1938: Two anti-Nazi spies

1 comment October 4th, 2017 Headsman

The Third Reich on this date in 1938 guillotined two civilians as French spies.

Seventy-one-year-old merchant Ludwig Maringer had sent French intelligence notes on German industrial production and armaments factories from Berlin.
Thirty-nine-year-old Marie Catherine Kneup had turned mole from the advantageous position of domestic in the household of a German spy.

The latter case specifically — both the execution of Marie Catherine and the prison sentence given her husband Albert — is the subject of the German-language novel Spatzenkirschen.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies

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1938: Anna Marie Hahn, serial poisoner

1 comment December 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1938, serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn was electrocuted in Ohio.

The Bavarian-born immigrant had arrived to Cincinnati espoused to a young telegraph operator. Hahn herself tried her hand at a bakery but soon tired of the tedium of honest work and set herself up better in the lucrative business of elder abuse.

Using an ancient ploy still effective to this day, the “plump and pretty” young woman flitted about the German emigre circles of Cincinnati advertising herself as a live-in caretaker for senior citizens. Once retained, she was in a position to price-gouge for her “services”, pilfer from the estate, and even to so insiniuate herself into her clients’ good graces as to enter their wills. Her first victim, Ernest Kohler, actually left her a boarding house: pretty good work compared to rolling out dough before the sun came up.

Using a variety of poisons,** Hahn killed off five known victims during the Great Depression, making off with tens of thousands of dollars in the process that she largely squandered on gambling.*

The first woman to die in Ohio’s electric chair, Hahn was reportedly stoic until her last hours. Then, overcome by desperation, she slid into a state of collapse and even at the last moments of life bawled “incoherent” pleas to a warden who of course had no authority to help her. Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed (both blog and book) — quotes her frightful last words thus:

Good-bye all of you and God bless you … Mr. Woodard [the warden], don’t do this to me. Think of my boy. Can’t you think of my baby? Isn’t there anybody who will help me? Is nobody going to help me?

* One clever fellow, George Heiss, escaped her clutches when he grew suspicious of a mug of beer she presented him; when Hahn refused to sample it herself, he sacked her — but he did not report her.

** Her husband tipped police off by reporting that she had a bottle in the house literally labeled “poison”. (It was croton oil.)

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1938: Ivan Stepanovich Razukhin

Add comment October 9th, 2015 Headsman


Soviet NKVD execution form records that Ivan Stepanovich Razukhin was shot by Lt. A.R. Polikarpov on October 9, 1938. From Zek: The Soviet Slave-Labor Empire and Its Successors, 1917-2000.

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1938: George Brain, Wimbledon murderer

Add comment November 1st, 2014 Headsman

The headline story from Wimbledon in July of 1938 ought to have been the conquest of its renowned tennis championship by Don Budge. The American great didn’t drop a set in seven rounds romping to a men’s title that left him on the cusp of sweeping the Grand Slam tourneys that year. Weeks later, Budge did indeed complete the Slam by taking the U.S. Open — the first player to accomplish that feat in a single year.

But on the morning of July 14, two weeks after Budge raised the silverware, Somerset Road opposite Centre Court yielded up to a passing motorist the body of a 30-year-old woman.

The badly mangled body suggested a hit-and-run, but examination soon revealed that Rose Muriel Atkins had come to her grievous end via the trauma of a small, sharp instrument and not a large, blunt one: the tire marks over Irish Rose’s legs merely a post-mortem red herring.

By no coincidence, a local driver that morning skipped his shift and disappeared, leaving his van in a buddy’s garage. Once police caught wind of this circumstance and found in the van extensive bloodstains that the fugitive deliveryman had unsuccessfully scrubbed, the nationwide manhunt for George Brain was on.

Brain managed to stay on the lam for more than a week, which caused him to miss his intended July 21 wedding date, but this futile flight was really the strongest defense he could offer.

Irish Rose was a well-known prostitute and Brain a well-known satyr; once arrested, he acknowledged having picked her up in the company van with a professional assignation in mind. At that point, he was already in the soup with his employer for stealing 37 quid to squander on hedonism — money he was past due to return to them. (The firm’s reporting him for theft when he skipped work is what brought his creepy van right to police attention.)

Per Brain, the courtesan tried to extract more money from him by threatening to tattle on the naughty use of his work vehicle, at which point “I said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ I struck her with my hand. She started screaming. Then everything seemed to go blank and I hit her with a starting handle which I keep in the van. When I came to there was her body lying in the van.” (London Times, September 20, 1938)

The old “blacked out during this person’s inexplicable murder” defense. Too bad for that story that he actually killed her with a knife; the judge incredulously instructed the jury that “one who takes a chisel or a knife, such as has been produced — a cobbler’s knife — and tears up the throat of a woman, cannot be heard to say that he never expected her to die and never intended to kill her.” Though Brain meted out the wounds with (per the coroner’s characterization) “savage determination” he had still not gone so ravingly feral that he couldn’t be arsed to stage the hit and run or rummage the moll’s purse for her last four shillings. The jury needed only 15 minutes to convict.

Brain’s convivial reputation around Wimbledon earned him 16,500 subscribers to a petition to save his neck despite what he’d done to Atkins’s, but the Home Secretary turned him down flat. Brain was executed at Wandsworth Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint.

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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1938: Vladimir Kirshon, Bulgakov antagonist

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Soviet playwright Vladimir Kirshon was shot at the Kommunarka “special object” shooting range outside Moscow.

Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.

In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.

In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)

This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.

Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.

The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.

21 April 1937

A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?

23 April 1937

Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.

(These entries, quoted via J.A.E. Curtis’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Michael Bulgakov: a Life in Letters and Diaries, refer only to Kirshon’s professional fall. He was not arrested until that August.)

Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.

* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.

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1938: Juan Soldado, patron saint of Mexico-US migrants

1 comment February 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Juan Castillo Morales was shot in a cemetery for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl.

Morales was executed under the strange ley de fugas (“law of fugitives”), an expedient quasi-lynching arrangement that gave the inmate the opportunity to flee for his life in front of the firing detail. He didn’t make it — nobody ever made it.

But the method of his death is the least bizarre thing about his story.

Juan Castillo Morales is better known today as Juan Soldado, “Juan the Soldier.” He was an army private serving at the border town of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, Calif., when young Olga Camacho disappeared on February 13. (Yes, that’s four days before the execution.)

Olga’s abduction — and the discovery of her body, throat slashed and sexually molested — triggered a public outcry.

Our man was arrested on the 14th, and the evidence quickly started stacking up against him. Even his wife incriminated him. At least, allegedly: there’s very little documentary evidence remaining from the case, and very little about the life of Juan Castillo Morales, all of which helps fuel its latter-day ambiguity.

Castillo Morales, again allegedly, confessed in jail. The public had its pedophile: the man was nearly lynched by rioters threatening to put the whole town to the torch. This radioactive case was disposed of in great haste by a secret military tribunal before the whole city spiraled out of control. Thousands of onlookers turned out for the public “fleeing” execution.

So far, so unsurprising (at least by the standards of these grim pages): a notorious sex crime, a mini-moral panic, a perp done (however unusually) to death.

Now, it gets interesting.


With blood lust sated and Morales entombed in the cemetery where he was shot to death, mysterious reports began circulating … that his grave was oozing blood, and that his anima (soul) was floating around proclaiming his innocence.

Book CoverMaybe there were people who already believed that but dared not speak up when lynch law reigned. Maybe the rushed, not-altogether-judicial “investigation” and the cruelty of the execution catalyzed some latent communal guilt.

But for sure, once the idea that the man was innocent got out there, it had legs. There’s a folk belief that “those who have died unjustly sit closest to God”; before 1938 was out, newspapers had already begun to report people praying at the grave … and some of them reporting miracles worked in consequence.

He wasn’t Juan Castillo Morales the executed army private any more: for posterity, he would be Juan Soldado, the everyman sublime.

Against any odds you’d care to stake, Juan Soldado has developed in the decades since into a going cult figure in Tijuana, and throughout the border region — a popular saint (by no means acknowledged by institutional Catholicism) for everyday people’s problems. A chapel built over his resting place bursts with offerings and thanksgivings.

Juan, as befits a border-town saint, is particularly regarded as a patron of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and particularly liable to relieve the troubles of migrants. With that following has, of course, come a general understanding among most devotees that Juan Soldado was innocent, even that he was executed to cover up for a powerful general who was the real killer.

Juan Soldado receives tribute and supplication throughout the year, but particularly on June 24: so little is known about John the Soldier’s real biography that the official feast date of John the Baptist has been appropriated for his celebration, and picnics, pilgrimages, mariachi bands singing “happy birthday”, crowd the cemetery on that day. (The Day of the Dead is another biggie at Soldier John’s shrine.)

Olga Camacho’s family still lives in Tijuana and understandably disdains the cult around the little girl’s presumed murderer.

The curious phenomenon of a devotional following for an executed sex-killer is sensitively explored in the late Paul Vanderwood’s Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint.

As a historiographical phenomenon, Soldier John fits into a pattern of folk saints from early 20th century Mexico, including similarly dubious characters like executed bandit Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking — as well as non-executees like Pedro Jamarillo and Nino Fidencio.

Part of this, surely — and Vanderwood developed the theme — is the story of the border, the story of Tijuana and Mexico in the 1930s. But part, too, is the story of Catholicism and of the contradictory, occasionally transformative, emotions excited by execution.

The potential of even an unambiguously guilty criminal to become in his passion a channel for worship goes all the way back to, well, the Passion itself, and the “good thief” on the cross with Christ. Twentieth century France has its own guillotined murderer who’s also a candidate for sainthood. And this is hardly the only occasion when folk veneration has produced an unofficial saint. Some of them even become official saints with the passage of time. But official or otherwise, once adopted into the practice of a living community of believers, they are animated by the life of that community and in return they succor the same.

“I pray to Juan Soldado even if the church does not approve,” one woman told Vanderwood. (Here quoting his “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections” in the Winter 2001 Journal of the Southwest). “I do not think that God minds.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Murder,Myths,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Rape,Religious Figures,Shot,Soldiers,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.

Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.

Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.

His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.

A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.

However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*

* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).

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1938: Corneliu Codreanu, Romanian fascist martyr

Add comment November 30th, 2011 Headsman

“In place of the weak and beaten man who bends with every breeze, a man who is all too common in politics and other fields, we must create for this nation a man who does not bend, who is inflexible.”

-Corneliu Codreanu

On this date in 1938, 14 political prisoners of the Romanian Legionary movement were extrajudicially executed — including Corneliu Codreanu, one of the Romanian right’s leading spirits.

The son of a Bukovina schoolteacher in what was then Austria-Hungary, Codreanu came to political maturity in the interwar heyday of Greater Romania. It was a moment of national aspiration — the Romanian state had never before grown so large — but it was abutted by the great threats of Germany and Russia, and haunted by nationalism, economic crisis, shaken political authority, and all the other spooks conjured by the first World War.

For Codreanu as for many at that time it was the stage for a blood-and-soil death struggle against Communist agitators and sinister Jewish financiers.

But his vision was an intensely positive one as well: a valiant new Romania founded by a courageous new man, honorable and true to the virtues of the nation’s noble peasant stock. “We shall create,” Codreanu declared, “a spiritual atmosphere, a moral atmosphere, in which the heroic man may be born and on which he can thrive.”

Codreanu’s vehicle for stamping out these heroic countrymen was the Legion of the Archangel Michael* which our principal founded in 1927. Named for God’s ass-kickingest enforcer, this movement/militia was not above creating its spiritual atmosphere with political assassinations by adherents widely noted for a willingness to die for the cause.

Later known as the Iron Guard, the Legion, in the view of German historian Ernst Nolte, “plainly appears to be the most interesting and the most complex fascist movement, because like geological formations of superimposed layers it presents at once both prefascist and radically fascist characteristics.” (Qutoed here.)

As his Legion’s name suggested, Codreanu was intently religious — virtually a mystic, and a messianic Romanian Orthodox Christianity was essential to his new Romania. His movement took root in a peasant society, not an industrial state with a revolutionary working class to crush or co-opt. Rather, it organized in opposition to a mediocre king and a feckless, heavily non-Romanian oligarchy which maintained its enervating grip on the nation with “endless appeals to the Fatherland which it does not love, to God in whom it does not believe, to the Church where it never sets foot, to the Army which it sends to war with empty hands.”*

And also to the police, which clapped Codreanu and his confederates in prison after the revolutionaries declined the elite incumbents’ offer of political collaboration.

In 1938, Codreanu was hit with a long prison sentence for sedition. Uncowed, the Legion grew ever more overtly aggressive when Nazi Germany successfully dismembered Czechoslovakia; Berlin made the Legions plainly aware that it saw their movement as Romania’s future, German-allied government. Futilely maneuvering for his own scope of action, Carol attempted to decapitate the Iron Guard by having its imprisoned leadership “shot while trying to escape” on this date.

This did not turn out to help the king. Codreanu’s movement traded stripe for stripe with its foes; within two years, Carol had been forced to abdicate and the Iron Guard helped govern (albeit with tension) a fascist state.

The contemporary Romanian right aggressively reclaimed Capitanul, “the Captain”, after the fall of communism. Codreanu is now revered among not only among Romanian nationalists but in fascism’s wider populist Strasserite tradition. (Gregor Strasser, who liked the socialist part of national socialism too much for Hitler’s taste, was among those murdered on Nazi Germany’s Night of the Long Knives.)

* Eugen Weber in Varieties of Fascism, quoted by Anthony James Joes in “Fascism: The Past and the Future,” Comparative Political Studies, April 1974

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Romania,Shot,Strangled

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1938: Albert Dyer, sex killer (presumably)

4 comments September 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Albert Dyer hanged at California’s San Quentin prison for a triple rape-murder.

Dyer is a very modern bugbear, a monster right out of cable news and amber alerts and stranger danger.

As often with those, his path to infamy began with disappeared white girls — Jeanette Stephens, Melba Everett, and Madeline Everett, all ages 7 to 9 — who went to picnic at an Inglewood park one summer afternoon and never came home.

The police set about hunting for any known sex offenders in the area, but the offense would ultimately be attributed to a neighbor who was active with the concerned search parties that scoured the area.

Induced by a police threat to deliver him into the hands of a lynch mob, Dyer admitted to having lured the girls off on the pretext of catching rabbits, then strangling them to death and raping their corpses.

(Here’s a disturbing set of photos of the girls’ bodies.)

Dyer attempted to repudiate these confessions, which you’d have to say were obtained under a bit of duress. The case against him apart from self-incrimination was a tissue of meager circumstantial evidence; Dyer’s persona smacks of mental deficiency that might have left him easy prey for manipulation by his captors.

Newspapers described Dyer as “dull” and “stupid”, and in fact the defense attempted to cast doubt on the prisoner’s mental competence and the reliability of his confessions. The jury took agonizing days to reach a consensus, and the last man holding out against conviction would later say that he finally gave in after being led to believe that the judge considered Dyer guilty. (This revelation was among the defense’s last arguments for executive clemency, at the end of the process.)

In short, for all the horror of the crime, the case was not cut and dried in 1938. The passage of time — with our latter-day awareness of false confessions and developmental disability — will hardly make it more so, unless some forgotten crime locker still preserves a testable genetic sample. But no surprise, the popular press had a different take. The Los Angeles Times editorialized (Aug. 27, 1937) anticipating that

[t]he verdict of a jury that Albert Dyer must die for the murder of three Inglewood children is a long step toward the eradication of sex crime in California. It is the only outcome of the case that public opinion could afford to sanction.

The evidence against Dyer was overwhelming; and there could be no mitigating circumstance which could justify this State in letting such a miscreant go on living.

Even if Dyer is mentally defective, there is no reason for his continued existence. He could never be safe to have at large. Legally, his condition is not insanity; he knew what he was doing and that it was wrong. Eradication of such types is necessary for public safety.

And the death penalty is the best deterrent. If others have this criminal tendency, his fate may cause them to repress it. Dyer, hanged, may save the lives of countless California innocents. In any scale, the safety of children must weigh more heavily than his forfeited right to live.

Dyer was the second-last person hanged by the Golden State before the gas chamber came online to replace the gallows. His legacy was California’s 1939 passage of a law governing (pdf) the handling of “Sexual Psychopaths”. (This site suggests he was also posthumously exploited for the cause of marijuana criminalization.)

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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