1958: Sass Kalman and Istvan Hollos

Add comment December 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Ethnic Hungarians Sass Kálmán and Istvan Hollos were shot in Romania on this date in 1958. Links in this post are in Hungarian.

Both were condemned — along with a third man, Vilmos Balasko, his sentence subsequently commuted — as the result of a mass trial earlier that year of alleged traitors and saboteurs.

The trial targeted the large ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania, bordering Hungary, in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. There the feared Romanian secret police rolled up culprits for offenses ranging from subversive leaflets in simpatico with failed revolution, to a general penumbra of perceived unreliable loyalty.

Istvan Hollos, a lawyer and teacher, had fought in the German-allied Hungarian army during World War II and unsuccessfully attempted to flee to Switzerland afterwards. Sass Kálmán was a Calvinist pastor once close to anticommunist peasant party leader Ferenc Nagy; a previous brush with political scrutiny had been shielded by towering general Pal Maleter, but Maleter’s participation in (and execution for) the 1956 revolution played against Kálmán too. (A third man, pastor Vilmos Balasko, was condemned to death in the same mass trial but he received clemency and was released a few years later in a general amnesty. He lived until 2004 and published a memoir after the fall of the Iron Curtain.)

Kálmán’s Reformed Church, whose adherents are predominantly ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, treat Kálmán as a martyr and have pressed hard for his official rehabilitation — thus far, to no avail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Hungary,Lawyers,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Romania,Shot

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1954: Jonas Žemaitis, Lithuanian Forest Brother

Add comment November 26th, 2019 Headsman

Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Žemaitis was shot in Moscow’s Butyrka prison on this date in 1954. He’s one of the big names in the Forest Brothers movement that kept up a hopeless fight against Moscow from 1944 into the 1950s.

An artillerist of Polish ancestry who deserted the retreating Red Army and surrendered himself the Wehrmacht arriving in the summer 1941, Žemaitis is breezily credited in state histories (and as of this writing, both English and Lithuanian Wikipedia pages) of essentially taking the war years off because “he did not want to serve the Nazis.” That was sure considerate of the Nazis! Instead the fellow just mined peat since he preferred not to get involved.

Now, peat production was and is an important economic sector in Lithuania; indeed, even this seemingly innocuous activity hints at exploitation of Jewish slave labor. But there is circumstantial and even eyewitness evidence that Žemaitis’s participation in one of the Reich’s most thorough exterminations was quite a bit more nefarious than vegetation management.

One could turn here to Joseph Melamed, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto who collected witness testimonies and published thousands of names of alleged Lithuanian “Jew-Shooters” (zydsaudys). Melamed has charged that Žemaitis put his Polish fluency to use facilitating genocide and “having proved his efficiency and diligence in murdering Jews, was rewarded by the SS and promoted to the rank of Colonel” in the Police Battalions, Lithuanian paramilitaries that worked hand in glove with Nazi executioners.*

Or alternatively, one could rely on the plain fact that Žemaitis was a trained, early-30s officer in a desperate war zone where everyone was being pressed into action, and that anti-Soviet fighters afterwards treated him as a General. That’s not the profile of a figure who simply kept his head down while the Great War raged past him.

The post-USSR independent state of Lithuania, which has not been shy about whitewashing Holocaust collaborators, absolutely rejects such inferences and has retroactively elevated Žemaitis to its officially recognized head of state during his postwar resistance; there’s a Vilnius military academy that’s named for him.

* Melamed is now deceased but during his latter years Vilnius accused him of slander. Modern Lithuania is ferociously determined about apotheosizing the Forest Brothers; officially, the Venn diagram between wartime genocidaires and the postwar anti-Soviet resistance consists of two different shapes on two different planets.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Heads of State,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USSR

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1951: Marcel Ythier, Andre Obrecht’s first

Add comment November 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Marcel Ythier lost his head as France gained a headsman.

Ythier escaped a life sentence at hard labor and fled to Aix-en-Provence to build a burglary career, which improved to a murder career when he shot dead the constable who surprised him in the act in May 1950.

Ythier’s was the first execution conducted by Andre Obrecht, nephew to the great head-chopper Anatole Deibler and the latter’s heir as France’s chief executioner. Indeed, Obrecht would be the last chief executioner in every sense but literally, carrying the title from 1951 to 1976, when he beheaded Christian Ranucci, the third-last fall of the guillotine. (Francophone specialists might go for Obrecht’s memoirs.)

Obrecht resigned the post a few weeks after Ranucci’s controversial death, leaving his own nephew (and longtime assistant executioner) Marcel Chevalier to write the illustrious profession‘s Gallic finale with the two last executions in French history.

Not to worry: the classic bourreau lives on as one of the jokers in Executed Today’s pack of custom playing cards.

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1959: Frank Wojculewicz, paraplegic electrocution

Add comment October 26th, 2019 Headsman


October 27, 1959 headline of the Palm Springs, Calif., Desert Sun.

Connecticut reluctantly electrocuted paraplegic murderer Frank Wojculewicz on this date in 1959.

A lifetime crook, Wojculewicz was surprised by two patrolmen in the course of robbing the AYO Meat Packing Company of New Britain, way back in 1951. In the gun battle that ensued, Wojculewicz shot dead Sgt. William Grabeck, as well as a bystander named William Otipka — but Wojculewicz was also struck in the spine by a police bullet.

That left the robber alive — and it left Connecticut a very uncomfortable case.

His guilt was in no question whatever and the death sentence for his two murder convictions was mandated by law. But the prospect of putting a permanently paralyzed man into the state’s electric chair was so aesthetically discomfiting that his legal odyssey dragged on for nearly 8 years at a time when the median death penalty case resulted in execution in 15 months. He had to be tried in a prison hospital bed.

As this retrospective from the New York Daily News observes, slow-walking Connecticut officials were likely hoping that the killer’s injuries would take his life “naturally” before it came to that. But the tough bastard kept hanging on, and not only that, but fighting for his own life both in the courts (where State v. Wojculewicz cases reached the Connecticut Supreme Court in both 1953 and 1956) and the court of public opinion. Wojculewicz passed his time “feeding pigeons through barred windows. He lobbied for life, arguing in letters to supporters that his paralysis was ‘a greater punishment than death’ and calling state execution ‘the evil of evils.'”

In the end, though, Wojculewicz was a fully competent, fully guilty criminal asking an exemption from the law based on an injury that he’d suffered in the course of committing the crime. Nobody really wanted to put an invalid in the electric chair but neither did anybody have a proper reason not to do so.

Time ran out for Frank Wojculewicz on the frosty night of October 26, 1959. Death row guards found him lying face-down as usual. They gently lifted the helpless man from his mattress and placed him in a wheelchair. Then began a slow procession. One by one the other condemned men called their farewells to Wojculewicz as he was wheeled past their cells. The scene was extremely affecting. When the procession entered the execution chamber it was greeted by the warden. He then asked Wojculewicz if he had a last request. Bitter to the end, the doomed man asked that the prison chaplain not be allowed near him. He said that he neither wanted nor needed any pious prepping for what he was about to face. The warden was displeased but he granted the request. Guards then wheeled Wojculewicz to the middle of the chamber. There they carefully lifted him from the wheelchair and put him in the electric chair. A wooden box was used as a stool to support his paralyzed legs. When the guards completed the task of affixing the electrodes and adjusting the straps they signaled that all was ready. Then the executioner turned on the current and Frank Wojculewicz was no more.

Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960

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1955: Frederick Arthur Cross, “not a bit sorry for myself”

Add comment July 26th, 2019 Headsman

“I made up my mind to do away with myself and bought a tin of rat poison, but hadn’t the courage to do it. When I saw the man in the public house I got the idea that if I killed him I would be hanged. I’m not a bit sorry for myself, but I am sorry for him and I wish I’d known before this that he was married.”

Frederick Arthur Cross, depressed after his wife left him, insisting to his judge on pleading guilty to the capital murder of a stranger in a ‘suicide by executioner’ case. Cross was hanged on July 26, 1955.

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1958: Nuri al-Said

Add comment July 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Nuri al-Said, the Prime Minister of Iraq’s deposed Hashemite monarchy, was captured trying to flee Iraq in disguise, and immediately slaughtered

A onetime Ottoman officer turned veteran of the Arab Revolt under the eventual King Faisal I, Nuri al-Said (or as-Said) was a preeminent politician for much of the Kingdom of Iraq era and practically the personification of Baghdad’s pro-British posture.

A figure of wide popular loathing — crowds chanted for his death at the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939, attributing the young ruler’s untimely death to Nuri’s hand — he had managed to escape the 14 July Revolution‘s initial hours and had one last night on the lam to contemplate the terrible fate of the royal family that he served.

He was not destined to avoid it.

Captured in disguise the next day and put to summary death, after which the mob vented its fury upon him.

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1958: King Faisal II of Iraq and his family

1 comment July 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Iraq’s Hashemite dynasty got the Romanov treatment from coup-making nationalist officers.

Having already overstayed their welcome as agents of British-American control in the oil-rich Gulf State, the Hashemites were doubly burdened to be led by the inexperienced King Faisal II, who was all of 23 years old.

For much of the recent past, while this underaged grandson of the Arab Revolt hero matriculated at an English boarding school, his sovereignty had been exercised by his uncle and regent ‘Abd al-Ilah — a practitioner, like all of Iraq’s leadership, of a staunchly pro-British and -American policy that increasingly rankled Iraqis.

On July 14, 1958, a swift coup d’etat led by Abd al-Karim Qasim — and explicitly modeled on the Free Officers Movement that had raised the Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt — overturned the Hashemites, and made sure that it was for good.

Captured royal family members — including not only King Faisal but the aforementioned ‘Abd al-Ilah and al-Ilah’s wife and mother, plus a number of royal servants — were all summarily machine-gunned in the palace courtyard, after which the royal corpse was given over to public abuse.

“His legs and arms were decapitated, stomach disemboweled with his intestine gushing outside” recalled one of the king’s helpless royal guards of the late king. “His corpse was later suspended from a building until one came with a dagger in his hand to try to divide it into two pieces. The corpse was burned, cut many times until it was thrown in the Tigris river when night came.”

Today there’s an honorable tomb in Baghdad where Faisal reposes, and considering the many terrors that have befallen Iraq in the intervening decades, one can even find pockets of nostalgia for the monarchy.

Cold comfort that Faisal II lives immortally in the classic Belgian comic series The Adventures of Tintin as the inspiration for the puckish and spoiled Prince Abdullah of Khemed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Innocent Bystanders,Iraq,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Shot,Summary Executions

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Daily Double: Iraq’s 14 July Revolution

Add comment July 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1958, the aptly named 14 July Revolution deposed the ruling Hashemite dynasty of Iraq — with the summary execution of the royal family and its chief ministers.

Iraq emerged from the World War I Ottoman breakup as a kingdom ruled by Faisal I.*

Independent in name, this kingdom in reality was a British client and its statecraft congenial to Anglo objectives in the Gulf grew increasingly obnoxious to its subjects. The reliably pro-British premier Nuri al-Said dominated Iraqi politics from the late 1940s, while Faisal’s teenaged grandson Faisal II “reigned” from a London boarding school.**

For an average Iraqi moved by the era’s stirring spirit of nationalism, the situation compounded grievance upon grievance: the suspicious “car crash” death of nationalist-minded inter-Faisal King Ghazi in 1939; the 1941 British invasion to block a nationalist coup, and the continuous British occupation that continued thereafter until 1947; and Iraq’s headline enrollment in the western-sponsored regional alliance meant to counter Soviet influence. Official Baghdad stood foursquare against the tide of Arab nationalism embodied by Nasser‘s Egypt, and very much many Iraqis’ similar aspirations.

Major protests rocked Iraq in 1948, in 1952, and especially when Britain, France, and Israel tried to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt in 1956; each time Iraq’s pro-British elites managed to suppress the immediate threat, but also proved constitutionally incapable of adapting the Iraqi state to the shifting world.

So, on the 14th of July in 1958, the shifting world adapted the state.


The bodies of ‘Abd al-Ilah (left) and Nuri al-Said (right) publicly mutilated after the revolution.

* The Alec Guinness character in Lawrence of Arabia.

** Faisal II schooled with Jordan’s King Hussein, his cousin; the two dreamed of combining their countries into an enlarged Hashemite state and had just begun such a project when Iraq’s revolution aborted the plan. Hussein was much the more fortunate ruler, dying in bed in 1999 after a 47-year reign; his son remains the king of Jordan to this day.

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1958: Peter Manuel, the Beast of Birkenshaw

1 comment July 11th, 2019 Headsman

Serial killer Peter Manuel hanged at Glasgow on this date in 1958.

U.S.-born to Scottish parents, “the Beast of Birkenshaw” was convicted of seven murders around Lanarkshire between 1956 and 1958 but suspected of more than twice that many.

He had previous convictions for sexual violence and rape was a factor in some murders, such as 17-year-old Anne Kneilands in 1956 (for which he was never convicted due to insufficient evidence) and 17-year-old Isabelle Cooke in 1957 (whose body he located for police with the chilling words, “I’m standing on her now”). Others were more cold and almost gratuitous, like Peter and Doris Smart and their ten-year-old son Michael whom he all shot dead on New Year’s Day 1958, after which he simply relaxed in their Uddingston house for a week and took care of the cat.

Manuel defended himself at trial, with the usual results; however, latter-day investigations have argued that police in building this extremely high-profile case buried evidence of Manuels’ severe mental illness that might have saved him from the gallows.

“I am now more convinced than ever that the authorities played down Manuel’s psychopathic personality in the days ahead of his execution, because they had come to the conclusion that he should not receive a reprieve,” Aberdeen University legal scholar Richard Goldberg told the BBC in 2009. (The BBC broadcast, which no longer appears to be available online, aired Manuel’s voice for the first time.)

Manuel was the third-last person hanged in Scotland; only Anthony Miller in 1960 and Henry John Burnett in 1963 succeeded him before the UK’s death penalty abolition.

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1951: Sandor Szucs, Hungarian footballer

Add comment June 4th, 2019 Headsman

Twenty-nine-year-old footballer Sandor Szucs was hanged on this date in 1951 for attempting to defect from communist Hungary.

The defender for Ujpest FC, who had also featured internationally for the emerging national team juggernaut destined for legend as the Golden Team, Szucs embarked a politically dangerous extramarital affair with singer Erzsi Kovacs.

When the two attempted to flee the country together, they were arrested just this side of the Yugoslavian border. Kovacs spent four years in prison — she would go on to a successful international career — while Szucs was harshly sentenced to death as a traitor on the strength of a murky military law that had been invoked in no other case. His comrades from the pitch found that their pull did not extend to any effectual aid for him.

It’s presumed that Szucs’s execution was at least in part meant as a warning to these very same mates not to exploit the international team’s travels for any embarrassing defections.

If so, they were right to worry: when the Hungarian Revolution erupted in 1956 while the Golden Team’s primary club mirror was playing an away match in Belgium, several players refused to return to their Soviet-occupied homeland, including superstars Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Sex,Treason

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