1952: Lennie Jackson and Steve Suchan, of the Boyd Gang

1 comment December 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Steve Suchan and Lennie Jackson were hanged at Toronto’s Don Jail for the murder of a policeman.


Lennie Jackson (top) and Steve Suchan

Both Such and Jackson were members of the Boyd Gang, a swashbuckling troupe of show-stealing bank robbers in post-World War II Toronto … but in the timeless mold of the folk hero outlaws.

Not hanged with them (or ever; he died in British Columbia in 2002) was the gang’s leader and namesake, Edwin Alonzo Boyd.

The wartime commando legendarily launched his stick-up career by robbing a bank so unrecognizably made-up that he was able to walk back in and change a $20 without notice a few days later.

Boyd’s further exploits (and occasional close scrapes: he seemed to have a gift for not getting hit when people shot back at him) plundering banks, and then escaping jail with the cohorts who became the “Boyd Gang” to plunder some more, threw a splash of color across the headlines of staid 1950s Ontario that moved newspapers.

Toronto historian Mike Filey remarked in this CBC documentary

When the Boyd Gang stuck up a bank and it made the front page, people started cheering for them, because it put some excitement in their lives. And of course the interesting thing about Edwin was, if there is such a thing, he was a “good” bad guy.*


More about this movie here

Jackson and Suchan were two of that group who helped author the Boyd Gang’s most notorious larcenies. And they put a screeching halt on the “fun” of the Boyd gang’s crime spree in March 1952 when they shot a Toronto cop dead at a traffic stop.

Suddenly, it wasn’t just the banksters getting hurt. The crooks couldn’t dodge the ensuing manhunt.

But somehow the quartet of criminals locked up in the Don Jail with this murder rap hanging over them actually managed to escape again, hours ahead of their arraignment. It turned out to be the bandits’ last great exploit, worth only a few days of liberty before they were recaptured.

Jackson and Suchan went from trial to gallows — said to be a badly botched hanging — in mere weeks. Boyd and another gang member named Willie Jackson (the two Jacksons weren’t related) drew long prison sentences from which they were paroled in 1966.

Some Books about Edwin Boyd

* Or was he?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Theft

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1401: Klaus Stortebeker, Victual Brother pirate

1 comment October 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1401,* “Victual Brother” Klaus Störtebeker was beheaded in Hamburg.

Statue of Klaus Stortebeker. (cc) image from blariog

This legendary freebooter terrorized the Hanseatic League‘s trading channels from Novgorod to London in the 1390s.

He was the most famous of a company of privateers who’d been hired out in 1392 to place their thumb on the scale of Scandinavian dynastic politics** — notably, supplying Stockholm during a siege, from which service they obtained† the nickname Victual Brothers. It stuck, even when operations had moved far beyond the larder.

In the mid-1390s, the “brothers” turned against Danes and Hanse alike, raiding coasts and plundering sea trade.

Klaus, the most famous of them, is still remembered today “like Che Guevara, a freedom fighter, but also like Robin Hood, because he fights the rich in the name of the poor”:‡ folk hero-outlaws, men of the pirate utopia.

Whatever debunking that legend might invite, its existence speaks to that timeless romance of the road. And then there’s that kernel of truth, or so one hopes: after Stortebeker’s death, the remnants would persist as the Likedeelers, “those who share equally.”

The buccaneer’s end, after capture by Simon of Utrecht, was equally legendary: he’s supposed to have made a scaffold pact with the headsman to spare any of his mates he could walk past once decapitated.

Rising from the chop like St. Denis, the headless trunk of Stortebeker lurched past 11 of them before the executioner himself tripped it up. (In the most embroidered version of this story, Hamburg not only didn’t honor the promise, it executed the executioner when all was said and done. But we’re pretty comfortable saying that once we reach the headless zombie pirate part of the story, the reader has carte blanche to rewrite anything not to liking.)


Störtebeker 2.teil part 11 / 11 – MyVideo

Drink up me hearties yo ho! “Stortebeker” itself just means, “quaff the mug.”

Klaus Störtebecker is our master
advised by Godeke Michels!
Shoot through the waves like storm, just faster
The Flying Dutchman’s godfather
Gaffer is the ships goblin
Let’s tackle, crew!
Life is bauble!
We are the hell of Helgoland

Our bloody flag is cracking the mast
Rats scurrying on the floor
A skeleton is our guest
On the sail there are strange shadows
The mermaid is swimming in our wake
Laugh, crew!
Life is bauble!
Still ruling is the hell of Helgoland

And when our ship makes its last run
Laugh while like a coffin she goes down
We die an ancient pirate’s way
Today we fight, tomorrow we drown
In green algae and white sand
Land ho, crew, land!
Life is bauble!
Such dies the hell of Helgoland

-Folk song honoring Klaus Stortebeker
(translated here)

* As often for events at this distance of time, the dates are a little bit shaky; 1400, rather than 1401, has been proposed for the actual year of Stortebeker’s execution; October 21 rather than October 20 is also given on some sites. Folklore more so than almanac blogs has the luxury of indifference to such particulars.

** The Victual Brothers were initially retained to oppose the adroit Danish Queen Margaret. She would face (and brush aside) even weirder challenges to her rule en route to lashing together the Kalmar Union under Danish regional hegemony.

Alternate explanation: food-based euphemisms for piracy trace to armies’ victual officers, and their unscrupulous methods of filling the mess hall.

‡ In a continuing spirit of democratic larceny — or as a gang symbol for the local Hell’s Angels, whatever — our man’s alleged skull was stolen from a Hamburg museum earlier this year.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanseatic League,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Outlaws,Pelf,Pirates,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1652: Captain James Hind, royalist highwayman

1 comment September 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1652, James Hind, a highwayman who preyed on Roundheads, was drawn and quartered for treason.

Famed throughout the realm for his dashing heists on the roads, Hind was the subject of no less than 16 printed pamphlets of the nascent popular press in the early 1650’s, which magnified brigand’s feats, oratory and persona into a sort of populist Cavalier superhero: Marvel Comics for the woodcut age.

The highlights of Hind’s adventures receive rapturous attention from the Newgate Chronicles:

  • Setting upon Oliver Cromwell shortly after the execution of Charles I, his partner Thomas Allen being taken in the affray;

  • An amusing duel of Biblical citations while robbing regicide Hugh Peters, resolved in the characteristic manner of such impasses by reference to which disputant holds the gun.

    “Pray, sir, make no reflections on my profession; for Solomon plainly says, ‘Do not despise a thief'; but it is to little purpose for us to dispute. The substance of what I have to say is this: deliver thy money presently, or else I shall send thee out of the world to thy master in an instant.”

  • Any number of pleasing episodes with lesser personages suitable for the gallant highwayman — ladies charmed but un-pillaged, paupers subsidized, and always, wicked Parliamentarians chastened. Several excellent Hind anecdotes are gathered by Gillian Spraggs here.

As to the veracity of this stuff, the Captain himself suggests a pinch of caution.

A Gentleman or two, desired so much favour of [the gaoler], as to aske Mr. Hind a civil question; which was granted. So pulling two books out of his pocket, the one entituled, Hind’s Ramble, The other Hind’s Exploits, asked him whether he had ever seen them or not: He answered, yes; And said upon the word of a Christian, they were fictions: But some merry Pranks and Revels I have plaid, that I deny not.

But Hind’s adherence to the Stuart cause was real enough, or at any rate something he had the 17th century media savvy to play up. At his execution, he professed pleasure in having targeted Roundheads for most of his crimes, and it was not theft that saw him to the scaffold, but treason. He made free royalist talk upon his arrest, proposing a toast to the exiled king that otherwise sympathetic guests were too cautious to take up.

Hind fits symbolically into the tradition of the romantic outlaw of Robin Hood stock, and anticipates the 18th century rogues’ gallery of noble brigands fighting a doomed rearguard against capitalism. Hind’s acts, criminal by any standard, are justified by the illegitimacy of the society he preys upon; he embodies at once a social and political rejection of the nascent mercantile England, and a biographical realization of its actuating mythos — personal aptitude and acquisition,* with a cover story for why his victims had it coming.

Neither did I ever wrong any poor man of the worth of a penny: but I must confess, I have (when I have been necessitated thereto) made bold with a rich Bompkin, or a lying Lawyer, whose full-fed fees from the rich Farmer, doth too too much impoverish the poor cottage-keeper: And truly I could wish, that thing were as little used in England amongst Lawyers, as the eating of Swines-flesh was amongst the Jews.

A dead-end position — just like James Hind himself.

* In a supposed rhapsody over gold forced from the hand of John Bradshaw — yet another regicide; Hind seemingly met them at every turn — our robber rather has his cake and eats it too in extolling and condemning lucre.

Ay, marry, sir, this is the metal that wins my heart for ever. Oh! precious gold, I admire thee as much as Bradshaw, Prynne or other such villains, who would for the sake of it sell our Redeemer again, were He now upon earth.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Notable for their Victims,Outlaws,Public Executions,Treason

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1881: Not Billy the Kid

6 comments May 13th, 2008 Headsman

“You will be hanged by the neck, Billy, until you are dead, dead, dead!”

“You can go, Judge, to hell, hell, hell!”

We have no source for whether William Bonney’s reply to the judge who sentenced him to hang was vindicated by the Almighty. But the judge’s sentence, due to be executed this day, assuredly never came to pass: two weeks before, Billy the Kid effected the last of his famous escapes.

The exploits of this legendary gunfighter — and his legend rather exceeds his exploits — are exhaustively chronicled online. The Manhattan-born Kid, a pup of 21 at his death, was a gunfighter in the Lincoln County War, a fight between two frontier magnates. Billy counted himself among the Regulators, a deputized posse (so it claimed, by way of legality) that was the armed militia of a murdered rancher.

Billy’s winning way with the press after his capture helped endear him to popular imagination, even after he was condemned in Mesilla, New Mexico for ambushing a lawman.

Here’s how Emilio Estevez played the crime in Young Guns:

On April 28, in a building that still stands in Lincoln, New Mexico, Bonney got the drop on one of his guards and high-tailed it out of town.

Though spared the ignominy of the gallows, Billy the Kid would not long outlive his judicially appointed hour. Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett found and killed the fugitive a few months later.

Ironically, this transaction darkened the reputation of the successful officer of the law — the circumstances of the killing were ambiguous, and seem less than honorable to some — while helping valorize the young outlaw who by all rights should long since have been at the end of a rope. And for this, maybe Billy’s shade has stood Garrett’s a drink or two, because a shadowy and youthful disappearance from the scene helped catapult Billy into folklore that has long outlasted the forgotten Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid — even the name evokes the American self-image with perfect pitch — has come to so fully embody the floating signifiers of the Wild West, of America in its adolescence, that around the same time Bob Dylan composed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the clip above (the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Billy Joel took the gunslinger for an all-purpose western motif in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. Joel’s song’s describes a life that seems to be just what the listener thinks it ought to be while remaining factually untrue of its titular character in almost every particular, including, in his version, a picturesque death by hanging:

The ballad form of romanticized narrative poetry suits our elusive subject well. Skip music and cinema a generation ahead and we have Guns n’ Roses covering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and power balladeer par excellence Jon Bon Jovi climbing the charts with this signature hit from the Young Guns II soundtrack:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Famous,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,New Mexico,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA

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