1946: Ten at Hameln for killing Allied POWs

Add comment May 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the British hanged 10 convicted war criminals at Hameln Prison, notably including seven for the “Dreierwalde Airfield murders” of four Allied prisoners of war.

Picture from this book about RAF POWs in wartime Germany, which also supplies the unknown names: A.W. Armstrong and R.F. Gunn of the RAF; B.F. Greenwood and J.E. Paradise of the RAAF.

In that case, two British and three Australian airmen had been captured after bailing out during a March 21 raid. Taken to the nearby aerodrome between Dreierwalde and Hopsten in Westphalia, they were marched out the next day ostensibly for transport to a POW compound. Instead, they all ended up shot by their guards — although Australian Flight-Lieutenant Berick was able to escape, wounded, and survive the war.

The nub of the case was whether the guards cold-bloodedly murdered their prisoners (prosecutors’ version), or whether there was an escape attempt by the airmen that caused the guards to start shooting (defense version).

Berick’s affidavit to the effect that no escape had been attempted weighed very heavily here — that nothing was afoot until he suddenly perceived the guards cocking their weapons. Karl Amberger would testify on behalf of himself and his men that the five had been suspiciously taking their bearings as they marched and suddenly broke off running in different directions.

The defense counsel’s attempt to reconcile these accounts in the haze of war was not fantastical — “saying that the cocking of the action of a weapon by one guard was not unnatural given the fact that five prisoners had to be guarded in a lane in the growing dusk … [while] Berick and the other prisoners probably regarded it as likely that they were to be shot, as others in their position had been, and began to run when it was not necessary.” But it did not carry the day.

Three other Germans joined this bunch on the scaffold, for similar but unrelated POW abuses.

  • Erich Hoffmanm, condemned by a joint British-Norwegian court in Oslo for the murder of Allied POWs in occupied Norway.
  • Friedrich Uhrig, for murdering a downed Royal Air Force pilot at Langlingen.
  • Franz Kircher, for killing three airmen at Essen-West.

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1815: William Sawyer, guns and roses

Add comment May 15th, 2016 Headsman

William Sawyer hanged on this date in 1815* at London’s Newgate Gaol for a murder he committed while in Portugal.

Dispatched to Iberia during the 1814 mopping-up stages of the Peninsular War, Sawyer preferred to make time with a young Englishwoman named Harriet Gaskett who was supposed to be there as the mistress of Sawyer’s friend and fellow-officer. (Both of the men in question had wives back in Blighty.)

When this third wheel discovered their liaison,** Sawyer and Gaskett fell into that death-seeking tragic mooning that lovers do and after dinner one night in April they wandered off to the garden. Other guests soon heard three pistol shots crack the evening air. The reports proved to correlate with a dead Harriet, and a severely (but not mortally) wounded William.

After he was cleaned up — and after he once more failed to kill himself by slashing his own throat — his friends solicited a forthright confession.

Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum and my discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.

William Sawyer

Besides doing the tragic lover thing, Sawyer was obviously intent on doing the officer-and-a-gentleman thing. His friends did very well believe the convenient-sounding version of events that he presented, such was his rectitude and lovesickness.

But under any construction of motive and circumstance, this narrative of “discharging a pistol at her head” amounted to confession to a hanging crime and Sawyer was convicted with ease.

Sympathetic to a fault, the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough who personally tried the case reserved judgment as to the penalty pending a review by a panel of the king’s judges of several technical legal points. These were all defeated as entirely as was Sawyer’s wife’s attempt to see him in prison.

Despite his avoiding such an awkward interview Sawyer went to the gallows “very dejected,” in the words of the Newgate Calendar.

During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o’clock the body was taken to Bartholomew’s Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and [it] was not ironed.

* The Newgate Calendar, whose command of detail is often unreliable, mistakenly gives May 22 as the execution date — a week later than the true event.

** Intent on layering on the melodrama, Sawyer’s story was that the friend had actually given the two lovebirds leave to go live together. Great! Except Gaskell was convinced the permission was insincere and that he meant on killing himself once they did so and “although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.” Anything for love.

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1945: George Green, Jr.

Add comment May 15th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1945, in Le Mans, France, Pvt. George Green Jr. of the 998th Quartermaster Salvage Collecting Company was hanged for the murder of his corporal the previous year.

Green was married, with one child.

The story of Corporal Tommie Lee Garrett’s senseless death began with a urine can. The soldiers of the platoon used a can at night rather than venture out into the open to answer nature’s call, and at 7:30 a.m. on November 18, 1944, Green knocked the can over accidentally. Corporal Garrett grabbed him by the shirt collar and told him to clean up the mess.*

Green stewed over what happened for the next hour and was heard to mutter darkly that he was “going to get” someone. At 8:30, as everyone was at a salvage dump sorting clothes, Green calmly raised his M1 carbine and fired it at Garrett’s chest from twelve feet away. The corporal was struck in the heart and died within minutes.

The incident was totally uncharacteristic of Green. He had a reputation as a good, efficient soldier who didn’t cause trouble. His supervisor from his civilian job (he’d been a janitor at a factory in Texarkana, Texas) submitted a sworn statement as to his good character. He had one prior court-martial for being drunk and disorderly but no other convictions in either military or civilian life.

Nevertheless, there were no mitigating circumstances in the case: Green had shot his victim in cold blood, without provocation, while he was stone cold sober. Even though he claimed he hadn’t intended to kill Corporal Garrett, there could only be one punishment.

In his final statement before he was hanged, Green said, “A person has no fear of death if he is right with God. Death is an honor. Jesus died for a crime he did not commit. I really did a crime, a bad crime.”

He’s buried at the American Military Cemetery at Oise-Aisne, along with the poet Joyce Kilmer and Eddie Slovik, the last American soldier ever executed for desertion.

* We’ve seen overturned urine cans lead to the gallows before.

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1702: Dick Bauf, executioner of his parents

Add comment May 15th, 2014 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


Who executed his own Parents, and from a Pickpocket became a Cat Burglar, and then a Highwayman. Executed at Dublin, 15th of May, 1702

THIS insolent offender was born in the kingdom of Ireland. At twelve years of age he had the wide world to shift for himself in, his parents being then forced to swing for their lives on a piece of cross timber, where they had the misfortune to have their breath stopped. Their crime was only breaking open and rifling a house, and murdering most of the family. Dick was present at the action, and contributed towards it as much as he was able, but found mercy at the assizes on account of his youth.

Some say he was pardoned only on the hard condition of being executioner to his own parents, and that he was at first very unwilling to take away the lives of those who gave him his, but consented at last, when he found that there was no excuse that such a worthy family might not be entirely cut off by one single act of justice. It is added that on the same consideration his father and mother persuaded him to the action, and gave him their blessing at the hour of their departure, assuring him that they had much rather die by his hands than by the hands of a stranger, since they were sure of his prayers in their last moments.

These words afforded great consolation to young Richard, and enabled him to get through the work with a Christian fortitude.

Being now left an orphan, young, helpless and alone, he determined to look out for some gentleman whom he might serve in the quality of a skip- kennel, or some handicraftsman of whom he might learn a trade, for his support in an honest way. But all his inquiry was in vain; for the lamentable exit of his parents, and the occasion of it, being fresh in everyone’s memory, their infamy rested on him, and there was no man to be found who would receive him into his house.

Being as yet unfit to engage in any great and hazardous enterprise, he took up the decent occupation of a pick-pocket, at which he soon became very dexterous, haunting all the fairs, markets, and even churches, round the country, and in this manner picking up a very good living; till, being often detected, and obliged to go through the discipline of the horse-pond, he was obliged to think of some other order of sharpers in which to get himself entered.

There is in Ireland a sort of men whom we may properly enough call satyrs, from their living in woods and desert places; among these Dick Bauf was next enrolled. These people never came to any towns, but continued in their private holds, stealing horses, kine, sheep and all sorts of cattle that came in their way, on which they subsisted. But all these inferior orders soon became tiresome to our adventurer, the more on account of the bad success he met with whilst he was in them.

The next, then, therefore, was to get acquainted with a gang of Grumeis, who take their name from the similitude of their practice to that of the young boys who climb up to the tops of the masts at sea with great activity, and are called cats, or Grumeis, by the sailors. The thieves that bear this name are housebreakers who make use of a ladder of ropes, with hooks in one end of it, by which they easily ascend to the chamber windows, having fastened their ladders with a long pole.

These robbers were very common in Dick Bauf’s time, and did a world of mischief both in town and country, doing all with so much expedition that they more frequently escaped than other housebreakers, yet commonly with as large booties of gold, silver, linen and everything that came to hand as anybody at all. When they had done their work their method was to pull a string which was fastened to the end of the hooks, and so raise them, upon which the ladder fell without leaving any marks behind it.

Next he got into a crew of wool-drawers, whose trade is to snatch away cloaks, hats or perukes from towners — a very sly sort of theft, practised only in the night, the greatest part of their cunning lying in the choice of a proper opportunity. They go always in companies, three or four together, about nine or ten at night, most commonly on dark rainy evenings, which are generally the most favourable to their practice. The places they choose are dark alleys and passages where a great many people come along, and there is a facility of escaping by a great many ways; which they do to prevent their being surprised by the neighbours if those that are robbed should cry out, as they frequently do.

But Dick Bauf was at last taken in one of these pranks also, and burned in the hand for it at Galway; upon which he grew weary of the lay. He was, moreover, now a man full grown, very lusty and able-bodied; which determined him to take to the highway. He was not long in making provision for this new course; and, being in every particular well accoutred for it, he proceeded in as intrepid and insolent a manner as ever fellow did.

All the four provinces of Ireland were scarce large enough for him to range in, and hardly afforded occasions enough for him to make proof of his courage as much as he desired. Night and day he pursued his villainies, and practised them on all ranks and degrees — rich and poor, old and young, man, woman and child were all the same to him. For he was as impartial as Death, and altogether as inexorable, being never softened to pity.

He was so notoriously remarkable for the daily robberies he committed on the Mount of Barnsmoor that no person of quality would venture to travel that way without a very large retinue. In a word, he kept his residence in this place till, by an order of the Government, there was a guard-house built on the middle of it; and the regiments lying at Coleraine, Londonderry, Belfast and other garrisons in the north of Ireland were obliged to detach thirty or forty men thither, under a sergeant and a corporal, and to relieve them monthly, on purpose to secure the passengers who travelled that way from being interrupted by this audacious robber.

These measures obliged him to shift his quarters and reside about Lorras. In the end, such grievous complaints of his frequent outrages were made to the Government by so many people that a proclamation was issued for the apprehending of him, with the promise of five hundred pounds’ reward to him who could do the State this signal piece of service; for, in short, he began to be looked upon as a dangerous person to the whole kingdom. This great sum caused abundance of people to look out for him, and among others were several who had often had a fellow-feeling with him, by being employed to dispose of what he stole.

Bauf was so enraged when he heard of this that he vowed revenge; which he thus executed.

Some of these persons daily travelled a by-road about business. As he knew their time of passing, he one day waylaid them and stopped them singly as they came, tying them neck and heels and putting them into an old barn by the roadside. When he had by this means got nine or ten together, he set the barn on fire and left them to be consumed with it; which they all were, without remedy.

This inhuman action was soon discovered by the persons being missed and the bones that were found in the rubbish; whereupon, finding the country too hot to hold him, he fled in disguise to Donaghadee, took shipping, and escaped to Portpatrick, in Scotland, from whence he designed to have gone to France. But lighting on a public-house where there was a handsome landlady he got familiar with her, which occasioned him to stay longer than he intended, and, indeed, too long for him; for the husband, at last observing the freedom that our rover took with his wife, caused him to be apprehended, in a fit of jealousy, having before a suspicion who he was.

When he was carried before a magistrate all circumstances appeared against him; so that he was sent back under a strong guard to Ireland, where he was soon known. Being committed to Newgate, in Dublin, and shortly afterwards condemned, it is said he offered five thousand pounds for a pardon, being worth twice the sum. But all proving ineffectual, he was executed at Dublin, on Friday, the 15th of May, 1702, aged twenty-nine years. His body was afterwards hanged in chains on Barnsmoor Mount, in the province of Ulster.

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1863: William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw

Add comment May 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1863, two men were shot* on the beach at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, site of a Civil War prison. Their crime: recruiting for the Confederate army behind Union lines.

After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality” vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodily contested frontier march between the rival governments.

With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.

In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.

Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”


Not to be confused with Order 66.

This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.

General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†

Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.

At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.

Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:

That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …

After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.

To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.

After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)

There is a weathered but still-visible monument to Thomas J. McGraw erected in 1914 by the Daughters of the Confederacy at the Flagg Springs Baptist Church cemetery where his remains were interred. (Corbin’s remains are at a family cemetery in Carthage.)

* Corbin and McGraw were set up for execution seated on the edges of their own coffins, so that the force of the firing detail’s barrage would knock them conveniently back in. That’s efficiency.

** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.

Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.

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2012: Majid Jamali Fashi

Add comment May 15th, 2012 Headsman

Today in Iran, Majid Jamali Fashi was hanged for murdering nuclear scientist Masoud Alimohammadi — allegedly at the behest of Israeli intelligence.

Alimohammadi, a Tehran University physics professor, was slain in January 2010 by a booby-trapped motorcycle parked next to his car just as he left for work in the morning.

It’s one of a whole pattern of “events that happen unnaturally” befalling Iranian scientists — events whose rather self-evident foreign sponsorship is supposed to be bracketed as “alleged” and definitely not described as “terrorism”.

Whether that’s specifically true in Alimohammadi’s case is arguably a bit harder to judge, since he was not directly involved in Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s western opponents have speculated that Tehran itself murdered him because he was a (low-key) supporter of the country’s opposition who in death could serve as an official martyr.

That would be awfully convenient: official martyrs come cheap but Iran doesn’t exactly have a limitless supply of particle physicists.

Accurately or not, Fashi confessed to carrying out Alimohammadi’s assassination, claiming that he was recruited, paid, and trained by the Mossad for the job.

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1976: Lt. Col. Bukar Dimka and six coup confederates

2 comments May 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1976, Nigeria executed the leading spirit of an abortive Nigerian coup was shot for the “abortive” part of that coup.

That February 13, Bukar Dimka had taken to the airwaves to announce the assassination of Nigeria’s incumbent military strongman, Murtala Mohammed.*

Good morning fellow Nigerians.

This is Lt. Colonel B. Dimka of the Nigerian Army calling. I bring you good tidings. Murtala Muhammed’s deficiency has been detected. His government is now overthrown by the young revolutionaries. All the 19 military governors have no powers over the states they now govern. The states affairs will be run by military brigade commanders until further notice.

Any acts of looting or raids will be death. Everyone should be calm. Please stay by your radio for further announcements. All borders, air and sea ports are closed until futher notice. Curfew is imposed from 6am to 6pm. Thank you. We are all together.

-From Romancing the Gun: The Press as Promoter of Military Rule

They were not all together.

Mohammed’s second-in-command, Olusegun Obasanjo, instantly quashed the putsch and served notice that assassinating the head of state would not be welcome on his watch.**

A large body of coup conspirators were publicly executed within a month; the Nigerian Defense Minister was among them.

Dimka himself managed to remain at large for most of that month, so he wasn’t among that crop. Instead, Obasanjo had the pleasure of announcing Dimka’s execution separately, along with that of

a former state governor, Joseph Gomwalk … “two of the principal actors” in the coup.

New York Times, May 16, 1976

The coup was thought to have aimed at restoring the guy Mohammed deposed, Yakubu Gowon, who was luckily in exile in England and therefore escaped a similarly grim fate.

Years later, he received an official pardon; Gowon is still alive, one of Nigeria’s elder political statesmen.

* When next in Lagos to transfer several million in oil wealth from a secret bank account, be sure to visit Mohammed’s bullet-ridden Mercedes.

** Obasanjo handed power to a democratic government in 1979; that government was itself later toppled by the military, but Obasanjo eventually served as Nigeria’s elected president from 1999 to 2007.

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1381: Eppelein von Gailingen

2 comments May 15th, 2009 dogboy

On this day in 1381, probably the most infamous robber baron in Germany was flogged, done in on the breaking wheel, and beheaded in Postbauer, near Nürnberg.

Eppelein von Gailingen (or Egkelein Geyling, or some variation thereof) has been dramatized across the ages, but little is known of the man’s life. His death, certainly, but his life is clouded in myth and folklore. What’s clear is that von Gailingen met his grisly end for robbery and a subsequent escape from incarceration. The rest is a tad murky (German link).

Von Gailingen belonged to the class of original robber barons, who supplemented their income with unauthorized tolls and, sometimes, flat-out theft. While the term is more popularly known for its application to the so-called industrial robber barons, it derived from a literal description from centuries past — Raubritter, in German, “men of birth who elected to live, in a lawless age, by saddle and by sword; who sought gain by masterful spoliation, and strove for glory by despiteful deeds of arms.” (Source)

A combination of factors led to the slow and steady dissolution of the former feudal system in favor of a money-based economy during the Middle Ages, and after the Plague swept through Europe around 1350, the accumulated changes and decimated population left much of the continent short on labor and, as a result, short on production. This really was a spot of bother for barons who, unlike their monarchical brethren, had no way to draft extra manpower. With resources thinning and a social lifestyle to keep up, many of these former lords turned to theft and exploitation. Although Rome established the rules governing tolls and trade, many local lords, now charged with obeying distant regulations, opted for a more convenient route: they stopped ships at unauthorized points, shook down the merchants, and sometimes seized wares to stock their own shelves.

Eppelein von Gailingen (German link), a lord in the castle at Gunzenhausen, near Illesheim, was of this group, but apparently one of its more bold and populist members.

He was often felt to be a kind of Robin Hood, and the earliest celebrations of the man were largely in this vein: a knight’s knight, fighting against an out-of-control state disregarding its people. Eppelein got away with his skulduggery until 1369, when he was captured by a political rival and imprisoned in Nürnberg. Von Gailingen was sentenced to death, but shortly before his hanging, an accomplice managed to sneak him a horse, on which he rode out the tower gates and hurdled the enclosing wall and moat.

Now the leader of a loyal band of brigands flouting the Roman Catholic Church, Eppelein went on the run for six years, eventually making his way back near his home. It was there that, after six more years, his minimal forces finally yielded to the Count of Nürnberg, who carried out a much more unpleasant version of the death sentence.

Eppelein’s rise to prominence began in the 16th century, when he was immortalized by a folk song, a medium that continues to be kind to him. Locals still tell a variety of tales of his exploits, and a rendition of these classics is vaguely effected through the film Ekkelins Knecht.

Others have simply waxed poetic on the topic.

As if all that attention weren’t enough, von Gailingen’s run from the law lives on through the legend of Nürnberg: locals pushing the town on tourists claim that two hoofprints from his daring escape are imprinted in the stonework near the the castle’s five-pointed tower.* And perhaps most indicative of his endurance as a cultural icon, a neighboring town has devoted a festival to him, which is more than most robber barons of any day can claim.

* Not surprisingly, the tower was destroyed and rebuilt at least once — just five decades after Eppelein’s alleged leap. But the new sandstone structure does bear the marks of what could conceivably be a horse’s hooves.

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1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction

93 comments May 15th, 2008 dogboy

Lynching is such a vile word. Likely taken from the name of Captain William Lynch of Virginia (circa 1780), the term for administering justice while dispensing with a trial had, by 1916, long since taken on its more common meaning of a white-on-black public killing.

But Jesse Washington‘s case defies this simple definition, straddling the line between state execution and an unrestrained populace. Washington’s brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, clearly fits the definition, and the particularly grisly details of his demise conjure all-too-familiar images of violent racism in the pre-Civil Rights South; but in another more disturbing way, Washington was effectively executed, his punishment carried out not by the state of Texas, but by the people themselves.

Jesse Washington’s charred corpse after the lynching.

Washington was born in 1899, a black farmhand who may or may not have been mentally retarded.* While his life is not well-documented, his death most certainly is. Washington was arrested on May 8 of that year for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old wife of a well-to-do cotton farmer. Fryer was found bludgeoned to death. Washington was spared for a week by the Waco sheriff, who successfully took him into custody before a pre-trial mob got their hands on him; Washington was then sent to Dallas for holding to prevent a local incident. To appease the mob, he was transferred back to Waco and tried for the crime just one week later.

It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty — evidence is scant and the trial lasted just one hour, but Washington appears to have had ample opportunity to perpetrate the act and is purported to have confessed — but his guilt or innocence in the matter was not on the mob’s mind. On May 15, the well-attended trial ended, and in four minutes, the jury reached its guilty verdict. Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance offered by any of the various legal entities in the courthouse, several hundred of the onlookers (some brandishing weapons) rushed Washington and carried him out the doors. Outside, a larger crowd waited to beat and castrate him. A chain was thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was dragged to the town square, where he met an immense crowd as well as the pile of dry goods boxes that was to be his end.

A Fred Gildersleeve image of the lynching of Jesse Washington.

By some estimates, up to 15,000 (mostly white, though not exclusively white) people watched the horrible events unfold; without question, Waco’s mayor as well as several other public officials watched from their second-story perch at town hall on one side of the square. Washington was tossed onto the boxes and coal oil was poured over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over what has become known as the Hanging Tree, and the fuel below Washington’s feet was set ablaze. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the cauldron. It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets.

Also watching from the mayor’s position was a cameraman who wanted to sell photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards. Fred Gildersleeve snapped a series of images which would briefly make Waco the most shamefully famous city in the nation. Gildersleeve’s work paints a portrait of a town possessed by spite and uncontrolled rage: thousands of white spectators standing about the burning body of Washington from above, then hundreds of blacks gathered around his burned and brutalized remains from ground level. Others took pictures as well,
some more disturbing than others.

A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, which also tracks the increased viability of the NAACP in the wake of the slaying. What makes this case noteworthy for this column, though, is that Washington was found guilty prior to his lynching, and he would doubtless have received a state-supported death sentence. At the time, Texas law would have allowed for a public hanging; presumably, the spectacle surrounding Washington’s execution would have been just as significant (though not nearly as gruesome). Instead, vigilante justice was administered on the young farmhand, and his case because a linchpin for the Civil Rights movement. As with other lynchings of the time, no persons were charged in the incident, though it was obvious that there was significant planning involved and, from some of the images, that some form of self-appointed executioner actively participated in the deed.

Unlike a state-sponsored execution, though, Washington’s death raised the ire of the jury foreman, who harshly criticized the court for not protecting him. And because he was lynched, his cause was also taken up by several Northern papers, pushed into the national spotlight by NAACP secretary Royal Freeman Nash and Elisabeth Freeman.** Over 90 years later, the town of Waco is still dealing with the Waco Horror. The lynching has reared its head multiple times as many residents have pushed for a plaque to be erected on the site of the lynching, as one was for a distressingly large number of prior lynchings in Waco. Some in the town continue to resist, asserting that Washington’s guilt absolved the mob of responsibility for its act.

A postcard commemorating the lynching; written on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe [Myers].”

Washington’s case raises two of the critical issues in the modern death penalty debate: culpability of the executioner (and witnesses), and cruelty of punishment. Nobody in the mob was prosecuted for the crime, and in the Waco of that day, it would have been unusual if someone had; today, we take little interest in the state executioner but would vociferously condemn such mob action. On a similar note, Washington’s death was barbaric and brutal, and few would argue that such an execution should be undertaken through legal channels, but recent Supreme Court cases have found it difficult to identify the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment”. The debate continues in the United States, but these are two arguments, posed by Cesare Beccaria, that caused Leopold II to outlaw capital punishment in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1789, and cases like Washington’s suggest they should continue at the very least to give us pause today.

* Some accounts state simply that he was illiterate, and if this is the litmus test for mental retardation in the early 1900s, around 6 percent of the population fell into that category.

** Freeman worked tirelessly to drag information from Waco’s inhabitants, her actions likely sparking papers like the local Waco Times-Herald to quickly shut the door on the case; that paper officially apologized 90 years later for its and other newspapers’ roles in venerating the lynch mob.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mature Content,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,Torture,USA

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