On this date in 1816, middle-aged uxoricide Peter Lung was hanged in Middletown, Connecticut for the murder of his wife the previous year.
The facts of the case are simple: both Mr. and Mrs. Lung were alcoholics. Peter, a laborer, thought it was all right for him for drink as much as he wanted, but he was violently opposed to his wife Lucy doing any tippling of her own. But tipple she did, and she and her husband had frightful quarrels about it.
On July 15, 1815, Peter came home late. He found the front door wide open, no dinner on the table, and Lucy passed out cold in her bed and reeking of liquor. Her husband violently kicked her awake and then told her to make him some dinner. She told him to go fix his own food if he was so hungry.
Things went downhill from there and the argument ended with Peter punching his wife several times and then kicking her in the backside. He then went out to the garden and dug up some vegetables for the family dinner. The couple passed the rest of the night normally — for their argument, violent though it was, was typical for them.
A day or so later, Lucy began complaining that her right side was hurting her. Her side hurt too badly for her to lie down two days after the beating and she fell asleep in her rocking chair, and never woke up. The autopsy showed she’d died of internal injuries: evidently Peter’s kicks had ruptured something inside her.
He was charged with capital murder. He had a long-standing habit of mistreating his wife, and everyone knew it. The jury was decidedly unsympathetic to his protests that he’d never meant to kill her.
The Lung case is one of those miscarriages of justice that people often don’t think about: where a person is indeed culpable, but not necessarily guilty as charged. Peter obviously did not intend homicide when he and his wife had their last fight, and neither of them were aware that he’d seriously injured her until it was far too late. Certainly he was responsible for Lucy’s death, but was it manslaughter more than murder?
Connecticut’s judiciary was aware of this issue, and Lung’s original conviction in September 1815 was actually overturned as a result. But he was re-convicted of the same charge at his second trial in December. It was probably his bad reputation that ultimately doomed him.
He was hanged before “a multitude, amounting as was supposed to eleven or twelve thousand.” It was the third execution in Middlesex County.
Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, July 1, 1816.
The deportment of the prisoner on this awful occasion, was such as to justify a strong hope that by a sincere and timely repentance, he had found the mercy of his Saviour equal to the greatness and enormity of his guilt. He conversed freely on his past life — declared that he believed his wife died in consequence of the wounds he gave her, but denied that he ever intended her death — He fully acquiesced in the justice of his sentence; — that his life was justly forfeited and that it was an atonement due from him to the offended laws of society.
During the religious solemnities previous to his execution, his deportment manifested resignation and composure. He marched with the guard to the fatal spot, ascended the Gallows, warned the silent and solemn auditory, against the evils of intemperance, and ungoverned passions; and a few minutes before four o’clock, was launched into eternity. The official duty of the execution was performed with great propriety and with such fatal exactness that the unfortunate sufferer sunk into the arms of Death without a single struggle, and almost in the same moment, was a tenant of both worlds. The day was pleasant, and few occasions of this kind we believe, have drawn together a greater concourse of spectators.
Among the immense crowd assembled in this place to witness the execution last week, a regular company of pick-pockets was present, which must have enriched their finds very considerably, as a number of gentlemen were deprived of their Pocket Books, containing money and notes to a large amount, with a dexterity which would do honor to the most regular bred gentry in the streets of London. A very valuable horse was also taken from a stable in this city, the night succeeding.
And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.
Warning: This is the execution footage.
Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.
“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”
Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.
On this date in 1944, Jakob Edelstein, his wife Miriam, their twelve-year-son Arieh and his mother-in-law Mrs. Olliner were shot to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. They had been inmates in Auschwitz since the previous December; Jakob had been in an isolation cell the whole time while the others stayed in the so-called “Family Camp.”
For two years prior they’d lived in Theresienstadt (also known by its Czech name, Terezin), a the former Czech fortress town that had been turned into a city just for Jews. Jakob Edelstein was named Eldest of the Jews and was nominally in charge of the place, but in practice he had no choice but to cater to the whims of the Nazis. He was assisted by a deputy and a council of twelve.
Edelstein, a Czech Jew born in 1903, had been a leader within the Jewish community in Prague and had had papers for himself and his family to emigrate to Palestine. But when the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, Edelstein and the other Zionist leaders decided it was their duty to stay and do what they could for the community during this time of crisis.
He became a liaison between the Germans the Jewish community and tried to facilitate immigration to Palestine. From 1939 to 1941 he made several trips back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Palestine, with permission from the Germans, trying to find ways for more Jews to emigrate.
Theresienstadt was a strange place: neither concentration camp nor ghetto but something in-between, it was billed as a “paradise” and a “gift” from Hitler to the Jewish people.
Elderly Jews were sent there, as well as Jews who were “prominent” for some reason or had Aryan connections (such as Jews who had a non-Jewish spouse). It was advertised as a luxurious resort community where they could live out the rest of their lives in ease and plenty.
Residents were allowed to receive food packages from the outside, and send postcards (one per month, limited to 30 words, and censored).
Many people believed the propaganda and were persuaded to go there voluntarily, signing all their possessions and assets to the German government in exchange for what they thought would be a comfortable and peaceful retirement.
The 500-ish Danish Jews who weren’t evacuated to Sweden by the Danish Underground right after the Nazi invasion of Denmark were ultimately sent to Theresienstadt. Many talented artists, actors, musicians and scholars lived there. The Nazis would ultimately make a propaganda film about how wonderful life was in Theresienstadt, and a Red Cross delegation toured the place and came away satisfied.
As you might have guessed, living conditions within the fortress city didn’t exactly live up to what it said in the brochures.
It’s true that it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for an extended time period, even for the duration of the war. There were no gas chambers and relatively few executions. Certainly it was worlds apart from, say, Auschwitz or Treblinka. But that was as close to “paradise” as it got.
Yes, there were stores, more than a dozen of them, but their stock consisted of “goods the Nazis had originally confiscated from the residents and later found they didn’t need or want.”
Theresienstadt, like the Lodz Ghetto, had a bank and its own money, but there was nothing to spend it on. “The ghetto crowns,” Berkley says, “were used mostly like Monopoly money in playing cards and other games. Still, the bank staff kept themselves busy balancing their books, and auditors arrived regularly from Berlin to ensure the accuracy of the bank’s essentially fictitious accounts.”
Theresienstadt’s population, at its peak, was 58,497, in a town which before the war had a population of less than 10,000. Nearly everyone had lice, toilets and taps were scarce, and disease was rampant.
Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children each residing in different barracks.
“Horrendous as Theresienstadt housing conditions may have been,” Berkley says, “they were not the residents’ chief source of daily suffering. Food, or rather, the lack of it, weighed on them much more heavily.” The menu, he explains,
consisted chiefly of bread, potatoes, and a watery soup. Some margarine and sugar — about two ounces a week of the former and less than one and one-half ounces of the latter — were sometimes included. The residents were also to receive up to four ounces of meat, mostly horseflesh, and up to eight ounces of skim milk a week, though many a week would see less or none of those foodstuffs available. No fruits were ever officially distributed, and turnips were the only vegetable to show up with any regularity.
Estimates of total per capita calories provided daily ranged from 1300 or less, to 1800, with the lower figure being more frequently mentioned. This should be compared with the “Special Regime” given the worst offenders in the Soviet labor camps which provided about 2,000 calories.
According to modern nutritional guidelines, to maintain a healthy weight, the average adult with an average level of physical activity needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. At Theresienstadt all inmates between age 14 and 70 had to work long hours, many of them at strenuous jobs. In addition to being calorie-deficient, the Theresienstadt rations lacked essential vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder that one survivor later recalled, “After three months in Theresienstadt, there was only one feeling left in my body: hunger.”
Six months after his arrival, Edelstein and the Council of Elders made a difficult decision about the food problem, as Berkley records:
It became apparent that an even distribution of the food supply would not allow the ghetto to survive. Those doing heavy work needed more than those doing normal work, and the latter needed more than nonworkers. In addition, children required extra rations, for they represented the Jewish future…
Thus, heavy workers … began to receive a little over 2,000 calories of food a day. Children were to get 1,800 and regular workers a little over 1,500. But the daily intake for nonworkers, which included most of the elderly, fell to less than 1,000 calories.
This terrible choice, however necessary to the population’s long-term survival, consigned thousands of people to death.
But even though starvation and disease took many lives, the most deadly aspect of life in Theresienstadt was deportation.
Contrary to what the propaganda messages said about people living out their lives in Theresienstadt, it was largely a transit camp. Most people who arrived would be sent on “to the east” sooner or later; some of them lasted only a few days in the fortress city before being deported.
Although certain classes of people, such as decorated World War I veterans, “prominent” people and those over 65, were in theory exempted from deportation, in practice anyone could be sent away and just about everyone ultimately was.
Approximately 145,000 denizens passed through Theresienstadt during the course of its existence, most of them from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria. About a quarter of these inmates died within Theresienstadt itself. Another 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other camps in the East, almost all of them dying there. Out of about 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt, less than 2,000 survived, and some estimates put the number in the low hundreds.
When the camp was liberated, it had a population of about 17,000, and most of those had arrived in the during the final months of the war.
Jakob Edelstein didn’t know about the gas chambers when he became Eldest of the Jews at Theresienstadt in December 1941, but he knew that conditions in the East were very bad and realized that, in order for the community to sustain itself, as many people as possible had to remain within Czechoslovakia.
As a committed Zionist, he hoped that the young people in the camp would survive and go on to colonize Israel. Like most otherleaders of Jewish communities throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he made the decision to cooperate with the occupiers in hopes of saving lives.
And as far as that goes, he failed, as the numbers quoted above indicate. But if he failed, so did everyone else.
Unlike many Jewish officials in the Nazi ghettos, he wasn’t corrupt and he wasn’t a toady to the Germans. It’s worth noting that he had many opportunities to flee the country with his family, even after the war started: all he had to do was not come back to Europe after one of his trips overseas.
But he stayed, because he felt he had a responsibility to his beleaguered people.
Edelstein did the best he could with what he had to work with, which is all you can say for anybody. He worked tirelessly, making himself available at all hours, and under his leadership the camp developed a welfare system as well as many cultural and sports activities.
His job as Eldest of the Jews in Theresienstadt, trying to play the balancing act between advocating for his people and not pissing off the Germans, was always extremely stressful, difficult and dangerous.
But things really started to go downhill for him after the city’s first commandant, Siegfried Siedl, got reassigned to Bergen-Belsen in July 1943.
Siedl’s replacement, Anton Burger, hated Czechs and took an immediate dislike to Edelstein as a result. He replaced Edelstein with Paul Eppstein [German language link, as is the next], a German, and demoted Edelstein to first deputy to Eppstein. Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian, became second deputy.
This wasn’t enough for Burger, however, as George Berkley records:
As leader of the Czech Jews, [Edelstein] naturally bore the brunt of Burger’s hatred for them. The new commandant had not only deported many of his countrymen and his chief aide … but had also moved Germans and Austrians into key positions formerly held by Czechs. Burger had apparently also stirred up his own superiors against him for during the fall some bakery workers, looking out the window, saw and heard Eichmann sharply dressing down Edelstein and even threatening to have him shot.
The incident alarmed Edelstein’s many loyal followers and the next day the leaders of Hechalutz, the largest Zionist organization in the camp, met with him to urge him to flee. They said they could help him escape … But though he suspected a Nazi scheme to get rid of him, Edelstein refused to run away.
In the end, the Nazis didn’t need to trump up any charges of insubordination or sabotage against their former Eldest of the Jews: they found some real “crimes.” It seems that Edelstein had been saving people from deportation by allowing them to remain in Theresienstadt, off the books, and adding the names of dead people to the transport lists to make the numbers match up.
He was immediately arrested. It was November 9, 1943, the fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Edelstein was kept in custody in Theresienstadt until December 18, when he and his mother-in-law, his wife, and his young son were sent to Auschwitz with a transport of 2,500 others. The transport became part of the Auschwitz “Family Camp”, joining 5,000 Czech Jews who’d arrived there from Theresienstadt in September.
Edelstein’s family was allowed to join the Family Camp. Edelstein himself was put in the punishment block and subjected to interrogation although not, apparently, tortured. He gave nothing away.
In March 1944, the residents of the Family Camp who’d arrived in September were gassed. The December group was allowed to stay alive for the time being.
On June 20, an SS officer went to Edelstein’s cell and told him he’d been sentenced to death. While the condemned man (who’d become quite popular in jail) was taking leave of his fellow inmates, the SS officer got impatient and snapped, “quickly, quickly.”
Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last movements.”
He was driven to the execution site and then the car went away to fetch Miriam, Ariah and Mrs. Olliner. Miriam had measles and had to be brought on a stretcher. The Nazis forced Jakob Edelstein to watch as his wife, child and mother-in-law were shot to death. He was the last of them to die.
The remaining residents of the family camp were gassed in early July 1944.
Paul Eppstein was executed in Theresienstadt in September. Murmelstein became Eldest of the Jews in his place and actually managed to survive the war. Because he had lived, he spent the rest of his life under a cloud of distrust and suspicion as a possible collaborator.
Siegfried Siedl was hanged for war crimes in 1947. Anton Burger escaped Allied custody (twice) after the war, assumed a new identity and died of natural causes in Essen in 1991. His true identity wasn’t discovered for years after his death.
After the war, the city of Theresienstadt reverted to its former name of Terezin, and the fortress became an internment camp for ethnic Germans, who found themselves quite unpopular in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia and were expelled from the country in droves. The internment camp closed in 1948.
The modern town of Terezin has a population of 3,500 and is noted for its manufacture of knitwork and furniture. Tourists from all over the world come to learn about its important role in one of the most tragic events in modern history.
On this date in 1945 — morning after a devastating U.S. air raid that destroyed much of Fukuoka — eight previously-captured American airmen* were summarily executed there in retaliation.
In a precedent that dated back to the Doolittle raids, Japan officially considered as a prospective war criminal any enemy airman who could be connected to indiscriminate bombing. Tokyo didn’t follow this logic to the point of executing all downed Americans — indeed, late in the war, beleaguered Japanese civilians became increasingly hostile towards the government for allowing excess legalism to stand in the way of exacting some satisfying revenge for the cities burning under American bombs — but it did execute some, and it had sanctioned legal theorems that could have accommodated quite a bit more bloodletting.
Finding Tokyo short of prison space, the government ordered on May 1, 1945, that the various armies should no longer send to the capital any downed airmen they captured. In the chaos of the war’s last months, this would create the context for local commanders at the Western Military District in Fukuoka to put those legal theorems to seriously nasty use.
Four captured airmen held in Fukuoka were stuck in an indeterminate judicial process which the army realized was going nowhere slowly. The others were just plain underfoot. Over the period of May-June, between a couple of ambiguously-worded orders and the officers’ annoyance at having to divert scarce resources to these captives, an understanding formed if “the air raids increased and conditions became more chaotic, the prisoners would be executed without a trial.”
About 3,000 tons of … incendiary bombs … were released by the B-24s from low level starting about three a.m. … The three cities [Fukuoka, Toyotashi and Shizuoka] were tasting for the first time the bitter flames of war, roaring over factories, shops and thousands of congested homes.
Timothy Lang Francis, whose “‘To Dispose of the Prisoners': The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945″ from the November 1997 Pacific Historical Review traces the confluence of factors that made possible this day’s executions, describes the fate that was unfolding for Fukuoka’s eight captive airmen at about the same time those words were going to press.
All were blindfolded and had their hands tied in front. Several swords were obtained from the Legal Section. [Yusei] Wako** then told the twenty or so assembled Japanese that, “in compliance with the Commanding General†’s orders, we were going to execute the plane crash survivors.” One officer, Lt. Michio Ikeda of the Medical Section, volunteered himself, and Wako ordered Probationary Officer Tamotsu Onishi, since he was skilled in kendo, to assist him as a third executioner. Sato watched the proceedings from one side.
The first flyer was brought to the edge of the pit and made to sit on his haunches. Wako then ritually washed one of the swords and stood behind the prisoner, slightly to the left. Raising the sword above his right shoulder with both hands, Wako brought it down on the flyer’s neck. “Both the body and head fell into the pit,” remembered Wako; “I washed my sword and ordered the guard to bring another flyer to the pit. I killed this flyer exactly the same way I had killed the first one.” Onishi then executed a third prisoner in the same manner.
In the pause that followed, Lt. Kentaro Toji, an officer attached to Western Army Headquarters, approached Sato. According to his pretrial affidavit, Toji said to Sato, “My mother was killed in the air raid on Fukuoka this morning, and I think it would be fitting that I be the one who execute these American flyers.” Sato told him to wait while Wako ordered Ikeda to execute the fourth flyer. Toji, after borrowing a sword from Onishi, beheaded the last four prisoners. The pit was then filled with dirt.
This is all well and good, but Tokyo’s orders to its armies had been to do the juridical legwork on these cases themselves — and not just to summarily kill prisoners. So, in a bit of ex post facto bureaucratic butt-covering, the Western District Army’s legal section proceeded to close the matter by shipping the central government a report saying that all these prisoners had been killed during the previous night’s air raid. Problem solved!
No known direct connection to this particular atrocity, but there’s a recent documentary about an elderly Japanese man who used to serve at Fukuoka that looks worth the watching.
* Six of the eight were Robert J. Aspinall, Merlin R. Calvin, Jack V. Dengler, Otto W. Baumgarten, Edgar L. McElfresh, and Ralph S. Romines. The other two remain unidentified. These eight were, maybe, the lucky ones: Fukuoka had had 16 prisoners from downed bombers, but the other eight weren’t around to be beheaded because they’d previously been given over to the local hospital to suffer ghastly deaths in vivisection experiments.
** A Judge Advocate who had also been involved in the Doolittle trials.
† Gen. Isamu Yokoyama. When he’d been briefed prior to the June 19 raid that the army was fixing to just dispose of its prisoners if it came to that, Yokoyama had done the Pontius Pilate act and informed Wako, “I have decided to concern myself only with the decisive battle and hereafter do not bother me with the problem of the flyers.”
This date marks the centennial of perhaps the most famous execution in the history of Reunion Island: the June 20, 1911 guillotining of Sitarane and Fontaine.
Sitarane (French link) — his actual name was Simicoudza Simicourba — hailed from Portuguese Mozambique, supposedly from a long line of sorcerors.
A contract job brought him to Reunion, but he soon abandoned it for the black [magic] economy. A fellow purported necromancer named Pierre-Elie Calendrin pulled Sitarane and run-of-the-mill hoodlum Emmanuel Fontaine into a prolific little crime ring that terrorized Reunion around 1907 to 1909, amassing about a dozen murders.
And what murders!
Most of the sources on this circle are French, and they narrate weird occult criminality: reading tarot and sacrificing a black cock before a proposed adventure, drinking the blood of their victims to gain their strength.
Still, this was practical magic: Calendrin, Sitarane and Fontaine killed people so that they could rob them.
So it was with their dark arts, too: the sacrificed chickens were drugged and tossed to watchdogs; a mysterious powder blown through keyholes narcotized targets before the gang burst in to do its dirty work. It’s Sherlock Holmes in the Indian Ocean.
The three were finally surprised in the midst of one of their mercantile and monstrous sorties, and tried in 1910.
Although all three received death sentences, Calendrin — who as the trio’s leader would figure to have been the most culpable among them — had his execution mysteriously commuted to penal transportation to Guyana instead. Maybe he foretold the lottery numbers for a judge, or just cooked him a mean chicken dinner.
Sitarane died wailing a Comorian death-chant. Fontaine, more panicky, resisted the executioners and got his neck in a twist, resulting in a bad strike from the blade that lodged in his jaw.
But bad luck on the appellate circuit would mean a bit of immortality that the spared Calendrin could never obtain: today’s doomed — most particularly Sitarane — live on yet as popular saints with a special appeal to the underworld.
Sitarane’s jaunty red grave in Saint-Pierre attracts a lively flow of cult offerings from supplicants hoping to avail the powers of its resident thaumaturge … and of gawkers who do not fear to tempt the evil eye by photographing same. Allegedly, it’s the place to pray for fortune in the sort of nefarious scheme Sitarane used to get up to: folk contemplating a robbery or homicide are among those particularly likely to invoke their criminal forebear, as are those who fear such plots against them.
Image: Par Thierry Caro (Travail personnel) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ou CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The toxic hallucinogen Datura, a “witches’ weed” of long standing deployed over the centuries in all manner of potions and poultices, is knownlocally as Herbe à Sitarane.
On this date in 1940, German forces even then completing their rout of France — the humiliating capitulation was mere hours away — massacred a detachment of African soldiers who mounted a doomed resistance at Lentilly.
Tirailleurs Senegalais were recruited not only from Senegal but from throughout France’s domains in sub-Saharan Africa. (There were also Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan tirailleurs.)
Though these soldiers’ own lands were occupied, they were instrumental to defending the freedom of their occupier on European soil: over half a million African tirailleurs are thought to have served les couleurs in the two World Wars, and died in all the horrible ways those slaughterhouses could devise.
It’s hardly a surprise that the black man couldn’t catch a break from skull-measuring Aryan race warriors, but then, France too had its own less than comfortable relationship with these dark-hued citizens summoned from distant villages to bleed in the trenches of Europe. The military’s official guidelines emphasized (French link) the “Senegalese’s” special value as cannon fodder.
If a sacrificial mission is necessary, a defense to the death to provide cover for forces to regroup, appeal to the valor of the black fighter.
In this instance, knowing full well that the campaign was lost, French officers flipped open the “sacrificial mission” playbook and ordered their African charges to oppose a German march near Lyon “without thought of retreat.”
Since victory was equally out of the question, that left death. Wehrmacht troops duly prepared by Nazi racial typecasting to see their foes as savages were all too ready to wipe out African troops they greatly outclassed.
A monument to the Tirailleurs in Lentilly, France. Image (c) filoer and used with permission.
On this date in 1962, Marthinus Rossouw was hanged in Pretoria after an unusual defense strategy failed to repel a headline-grabbing murder charge.
Rossouw shot dead Baron Dieterich Joachim Gunther von Schauroth, a rich farmer (dude was born in a castle) who had been forced into city living by a long run of drought and was known for the life expectancy-compromising habit of toting around large sums of cash.
Rossouw insisted at trial that the killing had been at Von Schauroth’s own instigation, so freighted with care was the victim’s life that he implored his younger friend to end it. The defendant hoped thereby to mitigate the sentence as a case of murder by consent.*
Whether telling the truth or not, Rossouw didn’t make a very credible witness; caught in several lies and omissions, and naturally lacking any corroborating witness to the alleged murder pact, the jury gave him no slack.
Neither did the noose.
* The proper legal handling of a case where the victim of a homicide has freely desired to die is a longstanding salami-slicing juridical problem — witness a whole chapter in an 1897 British primer on consent issues in the law.
On this date in 1864, the Union army in the American Civil War hanged a black deserter outside Petersburg, Va., for — in the delicate words of the army dispatch — “an attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at the New-Kent Court-house.”
The Union army was just taking up position for the coming monthslong siege of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Johnson, who confessed to deserting another unit, offered savvy blue commanders a win-hearts-and-minds opportunity: a public reassurance that the Old Dominion’s dim view of Negro outrages upon young ladies would be honored by its soon-to-be occupiers.
Not bad in theory. The execution left something to be desired.
The field of public relations being very much in its infancy, the upshot of this salutary demonstration seems not to have been conveyed to its target audience; so, when a defending Confederate battery caught sight of the gallows being thrown up in brazen view of its own lines, it jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that the Yanks were about to make an example of a southern spy. Rebel guns promptly made the Union detachment their “target audience.” An artillery shot struck one Sgt. Maj. G. F. Polley (or Polly) and “tore him all to pieces” before
[a] flag of truce was sent out to inform the enemy that a negro was to be hung who had insulted a white woman the day before; they stopped firing. We then marched back and saw the negro hung.
The return on investment for the souls of Johnson and the misfortunate NCO was altogether unsatisfactory:
The incident was cleverly turned to advantage by the Confederates, who had been losing hundreds of Negro laborers by desertion. The Rebels marched Negroes past the spot, pointing out to them the perils of fleeing their lines, saying that the Yankees hanged all ‘Contrabands.’ For weeks nocturnal escapes of Negroes ceased on that front. (Source)
It wasn’t a total loss, however. The Library of Congress ended up with some striking archival photos.
(There’s a better touch-up of this last photograph of Johnson’s body being cut down here.)