1931: Charles Simpson, “make it snappy”

Add comment July 17th, 2019 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.)

Make it snappy.

— Charles H. Simpson, convicted of murder, hanging, California. Executed July 17, 1931

Known as “the Torch Slayer,” Simpson was already a convicted car thief and burglar when he entered Albina Voorhies’s grocery store. Simpson had known Voorhies because she rented the building from his father. Recognizing him, Voorhies turned her back to get him some cookies. That’s when Simpson struck her in the back of the head with a police club. Simpson eventually tied her to a chair, hit her again, and poured coal oil on her clothes, which he then set on fire. Simpson’s nerve faltered — he tried to take Voorhies to the bathroom to put the fire out — but by then the fire had spread. Panicking, Simpson left her in the store to bury the club and burn the clothes he wore.

Simpson could give no reason for his actions other than robbery. He had taken three dollars from the cash register.

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1931: Fatma Demir, the first woman hanged in Turkey

Add comment December 14th, 2018 Headsman

The modern republic of Turkey executed a woman for the first time in 1931.

Fatma Demir (German Wikipedia page: there’s none on Turkish Wikipedia) broke the Ramadan fast with a friend whom she bludgeoned with an ax handle during a prayer. It seems that it was at the instigation of others, like the victim’s husband and that husband’s mistress, both of whom helped Demir sink the body in a river.

Her hanging took place in public.

There’s a 2013 Turkish-language documentary about her case, titled Dar Agacina Takilan Düsler (Dreams Hanged from the Gallows).

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1931: Xiang Zhongfa, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party

Add comment June 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek had the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party executed.

Xiang Zhongfa was a dock worker unionist from Hanchuan who came to the fore of the workers’ movement within the CCP during the 1920s.

The Party at that time was united in a common front with the nationalist Kuomintang — an alliance that was destroyed suddenly in April 1927 when the KMT leader Chiang suddenly purged the Communists. This split precipitated the generation-long Chinese Civil War through which the Communists would eventually come to master China.

Soviet sponsorship had been essential to the CCP’s early growth. In the months after the KMT arrangement went by the boards, Chinese Communist leaders were summoned by the Comintern to Moscow where Xiang made a good impression on a hodgepodge Sixth Congress held “in the absence of key Party figures, such as Mao, Peng Pai and Li Weihan; and packed with Chinese students from Soviet universities to make up the delegate count.” (Phillip Short) Though he wound up the titular General Secretary, party leadership at the top level remained in the hands of other men, like Zhou Enlai and Qu Qiubai … while effective leadership in the field was largely in the hands of unit commanders themselves, like Mao.

A rocky early trail along the party’s long march to leadership of China and beyond … but Xiang was not made to enjoy it. During the war, he was arrested in Shanghai by the nationalists, interrogated, and delivered to the KMT’s executioners in the early hours of June 24. Orthodox party historiography holds him in disgrace for allegedly betraying the cause to his captors, speedily and cravenly (his Wikipedia entry reflects this); there are historians who dispute this belief, however.

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1931: Alfred Arthur Rouse, Blazing Car Murderer

1 comment March 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Alfred Arthur Rouse hanged at Bedford Gaol for the murder of … someone.

A traveling salesman, Rouse tomcatted around old Albion leaving several illegitimate children and at least three bigamous marriages in his wake.

The weight of these strata of deceptions (and financial obligations) eventually drove Rouse to start thinking about how he could “start afresh” (his words) and darned if he wasn’t undone by the added decency of wanting to be sure that his legal wife and son would be looked-after once he walked out on them. And they say romance is dead.

The answer to his dilemma was a life insurance policy plus “a down-and-out” case that Rouse met at a pub who tellingly remarked over pints that “nobody in the world cares whether I live of die.”

Dangling the prospect of a job, Rouse convinced this man to accompany him to the Midlands on Guy Fawkes night of 1930 — a night when “a fire would not be noticed so much.” Before the night was over, Rouse’s Morris Minor made just such a fire, with a charred corpse of Rouse’s age and build behind the wheel.

The Headsman is fully prepared to believe that the Edmond Dantes-like corpse switcheroo has been executed by a few clever folk in history. Rouse, however, seems not to have thought through the endgame for he returned home — just briefly, but long enough for his wife to get a cockamamie story from him about his car being stolen — and then proceeded to Walea and the arms of one of those mistresses on whom he was allegedly trying to get a fresh start. Suspicious of him because he scrammed when she showed him the newspaper article reporting his possible roadside murder, she rang the police.*

Rouse’s claims that he’d picked up a hitchhiker who accidentally set himself ablaze in the car while refilling the gas tank while Rouse took a piss didn’t get much traction in view of the obvious motive presented by Rouse’s misbehavior. (And the fact that he’d previously told his wife and mistress the different story about his car being stolen.) Furthermore, crown forensic witnesses were able to show that whoever burned to death in that car was alive but unconscious when the fire killed him — perhaps incapacitated by a blow from a wooden mallet also found in the Morris Minor.

Rouse professed innocence of murder deep into his appeals but as hope disappeared he wrote a confessional to the Daily Sketch from which the quotes herein have been derived.

In it, he said that he never asked his passenger’s name. It’s a name that has not been established in the intervening decades, and not for want of trying; there have been several DNA misses on leads brought by families of men who disappeared in 1930. We may one day discover it; for now, the mysterious last word belongs to the Times of March 21, 1931.

At dawn yesterday the funeral of the unknown man murdered by Alfred Arthur Rouse in his motor-car took place in secret at Hardingstone parish church.

On Thursday night the remains of the body were removed from Northampton Hospital to the mortuary. Early yesterday morning the coffin was placed in a police tender and taken to Hardingstone.

The vicar officiated at a brief service. Six police officers carried the coffin to the grave by the side of the path behind the church. The plate on the coffin bore the inscription, “Man unknown. Died November 6, 1930.” A wreath was placed on the coffin by Superintendent Brumby, and was inscribed: “With deepest sympathy from the officers and constables of the Northampton and Daventry Division.”

* Rouse would claim that he intended to disappear to some new life but, having been observed by passersby down the road from the blazing car, he feared that he would not after all be taken for the victim.

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1931: The Longhua Martyrs and the Five Martyrs of the League of Left-Wing Writers

Add comment February 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the Chinese nationalists executed 23 Communists at Longhua, including five members of the League of Left-Wing Writers.

Early in what would prove to be the very long Chinese Civil War, the Koumintang government in 1930 mounted a suppression* of Communist outposts. That included military campaigns attempting to encircle communist-held regions, as well as an internal crackdown. It’s the latter that concerns us here.

A Communist-founded League of Left-Wing Writers operating in Shanghai was formally banned by the Koumintang in September 1930. Threatened with arrest, the writers struggled to stay underground but at a January 17 meeting in the British concession area,** British police arrested Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities.


The Five Martyrs: From left: Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Feng Keng, Yin Fu, Li Weisen (Li Qiushi)

They became the Five Martyrs of the League when they were shot this date in 1931 along with 18 other Communist prisoners, one of them a pregnant woman.

Among the five martyrs, Rou Shi† was particularly close to the great writer Lu Xun, who was heartbroken when he received word of his young protege’s untimely end — “one of China’s best youths,” in his estimation. In hiding himself, Lu Xun composed a “Lament for Rou Shi”:

To long and sleepless nights I’ve grown
accustomed in the spring;
Fled with a wife and babe in arms,
my temples are graying.
‘Mid dream there comes an image faint —
a loving mother’s tear;
On city walls the overlords’
e’er-changing banners rear.
I can but stand by looking on
as friends become new ghosts,
In anger face bayonet thickets
and search for verse ripostes.
The poem intoned, my gaze turns low —
one cannot write such down.
Moonlight shimmers with watery sheen
upon my jet-black gown.

(as translated by The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse)

The discerning present-day visitor to Longhua can pay respects at the Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery.

* The suppression claimed, among others, the life of Mao Zedong’s first wife.

** The extraterritorial British concession in Shanghai was a legacy of the opium wars.

† There’s an English translation of Rou Shi’s short story “A Slave Mother” here.

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1931: Omar Mukhtar, Libyan revolutionary

Add comment September 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Libyan independence martyr Omar [al-]Mukhtar was publicly hanged by the Italians at their concentration camp in Suluq.

Mukhtar (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born an Ottoman subject back in 1858 and had lived long enough to see his native Libya seized in the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War.

Mukhtar, a religious teacher and follower of the Senussi movement, became the leader of the Libyan resistance that dogged the Italian occupation. Mukhtar proved an energetic and successful desert guerrilla fighter, and he had to be given the Italians’ mechanized military.

The Italians executed an estimated 4,000 Libyans in the 1920s, and drove hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, and gradually, only gradually, gained the upper hand on their adversaries.

Captured in battle after he abandoned a 1929 truce, Mukhtar was denied prisoner-of-war status and subjected to a snap military tribunal in one of the small coastal enclaves actually controlled by Italy — “a regular trial and consequent sentence, which will surely be death,” as the Italian general directed. It surely was.

He’s played by Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert — a better movie than you might think given that it was bankrolled by Muammar Gaddafi.

A national hero for contemporary Libyans across any social divide you’d care to name, Omar Mukhtar was valorized by the rebels who recently overthrew the aforementioned Gaddafi (here’s Mukhtar on a billboard in rebel-held Benghazi). “The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did,” Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son told media during the civil war. “That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar.”

His steely profile can be seen on Libya’s 10 10 dinar note.

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1931: Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf

6 comments July 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.

It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.

A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.

He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.

The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.

Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.

The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.

“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”

Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.

At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.

I said to myself in my youthful way ‘You just wait, you pack of scoundrels!’ That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it …

Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.

-Kürten

Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.

“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”

The doctor indeed thought it possible the head might survive a few seconds.

“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”

Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer, played by Peter Lorre. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)

Sources:

Murderpedia

TruTV

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1931: Bhagat Singh

2 comments March 23rd, 2012 Headsman

I am full of ambition and hope and of full charm of life. But I can renounce all at the time of need, and that is the real sacrifice. These things can never be hinderance in the way of man, provided he be a man. You will have the practical proof in the near future.

Bhagat Singh

On this date in 1931,* India revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British in Lahore, together with Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. The hanging was surreptitiously done, on the evening before it was officially scheduled, with the men’s cremated ashes scattered into the nearby Satluj River.


Statue of the three March 23 martyrs near Amritsar, Punjab, close to the Pakistani border. (cc) image from Alicia Nijdam.

Though only 23 years of age when he hanged, Singh’s renown as a nationalist freedom-fighter was already considerable. It has not lessened in the intervening decades.

The teenage Singh had participated in Gandhi‘s nonviolent Non-Cooperation Movement, but violent British suppression of independence demonstrations soon had Singh looking for a more energetic response.

Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. … I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking.

-Singh, from “Why I am an atheist”

Singh issued his definitive reply to British violence in 1929 by exploding a couple of bombs in the subcontinent’s legislative building.**

“It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” read their leaflet, vindicating the (non-lethal) ordnance.

Singh’s arrest, along with a fellow bomb-tosser, was an intended consequence, but the official pursuit of the case against him also led back to Singh’s fellow-revolutionaries and bomb-manufacturers. Some of these were induced to inculpate Singh, Rajguru, and Thapar to the theretofore-unsolved murder of Lahore policeman John Saunders in December 28.

Saunders had been mistakenly assassinated: Singh et al took him for John Scott, a police superintendent who ordered a baton charge against protesters and personally helped beat to death one of the independence movement’s revered fathers.

While the law wrapped its coils about him, Singh led a successful hunger strike for better prison conditions, and kept churning out writing.

His example of sacrificial revolutionary ardor — not to mention his leftist politics — kept him a popular martyr figure for years after his death, all the way down to the present day.


Climactic execution scene from the 2002 Hindi flm The Legend of Bhagat Singh — one of many different cinematic adaptations of his story.

The Shaheedi Mela (Martyrdom Fair) is observed across Punjab each March 23 in honor of these men.

* Not on Valentine’s Day, as a 2011 Twitter hoax claimed.

** Shades of Auguste Vaillant.

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1931: Severino Di Giovanni, anarchist

1 comment February 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Italian anarchist Severino di Giovanni was shot in Buenos Aires for a terroristic bombing campaign.

Having just cracked his twenties, the young Abruzzo native fled to Argentina with the rise of Benito Mussolini.

Argentina was a popular destination for Italian emigrants, so Giovanni landed right in a yeasty community of emigre anarchists. And Argentine anarchists, for that matter: anarchism burgeoned in early 20th century Buenos Aires.

Giovanni was among the most active — and most vocal. He founded his own paper, Culmine, to advocate his brand of propaganda of the deed.

Its pages summoned comrades to arms in support of those worldwide icons condemned in Massachusetts, Sacco and Vanzetti.

Iconoclasts! Rebels against all oppression and injustice! Young temperaments uncowed by all the storms of life, the time has come when we must COOPERATE with all our powers in order to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the revolutionary dignity which moves us. Let us light the fuse on the dynamite of vengeance! Let us destroy the obscene caste of slavers and let us commit ourselves to the most desperate struggle for the complete liberty of the two inmates of the jail at Charlestown!”

And Giovanni wasn’t just messing around.

Though little-known to present day Anglophones, Severino Di Giovanni was one of the most energetically committed anarchist terrorists in history, and a giant (and controversial, among his comrades) on the Argentine anarchist scene.

Further to Sacco and Vanzetti’s cause, Giovanni bombed the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires (withstanding police torture upon his subsequent arrest), a George Washington statue, a Ford Motor Company concession, a tobacco firm attempting to commercialize the Sacco and Vanzetti name, and U.S. banks as part of his campaign. After Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, Giovanni attempted to orchestrate a strike on the American President-elect Herbert Hoover during his state visit to the southern cone.

The Braintree martyrs were far from Giovanni’s sole concern, however; late in the 1920s his circle authored a number of bombing attacks on various targets of reactionary violence and bourgeois complacency, including the Italian embassy, locally-based fascists, and possibly even the editor of one of the rival anarchist journals that opposed his dynamite-oriented politics.

Spending monotonous hours among the common people, the resigned ones, the collaborators, the conformists; that isn’t living, that’s a vegetative existence, simply the transport, in ambulatory form, of a mass of flesh and bones. Life needs the exquisite sublimity experienced by rebellion of mind and arm.

Haters gonna hate, and collaborators gonna collabor-ate.

The anarchists who’d been complaining that Giovanni’s bomb-chucking would only make a right-wing coup more likely must have been in full I-told-you-so mode when a right-wing coup happened in 1930. Weeks later, Giovanni was finally taken in a firefight, along with his comrade Paulino Scarfo.

In a drumhead military tribunal, their lawyer was so impolitic in his advocacy that he himself was arrested after the sham proceedings, and eventually deported.

Giovanni met his firing squad fusillade with an energetic “Evviva l’Anarchia!” Scarfo shared his fate a few hours later.

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1931: Ernesto Opisso

Add comment July 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1931, a carpenter became the first Gibraltar native hanged by the British on that strategic peninsula.

Ernesto Opisso was convicted, in his second trial (the first jury hung), of murdering Marie Bassano, the true crime sensation of the day. Strangely, the elderly woman had been killed in her apartment but neither robbed nor sexually assaulted; Opisso was placed in the vicinity by a witness despite his denials, and a “maybe they got into a fight” theory sufficed to outfit him for the halter.

(Courtroom color: Opisso’s lawyer, evidently something of a functional alcoholic, got around a no-drinking-in-court rule by dipping bread in liquor. “Not drinking, m’Lord,” he replied when the judge’s suspicions were aroused. “Eating.”)

Popular dissatisfaction with the questionable verdict against a local was widespread; because nobody on Gibraltar itself would carry out the execution, a hangman had to be imported from Britain.

The London Times reported of the scene on the eve of the hanging, once all prospect of reprieve had been refused,

Scenes of wild disorder were witnessed to-night when crowds surged through the streets demonstrating against the execution fixed for to-morrow morning of a carpenter, Ernesto Opisso, who has been sentenced to be hanged for the murder of an elderly woman. It will be the first execution in Gibraltar since 1896. A reprieve was refused by the Governor in Council. The crowds thronged the streets demanding a reprieve and forced cafes and places of amusement to close. No taxis were to be had, as the drivers are on strike.

So ugly was the situation that troops turned out and are patrolling the streets armed with hockey sticks.

It was Gibraltar’s first execution of any kind since 1896 — and remains to date its last peacetime execution. (Two Spanish citizens were hanged for wartime offenses in 1944.)

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