1952: Wallace Ford, horrible in-law

Add comment October 30th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

* New York Times, Aug. 26, 1952.

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

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1952: Johann Burianek, East German saboteur

Add comment August 2nd, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1952: Wolfgang Kaiser

Add comment September 6th, 2016 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1952: Lloyd Edison Sampsell, the Yacht Bandit

Add comment April 25th, 2016 Robert Elder

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

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

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

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

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

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1952: Chester Gregg

3 comments July 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1952, 58-year-old Chester Gregg nonchalantly died in Ohio’s electric chair for killing his wife the previous year.

Gregg shotgunned Alma Colliday Gregg, his estranged spouse and the head of the “lonely hearts” club through which the pair oiginally met, in her Kenton apartment after she filed for divorce.

As that killing made him a two-timer — he’d been paroled from a 1927 murder rap in Kentucky; the daughter of that victim petitioned unsuccessfully to attend Gregg’s execution — his clemency prospects were remote.

Although he’s of no known relationship to the namesake of the landmark Gregg decision returning death penalty to the U.S. in 1976, Chester has managed to find his way into the news of late.

Apparently, he was acquainted with an Ohio child named Jay Chapman (newspaper reports have termed Gregg Chapman’s “childhood friend”, but Chapman would only have been about 13 at this time: we intend no derogation to intergenerational friendship in saying that this is not the connotation of “childhood friend”). And Chapman would go on, as Oklahoma’s medical examiner in the 1970s, to play a subtle but important role in the modern death penalty: he invented the “traditional” lethal injection three-drug cocktail.

Dr. Chapman, who at least has the comfort of not having the lethal needle named after him a la Joseph Guillotin, knocked out the standard sodium thiopental-pancuronium bromide-potassium chloride sequence at the request of legislators looking for a less unpleasant alternative to that ubiquitous 20th century contraption, the electric chair. (That’s also how Gregg was put to death.)

But apparently, Chapman assumed that trained medical personnel who knew how to administer IVs and measure drugs would be conducting the procedure.

In fact, as executions “medicalized”, professional medical associations like the AMA barred members from participating as a breach of professional ethics. More recently, supply interruptions for lethal drugs have made a mess of the entire process. The upshot has been some high-profile botches — including Ohio itself outright failing in a recent lethal injection attempt — necessitating a 2007-2008 U.S. execution moratorium to sort out legal challenges to the needle.

It’s a far cry from Chapman’s vision of a litigation-proof method: “We felt that by going with this type of regimen, no one could suggest that it was cruel and unusual because people undergo this very protocol every day for anesthetic for surgery world-round,” he said in 2009.

The doctor’s own interest in the subject was merely instrumental: fewer appeals avenues mean more executions. “I’m an eye for an eye person,” Chapman told the London Guardian.* “The lethal injection is too easy for some of them.”

For that reason, Chapman is quite alright with the switch his home state an others have recently made to conducting lethal injections with only a single massive overdose of a single drug, either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Whatever gets the case out of courts, and onto the gurney.

As for the ghost of Chester Gregg, he really doesn’t enter the picture either way.

“It’s a totally separate thing,” Chapman said of his executed former neighbor. “It’s just an experience I had along the way.”

* There are some May 2010 photos of Chapman in the Guardian magazine archive.

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1952: Hard Luck Billy Cook

1 comment December 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1952, the short and brutal life of William Cook ended in the San Quentin gas chamber.

A quintessential “terrible upbringing” criminal, young Billy was ditched with his siblings by their alcoholic widower father in an abandoned mine when he was a small child.

Though brothers and sisters found foster parents, Billy — afflicted by physical deformity and an ungovernable temper — had to make his way as a ward of the state. Constantly delinquent through his adolescence, he was institutionally handed off to the state penitentiary at age 17.

He got out at 22, with a grudge against the world and a knuckle tattoo reading “H-A-R-D L-U-C-K”, resolved — so he told his derelict father — to “live by the gun and roam.”

In a 22-day spree looping from California to Texas and Oklahoma and then back again, Cook slew six people: an entire vacationing family in Oklahoma, and then another kidnapped motorist in California. Taking drivers hostage was how he navigated America’s growing intercity road network, making the Cook story readily adaptable to titillate cinema-goers who knew the loneliness of the open road, in 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker. (Teaser line: “Who’ll be his next victim … YOU?”)

Cook took little care for his own secrecy and had to flee to Mexico to avoid a dragnet. Surprisingly, even the police chief of Santa Rosaria in Baja California recognized the wanted man, and he was captured there unawares and extradited back to the Golden State.

“I hate everybody’s guts,” he reportedly explained upon his capture. “And everybody hates mine.”

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1952: Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah, Jewish bombers?

Add comment January 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Iraq hanged Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah for an alleged Zionist bombing campaign in Baghdad.

The most remarkable thing about this campaign is that it was perpetrated against Iraq’s Jews — and if these men’s conviction was rightly secured, it was conducted by other Jews for the purpose of driving those Iraqi Jews to emigrate to the still-tenuous new state of Israel.

As the 1940s closed, well over 100,000 Jews lived in Iraq, a populace legendarily* dating to the Biblical Babylonian exile.

While this community had at certain moments in centuries past been the very flower of the diaspora, it was justifiably nervous here in the perilous 20th century.

In 1950-51, the Iraqi government offered its Jewish citizens an emigration window from a homeland tense with anti-Jewish hostility — at the same time the Israeli government was practically begging them to come. (The cost: give up Iraqi citizenship permanently. Iraq seems to have expected only a few thousand to depart.)

Against the grain of this “monstrous” mutuality of interest stood the natural obstacles for any emigre: affection for the familiarity of one’s native lands, the trauma and uncertainty of uprooting … plus the specific problem that most stood to lose their illiquid wealth either by hasty firesale disposal or (as eventually happened) outright confiscation. Particularly pending clarity in property remuneration, many Iraqi Jews were initially wary about departing.

Iraqi Jews also dismayed Zionist recruiters with their “lack [of] a Zionist outlook and even a Zionist instinct.”**

But these stick-in-the-Mesopotamians would soon receive some explosive encouragement: a headline-grabbing series of attacks on Jews and Jewish establishments during the emigration window encouraged thousands to seize the moment.

“The pace of registration for the citizenship waiver was slow in the beginning, but it increased as tensions rose between Jews and their neighbors and after acts of terror were perpetrated against Jewish businesses and institutions – especially the Mas’uda Shem-Tov Synagogue [bombed January 14, 1951]”

-Sasson Somekh, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew

Israel historian Benny Morris summarizes the situation in this Q&A from 2009:

Iraqi Jews being airlifted to Israel.

Ultimately, Israel’s Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, named for two Old Testament prophets who led the Biblical Israelites out of bondage, relocated virtually the whole of Iraqi Jewry to Israel — more than 120,000 people. Today, virtually no Iraqi Jews remain.

Morris’s conclusion that Israeli intelligence did not engineer the bombing campaign that so spectacularly served its statecraft is the subject of vociferous dispute. It’s also, perhaps, a bit finely cut: a handful of zealots in the local Zionist underground, sensitive to the local sentiment and keen on the urgency of the brief denaturalization opportunity, might have undertaken the project freelance without actual straight-from-Jerusalem coordination.

Amazingly, this notion that some species of Zionist agents bombed Iraqi synagogues (pdf) in the interests of the Levant’s demographic future was commonly believed not only by Iraqi Arabs but by emigre Iraqi Jews themselves. Their suspicions can hardly have been allayed when a similar misadventure went down in Egypt a couple years later.

The inevitable dispute over the factual question can’t help but roll over into everything else that’s disputatious about the Zionist Entity.

Like, to pick just one, can Iraq and other Arab states be said to have ethnically cleansed their Jewish populations in the same sense that Zionist militias ethnically cleansed Palestine?

An account already exists between us and the Arab world: the account of the compensation that accrues to the Arabs who left the territory of Israel and abandoned their property … The act that has now been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Iraq … forces us to link the two accounts . . . We will take into account the value of the Jewish property that has been frozen in Iraq when calculating the compensation that we have undertaken to pay the Arabs who abandoned property in Israel.

-Moshe Sharett, Israeli Foreign Minister, March 1951**

This sort of opportunistic ethnic arithmetic obviously loses its limited suasion to the extent that Jews can be held to have driven Jews out of Iraq — which is not to say that goring this or that ox is necessarily the reason for any one scholar’s taking this or that position.

One might, however, be less inclined to extend that benefit of the doubt to the Kingdom of Iraq itself. That realm was very pleased to point the finger at its absconding Jewry.

Our Zionist cadres, Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah, were hanged by that Iraqi Entity for three grenade attacks in the bombing series. Basri repudiated his confession in court, plausibly claiming it had been tortured out of him. (A third Jew was also convicted but not executed: Yehuda Tajar is the man Morris refers to, who returned to Israel after spending the Fifties imprisoned in Iraq.)

“Long live the state of Israel,” were their last words.

But not all “beneficiaries” of their alleged efforts shared the sentiment.

“That is God’s revenge on the movement that brought us to such depths,” one Iraqi Jewish refugee in the Holy Land reportedly exclaimed.**

Just where guilt really lies in all of this has been contested (pdf) ever since, a matter that mere hooded functionaries such as your author can hardly address with authority.

Jews Done It …
… They Never Did

* Not necessarily literally; the Mongol invasions are supposed to have broken the cultural chain of Jewish habitation of Babylon, with the city re-populated later by other Jewish migrants not of a lineal connection back to Nebuchadnezzar‘s conquests.

** Quoted by Yehouda Shenhav in “The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology, and the Property of the Palestinian Refugees of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (Nov., 1999)

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1952: Lennie Jackson and Steve Suchan, of the Boyd Gang

1 comment December 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Steve Suchan and Lennie Jackson were hanged at Toronto’s Don Jail for the murder of a policeman.


Lennie Jackson (top) and Steve Suchan

Both Such and Jackson were members of the Boyd Gang, a swashbuckling troupe of show-stealing bank robbers in post-World War II Toronto … but in the timeless mold of the folk hero outlaws.

Not hanged with them (or ever; he died in British Columbia in 2002) was the gang’s leader and namesake, Edwin Alonzo Boyd.

The wartime commando legendarily launched his stick-up career by robbing a bank so unrecognizably made-up that he was able to walk back in and change a $20 without notice a few days later.

Boyd’s further exploits (and occasional close scrapes: he seemed to have a gift for not getting hit when people shot back at him) plundering banks, and then escaping jail with the cohorts who became the “Boyd Gang” to plunder some more, threw a splash of color across the headlines of staid 1950s Ontario that moved newspapers.

Toronto historian Mike Filey remarked in this CBC documentary

When the Boyd Gang stuck up a bank and it made the front page, people started cheering for them, because it put some excitement in their lives. And of course the interesting thing about Edwin was, if there is such a thing, he was a “good” bad guy.*


More about this movie here

Jackson and Suchan were two of that group who helped author the Boyd Gang’s most notorious larcenies. And they put a screeching halt on the “fun” of the Boyd gang’s crime spree in March 1952 when they shot a Toronto cop dead at a traffic stop.

Suddenly, it wasn’t just the banksters getting hurt. The crooks couldn’t dodge the ensuing manhunt.

But somehow the quartet of criminals locked up in the Don Jail with this murder rap hanging over them actually managed to escape again, hours ahead of their arraignment. It turned out to be the bandits’ last great exploit, worth only a few days of liberty before they were recaptured.

Jackson and Suchan went from trial to gallows — said to be a badly botched hanging — in mere weeks. Boyd and another gang member named Willie Jackson (the two Jacksons weren’t related) drew long prison sentences from which they were paroled in 1966.

Some Books about Edwin Boyd

* Or was he?

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1952: Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, the first corruption executions in Red China

1 comment February 10th, 2010 Headsman

China has been clamping down on official malfeasance lately, but corruption trials have a long and storied vintage in the realm.

The very oldest casket in the cellar has stamped upon it this date in 1952, when Maoist China carried out its first corruption executions.


The public trial of Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan. (Source.)

“Faithful and unyielding” during wartime, Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan exploited their resulting positions of authority to plunder economic development money.

Theirs was the signal case in an anti-corruption “campaign against three evils” that ended late in 1952, with the announcement that 196,000 party members and cadres had been convicted of something. (Cited here.)

One then-youthful man remembered that

in the winter of 1951, Mao launched a national campaign against what he called the three evils — corruption, waste, and bureaucracy. Taking advantage of the winter holidays, students were sent to various places as members of so called Tiger Hunting Teams. With six other students I was sent to the Art Supply Service then attached to our school. It was housed two miles from the campus. I worked there under the office of the Campaign Against the Three Evils. The entire staff and all the workers were organized to study Party policies attached to this campaign. The staff was then called upon to make a clean breast of their crimes and accuse others they knew to be criminals as well. These crimes included embezzling, forgery, theft, bribery and other white collar crimes. Some suspects were already being locked up in isolated rooms within the offices. Most of those locked up were directors on various levels. Some were even old Party members from the early Yanan days. We had no mercy on those we saw to be “criminals.”

I learned from the newspaper that corruption and waste had become very serious problems indeed. It also revealed how Party cadres had degenerated from revolutionary heroes into grafters. The best example we were told of was two senior cadres, the secretaries of the Tianjin Prefectural Party Committee, Liu Qing-san and Zhang Zi-shan, who were even sentenced to death for their crimes. The Party wanted to show that its own members were not exempt from justice. In showing this, they concurred with the old Chinese belief that it was best to execute one as a warning to a hundred.

Took the words right out of Mao’s mouth.

Only if we execute the two of them, can we prevent 20, 200, 2,000 or 20,000 corrupt officials from committing various crimes.

… although of course, that was a primitive age; one could hardly expect that sort of startling yield on investment in today’s on-the-go China. “[T]he effect would not be so great. To show our determination, we would have to execute several more than two.”

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1952: Night of the Murdered Poets

2 comments August 12th, 2009 Headsman

As night fell this evening in Moscow, 13 prominent Soviet Jews were shot in Lubyanka Prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets”, as it’s come to be remembered, wasn’t so much about the poetry; “only” five of the victims fit that description.

But as Joshua Rubenstein put it, “only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations; the other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor Lina Shtern, are rarely if ever remembered, perhaps because their careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor … Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

Falling victim to Stalin was such a particularly tragic fate because they were, in the main, good Communists:* good enough to have been part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a World War II organ dedicated to rallying support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Such national particularism — any port in a storm! — was all well and good when Moscow had the Wehrmacht at its gates and a short supply of friends, but it increasingly ran dangerously afoul Soviet officialdom as the 1940’s progressed. It was a bastion of sectarian identity rather than socialist universalism; its celebration of the Jewish soldier and of Jewish wartime travails cut against the narrative of Soviet sacrifice and heroism; its overseas links to the United States (where it toured in wartime) and the new state of Israel made it suspect, or at least vulnerable.

Thin excuse for mass execution, to be sure, but in a structure of generalized antisemitism run by a trigger-happy dictator …

In 1948-49, fifteen JAC members were arrested. One would die in prison; the aforementioned Lina Stern, a scientist, would receive a term of exile and return to Moscow when this purge’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

The thirteen others were tortured and condemned by a rigged (but secret, since many of the accused wouldn’t cop to public self-denunciations) trial

Years before his arrest, Markish would write words to make a eulogy for many a disillusioned Soviet citizen … and literally so in his case, since the verse was cited at his trial as evidence of his “pessimism”:

Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.

Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.

* Naturally, being a good Communist did not keep one safe from Uncle Joe.

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