1951: King Abdullah’s assassins

Add comment September 4th, 2013 Headsman

AMMAN, Jordan, Sept. 4 — Four men sentenced to death here last week for complicity in the assassination of King Abdullah in July were hanged today in Amman prison. Regent Emire Naif had confirmed the sentences of the special tribunal.

Those put to death were Musa Abdulla el-Husseini, Abed Okkeh, Abdulkadir Farhat and Zakariya Okkeh.

Col. Abdulla el-Tell, former governor of Jerusalem, and Musa Ayyubi who were sentenced to death in absentia are reported to be living in Egypt.

-New York Times, September 5, 1951*

The men hanged this day were among the authors of “the most dastardly crime Jordan ever witnessed”: the July 20, 1951 assassination of independent Jordan’s first king.

The cagey Hashemite monarch Abdullah I had been emir of Transjordan, an artificial British mandate jigsaw-piece that Abdullah got by virtue of cutting a deal with Winston Churchill.

This sinecure came with the significant drawback of dependency on London’s reach and interests, and Abdullah’s great achievement was to set Transjordan-cum-Jordan** on firm enough footing to survive the postwar sunset of the British Empire.

Abdullah faced an early test of Jordan’s chops shortly after his country’s 1946 independence when the Arab-Israeli War erupted. For Abdullah, this was a state-building opportunity; indeed, his government had for years backed Palestinian-partition plans that other Arab states had opposed — with the expectation that Jordan could help itself to the eastern part of that partition.

Abdullah did just that in 1948, invading and annexing the Jordan River’s West Bank all the way to East Jerusalem … while willingly acceding to (some have said actively colluding in) the creation of a partitioned Jewish state that was theoretically anathema to Jordan’s allies.

Jordanian territorial aggrandizement, however, brought with it the West Bank’s Palestinian population, severely aggrieved at having seen their aspirations to statehood cynically sacrificed by Abdullah. They got, into the bargain, Jordanian citizenship and a severe suppression of independence agitation.

So when Abdullah came to visit Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, a Palestinian gunman murdered him.

While the assassin himself was immediately shot dead by the king’s bodyguards, ten allegedly in on the plot were very hastily tried in mid-August … eight in the Amman courtroom, and two overseas in Egypt tried in absentia. Dr. Musa Abdullah el Husseini, Abdel Kadir Farahat, and the brothers Abed and Zakariya Okka were condemned to die, along with the absconded Abdulla el Tel and Musa Ahmed el Ayoubi. (The latter two would never be executed.)

According to the London Times‘ Aug. 29, 1951 wrap of the legal proceedings,

The events leading up to the murder, as they were described during the hearing, began with two meetings in Egypt, in September and October [1950], between el Tel and el Ayoubi, who decided then that the king should die. El Tel then met el Husseini i Cairo, and henceforth directed and financed the plot with el Ayoubi as his chief lieutenant. Abed Okka acted as an intermediary, and Zachariya Okka and Farahat were later drawn into the plot, the latter ultimately providing the murderer with a revolver.

The remaining four men who faced trial — Dr. Daud el Husseini, Franciscan Father Ibrahim Ayyad, Tawfik el Husseini, and Kamil Kaluti — were acquitted.

This event, which might have been feared to prefigure a more terrible disruption within Jordan, within Palestine, even in the entire Middle East, did nothing of the sort. Power transitioned to the long reign of Abdullah’s grandson King Hussein, who was actually present at his grandfather’s assassination. (And might have shared his fate, save for a medal the teenaged Hussein had pinned to his breast that deflected a bullet.)

As Mary Cristina Wilson writes,

There was an element of cover-up in the conduct of the trial. The grievances and frustrations of the accused were not broached … The idea of an independent Palestine was, for the moment, dead. Abdullah’s assassination was a terrible revenge wreaked for the death of that idea, but it signified retribution for events that were already history, not the beginning of the new order … Though not without parallels in the future, it was without echoes.

Jordan would govern the West Bank, albeit absent virtually any internationally-recognized legitimacy there, until Israel attacked and occupied the territory in the Six-Day War in 1967. The legacy of this event will be familiar to the reader.

In 1988, Jordan officially resigned its own claims on the West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organization, “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

* Any number of online sites say this hanging occurred on September 6. Given the existence of September 5 papers reporting the execution, I think it’s safe to rule those erroneous. Wikipedia sources this version to James Lunt’s Hussein of Jordan.

** “Transjordan” officially became simply “Jordan” in 1949. Events in this post span either side of that re-branding, so for the sake of clarity, we’re just going to use “Jordan” throughout.

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1951: Harley LaMarr, dutiful son

1 comment January 11th, 2013 Headsman

On February 12, 1950, Buffalo socialite Marion Little Frisbee* was discovered in a frozen ditch in a suburb 12 miles outside the city, a .32-20 rifle bullet through her left temple.

Within 24 hours, a 19-year-old Native American** youth named Harley LaMarr had been caught at a boarding-house and copped to the crime.

While the coroner did report an “attempt at criminal assault,” the motive for Frisbee’s abduction/murder had been robbery. Harley LaMarr needed money because his mother, Amelia Palwodzinski, had had a fight with her second husband the month before. In the course of that fight, she planted a butcher’s knife in the man’s chest.

As Amelia went off to serve a 30-year stretch for manslaughter, she made her boy Harley promise to give the victim a decent burial. Harley had no money: he did have a .32-20. He took it to a tony part of town and waited for an opportunity.

Marion Frisbee’s purse netted him about $6. He didn’t bother taking her diamond ring because, he said, he just wanted cash for the funeral. Harley insisted the gun went off by accident: the jury in a four-day trial that April didn’t buy it.

The day before Harley LaMarr’s electrocution at Sing Sing on January 11, 1951, the Empire State’s prison officers brought his mother from Bedford Hills a few miles down the road to death row for one last goodbye with her tragically dutiful son.

The youth met with his mother for 20 minutes after authorities brought her from Bedford Hills.

They spoke together in low tones. The woman took a long last look at her son and walked away from the visiting cage dry-eyed.

“Thank you for coming, ma,” the youth called after her. (Source (pdf))

* No relation to the flying-disc fortune; that “Frisbee” was only trademarked in 1958. Marion Frisbee was just the wife of a local salesman with the Queen City Pure Water Company.

** Amelia was white; Harley’s father was Native American.

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1951: The first four of the Martinsville seven

2 comments February 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first of two batches comprising the “Martinsville Seven” — black, all — went to the Virginia electric chair for gang-raping a white woman. (The remainder were executed on Feb. 5)


Newspaper scan (click for larger image) via Mr. Beaverhousen (cc).

Somewhat forgotten today, the Martinsville Seven were in their day the locus of radical activism against Jim Crow in the South — very much like Willie McGee, who was put to death in Louisiana later that same year.

In fact, this case generated a bit of a legal milestone: a month before the executions began, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal seeking relief on the then-novel grounds of equal protection — rather than due process.

The argument was that the Old Dominion’s superficially race-neutral rape statute was anything but; that argument was buttressed by data showing that Virginia had executed 45 black men for raping white women from 1908 to 1950, but never once in that period executed any white man for raping a black woman. (The high court only declined to take the appeal; it wouldn’t get around to explicitly ruling equal protection claims based on racial patterns out of bounds until 1987’s McCleskey v. Kemp.)

This seems to be the debut use for this gambit, bound to become an increasingly powerful one both in and out of the courtroom during the civil rights movement.

And it was available — and necessary — here because the Martinsville Seven basically looked guilty as sin. Their confessions and the victim’s accusation and the testimony of a young eyewitness said that, drink-addled, they had opportunistically grabbed a white Jehovah’s Witness housewife when she was proselytizing on the wrong side of the tracks.

Eric Rise, author of The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment, noted in a scholarly article,*

certain striking characteristics distinguished the proceedings from classic “legal lynchings.” The evidence presented at trial clearly proved that nonconsensual sexual intercourse with the victim had taken place. All seven defendants admitted their presence at the scene, and although some of the men may not have actually consummated the act … The prosecution emphasized the preservation of community stability, not the protection of southern womanly virtues, as the dominant concern of Martinsville’s white citizens. Most significant, the trial judge made a concerted effort to mute the racial overtones of the trials. Although white juries decided each case, blacks appeared in every jury pool. Race-baiting by prosecutors and witnesses, notably evident at Scottsboro and other similar trials, was absent from the Martinsville proceedings. By diligently adhering to procedural requirements, the court attempted to try the case “as though both parties were members of the same race.”**

The standard playbook for fighting a “legal lynching” case was leveraging outrage over a plausibly innocent convict and an outrageous kangaroo court.†

Paradoxically, by taking these elements out of the mix (relatively speaking), the Martinsville Seven perfectly isolated the extreme harshness of the penalty and the structural discrimination under which it was imposed. The NAACP took up the case on appeal strictly for its discriminatory characteristics, steering for its part completely clear of any “actual innocence” argument.

These challenges posed discomfiting questions that jurists shrank away from. The Virginia Supreme Court, in denying an equal protection application, fretted that actual legal relief could mean that “no Negroes could be executed unless a certain number of white people” were, too. Timeless.

Though a later U.S. Supreme Court would completely overturn death-sentencing for rape, based in part on its overwhelming racial slant, justices have generally avoided meddling to redress broad statistical patterns rather than identifiable process violations specific to particular cases.

Those questions of substantive — rather than merely procedural — equality in the justice system remain potently unresolved, still part of Americans’ lived experience of the law from death row to the drug war to driving while black. As if to underscore the point in this instance, just two days prior to the first Martinsville executions, the Wall Street bankster acting as American proconsul in conquered Germany pardoned imprisoned Nazi industrialist Alfried Krupp, and restored him to the fortune he had amassed working Jewish slaves to death during the war. It was a very particular quality of mercy the U.S. showed the world in those days. (The Martinsville case was known, and protested, worldwide.)

Carol Steiker (she used to clerk for liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as an NAACP lawyer worked on the Martinsville case) argues‡ that the Martinsville Seven’s legacy is linked to their later obscurity, for “[t]heir attempt to present statistical proof of discrimination in capital sentencing represents a ‘road not taken'” — neither in 1951, nor since.

The road taken instead had Joe Henry Hampton, 22, Howard Hairston, 21, Booker Millner, 22 and Frank Hairston, 19 electrocuted one by one this morning in 1951. Their three co-accused, John Clabon Taylor, 24, James Luther Hairston, 23, and Francis DeSales Grayson, 40, followed them on February 5.

* “Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951″ in The Journal of Southern History, Aug., 1992.

** This quote an actual trial admonishment of the judge, Kennon Whittle.

† Graded on a curve: this is still Jim Crow Virginia. Six trials were wrapped up at warp speed in 11 days, with a total of 72 jurors — each one white. The implied comparison is something along the lines of, all seven tried together in the course of an afternoon, with a good ol’ boy defense attorney mailing it in.

‡ Review of Rise’s book titled “Remembering Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment” in the Virginia Law Review, Apr., 1997

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1951: Eliseo Mares, “silently and horribly”

1 comment September 10th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Eliseo (sometimes rendered “Elisio”) Mares was shot in Utah for murder.

He was condemned for the 1946 murder of an Ohio sailor en route to California for his marriage. (Mares claimed self-defense.) The wait for his execution — “five long years,” Mares told a reporter* after he lost his last appeal — was unusually protracted for the time.

By the time his case had wended its way through the courts, county-managed executions had been consolidated at the state prison at Point of the Mountain. Mares was the first put to death there.

Not until 25 years later, in a reminiscence by one of the witnesses, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Clark Lobb, was it disclosed that Mares “died silently and horribly.” Two of the four bullets fired from 15 feet away struck Mares in the hip and abdomen. It was several minutes before the prisoner was declared dead.

This source speculates that the poor marksmanship was intentional, but whether intentional or not, it must have been an appalling spectacle.

The sheriff directing the proceedings immediately began pushing for a switch to away from the error-prone firing squad to the gas chamber. (No dice, although the 1955 legislature did approve a switch to electrocution that fell through for want of funding.)

* UP wire report quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 9, 1951.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1951: Willie McGee

1 comment May 8th, 2011 Headsman

As of today, it is sixty years since the Laurel, Mississippi execution of Willie McGee for rape — a lightning rod for controversy over race, crime, and justice in one of the Cold War’s principal antagonists.

McGee died silent in the state’s portable electric chair, rigged up in the very courtroom of his trial, right in front of the box from whence his all-white jury had retired two and a half minutes before convicting him. Fifty or so observers were there with him — plus those of the hundreds of local residents milling around outside intrepid enough to scale a tree for an illicit view through the courthouse windows.*

(Given the setting, some sources call this a “public execution,” which is not technically correct. This courtroom tableau was actually a standard deployment for the mobile electric chair.)

But McGee’s own silence hardly muted global outrage: for years, appeals for McGee’s life had deluged Mississippi and the White House from Europe, the Soviet Union, and what was quaintly known as “Red China.”

Oh, yes. The Reds.

Willie McGee’s case popped out of backwoods obscurity when he got from the pinko Civil Rights Congress a leftist young attorney — future U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

Once it got out there, it became the Free Mumia case of the nascent civil rights movement and the nascent Cold War. Its appeal to communist countries and cadres only raised the hackles of American establishment types. This was a Negro raping a white housewife literally and metaphorically.


Author Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death) campaigning to save Willie McGee’s life. William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker also publicly supported McGee.

Whether there actually was a literal rape is the enduring mystery — the enduring Rorschach blot — of the McGee case. The accused himself remained silent on the matter for years; eventually, he claimed that the two were having a consensual but forbidden interracial affair and that he had been brutalized into a confession.

McGee’s defenders believed that the “victim” herself initiated the affair, and

threatened to cry rape if he refused her flirtatious advances … McGee reluctantly went [along] with Hawkins, fearing the tragic consequences of turning her away. “People who don’t know the South don’t know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no,” [Willie's wife] Rosalee told a friend. “Down South you tell a woman like that no, and she’ll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do?”

-At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance

(In this version, the manipulative Hawkins executed the threat when her husband — who later witnessed McGee’s electrocution — found out. McGee’s cited reason for changing his story was the very plausible fear of lynching.)

A Laurel African-American who was then a child remembers being taken by his family to view the body, and impress upon him the lesson of its electrical burns: “Don’t mess with white girls.”

McGee’s persecutors considered all that miscegenation stuff so much subversive rubbish, a “revolting insinuation,” in the words of the Mississippi Supreme Court.**

And if at its apex the controversy generated more heat than light, its historical fade to embers has not sufficed to resolve the factual questions.

McGee has benefited from a recent rediscovery — one that indicates such memories of the McGee case as persevere in Laurel still divide starkly along racial lines.

Explore this case and its many resonances (without the Perry Mason big reveal) in Alex Heard’s 2010 The Eyes of Willie McGee (review); and, in a spellbinding NPR series on “My Grandfather’s Execution” by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Direct links to several Radio Diaries mp3 episodes can be found from the RSS feed here.)

Both were facilitated by a recording of execution-night radio news coverage fortuitously preserved by a young Hattiesburg reporter.

Book Cover

* New York Times, May 8, 1951.

** McGee did at least win two retrials in Mississippi; federal courts gave him short shrift, with anti-civil rights judge Sidney Mize — later memorable for fighting the legal rearguard against integrating Ole Miss — lecturing Abzug in a last-ditch appeal that McGee’s “guilt is plain” and that “courts ought to rise up and defend themselves.” (Source)

Taken as an obvious given: “actually guilty” or not, a defendant executed for rape in the American South is certainly a black man with a white accuser.

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1951: Ospan Batyr, Kazakh freedom fighter

Add comment April 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Kazakh national hero Ospan Batyr was executed in Urumqi.

Ospan — the second name is an honorific, not a family name — hailed from an ethnic Kazakh region in China’s eastern Xinjian region, noted today for its still-robust Uighur separatist movement.

Executed Today does not envy any ethnic group attempting to sort out its national aspirations on the frontiers of great powers, and this was the dangerous matter to which our day’s principal applied himself.

The powers in question here are the Soviet Union and China; their degree of sway over Xinjiang (or “East Turkestan”) shapes the parameters of the struggle.

During the early 1940’s, the Soviets’ dire wartime position gave them less weight to throw around; accordingly, the formerly Soviet-allied local warlord Sheng Shicai — an ethnic cleanser of Kazakhs from way back — made nice with the Koumintang.

As Moscow gained the upper hand over Berlin, however, it had leave to tend its eastern ambitions as well.

Since Sheng’s attempt to sell out to Stalin failed, he left Xinjiang with 50 trucks full of loot, and retired to Taiwan to write this 1958 volume on his erstwhile demesne.

When Sheng got bounced from his post trying to re-defect to the victorious Soviets, Ospan Batyr (alternatively, Osman or Uthman Batur) led Kazakh forces in a multi-ethnic Muslim rebellion that established a short-lived East Turkestan Republic, allied with the Soviet Union.

But what the political expediency of great powers giveth, it also taketh away.

The postwar partition of the globe left Xinjiang in China’s sphere of influence, drawing down the East Turkestan Republic’s Soviet support. When that state-like entity became involved in a border conflict with Soviet-backed Mongolia, Osman and the Kazakhs lined up with the Koumintang — not Russia.

As a matter of straight realpolitik, this was an inauspicious moment to get with Chiang Kai-shek since he was on the verge of finally losing China’s long civil war. But it’s a move that would be subsequently vindicated by the way Kazakhs voted with their feet under Mao.

Ospan Batyr had to settle for the judgment of history when the People’s Liberation Army absorbed Xinjiang, and in 1950 finally corralled the remnants of his Kazakh resistance. He repelled demands under torture that he sign on with the Reds and make an appeal to his people in their name: “I can give a life. My nation will continue the struggle.”


Ospan Batyr awaits execution.

Most of the information readily available online about this Kazakh martyr is not in English, and a good deal of it tends to the hagiographical — like this Turkish-language page, lavishly illustrated.

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1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi

1 comment August 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first two foreigners — Italian merchant Antonio Riva and Japanese bookseller Ruichi Yamaguchi — were convicted and immediately executed in Beijing for a supposed plot to assassinate Mao Zedong.

According to Time magazine’s coverage of the affair, Radio Peking said that

“the streets they passed through [en route to execution] were thronged with people who expressed their feelings .. . with shouts of ‘Down with imperialism! Suppress counterrevolutionaries! Long live Chairman Mao!'”


No relation.

Riva (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a World War I fighter ace who had relocated to Beijing/Peking in the 1920s to peddle aircraft and training the Chinese Koumintang.

(In 1936, Riva married Catherine Lum, the daughter of American wood block artist Bertha Lum and sister of Eleanor Peter Lum, who took after mom.)

When the guys those planes were being used against won the Chinese Civil War, Riva mulled an expedient departure, but reportedly declared (Spanish link) that he could do business under any regime type.

The Communist government decided he had a different sort of business in mind. Citing Chinese state media, the London Times (Aug. 18, 1951) described the plot thus:

the conspirators planned to fire mortar shells at a reviewing stand outside the Tien An gate of the forbidden city in Peking during a procession to celebrate China’s national day on October 1 last year.

Several others, both Chinese and foreigners, drew long prison sentences as part of the “conspiracy” uncovered in a one-hour trial. The most illustrious of those was the Italian bishop Tarcisio Martina.*

Though Riva and Yamaguchi were the first foreigners officially executed by the new Chinese government, they were far from the last. All the more remarkable, then, that in a country that carries out thousands of executions per annum, Antonio Riva is thought to have been the last European citizen put to death there until Akmal Shaikh in 2009.

The Shaikh case helped rekindle interest in Riva’s execution — a timely confluence, since a recent book, L’ uomo che doveva uccidere Mao, critiqued the case against the Italian aviator.

* American diplomat Col. David Barrett, safely beyond the reach of the Maoists at Formosa, was a supposed ringleader.

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1951: The Lonely Hearts killers, tortured by love

1 comment March 8th, 2010 Headsman

“Who would give a law to lovers? Love is unto itself a higher law. ”

-Boethius

On this date in 1951, the made-for-tabloids killer couple Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were electrocuted at New York’s Sing Sing prison for murder.

He was a toupeed middle-aged lothario with a knack for conning personal ad denizens. She was a lovelorn obese single mother* with a serious dark side. Together — through a chance meeting through the personals — they became the Lonely Hearts Killers.

Martha Beck started off as just another of Raymond Fernandez’s targets: charm them, promise engagement or undergo a faux-wedding, and then rob them. He’d pulled this off a few times before; he might have even killed at least one of them.

But something clicked when he met Martha.

Or rather, Martha made it click.

Fernandez did the love ‘em and leave ‘em routine with Martha, whom he soon realized was penniless. But their passionate hotel rendezvous had been spied by the local bluenoses, who promptly got Martha fired for her indiscretions. She showed up unannounced at Fernandez’s door, and pushed her way right into his life.

Ere long, they were cohabiting — lurid media accounts would later savor their “abnormal sexual practices” and their, er, lifestyle relationship. She caused near-riots among the crush of spectators at their circus trial when she got into specifics of freaky stuff like voodoo fetish play.

“A request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command,” Martha testified. Since this was so — though the power dynamic between them really seems to have run in the other direction — she willingly joined in Mr. Fernandez’s scam, posing as his “sister” when he went to meet and charm his next mark.

Once such assets as could be had were signed over, the pigeon was disposed of: often, they’d just make the “honeymoon” so unbearable that the target got the picture and left, so humiliated she wouldn’t dare come forward with the story.

And sometimes — nobody seems to know exactly how many times — Raymond and Martha killed together.

Martha (whose own sob story of ostracism and childhood neglect is really quite sad) supplied much of the vengeful energy that impelled the murders. One of their victims was a woman Beck attacked in a jealous rage when Fernandez actually slept with her. (The “sister” would often impose on the sleeping arrangements to obstruct consummation.)

The Lonely Hearts Killers’ crime spree is thoroughly covered elsewhere. It carried them to Michigan, a non-death penalty state where they were arrested. There, they confessed in a ploy to draw a local sentence and avoid execution.

Michigan instead extradited them to New York to stand trial in a sweltering courtroom and on every Gotham newspaper’s daily headlines for the murder of a Long Island widow. That confession given in Michigan helped seal their fate in New York.

Though separated from one another on death row (but they kept up the treacly correspondence), Martha and Raymond were joined in death.

On International Women’s Day of 1951, both were executed in New York’s electric chair, along with two unconnected, run-of-the-mill murderers.

My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean … in the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?

-Martha Beck

Given the newspaper ink spilled over these two, it’s no surprise that they’ve inspired plenty of subsequent writers and directors. The Honeymoon Killers (review) is a creepy 1970 classic, with a couple of latter-day imitators.

* She abandoned her two kids to the Salvation Army when she hitched her wagon to Fernandez.

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1951: Charlie Gifford, politician-killer

3 comments February 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Charlie Gifford was electrocuted in Florida’s Raiford Prison for murder.

The murder victim was popular young Florida legislator/war hero Charles Schuh, whose promising political career ended abruptly on April 24, 1950, when the 71-year-old Gifford strode into his St. Petersburg offices and shot him dead over some head-scratching private grievance relating to Schuh’s legal practice. (Schuh represented Gifford’s ex-wife in a divorce proceeding.)

An insanity defense didn’t fly, though Gifford’s purchase on reality seems to have been … hit and miss. The septuagenarian perp didn’t seem to mind the death sentence.

The murdered legislator’s son, Charles E. Schuh, grew up into a political career of his own, eventually becoming mayor of St. Petersburg. Charles E. Schuh’s recent passing brought out this fascinating story by a former reporter who witnessed Gifford’s execution.

The electric chair was in the center, but the controls were behind a glass-enclosed area. I was repelled by the sight of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair. I was even more horrified to see that the executioner, a local electrician, wore a black hood reminiscent of the Inquisition. …

Today I am a decade older than Gifford was then, but to a 22-year-old reporter he seemed to be just a frail old man with a shaved head.

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1951: Albert Guay

2 comments January 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Albert Guay was hanged in Canada for one of the earliest commercial airline attacks — bombing a Canadian Pacific Airline flight to murder his wife.

Stuck in a loveless marriage with little recourse to divorce, Guay‘s loins burned for a young mistress.

He engaged a watchmaker colleague, Généreux Ruest, to make a bomb, and the latter’s sister, Marguerite Ruest-Pitre, to air freight it on the doomed plane. Both would maintain their innocence of the plot, but after Guay’s own conviction, he implicated both — possibly in an attempt to delay his own hanging.

A time bomb in the luggage hold of this airplane took 23 lives on September 9, 1949, for which three people were executed — and inspired a copycat crime with 44 more deaths and one more execution.

Guay had intended the plane to explode over the St. Lawrence River, eliminating the forensic evidence, but a slight delay before takeoff laid the damning debris over the land. The flight’s entire complement of four crew and nineteen passengers — including three top executives of the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation — perished.

The crime had ample media attention both north and south of the Canada-U.S. border — flight still being something of a terrifying novelty for the general public. Guay’s purchase of life insurance for his wife on the day of the trip was not especially inculpatory, but a standard procedure for air travelers.

Guay’s last words caught the irony of his celebrity: “Au moins, je meurs célèbre” (“At least I die famous”).

A few years after this day’s events, an American attempted a similar crime, with similar results.

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