1905: Elisabeth Wiese, the angel-maker of St. Pauli

2 comments February 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1905, “baby farmer” Elisabeth Wiese was beheaded in Hamburg.

In a luridly reported case “revolting in the extreme, proving the woman to be a monster of iniquity” Wiese stepped into a quintessential fin de siecle moral panic as a former convict whose larcenous past had forced her trade away from the legitimate field of midwifery towards the more shady precincts of mercenary fostering.

From scandal-averse single mothers in England as well as Germany, she collected children with maintenance fees running to US $1,000 plus a hush-money surcharge tacked on. For this donative, she represented a capacity to distribute these whelps to willing adoptive families: in reality, most of them she disposed of with morphine. (As an added inflammation to public opinion, she had also forced her own illegitimate daughter into prostitution; Paula, whose own infant was among Wiese’s victims, repaid that ill turn by appearing as a witness against her mother.)

When Wiese fell under suspicion, the neighbors’ reports of her kitchen glowing like hellfire and belching revolting stenches led police to the remains of these little ones burnt up in her stove.

Condemned for five murders — it’s thought that the true count must have run much higher — Wiese is known as the “angel-maker of St. Pauli” after the suburb where she plied her trade.

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1573: Hans von Erschausen, Seeräuber

Add comment September 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg beheaded the Seeräuber Hans von Erschausen with his crew, leaving naught but a vast row of pike-mounted heads and some excellent woodcuts.

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1943: France Bloch-Serazin, bombmaker

Add comment February 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1943, French resistance heroine France Bloch-Serazin was executed by the Germans in Hamburg.

Bloch-Serazin English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Jewish Communist who had supported the Spanish Republican cause, so she was right in line for some official persecution after the Germans blitzed France.

No longer employable as a chemist, she put her training to good use manufacturing explosives in her apartment. (Today, a plaque in the 19th arrondissement marks the building.)

Arrested by French police on May 16, 1942, she was condemned to death by a German military court but deported to Germany to suffer that punishment. Her husband, Fredo Serazin, was subsequently murdered by the Gestapo in prison.

As France Bloch-Serazin was born in 1913, she has recently enjoyed a renewed appreciation around the centennial of her birth, including the homage (French link) of her native city of Poitiers.

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1945: The children of Bullenhuser Damm

4 comments April 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, as Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday within a Red Army cordon, one of the Second World War’s more tear-jerking little crimes against humanity happened in Hamburg.

Bullenhuser Dammstill to be found today — was a former Hamburg school which fell out of use as World War II progressed, owing to the devastation Allied bombings wrought on the surrounding area.

The school itself sustained little damage, however, which eventually facilitated its appropriation as a satellite building for the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp.

Over at Neuengamme, the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer had been conducting a litany of horror medical experiments on 20 Jewish children — mostly from Poland — culled from the concentration camps, seeking medical evidence for Nazi racial theories further to a cushy professorship. But as April 1945 was obviously endgame for the Third Reich, thoughts naturally turned to disposing of evidence of indictable offenses.


Photos of the eventual Bullenhuser Damm victims showing their surgical scars after Heissmeyer injected them with tuberculosis.

Bullenhuser Damm was just the place for disposal.

On April 20, the 20 kids were loaded up on trucks with their four adult caretakers — two French, two Dutch — plus six Soviet prisoners of war.

At Bullenhuser Damm, the kids were parked in a room and hung out, blissfully ignorant of their danger. “They had all their things with them — some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc,” physician Alfred Trzebinski later recalled at his own trial. “They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”

In the next room, the 10 adults were being hanged.

According to Admitting the Holocaust, Trzebinski was impressed with his own compassionate use of this bit of down time: he generously gave the children morphine shots to sedate them before their own executions. Or rather, their murders … since the doctor could not but agree that “you cannot execute children, you can only murder them.”

I must say that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake — the others were already sleeping … Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten. (Trzebinski, again)

The other 19 children were disposed of in like manner, and then all 30 corpses cremated overnight … just in time for what must have been a much-needed 5 a.m. coffee.

After the war, the facility went back to use as an actual (creepy!) school, but it was eventually renamed Janusz Korczak School, for a Polish-Jewish educator gassed with his young charges at Treblinka. There’s a permanent exhibition (German) at the site, as well as a memorial rose garden with a variety of plaques commemorating the victims of Bullenhuser Damm.

Trzebinski’s take on his conduct this horrible night might have been good enough for his conscience, but it didn’t pass muster with his judges: he was hanged on a war crimes rap prominently including Bullenhuser Damm on October 8, 1946. Kurt Heissmeyer, however, avoided detection until 1959 and only received a long prison sentence in 1966, shortly before his death.

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1942: Helmuth Huebener, Mormon anti-Nazi

3 comments October 27th, 2012 Headsman


Poster announces Helmut Hubener’s execution.

On this date in 1942, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener was executed at Plotzensee Prison for listening to the BBC.

Huebener was a Mormon youth with the political perspicacity to abhor fascism from a very young age: the former Boy Scout (Mormons really take to scouting) ditched the Hitler Youth after Kristallnacht, which happened when Huebener was only 10 years old.

As Germany forged ahead towards worse horrors in the years, conscientious people of all ages had moral dilemmas to resolve. Mormons in Nazi Germany weren’t persecuted per se and to keep it that way that small community generally kept its head judiciously down.

Not Huebener.

Horrified by the privations of their Jewish neighbors, Huebener with fellow Mormon teens Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe began illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using the material to compose anti-fascist pamphlets for distribution around Hamburg.

Themes like Germany’s coming defeat (a Huebener circle favorite) never went over well with the authorities; a 1939 law decreed that “Whoever willfully distributes the broadcasts of foreign stations which are designed to endanger the strength of resistance of the German people will, in particularly severe cases, be punished with death.”

Huebener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were judged only sufficiently severe for hard labor sentences; both survived the war but have since died. Huebener as the ringleader got the death penalty. (The local Mormon congregation expediently excommunicated him, a judgment later reversed from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.) And clearly Huebener was failing to “support the troops”, in the present-day parlance: his own older brother Gerhard had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and was away at the front.

“My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong,” young Helmuth wrote shortly before his beheading. “I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”

The Latter-Day Saints church, not usually thought of as a hive of anti-authority activity, has only gradually warmed up to celebrating its appealing young resistance martyr.

In addition to a number of books, Huebener is the subject of the documentary Truth & Conviction as well as the forthcoming feature film Truth & Treason.

A few books about Helmuth Huebener

Three Against Hitler and When Truth Was Treason were written by Huebener’s un-executed confederates.

Novels inspired by Helmuth Huebener

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1945: The women of the Endphaseverbrechen at Neuengamme

1 comment April 21st, 2012 Headsman

On the night of April 21, 1945 (possibly verging into April 22), 12 women political prisoners were hanged at Hamburg’s Neuengamme concentration camp.

This forced labor camp had its own nasty history during the war, including medical experiments on children that would get the camp doctor hanged after the war. Those unfortunates had just been disposed of the day before.

It was in the spirit of disposing that Neuengamme on April 21 received 71 political prisoners from the Fühlsbüttel prison/satellite camp. This site, one of the very first concentration camps in Germany, was being emptied out (as Neuengamme also soon would be) with the approach of Allied forces from the west: many Fühlsbüttel prisoners were released outright, while several hundred were sent on a death march to another camp.

These special 71, who weren’t especially major antifascists and hadn’t been convicted of anything, thought their transfer to Neuengamme was just a halfway house to their own release — whether directly by the Germans, or via the imminent arrival of Germany’s foes.

All were elated. They showed each other pictures of their husbands and children (Erika Etter did not know that her husband had been executed), made their clothes as nice as possible. Erika, the youngest, wore white knee socks and borrowed lipstick, with her pretty hair down. (From the German Wikipedia page about these killings)

They were in for an unpleasant surprise: although Nazi Germany was going down, there were elements within it still looking to cripple the Left of whatever would emerge postwar. These 71 people — 58 men and 13 women — were communists, or White Rose activists, or other ideological foes whom the camp bureaucracy had tagged as “non-transferrable” elements.

Annemarie Ladewig, a young artist who’d been booted from the academy due to a partial Jewish ancestry, painted this watercolor of a dancer. (More.) Ladewig’s brother and father were among the 58 male political prisoners killed at Neuengamme over the next few days.

They were eliminated over the period from April 21 through April 24.

The women were the first to be put to death on this night, hanged naked in two groups of six. Either the aforementioned Erika Etter or else the actress Hanne Mertens (German link) was killed separately; the other was hanged, along with these eleven (all links below are to German Wikipedia pages):

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1686: A man and a woman broken on the wheel in Hamburg

1 comment March 22nd, 2012 Headsman

The New York Times of Dec. 30, 1900 provides this date’s entry, featuring the unusual scene of a woman being broken on the wheel.


In the diary of that remarkable man, Gen. Patrick Gordon, who left Scotland in 1651 a poor, unfriended wanderer, and, when he died, in 1699, had his eyes closed by the affectionate hands of his sorrowing master, the Czar Peter the Great, the following entry is to be found, under date Hamburg, March 22, 1686:

This day, a man and a woman, a burgher of the towne being the womans master, for murthering, were carted from the prisone to the house where the murder was committed; and there before this house, with hotte pinsers, the flesh was torren out of their armes, and from thence were carted to the place of justice without the towne, and there broken and layed on wheeles.


Executions by breaking wheel: early 18th century engraving. (Source: Wikipedia).

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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.

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1945: Heinz Eck, U-Boat commander

5 comments November 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Heinz-Wilhelm Eck and two of his former subordinates on the Unterseeboot U-852 were shot in Hamburg for killing the survivors of a sunk target.


The defendants in the U-852 trial. From left to right: Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Lenz, Wolfgang Schwender. The leftmost three were executed.

On March 13, 1944, in the South Atlantic en route to the Indian Ocean, U-852 torpedoed the Greek-flagged Peleus.

The submarine commander Eck feared the steamer’s debris would be observed by a passing airplane, and give enough information to Allied reconnaissance to enable it to find his ship. He therefore surfaced and attempted to have the debris field eliminated by machine-gunning and grenading it into the watery deep.

This seems a rather curious expedient, but evidently it was a common one.

U-Boat ace Adalbert Schnee was called (German link) to testify that blasting away at ship wreckage actually was an effective practice. But on prosecution’s cross-examination, Schnee was deftly trapped — lest he incriminate himself in a potential war crime — into disavowing (pdf) the killing of survivors who happened to be clinging to that debris.*

Q. What would you have done if you had been in Eck’s position?

A. I would under all circumstances have tried my best to save lives, as that is a measure which was taken by all U-boat commanders; but when I hear of this case, then I can only explain it as this, that Captain Eck, through the terrific experience he had been through, lost his nerve.

Q. Does that mean that you would not have done what Captain Eck did if you had kept your nerve?

A. I would not have done it.

Survivors of torpedo attacks usually had problems enough without the sub crew taking pains to attack them. Eck claimed that he worried that the survivors’ rafts might have communications equipment that would call out the sub-hunters tout de suite, but a standing German directive forbade U-boat captains assisting their prey.

No attempt of any kind should be made at rescuing members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats and handing over food and water. Rescue runs counter to the rudimentary demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews … Be harsh, having in mind that the enemy takes no regard of women and children in his bombing attacks of German cities.

An unpleasant reality of sub warfare, as depicted in the classic submarine film Das Boot:

But in this case, some of the Peleus crew managed to survive the mop-up operation, and then the open ocean, long enough to tell their tale.

The British military tribunal sentenced Eck to death, his plea of “operational necessity” (i.e., “I had to shoot the survivors to sink the debris to save my ship”) rejected; also condemned were the ship’s doctor Walter Weisspfennig, who wasn’t supposed to be involved in gunplay at all, and August Hoffmann. Both of them had taken the “only following [Eck’s] orders” line.

Hans Lenz, who had opposed Eck’s order but ultimately complied with it, drew a life sentence. Wolfgang Schwender, who seems to have shot generally at debris but not (he said) at human beings, and then got bumped off his gun by the reluctant Lenz, got off the easiest at 15 years.

Despite the predictable “victor’s justice” dynamic — American and British sub personnel, and even Japanese I-boat officers, evidently skated on similar conduct — Eck was the only U-boat commander in World War II to draw a war crimes conviction. That was surely due in part to the overwhelming majority of them having simply failed to survive the perilous undersea campaign long enough to see the inside of a war crimes court.

* Part of the past-is-prologue contest for this case was the World War I sinking of the Llandovery Castle by a German submarine, which had then proceeded to hunt down the lifeboats. It resulted in (non-death penalty) war crimes convictions for some of the U-boat officers involved. The existence of this precedent helped to defeat the “superior orders” defense of the junior officers, since they could be held to have known that Eck’s command was illegal.

Part of the Daily Double: Lesser War Criminals.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Germany,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1945: Max Schlichting, for realism

4 comments March 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, a Hamburg coal worker was executed for an excessively realistic take on the war effort.

Although — or because — Germany’s administrative infrastructure was falling apart under the Allied onslaught late in World War II, its judiciary had no compunction about doling out death sentences.

While the overall number of cases dealt with by most special courts was much lower than in previous years, due to the gradual collapse of the court system, in these last months of the war some judges passed proportionally more death sentences than ever before. Legal officials continued to justify their brutal sentencing by claiming that this would prevent another ‘stab in the back’.

In other words: Clap louder!

Poor Max Schlichting, a coal worker with an unfortunate communist past, was sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung — “subversion” or “undermining the war effort,” the same thing they got Remarque’s sister on.

Specifically: he remarked to a soldier, in the aftermath of the American landing at Normandy, that Germany was going to lose the war. An undercover Gestapo spy overheard him.

Although hard evidence of Germany’s situation (German link) would have been difficult for a Hamburger to overlook, Schlichting received no clemency and was executed — six weeks before Hamburg surrendered to the Allies.

His sentence and (banal) last letter are recounted here, in German.

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