1930: Yang Kaihui, Mao Zedong’s wife

2 comments November 14th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1930, Yang Kaihui was executed in Changsha, China.

The 29-year-old mother of three was beheaded for her refusal to renounce the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong. She was technically Mao’s second wife; a previous marriage had been arranged for Mao by his parents, but he and the woman never lived together and the marriage was never consummated.

Yang and Mao grew up together in Changhsa — she was the daughter of one of his teachers — and fell in love as young adults. Yang, like Mao, was an enthusiastic Communist. She joined the CCP in 1921, becoming one of its earliest members. She never held any official position in the CCP, however, and wasn’t terribly active in the movement, since she had to raise the children.

Mao and Yang truly loved one another. Phillip Short, in his biography of Mao, writes of this period: “Perhaps for the only time in Mao’s life, he had a truly happy family to come home to … It was a surprisingly traditional Chinese household.”

But Mao became more and more absorbed in revolutionary work, and he and Yang were often separated when he traveled. The last time she saw her husband was in 1927, the year the Chinese Civil War started and Mao became a guerrilla leader, hiding in the mountains, far from his family. They maintained sporadic contact after that, but often what little she knew about his activities came from the papers.

During the final years of her life, Yang missed her husband desperately and had thoughts of suicide. “No matter how hard I try,” she wrote once, “I cannot stop loving him.”

Yang predicted she might meet with a violent death. She was right: on October 24, 1930, a warlord loyal to the nationalists captured her and one of her sons.

She did not break under threats and torture, and refused to give in and publicly repudiate her husband and Communism, even though her captors offered to spare her life if she did so. She became one of the CCP’s earliest martyrs.

Yang was executed more for being Mao’s wife than she was for anything she’d done herself. She wasn’t the only woman who would be killed for being married to a prominent member of the CCP; the wife of Zhu De had met with the same fate in 1929.

Mao, who had always called Yang his true love, was reportedly devastated by her death and wrote, “the death of Kaihui cannot be redeemed by a hundred deaths of mine!” He wrote a poem about her in 1957 that suggests he still grieved for her even then. But it must be noted that he never tried to rescue her or his sons when he knew their home had turned into a battleground and their lives were in danger.


Propaganda poster of Yang and Mao.

Tragedy followed the lives of Yang and Mao’s three sons.

The youngest boy, Anlong, died of dysentery in Shanghai at the age of four, soon after his mother’s execution. The oldest, Anying, was killed in the Korean War. Middle child Anqing lived to be 83, but perhaps as a consequence of watching his mother being put to death as a youth, he suffered bouts of mental illness throughout his life. He died quietly in China in 2007.

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1930: Lee Akers, after the Ohio Penitentiary Fire

4 comments June 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1930, Lee Akers was electrocuted in Ohio for murdering a Cleveland man at a gas station stickup.

Akers had been held at the death house at the Ohio Penitentiary bound in the end for a May 2, 1930 execution.

The “lucky” break that bought him six extra weeks of life was just the deadliest prison fire in history. (n.b. — Recently surpassed in Honduras)

Already a century old and packed to triple its 1,500-soul capacity, the penitentiary had a fire break out* shortly after supper on April 21 in Section “I”. This fire

licked along dry timber into Section “H”, from Section “H” to Section “G”, and thence upward to where 300 prisoners, trapped like caged animals, tore futily [sic] at steel bars that became their pyre.

It was a twilight of indescribable horror.

Some 320 perished from burns, suffocation, and smoke inhalation. Most of the casualties were those who never got out of their locked prison cells, and couldn’t move a meter as death enveloped them.


20th century literary great Chester Himes also happened to be serving a sentence for armed robbery at this prison:** indeed, it was during that sentence that he began to write at all, setting him on a path towards his life’s work.


1991 cinematic adaptation of Himes’s A Rage in Harlem.

Himes’s novel from his time in the Ohio penitentiary was only published well after his death, in 1998 … the same year the disused Ohio Penitentiary was finally torn down.

One of Himes’s first published works was a short story in Esquire in 1934, written while Himes was still incaracerated. Titled “To What Red Hell” (an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s meditation on prison and death row, The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “For none can tell to what red Hell / His sightless soul may stray.”), this story follows the experience of the Ohio prison inferno through the fictional inmate “Blackie”, who beholds tormented prisoners like “condemned souls jumping flame pots in the ante room of Hell” … but also notices the ironic safety of death row, where the literal condemned souls remained un-burned.

From where he stood he could see the death house, a low, red brick building at the end of the cell block. Just above it was a wall parapet. A guard stood on the cat-walk with a sub-machine gun cradled in his arm. Two searchlights shone in opposite directions down the sides of the gray, stone wall. The green door of the death house looked black in the vague light.

The end of the parade! The last mile! What a joke! The death house was on the other side of the yard tonight, he was thinking. It was quiet over here in the shadows with the scared ghosts of the executed men.

In fact, someone had managed to spring the death house doors, momentarily “liberating” the doomed men. As militia arrived on the scene, they attempted to forestall any general uprising or wholesale prison break by setting up machine gun emplacements on prison towers, with orders to shoot to kill.

When the death row prisoners were collared — they hadn’t actually gone anywhere or tried anything** — they were offered transportation to the city jail for their own safety against these potentially itchy trigger fingers. While three of them took the refuge, the others (Akers included) refused, on the sensible grounds that they could hardly be much worse off being shot dead than being electrocuted.


The inmates — reported to have labored heroically alongside guards, firefighters, civilian nurses, virtually without incident — were understandably incensed at the disaster, charging that guards had allowed most of the victims to die out of needless reticence over releasing anybody as the fire began to spread — and that the refusal to turn the keys went straight to the top. William Wade, “a big Negro prisoner” who had sledgehammered a cell open to save 25 men, was quoted in the next day’s New York Times saying simply, “They could have saved these men. They let human beings burn to death.”

Warden Preston Thomas, who comes off in the story as an unmitigated shit,† was the focus of the prisoners’ ire … and when he showed himself, the focus of their raucous jeers (Thomas tried to dump the blame on lower-level guards, who in turn claimed that they’d been directed by their superiors not to open cells). The Ohio governor’s refusal to dismiss Warden Thomas soon triggered a riot in the prison and the arrival of the National Guard for several tense days of teargas-punctuated negotiations.

This mutiny was only just being settled when Akers’s original May 2 execution date came up. The charred prison clearly had some other priorities at that moment than orchestrating an execution, so Akers and another man, John Richardson, both got a gubernatorial reprieve until things were peaceful enough for orderly killing.

The inferno, meanwhile, opened space for some humanitarian reforms: since overcrowding (which had been fretted in internal reports in the years preceding the fire, and had also contributed to several other prison disturbances) was widely understood to be part of the disaster, a parole board was formed in 1931 that released 2,300 prisoners. “Mandatory minimum” sentences that stuffed minor offenders into these dungeons were widely rolled back.


According to the Justice Policy Institute (pdf), the total United States prison population in 1930 was a mere 180,889.

Although we may have made some provisions to avoid spectacular catastrophes like the Ohio Penitentiary fire in our present-day overcrowded prisons, the routine catastrophe of imprisonment itself — “the moral scandal of American life” — has grown more than twelvefold since 1930.

* The mysterious fire was eventually found to have been started by some (non-death row) prisoners in an abortive breakout bid: two of them later hanged themselves in remorse. However, and rather amazingly, there were no reported escape attempts during the nighttime chaos.

** Himes wasn’t the Ohio penitentiary’s only noteworthy litterateur. The facility’s prison yard was named in honor of the pseudonym that a previous scribbling inmate had concocted there in order to get published while doing his time: O. Henry.

† e.g., a committee formed by the legislature to investigate the fire took testimony from convicts that Warden Thomas was a tyrannous martinet even apart from the disaster, even as Thomas was publicly threatening the angry inmates who were demanding his ouster: “If these prisoners don’t quiet down pretty quick, I’ll use forceful methods against them if it takes a soldier to every man.”

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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1930: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, strange fruit

1 comment August 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1930, two black youths were lynched in Marion, Indiana for murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend.

(The rape allegation — although it, and not the homicide, seems to have been the thing that triggered the lynching — was subsequently withdrawn, and there were even rumors that the white girlfriend was a lover and confederate of one of the lynched men. It’s just one strand in the very human tapestry around the “last classic lynching north of the Mason-Dixon line” explored by Cynthia Carr in Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America.)

Thomas Shipp and Abram (or Abraham) Smith had been taken just the day before. The Chicago Daily Tribune (Aug. 8, 1930), for whom this event was banner news, reported that

Shipp, who is said to have confessed killing the white man, Claude Deeter, 23, of Fairmount, Ind., was hanged from an elm tree in the courthouse yard. Smith, whom the girl identified as her assailant, was thrown from a third floor window of the jail with a noose around his neck and strangled.

Reports of the crimes and confessions, published in Marion newspapers this afternoon, stirred this quiet community of 23,000 to intense excitement. There was no hint of the impending violence, however, until 8:30 p.m., when a motorcade of Deeter’s fellow townsmen arrived from Fairmount.

The Fairmount delegation, numbering about 100, gathered in the public square, openly displaying their guns and shouting for a lynching … The sheriff led his deputies to the front door, argued a moment with the leaders of the mob and then ordered the tear bombs thrown. Blinded, the lynchers fell back for a few minutes, but returned and began the sledge hammer siege which forced the jail doors within ten minutes. No shots were fired on either side.

Following the lynching the mob gathered in the square for an hour, some proposing to drive the 2,000 members of the Negro colony from the city and burn their dwellings. Peace officers from Indianapolis, Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and other towns were arriving however, and gradually the mob broke up.

The corpses hung in the square for hours, attracting throngs of gawkers — including a photographer able to snap this picture:


Teacher/poet Abel Meeropol ran across this photo of the Shipp-Smith lynching a few years later in a magazine, and it so “haunted” him — his word — that he penned the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit”. You know it from Billie Holiday‘s arresting vocal rendition.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Abel Meeropol was no passing sentimentalist himself, but a prolific left-wing activist. During the McCarthy years, he adopted the children of the Rosenbergs when the latter were electrocuted as Soviet spies. As faithfully as those two orphaned boys have carried the torch for their lost birth parents, they also still carry an adoptive surname: Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol.


A third person was almost lynched in the same Marion, Ind., incident, but 16-year-old James Cameron (sometimes called “Herbert” or “Robert” in the 1930 news reports) managed to convince the mob that he wasn’t involved. Just how he managed this feat and what he’d really been up to is another strand of Carr’s tapestry: many of the Marion blacks as well as whites she interviewed overtly mistrusted Cameron.

At any rate, the crowd let him off with a beating, and Cameron served time as an accessory to the crime.

After release, he became an anti-lynching activist in Indiana and, later, Wisconsin — where he founded a (since-shuttered) Black Holocaust Museum. He started several NAACP chapters.

Cameron was pardoned by Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh in 1993, and authored a memoir titled A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story.

In the more immediate aftermath, it was far from a given that this date’s effusion of summary justice wouldn’t cascade into a generalized racial pogrom.

As the Tribune article notes, the lynch mob mulled attacking the black community, ultimately dissuaded by the gradual arrival of lawmen. By the next day, the Indiana national guard had occupied Marion. The Tribune on Aug. 10 reported the town “peaceful to all outward appearances but acutely aware of an undercurrent of racial antagonism that it feared might flame into open warfare at any moment.”

Lest this seem a bit over-the-top, recall that all this went down just a few years since a lynch mob in Tulsa had metastasized into one of America’s most notorious race riots. The prospect of wholesale bloodletting was very real.

When the local attorney general and grand jury waved away the small matter of punishing mob leaders, several of whom were publicly known by name, Indianapolis attorney general (and Marion native) James M. Ogden drove up to town and personally filed indictments, to the fury of white residents.

“It was astonishing to see and feel the mob atmosphere that still prevailed nearly seven months after the murder,” wrote a correspondent for The Nation. Ogden’s deputies were “looked upon as enemies of the community, not only by the mob, but also by most of the court officials.” After all-white juries acquitted the first two people tried, the state dropped its remaining indictments.


The maelstrom of race and politics and history that emerged from that first fatal transaction — a brutal but banal Lover’s Lane heist — grew so far beyond the original cast of criminal and victim that they practically became secondary to the story.

On August 8, 1930, a wire story datelined Fairmount, Ind., ran in the Indianapolis Star (but not the Marion papers):

Deep regret that the negro slayers of their son Claude, were lynched in Marion last night by a mob, was expressed today by Mr. and Mrs. William Deeter, members of the Apostolic faith, a sect similar to the Quakers.

“God should have been the judge,” said the elderly Deeter. “They had no right to do it,” his wife assented.

Both are opposed to capital punishment and did not want to see the negroes put to death for their crime.

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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1930: William Henry Podmore, inculpated

Add comment April 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1930, criminal forensics claimed an apparent — albeit controversial — victory with the hanging of William Henry Podmore.

Podmore was noosed by a chain of circumstantial evidence investigators used to connect him to a murder scene — that, specifically, of his former employer Vivian Messiter, whose badly decomposed corpse was found tucked in a garage nine months after it went missing.

The ensuing investigation went like a Roaring Twenties version of CSI.

First, famed pathologist Bernard Spilsbury established a cause of death: blunt force to the skull, apparently delivered by a bloodied hammer found nearby.

After that, it was a matter of connecting some malefactor to the handle of the hammer.

[A] scrap of paper, about two inches square, which was found behind a barrel in [the] garage … led ultimately to the conviction of the murderer. This fragment was caked with dirt and soaked in oil, and had been repeatedly trodden under foot, and the problem was to remove the dirt and oil, without also removing the pigment of the copying ink pencil.

After numerous experiments with various makes of copying ink pencil, petroleum spirit was found to be suitable for the purpose, and a message from a man calling himself “W. F. Thomas” was left upon the paper. Until then, it was not known that anyone of the name of “Thomas” (an alias of Podmore) had been in any way connected with the victim.*

This was still very far from placing a fellow on the gallows until a further bit of investigative prestidigitation produced an apparent motive:

a leaf from a note-book showing indentations which had, presumably, been made by the pressure of a pencil on another leaf of the book subsequently torn out. By means of photography with the use of oblique lighting to illuminate the edges of the indentations, words relating to bogus orders, with the initials of “Thomas,” were rendered visible.*

From such paper was the crown able to craft a case which the reader will readily discern: Podmore, a mechanic only temporarily in Mr. Messiter’s employ, had entered some fraudulent transactions upon which he claimed a commission, and a fatal altercation presumably ensued upon Messiter’s discovering the con. The fact that Podmore was already wanted for fraud and robbery elsewhere did not help the defendant’s situation.

The “Garage Murder” investigation played out for months throughout 1929, much of which Podmore spent in jail on the other larceny charges while the cloud of suspicion gathered over him. In early March 1930, trial bulletins on counsels’ disputes over this novel evidence — its admissibility, its weight and application to the theory of the crime, and the sleuthing techniques employed to gather it — filled the papers almost daily.


The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks agrees. (Headline from London Times, March 10, 1930)

Evidence that fit “like a crossword puzzle” (in the summing-up of the state’s attorney) nevertheless did not amount to anything so ironclad that Podmore wanted for public support: in the couple of weeks between a rejected appeal and Podmore’s execution, 12,000 people signed a petition for his reprieve, including 79 Members of Parliament.**

(Those crossword forensic clues had been buttressed by that classic recourse of the prosecutor, dubious jailhouse-snitch testimony as to the convenient spontaneous confession of the accused allegedly delivered to perfect strangers in the most injurious possible situation: that such specious evidence might have proved decisive in a matter of life and death seems to have moved a lot of signatures to the clemency petition.)

Given the circumstances, the Home Secretary took the unusual step of issuing a statement on its denial of this measure to calm the “disquiet in the public mind” — and expressing his confidence beyond any “scintilla of doubt as to the prisoner’s guilt.”†

* C. Ainsworth Mitchell, “Scientific Documentary Evidence in Criminal Trials,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 23, No. 2 (July-August, 1932)

** London Times, April 16, 1930

London Times, April 21, 1930. “I searched for many days,” Secretary Clynes said after the hanging (Times, April 23, 1930), “in the hope that I would find a reason for recommending a reprieve. I searched in vain.”

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1930: Eva Dugan, her head jerked clean off

25 comments February 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1930, Eva Dugan was badly hanged.

A former Alaskan cabaret performer, Dugan relocated to warmer climes, took a job keeping house for a to New York.

A mysterious teenage accessory, “Jack”, was never found. Eva was picked up and extradited after the missing rancher’s remains turned up in a shallow grave.

The grizzled former frontierswoman — she followed the Klondike gold rush in her youth — took her fate nonchalantly.

“Wal, I’ll die with my boots on, an’ in full health,” she scolded her jurors. “An’ that’s more’n most of you old coots’ll be able to boast on.”

Eva Dugan’s health may have been full — though she bid unsuccessfully for clemency claiming mental illness — but her body was halved.

At 5 a.m. this date, wearing a homemade silk shroud, a composed Dugan mounted the gallows at the state prison in Florence.

Her death was instantaneous, for the rope, when it snapped at the end of the drop, severed her head from her body.

Five witnesses, two women, fainted. Altogether there were five women in the chamber at the time of the execution. It was the first time in the history of Arizona that an execution was witnessed by women.

Thanks in part to this ghastly scene, Arizona in 1934 replaced the gallows with the western states’ hot new killing technology, the gas chamber … leaving Dugan the last female client of that state’s hangman.

(Another woman, Ruth Judd, narrowly missed swiping Dugan’s distinction; Judd’s hanging sentence was commuted for insanity just days short of her scheduled 1933 hanging.)

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1930: Captains Fermin Galan and Angel Garcia Hernandez

1 comment December 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1930, two Spanish soldiers were shot for an abortive mutiny against the crown.

Fermin Galan (Spanish Wikipedia entry; most of the available online material about him is in Spanish) earned his military spurs in the Rif War in Morocco, and earned his revolutionary spurs participating in an attempted 1926 rising evocatively named La Sanjuanada. The resultant prison term shoulder to shoulder with Barcelona anarchists only radicalized Galan further. (It also gave him a chance to write.)

After an amnesty, Captain Galan was back in his fatigues commanding the garrison at Jaca.

And he was positively a firebrand; other left-leaning activists who knew he was cooking up a mutiny struggled to restrain him knowing the time was not ripe. When strikes swept Spain in November, followed by violent police suppression, Galan forced the issue, wanting waffling “revolutionaries” to commit themselves.

Galan, as he expressly stated during those feverish days, was fed up with the failures of 1926 and didn’t want to rely on pseudo-revolutionary generals in the style of Blazquez, or on the opportunistic politicians … The majority of the Jaca soldiers adored him and would follow him wherever he led. (Quoted here)

One will discern that that commitment was not forthcoming. Galan’s rising Dec. 12 was quashed; a more general rebellion slated for Dec. 15 fizzled, and Galan and one of his fellow-officers were court-martialed and quickly put to death.

According to Robin Warner,*

If authorities’ intention had been to discourage Republican support by making an example of Galan, the burgeoning legend of his self-sacrifice achieved quite the opposite effect. In the context of a well organised campaign for the release of imprisoned Republican leaders, the dead officer was given the status of a martyr. Clandestine journals and street ballads were quick to provide details of the bravery of his last moments and blame his death on royal intervention … With the accession to power of the provisional Republican Government on 14 April the figure of Galan had a place of honour at the official — and unofficial — celebrations. One of the first acts of the new regime was solemnly to honour the memory of the December martyrs and order a revision of their trial …

Galan had few illusions about the nature of the broad Republican movement which was to exploit his death. He roundly denounced “la ficcion hueca y pomposa que constituye la democracia moderna”, whose rhetoric serves to conceal the aim of perpetuating traditional privileges and blocking genuine change.

Opportunistic is as opportunistic does: that Republican movement exploited Galan’s martyrdom right into conquest of state power by the following April — inaugurating the second Spanish republic, the one that summoned Orwell and all those other starry-eyed multinational leftists (and Fermin Galan’s brother Francisco) to war to defend it against Franco.

* “The Legend of Fermin Galan,” Forum for Modern Language Studies, October 1984 XX(4).

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1930: Carl Panzram, rage personified

September 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1930, one of the most nihilistic criminals in American history was hanged for murder at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — in character to his last breath, a sneer at the hangman about to put him to death:

“Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could hang 10 men while you’re fooling around!”

Panzram — according, at least, to an autobiography which is largely unverifiable — had the chops to back up his taunt.

A Minnesota-born son of German immigrants, Panzram was into the juvenile detention system by adolescence, and at 14 hopped a freight train bound for a life of vagrancy. In Panzram’s recounting, his boyhood was a hellscape — even knowing what he became, it’s possible to feel compassion for the the killer’s remembrance, “Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular.”

Worse was to come for Carl — sexual molestation, a gang-rape by fellow hobos — and much worse by Carl.

The rape may have shattered the restraints on his conscience … or maybe they was already gone by then. “Might makes right” became his credo; to alcoholic and thief he added a portfolio of rape and enthusiastic homicide, crisscrossing the country (with a side trip to Africa), escaping or wheedling out of jails when he was picked up for something, and finding it amazingly easy to slay his fellow men.

A full narrative of Panzram’s grisly career is available at trutv.com. Much of this is, again, sourced only to Panzram himself, so the possibility of bloodthirsty braggadocio cannot be dismissed; even at a fraction of its alleged scope and brutality, his career was a triumph in horror.

While I was sitting there, a little kid about eleven or twelve years old came bumming around. He was looking for something. He found it, too. I took him out to a gravel pit about one-quarter mile away. I left him there, but first I committed sodomy on him and then killed him. His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him, and he will never be any deader.

It was the murder of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Ks., that sealed his fate. Panzram was in his late 30’s by this time, facing a long prison sentence. Something between the fury that fueled him and the desperate reality of not seeing the outside again until he was an old man may have impelled him to check out intentionally: he had warned that he would murder an inmate, and he responded to anti-death penalty campaigners’ attempts to save him by threatening to kill them, too.

In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.

It seems the fate of common criminals, even those as prolific and infernal as Panzram, to shuffle into obscurity in fairly short order. Among devotees of the dark underbelly, Panzram may be well-known; to the larger public, he’s long forgotten.

Panzram’s memoirs, released as Killer: A Journal of Murder, were turned into a 1996 James Woods vehicle of the same title:

Interestingly, Panzram is also name-checked in another more famous literary artifact: In the Belly of the Beast, the tour de force of Norman Mailer protege Jack Abbott, who had conned the litterateur into backing his bid for parole, was rather boldly dedicated to Carl Panzram.* It will not surprise the reader to learn that Abbott, upon his release, killed again.

But a new generation is waiting to rediscover its butchers … and a new documentary, Panzram, is in production to bring the story back to silver screens and Netflix queues of the 21st century.

* Abbott was writing to Mailer while the latter was banging out his book about notable executee Gary Gilmore.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Infamous,Kansas,Minnesota,Murder,Serial Killers,U.S. Federal,USA

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