1932: Asbury Respus, North Carolina serial killer

3 comments January 8th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in North Carolina, a middle-aged man named Asbury Respus was executed for the murder of nine-year-old Vera DeWitt Leonard.

And that wasn’t all: though virtually forgotten today, Respus was a serial killer with eight confessed murders to his name.

He claimed that he fell from a barn rafter as a youth and was never quite the same after that, being prone to “spells” of homicidal rage. This story may well have been true; he had a noticeable indentation in his skull.

According to Respus’s confession, he killed his first and second victims in Northampton County in the early 1900s. Their names were Lizzie Banks, whom he shot, and Zenie Britt, whom he beat to death with a stick. The third victim was Becky Storr, killed in Boydton, Virginia around 1910; she too had been bludgeoned with a stick.

These early murders are attested only by Respus’s own confession; the first verifiable homicide by his hand took place in 1912. Sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Northampton County man named Ed D. Wynne, Respus escaped from a road gang in 1916 and began life as a drifter.

They can’t have hunted this fugitive very hard. He never went far, always staying in the vicinity of Greensboro, North Carolina.

All four victims prior to his incarceration had been African Americans, as was Respus himself. On January 14, 1918, Respus crossed the color line to axe to death a 56-year-old white woman named Jennie Brown in her home, which he then burned to the ground. So thoroughly did his arson consume the premises that no evidence of a crime remained … leaving Respus free to continue his murder spree. From here on out, by whatever happenstance, all victims were white.

On July 22, 1920, he came across a little boy named Robert Neal Osborne and drowned him in a stream, just for kicks. Again he got lucky: little Robert’s death was recorded as accidental. On July 17, 1925, he murdered 80-year-old widow Eunice Stephenson by striking her on the head and hanging her body from a ceiling beam. This homicide was recognized as such but went unsolved for years.

Vera Leonard was Respus’s youngest female victim and his undoing. Respus may have killed her with rape on his mind. As it was, he went with his old standby, a blunt instrument to the head; afterwards, he burned her body “to a char.” He did not blame his “homicidal spells” for Vera’s murder but instead said he’d been out of his mind on drugs.

Respus expressed gratitude that he was going to his death. “I’d rather he dead and in heaven,” he said, “than here on earth being tormented to death.”


It was a busy day for U.S. executioners. Headlines from the Jan. 8, 1932 edition of the New York Sun.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Serial Killers,USA

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1932: Two-Gun Crowley

Add comment January 21st, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. 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 don’t mind it. My love to mother and tell Mrs. Lawes I appreciate all she did for me.”

Waving to a guard:
“How is it, Sarge?”

Francis “Two-Gun” Crowley, convicted of murder, electric chair, New York.
Executed January 21, 1932

Crowley killed patrolman Frederick Hirsch after the officer asked for his driver’s license. Characterized by the press as a “petty city thug,” Crowley had been wanted for questioning in another murder case. After fleeing, Crowley, his girlfriend, and an accomplice staged a two-hour standoff with police, during which he wrote the following: “Underneath my coat will lay a weary kind of heart what wouldn’t hurt anything. I hadn’t anything else do to. That’s why I went around bumping off cops.”

Crowley’s last words previously had been reported as “You sons of bitches. Give my love to Mother,” but no original record of this account could be found.

On this day..

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

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1932: Lee Bong-chang, would-be Hirohito assassin

2 comments October 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1932, Korean nationalist Lee Bong-chang was hanged at Ichigaya Prison for attempting to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito.


The would-be assassin under arrest.

Remembered now as a patriotic hero, Lee on January 9, 1932 chucked a grenade at an imperial procession in Japan as it passed the imperial palace’s Sakuradamon Gate — the aptly-named Sakuradamon Incident. Korea at that point had been directly ruled by Japan since 1910.*

Lee’s hand grenade targeted the wrong carriage, and didn’t even kill the occupants of that conveyance — it just injured a guard. A second grenade failed to explode altogether.

Three months after Lee’s attempt, another Korean, Yoon Bong-gil, also tried to murder Hirohito with a bomb. Both men are interred with garlands at Seoul’s Hyochang Park. A statue of our man Lee, poised with a grenade in hand, stands in the park.

* Newspapers in China — also under Japanese occupation — expressed regret that Lee’s attempt had missed its mark; this impolite language helped to catalyze a Japanese show of force later that month known as the January 28 Incident or the Shanghai Incident.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Japan,Korea,Martyrs,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Terrorists

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1932: Richard Johnson, great-grandfather of Craig Watkins

1 comment August 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1932, two African-American men were electrocuted in Huntsville, Texas.

Richard Johnson was a career criminal already serving a 35-year sentence for various burglaries when he busted out of prison in 1931. He teamed up with 20-year-old Richard Brown to rob a white couple in a parked car.

When the man, Ted Nodruft, tried to drive away, they shot him (he died the next day), and then proceeded to rape his fiancee and steal her jewelry. When caught, each man tried to throw the lion’s share of blame on the other.

These two on their own hardly stand out to posterity, and certainly not in the context of notoriously execution-friendly Texas, whose “List of individuals executed in Texas” Wikipedia entry (most states have such a page) is actually paginated by decade. Here’s the doings for the rest of the 1930s in the still-newish Texas electric chair.

We pause to note them here on this site because they made unexpected headlines earlier this year when Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — the first elected black D.A. in Texas history — publicly revealed that Richard Johnson was his great-grandfather.

Long before that revelation, Watkins had already earned nationwide plaudits for doing what every district attorney should be doing as a matter of course: publicly emphasizing justice rather than conviction counts as his office’s guiding principle, greeting the rising tide of exonerations with a proactive program to search out potential miscarriages of justice rather than doubling down on them … hell, even apologizing to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wrongful convictions.

Watkins knew about the “dark secret of our family” for many years before he mentioned it in the run-up to witnessing his first execution (it was topical because Watkins used the trip to also visit his great-grandfather’s grave in the prison cemetery). How exactly that blood tie has helped to shape Craig Watkins’s outlook is hard to say, but not for any reticence on the DA’s part: he’s been disarmingly public about speaking to the real ambiguities and human costs of the criminal justice system that prosecutors are usually not supposed to acknowledge.

The broader issue is, look, I have walked 25 men out of prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We have gotten this case in Williamson County, where the DA withheld evidence, or it’s alleged that he withheld evidence. Because of that, a guy spent 25 years on death row. The Supreme Court of Texas has instituted a court of inquiry to look into the actions of this individual. At the time he was DA; now he is a judge. You have got the Todd Willingham case. We have had all of these folks who have been exonerated that were on death row throughout our nation.

And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?

Watkins personally opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but seeks it routinely in his capacity as district attorney. Here’s the man expanding on some of those themes in a 30-minute interview with the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate:

Watkins (or someone in his office) blogs infrequently here, and tweets @craigmwatkins.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,Theft,USA

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1932: Yoon Bong-Gil, nationalist assassin

Add comment December 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1932, the Japanese shot Korean Yoon (or Yun) Bong-Gil for bombing a parade dais in Shanghai.

A parade to celebrate the emperor’s birthday may be standard enough fare on the home front, but in a China being swallowed by said emperor’s empire it was a provocative act.

In the first months of 1932, Japan had merrily exploited — or incited — anti-Japanese incidents in Shanghai as pretext for an imperialist mini-war, won handily by Japan.

When the aggressors presented their celebratory pageant of arms in the city’s Hongkou Park (today, Lu Xun Park), our young Korean terrorist* “threw a narrow tin box high in the air. In an ear-splitting roar, the grandstand flew apart like a mechanical toy.” (Time magazine, excerpted in this useful Axis History Forum thread.) All seven of the Japanese VIPs on the dais were casualties, and two of them died: one instantly and another succumbing to his injuries a month later.

“A young Korean patriot has accomplished something tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers could not do,” remarked an admiring Chiang Kai-shek. Coming just months after another Korean activist had taken a whack at Hirohito in Tokyo, the generalissimo couldn’t help but appreciate his brothers in resisting colonization.

For this accomplishment Chiang would later go to bat for postwar Korean independence. But for his part, the patriotic Yoon got only a free trip to Japan for military trial and execution.

When calling in Seoul, drop by a well-appointed memorial hall dedicated to Yoon’s memory … or, at the national cemetery where Yoon’s remains were repatriated in 1946.

You’ll find another subtle memorial to this incident in pictures from the decks of the USS Missouri, where a Japanese delegation surrendered to end World War II on September 2, 1945. Leading the delegation is a distinguished gentleman with a top hat and a cane: it is Mamoru Shigemitsu, walking with an artificial leg thanks to Yoon Bong-Gil’s bomb 13 years before.**


Mamoru Shigemitsu aboard the USS Missouri.

* Note: calling Yoon Bong-Gil a “terrorist” is controversial in Korea. We use the word without moral censure.

** Mamoru Shigemitsu had been Japan’s ambassador to China at the time of the assassination bid.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Korea,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Separatists,Shot,Terrorists

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1932: Paul Gorguloff, who assassinated the French President

Add comment September 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1932, deranged Russian emigre Paul Gorguloff was guillotined for murdering President Paul Doumer four months before.


The forgettable Paul Doumer — distinguished for reasons quite beyond his control as the penultimate President of the Third Republic — was a week short of his one-year anniversary in office when the nutbar gunned him down at a Parisian book fair.

Disturbed 37-year-old Gorguloff had some impenetrably incoherent justification for the murder having to do with some “Idea” formed in a trance-like state.

From the moment of my arrival in Paris, and even in the train, I had a sort of hypnotic obsession that I must kill the President. I went and prayed in Notre Dame; then I drank heavily, and gradually decided to kill myself, the idea almost supplanting that of assassination. After drinking I conceived the idea of getting arrested to prevent me from committing the crime, so I asked a policeman on the Boulevard Saint-Michel a lot of stupid questions, hoping that he would ask for my papers and, finding them not to be in order, arrest me. All the time the Devil was saying: “Kill yourself, if you like, but only after you have killed the President.” Until 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the day of the crime I drank in a bar, emptying a bottle of cognac in the hope that I would get too drunk to do anything. Nevertheless I finally went to the book exhibition in the Rue Berryer, where the President was expected. After I had spoken with M. Farrere [he was later shot in the arm by Gorguloff] and looked at a few books, the President arrived. I was in a kind of hypnotic sleep, and fired without really knowing what I was doing. (The Times of London, May 18, 1932)

Whatever this daemon may have amounted to in Gorguloff’s mind, he cherished it; the brief trial was punctuated by repeated invocation of the never-explicated “Idea”:

France, listen to me! I am the apostle of my Idea. My crime was a great protest in the name of the miserable ones who wait ‘over there’ [in Russia] … My Idea is more precious than my life. Take my life, but save my Idea. (The Times of London, July 26, 1932)

The “idea” may have been fame. Gorguloff’s defense counsel — understandably pinning its hopes on an insanity defense (French link) — entered into the record a request the assassin had forwarded Czech authorities to be launched in a rocket to the moon; a correspondent for Le Matin discovered that the killer had nursed similarly half-baked plots to do in Hindenburg, Lenin, and Czech President Thomas Masaryk instead/as well.

Gorguloff was beheaded just before 6 a.m. outside La Sante Prison in Paris.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions

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