1736: Herry Moses, Jewish gangster

Add comment October 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1736, a Jewish gangster named Herry Moses was hanged as a highwayman at Vlaardingen, Netherlands.

Our source for Moses is Florike Egmond’s “Crime in Context: Jewish Involvement in Organized Crime in the Dutch Republic” from Jewish History, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1989) — for whom Moses forms an window into the criminal life of Netherlands Jews. According to Egmond, Moses hailed from Frankfurt am Main, then an imperial Free City. He had no property or station, and spent the first decades of his life as a wandering beggar, a tinker, and one might guess a petty thief where the opportunity arose.

By 1723, when Moses was around 37 years old, he had washed up in the Dutch Republic — one of many Jews who had migrated to that more tolerant climate from Germany and points east.

In the Low Countries, these arrivistes filled many niches but one of the most noticeable was a burgeoning network of Jewish criminal gangs; per Egmond, in this period “between one-half and two-thirds of all Ashkenazim convicted of burglaries, theft, or robberies had been born outside the Dutch Republic.” The documentary record is far from thorough, but court cases suggest to Egmond the emergence of a small Jewish underground in the mid-17th century following the Thirty Years War, which was bolstered by subsequent immigration waves.

Jews filled plenty of more legitimate places too, of course — and we notice how diligently free of moral panic is the court that handles this minority outlaw. But the Dutch Republic endured in this period the decline of her former trading preeminence, and for the glut of new arrivals — who were sometimes legislated out of certain protected economic spheres — less legitimate occupations could not help but appeal.

Jewish gangs were accordingly quite prominent among the robbers and cutthroats prowling the roads; among other things, they were noteworthy for their willingness to raid churches, which Christian gangs tended to shy from attacking.

Similar “names, geographical background, occupation, travels, meeting places, and variable associations” populate the identifiable records of Jewish criminals, in Egmond’s words. They “were Ashkenazim, most of them poor, and a large majority were first-generation immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe.” Just as with Herry Moses.

So far as I have been able to tell, the annals do not supply us with the why in his strange story … which only deepens the intrigue of the what. Egmond:

In 1735 Herry Moses, alias Abraham Mordechai or Hessel Markus, confessed to a crime he did not commit. According to his version of the story, he murdered a Roman Catholic priest in his house in the Dutch town of Weesp and robbed him of aboug 3,000 guilders. The murder and theft were real enough, and a less scrupulous court than the schepenbank of Weesp (a high jurisdiction some twenty kilometers east of Amsterdam) might have sentenced Herry Moses to death on the strength of his confession alone. Adhering strictly to criminal procedure and confronted with some slight inconsistencies in Moses’ confession, the court tried to obtain more information. Could Moses have murdered the priest, as he declared, when standing behind the bedstead? (There was no room for a man to stand there.) Was he lying when he denounced several Jews and a Christian as his accomplices in both the murder and a burglary at The Hague? His descriptions proved accurate enough to track down some of these men and arrest them in different parts of the Netherlands, but they denied any involvement in the crimes and told the court that they did not even know their accuser. They were eventually released.

Herry Moses was interrogated a number of times during 1734 and most of 1735. Lengthy questioning yielded more detail and added more inconsistencies, but Moses continued to stand by his confession. The court, by now convinced of his innocence, saw no other solution than to torture him — not to obtain a confession but to have him retract it. Moses still did not oblige. The case was subsequently sent to a higher court (the Hof van Holland), which shared the doubts of the local court. Finally, at the end of 1735, Herry Moses was sentenced to whipping, branding, and banishment for life from the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, on account of his false accusations and his contempt for justice in general. Shortly before Herry’s sentencing — after he had been in prison for well over a year — the priest’s housekeeper and her husband confessed to having murdered the priest as well as the woman’s first husband. Both of them were sentenced to death.

As could be expected, Herry disappeared from sight after receiving his sentence, until September 1736, when he again stood trial in a Dutch criminal court. This time, there was no doubt about the indictment or the evidence. Passersby had caught him and his two accomplices in the act of attempting to strangle and rob a woman on a country road near Rotterdam. They arrived in time to save the woman’s life. Herry Moses was sentenced to death, and on 5 October 1736 was hanged at Vlaardingen.

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1883: Ah Yung

Add comment August 16th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1883, Chinese immigrant Ah Yung, aka Ah Kee, was hanged in Missoula, Montana.

As Tom D. Donovan notes in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, his execution had three distinctions:

  • The first (of nine) legal executions in Missoula County;
  • The first Chinese person hanged in Montana;
  • The quickest reported hanging, with death declared in only a minute and a half.

Ah Yung was condemned for the January 29, 1883 murder of Chung Yu, the paymaster of the Wing See Company.

However, the authorities believed his murder was the least of Ah’s crimes; he was suspected of killing no fewer than seventeen people, two whites and fifteen Chinese.

Ah Yung shot and killed Chung Yu and wounded another man during a botched robbery, then fled the scene. The authorities offered a $400 reward for his arrest, and he was captured a month after the murder at Frenchtown, Montana. But, as Donovan records, “because of some bizarre reason, there was a question whether or not the reward was going to be paid for his captor released the prisoner.”

Fortunately, the murderer remained free for only a few days and didn’t have the opportunity to commit any more crimes before he was captured again, and this time sent to jail in the newly incorporated city of Missoula.

Chinese immigrants, especially drawn by gold strikes,* were a sizable constituent in frontier Montana as throughout the American West. A Montana travelogue in the Nov. 25, 1882 Utah Salt Lake Tribune

“Gangs of Chinamen clearing away the forest and underbrush … laboring with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.” This was the Northern Pacific then under frenetic construction through forbidding Rocky Mountain terrain in subzero temperatures. In Missoula itself, “Celestials” were “numerous enough to form a Chinese quarter. They have an eye to business, and where you find a live, busy camp or town in this remote region, there, too, you find the inevitable Chinaman.”

A Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest attempted to offer pastoral counsel to the condemned man, only to discover that he was utterly ignorant of religion. Pressed to confess, Ah Yung refused and kept repeating, “Me no kill him,” — a statement he held to his dying moments.

* Welcomed initially, the Chinese were an increasingly contentious presence in Montana (and elsewhere) in the 1880s. Still, there were over a hundred independent Chinese mining operations known in Montana at this time.

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1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

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1833: Antoine LeBlanc, billfolded

Add comment September 6th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1833, Antoine le Blanc was hanged on the Morristown (N.J.) village green.

A cigar-chomping French immigrant, LeBlanc came to the New World to seek his fortune and found himself doing grueling farm work for Samuel and Sarah Sayre in exchange for a dank basement room but no pay.

After just a couple of weeks in this unsatisfactory situation, LeBlanc clobbered Samuel Sayre with a spade … and then did the same to Sarah Sayre … and then killed their infant child. Stuffing all the portable valuables he could find into pillowcase sacks, he hopped on a horse and fled for New York, hoping to pawn his booty for passage back to Europe.

Like an inept Scooby-Doo villain, LeBlanc in his haste managed to dribble a trail of the Sayres’ goods on the road, and these helped his pursuers corner him in the Meadowlands — an incriminating parcel of his ill-gotten gains right there beside him.

The trial was a mere formality. The execution on an upward-jerking gallows drew an excited crowd several times the 2,500 souls residing in Morristown itself.

And then, it really gets creepy.

LeBlanc was condemned to post-execution medical anatomization, and the good doctors of Morristown took that as license for every posthumous indignity in the 19th century book. First, the late LeBlanc got a course of electrical shocks — a popular corpse experiment of the day whose object was discovering a means of reanimation but whose consequence was merely a ghoulish danse macabre of senseless, jerking limbs as each jolt charged the putrefying flesh.

When they’d had their fill of zombie Antoine LeBlanc, they skinned the murderer and sent his hide off to be made into wallets and book covers which then got hawked to Morristown’s finest citizens. That sounds like an urban legend, but scroll down this page for the pictures: some of these objects have made it to museums, but it’s thought that others persist in private collections, handed down over the generations or just stashed away forgotten until they can emerge for a starring role on Antiques Roadshow.

Apparently the old Sayre house (significantly rebuilt after a 1957 fire) still stands in Morristown … and it’s haunted by LeBlanc and his last victim, the baby Phoebe.


The always wonderful Murder By Gaslight blog

The New Jersey Hall of Shame (this is the link with the LeBlancskin wallet pictures)

Weird New Jersey

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1831: John Bishop and Thomas Head, the London Burkers

9 comments December 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1831, two of the “London Burkers” hanged for murdering a child to sell his body to anatomy schools for dissection.

It was one of the city’s most infamous crimes, touching explosive resentments among Londoners for the vampiric trade in human cadavers ultimately demanded by medical students. Thirty thousand packed the streets around Newgate Prison to send this date’s hated offenders on to the hereafter.

As the gang’s nickname indicates, it closely followed the similar affair of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. (“Burking” had immediately come to mean “killing someone for their marketable cadaver”, a shadowy underworld phenomenon that was in need of a catchy name.) But although William Burke made the OED, it was the London Burkers who most directly triggered the legislation to reform the anatomy business.

Historian Sarah Wise wrote the acclaimed book about this case, The Italian Boy. Executed Today is thrilled to interview her on this 180th anniversary of the London Burkers’ deaths.

The Italian Boy purchase links for Anglophones

Book CoverET: Let’s begin with the title of your book, The Italian Boy — an allusion to the victim in the case. Who was this youth, how did he come to be in London, and what did the city look like to a penniless foreign child in 1830?

SW: Well the book is less a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘who-was-it-done-to’. The identity of that particular victim was never fully established. But, as still happens today in murder cases, some types of victim seem to have more appeal than others, and rumour that a little Italian beggar boy was missing from his usual pitches snowballed into a situation where even the courts, police and newspapers were accepting it as fact that it was his body that had been delivered to an anatomist. The final chapter of my book goes into why this might not have been so.

The ‘Italian Boy trade’ was a racket, whereby traffickers paid poor peasant parents, worried about what future they could offer their children, and took charge of the child, walked them north to the wealthy cities of northern Europe, and got them exhibiting small animals or plaster images around the streets, in the hope of being thrown a penny or two. Huge sums could be obtained in this way, but needless to say, the children themselves saw little of this. [There’s an 1872 New York Times article describing the trade into North America here. -ed]

I was fascinated by the warmth shown to these kids in what was otherwise a pretty mean city. This really is the London of Oliver Twist — dark, filthy, with all sorts of Fagin types (and much worse) around. Child vagrancy (as with adult vagrancy) was all too common and yet there were practically no public or civic bodies to offer any help; the idea of hordes of kids sleeping rough is just extraordinary, but that’s how London was right up until the end of the 19th-century.

But Londoners loved these attractive, exotic-looking little Italian waifs, and would also defend other types of beggars if anyone appeared to be hassling them. Ordinary city-dwellers seemed to me, in reading the primary source material, to be a lot less withdrawn and in their own little world than we city-dwellers are today, and seemed to show more class, or social, solidarity.

And how about the killers? What’s their own background, and how do they get into the business of killing people to sell the bodies?

One of the killers, John Bishop, came from a good, solid, small-business background, having been bequeathed a successful carting company. He drank away the family firm, and then turned to the related trade of bodysnatching — there was often a close connection between those involved in city transport and those who needed to move their very questionable goods around surreptitiously. Both trades had the pubs in the street called Old Bailey as their headquarters.

The other killer, Thomas Head, aka Williams, was younger and harder to find out about. He was said to have come from a very poor but honest home, and his parents were devastated when he began to go off the rails in his adolescence, firstly petty-thieving, and then moving on to the less petty-thieving of grave robbery.

I’ve touched a bit elsewhere on the site on the underlying dynamic at work: more demand for medical cadavers than was being met by the gallows. Do we have a sense at this time, after the Burke execution, what proportion of those extra cadavers were being provided by resurrectionists? And how many might have been provided by outright homicide?

Numerical estimates vary hugely for every aspect of this subject. In terms of the sheer volume of bodies medical students were getting through, the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy canvassed many opinions, and came up with the hugely divergent total of between 500 and 1,000 in a year — the ideal being three bodies per student, with each student completing a 16-month surgical and dissection training. The Select Committee suggested that on average, the Resurrection Men were supplying around 500 to 550 corpses a year — by one means or another. But all these stats should be used with caution.

As for grave robbery: it was all highly surreptitious, as you would expect — there is no great documentary source to turn to, and so we have only scraps of rumour and hearsay. John Bishop, one of the Italian Boy murderers, is said to have ‘lifted’ between 500 and 1,000 corpses in his career, which lasted from 1818 to 1831. That is a huge differential and there is no way of checking whether the lower or higher number is the more likely. Someone shouted at Bishop, in the Old Bailey cells, ‘You’re a bloody murdering bastard, and you should have been topped [hanged] years ago!’, which suggests that the Italian Boy killing was not his first.

Image of a burking, from a broadside on the London Burkers among a book full of street literature here.

As we know, only around twelve people a year were executed for murder in England in these years — people executed for other crimes were not sent to the anatomists. My guess is that many folks who died in public hospitals or workhouses were anatomised, but that this was a highly secret matter and went on illegally. The other main sources of corpses, to make up the shortfall, will have been corrupt undertakers, church sextons and gravediggers. I suspect many coffins in London graveyards were filled with nothing more than brick or earth. As the 1820s wore on, actual exhumations are likely to have declined in favour of more simple ‘sneak-thieving’, with insiders giving the tip-off about where a recently deceased body was likely to be found.

One more ‘statistic’ for you: in a plea bargain attempt during the Italian Boy case, the police placed in front of one prolific bodysnatcher a list of all the resurrection men they had ever known or come across and asked the witness if he would mark with a cross any of the 50 whom he thought capable of murder for dissection. When he handed it back, he had marked six names.

Huge irony: when anatomised, John Bishop was found to be one of the very best specimens the Royal College of Surgeons had ever dissected — great, strong muscles, extremely fit and hearty, from his horrible career in body-handling.

How overtly implicated were aspiring or actual doctors with this sort of thing (even “mere” resurrection as against murder) as a “necessary” part of their education that they chose to turn a blind eye towards? And was there any engagement with the problem as an ethical question?

The public cared hugely about the ethics; the legislature very little. That’s why Dr. Knox, in the Burke and Hare case, was so unusual — no one protected him when the case came to trial, and he was vilified and more or less chased out of Edinburgh. But in the Italian Boy murders, no doctor got anywhere near the witness box. Society and the legislature really rallied around them, to make sure the public did not take their feelings out on them.

But popular resentment that the doctors might have encouraged, or turned a blind eye to, grave-robbery (not murder) remained very common.

By around 1800, doctors and students had wholly outsourced exhumations for dissection material — gangs of specialised labouring men did it for them, and part of the deal was that (in return for a good wage) the bodysnatchers themselves, if caught, would keep silent, do their stretch in gaol, and they and their families would be looked after financially by the surgeons who commissioned them.

One surgeon, Joshua Brookes, fell foul of the bodysnatchers (refusing to put up their wages) and in revenge, they placed half-dissected corpses close to his Soho premises. These were tripped over in the dark by pedestrians, which caused a huge rumpus and the police had to come to protect Brookes from the mobs who wanted to stone his house. Such events were the exception, rather than the rule.

There’s something just sublimely Swiftian about a disposable person being literally, bodily consumed by the city and its professional class. Was it surprising that a doctor would bust these men when they came to sell the body, and/or that it would trigger an aggressive police response? Had they probably pulled this trick with a wink and a nod many times before?

The Italian Boy case was highly unusual in that it was a surgeon, Richard Partridge, who blew the whistle — not only on the killers but essentially on the whole trade. He was the anatomy teacher at the brand-new King’s College, which was very religious-based, though funnily enough, I don’t think Partridge himself was devout. In getting the men arrested, he really blew wide open this secretive, terrifying world of the trafficking of (poor people’s) corpses.

It is the Italian Boy case — not Burke and Hare — which brought about swift legal change, which ensured the demise of surreptitious grave-robbery for anatomical teaching.

Other than hanging the perps, what was the fallout from this case at the level of policy or social evolution? Was there conflict between the privileged and the poor over how to understand this sort of crime and how to go about addressing it?

The ‘resolution’, the ‘evolution’, was the 1832 Anatomy Act, which essentially legalised what had been going on all along. It permitted anatomists to claim as legitimate teaching material the corpse of anyone who died in a workhouse or public hospital whose body went unclaimed by friends or family for private burial. In practice, it seems that even when apparently friendless beggars died, and associates did come forward, the doctors had already earmarked the body for their own purposes.

This type of thing caused decades and decades of bitter class resentment in this country, and fear of doctors and hospitals was even discernible in my late parents’ generation. These worries still occasionally resurrect themselves. The UK’s Human Tissue Act of 2004 was passed following disclosure of the mass storage of children’s organs, without any permission or consent having been sought from the parents. I think consent remains a huge issue in medical matters, in most cultures, and those who are deemed powerless in some way — by class, race, caste, gender and so on — are by far the more likely to have their bodies commandeered in the name of science.

Sarah Wise has been a Londoner since the age of 14. She has a BA in English Literature and a Masters degree in Victorian Studies, from Birkbeck College, University of London. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

Sarah was a major contributor to Iain Sinclair’s compendium London, City of Disappearances, published by Hamish Hamilton in 2006.

Her forthcoming book, Inconvenient People, investigates the phenomenon of sane people being put into lunatic asylums in Victorian England, and will be published in the summer of 2012.

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.

(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

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And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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1946: William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw

4 comments January 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1946, fascist William Joyce, famous by the nickname “Lord Haw-Haw” for his English-language Nazi propaganda broadcasts, was hanged at Wandsworth Prison for treason.

As a pugilistic young anti-Semite with the unusual credential of being a Unionist Irish Catholic, Joyce had been a moving spirit in the interwar British fascist party. (Since audio broadcasts would define Joyce’s life, it seems appropriate to refer the reader for a fuller biography to this recent Oxford biography podcast.)

But because time loves a good laugh, it had the guy haranguing his countrymen for insufficient patriotism marked out for the last treason execution in British history, and unrepentant about it by the time he got there.

The Brooklyn-born Joyce (he never lost his American citizenship) who naturalized as a German in 1940 had a rather tenuous claim on the patriotic high horse to begin with, and after the war, that meant the treason charge proceeded on legally doubtful grounds: speaking the King’s English didn’t mean he owed allegiance to the king. Prosecutors ultimately hung him with a British passport he’d obtained fraudulently, and the legal principle has never since sat well with jurists.

It was just the tool at hand. The British government really hated the guy.*

However limited the resources at his disposal — sparse intelligence, paltry staff, and of course, after 1942, a disastrously collapsing war effort — he had fashioned them into broadcast spin to twist the British lion’s tail in countless British homes throughout the war.

Here’s one episode, with Joyce savaging Winston Churchill, selected from archive.org’s library of Joyce broadcasts (1-7, 8-16, 17-23).

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Joyce’s star shone brightest and his invective cut deepest early in the war. Once everything at the front stopped coming up Teutons, he descended into irrelevance and self-parody, albeit without professing the slightest doubt in his fascist convictions.

This last broadcast, prepared just a few days before Germany capitulated, has our day’s principal ramblingly drunkenly from the besieged Nazi capital.

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Content-wise, not much had changed eight months later, but at least he managed to make his gallows statement coherently.

In death as in life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the power of darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the crushing imperialism of the Soviet Union. May Britain be great once again and the hour of the greatest danger in the West may the standard be raised from the dust, crowned with the words — you have conquered nevertheless. I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.

There’s a thorough, and lavishly illustrated, history of Joyce here.

* Authorities passed on prosecuting his wife Margaret, who’d also appeared on some Lord Haw-Haw broadcasts. Under the circumstances, Joyce’s daughter (by his first marriage) Heather Iandolo turned out pretty balanced.

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1878: John Kehoe, king and last of the Molly Maguires

16 comments December 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1878, John “Black Jack” Kehoe was hanged in Pottsville — as Pennsylvania’s anthracite trusts took a victory lap around the corpses of the Molly Maguires.

Even to say what the Mollies were is to take a side in their life-and-death struggle. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine had poured into Pennsylvania’s coal mining country in the mid-19th century, where life in the mines was nasty, brutish and short, and the pay wasn’t anything to write home about either.

In a time when capital ruthlessly hunted any intimation of labor organizing and the Irish were a distinctly second-class people, the (apparent, or at least alleged) response of the Mollies was natural: form a secret society, and wring by threat of bodily harm the concessions it could not pursue by collective bargaining. For the recent Irish transplants, the tableau of a Catholic underclass working for a Protestant landlord who owned (and gouged on) everything in sight had a certain familiar feel.

Terrorists? They certainly used violence to achieve political objectives, at least if the testimony of their foes is credited. But they weren’t the only ones.

Mine owners turned public and private violence on Irish radicals pushing for things like the eight-hour day. The notorious strike-breaking Pinkerton Detective Agency was detailed to infiltrate the Mollies.

The main blow against the Mollies was struck over a period of (extrajudicial) vigilante justice in the mid-1870’s, culminating in “Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope” in 1877, when ten supposed members were (judicially) hanged around the Keystone State.

Kehoe, a power broker in mining country with some sway at the capital who was reputed to call the shots among the Maguires, faced the hangman singly a year later for an 1862 cold-case murder so doubtfully ascribed to Kehoe that the governor hesitated to sign the death warrant.

He signed it just the same, marking a sort of ceremonial “end to Molly-ism.” The New York Times exulted two days hence “that the widely-extended and long-continued tyranny and terror of this association is at an end,” and all because the resolute executive had gone and sent a hempen message to “the savage and benighted population of the coal region.”

The lesson taught by the punishment of the Molly Maguires would have been shorn of much of its terror and impressiveness if the energetic and persistent efforts made in behalf of KEHOE, the reputed king of that organization, had resulted in rescuing him from the gallows. If they had even so far succeeded as to have caused his punishment to be commuted to imprisonment for life, the admonitory influence of his fate upon the murderous clain of whom he was the last surviving chief would have been greatly lessened, and the snake of Molly Maguire-ism, of which he was the forked tongue and fangs, might haply have been only scotched, not killed. … The law has shown that it has subtlety enough to hunt [the Molly Maguires] through every possible labyrinth of refuge and strip from them every artifice of disguise, and power enough to wring them out of the desperate grasp of sympathizing constituencies and crush them.


Like we said, violence wasn’t the exclusive resort of one side. But the monopoly of violence … that was held, as always, by the same hands that held the monopolies. Sean Connery as Kehoe reflects on the uneven contest while awaiting his fate in a (fictional) exchange with the Pinkerton mole who condemned him from the 1970 film The Molly Maguires.*

Pennsylvania Gov. John Hartranft left office a few weeks later, and reflected in his outgoing address on the lessons “the manufacturers and operators” ought to draw from the late unpleasantness.

The Mollie Maguire murders, like the agrarian murders in Ireland, and the trades-union outrages, arsons, and machine-breakings in England, were not the work of the so-called criminal classes. They were essentially class murders … If some of the leading spirits of the class had been members of a board of arbitration as representatives of labor, with some of the employers or their agents as representatives of capital, it is not unreasonable to suppose that most of the disagreements that have kept the coal regions in a state of turmoil might have been amicably adjusted, and many of those who were assassinated and of those who have been hanged living to-day.

101 years later, Kehoe received what was thought to be the first and only posthumous pardon in the state’s history. The Mollies’ true extent, purpose and actual actions — even their very existence as anything but a stalking-horse for the more thorough conquest of surplus labor — remain hotly debated to this day, since the public record of this tight-lipped society consists of little beyond the courtroom testimony of a handful of parties thoroughly prejudiced to hostility by class interest or payoffs.

* Written by Walter Bernstein, who had only recently emerged from the Hollywood blacklist for his Communist proclivities.

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1937: Masao Sudo, since rehabilitated

Add comment December 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Japanese emigre Masao Sudo was shot in Moscow as a spy.

The executed man’s son, Dr. Mikhail Masaovich Sudo.

A true-red Communist who had fled increasingly right-wing Japan in the 1920’s and become a labor organizer in the far east, Sudo shared the tragic fate of the Japanese community in Stalin’s USSR, decimated by denunciations of one another.

Sudo was the father of Russian geologist Mikhail Masaovich Sudo, author of several abstruse texts (and also, it would appear, Japanese language primers for Russian speakers) — and under whom, apparently, you can take classes at the International Independent University of Environmental and Political Sciences.

Masao Sudo was rehabilitated in 1956.

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2005: Elias Syriani, a family affair

1 comment November 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2005, North Carolina executed 67-year-old immigrant Elias Syriani at Raleigh’s Central Prison for the murder of his wife — despite the emotional clemency intervention of the couple’s children.

Syriani, an ethnic Assyrian driven from his native Jerusalem by al nakba who moved to the U.S. from Jordan through marriage to a Jordanian immigrant, had a stormy marriage hit the rocks in 1990. Teresa filed for divorce after a few years facing Elias’s violent objections to her westernized behavior.

Syriani responded by jumping her when she drove home one night, and stabbed her to death with a screwdriver in front of their 10-year-old child.

This case meandered forgettably through the bowels of the criminal justice system; the traumatized children moved on (.pdf).

Until the year before Syriani met his fate, when the mysteries of the human heart flipped the script.

The four children visited Syriani and found themselves forgiving their mother’s murderer … and forging an unexpected bond with the father they hadn’t known for a decade. They called it a miracle, a gift from their late mother to go from “hate, absolute hate, to love in a split second.”

The children — by then grown — became Syriani’s advocates for executive clemency, posing an unusual challenge for Gov. Mike Easley: in an environment that (rhetorically, at least) often counts on survivors’ rage and grief as arbiters of punishment, would he spare a father for killing a mother when the children said execution would redouble the family’s injury?

But commutations rarely happen — there’s just no percentage in them for politicians.

“After careful review of the facts and circumstances of this crime and conviction, I find no convincing reason to grant clemency and overturn the unanimous jury verdict affirmed by the state and federal courts.” (Easley)

This startling story became the subject of a 2007 documentary, Love Lived on Death Row

The following are excerpts from an interview with the film’s Producer/Director Linda Booker originally conducted by Sean O’Connell of The Charlotte Weekly.

When did you first hear about/become interested in this story?

Back in July 2005, I was checking the weather on a local news website and scanning the headlines when the article about the Syriani siblings forgiving their father caught my eye. I think at first it interested me because I have been involved with our local domestic violence agency as a volunteer and fundraiser, but as I read the article something about their reconciling with and forgiving their father really touched me. At this point they had begun to share their story with the public and had just appeared at a domestic violence conference in Charlotte called “Hope to Heal.”

At what point did you get the idea to film the story in documentary form? How long did it take to complete the film?

It was an immediate reaction for me upon reading the article that their story might make a compelling documentary film. I printed it out and carried it around with me. But I was still finishing up interviews and editing my first documentary project “Millworker: the Documentary” so I didn’t act on it right away. Then several months later I learned that they would be speaking in Chapel Hill, close to where I live, and I thought, “okay, if I feel this strongly about this, here’s my chance to meet them and film their discussion.” So there I was, a relatively new filmmaker and very nervous about that first step, but I received permission to film that night. That’s also when I first heard about and met Meg Eggleston, who had been writing letters and visiting Elias Syriani on death row for four years and the Syriani sibling’s attorney Russell Sizemore, who was helping them through their father’s clemency appeal pro-bono. I came to learn that Meg’s friendship with Elias was an essential part of their father’s transformation and was such an interesting story in itself.

I started filming in October 2005, edited in the fall of ’06 and started doing preview screenings in early ’07. Since then the film has screened at film festivals and many grassroots screenings with various non-profits and faith groups as sponsors in the U.S. especially in North Carolina.

The Syriani children are open and honest in the film. Did you have trouble accessing them? Were they open to the idea of participating in the film, even though at this point it could not help their father?

I started filming interviews with Meg Eggleston and Russell Sizemore first who trusted that I was not trying to do a sensationalized story, but that I recognized the Syriani’s story of forgiveness was inspirational, regardless of the outcome of the clemency appeal. The Syrianis knew that I was working with Meg & Russ, but out of respect for all they were going through, I did not push the issue of their participation. About six months after the appeal, I wrote them about participating and subsequently we went to California and Chicago in the summer of ’06 to film interviews with them. While they know that a part of the discussion around the film will be capital punishment, the Syriani siblings have expressed that they want their story to live on in hope that their experience of surviving a domestic violence tragedy and the healing that came from forgiveness will touch people’s hearts and help others.

I think it’s because this case is so unique, but I found the film’s stance on the death penalty unclear. Can you, as the filmmaker, clarify your thoughts on the death penalty?

Well, I’ll take that as a compliment, because the documentaries I admire aren’t pounding you over the head with the filmmaker’s opinion. I can tell you that making this film made me face how I felt about the death penalty and I spent a lot of time researching and doing some deep thinking about the issue.

Needless to say it’s very complex, and it is completely understandable that feelings of anger and retribution can occur when you have lost a loved one to violence. We need to do more for those dealing with the aftermath of murder with as much support, assistance and counseling services as possible, especially children. But as I went to restorative justice forums and have met many people who belong to organizations such as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, I kept hearing stories about how the death penalty was causing more grief, stress and division in families that had experienced murder. Between making the documentary and doing the research, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t support a system of justice that can possibly create more pain and victims in its wake and that was also irreversible and arbitrary.

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