1964: Jack Ruby condemned

Add comment March 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Dallas nightclub owner Jacob Rubenstein — notorious to history as Jack Ruby — was condemned to the electric chair for the dramatic live-televised murder of accused John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, captured by snapping shutters in one of the 20th century’s indelible images.

Ruby would never sit on that mercy seat.

For one thing, his punishment arrived as the American death penalty lulled into hibernation. Had he lived his sentence eventually would have been vacated by the 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling. But instead of seeing that juridical landmark, the enigmatic Ruby died in prison inside of three years, awaiting retrial after an appeal.

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1964: James Coburn, George Wallace’s first death warrant

1 comment September 4th, 2017 Headsman

James Coburn was electrocuted on this date in 1964 in Alabama’s “Yellow Mama”.

He’d been condemned for a Dallas County robbery … and only for that. He has the distinction of being the very last human being executed in the United States for any non-homicide crime; at a stretch one could perhaps reckon him the most distant echo of the Anglosphere’s long-ago “Bloody Code” days, when the sturdy Tyburn tree strained with mere burglars and pickpockets.

Such draconian laws were not enforced in England any more, not for a very long time. (Great Britain abolished the death penalty for purely property crimes in the 1830s.) In fact, the last British executions for any kind of crime at all had occurred weeks before Yellow Mama destroyed James Coburn for robbery.

Presiding over this anachronistic penal event was a knight of the nascent American reaction: Alabama Governor George Wallace. He’d been sworn in just the previous year with the infamous vow, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Coburn’s was the first death warrant to bear Governor Wallace’s signature, but it’s a small surprise that it was the first of just four — considering that Wallace served 16 total years in three separate stints as a conservative executive in a southern state.

One reason was simply because, like his contemporary Ronald Reagan, Wallace’s political star reached its height during the the death penalty’s late sixties to early eighties lull.

But another is that, despite musing inclusively about “a lot of bad white folks and a lot of bad black folks who ought to be electrocuted,” Wallace nurtured gnawing doubts about capital punishment that seem to have grown throughout his strange career.

As a young law student, Wallace had assisted a capital defense for a man who had murdered his wife by dynamiting the house — the charge “blew her through the roof, and she fell down a mass of meat,” in Wallace’s words. The defense seemed hopeless, but Wallace conjured a strategy to keep this particular bad white folk out of the electric chair.

One morning before court opened, just as Beale and Wallace thought all was lost, a relative brought the defendant’s son to see his father. “He was about ten or eleven,” Wallace remembered, “but he looked younger than that. He was a sallow-looking boy, like he had hookworms, and he ran over to his daddy when he came into the courthouse and hugged him and kissed him.” Wallace, who witnessed the scene, told Beale they could use the boy to try to whip up some sympathy among the jurors. Beale agreed; the two took the boy into a room, and Wallace asked him if he understood what was going on. “Do you understand that people in that courtroom are asking that your daddy be electrocuted? That they want to do away with him? Do you understand that?” And Wallace said that every time he would mention it, the boy would break down and cry. So Wallace sat the boy right behind the defendant’s table. “Every time Attorney Beale was asking questions of a witness,” Wallace said, “I would lean over and whisper to this young boy, ‘Son, they’re trying to kill your daddy.’ He would immediately break down in sobs, and the judge would have to recess the court.”

After the testimony concluded, Beale addressed the jury on the circumstantial nature of the state’s evidence; then he asked Wallace to make a final statement for the defense. “I pinned it all on the boy,” Wallace recalled. “I put my arms around him and I said, ‘Now listen, this fellow here has nobody left in the world but his father. His father is no good, he’s no account — but his son still loves him; you saw that in the courtroom. So I am pleading with you for this boy. Save his daddy’s life so he’ll have somebody in the world who loves him, even though he’s in prison.'” The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty, Wallace told the jury. “He said, ‘If anybody deserves the electric chair, this man deserves it.’ If we were trying this man on whether he is a sorry, no-good individual, I would agree: he’s no good; he’s no account; he’s killed his wife for no good reason. But I ask you to let this man live so the son will still have a father.” Wallace then brought the boy to the jury box and said: “Gentlemen, think of this child when you are making that decision. He comes from a poor family. He has not had many good things in life. But he still loves his daddy, whether or not he has committed this horrible crime. I plead with you for this little boy.” After the judge’s charge, Wallace and Beale went to a cafe, but they had barely finished a cup of coffee when the bailiff rushed over and told them the jury was coming back in. “We find the defendant guilty,” the foreman said, “and we fix his punishment at life in prison.” Wallace was elated — so much so that he refused the hundred-dollar fee that Beale offered him. “I would have given you a hundred dollars for the experience this gave me,” he told Beale.

George Wallace: American Populist

Cynical, sure. (Even Wallace’s ultra-segregationist persona was cynical, adopted after he lost an earlier election as the moderate running against a Klan-endorsed opponent.) But whatever his other faults, he genuinely didn’t seem to delight in the executioner, and by the end of his life his acquaintance with this character had put him in fear for his soul.

Governor Wallace signed one other death warrant in 1965, and — after an interim of three presidential bids on the white ressentiment ticket plus a near-assassination that left him wheelchair-bound — found himself governor again in the 1980s. The first death cases under the “modern” Alabama law that Wallace himself had signed in 1975 were just then beginning to reach the end of the line.

And we find, via this post channeling Evan Mandery’s A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America, that Wallace was agonized before doing what he was always going to do.

George Wallace was beginning his final term as Alabama’s governor when he was asked to sign [John Louis] Evans’s death warrant. Wallace’s notoriety, of course, rests primarily on the day in 1963 that he stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to keep black students out. But it is also worth noting that his 1968 third-party presidential campaign perfected the “tough-on-crime” sloganeering that would dominate much of American electoral politics into the 1990s.

Privately, George Wallace had long harbored doubts about capital punishment. In 1964, he told his law clerk that he thought it should be ruled unconstitutional. By 1983, Wallace had survived a shooting, converted to born-again Christianity, and recanted his segregationism. In Mandery’s words, his “reservations about the constitutionality of capital punishment had evolved into full-blown opposition.” The night before Evans was due to be executed, Wallace telephoned his lieutenant governor “in tears,” Mandery recounts. Wallace said that “he had been up all night ‘praying the Bible,’ and couldn’t bring himself to sign the warrant.” That lieutenant governor was the former law clerk, Bill Baxley,* with whom Wallace had shared his reservations 20 years before. Baxley was a liberal Democrat — as Alabama’s attorney general, he had earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan for his investigation and prosecution of civil rights cases — who supported the death penalty. He convinced George Wallace that there was no political choice but to sign the warrant … Evans was strapped into an electric chair and, after two botched jolts that left him burned but alive, was shocked to death on the state of Alabama’s third attempt.

* Baxley is famous for investigating a notorious 1963 church bombing, and relatedly for deploying Alabama state letterhead in one of its very best uses ever.

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1964: Glen Sabre Valance, the last hanged in South Australia

2 comments November 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Glen Sabre Valance became the last person hanged in South Australia.

Born Paul Fraser, he jazzed up the handle by cribbing the surname of the title outlaw from the 1962 John Ford Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Like that Lee Marvin cutthroat, “Glen Valance” was destined to live a brutal life with a violent end.

In the early morning of 16 June 1964, the 21-year-old Valance broke into the home of his former employer, Richard Strang. He had a standing dispute with the Bordertown farmer over wages but his real grudge ran deeper than that. Strang had bemusedly read the sensitive youth’s diary to other farmhands weeks before, resulting in an altercation — and, after Valance drove off with some of his effects, a police report and an arrest.

Valance nursed “bad thoughts” against his tormenter, he muttered to his family. They turned out worse than anyone could have expected: bad enough to justify his adopted alias.

As Strang and his wife dozed in bed, Valance leveled his rifle at the hated ex-boss, and leveled the score. Then he seized the waking Suzanne Strang and raped her there in the bed sodden with the gore of her husband’s warm corpse.

As Valance hightailed it out of Kooroon Station, Suzanne Strang phoned police — and the resulting roadblocks snared the murderer that very day, with the murder weapon right there in the passenger seat … actually riding shotgun. Valance mounted an unsuccessful insanity defense.

In 2011, Lillian Clavell — ten years old at the time of her half-brother’s execution — published a book, A Tormented Soul: The Tragic Life of Glen Sabre Valance, the Last Man to be Hanged in South Australia.

In it, a Clavell still affectionate for her big brother points to their savagely abusive mother as the root cause of the adult Paul/Glen’s horrific crime. (Lillian says that her father shielded her from the worst of any domestic violence, but Paul had no father in his life and no such protection.)

I know she burnt his hands on the stove. I know she put his face through a window. Once she held a knife to his throat and said she’d kill him if he ever stole anything from the cupboard again. I believe that (abuse) led very much to his crime.

Valance was hanged in an unused guard tower (the “Hanging Tower”) of Adelaide Gaol. The facility is unused today, but the date November 24, 1964 and the letters GSV still remain printed on the brick wall.

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1964: Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa, Jeune Haiti

1 comment November 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, the last two members of a noble and doomed rebel movement against Papa Doc Duvalier were shot in a repellent carnival outside the Haitian capital’s national cemetery.

Thirteen young Haitian expatriates had alit from sea, Granma-like, early that August of 1964, weeks after Duvalier was “elected” President-for-Life with an entirely plausible 99.9% of the vote.*

Taking to heart Machiavelli‘s maxim that it is better for a sovereign to be feared than loved, Papa Doc buttressed his rule with a vicious paramilitary force. Some 30,000 Haitians are thought to have been murdered during his 14-year reign, and many thousands of others fled into exile.

The Cuban example — a few plucky armed men in the mountain somehow toppling the ancien regime — must have inspired the U.S. exiles of the so-called Jeune Haiti. Certainly they did not want for the guerrilla’s raw courage and hardiness. In some alternate history their tramping through southern Haiti’s hills under the barrage of Hurricane Cleo is the stuff schoolchildren recite.

But in our world the rising Jeune Haiti hoped to spark did not materialize. Port-au-Prince brandished horrific reprisals against the rebels’ non-combatant family members in the city of Jeremie, and the men themselves were simply picked off in ones and twos in the bush. The last Jeune Haiti members still at liberty were killed in late October, leaving only the two whom the government had managed to capture. Papa Doc had evil plans for Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin.**

On November 12, a Thursday, government offices shuttered for the grotesque holiday, and schools were ordered to bring their pupils to this special lesson of the dictatorship. “No force will stop the invincible march of the Duvalierist revolution,” read a leaflet distributed at the execution. “It carries the strength of a torrent.” (Source)

Under the eyes of this curious throng and the whirr of cameras, Numa and Drouin were lashed to pine poles by the Tonton Macoutes. Un-blindfolded, they received the whispered last rites of a Catholic priest, and then were shot dead by a firing detail.

When the men’s bodies slide down the poles, Numa’s arms end up slightly above his shoulders and Drouin’s below his. Their heads return to an upright position above their kneeling bodies, until a soldier in camouflage walks over and delivers the final coup de grace, after which their heads slump forward and their bodies slide further toward the bottom of the pole. Blood spills out of Numa’s mouth. Drouin’s glasses fall to the ground, pieces of blood and brain matter clouding the cracked lenses.

The next day, Le Matin, the country’s national newspaper, described the stunned-looking crowd as “feverish, communicating in a mutual patriotic exaltation to curse adventurism and brigandage.”

“The government pamphlets circulating in Port-au-Prince last week left little to the imagination,” reported the November 27, 1964, edition of the American newsweekly Time. “‘Dr. Francois Duvalier will fulfill his sacrosanct mission. He has crushed and will always crush the attempts of the opposition. Think well, renegades. Here is the fate awaiting you and your kind.'”

* Actually a bit of a setback for Duvalier after winning every single vote (finaly tally of 1,320,748 to 0) in his 1961 “re-election”.

** Drouin, who was wounded in a battle and captured for that reason, openly lamented at his execution his failure to commit suicide.

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1964: Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo

2 comments November 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, anti-apartheid fighters Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo went to the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison — the first three members of the African National Congress’s military arm to be executed by apartheid South Africa.

In 1960, on the 21st of March — a date still kept as South Africa’s Human Rights Day, and worldwide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — white police gunned down 69 black civilians protesting the color line.

After the Sharpeville Massacre the struggle over racial apartheid in South Africa escalated to a much more violent plane.

Confrontations throughout South Africa following Sharpeville led the white government to declare a state of emergency and begin rounding up thousands of regime opponents. Pretoria also immediately outlaws the leading black resistance organizations, the Pan Africanist Congress and the African National Congress.

Driven underground, both PAC and ANC spun off military wings in 1961 to meet force with force.

We have already visited the “Langa Six”, members of the PAC’s Poqo.

Shortly thereafter, on December 16, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” in Zulu, but better known simply as “MK”) announced its advent with placards in city streets.

The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.

MK conducted its first dynamite attacks that very evening in Port Elizabeth; over the ensuing 18 months, it carried out more than 200 bombings and other acts of sabotage against the facilities of the apartheid state: train tracks, power stations, telephone wires, offices.

A security crackdown naturally ensued.* By 1963, the white government had managed to expose and arrest three-quarters of MK’s regional Eastern Cape High Command. Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Khayingo, and Zinakile Mkaba were all swiftly condemned on multiple counts of sabotage plus one of murdering a police informant. International appeals for clemency fell on deaf ears; one fellow-traveler later remembered the men taking leave of their fellow-prisoners in a haunting song.**

“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near … It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards. And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga’s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions. Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section.

* It was during this crackdown that future president Nelson Mandela was rolled up. Mandela had helped to found MK.

** According to The Road to Democracy in South Africa, 1960-1970, the song was Mini’s own composition titled “Pasop — nants’in-dod’inyama, Verwoerd” (“Watch out, here is the African man, Verwoerd!”). If it is available online, I have not been able to find it.

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1964: Eric Edgar Cooke, the Night Caller

Add comment October 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Western Australia conducted its last hanging — that of Eric Edgar Cooke.

Cooke was one of Australia’s worst serial killers, and also one of its strangest: the eight homicides were almost unpatterned save for their rage.

A harelipped, bullied youth turned delinquent turned small-time criminal — he had numerous arrests to his name for theft, for vandalism, for torching a church that rejected his choir audition, for auto theft and for being a peeping tom — Cooke busted out of obscurity and into nightmares on the night of Australia Day 1963 when he gunned down five random people in Perth‘s comfortable suburbs. But even by then he had already been stabbing and shooting at people, and menacing them with cars.

Cooke’s Australia Day spree comprised four distinct incidents united to one another and to Cooke’s previous patterns by little but a lust for the hunt: his sole methodology was opportunism. Cooke shot a couple parked in a car (they survived), then an accountant through his apartment window (not so lucky); then, Cooke murdered a young man asleep on an open veranda, and rang the doorbell of another house to lure a fifth victim (both of these men also died).

As he’d been previously arrested on the strength of his fingerprints, Cooke had taken the precaution to wear gloves, leaving police a very cold trail indeed. The shock of the one night’s carnage multiplied as weeks, and then months, elapsed with no arrest. Thirty thousand men were fingerprinted in a futile fishing expedition.

An isolated western city in the midst of a transformative population boom, Perth learned mistrust from Eric Edgar Cooke. Of course that can’t literally be true; Perth was half a million people strong by this time. But in the civic memory Cooke’s Australia Day signposts an innocence lost. Estelle Blackburn in her Broken Lives depicts Cooke as the baleful spirit come to scourge Perth’s newly, complacently prosperous. (See this pdf.) It was

[t]he small city … [that] had ways of a friendly, easy going big country town where people left their doors unlocked and their car keys in the ignition of open cars. They trusted each other. He turned it into a city of suspicion and terror. For the first time people started locking the doors of their homes and cars, stopped going out at night and slept with guns or any weapons they could find under their pillows.

There’s a kernel of truth in this cliche, for Cooke liberally exploited Perthians’ inattention to security. When finally arrested in August of 1963 after he shot an 18-year-old babysitter, his confession explained that thanks to car owners’ habit of just leaving the keys in the ignition, he had frequently stolen vehicles parked for the night, used them in hit-and-runs or other crimes, and returned them before morning … the owners very often none the wiser.

Cooke had, meanwhile, also strangled a social worker in the Perth suburbs in February 1963, and stabbed to death a South Perth beautician during a home invasion robbery back in 1959. He proved to have a photographic memory of his misdeeds, and could detail exactly the objects he had stolen in hundreds of long-past burglaries. He copped in all to eight murders and 14 attempted murders.

With such evidence from Cooke’s own mouth his barristers had little choice but to pursue an insanity defense. This didn’t fly with the courts, but neither too did Cooke’s more embarrassing admissions to two murders for which two other men were already imprisoned. (Officially, the crown only credited him with six of his eight kills.) A “villainous unscrupulous liar” he was called for those claims; Darryl Beamish and John Button each served many more years in prison for these two disputed murders; with Blackburn’s help, they were both formally vindicated in the 2000s.

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1964: Preap In, Khmer Serei operative

2 comments January 20th, 2013 Headsman

“It was at that point that I began to hate Sihanouk.”

-Khmer writer Soth Polin on Preap In’s treatment

On this date in 1964, Cambodian dissident Preap In was shot in Trapeang Kraleung … an execution so public that every cinema-goer in the country would witness it.

This is the Cambodia of Narodom Sihanouk — “a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king,” in the words of one obituary when he died late last year.

Plucked from the distant branches of the royal family tree and set up on the throne as an 18-year-old French puppet in 1941, Sihanouk cast a long shadow over his country for the balance of his long life. He surprised his colonial overseers by agitating, successfully, for independence, adding to his regal stature the laurels of national patrimony.

He would in 1955 abdicate the throne — settling for “Prince Sihanouk” — to operate as a conventional politician. One who was the father of his country and the shadow-king. Needless to say, Sihanouk dominated the ensuing era of Cambodian politics.

That politics makes for dizzying reading. At one level, Sihanouk was basically an autocrat with a fairly corrupt developing state. But his statecrafting finesse elevated him far above the bog-standard Cold War dictator. Sihanouk dextrously played the French off against the Americans, East off against West, and shifted the tone of his domestic governance from socialism to Buddhism to nationalism with everything in between. He was a consummate survivor steering a small state on an independent course through the dangers of Cold War ideologies and allegiances.

In 1963-64, Sihanouk’s relations with the United States were on the outs.* Although Sihanouk was also a rival of the late Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, he can’t have welcomed that man’s ouster and execution with the blessing of the superpower sitting right next door with so much megatonnage.

A natural suspicion, only heightened by known CIA patronage of the Khmer Serei (“Free Khmer”), right-wing but anti-monarchist guerrillas led by a longtime Sihanouk foe named Son Ngoc Thanh.

Long story short, Sihanouk as part of his geopolitical machinations had been firing demands at the Americans that they prevail upon their Southeast Asian clientele to put the screws to the Khmer Serei — who used extraterritorial bases to send radio broadcasts into Cambodia. In late 1963, the young engineering student Preap In, who had become a Khmer Serei operative, slipped back into Cambodia with a safe conduct from his uncle In Tam.

Though he would later help to overthrow it, In Tam was a powerful political figure in Sihanouk’s state, at this time governor of Takeo. But he was setting up his nephew or else someone else was, and the “safe conduct” proved an utter sham.

On November 19, at a special national congress, Sihanouk announced the arrest of the two Khmer Serei operatives, Saing San and Preap In … After several conversations with officials in Takeo, In and Saing San had been arrested peremptorily, brought to Phnom Penh under guard, and put on display in cages at the national congress. Facing the prisoners and surrounded by thousands of supporters, Sihanouk denied making any special arrangements with them, and the congress soon became an impromptu judicial hearing. Sihanouk asked both men to admit that the Americans were aiding Son Ngoc Thanh and providing the Khmer Serei with radio transmitters. Saing San said yes to both questions and was immediately released. Preap In, apparently in shock, stared straight to the front, refusing to answer. Sihanouk then demanded that he be subjected to the “will of the congress.” Hundreds of spectators stormed the cage where Preap In stood in silence, bombarding him with rubber sandals, debris, and abuse until he was hustled away to face trial at the hands of a military court. (Source)

Sihanouk’s official version: Preap In “spontaneously confessed” to treason.

Sihanouk not only advanced the public shooting of the young Khmer Serei, but he ordered it filmed; the graphic 15-minute newsreel was played before feature attractions in cinemas throughout Cambodia for weeks to come, while still shots of the execution were distributed on propaganda posters.

Authoritarian Sihanouk may have been, but theatrical bloodletting wasn’t otherwise known as his style. Preap In’s lasciviously rough treatment stood out for its novelty and revolted many Cambodians; David Chandler would remark that this event “frequently surfaced in the 1980s when informants sought to date the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.” Despite that onetime multimedia exposure, if the video or still images from it are accessible online I have not found them. This still image from a (I believe) Sihanouk-era firing squad execution is the best I’ve got, but as my Khmer is a little rusty, I’m at a loss to identify the unfortunate fellow on the post.

* For the view from Washington, see this contemporaneous CIA analysis, a FOIA’ed pdf.

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1964: Namgyal Bahadur, Bhutan assassin

Add comment May 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1964, three officers were executed in Bhutan, including former deputy commander in chief Namgyal Bahadur, for assassinating Prime Minister Jigme Dorji.

Jigme Dorji

A member of the powerful Dorji family and brother-in-law to the Bhutanese king, Dorji was overseeing a modernization campaign for the insular Himalayan kingdom. On April 5, 1964, while the king was in Europe for medical treatment, Dorji was shot dead while relaxing on his veranda. No wholesale seizure of power was attempted.

The entire affair has long been murky, and it seems it was murky to those involved, too.

The assassin, one Zambay,* was caught within days, and he implicated a number of powerful people — including not only Namgyal Bahadur, but the king’s Tibetan mistress.

She eventually fled the country, though her alleged involvement fueled rumors of a Chinese connection, or (more plausibly) of palace politics between her faction that that of the rival Dorjis. Old guard military guys versus the modernizers is another hypothetical dimension, although again the specifics (why now? what was the last straw?) are wanting.

* Zambay was executed on July 4.

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1964: Nguyen Van Troi, Viet Cong urban guerrilla

4 comments October 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1964, South Vietnam executed a 17-year-old Communist for a plot to assassinate American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The young electrical worker and Viet Cong urban guerrilla Nguyen Van Troi was nabbed in the spring of 1963 trying to off both McNamara, famous for the megatonnage he would bestow on Southeast Asia, and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

(Later, when the South Vietnamese client president whose guests these men ostensibly were was being shot in an armored personnel carrier with the Americans’ blessing, Ngo Dinh Diem might have had cause to wish this youth’s inhospitable gesture had not been undone by his men. Lodge was a particularly vocal advocate in the Kennedy administration for overthrowing Diem.)

For the months leading up to his public shooting, he became an international cause celebre; North Vietnam would later milk his martyrdom with a postage stamp, an award, and numerous public streets.

The international reach of his case was underscored when a Venezuelan revolutionary cell kidnapped an American officer shortly before Troi’s execution, and threatened to shoot him in retaliation. (They didn’t.)

Against this, South Vietnam counterposed the unedifying spectacle of a 17-year-old patriot put to death, energetically declaiming at the stake while cameras rolled,

It is the Americans who have committed aggression on our country, it is they who have been killing our people with planes and bombs…. I have never acted against the will of my people. It is against the Americans that I have taken action.

Naturally, he became a worldwide leftist martyr. There’s an Estadio Nguyen Van Troi in Cuba; American actor Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda from her “Hanoi Jane” days, is also named for Nguyen Van Troi.

Robert McNamara, meanwhile, had many, many years yet to live, and many, many more Vietnamese deaths to burden his conscience.Troi’s widow wrote a 1965 book about him, out of print but still available on the used book market.

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1964: Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen, England’s last hangings

6 comments August 13th, 2008 Headsman

At 8 o’clock in the morning this date in 1964, two gallows traps 50 kilometers apart opened simultaneously — dropping the last two men England ever hanged.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen couldn’t have been much smaller fare for a milestone as momentous as the last entry in England’s copious annals of execution.


Evans (left) and Allen.

The two twentysomethings had dropped by Evans’s former coworker’s place in the aptly-named port Workington to borrow money. Since the call was at 3 a.m. and the petitioners were armed, it might appear that they had in mind an offer that John Alan West couldn’t refuse. The reader is invited to fill in the rest: a quarrel, a murder, a stolen watch, a medallion dropped at the crime scene with one of the perps’ own names on it …

Three months later, they were on trial for their lives; a month after that, hanged by the neck until dead. If there is tragedy in these hapless thugs, it may be that either could possibly have saved the other by claiming sole responsibility for the murder; since each blamed the other, the jury ended up finding them equally culpable.

While the last hangings in Canada featured two unconnected men hanged together, the last in England had partners in crime hanged separately. Allen died at Liverpool’s Walton Prison; Evans was dropped at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison.*

And unlike the Canadian case, Evans and Allen didn’t die knowing they were likely the last.

Although hangings had slowed to a crawl in Britain — there were just two in 1963, and none in 1964 before this day — death sentences continued to be handed down. But the trend was toward abolition: the British Parliament suspended the death penalty for ordinary crimes late in 1965, and made the suspension permanent in 1969. The handful of exceptional crimes for which the gallows remained nominally available — treason, piracy, espionage — were never enforced as such before those statutes too were removed from the hangman’s jurisdiction by 1998.

* Evans’ executioner, Harry Allen — no relation to Peter Anthony Allen — also conducted the last hanging in Scotland.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder

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