Archive for July, 2013

356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

3 comments July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herostratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”


The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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1813: Johann Christian Claudius Devaranne

Add comment July 20th, 2013 Headsman

Two centuries ago today, Johann Christian Claudius Devaranne got himself shot for resisting Napoleon’s draft in Germany.

The Corsican had fallen back following the debacle of occupying Moscow, but the attempts of Napoleon-allied forces to recoup dwindling numbers by conscription provoked fierce resistance in Solingen — where the draft board was driven out and recruiting materials destroyed.

This little flare-up goes by the excellent title of the “Russian Truncheon Insurgency,” but it soon ran into the bayonets of Napoleon’s German partners. On January 30, 1813, a week after draft riots first erupted, troops began suppressing it. Devaranne, a 29-year-old father of five, was seen as a leader in the resistance and a price put out on his head … a price his own maid collected when the fugitive innkeeper was reckless enough to sleep at home one night.

He was tried and shot at Dusseldorf months later, during a lull in the year’s bloody campaign season.

For the 120th anniversary of Devaranne’s execution — which was also six months into Adolf Hitler’s Chancellorship — Solingen dedicated a memorial plaque to Devaranne, claiming his nationalist martyrdom as its own.

“It is no accident that precisely the Third Reich celebrates the memory of this hero. The same spirit which animated Devaranne, animates our SA as well,” said the city’s Lord Mayor. (There was an SA honor guard on hand for the occasion.) “Then as now, we revolt against repression, then against the Corsican, today the SA’s revolution against the Marxists. We need the memory of our heroes to redirect us to their spirit in dark hours.”

The plaque went missing after the war, but Devaranne still has a street named after him in Solingen.

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1909: Dervish Vahdeti, for the 31 March Incident

Add comment July 19th, 2013 Headsman

EXECUTIONS IN CONSTANTINOPLE

(From our own correspondent.)

CONSTANTINOPLE July 19.

Cherkess Mehmet Pasha, popularly known as Kaba Sakal — i.e., “twisted beard,” the torturer and former aide-de-camp of [Sultan] Abdul Hamid, Yusuf Pasha, Commandant of Erzerum, the Dervish Vahdeti, chief of the Jemiyeti Mohammadeieh, Hakki Bey, the notorious spy, and eight officers and soldiers who took part in the recent mutiny, were publicly executed at dawn.

London Times, July 20, 1909

The Ottoman Empire in 1908 experienced the Young Turk Revolution, curbing the power of the sultan in a brief constitutional-monarchy era that would take the foundering state through the First World War.

Unsurprisingly, the reigning, formerly-supreme monarch was nonplussed at this brake on executive authority.

He backed the 31 Mart Vakasi, or 31 March Incident,* a counter-coup by conservative and Islamist elements in Istanbul to overthrow the Young Turks and re-establish the sultan’s power. Already the Porte was resorting to an assertion of Islamic political identity to hold the “sick man of Europe” together — and already that had resulted in some appalling atrocities.

For a few days the rightists, incited by Dervish Vahdeti, had Istanbul in hand. Vahdeti was a 40-year-old Cypriot who published Volkan, an Islamist newspaper in Istanbul; the 31 March Incident is sometimes also known as the Revolt of Dervish Vahdeti. (Biographical details source)

Once again, Armenian blood flowed. News of the revolt triggered an attack by Turks in the Anatolian city of Adana upon that city’s Armenian Christians. The resulting Adana Massacre claimed 15,000 to 30,000 lives throughout the Adana province.

Indeed, the Adana massacre quite outlasted the counter-coup, resulting in going debate over the extent to which the Young Turks themselves blessed the pogroms. These guys had their own fraught relations with Turkey’s Armenians; of course, they’d eventually have the Armenian genocide to answer for.

As for the event at hand, Second Army Corps and Third Army Corps dispatched Dervish Vahdeti’s revolt with ease. These units still loyal to the Young Turks reached Istanbul from Salonika within days of the uprising. (Among their number was the 27-year-old Mustafa Kemal — later known as Ataturk, the founding statesman of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey.)

The mutiny collapsed with little effective resistance upon this Macedonian intervention, and the military had the run of the place — not for sack but for a severe clamp-down on the Islamic party. According to Nader Sohrabi, “some two hundred movement participants were hanged en masse, on row after row of scaffolds erected in public space by the order of military courts” in the crackdown.

The 74 constitutionalist soldiers who died to put down the 31 March Incident are honored at a Monument of Liberty in Istanbul.

* The Ottomans were on the Julian calendar-based Rumi calendar, so March 31 in Istanbul corresponded to April 13 in western Europe. Similarly, this date’s hangings took place on July 6, not July 19, per the local Turkish date.

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2003: Lehlohonolo Bernard Kobedi

4 comments July 18th, 2013 Headsman

Ten years ago today, Botswana controversially hanged a South African national named Lehlohonolo Bernard Kobedi.

Kobedi was one of three men in a vehicle whose shootout with pursuing police left Sergeant Kebotsetswe Goepamang dead in the village of Palapye in 1993; despite insisting that the lethal bullet was not his, Kobedi was condemned for the homicide.

He resided thereafter on death row in relative obscurity. He was there in December 1999 when white South African emigre Mariette Bosch was sentenced to die, and he was still there 16 months later when she hanged. Bosch’s high-profile case, to hear Kobedi’s lawyer explain it, cast a pall over her client.

“I think it was at that very moment he started feeling that execution was a reality,” Themba Joina* told South African press. “You can imagine what he went through on realising that even international pressure and threats could not save Bosch.”

Kobedi would not enjoy such publicity. “The foreign media were only concerned about Bosch because she is white. Since she was hanged, we don’t see cameras in Botswana anymore,” Joina said.

Even so, he fought zealously for his client. Supported by the Botswana human rights organization DITSHWANELO, Joina mounted (pdf) both a claim of Kobedi’s actual innocence and a challenge to the constitutionality of Botswana’s death penalty. The country’s high court turned him down early in 2003.

It must have been a terrible ordeal for Kobedi. Packed four to a cell, and bracing every morning for the prospect of a sudden execution, the South African was finally put to death in secrecy the morning of July 18, 2003.

“I got cold. I had no hope at all,” one of his cellmates remembered of the hanging-day. But it’s a narrow space between life and death, and this fellow with only one frightening degree of separation from the gallows was the very next week cleared of his charges and released.

* Joina also happens to preside over a Marxist political party.

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1903: Dora Wright, in Indian Territory

2 comments July 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Dora Wright was hanged at McAlester in Indian Territory — the present-day U.S. state of Oklahoma.

Wright beat and tortured to death a 7-year-old orphan in her charge named Annie Williams. Wright tormented the little girl over several months until she finally succumbed to a thrashing in February 1903. It was, the local paper said, “the most horrible and outrageous” crime in memory in the area; Wright’s jury only needed 20 minutes’ deliberation to condemn her.

As Oklahoma was yet four years shy of statehood, “Indian Territory” jurisdiction — and with it any decision on executive clemency — fell to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The inclination of the Rough Rider is aptly conveyed by the words of Attorney General Philander Knox‘s brief on the case to the President, which were released for press consumption:

The real facts in this case are that this woman tortured to death a little child seven years old, her niece, whom she was pretending to care for and support. She whipped the child most unmercifully with large switches, struck it about the hand and face so as to cause wounds sufficient to produce death, burned holes in its legs and thighs with a heated poker, and committed other nameless atrocities upon the person of the child. The testimony shows that the woman pursued a course of cruelty which was fiendish and barbarous … The only ground upon which her pardon is sought is that she is a woman, and that the infliction of the death penalty upon a woman would be a shock to the moral sense of the people in the community.

T.R. was incredulous at the feminine special pleading.

“If that woman was mean enough to do a thing like that,” Roosevelt said, “she ought to have the nerve to meet her punishment.”

Wright did have that nerve in the end, and was noted for the calm with which she comported herself on the scaffold. (She was hanged alongside another fellow, Charles Barrett, who shot a man dead in a robbery.)


From the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, July 18, 1903.

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1793: Joseph Chalier, Jacobin martyr

3 comments July 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Joseph Chalier was guillotined in Lyon(s).

Chalier (English Wikipedia entry | French*), a knockabout silk merchants’ agent from Lyon, oddly became that city’s exemplary Jacobin fire-eater and the leading spirit in its Jacobin clubs. He was elected to the Lyon municipal council in 1792, and while in Paris even took part in the August 10, 1792 insurrection deposing Louis XVI.

Lyon, France’s “second city” and the hub of a considerable silk-weaving industry, was not nearly so amenable as Paris to the French Revolution’s radicals: indeed, the wartime anathema most of Europe had laid upon regicidal France devastated the weaving trade, and the particular grievances of established silk weaver artisans were here advanced but there complicated by the advent of the Revolution.**

Consequently, liberal Girondins, merchant elites, some craftsmen, and even outright royalists made a formidable coalition checking radical Jacobins in municipal politics. (Chalier even warned the National Assembly of this dynamic.)

Jacobins could never quite get political control of the city, until political crisis toppled the Lyon government in March 1793 and finally put Chalier et al in the saddle. (They immediately erected a public guillotine, of course.)

Their brief ascendancy expired 80 days later, when a municipal revolt put Chalier and his allies in chains, and reasserted more moderate control — just as the moderate Gironde was being expelled from the National Convention. After terse negotiations between Lyon and Paris hit a quick impasse, Lyon guillotined Chalier. “My death will cost this city dear,” Chalier warned his tribunal.

The next month, it lay under a terrible siege by the central government.

In the aftermath of that conquest, the Committee of Public Safety ruthlessly suppressed the seditious Lyonnaise, even going so far as to decree (without effect) the forfeit of the city’s very name — henceforward to be known as Ville-Affranchie, the Liberated City.

Hastening to the city and then hastening back to make political hay of the bloodbath, Committee of Public Safety member Collot d’Herbois “sent to Paris — over and against Robespierre‘s religion — quite another god, a horrible fetish, the head of Chalier, thrice crushed by the Girondin blade.”† This ghastly relic was then paraded in triumph in Paris for Collot d’Herbois’s heroic homecoming, its former owner apotheosized into the Revolution’s martyrs’ pantheon alongside Marat.

As a result, one can still today see porcelain busts of Chalier, of the type widely manufactured in early 1794 for posturing in churches, homes, civic clubs, and anywhere else a display of conspicuous patriotic sentiment might be advisable.


Chalier’s bust. By David Monniaux (self photo) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

* One of the best biographical resources on Chalier is an 1887 French scholarly article available (for free) from JSTOR.

** See David Longfellow, “Silk Weavers and the Social Struggle in Lyon during the French Revolution, 1789-1794” in French Historical Studies, Spring 1981. Despite the title, this article also explicates the background of labor dynamics in the Lyon silk industry and its history of class conflict going back to the 17th century.

Jules Michelet, quoted by Chantal Thomas and David F. Bell in “Terror in Lyon”, SubStance, Vol. 27, No. 2, Issue 86: Special Issue: Reading Violence (1998).

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1883: Leoncio Prado, for defending his homeland

1 comment July 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Leoncio Prado Gutierrez (English Wikipedia entry | the very much more extensive Spanish) was shot by the Chileans during the War of the Pacific.

Prado’s father, Manuel Ignacio Prado, was twice the president of Peru (1865-1868,* 1876-1879).

As a military man (Prado’s first presidency was as outright dictator), the old man naturally had his son on a soldierly track as well. Leoncio was all of 12 years old when he took part in the Battle of Callao in 1866, defending that city against a Spanish bombardment during the Chincha Islands War.

That war saw Peru and Chile cooperating against Spain, after the latter seized a lucrative cluster of guano islands.

But different resource rivalries put the two former allies at loggerheads in 1879. When Peru nationalized saltpeter mining in the border province of Tarapaca — dispossessing Chilean interests — and Bolivia took similar measures, the countries fought the three-way War of the Pacific, also known as the Saltpeter War.

Chile would win the war decisively, dramatically reshaping Latin America in the process. Peru lost most of Tarapaca to Chile, devastating Peru’s saltpeter industry and provoking a generation of instability and social crisis. Bolivia fared even worse, losing its only littoral province to Chile: Bolivia remains landlocked to this day.

So it’s safe to say that there was something at stake worth fighting for as hostilities commenced.

By this time Leoncio Prado was 26, and a veteran of the intervening years’ Cuban war for independence from Spain.

As the Saltpeter War got underway, Prado returned from the United States where he was preparing an expedition to help Philippines separatists, and formed a guerrilla force. Though this corps had its highlight moments, it was overwhelmed in a scrap with Chilean regulars in July 1880 and Prado taken prisoner.

Considering his lineage and his exploits, he was an honored captive for the Chileans who repeatedly offered to release him on his honor not to take up arms again.

Prado refused these offers for some time, but he finally accepted his parole at the start of 1882 — a low ebb for Peruvian fortunes, for his father had been deposed by a coup and 1881-82 saw leadership of the country violently contested. Prado’s only thought, notwithstanding his pledge to Chile, was for the defense of his country and he rallied another party of guerrillas to his banner. “The enemy’s bullets do not kill,” he cried. “For to die for the fatherland is to live in immortal glory!”

That has proved to be the case for Prado, who certainly stood out from the politicians of his time for his patriotic heroism.

Captured during the decisive Chilean victory at the Battle of Huamachuco where a grenade shattered his thigh, the crippled Prado was regretfully executed in his bed for having broken his previous parole by resuming arms in the fight.

“We were all crying — all but Pradito,” recalled the Chilean captain tasked with overseeing the nasty business.

Six years after Prado’s execution, his aged father — the ex-president — sired yet another son, Manuel Prado Ugarteche. That son would also go on to hold the Peruvian presidency. While in office, he christened the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, an institution distinguished in literature as the setting for the Mario Vargas Llosa novel The Time of the Hero

* Prado pere was ousted from his first turn at the helm of state — a dictatorship — by Jose Balta, whose sad fate has adorned these macabre pages.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Peru,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1584: Balthasar Gerard, assassin of William the Silent

1 comment July 14th, 2013 dogboy

“If you succeed in your enterprise, the King will fulfill all his promises, and you will gain an immortal name besides.”

Christoffel d’Assonleville, to Balthasar Gérard

After 4 days of torture, on this date in 1584, Balthasar Gérard (Geeraerts) finally met his end by beheading on the wheel.

Gérard managed to be both historically important and wholly forgettable: an assassin working for Spain against the Netherlands, his regicide was met with a predictably stiff punishment. Then, no fault of his own, the subsequent course of history** pushed the assassin into obscurity while elevating his prey.

A lawyer by trade, Gérard was a fervent Catholic and supporter of the Spanish crown, which controlled the territory up the coast through the present-day Netherlands. At the peak of its power, Spain’s monarchy — led by King Philip II — had significant cause for concern at the rise in Protestantism.

The Spanish were Europe’s paladins of staunch Catholicism, and the sight of her troops did little to endear Spain to her colonized neighbors to the North.

For both religious reasons and political ones, the Dutch were looking for a way out from under the Spanish thumb, and a former noble named William, Duke of Orange, was a major instigator in the struggle. In his collected letters and addresses from the period, An apology or defence of William the First of Nassau, William states that, starting in 1559, he became increasingly concerned with plans against Protestants by the Spanish monarchy.

That also happens to be the year William was bestowed with stadtholdership of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht; in effect, he controlled the Dutch coast.

Though he was known as William the Silent, the Duke was endowed with both financial resources and widespread popularity, and he didn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to Inquisition courts in his realms.†

When the head enforcer of that policy, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, left town, William got even noisier — declaring before the Council of State that Spanish policies were squelching religious freedom.

In 1566, the nobleman signed onto the Compromise of Nobles and began funding insurgencies across the northern provinces. As religious unrest grew, Calvinists and Protestants in the French and Germanic portions of Spain’s holdings quickly formed up behind William. An early attempt in 1568 to invade the Netherlands using German mercenaries and French Huguenots failed, but the resultant executions of Egmont and Hoorn put Spain on a long and winding road toward defeat.

The Dutch War was afoot, with William leading the way.

It would take and dozens of small-scale military victories over the next 15 years (during which William declared himself a Calvinist and fully broke his Spanish ties) for the Dutch to move to independence. The 1580 Union of Utrecht and 1581 Act of Abjuration officially ousted King Phillip II from the Netherlands and installed a new government.

Needless to say, Phillip reciprocated William’s love.

In 1580, Spain’s top man put a price on William’s head. Juan de Jáuregui tried to collect two years later by shooting the stadtholder, but the man holding the new title of Prince William I of Nassau recovered, while de Jáuregui was killed on the spot.

With 25,000 crowns at stake, there were bound to be other takers.

Our man Balthasar Gérard started looking for a close encounter with William the Target. At first, he joined the army in Luxembourg, which didn’t get him very far. It was time to gin up a real plot, which Gérard shopped to the Duke of Parma, Alessandro Farnese, in April 1584. Though the Duke offered no funding for the operation — Gérard ponied up the startup money he needed for the trip — and held out little hope that the lawyer would be successful, he gave Gérard assurances that his family would be taken care of in case of disaster.

Gérard first presented himself to William in June as the son of a martyred Calvinist from France. On 8 July, he returned and, badly in need of new clothes, managed to beg 50 crowns for a new set.

Instead, he bought a pair of pistols and, on 10 July, made history with a point-blank shot to William’s chest.


Detail view (click for the full image) of William the Silent’s 1585 assassination at the hands of Balthasar Gerard.

This assassination attempt didn’t fail. William became the second head of state to be killed by an assassin’s bullet,† — and his shooter the first such man to be juridically punished for the deed.

And, oh, how he was punished.

The regicide was beaten immediately after his capture, then subjected to a variety of cruelties, from wet leather boots which, when heated, both crushed and burned the feet, to daily floggings while hanging on a post outside the jail.

But on this day, his time of torture was up, and Gérard was finally put to death. You know, the usual:

It was decreed the right hand of Gerard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disembowelled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.


Gerard’s execution.

For all that he suffered as a regicide, Gérard left his family an impressive inheritance. Making good Parma’s assurances, King Phillip II gave them William’s former lands in three French provinces and took his siblings and their issue into his peerage.

Gérard’s cause carried on for another 60 years, until it was finally extinguished by the signing of the Peace of Münster by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Spain.

* Foucault mistakenly identifies the torture as lasting 18 days, and the additional details he lays down for Gérard’s time on death row may be less-than-believable. However, all sources indicate that the tortures Gérard endured were quite spectacular, even by the standards of the day.

** See Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries for a complete treatment of this period in The Netherlands and Belgium.

† For example, the city of Antwerp (Belgium), then under possession of the Spanish crown and considered the mercantile center of Europe for its vast sugar trade, featured over 100 executions for heresy from 1557-1562, twice as many as in all of Spain during that time.

‡ The first was James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, then Regent of Scotland. Stewart’s shooter, James Hamilton, escaped into exile, though others of the Hamilton clan answered for the murder.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Lawyers,Murder,Netherlands,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1955: Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England

3 comments July 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Albert Pierrepoint escorted the alluringly tragic Ruth Ellis to the gallows at Holloway Prison — the last woman ever hanged in Great Britain.

The former hostess had tracked her inconstant and abusive lover David Blakely to a Hampstead pub a few months before — getting the ride, and the murder weapon, from her unrequited hanger-on Desmond Cussen — and shot Blakely dead on the street. Five bullets: the last, a coup de grace. (Another missed entirely and winged a passerby.)

A bitterly controversial case from the moment it entered the public eye, Ellis’s hanging bolstered the movement to abolish Britain’s death penalty. Juridically, however, it was resolved in the blink of an eye when a crown’s attorney cross-examined the murderess:

Christmas Humphreys: Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?

Ellis: It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.

Book CoverThe jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.

We’re pleased to mark this anniversary with Carol Ann Lee, author of a recent biography A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story. (Here’s a review. Also check out two long pieces Lee wrote about Ruth Ellis for the Daily Mail: 1, 2)

ET: I think at a certain point in time, everyone in Great Britain would have known who Ruth Ellis was, and quite a few abroad, too. How true is that still, nearing 60 years after her execution?

I think her name is still quite familiar, to be honest.

When I began researching the book, everyone I discussed it with either already knew the very basic facts of Ruth’s story, and at the very least that she was the last woman to be hanged in England. The 1985 biopic Dance with a Stranger left a big impression too, even though it wasn’t entirely faithful to Ruth’s character, making her seem much more hysterical a personality than she actually was, although I thought Miranda Richardson was brilliant in the role — as she always is!

What led you to the Ruth Ellis story?

I’ve always been interested in Ruth and that period in history — and I vividly remember going to see ‘Dance with a Stranger’ when it came out in the cinemas here. But it always struck me that her full story had never been told, particularly the last few months of her life after she shot David Blakely. And a couple of years ago there was quite an intense debate about bringing back capital punishment; Ruth’s name was always mentioned in relation to that particular argument, and I really felt it was time to explore her whole story.

What are the greatest misconceptions people have of her? Have her previous biographies and screen portrayals fed those misconceptions?

Without doubt, many people see Ruth as she was shown in ‘Dance with a Stranger’ — very screechy, out of control and violently jealous.

I think it’s true to say that she and David were both deeply jealous of each other (both giving the other reason to be so), but Ruth was not as hysterical as she was portrayed in the film. In fact, it was quite the opposite — the men were hysterical and it was Ruth who usually vented a sort of quiet fury. There is one scene in the film which shows her smashing the windows of David’s car and screaming in the street. Reading the original police statement about that night reveals a very different story; she was described as very calm and rational. There was no screaming, and although she did damage the vehicle, it was not remotely as it was shown in the film.

I think other adaptations have also done her a disservice. Ironically, probably the most accurate portrayal is in the film ‘Pierrepoint,’ where the character of Ruth appears for no more than a minute or two on screen.

I get the sense that Ruth was always running uphill against her class position, trying to climb a little higher than she could reach — right up to the end where her lover is a well-off cad and the rivals for the lover’s affection are his middle-class friends. What role did England’s class relations have in Ruth Ellis’s life and death, and in the way that others perceived her? Do they still shape the way we talk about her all these years later?

Class and politics played a huge role in Ruth’s life generally.

England was distinctly class-led at the time and when the case hit the headlines, she was described as a working-class floozie who attached herself to the upper-class David Blakely purely in order to hoist herself up the class ladder.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth; if she was only interested in using men to better herself socially, she would surely have married her sometime-lover Desmond Cussen, who was a much steadier prospect with money and property and who wanted very much to marry her. Ruth worked hard to better herself but she didn’t use the men she loved to do so.

And when it came to her trial, the class values of the time were heavy in the courtroom with the male barristers and judge and so on all very much men of the upper classes — and who viewed her accordingly. I hope we have got beyond all that nonsense now — but it does add a very distinct dimension to discussions of her case.

She was working as a hostess when she met David Blakely. What would a hostess do, who worked in this trade, and who were the clientele? Was it usual for “real” relationships to evolve? Do people still have this job in the same form as Ruth had it?

Hostessing in the clubs in which Ruth worked was quite straightforward — or it should have been, but there was Morris Conley to contend with, and he was quite a character.

Ruth’s basic job description was to look good and to chat to customers (mostly men) in the clubs, laugh at their jokes and keep them buying food and drink for as long as possible. Most hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, working-class girls who thought the lifestyle was more glamorous than toiling in a factory or in a shop.

They were usually paid badly and relied on tips to make ends meet, but were given a dress allowance so that they could look as alluring as possible. The clientele mainly consisted of demobbed servicemen who suddenly seemed to have lost their attractiveness to women after the war — where once they had been heroes, by the late 1940s many of them were down on their luck and working as door-to-door salesmen, very lonely and eager to talk to pretty young girls about their war exploits.

The girls who worked for Morris Conley, like Ruth, were expected to sleep with the clients if that was asked of them, and often had to sleep with ‘Morrie’ and his less than respectable friends too. Many of them were very poor young women who lived in flats owned by Conley and his wife — and if they didn’t toe the line, they lost their jobs and their homes in one fell swoop.

Did real relationships evolve? Yes, they did, but very rarely. There are girls all over the world doing very similar jobs today — from London to Japan and everywhere in between too, no doubt.

You have this quote from Ruth about David Blakely: ‘I thought the world of him; I put him on the highest of pedestals. He could do nothing wrong and I trusted him implicitly.’ Ruth had an alcoholic, abusive father, and then she had two children from marriages with two different men that both fell apart — one from bigamy and abandonment, the second from alcoholism and domestic violence. Blakely himself cheated on her. Why wasn’t she more cynical about Blakely? If you take away the tragic ending to this particular relationship, was something like this a pattern she was doomed to keep repeating ad infinitum?

She loved him — it’s really as simple as that.

Although she obviously had a good degree of self-awareness and knew what David was and always would be, she truly loved him and for a time believed they had a future together. As for a pattern — I don’t know. Perhaps if she had met one good, steady man to whom she was attracted as much as she was to David, her life — and David’s too of course — might have been very different.

I’m going to phrase this inelegantly: what is the DEAL with Desmond Cussen?

Good question! I really think that he was as confused and tormented by everything that was happening as a result of Ruth’s and David’s relationship as Ruth herself.

I think he did love Ruth, and he tried hard to make things work with her, but he knew her heart was with David. His apparent lack of self-respect and backbone is baffling — quite why he kept ferrying her across London and out to Buckinghamshire in pursuit of David is a bit mystifying. I did question in the book why no one seemed to query his state of mind as much as Ruth’s — and as to whether he gave her the gun or not, knowing what she intended to do … I am sure he did, even though he must have known where it would end for Ruth herself.

Perhaps he hoped that with David out of the way, she would be reprieved and they could then have a life together. But I really don’t know!

Ruth’s legal defence was legendarily feeble. That said, I’m very interested in the barrister’s attempt to frame its insanity defense around feminine hysteria — “the effect of jealousy upon a female mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.” This was bound to be undermined by Ruth’s own calm and the statements about her intent to kill that she gave to police and in court. Was it the case that the law at the time didn’t have the instruments to situate Ruth’s context and state of mind, other than hysterical/not? Or could an abler barrister have presented a different story?

I think part of the difficulty is obviously that the defence of diminished responsibility was not introduced in the courts here until 1957 — largely as a direct result of this particular case.

Ruth’s lawyers tried to argue this as a defence for her to some extent, but it just wasn’t possible legally. That said, I think they served her quite badly and didn’t bring out so much that might have enabled the jury to see her crime in context. There was no mention of the abuse in her childhood, no mention of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and very little said about David’s own brutal treatment of her.

But Ruth herself did not seem to care much what happened in the courtroom, once it became evident that the story as she saw it — David’s friends having, in her view, deliberately destroyed the relationship between them — was not going to come to light. She gave up, and volunteered nothing that could have helped her, minimizing the violence to which she had been subjected and dismissing most of the questions put to her in a short sentence or two.

She also infamously replied to the prosecution’s question of what she intended to do when she set out to find David with the gun, “It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That one line completely sealed her fate.

Despite all this, the public did seem to be shocked by Ruth Ellis’s hanging, and it’s supposed to have boosted the anti-death penalty campaign. If one may phrase it this way, were people shocked for the right reasons? How much did the symbolic “Ruth Ellis” that even her supporters among the general public had in view have to do with the real person as you understand her?

I think any case is always immeasurably more complex than it is presented in newspaper columns and headlines.

I think, again, the outcry at her execution has to be seen in context — people were becoming more and more opposed to the death penalty and there had been some very high-profile, contentious cases that really did cause a great deal of debate, anger, and distress: the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 and of Derek Bentley in 1953 for instance (both of whom were posthumously pardoned).

The fact that Ruth was a young, attractive, lively woman with two small children caused many people to question the validity of capital punishment. It was her death on the scaffold that gave the abolition movement its emotional spur.

What became of Ruth Ellis’s body after her hanging? And what became of her family and the others who were part of the story?

Ruth was buried in the confines of Holloway Prison after her execution, sharing her unmarked grave with four other women who had been hanged there. In 1971, when the prison was demolished and rebuilt, her body was released to her son for burial.

He had hoped to lay his mother to rest alongside David Blakely at the Holy Trinity churchyard in Penn but the vicar there would not allow it. Ruth was instead buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Amersham, a few miles away.

As to what became of her family: her son Andre (who was ten when Ruth was executed) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a very young man and never came to terms with the loss of his mother. He committed suicide in 1982. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, had quite a colourful life, becoming a successful model who was in the newspapers fairly often as part of the George Best ‘set.’ She married and had children and worked hard to win a posthumous pardon for her mother, of whom she spoke often. She died of cancer at the age of only 50.

As for Desmond Cussen: he emigrated to Australia and opened a flower shop there. He never married and became an alcoholic, dying in Perth on 8 May 1991 of pneumonia and organ failure following a fracture dislocation of the neck in a fall at his home.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Sex,Women

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1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard

12 comments July 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Manfred Smolka was guillotined in Leipzig.

Smolka was among three million East Germans or more who escaped over the border to West Germany in the 16 years after the defeat of the Nazis divided the country.

In the earliest years, people sluiced over the long border just anywhere. By Smolka’s time, that perimeter was buffered by an “internal border” that made it difficult for ordinary people to approach near enough to West Germany to escape. Consequently, most emigration by the the late 1950s occurred in the divided city of Berlin — a flow that East Germany would finally stanch in 1961 with the ultimate in immigration reform, the Berlin Wall.


One of the Cold War’s iconic photographs: East Berlin border guard Conrad Schumann leaps over the barbed-wire barrier into West Berlin on Aug. 15, 1961, just days after construction of the Berlin Wall began.

Like that more famous later escapee, Manfred Smolka (German link, as are most that follow) was a border guard; indeed, he was an officer. That gave him the ability, in 1958, to be far enough within the “internal border” to defect into West Germany

The very next year, he arranged to meet his abandoned wife and daughter on the Bavaria-Thuringia frontier to smuggle them over, too. Alas, it was a trap (pdf) laid by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi.


Happier times: Manfred Smolka with his wife and child.

According to press reports, Smolka was actually on West German soil when the Stasi men captured him.* (The Stasi were often up for a bit of kidnapping.)

West Germans were outraged by Smolka’s capture and subsequent death sentence for “military espionage,” but the case was deemed an apt one for the education of East Germany’s border security agents.

Only with post-Cold War German reunification could his family examine his file. “I am innocent, I can prove it a hundred times,” they read in the last letter the onetime defector wrote to his family — a letter which had never been delivered. “You need not be ashamed of me.” In 1993, a reunified, post-Cold War Germany officially agreed and posthumously rehabilitated Manfred Smolka.

There’s a few minutes of documentary video about him, in German, here.

* By a July 5, 1960 account in the London Times, Smolka was shot at and wounded as he crossed into East Germany but still managed to “crawl” back to West Germany — where his pursuers did not fear to follow him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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