1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

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1928: Ben “Two Gun” Fowler, cinema shooter

1 comment January 25th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1928, a lawman was electrocuted in Nashville, Tennessee for the drunken double murder he’d committed nearly a year earlier. He walked resolutely to the death chair and even helped the guards adjust the straps before they pulled the switch.

Deputy Sheriff Ben “Two Gun” Fowler possessed three main qualifications for Prohibition-era law enforcement:

  1. He was enormous in size.
  2. He had a menacing demeanor.
  3. He was a World War I veteran. (Although, it’s true, most of his service time had been spent in the hospital battling the Spanish Flu.)

His main duty seems to have been busting up whiskey distilleries; he claimed he had destroyed 200 of them during his three years of service in Scott County, Tennessee.

Not being a wasteful man, he consumed much of the confiscated booze himself. He was thus fortified with moonshine on the night of his crime: March 5, 1927.

The town of Robbins lacked a theater, so its residents regularly screened films in the school auditorium. A large crowd came to see a comedy that fateful March night, Fowler among them. He was armed with his usual two pistols, and also wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Supposedly, he planned to serve a civil warrant on someone whom he thought would also be attending the movie.

But shortly after the film began, Fowler became annoyed by some noisy children and ordered them to keep quiet or he would arrest them. This prompted laughter from others in the crowd, including Dr. Wylie W. Foust. Fowler ordered him to shut up and threatened to arrest him, and Foust replied calmly, “You won’t do that.”

Foust was right: Fowler didn’t do that. Instead he struck him in the face with one of his pistols then shot him two or three times in the head. The doctor fell dead on the spot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because armed moviegoers are still to this day known to demand polite moviegoers.

Dr. Foust’s adult son was sitting behind him, and he was also armed. He pulled out his own pistol and shot at his father’s killer, but the bullets were ineffective against Fowler’s bullet-proof vest.

Fowler returned fire. At least two bystanders were shot in the melee. One of them, 53-year-old John Wesley West, also a deputy sheriff, was fatally wounded and died at the hospital.

For some time after the shootings, the drunken deputy stalked the auditorium, brandishing his pistols. He kept all the filmgoers in a state of terror, and ordered the Widow Foust to stop crying. Finally more level-headed armed men arrived and Fowler was put under arrest.

Justice moved swiftly: the murders happened Saturday night, Fowler was indicted on Monday, his trial started on Thursday, and the jury got the case the following Monday. Fowler’s defense was intoxication: he claimed he was too sauced to know what he was doing, which reduced his crimes to second-degree murder, a non-capital offense.

Although most witnesses agreed “Two Gun” was under the influence at the time of his senseless outburst, they couldn’t agree just how drunk he was, and no one could testify as to how much alcohol he’d actually consumed prior to the shootings. The jury took only two minutes to convict.

It should be noted that this wasn’t Fowler’s only brush with the wrong side of the law, either: he and another deputy had previously been charged with killing two moonshiners, but both men were acquitted in that case.

Fowler, a Kentucky native, was the only Scott County residence to die in the electric chair in Nashville. He was 35 years old when he attained that distinction.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,Tennessee,USA

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1929: James Horace Alderman, Prohibition rum-runner

Add comment August 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1929, James Horace Alderman, the “King of the Rum Runners” or the “Pirate of the Gulf Stream”, was hanged at a custom-built gallows at a Florida Coast Guard base.

Alderman grew up in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and therefore became at home on the sea — even taking Teddy Roosevelt out as a fishing guide at one point, according to Florida Pirates: From the Southern Gulf Coast to the Keys and Beyond.

But as he came into his own, his business on the high seas was smuggling, often Chinese immigrant workers trying to sneak into the U.S. from Cuba. It’s rumored that Alderman killed some of these people, too.

Either way, Prohibition made for a much more profitable racket hauling liquor from Caribbean manufacturers to the Everglades, where it could take a train ride and be distributed all the way up the Atlantic coast.

On August 27, 1927, a Coast Guard cutter stopped and boarded Alderman’s speedboat and seized fifty barrels of whiske. Even worse, Alderman shot two of the cutter’s boarders dead.

Alderman’s case might look pretty open and shut, but Floridians proved to be extremely resistant to hosting a federal execution. (The feds at this point generally administered executions in their own name, but at the execution sites of whatever state the malcreant happened to live with. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for example, simply died in New York state’s iconic electric chair.

The final judicial decision on this strange question so far from the long-ago deliberations at Liberty Hall came down like this: Florida’s facilities could be barred to the federal government, and that they should carry out the execution on nearby federal property. The U.S. Coast Guard was forced to build a temporary gallows for Alderman inside its seaplane hangar and base no. 6. (Here’s Alderman’s detah warrant, if you’re into that sort of thing.) A short drop from the platform led to an agonizing 12-minute strangulation.

Because Florida itself had only a few years prior ditched hanging in favor of the electric chair, Alderman’s execution was the last judicial hanging in (but not by!) the state of Florida.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,USA

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1928: Charles Birger, bootlegger

Add comment April 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, colorful gangster Charles Birger was hanged in Benton, Illinois.

A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.

Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.

While Al Capone‘s Tommy Guns were tearing up Chicago, Birger set up shop in southern Illinois. A literal shop: from his famous speakeasy Shady Rest, he did three-way battle with the (pro-Prohibition) Ku Klux Klan and the rival Shelton Brothers Gang.

This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.

That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.

Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.

“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)


Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman”
Phil Hanna.


Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.

Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.

This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Jews,Milestones,Murder,Organized Crime,Outlaws,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1922: Eugene Weeks, by Sheriff Robb

2 comments September 15th, 2011 Headsman

“Minister-Sheriff Hangs Iowa Murderer, Resigning Des Moines Pastorate to Do So” read the New York Times headline for the execution this date of Eugene Weeks.

Our interest here is not drawn by Weeks, who hanged for the forgettable murder of a grocer, but by his executioner, a truly American character running a truly American grift.

Winfred E. Robb parlayed decorated service as a World War I chaplain into a postwar book paying sentimental martial tribute to “young men … [and] their glorious death” the better to inspire “a greater patriotism and the dedication of himself to the common good of his fellows.”

Robb had returned from the European theater to his prewar gig as pastor of Des Moines independent evangelical congregation, the First Federated Church. (It still exists, nearing its centennial in the guise of a megachurch preaching “triumphalist, Americanized Christianity”.)

Our pastor proved amenable to exchanging this ministry of God for that of a more temporal power, and was elected Sheriff of Polk County in 1920 on an anti-corruption platform. The New York Times reported that his “campaign pledges of ‘cleaning up’ Des Moines have been followed by vigorous efforts against bootleggers and disorderly places.”

Among these edifying duties was another that some of his congregation found less tasteful: while Iowa had centralized its hangings at the penitentiary in Fort Madison, each execution remained the responsibility of the local sheriff in the county which sent the man to death row. That meant Pastor Robb.

Evidently some members of Robb’s congregation objected to this office, but where theology (potentially) clashed with politics, our man was prepared to render unto Caesar.

After all, in America, who knows how high a hangman might rise?

A co-conspirator of Weeks was executed on the same scaffold a few weeks later, and by the same Sheriff Robb. Robb’s self-satisfied justification for conducting these hangings could come straight from Rick Perry campaign literature.

Brainless people who have no ability to think … will condemn and rave and shout as usual. Unthinking religious fanatics will plead and pray and forget that God is a God of justice and mercy, and that judgment is as much a duty of love as mercy is the delight of love.

America is cursed today with a lot of spineless reformers. They think of a minister as a sissy, sexless, spineless creature with lily white hands who spends his time attending ladies’ societies and pink teas.

Tough love, baby. This was an apostle of muscular Christianity.

So Weeks resigned his ministerial commission, and on this date he skipped the ladies’ societies and put Eugene Weeks to death for murder.

By the end of the year, our hammer of the Lord had found himself on the anvil side of the law, and maybe rethinking those duties of love. Prohibition was Sheriff Robb’s milieu and the cause of his fall, as told by this Associated Press wire story printed in the New Year’s Eve Miami Herald:

IOWA PARSON-SHERIFF HELD FOR BOOTLEGGING

Jailer, Whose Sons He Arrested, Accuses Preacher Who Presided at Hanging.

DES MOINES, Ia., Dec. 30. — Sheriff Robb, Polk county’s preacher-sheriff, who gained nation-wide prominence last fall through officiating at the hanging of two murderers at Fort Madison penitentiary, was arrested here today charged with unlawfully disposing of liquors as the sensational backfire action on the part of his jailer, William McMurray, whose own sons had been arrested by the sheriff for alleged complicity in the theft of $30,000 worth of bonded whiskey from the county jail Wednesday night. The sheriff’s bond was fixed at $1,000 which he furnished and the hearing set for January 3.

John Robb, brother of the sheriff, and himself a minister, who has been acting as a deputy for his brother, also was arrested charged with larceny, on information sworn out by Jailer McMurray and released on $500 bond. Neither charge was made in connection with the theft of the 47 cases from the jail Wednesday night.

Later additional charges were filed against Sheriff Robb by McMurray which alleged the sheriff had illegally sold cider presses and other paraphernalia used in making liquors, which had been seized in raids.

Charges that Sheriff Robb personally sold 35 quarts and 75 pints of whiskey to L.S. Hill, president of the American Lithographing company, a month ago, and has given away and sold seized liquors to other persons, furnished the basis for the charges which McMurray filed. Mr. Hill denied he bought liquor from the sheriff.

Greater patriotism hath no man than this, than to peddle seized drug contraband to local oligarchs under guise of law enforcement. At least you could never accuse the guy of keeping those hands lily-white.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iowa,Murder,USA

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