1925: Con O’Leary

Add comment July 28th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.

In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.

Forty-six­-year­-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.

Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.

The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.

On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.

The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.

Carey records,

By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”

“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.

“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”

At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.

Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.

Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”

When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.

The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.

Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.

On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.

While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.

Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.

Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.

There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summing­up about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s gore­soaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”

In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.

Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.

* Not to be confused with Irish historian Cornelius O’Leary.

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1925: The Egyptian assassins of British Gen. Lee Stack

Add comment August 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1925, “seven men were led from their cells and executed at intervals of 40 minutes,” reported the Evening Independent — all for the assassination the of the British proconsul governing Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt had theoretical sovereignty at this point, but under British occupation — a tense situation that had frequently spawned deadly riots. It’s hardly surprising in such an atmosphere that the British high military commander Sir Lee Stack was gunned down along with his driver and an aide motoring through Cairo.


This photo captures only a staged reconstruction of Stack’s murder, not the actual shooting.

The British did not take kindly to this anti-colonial propaganda of the deed. In a furious diplomatic note handed by Lawrence of Arabia supporting character Edmund Allenby to the pro-independence Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul* they accused Egypt’s native leaders of “a campaign of hostility to British rights and British subjects in Egypt and Sudan, founded upon a heedless ingratitude for benefits conferred by Great Britain, not discouraged by Your Excellency’s Government.”

Indeed, His Excellency’s Government would only outlive the murdered sirdad by five days, for Zaghloul resigned (but urging calm) in the face of London’s demands to “vigorously suppress all popular political demonstrations,” a £500,000 fine levied on Egypt, and the seizure of customs houses.

Meanwhile, there was the most immediate reprisal of all: the search for Stack’s assassins. Sydney Smith, a self-educated New Zealander and pioneer of forensic science, had a star turn in the investigation by positively connecting the firearms and the bullets** to some of the suspects.

Smith published an analysis of this affair that became one of the foundational texts of the emerging firearm forensics field — and not incidentally helped to propel Smith’s own fame to household-name levels.

* Zaghloul had formerly been imprisoned by the British for his nationalist agitation.

** The bullet points had been hand-flattened by the shooters in an attempt to make them into dumdum (expanding) projectiles.

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1925: The Sveta Nedelya bombers

Add comment May 27th, 2015 Headsman

Three perpetrators of Europe’s most spectacular terrorist attack were hanged on this date in 1925 in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia — after each stood on the gallows for forty minutes while the names of their victims were read to them.

Those 40 minutes of victims had unknowingly begun their path to Calvary two years before, when the Bulgarian military overthrew the post-World War I civilian government.

Though the Communist party stayed out of this putsch — it was a peasants‘ party that was toppled from power — the reds responded a few months later with their own countercoup: the September Uprising.


Septemvri 1923, by Ivan Milev. Perhaps topical to the horrible events yet to come in this post, also check out his 1926 Our Mothers Are Always Dressed In Black.

The eventual Cold War Communist government of Bulgaria would officially regard September 1923 as “the first anti-fascist uprising” — an ex post facto interpretation that would be aided by the Bulgarian dicator‘s eventual affinity for the World War II axis, and by the “White Terror” unleashed by the military after it routed the Communist revolt.

Harried and hunted, and their underground leadership succumbing to assassinations, the Communists conceived a punchback as devastating as it was contrary to the standard Leninist line on terrorism.

On April 14, 1925, a Communist agent assassinated Gen. Konstantin Georgiev.


Memorial marker for Konstantin Georgiev. Photograph by Miko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Shocking as this murder was, it was only the overture — and Gen. Georgiev was only the bait.

Two days later — Holy Thursday — a huge crowd turned out for the general’s funeral in Sveta Nedelya Church, perhaps Bulgaria’s most important cathedral. Unbeknownst to them, they shared the sacred vault with 25 kilograms of explosives packed into a column under the church’s dome.

When detonated during the service, it brought the dome down on the congregation.

“A tremendous explosion occurred and all became dark,” a former War Minister told the London Times correspondent. “Fortunately, I was standing almost below a pair of arches and I escaped without injury, not even losing my balance. A minute later the fumes began to disperse and, with six or seven others, I found myself standing while every one else was lying on the ground. Fragments of masonry were falling from the walls and the roof.”

One hundred fifty people died and another 500 were injured when Sveta Nedelya’s roof fell in — though amazingly, none of the many top state officials attending were killed. (And Tsar Boris III was not even in attendance.)


Sveta Nedelya after the explosion.

Like Samson, the bombers brought the walls down on their own heads, too.

Already none too lenient with the subversive element, the dictatorship directly implemented martial law and began rounding up suspected fellow-travelers, “disappearing” hundreds in the process. (One notable victim was poet Geo Milev, who never returned from a May 15 police interview; his remains were discovered 30 years later in a mass grave.)

The lucky ones managed to escape to Yugoslavia and thence to the Soviet Union. But three men* implicated in the plot remained to face the more decorous vengeance of the judiciary: Lieutenant-Colonel Georgi Koev, Marko Fridman, and Petar Zadgorski. The last of these was a sexton at Sveta Nedelya whose role as the inside man was essential to infiltrating the deadly package into the sanctuary.

* There were actually eight death sentences at this proceeding, but five of them were delivered in absentia … an absentia caused, for three of the five, because they had already been murdered during the post-bombing crackdown.

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1925: Shi Congbin, grievance

Add comment October 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1925 the Chinese warlord Sun Chuanfang had a captured enemy commander beheaded. In so doing, he signed his own death warrant too.

Our scene lies deep into China’s Warlord Era, the chaotic decade-plus after the collapsing empire gave way to a fractured republic: f rom 1916 to 1928, leagues of rival generals cut China into jigsaw pieces.

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.

According to Eugenia Lean’s book about the amazing incident,

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 of 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.

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1925: Jovan Stanisavljevic Caruga, Slavonian hajduk

Add comment February 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1925, the Serbian outlaw Jovan “Jovo” Stanisavljevic, better known by his nickname Caruga (Charuga), was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 in Osijek.

Caruga was born to peasant stock within the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia within the Hungarian Kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at just the right age for service at arms when World War I came along to wreck that agglomeration.

Caruga soon deserted the front lines on a false pass — but his unauthorized leave became permanent when he came across a Hungarian soldier paying court to the innkeeper’s daughter whom Caruga, too, desired. Caruga shot him dead.

He did a short turn in prison but escaped in 1919 and shortly thereafter established himself the captain of a posse of brigands styled the “Mountain Birds”. From roosts in the Papul and Krndija mountains they preyed on the nearby Slavonian plains — ducking away freely when needed to Dalmatia or Bosnia in what was now the independent (and quite unsettled) Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (This polity would become Yugoslavia four years after Caruga’s execution.)

Caruga et al obtained a reputation as a Robin Hood-esque character who revenged himself on the rich. He was a late throwback to the classical hajduk character, a complex thief-with-the-heart-of-gold archetype who straddled the line between freebooting highwayman and rebel partisan during the era of Ottoman ascendancy in the Balkans. (The term’s roots trace to a caste of independent Hungarian footsoldiers in the 1600s.)

While the Turks were out of the picture at this point, the romance of the road and the social resentments rife in the fractious young kingdom were still sufficient to support a legendary bandit. Sentiment and fair fortune only turned against him after a botched raid on the estate of one Count Eltz of Vukovar, which resulted in an armed standoff with the local gendarmerie and the death of an innocent forester caught in the crossfire. Caruga was taken with some of his gang not long after.

Caruga is the subject of the so-called “last Yugoslavian film” before that country split apart. The movie Caruga stars the Croatian actor Ivo Gregurevic in what could arguably read as an allegory for the banditry of the outgoing communist years.

Most information about this date’s subject is in Serbo-Croatian; see for instance this .doc file.

* A number of present-day sports clubs in the former Yugoslavia use the name “Hajduk”, not unlike the way “Spartak” (Spartacus) brands Bulgarian and former-USSR teams. For instance, HNK Hajduk Split in Croatia, and FK Hajduk Kula in Serbia.

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1925: Sheikh Said Piran, Kurdish rebel

Add comment June 29th, 2011 Headsman

Early this morning this date in 1925, just hours after his condemnation for an eponymous rebellion against the newborn Turkish Republic, Sheikh Said Piran was publicly hanged.

This founding member of the Kurdish anti-Ankara martyrology had sparked a momentarily-successful rising against Turkey, fired by grievances that have not ceased to resonate since.

The secular nationalist Kemal Ataturk‘s intent to “Turkify” its peoples. The Kurdish populace’s frustrated national ambitions, indifferently bartered away by distant great powers dismembering the Ottoman Empire.* Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate.

“Oppressive and vile towards the Kurds,” Sheikh Said declared. (pdf)

For several years we have been able to read in the newspapers and official documents about the oppression, insults, hatred, and enmity that the Turk Republic [sic] accords to the Kurdish notables and dynasties. There is a lot of evidence available from authentic sources that they want to subject the Kurdish elite to the same treatment to which they subjected the Armenians

The February revolt quickly made him master of the majority-Kurdish eastern province of Diyarbakir, but a massive Turkish counterattack drove him east, encircled him, and had the Sheikh in irons by mid-April.

The government arrogated martial law powers to itself and appointed Orwellian courts called Independence Tribunals to prosecute Kurdish elites, rebels or no. (Some Kurdish intelligentsia were hailed to Diyarbakir from Istanbul.) Hundreds hanged, without even counting wholesale extrajudicial retribution against Kurdish civilians.

the repression of the 1925 rising was accomplished with a brutality which was not exceeded in any Armenian massacres. Whole villages were burnt or razed to the ground, and men, women and children killed.


Mass hanging of Kurds at Diyarbakir, May or June 1925 (Source)

Despite prosecutors’ avowed intention to extirpate the separatist sentiment “root and branch,” it hasn’t exactly put the whole Kurdish issue to bed.

Just ask Kurdish guerrilla Abdullah Ocalan, who received on this very same date 74 years later his own Turkish death sentence (since commuted).

* A past-is-prologue artifact from the time: the “Issue of Mosul“, a prickly international relations dispute over control of the historic city, accurately suspected to be sitting on a lot of oil.

Turkey claimed it as part of its historic heartland, but Great Britain had seized it just before World War I ended and wound up hanging onto it for the embryonic Iraqi state. Kurds who also considered it part of their homeland got short shrift altogether. It’s still disputed today among Iraqis, situated as it is just on the edge of Kurdish Iraq.

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1925: Fritz Haarmann, Hanover vampire

3 comments April 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1925, German serial killer Fritz Haarmann dropped his head in a basket in Hanover.

One of the most iconic and most terrifying among Weimar Germany’s ample crop of mass murderers, Haarmann is thought to have slain dozens of boys and young men from 1918 to 1924. (He was charged with 27 murders and convicted in 24 of them; Haarmann himself suggested the true number might be north of 50.)

Such gaudy statistics require teamwork.

This predatory pedophile partnered with one Hans Grans, a younger lover-slash-confederate; together they would lure fresh “game” (Haarmann’s word) for a meal and more.

Everyone dined well — Haarmann especially. Notorious as one of the most prolific “vampire” killers (the press also favored him with this moniker its its search for some epithet equal to the offenses; “werewolf” and “butcher” were also current), Haarmann liked to gnaw through his victims’ throats.

A chilling ditty paid tribute to the unsubstantiated rumor that Haarmann would even butcher the human flesh and sell it as “pork” on the black market. (He was known to trade in black-market meat.)

Just you wait ’til it’s your time,
Haarmann will come after you,
With his chopper, oh so fine,
He’ll make mincemeat out of you.

In the 1931 Fritz Lang classic M, for which Haarmann is one of several influences on the fictional serial killer at the center of the action, this rhyme appears with the name “Haarmann” replaced by “black man”.

Much deeper delves into the mind of this particular madman are to be had here, here and here.

And here:

That accomplice of his, Hans Grans, drew a death sentence too, but Haarmann somehow exculpated him successfully. Not only did Grans get out of prison, the once-notorious homosexual killer lived out the Nazi regime in Hanover un-tortured.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,Sex

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1925: Sidney Reilly

9 comments November 5th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1925, legendary British spy — and subsequent James Bond inspiration — Sidney Reilly was shot in a forest outside Moscow for his efforts to overthrow the Soviet government.

Fact blends insensibly into fiction in Reilly‘s biography; much of what is known or believed about him is conjectural or colored by his posthumous valorization, such the 1967 book Reilly: Ace of Spies written by [the son of] his onetime cloak-and-dagger collaborator Robin Bruce Lockhart — who was himself a close friend of Bond author Ian Fleming.

However, even at the word of less sensational biographers — such as Andrew Cook — Reilly lived a life almost too extraordinary for belief.

A Jewish child of tsarist Russia born in what is now the Ukraine, Reilly claimed to have escaped Odessa by faking his death and hopping a ship bound for Brazil. Like much of Reilly’s life, the story is unverifiable, but by hook or by crook — and possibly by way of a murder in France — he arrived in London in 1895, hitched himself to a wealthy woman a few months after the suspicious death of her husband (discarding the inconvenient surname Rosenblum in the process), and became entangled with British intelligence.

In the first decade of the 20th century, he apparently spied promiscuously on England’s imperial rivals Germany and Russia, though the particulars are disputed. He arrived in Port Arthur, Russia, shortly before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War and may have provided the Japanese fleet intelligence enabling it to navigate the mined harbor — in addition to a copious side business in war profiteering. He may also have had a hand in capturing British oil concessions in Persia and reconnoitering behind German lines during World War I.

Like his fictional heir 007, he gambled often and left a string of lovers and mistresses in his wake. His true allegiances, and the extent to which his exploits were inflated or outright fabricated, are debated to this day.

The adventures that brought both death and fame were his machinations to overthrow the Bolshevik government in the fraught early months after Lenin took power. A planned coup d’etat in September 1918 came to grief and Reilly fled Russia steps ahead of the authorities, who subsequently condemned him to death in absentia.

Notwithstanding the sentence, which had been ruthlessly visited on his less-fortunate conspirators, Reilly was lured back to the USSR in 1925 by the Soviet counterintelligence project Operation Trust. Intending to meet anti-Bolshevik agitators, he was instead arrested at the border and tortured at the infamous Lubyanka Prison, where he kept notes on cigarette papers about enemy interrogation techniques for the eventuality of an escape or release that never came.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Jews,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,Spies,Torture,USSR

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