1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Wrongful Executions

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1954: Henry Frank Decaillet

Add comment April 2nd, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.

Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.

Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.

The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.

On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.

Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.

When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.

He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”

Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.

Less than a year passed between murder and execution.

On this day..

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1954: Karli Bandelow and Ewald Misera, in the Gehlen-Prozess

Add comment November 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1954, railway official Ewald Misera and civil engineer Karli Bandelow were beheaded in Dresden as West German spies.

They had been recruited to inform for the West German Gehlen Organization, an intelligence apparatus directed, as its name implied, by former Third Reich spymaster Reinhard Gehlen.

Gehlen had the honor to be dismissed by Hitler in the war’s closing days for his accurately defeatist reports on the overwhelming strength of the advancing Red Army, but for the western Allies — to whom he savvily surrendered — his expertise on and contacts in eastern Europe were very well worth having as the Cold War took shape.

His organization, the precursor to Germany’s present-day intelligence service, naturally set about penetrating East Germany — which was far simpler to do in those early years, before the East all but sealed the border.

East Germany, of course, was equally keen to undermine the Gehlen network’s moles and after the alarm of the June 17, 1953 rising it implemented a concerted effort to bring root out western spies known as Operation Arrow (Pfeil). Mass arrests beginning in October of 1953 swept up hundreds of suspected agents not only for Gehlen but for British, French, and American intelligence.

The consequent trials, or more particularly those targeting West German assets, are collectively known as the Gehlen-Prozess. We have indeed encountered some of its victims already: Elli Barczatis and Karl Laurenz, who would be executed a year after the principals in this post for their own work in Gehlen’s service.

Barczatis and Laurenz had alarmingly close access to the Prime Minister himself, and their trial was a secret one. Bandelow and Misera, by contrast, were civil servants fit for the sort of show trial that the Communist bloc was in these years raising to an art form.

In an orchestrated juridical performance piece from November 1 through 9, Communist Germany aimed “to expose the Gehlen organization as a gang of war criminals, fascists and revenge-seekers that threaten the peace of Germany and the world.”* Five other Gehlen informants besides Bandelow and Misera were convicted at the same proceedings, and sentenced to various prison terms.

Vainly playing for the mercy of the court, Bandelow offered to the spectacle that classic Stalinist flourish, the auto-denunciation of the doomed.

My Judge! I do not wish to speak a last word on my behalf … only to remark that I deeply regret my actions and I am ready for the harshest punishment. …

I call upon all those who like me have betrayed the nation and state to put an end to their criminal activity which threatens to unleash an insane war — call upon them to accept the leniency offered by the government and turn themselves in at once. I wish to cry out to them, take this generous offer so it does not go for you like has gone for me! (Source, in German)

Having done their last duty by the state, Bandelow’s frightened, penitent lips were closed by the fallbeil within 48 hours.

* The words of Anton Plenikowski.

On this day..

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1954: Eugen Turcanu, torturer

Add comment December 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Eugen Turcanu and 16 other Romanian political prisoners were executed at Jilava prison.

Turcanu et al were noted as the truncheon arm of one of 20th century’s more blood-chilling torture programs, the Pitesti experiment. (Named for the facility where it began, Pitesti prison.)

As if taking Orwell’s 1984 as a paragon instead of a grim dystopian warning, the Pitesti experiment subjected several thousand political and religious dissidents to a savage course of ideological re-engineering. The object was to beat and brainwash undesirables into model Communists.

“Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation,” Orwell’s torturer-apparatchik O’Brien remarks in the novel. “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

Turcanu knew from the inside just what that sort of transformation entailed. He was by all appearances a proper Communist and a member of the right clubs thereto when, on the cusp of his 23rd birthday in 1948, he was arrested for a youthful prewar affiliation with the fascist Legionary movement.

He caught a harsh seven-year sentence but found his (short) life’s work in prison. His wheedling convinced wardens of his ideological suitability, and his Herculean physique suggested tasks that could only be entrusted to a co-founder of the Organization of Convinced Communist Detainees.

From late 1949 into 1952, Turcanu and a team of fellow goons were employed dishing out near-lethal thrashings on a wholesale scale to wrongthinkers. One thousand to five thousand souls are thought to have passed through the hands of Turcanu’s team; Soviet gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Pitesti “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”

As is customary with torturers, the ordeals extended far beyond brute force to invasive ritual debasement: people forced to eat shit, sexually humiliated, and manipulated into themselves turning torturer on their fellow prisoners and former friends. There’s a video documentary about this program (forcusing especially on its religious persecutions) embedded in its entirety here.

Obviously such practices, enacted on a nigh-industrial scale, were not the freelance initiatives of a few bad apples in the prison system. But no reader of the 21st century will be surprised that it was only the kapos like Turcanu who were punished for it once Stalin’s death relaxed the oppressive ideological terror in eastern Europe. While 22 prisoners were condemned (and 17 ultimately shot), the officers of Romania’s state police who had overseen them “suffered” things like reprimands and amnestied misdemeanor convictions.

On this day..

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1954: Lucretiu Patrascanu, purged Romanian

Add comment April 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Lucretiu Patrascanu was shot in Jilava Prison outside Bucharest.

The widow’s-peaked longtime pol was one of the first inductees of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) after its 1921 founding. Patrascanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was 21 years old then: the spirited politicking within the Communist movement would define the whole of his adult life.

By the 1930s, he held a position of national leadership. Patrascanu served in the Romanian legislature, and became a party representative to the Comintern.

It might have been at a Comintern road trip to Moscow in the 1930s that Patrascanu’s disillusionment with Stalin began. If so, it was beside the point: leftists in Romania (like everywhere else) had the more immediate threat of fascism to contend with.

After spending most of the war years under arrest, Patrascanu re-emerged as a state minister. He personally helped to author the August 23, 1944 coup that flipped Romania out of the Axis camp. But by the very next year he was under police surveillance.

He fell in the Soviet-driven late 1940s purge of Eastern European Titoists, for having such insufficiently internationalist notions as “before we are Communists, we are Romanians.” His time in prison was long enough for authorities to model his show trial on the 1952 Czechoslovakian Slansky trial, though Patrascanu himself disdained to denounce himself, or even to dignify the proceedings with a defense.

I have nothing to say, except [that I] spit on the charges brought against me.

He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1968 by Nicolae Ceausescu.

* Poignantly, Patrascanu was said to have read Koestler’s dystopian novel of the Soviet purges, Darkness at Noon, while an envoy to the 1946 Paris Peace Conference.

On this day..

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1954: George Robertson, the last hanged in Edinburgh

Add comment June 23rd, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1954 marked the last execution in the city of Edinburgh.

By the jaw-droppingly horrific murder he committed, George Robertson certainly earned the distinction.

Not actually topical save to George Robertson’s milestone as Edinburgh’s literal last drop; this Last Drop Pub is at the city’s Grassmarket where historic public hangings (long gone by Robertson’s day) were conducted. Image (c) Sh0rty and used with permission.

His ex-wife, Elizabeth McGarry, had recently kicked him out of the house after an attempted reunion led right back to the prolific domestic abuse that had ended their marriage in the first place. She was an unwed, unemployed mother of two teenage children, but anything beats being tied up and threatened with a hatchet.

Mother and children — 18-year-old son George Jr., and 16-year-old daughter Jean — lived in waking terror of the vengeful ex-patriarch; in the days before restraining orders, they kept doors constantly bolted and jammed with chairs under the doorknobs, and a poker within reach whenever possible.

According to this retrospective — and read the whole thing for a slasher film in prose — the estranged George managed to get into the house on the night of February 28, 1954, while everyone was asleep.

He summoned his former spouse to the kitchen and knifed her to death, then attacked young George Jr. when he arrived, too. Then he mounted the stairs — where Jean was desperately trying to escape out a window — carrying

the blood-drenched body of his ex-wife, a gaping hole in her stomach and a white handkerchief stuffed in her mouth, hands bound together.

George Alexander Robertson was just in the midst of trussing up Jean and stabbing her to death when the mangled George Jr. distracted the killer by reviving well enough to burst out onto the balcony and into the public quadrangle below. There, he

threw himself through a neighbour’s kitchen window, where he begged for help.

Following him, just yards behind, enraged and still clutching his knife, came his father.

The Hay family, whose quiet home was now about to become a murder scene, cowered in terror as blow after blow rained down on the terrified teen as he screamed for help.

Defenceless against his father’s brutality, young George finally slumped to the floor, dying.

Job done, his father threw his body over his shoulder and strolled home leaving a bloody trail across Tron Square.


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The savage “brainstorm” to which he would later attribute this wild spree must have been abating. As he returned to his former domicile, he didn’t bother finishing off Jean, but stuck his head in the kitchen gas oven, where responding police found him.

The obviously unbalanced paterfamilias attempted to plead guilty to avoid the spectacle of the trial (no dice: two days of horror from the witness box riveted the city) and did not attempt to fight the inevitable sentence once imposed. He was dead within 15 weeks of the bloodbath, at the skillful hands of Albert Pierrepoint.

Only three other Scottish executions anywhere — two in Glasgow, and one final hanging in Aberdeen — followed it before death penalty abolition.

On this day..

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1954: Michael Manning, the last hanged in Ireland

Add comment April 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Michael Manning was hanged for the drunken rape-murder of an elderly nurse. It was the last execution in the Republic of Ireland.

Less than 40 years before the modern Irish state had been born in a bloody civil war, notorious for its many executions.

But once Ireland had the stability to draw a line under political executions in the early 1920s, it proved to have scant appetite for capital punishment. Indeed, a provision abolishing it altogether had even been considered for Ireland’s 1922 constitution.

Although Mountjoy Prison had murder hangings in the mid-1920s, which was the style at the time, even by the 1930s actual executions had receded into oddity status: only four men and one woman were hanged in that entire decade. They even had to keep importing British hangman Tom Pierrepoint, and later his famous nephew Albert Pierrepoint, to carry them out. That can’t have helped the popularity of the enterprise.

There was a brief death penalty recrudescence during the war years, and that was pretty much it. Michael Manning’s milestone execution (also in Mountjoy Prison, also conducted by Albert Pierrepoint) was the first one since 1948 … and the last one ever since.

Ireland repealed the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1964, and has since abolished it for everything else. That constitutional prohibition on the death penalty that Ireland didn’t enact in 1922 was in 2001 adopted after all in what is now a very staunchly abolitionist Ireland.

On this day..

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1954: Hossein Fatemi, before the blowback

11 comments November 10th, 2008 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1954, the last Foreign Minister of democratic Iran was shot in Tehran.

It was a year since the dramatic events of 1953, when a CIA-backed coup d’etat overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (or Mosaddegh, or Mossadeq, or Mosaddeq) for contemplating oil nationalization.

Over several chaotic days of “Operation Ajax” (or TPAJAX), the Mossadegh government repulsed a first coup attempt, then succumbed to another.

After Mossadegh initially appeared to have maintained his hold on power, the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled for his life to Iraq and thence to Rome. Fatemi, Mossadegh’s forceful young foreign minister, excoriated the Shah in words that themselves raised the specter of execution.

A traitor is afraid. The day when you, O traitor, heard by the voice of Teheran that your foreign plot had been defeated you made your way to the nearest country where Britain has an embassy. (Quoted in the New York Times.)

Either way, it was high stakes for all concerned in oil country. There’s been contentious debate over the extent to which the affair was also a Cold War proxy conflict — or whether the involvement of the country’s Communist party was incidental, a smokescreen, or an outright stalking-horse for the west.

The coup against Mossadegh has emerged as a major historical turning point — and after the Shah was himself dramatically overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, not necessarily so successful for American foreign policy goals as it seemed at the time.

Appropriately — in fact, with eerie prescience given the events that then lay a generation in the future — a recently declassified 1954 CIA report on the coup made the first known use of a neologism that has since grown increasingly familiar: blowback.

Possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers involved in this type of operation. Few, if any, operations are as explosive as this type.

Maybe those possibilities should be in the front of the mind.

Today, there’s a street named for Fatemi in Tehran, and — strange to say — still some number of Americans who anticipate the greeting due liberators should they ever manage to roll a tank down it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Iran,Language,Politicians,Shot,Treason,USA

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