On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.
He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)
“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)
Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.
Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to bring Field to bar for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.
More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.
The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…”
It is heartbreaking enough to ponder the last words of any person dying by force. It is even more poignant to contemplate the words of this boy because they reveal the helplessness, the loneliness and the profound despair of Negroes in that period. The condemned young Negro, groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was a fighter. In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.
This story isn’t precisely accurate as Dr. King told it, but the factual basis for this empathetic legend is Allen Foster.
On this date in 1936, Foster was the first man executed by lethal gas in North Carolina — and en route to this minor distinction he punched his ticket for commemoration in civil rights literature when he flourished a flamboyant uppercut to witnesses as he was led to the gas chamber and cried out, “I fought Joe Louis!” It was an allusion to having matched with the world champ when both were youngsters in Alabama.
This coincidental brush with celebrity was about as strange as the fact that it occurred in a gas chamber at all.
After the arrival of the electric chair, the South adopted it virtually across the board; North Carolina had switched from hanging to electrocution in 1910.
But the Tarheel State was also generally more progressive than its neighbors;* V.O. Key would write of North Carolina, “It has been the vogue to be progressive. Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states.”
Part of that “sophisticated politics” was, in the 1930s, a growing debate about the application — indeed, the mere existence — of capital punishment.
According to Trina Seitz’s “The Kiling Chair: North Carolina’s Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster” (North Carolina Historical Review, Jan. 2004):
North Carolinians were beginning to doubt the effectiveness of the sanction and the method used to enforce it. Furthermore, private citizens, humanitarians, and state institutions alike were increasingly scrutinizing the demographics of those being put to death.
Though this scrutiny did not lead so far as actual abolition, it provided the receptively reformist environment for Mitchell County Dr. Charles Peterson’s “pet project” of switching the execution protocol to lethal gas.
The reason for his fascination with gas seems to be obscure; the method had never been employed east of the Mississippi. Maybe it had something to do with 1932′s remarkably smooth gassing of a North Carolinian from nearby Burke County in Nevada, the nation’s gas chamber pioneer.
Whatever the reason, Peterson took a seat in the legislature in 1935 and won adoption for his idea in this very first session.
Unfortunately for Peterson — and doubly so for Foster — North Carolina didn’t have quite the same facility with hydrogen cyanide, and Foster’s execution was a notorious botch that immediately got people back on the electrocution bandwagon.
Foster was doomed for raping a white woman — this may be progressive North Carolina, but it’s still the South — and according to Seitz’s rendering of the News and Observer‘s first-hand report:
“Good-bye.” The Negro’s lips framed the words so clearly that no man in the witness room could doubt what he had said. As he said it, he winked and then forced a smile at the faces peering in at him. Then he began to suffer. No man could look squarely into his eyes and fail to perceive that they were registering pain. The Negro fought for breath, knowing he was going to die and fighting to get it over with as quickly as possible …
he sucked the gas desperately until his head rolled back three minutes later, indicating to physicians that the man finally had lost consciousness. But after a period of quiescence, his small, but powerfully built torso began to retch and jerk, throwing his head forward on his chest, where witnesses could see his eyes slowly glaze … The torturous, convulsive retching continued spasmodically for a full four minutes.
Officially, it took about 11 minutes for Foster to die, and as those agonizing minutes dragged by a physician broke the witness room’s mortified silence by exclaiming, “We’ve got to shorten [the execution method] or get rid of it entirely.” Um, yeah? The prison warden was quoted the next day as saying that even hanging was preferable to this.
The ensuing political controversy, however, did not succeed in reverting the method to electrocution.
Like the original electric chair, North Carolina’s gas chamber was the beneficiary of some hasty technical fixes: heating the gas chamber (it was at the freezing point when Foster died; Colorado executioners advised North Carolina that this would impede the gassing); tweaking the chemical formula.
During one such debate, North Carolina playwright Paul Green testified to the assembly (per Seitz),
Some day the electric chair and the gas chamber will be set up in the State Museum as symbols of an age of horror and ignorance. School children will look at them and feel superior to us as they look back upon an era of ignorance
* This is still true of North Carolina: it has employed the allegedly more humane method of lethal injection since 1984, when no other Southern state save Texas used the needle until the 1990s; that use has been sparing enough that its per-capita execution rate remains markedly lower than most other former Confederate states; and in 2009, North Carolina implemented a still-controversial Racial Justice Act empowering condemned prisoners to challenge their sentence with statistical evidence of racial disparity even though courts don’t require this at all.
On this date in 1935, Canadian pugilist Del Fontaine was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, “the bravest fellow we ever saw go to the scaffold.”
Winnipeg-born as Raymond Henry Bousquet, Fontaine twice won the Canadian middleweight belt.
But a grueling, 98-fight career took its toll on the man.
By the end — when he had crossed the pond for a couple years traversing the English rings — Del Fontaine was visibly punch-drunk. The onetime champion lost 12 of his last 14 fights.
Punch drunk — scientific name dementia pugilistica — is just the classic diagnosis for “concussed all to hell,” afflicted by traumatic brain injury and its mind-altering long-term effects: Depression, violence, mood swings, loss of judgment and impulse control. Those are the kinds of behavior patterns that tend to brush up against the criminal justice system.
The syndrome’s popular name suggests its most visible injury, to motor skills — a symptom Fontaine’s colleagues in the business could readily diagnose.
“Del shouldn’t have been in the ring at all for his last fight. He wasn’t in a fit state,” fellow prizefighter Ted Lewis testified at Fontaine’s trial, recalling a Newcastle bout that ended in a flash on three first-round knockdowns. “As a boxer, he has received more punishment than anyone I have ever seen.” The house doctor at a Blackfriars venue Fontaine had appeared at earlier in 1935 said the fighter complained of double vision and sleeplessness, and couldn’t walk straight. (London Times, Sep. 17, 1935)
If 1935 was a few decades’ shy of our present-day understanding of concussions, it was still well-enough known to those who had experience of the punch-drunk that psychological changes accompanied the physical impairments. Those who knew Del Fontaine knew he wasn’t right in the head.
The reason this tribunal had to sit for the humiliating public probe of Fontaine’s mental crevasses was that Fontaine had left his wife and kids behind when he crossed the Atlantic. Once he got to the Isles, he took up with an English sweetheart in Bristol.
This Hilda Meek, a West End waitress a decade the junior of her lover, became the object of an obsessional infatuation. In a fit of jealous rage, Fontaine gunned her down (and her mother too, although mom survived) when he caught Meek making a date with another man.
Fontaine was captured, unresisting, dolorously on the scene, and openly admitted his actions. Acquittal on the facts would be a nonstarter; diminished responsibility because of dementia pugilistica was the best defense gambit available.
The highly restrictive legal bar against an insanity defense aced out the legal maneuver: however impulsive and moody a lifetime of concussions had left him, they couldn’t be said to have prevented him “knowing right from wrong.” Still, his case attracted a fair bit of public sympathy, and when a petition for clemency went nowhere, hundreds of people, including a number of other boxers, turned up at Wandsworth to protest on the morning the punch-drunk Del Fontaine hanged for murder.
He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.
Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.
The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.
Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:
Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!
Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:
He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.
Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:
This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.
In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”
The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.
Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.
And then the rope broke.
Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]
I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.
In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.
Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:
So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.
Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.
Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.
It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.
Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.