1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

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1945: Theo van Gogh, famous name

Add comment March 8th, 2020 Headsman

Theo van Gogh, a Dutch resistance fighter of portentous lineage, was executed by the German occupation on this date in 1945.

This man was the grandson of the famous Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother to troubled, brilliant painter Vincent van Gogh.

Our Theo was a 23-year-old university student in Amsterdam pulled into anti-Nazi resistance by the imposition of a hated loyalty oath on university personnel and was arrested several times, repeatedly tolling his father for bribes to extract him.

The arrest he couldn’t buy his way out of was a home raid on March 1, 1945 — the very last weeks of the war, while these Germans were in the process of being stranded in the Low Countries. Evidently the collapse of the Reich didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cause, because on March 8 the Germans imposed a collective punishment of 100+ executions in revenge for the Dutch resistance’s attempt to assassinate a prominent SS officer.* Theo van Gogh was one of them.

Besides his name-brand ancestry, Theo the World War II resistance figure is also the uncle (quite posthumously — this man wasn’t born until 1957) of film director Theo van Gogh, who’s a far-right martyr in his own right thanks to the vociferous anti-Islamic work that resulted in his 2004 assassination.


Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), by Vincent van Gogh.

* That officer, Hanns Albin Rauter, was executed for war crimes in 1949.

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1903: Mathias Kneissl, Bavarian bicycle bandit

Add comment February 21st, 2020 Headsman

Bavarian bandit Mathias Kneissl was beheaded by the fallbeil guillotine in an Augsburg prison on the morning of February 21, 1903.

Kneißl/Kneissl got a juvenile start on his delinquency — the family trade, one might say; his parents were part-time thieves and fences and an uncle was a famous robber of the Munich-Augsburg roads named Johann Pascolini. He caught his first serious jail time at the tender age of 18 in an affair when his brother Alois shot dead a police officer who had come to investigate them for poaching.

Alois died of tuberculosis in prison but Kneissl emerged from his cell in 1899 — 24 years old and penniless. He soon returned to his vomit, mounting a bicycle-borne crime spree around Bavaria’s Dachau district.

Quaint though it might read in retrospect, a mobile gunslinging cyclist could be a hell of a menace in a world without cars or telephones. Kneissl proved it over the span of about a year and a half before his March 1901 arrest, raiding farms and passersby trying to accumulate a stake sufficient to vanish with his sweetheart to America.

Instead that sweetheart betrayed his hideout to authorities, who require an hourslong siege to capture the wanted outlaw. Two Altomünster gendarmes whom he had killed in a shootout supplied the requisite capital charge, notwithstanding the popular “social bandit” glow he had gained from his many months on the lam. (Folk songs celebrating him are still in circulation to this day; there have also been 1970 and 2008 cinematic treatments of this criminal legend.)

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1918: The Cattaro Mutineers

Add comment February 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, four sailors who were ringleaders of a failed Austrian naval mutiny were executed at the Montenegrin port of Kotor.

It’s been largely forgotten beyond its Balkan environs — indeed, reports of its very existence were hushed up at the time it occurred — but it prefigured the more famous, war-ending Kiel mutiny later that year in Austria’s Entente ally. It was a heyday for radical sailors, taking heart from the inspiration of the famed Russian cruiser Aurora, whose guns launched Russia’s October Revolution.

The mariners in question for this post were the crew of the SMS Sankt Georg,* stationed in the aforementioned Kotor — aka Cattaro, which is commonly how this mutiny is named.

On February 1, this crew, gnawed by hunger, deposed their officers and ran up the red flag, chanting for bread and peace.

Although about 40 other ships in the Austrian fleet there responded with revolutionary flags of their own, the mutiny collapsed within two days. Alas, the sailors of this flotilla were not so determined as their Russian counterparts upon any particular course of action: they waffled upon considerations like defecting in the war or firing on the naval base, and deferred action until morale and common purpose dissipated. The Austrian military kept a tight lid on news of the rebellion, frustrating any prospect of catalyzing a wider insurrection among landlubbers.

Some 800 participants in the mutiny were arrested and some of them tried months afterwards; forty leader figures, however, were prosecuted within days by a summary court-martial and four of them executed on February 11: Franz Rasch, Jerko Šižgoric, Anton Grabar and Mato Brnicevic.

There’s a 1980 Yugoslavian film about events, Kotorski mornari.

* Aptly, Montenegro is among the innumerable places answering to the patronage of Saint George. There’s a St. George Island right there in Kotor Bay, the apparent inspiration for the Arnold Böcklin painting and Sergei Rachmaninoff symphonic poem Isle of the Dead.

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1928: Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler

Add comment January 13th, 2020 Headsman

U.S. serial killer Earle Nelson hanged in Winnipeg, Canada on Friday the 13th of January in 1928.

A disturbed and preternaturally balding 30-year-old, Nelson grew up in San Francisco “a psychotic prodigy. He was expelled from primary school at the age of 7. His behavior included talking to invisible people, quoting Bible passages about the great beast and peeking at his cousin Rachel while she undressed.”

Monsterhood beckoned via a compounding of destabilizing influences: venereal disease, a religious obsession, and a collision with a streetcar that left him in a weeklong coma and with a permanent vulnerability to headaches and dizzy spells. By the latter 1910s he was rotating shifts of institutionalization: jail in Los Angeles (mere burglary), the Army (subsequently deserted), and commitments to the state mental ward (“He has seen faces, heard music, and at times believed people were poisoning him. Voices sometimes whisper to him to kill himself.”)

From the start of 1926 until mid-1927, he gave over to a homicidal spree that claimed 22 lives all around the U.S. and ranging — obviously — into Canada. They were all women, bar 8-month-old Robert Harpin, the infant son of a mother whom he targeted; while his second-last victim was just 14, the predominant victim profile was a matronly landlady whose lodgings he could enter at invitation as a prospective lodger — and there put her at ease with his Biblical facility while maneuvering her into some circumstance suitable for wrapping his hands around her throat. Most were also posthumously raped after strangling.

Those noticeably large hands were among the first descriptors that witnesses had given of the suspect from the scenes of his earliest killings in San Francisco, and this together with a swarthy mien gave newsmen the nickname “Gorilla Killer” or “Dark Strangler”. They’d have frequent cause to use it as the terrifying killings migrated north from the California Bay to Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; Seattle … and then east, leaving outraged corpses in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Chicago.

Public alarm naturally followed each new report of his signature killings. After several homicides in Portland, the police there cautioned landlords from showing rooms unaccompanied with the grim words, “I do not wish to unduly alarm the people of Portland. But there is no denying the situation is grave.”

The Dark Strangler’s situation finally became grave when he took his act international. In Winnipeg he killed a teenage girl selling flowers and a housewife in quick succession, and this time the police A.P.B. was quick enough to catch up with him — gruesomely discovering the mutilated cadaver of the flower girl in his boarding house room. Public tips zeroed in on him a few miles before he reached the North Dakota border, and fingerprints courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department confirmed the identity.

Easily convicted in an atmosphere of great public outrage, Nelson mounted a credible but hopeless appeal for clemency on grounds of insanity.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt apparently began as a pitch for a Nelson-inspired screen treatment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,USA

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1740: Ned Darcy, of the Kellymount Gang

Add comment November 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1740,* Ned “Darcy, one of the Kellymount gang, was tried at Carlow, on the Proclamation; and, being proved to be the man, in ten minutes he was taken from the dock and hanged, and his head fixed on the Court House.”

The Kellymount gang — named for a County Kilkenny town it frequented — was a band of outlaws who were the terror of Leinster in 1740, a famine year due to a brutal frost.

Numbering as many as 30 strong, this troop had the boldness even to lay siege to manors and the ferocity to put gentlemen in mortal terror; we find our same principal just weeks before his execution going the full monster:

August 30 — Yesterday morning, one Ned Darcy went to the house of one Doran, in the County of Carlow, took him out of his bed and, naked as he was, put him on horseback, and in that manner carried him through part of the Counties of Carlow and Kilkenny; and being met by several, were asked where they intended to take him, to which they replied they were going to hang him, he having been the occasion of hanging a brother and a father of Darcy’s; and we have been since informed that, having taken him into Kellymount Wood, they cut out his tongue, cut off his ears, and pulled out one of his eyes, then desired him to go to Sir John, in Capel Street, give in his examination to him of their proceedings, and tell him they would serve him in the same manner were he in their power, as also Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush, who came from Carlow three days ago, had one hundred men armed to guard him, and Mr. Gore, the same from Waterford; so by this you may see in what fear we travel in this country.

The Kellymount Gang was mostly busted up in these months with no small number of executions, but its remnants survived to launch the career of one of Ireland’s most celebrated bandits, James Freney — for a few years later, Freney, a failed tavernkeeper mired in debt, chanced to find himself neighbor to “one John Reedy, who had formerly been one of the robbers, commonly known by the name of the Kellymount Gang, but who had been pardoned for making some discoveries.” Reedy advised Freney in a moment of financial desperation that “there was a fair at hand, and that there was a number of drovers to be there; who, he said would have a great deal of cash; and told me, that my only remedy to extricate myself from my creditors, was to make to the highway, and that he would get three or four men to assist me.”

The former publican took up the offer to good effect, and proceeded to make his name and fortune on the roads.

We hope our readers will recognize this famous criminal from the stickup he perpetrates upon the title character in Thackeray‘s 1844 serial The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and likewise in Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece 1975 adaptation, Barry Lyndon. (He’s called “Feeney” in the film.)

* Julian date: the quoted blurb comes from Reilly’s Dublin News-Letter of November 8th, 1740.

** Much to the disadvantage of Executed Today, Freney/Feeney was the rare outlaw who was able to retire with his earnings, emigrating abroad and eventually returning to work as a customs official in Inistioge. The account of his criminal origins we have from Freney’s own memoirs.

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1929: Ilm Deen, blasphemy avenger

Add comment October 31st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1929, the Punjabi Muslim youth Ilm Deen was hanged for murdering a blasphemous publisher.

The Rangila Rasul is a pamphlet-length send-up satirizing the “widely experienced”, chortle chortle, Prophet Muhammad for his many wives; Muslim fury at its publication brought the Raj to legislate against “outraging the religious feelings of any class” — a law that’s still on the books in India.

However, there was no such law at the time of the naughty screed’s publication, and as a result the Hindu publisher, Mahashe Rajpal of Lahore, was acquitted of any charge in 1929.

‘Twas a temporary exoneration, for Ilm Deen (or Ilm-ud-din, or Ilmuddin), a 20-year-old carpenter, delivered his verdict extrajudicially by daggering Rajpal in the chest in a Lahore bazaar on April 6, 1929.

The assassin’s speedy trip to the Raj’s gallows thereafter only cinched his place as a sectarian, and later (for Pakistan) national, martyr; the poet Allama Iqbal exclaimed at the young man’s funeral that “this uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones!” To this day, Ilm Deen’s solemn tomb is a place of pilgrimage and veneration.

The case remains a fraught precedent for latter-day sectarian tension, as well as a ready vein of propaganda as with Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed, a 1978 film released under the Pakistani military government after overthrowing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

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1983: Waldemar Krakos, Dekalog inspiration

Add comment October 10th, 2019 Headsman

Polish murderer Waldemar Krakos was hanged on this date in 1983 in Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison.

With a partner, Wiktor Maliszewski, he’d bludgeoned and strangled a female taxi driver to death on New Year’s Eve 1982/83, yielding a few thousand zlotys to drink away before their arrest on New Year’s Day.

Both initially caught a term of years when judge (and the future President of the post-Communist Supreme Court) Lech Paprzycki found that Krakos’s traumatic childhood rendered him mentally unfit to hang; but amid public clamor the sentence against Krakos was upgraded in June by the Supreme Court. (Although his was not a political crime, Krakos’s treatment was facilitated by Poland’s early 80s martial law.)

Prior to his execution the killer met cinema director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Five years later, Kieslowski’s acclaimed Dekalog drama series explores, in Dekalog: Five, a capital punishment case very much like Krakos’s own.

That film’s portrayal of violent lumpen “Jacek Lazar” brutally murdering a taxi driver and suffering a brutal hanging in retribution has been credited with helping bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Krakos, as a result, is among the very last to suffer that punishment in Polish history.

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1943: Amos Pampaloni, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin inspiration

Add comment September 21st, 2019 Headsman

Italian artillerist Amos Pampaloni, the real-life model for the title character of the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, miraculously survived execution on this date in 1943.

It occurred at the outset of the Cephalonia Massacre on September 21, 1943, which began a dayslong slaughter on that Greek island by German soldiers of their former Italian comrades. With some 5,000 victims, it’s one of the largest POW massacres of the Second World War.

Captain Pampaloni was among 500-odd officers deployed with the 12,000-strong Acqui Infantry Division. This formation had been part of fascist Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940-41; after victory in that campaign, the Acqui Division occupied several Greek islands over the succeeding years, where German troops were also stationed.

The Pact of Steel uniting these powers melted abruptly in early September of 1943, when the Allies forced Italy into an armistice. For Italian forces standing in the field cheek-by-fascist epaulette, this forced a sudden and dangerous reckoning. Some units had barely even heard of the new situation before they were under German guns; in a best-case scenario, they had to decide within a few hours or days between radically different attitudes towards their up-to-now comrades-in-arms.

The Acqui on the Ionian island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) was a case in point. In the days following the Italian armistice, the much larger German force presented its commanders an ultimatum to decide among three alternatives:

  1. Continue fighting alongside the Germans
  2. Fight against the Germans
  3. Surrender, disarm, and repatriate

While the last of these might seem the obvious course, disarming was contrary to the Italian high command’s ambiguous order neither to initiate hostilities with Germans, nor to cooperate with them. Moreover, the Cephalonia division got some reports in those confused days that the Germans weren’t always repatriating units that surrendered. The soldiery was polled on the options, and went for resistance.

Unfortunately the Italians were thoroughly outgunned in this fight, and the Allies refused to permit dispatching reinforcements from Italy that might easily be captured by the Germans. Within days the Acqui had been roughly brought to heel.

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 1 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 2 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Numerous summary executions disgraced the German victory. (There’s a monument to the victims in Verona.) Our man Amos Pampaloni faced his on the first day of the general massacre; according to a 2001 profile in the Guardian,

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.*

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

In the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pampaloni’s fictional imitator survives thanks to a noble comrade who hurls his body in front of the fusillade.

Pampaloni didn’t appreciate Mandolin all that much, owing to its hostile depiction of the Communist partisan movement that he joined after surviving his execution. For those seeking alternative literatures, there’s also a 1960s novelization of the Greek resistance on Cephalonia by Marcello Venturi; written in Italian (as Bandiera bianca a Cefalonia), it’s long out of print in English as The White Flag.

* Prior to the Italian armistice, the Italian forces on the island were working on an arrangement to obey German command structures; hence, the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners who could be conceived as not merely prisoners of war, but traitors or rebels unprotected by any law of war. A German directive had explicitly demanded as much: “because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.”

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1973: Charles Horman, American journalist in the Pinochet coup

Add comment September 18th, 2019 Headsman

Horman was interrogated at the military school and then transferred to the national stadium for further questioning. He was ordered shot and killed the evening of September 19. According to [redacted] the authorities at the stadium did not know that Horman was an American … the body was taken from the stadium and left at a location to create the idea that he had been killed in a firefight with the military. However, in the confused days following the coup, and after it was known that he was an American, the military sought to hide the fact that he was dead.

Declassified informant’s report (pdf) of the death of Charles Horman

On this date in 1973,* American journalist Charles Horman was extrajudicially executed by the Chilean coup junta of Augusto Pinochet.

Horman was a prizewinning U.S. journalist and filmmaker from the heyday of crusading, adversarial journalism: stateside, he’d made a documentary about napalm use in Vietnam and protested that war at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

With his wife Joyce, Horman had been living in the Chile of socialist president Salvador Allende since the spring of 1972, reporting freelance while working as a screenwriter. He was right there in the capital on September 11, 1973, to see Allende’s vision ground under tank treads when the Chilean military with U.S. support overthrew the elected civilian government and initiated a litany of horrors.

One of the most emblematic atrocities of Pinochet in his earliest hours was his regime’s commandeering the Santiago football stadium as a makeshift concentration camp for leftists whose blood would desecrate the facility’s recreational purpose.**

The putschists did not fear to extend their terror to subversive Yanks like Horman and (a few days after him) a fellow-journalist named Frank Teruggi — their murders secretly okayed by Pinochet’s CIA comrades.†

There’s a 1978 book investigating this affair, titled The Execution of Charles Horman; the book, and Horman’s fate, inspired the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing.

* There are some citations out there for September 17 (the date of Horman’s arrest) or September 19, and a good many general punts to only “September 1973” for this extrajudicial execution/murder. We’re depending for our part on the firm published findings of Chilean judge Jorge Zepeda:

the following day, September 18, 1973 at around 1:35 p.m., military officials took the remains of an unidentified male to the Servicio Medico Legal [Medical Legal Department], and this individual was later fingerprinted and identified as Charles Edmund Horman Lazar, in accordance with Protocol No. 2663/73; the Medical Legal Department concluded that his death had occurred on September 18 at approximately 9:45 a.m. The corresponding death certificate was issued on October 4, 1973 by Doctor Ezequiel Jimenez Ferry of the aforementioned Department.

** In November 1973, the Soviet Union honorably refused to set boots on this boneyard to contest a World Cup playoff and was disqualified as a result — although not before the hosts were made to take the pitch unopposed in a sham “match”.

Thanks to Chile’s consequent advance to the 1974 tourney, a Chilean player holds the distinction of being the first footballer red-carded at the World Cup finals.

† Post-Pinochet Chile unsuccessfully sought the extradition of the former American military mission commander for permitting these murders, when he as the delegate of the coup’s sponsor-empire presumably would have had the juice to forbid them.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture

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