1984: Velma Barfield, the first woman in the modern era

Add comment November 2nd, 2013 Headsman

The first execution of a woman* in the U.S. “modern” death penalty era took place at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Central Prison on this date in 1984 when 52-year-old Velma Barfield received a lethal injection for poisoning her fiance.**

Barfield was already twice a widow in 1977 when her prospective third spouse Stuart Taylor began suffering agonizing stomach pain at church. He died shortly after.

A thorough coroner and a tip call to police by Barfield’s sister each independently flagged arsenic as the cause. Exploration of her past uncovered a disturbing pattern of people near to Velma Barfield who died in spells of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

She would confess when confronted to poisoning off not only her late fiance, but also her mother and two elderly people for whom she was a paid caregiver, all during the 1970s — a period when she was afflicted by addictions to numerous prescription drugs. There are at least two other probable murders she may have authored during this time.† “It’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” one of her sons remarked innocently at Taylor’s service, before the criminal suspicions surfaced.

Like the second American woman executed — Karla Faye Tucker more than 13 years later — Barfield was mediagenic, devoutly Christian, and white. Like Tucker, Barfield made national news as she approached her execution date. Time magazine, 60 Minutes, even international press descended on Raleigh.

The bespectacled, crocheting grandmother ended up declining to appeal to the Supreme Court or file other delaying actions that were available to her so that she could meet her execution with greater dignity, but she still sought mercy from the governor. Her sterling prison record was her strongest card; staff routinely broke a “no contact with other inmates” rule (the entire death row women’s section consisted of Barfield alone) in order to put the matronly “Mama Margie”‡ around inmates whom her ministrations could help.

Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, her clemency pitch was addressed to Gov. Jim Hunt at the peak of his ferocious 1984 U.S. Senate run against Jesse Helms, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history up to that point. Hunt wasn’t about to go soft on arsenic killers four days before the polls opened. (He still lost by 86,280 votes.)

In the small morning hours this date in 1984, dressed in pink cotton pajamas and an adult diaper, Velma Barfield gave a last statement apologizing for “all the hurt that I have caused,” laid down on a gurney to receive the IV lines, and was put to sleep.

* The last execution of any woman in the U.S. prior to Velma Barfield’s was all the way back in 1962.

** Last meal: Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola.

† Her first husband, and the father of her children, died in a suspicious fire in 1970; shortly before her execution, Velma admitted to her family that she had started it. Singer Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of the apparent first poisoning victim, whose death Barfield only confessed very late in the game to the minister who helped her write her book: Jennings Barfield was already afflicted with emphysema and diabetes when the two wed in 1971, so his death a few months later failed to raise any eyebrows. Byrd eventually composed a song about his grandfather and his deadly bride, titled “Velma”.

‡ Full name: Margie Velma Barfield. She was born Margie Velma Bullard.

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1801: James Legg, crucified ecorche

1 comment November 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.

Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on

a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.

Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)

When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.

He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.

Legg hanged exactly a month after the homicide. During the interval, three Royal Academy of Arts members — sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway — pulled some strings with the Chelsea Hospital surgeon Joseph Carpue to get Legg’s body after death.

These gentlemen had an idea that centuries of artistic representation of Christ’s crucifixion were nonsense from a physiological point of view.


Giotto crucifixion fresco, c. 1300.

It was a natural outgrowth of Europe’s long fascination with anatomical accuracy — a fascination that made liberal use of executed bodies.

Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …


Possible Michelangelo (otherwise, Marcello Venusti) Crucifixion with the Madonna, St. John and Two Mourning Angels.

… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?

That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)

“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.

Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.

That latter ecorche still survives, and the despondent veteran James Legg’s last pose, hypothetically in the manner of the Savior, can be seen to this day the Royal Academy.

(Debate and experimentation over the particulars of an execution by cross also continue to this day.)

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1972: Evelyn Anderson and Beatrice Kosin, missionaries

Add comment November 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1972, Vietnamese communists in Laos summarily executed two American missionaries.


Evelyn Anderson (top) and Beatrice Kosin

Evelyn Anderson and Beatrice Kosin were nurses dispatched to southeast Asia with the Christian Missions of Many Lands, which does what it says on the tin.

On Oct. 27, 1972, North Vietnamese communists seized the town of Ban Kengkok, near Savannakhet.

Though several other western missionaries escaped, and were evacuated by helicopter, Anderson and Kosin were captured and tied up in a hut.

A mission to extricate them was scratched — allegedly from on high because the ongoing secret negotiations between the U.S. and North Vietnam on ending the war had just reached a turning point. Someone evidently felt this a skirmish across the border concerning (and possibly killing) good Christian heartland girls might prove politically inflammatory at this delicate moment.*

So it didn’t happen, and that October 1972 diplomatic breakthrough eventually formed the basis of the Paris Peace Accords, publicly unveiled in January 1973, that set the framework for American withdrawal and gave Henry Kissinger his controversial Nobel Peace Prize.

This was all very nice — but also very far from Anderson and Kosin, who were left to swallow to the dregs their sacrificial draught.

A coded message sent early on Nov. 2, 1972 (American radio operators intercepted it) ordered their immediate execution, and the directive was accomplished without delicacy: the hut they were held in was simply torched, with them still inside.

* Also notice that this is days before the U.S. presidential election.

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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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1924: Ali Reshti and Sayyid Husain, to placate America

1 comment November 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1924, diplomatic maneuvering, oil patch politics, and a dead American consul put two Iranian teenagers in front of a firing squad.

Largely forgotten today, the affair which prompted their execution helped Cossack commander Reza Khan‘s ongoing consolidation of power, culminating in another year’s time with his conquest of the Persian throne itself.

By the summer of 1924, he was by title Prime Minister and his domestic opponents could read the writing on the wall: he had made a premature bid for formal executive authority in 1923 only to be rebuffed.* At the same time, he was engaged in the perilous oil game with an attempt to use American companies to break a British oil monopoly.

On July 18, 1924, American Vice Consul Maj. Robert Imbrie and his civilian countryman Melvin Seymour were attacked by a Tehran mob while photographing a well which had become a Moslem devotional site for purported miraculous healings. Imbrie was beaten to death; Seymour was lucky to survive … and it soon emerged that soldiers from the nearby barracks had not only failed to protect the Americans but actually taken part in the assault.

Iran’s emerging strongman lost no time in making the most of it.

The event gave [Reza Khan] … the excuse for declaring martial law and a censorship of the Press … Numerous arrests have been made, chiefly of political opponents of the Prime Minister. (British military attache Col. W.A.K. Fraser)

It’s like Lenin said, you look for the person who will benefit and, uh, you know, uh, you know, you’ll, uh, you know what I’m trying to say …

Assuming one discerns some measure of design in the Imbrie murder, and the convenient outburst of anti-Baha’i paranoia that sparked the fatal incident, one can go a couple of different directions at this point.

  1. That the Prime Minister’s foes, allied with British oil interests (the British angle was so widely believed in Iran at the time that press censorship forbade the incendiary charge), were firing up the rowdies in an attempt to shake his power. This 1924 American cable makes that case:

    “It had the earmarks from the beginning of an artificially inspired movement, of which the organized powers of evil were quick to take advantage in order to create disorder for the Government … Reza Khan found himself faced with a situation before which he was powerless. The fanaticism of the crowd was so incited by the continuous preaching of the Mullahs that any act on his part would have been interpreted as treason to Islam and prima facie evidence that he was a Bahai; hence his unfortunate orders to the military and the police not to intervene under any circumstances in religious demonstrations and under no circumstances to fire.”

  2. That Pahlavi’s own agents fomented the disorder. According to Michael Zirinsky‘s review of the case, another American official speculated that Reza Khan himself hoped a foreigner would die “so that he could declare martial law and check the power of the Mullahs.”

Which, in the event, is exactly what happened.

The U.S. made a great show of demanding exemplary justice, and it had the leverage to do so: Iran (how times change!) wanted American support and American oil exploitation.

Three were condemned to death for their parts in the riot, and after the first, a young soldier named Morteza said to have incited the mob, was shot on Oct. 2, the government announced leniency for the other two.

Not good enough.


“When you are dealing with a government like Persia … if you ask them to execute a Moslem for the death of a Christian … if they do it, you accomplish more for the prestige of your country than if they paid a million.” -a young Allen Dulles, in 1926 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives.

At American insistence, those other two were recalled to death after all: 17-year-old mullah Sayyid Husain (various alternate transliterations – e.g., Seyid Hussein), who was supposed to have raised the riot-triggering “Baha’i well-poisoner” accusation in the first place, and 14-year-old camel driver Ali Reshti.

Zirinsky once again:

With the ending of the Iran-U.S. dispute by the execution of Ali and Husain on November 2, 1924, Reza was free to leave the capital city. He had support from the foreign legations, he had secured financing for the army, he had reestablished discipline in the Cossack Brigade, and by executing Sayyid Husain — a mullah — he had demonstrated his domination over the clergy … in the course of the next months’ campaign, he completed the unification of Iran and ensured that his government would get all the [Anglo-Persian Oil Company] royalties…

While the Imbrie affair was not the only critical event of Reza’s seizure of total power in Iran, it came at a critical moment in his rise … he used the murder to his best advantage.

And they all lived happily ever after.

* The future Shah’s future rival Mohammed Mossadegh was among the Iranian Majlis members who blocked Reza Khan’s attempt to rule Iran as a republic in 1923.

** “Blood, Power, and Hypocrisy: The Murder of Robert Imbrie and American Relations with Pahlavi Iran, 1924,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 18, no. 3 (Aug. 1986). Zirinsky quotes an American diplomat who believed Reza Khan was actually intentionally trying to create a situation where a foreigner would be killed, to give him a pretext for bringing his nation to heel with foreign support.

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2001: Mona Fandey, witch doctor

6 comments November 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2001, former pop singer and shaman Mona Fandey was hanged with two accomplices at Kajang Prison outside Kuala Lumpur, closing the noose on one of the world’s weirdest and most sensational recent crimes.

Aging B-list pop crooner Maznah Ismail — “Mona Fandey” was her stage name — had transitioned to a gig as a high-rent spiritualist and healer, known locally as a bomoh.

In that capacity, she and hubby Mohd Affandi Abdul Rahman landed a politician with more money than sense. After collecting a bunch of cash from him, they got him to lie down with his eyes closed as part of a ritual that was supposed to make money fall from the skies. Instead, the couple’s assistant Juraimi Hussin chopped off his head, and Mona went on a shopping spree.

The effect of the grisly celebrity murder was heightened by Mona’s cheery demeanor throughout the trial and thereafter, as if a murderess’ notoriety was the pinnacle she never achieved as an entertainer.

She and her husband maintained an unsettling placidity about their demise to the very end. Some sources say she uttered the mysterious remark, “I will never die” just before her hanging. (Others have everyone silent.)

The end of the three killers was hardly the end of such a headline-grabbing case in the public memory. Her cell is becoming a protected “heritage site”, and her story has been treated on screens both small and silver.

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