1965: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, In Cold Blood subjects

Add comment April 14th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1965 saw the end of the road (and the end of the rope) for Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the drifters who slaughtered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and inspired Truman Capote’s magnum opus In Cold Blood.


Hickock (left) and Smith.

These ex-cons — Smith, the smart Korean War veteran; Hickock, the fallen high school jock turned small-time hood — got a tip from a fellow jailbird that Herbert Clutter’s farm had a well-stocked safe.

On November 15, 1959, they raided the farm, tied up and shotgunned the family of four, and made off with … 40 bucks. Alas: no safe.

The horrific, out-of-nowhere brutality of the crime — “apparently the work of a psychopathic killer” — made national headlines and drew Manhattanite Truman Capote out to small town Kansas (along with novelist Harper Lee, whom Capote used to gain the confidence of locals).

The killers were caught on the lam in Nevada, and as the case unfolded,* Capote’s sympathy for Smith unlocked a spellbinding book that put this day’s murderers in the literary canon.

I really admired Mr. Clutter, right up until the moment I slit his throat.”

– Perry Smith

(Perry Smith was first protrayed on celluloid by actor Robert Blake, who would one day stand trial himself for arranging the 2001 murder of his wife. Blake was acquitted.)

In Cold Blood has drawn criticism from the outset: for its accuracy, or for its problematic relationship between author and subject, or for its pride of place in the true crime genre. (Or the “nonfiction novel” genre Capote claimed it created.)

But as literary milestone, its place is secure.

In Cold Blood, in multiple media

* More detail about Smith and Hickock and Capote and the Clutters in this trutv article.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Kansas,Murder,Popular Culture,USA

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1816: John Allen and John Penny, poachers

5 comments April 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1816, poachers John Penny and John Allen hanged for the murder of a gameskeeper.

This wasn’t about preserving endangered elephants from the depredations of the ivory trade, but the centuries-long rural skirmish between classes over land use and property control.

The recipe to make a poacher [said an English Peer in 1825] will be found to contain a very few and simple ingredients which may be met with in every game county in England. Search out (and you need not go far) a poor man with a large family, or a poor man single man, having his natural sense of right and wrong … give him little more than a natural disinclination to go to work, let him exist in the midst of lands where the game is preserved, keep him cool in the winter, by allowing him insufficient wages to purchase fuel; let him feel hungry upon the small pittance of parish relief; and if he be not a poacher it will only be by the blessing of God.

It was the legacy of enclosure, the breaking-up of common lands and the abolition of longstanding privileges that underpinned (among other things) the traditions of English game-hunting and the livelihoods of commoners who depended upon it.

“After estates and commons were removed from public access by enclosure,” writes Babette Smith, “poaching became a manifestation of the class war — a civil war in fact, which was never declared.”

And not only a metaphorical war.


Pew pew pew.

The wholesale seizure of lands, wealth, and social rights had perforce to be upheld by violence. Here in Gloucestershire’s Vale of Berkeley, the principal landowner was one William FitzHardinge Berkeley, tetchy bastard son of an illustrious army officer who inherited the wealth of his family and the chip on his shoulder about not being admitted to the peerage due to his out-of-wedlock birth.

Landowners at this time had no compunctions about setting lethal traps to keep out those they legally defined as trespassers. Late in 1815, a poacher named Thomas Till had actually been killed by a tripwire-activated spring gun, to the outrage of his compatriots.

John Allen, charismatic local farmer and a poacher himself, had some score-settling on his mind one moonlit night in January when he rounded up 15 other poachers, swore them all to silence, and went out armed and looking for trouble.

They found it in a band of Berkeley’s gamekeepers, who confronted the poachers. Shooting broke out; one of the gamekeepers was killed and a few others wounded.

“Eleven young men, nine of whom were farmers’ sons and respectably connected,” in the characterization of the Gloucester Journal, were convicted of murder by a jury weeping as it delivered the verdict. For the real facts on the ground, this criminal justice framework made for a cruel fit, especially since the highhanded lord seems to have engineered the dangerous encounter to begin with. Dr. Edward Jenner, famous pioneer of immunology, was also a Gloucestershire magistrate involved in this case; he, too, had misgivings.

All but the ringleader Allen and John Penny, apparent author of the fatal shot, received the clemency of convict transportation to Van Dieman’s Land, Australia — although a couple got away outright and never stood trial and one of those arrested turned state’s evidence in exchange for a full pardon.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Theft

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1961: John A. Bennett, the last American military execution (so far)

14 comments April 13th, 2009 Headsman

As of this date, it’s been 48 years since the United States military last carried out an execution — the Fort Leavenworth hanging* of John Arthur Bennett for rape.

An epileptic black soldier with a family history of mental illness, Bennett had enlisted to find a way up out of sharecropping. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1954, he drunkenly raped a 12-year-old girl near his base in Austria.

He spent six years awaiting execution — “six years,” observed the Los Angeles Times, “in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men — many of them multiple murderers — were saved.”

Bennett dodged two execution dates, once receiving his stay during his last meal, but a seemingly compelling plea for clemency — the victim herself, and her parents, asked for mercy — availed Bennett nothing. His last frantic plea to the new president, John F. Kennedy, was dispatched with only hours yet to live.

I beg in the name of God … Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”

No dice. Kennedy was preoccupied.

Coincidentally, but poignantly for this case, the Kirk Douglas vehicle A Town Without Pity opened a month before Bennett’s execution. In that film (trailer here), four American servicemen face capital trial for the rape of a German girl — and Douglas, as their lawyer, struggles to talk pity into someone so he won’t be obliged to humiliate the victim in court in order to save his clients from the noose.

The victim’s father in that movie is so blinded by his lust for vengeance that he forces Douglas to destroy his own daughter: striking contrast with the real-life father of Bennett’s flesh-and-blood victim, who wrote in support of clemency for his daughter’s assailant, “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”

Bennett’s milestone, however, is hardly assured of lasting much beyond this 49th year.

In 2008, President George W. Bush affirmed the death sentence of condemned Army cook Ronald Gray, the first such action by any U.S. president since Bennett’s day. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Death Row USA most current as of this writing,** Gray is one of nine prisoners currently on the U.S. military’s death row.

* Curious to know about the procedure? The Library of Congress has that period’s Procedure for Military Executions — complete with exact diagrams — online in pdf form.

** Death Row USA, Summer 2008 (direct pdf link)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Milestones,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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