In the earliest years, people sluiced over the long border just anywhere. By Smolka’s time, that perimeter was buffered by an “internal border” that made it difficult for ordinary people to approach near enough to West Germany to escape. Consequently, most emigration by the the late 1950s occurred in the divided city of Berlin — a flow that East Germany would finally stanch in 1961 with the ultimate in immigration reform, the Berlin Wall.
One of the Cold War’s iconic photographs: East Berlin border guard Conrad Schumann leaps over the barbed-wire barrier into West Berlin on Aug. 15, 1961, just days after construction of the Berlin Wall began.
Like that more famous later escapee, Manfred Smolka (German link, as are most that follow) was a border guard; indeed, he was an officer. That gave him the ability, in 1958, to be far enough within the “internal border” to defect into West Germany
The very next year, he arranged to meet his abandoned wife and daughter on the Bavaria-Thuringia frontier to smuggle them over, too. Alas, it was a trap (pdf) laid by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi.
Happier times: Manfred Smolka with his wife and child.
According to press reports, Smolka was actually on West German soil when the Stasi men captured him.* (The Stasi were often up for a bit of kidnapping.)
West Germans were outraged by Smolka’s capture and subsequent death sentence for “military espionage,” but the case was deemed an apt one for the education of East Germany’s border security agents.
Only with post-Cold War German reunification could his family examine his file. “I am innocent, I can prove it a hundred times,” they read in the last letter the onetime defector wrote to his family — a letter which had never been delivered. “You need not be ashamed of me.” In 1993, a reunified, post-Cold War Germany officially agreed and posthumously rehabilitated Manfred Smolka.
There’s a few minutes of documentary video about him, in German, here.
* By a July 5, 1960 account in the London Times, Smolka was shot at and wounded as he crossed into East Germany but still managed to “crawl” back to West Germany — where his pursuers did not fear to follow him.
On this date in 1960, South Africa conducted a mass execution of 15 miscellaneous criminals (14 black, one white) in Pretoria Prison.
The headline attraction was one of the 14 blacks: Phineas Tshitaundzi, the “panga man” or any number of related headline-worthy nicknames — the panga slasher, the panga maniac. (“Panga man” can also just be any old fellow with a panga, like an agricultural worker.)
A panga is a machete, and Phineas Tshitaundzi wielded this intimidating instrument during a 1950s spree terrorizing white lovers’ lanes around Johannesburg. “He would assault the men and rape the women — to whom, it was said, he then gave bus fare home,” wrote Jean and John Comaroff in Law and Disorder in the Postcolony.* “There could hardly have been a more intense figuration of the dark, erotically charged menace that stalked the cities in the white imagination.”
The assaults were non-fatal — panga man was the only one of the 14 blacks hanged this day not on the hook for murder — but the many survivors whose affairs were on the illicit side had injuries to cope with beyond those inflicted by the blade.
Tshitaundzi was finally caught as a result of fencing some of the proceeds of his crimes, whereupon it transpired that the terrifying perpetrator had been so difficult to capture because he’d been working as a mild-mannered 40-year-old “tea boy” at police headquarters itself, a position that allowed him to stay wise to various attempts to ensnare him.
On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.
During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.
He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).
The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.
Not, however, of murder.
Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**
This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.
That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.
A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.
So Chessman wrote.
Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.
Books by and about Caryl Chessman
And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.
One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.
According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.
With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.
I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.
A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.
Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.
Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.
Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)
Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)
Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)
Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)
The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)
In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.
Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.
Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.
I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.
* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.
** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.
Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.
† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.
On this date in 1960, Romanian anti-communist Oliviu Beldeanu was executed at Jilava prison for a headline-grabbing protest he’d orchestrated in Switzerland five years before.
Beldeanu (here‘s his Romanian Wikipedia page) was the ringleader of a group of Romanian exiles who’d commandeered the Romanian embassy in Bern(e) in February 1955.
The aptly-named Berne Incident was meant to be a symbolic protest — Communist symbols smashed, damaging secret correspondence released, that sort of thing — but it did also result in an embassy driver being shot to death.
These “legionary fascist groups”* and “traitors abroad,” (pdf) (in the official lexicology of Bucharest) were handled fairly gently by Switzerland, predictably keen to stay clear of diplomatic incidents.
And that would have been the end of it … but a Communist cloak-and-dagger operation after the ex-cons were freed lured Beldeanu to Berlin. He was kidnapped by the East German Stasi and flown to Romania, there to be subject to a perfunctory trial and speedy execution.
* “Legionary fascist” denunciations — associating the Switzerland activists with Romania’s notorious Iron Guard — cited by Paul Nistor, “The five who scared … America, too. The immediate effects of the attempt in Bern (1955) over the Romanian diplomacy”, Valahian Journal of Historical Studies, Dec. 2009.
On this date in 1960 — just two days after they had been sentenced — Saleh Safadi, Mohammed Hindawi, Lt. Husham Dabbas, and Karim Shaqra were hanged in Amman’s Hussein Mosque Square for assassinating Jordan’s prime minister earlier that year.
[i]t may be that the bomb plot which cost Hazza Majali his life was also aimed at the King himself. The first bomb, which killed the prime minister, was followed by a second explosion at the scene less than forty minutes later. Had the King followed through on his initial intention to visit the bomb site, he might well have been caught in the second blast.
Though the bombings didn’t get King Hussein, they claimed 11 other lives besides Majali’s.
Syria and the UAR were busily subverting U.S.-backed Jordan, and in this venture they enjoyed dangerously considerable popular support within Jordan; Majali in particular was “regarded by some Jordanians — and particularly Palestine refugees — as a virtual tool of the Western powers.” (New York Times, Aug. 30, 1960)
So it was a dangerous situation, and King Hussein did well to escape those years un-blown-up himself.
Several weeks of brinksmanship followed Majali’s assassination, with Jordanian troops massed on the Syrian border. Matters stopped short of outright war, but Nasser, Syria, and the UAR were all explicitly accused of this operation and others at the resulting trial of the assassins in December: the plot was supposed to have originated in Damascus, been paid for in Damascus, and used bombs shipped from Damascus.
Eleven in all were condemned to death, but seven of those sentences were given in absentia to suspects who had absconded to Nasser’s dominions.
* In response to the Egypt-Syria union, the kindred Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq had formed the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. That arrangement was even shorter-lived than the UAR, because the Iraqi Hashemites were almost immediately overthrown. You can get Jordan’s official take on those perilous years here.
So, six years after Dien Bien Phu, what was independent Vietnam using this hated machine for?
Why, the same thing the French used it for: Terror.
The demonstrative device was redeployed in 1959 by Ngo Dinh Diem — a man whose obliviousness to blowback would soon land him in these pages — for exacting frightful, visible justice on subversive types.
According to that troubled former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,
On May 6, 1959, Diem signed Law 10/59, which, in an ironic bow to the former French colonial masters, inaugurated the era of death by beheading, as Diem’s lieutenants traveled the countryside with mobile guillotines and platforms, looking for “communists.” Article 1 of Law 10/59 called for “sentence of death, and confiscation of the whole or part of his property” for anyone convicted of crimes ranging from murder to stealing farm implements and water buffalo. Article 3 proclaimed that anyone belonging to “an organization designed to help to prepare or to perpetrate” such crimes “will be subjected to the sentences provided for” — that is, they will also be beheaded. … Article 16 announced: “The decisions of the special military court are not subject to appeal, and no appeal is allowed to the High Court.”
He then cites Hanoi historian Tran Van Giau’s recollection of the period.
“In 1959, the most difficult period of the revolution in South Vietnam, the Ngo Dinh Diem puppet regime dragged the guillotine everywhere and carried out a bloody fascist repression.”
Though officially downplayed overseas, all-but-summary beheadings were intentionally publicized in Vietnam in an effort to cow rebels.
The Diem government had many public executions. A lot of people in the West denied that it happened but Diem made no bones about it. They advertised the executions and there were pictures in the paper of people getting their heads chopped off by a guillotine. … In 1959, when I went around with the map teams there were many military outposts where they summarily chopped off the heads of people they thought were Communists. They put the heads on stakes right in front of their outposts, sometimes with two cigarettes up the nostrils. They even invited people to take pictures of it. They were very proud of themselves.