1917: The only triple hanging in Montana

Add comment February 16th, 2018 Headsman

Anaconda Standard, Jan. 11, 1917:

The story of the crime was that seven negroes boarded an eastbound freight train on the Great Northern railway at Nihil on Oct. 5 with the intention of beating their way. They found the car they boarded, a gondola loaded with lumber, already occupied by three white men. The deceased [Michael Freeman] and two companions, Earl Fretwell and Claud C. Campbell. The negroes first went through the white men, obtaining a small sum of money and some trinkets, and then directed them to get off the train, which was going at the rate of 30 miles an hour. The men begged to be allowed to remain on the train until it stopped or slowed down. Fretwell started to comply, being urged by blows, and was struck on the head with a revolver and fell from the car. Campbell jumped from the train, followed by a fusillade of shots. Freeman was shot from behind, the bullet entering his back, and his body thrown from the train, being found alongside the track the next morning.

National Public Radio, July 2, 2014 (associated audio story):

“I was curiosity with a ‘C.’ I just started to pepper him with questions — ‘Oh, Grandpa, what was it like? Did they lose their heads? Did their eyes bug out? Did everybody cheer? Did everybody cry?'” Zachary says.

“And he raised a hand, which told me to shut up. And he said three words: ‘It was awful.'”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Montana,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1906: Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller

Add comment February 16th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1906, Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller were hanged together in Chicago, Illinois. Both were multiple murderers, with six deaths between them.

Newcomb, who was, described as “crazed” and “maddened,” hanged for the murder of Chicago police sergeant John Peter Shine.

On October 10 the previous year, Shine heard reports of a gunman terrorizing people on the streets of Englewood. Newcomb had already shot three people and one, a woman named Florence Poore who was the wife of Newcomb’s friend, was dead. Shine found out the gunman had barricaded himself in his apartment. Although he was off duty, he decided to make the arrest himself.

When he knocked on the apartment door and demanded entry, however, Newcomb simply fired through the closed door, hitting Shine in the abdomen and mortally wounding him. The officer died two hours later at Englewood Union Hospital, at the age of 42. Walter Blue, one of the others Newcomb had shot, also died of his wounds.

After Shine was shot, over 100 police officers surrounded Newcomb’s apartment and fired into it, hoping to apprehend or kill the gunman. After a long siege, Newcomb surrendered to an equally certain death in the judiciary.

Little is known about John Mueller or his crimes. Daniel Allen Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1965, describes Mueller as “a drunk and a loser who went berserk when refused money with which to buy liquor.” The 32-year-old slaughtered his wife, Annie, and their two daughters, two-year-old Martha and 18-month-old Mary, by shooting them and slashing them repeatedly with a razor.

The two killers were executed in the Cook County Jail. It was an integrated execution: Newcomb was black and Mueller was white.

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1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

1 comment February 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the Milwaukee-born translator and historian Mildred Fish-Harnack was beheaded at Plotzensee Prison — the only American woman executed by Hitler’s order.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,* she met German jurist Arvid Harnack when the latter was a visiting scholar at the university’s sister campus in Madison.

In 1929, the couple moved to Germany where they worked as academics: Mildred, a teacher of language and literature; Arvid, of economics and foreign policy.

Both watched the rise of Third Reich with growing horror, and soon began converting their circles of academics, artists, and expats into a hive of opposition doing what they could to aid the many classes of excommunicate humans Berlin was busily proscribing. As the Nazi enterprise intensified, that opposition demanded ever more dangerous — more treasonable — extremities.

Good friends with American diplomats, the Harnacks for a time used Arvid’s placement in the Reich economic ministry to pass information to the United States. In 1940, they made contact with Soviet intelligence and from that time until the Gestapo snatched them in September 1942 the so-called** Red Orchestra sent furtive coded radio transmissions to Moscow reporting war preparations, economic data, and whatever else their circle could lay hands on among their various posts.

We have treated the fate of the Red Orchestra elsewhere in these pages; Mildred Harnack did not go to the meathook-nooses with her husband Arvid and others on December 22 because she was sentenced initially only to a term of years. These judgments came down at just the same time as the USSR was drowning the Wehrmacht in blood at Stalingrad, so there might have been a bit of personal pique when the Fuhrer personally quashed Mildred’s lenient sentence and demanded a, ah, reconsideration.

“And I have loved Germany so much,” she murmured as she was thrown under the fallbeil.

There’s a Mildred-Harnack-Schule in Berlin (also a Mildred-Harnack-Straße); her birthday, September 16, is observed every year in Wisconsin schools — although Mildred’s red associations meant that widespread recognition in her native country had to await the end of the Cold War.


Trailer for a Wisconsin Public Television documentary that can be viewed in full here.

* Then known as the Milwaukee State Normal School.

** Though this is the name history remembers them by, Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was conferred by the German intelligence working to stop them. Confusingly, the name was applied to multiple different, and unrelated, spy networks.

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1894: Joe Dick, “allowed to go anywhere he desired”

Add comment February 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1894, a young Indian named Joe Dick was executed outside the courthouse of Eufaula in present-day Oklahoma.

At the time, Eufala was part of the Muscogee Creek jursidiction of Indian Territory. Until the 1898 Curtis Act, the tribal governments in Indian Country enjoyed full legal jurisdiction, up to and including application of the death penalty.

One interesting feature of that jurisdiction (previously noted in these annals) was the absence of standing jails to incarcerate death-sentenced prisoners. Joe Dick was only loosely guarded and on “Christmas week, he told the officers that were guarding him that he was of a lively nature and would like to attend some of the dances that were going on through the country.” They happily loaned him a horse and saddle, and Joe Dick was as good as his word: after dancing all night, he returned and “reported the next morning for breakfast.”

On another occasion, with firewood running short, an officer John Hawkins set Dick loose in the woods with a cart. The murderer came back three hours later, loaded with firewood. “After that, he was allowed to go anywhere he desired, if he would promise to report for duty at meal times.”

Hawkins and a fellow-officer named Bob Roberts conducted the execution by musketry — both shooting Dick dead through the heart from five yards’ distance as Dick stood against a large tree. (In the Indian Territory, only the Cherokee had enough death penalty cases to warrant a standing gallows; other nations generally carried out executions by shooting.)

Dick had opportunistically murdered a man named Thomas Gray against whom he held a grudge. Chancing upon Gray at work in an orchard one day, Dick simply shot him and rode away. Dick confessed the crime.

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1318: Dukes Erik and Valdemar Magnusson

Add comment February 16th, 2014 Headsman

This is the generally attributed death date of Duke Erik and Duke Valdemar of Sweden — intentionally starved to death at the order of their royal brother, according to the 14th century Erikskrönikan.

This is pretty borderline as an execution, to be sure, but brutal games of thrones ran in these men’s family. Their grandfather Birger Jarl was a powerful duke who got his young child elected king when the throne came open in 1250, possibly circumventing family of the preceding monarch.

And no sooner did the old silverback shuffle off then said son was rudely usurped by his little brother Magnus.

We’re still in the family lore here, but past proved to be prologues for King Magnus’s kids. Magnus had his oldest child Birger set up to succeed, but Birger’s brothers Erik and Valdemar would struggle with the official heir for power after Magnus died.

The boys had a civil war in the 1300s that even resulted in Erik and Valdemar deposing Birger and clapping him in a dungeon — an outcome reversed by pressure from the Norwegians and Danes.

Come the 1310s, things were still tense. Situated on impressive domains of their own — Erik was Duke of Sodermanland, Valdemar, Duke of Finland — the kid brothers looked a potent threat to King Birger once again. Not fancying another stay in the family prison, Birger pre-emptively arrested his brothers at the family Christmas celebration in 1317.

Birger would learn that you can’t solve all family problems by starving them. Weeks after his fratricide, the brothers’ supporters ousted him for good.

Birger fled to exile. His own son, Magnus Birgersson, remained to answer at the executioner’s block for his father’s sins … while his three-year-old cousin, Erik’s son King Magnus, succeeded the throne and held it until 1364.

Cold comfort to the dead dukes, perhaps, but they at least had the consolation of being exalted as “holy dukes” thanks to the winner-written history.

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1943: Toralf Berg, Norwegian resistance member

Add comment February 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1943, Norwegian resistance member Toralf Berg was executed at Falstad concentration camp in Quisling Norway.

Information about this courageous outdoorsman is difficult to come by; try this Norwegian page for a bit of background.

The Gestapo captured him in August 1942, tortured him horribly, and had him shot. Later, Berg’s torture and execution would be one of numerous World War II brutalities charged in the war crimes indictment (PDF | HTML) against German Obersturmbannführer Gerhard Flesch.

Flesch was himself executed on these charges on February 28, 1948.


Memorial for Falstad forest, where many of the camp’s executions took place. (cc) image from the Municipal Archives of Trondheim.

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1912: Thomas Jennings, fingerprinted

4 comments February 16th, 2012 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Thomas Jennings was ushered the scaffold … while Thomas Jennings’s fingerprints ushered in a new age of policework (pdf).

Hegemonic authority had been on a long march towards a forensic regime that could affix an oft-ephemeral identity to the profoundly corporeal body.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, investigative techniques and jurisprudence marched double time to keep pace with new techniques — from photography to the unwieldy system of Bertillonage.

A variety of American institutions — the U.S. Army, a number of prison systems — had begun systematically cataloging their respective inmates’ fingerprints in the preceding years, but it was in the Jennings case that the system really earned its whorls. It was the first U.S. murder case pinned on fingerprint evidence.

In September 1910, a Chicago homeowner in the present-day Beverly neighborhood surprised an intruder, and was shot dead. (pdf) In the course of the fight or the flight, the prowler splooshed his left hand into some wet paint on a railing.

Thomas Jennings, a paroled burglar, was arrested near the scene, and his fingerprints shown to match those left in the grieving Hiller household. A prosecution expert even gave a courtroom demonstration of dusting for prints.

This was as novel to judges as to jurymen, and given the dearth of other positive evidence against Jennings, the Illinois Supreme Court was called upon to deliberate upon the humble dactylogram. In the summer of 20111911, it stopped Jennings’ hanging just hours before it was to take place.

But its final word in December 20111911 only fitted the homebreaker’s noose.

We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who testified, and from the writings we have referred to on this subject, that there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification, and that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it …

Such evidence may or may not be of independent strength, but it is admissible, with other proof, as tending to make out a case. If inferences as to the identity of persons based on voice, the appearance or age are admissible, Why does not this record justify the admission of this fingerprint testimony under common law rules of evidence.

Courtrooms all around the world soon agreed, and within a generation the awesome investigative power of the fingerprint had fugitives going so far as to slice or burn off those incriminating little pads of flesh — the crime scene gold standard until the advent of DNA testing.

Jennings was hanged this date in a state-record five-man batch (the others, Ewald and Frank Shiblawski, Philip Sommerling, and Thomas Schultz, had all committed an unrelated murder together).

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1939: The only triple execution in Manitoba

9 comments February 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Canadian province of Manitoba carried out at Headingley Gaol the only triple execution in its history.

Peter Korzenowski and William Kanuka hanged side by side just after midnight that February 16, while their accomplice Dan Prytula waited 14 minutes for his turn on the gallows.

Less than a year before, drunk on moonshine, the trio beat and kicked 81-year-old Anna Cottick to death on her Dauphin-area farm in an attempt to plunder the place of a rumored $1,000. In fact, they only found twenty-three bucks.

According to an article that appeared on the regrettably extinct Manitoba’s Buried History site,

The process of finding enough corroborating evidence to obtain murder convictions was the stuff of modern crime dramas.

As soon as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived at the Cottick farm, members noticed fresh tire tracks entering and leaving the yard. They were tracked three miles west to within 150 yards of Kanuka’s residence, and from there to the Gilbert Plains home of Prytula’s sister. The tire marks were a perfect match to the treads on Prytula’s 1929 Ford. It was confiscated and, while casts were taken of its treads, Prytula was arrested and his blood-stained clothes, boots and three .32 calibre bullets were seized and sent to the RCMP crime lab for testing.

As one group of police officers were arresting Prytula and Korzenowski, another searched the Cottick residence for additional evidence. Almost immediately they noticed what appeared to be fingerprints on the glass smashed by the assailants. Fragments were sent to experts in Winnipeg, along with a window frame and piece of wall where the bullets fired by Korzenowski and Prytula lodged.

The RCMP also searched the residence and yard of Korzenowski, located a few hundred yards from where Kanuka had been staying. There they found the revolvers used in the break-ins, hidden in a pile of stones. Korzenowski was promptly arrested, and three days later he and his two friends were part of an identification line-up paraded in front of the hospital beds of the Cotticks.*

To top all that off, they bugged the men’s jail cell with a dictograph and snared them in several incriminating conversations. Representative remark: the lawyers are so expensive, “No wonder one has to go robbing.”

* Anna’s 91-year-old husband survived the home invasion.

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1535: Etienne de la Forge, John Calvin’s friend

Add comment February 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1535, as a 25-year-old religious dissident named John Calvin fled Paris, the merchant who had hosted his circle’s Protestant salons was reduced to ashes in Paris.

Though France would ultimately remain Catholic, the Protestant Reformation found rich soil and enjoyed a measure of early official tolerance for reasons of statecraft.

But a sharp crackdown was provoked when Protestants engineered the placement of anti-Catholic posters in several towns during a single night in October 1534 — the so-called Affair of the Placards.

This spelled the end of the circle of dissidents who met at the Rue Saint-Martin.* Young Calvin high-tailed it out of town — a period of wandering and living incognito that would wash him up on the shores of Lake Geneva — but the owner of that Rue Saint-Martin house, Etienne de la Forge (aka Stephanus Forgeus) was denounced to the authorities.

The date for this execution comes from The Century of the Renaissance, a public domain book available free from Google. It’s also backed in the roster of execution dates from Michelet’s Histoire de France. This looks to me as if it comes from primary documentation, but Feb. 15 is sometimes also reported.

* Calvin apparently had an appointment during this period in Paris to meet a scholar he would later execute, Michael Servetus, but the tete-a-tete never came off.

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1495: William Stanley, Lord Chamberlain

2 comments February 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1495, the former Lord Chamberlain lost his head on Tower Hill for conspiring with the pretender Perkin Warbeck.

The politically nimble Stanleys — William and older brother Thomas — had adroitly navigated the Wars of the Roses with an uncanny talent for tacking to the quick-changing political winds.

Theirs had been a pivotal — and treacherous — intervention in the Battle of Bosworth Field, with William Stanley literally deciding the hand-to-hand encounter between his ostensible liege Richard III and the man who would that day become King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

Lord [Thomas] Stanley took his station on one wing [of Richard III’s lines], and Sir William on the other, so that, thus disposed, they could flank either their own side or the opposed one. … the Stanleys, seizing the critical moment, wheeling round, joined the enemy, and fell on Richard’s flanks. This masterly manoeuvre struck dismay through the lines of Richard … His only hope appeared to be to make a desperate assault on Henry’s van, and, if possible, to reach and kill him on the spot. With this object … he broke into the midst of Henry’s main body, and catching sight of him, dashed forward, crying fantically, “Treason! treason! treason!” He killed Sir William Brandon, Henry’s standard-bearer, with his own hand; struck Sir John Cheyney from his horse; and springing forward on Henry, aimed a desperate blow at him; but Sir William Stanley, breaking in at that moment, surrounded Richard with his brave followers, who bore him to the ground by their numbers, and slew him. (Source)

For this service, Stanley enjoyed the lavish favors of the crown and an appointment as Lord Chamberlain, among other titles.

So it came as a surprise when an informant offered intelligence that one of such unassailable station had offered his services to the Flanders pretender Perkin Warbeck.

According to early 16th century Tudor court historian Polydore Vergil, Stanley was so far above suspicion that

at first [Henry] could not be brought to believe [informant Robert Clifford’s] words, but after sure proofs were shown him, then he ordered William to be arrested and put to the question. He denied nothing, but frankly confessed his guilt, if he had offended in any way. And they say his offence was this. When William and Robert were having a conversation concerning this Peter who falsely claimed to be Edward’s son, William announced he would never take up arms against the young man, if he knew for certain that he was indeed the son of Edward. This went to show that William was momentarily estranged from Henry out of anger, as happens, and hence these suspicions arose, to which were afterward added those things related by Robert. Meanwhile the king was doubtful what he should decide about William, and he weighed what counsel to take by considering outcomes. For he feared that by punishing the man he would offend Thomas Stanley, who was well deserving towards him. On the other hand, if he forgave the insult, he was afraid lest the others would attempt worse things, rendered bolder by that act of leniency. Therefore in the end he decided that severity should prevail, and so William was condemned of a capital crime and put to death.

They give this reason why William’s good will towards Henry later turned into malevolence, and likewise why the king’s affection for William was transformed into hatred. To omit the other favors they did each other from the beginning, in that battle in which he finally deprived King Richard of his life and his kingdom, when he, defended by only a few of his followers, was suddenly surrounded by Richard himself, so that his life was in immediate danger, William, sent with a strong band of soldiers by his brother Thomas, who had been sitting idle not far from the battlefield, came bearing quick and very timely aid and rescued him safe and sound from a slaughter. Richard was killed at the selfsame moment, as I have abundantly recounted in my preceding Book. This assuredly was the greatest benefit performed in human memory, by means of which Henry was freed from the fear of death and acquired a kingdom. For his part, as soon as Henry had gained the throne, not forgetful of this favor, which he freely remembered and spoke of, first made Thomas Stanley Earl of Derby, and then appointed William, loaded down with great gifts, his chamberlain and held him in the highest honor. But William, although he held a great place of friendship with the king, was more mindful of the favor he had conferred than that he received, and he still hoped, as the Gospel verse has it, to have more abundance, so that he put a low value on the rewards given him by the king. When Henry perceived these were cheap in his eyes, he began to be so angry that the both of them, their minds provoked, lost the fruit of their grace. Thus it often that happens that, because of an unjust valuation of meritorious deeds, great hostility often follows upon the conferral of great benefits.

Whether personal resentment or ambition really motivated Stanley is up for speculation; it surely appears remarkable that he would gamble his position on so doubtful a claimant as Warbeck. But then, Warbeck appears doubtful in retrospect; in the months to come, he would wreak considerable mischief on a crown that had not sat easy on a monarch’s head for many years.

Misplaced Yorkist loyalty also stands as a possible explanation, if one takes William Stanley’s guilt as a given.

Stanley copped to the charge of stating that “if he knew certainly that the young man [Warbeck] was the undoubted heir of King Edward IV, he would never fight or bear armour against him,” throwing him on the mercy of the king whose crown his arms had once assured.

Henry showed him no mercy, casting a dread pall over lingering Yorkists likewise disposed to entertain the young pretender’s aspirations and left the plotters “like sand without lime, ill bound together … not knowing who was faithful.” (Bacon) It also left Henry with Stanley’s colossal estate, confiscated to the crown by late lord’s attainder, from which the king generously contrived to pay his former chamberlain’s burial costs.

* There are some conflicting dates cited for William Stanley’s beheading, notably February 10, which is currently favored by Wikipedia. February 16 appears more broadly and credibly supported, but I have not been able to establish a determinative primary document.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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