1953: Derek Bentley, controversially

4 comments January 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Derek William Bentley was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint in London’s Wandsworth Prison for a murder committed by a friend.

The execution of the mentally impaired 19-year-old was a lightning rod when it was pronounced the previous December and remained so over a half-century struggle for his posthumous pardon.

He had been caught robbing a warehouse with an underage friend in November 1952, and in the gunfight that ensued, a police officer was shot — 15 minutes after Bentley was arrested.

In a welter of confusing evidence, the essential fact was that the two youths had engaged a criminal enterprise and thus became jointly liable for every consequence of the crime, regardless of who pulled the trigger. Nevertheless, it rankled as a manifest injustice that the young man should hang for a murder that happened after he was in custody, while the triggerman should not. There was a sense that Bentley faced a maximal punishment in the state’s frustration that the shooter was too young to hang; and, that since the two boys’ ages were barely on either side of 18 and the 17-year-old Christopher Craig arguably the dominant member of the duo, the effect was a great injustice.

The jury’s recommendation for mercy was not taken up, and Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe — a Nuremberg prosecutor fresh from crafting the European Convention on Human Rights — declined to extend a reprieve.

This morning’s hanging was hotly protested. Several hundred rallied outside the prison; 200 MPs presented a petition for Bentley’s clemency, and afterwards several were rebuffed attempting to debate the hanging in Parliament. The medical journal Lancet assayed the general disquietude at the situation and opined that

[W]e are obliged to ask ourselves whether in holding to the letter of justice we are letting the spirit escape … To the English, at any rate, revenge is seldom a fully satisfying experience; it carries too much guilt with it. In the case of Bentley the public sense of guilt seems to have been strong — far stronger than the desire for vengeance.*

Bentley’s 21-year-old sister Iris vowed to her brother the night before his death that she would clear his name, and she fought for the rest of her life to do so. She would win that fight in 1998 (one year after her own death) when the conviction was overturned.

In the meantime, Bentley’s fate entered the public conscience, generally but not universally in the capacity of miscarriage of justice.

Bentley is the subject of an Elvis Costello song, “Let Him Dangle”:

… and a 1991 film:

* Lancet also said that “in our view the perpetual public preoccupation with the condemned cell and the gallows is harmful to the mental health of society.” Executed Today does not endorse this position.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Wrongful Executions

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1953: Dmytro Bilinchuk, Company 67 of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army

3 comments June 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1953, a guerrilla with the nom de guerre “Khmara” was shot in Kiev’s Lukianivka Prison for his involvement in a still-controversial resistance movement.

Dmytro Bilinchuk on the forest moon of Endor. UPA regs supposedly strictly prohibited photography; being rebels by nature, they snapped enough to fill up this page.

History is lived forward but understood backward. Therein lies the ambiguity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist organization that operated in Galicia and environs after the Nazi invasion and persisted several years afterwards.

At its height, the UPA is said to have had up to 100,000 members, famously operating out of subterranean forest bunkers. This day’s victim was the captain of one of its companies; there is very little about him available online in English — principally his death date — but Ukrainian sites add the folklorish but poignant detail of his supposed adoption of an orphaned bear cub.

But about his organization, the name alone is sufficient to invite the most acrimonious debate:* were these partisans Nazi collaborators? Ukrainian patriots? Both?

Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of a man who had abandoned socialism for a fascist national ideology (everyone was doing it), entered the World War II era having conspicuously failed to grasp independence in a period when nationhood was being handed out like candy to small European states.

The specific kettle for Ukraine’s stewing ethnic aspirations was Galicia, the northeastern shoulder of the Carpathian mountains presently in western Ukraine. Galicia had been at the heart of both Polish and Ukrainian national movements, and they fought for it after World War I — a war won by Warsaw. (Meanwhile, Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War forestalled national ambtions further east.)

Brewed with the movement’s right-wing ideology, Ukrainian nationalism developed an anti-Polish, anti-Russian, anti-Communist programme, and it gazed around 1930’s Europe wondering if it couldn’t find an aggressive great power with a similar outlook that might take Ukraine under its wing.

Fast forward to the eve of World War II: by the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin carved up the Ukrainians’ rival and thrust Galicia into Soviet hands, incidentally exposing its inhabitants to the pleasures of life under Stalin.

For Ukrainian nationalists, the altered situation of the Poland partition — followed shortly by Hitler’s initially successful invasion of Russia — offered an apparent opportunity to realize the dream of statehood under the patronage of a somewhat congenial Nazi government.

Though there’s a great deal of contention this author is not remotely qualified to referee about precisely which organs collaborated with or resisted the Nazis in precisely which ways, it seems fair summation to say that Ukraine’s nationalist movement was happy to treat with Berlin. Berlin being more reserved about a Slavic nationalist movement in its conquered territory, the UPA’s proposed institutional alliance with the Wehrmacht never quite came to pass as such, but that left many nationalists as freelance collaborators instead.** The hypothetical Ukrainian state in a Nazi-dominated Europe was not going to come about by sabotaging the Germans.

Instead, the UPA got busy laying the groundwork for an ethnically homogeneous Ukrainian homeland by fighting a reciprocal dirty war of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Galicia (most notoriously and emblematically, at Volhynia) — eventually developing into inter-partisan civil warfare against both Polish and Communist units (who had their own differences) with the odd brush with the Wehrmacht mixed in, and giving way to full concentration upon Soviet authorities as Red Army drove out the Germans.

The fact of having engaged German troops is a loudly bandied point in the UPA’s modern defense — the elevator pitch is that they “fought the Nazis and the Communists,” though it sure looks like they fought the one a lot harder than the other, and fought both less eagerly than they fought the Poles. There may be no cause to call UPA fighters other than sincere patriots of a nation whose aspirations were no less worthy than any other, who under beastly circumstances and for motives they believed noble committed sins no uglier than many other nationalists: even so, the thing separating that militia and its movement from, say, the Croatian Ustashi looks like opportunity rather than principle. Most perceived at the strategic plane a clear choice between Nazi victory with Ukrainian independence and Nazi defeat without, and most consciously preferred the former. No doubt the UPA would retort that its only other option was worse.

While Ukraine had a predictable exodus of anti-communist types as World War II drew to a close,† thousands of UPA guerrillas stuck around to keep up their fight (already underway) against the Soviets — including Dmytro Bilinchuk, whose biography can be enjoyed by readers of Ukrainian here.

It took a decade or more for Russia to extirpate this movement by hunting down its Bilinchuks. Buried in obscurity for the remainder of the Cold War, however, the martyrs of the OUN and UPA have pried open their tombs since Ukraine separated from the USSR in 1991 and become a contentious symbol in present-day Ukraine.

The OUN successor Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists has been part of Ukraine’s governing alliance since the Orange Revolution, and has pressed to treat its dead forebears as national heroes — renaming streets and attempting to rehabilitate UPA veterans into a class with those of the Red Army, a problematic enterprise since the two groups spent years killing one another. Old warriors may never reconcile, but the self-conscious reconstruction of the Ukrainian partisan movement in the service of shaping modern Ukrainians’ identity is a going concern:

Proving Faulkner’s old aphorism that the past isn’t dead and isn’t even past, this latter-day party and others of the Orange coalition remain electorally rooted in the UPA’s old western Ukraine stomping grounds, and tend to lean towards western Europe in outlook; eastern Ukraine remains more heavily Russian-oriented, and more inclined to the Russians’ distasteful view of the OUN and UPA.

* See, for instance, this Axis History thread, or the UPA’s Wikipedia discussion page.

** Late in the war, Germany would eventually form its own Galician SS Division. UPA proponents take pains to separate this German-officered formation from UPA guerrillas.

† Ironically, Ukrainians who bolted west — including the Galician SS division, which undertook a forced march to surrender in Italy rather than to the Soviets — profited greatly from having been “occupied” by Poland before the war, and from bloodily moving the border during the war. A refugee screening report (cited in Poland’s Holocaust — a source hostile to the UPA, as the title suggests) commented that Ukrainian detainees

are really having the best of both worlds. They do not qualify as Soviet citizens because their place of birth and/or habitual domicile on 1.9.39 were in Poland, and they therefore by our definition escape all punishment by the Russians for their having assisted the enemy; and they are not presumably eligible now for punishment by the Polish authorities because that part of the country from which they came is no longer part of Poland.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Ukraine,USSR

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1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “the first victims of American fascism”

June 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair as Soviet spies.

Divisive since it was handed down — or more precisely, since a famous article in London’s Guardian challenged the verdict and helped elevate it into a latter-day Dreyfus case — the Rosenbergs‘ sentence has inspired so much acrimony over several generations that merely to observe the date is to invite a debate capable of eminently more heat than light.

Where to begin with a case so towering in the recent cultural milieu?

A textbook might say that Julius and Ethel were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, that they maintained their innocence and their defenders carried that flame years after their deaths, and that intelligence files opened after the Cold War — notably the Venona project — apparently confirmed that Julius was a spy after all, though Ethel seems to have been little more than an approving bystander and Julius, come to think of it, never had anything so worthwhile as atomic secrets to share with Moscow. This information (which does have its own skeptics, albeit a small minority) undermines the maximal “absolute innocence” position that this day’s victims always asserted, but it’s a curious leap to take it as vindicating the legal outcome.

“My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism.”

Half a century on, juridical guilt or innocence seems distinctly secondary in the lasting importance of the Rosenberg trial, the two-year battle to save them, and their potent symbolic afterlives.

The Rosenbergs are the only stateside judicial executions for espionage since the Civil War.* That is a remarkable distinction, after all; so, how comes it that it is held by — to state the case against them in its strongest imaginable terms — two enthusiastic but bush-league players, and not by the likes of Aldrich Ames? How was it that a judge with a largely center-liberal career on the bench would read them a sentence of death hysterically accusing these Lower East Siders of causing the Korean War?

[Y]our conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.

I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.

It is here in the age of McCarthyism, in the shadow of the USSR’s balance-altering A-bomb test in 1949, that the Rosenbergs stand in sharpest relief — not because of “guilt” or “innocence”, but as the ne plus ultra of that era’s range of social discipline.

A few years before, the United States and the Soviet Union had made common cause against Hitler in World War II, the United States pumping war materiel to Russians bearing the brunt of the fighting.

No longer operative.

The Communist Party USA enjoyed membership rolls pushing six figures; other socialist parties and movements had found niches in American life in the interwar years.

As the Great War gave way to the Cold War, the great powers remained nominal allies (that’s the reason the Rosenbergs weren’t tried for treason), but shifted rapidly into conflict. The American polity organized to expel the red menace by rendering it foreign and criminal — ideological rigging for the forty years’ imperial contest ahead. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee … in the whole of the self-conscious construction of communism as “contagion”, the power and willingness of the state to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg formed the tip of the spear, and an ugly contrast to that same state’s solicitous handling of Nazi scientists then developing the vehicles to deliver atomic technology to Moscow in mushroom cloud form.

Though different in many particulars, the thrust will be familiar to any sentient denizen of post-9/11 America: the extreme penalty enforces a wall between the suspect and abject (but tolerated) loyal liberal and the enemy left. Depend upon Ann Coulter for the most brutal articulation:

We need to execute people like John Walker [the American-born soldier captured fighting for the Taliban in 2001] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.

Like most symbols, the Rosenbergs came by their exaltation by accident; at the strictly personal level, their deaths are nearly operatic performances of human stubbornness and bureaucratic inertia. Investigators rolling up a spy ring** were looking for confessions and names to keep the indictments coming.

Julius refused to provide either, so his wife was arrested for leverage against him on the reasoning that he would confess to protect her. The gambit failed: both prisoner and hostage remained obstinate. The government’s bluff had been called, and it ruthlessly executed its threat.

Had the two really been responsible for starting a war, execution would hardly begin to cover the bill — yet to the very foot of the chair, the condemned, and Julius especially for the sake of his wife, were pressed with offers of mercy for confessing and “naming names”.

Abjure or expire: show trial logic.

[audio:Julius_and_Ethel_Rosenberg.mp3]

An Execution in the Family

Given names to name, the personal mystery of their silence — the ultimate heroism or folly or tragedy or transcendence — only deepens the resonance of their fate both for contemporaries and posterity, the poignance of their orphaned children’s subsequent path, the contrast with Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who has since admitted to perjuring testimony against Ethel in order to shield his own wife. (Greenglass says the Rosenbergs died from the “stupidity” of not copping a deal of their own.)

Even before Julius and Ethel went to the chair this date,† they had become the emblem of a paranoid age. In the days following, Sartre savaged the United States for trying “to stop scientific progress by a human sacrifice”:

Your country is sick with fear. You’re afraid of everything: the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans. You’re afraid of each other. You’re afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.

Decades later, the shadows haven’t faded altogether. In playwright Tony Kushner’s imagination, the spirit of Ethel stalks her real-life prosecutor, closeted McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, as he succumbs to AIDS in the 1980’s.‡

Rosenberg resources — and vitriol — are in plentiful supply online and off. A good starting point on the case is this page at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Be sure to check the tale of a last-ditch legal maneuver that almost succeeded.

* There is one partial exception in the unusual case of six German saboteurs electrocuted in Washington, D.C., during World War II on a charge sheet that included espionage. The hearing was held by a military commission and only one of the six was an American citizen, so it was far from the regular judicial process — if one can call it that — the Rosenbergs faced.

** Originating in the investigation of Klaus Fuchs, the man who actually did what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of doing — passing atomic secrets to Moscow — although with debatable ultimate effect for the Soviets’ research. Fuchs served nine-plus years in a British prison and was released to East Germany; more than a few were galled at the difference between his sentence and the Rosenbergs’.

Stateside, George Koval was another spy far more valuable to Moscow in the nuclear race than were the Rosenbergs. Koval got away clean and died in Moscow in 2006.

† Julius first, then Ethel. Her execution was botched; repeated shocks were required to kill her.

‡ Cohn’s posthumous autobiography did acknowledge illegally rigging the Rosenberg trial, as his Kushner character does.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Spies,U.S. Federal,USA,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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