1845: Sarah Freeman, Shapwick Murderess

1 comment April 23rd, 2019 Headsman

Hanged April 23, 1845 for poisoning her brother Charles Dimond — and commonly suspected to have offed several other family members by means of arsenic — the “Shapwick Murderess” Sarah Freeman insisted her innocence to her very last breath. “I am as innocent as a lamb,” she said to the hangman William Calcraft as he noosed her.

Serial poisoner or wrongfully executed? Find out more at the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page

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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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1943: The massacre of Janowa Dolina

3 comments April 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1943, a Ukrainian militia massacred the Poles of the village of Janowa Dolina (Yanova Dolina).


Janowa Dolina in the 1930s. The village was a model settlement for workers at the nearby basalt quarry, jobs given at that time by official preferences to Poles. It was created in the 1920s, and featured an orderly plot with running water and electricity throughout.

In World War II, each theater of the war was unhappy in its own way. For the beautiful region of Volhynia long straddling the blood-soaked marches between Poland and Ukraine, it meant a ghastly local war under the umbrella of German occupation.

Mostly Polish in the interwar years, when Ukrainian residents chafed under “Polonization” policies, Volhynia had come fully under Soviet control when Berlin and Moscow carved up Poland in 1939, and then, of course, fully under German control in 1941. In these years of ash and bone, ethnic compositions in Volhynia were redrawn with every desperate ferocity nationalism could muster: pogroms visited neighbor upon neighbor, or ethnic cleansing visited state upon subject. It would be Ukrainian ultras positioned in the end to fantasize about ethnic purity by dint of their collaboration with the conquering Reich.

Come 1943, Poles comprised a shrinking minority in Volhynia. The prospect of purging this borderlands to cinch its place in a Ukrainian homeland made those Poles an inviting target for a campaign of ethnic slaughter that’s remembered now as the Volhynia or Volyn Massacres. And with the German defeat at Stalingrad and the Red Army’s advance on eastern Ukraine, Reich administration further west had become sufficiently distracted by more urgent priorities that genocidaires* perceived their moment to strike.

“We should undertake a great action of extermination of the Polish element,” thundered Dmytro Klyachkivsky, a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), military organ of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B).** “As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment for liquidating the entire male population from the age of 16 up to 60 years. We cannot lose this battle, and it is necessary to diminish Polish forces at all costs. Forest villages and those near forests, should disappear from the face of the earth.”

Many specific atrocities, beginning in February 1943 and continuing well into 1944, comprise this liquidation drive.

The one of interest for this post is the invasion on the night of April 22-23 — the eve and morning of Good Friday — of Janowa Dolina, a predominantly Polish village where 600 were massacred by the UPA and the village put to the torch.†

This horror is commemorated by a monument at the site …


The 1990 monument commemorating Poles murdered by UPA. Here’s a closer view of the stone marker, and here’s the inscription on the adjacent cross.

… but there seems to be a slight difference of opinion: the event is also memorialized by a rival stone erected by Ukrainian nationalists which “gives glory to the Ukrainian heroes” of the UPA for “destroying the fortifications of the Polish-German occupiers.”‡


(Thanks to Sonechka for translation help.)

As anyone holding even passing familiarity with events in present-day Ukraine will surely know this is no mere historiographical quibble; the legacy of the OUN from World War II and of its descendants on the modern far right remain deeply contentious in and out of Ukraine.

* Poland officially (and to the dismay of Ukraine) considers this campaign a genocide. There’s also a Polish film on the horrors of Wolyn.

** The OUN split factionally; the “-B” suffix in this case stands for Stepan Bandera, leader of the most militant faction; his surname is still today a byword and/or slur (“Banderists”) for Ukrainian fascism. Its rival faction was the more moderate OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk.

† The territory became Ukrainian — which at the time meant Soviet — after World War II and remains so today, so Janowa Dolina is now the Ukrainian town of Bazaltove. There’s a Flickr album tour of the muddy mining village, including photos of the Polish monument and a separate marker for Soviet POWs, but not the UPA monument, here.

‡ The UPA stone also cites April 21-22 as the date. It appears to me, a distant non-specialist, that the Ukrainian construction on what adherents prefer to more neutrally describe as the “tragedy” of Janowa Valley spreads action over two days and emphasizes alleged guerrilla actions by the UPA against German occupation targets prior to destroying the village.

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1886: Robert Silas Fowler, lustful

Add comment April 23rd, 2016 Headsman

It is said on the 7th of last May, the day before the execution of Mose Caton, [Robert] Fowler danced a jig on the gallows and said:

“Well, within twenty-four hours Caton will be in hell,” and a short time after the execution remarked: “Who in the hell will be the next one?”

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886

You know what they say: if you have to ask …

Robert Fowler was an irascible Union County, Ky. man who had gone to work on a farm, fallen for the farmer’s beautiful daughter, been spurned, and pulled the old Humbert Humbert by instead marrying her 49-year-old widowed aunt.

But Fowler continued to nurse an unrequited lust for 18-year-old beauty Lida Burnett, and it would eventually prove fatal to them both. Fowler ditched her aunt at one point to take another run at the girl, failed, returned to the aunt, and finally jealously threatened Burnett that he would kill her should she make an engagement with anyone but himself.

So Fowler was the natural suspect* when Miss Burnett — having defiantly pledged someone her troth — set out on horseback from her cousin’s house one evening and never made it home.

The ensuing search turned up the poor young lady’s remains, nearly headless from two deep gashes in her throat. News reports from the period are oddly mixed on the question of whether she had been ravished, too.

Fowler’s residence yielded up bloody clothes, still wet from the killer’s attempt to wash them out. “It is thought,” reported the Globe-Democrat blandly on Aug. 19, 1885, “that he will be lynched to-night.”

Contrary to expectations, Fowler survived long enough to let the law take its course. He acknowledged his guilt on the scaffold before a reported crowd of 5,000 or more in Morganfield, who got two hangings for the price of one after Fowler snapped the rope and fell to the ground the first time he was dropped.

* Actually, he was the third suspect: two black men who’d been seen in the vicinity were investigated first.

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1895: A quintuple lynching in Greenville, Alabama

Add comment April 21st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.

Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.

Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”

Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895

Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.

The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.

On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.

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1801: Angre Kethi, Polygar prey

Add comment April 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, a luckless British messenger was hanged to a Tamarind tree during the Polygar Wars.

The Polygars — an English corruption of the Tamil word Palaiyakkarar — were feudal administrators in South India whose authorities the ascending East India Company struggled to bring to heel.

A brief first rebellion in 1799 gave way to a second more substantial one from 1800 to 1805; these are the Polygar Wars.

As one might imagine the fight was quite nasty, and not wanting for executions. Notably, the British had hanged a Polygar chief named Kattabomman in 1799 after the first Polygar War.

But one of Kattabomman’s old allies, name of Ethalappa Naicker Zamin, was among a coalition of Polygars who rose against the British in the subsequent war.

It was to this man that the British dispatched the messenger Angre Kethi — a man whom Naicker decided to make an example of.

The spot of the hanging, known as “Thookupuliamara Thottam”, was long known locally, but it recently made wider news when an archaeologist discovered a stone inscription at the messenger’s memorial attesting the name and date of the hanging.

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1886: Joseph Jackson and James Wasson, at Fort Smith

Add comment April 23rd, 2013 Headsman


St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1886

America’s most notorious “hanging judge” Isaac Parker issued the sentences resulting in this date’s double hanging at Fort Smith, Ark.

A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.

In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)

Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.

* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)

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1945: Massacres of Treuenbrietzen

1 comment April 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945 — the same date when, in Berlin, a last mopping-up terminated the remaining participants in the Valkyrie assassination plot, such as Albrecht Haushofer — successive war crimes by the German and Soviet armies slew hundreds at the nearby village of Treuenbrietzen.

In the German installment of the Massaker von Treuenbrietzen, the army led 131 Italian internees taken prisoner after that erstwhile ally had gone over to the Allies in 1943 out to a gravel pit, and gunned them all down. (Stone markers now label the site.)

Only four men survived the mass execution.

“I can not explain this miracle,” said Edo Magnalardo, an Italian who played dead until the heap of corpses was buried, and then climbed out and found some Russians to surrender to/be liberated by. This German article records Magnalardo’s recollections of events, and the long and fruitless struggle for an official investigation.

For Germans in Treuenbrietzen, surrendering to the Red Army was a much less liberating experience … not that anybody had a choice in the matter.

Beginning on this date, Soviet soldiers carried out a horrifying rampage that left upwards of a thousand Treuenbrietzen men dead.

Apparently provoked when a Russian officer celebrating the village’s capture had been shot dead during a brief German reconquest, Soviet troops shot an estimated 270 or so civilians at the edge of the nearby forest on April 23. Over the next two weeks, they kept shooting: some 800 to 1,000 men (mostly) are believed to have been killed in this way by the end of the war. As for the women … there would soon be a need to set up a gynecological station in a local office, and require that all report for VD testing.

Since Treuenbrietzen ended up in communist East Germany after the war, this part of the massacre was seriously downplayed for a long time.

But no matter how officially favored the winning side in the war, the grim fate of so many noncombatants in Treuenbrietzen surely shames those who participated in it. As one survivor put it in the German press, “He who takes revenge can not be celebrated as a liberator, even though he has helped to end this disastrous war.”

This date is locally commemorated in Treuenbrietzen for both massacres, and both Italian and Russian diplomats have participated in memorial ceremonies.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1969: Sirhan Sirhan condemned

4 comments April 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to the California gas chamber for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.

The aggrieved Palestinian was not marked by fate to suffer that last extremity of the law, however; instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when all existing death penalty statutes were invalidated in 1972.*

As a result, Sirhan Sirhan remains alive as of this writing, serving that sentence in the Golden State’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. He’ll be next up for parole in 2011.

(In a parole appeal back in 1982 — he’s been on a bit of a losing streak — the convicted assassin had the chutzpah to complain that “if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment.”)

Although the guy was seen in a crowded room pulling the trigger (onlookers tackled him) and he subsequently confessed to the deed, there has long been a conspiratorial counternarrative suggesting that other shooters were there, too. It’s pretty hard to say that the guy who emptied his chamber in front of dozens of witnesses wasn’t involved, but there are versions of this where he’s a Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotized patsy.

Politics: much more interesting in the 1960s.

Precisely because that is so, this particular man’s crime attracts retrospective interest for what followed: the charismatic Democratic frontrunner from Camelot cut down; the sinister Richard Nixon arising in his place to bomb Cambodia, burgle Watergate, and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Sirhan Sirhan “assassinated modern U.S. history.”

That really seems a bit much.

Sirhan Sirhan himself has contributed to the trippy theorizing about his case by being all over the map on it. At one point, he attempted to plead guilty and draw the death penalty; the trial judge forced him to go through with a defense. Subsequently, as noted, he’s whinged for an early release. He’s claimed to have had no memory of the attack, which certainly isn’t what he said after he got arrested.

Ultimately, the most self-evident explanation has always been the first one that he offered: “I did it for my country.”

Sirhan was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian dismayed by Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, and by America’s concomitant foreign policy tilt towards Israel.

Kennedy was a strong advocate of that policy, and his death happened to coincide with the anniversary of war.

Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. But it has to be allowed that the cause in question has claimed more lives than just RFK’s.

* People v. Anderson, decided by the California Supreme Court. Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue Furman v. Georgia, which would have had the same effect for Sirhan Sirhan.

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1992: Billy Wayne White, after 47 minutes

Add comment April 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1992, longtime heroin user Billy Wayne White waited 47 minutes while his executioners probed for a vein suitable to inject the lethal cocktail he incurred for a 1976 robbery-murder in Houston.

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