Archive for February, 2012

1836: Giuseppe Fieschi, Pierre Morey, and Theodore Pepin, infernal machinists

2 comments February 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1836, three men were guillotined for a spectacular but unsuccessful regicide attempt.

Giuseppe Fieschi

This was in the days of the July Monarchy, a much-despised government of the country’s wealthiest elites that generated opposition both right and left and a ceaseless string of assassination attempts (French link) against King Louis-Philippe.* As Marx put it,

when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.

It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it … the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.

Hard to imagine such a state of affairs.

Fieschi (English Wikipedia page | French) et al conceived a bold attempt to destroy the entire ruling family in a single fusillade, and to that end constructed a machine infernale of 25 gun barrels mounted together to fire on a single fuse.

Unleashed upon a royal procession along the Boulevard du Temple on the fifth anniversary of the monarchy’s founding July days, this monster proved quite impressively destructive.


The assassination attempt of Fieschi, 28 July 1835 by Eugene Lami.

The infernale barrage took out an esteemed marshal and a bunch of bystanders, but somehow managed to miss everyone in the royal family. (Louis-Philippe himself was grazed … and his horse was hit.)

Exploiting the familiar power of a terrorist incident to enact horrible new policies not available in normal times, “Parliament was hastily recalled and in a near-panic atmosphere passed severe measures against the newspaper press,” notes William Fortescue. “Approximately thirty more republican newspapers were closed down by the September 1835 Press Laws.”

Police soon traced the conspiracy to Fieschi, a truly Gallic character of mixed-up national pride, personal honor, class envy, and opportunistic lechery, who had fought for Bonaparte and helped Joachim Murat on the latter’s fatal attempt to re-take “his” kingdom of Naples back in his youth. But lately, a more worn-out and middle-aged Fieschi had been booted out by his mistress and lost all his money.

Fieschi, according to Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848, basically became a dependent of Morey and Pepin, true-blue republicans who helped channel Fieschi’s unmoored passions into engineering his hydra-headed musket. He’d be back on the French-nationalism side by the end.

“I’m going to appear before God,” Fieschi said on the scaffold, after Morey and Pepin had preceded him. “I have spoken the truth. I die content. I have rendered a service to my country in signaling my accomplices … I regret my victims more than my life.”

More repressive laws and radical-hunting followed. They did not slake the thirst abroad in France for regicide.

* Louis-Philippe’s royal dad backed the French Revolution, but was still executed by Robespierre.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1799: Constantine Hangerli, tax man

Add comment February 18th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in 1799, Constantine Hangerli was deposed from his post as Prince of Wallachia by a Moorish executioner.

A veritable watchword for bad times, Hangerli was one of a clutch of disposable puppet rulers situated on the Wallachian throne by the Ottomans around the turn of the 19th century.

As had often before been the case, Wallachia was sorely pressed at this time by the cumulative exactions of its native boyars, the Ottoman Porte, and the plunder taken by the expeditions of rising Bosnian warlord Osman Pasvan Oglu.

Our man is famous, in particular, for the “Hangerli winter” of 1798, just after his elevation — when a confiscatory tax regime seized most of the countryside’s lifestock. Hangerli had a message for the generally currency-poor common man who objected to the much-despised per-head duty on cattle.

Pay the taxes, and you won’t be killed.

Hangerli’s real problem this year wasn’t the unmourned misery of his overtaxed serfs, but the Ottoman commander sent to rein in the Bosnians. Pasvan Oglu whipped that expedition, and its general Hussein Kucuk turned up at Hangerli’s doorstep late in 1798.**

Since it was dangerous for Ottoman generals to lose, Kucuk evidently arrived intending to put some blame on Hangerli — or at least, Hangerli thought that was the case. Secret dispatches from both parties to Istanbul ensued.

Whoever it was who schemed first, Kucuk schemed best. Selim III (later to die of palace scheming himself) decreed Hangerli’s immediate execution and dispatched a kapucu, one of the frightening envoy-executioners (two different men, in this case) who carried such decrees to their victims.

* I believe this may be per the Old Style/Julian date still in use in the Orthodox world.

** Having executed Rigas Feraios in Belgrade en route.

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1524: Not Jean de Poitiers, father of the mistress

Add comment February 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1524, the French aristocrat Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier lay his head on a chopping-block.

He kept it there for a full hour, but the headsman never swung the blade — and Jean de Poitiers walked away with a royal clemency.

This lucky Seigneur had been caught up in an English- and Habsburg-backed plot by the Constable of France to break off a chunk of France. (Said Constable fled to Charles V.)

Jean de Poitiers skated on noblesse oblige and lesser culpability, but there’s a scurrilous story that he was heard thanking God as he was led back from the scaffold for his daughter’s many charms.

Diane de Poitiers

The aforesaid beguiler, then-24-year-old Diane de Poitiers, had gone to King Francis to plead for her father’s life. Apparently she made an impression. (Or the king was planning to pardon Jean anyway.)

The implication of having gone the extra mile derives not from any particular fact known about that meeting, but from Diane’s subsequent, and rather illustrious, career as mistress to the monarch — not to Francis, but to his son Henri II.

In the 1530s, when Diane was a cougar-aged widow,* she became the mistress of the teenaged prince — and the rival of his teenaged bride, Catherine de’ Medici.

Diane was anything but the other woman in this arrangement: the brilliant, forceful personality whom Henri trusted as no other, it was Diane de Poitiers who wielded queen-like power during her lover’s reign. (They even had an H-D monogram.) She made calls in statecraft and in the royal household, and one can fancy the fury Queen Catherine conceived for having her husband’s older mistress decide how to raise the kids.

Diane’s career ought to have ended in a state funeral, but the hale and hearty Henri suffered a freak jousting accident in 1559 that reordered female influence in the Valois dynasty. Catherine wouldn’t even let Diane near the deathbed of the king as he painfully expired — and the queen exiled the former royal favorite to a distant estate as soon as possible.

* Diane de Poitiers was on either end of May-December arrangements in her time, and the monument that she put up for her much-older husband Louis de Breze can be seen at the cathedral in Rouen.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Pardons and Clemencies,Power

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1912: Thomas Jennings, fingerprinted

4 comments February 16th, 2012 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Thomas Jennings was ushered the scaffold … while Thomas Jennings’s fingerprints ushered in a new age of policework (pdf).

Hegemonic authority had been on a long march towards a forensic regime that could affix an oft-ephemeral identity to the profoundly corporeal body.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, investigative techniques and jurisprudence marched double time to keep pace with new techniques — from photography to the unwieldy system of Bertillonage.

A variety of American institutions — the U.S. Army, a number of prison systems — had begun systematically cataloging their respective inmates’ fingerprints in the preceding years, but it was in the Jennings case that the system really earned its whorls. It was the first U.S. murder case pinned on fingerprint evidence.

In September 1910, a Chicago homeowner in the present-day Beverly neighborhood surprised an intruder, and was shot dead. (pdf) In the course of the fight or the flight, the prowler splooshed his left hand into some wet paint on a railing.

Thomas Jennings, a paroled burglar, was arrested near the scene, and his fingerprints shown to match those left in the grieving Hiller household. A prosecution expert even gave a courtroom demonstration of dusting for prints.

This was as novel to judges as to jurymen, and given the dearth of other positive evidence against Jennings, the Illinois Supreme Court was called upon to deliberate upon the humble dactylogram. In the summer of 20111911, it stopped Jennings’ hanging just hours before it was to take place.

But its final word in December 20111911 only fitted the homebreaker’s noose.

We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who testified, and from the writings we have referred to on this subject, that there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification, and that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it …

Such evidence may or may not be of independent strength, but it is admissible, with other proof, as tending to make out a case. If inferences as to the identity of persons based on voice, the appearance or age are admissible, Why does not this record justify the admission of this fingerprint testimony under common law rules of evidence.

Courtrooms all around the world soon agreed, and within a generation the awesome investigative power of the fingerprint had fugitives going so far as to slice or burn off those incriminating little pads of flesh — the crime scene gold standard until the advent of DNA testing.

Jennings was hanged this date in a state-record five-man batch (the others, Ewald and Frank Shiblawski, Philip Sommerling, and Thomas Schultz, had all committed an unrelated murder together).

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1907: Gen. Antonio Paredes, Venezuelan rebel

Add comment February 15th, 2012 Headsman

In the small hours this date* in 1907, Venezuelan Gen. Antonio Paredes was summarily shot for an abortive rising against dictator Cipriano Castro.

The Andean military governor Castro had overthrown the previous kleptocracy in the Restoration Revolution of 1899.

Castro’s state was racked by internal conflicts as Castro’s body was by collapsing organ systems. Both factors helped encourage malcontents towards designs upon his job.

Paredes was one of the regime’s chief opponents, an admired officer who had been the last holdout (Spanish link) against the 1899 revolt from his own base in the port city of Puerto Cabello, latterly knocking about in exile openly scheming against Castro. Paredes steamed in to New York in the summer of 1906 “to obtain arms and ammunition … for this movement against Castro,” he told the New York Tribune in a story wired from coast to coast. “I came here solely on that mission.”**

Paredes finally landed in his homeland in early February 1907, just as Castro was undergoing an emergency surgery. The Chicago Tribune Feb. 9, 1907 dispatch ran under a headline announcing “Paredes’ Long Planned Insurrection Begun”.

But long planned evidently wasn’t well planned.

Making landfall with a token force of retainers, he banked on “rally[ing] an army of 5,000 to 8,000 men.” (Chicago Tribune, op. cit.) But he in fact rallied zero, and was almost instantly intercepted by Castro’s troops. After a couple of days in captivity, the men in the field received a curt telegram over Cipriano Castro’s name — either dictated from the president’s hospital bed between chloroform stupors, or simply given in his stead by powerful Interior Minister Julio Torres Cardenas — ordering the summary execution (Spanish link) of the prisoners.

The whole lot of 17 or 18 prisoners (including two US expatriates, John Godskin and Thomas Lovelace), were accordingly dispatched (Spanish again) without color of law.

Venezuela had actually abolished capital punishment for all crimes in 1863. While extrajudicial executions are always in a gray area, this might be the last event in that country’s history that could clearly be classified as an execution.

* This memoirs of Paredes’ 1899-1903 imprisonment at one point states that the execution occurred in the small hours of Feb. 16, but I believe this is mistaken.

** Quotes from an A.P. story titled “Planning Revolution Against Gen. Castro” in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11, 1906.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Venezuela

1845: John Gordon, the last hanged in Rhode Island

Add comment February 14th, 2012 Headsman

Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a measure posthumously pardoning John Gordon — who on February 14, 1845 was the last man executed in that state.

Gordon’s hanging, for the murder of a prominent industrialist who had bad blood with Gordon’s brother, was long notorious in Rhode Island as one secured on highly uncertain evidence in an atmosphere of anti-Irish prejudice.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome on this occasion University of Rhode Island labor historian Scott Molloy, author of Irish Titan, Irish Toilers and a major advocate of the Gordon pardon.

ET: Can you set the scene — what’s going on in Rhode Island at this time, and what are the tensions surrounding Irish immigrants?

SM: Rhode Island was the site of the first factory in America in the 1790s, called Slater Mill. It really changed the face of Rhode Island and eventually the rest of the US.

In Rhode Island, curiously, as more and more people left the farms to work on the mills, they had an unusual requirement that really didn’t make any difference years earlier: in order to vote, you had to have so much land. (Specifically, $134 worth of land.)

By 1840, not only were the usual suspects not able to vote — women, people of color, Native Americans — 60% of native-born white male Rhode Islanders were also unable to vote. It meant that just a handful of people ruled the state, compared to the time of the American Revolution when just about every white male could vote. And immigrants in particular — and in those days, that was the Irish — were basically precluded from voting. You had a residency requirement, a property qualification. It made Rhode Island almost unique in New England, almost like a southern state.

A group of reformers came to the forefront, a guy named Thomas Wilson Dorr, a blueblood aristocrat, Harvard-educated, one of the best legal minds of the country. He threw his lot in with the reformers to try to get people the right to vote. It really polarized the state in 1842.

The Irish were sympathetic, but Irish priests tried to keep them out of it because they wanted to acclimate. But because a lot of the animosity toward people having the right to vote was directed at Irish immigrants. People blamed the Irish even though the Irish didn’t get particularly involved in the Dorr War.

Often times they got blamed for everything whether they did it or not. And of course we face the same situation with immigrants today.

What was the crime and how did the Gordons come to be the focus of the prosecution?

In 1843, a Yankee industrialist out in Cranston by the name of Amasa Sprague was found on New Year’s Eve 1843 bludgeoned to death in what today we might call a hate crime. He had a gold watch still on him, he had money in his poket, and he had been beaten to death.

Amasa Sprague was a very influential guy. His older brother who helped run the mill with him and was the US Senator from Rhode Island had the local city council lift the liquor license from the Gordon family’s business, which for all intents and purposes ended their livelihood. This was Nicholas Gordon’s shop: John Gordon had only just crossed over from Ireland.

When Sprague was found dead about six months after the license was lost, they focused on the Gordon family. The authorities formed a posse and they went after this Irish family.

Book CoverHow did anti-Irish sentiment manifest itself at trial?

The juries in all three trials had no Catholics and no Irish that I’m aware of. There was a lot of religious and socioeconomic animosity.

At the time, the Supreme Court of the state would sit in on the whole trial just because it was a capital trial, and the trial judge would say in the transcript — which is still available (pdf) — he basically says to the jury, if you find testimony that contradicts itself between a Yankee and an Irish witness, you should give the Yankee testimony more credence.

Doesn’t the fact that John Gordon’s brothers were not convicted militate against the notion of overwhelming anti-Irish prejudice?

You can’t go overboard on these things. The juries — all three of them — they found one Gordon innocent and in the other case they had a hung jury. I don’t want to say they were completely prejudiced, because they weren’t, but almost everything else in Rhode Island at that time was stacked up against them.

The earlier Irish who came in the 1820s and 1830s were a little bit better off, a little bit better-educated [compared to later Irish immigrants after the potato famine]. The animus against the Irish was still intense; the Irish were seen as criminal, unskilled, uneducated, ignorant. The Protestant majority at the time, mostly of English heritage, kind of brought that over with them even though they had been there for a long time.

So how did the legal proceedings play out?

They put two of the recently immigrated brothers up for conspiracy for murder, but not the oldest brother. So John Gordon and his brother William go on trial first.

The jury came back with a guilty verdict for John Gordon, who didn’t have much of an alibi, but a not guilty verdict for William, who did have an alibi. So you’ve got a conspiracy conviction with only one conviction.

Then they put Nicholas Gordon on trial, and the jury comes back deadlocked. His second trial is not going to be until the spring of 1845. In the interim, his brother John was to be hanged, Valentine‘s Day 1845 — rather than wait to see what happened at Nicholas Gordon’s trial and whether there even is a conspiracy.

The defense petitions the governor and the general assembly to hold off the execution until after the trial of the oldest brother. The governor washes his hands of it, and the general assembly votes very narrowly to go ahead with the execution.

So they hang him, and what’s interesting in that part of it is an itinerant, traveling Catholic priest — a guy named Father John Brady — hears John Gordon’s last confession.

Well, they invite the elite of providence inside the prison to watch the hanging. (There’s about 1,000 Irish outside the prison in support of John Gordon.) When they put the noose around his neck, the priest is with him, and the priest berates the elites and authorities, and he says, John, you are going before a just God who has seen way too many of your countrymen.

I always argue in my writings that this guy, he’s an immigrant, he’s uneducated, he’s just been in America for a few months. I just can’t believe that this guy would ever lie to the priest hearing his last confession, and the priest would never berate the elites unless he’d heard a confession of innocence.

After John Gordon’s hanging, his brother Nicholas goes on trial as planned, and they come back with another hung jury — this time, with a majority voting him as innocent. They were going to try him again except about 18 months later, Nicholas dies of natural causes.

I’ve seen a lot of people describe growing up hearing unambiguously that this was a wrongful execution. Is that how it was perceived right from the start? How universal was/is that perception?

There was such a collective feeling of guilt about this that in 1854, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty and John Gordon was the last person ever executed there.

There’s one flaw in the law. This was added late in the 20th century, that anyone convicted of killing a prison guard during an escape could still be killed. And there was an incident, I remember it as a kid maybe 30 years ago, but they still didn’t condemn even that person to death. But Rhode Island has never changed that.

None of us who ever testified ever said categorically that John Gordon was innocent, because we just can’t prove that. But we did say that he never got a fair trial, just like Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.

We did in our research was come up with two or three suspects who had much better reason to assassinate Sprague. But there were no witnesses to the case. It was all circumstantial evidence. I have to say, every time I look at the case — there are some pieces of evidence that would make the Gordons look very guilty. There are other aspects of it that make them look very innocent. If it was in today’s world, the police would interrogate them as people of interest.

It’s not as cut-and-dried as some people make it. All I know is that they got an unfair trial.

Gordon was posthumously pardoned last year. How did that campaign get going, and how receptive were folks in the capitol?

The problem was a lot of people had forgotten the case. I had been writing for a number of years op-ed pieces in the Providence Journal, and mentioned John Gordon from time to time.

But it was an 80-year-old guy named Ken Dooley, and he grew up a couple miles from the murder site near Cranston, and he was a playwright. He came back home and remembered his grandmother singing some little ditty of a song 70 years ago saying something like “Poor Johnny Gordon”, and so he researched it, and he wrote a play.

And they put it on in Cranston, and over the couse of the month several thousand people saw it. A state representative, an Irish guy, saw the play four or five times and then introduced that into the general assembly trying to obtain a posthumous pardon — just to say that the evidence didn’t support the execution.

And Gov. Chaffee, who comes from an ancient Yankee family in Rhode Island, signed the damn thing. It was that play that this guy wrote and we were all amazed that this kind of came out of the blue. We held a lot of events around it — had church services, put up ceremonial headstones. I always tell people that I want this on my headstone: that I had a hand in getting John Gordon pardoned.


There are some excellent resources already available online concerning the Gordon case, including:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rhode Island,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2009: Minurul Islam and two friends, for a dowry death

2 comments February 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2009, a husband was hanged with two friends for murdering a wife who shorted him on his dowry.

The three were hanged at one minute past midnight in western Jessore jail after they failed to secure presidential pardons for the murder of Minu Ara, 18, the official, Kamrul Huda, said.

Minurul Islam and his two friends were sentenced to death in 2002 by the supreme court for killing Ara after her father failed to pay a promised dowry of 100,000 taka. [$1,450 US]

Their execution follows that of two men in southern Bangladesh in December over a similar dowry murder.

So-called “dowry deaths” — including not only outright murder but suicide driven by in-laws’ mistreatment — reportedly produces several thousand deaths per year in South Asia, including Pakistan and India.

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1937: Tom Steinbock and Juan Mirbol in Sartre’s The Wall

Add comment February 12th, 2012 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the Spanish Civil War, two principal characters are shot in Jean-Paul Sartre‘s first short story, “The Wall”.

“Le Mur” in French, a title also suggesting the dead spirits of Roman mythology, “The Wall” was penned in 1937 as Sartre’s personal response* to the Spanish Civil War.


Sartre published “The Wall” at almost the exact same time — summer 1937 — as Picasso finished Guernica. (Guernica was bombed in April 1937.)

“The Wall” is highly non-specific as to time and circumstance; a mention of “winter” — as of writing, the winter of 1937 was the only one yet elapsed in the conflict — and a few disembodied calendar indicators like “the 9th” and “Tuesday”.

Instead, it’s an existential reflection on the inscrutability of death. The narrator, one Pablo Ibbieta, awaits the morning’s firing squad with an International Brigade volunteer named Tom Steinbock and a Spanish innocent named Juan Mirbal.

All three of us watched [a Belgian doctor] because he was alive. He had the motions of a living human being, the cares of a living human being; he shivered in the cellar the way the living are supposed to shiver; he had an obedient, well-fed body. The rest of us hardly felt ours — not in the same way anyhow. I wanted to feel my pants between my legs but I didn’t dare; I watched the Belgian, balancing on his legs, master of his muscles, someone who could think about tomorrow. There we were, three bloodless shadows; we watched him and we sucked his life like vampires. …

In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm — because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. …

[Juan] wept: I could clearly see he was pitying himself; he wasn’t thinking about death. For one second, one single second, I wanted to weep myself, to weep with pity for myself. But the opposite happened: I glanced at the kid, I saw his thin sobbing shoulders and I felt inhuman: I could pity neither the others nor myself. I said to myself, “I want to die cleanly.”

Tom and Juan go to the wall that morning.

Pablo, an anarchist, is subjected to one last interrogation before he’s shot: the fascists are hunting a confederate of his, and they offer Pablo his life in exchange for giving up the whereabouts of this Ramon Gris. “His life had no more value than mine; no life had value,” Pablo muses. “They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference.” Impulsively, almost whimsically, he directs them to a cemetery as a bogus location: “It was a farce. I wanted to see them stand up, buckle their belts and give orders busily.”

Except … unbeknownst to Pablo, Ramon Gris had just moved his hiding place to that very cemetery. For reasons as nonsensical as Ibbieta’s own initial condemnation, his life is swapped for Gris’s at the last moment.

* Specifically, according to Sartre, Self-Formation, and Masculinities, after a student asked for help sneaking into Spain to fight the fascists.

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1992: Johnny Frank Garrett, “kiss my ass because I’m innocent”

14 comments February 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett was executed by lethal injection, with the tart last words,

“I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”

Although Garrett was only 17 at the time a nun from a neighboring Amarillo convent was raped and murdered, and he may have qualified as developmentally disabled to boot — both factors that today would exclude him from execution — that whole innocence story didn’t have much public traction.

“No, no, not at all,” New Mexico attorney Jesse Quackenbush told this site in an interview. “He was villainized from day one: he was a nun-murderer who needed to be executed. The only sympathy really came from the Pope.”

But two decades on, Garrett’s dying profession is one of the more troublesome skeletons in the Texas execution machine’s closet, thanks in no small part to Quackenbush himself.

Quackenbush directed the documentary The Last Word (viewable free on Netflix), a powerful brief not only for Garrett’s innocence* but against the comprehensive rot of the system that shunted hm off this mortal coil — from the front-line investigators all the way through the Lone Star State’s intentionally broken executive clemency farce.

“It was a system-wide failure that caused this kid to die. It wasn’t just the legal system,” Quackenbush said. “The media played a part. The governor was looking more to her own re-election hopes.* There was a dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court wasn’t morally deep enough to realize that executing 17-year-olds and ‘mentally retarded’ prisoners was wrong. There’s the system in Texas that allowed the prosecutors to hand-pick the pathologists to provide junk science.

“It’s a multifaceted failure, and no one facet is more to blame than the others.”

Garrett, a white teenager, disappeared into a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth, after the alleged supernatural vision of a local soothsayer acclaimed him the culprit in the murder of a nun named Tadea Benz. Corporeal indicia of guilt falls somewhere between circumstantial and laughable: fingerprints in a convent he had visited many times, the inevitable jailhouse snitch, and an unrecorded supposed “confession” that Garrett refused to sign.

As in a preponderance of death cases, especially in Texas (pdf), a meek and all-but-unfunded defense team offered scant resistance as prosecutors made the most of this eminently disputable evidence: once the one-sided trial was in the books and the crucial direct appeals likewise slipped past, the proceedings lay beyond the reach of judicial review.

This novel is inspired by the Garrett case.

For all that, there yet remains one un-litigated piece of evidence.

Around the time of Sister Benz’s death, there was another rape-murder of another elderly Amarillo woman, a crime that authorities publicly described as “too similar” to the Benz case not to be part of the same crime spree.

That case went unsolved … but years after Garrett’s execution, DNA databases matched an old semen sample from that second crime to a Cuban rapist (he was among the criminals and undesirables that Castro expelled to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift) named Leoncio Perez Rueda.

Suggestive.

More dispositive evidence in the form of still-testable crime scene samples may yet reside in Amarillo’s evidence lockers — semen and blood samples that, in the era of DNA, Quackenbush thinks would exonerate Johnny Frank Garrett.

If testing this sort of thing sounds like a no-brainer, you don’t work for Amarillo.

“The [Garrett] family offered the city of Amarillo complete civic immunity and they still refused to run a DNA test, and threatened to countersue** if the family tried to pursue it,” Quackenbush says. “In the state of Texas there are still only laws protecting DNA access for living people: if you’re already executed, you have no rights.”

Which is a particular pity — since “the chances of executing innocent people are still really high.”

* Quackenbush’s case for Garrett’s innocence is outlined in this legal memo (pdf). This site maintains an extensive archive of resources about the case.

** In this, it’s not unlike the Ruben Cantu case, where post-execution evidence of innocence has also been met with legal threats by the state.

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1794: Jacques Roux, the Red Priest, cheats the guillotine

Add comment February 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French Revolution firebrand Jacques Roux committed suicide to avoid execution during the Terror.

Roux was a Catholic vicar on the eve of the Revolution, and “of the many priests who had left the church to join the Revolution none was more articulate and socially aware.”

He became a leading exponent of the radical enragés, a faction that really took the Revolution’s purported egalite to heart.

In early 1793, Roux was an official representative to the execution of Louis XVI — one can read his minimalistic report here; knowing that Roux was a priest, Louis tried to press him for some spiritual aid, and was rebuffed. “I am only here,” Roux answered icily, “to lead you to the scaffold.”

The man’s invective against the merchant classes packed considerably more heat.

Roux’s Manifesto of the Enrages minced no words:

Freedom is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like. The republic is nothing but a vain phantom when the counter-revolution can operate every day through the price of commodities, which three quarters of all citizens cannot afford without shedding tears.

For the last four years the rich alone have profited from the advantages of the Revolution. The merchant aristocracy, more terrible than that of the noble and sacerdotal aristocracy, has made a cruel game of invading individual fortunes and the treasury of the republic; we still don’t know what will be the term of their exactions, for the price of merchandise rises in a frightful manner, from morning to evening.

Unfavorably contrasting the new haves with the ancien regime is the sort of thing that gets you into trouble in a bourgeois revolution.

Burdened by multiple wars, and then by poor harvests, France’s economy was a mess. Later that same year, Paris’s urban poor, the sans-culottes, invaded the Convention to force anti-hoarding and price control measures. Roux didn’t create that situation: he just had the nerve to risk his neck talking about it.

But by then, that prim ascetic Robespierre had already begun hounding Roux. He would hound him to his death.

Kropotkin‘s anarchist history, The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, valorizes the courageous former priest. In Kropotkin’s narration, we find Roux ordered transferred out of ordinary police court to the Revolutionary Tribunal on some spurious charge of financial impropriety.*

Knowing what that meant, Roux stabbed himself in court thrice with a knife. The president of the court hastened to his assistance and displayed much friendliness towards him, even giving him the kiss of civic brotherhood, before he was removed to the Bicetre prison. In the prison infirmary Roux “tried to exhaust his strength,” as it was reported to the procurator of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, by opening his wounds; and finally he succeeded in stabbing himself once more, this time mortally, through the lung.

In terms of present-day iconographic potential, the French Revolution probably did not produce a more outstanding radical leftist; Roux’s direct critique of economic power clearly marks him as a forerunner of subsequent generations’ communist and anarchist movements … as well as even more contemporary voices.


(cc) image from Elentari86.

And undoubtedly, Roux’s project remained (and remains) unfinished. Surveying the scene after the Terror, Roux’s onetime ally Jean-Francois Varlet remarked, “In my country there has only been a change of dress.”

There’s more of Roux’s writing on Marxists.org.

* A much more serious graft charge would likewise be deployed to topple Danton.

Longtime readers may recall that this post was briefly (and mistakenly) up on this date in 2011. Oops.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Cheated the Hangman,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Not Executed,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries

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