1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Wrongful Executions

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1956: Elifasi Msomi, witch doctor

Add comment February 10th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1956, Zulu witch doctor Elifasi Msomi was executed in at Pretoria Central Prison in South Africa for the murders of fifteen people.

The devil made him do it, he said. Or, rather, Tokoloshe, an evil spirit in Zulu folklore.

Msomi had not been successful in earning a living at witch-doctoring, so he consulted an experienced colleague for advice. According to Msomi, the man introduced him to Tokoloshe and said, “Get me the blood of 15 people.”

Over the next year and a half, Msomi stalked KwaZulu Natal, slaughtering victims as the demon pointed them out, and collecting their blood in bottles. He would attack them with a knife, hatchet or knobkierie after luring them to an isolated area.

The first victim was a young girl. To prove to the demon just how dedicated and obedient he was, Msomi hacked his victim to death in front of his girlfriend. Tokoloshe was delighted, but the girlfriend was horrified. She went straight to the cops and had Msomi arrested. Then he escaped from custody … with Tokoloshe’s help, he said.

Msomi followed up on his first act by slaying five children. In April 1955, he was linked to multiple murders and arrested again, but again he escaped and picked up where he’d left off.

In his book Murder By Numbers: The 100 Most Deadly Serial Killers From Around The World, Robert Keller says,

Serial killers seldom stop killing of their own accord, but that is exactly what happened with Elifasi Msomi. Having collected the blood of his fifteenth young victim, he said that Tokoloshe thanked him for his service, then bathed with him in the river before they parted company.

Without Tokoloshe to help him anymore, Msomi soon came to police attention again when he was arrested for petty theft. In custody once more, he freely confessed to the murders and led authorities to some bodies, but he said he wasn’t responsible for his actions and was only following Tokoloshe’s orders.

There was, however, the problematic fact that he had raped some of his victims and robbed others; Tokoloshe hadn’t requested THAT. At the trial, two psychologists testified that Msomi was very intelligent and got sexual pleasure by causing pain to other people.

Writing of this case in Real Vampires, Night Stalkers and Creatures from the Darkside, Brad Steiger says,

Such was the reputation of the witch doctor’s power of channeling the Tokoloshe that prison officials granted permission to a deputation of tribal chiefs and elders to view Msomi after he had been hanged on February 10, 1956. These men were thus able to return to their respective tribes and proclaim that the witch doctor was really dead and that Tokoloshe had left him to seek out another host body.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Serial Killers,South Africa,The Supernatural

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1959: Jose Cipriano Rodriguez

Add comment January 17th, 2017 Headsman

UPI photographer Andrew Lopez won the Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of Jose Cipriano Rodriguez, a corporal of the deposed Batista dictatorship, going to his firing squad execution in the bloody first weeks of Cuba’s revolutionary conquest. Rodriguez had been found guilty of two murders by a snap tribunal that same day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers

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1952: Wolfgang Kaiser

Add comment September 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1952, chemistry student Wolfgang Kaiser was guillotined at Dresden as a saboteur.

Back in the years before the Berlin Wall closed East Berlin the Communist half-city’s accessibility to its NATO-aligned western half constantly nettled the security state.

Our man Wolfgang Kaiser (English Wikipedia entry | German) lived in West Berlin but studied in East Berlin — or he did until he lost the spot when trying and failing to transfer to a West Berlin university.

That left Kaiser plenty of time on his hand to vent his political disaffection by working for the anti-communist resistance organization Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit — the “Combat Group Against Inhumanity”. When all was said and done, inhumanity got the best of its combat with Kaiser.

His chemistry background was a welcome skill set for the KgU activists, who put Kaiser to work building fuses for balloons that rained anti-Soviet propaganda leaflets in the east, as well as putting together incendiaries and the like with which to perpetrate nuisance-level harassment. The Stasi had him under surveillance immediately, although his old college buddy was such an amateurish snoop that he flat-out told Kaiser that he was watching him for the East Germans.

Eventually, however, that buddy persuaded Kaiser to turn himself in and become a collaborator himself — with a chance to resume his university career as one of the plums. Instead Kaiser found himself charged up as a saboteur “endangering the peace of the world.” The young man’s fighting spirit was also sabotaged by some sort of misleading representations made to him in his detention, because he entered the show trial believing it to be exactly that: just a show. So mistakenly confident was he that his death sentence was strictly ceremonial that he reportedly bragged about his penthouse accommodations behind bars.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Terrorists

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1950: The Chaplain-Medic Massacre

Add comment July 16th, 2016 Headsman

One of the noteworthy atrocities to decorate the chaotic early weeks of the Korean War took place on this date in 1950: the Chaplain-Medic Massacre.

Named by the Joe McCarthy-led Senate committee that in 1953 set out to catalogue (pdf) “a series of war crimes against American and United Nations personnel which constituted one of the most heinous and barbaric epochs of recorded history,” the Chaplain-Medic affair stars a chaplain and (wait for it) a medic.

During the Battle of Taejon in mid-January as the North Korean army swept down the peninsula, it committed a number of war crimes against American POWs.

In this instance, the North Korean 3rd Division came upon some 20 to 30 injured Americans of the 19th Infantry in the hills outside the village of Tuman. They had been left during a withdrawal in difficult terrain by their comrades who could no longer carry them, in hopes that another American detachment would pass through who could escort them back to friendly lines.

With them were two uninjured and unarmed non-combatants who had voluntarily remained behind to succor the stricken men: Catholic chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, and medic Linton J. Buttrey.

As the North Korean patrol approached, Buttrey was able to flee. (He would later testify to McCarthy’s committee.) Felhoelter, remaining, knelt to issue extreme unction to his comrades and was executed mid-prayer … followed by all the wounded men in his care.

Buttrey earned the Silver Star for remaining to treat the wounded men. Felhoelter was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; his name appears on Arlington National Cemetery’s Chaplain’s Hill monument to slain military clergy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Korea,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,North Korea,Shot,Soldiers,South Korea,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1952: Lloyd Edison Sampsell, the Yacht Bandit

Add comment April 25th, 2016 Robert Elder

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

Thanks for a million things. Thanks for a million things. I’ve got a son, six foot three inches, one hundred and seventy pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas right now. … So I’ve left something good — one decent thing out of a dirty life …

— Lloyd Edison Sampsell (aka “the Yacht Bandit”), convicted of robbery and murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed April 25, 1952

Sampsell and an accomplice plundered Pacific Coast banks before stealing away in his yacht. He pilfered a total of $200,000 in his career but died with only $5.27 to his name. Sampsell, age fifty-two, was convicted of killing Arthur W. Smith in a San Diego finance company robbery.

Before the gas took its effect, he turned to the nearly one hundred witnesses gathered and winked.

On this day..

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

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1954: Henry Frank Decaillet

Add comment April 2nd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.

Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.

Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.

The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.

On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.

Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.

When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.

He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”

Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.

Less than a year passed between murder and execution.

On this day..

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

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1951: Ants Kaljurand, Estonian Forest Brother

Add comment March 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the Estonian anti-Soviet partisan Ants Kaljurand was executed by the NKVD with comrades Arved Pildin and Juhan Metsäären.

Renowned for his ferocity and derring-do, “Ants the Terrible” was among 12,000 to 15,000 or so Estonian “Forest Brothers” who organized armed resistance to the Soviet Union.

The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.

German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**

Germany had some traction recruiting SS volunteers locally, and Estonia’s small Jewish population was exterminated so efficiently with the aid of right-wing militias that the country was officially Judenfrei by the time of the Wannsee Conference. (Kaljurand himself was an Omakaitse paramilitary.)

Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.

For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.

* “In Estonia it was hard for us to live, much less operate,” a Soviet partisan in Estonia reported. “At partisan training, they told us that the people were waiting for us to drive out the Germans … But we were never told that we’d be assaulted by the Estonians themselves.” (From War in the Woods: Estonia’s Struggle for Survival 1944-1956, a source extremely laudatory of the Forest Brothers.)

** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”

† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Estonia,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Rus',Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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1957: Jack Gilbert Graham, terror of the skies

Add comment January 11th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Gilbert Graham was gassed* on this date in 1957 in Colorado for a cold-blooded mass murder in the skies.

Just a petty crook until his turn towards cinematic infamy, Graham fell badly in debt and looked to the friendly skies to recover his financial footing.**

When his mother, Daisie King, flew to Alaska to visit family on November 1, 1955, Graham purchased a $37,500 life insurance policy on her at the airport,† knowing that 25 sticks of dynamite had been packed into her luggage. When Graham’s bomb exploded minutes after departure, mom went down in the wreckage … and 43 other people besides. Nobody survived. Chillingly, it appeared to be a crime copied from a notorious 1949 Canadian airline bombing that sent two people to the gallows over an affair of the heart.

These cardinal sins turned literally deadly were bad enough when folks in the way got quietly poisoned off, but one could hardly fail to be alarmed at the prospect of an actual trend developing out of random private grievances turning into terror in the skies with bystanders killed by the (at least) dozens.

Once Colorado authorities zeroed in on Graham, they sought a quick trial and maximum sentence for deterrent effect. Graham halfheartedly retracted his confession but otherwise did little to fight the result; if anything, his callous indifference to the fates of a whole planeload of people stood him in a very poor light.

“As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it,” he told a Time magazine reporter. “Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”

He was easy to find, and even easier to hate.

The bombing happened on the first of November in 1955. Twelve days on, he had confessed to the FBI.‡ By May of the following year, Graham was convicted in a sensational trial — one of the first ever televised — and his appeals wrapped up a mere eight months after that.


Graham is also the reason Lenny Bruce is on the no-fly list.

* Graham died hard, screaming and thrashing against the straps in the gas chamber. The warden assured observers (accurately) that this sort of thing, horrible as it was to behold, was not uncommon.

** In Mainliner Denver: The Bombing of Flight 629, Andrew Field argues that personal resentment towards his mother drove Graham more than did pecuniary motives.

† Air travel was regarded as a much more perilous venture at this time, and insurance was commonly sold at airports.

‡ Though the feds helped the investigation, there were at that time no applicable federal statutes under which to charge Graham — so the judicial proceedings were strictly Colorado’s affair. Formally, he was charged with only one count of murder: that of his mother. It was charge enough for the task at hand.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Colorado,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1950: Norman Goldthorpe, knot botch

Add comment November 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.

Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.

Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.

Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.

Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”

The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”

A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.

“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”

Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.

Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.

Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”

Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”

After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.

In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.

Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”

It was the last hanging Harry Kirk ever worked.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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