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.

On this day..

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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1920: The White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak

3 comments February 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, White commander Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak was shot in Irkutsk.

Absent the Russian Revolution, Kolchak‘s epitaph would read “naval officer and arctic explorer.”*

After the Russian Revolution touched off civil war, Kolchak became Supreme Ruler — and ruthless dictator — of an anti-Bolshevik government stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean.

It didn’t last.

Fleeing east, Kolchak was arrested by a Bolshevik-allied government in Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. The White army mounted an offensive to retrieve him — leading the Soviet government to order his immediate execution, along with one of his government ministers, Viktor Pepelyayev. Unable to bury them in the frozen soil, their captors unceremoniously dumped the corpses in the Ushakovka River.


A monument to Admiral Kolchak in Irkutsk, Russia. Image courtesy of Jack Sheremetoff of Baikaler.com.

* An inhospitable Arctic island he helped explore was named (and is now again named, following a Soviet change of moniker) for Kolchak.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1920: Kevin Barry

4 comments November 1st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1920, 18-year-old Irish Republican Army Section Commander Kevin Barry was hanged in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison for the murder of English Private Harold Whitehead in an IRA ambush just six weeks prior to the execution.

Denying the authority of the British (civilian) court, the young medical student went undefended, insouciantly reading the newspaper in court as the government built its case against him. His was the first execution of the Irish War of Independence, and stoked Irish nationalist sentiment on the island and abroad.

Refused a request to be shot as a soldier, Barry nevertheless went jauntily to his fate, his bearing making great gains for IRA recruitment and fixing his own name in the firmament of Irish independence martyrs. Britain’s insistence on treating him as a murderer rather than a prisoner of war was widely received as an insult to the movement he represented.

It was not until 1989 that Barry’s short life received a biographical treatment, Kevin Barry and His Times, by the hanged man’s nephew. But a 1920’s song celebrating Barry has survived since that time as a popular hymn of Irish Republicanism.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Separatists,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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