1939: Fifty-six Poles shot in retaliation at Bochnia

1 comment December 18th, 2014 Headsman

We owe this discomfiting executioner’s-eye view from the ranks of German soldiers as they gun down Poles in the town of Bochnia on December 18, 1939 to a partisan attack two days prior by a Polish underground organization called White Eagle. Fifty-six civilians were executed in retaliation.

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1939: Nelson Charles

Add comment November 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Nelson Charles hanged for stabbing his mother-in-law to death in a drunken altercation.

Charles, an indigenous man and World War I veteran, was described by a retired U.S. Marshal who knew him as ” quiet, peaceful and polite person and I have never known him to even have an argument or get into trouble of any kind” — that is, when not drinking. Alas, both he and the victim, 58-year-old Cecilia Johnson, had an affinity for the stuff.

Though Charles committed this murder in “Indian Town” of segregated Ketchikan, Alaska, he hanged in the territorial capital of Juneau.

This was Juneau’s very first execution (previous Alaskan executions had occurred in Nome, Sitka, and Fairbanks), and the improvised gallows arrangement tucked into a stairwell pit under the outside staircase of the town prison is something to read about. One can do that in this here article of the Alaska Justice Forum.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also has a very moving essay written by the then-21-year-old cub reporter who was one of the dozen official witnesses:

Men have been stricken with fatal diseases and we have known they would die. We have held our buddies in our arms at the front and watched the last breaths spend themselves. But even then there had been hope, and when not hope, the awareness that death might stay away awhile. But none of that now; nothing less than a miracle could save this fellow and there are no miracles in this life. Soon he would be a stone.

From under his vest the marshal brought out the black hood. With the deputy standing on the other side, assisting him, he began to draw the thing onto the man’s head. I had not felt too bad until the priest had appeared in his long, black robes; I had seen those robes and tears had come. Nothing like tears came now, but still I hated the black, hated the hood. Take it easy now, you fool, I thought to myself. Look away for a few seconds. So I dropped my eyes and looked into the pit; then up again. They were having trouble with the hood. It was too small. Halfway on, its edge caught onto the man’s right ear.

“Fix my ear,” he said quietly. His last words. Like a small boy who is about to be punished and, with a half-sob, begs his parent to be careful not to break the toy in his pocket.

Read the rest of it here.

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1939: Six assassins of Armand Calinescu

1 comment September 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Romanian Prime Minister Armand Calinescu was gunned down on a Bucharest street in an ambush by the Iron Guard. (Romanian link)

Before the day was out, six of members of the hit squad were lined up and machine-gunned on the very same spot.

Armand Calinescu

Calinescu was a conservative politician trying to fight off the rising fascist movement in his country — that aforesaid Iron Guard — and preferred to keep Romania in politic neutrality and friendly with England and France rather than hitching its fate to Nazi Germany.

This entailed an increasingly acrimonious struggle throughout the 1930s against the fascists. Calinescu once called the Guard “an association of assassins,” and the prospect of taking a bullet from them can’t have been far from his mind. Calinescu’s fingerprints were all over press closures, pre-emptive arrests, and still worse offenses to outrage the far right. After years in the cabinet working hand-in-glove with the hated-by-fascists King Carol II, Calinescu finally became Prime Minister in March of 1939. Carol hoped he could be the bulwark against a Legionary takeover.

If by his enemies ye may know a man, know that Calinescu was taken seriously enough for a multilateral meeting between representatives of the Iron Guard, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany in order to make the arrangements for his murder. But Calinescu would probably have just as soon have preferred his life to this tribute of his foes.

Upon news of the assassination, Calinescu’s place was immediately filled by Gen. Gheorghe Argesanu, whose one week as head of government was distinguished by a ruthless crackdown on his country’s homegrown terrorists.* The very next day’s British papers, in the same stories reporting the assassination, carried news “of an exemplary punishment” delivered within hours: “Last night, under the glare of powerful arc lamps, the murderers were publicly executed by machine-gun on the spot where the crime had been committed.” (London Times, September 22, 1939)

Nor was that the last exemplar.

The Times reported on September 25th that the ensuing days had seen “more than 300 former Iron Guards were shot” all around the country, including many “in the open street as a public example, on the pattern of the machine-gun executions in public at the scene of the crime.”

The “example” did not have the intended effect: in the span of another year, a fascist-aligned government had control of Bucharest and King Carol had hightailed it to Mexico, never to return.

* The Iron Guard would pay back Argesanu a year later by killing him during the Jilava massacre of its political prisoners.

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1939: Charles McLachlan

Add comment September 15th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1939, 57-year-old Charles Augustine McLachlan was gassed at San Quentin State Prison in California. He’d murdered a six-year-old neighbor girl at his home in Downey, California the previous year.

McLachlan was a widower who was half Irish-American and half Mexican by descent but described as white. A master painter and decorator, he owned a plot of land with a few houses he’d built himself.


Mugshot of perp; newspaper sketch of victim.

McLachlan lived alone in the smallest of the houses, an eight-by-twelve-foot shack; the largest building was occupied by his son and daughter-in-law, Joe and Carmen, and their child. The parents of the victim, Jennie Moreno (her name is spelled “Jenny” in many accounts), had known McLachlan for about thirty years. Although he was occasionally seen drunk, he had a reputation as a kind, likeable man.

That is, until April 14, 1938.

At 10:00 that morning, Jennie Moreno and her younger sister went to give a magazine to Carmen McLachlan.

Jennie’s parents last saw her at 11:00 a.m., while she was getting ready to go to church. When she didn’t return home at noon as expected, her parents began searching for her. At some point a neighbor smelled a strange odor and noticed smoke pouring out the windows of McLachlan’s shack, which had no chimney or flue.

The police were summoned. They arrived at his house at midnight and found bloodstained, partially burned clothing belonging to both Jennie and McLachlan lying on a sheet of metal on the floor of the shack. The floor had been washed and was still sopping wet.

A search of the premises turned up Jennie’s shoes and a bloodstained hammer. McLachlan’s mattress was saturated with blood and there was blood on the floor beneath the bed as well. He was arrested on the spot.

At the same time the sheriff’s deputies were arresting McLachlan, a search party that included Jennie’s father and uncle found her partially nude body concealed among the weeds in the vacant lot next to McLachlan’s property.

When they saw McLachlan being led away in handcuffs, they guessed he must be the murderer. Jennie’s uncle struck McLachlan in the face and several others in the crowd called out, “Lynch him!” But the police were able to disperse these aspiring vigilantes without too much difficulty.

McLachlan, who had been drinking wine and whiskey since 9:00 a.m., was quite drunk at the time of his arrest and at first said he had no memory of what happened. He ultimately made a confession to murder. McLachlan stated he’d been lying in bed resting with the door open when little Jennie wandered inside. He took her into the bed and began to fondle her, then struck her in the head with a hammer after she screamed. He waited until after dark, and then carried her body to where it was later found.

Jennie’s body showed evidence that she had in fact been violently raped, something McLachlan never admitted to.

He would go on to repudiate his entire statement, saying the police had kept him in jail without sleep or food and coerced the confession. He pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, waived his right to a jury trial and was heard by a judge.

McLachlan claimed he heard “witches” speaking to him and said the voices “say most anything.” While in jail he would refuse to eat or speak for days at a time, and he refused to cooperate with his defense. A psychiatrist hired to examine him found “evidence of pre-senility and psychic pain” but believed he was feigning mental illness.

Found both guilty and sane, he was condemned to death. The judge to whom McLachlan had entrusted his fate called Jennie Moreno’s murder “one of the most brutal and horrible ever perpetrated in Los Angeles County.”

Charles McLachlan walked into the gas chamber at 10:10 a.m., eighteen months after his crime. “Twisting and straining against the straps that bound him,” he took seven minutes to die.

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1939: Alexander Kosarev, Spartak Moscow patron

1 comment February 23rd, 2013 Headsman

Set against the background of the Soviet moderisation process, the development of sport in the two decades from the early 1930s to the early 1950s not only established the world-recognised pattern of sport in the Soviet Union and, later, in many other communistcountries (like China, Cuba and the GDR), it also resulted in a phenomenon unprecedentedin world sports history: the arrest and execution of a host of sports personalities. No one knows the exact numberof victims; but the purges carried off five sports ministers, Olympic Committee members for the Baltic states, heads of the major physical education colleges, eminent sports scientists and medics4 and probably thousands of leading athletes.

-Jim Riordan*

Sports and the physical body emerged early in Soviet history as a major doctrinal focus. A 1925 party resolution (quoted in this pdf) declared it

“essential to consider physical culture not only from the standpoint of physical education and health, and as one aspect of our youth’s cultural-industrial and military training, but also as a method of educating the masses.”


Dziga Vertov’s Soviet silent masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929). This clip should cue up at the sports bit (45:26), but the entire film is a must-watch.

In the Stalin years, Soviet athletics took on the institutional patterns that continue to structure Russian sport to this day.

Given his position during the time of purges, Alexander Kosarev might have been bound for a bad end regardless. At least he had the consolation of leaving his fingerprints on a sporting institution that still thrives to this day.

We get to Kosarev by way of another man, Nikolai Starostin, an elite athlete of the 1920s and 1930s.**

A hockey star as well as a footballer, Starostin supported his family with his athletic gifts in the 1920s, and in 1922 helped found the local sports club that eventually developed into one of Europe’s most storied champions.

After juggling sponsorships and team names for a decade, Starostin approached Kosarev about bringing the club under the patronage of the Communist Party’s youth organ Komsomol, which Kosarev headed. He also suggested the name by which the team is still known, Spartak Moscow — paying tribute to the ancient rebel Spartacus.†

Komsomol support was not Komsomol control, however: Spartak remained basically independent, and this set it starkly apart from the other top Soviet teams, each controlled by a state ministry and its associated industry. (e.g., Lokomotiv Moscow, or the Red Army team CSKA.‡)

The football bully on the block at the time was Dynamo Moscow, a club dating to the tsarist age that was in the ambit of the internal security services. Dynamo won the first Soviet championship in 1936.

But Spartak quickly stepped over the Lokomotivs and established itself as Dynamo’s top rival.

Football matches, like everything else in Stalinist Moscow, were about politics, bureaucratic infighting, and the characteristic through-the-looking-glass rules of the dictatorship. Spartak used a controversial goal to beat Dynamo Tblisi (there were six Dynamo teams in the top division) in a Soviet Cup semifinals in 1939, the last before World War II. After Spartak went on to win the final, the Dynamo teams’ scary patron, NKVD boss Lavrenty Beria, ordered the semifinal match replayed. Spartak, already the tournament champion, then proceeded to win its semifinal a second time, compounding Beria’s fury. The referee from the first match was later arrested.

Beria was a passionate fan of the beautiful game — the ultimate football hooligan, you might say. He frequently attended Dynamo matches.

The secret police chief had even played for a Georgian club in his youth; in fact, he had played against (and lost to) a Starostin team. (Starostin thought Beria was a dirty player. Truly the Georgian was a man who tackled life studs-up.)

In contrast to Dynamo’s establishment backing, independent Spartak didn’t even have a home stadium until 1956. Nevertheless, it soon began attracting a sizable popular following. Its tactics were less stodgy; its persona less institutionally leaden; its star, Starostin, was a legend. And Spartak won, a lot.

“The people’s team” became a pole for — not resistance, exactly. But something a little bit alienated. A little bit defiant. Sport might not be your thing, but you have to appreciate any team that can embarrass the national torturer-in-chief. You have to appreciate the opportunity to hiss the secret police under cover of innocent fandom.

Unfortunately, Spartak’s Komsomol patron Kosarev fell. There’s an apocryphal story that Kosarev’s fate was football-related; surely the rivalry did him no favors when his life was hanging in the balance.

But it was actually just the routine infighting that did Soviet bureaucrats in throughout the late 1930s. His power eroded; a Komsomol official whom Kosarev had previously booted went over his head to Stalin himself, and Uncle Joe’s apparatchiks brought him down at a November 1938 Komsomol plenum with accusations of favoritism and alcoholism. (Stalin popped in briefly to see if “maybe this is a system and not a mistake?”)

Kosarev spent November 19-22 desperately fending off accusations at the rostrum, was removed from his post by the end of the session, and resided in a Lubyanka dungeon before the month was out. And you thought your committee meetings were awful.§

Kosarev got the bullet. Spartak lived on.

So did Starostin, who was not executed but sent to the Gulag. In 1948, Stalin’s son Vasily extracted Starostin to use as a coach for the Soviet Air Force’s football team, leading to a bizarre saga as a, well, human football between Vasily and Beria. (Beria’s security services kept trying to arrest Starostin, leaving the coach shuttled from city to city as the political winds shifted — and sometimes even bunking with his young protector and the revolver Vasily kept under his pillow. All for football!)

Kosarev was rehabilitated shortly after Stalin died. Khrushchev mentioned him by name in his “secret speech” denouncing the previous years’ terror.

Book CoverAnd since Stalin’s death precipitated Beria’s own execution, Starostin was rehabilitated as well. “It was like the sun rising in the Far North after the long Polar night,” Starostin remembered of 1953.

The exiled football legend returned to coach and manage Spartak Moscow — from 1955 until 1992, when he retired at age 90. Nikolai Starostin was associated with the club he helped create in 1922 almost as long as the Soviet Union was associated with Russia: 70 years … minus those lost to the Arctic labor camps.

“Camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings, personifications of the GULAG brutalities and horrors, were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer,” said Starostin in his memoirs of the starstruck commandants who treated their special prisoner with kid gloves and invariably recruited Starostin to coach local clubs. (Dynamo clubs, ironically.) “Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them.”

“The soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach.”

* “The Strange Story of Nikolai Starostin, Football and Lavrentii Beria,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1994). Riordan, a Briton, played for Spartak in the 1960s. (He wote an autobiography about it.)

** Nikolai was the oldest of four Kosarev brothers, all four of whom played for Spartak. All four were also arrested and tortured in 1942. Nikolai was the only one of them to remain involved in football after his release.

† Spartak was a change from the previous name, Red Presnya — an equally revolutionary nomenclature.

‡ In the 1930s, the Red Army team was known as CDKA. The reason its name changed was because a CDKA-based national team lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1952 World Cup, and Stalin in a huff ordered the CDKA club dissolved.

§ Information on Kosarev’s fall and the November 1938 Komsomol plenum from Seth Bernstein’s 2011 University of Toronto graduate paper “‘Lifestyle Cannot Be Separate from Politics’: Degeneracy and Promotion in the Purge of the Soviet Komsomol Leadership, 1934-1938”. This paper no longer appears to be available online.

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1939: Pete Catalina and Angelo Agnes, Colorado murderers

Add comment September 29th, 2012 Headsman

CANON CITY, Col. Sept. 30 (AP) — Two convicted murderers died in the lethal gas chamber and a cardiogram, a record of heart action, showed that one of them died without fear.

Pete Catalina, 41, a Salida (Col.) pool hall operator convicted of shooting a man in an argument over a 50-cent stack of poker chips, agreed to meet death wearing equipment recording his last heart beats.

Angelo Agnes, 31,* a Denver Negro convicted of slaying his estranged wife, declined to wear the device. Like Catalina, however, he did not fight the lethal fumes and both men were pronounced dead at 8:02 P.M., exactly two minutes after Warden Roy Best released gas into acid containers beneath their chairs.

I.D. Price, an electrical expert who operated the heart recording instruments, said that Catalina’s heart beat appeared strong and even for one minute and 10 seconds, then stopped abruptly when he inhaled the poison fumes. Agnes inhaled the gas 55 seconds after its generation began.

The “quickest and most humane execution we ever had” was later alleged to have experienced a gas leak that caused witnesses to flee their seats.

* Agnes was friendly with Joe Arridy, who had been executed in the same gas chamber earlier that same year.

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1939: The only triple execution in Manitoba

9 comments February 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Canadian province of Manitoba carried out at Headingley Gaol the only triple execution in its history.

Peter Korzenowski and William Kanuka hanged side by side just after midnight that February 16, while their accomplice Dan Prytula waited 14 minutes for his turn on the gallows.

Less than a year before, drunk on moonshine, the trio beat and kicked 81-year-old Anna Cottick to death on her Dauphin-area farm in an attempt to plunder the place of a rumored $1,000. In fact, they only found twenty-three bucks.

According to an article that appeared on the regrettably extinct Manitoba’s Buried History site,

The process of finding enough corroborating evidence to obtain murder convictions was the stuff of modern crime dramas.

As soon as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived at the Cottick farm, members noticed fresh tire tracks entering and leaving the yard. They were tracked three miles west to within 150 yards of Kanuka’s residence, and from there to the Gilbert Plains home of Prytula’s sister. The tire marks were a perfect match to the treads on Prytula’s 1929 Ford. It was confiscated and, while casts were taken of its treads, Prytula was arrested and his blood-stained clothes, boots and three .32 calibre bullets were seized and sent to the RCMP crime lab for testing.

As one group of police officers were arresting Prytula and Korzenowski, another searched the Cottick residence for additional evidence. Almost immediately they noticed what appeared to be fingerprints on the glass smashed by the assailants. Fragments were sent to experts in Winnipeg, along with a window frame and piece of wall where the bullets fired by Korzenowski and Prytula lodged.

The RCMP also searched the residence and yard of Korzenowski, located a few hundred yards from where Kanuka had been staying. There they found the revolvers used in the break-ins, hidden in a pile of stones. Korzenowski was promptly arrested, and three days later he and his two friends were part of an identification line-up paraded in front of the hospital beds of the Cotticks.*

To top all that off, they bugged the men’s jail cell with a dictograph and snared them in several incriminating conversations. Representative remark: the lawyers are so expensive, “No wonder one has to go robbing.”

* Anna’s 91-year-old husband survived the home invasion.

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1939: Joe Arridy, on Woodpecker Hill

8 comments January 6th, 2011 Headsman

Update: Embargoed as of this post’s publication, Joe Arridy’s growing ranks of supporters had submitted to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter an application for a posthumous pardon. On January 7, 2011, Gov. Ritter granted that pardon — a fitting conclusion to a cinematically heart-rending story.

“Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”

-Gov. Bill Ritter


On this date in 1939, Joe Arridy “walked to his death with the faith of a child” (Los Angeles times, Jan. 7, 1939) up “Woodpecker Hill” — where the victims of Canon City, Colorado’s gas chamber (since retired) were buried.

Shortly before execution, Joe Arridy gives away the toy train he received from warden Roy Best to a fellow prisoner.

A young Syrian-American with the mental age of a six-year-old riding the rails during the Depression, Arridy was picked up for a teenage girl’s rape-murder in a literal lynch-mob environment: he was nearly pulled from his cell for summary punishment.

Instead, the good citizens let justice run its course to the same conclusion.

The damnable thing — well, the other damnable thing — is that we have about as much reason to believe Joe Arridy committed the crime as we do you or I.

He was linked to the murder by nothing but an evolving series of unreliable confessions fed by the sheriff to his suggestible prisoner (and, later, a single “matched” hair with a suspicious chain of custody; matching hair without DNA is still an unreliable forensic technique today). The real murderer was even in custody, and was executed for the same crime while Joe Arridy’s appeals ran their futile course.

“Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the disgrace,” Arridy’s appellate lawyer pleaded to a deaf court.

Robert Perske’s Deadly Innocence, about Joe Arridy.

Executed Today is honored to welcome Robert Perske, a pioneering pastor to the intellectually and developmentally disabled whose book Deadly Innocence helped pull the Arridy case out of obscurity.

This post is an edited version of Perske’s affidavit to the governor’s office in support of the pardon.


On March 28, 1992, Sociologist Richard Voorhees sent me a poem from an out-of-print book that described a warden weeping as he watched a man in a death row cell playing with a toy train before being walked to a gas chamber (“The Clinic” (.doc) by Margeurite Young in Moderate Fables, 1944).

“The man you kill tonight is six years old,
He has no idea why he dies,”
Yet he must die in the room the state has walled
Transparent to its glassy eyes.

I sent a copy of the poem to Watt Espy, Director of the Capital Punishment Archives, in Headland, AL. Espy researched and responded with information that tied the poem to the life and trials of Joe Arridy who at age 23 was executed on January 6, 1939.

During the next two years after receiving the poem, I traveled up and down the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains from Cheyenne to Pueblo, and to Grand Junction on the Western Slope. News stories were discovered from the reading of old microfilm rolls in The Pueblo Chieftain, The Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News (Denver), The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction) and Wyoming Tribune (Cheyenne). Archivists and historians were interviewed at The Regional History Division of Western Colorado (Grand Junction), Wyoming State Archives (Cheyenne), District Archives of the Pueblo Public Library, Local History Center of the Cañon City Public Library, and the Colorado State Archives (Denver).

Joe Arridy’s Earliest Years

Joe Arridy was born to non-English speaking Syrian immigrants in Pueblo, Colorado on April 29, 1915. He attended the first grade in Bessemer Elementary School. At the beginning of his second year, the principal called on the Arridy family and told them that their son could not learn and asked them to keep him at home. The parents reported that for the next four years, Joe stayed around the house. He was a passive but happy child. According to his parents he was the happiest when he was alone playing all by himself. His favorite pastime was making mud pies.

Intelligence Testing and Institutionalization

At age 10, Joe was committed to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, in Grand Junction. He was administered the Binet-Simon Test. The results showed that he was unable to repeat four digits (4-3-7-9). When shown the color red, he said it was black and that green was blue. He usually spoke in incompete two or three word sentences. As the questions became harder to answer, he remained silent. The examiner listed him as “an imbecile with an IQ of 46.” Later his institutional records showed no critical incident reports. For the most part he was a shy and quiet loner.

Nine months later, Joe’s father missed his son. He asked for his son to be returned home. The request was granted. Upon his return, he tended to take lonely walks all over town. These walks continued for three years.

At age 14, the walks came to an end when a probation officer caught a gang of boys performing sexual acts on him. The officer wrote an angry letter to the court, labeling Joe as “one of the worst mental defective cases that I have ever seen.” The court ordered his immediate return to the institution in Grand Junction.

During the next seven years at the institution, his records show that he was incapable of working on the farm crews or sitting in classrooms. Therefore, he was given a “day activity,” working side by side with a kindly kitchen worker, “Mrs. Bowers.” The worker reported that Joe was only capable of “Tasks of not too long duration, can wash dishes, do mopping of floors, can do small chores and errands. He depends on others for leadership and suggestions.”

Railroad Boxcar Riding

At age 22, he and a few other inmates watched men riding on top of railroad boxcars that passed the institution. So together they wandered off the institution grounds and also jumped on boxcars. They took the 24-hour ride through the mountains to Pueblo. Later they took the trip back. Joe was last seen in Grand Junction on the evening of August 13, 1936. He was believed to have jumped onto a boxcar either that night or on the next morning.

After that, Arridy disappeared from sight until he walked up to the kitchen car of a railroad work gang on August 20, in the East Railroad Yards of Cheyenne, Wyoming, dirty and hungry.

Rape and Murder in Pueblo

On Saturday evening, August 15, 1936, slightly before or after midnight, Dorothy Drain, 15, and Barbara Drain, 12, were bludgeoned about their heads while sleeping together in the same bed, at 1536 Stone Avenue in Pueblo. Dorothy was raped and beaten to death. Barbara was near death, but survived. Later, she identified Frank Aguilar as the attacker at his trial. She was not present at Joe Arridy’s trial. She did not even identify Joe Arridy as a co-attacker.

Sheriff Gets a Confession from Arridy Even Though the Real Killer is Already in Custody

On August 26, 1936, Joe Arridy was arrested by two railroad detectives and turned over to Sheriff George Carroll. Carroll, like all law officers in all of the towns up and down Colorado’s Eastern Slope, was actively picking up suspects and interrogating them regarding the attacks on the Drain girls in Pueblo.

After an hour and a half of questioning, Carroll called a reporter and told him that he had just received a complete confession for the Pueblo crime from Arridy. He recited to at least one reporter a long series of wordy, complete sentences that Arridy purportedly uttered. According to Carroll, Arridy was the lone killer and he committed the crime with a club.

At first, when Pueblo Police Chief J. Arthur Grady received news of the confession, he was shocked. The real killer, Frank Aguilar, a former WPA worker who had been supervised by the Drain girls’ father, had already been arrested for the crime.

Aguilar had been arrested during the funeral of Dorothy Drain. The Pueblo police had even recovered the weapon used in the crime. It was the head of a hatchet with nicks that matched the wounds on the girls. The Pueblo police kept all this evidence in silence because Aguilar vehemently denied committing the crime.

Following that, Sheriff Carroll changed his story. After conducting another interrogation, he then reported to the press that a hatchet—not a club—was used in the crime. He also claimed that Arridy did not do the crime alone. According to Carroll, Arridy said he did it “with Frank.”

Sheriff Carroll was a famous but loquacious individual who was known to talk long and loud about being in the posse that finally caught up with and finished off the notorious Barker gang.

Now with his regular announcements to the press he remained at his long-worded best. Carroll had been so totally verbal in his interrogations of Arridy, nothing was written down on paper. Nor was any confession signed. Consequently the confessions and changes in them were dictated daily to reporters.

Later, in the trial of Arridy, Sheriff Carroll became the star of the case. He spoke in his heroic, over-wordy style. According to the press, he did not speak from a single note. He simply testified from memory.

Frank Aguilar is Quickly Convicted

Aguilar’s trial came quickly, starting on December 15, exactly four months after the crime. It ended seven days later. His executed came quickly, too: on August 15, 1937, just two days short of the anniversary of Dorothy Drain’s murder.

Aguilar Identified as Lone Murderer in an Identical Crime in the Same Neighborhood

After the death sentence, Aguilar was brought face to face with Mrs. R. O. McMurtree, 58, who identified Aguilar as the lone attacker in a similar crime that happened two weeks earlier and just three blocks away from the Drain crime. She and her aunt, Sally Crumply, 72, were sleeping in the same bed when Aguilar attacked. He beat them on the heads as he had done in the Drain home. Like Dorothy Drain, Sally Crumply was bludgeoned to death.

Sheriff Carroll Assumes Leadership in all Aspects of the Arridy Investigation

After announcing Arridy’s first confessions to reporters and Chief Grady, two Pueblo detectives sped through the night to Cheyenne. The next morning, they joined in an added interrogation with Carroll leading it. Then they drove back to Pueblo.

Later that day, Carroll drove Arridy to Pueblo. He was present at the Pueblo Police Station when Arridy and Augilar may have been brought together. He took leadership when Arridy was taken to the Drain home and the crime was reenacted. He was present at the prison in Cañon City when Aguilar gave a signed confession that marginally included Arridy’s initials in a lower left column. That confession was printed in its entirety in the Pueblo Chieftain but was withdrawn and was never heard in a court.

Sheriff Carroll Became Chief Presenter of Evidence Against Arridy

During the prosecutor’s evidentiary presentations, Sheriff Carroll took the stand five different times. The transcript shows how Carroll was allowed to launch forth as a riveting story teller. He testified that Arridy was in complete control of his thoughts, and speaking in clear sentences that described the colors on the walls in the bedroom and the colors of nightgowns that the girls wore, and even the colors of the dresses the girls would be wearing when they went to the Sunday church services.

The Joe Arridy that Carroll described was a far cry from the Arridy who often spoke in unfinished sentences and did not know who Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. Nor did he know what a hatchet was or that his own father was present in the courtroom.

The Defense Loses in a Sanity Hearing, and Eschews an Evidentiary Defense

The defense argued at a pre-trial sanity hearing that Arridy was “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”. The question before the court: “Does Joe Arridy have the capacity to tell good from evil and right from wrong?” If not, he should be found to be insane and not guilty. Three psychiatrists testified that Arridy did not know right from wrong, but they hedged by saying that he was not insane. According to them, one needed to be normal first before ever being insane, and they claimed that Arridy had never been normal.

The jury deadlocked at six to six, but an hour later, voted that Arridy would have to go on trial for murder.

As strange as it may seem today, the defense attorney had conducted no investigation in the case. At the beginning of the trial he announced that he would not present an evidentiary defense and would only cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution.

He then requested that the judge set aside the earlier sanity trial verdict and that he be given permission to argue a sanity case one more time. He furthermore requested permission to make his opening argument only after the prosecution had completed with its evidentiary case. The judge agreed to all of these conditions.

The same three psychiatrists (joined by a fourth) gave the same testimony once again.

But Sheriff Carroll voiced his views unchallenged. After touting his 30 years of experience and claiming that he interrogated Arridy for “six or seven hours,” the prosecutor asked him, “Based on your experience [is] Joe Arridy capable of distinquishing right and wrong?” Carroll responded, “I think there is no doubt, whatever, but what he is”.

A verdict of “guilty” was rendered on April 17, 1937, and Arridy was sentenced to death.

On August 13, 1937, Frank Aguilar was executed, and on the same day, Sheriff Carroll and two railroad detectives received a $1000 reward for making the arrest of Joe Arridy in Cheyenne.

For a year and a half, a pro bono “Citizen Lawyer” Gail Ireland fought valiantly to save the life of Joe Arridy. During that period, Ireland managed to win at least six stays.

On January 6, 1939 at 6:15 p.m., the Colorado Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny the last petition. Governor Teller Ammons called the warden at 6:30 p.m. and ordered that the execution be carried out.

The chaplain administered the Roman Catholic Church’s “Last Rites for a Child.” It called for the Chaplain to recite each phrase of “The Lord’s Prayer,” one at a time with Arridy repeating it, all the way to the “Amen.”


Joe Arridy’s rusty motorcycle plate served as his grave marker for 71 years, until it was replaced with a headstone reading Here Lies an Innocent Man

This volume by Perske addresses the criminal justice system’s (mis)handling of the developmentally disabled. He’s written a number of other books, fiction and nonfiction, humanizing this.

Robert Perske also graciously agreed to address a few additional questions that we had for him.

ET: How did you come to this case?

RP: It’s almost a magical thing to me. Back in 1991, I got a poem from a valued colleague of mine who is a professor, a sociologist. He was digging through some old books in Greenwich Village, and he found a poem about a warden weeping before the pellets were dropped and all of that, and how the warden cried, and how he complained about how this man playing with a toy train would die.

And I got ahold of it and went down to my buddy Watt Espy [of the Espy file -ed.], and he found it. He really dug for me, what a guy, and he found it and I headed for Pueblo and dug and dug and dug from 1991 to 1995.

What motivated me was that after coming out of World War II, I went to school and became a chaplain at an institution for mentally disabled people in Kansas. I worked my ass off to be a good pastor to them, and so when I found this much, I really started digging.

Did they lead him into the confession?

Oh, yes. He was arrested in the railyard by Sheriff George Carroll. And Carroll was a swashbuckler. He was a hero, and he was a mouthy sonofagun, and he pretty well set up the case.

As soon as he got the so-called confession, he [Carroll] didn’t call the police chief first — he called the press. He said he had the guy who did it.

But they already had the guy in Pueblo, Frank Aguilar.

Was there outright misconduct by the investigators here? Did they realize, or should they have, that they might be railroading someone?

Here’s the deal. People with so-called mental retardation were seen as nobodies in those days. They didn’t have community services, so they all went like Joe, to the institution.

In the year I was born, 1927, Oliver Wendell Holmes issued his ruling that all such people could be sterilized.

Carroll knew he had somebody like that in Joe. There was a lynch mob starting to form in Pueblo, because this head of the WPA was a good solid citizen, and when his daughters were hit, and one killed and raped, there was a lot of hiding of people.

I’ve known a lot of Joes. And he’s lovable, and he’s trusting, and he’s naive, and he’s concrete-thinking, so half of the things he says, he doesn’t really understand. But on the other hand, very dependable, and very lovable. Nobody in Pueblo saw that, but [Warden Roy] Best picked it up, and then the inmates in prison picked it up too.

In their hearts of hearts, yeah, they knew. But they figured he wasn’t worth anything. He was retarded, mentally defective was the word they used. They knew they had the real killer, but they go back and get Joe to amend the confession and now he was there “with Frank”.

If you’ve got a serious mental limitation and you’re facing a capital charge in the criminal justice system today, what’s going to happen to you?

In the year 2002, Atkins v. Virginia, they banned the death penalty in those cases. And they played around with the IQ number, but in some states they’re going farther than that because you have all kinds of other disabilities. I’d say by and large, except for Texas, people are looking at these people — not more kindly, but not looking at them as people who should be executed.

If we would have had that for Joe, he would not have been executed.

Can you give us a lay definition of developmental disability?

The most prominent one I’ve seen when I worked in the institution, and yet today when I work the streets and agencies and group homes and that sort of thing, is the inability to abstract from concrete things. For example, I’ve had guys say to me, I’d say, “why did you waive the right?” and they say, “you’ve got to waive it the right, you can’t waive it the wrong.”

Barry Fairchild, down in Arkansas — Barry thought that the reading of the rights was some kind of opening prayer.

These people survive on the basis of having abstract thinkers as their friends and protectors, so consequently guys like Richard LaPointe had cops as their friends, because they leaned on authority figures. And of course the police department are committed to secure the safety of the neighborhood, but then if there’s a terrible murder and somebody starts to blame them, they’re going to cooperate with that.

I’ve got one where, on a tape recorder, they’re saying, “if you tell us, we’ll all go home”. So that’s concrete thinking that my guys usually have.

Richard Lapointe is still in prison, not on death row. He has hydrocephalus, it’s called Dandy-Walker syndrome, so he’s a guy with all kinds of disabilities. He’s not athletic at all and gets dizzy when he stands up or stops suddenly, and yet they got him to confess to a highly athletic murder of a woman with multiple violent stab wounds and moving the body.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Interviews,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1939: Eugen Weidmann, the last public beheading in France

24 comments June 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1939, French murderer Eugen Weidmann dropped his head in the basket outside a prison in Versailles. France’s signal history of public beheadings died along with him.

The career criminal Weidmann knocked around prison in his twenties.

Further to the maxim that penitentiaries are the school of crime, Weidmann’s stint for robbery connected him right up with a couple of accomplices who started up a kidnapping-robbery-murder ring when they got out.

They left several bodies (and miles of newspaper copy) in their wake in late 1937 before the inevitable capture, confession, condemnation. (Weidmann’s accomplices all managed to avoid the chop.)

The beheading this day did not come off well; a massive crowd* jostled for a view, a scene belied by the tame crowd photo of the execution’s official witnesses.


Two photographs of Eugen Weidmann’s execution in Versailles 17 June 1939. (Click for larger images.)

The government immediately banned public executions. Although it wouldn’t be the government much longer, the change stuck.

But the crowd scene wasn’t the half of it.

Still photos of the guillotine had been snapped for years, but a delay putting justice into its heavy downward-crashing motion that morning meant the execution took place in plenty of light for an illicit moving picture.

Caution: Mature content. This is video of the guillotine in action.

From the time this film cut, France’s national razor would do its cutting only behind prison walls. It would be another 38 years yet before it trimmed its last client.

* According to his biography, British horror actor Christopher Lee — age 17 — was in the crowd.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Kidnapping,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1939: Evgeny Miller, White Russian

2 comments May 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former tsarist Gen. Evgeny Miller was executed in Moscow, having been brazenly kidnapped by the Soviet NKVD from exile in France.

Miller opposed the 1917 Russian Revolutions (both of them) and ended up on the wrong side of the ensuing civil war as Aleksandr Kolchak‘s man in Archangel.

There, Miller (he was half-German) was the beneficiary of the Entente powers’ anti-Soviet incursion of British, French, American and Canadian troops.

These powers soon found that their respective peoples, wearied by the late world war, had little appetite for spilling more blood in the service of enthroning a Romanov, and cut bait in 1920.

Miller wisely did likewise, and watched the great workers’ and peasants’ republic take shape from the safety of Paris — where, in the 1930s, he chaired the anti-communist Russian All-Military Union (ROVS).

Soviet intelligence had infiltrated this body, however, and hatched a bold plot* to shanghai Miller and smuggle him out of the country in order to cause ROVS leadership to pass to the Soviets’ own agent, Nikolai Skoblin. Although they got Miller, they didn’t quite pull off the putsch, since the wary general had left behind a note outlining his suspicions of Skoblin in the event foul play should befall him.

Imprisoned at Lubyanka, Miller was personally interrogated by NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov, but according to Vladislav Goldin and John Long,

little or nothing of what Miller had to report about the recent activities of the ROVS was unknown to the NKVD … the leaders of the NKVD found themselves saddled with a prominent prisoner of no significant value to Soviet intelligence and from whose capture, at the same time, nothing useful could be derived by way of publicity or propaganda.

The fall of Ezhov sealed the doom of General Miller, whose abduction had from the outset been his inspiration. In these circumstances, given his continuing uselessness to the NKVD, Miller’s elimination became an inevitable element in Commissar Beria‘s liquidation of the so-called Ezhovshchina, an operation which lasted from late 1938 through at least 1940. Although part of this undertaking involved the release of up to 200,000 of Ezhov’s prisoners, no such option was available in the case of General Miller for whose disappearance the Soviet government had consistently denied any responsibility. Accordingly, on 11 May 1939, after more than nineteen months of agonizing solitary confinement, Commissar Beria, with no viable alternative, ordered the trial and execution of the long-suffering General Miller in a process, ironically, that was fully implemented in less than twenty-four hours.

[it was] an ill-conceived, poorly executed and totally unnecessary adventure that, in the end, failed to benefit any of its apparent perpetrators.**

Skoblin, for his part, fled, disappearing to a still-unknown fate. His wife, Nadezhda Plevitskaya, copped a 20-year sentence for helping arrange the kidnapping, and died in prison.

They may not have gotten ROVS, but at least they made celluloid. Skoblin’s shadowy activities in France in this period are the inspiration for the 2004 French film Triple Agent.

* Georgy Kosenko, who we’ve previously met in these pages, helped orchestrate the kidnapping. (Times being dangerous as they were, the wheel of Red Terror turned against Kosenko so quickly that Miller actually outlived him.)

** Goldin, Vladislav I. and Long, John W. “Resistance and Retribution: The Life and Fate of General E.K. Miller”, Revolutionary Russia, 12:2 (1999), pp. 19-40.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,USSR

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