1955: Gerhard Benkowitz and Hans-Dietrich Kogel, of the KgU

Add comment June 29th, 2018 Headsman

Anti-Communist resistance fighters Gerhard Benkowitz and Hans-Dietrich Kogel were executed by East Germany on this date in 1955.

Benkowitz

The two Weimar civil servants — respectively a teacher and a municipal statistics analyst — Benkowitz and Kogel both affiliated with the Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) which you could translate as Combat Group Against Inhumanity, a western-backed spy/sabotage network harassing the Communist regime.

The KgU’s resistance ran more to the informational rather than the kinetic, but Benkowitz and Kogel both admitted to scouting a railroad bridge in Weimar for a potential bombing target. They were induced by the promise of sparing their lives to play the desired role of penitent auto-denunciator for their joint show trial; the promise, as will be inferred by their presence in these annals, was not honored.

Although the KgU’s West Berlin brain trust was safe from the vengeance of the Stasi, arrests and infiltration of its informer network in east put an end to this organization before the 1950s were out.

On this day..

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

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1951: William Watkins, one man’s life and death

Add comment April 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1951, William Watkins hanged for drowning his eleventh child.

An execution that was barely noticed in its time and would be nigh-forgotten today, it’s revived in all its messy humanity in a book titled Execution: One Man’s Life and Death. John Mervy Pugh, the son of one of Watkins’s prosecuting barristers, watched Watkins’s two-day trial as a young man and was still so troubled by it many years later that once “it all came tumbling back into my mind” he decided that he “could not let it rest.” Pugh’s empathetic book plumbs the trial and police records, supplemented by interviews with Watkins’s surviving family and even Watkins’s executioner, the ubiquitous Albert Pierrepoint.

“This was one case I never expected would have taken place,” Pierrepoint told Pugh. “In my opinion many men have been reprieved for a lot worse crime than this.” According to Pugh, many others involved the case, from prison warders to court officials, were equally shaken by the unexpected denial of clemency. Watkins’s guards, who had a good feel for how these things played out, had confidently reassured the convict that he would surely never hang.

Forty-nine years old at his death, which was barely ten weeks after the death of the infant for which he was condemned, Watkins was a factory worker who scrabbled an honest if impecunious living with his second family. Once he was charming and gregarious, but an advancing congenital deafness and the strains of Britain’s hard years through Depression and war had left him taciturn and “prematurely old; his once black hair was now steel grey and his face permanently looked as though he needed a shave.” (His vanishing hearing also robbed him of his longtime driving profession.) He’d had nine children with his first wife but had left her for their former boarder whom Pugh anonymizes as “Maisie”. Though never married, the two lived as man and wife in a run-down home at the back of 79 Clifford Lane in Birmingham. They had a four-year-old son together. Then Maisie got pregnant again.

By both parents’ own admissions it was a child that they did not want and could not afford. (Bill still continued dutiful maintenance payments to the family he had deserted; the last one arrived after his arrest.) Maisie gave birth at home — she’d had no medical attention at all during her pregnancy — on the night of January 20, 1951. Minutes after she delivered, the baby was drowned, and Watkins’s fate was sealed.

Bill and Maisie lived cheek by jowl with their neighbors and Maisie’s condition had been obvious; it was no more than a couple of days before their observable comings and goings (specifically, Maisie’s not coming and going) had generated the inference of a birth … and Bill’s evasiveness generated rumors that demanded investigation.

When men arrived bearing papers and sharp questions, Bill’s answers were not very coherent or consistent. His excuses for that — panic in the moment, and the weariness of repeated police questioning later on — did not quite seem equal to the gravity of a dead infant, which he made no effort to hide when pressed. Minutes after the birth, the father said, he was washing the bloody newborn off and “it fell in the bowl.” So … scoop it out? He didn’t, and even said he couldn’t, for no satisfactory reason: alternately because his wife was shouting or, as he once allowed, “I suppose I panicked and we did not want the child.” It’s a disordered story for what in that moment seems for all the world a disordered soul. Quite disturbingly, the child was also found stuffed head-first in a pillow slip; was this because Bill had socked away the corpse in a vain attempt at concealment, or was it because he had callously stuffed the still-living creature inside the sack before “bathing,” intending all along to asphyxiate it?

This last interpretation surely carries an outrage beyond “mere” infanticide, perhaps the very margin by which Watkins swung. In notes before he recommended Home Secretary Chuter Ede against a reprieve (in effect, this recommendation was the decision) Permanent Under-Secretary of State Frank Newsam recorded the view that “this is a shocking case of the massacre of an unwanted infant by drowning as if the infant were a kitten.”

To Pugh’s eye, it seemed Watkins barely helped his own attorneys at all; he remarks that in revisiting the transcripts years later it is obvious how fragmentary was Watkins’s understanding of events, so hard of hearing was he. His near-deafness led others to take him for vacant and stupid; he’s repeatedly referred to as simple-minded by figures who encounter him, even his own barrister, although he was nothing of the sort. Yet Pugh also wonders whether the “prematurely old” Watkins had not indeed simply given up, somewhere along the line. The hangman Pierrepoint shared the same impression when he first spied the prisoner, as he later told Pugh: “he looked so dejected and slightly stooped, as though he couldn’t care less; suddenly I felt sorry seeing a man looking so sad and just waiting to die.”

At 8.00 a.m. the Chaplain arrived and gave Bill communion. Together they said the Lord’s Prayer and in the name of the Christ he served, the Chaplain forgave Bill for what he had done. The two prison officers found themselves affected by the scene and wished that time would not linger; the last hour always seemed the longest.

At 8.40 a.m. Mr Blenkinsop (the Undersheriff) arrived, and was quickly taken to the Governor’s office. Dr John Humphrey (the Prison Doctor) was already there. At 8.55 a.m., Pierrepoint and his assistant stood outside the door of the condemned cell and were joined within a minute by the Governor, the doctor and the Chief Prison Officer.

Within the cell Watkins was now seated with his back to the door, and seconds before the door opened, looked up, sobbing, and said to the Chaplain, “I have never met so many kind people in my life as I have met since I have been here. Why did I have to come to prison before people are so kind?” The Chaplain had to turn away for fear of showing his own emotion. Already the Under-Sheriff had given the signal: it was 30 seconds past 8.59 a.m. The door opened; Pierrepoint was behind Watkins: “Come on, old fellow,” he said in his soft northern voice. He pinioned his arms, and with an officer either side, Bill was escorted through the now opened doors to the scaffold and Pierrepoint remembers that he walked steadily into the chamber. The assistant was down on his knees pinioning his legs, Pierrepoint put a hand under his drooping chin, placed a white hood over his head and then the noose, stepped back and pulled the lever. Since Pierrepoint had entered the room, twelve seconds had passed: William Arthur Watkins was dead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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1957: Larbi Ben M’Hidi, in the Battle of Algiers

1 comment March 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Algerian revolutionari Larbi Ben M’Hidi — more familiarly referred to as Si Larbi or Ben M’Hidi — was extrajudicially executed in French custody.

He was one of the founders of the militant nationalist National Liberation Front (FLN) and was a critical commander in the guerrilla war against French occupation, the Battle of Algiers. Small wonder he also features prominently in the cinematic masterpiece of the same name, where he and his opposite number, the French Col. Mathieu, are bracingly clear-eyed as to their respective sides’ necessary forms of terror.

In this scene,* for instance, the captured Ben M’Hidi is asked by a journalist whether it is not cowardly to have women kill people with bombs hidden in their baskets.

“It’s it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” the shackled M’Hidi replies. “Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

This exchange adapts a conversation that “Col. Mathieu’s” real-life model, Marcel Bigeard, reportedly had with his prisoner over dinner.

Bigeard respected Ben M’Hidi too much to torture him but the French brass was not so sanguine — perceiving that the Algerian would present a great danger to the occupation as a political prisoner. This was a dirty war, and men like Ben M’Hidi met dirty fates.

Major Paul Aussaresses,** the officer eventually tasked with dispatching the revolutionary, described how it happened in his The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957.

Ben M’Hidi didn’t want to cooperate and Bigeard knew full well what the consequences of such a refusal would be … would he have talked under torture? We knew that Ben M’Hidi was responsible for most of the attacks and that he deserved the gallows ten times over, yet it wasn’t absolutely certain that he would be found guilty in court.

On March 3, 1957, [General Jacques] Massu and I discussed the problem in the presence of [Massu’s second-in-command Roger] Trinquier. We agreed that a trial of Ben M’Hidi was not a good idea. There would have been international repercussions …

“So what do you think?” asked Massu.

“I don’t know why Ben M’Hidi should get preferential treatment compared to the other rebels. When it comes down to terrorism the leaders don’t impress me any more favorably than their underlings. We’ve already executed many poor devils who were carrying out this guy’s orders and here we are hesitating for three weeks just to find out what we’re going to do about him!”

“I agree with you completely, but Ben M’Hidi is not just some cipher who will be quickly forgotten. We can’t just make him simply disappear into thin air.”

“There’s no way we can hand him over to the police either. They claim they’ll give him the third degree to make him talk but I’m convinced he won’t say a word. If there were to be a trial and he hasn’t confessed, he could actually walk away free, along with the entire FLN cadre. So let me take care of him before he becomes a fugitive, which is bound to happen if we keep on hesitating.”

“Very well, go ahead and take care of him,” answered Massu with a sigh. “Do the best you can. I’ll cover you.”

I understood that Massu already had the government’s approval to proceed.

I picked up Ben M’Hidi the following night at El-Biar. Bigeard made sure he was somewhere else because he had been told ahead of time that I was coming to take the prisoner away. I came with a few Jeeps and a Dodge pick-up. There were about a dozen men from my first squad, all of them armed to the teeth. Captain Allaire was in charge and had a little combat group lined up and presenting arms. I asked him to go get Ben M’Hidi and hand him over to me.

“Present arms!” ordered Allaire, when Ben M’Hidi, who had just been awakened, was escorted out of the building.

To my amazement the paratroopers of the 3rd RPC gave the defeated FLN leader his final honors. It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend. This spectacular and somewhat useless demonstration didn’t make my job any easier. Obviously at that instant Ben M’Hidi fully understood what was in store for him. I quickly shoved him into the Dodge. We traveled very fast since an ambush to free him was always a possibility. I gave very strict orders to the NCO guard sitting next to the FLN leader:

“If we’re ambushed, you shoot him immediately, even if we come out unharmed. Make sure you knock him off without hesitating!”

We stopped at an isolated farm that was occupied by the commando unit belonging to my regiment and located about twenty kilometers south of Algiers, on the left off the main road. A pied-noir had placed the farm at our disposal. It was a modest building and the living quarters were on the ground floor. My second team was waiting for us there.

The commando unit of the 1st RCP included about twenty men, some of whom were draftees, but all of them were completely reliable. Captain Allard, nicknamed Tatave, who was very much devoted to me, was in charge. I had told him what was going on and he had been briefed. I told him to have his men set up in a corner of the room where Ben M’Hidi would be placed. The farm was messy and they had to move a few bales of hay around and sweep the floor. While this was taking place the prisoner was kept isolated in another room, which had been prepared. One of my men was standing guard at the door.

Then I entered with one of the soldiers and together we grabbed Ben M’Hidi and hanged him by the neck to make it look like suicide. Once I was sure he was dead, I immediately had him taken down and brought the body to the hospital. Following my orders, the NCO who was driving left the engine running while the car was parked, in order to be able to drive off at top speed without volunteering any explanations as soon as the emergency room doctor appeared. It was about midnight.

I immediately phoned Massu.

“General, Ben M’Hidi has just committed suicide. His body is at the hospital. I will bring you my report tomorrow.”

Massu grunted and hung up the phone. He knew full well that my report had been ready since early afternoon, just to make sure. Judge [Jean] Berard was the first one to read it. It described in detail the suicide that was to take place the next night. Berard was impressed:

“Well, this is very good! You know, it does make sense!”

Actually the report didn’t make sense for very long. Massu called me to his office a few days later.

“Aussaresses, I’m in the shit. District Attorney [Jean] Reliquet [a torture foe -ed.] has called me in.”

“What? He dared summon you!”

“Yes, to discuss the suicide of Ben M’Hidi.”

“But that’s an outrageous thing to do! Because of your position you shouldn’t have to answer the summons. I’ll go, since I’m your representative to the legal authorities.”

I therefore paid a visit to the judge’s office.

“Mr. District Attorney, I am here to represent General Massu. Because of my position I can discuss the circumstances of Ben M’Hidi’s death. I’m also the author fo the report that you’ve seen.”

The district attorney was absolutely enraged.

“Yes, of course! Let’s discuss your report! What you state in it is purely circumstantial. And only circumstantial! There’s no proof. Can you military types offer any proof at all?”

“I can offer our good faith.”

I think that had I slapped Reliquet across the face it would have had less of an impact than that answer.

“Your good faith!” he answered, choking on the words. “Your good faith as soldiers. Soldiers who are suddenly being candid?”

I put my beret back on, saluted him, clicking my heels, and walked out of the room.

We never heard from the district attorney again after that. The death of Ben M’Hidi was a decisive blow to the FLN in Algiers. The attacks died down and the bulk of the rebels began retreating toward the Atlas Mountains near Blida.

We used the farmhouse again where Ben M’Hidi had been executed. I had the men dig a long ditch and some twenty bodies, including that of a woman, were buried there.

The French military’s success by 1957 in the Battle of Algiers did not clinch its fight to retain Algeria — which attained its independence in 1962, to the horror of the far right. But it did put the army in such a vaunting position vis-a-vis the civilian authorities — one can see it in Aussaresses’s disdainful treatment of Reliquet — that the generals would author a 1958 coup led by Gen. Massu himself which called Charles de Gaulle out of retirement and initiated France’s Fifth (and current) Republic.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi’s name today graces one of the main thoroughfares of Algiers.

* The full film is a must-watch and can often be searched up in the usual places. This press interrogation occurs about 88 minutes in … closely followed by a scene of a spokeman announcing that M’Hidi “hanged himself” and Col. Mathieu allowing that he “appreciated the moral fiber, courage and commitment of Ben M’Hidi to his own ideals. Notwithstanding the great danger he represented, I pay tribute to his memory.” Game recognizes game.

** Eventually, General Paul Aussaresses … although he’d be stripped of this rank (and of his Legion of Honor) for celebrating the use of torture in Algeria in The Battle of the Casbah.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Algeria,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1951: Jean Lee, the last woman to hang in Australia

Add comment February 19th, 2018 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Jean Lee, an attractive 31-year-old redhead, made history as the last woman to hang in Australia when she went to the gallows in Pentridge prison in the Coburg suburb of Melbourne in Victoria state on the morning of Monday, February 19th, 1951. She and her two male companions were hanged for the murder of 73-year-old dwelling house landlord and bookmaker, William “Pop” Kent.

Jean Lee was apparently quite intelligent and a bit rebellious at school and had a succession of dead end jobs from which she soon left or was fired.

She married at 18 and lived with her husband for about nine years before leaving him and entrusting her daughter to her mother. She had a relationship with a petty criminal who got her into prostitution with American servicemen. He acted as her pimp whilst she worked to support them both.

She left him for another professional criminal, Robert David Clayton, with whom she fell deeply in love. As is so often the case, she became caught in a downward spiral. She was in love with a criminal who abused her and used her in his criminal activities.

These centered principally on what was known as the “badger game.” Lee, at the time, a voluptuous and attractive woman would pick up men and get them to a hotel room, their own home, or a car where she would appear to be about to have sex with them. Once they were semi-naked and vulnerable, Clayton would appear in the role of outraged husband and demand money from them. Usually the victims handed over their ready cash but kept quiet for fear of their wives finding out or of being ridiculed — so it was a fairly safe bet. If they were not forthcoming Clayton would beat them up. It was a scheme that had worked well, although at least two previous cases had been reported to the police.
On the evening of November 7th, 1949, Lee, Clayton and a third accomplice, Norman Andrews, whom Clayton had met in prison, saw William Kent in a Melbourne hotel lounge. Jean Lee had several drinks with Kent and soon succeeded in persuading the old man to take her back to his apartment where she tried to pick his pockets.

However, Mr. Kent, although inebriated and quite elderly, was of sterner stuff. He put up a fight with Lee which was ended when Clayton and Andrews entered his room. Mr. Kent was systematically kicked, beaten and tortured over the next hour in an attempt to get him to reveal where he kept his money. His hands had been tied behind his back and his thumbs tied together with bootlaces. He had been repeatedly stabbed with a small knife and was finally manually strangled.

The trio were soon arrested at their hotel and bloodstained clothing was found in Lee’s and Andrew’s rooms. At police headquarters, they were questioned in separate rooms where each initially denied their involvement and then started to blame the others.

They came to trial on March 20th, 1950 at Melbourne’s Criminal Court and the proceedings lasted six days. As each had tried to shift the blame on to the others in their statements to the police, the trial judge Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy explained the law of “common purpose” to the jury, i.e. that when three people take part in a violent robbery and murder they are all equally guilty, irrespective of which one had actually strangled Mr. Kent. The jury took less than three hours to find them all guilty and they were sentenced to death. Lee became hysterical whilst Clayton shouted abuse at the jury.

Their appeal was heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal and was upheld by a two to one majority decision on the 23rd of June 1950. The Appeal Court ruled that their statements to the police had been obtained improperly as the statement of one was used to extract confessions from the other two. They were thus granted a retrial. However, this was not to be as the High Court overturned the Appeal Court and reinstated the convictions and sentences.

There was considerable protest, led by left-wing and feminist groups, when Lee was sentenced to death. However, it seemed to primarily be against the execution of a woman by hanging, rather than the execution of women per se.

Lee would became the first woman to be hanged in Victoria since Emma Williams in November 1895. She had aged noticeably during her time in prison and suffered violent mood swings — now abusing her wardresses, next begging them for an alcoholic drink. She told one of her wardresses: “I just didn’t do it. I haven’t enough strength in my hands to choke anyone. Bobby was stupid but the old man was trying to yell for help. None of us meant to kill him.”

It was decided that Lee should be the first to hang at 8 am, the two men being executed two hours later.

She was heavily sedated as she shuffled under escort to a double cell near the gallows. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5′ 7″ and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly.

Sheriff William Daly was required to read the death warrant to her. She collapsed on seeing the hangman and his assistant — both wearing “massive steel rimmed goggles [with a] soft felt hat … to ensure that they were not recognised in the future”. A doctor examined her and found she was unconscious. However, the execution had to proceed so Daly continued to read out the details of her conviction and sentence although she would not have heard a word of it — if she had, she would have spotted a mistake (the date on which she had been sentenced).

Because of her state of collapse, the executioner pinioned her arms in front of rather than behind her back as was normal. His assistant then pinioned her legs with a strap whilst he put the white hood on her head, and they carried her from the cell the few yards to the gallows where she had to be placed on a chair on the trap. Her head drooped to her chest and the executioner had to pull it back in order to adjust the noose correctly.

The flap of the hood, which was to cover her face, had been left open. At a signal from the sheriff, the executioner dropped the flap to obscure her face, stood back from the trap and pulled the lever. The trap fell and both she and the chair plummeted through. The chair had been secured to the gallows by a cord and although it fell with her, the two parted company at the end of the drop leaving her suspended normally. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5’ 7” and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly. The knot was positioned under her left ear and death was said to be “instantaneous”. At 8.05 am the prison doctor found no heartbeat. The death certificate was signed at 8.20.

Two hours later Clayton and Andrews, both mildly sedated, shared her fate.

Capital punishment ended in Australia with Victoria’s next execution, that of Ronald Ryan on the same gallows at Pentridge prison on the 3rd of February 1967.

A recent book, Jean Lee: The last woman hanged in Australia by Paul Wilson, Don Trebl and Robyn Lincoln casts doubt on the justice of her conviction and execution based upon the police interrogation methods and her part in the murders.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Sex,Women

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1955: Three for the death of King Ananda of Thailand

Add comment February 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Thai royal secretary Chaliew Pathumros and royal pages Butr Patamasarin and Chit Singhaseni were shot as regicides. (Many other transliterations of these names, and the other Thai names in this post, are possible.) Few now believe that it was they who killed the young King of Thailand, Ananda Mahidol … but who really did it?


The defendants left to right across the front row: Chit Singhaseni, Butr Patamasarin, and Chaliew Pathumros.

Inheriting the throne of Siam — it became Thailand in 1939* — as a nine-year-old expatriate student in Switzerland, the wispy King Ananda would be described by Lord Mountbatten as “a frightened, short-sighted boy … a pathetic and lonely figure.” Some questioned whether he wanted to be king; others, whether monarchy would or should survive in Thailand at all. (Absolute monarchy had given way to constitutional monarchy in 1932.) Ananda’s own deceased father, a prince who had gone to Harvard, studied medicine, and married a commoner, seemed to model a different direction altogether, and Ananda’s legally questionable selection in 1935 might have been designed intentionally to enthrone a figure with no capacity for governance.

In any event, he would not bear this strange burden for very long — for his reign ended at 9:20 in the morning on June 9, 1946, announced by the single report of His Majesty’s own Colt .45 in Boromphiman Throne Hall. Ananda Mahidol was 20 years old, and he’d been expecting within a few days to fly back to Switzerland and wrap up his law degree. Instead, shot dead in the head at point-blank range, he was the vortex of a murder(?) mystery that continues to this day to elude a satisfactory accounting. His younger brother immediately succeeded him as King Bhumibol Adulyadej and would reign for 70 years** but even he couldn’t say what happened in this 1980 BBC interview.

The palace initially announced that the king had killed himself accidentally while toying with his gun but as more information leaked out it speedily rubbished the hypothesis of accidental or suicidal self-infliction. According to a British forensic pathologist who examined the evidence,†

The pistol found at the King’s side was by his left hand, but he was right-handed. The wound, over the left eye, was not in one of the elective sites, nor a “contact” discharge. The direction of fire was not inward towards the centre of the head.

Such findings pointed to the more politically explosive possibility that someone else shot King Ananda, which was also the conclusion of an official Thai inquiry late in 1946.

Soon, charges that the late king had been murdered at the behest of Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong — a republican who in his student days had been prominent in the successful movement to overthrow royal absolutism — were being aggressively bandied by his opposition. This rumor would eventually be enlisted as justification for a 1947 military coup that forced Pridi to flee Thailand.

Having made the punishment of Ananda’s assassins part of his putsch’s raison d’etre, the authoritarian former Axis collaborator Field Marshal Phibun now fixed his gaze on three palace servants who had been close to the young king in his last hours. Through them, Phibun’s new regime could condemn Pridi in absentia.

In a bizarre and ridiculous legal saga that began in 1948, the trio would be depicted as part of a sinister plot under Pridi’s direction to slay the king — Chaliew as Pridi’s instrument, and the two pages, who were in personal attendance upon Ananda at the time of his death, as complicit witnesses/accessories. (The judgment never quite says directly who pulled the trigger.) Over the course of the legal odyssey, two of the scapegoats’ defense attorneys were murdered, and two more arrested for treason: representing these regicides was such a dangerous task that by the end their team comprised only two young attorneys, one of whom was Chaliew’s freshly-graduated daughter.

Even so, only Chit was convicted in the first go-round but prosecution appeals against the verdict succeeded in condemning both of the other men, too. (One can read the full verdict in English here.) They would be executed one by one via a machine gun fusillade to the back, delivered through a screen — the distinctive local method. Bhumibol could have spared them. He didn’t.

But talk of these men as arch-traitors faded as political exigencies shifted in the subsequent decades. Their alleged conspiracy was incoherently depicted from the start, and nothing of direct evidence really implicated them: one can see in the BBC clip above that King Bhumibol doesn’t even bother discussing them when asked about Ananda’s death. It’s left the rather consequential question of who killed the king in a puzzling irresolution, a situation compounded by Thailand’s expansive lèse majesté law which renders taboo many obvious lines of inquiry when a royal is slain in a closed residence peopled by other royals. Speculation still centers on the three main scenarios considered from the outset: suicide, homicide, and accident.

Suicide

South African historian Rayne Kruger examined the obscure event in The Devil’s Discus: The Death of Ananda, King of Siam and concluded that it might have been suicide after all. In Kruger’s conception, it would have been occasioned by the young king’s mooning over a fellow law student back in Switzerland (Marylene Ferrari) who was forbidden him by his royal station.

It was published in 1964, and is banned under Thailand’s aggressive censorship program.

Homicide

William Stevenson’s The Revolutionary King postulates that fugitive Japanese war criminal Masanobu Tsuji, who was hiding out in Thailand at the time, masterminded the king’s assassination.

Bhumibol and the Thai court permitted Stevenson intimate access for several years researching this volume, although this did not prevent the book from also meeting a chilly reception in Thailand. (It’s unclear to me whether it was in fact ever formally banned, as some sites assert.) Although Stevenson’s theory about the killer doesn’t have many adherents, one supposes that in view of the author’s access, Bhumibol must have suggested it or assented to it during their private conversations.

Accident

Scottish journalist and former Reuters Bangkok correspondent Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of another book banned in Thailand (A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century), has argued that the only plausible inference from the strange pattern of circumstantial evidence is that King Bhumibol himself — then an 18-year-old — pulled the trigger, likely by accident while horsing around with Ananda.

If Ananda was not assassinated by an intruder, did not shoot himself by accident, and did not commit suicide, that means he was shot by somebody known to be at the Barompiman Hall that morning. And only one person was not able to fully account for their movements that morning: Bhumibol. In particular, his testimony to investigators appeared to conflict with that of the royal nanny …

Discrepancies in the accounts of what happened when Bhumibol went to see Ananda at 9 a.m. are also telling. Investigators began to suspect the most likely scenario was that Bhumibol had indeed gone to see Ananda, but had not been turned away by the pages as he and they were later to claim. He went into Ananda’s room.

What happened there over the next 20 minutes, only Bhumibol knows for sure.

Bhumibol and Ananda both owned several guns and enjoyed playing with them. Indeed, Bhumibol had been known in the past to playfully point a gun at his brother. This has led many people to speculate privately that Bhumibol and Ananda were playing some kind of game in the bedroom that morning and that something had gone terribly wrong. The forensic evidence suggests Ananda was asleep when he was killed, however, although there remains the likelihood that, as the British ambassador’s secret cable suggests, the scene was rearranged after Ananda’s death. In any event, no credible explanation for the death of Ananda has ever been proposed other than this: between 9 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Ananda’s Colt .45 was taken out from his bedside cabinet, and somehow Bhumibol came to shoot his brother with it, with the muzzle very close to Ananda’s forehead. Perhaps they were playing, or perhaps Ananda was still dozing and Bhumibol wanted to wake him with a practical joke, holding the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Most probably, he removed the magazine from the Colt .45 automatic, put it to his brother’s head, and pulled the trigger, forgetting that even with the magazine removed, one round remains in the breech. Less likely, but possible, is that they argued about something and Bhumibol brandished the gun in a fit of anger. Bhumibol alone has the answer, and he seems unlikely to ever give us the truth.

This theory, which is also of course lèse majesté in Thailand, is supported by Paul Handley, yet another journo with a banned book (The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej).

Marshall’s website zenjournalist.org touches this event in a number of posts; he makes the case most directly and thoroughly in “The Tragedy of King Bhumibol”, Part III and Part IV. These and other posts also marshall diplomatic cables and intelligence reports showing that Bhumibol as the killer was common private scuttlebutt among both Thai and foreign officials from the very first days to the point of being received, albeit publicly unutterable, wisdom. For example, American diplomat Kenneth Landon‡ casually remarks as fact that King Ananda was “killed by his brother, either intentionally or accidentally, by the gun the OSS guy had given them to play with” in this recording made by his son for a family history. (It occurs in passing at 4:48)

Rumor is not proof, of course, but this theory would certainly account for the shroud of permanent mystery surrounding June 9, 1946, not to mention the king’s own grave public persona (“The King Never Smiles …”). For Marshall, Bhumibol — a fun-loving, jazz-playing sprite at the time he allegedly shot his beloved older brother — was a figure of monumental tragedy and, at least before he got to the point of allowing innocent people to take the fall for it, his dissembling about Ananda’s death

was not a way of shirking responsibility. Quite the reverse: his failure to confess was in many ways a profound sacrifice. Had he told the truth about the death of Ananda, he could have escaped back to Switzerland for a very comfortable life as a playboy prince, albeit a notorious one. Instead, he lied, and accepted the crushing burden of kingship, a role that he had never wanted. He resolved to devote himself tirelessly to royal duty for the rest of his life. It probably seemed the only way he could even begin to make amends.

* Thailand was again Siam from 1946 to 1948. I’ve simply used “Thai” and “Thailand” throughout this post about events overlapping this period, the better to avoid confusion.

** Bhumibol, who died in 2016, was among the world’s longest-reigning monarchs ever. As of this writing his son holds the throne.

† The palace immediately took control of, and meddled with, the scene, so the available evidence falls very far short of what a crime scene investigator might wish for.

‡ Kenneth Landon’s wife Margaret, his longtime companion in Siam/Thailand since the two first went as missionaries in 1927, is noteworthy as the author of Anna and the King of Siam, which is the basis for (among other adaptations) the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I and the Jodie Foster film Anna and the King.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Shot,Thailand,Wrongful Executions

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1957: Geza Szivos

Add comment January 4th, 2018 Headsman

From the London Times, Jan. 5, 1957:

VIENNA, Jan. 4 — Budapest radio said to-day that the Budapest military court had sentenced a 25-year-old Budapest transport worker, Geza Szivos, to death for illegal possession of arms. The sentence had immediately been carried out. The report said that Szivos had obtained a machine pistol on October 30 and with this had taken part in the attacks on the Budapest Communist Party headquarters. He had confessed to firing more than 100 rounds. As a result of the attacks several people were killed.

Szivos was said to have hidden the weapon, and others he had found, when the group was broken up. On December 18 he was betrayed to the police and arrested. The weapons were found in his house.

The radio also said that a summary tribunal at Debrecen had sentenced Gyoergy Tajko to 15 years in prison and Kalman Koris, aged 19, to 10 years. They were said to have been carrying loaded pistols and ammunition when stopped by a street patrol.

The Government newspaper Nep Szabadsag said to-day that the Hungarian police had seized “great quantities” of arms at Var Palota, in west Hungary, and were searching for a band of “blackmailers.” The arms were hidden near a pit shaft entrance and included sub-machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, and about 500 cartridges.

The newspaper also reported that small armed groups had caused disturbances in Transdanubia, in west Hungary, after the Hungarian rising. -Reuters

From the Monroe (Louisiana) News-Star, Jan. 4, 1957:

VIENNA (AP) — Budapest Radio reported today that a 25-year-old Hungarian rebel against the Communist regime was executed for hiding arms.

This brought the admitted number of rebels executed to six, although the actual number is believed to be much higher.

The broadcast said Geza Szivos, a teamster, was convicted and sentenced by a military court in Budapest. The Red radio gave these details:

Szivos got hold of an automatic pistol Oct. 30 and joined the rebel group which stormed the Communist party headquarters in Budapest.

He admitted having fired 100 shots at the building, and “several persons were killed in the building.”

On Nov. 4, the day of the Russian assault on Budapest, Szivos obtained two more automatic pistols, ammunition, eight hand grenades and two incendiary bombs. Tenants in the house where he lived informed on him to the police, and he was arrested Dec. 18. The arms were found in his quarters the next day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,USSR

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1950: Shooting on Seoul’s Execution Hill

Add comment December 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1950, South Korean police shot more than 100 alleged Communists on a hill outside Seoul. It was just one day amid a weeklong bloodbath that claimed a reported 800 or more, although December 15 was the one that helped to thrust the horrors into public consciousness in the West.

These mass executions occurred in the paroxysm after the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — briefly captured by the United Nations offensive earlier in 1950 — was retaken by Chinese-supported Communist forces in early December.

These were themselves only the most recent installment of numerous indiscriminate mass murders that had scarred the South Korean rear once Chinese intervention in the summer of 1950 turned the tide of the war. A South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation from the 2000s estimated that the collective death toll of countless such executions could “conservatively” run to 100,000-plus: “the worst tragedy of 20th century South Korea,” as one commission member provocatively characterized it.

In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic twist, many of those rounded up for execution were culled from the rolls of the “National Guidance League”, an organ set up by the Seoul government to re-educate former leftists. Enlistment to the League was incentivized by extra rations pushed by local officials with signup quotas to make, and that was just great for everyone until that same state decided to turn it into an expedient roster of fifth columnists.

“The authorities pressed us to join the league,” one aged survivor said at a 2009 news conference. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

American officials directing the South Korean army downplayed all this as it was occurring. Even when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea remained under the dictatorial administration of its wartime president Syngman Rhee, whose commitment to strangling leftist dissent extended so far as hanging the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. For many years the wartime massacres could be no more than murmured at.

The chaos of war helped bring the executions to momentary prominence in December 1950, however, when western conscripts bivouacked down adjacent to the capital’s “execution hill” and were aghast to witness what was happening there.

“A wave of disgust and anger swept through American and British troops who either have witnessed or heard the firing squads in action in the Seoul area during the last two days,” reported the United Press on December 17, 1950. (via the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times of the same date) On Friday, December 15, those soldiers “were horrified upon seeing truckloads of old men, women, youths and several children lined up before open graves and shot down by South Korean military police with rifles and machineguns.

“One American captain George Graff reported he kicked aside the dirt lightly covering one of the bodies and found it still twitching.”

Deeply shocked, one British soldier wrote to the government “wondering which side was right in Korea.”

Revulsion among these forces and their newspaper-reading publics threatened to badly erode support for the mission — a point made forcefully by the Archbishop of York in a letter to the London Times (December 20, 1950):

Sir, —

I hope that our Government will convey to the South Korean Government the horror and detestation with which the people of this country have read the accounts of the wholesale execution of suspected Communist sympathizers. Your Correspondent says it is reported that some of the murdered women “carried babies on their backs.” If these barbarous executions continue, all sympathy with South Korea will vanish, and instead there will be a general demand that the forces of the United Nations should no longer be used to protect a Government responsible for these atrocities. I am glad to see that British soldiers on the spot already have shown their anger at these killings.

Yours faithfully,
Cyril Ebor
Bishopthorpe, York, Dec. 18

Christian ministers in Korea likewise raised alarm over these atrocities with both United Nations and South Korean authorities. Due regard for humanity and/or public opinion led the United Nations on December 17th to exhume the execution grounds looking for evidence of child executions. But the very same day, according to the U.P. (via the Cleveland Plain Delaer, Dec. 18, 1950),

South Koreans hauled another batch of prisoners to snow-covered “Execution Hill” this afternoon and shot them.

Evidently to escape the eyes of angry American G.I.s and British Tommies, the prisoners apparently were forced to lie down in trenches where they were killed.

The new executions occurred only two hours after U.N. observers had supervised an exhumation of bodies lying in four trench-like graves on the hill and after 29th Brigade Commander Tom Brodie had told his officers he was not prepared to tolerate further executions in his area.

As layer after layer of bodies were disinterred from the mountain graveyard, Fusillier Capt. Bill Ellery, tall, moustached British officer, said coldly and precisely what all watching British and American troops were thinking.

“We don’t do this sort of thing in my country.”

A South Korean apologized. The prisons were so crowded with Communists sentenced to death that Execution Hill was the only solution.

“There are so many to execute,” he said.

An abatement of visible-to-western-press executions and the cosmetic expedient of a small Christmas amnesty appears to have stanched the immediate threat to homefront support for the war — which would continue for another two and a half years.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Korea,Mass Executions,Shot,South Korea,Wartime Executions,Women

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1952: Wallace Ford, horrible in-law

Add comment October 30th, 2017 Headsman

Wallace P. Ford, Jr., a former Buffalo steelworker, was electrocuted by New York on this date in 1952.

His crime, “a senseless, meaningless affair, without motive or purpose,”* in the words of his own court-appointed attorney, was the sad culmination of family woes.

The man had been left by his wife, Frances, who returned to her mother’s house with the couple’s infant daughter in tow. Not long after, in June of 1951, Ford accosted Frances’s kid sister, Nancy, age 15, when the latter was picking up some groceries.

Nancy told him to get lost or something — Ford would later say that it was the girl’s insisting that their family would keep his little son that made him snap — and the extranged brother-in-law bashed her with a rock. Here the horror really begins. Blood racing, Ford must have careened from panic to despair to resolution as he contemplated the crumpled but still-living girl, his already-poor judgment scrambled by stress. The assailant packed Nancy Bridges’s stunned and bloodied form into his vehicle and sped out of Buffalo looking for some way to dispose of his mistake. In that moment, for a disordered mind, that meant to finish her off.

Ford said he thought about drowning the girl in Lake Erie, or pitching her off an elevated railroad. Every possible means would carry its own special horror, to be sure, but Ford settled on a truly vile expedient: he dumped her in a deserted stretch of rural Townline Road and pitilessly drove over her limp form … then popped into reverse and backed over her, too, crushing her chest and driving rib splinters into her liver and lungs.

Nancy Ford’s mangled body was discovered in the adjacent woods by a teenage hunter the next afternoon. Wallace Ford must have been the first name on the lips of the family when investigators asked if they had any enemies, and he didn’t bother to evade responsibility when the police came for him. But he would have served himself better and the Fords too had he reached his epiphany of resignation a little earlier in this process.

* New York Times, Aug. 26, 1952.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1952: Johann Burianek, East German saboteur

Add comment August 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Johann Burianek became the first person executed by East Germany.

A machinist and a World War II Wehrmacht soldier, Burianek (English Wikipedia entry | German) caught a one-year sentence in the postwar Communist East Germany for having the misbegotten initiative in the dying days of the war to go out of his way to arrest a deserter who was nearly executed as a result.

From about 1950 he became affiliated with the western-back anti-communist resistance network Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) — Strike Force Against Inhumanity. Crossing liberally between East and West Berlin, which easy movement East German authorities were fretting, Burianek had a two-year stint irritating the German Democratic Republic with graffiti, subversive posters, and eventually, sabotage.

He was arrested in March 1952 shortly ahead of what would have been his derringest do, the bombing of a rail bridge; a judge named Hilde Benjamin, who in the course of 1950s show trials made her name synonymous with politically motivated severity,* hammered him with a demonstrative sentence** — the very first judicial execution meted out by the DDR, in fact. It was administered in Dresden by beheading with a fallbeil.

* Benjamin, who died on the eve of the Berlin Wall‘s fall, enjoys a poor reputation in the post-Cold War state with a variety of uncomplimentary sobriquets to prove it — such as the “Red Guillotine” and “Red Freisler“.

** She would also impose the death sentence against a fellow KgU operative, Wolfgang Kaiser, who went under the fallbeil five weeks after Burianek.

On this day..

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

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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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