1915: 167 Haitian political prisoners

7 comments July 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had his predecessor* Oreste Zamor, and 160 or so of his closest proximity, executed in Port-au-Prince.

Within hours, Sam himself was dead at the hands of an outraged mob — and Haiti on its way to 19 years of American military occupation.

Haiti in the 1910s was a dangerous place to aspire to political authority; Sam was the 7th different man to hold the presidency since 1911. Like many others, he gained it by force, and held it tenuously against rivals who planned to do likewise.

The hecatomb that did in Sam, who had been head of state for less than five months, was seemingly intended to shore himself up in the face of an advance upon Port-au-Prince by one Rosalvo Bobo — or else just done for the principle of the thing. Either way, it left a mess.

A few minutes after 4 a.m., Charles Oscar Etienne, the chief military officer of the Haitian government and a close friend of the President, hurried to the national prison, where ensued the bloody massacre of some 167 prisoners who were held only as political suspects without being even charged with any crime. Among the victims were members of the most prominent families of Haiti …

Stephen Alexis, one of the political prisoners who escaped death in the massacre, has testified before the claims commission that on the morning of the twenty-eighth [sic] of July he has awakened by the prisoner who shared his cell and told that there was firing in town. He heard shots being fired with increasing intensity, and at twenty minutes past four the sound of voices in the conciergerie and the order, “To arms, sound the bugle, prepare for action; fifteen men, forward march.” As the firing squad reached the first cell, Alexis heard Chocotte, the adjutant of the prison, say, “Fire close to the ground; a bullet in the head for each man,” and when the second cell was reached a loud voice cried, “Every one of the political prisoners must die. The arrondissement’s orders are that not one be left standing” …

Except for the very few who escaped by a miracle, the political prisoners were all slaughtered like cattle, their bodies slashed and horribly mutilated, limbs hacked off, the skulls of some of the corpses smashed in, and the bodies of others disembowelled …

The report of the claims commission says: “The barbarous act perpetrated in the prison in Port-au-Prince is all the more inexplicable in that it had no act of war for excuse. There had been no revolt in the interior of the prison. The prisoners were locked into their cells. The prison had not been attacked. The bureau of the arrondissement, which adjoined the prison, had not had to repulse any offensive on the part of the revolutionists. It was with appalling cold-bloodedness that Haitian officers, in whom military authority had been vested, to whom the care and security of the prisoners had been entrusted, perpetrated, with the assistance of their subordinates, the wholesale slaughter of July 27.”

An incensed mob invaded the French embassy (where Sam had taken refuge) and literally tore apart the president.

On July 28, marines from the American ship USS Washington landed in Port-au-Prince to do the usual restore-peace-and-freedom thing. (Greeted as liberators? Surprisingly, “Haitians Dislike[d] Landing of Marines”.)

As a happy side effect, the American occupation froze out French and German commercial interests who had made Haitian inroads, secured debt repayment from the bankrupt country, and allowed Washington to reorder its neighbor to its liking.

From 1915 to 1929 U.S. military tribunals made rulings on political cases. A treaty that provided for American control of customs and construction of roads, as well as supervision of schools and the constabulary, was approved by the Haitian legislature under threat that American troops would remain in the country. American officials dissolved the Haitian legislature when it refused to approve a new American-sponsored constitution, which was then ratified by a referendum supervised by the U.S. military.**

* Zamor was not Sam’s immediate predecessor; rather, Sam had deposed the man who had deposed Zamor.

** Filed under “everything old is new again,” here‘s the American chattering class circa 1921 making a familiar-sounding case for giving the occupation a few more Friedman units on behalf of the Haitian

people, all of whom, less the native ruling class, a small group, recognize the benefits of the American occupation and are grateful for the peace and security they now enjoy … The United States, [Admiral Knapp] says, has only made a start for the good of Haiti, and five years of healing occupation would be lost if the Americans withdrew.

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1840: Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, for the murder of Lord Russell

4 comments July 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1840, a valet was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of his aristocratic employer, Lord William Russell.

This celebrity murder of a former Member of Parliament, septuagenarian patriarch of one of England’s august noble houses, by a member of his household activated all the crime-panic circuits still familiar a couple centuries later.

That of class, of course: the perpetual frisson of animosity between the respectable and those they held in economic servitude, bursting bloodily onto the front pages.

That of foreignness, since Courvoisier was Swiss.

And that ever-popular fear of youth amok, when the 23-year-old claimed inspiration from William Harrison Ainsworth‘s then-popular potboiler about the beloved underclass robber Jack Sheppard.*

Speedy Trial

The valet was quickly on trial for his life; the total time elapsed from Russell’s death to Courvoisier’s own was two months to the day.

But a less hasty schedule might have permitted better investigation, as Courvoisier was well on his way to acquittal with his lawyer’s deft rebuttal of the crown’s entirely circumstantial case.

When police discovered the decisively damning evidence of Russell’s stolen effects midway through the trial, the Swiss man made himself an milepost in the evolution of professional ethics at the bar. Summoning his lawyers, Courvoisier informed them that he was indeed guilty but that he had no intention of pleading guilty to a hanging crime and expected his defense to continue.

Attorney Charles Phillips reluctantly complied, implicating fellow-servant Sarah Mancer as the potentially guilty party. When it became publicly known after the trial that Phillips had become aware of his client’s guilt, he was publicly vilified for the vigor of his representation, e.g., contesting “with violent language the witnesses for the prosecution, whose evidence he [knew to be] true,” and a lively debate among legal types on professional propriety in such an instance ensued.**

Read All About It

None of this availed Benjamin Courvoisier aught. His celebrity was brief, but intense — he even signed an autograph for the sheriff, dating it “the day of my execution,” as he was being pinioned for hanging. Broadsides like these below (links to selections from Harvard Library’s extensive publication of execution broadsides) sold a reported 1.65 million copies. (Source)

Broadside 1

Broadside 2

Broadside 3

Broadside 4

Among the published broadsides are several popular ballads relating to the case — one written to lament the murder, before the apprehension of a suspect; others for the condemned’s execution. One certainly wouldn’t call these great literature, but they’re representative examples of broadside balladry, nearly de rigueuer for scandal-mongering Victorian crime coverage and therefore very relevant for these pages.

COURVOISIER’S LAMENT
(Written by Himself.)

You Christians all of every nation,
A warning take by my sad fate–
For the dreadful crimes that I’ve committed,
I, alas! repent too late.
Only think what I must suffer,
And the death which I must undergo–
I cannot rest by day or night,
My heart’s so full of grief and woe.

My parents they were poor — but honest —
And brought me up in virtuous ways;
And never, ’till this sad occurrence,
Did I embitter their fond days.
But now, alas! quite broken-hearted,
My friends and family must be,
To think that I soon must quit
This world for a long Eternity.

My Master was a Nobleman–
Lord William Russell was his name;
Beloved he was by all who knew him,
And well he did deserve the same.
Oh! how could I so basely murder
One that was so good and kind?
I hope the Lord above will pardon
Me, that I may mercy find.

Alas! my days they are all numbered.
When I must give up my last breath;
For the horrid crimes that I’ve committed,
Die an ignominious death.
Oh! while I’ve life, let me entreat you
All, take warning by my fate!
Shew the ways of evil-doers,
Or you’ll repent when ’tis too late.

Attend unto my true confession–
A lesson it may be to you;
Give not your mind too much to pleasure,
Act upright — be just and true.
Let not the sight of gold e’er tempt you
To act dishonest to your friend:
For that alone caused me to murder,
And brought me to this untimely end.

Let not the world blame those two Females
Who, fellow-servants were with me;
For of the murder and the robbery,
None whatever knew but me.
No other crimes have I committed,
Save one single robbery;
Tho’ it was said that Etiza Grimwood
Basely murdered was by me.

Charles Dickens attended this hanging, mining the scene for Barnaby Rudge.

William Thackeray came too — he was becoming publicly engaged as a man troubled by capital punishment, and it was the first execution he had witnessed. (Actually, he turned away at the decisive moment.) Thackeray published an article about the experience in Fraser’s magazine, reflecting doubt at the salutary value of public executions and empathy with the young man’s scrambled mental state as he was raced from condemnation to the gallows in a mere fortnight.

At first, his statements are false, contradictory, lying. He has not repented then. His last declaration seems to be honest, as far as the relation of the crime goes. But, read the rest of his statement — the account of his personal history, and the crimes which he committed in his young days; them “how the evil thought came to him to put his hand to the work.” It is evidently the writing of a mad, distracted man. The horrid gallows is perpetually before him; he is wild with dread and remorse. Clergymen are with him ceaselessly; religious tracts are forced into his hands: night and day they ply him with the heinousness of his crime, and exhortations to repentance. Read through that last paper of his. By heaven, it is pitiful to read it. See the Scripture phrases brought in now and anon; the peculiar terms of tract-phraseology (I do not wish to speak of these often meritorious publications with disrespect). One knows too well how such language is learned-imitated from the priest at the bedside, eagerly seized and appropriated, and confounded by the poor prisoner.”

* Courvoisier’s Jack Sheppard reference triggered thunderous indictments of this text in the popular press — “a publication calculated to familiarise the mind with cruelties,” howled the London Examiner “and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual” and caused the stage adaptation to be censored (pdf).

Though Ainsworth had decades of writing ahead of him, it’s been argued that his reputation never fully recovered from this case, and that’s why he’s not in the canon. What he lacks in posthumous celebration he garnered in contemporary buzz; Ainsworth’s “Newgate novels” valorizing highwaymen helped to feed an enduring popular craze for hanging broadsides and “penny dreadfuls” and to mainstream a (commercialized) version of thieves’ cant. See The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868.

** See The Bar & The Old Bailey, 1750-1850. In a more unctuous vein, the bishop of London submitted a petition to the House of Lords demanding repeal of the right of defendants’ lawyers to make closing statements.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Scandal

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2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor

4 comments May 30th, 2009 Headsman

One Fu Xinrong was shot in the back of the head this day in China’s Jiangxi province. The previous fall, he had raped his girlfriend, murdered their newborn son, and turned himself in to police.

His death, just one no-account criminal among China’s thousands of practically anonymous execution victims, attracted no particular notice.

But quite against all odds, Fu Xinrong posthumously became the subject of a scandal: the hook for a story in the Chinese press piquantly titled, “Where Did My Brother’s Body Go?”

For the answer — that Fu Xinrong’s corpse had been driven to a Nanchang hospital and its kidneys transplanted to unidentified recipients — unveiled the shadowy post-execution operations even more unseemly than China’s industrial-scale death penalty.

According to a Washington Post report of July 31, 2001,

After Fu was shot in the back of the head, four attendants got out of the van and picked up his corpse … A government prosecutor attempted to stop them, but they explained that they were from Nanchang and that they had a deal with the court …

“We found the hospital’s director and confronted him with the evidence,” one reporter said. “In the beginning, he refused to say anything about it, but when he saw what we had, he had to admit it on the condition that we did not release the hospital’s name in our report.”

Further investigation indicated that a senior court official, whose surname is Yang, had sold the body to the hospital, the report said.

Fu’s father committed suicide. The family sued the court in 2001; I have not been able to establish whether or how that suit was resolved. However, according to a 2003 U.S. Congress report (pdf) the editor who green-lighted the story’s publication was sacked.*

Fu’s case, in any event, is far from unusual.

On the contrary, his kidneys entered a veritable souk** of transplanted organs that’s been openly pitched at westerners willing to part with five figures and their decency in exchange for a life-giving replacement part from a shot-to-order prisoner.

* This would have been around the same time that a similar fate befell journalists indiscreet enough to explore the unflattering-to-the-People’s-Republic social environment of an executed gangster.

** Finally officially acknowledged in 2005.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Rape,Shot

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1936: Rainey Bethea, America’s last public hanging

36 comments August 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1936, thousands thronged Owensboro, Kentucky, for a glimpse of what would prove to be the last public hanging in the United States.

The U.S. followed the trend of its onetime mother country, England, in moving the formerly iconic public hanging increasingly behind closed doors, but its federalist structure made that change uneven. In Kentucky itself at this time, the law displayed sedimentary layers of death penalty history.

Caught up for killing a 70-year-old woman — done in the midst of a drunken burglary, he had left a telltale ring at the scene; fingerprint analysis also helped establish his guilt — Rainey Bethea was on the hook for murder, robbery and rape. The former two indictments would have subjected him to (private) electrocution at the state penitentiary. The latter charge still carried the punishment of public hanging in the local county seat.

Bethea was charged only with rape.

While the explicit sentencing disparity between the crimes bears the clear marks of racism and patriarchy that made purported black-on-white sexual crimes such live fodder for lynch law, and the four-and-a-half-minute jury deliberation doesn’t have the look of solemnity, Bethea’s actual guilt seems fairly well-established.

But the case attracted a nationwide media swarm not for any exceptional quality of the crime or the anachronistic nature of the punishment, but for the involvement of a female sheriff. The “matronly” (virtually all descriptions of her gravitate to this adjective) Florence Thompson had inherited the top law enforcement post upon the death of her husband … and that meant she had inherited the responsibility of hanging Rainey Bethea, which would make her the first American woman to supervise an execution.

Would she or wouldn’t she? The press descended on Owensboro to cover the edifying spectacle of a plump mother stringing up a rapist, or else maneuvering her way out of the job. Thompson played cagey until the very last moment, when the ringers she had secretly hired appeared on the scaffold while she watched from a nearby vehicle.

In this photo, Bethea — almost totally obscured between his escorts — has just begun ascending the gallows.

The man who threw the trap showed up drunk and performed appallingly, but press reports subsequently focused on the beastly behavior of the “jeering” crowd rushing the gallows to tear souvenirs from the corpse. (For instance, Time and the New York Times.)

But according to Perry T. Ryan’s 1992 review of the case — including interviews with surviving witnesses — little to nothing of the kind occurred. Ryan claims Bethea faced about the most dignified hanging mob imaginable.

Maybe hyped-up atrocities in the hinterlands were part of what distant editors demanded after H.L. Mencken at the Scopes trial. Certainly, the local Messenger-Inquirer painted a sharply different picture from more prominent outlets in this August 16 editorial (titled “Panderers Galore”) whose themes could have stepped fresh from a modern cable TV gabfest:

Ambitious and irresponsible reporters and photographers who swarmed into Owensboro for the Bethea hanging dipped their ready hands into the cloaca of evil designs and plastered over the name of this fair city the dirty results of their pandering.

Those who saw the dawn kindling in the east and ushering in the last sunrise of the despicable creature about to die, did not expect all of the watchers to be in reverent mood, but a calm, quiet demeanor characterized their behavior, as a group, throughout their long wait, surprisingly moderate for an occasion on which the law was exacting the supreme penalty.

Considering the size of the throng that witnessed the hanging Friday morning and that it was composed largely of people, who journeyed to Owensboro from distant places, the wonder is that there was no demonstration, no emotional outburst. There was not the semblance of ‘mob impulse’ or ‘eagerness for the kill.’ For the sensation seeking star scribes of quacks of American journalism, it was entirely too tame an affair. This is the reason that some of them reported it as they wanted it to be — not as it was.

They heard a very few people on the outskirts of the crowd call out at different times: ‘Hurry up,’ ‘Get it over’ or ‘hang him.’ To give screaming bulletins to the yellow press and to ruthless radio commentators, they magnified and colored it into a scene of ‘great disorder’ though there was never a general outcry of any kind.

When a priest held up his hand from the scaffold for silence, as Bethea was about to go to his death, there was no ‘blood thirst’ mob ‘shouting and yelling.’ Present were several thousand, who came from near and far to see a man legally hanged for the most heinous crime ever committed in Daviess county, and several thousand more, who turned out to see how the rest would act. When that hand went up in a gesture for silence, the buzz of the multitude’s conversations died down till the fall of the proverbial pin could have been heard.

The smart scribes and sob sisters looked on. All they saw was a black man standing on a scaffold with a rope around his neck and a mass of people peering up at him. That was too tame, they would call it a ‘jeering’ throng. All they heard was the click of the trap door. That would not do. There would have to be ‘cheering.’ So they said there was. Then they heard cameramen from cities where nothing is cared about the horrible crime Bethea committed. They were bawling at officials to ‘move out of the way,’ to ‘give us a break.’ They had to have their souvenirs to show the half civilized readers of their yellow sheets. The boys and girls who had to tell the story needed more color to regale them with atrocious accounts of how the people behaved. They found a few individuals who had gone in the bizarre which inspired thundering headlines about ‘gayety’ and ‘carnival’ spirit.

In administering the last sacrament, the Rev. H. J. Lammers, of Louisville, made an opening in the hood. When the doctors pronounced Bethea dead, one of the attendants at the scaffold took a tag off the hood. Another then took a fragment and others, who were at arms length from the dead man, followed suit. The blunder of tearing off that tag gave the high powered thrill-writers their big opening. They pictured the crowd as tearing Bethea’s clothes from his body. The crowd was never in disorder and Bethea’s clothes were never torn.

The ‘souvenir hunting mob’ did not even pick up the sox [sic] and shoes the doomed man left at the foot of the gallows. It did not so much as touch the basket in which Agnew and Wheatley, colored undertakers, placed the body, clothes and all, or molest it or them in the slightest as they bore it away.

The scavenger writers who came to depict a ‘jolly holiday’ and ‘gala occasion’ had both, but they never saw a more orderly throng at a baseball game.

The public hanging of Bethea was not a disgrace to Kentucky. But, a disgrace to Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, and some other states, was the spectacle made of it in their scandal monger press. Owensboro should not be surprised at the scurrilous attack upon it by lurid writers and glib tongued talkers in northern and eastern states for they delight to distort any news from Kentucky into weird barbaric tales. We have learned how best to protect our women from rapists-murderers, white or colored. The only way, it seems, that we will ever be able to protect them from the cruelties of a sordid section of the press, will be by softening the state’s anti-rape law, which makes public hanging mandatory. So many as favor that will please tell the legislature.

Vendors of news occupy an important place in the nation, and their purpose should always be to maintain unquestioned exactness of facts. Where the subject matter is susceptible to coloring there should be no sacrifice of truth. To pervert the high honor of the profession for the paltry reward of more readers is a dangerous venture and one that should be curbed.

Owensboro’s citizenry, than which no finer representatives of high-bred Americans can be found anywhere, regrets that it was necessary to invoke the Mosaic law, but a sobered regret and a more solemn memory is that the hanging was eagerly seized upon and transformed into a picturization of the exhibition of low passions loosed.

We are proud of our city, and justly so, for no people are of finer fiber. The putrid pens of those who wore the garb of the news profession painted in lurid colors purported happenings, and it is sad but true that such distorted reports are accepted while the plain statement of facts is discarded as an attempted apology.

Thousands of those who witnessed the Bethea hanging came from outside the county. They belonged to good families in their communities, temporarily bereft of their better judgment and bent on viewing a scene which ordinarily would be extremely repugnant to them. And the out-of-town reporters found in the visitors elements to embody in their sordid stories.

A thoughtless word here and there, expressed without cognizance of its probability of misuse, and the staid citizen away from home becomes to the wild-eyed correspondent a Kentuckian gunning for human game. There should be available means of calling to account the writer who for a few filthy shekels diverts his sense of justice into the recording of things that never were.

As the editorial intimates, regardless of what actually happened in Owensboro, the circus atmosphere quickly brought the matter of public hangings into question. In 1938, the Kentucky legislature moved all executions behind prison walls … and Bethea secured an indefinite claim to the status of last person publicly executed in the United States.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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1882: Thomas Egan: 3 tries, 2 ropes, 1 innocent man

3 comments July 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Thomas Egan was hanged in Sioux Falls in the Dakota Territories (present-day South Dakota) for strangling his wife, Mary.

It took three tries to get the hanging right … and it still turned out they got it wrong: years later, Egan’s stepdaughter copped to the crime on her deathbed.

Egan was the first man hanged (.doc) by state officers in the Dakota Territory; earlier, Jack McCall had been executed there by the feds.

Let’s start with the twice-botched hanging, whose can’t-look-away horror can hardly be improved from its original coverage by The Chicago Tribune (picked up elsewhere as well — such as The Alexandria Post of Douglas County, Minnesota):

A HORRIBLE AFFAIR.

The Execution of Thomas Egan, the Wife Murderer, at Sioux Falls, Dak — The Drop Fails Three Times Before the Culprit is Deprived of Life, Owing to Rotten Ropes.

On Thursday, July 13, occurred at Sioux Falls the first judicial hanging ever done in the territory of Dakota. Nearly two years ago Thomas Egan, who suffered the death penalty, most foully and cruelly murdered his wife, with whom he had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. From evidence produced at the trial it would appear that they had frequent quarrels which at length culminated on this fatal morning in her death. He deliberately sent the children away, and while she was washing dishes at the table came behind her, and after throwing a rope around her neck and strangling her, pounded the life out of her with a club. The body was then thrown through a trap door into the cellar, where it was found three days after, horribly mutilated. The skull was fractured and the head was covered with frightful gashes made by the club. It appeared also as if she were not dead when thrown down, as she was discovered partly reclining against the call [sic] of the cellar, which added to the horribleness of the crime. Eagen [sic] was arrested and tried, and although there was every effort made by his attorneys to save him; he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Sioux Falls by Judge Kidder of the Fourth judicial district of the territory.

On Thursday, 13th, after eating a hearty breakfast, hearing the sentence read, and some religious exercises by a Catholic priest, Eagan [sic] was taken to the gallows. All eyes were intently fixed on the prisoner. His face was somewhat pale, but his lips were firm and he seemed to exhibit no sign of fear. He was a straight, heavy-set man, weighing 180 lbs., with a retreating forehead, heavy projecting eyebrows and an ugly looking eye. His general appearance was far from prepossessing. He was dressed in a plain black suit, with clean white shirt, collar and tie, and low shoes. He walked straight up to the platform to the scaffold, taking his place on the fatal trap, turned around and faced the crowd below. The sheriff now asked him if he had any thing to day [sic], but his lips still were kept sealed to his secret, and he shook his head and answered in a low voice, “No.” His legs were now tied, he himself assisting the officer by placing his feet close together. The black cap was put on his head, but not a limb quivered. The noose was adjusted and the fatal moment had come. While the priests were chanting their solemn service, and while the attending officers and crowd were holding their breath in silence, the sheriff touched the trigger which alone kept Thomas Egan from his death. There was a crash as the door flew back against the boards and body, deprived of its footing, shot through the door, and now, horror or horrors!

The rope snaps like a piece of thread, the body drops to the earth with a dull thud, partly on its back, and rebounding rolls over on its face. The crowd are paralyzed with astonishment and fear. An unearthly gurgling sound now breaks forth from the prisoner. His neck is not broken, but the cord is wound tightly about it and he is strangling. A half a dozen men now rush forward, one seizes him by the arm, another by the leg, another by the waist, another by the head. It is seventy-five feet from the ground, where he has fallen, back to the jail-door, and around to the platform of the scaffold he is hurriedly conveyed through the crowd, the broken rope in the meanwhile dangling from his neck, while his horrible groaning strikes terror to the bystanders. Once more on the scaffold, another rope is adjusted and the sickening details once more gone through with, the trap falls again and the half dead man drops once more; but worse. The rope was not fully adjusted before the excited sheriff again touched the trigger and down the body goes a second time but not with sufficient force to accomplish the desired result.

His neck is still unbroken, and the slow process of suffocation is all this time going on. The attendants seize him by the arms and again pull him on the scaffold while the death struggle continues. The first rope is flopping from his neck and he still has life enough, so one says who was on the scaffold, to brace his feet for the third and last fall. If at this juncture some one had mercifully stepped up and put a bullet through his head, it would have been an act which would have certainly been appreciated by the crowd. The rope is finally fixed, the door drops once again, the man shoots down, and there is a snap which is heard all around the yard and outside. There is a shrugging of the shoulders, a twitching of the legs a convulsive shudder and all is still. The body swings slowly around. There is no motion of leg or arm or muscle, and in eight and one half minutes the doctors pronounced him dead, and shortly after the body was taken down. Yes, he is dead at last, and the sightseers heave a genuine sigh of relief. The corpse is now cut down and the pinioned arms and legs released. The dirt was brushed from the clothing and body laid in a coffin, where it was afterwards viewed by the crowd, both outside and inside the jail. The effects of the strangulation were fearfully evidence about the neck. The first cord had embedded itself, but the action of the heart had forced the blood under it and the flesh was swollen, purpled and discolored. There was a sightless stare to the eyes and blood was flowing out of the corners of his mouth. After all those desiring had seen the corpse it was boxed up, and early in the afternoon it was taken to the Catholic burying-ground where it was buried, and with it the club and cord with which he killed his wife.

Nobody in a position to help Egan knew he hadn’t “most foully and cruelly murdered his wife” or that “the horribleness of the crime” stained some other’s soul, of course … but one wonders how the writer thinks he did know it. The obscure considerations of jurymen might well be the most virtuous structural safeguard of the Republic, but as a dependable compass of fact, one might as well scry the entrails of a sacred ox.

It has always seemed misfortunate to the Headsman that journalists prone to the most tedious wheedling over the use of the qualifier “allegedly” to uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty consider the epistemological certitude of a juridical conviction sufficient to abandon full stop the (admittedly inelegant) qualifier and speak of Revealed Truth. The New York Times would hardly think to make apology for flatly calling Egan — who did keep his peace about the verdict — “the wife murderer”:


… any more than the San Antonio Express-News would regret the assertive headline “Father who killed 3 is executed” mounted atop an article reporting the executed man’s continued insistence upon his innocence. Any good scribe frets more readily about column-inches and legal ass-covering than bickering and arguing over who killed who. But shame if not stylistics merits less awe before the particular sausage-making of the judiciary when such modern cases too turn out to have been cock-ups from start to finish.

In 1993, South Dakota Governor Walter Miller apologized (.pdf) for Egan’s execution. A descendant of Egan’s has written a book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies: The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas Egan.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,South Dakota,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1941: Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya

11 comments November 29th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was hanged by the Wehrmacht for sabotaging buildings behind German lines near Moscow.

A statue of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya stands vigil over Moscow’s World War II-era Partizanskaya metro station. Image used with permission.

One of the most famous Soviet war heroines and the first woman decorated as Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II, the 18-year-old had quit school to volunteer for a partisan unit only a few weeks before her hanging as Russia mobilized against Hitler’s race towards Moscow.

Known simply as “Tanya”, the nom de guerre which was the only information she volunteered during two days of torture, the power of the press offered her apotheosis into a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, and a symbol of courage that would long outlive Stalin. Before the public execution, the Nazis paused to photograph the scene; Kosmodemyanskaya availed the lull to harangue the Germans — “you can’t hang all 190 million of us!” — and call on the Russian villagers present to resist occupation.

Her bayoneted, mutilated body hung on the gibbet until the Red Army recaptured the village; witnesses related the tale of her dying heroism to a newsman.

It was only after the story of “Tanya” hit the press in January 1942 that her identity was established … and then promulgated widely. Anonymous and obscure in death, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya would inspire millions and become the heroic emblem of other women partisans.


Soviet propaganda poster unabashedly modeled on the already-iconic image of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s abused corpse.

Zoya, a 1944 Soviet film, was scored by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Against Fascism.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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