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.

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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.

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1951: Ants Kaljurand, Estonian Forest Brother

Add comment March 13th, 2016 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

4 comments 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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mississippi,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA,Wrongful Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Torture,USSR

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1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi

2 comments 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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Japan,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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