1940: Udham Singh, Jallianwala Bagh massacre avenger

Add comment July 31st, 2018 Headsman

A national revenge drama 21 years in the making culminated on the gallows of Pentonville Prison on this date in 1940.

The story of Udham Singh‘s hanging begins long before and far away in the British Raj.

There, a crowd of 20,000-25,000 protesting for independence in the restive Punjab city of Amritsar were wantonly fired upon by Raj authorities — an atrocity remembered as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. British authorities acknowledged a staggering 379 dead; Indian accounts run much higher than that.

The massacre’s principal immediate author was the army commander Reginald Dyer, who fired on the crowd without warning and with so much premeditation as to bar exits from the Jallianwala Bagh garden for maximum bloodshed — his acknowledged intent “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” but Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, for many years a noted rough hand in the suppression of national militancy on the subcontinent, had his back. “Your action correct,” read an O’Dwyer-to-Dyer telegram on the morrow of the bloodbath. “Lieutenant Governor approves.”

British opinion was not quite so approving; indeed, many Britons were outraged and both Dyer and O’Dwyer ended up sacked. But as is usual for a horror perpetrated under the flag they also never faced any sort of punishment.

Until Udham Singh, avenger, entered the scene.

A survivor of that horrific day — when he’d been dispatched from the orphanage that raised him to serve drinks to the protesters — Singh had unsurprisingly thrilled to the revolutionary cause. A Sikh by birth, the name he adopted, Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, gestures to his movement’s now-remote spirit of unity across sect and nation.

Come 1934 Singh had made his way to London, where he worked as an engineer and quietly plotted revenge against O’Dwyer, pursuant to a vow he had taken many years before. (Dyer escaped justice in this world by dying in 1927.) And on March 13, 1940, he had it when the retired colonial hand addressed a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall. As proceedings concluded, Singh produced a concealed pistol and fired six shots at the hated O’Dwyer, killing him on the spot.

Like many (not all) of his countrymen, Singh gloried in his long-awaited triumph in the few weeks remaining him.

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to seek vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?

Many countrymen shared his exultation, even if those in respectable leadership positions had to disapprove of assassination. Nevertheless, a few years after the subcontinent’s Union Jacks came down for the last time, Pakistan independence leader-turned-president Jawaharlal Nehru publicly “salute[d] Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

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1945: Karl Hulten, for the Cleft Chin Murder

1 comment March 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Karl (or Carl) Hulten, a 22-year-old American paratrooper, hanged in Pentonville Prison for murdering an English taxi driver for £8.

The “cleft chin murder” — so dubbed because the victim had this feature — is explored as extensively as anyone need know about it in George Orwell’s curmudgeonly 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder”.

Orwell posited the passing of “our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak … roughly 1850 and 1925” featuring magnetic, literary-quality criminals whose misdeeds had “stood the test of time”: “Dr. Palmer of Rugely, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs. Maybrick, Dr. Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson.”

For Orwell, the “great period” elapsed in part because the 20th century’s monumental destruction of human life dwarfed the meaning of individual homicides, and in part because the crimes themselves (and even their frequent medium, arsenic) connected to frustrated (usually domestic) Victorian passions and imbued “dramatic and even tragic qualities which make [them] memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.”

But that was then. Orwell wants these newfangled atavistic hoodlums and their crummy American films to get off his damn terrace.


Sure, but where’s the heart? (London Times, Jan. 24, 1945)

Now compare the Cleft Chin Murder. There is no depth of feeling in it. It was almost chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder, and it was only by good luck that they did not commit several others. The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film. The two culprits were an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones, and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, named Karl Hulten. They were only together for six days, and it seems doubtful whether, until they were arrested, they even learned one another’s true names. They met casually in a teashop, and that night went out for a ride in a stolen army truck. Jones described herself as a strip-tease artist, which was not strictly true (she had given one unsuccessful performance in this line); and declared that she wanted to do something dangerous, “like being a gun-moll.” Hulten described himself as a big-time Chicago gangster, which was also untrue. They met a girl bicycling along the road, and to show how tough he was Hulten ran over her with his truck, after which the pair robbed her of the few shillings that were on her. On another occasion they knocked out a girl to whom they had offered a lift, took her coat and handbag and threw her into a river. Finally, in the most wanton way, they murdered a taxi-driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket. Soon afterwards they parted. Hulten was caught because he had foolishly kept the dead man’s car, and Jones made spontaneous confessions to the police. In court each prisoner incriminated the other. In between crimes, both of them seem to have behaved with the utmost callousness: they spent the dead taxi-driver’s £8 at the dog races.

Judging from her letters, the girl’s case has a certain amount of psychological interest, but this murder probably captured the headlines because it provided distraction amid the doodle-bugs and the anxieties of the Battle of France. Jones and Hulten committed their murder to the tune of V1, and were convicted to the tune of V2. There was also considerable excitement because — as has become usual in England — the man was sentenced to death and the girl to imprisonment. According to Mr. Raymond, the reprieving of Jones caused widespread indignation and streams of telegrams to the Home Secretary: in her native town, “SHE SHOULD HANG” was chalked on the walls beside pictures of a figure dangling from a gallows. Considering that only ten women have been hanged in Britain this century, and that the practice has gone out largely because of popular feeling against it, it is difficult not to feel that this clamour to hang an eighteen-year-old girl was due partly to the brutalizing effects of war. Indeed, the whole meaningless story, with its atmosphere of dance-halls, movie-palaces, cheap perfume, false names and stolen cars, belongs essentially to a war period.

Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.

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1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

4 comments May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

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1950: Timothy Evans, instead of John Christie

5 comments March 9th, 2010 Headsman

Sixty years ago today, Timothy Evans was hanged at Pentonville Prison still protesting his innocence of murdering his wife and daughter — three years before a neighboring tenant was revealed to be a serial killer.

A drunkard with a tempestuous marriage, Timothy Evans didn’t look like a compelling innocence case when he walked into a police station and confessed to killing his wife while attempting to administer an abortifacient.

Evans’s confession didn’t add up, and he kept changing it — to indicate the involvement of neighbor John Christie. The “botched abortion” angle got complicated when the Evans’s older, un-aborted daughter also turned up dead: like her mom, she’d been strangled.

“I didn’t do it, Mam,” he told his mother. “Christie done it.”

But the dim suspect’s iterative interpretations of how his family wound up throttled had left his credibility in tatters by the time he came to trial insisting that the confession was wrong. And you’d have to admit that the looming shadow of Executioner Pierrepoint presented a compelling reason to disbelieve his latest revisions.

The jurors disbelieved.

Evans swung.

Three years later, that very Christie who had so smoothly inculpated Timothy Evans, was arrested for a killing spree that turned out to have lodged at least six corpses hidden on the same premises at 10 Rillington Place.

That infamous address has its own web site — and book, and film, and Madame Tussaud’s exhibit.

And why not?

Here was a man desperately and (to the public) implausibly implicated by a convicted murderer recently hanged: that this man subsequently turned out to be a prolific serial killer did a job to undermine public confidence in the death penalty.

Christie himself hanged for his own crime spree in 1953. He admitted to murdering Beryl Evans, Timothy’s wife, though never to killing daughter Geraldine.

Little more than a decade after that, England’s gallows fell into disuse.

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1909: Madanlal Dhingra, Indian revolutionary

3 comments August 17th, 2009 Headsman

A century ago today, the first Indian revolutionary martyr to be hanged in England was put to death at Pentonville Prison.

Madanlal Dhingra (or Madan Lal Dhingra) was a bright young scion of a loyalist Indian family that disowned him when he took to radical politics.

As an engineering student in London, Dhingra quaffed the martyr’s cup by assassinating Sir William Curzon Wyllie, a career imperial official spending his golden years keeping tabs on nationalist types among England’s Indian students. (Evidently, he could have been doing his job better.)

Dhingra rejected the legitimacy of the British court, disdained a defense, and was sentenced to death on the first day of trial. His martyrdom being the shared object of both the prosecutors and the offender, he was not long for the world — supposedly checking out with the well-turned last words,

My only prayer to God is that I may be re-born of the same mother and I may re-die in the same sacred cause till the cause is successful.

Dhingra is a noteworthy martyr to the cause of Indian independence now, but like anything else things weren’t so black and white at the time. Gandhi was not down with Dhingra — Gandhi’s own differences with Hindu extremists would eventually cost him his life — and plenty of Indian liberal types shared his abhorrence.

On the other hand, a subversive Brit like poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt filled his blog-like diary with admiration for the assassin during the weeks of his celebrity — writing of this date, for instance:

They have done me the honour of choosing [my birthday] for Dingra’s execution, thus making of it an anniversary which will be regarded as one of martyrdom in India for generations.

And reflecting later, after the hanging:

People talk about political assassination as defeating its own end, but that is nonsense; it is just the shock needed to convince selfish rulers that selfishness has its limits of imprudence.

Other subjects of the Empire were inclined to agree.


From the Aug. 19, 1909 London Times.

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1946: The treacherous Theodore Schurch

1 comment January 4th, 2009 Headsman

One day after William Joyce became the last Briton put to death for treason, 27-year-old Theodore Schurch hanged for treachery at London’s Pentonville Prison.

Like Joyce, Schurch had enrolled in the British Union of Fascists as a teenager in the 1930’s, and it was reputedly at the party’s direction that he joined the army as a driver.

During World War II, Schurch crossed and recrossed enemy lines, delivering operational intelligence to the Italians and Germans by helping to interrogate prisoners of war, or posing as a P.O.W. himself to gain the confidences of other captured Allied soldiers.

Scurch’s army buddies seemed to think he was alright, and there was probably more than a shred of truth to the defense’s contention, paraphrased by the London Times (September 18, 1945), that the lad

was a poor, uneducated fool who was caught young [by fascist ideology] when he knew no better and jockeyed into a position from which he could not recover.

But obviously, one makes this argument when one is in no position to contest factually the capital charges against oneself, and indeed has admitted much of it. Schurch was convicted on all nine counts of treachery, plus one of desertion. Not a big fish, maybe — but just the right size to become the last man hanged in Britain for a crime other than murder.

He’s actually listed as a war casualty, which in a way he was, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Brookwood Memorial outside of London.

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1952: George Muldowney, for loving and killing the original Bond girl

3 comments September 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Irish steward George Muldowney was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the rather pathetic murder of a dashing Polish spy who had survived much greater villains.

Allowing that nobody ought to die on the floor of the Shelbourne Hotel with a sheath knife stuck in their chest, Christine Granville in particular really deserved a better exit.

Before the outbreak of World War II, she was Krystyna Skarbek, daughter of a Polish aristocrat sinking into poverty. After Germany overran Poland, she went off the marriage meatmarket and on Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a stunning career as a stunning spy that still has ’em sighing today.

Rechristened “Christine Granville” by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, she spent most of the war carrying out feats of cloak-and-dagger derring-do, with a Bond-like aplomb for extricating herself from tricky situations.

If only half the stories they tell about her are true …

  • Commuting between Hungary and Poland by skiing over the Tatra Mountains to gather intelligence and pull other agents out of harm’s way.
  • Getting herself and a fellow agent released from arrest by feigning tuberculosis by chewing her tongue until it bled.
  • Escaping capture at a checkpoint by pulling the pins on two grenades and daring the guards to shoot her.
  • Marching alone into a not-yet-liberated concentration camp to have POW’s reprieved from execution — by telling the Nazi commandante that he’d get the same treatment unless he spared them.
  • Snatching spymaster Francis Cammaerts from the Gestapo ahead of his execution.

And the love affairs! Or that’s what they say — including fellow agent Ian Fleming.

Granville earned the French Croix de Guerre, the George Medal for Special Services, the Order of the British Empire and other decorations, although merely surviving so much time in the field might have been her greatest achievement … but when the war ended, she was just another unwelcome Polish refugee, scrounging for service work in a recovering economy with no welcome waiting for her in her Soviet-dominated homeland.

From here on in, the trite and the tawdry eclipse the heroic.

A stewardess gig on a cruise ship attracted the attentions of her eventual murderer; his crush unreciprocated, and her companionship with another man jealously noticed, Muldowney stalked her and — on the very eve of Granville’s departure to reunite with a wartime confederate/lover — murdered her at her Kensington hotel.

To read the London Times‘ accounting the last moments of this woman so recently outfoxing the Nazis is to behold the face of banality triumphant.

Mr. Ian Smith, for the prosecution, said that, in a written statement at Kensington police station, Muldowney …

“describes how he waited outside the hotel and saw her go in. He went in after her and asked her for some letters he had exchanged with her. She said she had burned them. He did not believe her, and then says: ‘She told me she did not want anything to do with me and was off to the Continent and would see me in two years’ time.’

He then says: ‘Then I took the knife from the sheath which I had in my hip pocket and stabbed her in the chest, and then somebody came up.'” It was a deep stab wound up to the hilt of the knife, and penetrated the heart.

Muldowney didn’t fight the charge; he’d been planning to poison himself after the murder, and tried it when he was in custody. He declined legal aid and pleaded guilty at trial, seemingly eager to expiate his sin or join his would-be lover in death. It was less than 16 weeks after the crime that he stood on the gallows.

While Muldowney moulders in well-deserved obscurity, his victim reportedly inspired her former lover to create the character of Vesper Lynd — the original femme fatale secret agent in the original James Bond novel, Casino Royale. (And the smashing cocktail named for her in the same volume.)

She — Christine, not Vesper — is buried under a spadeful of symbolic Polish soil in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.

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1916: Sir Roger Casement

7 comments August 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Roger Casement was hanged for treason by the British crown that had knighted him only a few years before.

Casement died for his part in the Easter Rising, but this Irish nationalist hero’s layered story has long made him a very different sort of cultural marker than, say, James Connolly.

Casement came to public prominence for his damning report on Belgium’s atrocious treatment of natives in its Congo colony, e.g.:

[T]he great decrease in population, the dirty and ill-kept towns, and the complete absence of goats, sheep, or fowls — once very plentiful in this country — were to be attributed above all else to the continued effort made during many years to compel the natives to work india-rubber. Large bodies of native troops had formerly been quartered in the district, and the punitive measures undertaken to his end had endured for a considerable period. During the course of these operations there had been much loss of life, accompanied, I fear, by a somewhat general mutilation of the dead, as proof that the soldiers had done their duty.

. . . Two cases (of mutilation) came to my actual notice while I was in the lake district. One, a young man, both of whose hands had been beaten off with the butt ends of rifles against a tree; the other a young lad of 11 or 12 years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist. . . . I both these cases the Government soldiers had been accompanied by white officers whose names were given to me. Of six natives (one a girl, three little boys, one youth, and one old woman) who had been mutilated in this way during the rubber regime, all except one were dead at the date of my visit.

[A sentry in the employ of one of the concessionary private companies] said he had caught and was detaining as prisoners (eleven women) to compel their husbands to bring in the right amount of rubber required of them on the next market day. . . . When I asked what would become of these women if their husbands failed to bring in the right quantity of rubber . . , he said at once that then they would be kept there until their husbands had redeemed them.

Casement’s is an honorable name in the campaign for the Congo, an early human rights and anti-colonial struggle; in this 92-minute BBC documentary on the notorious depredations in the Congo, the Casement report’s creation and impact are treated from about 1:15:15 through the end:

A similar investigation undertaken in Peru — where the lens focused on British employers, rather than strictly the malfeasance of foreign states — earned him knighthood in 1911, but Casement’s personal evolution from loyal Protestant* imperial operative with a sympathy for the Irish cause to revolutionary nationalist was already underway. “This journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her destiny, her reality,” he wrote his sister. “I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.”

He resigned from the consular service and began recruiting for the Irish Volunteers.

As World War I opened, Casement identified British aggression as its cause, an extension of the violent imperial hegemony he chronicled in The Crime Against Europe:

The British Empire was not founded in peace; how, then can it be kept by peace, or ensured by peace-treaties? It was born of pillage and blood-shed, and has been maintained by both; and it cannot now be secured by a common language any more than a common Bible. The lands called the British Empire belong to many races, and it is only by the sword and not by the Book of Peace or any pact of peace that those races can be kept from the ownership of their own countries.

While any Irish Republican would have agreed with that sentiment, the resulting moral and tactical calculus for the Irish cause to ally with the German was not universally embraced — and was certainly anathema to the British.

“In the Streets of Catania”
by Roger Casement

All that was beautiful and just,
All that was pure and sad
Went in one little, moving plot of dust
The world called bad.

Came like a highwayman, and went,
One who was bold and gay,
Left when his lightly loving mood was spent
Thy heart to pay.

By-word of little street and men,
Narrower theirs the shame,
Tread thou the lava loving leaves, and then
Turn whence it came.

Ætna, all wonderful, whose heart
Glows as thine throbbing glows,
Almond and citron bloom quivering at start,
Ends in pure snows.

Casement spent the first two years of the Great War in Germany itself, and arranged a shipment of guns that would have supported the Easter Rising, but thought the aid too little and too late. He had a German U-boat drop him at Ireland, trying to get word to the Republican leadership to postpone the revolt.** Instead, he was picked up three days before the doomed rising and hanged after a sensational trial.†

His “treason” — and of course, the very crime of which he was convicted imports a British legitimacy in Ireland that Casement explicitly rejected — shocked many old associates, but he still had friends in high places. To dampen the international clemency campaign, England circulated the notorious “Black Diaries,” photographs of supposed Casement diary pages detailing the author’s homosexuality.

This dirty (and successful) trick brings a personal-is-political quality to Casement’s legacy as well as an enduring debate over the diaries’ authenticity. Since Irish nationalism gained mainstream acceptance well before homosexuality, right-thinking folk long held the Black Diaries a forgery, and time was you solicited a black eye by saying otherwise in the wrong company.

The gay rights movement has seen a posthumous redefinition of Casement; although homosexuality was not on the indictment against him, one could argue that it was the reason he hanged. Given recent handwriting forensics that support the diaries’ authenticity, the general‡ consensus about the Black Diaries has inverted with the effect of only heightening sympathy for their alleged author, albeit at the expense of some tension over how to situate that characteristic within the whole of Casement’s life and thought.

And that is only one aspect of the shifting place of Casement in the firmament of Republican martyrs since his death. His hagiography waxed in the interwar years, with Yeats among those calling for the return of Casement’s remains in The Ghost of Roger Casement”.

But the humanitarian’s German ties were an inconvenience as World War II raged, and not until afterward was that cause renewed. When his body was finally returned in 1965, an Irish state funeral elided the matter of the diaries.

Even Casement himself, who would be the last to die for the Easter Rising, had a hand in the myth-making. His last mission’s purpose to avert the Easter Rising fit neither the government’s interest in maximizing his perfidy nor Casement’s own in identifying with the Irish cause; he himself therefore owned the Rising fully in his defense which made him fine fodder for Republican hymns like “Lonely Banna Strand”:

RTE radio’s What If? series recently explored Casement’s complex legacy:

[audio:http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-240208-27m06-whatif.mp3]

As Casement put it in his voluminous personal writing, “It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding — misapprehending — and to be silent forever.”

* Casement’s father was Protestant and his mother was Catholic; he lived with a somewhat split identity between the two faiths, but formally converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution (which surely did not hurt his memory to the Irish cause) and his last meal was simply the Host.

** The guns themselves were interdicted by the British navy and ended up scuttled to the ocean floor.

† Since Casement’s incitements to rebellion had occurred on foreign soil, there was some fine legal parsing over whether he could be tried for “treason.” The dispute resolved to the placement of a comma in a medieval law — leading to the epigram/-taph that Casement was “hanged by a comma.” In the midst of war and before an English jury, however, punctuation was an even weaker defense than it sounds.

‡ But still not universal.

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