1924: Patrick Mahon, for the Crumbles Murder

Add comment September 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1924, Patrick Mahon was hanged for the so-called “Crumbles Murder”. Despite a nickname worthy of the family pet, this one was decidedly adult fare.

Patrick Mahon was a 30-something minor crook and major tomcat who had recently conquered his co-worker at the bankrupt soda fountain company Consol Automatic Aerators.

Emily Kaye was “a woman of the world” by Mahon’s nudge-nudge wink-wink report, but she had a mind to be more than a bit on the side for Mahon.

“Her idea,” Mahon later explained in the box as he stood trial for Kaye’s murder, “was that if we were alone together and she could act as my wife, doing the cooking and everything, she would convince me that I could be entirely happy with her.” Such a design the 37-year-old Miss Kaye had no real hope of achieving, but our lothario was more than happy to go along with “this experiment — this love experiment, we called it.”

Their laboratory would be a rented bungalow on the Sussex coast near Eastbourne at a charming strip of beach known as the Crumbles.

Mahon figured it would be convenient for everyone. “After we had finished our experiment and Miss Kaye had returned, my wife and I could use the bungalow.” Clearly these were people involved in two altogether different canoodles. But those canoodles stood Kaye two months pregnant by the time they joined up at the bungalow on April 12, and she was putting her opposite number in a tight spot by telling people that they were engaged. The “love experiment” quickly turned into a Frankenstein’s monster.

On Wednesday, April 16, Mahon left the bungalow alone and took a train back to London, where he kept an assignation with yet another woman, Ethel Duncan. At Mahon’s invitation, Duncan spent that weekend — Easter weekend — at that same Crumbles bungalow. Later, when her little fling was the subject of a humiliating public reckoning, Duncan tearfully said she’d seen no sign of foul play there.

But behind a door that Mahon had screwed shut against his latest girlfriend’s accidental intrusion was a large brown trunk, stuffed with Emily Kaye’s contorted remains.

Mahon’s eventual story — once circumstances required him to produce a story — was that the two had quarreled over their mismatched visions of the future until an enraged Kaye attacked her lover and the two toppled over a chair. Miss Kaye struck her head on a coal bucket in the fall, said Mahon: that’s what killed her.

It was a dubious tale. The lead investigator Bernard Spilsbury, knighted for his pioneering forensic work on the English homicide beat since Dr. Crippen and the Brides in the Bath, noted that a fall upon the bucket heavy enough to cause a mortal injury ought also to have crumpled the bucket. Plus, Mahon had suspiciously purchased a knife and saw just hours prior to the fatal rendezvous.

But Plan A was never to talk to an investigator at all. Mahon was a warm-blooded man when the opportunity presented itself, obviously, but he also had the steel nerve to do the revoltingly meticulous butcher’s work that almost gave him a shot to get away with it.

Once Ethel Duncan returned to London, Mahon unscrewed his secret room and set about thoroughly destroying his victim’s corpse. The head that had shared his pillow Mahon incinerated in the sitting-room grate (apocrypha has it that Mahon said Emily Kaye’s dead eyes flew open during the immolation). Day by day he stewed flesh in pots to soften it for his purposes, so he could systematically cut it down for disposal in the fire or in small bags he could casually dump. Remember that knife and saw he bought just before moving into the bungalow?

As so often with mistresses, the downfall was the wife. Mavourneen had called Patrick Mahon husband since 1910, so she knew what being stepped out on looked like. In late April, she surreptitiously checked the traveling salesman’s jacket pockets and found a railway baggage claim ticket; prevailing on a friend to peep on the left luggage revealed human blood — and when it was reported, authorities set a watch on the bag. Once Mahon turned up to claim it, well, he had a good four months left to reflect on the advisability of disposing of his kit just as thoroughly as he had disposed of Emily Kaye. Maybe he meant to: when police turned up to search the fetid bungalow, they had four parcels of not-yet-disposed human remains for Spilsbury to reassemble as best he could.

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1924: Felix McMullen, bank robber

Add comment August 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1924, Felix McMullen was hanged in Ireland.

McMullen had attempted to rob a bank in Baltinglass

… and in the process shot dead a civic guard who gave him chase. (Patrick O’Halloran was just the third member of that force to die in the line of duty in the history of the young Irish Republic.)

Jurors proved highly reluctant to convict him, with a first jury discharged because it refused to come to a murder verdict, and a second panel issuing the conviction when forced to choose between murder and outright acquittal. (No manslaughter half-measures.) Both juries then petitioned for McMullen’s reprieve.

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1924: Richard A. Birkes, stickup man

1 comment September 5th, 2011 Headsman

Our serialized Americana would hardly be complete without that classic rogue, the bank robber.

On this date in 1924, “chewing the frayed stump of a cigar,” holdup man Richard Birkes sauntered to the electric chair at the McAlester, Oklahoma state prison and rode the lightning for gunning down a teller in the course of a heist.

“So long boys,” which he tried to accompany with a wave of the hand already strapped to the death-chair, were Birkes’ last words.

Although other points give his last words as “I’m not guilty and I am not afraid to die; turn it on, boys.”

Birkes was unquestionably part of the three-man team that had knocked over the Ketchum Bank the summer prior, laying poor Frank Pitts, Sr. in his grave. The robber’s potential “innocence” turned on the question of which miscreant actually put him there.

This “non-triggerman” stuff is not necessarily legally or morally compelling in the best of circumstances, but right or wrong it was dispositive in this case: his accomplices both drew life terms.

This generic Prohibition-era bandit was so perfectly a creature of his time that his dear mum Eliza trekked over from Siloam Springs, Ark. to make a tearful eleventh-hour clemency plea, maternally (and mistakenly) certain that “the governor will surely spare my boy’s life.”

That executive’s thoughts ran to different plans.

Alarmed at the rash of bank jobs by brazen outlaws like Birkes who could strike and then escape over county lines in their period Studebakers, twirling their villainous mustaches, said unmerciful Gov. Martin E. Trapp the next year created a statewide law enforcement agency, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Invesigation.

This bureau’s effective intervention in the Sooner gangland scene (bank robberies fell … ) heralded a long and fruitful life that still continues to this day. They’re the people you’re gonna call when some local police pathologist gets caught systematically cooking forensic results to order for the state’s prosecutors.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1924: Not Onisaburo Deguchi or Morihei Ueshiba, Japanese new religion exponents

3 comments June 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1924, a group of Japanese Oomoto* sect members was lined up for execution by a Manchurian warlord — only to be saved at the last moment by the intervention of the Japanese consulate.

These inordinately lucky folk were the remnants of a bizarre “spiritual army” under Onisaburo Deguchi, who set out to plant a utopian colony on the Mongolian steppe.


Onisaburo (left) and Ueshiba, shackled together for deportation after their near-execution. Onisaburo’s part of this image looks a little touched-up.

Oomoto got started as a splinter sect from Shinto with an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi, who began receiving spiritual visions in the in the 1890’s. Onisaburo was her follower, and then her son-in-law, and certainly the foundling cult’s greatest exponent.

With his guidance, it blossomed as one of the early 20th century’s most successful “new religions”, a term encompassing the dizzying array of novel religious movements in Japan after the Meiji Restoration.**

A born showman and innovative communicator, Onisaburo was a natural to

[mediate] between traditional and modern Japan in a time of national transformation.

… he was no less a master at what Eric Hobsbawm termed the “invention of tradition.” …

Onisaburo’s imaginative rituals and personal presentation (he loved to star in movies, and to dress as a shaman or Shinto deity) combined enough folk tradition to seem familiar, yet always with a new twist suggesting up-to-date modernity and “scientific” awareness to boot.

-Robert Ellwood’s Feb. 2011 review in Nova Religio of Nancy Stalker’s Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religion in Japan

In private communication with this site, Ellwood compared the advent of new religions like Oomoto to the roughly contemporaneous advent in the west of movements like Christian Science and Religious Science. Both of these, like Oomoto, explicitly aimed to yoke tradition and modernity together.

“In Japan the leap from a closed-off feudal society to a modern industrial powerhouse was particularly profound, and naturally disturbing to a lot of ordinary people,” Ellwood said. “The new religions tried to combine old and new, giving people baffled by change and the breakup of traditional peasant communities and ways of life something to hold on to. They said in effect, ‘We understand your problems; we can show how it all makes sense, how it will come out good in the end, and how you can fit in, be part of exciting times, and gain power in the process.'”

Onisaburo’s brand of evangelical, grassroots millenialism hit the big time in the 1910s and 1920s.

It also attracted official censure from authorities wary of deviation from the official Shinto religion.

Onisaburo did a short stint in prison for subversion in 1921, and shifted his attentions abroad.

“Onisaburo considered himself strongly internationalist in an idealistic way, and therefore was led to challenge the increasing nationalism of his time and even the Emperor himself, whereas many of the other new religions accommodated themselves to the prevailing political currents,” Ellwood observed. Later, Onisaburo would actually be prosecuted for lese majeste for his insufficient accommodation to imperial authority.

At any rate, as part of feeling out the proper spiritual direction after his first stint as a ward of the state, Onisaburo and some followers quietly slipped out of Japan in early 1924.

They made for Manchuria, then a de facto independent principality under the Tokyo-allied warlord Zhang Zuolin.

There, they recruited one of Zhang’s subordinates on a mission to form up a “spiritual army” to invade Outer Mongolia.

According to Stalker, this adventure initially had Zhang’s blessing — but he quickly soured on the freelance militia, a leader now calling himself the Dalai Lama, and the gang’s escalating aspiration to unite all of Mongolia on his borders. Zhang surrounded and suppressed the expedition, summarily executing most of the Chinese personnel.

On this day, the Japanese too were about to be disposed of. Onisaburo was reciting death poetry.

Even if my body is exposed
on the plains of Mongolia
I will still keep the dignity of a Japanese

Farewell!
I will ascend to Heaven and protect
not only Japan but the whole world

Far away from Japan
I will now join the gods
in the sky of Mongolia

But the execution was dramatically aborted when Onisaburo was fortuitously able to hail a Japanese consular official who protected his countrymen.

Scarcely chastened — indeed, the adventure with its miraculous escape drew romantic media coverage back home — Onisaburo returned to Japan to rebuild Oomoto. He would continue dabbling in both internationalism (Oomoto adopted the sometimes-persecuted artificial language Esperanto) and Japan’s right-wing fringe (Stalker says that Onisaburo wisely declined Ikki Kita‘s invitation to finance a disastrous right-wing revolt).

Oomoto was violently suppressed in the 1930s, but retained many adherents and still exists today.

Martial artist Morihei Ueshiba was one of Onisaburo’s disciples to escape execution this date. Upon returning to Japan, the man parted ways with Oomoto and instead created the martial art form aikido.

* Alternatively, Omoto, or Omotokyo.

** And continuing to the present day. While Oomoto is also a going concern, the “new religion” most widely familiar to most readers will be the Aum Shinrikyo sect — notorious for carrying out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

This master’s thesis (pdf) sets the scene for new religions (and specifically Oomoto) in early 20th century Japan.

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1924: The first electrocutions in Texas

4 comments February 8th, 2011 Headsman

There is sweeping over Texas, as never before in her history, a wave of crime. Murder, theft, robbery and holdups are hourly occurrences that fill the daily press. The spirit of lawlessness has become alarming. Our loose method of dealing with violators of the law is in a large degree responsible for the conditions that today confront us.

-Texas Gov. Pat Neff, in a 1921 message to the state legislature.

It was just after midnight on this date in 1924 that the state of Texas first used its new electric chair, supplanting public hangings with a regime of private executions administered by the state.

Five men, all black, died in rapid succession on the new contraption. (Although witnesses, “sickened by the odor of burning flesh that filled the room, were given a brief respite” between the fourth and the fifth executions.) It was a half-year’s worth of backlog built up while the new death chamber had been constructed for the transition from county-level hangings.

Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire chronicles the evolution of that state’s prison regime after the Civil War in lucid, page-turning prose. We’re very grateful that he’s allowed Executed Today to mark the Lone Star State’s era of electrocutions with this brief excerpt from that book.


Although elected as a progressive, Pat Neff was the first Texas governor to make hard-fisted, no-nonsense crime fighting a central part of his political identity.

… Neff proposed tougher penalties for bootleggers, an expansion of the Texas Rangers, and the abolition of the state’s suspended sentencing law, an innovation enacted at the end of leasing. He also radically curtailed executive clemency. …

Walter Boyd, aka Leadbelly, was … caught in Neff’s clutches. “‘Dat man ain’ gonna tu’n you loose, ol’ Walter,'” his fellow convicts told him. “‘He wouldn’ tu’n his own mammy loose.'” … Leadbelly had tried everything but running to regain his freedom. Through hard work on the line, he had convinced a captain to request that his escape record be expunged, which under a different governor would have enhanced his chances of parole. About a year after his arrival at Sugar Land, Leadbelly’s father showed up carrying a “fat roll of bills.” He had sold the family’s last parcel of land and tried, rather brazenly, to buy his only son’s freedom, but the warden turned him down …

[Leadbelly] was well known as a musician. When he heard that Governor Neff was planning a personal inspection, he composed a special song. Neff was “a big, fine-lookin’ man,” he recalled, and “sho was crazy about my singin’ an’ dancin’. Ev’y time I’d sing a new song or cut a few steps he’d roll me a bran-new silver dollar ‘cross the flo'” Once his audience warmed, Leadbelly presented his unusual appeal.

Please, Governor Neff, be good and kind,
Have mercy on my great, long time.

With his boot tapping and strings blazing, the musician hit all the conventional clemency notes. He called himself Neff’s “servant,” pleaded on behalf of his wife Mary (in reality his girlfriend), lamented his thirty-year sentence, and even offered an oblique critique.

Some folks say it’s a sin,
Got too many women and too many men.
… In de pen.

Neff himself remembered the encounter almost as vividly. In his autobiography, The Battles of Peace, he painted the singer as a happy minstrel and himself as the benevolent master. “On one of the farms … was a negro as black as a stack of black cats at midnight,” he wrote. “This negro would pick his banjo, pat his foot, roll his eyes, and show his big white teeth as he caroled forth in negro melody his musical application for a pardon.” In his paternalistic way, the governor was moved, or at least amused. He announced that he would grant the supplicant’s request but in his own time. “Walter, I’m gonna give you a pardon,” Leadbelly remembered Neff telling him, “but I ain’ gonna give it to you now. I’m gonna keep you down here to play for me when I come, but when I get out of office I’m gonna turn you loose.” True to his word, the governor enjoyed Leadbelly’s high-spirited performances on command whenever he visited the lower farms, then set him free on his last day in office.


Lead Belly singing the prison blues song “Midnight Special”.

Few other convicts were as fortunate. Despite the costs to taxpayers, almost a thousand more convicts entered Texas prisons than were allowed to leave during Neff’s four-year reign. Inmates sentenced to death, most of them African Americans and Hispanics convicted of rape or murder, found especially little sympathy. Largely in response to lynching, which the governor condemned, Texas centralized the death penalty in 1923. Previously, every county had carried out its own executions, usually in the form of public hangings. Progressives hoped that by sequestering such events at the Walls, they would discourage mob sentiment and encourage reverence for “the majesty of the law.” But the site and method of execution did not alter its racial dynamics.

Following the lead of New York and other states, lawmakers also ordered prison officials to carry out executions by a new technique, one they perceived as “more modern and humane,” the electric chair. Huntsville officials thus built a new death house, the very same in use today, and by the end of the year a squat, straight-backed throne — soon christened Ol’ Sparky — was ready for operation. Governor Neff wasted little time in authorizing its use.

On a visit to the Walls in January, the governor stopped in to visit with five men he would soon send to their deaths. “A queer feeling creeps over you as you pass the death cell and pause,” he wrote. “They knew, and I realized, that I held within my hand the power to save them from the electric chair. How feeble were words, both theirs and mine, at such a time.” Not long after the governor departed, the men, all of them African American, ranging in age from twenty to thirty-nine, were approved for elimination.

In a dramatic gesture of conscience, Huntsville’s warden, R.F. Coleman, resigned his post only days before. “It just couldn’t be done,” he told reporters. “The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.” But a replacement was quickly found, and the Walls’ inaugural electrocutions went forward as scheduled. At nine minutes after midnight, the first condemned man, Charlie Reynolds, was escorted by two guards into the brightly lit death chamber. He blinked rapidly, reported a witness, was speedily strapped in the chair, and then stiffened violently when the new warden threw the switch. Within the hour, four other men met the same fate.

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1924: Frank Johnson, the first electrocuted in Florida

Add comment October 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1924, “colored male” Frank Johnson was electrocuted in Florida.

He was, in fact, the very first to die in the Sunshine State’s electric chair.


The original Florida electric chair.

“Old Sparky” (numerous electric chairs shared this nickname) was brand new here in the Roaring Twenties, a jerry-built contraption outfitted with “homemade accessories” to replace the icky old gallows with a brave new world’s brave new mankiller.


Top: a scantily-detailed penitentiary “personnel card” for Frank Johnson. Middle: details of the execution. Bottom: Florida’s official typed list of its early executions.

All images are from this Florida Department of Corrections page.

This same furniture that killed Johnson would ultimately take the lives of 265 men and one woman — notables from Giuseppe Zangara to Ted Bundy, milestones like John Spenkelink, and scores of strange and forgotten perps among them.

Notoriously error-prone by the end of its run, the device was finally replaced in 1999.

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1924: Alikomiak and Tatimagana, Inuit

Add comment February 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1924, the Canadian government made an example of two Inuit murderers on the Arctic Sea’s Herschel Island.

Alikomiak.

Alikomiak and Tatimagana (there are many alternate transliterations of each name) had been arrested in 1921 for killing four in a wife-stealing affair, then killed two more while in custody.

Canada, in the midst of a decades-long process of projecting its sovereignty in the Arctic, had let lenient treatment of some Inuit “criminals” in a few notable cases during the preceding years, and there was sentiment that an example of the majesty of the law was in order. “Make these tribes understand that the stern but at the same time just hand of British justice extends also to these northern shores,” the prosecutor implored the jury. (pdf, a great resource on this case)

To say nothing of whites’ sense that Inuits were savages.

Mr. Rasmussen states that 75% of the male population are murderers in fact it is the exception, where a man is a weakling or has something wrong with him, that a man has not at least one killing to his credit. These people are always on the offensive. This is particularly the case among the Netsilik band. While at Pelly Bay he offered a reward to his native Greenland Boy if he could find one man who was not a murderer. These people hold life very cheaply and as Mr. Rasmussen says it is a very easy matter to get killed. An attempt was made on his life at the H.B.C. post at Kent Peninsula. Now that these people know that the Police from Chesterfield Inlet and Kent Peninsula Detachments have arrested and taken out natives for committing murder, they immediately prepare for a fight on observing the approach of a strange sled or outfit. They are prepared to die fighting and have absolutely no fear of death yet they have the greatest fear of being taken away from their own country. Here I would like to say that this latter is the reason Alicomiak gave for killing Cpl. Doak and O. Binder at Tree River and lends truth to Mr. Rasmussen’s statement also judging from the absolute fearlessness with which Alicomiak and Tatamigans met their death here on the scaffold in February last would further corroborate it. In his travels from Pelly Bay through to Ellice River, Rasmussen says that on approaching a native camp of a number of natives, they, on noticing his strange outfit, at once made preparations for a fight thinking he was a policeman and on such occasions the first thing he had to do was to inform them that he was not a policeman, where upon they were most friendly and hospitable and would talk openly of murders they had committed when questioned about it.

That Dr. Knud Rasmussen cited at second-handed in the RCMP brief above was a great chronicler of the Inuit, and would record of this day’s hanging how “heavy and cumbersome machinery was required to get the two murderers sentenced. Judges, jury and witnesses had to be summoned from long distances.” The legal personnel were sent especially for this trial, along with the timber to build a gallows. You could say the verdict was foreordained.

Rasmussen’s work on the Inuit was recently put to celluloid by the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner … another dimension, like the hanging this date, in the complex collision of cultures.

There was only one more hanging in the Yukon before Canada abolished the death penalty, though Canada was hardly finished using Inuit as instruments of its northern policy.

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1924: Ali Reshti and Sayyid Husain, to placate America

1 comment November 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1924, diplomatic maneuvering, oil patch politics, and a dead American consul put two Iranian teenagers in front of a firing squad.

Largely forgotten today, the affair which prompted their execution helped Cossack commander Reza Khan‘s ongoing consolidation of power, culminating in another year’s time with his conquest of the Persian throne itself.

By the summer of 1924, he was by title Prime Minister and his domestic opponents could read the writing on the wall: he had made a premature bid for formal executive authority in 1923 only to be rebuffed.* At the same time, he was engaged in the perilous oil game with an attempt to use American companies to break a British oil monopoly.

On July 18, 1924, American Vice Consul Maj. Robert Imbrie and his civilian countryman Melvin Seymour were attacked by a Tehran mob while photographing a well which had become a Moslem devotional site for purported miraculous healings. Imbrie was beaten to death; Seymour was lucky to survive … and it soon emerged that soldiers from the nearby barracks had not only failed to protect the Americans but actually taken part in the assault.

Iran’s emerging strongman lost no time in making the most of it.

The event gave [Reza Khan] … the excuse for declaring martial law and a censorship of the Press … Numerous arrests have been made, chiefly of political opponents of the Prime Minister. (British military attache Col. W.A.K. Fraser)

It’s like Lenin said, you look for the person who will benefit and, uh, you know, uh, you know, you’ll, uh, you know what I’m trying to say …

Assuming one discerns some measure of design in the Imbrie murder, and the convenient outburst of anti-Baha’i paranoia that sparked the fatal incident, one can go a couple of different directions at this point.

  1. That the Prime Minister’s foes, allied with British oil interests (the British angle was so widely believed in Iran at the time that press censorship forbade the incendiary charge), were firing up the rowdies in an attempt to shake his power. This 1924 American cable makes that case:

    “It had the earmarks from the beginning of an artificially inspired movement, of which the organized powers of evil were quick to take advantage in order to create disorder for the Government … Reza Khan found himself faced with a situation before which he was powerless. The fanaticism of the crowd was so incited by the continuous preaching of the Mullahs that any act on his part would have been interpreted as treason to Islam and prima facie evidence that he was a Bahai; hence his unfortunate orders to the military and the police not to intervene under any circumstances in religious demonstrations and under no circumstances to fire.”

  2. That Pahlavi’s own agents fomented the disorder. According to Michael Zirinsky‘s review of the case, another American official speculated that Reza Khan himself hoped a foreigner would die “so that he could declare martial law and check the power of the Mullahs.”

Which, in the event, is exactly what happened.

The U.S. made a great show of demanding exemplary justice, and it had the leverage to do so: Iran (how times change!) wanted American support and American oil exploitation.

Three were condemned to death for their parts in the riot, and after the first, a young soldier named Morteza said to have incited the mob, was shot on Oct. 2, the government announced leniency for the other two.

Not good enough.


“When you are dealing with a government like Persia … if you ask them to execute a Moslem for the death of a Christian … if they do it, you accomplish more for the prestige of your country than if they paid a million.” -a young Allen Dulles, in 1926 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives.

At American insistence, those other two were recalled to death after all: 17-year-old mullah Sayyid Husain (various alternate transliterations – e.g., Seyid Hussein), who was supposed to have raised the riot-triggering “Baha’i well-poisoner” accusation in the first place, and 14-year-old camel driver Ali Reshti.

Zirinsky once again:

With the ending of the Iran-U.S. dispute by the execution of Ali and Husain on November 2, 1924, Reza was free to leave the capital city. He had support from the foreign legations, he had secured financing for the army, he had reestablished discipline in the Cossack Brigade, and by executing Sayyid Husain — a mullah — he had demonstrated his domination over the clergy … in the course of the next months’ campaign, he completed the unification of Iran and ensured that his government would get all the [Anglo-Persian Oil Company] royalties…

While the Imbrie affair was not the only critical event of Reza’s seizure of total power in Iran, it came at a critical moment in his rise … he used the murder to his best advantage.

And they all lived happily ever after.

* The future Shah’s future rival Mohammed Mossadegh was among the Iranian Majlis members who blocked Reza Khan’s attempt to rule Iran as a republic in 1923.

** “Blood, Power, and Hypocrisy: The Murder of Robert Imbrie and American Relations with Pahlavi Iran, 1924,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 18, no. 3 (Aug. 1986). Zirinsky quotes an American diplomat who believed Reza Khan was actually intentionally trying to create a situation where a foreigner would be killed, to give him a pretext for bringing his nation to heel with foreign support.

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1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

9 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without inconveniencing him.

The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.

Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches, the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.

Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by sudden execution — proved insoluble; so, they had to build a little airtight room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.

That little airtight room was used for the first time ever on this date in 1924.

Its occupant was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.

A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from outside the cell.

Good enough for government work.

The gas chamber would win a fair following in the American South and West, notably California.

However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness” — including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners, and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give them a snort of HCNnever matched the dream of the zipless kill, and the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely) much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from the scene in the 1990’s.

Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1924: Daisuke Namba, for the Toranomon Incident

1 comment November 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1924, just two days after his sentencing, Japanese student Namba Daisuke was hanged for attempting to assassinate the the future emperor Hirohito.

Namba (or Nanba) was a 24-year-old Communist and son of a Japanese parliamentarian.* Inflamed by reports of Japanese atrocities in Korea and by the execution years earlier of leftist agitator Shusui Kotoku, Namba fired a pistol at the 22-year-old Prince Regent in a Tokyo intersection.**

It was a pretty simple case: no doubt he’d done it, and no sympathy for the assailant. The act shook Japan so deeply that Namba’s prosecutors stuck to the story that the offender must be deranged — even though he clearly was not. Under the circumstances, that wouldn’t cut enough ice to mitigate the sentence anyway.

In the words of the judge who sentenced him:

Daisuke has made a blot upon Japanese history. He believed in violence and had determined to kill the Prince Regent. He committed a great crime in attempting to injure the imperial family, which has never oppressed the poor.

To which Daisuke had a direct reply:

Long live the Communist Party of Japan!

As is often the case, the gesture of violence against the established order provoked a still more repressive crackdown. The Prime Minister resigned for the security lapse, to be replaced a more conservative government that pushed through the radical-hunting measures of the Peace Preservation Law.

And the award goes to …

Simple enough as far as the assassin goes.

Let’s take a sideways turn into a digression from the blog’s macabre daily fare to ponder a strangely pleasant ripple effect of this young man’s shot.

According to Ben-Ami Shillony’s Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan, the incident forced the resignation of a senior police official charged with keeping an eye on subversives.

You’re welcome, Ichiro. (The Major League superstar won the Matsutaro Shoriki Award twice during his Japanese professional career, in 1994 and 1995.)

This gentleman, Matsutaro Shoriki, transitioned into a career as a media mogul, building up one of the country’s most prominent papers. In that capacity, he took to promoting baseball in Japan.

Though this imported sport had an existing — and growing — popularity from the first decades of the century, Shoriki became the father of Japanese baseball by sponsoring American all-star teams to play on Japanese tours and creating the country’s first professional baseball team.

Shoriki even survived an assassination attempt of his own, at the hands of a nationalist who thought bringing Babe Ruth to the Land of the Rising Sun was treasonable.

Today, he’s remembered generously and his name adorns one of Japanese baseball’s major awards. But if not for Daisuke Namba’s shot, he might have served those years moving paper in the tokko, trying to ferret out dangerous elements.

* The father had to resign his seat in the Diet, of course; not only his immediate family but his former schoolmasters and his whole hometown were put under the pall. According to Time, Namba’s relatives were formally released from their debt of shame by Hirohito in 1926, and took the unblemished name Kurokawa.

** Hirohito did not become Emperor until his father’s death in 1926.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Japan,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Revolutionaries,Treason

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