youths.

a gigantic wave of popular enthusiasm, sweeping the steppes, valleys, and forests of vast Russia, from Petrograd and Moscow, across the Ural mountains and Siberia, to the borders of China, and the Pacific coast.

There was something sublime about the nation’s response. Old men, who had fought in the Crimean War, in the Turkish Campaign of 1877-78, and the Russo-Japanese War, declared that they never saw such exaltation of spirit. It was a glorious, inspiring, unforgettable moment in one’s life. My soul was deeply stirred, and I had a dim realization of a new world coming to life, a purer, a happier and a holier world.

“Go to war to help save the country!” a voice within me called.

This dovetailed nicely (we do not say insincerely) with Bochkareva’s own striving for a more meaningful life than was on offer in her second marriage.

To leave Yasha for my personal comfort and safety was almost unthinkable. But to leave him for the field of unselfish sacrifice, that was a different matter. And the thought of going to war penetrated deeper and deeper into my whole being, giving me no rest.

Bochkareva appealed directly to the tsar and secured his personal permission to enlist. She earned several decorations for heroism in the tsarist army … and when the Romanovs fell, the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary government under Alexander Keresnky gave her permission to create an all-female formation: the Women’s Battalion of Death.

(“Of Death” was a bombastic cognomen any unit could receive by pledging never to surrender.)

“Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes,” Bochkareva implored in an appeal to Russian women in June 1917. “Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke — to protect the freedom of our country.”


Maria Bochkareva, center, supervises shooing practice. (Source)

Some 2,000 answered the summons.

Only around 300 of these could withstand Bochkareva’s iron discipline, and though other women’s battalions would follow (one, for instance, defended the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks), only Bochkareva’s saw service on the front.


The Women’s Battalion at a Moscow ceremony in the summer of 1917.

Although amenable to Kerensky’s Provisional Government, Bochkareva was an unmitigated anti-Bolshevik.

According to her memoirs, her “tigresses” continued fighting while the rest of the front was fraternizing, and enraged her male comrades by drawing artillery fire. She had to flee male soldiers intent on lynching her when she was still fighting after peace was announced. She had a hard time getting used to the idea of the new Soviet government, and the feeling was mutual: her battalion was soon disbanded and it wasn’t long before she took a steamship into exile.

(Her memoirs contain a harrowing account of her once being detained as a counterrevolutionary and barely avoiding execution.)

That memoir of Bochkareva’s was dictated in New York in 1918, just a few months since she had been in the trenches facing the Kaiser. Clearly she did not believe her mission to “heal the wounds of Russia” had been accomplished, for it was her attempt to return to the fight against the Bolsheviks that doomed her: in spring 1919, she went to the Russian Urals during the civil war to try to form a women’s unit under the White Admiral Kolchak.

But she was captured by the Reds inside of a year, and sentenced as an enemy of the people.

There’s an interesting open-access academic article about Bochkareva and the woman-soldier phenomenon here, as well as a larger bibliography here.

A few topical books

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1920: Tom Johnson and Jim McDonald, criminal assailants

Add comment December 3rd, 2011 Headsman

Charlotte Observer, Nov. 27, 1920 (Nov. 26 dateline)

Govenror Bickett today signed the death warrants of Tom Johnson and Jim McDonald, negroes convicted of criminal assault and whose appeal to the Supreme Court had been dismissed. Johnson, a native of Guilford county, and McDonald, of Davidson, will die in the electric chair at the state prison on December 3.


Charlotte Observer, Dec. 4, 1920 (Dec. 3 dateline)

Tom Johnson and Jim McDonald, Guilford and Davidson county negroes, died in the electric chair at the state prison here today for criminal assault, Johnson preceding McDonald to death by only a few minutes. The killing today was the fourth double electrocution by the state since the electric chair was substituted for the hangman’s noose. Both the prisoners appealed to the supreme court for new trials but their cases were dismissed two weeks ago.

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1920: Bloody Sunday in Ireland

4 comments November 21st, 2010 Headsman

Sunday, Nov. 21 in 1920 was “Bloody Sunday” in Ireland, a date begun with the IRA execution of British agents in Dublin, and concluded with three IRA men killed in British custody.

Thirty-one people lost their lives on this 1920 Bloody Sunday, a signal event of the Irish War of Independence; the thirteen of them who were British intelligence officers or assets targeted for an en masse morning liquidation suffices to qualify the affair for these grim pages.

“Executions”, assassinations or otherwise, the killings were ordered by Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in the escalating dirty war between his Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tans dispatched by London to crush the IRA.

My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.

-Michael Collins, on the executions

There were a couple of hitches in the plan: most particularly, that out of an initial list of 50 targets, Collins had been forced by his own government to trim to 35 … and then his hit teams “only” actually managed to get about a third of them.

And, of course, it drew a British rampage that day, most famously at a football match at Croke Park* concluding when Dirk McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune were killed that evening in a British police station — “trying to escape.”

But in all, the day was a coup for the Republicans, who crippled British intelligence in Dublin and gave any future recruits grave reason to think twice about the engagement, while reaping a public relations bonanza both domestic and international from the indiscriminate English response against civilians.

Occurring as it did while the fight for Ireland everywhere intensified — and that fight culminating in Ireland’s independence** — 1920’s Bloody Sunday is a sacred day for Irish nationalism.

Just to be clear, however, this is not the Bloody Sunday of U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” fame, which was an altogether different bit of carnage in 1972. “Bloody Sunday” actually has a disturbingly populous Wikipedia disambiguation page, with at least four Ireland-related entries and others from Turkey, Canada, South Africa, and points beyond.

* An England-Ireland rugby match in that stadium in 2007 grabbed headlines for its associations this date; you can see the respective anthems played before a respectful Irish crowd here.

** Leading, of course, to further assassinations, including Michael Collins’s own, and the internecine Irish Civil War.

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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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1920: Frank Campione, “are they really going to hang me?”

4 comments October 14th, 2010 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“Are—they—really—going—to—hang—me? Don’t— let—them. Save me. Jesus—Mary—Joseph. My little baby! My wife! . . . I’m—going—my—rest. Take— care—me. Where are you, Mr. Meisterheim [his jailer]? Talk to me.”

Meisterheim: “Be brave, Frank. It’ll be over in a minute.”

“Shake hands once more then. Are they—really going—to hang me?”

— Frank Campione, convicted of robbery and murder, hanging, Illinois.
Executed October 14, 1920

Part of the Cardinella Gang, Campione and company were responsible for more than four murders and 250 holdups and burglaries, according to authorities. The gang killed Albert Kubalanzo for $6.30.

During the months he was in jail and on trial, Campione sang lullabies to his pillow night and day. Even when admitting that he had been feigning madness, Campione held the pillow. “I’ll die happy if you let me keep this pillow with me,” he said. “It reminds me of my baby son.”

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1920: Dennis Gunn, hanged by a fingerprint

6 comments June 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Dennis Gunn’s fingerprints made history by hanging their owner for murder.

“You’ll have a job to prove it,” said Dennis Gunn when police charged him with murder.

Use of the fingerprint in forensic science had been developing over the decades preceding, and already begun to earn its bones with criminal convictions.

Dennis Gunn’s conviction marked a watershed in the mainstreaming of the youthful science, especially in New Zealand and the British Empire/Commonwealth: the first execution that hung — so to speak — on a print.

The 25-year-old was tied to the murder of Ponsonby postmaster Augustus Braithwaite because a smudge left on a stolen cashbox matched the prints Gunn had contributed to the nascent New Zealand fingerprint library when he had been convicted of evading military service two years before.

Armed with this connection, a police search of Gunn’s environs turned up the apparent tools of the crime — a revolver (with yet another matching print), a thieves’ kit, and more pilfered proceeds of the postal strongroom.

Gunn attempted to indict the reliability of the fingerprint evidence at trial, and according to the London Times (Apr. 20, 1920) he had the support in this endeavor of “public demonstrations of sympathy, men and women rushing to shake hands with Gunn.”

But it didn’t fly with the jury.*

Gunn’s condemnation, read the official report,

disposes of all attempts to question the conclusiveness of this class of evidence, and proves the truth of the remark of the Chief Justice of Australia, that a man who leaves a clear fingerprint on an object leaves there an unforgettable signature.

Law enforcement organs around the world rapidly accepted the principle.

Too rapidly? Some think so; and, in the train of a new century’s bulletproof identification technology, DNA, wrongful convictions founded on purported fingerprint matches have drawn some renewed scrutiny (pdf) to the technique that put Dennis Gunn on the Mount Eden Prison gallows this date in 1920.

* Playing for time after conviction, Gunn copped to the robbery and tried to pin the murder on a supposed confederate. No dice.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf

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