1941: Francisc Panet

Add comment November 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.

A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.

While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.

But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.

Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Romania,Shot,Terrorists,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1951: Willie McGee

4 comments May 8th, 2011 Headsman

As of today, it is sixty years since the Laurel, Mississippi execution of Willie McGee for rape — a lightning rod for controversy over race, crime, and justice in one of the Cold War’s principal antagonists.

McGee died silent in the state’s portable electric chair, rigged up in the very courtroom of his trial, right in front of the box from whence his all-white jury had retired two and a half minutes before convicting him. Fifty or so observers were there with him — plus those of the hundreds of local residents milling around outside intrepid enough to scale a tree for an illicit view through the courthouse windows.*

(Given the setting, some sources call this a “public execution,” which is not technically correct. This courtroom tableau was actually a standard deployment for the mobile electric chair.)

But McGee’s own silence hardly muted global outrage: for years, appeals for McGee’s life had deluged Mississippi and the White House from Europe, the Soviet Union, and what was quaintly known as “Red China.”

Oh, yes. The Reds.

Willie McGee’s case popped out of backwoods obscurity when he got from the pinko Civil Rights Congress a leftist young attorney — future U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

Once it got out there, it became the Free Mumia case of the nascent civil rights movement and the nascent Cold War. Its appeal to communist countries and cadres only raised the hackles of American establishment types. This was a Negro raping a white housewife literally and metaphorically.


Author Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death) campaigning to save Willie McGee’s life. William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker also publicly supported McGee.

Whether there actually was a literal rape is the enduring mystery — the enduring Rorschach blot — of the McGee case. The accused himself remained silent on the matter for years; eventually, he claimed that the two were having a consensual but forbidden interracial affair and that he had been brutalized into a confession.

McGee’s defenders believed that the “victim” herself initiated the affair, and

threatened to cry rape if he refused her flirtatious advances … McGee reluctantly went [along] with Hawkins, fearing the tragic consequences of turning her away. “People who don’t know the South don’t know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no,” [Willie’s wife] Rosalee told a friend. “Down South you tell a woman like that no, and she’ll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do?”

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance

(In this version, the manipulative Hawkins executed the threat when her husband — who later witnessed McGee’s electrocution — found out. McGee’s cited reason for changing his story was the very plausible fear of lynching.)

A Laurel African-American who was then a child remembers being taken by his family to view the body, and impress upon him the lesson of its electrical burns: “Don’t mess with white girls.”

McGee’s persecutors considered all that miscegenation stuff so much subversive rubbish, a “revolting insinuation,” in the words of the Mississippi Supreme Court.**

And if at its apex the controversy generated more heat than light, its historical fade to embers has not sufficed to resolve the factual questions.

McGee has benefited from a recent rediscovery — one that indicates such memories of the McGee case as persevere in Laurel still divide starkly along racial lines.

Explore this case and its many resonances (without the Perry Mason big reveal) in Alex Heard’s 2010 The Eyes of Willie McGee (review); and, in a spellbinding NPR series on “My Grandfather’s Execution” by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Direct links to several Radio Diaries mp3 episodes can be found from the RSS feed here.)

Both were facilitated by a recording of execution-night radio news coverage fortuitously preserved by a young Hattiesburg reporter.

Book Cover

* New York Times, May 8, 1951.

** McGee did at least win two retrials in Mississippi; federal courts gave him short shrift, with anti-civil rights judge Sidney Mize — later memorable for fighting the legal rearguard against integrating Ole Miss — lecturing Abzug in a last-ditch appeal that McGee’s “guilt is plain” and that “courts ought to rise up and defend themselves.” (Source)

Taken as an obvious given: “actually guilty” or not, a defendant executed for rape in the American South is certainly a black man with a white accuser.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mississippi,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1941: Arndt Pekurinen, conscientious objector

2 comments November 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Finnish pacifist Arndt Pekurinen was executed at the front for refusing to fight.

Initially conscripted in the 1920’s, Pekurinen had refused to serve under arms and spent 1929-31 in prison for his troubles. He was a minor cause celebre; British MPs and big international names like Einstein and H.G. Wells pressed for his release.

A change in the Finnish conscription law — the bill was called the “Lex Pekurinen” — finally saw him freed to civilian life, but he was drafted anew to fight the Soviet Union in the “Continuation War”. When he again refused, he was shot at Suomussalmi without trial — though two men refused to do it before someone finally agreed to be the executioner.

“Kun ihmisiä ei syödä, on niitä turha teurastaa.”
(“As people are not eaten, butchering them is of no use.”)

A neglected figure during the Cold War, he’s enjoyed a latter-day rediscovery since the 1998 Erno Paasilinna book Courage: The life and execution of Arndt Pekurinen. In the decade since, Pekurinen has become a household name and a widely-admired figure. (The link is in Finnish.) A park in Helsinki was recently named for him. (Finnish again.)

Tangentially, the Nordic stock of our day’s victim and his era of militarism call to mind the hero of e.e. cummings’ “i sing of Olaf glad and big”. The allusions of this poem are American, and there’s no reason to associate it directly with Pekurinen — but it so happens that it was published in 1931, the year international pressure forced the end of Pekunin’s first prison stint:

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but–though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Finland,History,Military Crimes,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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