1945: The Belsen war criminals

6 comments December 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, British hangman Albert Pierrepoint executed eleven guards of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and two other Nazis in occupied Hameln.

Liberated only eight months before these hangings, Belsen provided the to-us-familiar store of Nazi atrocity stories. Forty-five sat in the dock at the Belsen trial under British military authority, including the notorious camp commandante Josef Kramer — better known as the Beast of Belsen — and the “Angel of Death” Irma Grese.

Those two, and nine others less distinctively nicknamed, faced the gallows. (They were hanged together with two other war criminal convicts not connected to the Belsen trial, Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, for a total of 13.)

On December 13, 1945, Pierrepoint hanged Grese; then, Elisabeth Volkenrath; and then, Juana Bormann, each individually. Finally, the men were then dispatched in pairs.

(Other than Kramer, the most notable was Nazi doctor Fritz Klein, who gave this reading of medical ethics when queried while the camps were still operating: “My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.”)


Of all this batch, Irma Grese, the “beautiful beast”, enjoys the liveliest afterlife.

If one finds her pretty, then she was a pretty young thing — only 16 when she hitched herself to the SS; turning 22 during her fatal postwar trial.

Stalking the camp with her whip, and (rather conveniently) cited with the ravenous sexual appetite a B-movie screenwriter would give such a character, part of her siren song is plainly the fetishistic magnetism of Nazi women.

But in the numerous discussion threads about Irma Grese, any number of her advocates will emerge.

Can we leave it at the fascination that female war criminals inspire? Certainly few 22-year-old Einsatzgruppen men have the mitigatory evidence of a coming-of-age in farming and retail so lovingly emphasized, the precise measure of complicity in genocide analyzed in such detail (pdf).

Grese, perhaps, strikes as impressionable, in the youthful sense of absorbing one’s place from the world one inhabits. Her hangman wrote that “[s]he seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.” As a camp guard, she wins promotions; to her interrogators, she accepts responsibility equal to Himmler’s; among those condemned at the Belsen trial, she alone is defiant.

In that guise — and whether or not it is rightly attributed to her — she presents back to her interlocutor those timeless questions of personal identity and moral responsibility: where does abnormal psychology leave off into perfectly conventional psychology that just happens to occupy an abnormal world?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,War Crimes,Women

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

15 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

On this day..

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

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