1890: Three hangings in Louisiana

1 comment January 17th, 2018 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 18, 1890:

CLINTON, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At 1:15 this afternoon the witnesses summoned by the sheriff proceeded to the jailyard where the scaffold had been erected. A few minutes later Charles and Isaiah Dent were led from their cells and up the steps to the platform, which overlooked a space where quite a large crowd had gathered outside the inclosure around the jail.

Both men walked firmly, Isaiah showing throughout wonderful nerve, and Charles, though a little shaky, apparently ready to meet his fate without quailing.

When they first reached the platform they seemed to be praying half audibly. While Sheriff Woodward read the death warrant both men looked about them, seemingly not more concerned than if they were only disinterested spectators of the scene. Charles Dent nodded his head assentingly each time the officer paused in his reading.

At the end of a sentence Sheriff Woodward asked them if they wished to say anything. Isaiah said, “I want to speak to them people,” indicating the crowd on the outside. “Friends and foes,” he said in a clear voice, “let this be a warning to all; don’t do like Isaiah.” After a pause he continued, “My home will be in heaven.”

When he had ceased Charles said, “Charles Dent, the same. If I hadn’t went down the road this wouldn’t have happened, but I didn’t do no shooting.”

The black caps were drawn over the heads of the doomed men. The rope that supported the trap was cut and the two fell together a distance of about 8 feet. Their necks were both broken and their agony was soon over, the pulse of Isaiah ceasing to beat within 3 minutes and all signs of life being extinct in Charles in 12 minutes.

Everything connected with the execution was skillfully arranged and quickly and smoothly carried out by the sheriff and his efficient deputies.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRIME

for which Isaiah and Charles Dent were executed were as follows:

Herman Praetorius, a German merchant and farmer living at Ethel, on the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, had been furnishing supplies to the Dent brothers. Along in the summer some cause of disagreement arose and ill-feeling between the merchant and his customers became intense and the relationship between them, as such, came to an end.

Late in the afternoon on Monday, July 1, of last year, while Praetorius was returning from a visit to a plantation several miles from home, he had occasion to pass near where the Dent brothers live. Evidence on the trial showed that as he came into the public road by a bypath Charles and Isaiah Dent, two brothers, and a brother-in-law of theirs were standing a short distance up the road, in an opposite direction from that in which he was going, and that they called to him and he turned and rode back to where they were standing. Some loud words were heard and Praetorius was seen to turn to ride away from the party of negroes, who were armed and making angry demonstrations. Just as he was riding away Charles and Isaiah Dent were seen to raise their shotguns, the reports of which were heard, and Praetorius fell from his horse, shot to death. His murderers fled, Charles and Isaiah escaping to Pointe Coupee parish, the other three participants, David and Clark Dent and Frank Cooper, being subsequently arrested and placed in jail in Clinton.

After some time Charles and Isaiah Dent were

APPREHENDED IN POINTE COUPEE

and likewise lodged in jail in Clinton. Public indignation was at a fever heat and an ineffectual effort was made to hang the two principal murderers by the processes of Judge Lynch’s court. For greater security the two prisoners were taken to New Orleans and confined in the parish prison until the next term of court, which met in September.

The grand jury promptly indicted the five men for murder.

The attorneys for the Dents, Messrs. E.T. Merrick, Jr., of New Orleans, and Judge J.G. Kilbourne of Clinton, filed a motion for a change of venue, which was overruled by the court.

THE TRIAL

excited a great deal of interest and occupied several days. The result was a verdict of guilty, without qualification, as to Charles and Isaiah Dent, which consigned them to the gallows.

Frank Cooper went to the penitentiary for life and Clark and David Dent for lesser terms.

The condemned men have since their arrest steadfastly maintained that the killing of Praetorius was done in self-defense, though the testimony of eye-witnesses to the contrary was irrefutable. Isaiah has taken his fate philosophically, and seemed resigned from the time he learned the decision of the district court had been affirmed by the supreme court, to which an appeal had been taken, but his brother Charles has taken the matter much harder.

James Holcombe’s Crime.

BONNET CARRE P.O., St. John the Baptist Parish, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At dusk of day, Nov. 12, 1888, as James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise were returning from Waguespack’s plantation, where they were employed, they met Madeleine Will, a pretty colored girl, on the railroad track back of Angelina plantation in this parish. Holcombe on seeing her whispered a few words to Ambroise and advancing toward Madeleine began a conversation with her. A few minutes after Ambroise, who was a short distance away, heard a shot fired, and thinking it was intended for him ran off. In his flight he was met by young Brignac, to whom he related the story, and as Brignac came to the spot he found Madeleine Will gasping her life away, whilst Holcombe was reclining over her body.

Brignac ran to the neighbors and related what he had seen, but when they came to the spot Madeleine Will was dead and James Holcombe had disappeared.

The next day the coroner held an inquest over the body and the jury found that

MADELEINE WILL CAME TO HER DEATH

from a gunshot wound inflicted by James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise.

On the 14th of November, 1888, the accused were arrested and committed to jail without the benefit of bail.

Seven months after, on the 5th of June 1889, the grand jury then in session found a true bill of murder against both Holcombe and Ambroise. On motion of District Attorney Leche their case was then fixed for June 14, 1889.

In the meanwhile the dastardly deed had created so much excitement that two of our most prominent citizens took steps towards raising a fund to aid in the prosecution of the case.

On the day fixed for the trial the case was continued to the 15th of June, 1889, when it was regularly taken up and proceeded with.

THE STATE

was represented by Judge Gervais Leche of St. John and Chas. A. Baquie of St. Charles. Ambroise was represented by H.N. Gantier of Jefferson, and James Holcombe having no means to employ counsel, the court appointed P.E. Edrington to take charge of his case.

After a little trouble the following jury, composed of four white and eight colored men, were impaneled: Paul Webre, Jefferson Coleman, Valery Barre, Felicien Landeche, Firmin Clement, Theo. Haydel, Felix Martin, Joseph Sandez, Francois Mathieu, Alfred Vicksnair, Gustave Delonde and Bernard Orbien.

After the state had heard from four of its witnesses it was evident that it would fail in its case, as the evidence was circumstantial and not of a nature to convict, so District Attorney Leche abandoned the state’s case against Emile Ambroise and placed him on the witness stand.

THE GUILT OF JAMES HOLCOMBE

was then clearly proven.

The case was submitted without argument, and after hearing the judge’s charge the jury retired to their room, when in fifteen minutes they returned a verdict of guilty against James Holcombe as charged and not guilty as to Emile Ambroise.

On the 20th of June, 1889, counsel for Holcombe made a motion for a new trial, which was heard on the day following and the motion denied by the court. On the same day a suspensive appeal to the supreme court was granted, and that ribunal on the 13th of December, 1889, affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

On Jan. 6, 1890, the governor fixed the day of execution to be on Friday, Jan. 17, 1890.

James Holcombe was a thick set negro of the true African type, 5 feet 4 inches tall, weight 155 pounds, and 21 years old. He had taken everything philosophically so far, and it was only to-day that he evinced some uneasiness. Charitably disposed persons frequently sent him delicacies, such as champagne, fruits and cakes, all of which he seemed to relish, but his favorite dish was ham and rice, cooked together.

THE EXECUTION

took place yesterday at the courthouse. James Holcombe spent his last night on earth in an apparently comfortable manner, although he would accept of no nourishment, on this, the last day of his existence.

To questions propounded by your correspondent, his answers were that he was reconciled to his God, and willing to meet his fate.

When dressed for the scaffold the greatest coolness was shown, helping his minister to dress him. His march on the scaffold was firm and in his farewell address to the fifteen witnesses present he reiterated his innocence, saying that the God who was to receive his soul this day would in the close hereafter receive the soul of the party who committed the crime.

At 12:17 p.m. the black cap was adjusted and after prayers offered by the Rev. Baily Lee the trap was sprung, his neck was broken and death was instantaneous.

The rope was cut down at 12:49 p.m. and his body delivered into the hands of the parents of the condemned at his own request.

Credit is due to our efficient sheriff and his able deputies for the manner in which the execution was performed.

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1959: Jose Cipriano Rodriguez

Add comment January 17th, 2017 Headsman

UPI photographer Andrew Lopez won the Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of Jose Cipriano Rodriguez, a corporal of the deposed Batista dictatorship, going to his firing squad execution in the bloody first weeks of Cuba’s revolutionary conquest. Rodriguez had been found guilty of two murders by a snap tribunal that same day.

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1983: Wang Zhong, small-time grifter

Add comment January 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1983, Wang Zhong, once the Communist Party Secretary and district head of Haifeng county, Guangdong, was executed for corruption.

The first official of his rank to be so punished, Wang did business on a truly paltry scale relative to the titanic graft compassed by China’s latter-day oligarchs: his first booty was a 17″ black-and-white TV in 1979. In the end, between payola extorted and contraband expropriated, Wang sold his life for 69,000 yuan — a little over US $10,000.

The Associated Press translated a Canton newspaper report of Wang’s execution thus:

His crimes were read out and his sentence before more than 17,300 people at a rally at Swatow, 200 miles east of Canton.

Wang then was driven in a truck to an execution ground about 25 minutes away.

Between 600 and 700 bicycles were parked near the execution ground, and some people ran on foot to watch after the truck and its escorts passed by thousands of spectators along the route.

A cold wind blew and a light rain fell as the convoy arrived and a policeman asked Wang if he had any last words. It [was?] said he asked police to tell his children not to follow his examples.

At 2:45, Wang Zhong knelt facing south. The policeman carrying out the execution once again confirmed his identity. Then he picked up an automatic rifle and, ‘peng,’ a bullet pierced Wang Zhong’s heart.

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1949: Hiroshi Iwanami

Add comment January 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Dr. Hiroshi Iwanami was hanged on Guam for murdering ten American POWs during World War II.

The commanding officer of the naval hospital on Japan’s South Pacific stronghold of Truk, Iwanami was condemned by the postwar U.S. Navy war crimes tribunal for overseeing — and rather reveling in — the sadistic murders of ten American POWs that fell into his hands in 1944.

As described in Timothy Maga’s Judgment at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials:

From the Newcastle (NSW, Australia) Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, July 16, 1947

In addition to murder, Iwanami was charged with “preventing the honorable burial” of bodies and with “dissection” and “mutilation” of them. Iwanami had used all ten of his victims for so-called medical experiments. Four of his January 1944 victims had tourniquets placed on their arms and legs by Iwanami for long periods. Two of the POWs had their tourniquets removed in two hours, and the other two at the end of seven hours. The latter two died immediately of shock, but the former survived. On the same day, four others were injected with streptococcus bacteria to cause blood poisoning. All four developed high fevers and soon died.

On February 1, 1944, the two survivors from the tourniquet experiment were marched to a hill in back of the hospital. Naked, with their legs stretched out as far as possible, the men were tied to stakes. Iwanami’s staff then placed a small explosive charge three feet in front of each foot of each victim. The resulting explosion blew off the feet of the men, but both victims survived. Their amazing endurance was short-lived, because Iwanami ordered the men strangled; an aide accomplished the task with his bare hands. Their bodies were returned to the hospital, where they were dissected, and all vital organs were placed in specimen jars. Only some of the organs from the blood poisoning victims were kept, and their bodies were tossed off a nearby cliff.

During an evening meal near the end of July 1944, Iwanami asked his staff if they would assist him in experiments on two more POWs. Instead of answering quickly in the affirmative, the men asked about the value of such experiments. Refusing to discuss the issue, Iwanami ordered his men, instead, to participate in the execution of the two POWs. This time there was no opposition to the order. The two Americans were suspended from a bar placed between two trees. With the order to “stab with spirit,” the hospital staff then began their bayonet practice. There was little left of the bodies after the practice was over, and those bodies, one of them headless, were buried near the scene of the execution. Shortly before his capture, Iwanami had the bodies exhumed and thrown into the sea.

… the trial was as bizarre as the defendants. Three of Iwanami’s old hospital staff members committed suicide, leaving word that they would rather die than testify against their commanding officer. Another, Lt. Shinji Sakagami, took great pride in the fact that he had strangled two POWs. A staunch advocate of the Japanese war effort and, like so many of his colleagues, convinced that death was better than surrender, he hoped his actions in Truk would serve as a warning to the future enemies of Japan. Iwanami was sentenced to death, although he attempted to cheat the hangman. Smuggling a small, sharpened pencil into his holding cell, Iwanami stood at one end of the tight quarters, shouted “Banzai,” and vaulted against the opposite wall. The pencil was held close to his heart, but it did little damage. Both witnesses on the scene and the commission wondered why a surgeon would have failed to aim the pencil properly. Iwanami’s hanging proceeded as planned, and the most generous verdict for a member of his staff was ten years in prison.

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1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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2006: Clarence Ray Allen, “beyond rehabilitation”

6 comments January 17th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2006, Clarence Allen was executed by the state of California for his role in the murders of three people.


Clarence Ray Allen packing heat and bravado in the 1970s (top); and, as a geriatric condemned man (bottom).

He could be seen as a kind of poster child for the death penalty: Allen was already serving a life sentence in prison for murder when he had the witnesses against him killed. As the Ninth Court of Appeals noted,

Given the nature of his crimes, sentencing him to another life term would achieve none of the traditional purposes underlying punishment. Allen … has proven that he is beyond rehabilitation.

The California Attorney General’s office provides a detailed account of his crimes here. (pdf) Crime Magazine ran a detailed piece on Allen in 2009. For Executed Today, a summary will suffice:

Allen, a father of two, presented an outward appearance of respectability (in fact, he ran a thriving security business) while organizing a gang of young people to help him commit many burglaries. In June 1974, Allen, his son Roger and other accomplices burglarized a Fresno supermarket and stole, among other things, $10,000 in money orders. Roger’s seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Mary Sue Kitts, later told Bryon Schletewitz, whose parents owned the supermarket, who had committed the burglary.

Allen had warned his gang that “snitches” would be put to death, and when he found out what Kitts had done he ordered her murder. Another member of the gang, Eugene Farrow, actually committed the deed, strangling Kitts and dumping her body in a canal. Her body has never been found.

Allen was convicted of the burglary and Kitts’s murder in 1977 and sentenced to life. Farrow pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

After his conviction, Allen ordered the murders of eight of the witnesses who had testified against him at the trial, including Schletewitz and his parents. His other son, Kenneth (lovely family they are), supplied weapons and transportation to Billy Ray Hamilton, a recently paroled prisoner who had been offered $25,000 to commit the murders, and Hamilton’s girlfriend, Connie Sue Barbo. In 1980, Hamilton and Barbo broke into the supermarket and shot Schletewitz as well as Douglas Scott White and Jacqueline Rocha, two teenagers who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Fortunately, Barbo was caught at the scene and Hamilton was arrested just a few days later, before he could get on with the hit list.

In 1982, Allen was sentenced to death for the three murders. Hamilton was also sent to Death Row, where he remains. Barbo got a life term. Kenneth accepted a plea agreement that offered minimal prison time in exchange for his testimony, but when he recanted his original statements the agreement was canceled and he got a life sentence.

Already fifty years old at the time of the supermarket murders, Allen had to wait a further twenty-six years for his date with death. While he was on Death Row his health deterioriated markedly.

By the time he was executed he was diabetic, nearly deaf, legally blind and confined to a wheelchair. He also had a heart attack in 2005 and had to have bypass surgery.

Given the circumstances of his crimes, his advanced age and poor health were the only mitigating circumstances his attorneys could think of to argue for a reprieve. The Ninth Court of Appeals didn’t agree that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the panel of judges, Judge Kim Wardlaw said,

His age and experience only sharpened his ability to coldly calculate the execution of the crime. Nothing about his current ailments reduces his culpability and thus they do not lessen the retributive or deterrent purposes of the death penalty.

For the same reasons, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to intervene to stop the execution, saying, “His conduct did not result from youth or inexperience, but instead resulted from the hardened and calculating decisions of a mature man.”

On the day of Allen’s execution, he had to be lifted from his chair onto the gurney. His last words were: “It’s a good day to die. Thank you very much. I love you all. Goodbye.” It took eighteen minutes and an extra dose of potassium chloride for him to die.

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1799: Dun Mikiel Xerri, Maltese patriot

2 comments January 17th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

That Napoleon Bonaparte, he simply can’t leave well enough alone.

He already conquered Malta. Most of the Maltese were even okay with it. But then he started disassembling the Maltese nobility and restricting the church. This displeased Dun Mikiel Xerri, and it was on this date in 1799 that Xerri was shot dead for spearheading a Maltese revolt against the French.

Born on September 29, 1737 in Zebbug, Malta, Xerri studied as a young man at various universities throughout Europe. Learned, he becme a Roman Catholic priest and dabbled in both philosophy and mathematics, living warmly under the rule of The Knights of St. John. Then, Napoleon came.

It was 1798 and Napoleon’s fleet was traveling to Egypt on expedition. Napoleon asked for safe harbor on Malta to resupply his ships. The Maltese refused him water and so Napoleon ordered a division of troops up to Valletta, the Maltese capital city. Ferdinand von Hompesch au Bolheim, the 71st Grand Master of the Order of St. John, thought again on his stance on the water issue but Napoleon was already beginning to be entrenched in Maltese life, looting the Order’s assets and administering control. Not wanting to fight fellow Christians (the French), Hompesch did little to quell the influx of French soldiers. In fact, he quickly signed a treaty handing over sovereignty of the Island of Malta to the French Republic.

This initially pleased some Maltese, tired of Knight rule, but the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Xerri, and many others, believed a revolt was the only way to regain people’s rights due to the fact that the rights of Maltese nobility were figuratively stripped, and the treasures of the Maltese church literally so.

Outraged Maltese rose against the French garrison headquartered in Notabile. Outraged Maltese formed a National Assembly. Outraged Maltese raised open rebellion on the islands.

The French retreated to the fortified cities around the harbor where their ships were anchored. The Maltese, in arms, implored the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (run by King Ferdinand I) and Great Britain (then under the rule of King George III).

It was to no avail. During the blockades, hundreds of people, Maltese and French alike, died from starvation and deprivation. Desperate, within the fortress, Xerri the patriot and others decided to attack French forces in Valletta and Cottonera. The plot, however, was discovered by the French and before it could be executed, 49 people were arrested for the plotted insurrection, Xerri among them.

The archbishop of Malta, Vincenzo Labini, met with Xerri and Xerri’s companions the morning of January 17, 1799. Prayers were offered, quiet words of salvation exchanged. Xerri was taken from Fort Saint Elmo to the Palace Square. French troops awaited him. Xerri, moments from death, gave a silver watch to the official on duty. He asked to be shot through the heart. “May God have pity on us!” he shouted with the others. “Long live Malta!” He was then shot dead, taken away, and buried near the Church of Saint Publius in Floriana.

Malta did not gain its independence until September 21, 1964.

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1961: Patrice Lumumba

3 comments January 17th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

No brutality, no torture has ever made me plead for mercy, because I prefer to die with my head up, with unshakable faith and deep confidence in the destiny of my country, rather than live in submission and spurning of scared principles.

-Patrice Lumumba’s last letter to his wife

One person’s “murdered under controversial circumstances” is another person’s “executed.” By most unbiased accounts, Patrice Lumumba was both.

A strident anti-colonialist caught in the most inflammatory of Cold War power struggles, Lumumba remains a controversial figure.

In 1956, Patrice Lumumba was a mail clerk in Belgian Congo recently out of prison for embezzlement of post office funds. Though previously involved with the Liberal Party of Belgium, a colonialist political party, after prison, he helped found the Mouvement National Congolais, a pro-independence national party (an important distinction at the time, as most pro-independence parties were at least partially tribal in nature).

Convicted in 1959 of inciting an anti-colonial riot and sentenced to 6 months in prison, Lumumba was released early as Congo won its independence and the MNC became an important political force. Just how important became apparent the following June, when the 35-year-old Lumumba was ratified as the newly independent Congo’s first prime minister.

From criminal to high statesman in just over a year, Lumumba took his new power in stride, and watched in disgust as the deposed King Baudouin of Belgium attended the new nation’s first Independence Day celebration, and before a fawning international media condescendingly congratulated Belgium’s colonial beneficence to its former slave plantation.

Struck from the day’s official celebrations in favor of the the lukewarm exhortations of the new President Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba found time on the day’s unofficial program. Strident, emotional, and unabashed in its anticolonialist, nationalist, and pan-Africanist bent, Lumumba’s famous speech was roundly criticized by the domestic and foreign press, but well-received by the crowd and ultimately delivered directly to history.

Lumumba’s tenure as prime minister was short-lived, however.

Mere weeks after independence, a mutiny on army bases broke out in reaction to Lumumba’s ill-fated decision to leave the military out of a government pay raise. The resulting anarchy quickly spread throughout the country, and the province of Katanga, with the support of King Baudouin and powerful mining companies, declared independence. As United Nations troops failed to quell the situation, Lumumba appealed to the Soviets, whose intervention succeeded only in causing Lumumba’s political support to crumble.

Kasa-Vuba dismissed Lumumba in September; in response, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vuba deposed — quite illegally, as it happens — and appealed to the Senate, from whom he managed to win a vote of confidence.

At this point, in the heat of the Cold War, things got interesting.

Deposed again, this time in a CIA-endorsed coup, Lumumba found himself under house arrest and under the protection of UN troops. Not certain whether to trust the rule of the various laws surrounding him, Lumumba slipped out under the cover of night and escaped to nearby Stanleyville (now Kisangani), where he believed he had enough supporters to set up his own government — and army, whom one supposes he had by then resolved to pay rather better.

Pursued by forces loyal to the new government, Lumumba was captured and arrested in early December 1960 and charged with “inciting the army to rebellion.” Devoid of his former UN protection, the man who would be the leader of a newly free nation watched as he became a pawn in a much larger struggle. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld appealed to the process of law –- whatever that was –- while the USSR jumped a step ahead, demanding that Lumumba be immediately released and reinstated as prime minister and all UN forces withdrawn.

So much for that. The UN Security Council convened, and, a week later, the USSR’s resolution was defeated. Another, Western-backed resolution that would have given the UN power to act as impartial arbitrator was vetoed by the USSR.

At this point, caught between hostility of Cold War politics and the ever-hazy idea of “international law,” Lumumba languished in the military barracks of an even more hostile government. Hearing of plans for his transfer to barracks at the now-subdued Katanga province, Lumumba was wild on the plane trip and was forcibly restrained after appealing to other passengers to intervene on his behalf. Late at night after his arrival at his new prison, Lumumba was driven to an isolated spot and executed by firing squad. News of his death was not released until three weeks later, when it sparked protests in several European cities over the role of the Belgian government, which denied any involvement.

The extent of US and Belgian involvement in Lumumba’s death remains the subject of ongoing speculation. So does the question of what might have been.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Congo (Kinshasa),Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Summary Executions

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1977: Gary Gilmore

20 comments January 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Gary Gilmore uttered the last words “Let’s do it” and was shot by a five-person firing squad in Utah as the curtain raised on a “modern” death penalty era in the United States.

Famous for volunteering for death — he had nothing but disdain for his outside advocates and angrily prevented his own lawyers pursuing last-minute appeals — Gilmore rocketed through the justice system at a pace now unthinkable.

Mere days after courts blessed the resumption of executions in 1976, the career criminal — just paroled from a decade mostly behind bars in Oregon — murdered two people in the Provo, Utah, area. He was convicted in a three-day trial in October 1976 … and dead little more than three months later.

Owing to his milestone status and the unfamiliar public persona he cut insisting on his own death, Gilmore left a trail of cultural artifacts far surpassing his personal stature as small-time crook.

He was lampooned in an early episode of Saturday Night Live. His public desire to donate his eyes (the wish was granted) inspired a top-20 punk hit:

Norman Mailer wrote a book about Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song) and adapted it into an award-winning television movie. Gary’s brother Mikal published his own memoir (Shot in the Heart), later made into an HBO movie.

In a weirder vein, Gilmore is the touchstone for the surrealistic film Cremaster 2, in which magician Harry Houdini — who might have been Gilmore’s grandfather — is portrayed by Norman Mailer.

Gary Gilmore’s was the first execution of any kind in the United States since June 2, 1967. According to the Espy file, it was also the first firing squad execution since James Rodgers was shot in Utah March 30, 1960; only one of the other 1,098 men and women put to death since Gilmore — John Taylor in 1996, also in Utah — faced a firing squad. (Update: After this post was published, another Utah condemned man also opted for a firing squad execution: Ronnie Lee Gardner, shot in 2010.)

Both Gilmore and Taylor chose to be shot in preference to hanging. The firing squad is all but extinct in the U.S., though it still remains on the books in some form in Idaho, Oklahoma and (for prisoners convicted before 2004) Utah.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Private Execution in America.

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!