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)

On this day..

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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1930: Carl Panzram, rage personified

September 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1930, one of the most nihilistic criminals in American history was hanged for murder at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — in character to his last breath, a sneer at the hangman about to put him to death:

“Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could hang 10 men while you’re fooling around!”

Panzram — according, at least, to an autobiography which is largely unverifiable — had the chops to back up his taunt.

A Minnesota-born son of German immigrants, Panzram was into the juvenile detention system by adolescence, and at 14 hopped a freight train bound for a life of vagrancy. In Panzram’s recounting, his boyhood was a hellscape — even knowing what he became, it’s possible to feel compassion for the the killer’s remembrance, “Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular.”

Worse was to come for Carl — sexual molestation, a gang-rape by fellow hobos — and much worse by Carl.

The rape may have shattered the restraints on his conscience … or maybe they was already gone by then. “Might makes right” became his credo; to alcoholic and thief he added a portfolio of rape and enthusiastic homicide, crisscrossing the country (with a side trip to Africa), escaping or wheedling out of jails when he was picked up for something, and finding it amazingly easy to slay his fellow men.

A full narrative of Panzram’s grisly career is available at trutv.com. Much of this is, again, sourced only to Panzram himself, so the possibility of bloodthirsty braggadocio cannot be dismissed; even at a fraction of its alleged scope and brutality, his career was a triumph in horror.

While I was sitting there, a little kid about eleven or twelve years old came bumming around. He was looking for something. He found it, too. I took him out to a gravel pit about one-quarter mile away. I left him there, but first I committed sodomy on him and then killed him. His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him, and he will never be any deader.

It was the murder of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Ks., that sealed his fate. Panzram was in his late 30’s by this time, facing a long prison sentence. Something between the fury that fueled him and the desperate reality of not seeing the outside again until he was an old man may have impelled him to check out intentionally: he had warned that he would murder an inmate, and he responded to anti-death penalty campaigners’ attempts to save him by threatening to kill them, too.

In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.

It seems the fate of common criminals, even those as prolific and infernal as Panzram, to shuffle into obscurity in fairly short order. Among devotees of the dark underbelly, Panzram may be well-known; to the larger public, he’s long forgotten.

Panzram’s memoirs, released as Killer: A Journal of Murder, were turned into a 1996 James Woods vehicle of the same title:

Interestingly, Panzram is also name-checked in another more famous literary artifact: In the Belly of the Beast, the tour de force of Norman Mailer protege Jack Abbott, who had conned the litterateur into backing his bid for parole, was rather boldly dedicated to Carl Panzram.* It will not surprise the reader to learn that Abbott, upon his release, killed again.

But a new generation is waiting to rediscover its butchers … and a new documentary, Panzram, is in production to bring the story back to silver screens and Netflix queues of the 21st century.

* Abbott was writing to Mailer while the latter was banging out his book about notable executee Gary Gilmore.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Infamous,Kansas,Minnesota,Murder,Serial Killers,U.S. Federal,USA

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