On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.
That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.
Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.
On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.
The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.
As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.
Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.
In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)
The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.
But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.
No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)
It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.
Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.
Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.
“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”
At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.
In contemporary America, it would be next to unthinkable to schedule an execution for New Year’s Day — and asking the associated team of wardens, guards, executioners, witnesses, lawyers, and journalists to ditch New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and do a ball drop to a lethal chemical injection would be a complete nonstarter.
But the First of January, especially prior to the age of widespread telecommunication, was not always so sentimentally held. The Espy File of historical American executions records none whatsoever for Christmas Day, but several have occurred on New Year’s. We’ve previously profiled some of them in these grim annals, like Sylvester Henry Bell and Archilla Smith.
January 1 of 1926, “just 15 minutes after the arrival of the New Year” in the words of the Associated Press report, was the occasion in Huntsville, Texas for electrocuting African-American Melton Carr for raping a white woman in Walker County.
I have found hardly any information pertaining to this case online, but the detail that Carr was reprieved from an earlier execution date “on a petition from officials and citizens of Walker county” — implicitly, white citizens — might be a suggestive indicator for a crime so incendiary under other circumstances. We have seen that detail before in the case of Tom Joyner’s ancestors, who had broad clemency support because the racial politics of the time made an open judicial exploration of their actual innocence impossible.
On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.
Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.
According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.
His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).
Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.
In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.
Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.
The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”
Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”
What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.
Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. He soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.
A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)
Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”
* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” -Blackstone
** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”
The chiefs of these shifting statelets, being warlords, fought numerous wars.
Sun Chuangfang, one of the generals of a warlord party known as the Zhili clique, was engaged in the south in 1925 in a campaign whose successful resolution would ultimately install him in Nanking with effective control of five provinces. In the service of achieving such a power base he must have thought little about destroying an enemy commander caught in a counterattack and mounting the man’s severed head on a pike to cow any opposition.
On October 3, 1925, while leading the Superior Iron Brigade (Tiejia jun), a brigade of mercenary troops, in an attempt to capture Guzhen, Shandong, Shi Congbin was surrounded by Sun Chuanfang’s troops with no support in sight. Shi’s four thousand soldiers were slaughtered, while Shi himself was taken prisoner and beheaded the next day upon Sun’s personal order. Shi Jianqiao [Shi Congbin’s daughter] related in heart-wrenching detail how her family would not have learned the truth except for the bravery and loyalty of one of Shi Congbin’s personal servants. “Only a single servant was able to flee home. When we asked him about news from the front line, he threw himself to the ground in tears. We knew the news was not good.” The servant had been too grief-stricken to speak. Only after he Shi family had gone to Tianjin did they learn all the facts behind Shi Congbin’s death.
The named daughter Shi Jianqiao was about 20 years old when she received this devastating news.
Years elapsed. The general, as we have said, rose to his acme, and then fell, and retired, and like as not he had never in the following decade tarried over the destruction Shi Congbin.
But Shi Jianqiao did. She nursed her grievance and her sense of filial honor until when she was 30, she at last found her opportunity to strike back at her father’s slayer. Approaching the by-then-long-retired general as he performed Buddhist meditations, the faithful daughter shot him three times.
The supporting cast in Shi’s tale of revenge included the grieving widow and the suffering family her father had left behind. Even though there is little indication that the Shi family underwent any real financial strain, Shi Jianqiao nonetheless insisted that Shi Conbin’s death meant that a poor widow and six children, four of whom were still young, were left to fend for themselves. Sun Chuanfang was directly to blame for her family’s plight. The way in which Shi portrayed her mother was particularly important. Traditionally, dutiful daughters and chaste wives were expected to commit suicide if their fathers o husbands were killed unjustly. Such an extreme gesture was meant as an ultimate expression of loyalty and protest against injustice. But in this twentieth-century tale, Shi Jianqiao did not commit suicide and, moreover, justified her decision to live in terms of her filial piety to her mother. She portrayed her mother as particularly grief-stricken by the affair and argued that she needed to right the wrong committed against her father on behalf of her mother. In her GGRS, Shi declared, “Although all I wanted to do was die, my elderly moter’s illness gave me the will to live.” In her will, she stated, with similar effect, “To my dear mother … what I have been hiding from you for years, I can no longer hide. Our enemy has not yet been retaliated [against]. Father’s death can no longer be obscured … A sacrifice should be made for father’s revenge. In the future, five children will still be able to wait on you. They are all dutiful.” Shi Jianqiao’s act of revenge would be the ultimate gesture of filial piety, while her remaining siblings would be able to wait on her elderly mother in more mundane ways throughout the rest of her mother’s life.
Shi Jianqiao’s family loyalty attracted so much sympathy in China that she received a free pardon and even became a symbol of national resistance against the Japanese occupation. She died in 1979.
Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.
Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.
That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.
Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.
Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.
The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.
The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, bustling with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.
The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.
We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.
The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.
This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.
As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.
And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)
Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.
But there was no relief for either prisoner.
On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.
To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.
After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.
Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.
Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.
* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.
On this date in 1927,* the Bohemian playboy Jindrich Bažant was hanged at Kutna Hora for a murder spree directed at his several lovers.
Thanks to wealthy parents, Bazant‘s major occupation was the pleasures of the flesh.
But really, “I was destined to be a murderer,” he confessed upon arrest. He’d certainly thrown himself into the role once he tired of his girlfriends.
Two women who fancied themselves future Mrs. Bazants were the victims: Marie Safarikova, age 19, lured into a supposed elopement to Slovakia and then coldly shot dead in the woods; and Josefa Pavelkova, who was already pregnant with Bazant’s child.
Yet another lover, Bozena Rihova, almost met the same fate after she threatened Bazant with a criminal complaint for infecting her with a venereal disease. Bazant shot her, bludgeoned her with a hammer, and set her on fire — but Rihova miraculously survived to testify against her former paramour.
Bazant was among the last put to death by Leopold Wohlschlager, one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s five state executioners at the time of its dissolution. Wohlschlager got started in the craft at the tender age of 15, and was well into his seventies when he hanged Bazant.
* I’m going with the plurality (and the best-detailed) of Czech-language articles here, against some cites for the same date in 1926.
The worst thing that happened to Clarence “Buck” Kelly on this date in 1928 was being hung for murder.
But the only thing anyone could talk about afterwards was how he was un-hung … for science.
Kelly and a friend, Lawrence Weeks (later joined by a third friend, 17-year-old Mike Papadaches), drunk on Prohibition moonshine, robbed a Vallejo Street hardware store of a handgun and set off on a San Francisco armed robbery spree. It lasted just a couple of days in October 1926, but the “terror bandits” left a half-dozen dead.
We’re more excited by what happened after he died.
The chief surgeon of San Quentin prison, Dr. Leo Stanley, would write that the “swaggering” Buck Kelly came unmanned at the scaffold: “vanity cannot climb San Quentin’s thirteen steps and survive.” The prisoner took his leave of this world shrieking “Good-by, mother!” from under the hood.
Dr. Stanley was of course present to certify Kelly’s death, but also as the local emissary of the medical gaze so long directed at the fresh clientele of the gallows — that “absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” as Foucault put it.
Once Dr. Stanley’s stethoscope fell silent 13 minutes after the trap fell, the cadaver of Clarence “Buck” Kelly was cut down by the prison’s inmate “scavenger crew” and laid out for autopsy.
It is here that the “terror bandit” gives way to the “gland scandal”.
When the late Kelly’s family received the body for burial, post-autopsy, they discovered that the corpse had been relieved of “certain organs essential to a rejuvenation operation.” These “glands,” in the prevailing euphemism of the newsmen, had been removed by Stanley and installed into a charity patient at a nearby hospital.
He did this because ball transplant therapy was the little blue pill of the 1920s, and made some colorful medical charlatans some colorful mountains of cash.
Indeed, fresh testes were promoted not only for virility, as one might suppose, but as an all-purpose spring of rejuvenation good for a diverse array of afflictions large and small. According to Thomas Schlich, gland therapy had been credited with addressing
chronic skin problems, impaired vision, neurasthenia, epilepsy, dementia praecox, senile dementia, alcoholism, enlarged prostate, malignant tumors, rheumatism, loose teeth, various kinds of paralysis, “moral perversion of old age,” and arteriosclerosis.
(Testicular transplant was also tried out as a treatment for homosexuality.)
The leading exponent of such procedures was a Russian Jewish emigre, Serge Voronoff, who plied his trade in Paris. Having worked with eunuchs in Egypt around the turn of the century, Voronoff got to thinking big things about the little head.
Voronoff’s ball-transplant fad was so successful that demand from rich old dudes for fresh packages far outstripped what France’s guillotines could ever hope to provide. (This is a longstandingtheme in the history of condemned prisoners’ medical exploitation.)
So Voronoff emigrated again, to the animal kingdom.
Image from Voronoff colleauge Louis Dartigues’s book Technique chirurgicale des greffes testiculaires … methode de Voronoff.
Voronoff became the guy who would help you sack up with monkey power,* writing: “I dare assert that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.” All one had to do to get a piece of that simian sturdiness was graft on a little piece of their sex organs.** “Monkey glands” were even an early entrant (pdf) in performance enhancing medicine for the burgeoning sports world.
Voronoff had plenty of detractors, but before monkey glands were decisively discredited in the 1930s he also had plenty of imitators.
Our Dr. Leo Stanley was not as outre as some of the graft grifters afoot, but he too went in for the medicinal power of the testis.†
Immediately upon discovering Kelly’s anatomization, which was never properly authorized by either the family or the prisoner (Stanley said he had Kelly’s verbal okay), the terror bandit’s former defense attorney Milton U’Ren‡ made the situation into the aforementioned scandal. U’Ren demanded Stanley’s resignation and eventually filed a civil suit.
Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1928.
It would emerge in the course of the “scandal” that Dr. Stanley had since 1918 cut out the balls of about 30 hanged cutpurses to hang them in other men’s coin purses — “engrafting human testicles from recently executed prisoners to senile recipients.”
Being a doctor right at one of the nation’s more active death chambers gave him a steady supply of donors, although Stanley too had expanded to experimenting with testicular tissue from goats, boars, rams, and stags. If you were an animal whom European nobility was interested in placing on a heraldic crest, you were an animal whom Dr. Stanley was keen on emasculating.
His work in this sensitive area was not exactly a secret; Stanley himself published and spoke on the topic, and it had even hit the papers in a laudatory vein.
It was only the cavalier approach to consent in this instance that made it the “gland scandal”, and Stanley was able to weather the embarrassment job intact. He remained at San Quentin until 1951 and continued experimenting with testicular transplant; the procedure’s promise of restoring youthful virility to aging men appealed as strongly then as it does in our day, and he had no shortage of volunteers eager to freshen up their junk. Stanley, for his part, was ceasing to see his operations as “experimental” — just therapeutic. For years Stanley’s scalpel probed scrota, free and incarcerated alike, for the font of youth.
According to Ethan Blue’s “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951,”§ over 10,000 testicular implant operations took place at San Quentin by 1940.
** This period’s interest in transplantation and interspecies medicine is reflected in interwar literature. In Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, the titular pet undergoes this procedure in the opposite direction — receiving human testicles. The 1923 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” revolves around an elderly character who has been treated with a rejuvenating “serum” extracted from langurs, which reduces him to the bestial behaviors of its donor.
† Stanley also shared his era’s fascination with eugenics; as with the testicle thing, this was (pseudo-)science with a social reform agenda. Stanley urged prisoners whenever he got the chance to undergo (voluntary) sterilization — urged successfully, on some 600 occasions.
Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.
The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.
“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”
But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.
The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.
But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.
Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.
So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*
“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”
An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)
So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**
Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.
“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”
No one answered.
“I forgive everyone.”
And then she hanged.
Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.
As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.
** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.
On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.
I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.
Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.
Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.
In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.
(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Heraldshamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)
Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.
Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”
Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.
A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.
Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?
“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.
Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.
Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.
* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.
On this date in 1922, George Hornsby was hanged in Belton, Texas.
We pick up the George Hornsby’s trail 18 months before his execution, when the bludgeoned body of car dealer J.N. Weatherby was discovered outside Brownwood, Texas, on October 19, 1920.
The mysterious crime was unlocked by 16-year-old Willie Carter, who told authorities that he was the accomplice of the murderer George F. Hornsby* — Carter’s sister’s lover. The motive, Carter said, was theft.
Hornsby was arrested some weeks later in Birmingham, Alabama. He would insist from that time until the trap dropped under his feet that he had already been en route to Birmingham when the crime was committed.
The warring eyewitness testimony** attempting to situate Hornsby’s whereabouts on the days surrounding Weatherby’s murder defined the case both within the courtroom and without. A jury in Belton — where the trial had been moved owing to prejudice against Hornsby in Brownwood — bought Willie Carter’s version.
This did not cinch the case in the court of public opinion, especially since Hornsby vociferously adhered to his original story.
In the weeks leading up to the execution, after Hornsby’s legal team had fought its corner and the matter was in the hands of Gov. (and pioneer tough-on-crime pol) Pat Neff, Carter recanted his testimony.†
Then, a few days later, Carter recanted his recantation.
With the evidence in such a muddle, 7,000 sympathetic Texans — heavily residents of the trial venue Bell county as against those of Brown county, where the murder occurred — petitioned Gov. Neff for Hornsby’s life. Neff ended up personally interviewing Carter to try to figure out what was what. In the end, Neff wasn’t buying what the clemency campaigners were selling, and took a lonely stand against mobs of vigilantes roaming the Lone Star state imposing summary mercy.
No finer example can be had of criminal hero-worship than when a few months ago seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight persons in Bell County signed a petition that I either pardon or commute the death sentence adjuded by court and jury against one George Hornsby. Hornsby was a man 29 years of age, a deserter from the American army, went under an assumed name to avoid identity, a transient fellow without vocation, lived with a woman not his wife on a negro street in Brownwood, and for the purpose of robbery, murdered, if human testimony is to be believed, one of the substantial citizens of Brown County. That he might have an impartial trial, removed from local influence, the case was sent to Bell County. The jury assessed the death penalty, and from the evidence as I found it to be, any other verdict would have been a travesty on justice. No sooner was the verdict of guilty rendered than there was begun by men and women, among them the very best citizens of Bell County and the equal of those of any other county, a campaign closely resembling hero-worship of the convicted murderer. Eighty per cent of the voting strength of Bell County protested to me against the punishment assessed against him. Reports stated that admiring hands brought to his cell the delicacies of life, flowers were strewn for him to walk on to the scaffold and fair women coveted the privilege of holding his hands while the black cap was being adjusted.‡ By public contributions a costly casket was purchased and flowers were piled high above his grave, even as the grave of one who had fallen in defense of his country. The murderer was praised as a hero and the Governor who refused to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeals, all declaring him guilty, was held up to scorn and ridicule.
To these more than seven thousand petitioners I made no apology then and I make none now. In the administration of the law, I am for the courthouse, its judgments and its decrees. It is the one tribunal whose sole function is to make life sacred and property secure. It is the outgrowth of the centuries, the ripened product of civilization. When people ignore the courthouse and defy the law, they are blasting with the dynamite of destruction at the very foundation of their government. Without the courthouse the weak would be made to surrender to the strong. I am for the courthouse and against the mob. If civilization is worth preserving on the battlefield when war shakes her bristling bayonets, it is worth maintaining in the courthouse, where justice, when properly supported, holds forth her delicately balanced scales. In this deluge of lawlessness and disrespect for governmental authority which has submerged the State, the courthouse will prove to be the Mount Ararat upon which the ark of the law must finally rest, to send forth the dove of peace and civilization.
Hornsby’s Ararat was the gallows. He went calmly, with a short address reiterating his innocence.
People, I don’t know many of you, but lots of you know me. People, I stand before you a saved man. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I am going to leave you people, but I am going to a better land. I am going to where we will all be treated alike. We will all be charged alike, and I want to tell you people I am going as an innocent man.
I have lived a sinful life, but I have not committed any murder, so help me God. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1922)
A crowd estimated at three to four thousand turned up for Hornsby’s funeral.
The next year, state Senator J.W. Thomas from the little Bell County town of Rogerssponsored the legislation that would centralize all Texas executions (formerly conducted, as was Hornsby’s, by local authorities) in Huntsville.
* Here are two interesting facts about George Hornsby: first, he went by “George Scott” in Brownwood before all the trouble, since he was trying to distance himself from a dishonorable army discharge; second, his search results are complicated by his case unfolding during the simultaneous emergence of baseball great Rogers Hornsby.
** Some of it is discussed in Hornsby’s (unfavorable) appellate ruling, here.
† Sign of the times: after Carter’s first recantation — before he recanted the recantation — Hornsby was moved from the Bell county jail as “a precautionary measure owing to reports that efforts to bring about a commutation of sentence were distasteful to friends of Weatherby.” (Wire report in the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Aprkl 2, 1922.)
The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a major revival in Texas during the 1920s.
‡ Actually, a high wooden palisade shielded Hornsby from public view of the flower-strewing masses. A Mrs. Bennett Smith of Temple, Texas, who helped lead the clemency campaign did offer to stand on the scaffold with Hornsby, but Hornsby seems to have declined the favor.