1955: Gerhard Benkowitz and Hans-Dietrich Kogel, of the KgU

Add comment June 29th, 2018 Headsman

Anti-Communist resistance fighters Gerhard Benkowitz and Hans-Dietrich Kogel were executed by East Germany on this date in 1955.

Benkowitz

The two Weimar civil servants — respectively a teacher and a municipal statistics analyst — Benkowitz and Kogel both affiliated with the Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) which you could translate as Combat Group Against Inhumanity, a western-backed spy/sabotage network harassing the Communist regime.

The KgU’s resistance ran more to the informational rather than the kinetic, but Benkowitz and Kogel both admitted to scouting a railroad bridge in Weimar for a potential bombing target. They were induced by the promise of sparing their lives to play the desired role of penitent auto-denunciator for their joint show trial; the promise, as will be inferred by their presence in these annals, was not honored.

Although the KgU’s West Berlin brain trust was safe from the vengeance of the Stasi, arrests and infiltration of its informer network in east put an end to this organization before the 1950s were out.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies,Terrorists,Treason

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1955: Three for the death of King Ananda of Thailand

Add comment February 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Thai royal secretary Chaliew Pathumros and royal pages Butr Patamasarin and Chit Singhaseni were shot as regicides. (Many other transliterations of these names, and the other Thai names in this post, are possible.) Few now believe that it was they who killed the young King of Thailand, Ananda Mahidol … but who really did it?


The defendants left to right across the front row: Chit Singhaseni, Butr Patamasarin, and Chaliew Pathumros.

Inheriting the throne of Siam — it became Thailand in 1939* — as a nine-year-old expatriate student in Switzerland, the wispy King Ananda would be described by Lord Mountbatten as “a frightened, short-sighted boy … a pathetic and lonely figure.” Some questioned whether he wanted to be king; others, whether monarchy would or should survive in Thailand at all. (Absolute monarchy had given way to constitutional monarchy in 1932.) Ananda’s own deceased father, a prince who had gone to Harvard, studied medicine, and married a commoner, seemed to model a different direction altogether, and Ananda’s legally questionable selection in 1935 might have been designed intentionally to enthrone a figure with no capacity for governance.

In any event, he would not bear this strange burden for very long — for his reign ended at 9:20 in the morning on June 9, 1946, announced by the single report of His Majesty’s own Colt .45 in Boromphiman Throne Hall. Ananda Mahidol was 20 years old, and he’d been expecting within a few days to fly back to Switzerland and wrap up his law degree. Instead, shot dead in the head at point-blank range, he was the vortex of a murder(?) mystery that continues to this day to elude a satisfactory accounting. His younger brother immediately succeeded him as King Bhumibol Adulyadej and would reign for 70 years** but even he couldn’t say what happened in this 1980 BBC interview.

The palace initially announced that the king had killed himself accidentally while toying with his gun but as more information leaked out it speedily rubbished the hypothesis of accidental or suicidal self-infliction. According to a British forensic pathologist who examined the evidence,†

The pistol found at the King’s side was by his left hand, but he was right-handed. The wound, over the left eye, was not in one of the elective sites, nor a “contact” discharge. The direction of fire was not inward towards the centre of the head.

Such findings pointed to the more politically explosive possibility that someone else shot King Ananda, which was also the conclusion of an official Thai inquiry late in 1946.

Soon, charges that the late king had been murdered at the behest of Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong — a republican who in his student days had been prominent in the successful movement to overthrow royal absolutism — were being aggressively bandied by his opposition. This rumor would eventually be enlisted as justification for a 1947 military coup that forced Pridi to flee Thailand.

Having made the punishment of Ananda’s assassins part of his putsch’s raison d’etre, the authoritarian former Axis collaborator Field Marshal Phibun now fixed his gaze on three palace servants who had been close to the young king in his last hours. Through them, Phibun’s new regime could condemn Pridi in absentia.

In a bizarre and ridiculous legal saga that began in 1948, the trio would be depicted as part of a sinister plot under Pridi’s direction to slay the king — Chaliew as Pridi’s instrument, and the two pages, who were in personal attendance upon Ananda at the time of his death, as complicit witnesses/accessories. (The judgment never quite says directly who pulled the trigger.) Over the course of the legal odyssey, two of the scapegoats’ defense attorneys were murdered, and two more arrested for treason: representing these regicides was such a dangerous task that by the end their team comprised only two young attorneys, one of whom was Chaliew’s freshly-graduated daughter.

Even so, only Chit was convicted in the first go-round but prosecution appeals against the verdict succeeded in condemning both of the other men, too. (One can read the full verdict in English here.) They would be executed one by one via a machine gun fusillade to the back, delivered through a screen — the distinctive local method. Bhumibol could have spared them. He didn’t.

But talk of these men as arch-traitors faded as political exigencies shifted in the subsequent decades. Their alleged conspiracy was incoherently depicted from the start, and nothing of direct evidence really implicated them: one can see in the BBC clip above that King Bhumibol doesn’t even bother discussing them when asked about Ananda’s death. It’s left the rather consequential question of who killed the king in a puzzling irresolution, a situation compounded by Thailand’s expansive lèse majesté law which renders taboo many obvious lines of inquiry when a royal is slain in a closed residence peopled by other royals. Speculation still centers on the three main scenarios considered from the outset: suicide, homicide, and accident.

Suicide

South African historian Rayne Kruger examined the obscure event in The Devil’s Discus: The Death of Ananda, King of Siam and concluded that it might have been suicide after all. In Kruger’s conception, it would have been occasioned by the young king’s mooning over a fellow law student back in Switzerland (Marylene Ferrari) who was forbidden him by his royal station.

It was published in 1964, and is banned under Thailand’s aggressive censorship program.

Homicide

William Stevenson’s The Revolutionary King postulates that fugitive Japanese war criminal Masanobu Tsuji, who was hiding out in Thailand at the time, masterminded the king’s assassination.

Bhumibol and the Thai court permitted Stevenson intimate access for several years researching this volume, although this did not prevent the book from also meeting a chilly reception in Thailand. (It’s unclear to me whether it was in fact ever formally banned, as some sites assert.) Although Stevenson’s theory about the killer doesn’t have many adherents, one supposes that in view of the author’s access, Bhumibol must have suggested it or assented to it during their private conversations.

Accident

Scottish journalist and former Reuters Bangkok correspondent Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of another book banned in Thailand (A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century), has argued that the only plausible inference from the strange pattern of circumstantial evidence is that King Bhumibol himself — then an 18-year-old — pulled the trigger, likely by accident while horsing around with Ananda.

If Ananda was not assassinated by an intruder, did not shoot himself by accident, and did not commit suicide, that means he was shot by somebody known to be at the Barompiman Hall that morning. And only one person was not able to fully account for their movements that morning: Bhumibol. In particular, his testimony to investigators appeared to conflict with that of the royal nanny …

Discrepancies in the accounts of what happened when Bhumibol went to see Ananda at 9 a.m. are also telling. Investigators began to suspect the most likely scenario was that Bhumibol had indeed gone to see Ananda, but had not been turned away by the pages as he and they were later to claim. He went into Ananda’s room.

What happened there over the next 20 minutes, only Bhumibol knows for sure.

Bhumibol and Ananda both owned several guns and enjoyed playing with them. Indeed, Bhumibol had been known in the past to playfully point a gun at his brother. This has led many people to speculate privately that Bhumibol and Ananda were playing some kind of game in the bedroom that morning and that something had gone terribly wrong. The forensic evidence suggests Ananda was asleep when he was killed, however, although there remains the likelihood that, as the British ambassador’s secret cable suggests, the scene was rearranged after Ananda’s death. In any event, no credible explanation for the death of Ananda has ever been proposed other than this: between 9 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Ananda’s Colt .45 was taken out from his bedside cabinet, and somehow Bhumibol came to shoot his brother with it, with the muzzle very close to Ananda’s forehead. Perhaps they were playing, or perhaps Ananda was still dozing and Bhumibol wanted to wake him with a practical joke, holding the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Most probably, he removed the magazine from the Colt .45 automatic, put it to his brother’s head, and pulled the trigger, forgetting that even with the magazine removed, one round remains in the breech. Less likely, but possible, is that they argued about something and Bhumibol brandished the gun in a fit of anger. Bhumibol alone has the answer, and he seems unlikely to ever give us the truth.

This theory, which is also of course lèse majesté in Thailand, is supported by Paul Handley, yet another journo with a banned book (The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej).

Marshall’s website zenjournalist.org touches this event in a number of posts; he makes the case most directly and thoroughly in “The Tragedy of King Bhumibol”, Part III and Part IV. These and other posts also marshall diplomatic cables and intelligence reports showing that Bhumibol as the killer was common private scuttlebutt among both Thai and foreign officials from the very first days to the point of being received, albeit publicly unutterable, wisdom. For example, American diplomat Kenneth Landon‡ casually remarks as fact that King Ananda was “killed by his brother, either intentionally or accidentally, by the gun the OSS guy had given them to play with” in this recording made by his son for a family history. (It occurs in passing at 4:48)

Rumor is not proof, of course, but this theory would certainly account for the shroud of permanent mystery surrounding June 9, 1946, not to mention the king’s own grave public persona (“The King Never Smiles …”). For Marshall, Bhumibol — a fun-loving, jazz-playing sprite at the time he allegedly shot his beloved older brother — was a figure of monumental tragedy and, at least before he got to the point of allowing innocent people to take the fall for it, his dissembling about Ananda’s death

was not a way of shirking responsibility. Quite the reverse: his failure to confess was in many ways a profound sacrifice. Had he told the truth about the death of Ananda, he could have escaped back to Switzerland for a very comfortable life as a playboy prince, albeit a notorious one. Instead, he lied, and accepted the crushing burden of kingship, a role that he had never wanted. He resolved to devote himself tirelessly to royal duty for the rest of his life. It probably seemed the only way he could even begin to make amends.

* Thailand was again Siam from 1946 to 1948. I’ve simply used “Thai” and “Thailand” throughout this post about events overlapping this period, the better to avoid confusion.

** Bhumibol, who died in 2016, was among the world’s longest-reigning monarchs ever. As of this writing his son holds the throne.

† The palace immediately took control of, and meddled with, the scene, so the available evidence falls very far short of what a crime scene investigator might wish for.

‡ Kenneth Landon’s wife Margaret, his longtime companion in Siam/Thailand since the two first went as missionaries in 1927, is noteworthy as the author of Anna and the King of Siam, which is the basis for (among other adaptations) the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I and the Jodie Foster film Anna and the King.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Shot,Thailand,Wrongful Executions

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1955: Johnson William Caldwell

Add comment May 6th, 2015 Headsman

(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.)

“I’ve lived a rough life, but I wonder if God has a place for people like me?”

— Johnson William Caldwell, convicted of murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed May 6, 1955

After serving time in the Texas State Prison for embezzlement, Caldwell found his way to California, where he met Lilly Pearl Storts. Three days and one drunken party later, they were married. When Caldwell asked for an informal loan one night, Storts refused. The next morning he returned home, hit her with an iron pipe, and strangled her to death with two belts. When stopped by an officer in Arkansas, he surprised the lawman by saying: “I’m the man you want for the murder of my wife.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Murder,USA

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1955: Elli Barczatis and Karl Laurenz, East Berlin spies

Add comment November 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, the East German Prime Minister’s own chief secretary was beheaded as a spy, along with her lover.

You’ll find this affair blurbed in the Historical Dictionary of Sexspionage, so you’d figure it’s got to be good — but it wasn’t quite James Bond. (They never really are.)


Elli Barczatis (top) and Karl Laurenz

Elli Barczatis hooked up in 1949 with Karl Laurenz when both worked in the DDR Ministry of Industry. (Both these links are in German, as are most that follow.)

Their careers went in opposite directions thereafter. Barczatis scored a plum appointment as Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl‘s administrative aide while Laurenz got booted out of the Communist party altogether for political unreliability: he’d been a mere social democrat before the communist takeover.

Laurenz started scratching out a living as a freelance journalist in both East and West Berlin, prior to Berlin Wall days, and was recruited by West Germany’s intelligence service to brief them on the goings-on in the East.

In December 1950, a former coworker saw Barczatis and Laurenz at a cafe rendezvous — and saw Barczatis pass the reporter a sheaf of papers. The coworker reported it to East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.

Because of Barczatis’s proximity to the head of government, the Stasi had to investigate the tip with great delicacy. But no matter; the East German spooks could be patient as death when the occasion demanded. So over the course of four-plus years, they cautiously surveilled, and eventually entrapped, the lovers.

At last, on March 4, 1955, those grim security men arrested Barczatis at her apartment in the suburb of Kopenick. Laurenz, returning laster that day to the East from a West Berlin meeting with intelligence officers, was nabbed as well.

Laurenz confessed to espionage right away; it might have been a cathartic experience for him. “The accused became provocative, comparing the State Secretariat for State Security of the German Democratic Republic with the fascist Gestapo and the Nazi SD,” a Stasi officer reported after marathon interrogation sessions. “He remarked that the treatment of prisoners by the State Secretariat for State Security is worse than the treatment by the SD and the Gestapo.” But the doomed spy still stubbornly protected his contacts, sources — and Elli Barczatis. He insisted that she was more leaker than spy, and gave him information thinking only that it was background for his reporting.

According to John Koehler’s Stasi: The Untold Story of the German Secret Police, there might have been something to that.

What was the extent of Elli Barczatis’s espionage? What did she betray that justified her execution? Incredibly, the interrogation record reveals not a single instance in which she furnished Laurenz with material so sensitive that it could be interpreted as having endangered the security of the communist state. She betrayed no military or defense secrets. She merely told her friend about letters her office received from the populace complaining about food shortages; mismanagement that created problems in industry; government personnel changes; and Westerners who visited Prime Minister Grotewohl. The absurdity of all communist regimes was that such tidbits of information were considered state secrets.

Baczatis’s and Laurenz’s beheading on the fallbeil was the culmination of a mid-Fifties security crackdown by East Germany that also eliminated (although not by execution) at least two other highly-placed West German assets, Hermann Kastner and Walter Grosch. (Source.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies,Women

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1955: Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England

3 comments July 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Albert Pierrepoint escorted the alluringly tragic Ruth Ellis to the gallows at Holloway Prison — the last woman ever hanged in Great Britain.

The former hostess had tracked her inconstant and abusive lover David Blakely to a Hampstead pub a few months before — getting the ride, and the murder weapon, from her unrequited hanger-on Desmond Cussen — and shot Blakely dead on the street. Five bullets: the last, a coup de grace. (Another missed entirely and winged a passerby.)

A bitterly controversial case from the moment it entered the public eye, Ellis’s hanging bolstered the movement to abolish Britain’s death penalty. Juridically, however, it was resolved in the blink of an eye when a crown’s attorney cross-examined the murderess:

Christmas Humphreys: Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?

Ellis: It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.

Book CoverThe jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.

We’re pleased to mark this anniversary with Carol Ann Lee, author of a recent biography A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story. (Here’s a review. Also check out two long pieces Lee wrote about Ruth Ellis for the Daily Mail: 1, 2)

ET: I think at a certain point in time, everyone in Great Britain would have known who Ruth Ellis was, and quite a few abroad, too. How true is that still, nearing 60 years after her execution?

I think her name is still quite familiar, to be honest.

When I began researching the book, everyone I discussed it with either already knew the very basic facts of Ruth’s story, and at the very least that she was the last woman to be hanged in England. The 1985 biopic Dance with a Stranger left a big impression too, even though it wasn’t entirely faithful to Ruth’s character, making her seem much more hysterical a personality than she actually was, although I thought Miranda Richardson was brilliant in the role — as she always is!

What led you to the Ruth Ellis story?

I’ve always been interested in Ruth and that period in history — and I vividly remember going to see ‘Dance with a Stranger’ when it came out in the cinemas here. But it always struck me that her full story had never been told, particularly the last few months of her life after she shot David Blakely. And a couple of years ago there was quite an intense debate about bringing back capital punishment; Ruth’s name was always mentioned in relation to that particular argument, and I really felt it was time to explore her whole story.

What are the greatest misconceptions people have of her? Have her previous biographies and screen portrayals fed those misconceptions?

Without doubt, many people see Ruth as she was shown in ‘Dance with a Stranger’ — very screechy, out of control and violently jealous.

I think it’s true to say that she and David were both deeply jealous of each other (both giving the other reason to be so), but Ruth was not as hysterical as she was portrayed in the film. In fact, it was quite the opposite — the men were hysterical and it was Ruth who usually vented a sort of quiet fury. There is one scene in the film which shows her smashing the windows of David’s car and screaming in the street. Reading the original police statement about that night reveals a very different story; she was described as very calm and rational. There was no screaming, and although she did damage the vehicle, it was not remotely as it was shown in the film.

I think other adaptations have also done her a disservice. Ironically, probably the most accurate portrayal is in the film ‘Pierrepoint,’ where the character of Ruth appears for no more than a minute or two on screen.

I get the sense that Ruth was always running uphill against her class position, trying to climb a little higher than she could reach — right up to the end where her lover is a well-off cad and the rivals for the lover’s affection are his middle-class friends. What role did England’s class relations have in Ruth Ellis’s life and death, and in the way that others perceived her? Do they still shape the way we talk about her all these years later?

Class and politics played a huge role in Ruth’s life generally.

England was distinctly class-led at the time and when the case hit the headlines, she was described as a working-class floozie who attached herself to the upper-class David Blakely purely in order to hoist herself up the class ladder.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth; if she was only interested in using men to better herself socially, she would surely have married her sometime-lover Desmond Cussen, who was a much steadier prospect with money and property and who wanted very much to marry her. Ruth worked hard to better herself but she didn’t use the men she loved to do so.

And when it came to her trial, the class values of the time were heavy in the courtroom with the male barristers and judge and so on all very much men of the upper classes — and who viewed her accordingly. I hope we have got beyond all that nonsense now — but it does add a very distinct dimension to discussions of her case.

She was working as a hostess when she met David Blakely. What would a hostess do, who worked in this trade, and who were the clientele? Was it usual for “real” relationships to evolve? Do people still have this job in the same form as Ruth had it?

Hostessing in the clubs in which Ruth worked was quite straightforward — or it should have been, but there was Morris Conley to contend with, and he was quite a character.

Ruth’s basic job description was to look good and to chat to customers (mostly men) in the clubs, laugh at their jokes and keep them buying food and drink for as long as possible. Most hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, working-class girls who thought the lifestyle was more glamorous than toiling in a factory or in a shop.

They were usually paid badly and relied on tips to make ends meet, but were given a dress allowance so that they could look as alluring as possible. The clientele mainly consisted of demobbed servicemen who suddenly seemed to have lost their attractiveness to women after the war — where once they had been heroes, by the late 1940s many of them were down on their luck and working as door-to-door salesmen, very lonely and eager to talk to pretty young girls about their war exploits.

The girls who worked for Morris Conley, like Ruth, were expected to sleep with the clients if that was asked of them, and often had to sleep with ‘Morrie’ and his less than respectable friends too. Many of them were very poor young women who lived in flats owned by Conley and his wife — and if they didn’t toe the line, they lost their jobs and their homes in one fell swoop.

Did real relationships evolve? Yes, they did, but very rarely. There are girls all over the world doing very similar jobs today — from London to Japan and everywhere in between too, no doubt.

You have this quote from Ruth about David Blakely: ‘I thought the world of him; I put him on the highest of pedestals. He could do nothing wrong and I trusted him implicitly.’ Ruth had an alcoholic, abusive father, and then she had two children from marriages with two different men that both fell apart — one from bigamy and abandonment, the second from alcoholism and domestic violence. Blakely himself cheated on her. Why wasn’t she more cynical about Blakely? If you take away the tragic ending to this particular relationship, was something like this a pattern she was doomed to keep repeating ad infinitum?

She loved him — it’s really as simple as that.

Although she obviously had a good degree of self-awareness and knew what David was and always would be, she truly loved him and for a time believed they had a future together. As for a pattern — I don’t know. Perhaps if she had met one good, steady man to whom she was attracted as much as she was to David, her life — and David’s too of course — might have been very different.

I’m going to phrase this inelegantly: what is the DEAL with Desmond Cussen?

Good question! I really think that he was as confused and tormented by everything that was happening as a result of Ruth’s and David’s relationship as Ruth herself.

I think he did love Ruth, and he tried hard to make things work with her, but he knew her heart was with David. His apparent lack of self-respect and backbone is baffling — quite why he kept ferrying her across London and out to Buckinghamshire in pursuit of David is a bit mystifying. I did question in the book why no one seemed to query his state of mind as much as Ruth’s — and as to whether he gave her the gun or not, knowing what she intended to do … I am sure he did, even though he must have known where it would end for Ruth herself.

Perhaps he hoped that with David out of the way, she would be reprieved and they could then have a life together. But I really don’t know!

Ruth’s legal defence was legendarily feeble. That said, I’m very interested in the barrister’s attempt to frame its insanity defense around feminine hysteria — “the effect of jealousy upon a female mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.” This was bound to be undermined by Ruth’s own calm and the statements about her intent to kill that she gave to police and in court. Was it the case that the law at the time didn’t have the instruments to situate Ruth’s context and state of mind, other than hysterical/not? Or could an abler barrister have presented a different story?

I think part of the difficulty is obviously that the defence of diminished responsibility was not introduced in the courts here until 1957 — largely as a direct result of this particular case.

Ruth’s lawyers tried to argue this as a defence for her to some extent, but it just wasn’t possible legally. That said, I think they served her quite badly and didn’t bring out so much that might have enabled the jury to see her crime in context. There was no mention of the abuse in her childhood, no mention of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and very little said about David’s own brutal treatment of her.

But Ruth herself did not seem to care much what happened in the courtroom, once it became evident that the story as she saw it — David’s friends having, in her view, deliberately destroyed the relationship between them — was not going to come to light. She gave up, and volunteered nothing that could have helped her, minimizing the violence to which she had been subjected and dismissing most of the questions put to her in a short sentence or two.

She also infamously replied to the prosecution’s question of what she intended to do when she set out to find David with the gun, “It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That one line completely sealed her fate.

Despite all this, the public did seem to be shocked by Ruth Ellis’s hanging, and it’s supposed to have boosted the anti-death penalty campaign. If one may phrase it this way, were people shocked for the right reasons? How much did the symbolic “Ruth Ellis” that even her supporters among the general public had in view have to do with the real person as you understand her?

I think any case is always immeasurably more complex than it is presented in newspaper columns and headlines.

I think, again, the outcry at her execution has to be seen in context — people were becoming more and more opposed to the death penalty and there had been some very high-profile, contentious cases that really did cause a great deal of debate, anger, and distress: the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 and of Derek Bentley in 1953 for instance (both of whom were posthumously pardoned).

The fact that Ruth was a young, attractive, lively woman with two small children caused many people to question the validity of capital punishment. It was her death on the scaffold that gave the abolition movement its emotional spur.

What became of Ruth Ellis’s body after her hanging? And what became of her family and the others who were part of the story?

Ruth was buried in the confines of Holloway Prison after her execution, sharing her unmarked grave with four other women who had been hanged there. In 1971, when the prison was demolished and rebuilt, her body was released to her son for burial.

He had hoped to lay his mother to rest alongside David Blakely at the Holy Trinity churchyard in Penn but the vicar there would not allow it. Ruth was instead buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Amersham, a few miles away.

As to what became of her family: her son Andre (who was ten when Ruth was executed) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a very young man and never came to terms with the loss of his mother. He committed suicide in 1982. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, had quite a colourful life, becoming a successful model who was in the newspapers fairly often as part of the George Best ‘set.’ She married and had children and worked hard to win a posthumous pardon for her mother, of whom she spoke often. She died of cancer at the age of only 50.

As for Desmond Cussen: he emigrated to Australia and opened a flower shop there. He never married and became an alcoholic, dying in Perth on 8 May 1991 of pneumonia and organ failure following a fracture dislocation of the neck in a fall at his home.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Sex,Women

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1955: Barbara Graham, of “I Want to Live” fame

5 comments June 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Barbara Graham was gassed at California’s San Quentin Prison, along with two confederates in the brutal murder of an elderly widow.

Following the classic sob-story vector from orphan to juvenile delinquent to petty criminal, Graham found her calling as femme fatale.

She entered adulthood with World War II, and spent the war years alternating between failed marriages and the working-girl beat for Pacific military bases.

“Sure, I was a prostitute — and a damn good one,” she later confided to a reporter. “Why do people make so much of sex anyway? It’s part of our natural make-up, like getting hungry for food. If you want to eat, you go to a grocery store or a restaurant. If you need sleep, you sleep. If you want sex, why not get it?” (Source, a thorough .doc file)

Police made a bigger deal of perjury when she unwisely tried to help out some underworld friends by swearing to a demonstrably bogus alibi for them. She did some real time, tried to go straight in a boring Nevada town, and inevitably — for the likes of this site — returned to the siren lures of California.

It was back to the familiar job servicing the familiar hunger … but now with a new hunger of her own: heroin.

And heroin meant a now-ravenous appetite for cash.

Barbara Graham’s trip to the gas chamber and to California crime history began when she and some fellow-addicts tried to satiate that latter craving by burgling the Burbank home of Mabel Monohan, who was rumored to live alone with a lot of portable valuables.

The job was a botch from beginning to end: someone bludgeoned the crippled woman to death, but nobody found the supposed boodle. And as the police investigation led back towards the culprits, two of them flipped on their confederates.

(The first of them was kidnapped and murdered to prevent his testimony while everyone was still on the lam. The second happily took his place as the stool pigeon once everyone was in custody. Graham, proving that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, got caught on a wire trying to suborn perjury on her own behalf, dramatically destroying her alibi defense mid-trial.)

Shock murder authored by vamp courtesan? (The informant would testify that Graham personally pistol-whipped the victim into a bloody heap.) Hellooooo, California noir.

In its day, Graham’s case prompted all the moralistic hand-wringing familiar to the condemned-hottie tableau down to our present age. And at least that much unconcealed voyeurism. On the eve of her death, the Los Angeles Times palpitated:

“Nothing can be done now — I’m lost,” Mrs. Graham sobbed yesterday when told that Federal judges here and in San Francisco had turned down the latest bids for a stay of execution …

Two years in prison waiting for death have taken their toll of the once attractive convicted murderess.

Her reddish-blond hair has reverted to its natural black color. She has lost about 30 pounds. She is gaunt, tense and near hysteria.

The two men who shared her crime, her sentence, and her fate, did not endure a similar public microscope. Why would they? Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins — and this is the first we’ve even bothered to name them in this post — were just two dude hoods from central casting. Three hours after “Bloody Babs” succumbed to the fumes,* Santo and Perkins were gassed together as the forgettable postscript, “chatt[ing] amiably” with one another in the little metal shed while San Quentin’s personnel did all the preparatory business. (Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1955)

Graham’s persistence with a decreasingly plausible innocence story similarly amplified the pathos of her situation.

It also set up a highly sympathetic post-execution cinematic portrayal, the 1958 I Want to Live! — which garnered leading lady Susan Hayward an Oscar for Best Actress. Director Robert Wise actually personally witnessed the real Graham’s gassing as part of his research for the film.

A 1983 television remake starred former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner.

* Given the standard advice for gas chamber clientele that breathing deeply makes it all go down easy, Graham aptly retorted, “How in the hell would you know?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gassed,History,Murder,Pelf,USA,Women

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1955: Gerald Albert Gallego, like father like son

6 comments March 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1955, murderer Gerald Albert Gallego became the first client of Mississippi’s new gas chamber.*

It was a botched job, though that didn’t stop Mississippi from retaining the gas chamber into the 1990s.

Gallego coughed, choked, and wheezed on a less than lethal cloud of cyanide poisoning. Finally, after some forty-five minutes while officials feverishly worked to correct the problem, the repairs were completed and Gallego quickly died. An additional step was then added to the required testing of the chamber prior to an execution: an animal, usually a rabbit, would be placed in a cage in the chamber chair and cyanide gas was released to make sure the mixture was sufficiently lethal.

Gallego killed a cop, then engineered a prison break out of death row by giving a guard a faceful of acid and a fatal beating.

But if you think he was bad, get a load of his son.

The younger Gerald Gallego drew two gas chamber sentences of his own, in California and Nevada, for a far more diabolical crime spree (though he ultimately died in prison, not at the hands of an executioner).

The son’s story is the subject of The Sex Slave Murders: The Horrifying True Story of America’s First Husband-and-Wife Serial Killers, whose author gave an interview to indefatigable true-crime blogger Laura James here.

Despite the familial resemblance in lawbreaking, the father and son never met in this life.

According to The Sex Slave Murders, a prison conversion gave Gallego pere a care for his next life, and on his last walk this day to the gas chamber, he handed the Mississippi sheriff a note that read in part,

Sheriff, if at any time you should have young men in your jail, please tell them that I was once like them, and should they continue, there is no reward but hardships and grief for their parents.

* Mississippi’s gas chamber replaced the electric chair.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Milestones,Mississippi,Murder,Notably Survived By,USA

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1955: Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar

1 comment January 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1955, two Egyptian Jews enrolled by Israeli intelligence as saboteurs were hanged in Cairo.

Marzouk (left) and Azar, from this page.

The strange and disturbing “Lavon affair” — or “Esek habish,” the “shameful affair” — has never had a completely satisfying explanation.

It broke in 1954, when Egypt arrested a ring comprised of Egyptian Jews who had bombed locations in Alexandria and Cairo, including an American diplomatic post, in an apparent false flag operation meant to be attributed to the radical Muslim Brotherhood. (The apparent operation had a recent precedent.)

The germ and the goal of this project have been fodder for speculation ever since; the most commonly accepted theory is that it was intended to trigger western intervention or pressure on Egypt that would prevent Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal.

Initially blamed on the Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, unrelated court testimony in 1960 would reveal that he was a fall guy.

But in any guise, the hangings this day in Cairo prompted national mourning in Israel and an immediate political shakeup whose dimensions might as well have sprung from this morning’s paper:

The dovish government of Moshe Sharett fell; hawkish founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was recalled from retirement in a Negev kibbutz; and Israel launched a reprisal raid at Gaza. Little more than two years later, Israel and Egypt would contest control of the Suez on the battlefield.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Egypt,Execution,Hanged,History,Israel,Jews,Scandal,Spies,Terrorists,Torture,Treason

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