1943: The five martyrs of the lycee Buffon

Add comment February 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1943, Nazi guns immortalized five student martyrs of the French Resistance.

The Five Martyrs of the lycee Buffon were Parisian high school students who greeted the fascist occupation of their republic with every form of opposition they could command.

Jean-Marie Arthus (“Marchand” by his nom de guerre), Jacques Baudry (“Andre”), Pierre Benoit (“Francis”), Pierre Grelot (“Paul”) and Lucien Legros (“Jeannot”)* started small with subversive pamphleting and placarding but soon moved on to sabotage and armed opposition in affiliation with the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans.

The arrest of one of their teachers, Raymond Burgard, in 1942 spurred them to lead a student demonstration whose mass arrest they barely escaped. By that time their identities were known, and the boys had to go underground; for their remaining months at liberty they lived on the run and participated in occasional (albeit not very damaging) armed attacks on occupying forces — until that summer, when French intelligence arrested Arthus, Baudry, Grelot and Legros, and French police later caught Benoit.

All five were handed off by their collaborationist countrymen to the eager claws of the Germans, who condemned them as terrorists at a military trial.

A number of public places in France honor their memory, like the 14th arrondissement’s Place des Cinq-Martyrs-du-Lycée-Buffon. Their touching and determinedly optimistic last letters to their families can be read at the Cinq martyrsFrench Wikipedia page.

* A sixth school chum, Michel Agnellet, could easily have joined them at the execution posts and in the martyrologies, but the five who were captured did not permit their interrogators to extract his name.

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2015: Liu Han, former tycoon

1 comment February 9th, 2016 Headsman

One year ago today, Chinese billionaire Liu Han was executed in Hubei province, along with his younger brother Liu Wei and thee other associates.

One of the prime catches in the anti-corruption hunt of current president Xi Jinping, Liu was a mining oligarch whose personal fortune was once valued at $6.4 billion.

He was also allegedly “an organized crime boss that no one dared provoke”. He was arrested early in 2014 for embezzlement, gun-running, and orchestrating a hit on a rival crime lord.

Liu’s fall was widely perceived as a strike against his close ally, the powerful former security minister Zhou Yongkang. After months — years even — of rumors about his impending fate, Zhou was arrested for corruption in December 2014; he has since been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

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1721: William Spigget, after peine forte et dure

Add comment February 8th, 2016 Headsman

English courts during the Bloody Code were strewn with all manner of weird pre-modern juridical relics, among which one must surely number the peine forte et dure — the “hard and forceful penalty” applied by courts against a defendant who refused to submit a plea.

The jurisdiction of criminal courts that we take for granted today initially emerged opposite potentially rival legal mechanisms for dispute resolution: ecclesiastical courts, weregild, even trial by combat. In principle, a defendant entering a plea at the bar was submitting himself to the specific jurisdiction of the court … a submission that, in principle, he could decline.

The march from that point to the present — when refusing to plead means the court simply enters an automatic “not guilty” plea on your behalf — consisted of gradually making the principle impossible in practice by dint of physical violence to force open the prisoner’s lips. It doesn’t matter if you lift a finger to defend yourself at trial, Mack, but we need you to say “guilty” or “not guilty” first.

The French term itself dates to a statute of Edward I in 1275, under the heading “The Punishment of Felons refusing lawful Trial” — one of those situations where the existence of the legislation proves the existence of the phenomenon. “Notorious Felons, and which openly be of evil Name,” the text complains, “will not put themselves in Enquests of Felonies, that Men shall charge them with before the Justices at the King’s Suit, shall have strong and hard Imprisonment (la prisone forte et dure), as they which refuse to stand to the Common Law of the Land.”

The text’s language suggests close confinement, fetters and guards, crummy rat-gnawed rations in the dumpiest hole of the dungeon: probably the king who introduced hanging, drawing, and quartering could make “hard imprisonment” quite persuasively uncomfortable.

But by the time of Queen Elizabeth, the state saw the need to narrow this potential refuge from the law down to the size of a pinprick. From the 16th century, we find that a special form of torturing to death is designed for prisoners refusing to plead:

the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fastned to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day.*

“Which grievous death some resolute Offenders have chosen,” we understand, “to save their Estates to their Children.” Even this potential pecuniary loophole — the one once sought by Salem witch trials victim Giles Corey when he preferred pressing to death to the certainty of condemnation as a warlock — had vanished, for “in case of High Treason, the Criminal’s Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death.”

The crown was trying to open an impassable gap between theory and practice, and it was accomplishing that end: this stuff happened once in a blue moon.

People threatened to withhold their plea, sure. What would follow is that a judge would read out in chilling detail everything that was about to befall the fellow (it was usually a fellow, though not always), then a bailiff would seize him and painfully tie his thumbs together right there in court, then march him off to the staking-out room to get things ready. Just showing the instruments of torture was the first rung on the torture-ladder, and usually somewhere in this whole process the defendant — be he ever so hardened — would chicken out and agree to make a plea before the first weight was ever loaded onto his torso.

Usually.

A Tyburn hanging is the focus of this post: it’s a mass execution of seven souls on the 8th of February in 1721. So the peine forte et dure did indeed do its job, force its plea, and noose its man.

But even though William Spigget/Spiggot died at the end of a rope, he was the rare soul who did go so far as to force the awful pressing torture, and to endure it for a little while.

Spigget led a robber gang of eight or so men preying on the roads out of London; one of those men, Thomas Phillips aka Thomas Cross, hanged alongside his boss. They had been caught only days before their eventual trial on January 13, and Spigget bravely, stubbornly, or foolishly refused to submit his plea. (Cross at first refused too, but he was in the chicken-out camp.)

The Ordinary of Newgate, plainly struck by the experience (and not a little aware of its potential to move copy), dwelt at greater length on Spigget’s 30 minutes under the stones than he did on the whole lives of some of the other February 8 hang-day compatriots.

Before he was Put into the Press, I went to Him, and endeavour’d to dissuade him, from being the Author and Occasion of his own Death; and from cutting Himself off from that Space and Time which the Law allowed Him, to repent in, for his vicious Course of Life: He then told me, that if I came to take Care of his Soul, he would regard Me, but if I came about his Body, he desired to be excused, he could not hear one Word. After a while, I left him, and when I saw him again, it was in the Vault, upon the bare Ground, with the Weights (viz. 350 pounds) upon his Breast. I there pray’d by him; and at Times ask’d him, why he would destroy his Soul as well as Body, by such an obstinate Kind of Self-Murder:** All his Answer was, Pray for Me; Pray for Me! In the Midst of his Groans, he sometimes lay silent, as if Insensible of Pain; then would fetch his Breath very quick and fast. Two or three Times, he complained that they had laid a cruel Weight on his Face; tho’ nothing was upon his Face, but a thin Cloth; That was however remov’d and laid more light and hollow; but he still complain’d of the prodigious Weight they had laid upon his Face; which might be occasion’d by the Blood being flush’d and forc’d up into his Face, and pressing as violently against the Veins and small Tendrills there, as if the Pressure upon them had been externally on his Face. When he had continu’d about half an Hour in the Torture, and 50 pound more of Weight had been laid on his Breast, he told the Justice of Peace who committed him, and myself, That he would Plead.

Having thus been awed by 400 pounds of the law’s majesty — and restored to something like sensibility with a splash of brandy, and several days’ rest during which Spigget’s post-ordeal health at times turned so precarious that he besought the last sacrament — both the apex robber and his henchman were easily convicted of several specific robberies upon the roads. One victim was able to identify the two as his assailants; in other cases, specific victims’ stolen goods were recovered from Spigget’s own lodgings, like Neal Sheldon’s valuable wig. Any one of these crimes would have been good enough to hang them.

Showing honor among thieves, the two men concentrated their few remarks on clearing a third confederate tried with them: the evidence against William Heater being circumstantial, and Spigget and Cross insisting that he was more incidental flunky than accomplice, his neck went un-stretched.

So why endure the hard and forceful penalty at all? By all appearances Spigget’s reason in the end resolved to pride: a violently exaggerated performance of the same criminal bravado that led so many of his peers to make a show of dying game at the gallows. “The Reasons, as far as I could learn from Him,” the Ordinary reported,

were, That he might preserve his Effects, for the use of his Family; That it might not be urged to his Children, that their Father was hanged; and that — Linsey should not tryumph over him, by saying he had sent him to Tyburn.

(Joseph Lin(d)sey was a former fellow-robber who saved his own life by turning crown’s evidence against his former mates. Spigget, we are told, was particularly galled by this betrayal “because Spigget had once rescued him [Lindsey] when he was nigh being taken, and in the defending him was wounded, and in danger of his Life.”)

As we have noted, Blighty’s seizure laws had already made the first objective a nonstarter, which leaves our man aspiring to a desperate exertion of masculine defiance. The Spigget of his own mind’s eye was a knight of the road so scornful of death that he would even let them slowly crush him to death. He fell short on that score, but dared much more than anyone had done in years, and no wonder: even the moments he endured as if hours might have been enough to shorten his years had he received an unlikely reprieve.

Sometimes he would say, that he wish’d he had dy’d in the Pressing, For that all sence of Pain was by the Pain taken from him, and he was fallen into a kind of Slumber. At other Times he express’d himself, that he was glad he did not cut himself off, by his Obstinacy, from that space the Law had allow’d him, for his Repentance, for the Sins of his whole Life.

On Monday, February 6, before the Execution, he receiv’d the Sacrament; and said that he desir’d not to Live, for he could be only a weak and unhealthy Man; and added that he could raise his Breath only in the lower Part of his Stomach

* This is not statutory language but that of a contemporary observer.

** The Ordinary really fixated on the suicide angle, just as if entering the trial were not an equally suicidal choice; the whole lot of the condemned got to hear as part of his sermon

That it was a False-Courage, for Malefactors assured that they shall dye, to lay violent Hands upon Themselves, to prevent the effects of the Law; and that if it was an Action fit for Socrates and Cato, and the greatest Heathens; it was yet too mean and indecent for the lowest Christian; as there is something Cowardly and Base, in cutting off our Lives, for fear of Pain and Shame. Nor would Sampson perhaps have obtain’d Licence from God, to Murder Himself, but that in his Person the Name of his God was mocked and ridiculed, and made a Jest for Dagon.

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1527: Georg Wagner

Add comment February 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1527, apostate Catholic priest Georg Wagner went to the stake in Munich.

Called “Carpentarius”, Wagner renounced a comfortable pastorship in Emmeringen, espousing the unacceptable tenets that his office was not empowered by Scripture to forgive sins, nor to transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s own body, nor to perform baptism on infants. He’s claimed as a martyr both by Anabaptists and Lutherans.

Wagner was a worthy enough man in his time and place that the propaganda coup of his defection drew urgent efforts at re-converting him by his former co-religionists — and even, allegedly, the Duke of Bavaria himself. He spurned them all, insisting only “that, as long as I can open my mouth” in the fires that would devour him, “I will confess the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Martyrs Mirror account of Wagner’s martyrdom credits God with, hours after the execution, smiting dead the sheriff who brought Wagner to the pyre.

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1844: Hester Foster and William Young Graham

1 comment February 8th, 2014 Meaghan

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

At 1:30 p.m. on this date in 1844 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, William Young Graham, aka William Clark, and Hester Foster, aka Helen or Esther, were hanged together for their respective crimes.

It was an integrated execution: Graham was a white man, and Foster was black.

Foster was the first woman to be executed in Ohio. (There have been just three more … so far.) The previous spring, while incarcerated for some offense lost to history, she beat a white female prisoner to death with a fire shovel. As this history of Franklin County notes, Foster admitted to her actions, but claimed the murder wasn’t premeditated and therefore not a death penalty crime.

Graham’s crime was somewhat similar; within a few months of the murder Foster committed, he killed a prison guard with an ax. He claimed insanity by way of defense.

The pair’s public execution was attended by thousands. In the atmosphere of “noise, confusion, drunkenness and disorder,” one attendee, a Mr. Sullivan Sweet, was accidentally trampled to death. Many more Ohio men would face the death penalty in coming years, but Ohio’s next execution of a woman would not be until almost a century later, with the electrocution of serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn in 1938.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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1942: Icchok Malmed

3 comments February 8th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, Icchok Malmed* was hanged on Kupiecka Street in the Bialystok Ghetto for throwing acid in a Nazi’s face and blinding him.

Zchor tells the story:

When the Nazis attacked the house at 29 Kupiecka Street, rounding up all of its residents into the street, a bold young man, Izchok Malmed, whipped out a jar of acid from his pocket, hurling it in the face of a Nazi soldier, who was blinded at once. Seeking revenge, the sightless Nazi fired his revolver several times, hitting another Nazi soldier and instantly killing him. In the melee, Malmed vanished.

Commandant Friedl, after learning what had happened, ordered that one hundred men, women and children living in the area where the incident occurred be rounded up and force-marched to a nearby garden, where they were lined up against the wall of an adjacent bet hamidrash and shot with machine guns.

Afterward Nazi soldiers captured another group of Jews, forcing them to dig a large pit for the bodies of the one hundred martyrs. A thin layer of earth covered them. Some were still alive, their hands groping upward through the earth.

The Nazi soldier accidentally shot by his colleague whom Malmed had blinded was carried to the Judenrat building, and his body was placed on [Judenrat Chairman Efraim] Barasz’s desk. Friedl then proclaimed to Barasz, “See what your Jewish criminals have done. Now we shall take revenge. You shall see what we can do.” Friedl issued an ultimatum for the perpetrator of the crime to surrender within twenty-four hours. Failing that, the entire ghetto would be destroyed with everyone in it.

Barasz knew the Nazis meant what they said. He sent word to Malmed to give himself up and thereby save thousands of Jewish lives. As soon as Malmed heard, he surrendered himself to the Nazis.

Tamarof’s diary described in detail Malmed’s courage. Asked why he killed the Nazi soldier, he replied: “I hate you. I regret I only killed one. Before my eyes my parents were murdered. Ten thousand Jews in Slonim were liquidated before me. I have no regrets.” Tamarof tried to slip poison to Malmed but failed. Even the police could not get near the prisoner.

The next morning, Izchok Malmed, a hero of the ghetto, was hanged in the square where he had performed his act of courage. Despite the horrible torture to which he had been subjected, Malmed cursed the Nazi murderers. After several minutes of hanging on the gallows, the rope broke and the body fell to the earth. Instantaneously, the Nazis riddled Malmed’s corpse with bullets and re-hanged the body for another forty-eight hours.

Kupiecka Street was renamed Malmed Street after the war. Near the site of Malmed’s execution is a plaque reading, in Polish and in Hebrew, “Icchok Malmed, the hero and fighter of the Bialystok Ghetto, was killed here by the Nazi murderers on 8 February 1943. In his honor.”

* The Zchor account spells his name “Izchok” but on the memorial plaque it says “Icchok”. It’s a form of the name Isaac.

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1924: The first electrocutions in Texas

4 comments February 8th, 2011 Headsman

There is sweeping over Texas, as never before in her history, a wave of crime. Murder, theft, robbery and holdups are hourly occurrences that fill the daily press. The spirit of lawlessness has become alarming. Our loose method of dealing with violators of the law is in a large degree responsible for the conditions that today confront us.

-Texas Gov. Pat Neff, in a 1921 message to the state legislature.

It was just after midnight on this date in 1924 that the state of Texas first used its new electric chair, supplanting public hangings with a regime of private executions administered by the state.

Five men, all black, died in rapid succession on the new contraption. (Although witnesses, “sickened by the odor of burning flesh that filled the room, were given a brief respite” between the fourth and the fifth executions.) It was a half-year’s worth of backlog built up while the new death chamber had been constructed for the transition from county-level hangings.

Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire chronicles the evolution of that state’s prison regime after the Civil War in lucid, page-turning prose. We’re very grateful that he’s allowed Executed Today to mark the Lone Star State’s era of electrocutions with this brief excerpt from that book.


Although elected as a progressive, Pat Neff was the first Texas governor to make hard-fisted, no-nonsense crime fighting a central part of his political identity.

… Neff proposed tougher penalties for bootleggers, an expansion of the Texas Rangers, and the abolition of the state’s suspended sentencing law, an innovation enacted at the end of leasing. He also radically curtailed executive clemency. …

Walter Boyd, aka Leadbelly, was … caught in Neff’s clutches. “‘Dat man ain’ gonna tu’n you loose, ol’ Walter,'” his fellow convicts told him. “‘He wouldn’ tu’n his own mammy loose.'” … Leadbelly had tried everything but running to regain his freedom. Through hard work on the line, he had convinced a captain to request that his escape record be expunged, which under a different governor would have enhanced his chances of parole. About a year after his arrival at Sugar Land, Leadbelly’s father showed up carrying a “fat roll of bills.” He had sold the family’s last parcel of land and tried, rather brazenly, to buy his only son’s freedom, but the warden turned him down …

[Leadbelly] was well known as a musician. When he heard that Governor Neff was planning a personal inspection, he composed a special song. Neff was “a big, fine-lookin’ man,” he recalled, and “sho was crazy about my singin’ an’ dancin’. Ev’y time I’d sing a new song or cut a few steps he’d roll me a bran-new silver dollar ‘cross the flo'” Once his audience warmed, Leadbelly presented his unusual appeal.

Please, Governor Neff, be good and kind,
Have mercy on my great, long time.

With his boot tapping and strings blazing, the musician hit all the conventional clemency notes. He called himself Neff’s “servant,” pleaded on behalf of his wife Mary (in reality his girlfriend), lamented his thirty-year sentence, and even offered an oblique critique.

Some folks say it’s a sin,
Got too many women and too many men.
… In de pen.

Neff himself remembered the encounter almost as vividly. In his autobiography, The Battles of Peace, he painted the singer as a happy minstrel and himself as the benevolent master. “On one of the farms … was a negro as black as a stack of black cats at midnight,” he wrote. “This negro would pick his banjo, pat his foot, roll his eyes, and show his big white teeth as he caroled forth in negro melody his musical application for a pardon.” In his paternalistic way, the governor was moved, or at least amused. He announced that he would grant the supplicant’s request but in his own time. “Walter, I’m gonna give you a pardon,” Leadbelly remembered Neff telling him, “but I ain’ gonna give it to you now. I’m gonna keep you down here to play for me when I come, but when I get out of office I’m gonna turn you loose.” True to his word, the governor enjoyed Leadbelly’s high-spirited performances on command whenever he visited the lower farms, then set him free on his last day in office.


Lead Belly singing the prison blues song “Midnight Special”.

Few other convicts were as fortunate. Despite the costs to taxpayers, almost a thousand more convicts entered Texas prisons than were allowed to leave during Neff’s four-year reign. Inmates sentenced to death, most of them African Americans and Hispanics convicted of rape or murder, found especially little sympathy. Largely in response to lynching, which the governor condemned, Texas centralized the death penalty in 1923. Previously, every county had carried out its own executions, usually in the form of public hangings. Progressives hoped that by sequestering such events at the Walls, they would discourage mob sentiment and encourage reverence for “the majesty of the law.” But the site and method of execution did not alter its racial dynamics.

Following the lead of New York and other states, lawmakers also ordered prison officials to carry out executions by a new technique, one they perceived as “more modern and humane,” the electric chair. Huntsville officials thus built a new death house, the very same in use today, and by the end of the year a squat, straight-backed throne — soon christened Ol’ Sparky — was ready for operation. Governor Neff wasted little time in authorizing its use.

On a visit to the Walls in January, the governor stopped in to visit with five men he would soon send to their deaths. “A queer feeling creeps over you as you pass the death cell and pause,” he wrote. “They knew, and I realized, that I held within my hand the power to save them from the electric chair. How feeble were words, both theirs and mine, at such a time.” Not long after the governor departed, the men, all of them African American, ranging in age from twenty to thirty-nine, were approved for elimination.

In a dramatic gesture of conscience, Huntsville’s warden, R.F. Coleman, resigned his post only days before. “It just couldn’t be done,” he told reporters. “The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.” But a replacement was quickly found, and the Walls’ inaugural electrocutions went forward as scheduled. At nine minutes after midnight, the first condemned man, Charlie Reynolds, was escorted by two guards into the brightly lit death chamber. He blinked rapidly, reported a witness, was speedily strapped in the chair, and then stiffened violently when the new warden threw the switch. Within the hour, four other men met the same fate.

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1910: George Reynolds and John Williams

Add comment February 8th, 2010 Headsman

At 6:30 this morning a century ago, two black men were hanged in Kansas City, Mo., for raping a white violinist less than seven weeks before.

There was really only one way this case was going to end.

The assault was of such a nature that intense feeling was aroused. Threats of lynching frequently were heard …

Prisoners in the County Jail raised bedlam when the verdict became known. They had previously threatened to lynch the negroes in the exercise room of the jail.

That’s from the Los Angeles Times blog’s roundup of its A.P. coverage from the Show-Me state a century ago — which further reveals George Reynolds and John Williams enjoyed a five-minute jury deliberation, and this vituperative sentence from the judge:

“They don’t even deserve to be classed with the murderer who must pay the penalty for his crime with his life,” continued Judge Latshaw.* “It would be an insult to these men, who had at least a spark of manhood in their hardened souls, to have such brutes as these put in their class. I don’t care to desecrate the day by ordering these two brutes hanged on the legal hanging day.”

(The regular hanging day — Friday — was safely un-desecrated; Reynolds and Williams hanged on a Tuesday.)

Reynolds fainted at the gallows. “Cowardly Brute,” the LA Times headlined it, also mentioning that he’d been starving himself for a week in a desperate bid to cheat the hangman. He maintained his innocence at the last.

* Judge Latshaw presided over a number of high-profile Missouri trials … often acquittals.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Missouri,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA

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1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

11 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without inconveniencing him.

The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.

Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches, the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.

Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by sudden execution — proved insoluble; so, they had to build a little airtight room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.

That little airtight room was used for the first time ever on this date in 1924.

Its occupant was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.

A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from outside the cell.

Good enough for government work.

The gas chamber would win a fair following in the American South and West, notably California.

However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness” — including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners, and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give them a snort of HCNnever matched the dream of the zipless kill, and the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely) much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from the scene in the 1990’s.

Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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