2001: Zhang Jun and his gang

2 comments May 20th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2001, an infamous crime lord and 13 members of his gang were put to death in two Hunan Province cities.

Suave serial bank robber Zhang Jun had a reported 28 deaths on his conscience, including such underworld classics as forcing a lover to execute someone in order to prove her loyalty, in a years-long spree of robbery and mayhem. He was a major catch early in China’s execution-rich “strike hard” crime crackdown.

Despite-slash-because of the body trail, the cool Zhang — who appeared in court dressed modishly and flaunting such indifference to death that he disdained to defend himself — attracted a strain of fandom for his “gangland chic”.

He’s kind of like the gangsters in the movies, really likable.

The authorities, and his many victims, liked him less.


A still shot from the broadcast of Zhang Jun’s trial.

According to Courts and Criminal Justice in Contemporary China, the gang’s trial had the distinction of being the first ever broadcast live in China.

Zhang Jun’s trial was notable for its ripples in other media as well. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that several writers and editors were demoted or fired after publishing a story in Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) exploring the gang’s roots in poverty and inequality … a take deemed inimical to the dialectical historical march of the Peoples’ Republic. (See here for some of the more approved commentary angles.)

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Infamous,Mass Executions,Milestones,Murder,Organized Crime,Shot,Theft

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1968: Nguyen Van Lem

24 comments February 1st, 2009 Headsman

Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured perhaps the war’s most unforgettable image.

An American cameraman also captured it in on celluloid. Caution: This clip shows … well, a man being shot in the head at point-blank range.

Though the image brought Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he would express discomfort with it later in life, and eulogized General Loan in Time magazine when he died in the U.S. in 1998.

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian family members; that Loan was a good officer and not a cold-blooded killer.

Adams’ editor has said that many such summary executions were taking place during the Battle of Saigon — a broader context to the image no matter its specific fairness to the executioner.

But of course, the shot gained its deeper resonance from the growing disgust with the Vietnam War … and from its concise tableau of a century’s brutality. Here is a frozen image of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Like any great work of art, Adams’ serendipitous photograph took on a life of its own … and a tapestry of meanings richer than its creator could ever have intended.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer

9 comments January 19th, 2009 Headsman

Outside Paris’s La Roquette prison this morning in 1870, mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was guillotined for the sensational butchery of a family of eight.

Katherine Taylor’s In the Theater of Criminal Justice conceptualizes Troppmann‘s crime and trial as a test case for the evolving public performance of justice.

The Alsatian-born Troppmann, or Traupmann (French Wikipedia page | German) was apprehended trying to catch a ship for America shortly after a murdered woman and her five murdered children were discovered on the Plaine de Pantin on the outskirts of Paris.

The horrific state of the bodies (caution: link displays grisly post-mortem photos) produced a public sensation with the curious phenomenon of mass citizen pilgrimmages to the “field of cadavers” such that the Parisian police chief would later remember that “[i]t was necessary to close the entrance gate of the train station on the crowd that could no longer go in or out, that screamed from every direction in explosions of terror and rage: ‘Yet another victim of Pantin!'”

Troppmann had last been seen accompanying family father Jean Kinck on a business trip from which the latter was destined never to return … and it soon came to light that Jean Kinck had been the first of Troppmann’s victims, followed by the eldest son, interspersed with letters written to Kinck’s unwitting widow requesting bank transfers in the name of his deceased business partner.

As a judicial matter, this case was open and shut; Troppmann was convicted three months after his arrest, and went under the blade three weeks after that.

But the immense public fascination he generated would be a milestone in the development of the French tabloid press, which did brisk business* stoking the lucrative hysteria.

Small wonder such a staggering throng assembled for the dawn beheading — assembled even from the previous evening, to catch a glimpse of the grim apparatus being assembled for the next day’s play.

Among the multitude were various intellectual worthies, including the liberal Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His subsequent “Kazn’ Tropmana” (“The Execution of Troppmann” — the link is in Russian; I haven’t found a full English version), which includes meeting the remorseless prisoner and witnessing his pre-execution “toilette,” reflects the writer’s discomfiture with Madame Guillotine. Too appalled to watch the beheading, he turns away and narrates its sound.

a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile … Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. … None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder

“I will not forget that horrible night,” Turgenev later wrote to a friend (pdf link), “in the course of which ‘I have supp’d full of horrors’ and acquired a definite loathing for capital punishment in general, and in particular for the way it is carried out in France.”

Most others present are presumed to have experienced the opposite sensation, as made plain in this more democratic English-language account freely available from Google books. Nevertheless, Troppmann enjoyed a literary afterlife with a poetic name-check in Maurice Rollinat’s Les Nevroses (French link; “Soliloque de Troppmann” is about 75% of the way down the page); and as noted in Richard Burton’s Blood in the City, death-obsessed Georges Bataille used the infamous surname for both a pen name and the name of a main character in two separate works more than half a century later. (Update: Victor Hugo got in on the act, too. See the comments.)

Although Troppmann’s name appears on some lists of serial killers, his eight homicides do not fit the term’s usual definition of a compulsive pattern of murders spread over time. Troppmann’s blood offerings were meant for no other idol but Mammon.

* According to Thomas Cragin’s Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830-1900, the circulation of everyman broadsheet Le Petit Journal surged by 50% overnight after the discovery of Troppmann’s victims — “But just as cases such as this one could boost sales, their absence temporarily reduced circulation … [and] its publishers tried to ensure a steady supply [of murder stories].”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Mature Content,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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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.

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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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1979: Eleven by a Firing Squad in Iran

13 comments August 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the only anonymous photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize captured nine Kurdish rebels and two of the Shah’s policemen executed by firing squad in revolutionary Iran.

This shot, one of a series taken of the event with the permission of the judge who condemned the men to immediate death in a half-hour trial at the Sanandaj airfield, ran the next day in the Iranian paper Ettela’at, whose editor prudently kept the photographer’s identity secret. Within two days, the stunning photo had rocketed around the world.

It won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography the following spring, still credited anonymously.

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed — with the photographer’s permission — the identity of the man who shot this indelible image: Jahangir Razmi, who had gone on to a career as one of Iran’s top photographic journalists. He came to New York to collect the prize 27 years late.

The article breaking the story is still available on the Journal‘s website, and on the personal site of reporter Joshua Prager. An NPR story discussing the search for Razmi’s identity is here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iran,Malaysia,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Murder,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason

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1882: Thomas Egan: 3 tries, 2 ropes, 1 innocent man

3 comments July 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Thomas Egan was hanged in Sioux Falls in the Dakota Territories (present-day South Dakota) for strangling his wife, Mary.

It took three tries to get the hanging right … and it still turned out they got it wrong: years later, Egan’s stepdaughter copped to the crime on her deathbed.

Egan was the first man hanged (.doc) by state officers in the Dakota Territory; earlier, Jack McCall had been executed there by the feds.

Let’s start with the twice-botched hanging, whose can’t-look-away horror can hardly be improved from its original coverage by The Chicago Tribune (picked up elsewhere as well — such as The Alexandria Post of Douglas County, Minnesota):

A HORRIBLE AFFAIR.

The Execution of Thomas Egan, the Wife Murderer, at Sioux Falls, Dak — The Drop Fails Three Times Before the Culprit is Deprived of Life, Owing to Rotten Ropes.

On Thursday, July 13, occurred at Sioux Falls the first judicial hanging ever done in the territory of Dakota. Nearly two years ago Thomas Egan, who suffered the death penalty, most foully and cruelly murdered his wife, with whom he had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. From evidence produced at the trial it would appear that they had frequent quarrels which at length culminated on this fatal morning in her death. He deliberately sent the children away, and while she was washing dishes at the table came behind her, and after throwing a rope around her neck and strangling her, pounded the life out of her with a club. The body was then thrown through a trap door into the cellar, where it was found three days after, horribly mutilated. The skull was fractured and the head was covered with frightful gashes made by the club. It appeared also as if she were not dead when thrown down, as she was discovered partly reclining against the call [sic] of the cellar, which added to the horribleness of the crime. Eagen [sic] was arrested and tried, and although there was every effort made by his attorneys to save him; he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Sioux Falls by Judge Kidder of the Fourth judicial district of the territory.

On Thursday, 13th, after eating a hearty breakfast, hearing the sentence read, and some religious exercises by a Catholic priest, Eagan [sic] was taken to the gallows. All eyes were intently fixed on the prisoner. His face was somewhat pale, but his lips were firm and he seemed to exhibit no sign of fear. He was a straight, heavy-set man, weighing 180 lbs., with a retreating forehead, heavy projecting eyebrows and an ugly looking eye. His general appearance was far from prepossessing. He was dressed in a plain black suit, with clean white shirt, collar and tie, and low shoes. He walked straight up to the platform to the scaffold, taking his place on the fatal trap, turned around and faced the crowd below. The sheriff now asked him if he had any thing to day [sic], but his lips still were kept sealed to his secret, and he shook his head and answered in a low voice, “No.” His legs were now tied, he himself assisting the officer by placing his feet close together. The black cap was put on his head, but not a limb quivered. The noose was adjusted and the fatal moment had come. While the priests were chanting their solemn service, and while the attending officers and crowd were holding their breath in silence, the sheriff touched the trigger which alone kept Thomas Egan from his death. There was a crash as the door flew back against the boards and body, deprived of its footing, shot through the door, and now, horror or horrors!

The rope snaps like a piece of thread, the body drops to the earth with a dull thud, partly on its back, and rebounding rolls over on its face. The crowd are paralyzed with astonishment and fear. An unearthly gurgling sound now breaks forth from the prisoner. His neck is not broken, but the cord is wound tightly about it and he is strangling. A half a dozen men now rush forward, one seizes him by the arm, another by the leg, another by the waist, another by the head. It is seventy-five feet from the ground, where he has fallen, back to the jail-door, and around to the platform of the scaffold he is hurriedly conveyed through the crowd, the broken rope in the meanwhile dangling from his neck, while his horrible groaning strikes terror to the bystanders. Once more on the scaffold, another rope is adjusted and the sickening details once more gone through with, the trap falls again and the half dead man drops once more; but worse. The rope was not fully adjusted before the excited sheriff again touched the trigger and down the body goes a second time but not with sufficient force to accomplish the desired result.

His neck is still unbroken, and the slow process of suffocation is all this time going on. The attendants seize him by the arms and again pull him on the scaffold while the death struggle continues. The first rope is flopping from his neck and he still has life enough, so one says who was on the scaffold, to brace his feet for the third and last fall. If at this juncture some one had mercifully stepped up and put a bullet through his head, it would have been an act which would have certainly been appreciated by the crowd. The rope is finally fixed, the door drops once again, the man shoots down, and there is a snap which is heard all around the yard and outside. There is a shrugging of the shoulders, a twitching of the legs a convulsive shudder and all is still. The body swings slowly around. There is no motion of leg or arm or muscle, and in eight and one half minutes the doctors pronounced him dead, and shortly after the body was taken down. Yes, he is dead at last, and the sightseers heave a genuine sigh of relief. The corpse is now cut down and the pinioned arms and legs released. The dirt was brushed from the clothing and body laid in a coffin, where it was afterwards viewed by the crowd, both outside and inside the jail. The effects of the strangulation were fearfully evidence about the neck. The first cord had embedded itself, but the action of the heart had forced the blood under it and the flesh was swollen, purpled and discolored. There was a sightless stare to the eyes and blood was flowing out of the corners of his mouth. After all those desiring had seen the corpse it was boxed up, and early in the afternoon it was taken to the Catholic burying-ground where it was buried, and with it the club and cord with which he killed his wife.

Nobody in a position to help Egan knew he hadn’t “most foully and cruelly murdered his wife” or that “the horribleness of the crime” stained some other’s soul, of course … but one wonders how the writer thinks he did know it. The obscure considerations of jurymen might well be the most virtuous structural safeguard of the Republic, but as a dependable compass of fact, one might as well scry the entrails of a sacred ox.

It has always seemed misfortunate to the Headsman that journalists prone to the most tedious wheedling over the use of the qualifier “allegedly” to uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty consider the epistemological certitude of a juridical conviction sufficient to abandon full stop the (admittedly inelegant) qualifier and speak of Revealed Truth. The New York Times would hardly think to make apology for flatly calling Egan — who did keep his peace about the verdict — “the wife murderer”:


… any more than the San Antonio Express-News would regret the assertive headline “Father who killed 3 is executed” mounted atop an article reporting the executed man’s continued insistence upon his innocence. Any good scribe frets more readily about column-inches and legal ass-covering than bickering and arguing over who killed who. But shame if not stylistics merits less awe before the particular sausage-making of the judiciary when such modern cases too turn out to have been cock-ups from start to finish.

In 1993, South Dakota Governor Walter Miller apologized (.pdf) for Egan’s execution. A descendant of Egan’s has written a book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies: The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas Egan.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,South Dakota,USA,Wrongful Executions

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