1954: Henry Frank Decaillet

Add comment April 2nd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.

Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.

Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.

The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.

On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.

Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.

When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.

He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”

Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.

Less than a year passed between murder and execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA

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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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1947: Ding Mocun, not as hot a lay in real life

Add comment July 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Ding Mocun was shot for “conspiring with a foreign government to overthrow China” in Shanghai by the Kuomintang.

This former Communist turned right-wing radical may be most readily recognizable outside China as the real-life inspiration behind Ang Lee’s steamy 2007 art-house menace to undergarments Lust, Caution.

Based on a story by Eileen Chang (or Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution fictionalizes Mocun’s real-life escape from an attempted assassination in 1939.

That incident was authored by Ding’s young plaything, who turned out to have a very serious side indeed. (Ding had her shot.)

While the attempt on the turncoat spy’s life really happened, there’s some dispute over whether Chang really had this particular woman strongly in mind over the twenty-plus years she composed her story. There’s more about the evolution of the fictional story here, but you’ll need Chinese skills to follow the links to Chang’s evolving text.

At any rate, Ding’s actual death would come by order of a more august character: Chiang Kai-shek.

Why so many people out to get him?

Despite his nationalist credentials, when Ding lost a party struggle in 1938, he found a gig with the collaborationist government of Japanese-occupied China running a nasty intelligence unit that made nationalists and Communists disappear. That’s the sort of resume anyone would be touching up come the mid-1940’s, and Ding went with a revision (not widely credited, though it has its advocates) that he was secretly passing information to the nationalist resistance all along. And as the nationalists and Communists turned on one another in the postwar power vacuum, it looked like his usefulness to the Kuomintang might get him off the hook after all.

It worked for a while, but Chiang — or so goes the story — caught a tabloid expose about Ding catching R&R at a lake when he’d used a medical pass to get out of prison, and impulsively ordered him shot.

Perhaps Ding’s status as official evildoer vis-a-vis a China whose messy birth many are old enough to remember helps account for the resonance of literary works that engage him as a human being. In a nonfiction vein, Konrad Lawson’s layered critique of the pro-Ding apologia linked above thoughtfully evokes the complexity of Ding’s era and the challenges it poses for historiography.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Treason

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