1964: Jack Ruby condemned

Add comment March 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Dallas nightclub owner Jacob Rubenstein — notorious to history as Jack Ruby — was condemned to the electric chair for the dramatic live-televised murder of accused John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, captured by snapping shutters in one of the 20th century’s indelible images.

Ruby would never sit on that mercy seat.

For one thing, his punishment arrived as the American death penalty lulled into hibernation. Had he lived his sentence eventually would have been vacated by the 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling. But instead of seeing that juridical landmark, the enigmatic Ruby died in prison inside of three years, awaiting retrial after an appeal.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Infamous,Jews,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Organized Crime,Popular Culture,Texas,USA

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1942: Coastwatchers on Tarawa

1 comment October 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Japanese military occupying the atoll of Tarawa beheaded 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers, along with five civilians.

Tarawa, a fishhook-shaped atoll that belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, was one of many specks of South Pacific land to which Australia and New Zealand deployed World War II Coastwatchers.

These small teams of mixed civilian and service personnel, as well as locals, kept up 24-hour watch for Japanese naval movements.* The tips provided by coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign led Vice Admiral William Halsey to exclaim that “the coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

But their lonely forward positions also potentially exposed coastwatchers to considerable danger.

Even as Guadalcanal was unfolding in August and September in 1942, Japan was fortifying the occupied Gilbert Islands** (present-day Kiribati) in the wake of the Makin Island raid. Seventeen coastwatchers in the Gilberts were swept up in the process, and transferred to Tarawa along with five civilians (three British, one Australian, and one New Zealander). There they were held at the atoll’s old lunatic asylum, on the islet of Betio.

On Oct. 15, Allied planes bombed Tarawa. One of the captives got loose and ran onto the beach, frantically trying to signal the bombers. Instead, the Japanese — who fretted prisoners on their occupied islands becoming a fifth column in the event of an attack — summarily executed not only the signaler but all their captives.

“I saw the Europeans sitting in line,” one Tarawa local remembered later.

One Japanese started to kill the Europeans. He cut off the head of the first European, then the second, then the third, then I did not see any more because I fainted. When I came to, I saw the Japanese carrying the dead bodies to two pits.

In November 1943, a U.S. amphibious invasion took back the island at the bloody Battle of Tarawa. Twelve hundred Americans, and several times that many of the island’s Japanese defenders and Korean war slaves, were slain.

Old gun emplacements from that battle — as well as a monument to the New Zealand coastwatchers — can still be found on Tarawa.†

Catch these sights while they last. The average height above sea level for Kiribati is two meters, making global climate change liable to send the nation’s scattered islands to Atlantis. Kiribati residents have already begun turning up in Australia and New Zealand as climate change refugees.


(cc) image from Nick Hobgood.

* When the occasion arose, coastwatchers also rescued stranded Allied servicemen. After LTJG John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese aircraft carrier in August 1942, it was a pair of Solomon Island natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher who found the future U.S. President and his surviving crew.

** Seven other coastwatchers besides those beheaded this date had been captured in the Gilberts when Japan first (but lightly) occupied it following Pearl Harbor. They survived the war as POWs in mainland Japan.

† There was a monument to the dead coastwatchers from shortly after the war. The remains of the seventeen, however, were long neglected by the New Zealand government, and have only recently been turned up … by Americans scouring Betio for casualties from the Battle of Tarawa.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Kiribati,Mass Executions,New Zealand,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1963: Victor Feguer, by the feds

2 comments March 15th, 2013 Headsman

This date marks half a century since the hanging of Victor Feguer — the last man executed by the federal government in the 20th century. (And the last executed in the state of Iowa, period.)

A drifter holing up at a Dubuque, Iowa, boarding house, Feguer phoned up a random doctor claiming a woman needed medical attention.

Think about that the next time someone gets nostalgic for house calls.

Dr. Edward Bartels showed up only to be kidnapped by Feguer, and eventually murdered in Illinois. Feguer was picked up in Alabama, trying to sell the doctor’s stolen car; his motive for the whole affair was just to get whatever drugs the luckless physician had with him.

The cross-state crime spree put Feguer’s case in the hands of the feds. (It was not, however, a “Lindbergh Law” case, since Feguer was on the hook for capital murder independent of the kidnapping.)

Although Feguer spent his prison time at the federal lockup in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was transported back to Iowa for execution — because that state’s penitentiary had a gallows available.

Iowa still had a death penalty on the books at this time, but it had a death penalty abolitionist for a chief executive; just two years hence, that Gov. Harold Hughes set his pen to the Hawkeye State’s death penalty abolition bill. Iowa hasn’t hanged, shot, electrocuted, poisoned, or otherwise judicially executed anyone since.

It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy, however, who had Victor Feguer’s life in his hands. Despite Gov. Hughes’s support for clemency, Kennedy turned the kidnapper down flat.

Feguer’s last meal, oddly, was a single olive. He tucked the olive’s pit into the new suit he wore to his dawn hanging.

As the death penalty waned into a formal abeyance in the 1970s in the U.S., the federal government stopped executing people for a long, long time. (And stopped hanging people altogether.) The next time a human being was put to death under federal auspices was 38 years later: Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iowa,Kidnapping,Milestones,Murder,U.S. Federal,USA

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1969: Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, assassin of Tom Mboya

7 comments November 8th, 2010 Headsman

At 3 a.m. this date in 1969 at a Nairobi prison that Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge swung for assassinating Kenyan Luo politician Tom Mboya earlier that year … never clarifying the cryptic question he uttered to the authorities, “Why don’t you go after the big man?”

“No African leader has an abler brain or a stronger will,” wrote one Englishwoman who knew Mboya during his lifetime.*

A trade unionist during the waning days of British authority, the ethnically Luo Mboya had become a leading anti-colonial figure as the ethnically Kikuyu Mau Mau were suppressed.

During Kenya’s last years as a British possession, Mboya organized the African American Students Foundation, to provide scholarships for students from British East Africa to study in the United States.

(It was on Mboya’s AASF program — funded by John F. Kennedy — that a promising young Kenyan economics student named Barack Obama studied at the University of Hawaii in the 1960-61 academic year, and got an American girl pregnant. The reader will be familiar with those semesters’ legacy.)

Upon Kenyan independence, Mboya became a Member of Parliament and a cabinet officer, holding the Economic Planning and Development portfolio until he was gunned down on the streets outside a pharmacy on July 5, 1969.

Mboya’s murder by Njoroge,** a youth activist for the Kikuyu-dominated Kenya African National Union party (KANU) that Mboya himself had also joined, was widely read as President Jomo Kenyatta consolidating his own grip on the country and eliminating potential rivals.†

Mboya certainly had the talent and ambition to aspire to leadership in Kenya; little wonder that anger among his Luo people boiled over when Mboya was laid to rest.

Njoroge’s hanging during the pre-dawn hours this date — just days after Kenyatta banned the Luo-based opposition party, making Kenya into a one-party state — was conducted in secret; word only got out in late November, and even then it was not through an official announcement.

Njoroge remains the official lone gunman in this case, the only person ever held to judicial account for Tom Mboya’s convenient elimination. Decades later, however, many are still searching for the real story.

* From the London Times‘ unsigned July 7, 1969 obituary of Mboya.

** Allegedly by Njoroge; the assassin was not caught on the scene and Njoroge denied pulling the trigger, telling the court that Mboya was his longtime friend. (London Times, September 10, 1969) There are plenty who consider Njoroge a fall guy.

Pio Gama Pinto (1965) and Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (1975) were similar

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kenya,Murder,Notable for their Victims

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1961: John A. Bennett, the last American military execution (so far)

14 comments April 13th, 2009 Headsman

As of this date, it’s been 48 years since the United States military last carried out an execution — the Fort Leavenworth hanging* of John Arthur Bennett for rape.

An epileptic black soldier with a family history of mental illness, Bennett had enlisted to find a way up out of sharecropping. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1954, he drunkenly raped a 12-year-old girl near his base in Austria.

He spent six years awaiting execution — “six years,” observed the Los Angeles Times, “in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men — many of them multiple murderers — were saved.”

Bennett dodged two execution dates, once receiving his stay during his last meal, but a seemingly compelling plea for clemency — the victim herself, and her parents, asked for mercy — availed Bennett nothing. His last frantic plea to the new president, John F. Kennedy, was dispatched with only hours yet to live.

I beg in the name of God … Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”

No dice. Kennedy was preoccupied.

Coincidentally, but poignantly for this case, the Kirk Douglas vehicle A Town Without Pity opened a month before Bennett’s execution. In that film (trailer here), four American servicemen face capital trial for the rape of a German girl — and Douglas, as their lawyer, struggles to talk pity into someone so he won’t be obliged to humiliate the victim in court in order to save his clients from the noose.

The victim’s father in that movie is so blinded by his lust for vengeance that he forces Douglas to destroy his own daughter: striking contrast with the real-life father of Bennett’s flesh-and-blood victim, who wrote in support of clemency for his daughter’s assailant, “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”

Bennett’s milestone, however, is hardly assured of lasting much beyond this 49th year.

In 2008, President George W. Bush affirmed the death sentence of condemned Army cook Ronald Gray, the first such action by any U.S. president since Bennett’s day. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Death Row USA most current as of this writing,** Gray is one of nine prisoners currently on the U.S. military’s death row.

* Curious to know about the procedure? The Library of Congress has that period’s Procedure for Military Executions — complete with exact diagrams — online in pdf form.

** Death Row USA, Summer 2008 (direct pdf link)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Milestones,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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1963: Ngo Dinh Diem

10 comments November 2nd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of South Vietnam, was executed in the back of an armored personnel carrier along with his younger brother and secret police chief, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the day after their government had been overthrown in a military coup.

Born into the Buddhist country’s Catholic elite, Diem was brought up as a French colonial administrator but fled Vietnam in 1950 under a death sentence from Ho Chi Minh’s nascent Vietminh. Over several years living and lecturing in the United States, he established his anti-communist bona fides with influential conservatives and was returned to his native country as Prime Minister when the U.S. inherited the foundering French war against nationalist guerrillas.

Fearing communist victory at the polls, Diem blocked scheduled 1956 elections to unify North and South Vietnam, making an interim division permanent. But Diem made an inconsistent American client, often spurning Washington’s advice and alienating the Buddhist majority with heavy-handed authoritarianism that eventually prompted Buddhist monks to begin public self-immolation as a form of protest.

The government responded by arresting monks.

By now more a liability than an asset, Diem was ousted with the blessing of a fellow Catholic head of state, John F. Kennedy.

This first successful coup — Diem had already quashed attempted putsches in 1960 and 1962 — began a cycle of internecine revolts in which weak South Vietnamese governments were toppled in rapid succession … leaving Saigon ever more visibly the puppet of Washington, and dragging the United States ever more deeply into the Vietnam War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Heads of State,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Vietnam

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