1907: Xu Xulin, anti-Manchu assassin

1 comment July 7th, 2018 Headsman

Chinese revolutionary Xu Xulin was executed on this date in 1907.

As a civil servant in Anhui Province, this militant (English Wikipedia entry | German | the far more detailed Chinese) had just one day before assassinated the provincial governor, En-ming, during the ceremonial graduation of a police academy. Xu himself was the academy’s superintendent.

He’d been hoping to touch off a revolution and his hopes, though not ill-founded, were disappointed in this moment. He was beheaded hours later and his heart carved out as an offering to his victim. Xu’s cousin, the feminist Qiu Jin, was executed the following week for the same disturbance.

Surprisingly, Xu’s murder of a Manchu official — the Mongolian peoples who ruled China’s domestic Han majority under the Qing dynasty — directly spurred a national response to his frankly stated ethnic grievances, as the Qing maneuvered (too late, as it would transpire) to implement reforms that could sustain their state through a revolutionary era.

Xu Xilin, during his interrogation, readily confessed that he had killed Enming simply because he was a Manchu … Xu Xilin professed no grudge against Enming personally, nor did he claim that the governor had been particularly hostile toward Han. Rather, Xu’s enmity was directed toward the Manchus in general:

The Manchus have enslaved us Han for nearly three hundred years. On the surface they seem to be implementing constitutionalism, but that’s only to ensnare people’s minds. In reality they are upholding the centralization of authority so as to enhance their own power. The Manchus’ presumption is that once there is constitutionalism, then revolution will be impossible … If constitutionalism means centralization, then the more constitutionalism there is, the faster we Han people will die … I have harbored anti-Manchu feelings for more than ten years. Only today have I achieved my goal. My intention was to murder Enming, then to kill Duanfang, Tieliang, and Liangbi, so as to avenge the Han people … You say that the governor was a good official, that he treated me very well. Granted. But since my aim is to oppose the Manchus, I cannot be concerned with whether a particular Manchu was a good or bad official. As for his treating me well, that was the private kindness of an individual person. My killing of the governor, on the other hand, expresses the universal principal of anti-Manchuism.

The murder of Enming caused tremendous unease among Manchu officials … Because it coincided with a series of revolutionary uprisings in Guangdong that Sun Yat-sen had launched in early May, the assassination was especially upsetting. According to British diplomats, “Everywhere throughout the country the Manchu officials are living closely guarded in their Yamens.” …

[The Empress] Cixi was particularly anxious about Xu Xilin’s anti-Manchuism. At an audience a month later with her foreign minister, Lu Haihuan (1840-1927), the empress dowager was reportedly still wrestling with Xu’s ghost. She insisted to Lu, “The bandit Xu Xilin claimed that there is prejudice between Manchus and Han, but really when we select provincial officials there is no prejudice whatsoever.” More to the point, she issued within five weeks of each other two edicts that were clearly prompted by Enming’s murder. The first, promulgated on 8 July, two days after the assassination, called once more upon her subjects to present proposals for reform, but this time her appeal went beyond the elite of top officials who were authorized to memorialize the throne to the much broader group of junior officials and scholar commoners, who were now permitted to have their ideas forwarded to her by either the Censorate or the provincial officials.

[The second edict, of 10 August] focused specifically on Manchu-Han relations. Cixi maintained, yet one more time, that the Qing dynasty throughout its long history had always treated Manchus and Han impartially, both as officials and as subjects. Nor had it, in recent appointments to the banner system [hereditary provincial military and administrative posts that were overwhelmingly Manchu], distinguished between Manchus and Han … she then called on all officials to offer suggestions on “how to totally eradicate the boundaries between Manchus and Han.”

-Edward J. M. Rhoads, Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

Proposals from various officials ran the gamut, — encouraging intermarriage, abolishing legal privileges still enjoyed by Manchus, suppressing the Manchu language, and moving Manchu cultural practices towards the Han in everything from naming conventions to forms of address. Even Cixi’s Grand Council was shaken up to establish parity between Manchus and Han.

The chilling words of the dead assassin still echoing, the government moved on these proposals with surprising urgency. By the autumn,

the court issued two edicts, ten days apart, that resolved to drastically change, though not abolish, the Eight Banner system. The first edict, handed down on 27 September, ordered … that the provincial garrisons be disbanded over a ten-year period and their inhabitants be prepared to make their own living … The second edict, issued on 9 October, dealt with the customary and legal differences between Manchus and Han, such as the length of the mourning period and the commutation of punishments. It called on the Ministry of Rites together with the Commissioners for Revising and Codifying the Laws to draw up a set of ceremonies and penal codes that would apply uniformly to Manchus and Han, excepting only the imperial lineage.

These two edicts thus accepted many of the proposals advanced by the memorialists after Enming’s assassination …

Meanwhile, in response to the growing demands of the constitutionalist reformers … Cixi, in her own name, issued two other edicts that clarified the vague promise that she had made a year earlier to institute a constitutional regime. On 20 September 1907 she declared that her ultimate intention was to establish “a bicameral deliberative body.” As a preparatory step, she ordered the immediate creation of a Consultative Assembly, appointed the fourth-rank prince Pulun (1874-1926) and the elderly grand secretary Jia’nai as its co-presidents, and charged them, together with the Grand Council, to draw up a detailed plan for this new national assembly. A month later, on 19 October, she authorized the formation of provincial deliberative assemblies as well. Afterward, she sent Pulun to Japan to learn more about constitutional government at first hand.

Cixi died the following year. The Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing dynasty in 1911.

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1895: A day in death penalty around the U.S. (McTeague edition)

Add comment June 7th, 2018 Headsman


Headline from the Tacoma (Wash.) Daily News, June 7, 1895.

On this date in 1895, the hangman noosed for the cycle with single, double, and triple executions in three different U.S. states.

Arkansas

In Morrilltown, William Downs or Downes for criminally assaulting a woman called Pauline Bridlebaugh.

“On the scaffold Downs declared that he was guilty of part but not all he was charged with,” according to multiple newspaper reports. The eight-foot fall failed to snap his neck, and Downs strangled to death over 15 agonizing minutes.

Alabama

“Lee Harris and Abe Mitchell, colored murderers, highwaymen and thieves, were hanged here [Birmingham] today before 2000 people for the murder of Grocerymen Merriweather and Thornton. Both bodies were turned over to the undertakers, who purchased them several weeks ago for $18 from the men themselves.”


From the Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1895.
California

Three Californians hanged, sequentially, at San Quentin prison on the morning of June 7 in an affair timed to ensue the arrival of the 7:40 train from San Francisco, carrying about 100 official witnesses.

Emilio Garcia stabbed and slashed to death a San Bernardino old timer whom he believed to possess a hoard of gold.

Anthony Azoff fatally shot a Southern Pacific detective in the course of a botched robbery of that railroad firm’s offices; he was balked of a suicide attempt in the hours before his execution.

And Patrick Collins acquired more lasting infamy than any of his scaffold brethren by sensationally stabbing to death his estranged wife at the kindergarten where she worked when she refused his demand to hand over her wages.

Collins’s guilt was very apparent, so his trial gave the horrified public ample rein to sketch the brute in terms of the era’s crackpot racist typologies. In one Examiner article tellingly titled “He Was Born for the Rope,” it was postulated that “if a good many of Patrick Collins’ ancestors did not die on the scaffold then either they escaped their desert or there is nothing in heredity … Seeing him you can understand that murder is as natural to such a man when his temper is up as hot speech is to the anger of the civilized.”


Various newspaper images of Patrick Collins, from The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature.

Be they ever so headline-conquering in their time, such crimes are like to fade speedily from the public memory. Collins, the man who slaughtered his tightfisted wife, and Collins, the savage ethnic archetype, have improbably survived his moment of notoriety, by imparting to literature the inspiration for San Francisco novelist Frank Norris‘s 1899 offering McTeague.

In McTeague, a vicious husband murders the wife he has abandoned when she refuses him money. The murderer here presents as an overpowering ancestral beast within — attributable, says Christopher Dowd, to Norris’s “study of criminal anthropology, particularly the school of thinking developed by Cesare Lombroso regarding atavism, hereditary criminality, degeneration, and criminal physiognomy. According to Donald Pizer, by the time Norris wrote McTeague, he had developed a ‘preoccupation’ with the themes of atavism and reversion, and ‘particularly with the role of heredity in causing either an obvious physical or mental devolution or a return to an earlier family condition’. Suddenly, Norris had a way to explain the behavior of his murderous protagonist — he was born a criminal, having inherited the degenerate traits and predilections of his Irish ancestors. Combined with the newspaper reports of the Collins murder, criminal anthropology gave Norris all the tools he needed to write, what Pizer calls, ‘that mythical creature of literature, a naturalistic tragedy'”. For example, Norris zooms through the disordered mind of McTeague as he struggles to control himself on one occasion.

He was disturbed, still trembling, still vibrating with the throes of the crisis, but he was the master; the animal was downed, was cowed for this time, at least.

But for all that, the brute was there. Long dormant, it was now at last alive, awake. From now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity. Ah, the pity of it! Why could he not always love her purely, cleanly? What was this perverse, vicious thing that lived within him, knitted to his flesh?

Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father’s father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague does not exit upon the gallows as did his real-life inspiration; instead, having murdered and robbed his wife, the fugitive flees to the scorching desert of Death Valley where he faces a fight to the finish with a friend/rival who has pursued him. McTeague overpowers this foe, but the man’s dying act is to handcuff himself to McTeague — condemning the latter to sure death.

McTeague has long been in the public domain; it can be perused here; a Librivox audio reading of the book is available here. It’s also been adapted to at least two films in the silent era — including one of the genre’s greats — plus a more recent PBS radio drama, an opera, and miscellaneous other media.

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1835: Four slaves, for the Malê Rebellion

Add comment May 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four African slave rebels were shot at Salvador.

The Malê Revolt acquired its name from the local designation for Muslims … which was the predominant religion of the slaves harvested from West Africa* who were pouring into Brazil. (It’s also known as the Muslim Revolt, or simply the Great Revolt.) Ethnically, these were mostly Yoruba peoples, known in Brazil as Nagôs; Nagôs constituted the bulk of the slave sector whom the Portuguese had nicknamed “Minas” — Gold Coast imports who had embarked their slave ships at the notorious Elmina Castle.

Under whichever designation, this population was particularly thick in the agrarian Atlantic province of Bahia; there, “slaves constituted the majority of Bahia’s population in the 1820s and 1830s, [and] the maority of slaves were African-born.” And African-born slaves proved over the years to share a vigorous spirit of resistance. Slave risings and plots had emerged in Bahia in 1807, 1809, 1814, 1816, 1822, 1824, 1826 1827, 1828, 1830, and 1831, spanning the periods of Portuguese colonialism and Brazilian independence. Scottish botanist George Gardner, recalling his travels in Brazil in the late 1830s, opined that

The slaves of Bahia are more difficult to manage than those of any other part of Brazil, and more frequent attempts at revolt have taken place there than elsewhere. The cause of this is obvious. Nearly the whole of the slave population of that place is from the Gold coast. Both the men and the women are not only taller and more handsomely formed than those from Mozambique, Benguela, and the other parts of Africa, but have a much greater share of mental energy, arising, perhaps, from their near relationship to the Moor and the Arab. Among them there are many who both read and write Arabic. They are more united among themselves than the other nations, and hence are less liable to have their secrets divulged when they aim at a revolt.

Here, in secret madrassas and an underground tongue, these people cultivated a shared religion that naturally fused with the religious to the political and eventually germinated a revolutionary conspiracy. Two elderly, enslaved Muslim teachers seems to have been particular nodes in this community of resistance.**

On the night of January 24-25 of 1835, some 300 of these African-born slaves (with a few African-born freedmen) rebelled and attacked the city of Salvador. The fighting spanned only a few midnight hours; rumors of a rising had reached white ears on the 24th and as a result the masters stood halfway prepared and rallied quickly enough to crush the revolt — killing around 80 rebels in the process.

Nevertheless, it was perhaps the largest and most frightening servile rebellion in Brazil’s history. And although not all participants were Muslim, they very distinctively were all African-born: second-generation, Brazil-born blacks (whether slave or free) as well as mulattoes, who occupied a higher caste rank more in simpatico with whites, were deeply distrusted by African natives as liable to betray the plot — and rightly so. This turned out to be the very channel by which advance warning of the imminent rebellion reached white ears on the night of January 24. It was a great, if last-minute, victory for white Brazilians’ intentional stratification of the servile labor force: “The division among Africans is the strongest guarantee of peace in Brazil’s large cities,” the governor of Bahia had written in 1814.

Surprisingly, only four juridical executions are known to have resulted from this rising, although flogging sentences inflicted on others were so brutal that at least one person also died under the lash. Records, however, are patchy, and as João José Reis notes in his essential text on the Malê revolt (Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia) it is scarcely apparent why these particular men came in line for the law’s final extremity:

The president of the province, under pressure from influential members of Bahian society, felt that it was important to put on a public spectacle and hang prisoners as soon as possible so as to intimidate would-be rebels. With this in mind, on 6 March 1835 Francisco de Souza Martins wrote to the minister of justice:

It seems fitting, as has been suggested to me by many Citizens of this Capital, that the Government of His Majesty the Emperor, so as not to diminish the healthy effect of an execution as soon as possible after the crime, should have the sentences carried out on the two or three main leaders, at the same time declaring that these individuals should not have any recourse or appeal; that is, such a measure is thought to be both efficacious and necessary to the present circumstances.

In a decree dated 18 March 1835 the central government accepted this suggestion and ordered that the death sentences be “immediately carried out without being allowed to go before a Court of Appeal, after the remaining legal steps had been taken.” A month later, on 14 May, one day after the publication of the law on deportations, and without having taken “the remaining legal steps,” the government put four Africans to death.

There was only one freedman among those executed: Jorge da Cruz Barbosa, a hod carrier (carregador de cal) whose African name was Ajahi. Ajahi had been arrested on the day after the uprising, in the house of some fellow Nagô acquaintances, Faustina and Tito. Tito was also involved in the rebellion and had left home some days before the twenty-fifth, never to return. On the morning of the twenty-fifth, Ajahi showed up wounded and hid under a bedframe (estrado). Faustina turned him in to inspectors Leonardo Joaquim dos Reis Velloso and Manoel Eustaquio de Figueiredo, who arrested him. Under questioning Ajahi declared that he lived on Rua de Oracao and was a neighbor of Belchior and Gaspar da Cunha, whom he used to visit regularly. Concerning the meetings they had there, he claimed: “Everybody prattled on and on or just stopped in to say hello.” He denied being a Malê and having participated in the revolt. He tried to convince the judge and jury that the bayonet wound in his right leg “had been inflicted by soldiers … while he was at the window, [and] not because he was outside fighting with anybody.” Ajahi was apparently just an ordinary rebel. Indeed none of the Africans questioned in 1835 suggested he had played an important part in the Malê organization. Even so, on 2 March 1835 he was sentenced to death, along with other important prisoners. His sentence had been set by Francisco Goncalves Martins, the chief of police, now presiding over the jury as a judge: “In light of the previous declaration … on behalf of the Sentencing Jury I sentence prisoners: Belchior da Silva Cunha, Gaspar da Silva Cunha, and Jorge da Cruz Barbosa (all freedmen), as well as Luis Sanim, a slave of Pedro Ricardo da Silva, to natural death on the gallows.” With the exception of Jorge Barbosa (Ajahi), all those listed by Martins had their sentences commuted. Ajahi appears to have escaped from prison, but he was quickly recaptured. Perhaps the maintenance of his sentence comes from his being considered an incorrigible rebel.

Little is known about the others sentences to death. They were all Nago slaves. One of them was Pedro, a slave of Joseph Mellors Russell, the English merchant. It seems that all of this man’s slavees took part either in the rebellion or, at least, in the Malê conspiracy. On his own Russell had turned over to the justice of the peace a crate containing a great number of Malê objects belonging to his slaves — Necio, Joao, Joaozinho “the urchin,” Tome, Miguel, and Pedro. Of all these men Joao was the most militant, and his final sentence is not known. No one knows why Pedro was singled out for the death penalty. I could not find the records for his particular trial.

The other two slaves executed were Goncalo, whose owner appears in the records as Lourenco so-and-so, and Joaquim, who belonged to Pedro Luis Mefre. About them all that is known is that they were among the thirteen rebels wounded and taken prisoner during the confrontation at Agua de Meninos. It may be that they were both abandoned by their masters, since nothing suggests that they might have been leaders and none of the other eleven taken prisoner in the same circumstances received similar punishment.

These were, then, the four Africans put to death in 1835. Rodrigues began a tradition claiming that five Africans were executed, but there is no evidence for it. He names a freedman by the name of Jose Francisco Goncalves as the fifth victim. This African actually existed. He was a Hausa and lived in the Maciel de Baixo neighborhood. According to his testimony, he earned his living “bringing out samples of sugar from the warehouses for Merchants.” His name appears on the Roll of the Guilty with this observation: “sentenced and acquitted on 4 June 1835.” On that same roll the names of Jorge da Cruz Barbosa, Joaquim, Pedro, and Goncalo appear, with the following observation after each one: “sentenced to death and executed on 14 May 1835.”

Like all public executions, this one had its share of pomp and ceremony. The victims were paraded through the streets of Salvador in handcuffs. At Campo da Polvora new gallows had been constructed to replace the old ones, which had rotted from lack of use. At the head of the cortege marched the council “doorman,” Jose joaquim de Mendonca, who cried the sentence out to the ringing of bells. After him came Joao Pinto Barreto, the execution scribe, and Caetano Vicente de Almeida, a municipal judge. On both sides of the prisoners marched a column of armed Municipal Guardsmen. The Santa Casa da Misericordia was also presente, since the bylaws of that important philanthropic institution obliged its members, who were recruited from the local elite, to march along with people condemned to death as an act of Christian piety. The execution itself was to be witnessed by the interim chief of police (Martins had already gone to Rio de Janeiro as a congressional deputy), Judge Antonio Simoes da Silva, and by the commandant of the Municipal Guard, Manoel Coelho de Almeida Tander.

Much to the authorities’ disappointment, the new gallows could not be used to hang the prisoners. No one would act as executioner. On 13 May, one day before the execution, the vice-president of the province, Manoel Antonio Galvao, in response to a request from the chief of police, offered 20-30 milreis to any ordinary prisoner in Bahia’s many jails to act as executioner. Even though that was four months’ earnings for the average urban slave, no one came forward. The chief warden, Antonio Pereira de Almeida, expressed his disappointment in a communique to the chief of police that afternoon: “I have offered the job to the inmates, and no one will take it. I did the same thing today at the Barbalho and Ribeira dos Gales jails, and no one will take it for any amount of money; not even the other blacks will take it — in spite of the measures and promises I have offered in addition to the money.” Either because of prisoners’ solidarity or out of fear of retaliation from the African Muslims, an executioner could not be found. For this reason, still on 13 May, the president of the province had a firing squad formed to carry out the sentences. Then, on the fourteenth at Campo da Polvora, the four men were executed by a squad of policemen and immediately buried in a common grave in a cemetery run by the Santa Casa, next to the gallows. Without the hangings, the didactic value Bahian leaders envisaged in the spectacle was lost.

Less pomp surrounded floggings, although they too were public. Here, as well, the chief of police insisted (20 March 1835) that the “punishment should immediately follow the crime.” He argued that haste was necessary “so that the prisoners would not overflow,” a practical more than a political reason. The scenes of torture oculd not have been more degrading. The victims were undressed, tied, and whipped on their backs and buttocks. Floggings were held at two different sites: the Campo da Polvora and the cavalry garrison at Agua de Meninos, where the last battle of the uprising had been fought. At times the authorities worried that these public spectacles would themselves disturb the peace. Alufa Licutan’s sentence to one thousand lashes would be carried out in public, “but not on the street of the city.”


Illustration of a slave being publicly flogged in Brazil, by Johann Moritz Rugendas.

Prisoners received fifty lashes per day, “for as many days as it took to undergo the entire sentence … provided there was no risk to a prisoner’s life.” The victims’ suffering was closely watched by armed guards and carefully supervised by officers of the law, as well as by a court scribe who on a daily basis recorded the date, names, and numbers of lashes. From time to time, doctors visited the victims to check on their health and to advise whether the whipping should be continued or suspended for a while. These doctors’ reports are shocking testimony to the physical state of the tortured individuals. On 2 May 1835 Dr. Jose Souza Brito Cotegipe told Caetano Vicente de Almeida, the municipal criminal judge: “I have only found two who are well enough to continue serving their sentences. The rest cannot because of the enormous open wounds on their buttocks.” In a report on 19 September he said: “Having proceeded in the examination … of the Africans being flogged, I can inform Your Grace that the blacks [named] Carlos, Belchior, Cornelio, Joaquim, Carlos, Thomas, Lino, and Luiz (at the Relacao Jail) are in such a state that if they continue to be flogged, they may die.”

On that very day Luiz was admitted to the Santa Casa da Misericordia Hospital, where he stayed for two months. On 3 November he went back to the stocks, and two weeks later he completed his sentence of eight hundred lashes. Narciso, another slave, was less fortunate. He was caught red-handed during the uprising and did not survive the twelve hundred lashes of his sentence. He is the only African known to have died from that terrible punishment, but there may have been more.

After the Malê Rebellion, the signs and practices of Islam came under harsher surveillance than ever before. Brazil did not abolish slavery until May 13, 1888 — the very last nation in the western hemisphere to do so.

* Prisoners taken by all sides during the wars accompanying the formation and growth of the Sokoto Caliphate were a key source for the early 19th century slave trade.

** Neither teacher was directly involved in the rebellion: one, Ahuna, had alredy been exiled to another locale and the other, Bilal, languished in prison for debts. We have particularly poignant word of the latter’s devastation upon hearing word of what had transpired.

After the rebellion, Bilal, still in jail, received news of the fate of the rebellion. One of his cell companions said in a gripping testimony that Bilal lowered his head to weep and that he never saw him raise it again. Bilal wept as many of his cherished students were brought into the jail. When one of the surviving rebels, who was being incarcerated, passed Bilal a piece of paper with a message written on it, he read it and swiftly began to weep. The devastating fate of his students had brought Bilal to a perpetual trail of tears. His fate, however, was to be amongst the most devastating. Although he could not be charged with participation in the physical uprising that took place, it was clear to authorities that he had participated in the spiritual cultivation of the uprising. Bilal “was sentenced to 1,200 lashes of the whip, to be carried out in public, though not in the streets where everyone could see. The sentence was divided up into 50 lashes a day until completed.” We can imagine that this is how Bilal died.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Slaves,Torture

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2013: Joseph Paul Franklin, Larry Flynt’s would-be assassin

Add comment November 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2013, hoping “for people to think of me as a person who is filled with a lot of love for people, not filled with hate for people,” Joseph Paul Franklin was executed by lethal injection in Missouri for a three-year racist killing spree.

Born James Clayton Vaughn, Jr., before he renamed himself into a portmanteau of Paul Joseph Goebbels and Benjamin Franklin, our killer suffered by his own account a childhood warped by the disinterest of his mother and the physical violence of a usually-absentee father. He took up an interest in evangelical Christianity and white nationalism, and in 1977 began crisscrossing the country committing racially motivated attacks against Jews and African Americans.

He would later say that his intent was to trigger a race war. (Franklin renounced racism in prison.)

Victims a href=”http://murderpedia.org/male.F/f/franklin-joseph.htm”>fit many descriptions to enrage a white supremacist: mixed-race couples ambushed from sniper positions, two black youths walking home, a black fast food manager, a Jewish parishioner waiting for worship outside a synagogue, even two white girls he picked up hitchhiking who said something about a black boyfriend.

He wasn’t tried for all these murders and his own accounts of his career shifted over time; he’s estimated to have taken at least 18 lives in various near-random shootings in 11 different states. If Franklin himself knew the exact count, he took it to the grave.

“Do you know how many people you murdered?” he’s asked in this interview.

“I’d rather not mention it.”

“By my count, it’s 22 people.”

“That’s approximately it.”

Whatever the exact body count, Franklin is best known for two killings he didn’t quite manage to commit.

On May 29, 1980, he shot civil rights activist Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan recovered, and President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Jordan’s bedside in hospital was the very first story covered on CNN’s debut broadcast on June 1, 1980.

Two years previous, incensed by Hustler magazine’s interracial spreads, Franklin had attempted to assassinate porn publisher Larry Flynt. Flynt was paralyzed from the waist down as a result: he’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Nevertheless, Flynt opposed Franklin’s execution. “I do not want to kill him, nor do I want to see him die,” Flynt wrote in the Hollywood Reporter a month before Franklin went to his death.

Franklin has been sentenced by the Missouri Supreme Court to death by legal injection on Nov. 20. I have every reason to be overjoyed with this decision, but I am not. I have had many years in this wheelchair to think about this very topic. As I see it, the sole motivating factor behind the death penalty is vengeance, not justice, and I firmly believe that a government that forbids killing among its citizens should not be in the business of killing people itself.

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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1926: The Lowman lynchings

2 comments October 8th, 2016 Headsman

Aiken, South Carolina disgraced October 8, 1926 with the lynching of three members of the Lowman family.

American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.

One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.

Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.

This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.

Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.

And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.

Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.

Judge Lynch was wide awake now.

That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”

At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.

“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.

He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.

Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.

A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.

“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”

* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.

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1741: Not Sarah Hughson, “stubborn deportment”

Add comment July 29th, 2016 Headsman

Supreme Court: WEDNESDAY, 29th JULY.

PRESENT, The Chief Justice, The Second and Third Justices.

The KING, against Sarah Hughson, the Daughter.

THIS Criminal Convict being set to the Bar, the Court demanded of her, What she had to say, why Execution of her former Sentence should not be awarded against her? She thereupon produced and pleaded His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon; and the same being read, was allow’d of.

-Daniel Horsmanden‘s The New York conspiracy: or A History of the Negro plot

On this date in 1741, Sarah Hughson finally bought her life.

Sarah was the daughter of John Hughson, the white supposed mastermind of the supposed slave plot to fire New York, and she had originally been condemned to death along with both her parents.

Her father and her mother (the mother’s name was also Sarah) hanged on June 12, but the girl, “this miserable Creature” in Horsmanden’s recollection, got a stay. “The Judges wished that she would have furnish’d them with some Colour or Pretence for recommending her as an Object of Mercy; but they waited for it hitherto in vain,” he complained. But still her short lease on life was extended by a week, “in Hopes, that after her Father and Mother had suffered, she might be molified to a Confession of her own Guilt, and raise some Merit by making a further Discovery; or at least, confirming what had hitherto been unfolded concerning this accursed Scheme.”

One week later, she was respited again: “a mere Act of Mercy; for she yet remained inflexible.” But mercy was not a predominant characteristic of Horsmanden’s court: it wanted Sarah Hughson’s evidence.

A single white accuser — the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton — was the keystone to the entire succession of cases alleging a slave insurrection plotted at John Hughson’s tavern and (as prosecutions unfolded) elsewhere. It was Burton whose claims had hanged Sarah Hughson’s parents.

The court took evidence from slaves, a number of whom turned witness for the crown and bought their own lives by denouncing others. But the evidence of “pagan Negroes” was controversial in its own time, and for courts was officially second-class relative to what a white person said.

This was the racial privilege that Mary Burton wielded against luckless black men and women throughout the spring and summer of 1741.

But for Sarah Hughson, that privilege was worth her life. The court figured it could use the death sentence dangling over her to force her to join Mary Burton as a star white witness.

Curiously, Sarah took a belligerent attitude towards the court and the witness that had hanged her mother and father. We have only the faintest impression from Horsmanden’s journal of his battle of wills this young woman demanded, but she appears to have given her persecutors nothing for nearly a month and in so doing to have risked at least four hanging dates. The court in its “mercy” kept kicking the can down the road.

Was it grief or pride or bitterness that led the condemned orphan to risk following her mother and father to the scaffold? Was she calculating and cool enough to bargain with her life in the balance?

On July 5, Mary Burton’s accusations finally forced another white person, an Irish soldier named Kane, to turn crown’s evidence. This, perhaps, was finally it — for now Sarah Hughson’s currency was devalued, and Kane himself was accusing her an active participant in the plot. On July 8, Horsmanden records

THE Sentence of Sarah Hughson the Daughter, having been respited for upwards of three Weeks since the Execution of her Father and Mother, and she in that Time often importun’d to confess what she knew of the Conspi|racy, did always peremptorily deny she knew any Thing of the Matter, and made Use of many wicked Impreca|tions, in order to move Compassion in those that mov’d it to her, after the Manner of her Parents, whose constant Practice it was, whenever spoke to about the Plot: And this being the Day appointed for Sarah’s Execution, she was this Morning brought up to Mr. Pemberton, who came to pray by her, and after all his Admonitions, still denied her Guilt.

She had steel in her heart for sure. But July 8 was the day it finally cracked.

A condemned slave in the dungeon whose name was also Sarah reported that Sarah Hughson had blabbed the whole plot to her. The slave Sarah saved her own life with this revelation and finally forced Sarah into a terse and token confession of her own.

“This Confession was so scanty, and came from her after much Difficulty, with great Reluctance, that it gave little or no Satisfaction; and notwithstanding, (it was said, after she return’d to Jail) she retracted the little said, and denied she had any Knowledge of a Conspiracy,” Horsmanden wrote. “So that after all, the judges thought themselves under a Necessity, of Ordering her Execution, as the last Experiment, to bring her to a Disposition to unfold this Infernal Secret; at least, so much of it, as might be thought deserving a Recommendation of her, as an Object of Mercy.”

Throughout June, Sarah Hughson had survived hanging date after hanging date by refusing to confess. Now in July, she would navigate them by bartering her confession. “From her stubborn deportment, it must be owned, very small service was expected of her,” Horsmanden allowed. “For she discovered so irresolute untractable a temper, that it was to be expected she would recal again and again, as she had done already, what she seemed to deliver at times.”

Only a heartless observer could complain of Sarah’s shifting stories in these weeks, as she is repeatedly brought to the brink of death. Two days later, on the eve of her “last Experiment” hanging, Sarah confessed to Horsmanden; the next day, before the other judges of the court, she attempted to repudiate that confession until the judges “exhorted [her] to speak the Truth” whereupon she retracted the retraction. This bought her another week.

Finally, after two additional postponements, Sarah Hughson’s story and her part to play in this tragedy had been fixed: to accuse the man in the story’s last installment, a Catholic priest named John Ury.

Her evidence really ought to have been useless. In a footnote, Horsmanden concedes that “from the untoward behaviour of this wretch upon her examinations, the reader will be apt to conclude there could be little or no dependence on her veracity, or her evidence at best would deserve but very slender credit.” Ah, but the reader would be forgetting that Sarah was still white — and that her shifting narrative had now settled on the one favored by the court, “corroborated by many other witnesses to the same facts, and concurring circumstances attending them.”

Though he was no slave, John Ury was the man whose prosecution would finally conclude the slave-hunts. Bringing Sarah Hughson out of her long confinement into open court would help to cinch the case against him … while also relieving the city of its most frustrating prisoner without any appearance of wrongdoing. “If she could be affected with a Sense of Gratitude for saving her Life upon so small Merit, and kept to her History concerning John Ury then in Custody, and soon to be tried as an Accomplice in the Plot, and also as a Roman Catholick Priest, they thought she would be a very material Evidence against him; On these Considerations they thought fit this Day to recommend her to his Honour for a Pardon, as an Object of Mercy.” Win-win! (Except for Ury.)

And so on July 29, Sarah Hughson was finally pardoned at the bar of the court, first thing in the morning.

The second thing that morning was the amazing trial of John Ury, now with a new star witness.

But that is a story for a different post.

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1946: The Moore’s Ford Bridge lynchings

2 comments July 25th, 2016 Headsman

A quadruple lynching in rural Georgia on this date in 1946 shocked America.

These murders of two African-American couples near Moore’s Ford Bridge are described even to this day as America’s last unresolved mass lynching; that dubious milestone distinction also forms the subtitle of Laura Wexler’s Fire in the Canebrake, a 2004 book about the incident.

Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.

The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.

Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.

[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.

Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”

Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.

“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”

The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.


There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.

By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.

So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:

140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.


Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.

Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.

The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.

Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will

Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”

To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …

When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.

-Philadelphia Tribune, Sept. 24, 1946 (Via)

While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.

Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†

Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.

The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.

The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.

Come 1956, he was hailed before the House Un-American Activities Committee.


This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.

No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.

By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.

But they were not forgotten.

A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.

All these years later, Howard remains the diligent custodian of the lynching’s memory, and he founded the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee which among other things has established a historical marker near the site.

* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.

** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.

† All part of the great sausage-making of governance: Truman had met with a more moderate NAACP delegation a few days prior and set up one of those blue-ribbon commissions name of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Its manifold business affiliations and scanty deliverables were both considerably more welcome in Washington than was Robeson. See Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957.

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

6 comments August 17th, 2015 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.

Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.

The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.

Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.

Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.

But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.

Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that

my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.

This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)

In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)

By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.


Mary Phagan was killed on Confederate Memorial Day, the “holiday” this ballad alludes to.

Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.

Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …

This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …

lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.

But that mob would still have its say. On the eve of Frank’s scheduled June 22, 1915 hanging, outgoing governor John Slaton commuted the sentence.

“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†

Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.

Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.

* Frank was a chapter president of the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith; the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was founded in 1913 as a direct outgrowth of the Frank campaign.

As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):

The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.

** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.

† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.

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1964: Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo

2 comments November 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, anti-apartheid fighters Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo went to the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison — the first three members of the African National Congress’s military arm to be executed by apartheid South Africa.

In 1960, on the 21st of March — a date still kept as South Africa’s Human Rights Day, and worldwide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — white police gunned down 69 black civilians protesting the color line.

After the Sharpeville Massacre the struggle over racial apartheid in South Africa escalated to a much more violent plane.

Confrontations throughout South Africa following Sharpeville led the white government to declare a state of emergency and begin rounding up thousands of regime opponents. Pretoria also immediately outlaws the leading black resistance organizations, the Pan Africanist Congress and the African National Congress.

Driven underground, both PAC and ANC spun off military wings in 1961 to meet force with force.

We have already visited the “Langa Six”, members of the PAC’s Poqo.

Shortly thereafter, on December 16, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” in Zulu, but better known simply as “MK”) announced its advent with placards in city streets.

The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.

MK conducted its first dynamite attacks that very evening in Port Elizabeth; over the ensuing 18 months, it carried out more than 200 bombings and other acts of sabotage against the facilities of the apartheid state: train tracks, power stations, telephone wires, offices.

A security crackdown naturally ensued.* By 1963, the white government had managed to expose and arrest three-quarters of MK’s regional Eastern Cape High Command. Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Khayingo, and Zinakile Mkaba were all swiftly condemned on multiple counts of sabotage plus one of murdering a police informant. International appeals for clemency fell on deaf ears; one fellow-traveler later remembered the men taking leave of their fellow-prisoners in a haunting song.**

“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near … It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards. And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga’s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions. Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section.

* It was during this crackdown that future president Nelson Mandela was rolled up. Mandela had helped to found MK.

** According to The Road to Democracy in South Africa, 1960-1970, the song was Mini’s own composition titled “Pasop — nants’in-dod’inyama, Verwoerd” (“Watch out, here is the African man, Verwoerd!”). If it is available online, I have not been able to find it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Revolutionaries,South Africa,Terrorists

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