1851: Ruben Dunbar, Destructiveness and Combativeness

Add comment January 31st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1851, Ruben Dunbar hanged in New York for murdering two little boys: the 8- and 10-year-old nephews to his widowed mother’s second husband. Thanks to the mother’s remarriage, these boys had supplanted Dunbar as the heirs to his mother’s property.

We’re indebted for attention to this case to our crime-blogging friends at Murder by Gaslight, who also call attention to a short pamphlet entitled “Phrenological Character of Reuben Dunbar, With a Short Treatise on The Casuses and Prevention of Crime”. This item is available free from Google Books and contains the findings of a phrenologist — Margaret Thompson — who examined Dunbar. (Phrenology was already into an advanced stage of disrepute by the 1850s.)

We begin with the core metrics:

His physiology is sound and good. He has a fair proportion of all the temperaments, with a predominance of the vital. The size of his head is 22 3/4 inches in curcumference, over the organs of Individuality and Philoprogenitiveness; and 13½ inches over the top, from Destructiveness to Destructiveness, over Firmness. The size of his phrenological developments, on a scale of from one to seven, are as follows:

Amativeness, 5; Philoprogenitiveness, 4; Adhesiveness, 6; Inhabitiveness, 5; Concentrativeness, 4; Vitativeness, 6; Combativeness, 6; Destructiveness, 6; Alimentiveness, 6; Acquisitiveness, 6; Secretiveness, 7; Cautiousness, 6 to 7; Approbativeness, 7; Self-Esteem, 4; Firmness, 7; Consceintiousness, 4; Hope[,[ 5; Marvellousness, 4; Veneration, 4; Benevolence, 5; Constructiveness, 5; Ideality, 4; Sublimity, 5; Imitation, 5; Mirthfulness, 5; Individuality, 6; Form, 6; Size, 6; Weight, 6; Color, 6; Order, 6; Calculation, 5; Locality, 6; Eventuality, 6; Time, 5; Language, 5; Causality, 5; Comparison, 6

Several pages then elucidate the weight and combination of these figures in the estimation of the examiner, also neatly retrofitting the crime that she knows Dunbar stands accused of.

Philoprogenitiveness is only average. He might love his own children, but would not care for the children of others; and his large Destructiveness and Combativeness would incline him naturally to be impatient, severe, and even cruel with children over whom he has control.

His selfish propensities are large, while his moral faculties are between full and average. In such an organization the selfish feelings have a very powerful influence, and without great care and constant exercise of the moral organs, will be sure to gain the ascendancy. Acquisitiveness is large and very active. This gives him a strong desire to obtain money, property, &c.; and with his inferior moral brain, would lead him to be penurious and covetous. Secretiveness is very large. He is exceedingly cunning, and capable of acting artfully and deceitfully; has uncommon power to conceal his real feelings. Seldom discloses his plans to others; is secretive and says little. Destructiveness and Combativeness are large also; so is firmness. These, with his other combination of organs, make him quarrelsome, harsh, severe, self-willed, tenacious of his rights, wilful, and desperately determined.

All told, she reckons, Dunbar labored under “an unfortunate organization; one in which the animal propensities govern, because the moral faculties are not sufficiently large to balance and control them.”

Thompson’s pamphlet then pivots curiously from her diagnosis of Dunbar to that of his entire society, and reaches her own science’s strange circuits a familiar conclusion:

Crime is caused by an abuse or perverted action of the animal propensities, owing principally to education, and partly to the hereditary transmission of those faculties from parents to their children … It is a fact which comes within the range of our observation daily, that the faculties of Destructiveness and Combativeness are almost universally strengthened and encouraged in children by severe and coercive measures … Punishment with the rod invariably tends to give a highly stimulated and perverted action to Destructiveness and Combativeness … by repeated whippings an increased quantity of blood is sent to the base of the brain, and it is thereby inflamed and excited, and increased in size and activity. If children are punished in anger, and from a spirit of retaliation, we may reasonably expect to see in them, when full grown and matured, an abnormal exercise of Destructiveness and Combativeness.

Thompson recommends a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice, a combination of instruction and what she calls “the law of love” — “of the efficacy and power of kindness over man, even when in ruins, and sunk to the lowest depths of sin and degradation. However far he may have wandered from the paths of truth and virtue, still he is a man and a brother — an immortal being, having claims on our sympathy, and our best efforts to reform him and make him happy.”

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1731: Alejo Calatayud, Mestizo

Add comment January 31st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1731, rebel Alejo Calatayud was beheaded in present-day Bolivia.

A silversmith of mixed Spanish and native lineage, Calatayud (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was all of 25 years old when he came to the fore of an indigenous-Mestizo rising in the Andean Cochabamba valley.

What began as a tax revolt against fresh impositions being mooted for the province soon gathered grievances of both class and caste and frightened the empire with a massacre of 39 Spaniards when the rebels overran the city of Cochabamba.

Ultimately, it was more rebellion than revolution — one among a sporadic series of resistance movements in the Andes — and was quelled within weeks by the intervention of a Spanish viceroy for whom the quick dispatch of the insurrectionary leader was no more than natural.

Today, Cochabamba remembers its very brief master Calatayud with an excitingly kinetic equestrian monument.

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1550: Four Anabaptist martyrs at Lier

Add comment January 31st, 2016 Headsman

The Martyrs Mirror hagiography of Reformation martyrs offers us these four stalwart subjects of the Habsburgs’ Low Countries patrimony:

On the last of January, 1550, there were offered up for the faith, at Lier, in Brabant, four pious Christians, named Govert, Gillis, Mariken and Anneken, who, as sheep for the slaughter, had been apprehended without violence. When they were brought before the council, and questioned concerning their faith, they made a frank and unfeigned confession of it. The bailiff then said, “You stand here to defend yourselves?”

Govert replied, “As regards my faith, I have freely confessed it, and shall turn to no other; though it cost my life, I will adhere to it.”

Forthwith the imperial edict* was read to them, and the bailiff asked them whether they understood its contents.

Govert said, “God has commanded us through Christ, as is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved, and that those who do not believe shall be damned; but the emperor, in his blind judgment, has commanded that whoever is baptized upon his faith, shall be put to death without mercy. These two commands militate against each other; one of the two we must forsake; but everyone ought to know that we must keep the command of God; for though Satan teaches that we are heretics, yet we do not act contrary to the Word of God.”

When they were led to the tribunal, Govert said to the priests, “Take off your long robes, put on sack cloth, put ashes on your heads, and repent, like those of Nineveh.”

In the court the bailiff asked him whether he desired no favor.

He replied, “I will not ask for your favor; for what I cannot do without, the most high God will give me.”

The bailiff said also to Anneken, “Do you not desire a favor, before sentence is passed upon you?

She answered, “I shall ask favor of God, my refuge.”

Mariken, an old woman of seventy-five years, was asked whether she would confess her sins to the priest.

She replied, “I am sorry that I ever confessed my sins to the mortal ears of the priests.”

Seeing some brethren, Govert turned his face and joyfully comforted them, saying among other things, “I pray God, that you may be thus imprisoned for His glory, as I now am.”

The bailiff very fiercely said, “Be still, for your preaching is of no account here.”, “My lord bailiff,” said he,”I speak only five or six words, which God has given me to speak, does this give you so much pain?” And when the people murmured on this account, he said, “This has been witnessed from the time of righteous Abel, that the righteous have suffered reproach; hence be not astonished.” The two servants that stood by him said, “You must not speak; the bailiff will not have it; hence be still.”

Immediately God closed his mouth, which grieved many. Gillis was not questioned, and he said nothing at all; but they were led back to prison, where they rejoiced together, and sang: Saligh is den man, en goet geheeten; and also the forty-first psalm. The bailiff then came into prison, and asked Govert, whether he had considered the matter; to which be replied, “Unless you repent, the punishment of God shall come upon you.” The bailiff looked out of the window, and said, “Will God damn all this multitude of people?”

Govert replied, “I have spoken the Word of God to you; but I hope there are still people here who fear God?”

The bailiff then turned to Anneken, and asked her what she had to say to it.

She replied, “Lord bailiff, twice I have been greatly honored in this city, namely, when I was married, and when my husband became emperor; but I never had a joy that did not perish, as I now have.”

On his way to death, Govert delivered an excellent admonition, reproving the wicked railing, and said, “Be it known to you, that we do not die for theft, murder or heresy, but because we seek an inheritance with God, and live according to His Word.”

The executioner commanded him silence, but he said, “Leave God be with me for a little while; repent, for your life is short.”

A brother then said, “God will strengthen you.” “Oh, yes,” said he, “the power of His Spirit is not weakening in me.”

The monk attempted to speak to Mariken, but Govert said, “Get you hence, deceiver, to your own people; for we have no need of you.”

Entering the ring, Govert said to the gild-brothers, “How you stand here with sticks and staves? Thus stood the Jews when they brought Christ to death; if we had been afraid of this, we would have fled in time.”

They then knelt down together, and prayed; whereupon they kissed each other. Anneken immediately commenced to sing, “In thee, O Lord; do I put my trust.” The servants told her to be still; but Govert said, “No, sister, sing on,” and helped her sing. Enraged at this, the bailiff called to him a servant, and whispered something in his ear. The latter went to the assistant of the executioner, who, upon receiving the order, immediately put a gag on Govert; but the latter held his teeth so firmly closed, that the gag did not hinder him much, and he laughingly said, “I could easily sing with the gag on; but Paul says: “Sing in your heart to God.”

The executioner, in order to put her to shame, made Anneken stand in her bare chemise. A servant asked Gillis whether he did not see some of his people. Gillis said, “Do you know of nothing else to torment us with?” “What does he say?” asked Govert. “He inquires for our fellow brethren,” replied Gillis. Govert said, “Though I could count twenty, I would not mention a single one. You think that by killing us you can suppress the Word of God; but of those that hear and see this, hundreds shall yet come forth.” Standing at the stake, he said, “Amend your ways and repent; for after this there will be no more time for repentance.” A servant who had a bottle of wine, asked them whether they wished to drink. Govert said, “We have no desire for your insipid wine; for our Father shall give us new wine in His eternal kingdom.” When it was thought that the old woman had been strangled at the stake, she began to sing a hymn in honor of her Bridegroom, which when Anneken heard it, she, from ardent love, sang with her. When they all stood at their stakes, each with a strap around the neck, they smiled at and nodded to one another, thus affectionately saluting and comforting each other, and commending their souls into the hands of God, they fell asleep in the Lord, and were burned.

* A 1535 edict against Anabaptists, issued in the aftermath of the Muenster rebellion.

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1679: Robert Foulkes, adulterous minister

Add comment January 31st, 2015 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

This unhappy gentleman was a divine of the Church of England, and had been very much esteemed for his learning and abilities. Few men were more capable of shining in a church, or had a greater share of that sacred eloquence so requisite in a preacher. He was minister of Stanton-Lacy, in the county of Salop, where he was exceedingly followed and admired till his crimes came to be known, and where he might have been beloved till death in a natural way had taken him hence, and then universally lamented, if his heart had been as well furnished with grace as his head was with knowledge and his tongue with expressions.

A young gentlewoman of a considerable fortune, who had been left an infant by her parents, was committed to his care by her executors, as to a man who, they trusted, would not only deal justly by her, but also instruct her betimes in the principles of religion, and her several duties as a Christian. But, alas! how weak is human nature, and how soon are we tempted aside from the ways of piety! Mr. Foulkes, instead of answering the purpose of the young woman’s friends, was soon smitten with her charms, and took an opportunity of discovering a criminal passion for her, though he had at that time a virtuous wife and two children living. The young lady too easily consented to gratify his lust, and they continued their conversation together till she became pregnant.

All the means he could think of to procure abortion were now tried, and they all proved ineffectual; so that they must be both exposed to scandal, unless she could be removed to some convenient place, remote from the eyes of the world, and from the jealousies of Mrs. Foulkes, where she might be delivered of her burden, which was not yet perceived. A plausible excuse for his going up to London was soon formed, and for his taking Miss along with him, who at that time was under twenty years of age. When they arrived in town they took a lodging in York Buildings in the Strand, where she lay in, and where (shocking to think of!) the child was privately murdered, to prevent the infamy that might follow.

But divine vengeance would not suffer this horrible deed to remain long concealed, for before Mr. Foulkes went out of town the girl was examined upon the suspicion of some women, when she confessed the whole, and charged Mr. Foulkes with the murder, who was thereupon apprehended and committed to Newgate; in a short time after which he was condemned at the sessions house in the Old Bailey, upon the evidence of the young woman. On the 31st of January, 1679, he was executed at Tyburn.

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1902: A day in the death penalty around the Pacific Northwest

Add comment January 31st, 2014 Headsman

The U.S. states of Washington and Oregon both hanged murderers on this date in 1902.

Oregon

The death knell for local public(ish) hangings in Oregon took place this morning in the courthouse of Portland’s courthouse under the eyes of 400 invited witnesses and numerous additional gawkers who scaled telegraph poles or stationed themselves on nearby rooftops.

Jack Wade and William Dalton hanged together for murdering one James Morrow just three months for two bits. It was an uncomplicated crime: the villains stuck Morrow up as the latter returned one night from paying court to a young lady, then shot him when Morrow made a sudden move.

On hanging day, the pair addressed an ample breakfast of ham, chicken and eggs, knocked out some hymns and an impromptu rendition of “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?”

… and then took a cavalier stroll to the gallows where Wade displeased right-thinking folk with his devil-may-care attitude towards his own execution. He tossed a cigar to the crowd, and played his fingers over the hemp as the rope was fastened, remarking with a wink, “it is tough.”

While the hanging itself went off without a hitch, the curious onlookers pushed through the rail meant to restrain them once the bodies were cut down and began scrabbling for bits of hemp. The sheriff finally had to clear the courtyard.

Even worse, “ten or 12 women witnessed the execution” from atop a building at Fifth and Main street, according to the Oregonian‘s report the next day. “It is doubtful if such a thing ever occurred before at a legal hanging in this country.”

The legislature some years previous had tried to get a handle on execution decorum by moving hangings off public squares and into jails, so this public(ish) execution wasn’t technically public at all. But as seen, these facilities with their barrier-toppling invited mobs and conspicuously feminized illicit peepers surrounding still affronted the alleged solemnity of the moment and led the legislature at its next sitting in 1903 to enact a statute requiring that “all executions should take place within the walls of the [state] penitentiary, out of the hearing and out of sight of all except officials.”

Wade and Dalton weren’t actually the last to hang publicly(ish) in Oregon, however. Since the law wasn’t retroactive, several additional executions occurred after the penitentiary-hanging law was enacted — the last as late as 1905. (See Necktie Parties: A History of Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905).

Washington

Chinese immigrant Lum You was hanged at South Bend, Washington on January 31, 1902. He shot a man named Oscar Bloom during a drinking bout that turned into a drunken bout.

Lum You actually escaped his condemned cell on January 14 when his dinner was being fetched by the jailer and on the loose for a couple of days, but was recaptured on January 17 by a posse. He allegedly begged them to shoot him dead right there, then changed his mind when some business-minded character actually produced a weapon. (Credit to the great Northwest for its highly accommodating vigilantes.)

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1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

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1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon

2 comments January 31st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Takahashi Oden was put to death for murder at Tokyo’s execution grounds — the last woman beheaded in Japanese history.

Oden confessed to slaying her lover, and was also suspected of poisoning off her husband.

This made her perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s dokufu, poison-women — a perceived epidemic of the early Meiji period. Oden’s infamy thrust her into the crime genre’s characteristic harvest pulp literature, like Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari. (Takahashi Oden, the She-Demon’s Tale)

“Oden’s body became part of a scientific discourse that worked to produce ‘knowledge’ about feminine norms based on determinist biological differences,” Sharon Chalmers observes. “Deviancy was also characterised in terms of ‘masculine’ traits … [and] female transgression was read as sexual excess.”

And the feeding frenzy of the popular press around each new dokufu only exaggerated the effect: the sexual rapacity angle moved media.*

Since Japan was all about divining the secrets of the human form from the condemned, Oden was dissected after her death.

According to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, the anatomizing team was especially keen on delineating that scientific discourse of feminine deviance. And, of course, the pamphleteers were keen on publicizing it. In this case, standing as we do today outside the surgeons’ intellectual framework, we can readily discern the corpse’s role for these men as grist for the ideological mill.

Immediately following her execution, her body was taken to the hospital affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Office (Keishicho) and dissected by an army surgeon and three regular doctors. Some accounts of this autopsy reveal that these doctors focused their attention on Oden’s genitalia during the procedure. Her bizarre autopsy is said to have been prompted by a newly emerging field of study called zokaki ron, roughly “the study of (re)productive organs.” A cross between sheer superstition and legitimate study of anatomy, zokaki ron was getting much scholarly as well as popular attention as one of the branches of science recently introduced from the West. After the autopsy, the primary operating surgeon, Osanai ken (1848-85), made the following report on Oden: “Abnormal thickness and swelling of the labia minor. Over-development of clitoris. Enlargement of vagina.” For Osanai — a skilled physician who is credited with having performed the first operation in Japan with chloroform and even makes an appearance in Shibue Chusai (1916), a novel by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) about a doctor of Chinese medicine in late Edo period Japan — such physical abnormalities explained Oden’s violent nature: after all, she ruthlessly slit her victim’s throat and left him in a pool of his own blood, and it took several blows for the authorities to execute her as she kicked and screamed in resistance.


Autopsy of Takahashi Oden, from Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari.

Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Oden’s day, she was the subject of a 1958 Nobuo Nakagawa film, Dokufu Takahashi Oden.


Katsuko Wakasugi as the title character in Dokufu Takahashi Oden.

* For more on the Oden story as crime literature, see Mark Silver’s “The Lies and Connivances of an Evil Woman: Early Meiji Realism and ‘The Tale of Takahashi Oden the She-Devil'” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2003 — or, his book Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937.

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1955: Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar

1 comment January 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1955, two Egyptian Jews enrolled by Israeli intelligence as saboteurs were hanged in Cairo.

Marzouk (left) and Azar, from this page.

The strange and disturbing “Lavon affair” — or “Esek habish,” the “shameful affair” — has never had a completely satisfying explanation.

It broke in 1954, when Egypt arrested a ring comprised of Egyptian Jews who had bombed locations in Alexandria and Cairo, including an American diplomatic post, in an apparent false flag operation meant to be attributed to the radical Muslim Brotherhood. (The apparent operation had a recent precedent.)

The germ and the goal of this project have been fodder for speculation ever since; the most commonly accepted theory is that it was intended to trigger western intervention or pressure on Egypt that would prevent Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal.

Initially blamed on the Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, unrelated court testimony in 1960 would reveal that he was a fall guy.

But in any guise, the hangings this day in Cairo prompted national mourning in Israel and an immediate political shakeup whose dimensions might as well have sprung from this morning’s paper:

The dovish government of Moshe Sharett fell; hawkish founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was recalled from retirement in a Negev kibbutz; and Israel launched a reprisal raid at Gaza. Little more than two years later, Israel and Egypt would contest control of the Suez on the battlefield.

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1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion

122 comments January 31st, 2009 dogboy

On January 31, 1945, Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik became a curious outlier of World War II: he was executed by firing squad by the U.S. Army for desertion. He is the only person to have been so punished for that crime since the Civil War.

Pvt Slovik was, by all accounts, quiet and helpful, by no means a coward, and more than willing to aid in the effort of World War II, traits which would have put him among a large class of that war’s veterans. Unfortunately, he was also immobilized by shelling. Equally unfortunately, he knew it, and he decided to do something about it.

Slovik and a friend, Pvt John F. Tankey, first separated from their detachment under artillery fire in late August 1944, shortly after being shipped to France. The pair hooked up with a Canadian unit and spent six weeks pitching in. Having recused themselves from the hard shelling others were experiencing on the front line, they opted to rejoin their regular U.S. unit: Slovik and Tankey sent a letter to their commanding officer explaining their absence and returned on Oct. 7.

But the front lines were not a place for Pvt Slovik.

After his assignment to the rifle unit, which would face imminent danger during shelling, Slovik asked to be placed in the rear guard, indicating he was too scared to remain in front. His request was refused. He then reportedly asked whether leaving the unit again would be considered desertion, was told it would be, and opted for the seemingly safer route of, well, deserting. One day later, Slovik was back at a U.S. camp, this time turning himself in to the camp cook. He had drafted a letter explaining his actions and indicating that he knowingly deserted, permanently recording his guilt on paper.

It’s not clear whether Pvt Slovik was acting on principles or out of an understanding of the U.S. military judicial system. He was by no means the only soldier without affinity for the conditions of war, particularly on the allied side. During the war, thousands of soldiers were tried and convicted in military courts for desertion, but up to then, all had received only time in the brig. What is clear is that Slovik was repeatedly offered opportunities to return to the line, and he equally repeatedly refused.

The case was adjudicated on Nov 11 by nine staff officers of the 28th Division, none of whom had yet been in battle. One of those judges, Benedict B. Kimmelman, wrote a stark and intriguing account of his role in the story of Pvt Slovik, capturing the scene thusly:

Five witnesses were heard. The cross-examinations were perfunctory. The defense made no closing argument. The court recessed for ten minutes, resumed, and retired almost immediately afterward. Three ballots were taken in closed court, the verdicts unanimously guilty on all counts. In open court once more, the president announced the verdict and the sentence: to be dishonorably discharged, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be shot to death with musketry. The trial had begun at 10:00 A.M.; it was over at 11:40 A.M.

As with all court martial cases, Slovik’s was sent to a judge advocate for review. His criminal record, including everything from destruction of property to public intoxication to embezzlement, did not endear him to the reviewer. More importantly, though, the advocate felt Slovik could be made an example:

He has directly challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.

Strangely, Pvt Slovik was the only person who would be exemplified this way.

Though the military tried 21,000 desertion cases and passed down 49 death sentences for desertion during the war, it carried out only Slovik’s. And in the war’s final battles, with Germany collapsing, his execution seemed like a surreal throwback. As Kimmelman notes, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were strictly guilty of dereliction of duty and desertion in the waning days of 1944.

They’re not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army — thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old. (Source)

Three weeks after his conviction and three weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, Slovik’s execution order was confirmed by the 28th Division’s commander, Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota. Cota was disturbed by Slovik’s forthrightness in confessing to the desertion, and, as a front line commander who had sustained severe casualty rates in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, had no sympathy for the crime.

After an appeal to the deaf ears of Dwight Eisenhower shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, Slovik was out of options. He was taken to the courtyard of an estate near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and shot by 11 Army marksmen* at 10 a.m. By 10:04, as they were reloading, he was declared dead. His body was interred at a French cemetery, and after decades of lobbying the U.S. government, his remains were returned to Michigan in 1987.

Because he was dishonorably discharged, Slovik was not entitled to a pension, and his wife, Antoinette, stopped receiving payments. Curiously, though the Army managed to communicate this to her, they omitted the bit about the execution. She found out in 1953 from William Bradford Huie.

Huie was a journalist who took immediate interest in Slovik’s story, popularizing it with his book The Execution of Private Slovik, which was released in 1954. Twenty years later, the book and title were requisitioned for a well-received TV movie starring Martin Sheen.

Perhaps more interesting than this film was its never-produced predecessor, which is entitled to a place in the history of the Hollywood Blacklist. Frank Sinatra acquired rights to The Execution of Private Slovik and in 1960 announced that he would produce it as his directorial debut — with the script of this inherently political story to be written by “Hollywood Ten” blacklistee Albert Maltz. Maltz and other blackballed writers had continued working pseudonymously during the anti-Communist blacklist, but Sinatra’s openly announcing an intent to hire and credit Maltz constituted a significant crack in the wall — even though commercial and political heat eventually forced Sinatra to abandon the project. This event has treatment in a recommended episode of the magnificent cinema-history podcast You Must Remember This.

* The firing squad included 12 marksmen, but one was given a blank. Despite their skill, the 11 remaining shooters did not manage to kill him instantaneously.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guest Writers,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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