1718: Stepan Glebov, lover of the tsarina

1 comment March 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.

Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.

This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.

Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?


Out. (Painting by Evgeny Alexandrovich Demakov, from this Russian-language page)

The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.

When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.

When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.

But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.

Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”

Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.

* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.

** Suzdal‘s Pokrovsky Monastery.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Sex,Soldiers,Torture,Treason

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1988: Dmitri Polyakov, Cold War spy

Add comment March 15th, 2016 Headsman

Although it would not be publicly known until two years later, the retired Soviet Gen. Dmitri Polyakov was on March 15, 1988 executed for treason.

A World War II artillerist, Polyakov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a military intelligence officer working as an embassy attache when he made contact with American agents in New York in 1961. For the next quarter-century — across assignments to Burma, India, the U.S., and back in Moscow — he would ship to the CIA and FBI some of its choicest morsels of the Cold War.

“Polyakov was the jewel in the crown,” former CIA chief James Woolsey lamented of his loss. Polyakov-supplied documents underscoring the extent of Russia’s split with China have been credited with spurring Richard Nixon’s overtures to Beijing.

The spy code-named Bourbon, Roam, and Top Hat had idiosyncratic motivations; he was not an ideological true believer like a Sorge nor a man afflicted by demons like a Vetrov. He accepted only a little bit of money from his handlers, mostly to support an innocuous wordworking hobby.

This Russian article indulges a variety of hypotheses — contempt for Khrushchev, the death of a son, an appetite for risk-taking — but nothing his U.S. contacts could learn of him rebutted the presentation he made of himself as a Russian patriot chagrined at the prospect that the corrupt Communist state could win the Cold War.

His revelations did much to check that possibility.

Polyakov retired as a general in 1980, having operated under the Kremlin’s nose for a phenomenally long period of time. (His U.S. contacts made sure to feed him some career-advancing secrets, too.) But he was betrayed in the 1980s by the USSR’s own moles, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and arrested in 1986.

His fate, imposed by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, thereafter was a mystery to his former handlers. Two months after his secret execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought Polyakov’s pardon or his exchange for a captured Soviet mole at his May-June 1988 arms control summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The solicitation was politely deferred.

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1745: Martha Stracey, whore and reprobate-creature

1 comment March 15th, 2015 Headsman

Martha Stracey or Tracey hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1745 for assaulting a man named Will Humphreys and robbing him of one single guinea a few months before.

Stracey, about 18 or 20 years old, was a prostitute and pickpocket — “a perverse, vicious Girl, void of all good Dispositions, and wholly untractable and unadviseable, giving herself up to the vilest Company on Earth, both of Men and Women,” the Newgate Ordinary judged. The Ordinary’s accounts are a reliable feast of purple prose and do not disappoint in discoursing on the young bawd and her fall.

Having no interest in honest work and “renounc[ing] every thing resembling Goodness or Virtue,” she “went idling her Time away on the Streets with her hellish wicked Companions, who induc’d her to commence Whore, upon which she turn’d a meer reprobate-Creature” and “became known to all the Constables, and inferior Officers of Justice in that End of the Town.” Stracey, says the Ordinary, “own’d she was naturally inclined, and not over-persuaded by others, as some of them may or do alledge in Extenuation of their Guilt.”

During the night of Dec. 22-23, Humphreys testified, Stracey and Humphreys met on the Strand. According to Humphreys, she approached him unbidden, and when Humphreys insulted her, two men clobbered him as Stracey skillfully went through his pockets in a few seconds and plucked out the gold coin.

Stracey claimed the affair began when Humphreys “pulled me into an alley, and wanted to be concerned with me.”

No other eyewitnesses could testify to the substance of their rendezvous, but Humphreys’s story about the mysterious male accomplices who after thumping him went on their own way and left Stracey alone with him mid-robbery has the definite whiff of a cover story. The jury — perhaps searching for some grounds to avoid sending the woman to the gallows* — even asked the arresting constable, William Dunn, whether Humphreys’s clothes were really dirty, since he claimed to have been knocked down in the scuffle. (The constable didn’t know.)

But the simple fact was that Stracey did have Humphreys’s gold guinea, whether she achieved by main force or plucked it during a roadside assignation. With the convenient disappearance of her supposed goon squad, Humphreys was now able to seize the hustler on the spot and drag her to the watch. Constable Dunn had someone “search her behind and before (I ask pardon, my Lord)” and finally found the guinea under Martha’s profane tongue.

Before her execution, Stracey did confess that she had stolen the gold piece, under the circumstances that Humphreys’s shady account might lead one to infer:

Martha own’d the Fact she died for, that meeting a Man in the Street in the Evening, about Nine or Ten o’Clock, they speedily came to speak of an Agreement about a certain Affair; and as they were adjusting Matters, Martha thought fit to examine the Gentlemen’s Pockets, and amongst other Things, finding a Guinea, she robb’d him of it, as he Swore against her, and upon this she was convicted of a Street-robbery, one of the greatest Crimes in the Eye of the Law. She did not well remember the Circumstances of this robbery, as being very Drunk, which all of them generally are, when attempting to perpetrate so soul and black Crimes in an audacious manner.

Martha owned her committing of several robberies of this Kind before, she being a constant Street-walker , but did not well remember the Circumstances of the Robbery, she died for, nor the others which were conceal’d, it being impossible to recollect them, for the was always dead Drunk when they were committed. She was very ignorant of Religion, and what Things pertained to the state of her Soul; I endeavoured to instruct her, as the Brevity of Time allow’d, but she was of a mean Capacity and slow of Understanding, and had been so accustomed to do Evil, that she could scarce do any Thing that was good.

* The denomination of the stolen coin made “pious perjury” impossible.

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1878: Joseph LaPage, murderer of Josie Langmaid

Add comment March 15th, 2014 Headsman

Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.

The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)

The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.

“As I pull out of the driveway of the school, leaving my daughter behind, the monument is a visible reminder of how quickly our lives can change,” one commenter mused in a detailed post on the excellent true-crime blog Murder By Gaslight.

All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.

And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.

This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly every other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.

Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.

LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.

And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.

Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.

However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.

To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.

Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)

LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that

[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.

* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.

** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Hampshire,Notable Sleuthing,Rape,USA

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1963: Victor Feguer, by the feds

2 comments March 15th, 2013 Headsman

This date marks half a century since the hanging of Victor Feguer — the last man executed by the federal government in the 20th century. (And the last executed in the state of Iowa, period.)

A drifter holing up at a Dubuque, Iowa, boarding house, Feguer phoned up a random doctor claiming a woman needed medical attention.

Think about that the next time someone gets nostalgic for house calls.

Dr. Edward Bartels showed up only to be kidnapped by Feguer, and eventually murdered in Illinois. Feguer was picked up in Alabama, trying to sell the doctor’s stolen car; his motive for the whole affair was just to get whatever drugs the luckless physician had with him.

The cross-state crime spree put Feguer’s case in the hands of the feds. (It was not, however, a “Lindbergh Law” case, since Feguer was on the hook for capital murder independent of the kidnapping.)

Although Feguer spent his prison time at the federal lockup in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was transported back to Iowa for execution — because that state’s penitentiary had a gallows available.

Iowa still had a death penalty on the books at this time, but it had a death penalty abolitionist for a chief executive; just two years hence, that Gov. Harold Hughes set his pen to the Hawkeye State’s death penalty abolition bill. Iowa hasn’t hanged, shot, electrocuted, poisoned, or otherwise judicially executed anyone since.

It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy, however, who had Victor Feguer’s life in his hands. Despite Gov. Hughes’s support for clemency, Kennedy turned the kidnapper down flat.

Feguer’s last meal, oddly, was a single olive. He tucked the olive’s pit into the new suit he wore to his dawn hanging.

As the death penalty waned into a formal abeyance in the 1970s in the U.S., the federal government stopped executing people for a long, long time. (And stopped hanging people altogether.) The next time a human being was put to death under federal auspices was 38 years later: Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

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1865: Marcellus Jerome Clarke, “Sue Mundy”

4 comments March 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Marcellus Jerome Clarke rode a carriage to a scaffold on Broadway Ave. in Louisville, Ky., where he addressed the multitude thus:

I am a regular Confederate soldier, and have served in the Confederate army four years … I could prove that I am a regular Confederate soldier, and I hope to die for the Confederate cause.

And then he did.

Clarke‘s last remarks were a protest against Kentucky’s military government. Having captured Clarke just three days before, it refused him prisoner-of-war status; regarding him rather as a franc-tireur, it gave him a pro forma secret trial even while throwing up the gallows for the preordained hanging.

This border region between North and South had seen bitter guerrilla war. As one indicator: the Northern effort in the Bluegrass State to suppress Confederate irregulars had been led by a general who earned the nickname “Butcher of Kentucky” for his ruthless exertions.

Stubbornly eluding those exertions (the Butcher was gone by March 1865) was Clarke, an elfin captain of 20 years with a band of cavalry raiders (in)famous for its hit-and run raids on Union men and supplies. (And on one infamous occasion, 30 African-American cattle-drivers.)

It was during this time that stories began circulating of a daring female commando, a “she-devil in pantaloons,” and the picturesque character — perfectly calibrated to twist the Butcher’s tail — seized popular imagination and moved newspapers.

While the honor is disputed by another Kentucky irregular hanged later in 1865, this “Sue Mundy” (or Munday) character soon came to be identified with the androgynous, just-old-enough-for-his-riding-license Clarke.

The Louisville Journal fantastically embroidered the Mundy legend and its alleged connection to Clarke — editorializing, for instance, that Clarke cross-dressed for amusement and advantage and could pull off his female alter ego thanks to his

“fair [complexion], long dark hair, which touched his shoulders, and a beautifully shaped mouth” (Mar. 16, 1865)

and his

“medium female statue, small feet and hands, face beardless and quite handsome, voice soft and feminine — all together making a counterfeit so perfect that even John Morgan, on a certain occasion, mistook him for a female.” (Jan. 14, 1865)


Right?

A captured Clarke would eventually complain that “he was not guilty for one-tenth of the outrages that he had been charged with and that the Louisville Journal had done him a great injustice.” Maybe he’d never heard that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The publicity this afternoon, of course, was of the very worst variety, albeit not exactly inimical to the celebrity racket.

“The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions. It was feared for a time that he would break the lashings. His sufferings, however, were of short duration. Thus ended the career of the notorious Sue Mundy.”

Several historical markers in Kentucky still commemorate that notorious career.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1536: Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, Suleiman the Magnificent’s friend and grand vizier

66 comments March 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1536,* the Ottoman Empire’s mightiest Grand Vizier was strangled at the order of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Say what you will about the Grand Vizier, the man knew how to enjoy the fruits of his transitory power. This, his Istanbul palace, is today the Museum of Islamic and Turkish Arts. (cc) image from docman

An Albanian [update: and/or Greek] Christian, Ibrahim Pasha — not to be confused with several other historical figures of that name, notably an Egyptian general — found his way into the Ottoman slave quarters and became a boyhood friend of the young Suleiman.

Thereafter the two would rise together: as Sultan, Suleiman rapidly promoted his trusted friend, and even married a sister to him.

So absolute was Ibrahim’s power that Italian diplomats** called him “Ibrahim the Magnificent”. At the Ottomans’ acme, his word was law as surely as his distinguished master’s. Ibrahim’s achievements in war, diplomacy, and as a patron of the arts attested his worthiness of the honors.

Unfortunately, he may have taken those honorifics a little too much to heart.

We do not know the precise cause of Ibrahim Pasha’s fall: only that it was precipitous. Two months after returning from a campaign against the Safavids that reconquered Baghdad, he was put to death, reputedly spurning an opportunity to flee and loyally submitting himself to the Sultan’s punishment. Much as this smacks of poetic amplification, Ibrahim’s last meal was said to be taken dining alone with Suleiman.

It’s impossible that in 13 years as Grand Vizier, this Islamic convert and upstart slave had not won himself powerful enemies — but he lived in Suleiman’s favor, and was destroyed when that favor reversed. One theory of Ibrahim’s fall has it that his self-awarded titles started getting a little bit, er, “magnificent” and Suleiman jealously snuffed out any potential for actual political rivalry. Another looks towards the Ukrainian slave girl who was taking over Suleiman’s harem — Roxelana, who would ruthlessly destroy all the political obstacles to her son’s eventual succession.

Between those two, or other palace machinations, or factors yet un-guessed, Suleiman was induced to destroy his boyhood companion and right-hand man. And in the thirty years the sultan had to outlive his vizier, who knows what pangs conscience held in store.

Dear Lord! Shower me with your grace
Whether there is any remedy other than You I do not know.
Help me, forgive my sins,
Please, help me, forgive my sins.

-poetry by Suleiman the Magnificent, writing as “Muhibbi”

* There are some other March 1536 dates out there, but the Ides seems like the strongest.

** Very tight with the Ottomans.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Power,Slaves,Strangled,Treason,Turkey,Volunteers,Wrongful Executions

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1953: John Christie, a little late in the day

3 comments July 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1953, English serial killer John Christie was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for the murders of six women.

The sex-killer is most infamous, though, for a different death: that of Timothy Evans, a neighbor and fellow client of Pierrepoint whom Christie had stitched up three years before for strangling Evans’s wife and child.

Back then, the respectable Christie was the star witness against Evans. Evans tried in vain to blame Christie (“this perfectly innocent man,” Evans’s prosecutors scoffed) for the murders.

Nobody knew then that Christie had strangled an Austrian prostitute during sex back in 1943, nor that he had done a gassing-strangulation-rape job the following year.

Both their bodies were both buried in the garden at 10 Rillington Place: the first inhabitants of what would be the British Isles’ most notorious corpse hotel.

Strangulation sex killings would become the definitive Christie m.o. after Evans hanged. He got himself a no-fault divorce by throttling his wife in bed late in 1952, then raped and strangled at least three other women whom he had invited back to his pad. The remains of each were secreted in the apartment’s nooks and crannies.

This is Richard Attenborough as Christie doing his thing to Evans’s wife (he’d later confess to that crime) in the 1971 flick 10 Rillington Place.

Christie seemingly could’ve gotten away with it all, if it weren’t for his penny-wise and pound-foolish decision to move out of the charnel house early in 1953 and let someone else stumble upon the remains. (Christie had quit his job the previous December, and hocked his strangled wife’s stuff to make ends meet for a while. He was homeless when the subsequent manhunt tracked him down.) There was even a human femur being used to prop a fence.

Having quite a lot of damning evidence, and Christie’s confession besides, his lawyer went for a hail-Mary insanity defense, but Christie didn’t even bother with an appeal when that didn’t take.

But there was the small matter of that other gentleman hanged back in the day for a strangulation murder, all the while unsuccessfully accusing his then-respectable neighbor Christie.

An inquiry launched by the government very conveniently concluded that (Christie’s confession notwithstanding) Evans was indeed guilty of killing his wife. Two stranglers in the same place at the same time, and the one had just happened to try to blame the other one when he was accused.

For obvious reasons, this whitewash was greeted skeptically and — though the two-killers theory does still have its defenders — officially reversed when Evans was posthumously exonerated in 1966.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Sex

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1990: Farzad Bazoft, journalist

3 comments March 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Iranian-born British journalist Farzad Bazoft was hanged at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison as an Israeli spy.

The 31-year-old Observer freelancer was in Iraq to cover post-war reconstruction when he caught wind of an explosion at a military factory and set off to investigate.

This sniffing about Iraq’s weapons programs was not the sort of journalism Iraqi dictator (and future fellow gallows-bird) Saddam Hussein had in mind when his government invited Bazoft.

Bazoft was nabbed (along with the British nurse who had accompanied him, Daphne Parish) with photographs and soil samples from the sensitive compound.

Held incommunicado for six weeks, Bazoft was trundled onto state TV on November 1, 1989 to confess to spying for Israel (video of that confession is available from this BBC story).

Bazoft’s companion, Daphne Parish, was released after a few months in prison. She wrote this out-of-print book about her experiences. (Review)

He was convicted of espionage in a one-day, in camera trial on March 10 and hanged five days later.

Many years and wars later, Bazoft’s Iraqi interrogator would tell Bazoft’s former Observer colleagues that the man “was obviously innocent,” but that his fate had been decided at the highest levels.*

A few months after Bazoft’s hanging, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and thereby transmogrified from a source of moderation in the region into the new Hitler, Bazoft’s execution naturally went onto the bill of attainder against Baghdad.

Like other Iraqi human rights abuses that became much bigger news only after Saddam became an official enemy, however, Bazoft’s fate exercised some of his defenders more in retrospect than it did in the moment.

Indeed, some British MPs openly endorsed the execution and some Fleet Street contrarians bucked the worldwide humanitarian appeal by publishing embarrassing information about Bazoft (he’d been to jail in Britain) leaked by British intelligence.

(Margaret Thatcher made the seemly applications for clemency, and the incident certainly strained the countries’ relationship. But the Tory government would later be embarrassed by revelations that, before and even after Bazoft’s hanging, it was pushing for closer trade relations and helping British firms skirt the law to ship Baghdad the weapons it would use against British troops in the coming Gulf War.)

* Bazoft is still honored by his former employer and his former colleagues, as well he might be. But the Observer‘s claim that it “proved” Bazoft’s innocence has to be taken with a grain of salt: apart from the de rigueur smoke-and-mirrors, plausible-deniability skein of the espionage game, the interrogator’s exculpatory statement was made by an obviously self-interested party to representatives of a power then occupying Iraq.

Although it’s a minority position subject to hot dispute, some people do believe that Bazoft was indeed a Mossad agent. Gordon Thomas, in Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad makes exactly that case.

Videotaped confession aside, Bazoft reputedly denied the espionage charge at the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1957: Burton Abbott, reprieved too late

3 comments March 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the phone outside San Quentin’s gas chamber rang with a governor’s reprieve for Burton Abbott … but the execution was already underway.

Abbott was convicted of abducting and murdering 12-year-old Stephanie Bryan — a notorious crime that poet Sharon Olds, then a San Francisco teenager about the same age as the victim, memorialized in verse.

Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can. And I feared the word
eczema, like my acne and like
the X in the paper which marked her body,
as if he had killed her for not being flawless.

Strong though ultimately circumstantial evidence connected Abbott to the crime, and the accused coolly maintained his own innocence at trial and thereafter. (The Oakland Museum has an extensive collection of photographic negatives from the trial.)

Abbott convinced his mom, but not many others — see this comment thread, for instance.

His last hours on March 15 were a rush of activity for a defense team that had fought for any possible angle to avert his death. A flurry of communications to Gov. Goodwin Knight delayed the execution once, and then secured a second stay just as the Abbott was being prepared for his fate.

By the time the phone rang, Abbott was already shrouded in cyanide fumes.

Goodwin’s Secretary Joseph Babich: Has the execution started?
Warden Harley O. Teets: Yes, sir, it has.
Babich: Can you stop it?
Teets: No, sir, it’s too late.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Kidnapping,Murder,Reprieved Too Late,USA

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


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