1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe

5 comments March 25th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

The electric chair has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 1997 Florida execution of Cuban refugee Pedro Medina.

The improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge caused a “crown of foot-high flames” to shoot from Medina’s head, in a botched execution that caused Florida to reexamine its use of the electric chair and accelerated the trend towards lethal injection as the preferred method of execution — modern, sanitary and humane. But electrocution was once preferred for just those very reasons — well, that, and politics.

The thought of designing an apparatus to stimulate death by electrocution first came to dentist Dr. Albert Southwick in 1881, who watched an drunk man touch the terminal of an electricity generator in Buffalo, New York. Impressed at how quickly and painlessly the man died, he mentioned the incident to his friend, a state senator, who promptly brought the matter to the attention of the governor. The state legislature was then asked to consider how modern day electricity might emerge as an alternative to the often grisly process of hanging, in which incompetent executioners often inadvertently subjected prisoners to slow deaths by strangulation or decapitation.

Several years later, an inventor by the name of Harold Brown, an employee of the famous Thomas Edison, designed the first electric chair, deliberately adopting the Alternating Current (AC) form of electricity because Edison did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, but the novel method was far from foolproof: it took two attempts, and the inmate was reported to have gone down in the same sort of smoke, flames, and smell of Medina’s over a hundred years later.

Still, the method caught on, and over the course of the 20th century, the electric chair became an indelible symbol of the death penalty in the nation’s consciousness.

“The chair” didn’t begin to decline until the mid-1980s, when newspaper accounts about botched executions, together with the emerging technology of lethal injection, again prompted some states to reexamine their death penalty statues.

It was around this time that Pedro Medina first came to the US from Cuba, part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, in which Fidel Castro “permitted” some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and mentally ill to depart from the Mariel harbor for the fertile shores of America. (Medina himself had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Cuba and diagnosed with illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and major depressive disorder with psychosis.) The boatlift polarized public sentiment in the United States.

These factors combined to lend Medina, a black man, a low status indeed in the eyes of prosecutors and jurors when, two years after his arrival on American shores, he was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Dorothy James.

Medina was executed in Albert Southwick’s brainchild 15 years later, despite pleas from James’ daughter, Lindi James, who said that she did not believe Medina had killed her mother and that her mother would not have wanted him executed regardless, and from Pope John Paul II, who also made a public call for mercy on Medina’s behalf. Medina’s lawyers also filed a petition claiming he was insane and thus incompetent to be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, while he had mental problems, he could still be executed.

Early in the morning on March 25, 1997, Medina went out in flames.

A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. (From the Death Penalty Information Center’s botched executions page.)

The source of the malfunction was not immediately apparent; prison officials claimed the fire had been caused by a corroded copper screen in the electric chair’s headpiece, but later investigation revealed that it was due to improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge to Medina’s head. Attorney General Bob Butterworth hailed the deterrent value of malfunctions: “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”

Others, including the warden conducting the execution, were not as sanguine.

The debacle of Medina’s execution caused a media sensation and led to a case by another Florida death row inmate, Thomas Provenzano, claiming that lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

Provenzano lost his case, but with the release of bloody photographs of the 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis, more states began moving against the use of the electric chair. Of the six states that today retain it (Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, yes, Florida), none currently use it as their only method of execution.

Rather, lethal injection has become the norm.

But for how long? There may be no AC/DC marketing gambit in the new, modern business of death, and no crown of flames. But maybe all we’ve really done by moving to the needle is render invisible ongoing Medina-like botches.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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1977: Alphonse Massamba-Débat, Congolese Communist

Add comment March 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, the former president of the Congo, Alphonse Massamba-Debat, was summarily shot after his successor was assassinated.

A teacher by training and a member of the country’s powerful namesake tribe, Massamba-Debat (the link is to his French wikipedia page, which has considerably more information than the English entry) was a government minister who took power in a 1963 military coup that overthrew the former French territory’s first post-colonial government.

In a revolutionary age, Massamba-Debat swung with a Marxist-Leninist ideology. He ran a one-party state — winning a post-coup 1963 election by the comfortable margin of 100-0 — and met with Che Guevara during the latter’s African mission, while also setting up the first stirrings of industrialization.

The mix of true belief and opportunism in that formula is anyone’s guess; the brutality of his militias steadily eroded his “unanimous” popular support, and in 1968 he was toppled by another leftist, Marien Ngouabi.

That marked the end of Massamba-Debat’s meaningful political career.

Oddly, he was tried immediately after his overthrow for some of his regime’s notable political murders, but was acquitted and allowed to retire to his village: the new government plainly didn’t consider him much of a threat.

But when Ngouabi was assassinated in his turn on March 18, 1977 — for causes that remain unclear but that may have had to do with French energy interests in the region — the army seized control and purged numerous officials for supposed participation in the plot. Massamba-Debat, notwithstanding a dearth of evidence actually implicating him, was by virtue of being an overthrown former ruler far enough under the shadow of official distrust to find his name on that deadly list.

Massamba-Debat was officially rehabilitated in 1991, and is now far enough clear from the taint of treachery against his still-popular successor to have a stadium named after him. (the link is in French)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Congo (Brazzaville),Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason

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