1967: The Asaba Massacre

Add comment October 7th, 2018 Headsman

The Asaba Massacre during Nigeria’s Biafran War culminated on this date in 1967 with a horrific mass execution.

Nigeria had attained independence in 1960 but still carried the legacy of its many decades under British control. Notably, the borders bequeathed to Nigeria amalgamate a coastal, Christian population in the south to an inland, Muslim population in the north — a fissure that continues to shape Nigeria down to the present day.

The ethnicity of interest for this post is the Igbo, one of those southern and Christian populations, and also a people who had been ethnically cleansed from the north in 1966 after an exchange of Christian and Mulim coups brought Nigeria to the brink of disintegration. Their homeland in southeast Nigeria — historically known as Igboland, and called Eastern Region within Nigeria — would become from May 30, 1967 the breakaway state of Biafra.

Biafra’s bid for independence triggered a devastating war with the Nigerian federal government. By the time that it ended in early 1970, perhaps as many as two million Biafrans were dead from mass starvation.

Asaba, where our massacre takes place, is a predominantly Igbo city on the western (non-Biafran) shore of the Niger River, opposite the Biafran eastern shore city Onitsha.

In the war’s opening weeks, Biafran forces actually struck out from their homeland and into Nigeria proper, crossing the Niger River. They would re-cross it in the opposite direction days before this massacre, taking bridges from Asaba to Onitsha and then cutting those bridges to frustrate the federal troops pursuing them.

Federal soldiers reaching Asaba in the first days of October took out that frustration on the city’s Igbo population, whom they robbed and abused as rebel sympathizers. Murders/summary executions for several days together comprise the Asaba Massacre of Massacres … but the single most emblematic and traumatic event took place on Saturday the 7th.

On October 4-6, soldiers occupied the town, and some began killing boys and men, accusing them of being Biafran sympathizers. On October 7, Asaba leaders met, and then summoned everyone to gather, dancing and singing to welcome the troops, and offering a pledge to One Nigeria. People were encouraged to wear akwa ocha, the ceremonial white, embroidered clothing that signifies peace, hoping that this strategy would end the violence. Although there was much trepidation, and some refused to participate, hundreds of men, women, and children assembled for the march, walking to the village square of Ogbeosewa, one of the five quarters of Asaba. Ify Uraih, then 13 years old, describes what happened when he joined the parade with his father and three older brothers, Paul, Emmanuel (Emma), and Gabriel:

There, they separated the men from the women … I looked around and saw machine-guns being mounted all around us … Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand; he released me and pushed me further into the crowd … They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other. And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away; his eyes were open but he was dead.

Exactly how many died is not clear; between 500 and 800 seems likely, in addition to many who died in the previous days. Most victims were buried in several mass graves, without observing requisite ceremonial practices. Along with his father, Uraih lost Emma and Paul; Gabriel was shot repeatedly, but recovered. The long-term impacts were profound; many extended families lost multiple breadwinners, and the town’s leadership was decimated. ()Source)

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1967: Sunny Ang, a murderer without a body

Add comment February 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1967, Sunny Ang hanged in Singapore for murder.

“This is an unusual case insofar as Singapore, or for that matter Malaysia,* is concerned,” said the prosecutor. “This is the first case of its kind to be tried in our courts that there is no body.”

The missing corpse did not present anything like the difficulty the barristers might have anticipated for this landmark conviction.

For one thing, everyone knew where and how 22-year-old waitress Jenny Cheok Cheng had died: on a diving trip near the Sisters’ Islands, Cheng had slipped under the waves while her betrothed waited in the boat … and she had never resurfaced. Frogmen combing the area could find only a single swimming flipper: it had been sliced with a knife to make it slip off during the swim, the inference being that the bladehandler had been interested in the inexperienced diver “accidentally” losing her maneuver while the forceful straits currents went to work on her.

Loverboy Sunny Ang, a vain wastrel facing bankruptcy,** just so happened to be in line to benefit, having insured his bride-to-be to the tune of nearly $1 million over several policies — including one which he had extended mere hours before the murder, and extended by only five more days. One imagines here that the tampered flipper might have been just one of several innocuous-looking accidents, each one a little lure for the Angel of Death, slated to cross Jenny Cheng’s path during the couple’s seaside canoodle courtesy of her own personal Final Destination.

In his young life, Ang had washed out of teacher school, pilot school, and law school. Ang’s laziness went on full display in the murder caper because the hired boatman who took the couple out diving — a witness whom Ang was probably expecting to provide his alibi — took the stand to describe the amazing extent of his guest’s unconcern about his lover going missing.

In a situation where the reasonable homicidal villain would anticipate means, motive, and opportunity all implicating him like blazing klaxons, Ang couldn’t be arsed to allay suspicion with the duest of panic-stricken diligence, like putting on his own suit and jumping in the water to look for her, or even raising his voice a few decibels to feign alarm. He did not, however, neglect to file his insurance claims very promptly.

Small wonder with bloodless banter like this that his jury only needed two hours to convict him, body or no body.

Justice Buttrose: Did you realise that this girl, whom you love and whom you were going to marry, had gone down and disappeared, and you calmly turn round to the boatman and said, ‘All right. Go to St John’s’?

Ang: If she was anywhere around the boat we would have seen her air bubbles.

Justice Buttrose: It didn’t occur to you to go down and search for her?

Ang: No.

Justice Buttrose: Why?

Ang: Because I thought there was obviously a leak and also if she was anywhere around the boat, we would have seen her air bubbles.

Mr Seow: You had skin-diving equipment with you in the boat?

Ang: Yes.

Mr Seow: The girl you were going to marry was obviously in difficulty, if not actually dead already. Why didn’t you use your skin-diving equipment to go down?

Ang: I was not quite sure what sort of difficulties she was in. It occurred to me — it was a vague thought — that she might have been attacked by sharks. In fact, I remarked upon that to Yusuf [the boatman]. Not then, but long after the incident.

Justice Buttrose: You could have gone down to find out?

Ang: She might have been attacked by sharks.

Mr Seow: When did you change back into your street clothes?

Ang: I think I remember I put them on, on my way to St John’s Island.

Mr Seow: So that when the Malay divers were going in, you were then in your street clothes, and you saw no point in joining them?

Ang: I do not say I saw no point. I was in my street clothes and there were more experienced skin-divers, and there were five of them. Besides I knew the chances of finding her were very slim.

Justice Buttrose: You never got into the water at all that day? You never got your feet wet?

Ang: That is so.

* Ang went on trial in April 1965, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia — hence the reference to the scope of the country as a whole. By the time Ang hanged, Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia and become an independent polity.

** He had also previously stolen from his father and police already knew that, so he didn’t enter his capital trial with much existing credence for rectitude.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Malaysia,Murder,Pelf,Singapore

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1967: Moustapha Lô, failed assassin

Add comment June 15th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1967, Moustapha Lô was executed for treason in the African nation of Senegal. He had tried to kill the country’s prime minister, Leopold Sedar Senghor, less than three months earlier.

At his trial, Lô freely admitted he’d drawn a gun on Senghor during a ceremony at the Grand Mosque of Dakar on the Muslim holiday of Eid-­al­-Adha,* but denied that he ever actually intended to kill him.

“I just wanted to give him a warning to change policy,” Lô said. He added, “I wanted to prove … he was not immune to public condemnation.”

His widow, Fatou Sarr, believed him; nearly 45 years after his death, she gave her first interview to the press and said, “He was not able to kill a fly.”

But if he was in fact only acting, Lô’s performance was very convincing: he pointed his pistol at the prime minister and pulled the trigger twice. Fortunately for Senghor, the gun jammed.

The crowd quickly tackled and overpowered Lô and he was hauled away by the police.

Several other people were also accused of being part of the plot. Moustapha Drame was sentenced to life in prison, Doudou Ndiaye to ten years and Momar Mbaye to five years; two other defendants were acquitted of all charges.

Although the country’s religious leaders pleaded for Senghor to pardon his would-­be assassin, the prime minister refused. Later on he claimed he had agonized over the decision for days and had nightmares about it, but he concluded, “This is not to judge according to the view of God. Only God can judge in the absolute. However, capital punishment still has a deterrent effect in Senegalese society.”

Lô met his death by firing squad. He said a prayer before his death and claimed he was dying “a martyr.”

Senghor outlived his attacker by 44 years, dying in 2001 at the age of 95.

* The holiday is locally known in Senegal as Tabaski.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Notable for their Victims,Other Voices,Senegal,Shot

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1967: Luis Monge, America’s last pre-Furman execution

4 comments June 2nd, 2012 Headsman

Forty-five years ago today, Luis Monge was gassed in Colorado for murder — the last execution in the United States before a decade-long lull in capital punishment in the U.S.

Monge, an insurance salesman with no prior history of violence, had a hearty brood of 10 children, but when his wife found out he was having an incestuous relationship with one of them, Monge bludgeoned the wife to death, and killed three of the young children just for good measure.

Monge pleaded insanity, and then when doctors found him sane enough to stand trial, just pleaded guilty — eventually dropping all appeals and asking to be hanged in public at the Denver City and County Building.

Despite the culprit’s preferences, his execution was stayed for all of 1966 while Colorado voters weighed a referendum on continuing the death penalty. They ultimately voted 3-1 in favor. (See this detailed history of the death penalty in the Columbine State.)

Even though Monge himself embraced execution willingly, his seven remaining children (also the children of, and siblings of, his victims: surely a difficult position) still fought for clemency, and shared Monge’s last meal with him.

Had Monge maintained his appeals, he — like four other Colorado inmates whose death dates were also on hold in 1966 — would likely have made it into the nationwide unofficial moratorium on executions that settled in while courts sorted out death penalty standards in the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s.* That period led into 1972’s landmark Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, invalidating all existing death sentences in the country and sparing men much more nefarious than Luis Monge.

Instead, this date’s principal went to his death clutching a black rosary (and allegedly, and one must suspect apocryphally, asking if the gas would trouble his asthma)** and became a nigh-forgotten denouement from a closed chapter of death penalty jurisprudence, and the last man put to death in America until Gary Gilmore almost ten years later.

Apart from his milestone status vis-a-vis capital punishment nationwide, Monge is also the last person to die in the Colorado gas chamber.


The gas chamber that killed Luis Monge, now retired to Colorado’s Museum of Prisons. (cc) image from Cowtools, who also has a photo of Monge’s bullet-riddled grave marker.

In fact, Monge is currently still the second-last put to death in Colorado, period. It would be fully 30 years before Colorado executed again — in 1997, by lethal injection. As of this writing, it hasn’t done so again since.

* If Monge had avoided execution, the “last pre-Furman execution” milestone would be held instead by California’s Aaron Mitchell, the only man executed on the authority of California governor (and future U.S. president) Ronald Reagan.

** The man who pulled the lever for Monge’s execution, Canon City penitentiary warden Wayne Patterson, was not enthusiastic about the job. He describes his experience here, saying that “Monge was a guilt-ridden man who was nearly suicidal before he was executed. Those were the [kind of] guys who were executed — not the people I thought belonged in the chamber.”

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1967: Aaron Mitchell, Ronald Reagan’s first and only execution

8 comments April 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1967, Aaron Mitchell was gassed in California on the authority of a governor holding his first elected office — Ronald Reagan, future U.S. president and emerging avatar of conservative white ressentiment in the turbulent 1960s.

It was only 23 days after California’s last previous execution, in January 1963, that Mitchell killed a white cop during a shootout occasioned by his abortive bar robbery. He’d been on death row fighting execution ever since, with a few dozen others who had been there even longer.

That gummed-up death penalty process, for which the Golden State is so well-known today, was most vividly symbolized at the time by the 12-year death row odyssey of Caryl Chessman.

And it had been among the many grievances catalyzing a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, the Great Society, anti-war protesters, permissive social mores … the whole aspect of Sixties counterculture and American liberalism.

Ronald Reagan was born to wield the sword against it all. The sword, or some little cyanide pellets.

Reagan, a film actor, had cut his political teeth as a spokesman for General Electric and against commie plots like Medicare.

After famously backing the failed 1964 presidential bid of Barry Goldwater, Reagan emerged as the favored son of the New Right, and in his first foray into electoral politics, steamrolled over incumbent Democrat Edmund Brown in California’s 1966 gubernatorial election.

Reagan had an undoubted gift for packaging the sometimes unpalatable ennui of his potential constituencies into soundbites that respectable people could repeat in public, which talent proved essential to his bright political future.

“Why is it,” he demanded during the campaign, “that no street in our city is safe for women after dark?” (Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1966) Stung by Republican attacks on rising crime rates, Gov. Brown had vainly pushed a tough-on-crime platform of his own in 1966.

Too little. Too late.

“Mr. Reagan is outspokenly in favor of capital punishment and he has just been elected by a tremendous majority,” said Jesse James Gilbert, 41, who has languished on Death Row for two years.* “If the courts begin to reflect his thinking, he will be in a position to become the greatest butcher governor in history.”

Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1966

What a different world it was from today’s that a major paper unabashedly used a death row prisoner’s own voice for analytical comment. Still, that same article noted (not in Gilbert’s voice, but as a plain fact on the ground) that “even a single execution could endanger Reagan’s chances for reelection or stifle voices which are beginning to urge him to seek the Republican Presidential nomination in 1968 or 1972.” A different world indeed.

Reagan had outspokenly run on capital punishment, however, and there’s such a thing as feeding your base. He surely was not going to execute nobody.

Mitchell was the man in line, and he certainly fit that not-safe-to-walk-the-streets-at-night angle, if you catch the drift. In an Ebony (June 1967) profile of his last days, Mitchell emerges at once radicalized and resigned, his four years awaiting death spent “researching and studying the race problem.”

“Every negro ever convicted of killing a police officer has died in that gas chamber,” Mitchell said on the day of his death. “So what chance did I have?”**

When the aide in charge of the clemency application is overtly pro-Scrooge future Attorney General Edwin Meese … not much chance, no.

So on this date, and in spite of an energetic protest outside San Quentin, a suicide attempt inside it, an open line to the governor’s office just in case, and a hysterical mother (who fled Mitchell’s clemency session in tears two days before, complaining that it was “a sham hearing”), Mitchell became the 501st person put to death since the state moved all executions from county auspices into state prisons.†

The 502nd would not take place until another quarter-century had elapsed.

Cold comfort to Mitchell, but Reagan himself did not vindicate Jesse Gilbert’s worst fears, and did not present the execution rubber-stamp of a later political generation; for his time and place, being visibly willing to approve some executions amply proved his credentials. (Newsweek called the governor a “man of conviction” after the Mitchell execution. (Source) Mission accomplished.)

Reagan would stay the next death date on his watch, that of Daniel Allen Roberts, over questions of mental competency; later in 1967, he would do the same for Robert Lee Massie just hours ahead of execution so that Massie could testify in another trial, inadvertently providing a bullet point in the conservative critique of death penalty squeamishness.

And in the event, the Great Communicator would be spared any great need to answer for a significant slate of individual clemency decisions. It was judicial activity far more than executive reticence that stayed the hand of California’s executioner; only one more execution after Mitchell’s took place in all of the U.S. before the country slipped into a complete death penalty moratorium from which it would not emerge for another decade.

And when the Reagan-appointed California Chief Justice Donald Wright authored a 1972 opinion striking down that state’s death penalty laws, it emptied death row outright.‡ (Sparing, among over 100 others, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.)

Capital punishment is impermissibly cruel. It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. It is unnecessary to any legitimate goal of the state and is incompatible with the dignity of man and the judicial process. Our conclusion that the death penalty may no longer be exacted in California consistently with article I, section 6, of our Constitution is not grounded in sympathy for those who would commit crimes of violence, but in concern for the society that diminishes itself whenever it takes the life of one of its members. Lord Chancellor Gardiner reminded the House of Lords, debating abolition of capital punishment in England: “When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged, and then cut down while still alive, and then disembowelled while still alive, and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathised with traitors, but because we took the view that it was a punishment no longer consistent with our self respect.”

California v. Anderson

That would not stand as the final word on capital punishment in California, but by the time other condemned prisoners had come to the end of their appeals, they were the concern of different governors.

Reagan left the California governor’s mansion in 1975 during the death penalty’s long hiatus; as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989, the death penalty was only just coming back online from that period, and that at the state level. Beyond platitudinous approval of the trend, Reagan never had to put his own signature on a federal death warrant.

So as it turned out, Aaron Mitchell was the first, last, and only man so distinguished.

And Reagan’s minuscule career execution count was hardly the anomaly that it might now appear. Prior to Reagan, the last Chief Executive who had actually entered the White House having previously forwarded any fellow to the executioner was … Dwight Eisenhower.

* Gilbert is the appellant in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gilbert v. California, reversing his conviction because of a police lineup identification unconstitutionally obtained without his lawyer’s knowledge.

** The cop-killing Mitchell wasn’t getting any love from the beleaguered Brown administration, either; Brown almost had a shot to pull a Ricky Ray Rector with Mitchell during the campaign, but the prisoner won a judicial stay just 24 hours from execution in May 1966.

The now-former governor was quoted after Mitchell’s actual 1967 execution expressing general support for Reagan’s non-clemency in spite of Brown’s own philosophical opposition to capital punishment.

† A journalist who witnessed the gassing later described it as something less than a triumph of the killing arts.

as the gas hit him, his head immediately fell to his chest. Then his head came up and he looked directly into the window. For nearly seven minutes he sat up that way, with his chest heaving, saliva bubbling between his lips. He tucked his thumbs into his fists, and finally his head fell again … I believe he was aware many minutes … He appeared to be in great anguish

‡ “A mockery of the constitutional process,” fumed (pdf) Reagan, who claimed that Wright had told him he backed capital punishment. (See Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1967: Ronald Ryan, the last hanged in Australia

15 comments February 3rd, 2010 Headsman

At 8 a.m. in Melbourne this date in 1967, as a moment of silence was observed across Australia, Ronald Ryan was hanged in Pentridge Prison for killing a guard during a prison break. He would be the last man put to death Down Under.

Ryan, a small-time thief, broke out of that selfsame Pentridge Prison’s lower-security districts with fellow-prisoner Peter John Walker late in 1965, prompting a high-profile holiday season manhunt.

Still, with capital punishment fading in Australia — and especially in Victoria, where nobody had hanged since 1951 — even the jury that doomed Ryan thought its sentence was strictly pro forma. Eleven of them later joined nationwide petitions for clemency when Liberal Premier Henry Bolte made plain his intention to let the hanging go forward.

Though Bolte did in fact gain seats at the next polls, the anti-hanging campaign had a breadth hard to comprehend forty-plus years later.

A media witness recalled that he “came away from Pentridge Prison in 1967 firmly opposed to capital punishment,” and some form of that sentiment seemed to take throughout Australia. Its state and federal governments abolished their various death penalties over the ensuing generation.

Ryan’s hanging “ensured that no government anywhere in the country would politically risk imposing the death penalty again,” the criminal’s biographer said.

It also gave the man a lasting foothold in Aussie popular culture. Clips from a couple of subsequent films made about him can be seen online here and here.

Ryan’s attorney, Philip Opas, has continued to maintain his man’s innocence. (pdf)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Political Expedience,Popular Culture

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1967: Ernesto “Che” Guevara

24 comments October 9th, 2008 Headsman

As of 1:10 p.m. Bolivia time this date in 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no longer a man: he was only a god.

The Argentinian-born doctor turned Cuban revolutionary icon and the man who wrote the book on guerrilla warfare had put abroad to foment insurgency. His efforts in the Congo foundered; his bid to replicate the Cuban revolution in Bolivia was doing likewise when he was captured.

After holding him overnight, the government sent a coded order to execute him in the field. Che had done the same thing with his own hands to several who betrayed the Sierra Maestra guerrillas.

Soldier Mario Teran drew the short straw for a footnote to destiny; when he hesitated, Che chastised him with the legendary parting words “that someone invented or reported”:

“Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man.”

Maybe so, but the man looked Christ-like when they put his body on display for the press. As certain as they made his death, still Che lives.

CIA asset (and George Bush Sr. confidante) Felix Rodriguez took his watch as a trophy. The rest of Che Guevara belongs to the world.*

This site could hardly attempt a definitive rendering of such a towering and controversial figure, a task fit for two, three, many biographies.

Lengthy video documentaries are here and here. Many of Che’s own words are collected here. Declassified U.S. National Security Archive documents relating to his capture and death are here.

And highly recommended is SovMusic.ru’s huge library of Che Guevara mp3 files — like this Francesco Guccini song:

[audio:Che_Guevara_Francesco_Guccini.mp3]

“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it.”

-Che Guevara

* Especially, of course, its marketers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Executioners,Famous,Famous Last Words,Guerrillas,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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