1928: Floyd Hewitt, “Boy Clubber”

Add comment January 6th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1928, seventeen-year-old Floyd Hewitt was executed in Ohio’s electric chair for the horrific murder of a farmer’s wife and five-year-old son.

Floyd grew up in rural area outside Conneaut, Ohio. Although at 6’4″ he had the body of a grown man, he was mentally disabled, callously described by his defense attorneys as “a moron with a ten-year-old’s intellect.” One newspaper portrayed him thus:

He is not considered of normal intellect, his drooping mouth, dull eyes and appearances contributing to the opinion. He was not bright in his classes at school.

On the evening of February 14, 1927, he visited a local farm belonging to the Brown family. He was a frequent visitor there; he loved listening to jazz music on the radio and the Browns were the only family in the area who had a set at home. Celia Brown’s husband, Fred, was away in town and she was home alone with their son Freddie.

This news column and this article describe what happened in detail. Floyd got “stirred up inside” by the music. Feeling “an overpowering love,” he made sexual overtures towards Celia, who slapped him. He hit back, and she grabbed the fireplace poker to defend herself, but he tore it from her hands. In the ensuing fight Floyd hurled Celia down the stairs and struck her repeatedly with the poker until she was dead. Then, afraid the little boy would tell on him, Floyd chased Freddie into the basement and beat him to death with a baseball bat, too.

Then he went back upstairs, washed his hands, walked the short distance home and sat down to read the newspaper.

Fred Brown got home a little after midnight, found his wife’s body on the porch. There was blood everywhere. Fred summoned neighbors and the police. After searching the rest of the house, the neighbors found little Freddie’s body in the basement.

Floyd rapidly came under suspicion; he literally left a trail of footprints right to his front door. The next morning he was arrested, wearing the same bloodstained sweater he’d worn the night before. One of the buttons had been torn off and was left at the crime scene.

Within hours, Hewitt had made a full confession. He even went so far as to take the police on a tour of the Brown house to point out what had occurred and where. The next day, however, he retracted his statements and would maintain his innocence until his death.

The press bluntly christened him “the boy clubber.”

On the first day of his trial, as he was taken into the courtroom, Floyd remarked, “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it?” One reporter described him as “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.”

He was indeed an overgrown boy, only sixteen years old at the time of his crime, but the prosecution demanded the death penalty.

Death penalty expert Victor Streib in this review of Ohio juvenile executions summed matters up thus:

Although indicted for two first degree murders (mother and son), he was tried only for the first degree murder of the five-year-old boy.

During the three week trial, the state relied heavily upon Hewitt’s signed confession while the defense stressed Hewitt’s mental disabilities. On April 26, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy.

Hewitt appealed, and his execution was postponed for a time, but the appeals process wore down in less than a year and the board of clemency refused to recommend a commutation to the governor …

Hewitt’s chronological age at execution was seventeen, but his mental age remained forever fixed at ten.

Floyd Hewitt might have been the youngest person ever executed by the state of Ohio, and he was the first from Ashtabula County. A “bedraggled figure … with his long black hair hanging low over his face,” and clutching a photo of his family, he died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary Annex at 7:43 p.m.

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1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

1 comment January 27th, 2015 Headsman

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.)

The Crown was not interested:

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.

Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.

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1928: Clarence “Buck” Kelly, testicle donor

4 comments May 11th, 2014 Headsman

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.

More of the gory but unremarkable (as murder sprees go) particulars can be found in David Kulczyk’s alliterative California Fruits, Flakes, and Nuts: True Tales of California Crazies, Crackpots and Creeps.

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.

Review, which notes the New York Times boasting that “America was first in gland grafting.”

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 longstanding theme 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.

* Voronoff’s transplantation of chimpanzee testicles into humans has even been proposed as a possible early vector of HIV transmission.

** 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.

And then there’s The Gland Stealers

† 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.

‡ U’Ren wasn’t just another pretty face (or suggestive name): he was a former district attorney notable for prosecuting Fatty Arbuckle for murder.

§ Pacific Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (2009).

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1928: Ben “Two Gun” Fowler, cinema shooter

1 comment January 25th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1928, a lawman was electrocuted in Nashville, Tennessee for the drunken double murder he’d committed nearly a year earlier. He walked resolutely to the death chair and even helped the guards adjust the straps before they pulled the switch.

Deputy Sheriff Ben “Two Gun” Fowler possessed three main qualifications for Prohibition-era law enforcement:

  1. He was enormous in size.
  2. He had a menacing demeanor.
  3. He was a World War I veteran. (Although, it’s true, most of his service time had been spent in the hospital battling the Spanish Flu.)

His main duty seems to have been busting up whiskey distilleries; he claimed he had destroyed 200 of them during his three years of service in Scott County, Tennessee.

Not being a wasteful man, he consumed much of the confiscated booze himself. He was thus fortified with moonshine on the night of his crime: March 5, 1927.

The town of Robbins lacked a theater, so its residents regularly screened films in the school auditorium. A large crowd came to see a comedy that fateful March night, Fowler among them. He was armed with his usual two pistols, and also wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Supposedly, he planned to serve a civil warrant on someone whom he thought would also be attending the movie.

But shortly after the film began, Fowler became annoyed by some noisy children and ordered them to keep quiet or he would arrest them. This prompted laughter from others in the crowd, including Dr. Wylie W. Foust. Fowler ordered him to shut up and threatened to arrest him, and Foust replied calmly, “You won’t do that.”

Foust was right: Fowler didn’t do that. Instead he struck him in the face with one of his pistols then shot him two or three times in the head. The doctor fell dead on the spot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because armed moviegoers are still to this day known to demand polite moviegoers.

Dr. Foust’s adult son was sitting behind him, and he was also armed. He pulled out his own pistol and shot at his father’s killer, but the bullets were ineffective against Fowler’s bullet-proof vest.

Fowler returned fire. At least two bystanders were shot in the melee. One of them, 53-year-old John Wesley West, also a deputy sheriff, was fatally wounded and died at the hospital.

For some time after the shootings, the drunken deputy stalked the auditorium, brandishing his pistols. He kept all the filmgoers in a state of terror, and ordered the Widow Foust to stop crying. Finally more level-headed armed men arrived and Fowler was put under arrest.

Justice moved swiftly: the murders happened Saturday night, Fowler was indicted on Monday, his trial started on Thursday, and the jury got the case the following Monday. Fowler’s defense was intoxication: he claimed he was too sauced to know what he was doing, which reduced his crimes to second-degree murder, a non-capital offense.

Although most witnesses agreed “Two Gun” was under the influence at the time of his senseless outburst, they couldn’t agree just how drunk he was, and no one could testify as to how much alcohol he’d actually consumed prior to the shootings. The jury took only two minutes to convict.

It should be noted that this wasn’t Fowler’s only brush with the wrong side of the law, either: he and another deputy had previously been charged with killing two moonshiners, but both men were acquitted in that case.

Fowler, a Kentucky native, was the only Scott County residence to die in the electric chair in Nashville. He was 35 years old when he attained that distinction.

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1928: Charles Birger, bootlegger

Add comment April 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, colorful gangster Charles Birger was hanged in Benton, Illinois.

A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.

Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.

While Al Capone‘s Tommy Guns were tearing up Chicago, Birger set up shop in southern Illinois. A literal shop: from his famous speakeasy Shady Rest, he did three-way battle with the (pro-Prohibition) Ku Klux Klan and the rival Shelton Brothers Gang.

This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.

That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.

Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.

“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)


Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman”
Phil Hanna.


Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.

Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.

This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.

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1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

3 comments May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

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1928: William Edward Hickman, Randian superhero?

5 comments October 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1928, William Edward Hickman was hanged at California’s San Quentin prison for what the Los Angeles Times was still calling a decade later* “the most horrible crime of the 1920’s.”

Eighteen- or nineteen-year-old Hickman kidnapped the 12-year-old daughter of a Los Angeles banker, extracted a $1,500 ransom from said banker for her return, then delivered up the girl’s horribly mutilated corpse.

A nationwide manhunt immediately ensued, with Hickman soon captured in Oregon.

Pretty white girls abducted have been media catnip for many a livelong year. In this case, the dastardly deed induced the Los Angeles Times to editorially demand (Dec. 21, 1927) an automatic death penalty for murder in a manifesto that reads like it was written yesterday for whatever the outrageous crime du jour might be.

LET MURDERERS HANG

The sickly sentimentality which wars upon capital punishment for murder and insists upon the coddling of convicts will have a hard time to justify itself in the case of the slayer of Marian Parker, who, if police theories are correct, is William Edward Hickman, a criminal on probation. Had Hickman been serving the prison term which he deserved for his forgeries, he could not have committed the series of crimes which culminated in one of the most atrocious murders of which there is any record. He was free through the lenity of the California law to take his revenge in the most horrible fashion, against a man who had done him no injury that could be considered such by anyone with a spark of moral sense.

Not for vengeance, but for its own protection, both through example and through the eradication of a rotten and depraved individual, society should put the Parker case slayer out of life as quickly as the formalities of law permit. His continued existence is a reproach to all humanity.

A clash of conflicting theories of the best methods of dealing with criminals has brought society to a condition of hesitation. This condition is highly favorable to criminal operations of all sorts, while justice and the law seem to stand by, bewildered and helpless. The logical way to meet this situation is to take practical steps which society knows will protect it, and let penologists and psychiatrists conduct their debate over the ideal system, entirely to one side.

There can be no question that men in jail, while in jail, are no particular menace to society, and that men who have been hanged do not commit further murders. Upon these two solid facts let society base its actions, unless and until something better has been devised and proved. The semi-punishment, semi-reformatory scheme at present in force is obviously a failure.

Its greatest error is that it considers the interest of the criminal rather than those of his victim, or rather the interest of the class to which his victim belongs. This class is made up of the honest, the law-abiding, the God-fearing, the hard-working, the solid and substantial; in other words, of all individuals who are resolved to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors,. respecting others’ rights as courtesouly as they expect their own to be respected. Against this class, the great majority, another class, a minority, is waging war. It consists of the vicious, the depraved, the degenerate; nonproducers and parasites. At best this class is a drag upon progress, at worst it is a menace to civilization. Yet the law as it stands at present regards the rights of the individuals of the class as paramount. The machinery of the courts is strained at every point to aid them.

It is not necessary to inquire why a rattlesnake strikes, or if it is likely to strike again. His motives may be interesting, but they are not important. It is sufficient to recognize the danger and to deal with it appropriately.

It does not matter whether anti-social individuals are all insane, as some criminologists assert, whether they are economic misfits, as other theorists declare, or whether they are in the main ordinary persons gone wrong, as still another school insists. There has been too much consideration for them and not enough for those they prey upon and injure. It is time the emphasis was shifted.

It is time to face the facts, before the criminal class succeeds entirely in getting the upper hand. It is time to place every proved criminal where he can do no more harm. It is time for society to take the certainty of protection; it is time to stop giving the criminal “another chance.”

It is time to hang every murderer.

Lack of firmness in dealing with the criminal problem is due largely to the sob-sister and the sentimentalist. At the other extreme stands the mob spirit and lynch law, equally destructive of the foundations of society. Criminals should be judged without passion, bias or prejudice, and this is possible only in a court of law. No matter how heinous the crime, it is a matter for the courts to deal with. Good citizens will insist that proper punishment be dealt out in accordance with the provisions of law and order. For men to take the law into their own hands is to place themselves on a plane with the criminals, and to give away the immense moral advantage of being right.

Sensational crime + ill-considered policy response = a California tradition. (There wasn’t actually a change of the law in 1927-28, though.)

Perhaps recoiling from the self-righteous public baying after Hickman’s blood, a young Ayn Rand took such a shine to Hickman as to base upon him a murderous protagonist in a 1928 work, The Little Street. The budding apostle of selfishness decried in her journals

[a]verage, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, ‘dignified’ housewives … How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone’s fate?

Though The Little Street never saw print, the hero disdainful of the petty bonds of moral hypocrisy is the go-to trope of Rand’s later novels. If you can bear them, you’ll find Rand speaking of “nonproducers and parasites” who are “a drag upon progress … a menace to civilization” in much the way the Times speaks of Hickman.

Rand wrote that “other people do not exist for [Hickman], and he does not see why they should … He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.'” It’s a pretty near definition of sociopathy likewise imputed to the hero of her later novel The Fountainhead: “He was born without the ability to consider others.”

Indeed, Hickman was a very strange choice for Rand’s affection, quite apart from the obvious: other than the derring-do to bluff school administrators into letting him take away a child on his own say-so, he didn’t really exhibit the magnificent contempt for his many lessers one would expect from a Howard Roark.


From the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 25, 1927.

Hickman broke down and confessed, not in pride but in panic, and signed a simpering “warning” to young men of the classic gallows-speech variety on Christmas Eve 1927:

Crime in its simplest definition is to have without work and enjoy the same place in society as other people and still show no honest effort or intention to go right.

Young men, when crime has once overcome your will power to be honest and straight you are a menace to society. …

Think it over, see my mistake. Be honest and upright. Respect the law. If you do these things you’ll be happier in the end. (Source: Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 1927)

Over the ten ensuing months, the teen had the opportunity to recover his wits and play a more manful part, but that didn’t happen either. A week before execution, when any hope of reprieve was gone and there was little percentage left in playing the supplicant, Hickman sent the Associated Press this bit of self-flagellation.

I know very well that I have been a most guilty sinner … I am sorry for having offended God and man … Please ask the people in the name of God to pray for us condemned men here at San Quentin prison.

(To top it off, he wilted climbing the scaffold and had to be helped up the last few steps.)

The miscreant unequal to the weight of his crime-slash-sin, thirsting for the redemptive chalice of heaven … as a criminals go, that’s more Dostoyevsky than Rand.

* Mar. 27, 1938. The context was a roundup of the gallows highlights of San Quentin’s history on the occasion of its switch from hanging to lethal gas.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,Murder,USA

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1928: Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray

10 comments January 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1928, a suburban femme fatale and the corset salesman who had murdered her husband were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison.

“A cheap crime involving cheap people,” one writer called it.

“Ruthless Ruth,” as the press inevitably called her, was on the wrong side of 30 and married to a wet blanket on the wrong side of 40 from whom she couldn’t even get away during the day because they worked for the same boating magazine.

The banal hell of the bourgeoisie.

Ruth had a banal solution: commence affair with handsome, limp-willed corset salesman (also married) from New Jersey.

Given a large enough metropolis with a large enough pool of adulterous data points, it must be statistically inexorable that a certain proportion will resolve the love triangle by throttling the cuckold with a wire.

But only that remorseless calculator in the sky can compute why these two, of all those thousands, were the ones not to run off together, or let the affair fizzle, or just continue to rendezvous indefinitely into the future. They certainly weren’t constitutionally cut out for crime; they set up the room in a poor simulacrum of a robbery, and told of a couple of unknown Italians* who’d broke in and done poor Albert Snyder to death.

For their poor judgment and for the speedy collapse of their crummy alibi, journalism owes them a debt of gratitude.

The execution of a woman was quite sensational; Ruth Snyder was to be the first electrocuted since 1899.

For the occasion, The New York Daily News hired a Chicago Tribune journalist to witness the execution … and at the moment the current struck, Tom Howard hoisted his pant leg and secretly snapped with a one-use camera one of the most indelible images the death chamber offered the 20th century, to be splashed in a few hours’ time on the Daily News‘ cover under the headline

DEAD!

The Snyder-Gray adulterous melodrama and its violent conclusion inspired novelist James Cain‘s Double Indemnity, and the noir film of the same title with Barbara Stanwyck as the black widow at the center of the web.

It also inspired the state of New York to begin searching official witnesses to its electrocutions.

* Blame-the-Italians here is a Roaring Twenties Queens version of fingering the black man. The murder was committed in May 1927, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti case was approaching its climax.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,New York,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,USA,Women

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1928: Marshall Ratliff lynched for the Santa Claus Bank Robbery

18 comments November 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1928, the man whose disguise christened one of the most bizarre crimes in Texas’s colorful history was lynched behind a theater … producing “The Noose”.

The Santa Claus Bank Robbery was, in the words of one columnist present for the affair,

the most spectacular crime in the history of the Southwest … surpassing any in which Billy the Kid or the James boys had ever figured.

The story begins on December 23, 1927, in the town of Cisco, where a genial man dressed as Saint Nick strolled down the main drag dandling playful children en route to the First National Bank.

Santa — Marshall Ratliff — and three accomplices then conducted one of the most inept bank robberies in that craft’s ample stock of ineptitude.

A general gun battle erupted during the robbery, owing to the general citizenry being armed, and a standing reward available from the bank association for shooting a bank robber in the act. When the quartet finally fought their way to the getaway car — killing two cops in the process — they realized it was almost out of gas.

After a few days’ dodging a manhunt, everyone was rounded up, one of them in corpse form. Two of the surviving three drew death sentences, and Henry Helms sat in the Lonestar State’s electric chair on September 6, 1929.

But Kris Kringle — er, Ratliff — had his execution delayed by a sanity hearing that brought him back to Eastland County, where he feigned illness and killed a guard in an abortive escape attempt. The good folk decided they’d had about enough of due process.

Quoth a newspaper report of the day (reproduced in A.C. Greene’s book on the case):

All yesterday afternoon they gathered in little groups about the town and muttered about [the guard] Jones’ shooting which physicians said probably would prove fatal. Last night a crowd in front of the jail swelled to nearly a thousand at 8:30 o’clock.

At about 9 o’clock, some 200 men slipped into a side door of the jail and asked for the man. Jailer Gilborn refused to give him up. They overpowered Gilborn, took his keys and got Ratliff.

… He was dragged in the direction of the public square, but the crowd would not wait to go those few blocks.

At 200 yards from the jail a strong telephone cable was pointed out, a rope flung across it. A noose was put around Ratliff’s neck, a dozen men on the other end of the rope bent their weight, and Ratliff was jerked from the ground.

The rope broke. Messengers were sent for another, and again the mob set to its task. Then someone remembered that men about to die are usually given a chance to say a last word. For another moment he was lowered to the ground, but, displeased at his mumbling, the crowd yelled, “String him up!”

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Lynching,Murder,Texas,Theft,USA

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