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

1 comment 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.

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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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1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

Add comment March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

-Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1922: Taffy Long, Herbert Hull, and David Lewis, Rand rebels

1 comment November 17th, 2013 Headsman

RAND MINING RECOVERY.

LOWER WORKING COSTS.

(From our correspondent.)

JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 28. The Rand Daily Mail, in an article dealing with the economic situation of the Union, gives striking figures illustrating the steady advance of the gold industry on the march towards prosperity.

Profits for the July-September quarter show an increase of £1,136,000 over the previous quarter. This has been accomplihed not only by lowering wages, but by all-round improvement in efficiency per unit, mining costs having fallen from 25s. 8d. in 1921 to 20s. 5d. in September, 1922 …

[T]he Rand Daily Mail says that these facts “represent unmistakable omens of coming prosperity which should steel the downhearted farmer to greater effort and encourage the suffering industrialist throughout the Union, and transform the pessimism of the merchant into healthy confident and hope.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1922)


THREE RAND EXECUTIONS.

ANTI-GOVERNMENT RIOT.

(From our correspondent.)

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 17. The bitterest feeling prevails among the workers over the refusal to reprieve the three men, Long, Hull, and Lewis, who were condemned to death for murder in connexion with the Rand revolt, and were executed at Pretoria to-day.

Appeals for mercy poured in till almost the last moment, and an open-air mass meeting was held, in which prominent Communists took part. At this meeting angry and threatening speeches were made; the names of General Smuts and Sir Lionel Phillips were boohed, and the crowd attempted to break into the Town Hall, severely injured a detective, and was finally dispersed by armed police. The public generally approves the Government’s firmness. The condemned men sang the Red Flag on the scaffold. (London Times, Nov. 18, 1922)


“Come dungeons dark or gallows grim the sun will be our parting hymn.”

FUNERAL OF RAND MURDERERS.

COMMUNIST APPEAL TO CHILDREN.

(From our correspondent.)

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 19. Remarkable scenes recalling the funeral of the victims of the great strike of 1913 were witnessed at the burial of the remains of Long, Lewis, and Hull, who were executed on Friday. The coffins, in separate hearses, were followed by thousands of workers, with banners and regalia, representing every trade union. “The Red Flag” was sung at the graveside and addresses were delivered, in which members of Parliament, of the Provincial Council, and Town Councils participated.

The latest development of Communist propaganda in Johannesburg is the distribution broadcast among children and students as they are leaving their schools and colleges of a pamphlet denouncing as “legalized murder and a blot on history” the execution of the men convicted of murder at special treason courts. (London Times, Nov. 20, 1922)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,South Africa

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1904: Herero prisoners, at the command of Lothar von Trotha

6 comments October 3rd, 2013 Headsman

My initial plan for the operation, which I always adhered to, was to encircle the masses of Hereros at Waterberg, and to annihilate these masses with a simultaneous blow, then to establish various stations to hunt down and disarm the splinter groups who escaped, later to lay hands on the captains by putting prize money on their heads and finally to sentence them to death.

-German General Lothar von Trotha (pdf source)

On this date in 1904, von Trotha did a little of that executing bit, further to doing a whole lot of genocide. It was the very day after von Trotha’s Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order, against the Herero people.

We give the narrative here to Jan-Bart Gewald’s “Colonization, Genocide and Resurgence: The Herero of Namibia 1890-1933″, from a collection of papers at a German symposium. Gewald’s complete text is available in scanned pdf form here.

Gewald:


Pocketed by the desert and the German patrols the Herero chiefs and their followers congregated along the Eiseb river. Around the first of October 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, who was actively taking part in the pursuit, and his retinue had reached the waterhole Osombo-Windimbe. During the afternoon of the following day, Sunday 2 October 1904, after the holding of a field service, General von Trotha, addressed his officers. In his address Trotha declared that the war against the Herero would be continued in all earnestness, and read out the following proclamation:

I the great General of the German troops send this letter to the Herero people.

The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other bodyparts of wounded soldiers, now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people anyone who delivers a captain will receive 1000 Mark, whoever delivers Samuel will receive 5000 Mark. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. Within the German borders everyHerero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.* These are my words to the Herero people.

The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.

At dawn the following morning, Herero prisoners, who had been sentenced to death by a field court-martial, were hung in the presence of about 30 Herero prisoners, women and children amongst them. After the hanging, Trotha’s proclamation was read out to the prisoners in Otjiherero. Printed copies of the text in Otjiherero were distributed amongst the Herero prisoners. The prisoners were then turned loose and driven out into the Omaheke. [i.e., the western Kalahari desert -ed.]


In a letter the next day, Oct. 4, to the general staff, von Trotha reported on his order the day’s executions, in the context of a detailed tactical and philosophical justification of destroying the entire Herero nation. It’s quoted at length in Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany:

For me, it is merely a question of how to end the war with the Herero. My opinion is completely opposite to that of the governor and some “old Africans.” They have wanted to negotiate for a long time and describe the Herero nation as a necessary labor force for the future use of the colony. I am of an entirely different opinion. I believe that the nation mustbe destroyed as such, or since this was not possible using tactical blows, it must be expelled from the land operatively …

Because I neither can treat with these people, nor do I want to, without the express direction of His Majesty, a certain rigorous treatment of all parts of the nation is absolutely necessary, a treatment that I have for the present taken and executed on my own responsibility, and from which, as long as I have command, I shall not detour without a direct order. My detailed knowledge of many Central African tribes, Bantu and others, has taught me the convincing certainty that Negroes never submit to a contract but only to raw force. Yesterday before my departure, I had the warriors who were captured in the last several days [and who were] condemned by court-martial, hanged, and I have chased all the women and children who had gathered here back into the desert, taking with them the proclamation to the Herero people. This proclamation (enclosed), which will unavoidably bcome known, will be attacked … accepting women and children, who are mostly ill, is an eminent danger to the troops, and taking care of them is impossible. Therefore, I think it better that the nation perish rather than infect our troops and affect our water and food. In addition, the Herero would interpret any kindness on my side as weakness.They must now die in the desert or try to cross the Bechuanaland border. This uprising is and remains he beginning of a race war, which I already predicted in 1897 in my reports to the chancellor on East Africa … Whether this uprising was caused by poor treatment [of the Africans] remains irrelevant to its suppression.


It should be added that this explicitly genocidal policy was neither unique to German colonies, nor, as von Trotha himself notes, uncontested within Germany itself.

German Christian missionaries logged a piteous catalog of horrors, “skeletons with hollow eyes, powerless and hopeless,” and their reports of same to their home offices led to church pressure to brake the atrocities.

Gewald also quotes one of von Trotha’s subalterns, undisguisedly revolted at what he was involved in.

Cattle which had died of thirst lay scattered around the wells. These cattle had reached the wells but there had not been enough time to water them. The Herero led ahead of us into the Sandveld. Again and again this terrible scene kept repeating itself … the water became ever sparser, and wells evermore rare. They fled from one well to the next and lost virtually all their cattle and a large number of their people. The people shrunk into small remnants who continually fell into our hands, sections of the people escaped now and later throug the Sandveld into English territory. It was a policy which was equally gruesome as senseless, to hammer the people so much, we could have still saved many of them and their rich herds, if we had pardoned and taken them up again, they had been punished enough. I suggested this to General von Trotha but he wanted their total extermination.

Technically, complete destruction of the Herero was reversed as German policy a few months after von Trotha began implementing it, and the general himself recalled from South West Africa before the end of 1905 — leaving only a “softer” genocide of disease-ridden concentration camps through 1908. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, it’s thought that well over half the Herero population died during this period.

Yet neither was von Trotha a lone butcher. Diary entries of settlers and regular soldiers well before the extermination order record many instances (pdf) of the most cavalier slaying of Herero prisoners and noncombatants, abuses which continued long after von Trotha’s departure.

It’s difficult not to see in the racial ideology and the eliminationist military doctrine prefiguring (pdf) later and better-publicized brutalities. Indeed, even some of the personnel are the same:

  • Hermann Goering‘s father Heinrich was Germany’s first Reichskommissar in South West Africa, plopping his home down right on a Herero burial site.
  • Eugen Fischer, a eugenicist who availed the Namibian concentration camps’ ready supply of subjects to produce career-making research that would influence German race law and make Fischer a big brain in Nazi intellectual circles
  • Franz Ritter von Epp, one of von Trotha’s officers, formed in the aftermath of World War I one of the far-right Freikorps paramilitaries, with many subsequently-influential Nazis among its membership, including Ernst Roehm (who may have cribbed the SA “brown shirt” look from colonial Schutztruppe khakis) and Adolf Hitler himself

* He meant, shooting over their heads to run them off. “I assume absolutely that this proclamation will result in taking no more male prisoners, but will not degenerate into atrocities against women and children,” Lothar explained. “The latter will run away if one shoots at them a couple of times. The troops will remain conscious of the good reputation of the German soldier.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Namibia,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1890: A quadruple hanging in Jim Crow America

Add comment June 24th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Close to midnight on this date in 1890, four convicted murderers — three of them black and one white — were hanged on the gallows inside the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. They were Edward Carr, 28, Parker Harris, 30, Hardy Ballard, 45, and Frank Brenish, 36.

Carr, who was half-black, had murdered his estranged wife Sallie in broad daylight on the street in Memphis on November 9, 1889. Edward Carr wanted to move to Mississippi and Sallie did not, and she had left him and moved in with a woman friend. When Edward saw his wife and her friend walking down the street, he said, “Sallie, I am going to kill you,” and then shot her.

She ran away, but he chased after her and shot her three more times. Sallie Carr died in her friend’s arms.

Edward surrendered to the police three days later, and his lawyer had to persuade him not to plead guilty to murder.

At his trial he said, “I do not know why I killed her. It was not because she offended me. We had lived happily together … I loved her so well, and she would not go with me.” Offering no defense, he was accordingly convicted on December 17, six weeks after his crime.

Harris had also killed his wife, Letha “Lettie” Harris, on the street in front of witnesses. Lettie was an “octoroon”, a now-outdated term for someone who is of mixed race and one-eighth black, seven-eighths white.

Like the Carrs, the Harrises were estranged and Lettie was living apart from her husband. On August 18, 1889, said husband encountered her riding in a buggy with several women and asked her to come home; Lettie replied that she never wanted to speak to him again.

In response, Parker Harris slashed her throat, then his own. He was able to run from the scene but collapsed several blocks away, weak from blood loss. He recovered sufficiently from his wounds to face trial; he too was easily convicted.

Hardy Ballard had killed a streetcar driver, G. Emmett Pinkston, on Christmas Day 1889 after an argument over the nickel fare. Ballard insisted he had paid; Pinkston said he hadn’t, and kicked him off the car. Both parties were armed in the ensuing fight, Ballard with a knife and Pinkston with an iron hook, and Ballard got the better of the streetcar driver and stabbed him to death.

His plea of self-defense at trial was not believed by the jury.

The sole white man, Frank Brenish, was a wife killer just like two of his co-condemned. Mary, his wife of two years, had left him because of his drinking and his failure to support her and his two stepchildren. Frank threatened to kill his wife if she didn’t come back to him, and Mary took these threats seriously enough to report them to the police. The cops had a talk with Frank and he promised to leave his wife alone.

Mary remained fearful, however, and when she went out she took her fourteen-year-old daughter, her sister and another man to protect her in case she encountered her husband. They were with her the night the murder was committed: they saw the whole thing.

Frank Brenish’s crime was so similar to Parker Harris’s that there was some speculation the two might have a joint trial: on July 5, 1889 he jumped out of a dark alley and slashed Mary’s throat, nearly decapitating her. Then he cut his own throat. Against the odds, a doctor was able to save Frank’s life, but Mary was beyond help: she had died almost instantly.

All four of the condemned were given copious amounts of alcohol while awaiting their execution, and Brenish got morphine as well. The wound on his throat hadn’t healed and it leaked from time to time. The night before his executed, he made a halfhearted attempt at suicide by slashing his wrist with a makeshift knife.

This was the era of racial apartheid in America, however, and even when men died together, they perhaps might not die together.

The gallows in this instance was built for two, so the natural idea was to hang the four men as two pairs.

Brenish, however, refused to suffer the indignity of being hanged alongside a Negro.

His jailers — and one hardly needs to mention their racial identity — honored his request for a segregated execution and modified the gallows so three people could be hanged at once.

The three black prisoners went first. Brenish died alone, fifteen minutes later. Harris, Ballard and Carr had “clean” hangings and died quickly, after making the usual final statements about their sins and their hope for redemption in Heaven.

When the time came for his racially unsullied death, Brenish was either so drunk or so scared he could barely stand, and he took several more swallows of whiskey while standing on the scaffold. He had severed his trachea when he slashed his throat and could only barely speak above a whisper. When he was asked for a final statement, the best he could come up with was, “They oughtn’t to hang a man when he ain’t in his right mind.”

It often happens that, when a person’s throat was previously cut, the wound will re-open during hanging. This didn’t happen to Harris, but it sure did during Brenish’s execution. Lewis Laska in Legal Executions in Tennessee: A Comprehensive Registry, 1782-2009 has a graphic description of what happened:

The officers had difficulty in placing the handcuffs because of his bandaged wrist. Blood trickled down his white gloves. With the noose and cap placed, he swayed to and fro and had to be held. When the lever was pulled and he dropped there was a pop (his neck was broken) and a hissing sound. The drop had opened the hole in his throat from the attempted suicide on the night of the killing. The hole was large enough to hold a cigar. As he hung, his wrist wound bled profusely.

Gruesome as his death may have appeared, though, Brenish didn’t suffer long. His heart stopped in less than a minute.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,Tennessee,USA

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