1830: Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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2015: Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, filmed

Add comment January 12th, 2016 Headsman

Last year on this date, Saudi Arabia’s execution wave consumed a Burmese woman named Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim.

Condemned for the murder and sexual abuse of her seven-year-old stepdaughter, Basim went to her public beheading protesting her innocence and resisting in whatever way she could — which we know, because a cell phone recording of the execution attained worldwide dissemination. In it, the black-shrouded condemned shrieks over and over, “I did not kill! This is unjust!” She denounces her executioners, invokes the Shahada … until her throat is horrifically emptied of its last protest by the blade.

Warning: This is the on-camera death of a human being from just a few meters’ distance, obtained via Liveleak. It’s awful.

Thanks to the outrage this video spawned, a “human rights organization” underwritten by the Saudi government demanded the arrest of the person who recorded the video … which did indeed occur.

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1874: Three for misshapen love

Add comment January 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1874, two men and a woman hanged at H.M. Prison Gloucester for unsatisfactory affairs of the heart.

Charles Edward Butt

On August 17 of the previous year, Charles Edward Butt had besought the company of a Miss Amelia Phipps for an excursion to the next day’s Gloucester Cheese Fair.

Miss Phipps, long the object of the young farmer’s amorous suit, had unfortunately pledged her company to another gentleman, which disappointment Butt remedied by shooting the young lady to death.

Mary Anne Barry and Edwin Bailey

On that very same August 17, a Bristol teen mother named Mary Susan Jenkins attempted to relieve her baby’s colic by reaching for a packet of Steedman’s Soothing Powders.

Plumped for use by teething children, these packets had been helpfully delivered by the local Dorcas Society, a charitable network set up to provide essentials to the poor. And Miss Jenkins was quite poor indeed, after having been dismissed from her domestic service by a prosperous cobbler named Edwin Bailey after the latter impregnated her, and then refused to pay for the upbringing of his whelp.

Minutes after the treatment with Steedman’s, however, the whelp had breathed his last.

Investigation soon determined that the packages had been laced with lethal quantities of strychnine, and the package from the “Dorcas Society” in fact appeared to have been addressed by the hand of Edwin Bailey himself — whose maintenance payments of five shillings per week had now been mandated by a court.

Bailey’s motivation in the affair is obvious; much less so is that of Mary Anne Barry. Barry was another of Bailey’s servants, and she had taken to visiting the Jenkins family over the preceding months under the name only of “Anne” — representing herself as an emissary of the Dorcas Society.

Barry claimed that she had simply been dispatched by Bailey to attempt to ferret out the bastard child’s real paternity which he still violently denied. But a few days before the rat poison was administered it was she who had recommended Steedman’s powders and suggested that they could probably be procured of the Dorcas Society. Though this surely convinced her jury, that panel strongly recommended her to mercy, perhaps not entirely certain on the judge’s charge to them “whether there was not a view of her case consistent with her innocence.” Considering that she was informing Edwin Bailey of the conversations in what she perhaps thought was merely the capacity of a detective, there is indeed such a view.

Robert Anderson Evans

Aging executioner-relic William Calcraft, who would be forced into retirement later this year, was too sick to officiate, so the honors were done by Welsh hanging-hobbyist Robert Anderson Evans instead. Evans only rates a faint and distant blot on the British executioners’ star chart; this date’s trio was probably his piece de resistance. At Evans’s suggestion, the gallows was constructed not as a rising stage, but as a platform level with the ground, and built over a pit.

Evans was a doctor by training, but despite this he gave these patients an increasingly outdated physic: the short drop hanging, soon to be rendered entirely obsolete by William Marwood‘s variable-drop tables.

While the fall Anderson allowed on this occasion was sufficient for the men, the lightly-built Mary Anne Barry — for whom Marwood’s calculations would have called for a longer fall — choked to death for several minutes. Anderson even had to resort to pressing down on her dangling body to speed her death, possibly reflecting as he did on the advantage the elevated stage had for effecting this sort of extremity. (It was a regular occurrence at Calcraft executions.)* Ms. Barry, who confided on the platform that her dreams had long foretold this fate for her, turned out to have the distinction of being the last Englishwoman to die with a short-drop hanging.

* Anderson’s undistinguished hanging career might have been lengthened had he taken to heart the idea that the separation is in the preparation. Anderson didn’t even bring three ropes with him because he assumed that the woman in the group would be reprieved (and that he wouldn’t break a rope and have need for a handy backup). Mary Anne Barry’s noose was made up at short notice in the prison by a former navy man.

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1864: Samuel Wright, by contrast

Add comment January 12th, 2014 Headsman

Samuel Wright and George Townley both murdered romantic partners late in 1863. Both were tried, convicted, and condemned to hang in very short order and both the subjects of intense pressure for a crown commutation of sentence.

Only one of those men hanged. It was 150 years ago today.

George Townley

Townley lived near Manchester and was courting a young woman named Bessie Goodwin from Derbyshire. Described as a man from a respectable upper middle class family with “refined manners,” and an intelligent linguist* to boot, Townley was nevertheless a rung or two below Miss Goodwin on the wealth and status ladder.

He was, accordingly, frustrated of his designs when the young lady accepted a clergyman’s proposal and broke off her previous engagement to Townley. Despite being disinvited by ex-fiancee, Townley took a train to her village and pressed his company on her. The two went for a walk that evening, and Townley stabbed her in the throat — a fact which he confessed on the scene to the first person who responded to the commotion and found Miss Goodwin staggering towards her home with a fatal gash in her neck.

In the great tradition of weird stalkers everywhere, Townley then helped the Good Samaritan carry the dying woman home, and kissed her tenderly, all the while bemoaning to arriving gawkers his guilt. “She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” he responded chillingly to the inquiries of his would-be father-in-law. “I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.”

This is all a very bad hand to deal a defense barrister.

Having little to work with, his superstar attorney — remember, the family had money — went with an insanity defense, aided by the lunacy diagnosis of prominent psychiatrist Forbes Winslow.** There was some history of insanity in his family, and everyone seemed agreed on the point that Townley didn’t set out with the intent to commit murder, but impulsively — madly? — took that course as he realized during his interview that he would surely not be putting a ring on that.

The legal standard of the time gave no purchase to this sort of thing. Townley’s judge instructed the jury to find insanity only if he “was under delusions … [and] supposed a state of things to exist which did not exist, and whose diseased mind was in such a condition that he acted upon an imaginary existence of things as if those things were real.” This is the M’Naghten rule, a historically pivotal and also highly restrictive insanity definition dating to 1843.

On December 12, 1863 Townley was sentenced to death for the murder, with the hanging scheduled for the approaching New Year’s Day. According to the London Times report the next week (Dec. 18), the sentence “has not made the slightest alteration in his demeanour. He partakes of his meals heartily, sleeps well, and repeatedly asserts that he was perfectly justified in taking away his victim’s life, and that he feels no remorse for the deed.”

Nevertheless, Townley’s well-off family and friends had enough pull to pry open a previously little-known legal escape hatch.

Upon the judge’s own request, the crown empaneled a committee to adjudicate Townley’s sanity for his mercy petition. But a sloppily written law actually allowed any two doctors plus any two magistrates to issue a formal certification of madness which would compel the prisoner’s removal to the asylum. Townley’s own solicitor simply assembled himself a quartet so minded and presented their finding to the Home Secretary, forcing his hand — to a great deal of public outrage once the obscure mechanism became known.

“Good friends and abundant means may give a convicted criminal unexpected advantages over an ordinary offender,” the Times complained in an editorial. (Jan. 27, 1864) Plus ça change.

Samuel Wright

Samuel Wright was not a man of means or linguistic gifts, but a bricklayer who lived in a Waterloo Road public house in Surrey, on London’s southern outskirts.

On December 13, 1863, he slashed the throat of his live-in lover Maria Green after they’d both been on a drinking bout. On December 16, mere three days later, Wright voluntarily pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.

A hue and cry for Wright’s sentence to be abated soon arose among London’s working classes, especially in the wake of Townley’s commutation. Wright had a good reputation, while Green was known for her violent temper. Wright intimated that she had menaced him with a knife during a quarrel.

Was this not a case like George Townley’s, only more so?

The contrast in the fates between the two murderers did not flatter. The crimes were analogous even to the mode of slaying.† If anything, the rich man’s suggested a more egregious context: Townley’s victim appeared more sympathetic, and Townley had gone out of his way to track her down in order to kill. Why was Townley’s heat of passion “insanity” but Wright’s was motive and deliberation?

The Home Secretary offered his sympathy but not his mercy. After all, Wright himself agreed that he intentionally killed Green. “To commute the sentence on the grounds on which it has been pressed would, in fact, be to lay down a rule of law as to the distinction between murder and manslaughter contrary to that which is well established,” wrote a Home Office spokesman on Jan. 7 in response to three separate petitions submitted on Wright’s behalf. Maybe they thought the same thing about Townley … but that decision was out of their hands.

In one of the period’s characteristic hanging broadsides, the balladeer has Wright lament,

Friends, for me have persevered,
To save me from the gallows high;
Alas! for me there is no mercy,
Every boon they did deny,
While others who was tried for murder,
And doomed to die upon a tree,
Through friends and money has been pardon’d
who deserved to die as well as me.

But, oh! my friends, you must acknowledge
what I say has oft been said before.
Some laws are made to suit two classes,
One for the rich, one for the poor;
So it is with me and Townley,
A reprieve they quickly granted he,
He was rich, and I was poor, —
And I must face the fatal tree.

The mood of the populace for the hanging at Horsemonger Lane Gaol this date in 1864‡ was decidedly ugly. On the night of the 11th, when it became clear that the many last-ditch bids for commutation — directed not only at the Home Secretary but even to Queen Victoria and even to the Prince of Wales appealing for a boon on the occasion of his first son‘s January 8 birth§ — a handbill circulated in the prison’s neighborhood entreating its denizens to protest the execution by shuttering all windows. “Let Calcraft and Co. do their work this time with none but the eye of Heaven to look upon their crime.”

Indeed this summons was widely obeyed.

A small crowd only turned out for the occasion, and shouted their disgust for the proceedings: “Shame!” and “Judicial murder!” and “Where’s Townley?” Even many months later, at the controversial August 10 hanging of Richard Thomas Parker, the crowd chanted Townley’s name, now the emblem of the unequal justice of the law.

One diarist’s entry for the day recalled that “[t]he blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of ‘Take him, take him down’ were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”

Postscript

The language of the law that permitted Townley his backdoor commutation was revised by Parliament within weeks.

As to Townley himself, another panel appointed by the Home Office found him fully cogent, which meant that officially, he had become insane after his death sentence and the insanity abated thereafter. While this finding theoretically reinstated the death penalty, actually hanging him after these circumstances was thought to be inhumane, and he was reprieved. One supposes there must have been some thought for the potential disturbance Townley’s hanging would have occasioned.

On February 12, 1865 — a year and change after escaping the noose that claimed Samuel Wright — George Townley hurled himself headlong off a high staircase onto a stone floor in Pentonville Prison, where he had been transferred as an ordinary inmate. He died on the spot.

* Of course, he could never hope to match the linguistic’s fields most famous English murderer.

** You might recognize this distinctive name from our Winslow’s son, L. Forbes Winslow, a figure in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

† An additional unflatterering comparison point to Derbyshire contemporaries: a proletarian named Richard Thorley had been hanged in Derby in 1862 for a very similar crime: he slashed his girlfriend’s throat when she tried to break up with him.

‡ Among the very last public hangings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. All UK hangings were conducted behind prison walls by 1868.

§ This infant, Prince Albert Victor, is the royal eventually identified with Jack the Ripper by a particularly inventive hypothesis.

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1400: Sir Thomas Blount, “bowels burning before him”

2 comments January 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1400, Sir Thomas Blount was drawn and quartered at Oxford.

He was a loyalist of the latterly deposed (and soon to be murdered) Richard II. Blount took part in the Epiphany Rising plot against the usurper Henry IV.

The chronicles supply an unusually graphic and detailed description (pdf) of this horrible manner of death. (Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

The King [Henry IV] commanded his chamberlain, Sir Thomas Erpingham, to have justice executed upon the lords who were taken prisoners, and to put them all to death, except a young knight whom he had dubbed the Saturday before his coronation, whom the King pardoned for rising in arms against him, on account of his youth and noble lineage.

Sir Thomas Blount and Sir Benet [Shelley] were drawn from Oxford unto the place of execution, a long league or more, and there they were hung; they then cut them down and made them speak, and placed them before a long fire. Then came the executioner with a razor in his hand, and kneeling down before Sir Thomas Blount, who had his hands tied, begged his foregiveness [sic] for putting him to death, for he was obliged to perform his office.

‘Are you he,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘who will deliver me from this world?’

The executioner replied, ‘Yes, my lord; I beg you to pardon me.’

The lord then kissed him and forgave him.

The executioner had with him a small basin and a razor, and kneeling between the fire and the lords, unbuttoned Sir Thomas Blount, and ripped open his stomach and tied the bowels with a piece of whipcord that the breath of the heart might not escape, and cast the bowels into the fire.

As Sir Thomas was thus seated before the fire, his bowels burning before him, Sir Thomas Erpingham said, ‘Now go and seek a master who will cure you.’

Sir Thomas Blount placed his hands together, saying, ‘Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the hour when I was born, and blessed be this day, for I die this day in the service of my sovereign lord King Richard.’

After he had thus spoken, Sir Thomas Erpingham asked him, ‘Who are the lords, knights, and esquires who are of your accord, and treason?’

To which the good knight replied, suffering as he was, ‘Art thou the traitor Erpingham? Thou art more false than I am or ever was; and thou liest, false knight as thou art; for, by the death which I must suffer, I never spake ill of any knight, lord, or esquire, nor of anybody in the world; but thou utteredst thy false spleen like a false and disloyal traitor; for by thee, and by the false traitor the Earl of Rutland [who ratted out the conspiracy], the noble knighthood of England is destroyed.

‘Cursed be the hour when thou and he were born! I pray to God to pardon my sins: and thou traitor Rutland, and thou false Erpingham, I call you both to answer before the face of Jesus Christ for the great treason that you two have committed against our sovereign lord noble King Richard, and against his noble knighthood.’

The executioner then asked him if he would drink.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you have taken away wherein to put it, thank God’! and then he begged the executioner to deliver him from this world, for it did him harm to see the traitors.

The executioner kneeled down, and, Sir Thomas having kissed him, the executioner cut off his head and quartered him; and he did the same to the other lords, and parboiled the quarters. And in Oxford castle many other knights and esquires were beheaded.

Thomas Erpingham doesn’t exactly exude charm in this account, going out of his way to bust on a guy having his entrails ripped out. But good guys and bad guys are a matter of perspective: Erpingham’s loyal service to the new dynasty got him a complimentary bit part in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Erpingham fought at Agincourt). Shakespeare’s young King Harry calls him his “Good old Knight”.

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1629: Anna Gurren, in the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess

Add comment January 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1629, the German city of Mergentheim burned its late mayor’s widow for witchcraft.

Anna’s remains: the inventory of the late sorceress’s estate taken by its new owner, the city of Mergentheim.

Witch-hunting was a growth industry for Thirty Years’ War-torn Germany in the late 1620s.

Not long before, a Mergentheim Teutonic knight had been petitioned for help extracting a schoolboy from Wurzburg, where the absentee father feared he was running with a devilish crowd. Once the authorities heard that witchy stuff, all the inhuman gears came to life.

Instead of returning the tyke to his concerned dad, Wurzburg arrested the boy, strongarmed him into admitting his Satanic ties, and burned him at the stake. Nine years old.

That was Wurzburg. But back where the allegation originated, writes H.C. Erik Midelfort, “the discovery in Mergentheim that children might be guilty of witchcraft was to have serious consequences.”

Like a fresh plague outbreak, a witch persecution broke out in Mergentheim and neighboring Markelsheim, with some schoolchildren hounded by inquisitors within a few weeks of their compatriot’s execution over in Wurzburg. From there, it became epidemic all over town. By October 1628, the first witches were shrouded in flames for their neighbors’ edification. Over the course of 1629, the peak year for the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess, 91 humans were put to death as Satanic wizards — not counting those who were tortured to death.

Nor was this strictly confined to the weakest prey, your outcasts and servants.

Our victim today was big game, a wealthy city elite, and she wasn’t the only such. These must have made some kind of hedgerow gossip, but the general hysteria of the place made it dangerous to sustain any public controversy even about the downfall of the recently well-connected.

Midelfort, again, on the very relatable circumstance of a prosperous innkeeper who was a little too incensed for his own good at seeing Anna Gurren die.

Thomas Schreiber had a strong sense of justice. When the trials in Mergentheim had run only two months, he had already lost faith in the judicial procedure. On December 1, 1628 when Martha, wife of Burgermeister Hans Georg Braun, was executed, Schreiber was heard by many persons exclaiming that she had been done a gross injusice. Schreiber even let slip that “King Nero” had also conducted such bloodbaths. Six weeks later Schreiber was again appalled when the extremely wealthy widow of Lorenz Gurren was convicted of witchcraft and executed on January 12, 1629. When attending the execution of the lady, he had the temerity to express amazement over her confesion. The Amtmann Max Waltzen turned to him and said pointedly, “Ha, ha, those who know the devil should not be so amazed.” That kind of talk perturbed Schreiber, and when magistrates began avoiding him, he prepared to flee. During this time he repeatedly denounced the court for its unjust trials and declared that “if anything happens to me, let every pious Christian fear for himself.” He also prayed that “God might preserve everyone from Neuenhaus [the jail and torture chamber], for even the most pious if put in there would be found to be a witch.” The trials, he insisted, were bloodbaths, and the magistrates were out to “wash their hands in my blood.”

Schreiber fled town on February 1, having heard that people had started denouncing him. But he didn’t make it long.

He, too, was dead by the end of May — as a confessed (just like he predicted) witch.

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2010: Gary Johnson

2 comments January 12th, 2011 Headsman

“I never done anything in my life to anybody,” insisted 59-year-old Gary Johnson as he received on this date last year a lethal injection for a 1986 double homicide.

Life may be a journey and not a destination, but Johnson didn’t have far to travel: he was convicted of a murder just 10 miles outside Huntsville, where the state death house resides.

Specifically, he and his brother Terry allegedly burgled a ranch — and then shot dead the two men who responded to a concerned neighbor’s call about the suspicious activity. One of the victims was heard begging for his life before being shot execution-style.

(Terry Johnson copped a plea and is serving a 99-year sentence. Gary Johnson took his chances at trial.)

Without going so far as to advance any particular brief for Johnson’s actual innocence, we’re compelled to retch a little at this footnote to the Associated Press wire story:

[Gary Johnson’s trial prosecutor Frank] Blazek said investigators found the same slogan etched in concrete outside Johnson’s home and on a T-shirt he was wearing in a photograph: ”Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

What … like the everyday Metallica shirt? Or did he mean the Special Forces icon?*

”It indicated a callousness about human life,” he said.

This guy needs to get out more.

Similar fatuous claims about pop-death iconography as indicia of guilt were leveraged in the now-infamous Cameron Willingham case; there’s something rather troubling about the fact that a quarter-century on, and even with the Willingham embarrassment fresh in the headlines, the prosecutor still finds this inconsequential sidelight compelling enough to mention — and an institutional journalist finds it serious enough to print.

* The last link in this sentence was formerly to a Special Forces gear page showing items for sale with this same logo; the link was in no way sponsored (no link on this site will ever be sponsored), and it was completely relevant to the text since it not only displayed the message in question but the fact that that message is a going commercial concern — i.e., that one can easily buy a shirt with the “damning” slogan. Twenty-eight months after that link was posted, a Google bot declared it unnatural and penalized not my site but the recipient of the link. As usual, Google’s error-prone summary judgments come with no channel for appeal. Though I’ve reluctantly altered the link since the other site doesn’t deserve Google’s vindictiveness, I note here, for the record and biliously, the editorial muscle unjustifiably arrogated by Google’s slipshod algorithm police.

Part of the Themed Set: 2010.

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1959: 71 after the Cuban Revolution

7 comments January 12th, 2010 Headsman

From the dark pre-dawn hours through to the middle of the day this date in 1959, Cuba’s fledgling revolutionary government shot over 70* “police officials, soldiers, and others described as spies and informers”** into a pit near Santiago de Cuba.

Enrique Despaigne is the gentleman shown being shot from 1:02 to 1:09 of this period newsreel.

Just days past their New Year’s triumph over the Batista dictatorship, the Sierra Maestra guerrillas were indulging a little out-with-the-old bloodletting. Well, more than a little.

Others had already been shot, and (many) others would follow that fate in the time to come, but this day’s mass execution was the largest and eventually most emblematic of those days. It was ordered by present-day Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

The biographies of the day’s (nearly literal) hecatomb were largely eclipsed by their deaths as theater, as symbolism, as diplomacy. The man most individually distinctive to many observers was Lt. Enrique Despaigne, whose fusillade for killing 53 people was delayed three hours (pdf) at the camera crew’s behest for the better dawn lighting.

This day’s sentences specifically and the post-revolution executions generally were widely deplored abroad. Liberal Oregon Senator Wayne Morse called it a “bloodbath” on the Senate floor, and implored the Cubans to “withhold executions until emotions cool.”

Cuba rejected the criticism.

One could say that, like Lenin, Castro had taken warning from the Paris Commune‘s self-defeating example of excess leniency.

But the case for that interpretation looks much stronger in retrospect than it did to those living the actual events.† Foreign criticism for Cuba’s 1959 execution binge, though strong, was also strongly colored by an expectation that western powers would soon come to an arrangement with Castro — an anti-imperialist, but not yet a publicly committed Communist.

So the purge of Batista elements generally played as an ugly but fundamentally unworrisome effusion of popular vengeance an unsettled political situation.

As the London Times mildly editorialized, “youthful excesses” notwithstanding, “much of what is being said in Cuba can be put down to the exaltation of victory. When the provisional Government settles down, more realistic appraisals are likely.” (Jan. 13, 1959)

* 71 is the figure most generally reported, and the number given by the contemporary Associated Press reports, but slightly different numbers around that total are sometimes cited (the New York Times reported 75 on Jan. 13, 1959). Whatever their number, some of their names are given here and here; this Spanish-language forum page has victims of the revolution on this date and throughout the month, sourced to the stridently anti-Revolutionary Cuban American National Foundation.

** Quote from the A.P. report as published in the London Times Jan. 13, 1959.

† Castro defended the executions in terms of Nazis, not Communards. Many of those condemned either to death or imprisonment by the revolutionary government were (show) tried for war crimes.

And not without reason:

Santiagans say the series of decrees by former President Fulgencio Batista suspending constitutional guarantees and civil liberties covered a reign of terror in which 500 to 1,000 persons were murdered in Santiago alone. To Santiagans, the firing squads represent justice. (New York Times, Jan. 21, 1959)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,War Crimes,Wrongful Executions

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1928: Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray

10 comments January 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1928, a suburban femme fatale and the corset salesman who had murdered her husband were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison.

“A cheap crime involving cheap people,” one writer called it.

“Ruthless Ruth,” as the press inevitably called her, was on the wrong side of 30 and married to a wet blanket on the wrong side of 40 from whom she couldn’t even get away during the day because they worked for the same boating magazine.

The banal hell of the bourgeoisie.

Ruth had a banal solution: commence affair with handsome, limp-willed corset salesman (also married) from New Jersey.

Given a large enough metropolis with a large enough pool of adulterous data points, it must be statistically inexorable that a certain proportion will resolve the love triangle by throttling the cuckold with a wire.

But only that remorseless calculator in the sky can compute why these two, of all those thousands, were the ones not to run off together, or let the affair fizzle, or just continue to rendezvous indefinitely into the future. They certainly weren’t constitutionally cut out for crime; they set up the room in a poor simulacrum of a robbery, and told of a couple of unknown Italians* who’d broke in and done poor Albert Snyder to death.

For their poor judgment and for the speedy collapse of their crummy alibi, journalism owes them a debt of gratitude.

The execution of a woman was quite sensational; Ruth Snyder was to be the first electrocuted since 1899.

For the occasion, The New York Daily News hired a Chicago Tribune journalist to witness the execution … and at the moment the current struck, Tom Howard hoisted his pant leg and secretly snapped with a one-use camera one of the most indelible images the death chamber offered the 20th century, to be splashed in a few hours’ time on the Daily News‘ cover under the headline

DEAD!

The Snyder-Gray adulterous melodrama and its violent conclusion inspired novelist James Cain‘s Double Indemnity, and the noir film of the same title with Barbara Stanwyck as the black widow at the center of the web.

It also inspired the state of New York to begin searching official witnesses to its electrocutions.

* Blame-the-Italians here is a Roaring Twenties Queens version of fingering the black man. The murder was committed in May 1927, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti case was approaching its climax.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,New York,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,USA,Women

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1951: Albert Guay

3 comments January 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Albert Guay was hanged in Canada for one of the earliest commercial airline attacks — bombing a Canadian Pacific Airline flight to murder his wife.

Stuck in a loveless marriage with little recourse to divorce, Guay‘s loins burned for a young mistress.

He engaged a watchmaker colleague, Généreux Ruest, to make a bomb, and the latter’s sister, Marguerite Ruest-Pitre, to air freight it on the doomed plane. Both would maintain their innocence of the plot, but after Guay’s own conviction, he implicated both — possibly in an attempt to delay his own hanging.

A time bomb in the luggage hold of this airplane took 23 lives on September 9, 1949, for which three people were executed — and inspired a copycat crime with 44 more deaths and one more execution.

Guay had intended the plane to explode over the St. Lawrence River, eliminating the forensic evidence, but a slight delay before takeoff laid the damning debris over the land. The flight’s entire complement of four crew and nineteen passengers — including three top executives of the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation — perished.

The crime had ample media attention both north and south of the Canada-U.S. border — flight still being something of a terrifying novelty for the general public. Guay’s purchase of life insurance for his wife on the day of the trip was not especially inculpatory, but a standard procedure for air travelers.

Guay’s last words caught the irony of his celebrity: “Au moins, je meurs célèbre” (“At least I die famous”).

A few years after this day’s events, an American attempted a similar crime, with similar results.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Sex

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