1955: Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England

3 comments July 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Albert Pierrepoint escorted the alluringly tragic Ruth Ellis to the gallows at Holloway Prison — the last woman ever hanged in Great Britain.

The former hostess had tracked her inconstant and abusive lover David Blakely to a Hampstead pub a few months before — getting the ride, and the murder weapon, from her unrequited hanger-on Desmond Cussen — and shot Blakely dead on the street. Five bullets: the last, a coup de grace. (Another missed entirely and winged a passerby.)

A bitterly controversial case from the moment it entered the public eye, Ellis’s hanging bolstered the movement to abolish Britain’s death penalty. Juridically, however, it was resolved in the blink of an eye when a crown’s attorney cross-examined the murderess:

Christmas Humphreys: Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?

Ellis: It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.

Book CoverThe jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.

We’re pleased to mark this anniversary with Carol Ann Lee, author of a recent biography A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story. (Here’s a review. Also check out two long pieces Lee wrote about Ruth Ellis for the Daily Mail: 1, 2)

ET: I think at a certain point in time, everyone in Great Britain would have known who Ruth Ellis was, and quite a few abroad, too. How true is that still, nearing 60 years after her execution?

I think her name is still quite familiar, to be honest.

When I began researching the book, everyone I discussed it with either already knew the very basic facts of Ruth’s story, and at the very least that she was the last woman to be hanged in England. The 1985 biopic Dance with a Stranger left a big impression too, even though it wasn’t entirely faithful to Ruth’s character, making her seem much more hysterical a personality than she actually was, although I thought Miranda Richardson was brilliant in the role — as she always is!

What led you to the Ruth Ellis story?

I’ve always been interested in Ruth and that period in history — and I vividly remember going to see ‘Dance with a Stranger’ when it came out in the cinemas here. But it always struck me that her full story had never been told, particularly the last few months of her life after she shot David Blakely. And a couple of years ago there was quite an intense debate about bringing back capital punishment; Ruth’s name was always mentioned in relation to that particular argument, and I really felt it was time to explore her whole story.

What are the greatest misconceptions people have of her? Have her previous biographies and screen portrayals fed those misconceptions?

Without doubt, many people see Ruth as she was shown in ‘Dance with a Stranger’ — very screechy, out of control and violently jealous.

I think it’s true to say that she and David were both deeply jealous of each other (both giving the other reason to be so), but Ruth was not as hysterical as she was portrayed in the film. In fact, it was quite the opposite — the men were hysterical and it was Ruth who usually vented a sort of quiet fury. There is one scene in the film which shows her smashing the windows of David’s car and screaming in the street. Reading the original police statement about that night reveals a very different story; she was described as very calm and rational. There was no screaming, and although she did damage the vehicle, it was not remotely as it was shown in the film.

I think other adaptations have also done her a disservice. Ironically, probably the most accurate portrayal is in the film ‘Pierrepoint,’ where the character of Ruth appears for no more than a minute or two on screen.

I get the sense that Ruth was always running uphill against her class position, trying to climb a little higher than she could reach — right up to the end where her lover is a well-off cad and the rivals for the lover’s affection are his middle-class friends. What role did England’s class relations have in Ruth Ellis’s life and death, and in the way that others perceived her? Do they still shape the way we talk about her all these years later?

Class and politics played a huge role in Ruth’s life generally.

England was distinctly class-led at the time and when the case hit the headlines, she was described as a working-class floozie who attached herself to the upper-class David Blakely purely in order to hoist herself up the class ladder.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth; if she was only interested in using men to better herself socially, she would surely have married her sometime-lover Desmond Cussen, who was a much steadier prospect with money and property and who wanted very much to marry her. Ruth worked hard to better herself but she didn’t use the men she loved to do so.

And when it came to her trial, the class values of the time were heavy in the courtroom with the male barristers and judge and so on all very much men of the upper classes — and who viewed her accordingly. I hope we have got beyond all that nonsense now — but it does add a very distinct dimension to discussions of her case.

She was working as a hostess when she met David Blakely. What would a hostess do, who worked in this trade, and who were the clientele? Was it usual for “real” relationships to evolve? Do people still have this job in the same form as Ruth had it?

Hostessing in the clubs in which Ruth worked was quite straightforward — or it should have been, but there was Morris Conley to contend with, and he was quite a character.

Ruth’s basic job description was to look good and to chat to customers (mostly men) in the clubs, laugh at their jokes and keep them buying food and drink for as long as possible. Most hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, working-class girls who thought the lifestyle was more glamorous than toiling in a factory or in a shop.

They were usually paid badly and relied on tips to make ends meet, but were given a dress allowance so that they could look as alluring as possible. The clientele mainly consisted of demobbed servicemen who suddenly seemed to have lost their attractiveness to women after the war — where once they had been heroes, by the late 1940s many of them were down on their luck and working as door-to-door salesmen, very lonely and eager to talk to pretty young girls about their war exploits.

The girls who worked for Morris Conley, like Ruth, were expected to sleep with the clients if that was asked of them, and often had to sleep with ‘Morrie’ and his less than respectable friends too. Many of them were very poor young women who lived in flats owned by Conley and his wife — and if they didn’t toe the line, they lost their jobs and their homes in one fell swoop.

Did real relationships evolve? Yes, they did, but very rarely. There are girls all over the world doing very similar jobs today — from London to Japan and everywhere in between too, no doubt.

You have this quote from Ruth about David Blakely: ‘I thought the world of him; I put him on the highest of pedestals. He could do nothing wrong and I trusted him implicitly.’ Ruth had an alcoholic, abusive father, and then she had two children from marriages with two different men that both fell apart — one from bigamy and abandonment, the second from alcoholism and domestic violence. Blakely himself cheated on her. Why wasn’t she more cynical about Blakely? If you take away the tragic ending to this particular relationship, was something like this a pattern she was doomed to keep repeating ad infinitum?

She loved him — it’s really as simple as that.

Although she obviously had a good degree of self-awareness and knew what David was and always would be, she truly loved him and for a time believed they had a future together. As for a pattern — I don’t know. Perhaps if she had met one good, steady man to whom she was attracted as much as she was to David, her life — and David’s too of course — might have been very different.

I’m going to phrase this inelegantly: what is the DEAL with Desmond Cussen?

Good question! I really think that he was as confused and tormented by everything that was happening as a result of Ruth’s and David’s relationship as Ruth herself.

I think he did love Ruth, and he tried hard to make things work with her, but he knew her heart was with David. His apparent lack of self-respect and backbone is baffling — quite why he kept ferrying her across London and out to Buckinghamshire in pursuit of David is a bit mystifying. I did question in the book why no one seemed to query his state of mind as much as Ruth’s — and as to whether he gave her the gun or not, knowing what she intended to do … I am sure he did, even though he must have known where it would end for Ruth herself.

Perhaps he hoped that with David out of the way, she would be reprieved and they could then have a life together. But I really don’t know!

Ruth’s legal defence was legendarily feeble. That said, I’m very interested in the barrister’s attempt to frame its insanity defense around feminine hysteria — “the effect of jealousy upon a female mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.” This was bound to be undermined by Ruth’s own calm and the statements about her intent to kill that she gave to police and in court. Was it the case that the law at the time didn’t have the instruments to situate Ruth’s context and state of mind, other than hysterical/not? Or could an abler barrister have presented a different story?

I think part of the difficulty is obviously that the defence of diminished responsibility was not introduced in the courts here until 1957 — largely as a direct result of this particular case.

Ruth’s lawyers tried to argue this as a defence for her to some extent, but it just wasn’t possible legally. That said, I think they served her quite badly and didn’t bring out so much that might have enabled the jury to see her crime in context. There was no mention of the abuse in her childhood, no mention of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and very little said about David’s own brutal treatment of her.

But Ruth herself did not seem to care much what happened in the courtroom, once it became evident that the story as she saw it — David’s friends having, in her view, deliberately destroyed the relationship between them — was not going to come to light. She gave up, and volunteered nothing that could have helped her, minimizing the violence to which she had been subjected and dismissing most of the questions put to her in a short sentence or two.

She also infamously replied to the prosecution’s question of what she intended to do when she set out to find David with the gun, “It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That one line completely sealed her fate.

Despite all this, the public did seem to be shocked by Ruth Ellis’s hanging, and it’s supposed to have boosted the anti-death penalty campaign. If one may phrase it this way, were people shocked for the right reasons? How much did the symbolic “Ruth Ellis” that even her supporters among the general public had in view have to do with the real person as you understand her?

I think any case is always immeasurably more complex than it is presented in newspaper columns and headlines.

I think, again, the outcry at her execution has to be seen in context — people were becoming more and more opposed to the death penalty and there had been some very high-profile, contentious cases that really did cause a great deal of debate, anger, and distress: the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 and of Derek Bentley in 1953 for instance (both of whom were posthumously pardoned).

The fact that Ruth was a young, attractive, lively woman with two small children caused many people to question the validity of capital punishment. It was her death on the scaffold that gave the abolition movement its emotional spur.

What became of Ruth Ellis’s body after her hanging? And what became of her family and the others who were part of the story?

Ruth was buried in the confines of Holloway Prison after her execution, sharing her unmarked grave with four other women who had been hanged there. In 1971, when the prison was demolished and rebuilt, her body was released to her son for burial.

He had hoped to lay his mother to rest alongside David Blakely at the Holy Trinity churchyard in Penn but the vicar there would not allow it. Ruth was instead buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Amersham, a few miles away.

As to what became of her family: her son Andre (who was ten when Ruth was executed) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a very young man and never came to terms with the loss of his mother. He committed suicide in 1982. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, had quite a colourful life, becoming a successful model who was in the newspapers fairly often as part of the George Best ‘set.’ She married and had children and worked hard to win a posthumous pardon for her mother, of whom she spoke often. She died of cancer at the age of only 50.

As for Desmond Cussen: he emigrated to Australia and opened a flower shop there. He never married and became an alcoholic, dying in Perth on 8 May 1991 of pneumonia and organ failure following a fracture dislocation of the neck in a fall at his home.

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1752: Mary Blandy, “forgiveness powder”

1 comment April 6th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.

That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.

The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.

The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.

Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.

Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.

Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.

While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.

Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.

Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.

She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.

By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.

One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.

When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”

As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.

A few days later he was dead.

Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.

When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.

James C. Whorton discusses her trial in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play:

‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.

Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:

The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.

Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”

There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.

The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.

In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.

There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:

With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.

Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.

Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.

Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.

She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.

Update: Because you can find anything on the Internet: the story of Mary Blandy in shadow puppetry.

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1820: Amasa Fuller, the Indiana hero

Add comment August 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1820, Amasa Fuller was hanged for murdering his rival in love.

“I am a man, and have acted the part of a man!” he declared when taken standing over the still-expiring body of his victim, Palmer Warren. “I glory in the deed!”

It’s one of those problematic constructions of manhood that might do for a graduate thesis.

Our man-actor from the town of Lawrenceburg (and from a star-crossed family with a pattern of violent deaths) had been courting assiduously a “young lady”. Apropos of that graduate thesis, the historical records basically don’t even mention her name; according to a single newspaper article cited in Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, it was “Catharine Farrar”. The court records generally just call her the “young lady,” even adding that she was “not handsome,” as in “why are you people committing homicide over this prize?”

But let’s just say Miss Farrar was really great. And Amasa Fuller was really smitten.

Having wooed Farrar into an engagement, Fuller was incensed when he found out that she’d been swooped by a rival while he, Fuller, was away on a business trip. Murder by Gaslight has illuminated the fuller story of Fuller’s revenge; in fine, he returned to Lawrenceburg, and after several unsuccessful attempts to start a scrap with his rival, Fuller forced his way into Palmer’s office, offered him a pistol for a duel, and when the peacable Palmer again refused to fight, Fuller just plain shot him — right through the heart.

Strangely from our retrospective standpoint, the good people of Lawrenceburg viewed Fuller not so much as an unbalanced stalker as, well, the Indiana hero — a man of honor. After Fuller’s conviction,* Lawrenceburg and its surrounding Dearborn County petitioned almost en masse for Fuller’s pardon.

When they didn’t get it, they settled for an execution ballad, “Fuller and Warren”, that lauds “brave Fuller” standing “like an angel” on the scaffold’s trap. (Right before the rope broke.)

This ballad has some bitter words for the near-anonymous object of Fuller’s heart who “robbed him of his honour and his life”: “Cursed be she who has caused this misery; / In his stead she had ought for to die.” And it’s not much kinder to womankind in general:

Of all the ancient history that I can understsnd,
Which we’re bound by the scripture to believe,
Bad women are essentially the downfall of man,
As Adam was beguiled by Eve.

So, young men, beware, be cautious and be wise
Of such women when you’re courting for wives.
Look in Genesis, and Judges, and in Samuel, Kings, and Job,
And the truth of the doctrine you’ll find.

For marriage is a lottery and few gain the prize
That’s both pleasing to the heart and to the eye.
So those who never marry may well be called wise.
So, gentlemen, excuse me; goodbye.

(Some versions of the ballad — there are dozens of variations on record — omit these last and nastiest stanzas.)

* He was prosecuted by future U.S. Congressman Amos Lane, about whom, more in this 1930 JSTOR offering.

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1869: Nicholas Melady, the last public hanging in Canada

2 comments December 7th, 2011 John Melady

Thanks to John Melady, author of Double Trap, for the guest post about his kinsman. -ed.

I was standing with my father, looking at the ruins of an old house. I thought what remained of the brickwork was interesting, until Dad said, rather offhandedly: “And this is where the murder happened.” I was rather shocked, and asked what he meant.

His answer led me to write Double Trap, the story of the last public hanging in Canada.

Briefly, the tale goes something like this.

A man named Nicholas Melady Senior, my great-grandfather’s half brother, amassed substantial landholdings in Huron County, Ontario Canada, prior to 1868. In the years just before that, he played various family members off against each other, and depending on his whim, one or other of them would be promised his inheritance. His son Nicholas Junior was used worst of all. He worked without pay for his father, was promised all or at least some of the lands, but then was told he would get nothing — several times.

One night, Nicholas Senior, who was commonly called The Old Man, was in bed with his new wife, when Nicholas Junior and two of his friends, all of whom were drunk, broke into the Old Man’s house. A terrible fight ensued, and it included a hand gun and an axe, but at the end of the thing, the Old Man and his bride were dead.

After some very shoddy detective work, Nicholas Junior and his two friends were rounded up and lodged in a basement cell of an old house in nearby Seaforth, Ontario. (The local magistrate owned the place.) Part of that cell still exists, including the barred window the culprits would have looked through — at the rest of the cellar. It is rather creepy to visit, and while I researched Double Trap, I did not want to be there for long, and never at night.

In due course, the three desperadoes were sent to an even more chilling old jail in Goderich, Ontario. (It is now a Canadian historic site, and is visited by throngs of people every year.) There, Nicholas Junior’s friends ultimately turned against him.

However, before that happened, local detectives used a unique stratagem to gain evidence against Nicholas. I could never be sure where they got the idea. They hired a beautiful young woman who was born in Michigan, (who was likely a prostitute) and talked her into spending time in a cell in the jail. She was paid to gain the trust of Nicholas, and hopefully a confession.

In that sense, she was the first part of the “double trap,” in the book’s title.

The woman was given the name “Jenny,” and in time, by dropping notes where he would find them, and ultimately putting herself in a position where she could whisper to him through his cell window, (she positioned herself in the women’s exercise yard; he was inside his cell), she caused him to fall in love with her. All of her notes, and his as well, were used in the trial that followed. The two never actually touched each other.

When she walked into the courtroom during the trial and took the stand to describe her job and show the letters Nicholas had written, he was utterly speechless with shock. He had completely trusted her, and to him, her betrayal was total.

The execution of Nicholas Melady was a macabre affair, as were events leading up to it. His death cell was positioned quite close to where he was hanged. He could hear workers building his scaffold, and while I cannot prove it, I believe he would have been able to witness the construction of the thing. The death cell still exists, and in researching this book, I visited it several times. Now that is creepy.

So is the ground where he took his final few steps, out to the scaffold. It was built on top of the prison wall. He went up the steps on the inside, then lurched to his death, down the outside of the wall — where all the spectators waited to see the spectacle. His fall, through the trapdoor in the gallows floor was the second trap of the book’s title.

The execution was the last public one in Canada. Three weeks later the government of the country abolished public executions because they were regarded as too barbaric. There was controversy however, around the one for Nicholas. Many people felt he had been betrayed, by his accomplices, and by “Jenny,” and so lots of talk in the community made the public officials fear that there would be demonstrations the day of the death.

For that reason, they moved the execution time up by about three hours. “Only” about 300 people witnessed it. Several thousand came to see the spectacle later in the day, but by the time they reached the site, the show was over. His body was cut down, and for reasons I could never fathom, was actually waked for two days in the same house where the killings took place. Lots of the curious came to see the corpse of the killer, laid out for display.

The day after the execution, the New York Times was the first newspaper on the street with the story. I could find no trace of “Jenny,” or what became of her after her jailhouse job. Her testimony in court was never really challenged.

I was able to position myself in the cell where Nicholas was when he whispered to “Jenny.” I then went into the women’s exercise yard and by leaning against the jail wall easily understood how the conversations between the two transpired.

The book is Double Trap, by John Melady. Published by Dundurn, and available in the United States at Dundurn Publishing, 2250 Military Road, Tonawanda, New York 14150. In Canada, the pub address is: Dundurn Publishing, 3 Church Street, Suite 500, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1M2 In Britain, the address is: Gazelle Book Services Limited, White Cross Mills, High Town, Lancaster, England LA1 4XS.

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1944: Mala Zimetbaum and Edek Galinski

11 comments September 15th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On or about this day in 1944, Malka “Mala” Zimetbaum and Edward “Edek” Galinski were executed in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp after a failed escape attempt. Mala was 22 or 24; Edek was 20 or 21.

Mala Zimetbaum.

Mala, a Belgian Jew of Polish descent, had been living in Auschwitz for two years and had a privileged position because of her linguistic skill; she could speak about five languages and worked as an interpreter and courier. The staff trusted her and she had permission to go everywhere in camp. She often used her position to help the inmates.

Mala fell in love with Edek Galinski, a Polish gentile prisoner. He was also a longtime inmate, having been in Auschwitz since 1940. He also had the freedom to go anywhere in the camp in his capacity as a mechanic.

Sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1944, they escaped together. What they planned to do afterward is unclear; there are some stories that Mala carried documents from the camp and planned to tell the world what was happening there. How they were caught is also a bit of a mystery. According to some accounts, only one was arrested and the other went voluntarily so they could die together.

Their subsequent executions have been the subject of legend, and lives large in many memoirs by survivors of the camp. Among those who wrote about it were Primo Levi, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk and Fania Fenelon. A witness, Raya Kagan, also testified about it at Adolf Eichmann‘s 1961 war crimes trial.

All the accounts contradict each other; practically everything about the execution is disputed. Contrary to what the Wikipedia entry says as of this writing, we don’t even know whether it really took place on September 15; other dates have been suggested, including August 22. (Curiously, September 15 is also the date given for Mala’s arrival at Auschwitz in 1942.) Edek was apparently hung in the men’s camp, possibly alongside several other prisoners; Mala was executed in the women’s camp that same day. Edek supposedly tried to jump into the noose before the SS guard could finish reading his sentence, in defiance of protocol. His last words may have been “Long live Poland.” Everyone agrees that Mala slit her wrist with a hidden razor blade as she was standing before the crowd of woman prisoners waiting to be hanged. When the SS guards tried to intervene, she slapped one of them. They bound up her arm to keep her from bleeding to death. She may have been trampled to death at the execution site, but most accounts state the guards ordered some prisoners to cart her to the crematorium and throw her in alive. Several reports state that she either died on the way there, or was shot or poisoned by an SS guard who took pity on her.

According to some accounts, Mala’s last words were directed at the guard she hit: “I shall die a heroine, but you shall die like a dog!” Others say she addressed the crowd of prisoners and told them liberation was in sight, or urged them to revolt. We will never know what her final words truly were, but their meaning is clear enough.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions,Women

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1635: Francisco de Nava, precipitating a church-state conflict

Add comment September 6th, 2010 Headsman

[S]trife* [between Manila archbishop Hernando Guerrero and the Spanish governor Don Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera] being greatly inflamed … became entangled with one of the most memorable disputes that have occurred in the islands — a necessary occasion for the sharpest encounter between the two jurisdictions, and one from which Don Fray Hernando Guerrero could not excuse himself, as it concerned the most sacred part of the ecclesiastical immunity. That was a matter in which the archbishop could not neglect to sally out with all his might, in order to comply with the obligation of a true prelate. The case was as follows: There was an artilleryman in Manila, named Francisco de Nava, who had a female slave with whom he had illicit communication, as came to the ears of the archbishop. The archbishop ordered him to remove from himself this occasion [for sin] by selling the slave-girl to another person; and had the latter placed, for that purpose, in the house of a lady who was related to Doña María de Francia, who became fond of her and arranged to buy her from the artilleryman. The latter was so beside himself over the loss of the said slave that he refused to sell her at any price, saying that he wished, on the contrary, to marry her. But Doña María de Francia so arranged matters that the slave was sold, and came into her possession with very slight effort. The artilleryman, grieved and regretful for what had happened, almost became mad, and, it having been given out that he was mad, certain violence was shown him; and on one occasion he had received a sound beating at the house of Doña María de Francia, because he had gone there to request that they should give him the slave, as he had resolved to make her his wife.

Aggrieved and rendered desperate in this way, he saw the girl pass one day in a carriage with Doña María de Francia. Going to her he asked her whether she knew him, who was her master. The slave answered him with some independence, whereupon he, blind with anger, drew his dagger in the middle of the street and killed her by stabbing her, before anyone could prevent it. All the people, both those in the carriage and those in the street, ran tumultuously [after him]; but the artilleryman escaped them all, and took refuge in the church of our convent in Manila. The governor heard of what had happened, and ordered Don Pedro de Corcuera, his nephew (who was then sargento-mayor of the camp), to take the artilleryman from the church, saying that he could not avail himself of the sanctuary of the church, as he had committed a treacherous act — although it was only a homicide, and the settlement of this question did not concern the governor. However, his action arose mainly from the anger that he felt that what had happened was in the presence of his nephew, Don Pedro de Corcuera — who, also being angered at what concerned his wife, made use of his commission with less prudence than he ought to exercise in executing such orders from his superiors. He caused the church and convent to be surrounded; and, going inside, examined everything, not excepting even the sacristy; and it is even said that he declared that, if he found the artilleryman there, he would take him out a prisoner. But not having been able to find him then, Don Pedro left the church and convent surrounded by a double guard. The governor added to that that he would not allow the religious to enter or leave, until he had hold of the refugee. The latter was finally found, and taken from the sacristy, and surrendered to the commander of artillery, in order that he might proceed with the trial as his competent judge; and he, either carried away by flattery, or in obedience to the commands of the governor, proceeded so hastily that in a very short time he condemned the artilleryman to death.

The archbishop’s provisor, Don Pedro Monroy,** bore himself on this occasion with the prudence that was fitting, and proceeded against the commander of artillery, requesting him to deliver his prisoner and return him to the church. Having been informed that the commander of artillery was a mere instrument, and that all his actions were according to the impulses of the governor, he sent three lay priests to the palace to intimate to the latter that the judge should deliver the refugee to him. The priests entered, without anyone hindering them; and finding that the governor had already retired, as it was then an advanced hour of the night, they started to withdraw in order to return next morning; but the soldiers of the guard would not permit them to leave, saying that such was the order of the governor.

The sentence against the artilleryman having been given — which it is said that the governor sent ready made out to the judge, to sign — they proceeded to execute it,† notwithstanding that the provisor proceeded to threaten censures, and to impose an interdict and suspension from religious functions [cessatio de divinis]. The governor ordered a gallows to be erected in front of the very church of St. Augustine, and the criminal was hanged thereon — to the contempt of the ecclesiastical immunity, for the [proper] place assigned for such punishments was very distant from there. The governor, seeing that the sentence was already executed, and that he had now obtained the chief object of his desire, wrote to the archbishop, requesting him to have the censures removed and the interdict raised, and the churches opened on the day of the nativity of our Lady. The archbishop, recognizing the duplicity of the governor, refused to answer that letter without first consulting the orders; and, after consulting with some of them, decided that he would not raise the interdict, since there was less inconvenience in having it imposed [even] on so festive a day, than there would be in his yielding on an occasion so inimical to the ecclesiastical immunity. However, the requests of the Recollect fathers of our father St. Augustine, who had charge of the advocacy of the nativity, had so much influence that the archbishop ordered the interdict to be removed, and it was done.


Manila’s historic St. Augustine church. (cc) image from Jun Acullador

The commander of artillery was condemned to some pecuniary fines, from which he appealed to the judge of appeals, who was the bishop of Camarines. The ecclesiastical judge refusing to admit the appeal, he threatened the royal aid of fuerza; and this question having been examined in the royal Audiencia (which at that time consisted of but the governor and only one auditor, Don Marcos Zapata), it was declared in his favor, and the appeal went to the bishop of Camarines. The latter — namely, Don Francisco Zamudio, of the order of our father St. Augustine, and a son of the province of Méjico — declared the commander of artillery to be free from the sentence given by the ecclesiastical judge. The trial of the commander of artillery had its second hearing. On that account there did not fail to result certain charges against the governor, such as his having ordered the secular priests to be detained in the guard-house; his declaration that he could not be excommunicated by anyone except the pope; and that if an order were given to him to arrest the pontiff, he would arrest him, and even drag him along by one foot (which he was proved to have said by several persons). The governor freed himself from all these charges by excuses in a manifesto which he published; but as it is not a part of my duty to examine their adequacy, I shall not do so. I shall refer the reader to the reply made to him by a learned ecclesiastic of the university of Méjico; for there is no liberty in Filipinas to enable any one to complain, or to speak his mind against what the government manipulates

The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 — Volume 25 of 55

* “The underlying reason for this public dissension was racial,” says this source.

The rivalry between Spaniards born in the peninsula and those born in the colonies, the creoles or americanos, affected not only the clergy but also the lay population. The Augustinians, and the Hospitaller Orders of San Juan de Ojos, San Hipolito and Guadalupe, whose members were creoles, were opposed by the Carmelites and the apostolic colleges in that country. “While legally they [both factions] were on complete equality,” writes Dr. Domingo Abella, Philippine ecclesiastical historian, “class distinctions were apparently encouraged as much as possible by the Spanish colonial policy, because the principle of divide et impera of every aristocratic system was the leading idea for the permanent subjection of the colonies.”

The rivalry reached such an extent that in 1627 the Dominican Order in Mexico refused to admit creoles into its ranks, an act which the Spanish king disapproved. In the Philippines the situation had not openly reached that extreme. The insular hierarchy managed to keep the number of creoles, mestizos and indios who were embracing the religious life down to a minimum. But the racial discrimination rankled among those born in the colonies. Archbishop Guerrero and Bishop Zamudio were both Augustinians, but the former was a peninsular, while the latter was a creole, and this was probably the reason for their taking opposite sides.

** Later exiled to Formosa.

† A letter quoted elsewhere in the same text confirms “the execution of the sentence on the night of Thursday, September six”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,Spain,Wrongful Executions

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1714: Maria Mouton and her slave Titus, lovers

1 comment September 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1714, a slave and his mistress — “mistress” in both senses of the word — were put to death in the Dutch Cape Colony for murdering her husband.

Marie or Maria Mouton had arrived in South Africa in 1699 as a nine-year-old with a refugee Huguenot family.

A decade and a half’s passage finds her a young woman wed to one Franz or Frans Joost/Jooste/Joostens, to whom she bore two sons … and, evidently, a homicidal grudge.

Early in 1714, Maria and her lover, a slave named Titus Bengale, murdered Frans, in consequence of which crime,

[s]he [Maria] is sentenced to be half strangled, after that to be scorched,* and after that strangled unto death. Titus to be empaled and to remain so, until death. After that his head and right hand are to be cut off and fixed on a pole, beyond the limits of his late master’s property. Fortuin, an accomplice, is also to have his right hand cut off, and without receiving the coup de grace, is to be broken on the wheel. After that he is to be placed on a grating until death takes place. After that his head is to be cut off, and with his hand placed on a pole, together with the head and hand of Titus. After that the bodies are to be taken to the outside place of execution, and there left exposed to the air and the vultures.

She’s the only white woman to be executed in 18th century South Africa.

Our Precise of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope** notices that Titus, despite enduring his grotesque execution for two full days before succumbing, remained terribly jocund amid his public torture. (Not unlike other slaves tortured to death in Dutch colonies):

September 3 — The slave Titus, above mentioned, died about midday, having lived in his misery about 48 hours; something horrible to think of, to say nothing of personally beholding the misery. It is said that 4 hours after his empalement he received a bottle of arrack from which he drank freely and heartily. When advised not to take too much, lest he should get drunk, he answered that it did not matter, as he sat fast enough, and that there was no fear of his falling. It is true that whilst sitting in that deplorable state, he often joked, and scoffingly said that he would never again believe a woman. A way of dying, lauded by the Romans, but damnable among the Christians.

This case is discussed in more detail by Nigel Penn in “The wife, the farmer and the farmer’s slaves: adultery and murder on a frontier farm in the early eighteenth century Cape,” Kronos, vol. 28 (2002) — here’s an excerpt — and by the same author in Rogues, Rebels and Runaways: Eighteenth-Century Cape Characters.

* Literally, blaker. “To ‘blaker’ someone,” notes Nigel Penn in “The wife, the farmer and the farmer’s slaves: adultery and murder on a frontier farm in the early eighteenth century Cape,” Kronos, vol. 28 (2002), “was to hold burning straw to their face and to blacken it … a reference to the earlier practice of burning at the stake victims found guilty of heresy, witchcraft and sodomy. Surely we may also see, in the case of the blackening of Maria Mouton, a reference to her crime of cohabiting with slaves.”

** After another slaveowner was murdered later in the year, the chronicle laments that “crime is rapidly assuming large dimensions, in spite of the means used to prevent or suppress it. A clear proof that this Colony mainly consists of evil disposed, head-strong slaves and the refuse of convicts.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Milestones,Murder,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,Slaves,South Africa,Women

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1916: Robert Digby in Villeret

1 comment May 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Private Robert Digby was shot by a German firing squad in the tiny northern France village of Villeret.

Digby was the last of a quartet of English soldiers who had been part of the British Expeditionary Force who met the Hun’s first foray into France in 1914.

Digby and his mates, Thomas Donohoe, David Martin and William Thorpe, were stranded behind lines.

Villeret took them in and changed their uniforms for peasant clothes while they worked the fields and tried to keep their heads down.

“Every inhabitant of Villeret knew of the British soldiers in their midst but none breathed a word, although the Germans had threatened to execute anyone harbouring enemy fugitives,” writes Ben McIntyre, who wrote the book on these men. “Even when food ran low and German troops were billeted on every house, the secret was kept safe. It was an astonishing act of collective bravery.”

To the west, in trenches the men could not pass, the war ground uncounted souls into horsemeat.

Digby became the lover of a village girl, and fathered a daughter by her.

This perilous idyll under the very bowers of hell could not last long. The Brits were mysteriously betrayed, and arrested by the Germans in May 1916 — all save Digby, who escaped out the window of a barn.

Donohoe, Martin and Thorpe were shot as spies on May 27.

After a week on the run in the nearby woods, the mayor of Villeret found Digby, and told him that the Germans were threatening to execute the villagers unless he turned himself in to face his comrades’ fate. Digby did so.

McIntyre’s book, A Foreign Field: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in the Great War, explored the village of Villeret and the life of Digby’s daughter Hélène Cornaille-Digby — an infant when her father was shot; an octogenarian when McIntyre met her.

The enduring mystery of the place, at least to McIntyre as an outsider, was the unanswered question of who betrayed the English. Was it a jealous lover? A disapproving family? A fearful neighbor?

Years after the publication of the book, McIntyre (so he thinks) accidentally solved the mystery.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1951: The Lonely Hearts killers, tortured by love

1 comment March 8th, 2010 Headsman

“Who would give a law to lovers? Love is unto itself a higher law. ”

Boethius

On this date in 1951, the made-for-tabloids killer couple Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were electrocuted at New York’s Sing Sing prison for murder.

He was a toupeed middle-aged lothario with a knack for conning personal ad denizens. She was a lovelorn obese single mother* with a serious dark side. Together — through a chance meeting through the personals — they became the Lonely Hearts Killers.

Martha Beck started off as just another of Raymond Fernandez’s targets: charm them, promise engagement or undergo a faux-wedding, and then rob them. He’d pulled this off a few times before; he might have even killed at least one of them.

But something clicked when he met Martha.

Or rather, Martha made it click.

Fernandez did the love ’em and leave ’em routine with Martha, whom he soon realized was penniless. But their passionate hotel rendezvous had been spied by the local bluenoses, who promptly got Martha fired for her indiscretions. She showed up unannounced at Fernandez’s door, and pushed her way right into his life.

Ere long, they were cohabiting — lurid media accounts would later savor their “abnormal sexual practices” and their, er, lifestyle relationship. She caused near-riots among the crush of spectators at their circus trial when she got into specifics of freaky stuff like voodoo fetish play.

“A request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command,” Martha testified. Since this was so — though the power dynamic between them really seems to have run in the other direction — she willingly joined in Mr. Fernandez’s scam, posing as his “sister” when he went to meet and charm his next mark.

Once such assets as could be had were signed over, the pigeon was disposed of: often, they’d just make the “honeymoon” so unbearable that the target got the picture and left, so humiliated she wouldn’t dare come forward with the story.

And sometimes — nobody seems to know exactly how many times — Raymond and Martha killed together.

Martha (whose own sob story of ostracism and childhood neglect is really quite sad) supplied much of the vengeful energy that impelled the murders. One of their victims was a woman Beck attacked in a jealous rage when Fernandez actually slept with her. (The “sister” would often impose on the sleeping arrangements to obstruct consummation.)

The Lonely Hearts Killers’ crime spree is thoroughly covered elsewhere. It carried them to Michigan, a non-death penalty state where they were arrested. There, they confessed in a ploy to draw a local sentence and avoid execution.

Michigan instead extradited them to New York to stand trial in a sweltering courtroom and on every Gotham newspaper’s daily headlines for the murder of a Long Island widow. That confession given in Michigan helped seal their fate in New York.

Though separated from one another on death row (but they kept up the treacly correspondence), Martha and Raymond were joined in death.

On International Women’s Day of 1951, both were executed in New York’s electric chair, along with two unconnected, run-of-the-mill murderers.

My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean … in the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?

-Martha Beck

Given the newspaper ink spilled over these two, it’s no surprise that they’ve inspired plenty of subsequent writers and directors. The Honeymoon Killers (review) is a creepy 1970 classic, with a couple of latter-day imitators.

* She abandoned her two kids to the Salvation Army when she hitched her wagon to Fernandez.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Infamous,Murder,New York,Pelf,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Sex,USA,Women

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1922: Henri Landru, French Bluebeard

Add comment February 25th, 2010 Headsman

“Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to matrimony.”

The personal ads sections of the Parisian papers were the stalking-grounds of French Bluebeard Henri Désiré Landru, guillotined in Versailles this date in 1922.

A former soldier himself, Landru trawled the Craigslists of World War I for their ample population of ample war widows.

His M.O.: enchant one into letting him get his hands on her huge … fortune.

(No, really. Her fortune.)

Then, kill her and incinerate the body in his kitchen stove.

Repeat x10 (plus one teenage son of one the widows), and you’ve got yourself your basic Bluebeard.

Landru’s story inspired the 1947 Charlie Chaplain flick Monsieur Verdoux.

And that’s not the only thing of Landru’s that made it to Hollywood. His severed dome is on exhibit at the Museum of Death.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Common Criminals,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Sex,Theft

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