1939: Ramiro Artieda, Bolivian serial killer

Add comment July 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Bolivian serial killer Ramiro Artieda was executed at the prison of Cochabamba.

Artieda (German Wikipedia entry) cut his teeth in the murder business at the tender age of 18 by offing his brother Luis in order to become the sole claimant of the family inheritance. In so doing he lost his girlfriend, who was more alarmed by the fratricide — evidence to charge him never equaled the heavy suspicion against him — than she was acquisitive for his newfound loot.

After a brief spell in the United States, Artieda returned with acting experience and a festering grudge against the ex, both of which would come in handy for his new career in homicide. A series of 18ish girls with a resemblance to his former flame suddenly started turning up dead … strangled by a dark-haired charmer luring them to deadly seclusion by posing as a variety of different characters (university professor, trade delegate, monk). His last would-be victim managed to escape him, and then identify him, in May of 1939; eight weeks later, having owned the slaughter of seven young women plus Luis Artieda, he stood in front of a firing squad.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Serial Killers,Shot

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1936: Edward Cornelius, vicarage murderer

Add comment June 22nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Edward Cornelius hanged at Victoria’s Pentridge Gaol for the vicarage murder.

The Murder at the Vicarage also happens to be the title of Agatha Christie’s very first Miss Marple novel, published several years before the very real vicarage murder of Rev. Cecil.

One lonesome night the preceding December, Cornelius, a mechanic, turned his spanner on the aged head of plain-living 60-year-old Rev. Harold Laceby Cecil of St. Saviour’s — the horrible conclusion to Rev. Cecil’s 18-year ministry in Fitzroy, then one of Melbourne’s roughest neighborhoods.

Cornelius’s motive was robbery, and it was hardly the first time that Rev. Cecil had been braced for the few quid in donatives he kept on hand for charity cases. Though undeterred from his mission, Cecil was philosophical about repeated robberies: “I will get them, or they will get me.” According to Cornelius’s confession, it was the getting that got Cecil killed: surprised in the course of a midnight stealth pilfering of the vicarage study, Cornelius grabbed the tool of his other trade and clobbered the intercessor, repeatedly: there would be 17 distinct head wounds discerned by investigators.

He fled the vicarage with £8 and few gold and silver trinkets. Some, like a silver watch, he would discard as too incriminating; others, like a gold crucifix, he pawned to obtain ready cash and readier eyewitnesses against him.

A death-house chum of similarly notorious Arnold Sodeman — the two passed Sodeman’s last hours on earth together, playing draughts — Cornelius followed the latter’s steps to the same gallows three weeks later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Theft

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1935: May Hitchens Carey and Howard Carey, mother and son

Add comment June 7th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1935 in Georgetown, Delaware, a mother and son were hanged for the murder of Robert Hitchens, May Carey’s brother and Howard’s uncle.

The execution of May, 52, attracted some attention as it was the first time in living memory that a woman had faced capital punishment in Delaware. The last time a woman was executed there had been in the 1860s.

On November 7, 1927, May enlisted the help of her two oldest sons, Howard, then 20, and James, 16, to murder their uncle Robert. May had taken out a $2,000 insurance policy on his life and promised to buy her boys a car if they helped her. After Robert got home from work, the three of them jumped him, beat him with a club and sledgehammer, and then finished him off with a gunshot to the head. They poured alcohol over his body and down his throat and rummaged through his belongings in an attempt to make the murder look like a robbery.

The police fell for the robbery gambit and thought Robert had been slain by bootleggers. For a long time it appeared the trio had gotten away with it.

But murder will out. The homicide went unsolved until December 1934, when May’s youngest son, Lawrence, was arrested on an unrelated charge of burglary. He told the police everything he knew about his uncle’s murder, which was enough to put his mother and brothers behind bars.

Lawrence testified against his family at the ensuing trial. (Not that his cooperation in the murder case helped with his own legal difficulties; he got seven years for the burglary.) May tried to shoulder all the blame — “I drove my children to do it. It was all my fault. They killed him but they would not have done it, if I hadn’t made them do it.”

May, James and Howard were all convicted but the jury recommended mercy for the two young men. In the end, James was sentenced to life in prison but Howard, who had sired a family of three children, got a death sentence, as did his mother.

During the time period between the trial and the time the sentence was carried out, both Howard and May turned to religion for solace and read their Bibles “cover to cover.” Their last meal was cake and ice cream.

Authorities erected the gallows behind a high fence to conceal it from prying eyes. They even stretched a piece of canvas overhead to prevent aerial photography. A single rope was used for both hangings, and May was first in line. She wore a new black dress with white ribbon around the throat. Her son was dressed in a formal suit and tie. Mary died at 5:30 a.m. and Howard followed her at 6:08.

As for James, he outlived his mother and brother by only nine years, dying in prison of natural causes at the age of 34.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Delaware,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,USA,Women

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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Pelf

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1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

Add comment November 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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1933: John Fleming, not taking it too hard

Add comment November 17th, 2016 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

I’m sorry to have caused all this trouble. You seem to be taking harder than I do.

— John Fleming, convicted of murder, hanging, California
Executed November 17, 1933

Prior resident of Folsom and San Quentin prisons for robbery and assault charges, John Fleming murdered Amos Leece at a gas-station and road house when a prostitute named Peggy O’Day (aka Leonora Smith) made derogatory remarks to Leece after he refused to buy her a drink. Leece left the station to crank his car but not before he called O’Day “a cheap, chippy whore.” Fleming then confronted Leece, demanding that he apologize and then shot him three times when he refused.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1933: Dallas Egan, dancing

Add comment October 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1933, Dallas Egan hanged at California’s San Quentin Prison — and pretty much nobody was happier about it than Dallas Egan.

A cynic might attribute the puckish jig he reputedly danced en route to the gallows to the liberal allotment of whiskey, straight he had swallowed at the sufferance of Gov. “Sunny Jim” Rolph* — “all the whiskey he can safely stand up under.” It was just the governor’s way of saying thanks to the murderer for going so easy on the justice system.

Barely a year before, Egan and three accomplices robbed a Los Angeles jewelry store when, mid-robbery, an old fella with a hearing deficiency paused at the store window to check his pocketwatch against the wares n display — one of those little accidental moments that make up a life, or in this case, a death. Two deaths, actually. Egan shot the misfortunate William Kirkpatrick dead when the man didn’t respond to an order the robber shouted. “I gave the man full warning,” Egan explained.

But Egan didn’t mean to minimize his guilt; he was fully committed from the time of his capture to get himself the noose.

“I don’t know whether or not I’m insane,” he mused to the court when an attorney tried to secure a sanity hearing for him (per this Los Angeles Times profile). “We’re all a little crazy; even you, Judge. But I don’t want nine years’ punishment, or 20 years. I want to pay in full!” In later months he would write the governor and the Supreme Court insisting on his just deserts and washing his hands of any appeal or clemency effort on his behalf.

Egan’s last morning, Oct. 20, 1933, began with a good breakfast, some final sips of whiskey and a cigar “tilted at a ridiculous angle,” according to one witness. The previous night he’d played a record of “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider” over and over in his cell, telling guards: “I’ll dance out to that tune.” (Some newspapers misquoted this statement with the more formal “I want to dance out to the gallows.”)

When the hour came, he really did dance an Irish jig as he entered the death chamber handcuffed between guards. He then walked up the 13 steps, energetically and alone. Offering no final words, he plunged through the trapdoor.

Rolph’s generosity toward Egan resulted in a two-day controversy. Some Bay Area preachers chided him for it, but Rolph had the last word: “We would be pretty small when we sent a man into eternity if we could not grant his last request.”

-“>Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2011

* Rolph would die in office of a heart attack the following June. He was a one-term governor but has a bit of notoriety for publicly applauding a 1933 lynching in San Jose.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Theft,USA

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1937: Panfiliya Tanailidi, Azerbaijani actress

Add comment October 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Azerbaijani actress Panfiliya Tanailidi (various other transliterations are possible) was purged during Stalin’s terror.

Born in a tsarist governorate to Greek emigres, Tanailidi (English Wikipedia entry | Azerbaijani) was treading the Caucasus boards as a teenager in the pregnant century’s first decade.

She became an accomplished stage and screen actress, starring in 1930s silents Ismet and Almaz.

Come the Stalin years when any pretext was enough to destroy a body, the pretext against Tanailidi was apparently her affiliations with an Iran then taking a concerted anti-Soviet line: the actress had toured Iran in 1917 and had friends like Govhar Aliyeva who had fled the Soviet Union for Iran. This was more than enough to cast the pall of espionage about her.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Azerbaijan,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.

He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.

Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina around 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.

Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.

* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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