Author Archive

1823: Giles East

Add comment January 20th, 2019 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1823, Giles East was hanged for the rape of a girl, Sarah Potter, who was under ten years of age.

In spite of the difference in ages, the sixteen-year-old East cohabitated with Sarah’s forty-five-year-old mother, who was also called Sarah, and was named in some accounts as her husband.

The elder Sarah stood beside her husband in the dock as an accessory after the fact; she had allegedly tried to cover up the crime. However, writes Martin Baggoley of this case in his book Surrey Executions: A Complete List of those Hanged in the County during the Nineteenth Century:

Part way into the trial the judge, Baron Graham, apparently unable to believe that any mother would act in such a manner directed that she be discharged. The judge had been especially moved when the victim described her mother crying when she learnt of the crime.

There was an expectation that East would be reprieved because of his youth and it was widely reported that the foreman of the Grand Jury, Grey Bennet MP, who had found the bill against East, had made a strong appeal to the Government on his behalf. However, he issued a statement strongly denying this and added he thought it inconceivable that any member of the Grand Jury would make such an appeal. Furthermore, he suggested that although a strong opponent of capital punishment, he had never known a case of greater atrocity.

East was hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rape

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1786: Five men at York Castle, under the “Bloody Code”

1 comment August 19th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1786, five young men were hanged together before a large crowd in front of York Castle. They were William Nicholson, John Charlesworth, James Braithwaite, William Sharp and William Bamford.

William Knipe’s Criminal chronology of York castle; with a register of criminals capitally convicted and executed at the County assizes, commencing March 1st, 1379, to the present time records,

The above were all executed at Tyburn without Micklegate Bar.

Nicholson, aged 27, labourer, for stealing two geldings, the property of Robert Athorpe Esq., of Dinnington. Thomas Whitfield, Mr. Athorpe’s man, was the principal witness against him.

John Charlesworth, of Liversedge, clothier, for breaking into the house of Susan Lister, of Little Gomersal, single woman, and stealing various articles of trifling value; also further charged with stopping William Hemmingway, of Mirfield, clothier, and robbing him of three guineas and a half and some silver and copper. He was 21 years of age.

Braithwaite, for breaking into the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton, of Long Preston, innkeeper, and stealing various article therefrom. He was a hawker and a pedlar, and 30 years of age.

William Sharp, labourer, aged 26, and William Bamford, labourer, aged 28, for robbing Duncan M’Donald, of Sheffield, button-maker, by breaking into his house, and carrying away a number of horn combs, a silver threepenny-piece, and fourpence in copper. Sharp was a native of Conisbro’, and Bamford, a native of Clifton.

It was noted that Nicholson, Charlesworth, Sharp and Bamford all left a widow and children behind, but Braithwaite had “two wives and three children by his lawful one, and two by the other, to whom he gave £70, and appeared most attached to her, as he would not permit the former to take leave of him.”

This British Library article on crime and punishment in Georgian Britain explains why these individuals were punished so severely for what, to modern eyes, look like relatively minor offenses:

The 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death—by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason — even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage — could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. Though many people charged with capital crimes were either let off or received a lesser sentence, the hangman’s noose nevertheless loomed large.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1853: Hans McFarlane and Helen Blackwood, married on the scaffold

Add comment August 11th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1853, Hans M(a)cFarlane and Helen Blackwood were hanged before a crowd of some 40,000 souls in Glasgow, Scotland.

It wasn’t the only civic ceremony the couple would participate in that day.

McFarlane and Blackwood had been convicted of murdering Alexander Boyd, a ship’s carpenter with the merchant navy. On June 11 of that year, they drugged his whiskey, hit him over the head with the chamber pot, stripped him down to his pants and socks and threw his body out the third-floor window.

McFarlane, Blackwood, and two alleged accomplices, Ann Young and Mary Hamilton, were arrested immediately. Although they tried to make Boyd’s death out to be an accident, two children in the room, whom the killers had thought were asleep, had witnessed the whole thing and told on them.

In the end, the case against Hamilton was ruled not proven. Young was convicted, but her death sentence was commuted to transportation. Blackwood and McFarlane had to swing.

Douglas Shelton, in his book Deadlier Than The Male: Scotland’s Most Wicked Women, records,

While in Duke Street Prison, McFarlane asked for permission to marry his lover, Blackwood. Permission was refused but they were determined to be man and wife. As they stood on the scaffold near to Glasgow’s South Prison on the site of the present-day High Court, McFarlane announced to the woman — and the 40,000-strong crowd there to see them hang — “Helen Blackwood, before God in the presence of these witnesses I take you do be my wife. Do you consent?”

The woman replied, “I do.”

McFarlane then said, “Then before these witnesses I declare you to be what you have always been to me, a true and faithful wife, and you die an honest woman.”

The minister officiating the hanging then said, “Amen,” the bolt was drawn and the newly married pair fell to their deaths.

Helen Blackwood was the second-to-last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland. This broadside was sold to commemorate her and her husband’s deaths.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Scotland

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1828: William Rice but not John Montgomery, who cheated the hangman with prussic acid

Add comment July 4th, 2018 Meaghan

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

Just before 6:00 a.m. on July 4, 1828, prison officers arrived at the cell of disgraced ensign John Burgh Montgomery in Newgate Prison‘s condemned hold.

They were there to escort Montgomery to his hanging. The 33­-year-­old would have been one of the last in England executed for for the crime of uttering forged notes — except that his wardens instead found him lying stone dead. With the aid of prussic acid, the counterfeiter had cheated the hangman of half his day’s prey, leaving his prospective gallows partner, thief William Rice, to face the hemp alone.

Although his guards had confiscated his razor and penknife as a routine precaution against suicide, no one had expected Montgomery to take his own life. He had pleaded guilty before the court and seemed resigned to his fate. In custody he was a model prisoner, spent his last days writing to his loved ones, and “addressed himself with great anxiety to his religious offices.”

Nobody was able to figure out how the condemned man came by enough poison to kill thirty people and how he kept it hidden, given that he and his cell were regularly searched.

The Irish-­born Montgomery, Nicola Sly records in her book Goodbye, Cruel World… A Compendium of Suicide,

was said to be a very respectable, well­-educated man, who had once held a commission in the Army. However, after inheriting a considerable fortune, he frittered it away and resorted to passing phony banknotes to support his rather dissipated lifestyle. Given his pleasing looks, gentlemanly appearance and good manners, he was very successful, since nobody thought him capable of any wrongdoing. However, he was caught after becoming careless and making the mistake of committing frequent repeated offense in a small geographical area of London.

Montgomery left behind several letters, marked by expansive tragic romanticism but no hint of suicidal intent. One letter was for the prison surgeon, asking that his body be used for dissection. He said that by this he wanted to provide some positive contribution to the public to make up for his crimes. He asked that his heart be preserved in spirits and given to his girlfriend.

To the girlfriend he wrote,

My dear idolized L.,

One more last farewell, one more last adieu to a being so much attached to the unhappy Montgomery. Oh, my dearest girl. If it had been in the power of anyone to avert my dreadful doom, your kind exertions would have been attended with such success. Oh, God, so poor Montgomery is to die on the scaffold. Oh, how dreadful have been my hours of reflection, whilst in this dreary cell.

Oh, how tottering were all my hopes; the bitterness of my reflection is bitter in the extreme. This will be forwarded to you by my kind friend Mrs. D. I should wish you to possess my writing portmanteau. Oh, I wished to have disappointed the horrid multitude who will be assembled to witness my ignominious exit. Farewell forever,

P.S. Here I kiss fervently.

The jury on the inquest into Montgomery’s death recorded a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Montgomery had willfully and knowingly taken his own life whilst of sound mind. As such, his body was buried in the graveyard of St. Sepulchre­-without-Newgate at night, and without any memorial service.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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1941: 3,500 Jews at the Khotyn Fortress … but not Adolph Sternschuss

Add comment July 3rd, 2018 Meaghan

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

On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:

Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.

I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.

The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.

They were, in fact, digging their own graves.

Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:

Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …

They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.

Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”


Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.

Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.

What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.

Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.

I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.

Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.

We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.

Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:

At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.

Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.

They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.

On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.

At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.

Shortly after, the shooting began …

Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.

At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.

Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.

“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”

Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.

On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,

Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”

This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.

A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.

The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.

Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:

We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.

The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.

Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.

It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:

It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.

Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:

It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.

Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?

On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”

Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:

So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?

Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.

The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.

Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!

The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.

Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”

He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,

Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.

Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:

I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.

In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.

In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.

Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:

Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.

“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.

In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.

Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.

The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.

All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:

In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.

On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”

And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.

On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.

Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.

On the third day after liberation, he recorded,

Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.

In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …

We haven’t met Jews.

Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:

Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and

The diary ends in mid-sentence.

Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.

In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.

Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”

He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”

In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”

His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.

Ephraim Sten died in 2004.

The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.

* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1944: Seisaku Nakamura, Hamamatsu Deaf Killer

Add comment June 19th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1944, nineteen-year-old serial killer Seisaku Nakamura was hanged for a series of horrific murders in wartime Japan. He killed at least nine people, perhaps as many as eleven, many of them while he was still a minor.

Nakamura, born deaf, was ostracized by both his family and society at large for his disability. Robert Keller, in his Asian Monsters: 28 Terrifying Serial Killers from Asia and the Far East,* notes:

It has been noted that many serial killers who suffer such ostracism retreat into a fantasy world, fueled most often by revenge fantasies. This was certainly the case with Seisaku Nakamura. He developed a near obsession with the Samurai culture and enjoyed watching movies where Samurai slaughtered their victims with lethal Katana swords.


The 47 Ronin (1941).

Yet on the surface all appeared normal. Seisaku was a bright boy who excelled at school. He was polite and deferential. He endured his condition without complaint. He’d grown, too, into a tall and strapping youth.

All was not normal, however.

According to Nakamura’s later confession, he committed his first two murders on August 22, 1938, when he was only fourteen. He tried to rape two women, he said, and murdered them after they resisted. This account has never been confirmed; perhaps he was boasting, or perhaps the murders did occur and the Japanese military government kept them out of the news.

Nearly three years passed before he committed another homicide: on August 18, 1941, Nakamura stabbed a woman to death and nearly killed another. Two days later, he stabbed and hacked another three victims to death. The police had a suspect description, but hushed up the information about the crimes for fear of causing a panic.

On September 27, Nakamura got into an argument with his brother at their parents’ home. The result was a bloodbath: he stabbed his brother in the chest, turned the knife on the rest of the family, stabbing and slashing his father, sister, niece and sister-in-law. Amazingly, only Nakamura’s brother died. Questioned by the police, the survivors refused to cooperate, saying they were afraid of retribution if they named their attacker.

Nearly a year passed with no bloodshed, but on August 30, 1942, Nakamura targeted another family. He saw a young woman on the street, followed her home, where her husband and three children were. Nakamura began his attack on the mother, and when her husband tried to defend her, he stabbed them both to death. He then slaughtered their two youngest children and turned his attention to the oldest, a girl. He started to rape her, then inexplicably broke off his assault and ran away, leaving her alive.

The survivor provided a good witness description to the police, who had their eye on Nakamura already; they had come to believe the reason his family wouldn’t say who attacked them the year before was because their attacker was one of their own.

The “Hamamatsu Deaf Killer” was arrested and quickly tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death in spite of his youth and the parade of witnesses ready to say he was insane.

Little is known about him and his crimes, as Japanese government suppressed most of the information.

* As we’ve previously noted, we cite the titles, we don’t write the titles.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers,Wartime Executions

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1968: Karol Kot, the Vampire of Krakow

Add comment May 16th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1968, Polish serial killer Karol Kot, called the Vampire of Kraków, was hanged in the city of Mysłowice. He was only twenty-one years old.

Kot was born in Kraków in 1946, the son of an engineer and a housewife. His abnormal, violent behavior began early. He was jealous of his baby sister, who was born when he was eight, and thought their parents loved her more. While their parents were away, he beat her and even tortured and killed her pets.

He was fascinated by death and hung around slaughterhouses in his free time, helping the employees there kill calves and drinking the animals’ blood.

Most of the sources about Karol Kot, such as this Warsaw Post article, and this article from Polish Newsweek, are in Polish. He was, however, the subject of an episode in the 2014 English-language documentary series Killers: Behind the Myth.

This Kraków Post article describes Kot’s origins. He did well enough in his studies at school, but his classmates knew him as a shy, withdrawn loner and a weirdo. Between that and his enormous knife collection, it’s no wonder there was a running joke at Kot’s school that he must be the Vampire of Kraków.

One of the few things he truly excelled at was shooting; he was the star of the local rifle club. At one point he was ranked tenth in the entire country in the youth division. Kot’s coach mentored him, invited him to his home and even told his own son, “Be like Karol.” Kot found this hilarious: he had been planning to murder the boy.

He committed his first knife attack in September 1964, at the age of seventeen, stabbing a 48-year-old woman repeatedly inside a church as she knelt to pray. She survived. In fact, she didn’t even realize she was hurt until she went home, removed her coat, saw that she was bleeding and went to the hospital.

Kot went after his second victim, a 73-year-old woman, a few days later. Kot saw her exit a tram, followed her home, and stabbed her in the back as she walked up her front steps. She survived, but remained paralyzed for the rest of her life.

Six days later he stabbed a third woman, 77 years old, again inside a church; this was his first fatality. When the nuns found her, with her dying breaths the victim whispered that her attacker had been a schoolboy.

All three of Kot’s first victims were older females. He committed no more stabbings for a year and a half, but became interested in poison instead. Kot laced open bottles of beer and soda with arsenic and left them lying around, hoping someone would drink from them, but no one was tempted. He tried giving a poisoned drink to a classmate, but his intended victim poured it out because it smelled funny.

In 1966, Kot gave up on the poisoning idea and returned to his old weapon, the knife. He changed his target demographic from elderly women to young children.

In February, he stabbed and killed an eleven-year-old boy named Leszek at Kościuszko Mound. It was a horrific attack, with far more wounds inflicted than were necessary to kill Leszek. In April, Kot attacked a little girl named Małgorzata as she was checking the mail outside her home. He stabbed her a total of eleven times in the chest, back and abdomen. She suffered from severe internal injuries, but survived.

After knifing Małgorzata, Kot went to the militia to get his gun permit renewed, then went home.

In Communist Poland, crime was rarely reported in the newspapers. In the case of Kot’s murders, however, the vexed police took the rare step of issuing press releases about his crimes, appealing to possible witnesses to come forward with information.

The citizens of Kraków were terrified. People began going out with boards and cast-iron pot lids stuffed under their clothes to protect themselves from the Vampire’s blade.

Kot was caught after he bragged about his crimes to fellow member of the rifle club. She didn’t believe him until she read in the newspaper about the attempted murder of Małgorzata. Then she went to the police.

He was arrested, but was permitted to take his final school-leaving examinations, in hopes of forestalling an anticipated insanity plea. Police used the fact that he passed his exams as evidence that he was rational and sane.

After being taken into custody, the baby-faced killer denied everything. But after his surviving victims all identified him as their attacker, he cheerfully confessed to everything. He said he committed the murders because it gave him a sense of pleasure, and he enjoyed drinking his victims’ blood as they lay dying. He even studied books of human anatomy to figure out where to place his knife.

The murders thrilled him and gave some spark to his “heavy, dull and colorless” life, he said. He felt no remorse at all.

Kot’s rifle coach was outraged at first when he heard that such a fine young athlete had been arrested. Surely this was a miscarriage of justice. After Kot confessed, however, his devastated coach wrote to him in prison, asking him to return his rifle medals because he was unworthy of them.

In his final interview, Kot said, “Soon, where I’m going, I’ll meet with my victims, and we can speak. Here on Earth, I have no one to talk to.”

Kot was sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on appeal due to his youth. However, after the General Prosecutor intervened, the death sentence was reinstated and Kot was hanged.

On autopsy, a large tumor was found in his brain. It had gone undiagnosed in life. Whether this was the reason for Kot’s sadism is anyone’s guess.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Poland

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1868: Charles Martin and Charles Morgan lynched in Cheyenne, Dakota Territory

Add comment March 21st, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1868, Charles Martin and Charles Morgan were both lynched for unrelated crimes in the nine-month-old city of Cheyenne. Cheyenne was still part of the Dakota Territory at the time; later that year, it became part of the new Wyoming Territory, which was created from bits of the Dakota, Idaho and Utah territories.

Martin was originally from Missouri and, like many of the local residents, a new arrival, who had come to Cheyenne with the railroad in 1867. Historian R. Michael Wilson, in his book Crime & Punishment in Early Wyoming, detailed the start of his fall from grace:

He partnered with William A. James, who was known by everyone as Andy Harris, another member of the rowdy element. The two men bought and jointly managed a dance house and it was rumored their purchase was financed with stolen money, but there was never enough evidence to prosecute them. Eventually they had a falling-out and dissolved their partnership.

On the evening of February 13, 1868, Martin and James were at Thomas and Beauvais’s Hall on 16th Street, both up at the bar, and James came at him saying, “You are a dirty little bastard. I ought to kill you. You are no friend of mine; if I did you justice I’d shoot you now.”

He pointed a Derringer at Martin, who stuck his hand in his pocket and taunted, “Shoot, what do I care?”

James told Martin to get out or he would shoot him, and Martin started backing towards the door, with his erstwhile friend following him every step of the way. Five feet separated the men and when James reached the end of the bar, he started to lower his gun. At this point Martin pulled a five-shooter from his pocket.

James fired one shot from his Derringer and missed. Martin emptied his gun and hit every time, “the five wounds forming a neat line from James’s chin to his navel.” Mortally wounded, James collapsed and died late the following morning.

Martin was arrested. Justice was swift: the trial began on the 17th of February and concluded two days later. Four eyewitnesses to the shooting testified, as did the doctor who tended to James in his last hours. Martin argued self-defense. The jury acquitted him.

Even prior to James’s killing, Martin’s reputation, as noted in T. A. Larson’s book History of Wyoming: Second Edition Revised, was “appalling.” Wilson describes him as “a desperate character who womanized and drank liquor to excess.” His abandoned wife back in Missouri wrote to him, pleading in vain that he should give up his wild ways and return to her and their children. Consequently, Wilson says,

[t]he acquittal of Martin created a great deal of dissatisfaction within the community. Martin, had he used common sense, would have left until the indignation cooled but instead he became more insolent and defiant than ever and began making rounds of his usual haunts celebrating his liberty, and made threats of “furnishing another man for breakfast.”

It probably didn’t help that he had threatened to kill the distinguished attorney W. W. Corlett, who’d assisted with the prosecution.

On the evening of March 21, a masked mob of about fifteen vigilantes abducted Martin from the Keystone dance house where he’d been partying with “females of the lowest type.” Pistol-whipped into semi-consciousness, he was dragged to a crude tripod gallows on the east end of Cheyenne and strung up. His body was found the next morning, his feet brushing the ground, sporting horrific head injuries.

A coroner’s inquest convened that same afternoon and rendered the following verdict:

We, the undersigned, summoned as jurors to investigate the cause of Chas. Martin’s death, find that he came to his death by strangulation, he having been found hanging by his neck on a rude gallows, at the extreme end of 10th Street, in the suburbs of Cheyenne. Perpetrators unknown.

A few hours later, stock thief Charles J. Morgan was also hanged on the east side of Cheyenne.

Earlier that month, a large number of mules had gone missing from the prairie surrounding Cheyenne, including a four-mule team owned by W.G. Smith. Smith and others, determined to recover the stolen animals, seized a man named “Wild Horse” Smith and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t reveal what he knew of their whereabouts. They put a rope around his neck and three times yanked him into the air, but he maintained his silence. When he was told that the fourth time would be his last, Smith cracked and told them where the hidden stock was.

As R. Michael Wilson explains, the searchers found fifteen stolen mules at the location “Wild Horse” specified, but W.G. Smith’s team was not among them.

Smith made further inquiries and learned that Charles J. Morgan had purchased the four-mule team and some other stock for about half their value. He and a man named Kelly were driving the stock south on the road to Denver and were then only a short distance out of town in the mountains. Smith formed a posse of vigilantes and overtook Kelly at Guy Hill. Kelly was arrested and the party started for Cheyenne. On the way back to they met Morgan, a known member of the gang of thieves, who claimed that he and Kelly had bought the mules and were going to Sweetwater. Morgan was also arrested and the two prisoners were taken into Cheyenne at an early hour on March 21st.

The jail in Cheyenne was little more than a tent over a wooden frame with a wooden door and a guard at the flap. So, with escape a certainty and the vigilantes ready for action they decided to settle the matter themselves.

At daybreak, Morgan’s body was found hanging at Elephant Corral on a tripod-shaped gallows very similar to the one where Martin met his end. His remains “had blue and swollen features, tongue and eyes protruding, fists clenched, with feet now brushing the ground.” There was a sign pinned to his back: This man was hung by the Vigilance committee for being one of a gang of horse-thieves.

The coroner’s jury returned the following verdict:

We the undersigned, summoned by the Coroner to inquire into the cause of death of Chas. or J. Morgan, find the evidence that his death was occasioned by strangulation, he having been found hanging by the neck on three poles in the rear of the Elephant Corral, in Cheyenne, D.T. Perpetrators unknown.

At first there was speculation that Kelly, too, had been lynched: shortly after his partner in crime was hanged, he was taken some distance away and shots were heard in the darkness. Searches were made for his body, but it turned out that Kelly had merely been banished from Cheyenne and the shots were fired to speed him on his way.

T. A. Larson notes that this disreputable pair were the first and nearly the last known to have been lynched in Cheyenne; the Cheyenne Vigilance Committee killed only one more man there, for failure to pay a debt he owed a saloon keeper. (They are also known to have lynched three men at Dale City thirty miles away.) “It seems fair to say,” he notes, “that the record of popular justice in Cheyenne was neither very extensive nor very creditable. But it may well be that vigilantes in Cheyenne and elsewhere had a positive deterrent value which is hard to measure.”

Martin and Morgan were buried out on the prairie. No one was ever charged in their deaths.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Wyoming

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1830: Robert Emond

Add comment March 17th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1830, at Libberton’s Wynd in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Emond or Edmond was hanged for the brutal murders of his sister-in-law, Catherine Franks, a fifty-year-old widow, and her teenage daughter, Magdalene. They had lived in a village called Abbey, near Haddington.

The story of the killings is told in Martin Baggoley’s book, Scottish Murders. It’s a sad but familiar tale of family trouble and domestic violence.

The victims had been discovered by concerned neighbors on the afternoon of October 28, 1829. Neither of them had been seen for days, and Catherine’s pig was squealing continually from hunger in its sty.

Two men went to the Franks cottage to investigate and found Catherine’s body lying in the pigsty. Her throat had been slashed and, as the Newgate Calendar records, her rings, earrings and watch were missing. The neighbors’ first thought was for Magdalene, and they rushed inside the cottage through the open back door and found her in the bedroom. The girl had been beaten to death; there were eight distinct injuries to her head and her skull had been fractured several times.

The doctor who examined the bodies determined Catherine and Magdalene had probably been killed on either Sunday night, October 25, or early Monday morning. The house had been ransacked, drawers had been pulled out of and their contents dumped on the floor, and the floor was covered with blood, including distinct bloody footprints.

The police didn’t have to look far for a suspect: a neighbor told them Catherine had recently accused her brother-in-law of stealing from both her and his wife, the latter also named Magdalene. Robert had then obliquely threatened her, saying, “If you won’t keep away from here and your sister, who are you are making as cross-grained as yourself, I won’t answer for the consequences.”

Although Robert Emond was of “respectable” parentage, had a good education and had been honorably discharged from the Army, he had a reputation for violence even as a youth and the neighbor kids called him “the fiend.”

The Emonds had been married for less than three years by the time Catherine and Magdalene Franks were murdered, but already the relationship was breaking on the rock of Robert’s violent temper and dissatisfaction with his life.

Unusually for that time, Magdalene Emond owned her own successful business and was of independent means, but Robert had had several financial failures and resented his wife’s success. He also resented Catherine because he felt she was continually criticizing him to everybody and making his marital problems worse.

A broadside about the crimes and Emond’s execution noted,

He seems to have brought himself to think that he was utterly despised by Mrs. Franks and his wife, and on being opposed by them in any of his foolish speculations in trade, although for his own ultimate good, was considered by him as resulting from that deep-rooted [antipathy], as he thought, they treated him with.

Guy B. H. Logan, in his 1928 book Dramas of the Dock: True Stories of Crime, described Robert as “a morose, sullen man, given to brooding over real or fancied wrongs, which, in his warped mind, became intolerable injuries,” and suggested he might have been mentally unbalanced, pointing out that there was a history of mental illness in his family.

When police went to Emond’s home in North Berwick, neighbors there told them Robert and his wife had had a violent, screaming argument after she refused to lend him money, and he’d beaten her and tried to throw her down the garden well. During their quarrel, the witnesses said, Magdalene had screamed that she knew Robert had taken money from her and her sister.

When questioned, Robert’s wife admitted the argument had taken place. Magdalene said they’d slept in separate rooms since their fight, and she kept her bedroom door locked from the inside at night.

Catherine Franks’s younger daughter, who was also named Catherine, lived with her aunt and uncle to maximize the reader’s confusion: we’ve got Catherine and Magdalene as victims, survived by Magdalene and Catherine in the killer’s household. The latter Catherine reported that she’d tried to go into Robert’s room at eight o’clock on Monday morning to give him a cup of tea, but found the door shut from the inside.

Magdalene became worried that her husband had “done himself some mischief” and summoned two men, who got a ladder and looked in the bedroom window. Robert wasn’t there and the bed had not been slept in. When he returned several hours later, he was dishelved and agitated.

The little girl would later testify at the trial, “He was wild-like, and trembling a lot. His eyes were fixed and staring.” He wouldn’t say where he’d been. His boots and stockings were wet and little Catherine saw him cleaning them later.

Suspicious, police searched the house and found Robert’s vest and pants, which were damp and bloodstained. They also found a shirt which had a bloody handprint on the fabric in spite of someone’s attempt to clean it. They also confiscated his boots.

Under arrest on two counts of murder, Robert Emond steadfastly maintained his innocence. He wrote the following letter to his wife while in custody:

My dear wife,

I am now confined in Calton Jail charged with the murder of your sister and daughter, of which I declare to you I am perfectly innocent, though I have done as much as deserves the gallows.

My dear Magdalene, I am sorry and even wish to take my own life when I think upon what I have done to you. I can’t rest night or day. I can’t rest night or day. I confess that I am a great sinner and nothing hurts me more than to think that I am suspicion of the crime of murder. I assure you that I am perfectly innocent of the crime laid to my charge and I hope God Almighty who sees into all things will be my advocate on the day of the trial.

I am aware the people are inveterate against me, because the proof, in their opinion, is so much against me. I again, my dearest Magdalene, declare I am innocent, although at this time my mind is so much affected that I hardly know what I say.

I have been examined before the Sheriff of Edinburgh several times but I think they can’t prove nothing against me. The public are aware I understand of the iron heels of my shoes corresponding with some marks at Mrs. Frank’s [sic] house and with a bloody shirt found in my house, which you can prove was occasioned by the bleeding of my knows, or you know better by the blood that flowed from your head the Sunday preceding that most horrid murder. I understand that the authorities in Edinburgh are anxious to discover my old coat, but I hope they never shall.

My dearest wife, my name has been branded in Edinburgh by illiterate stationers and I suppose that even in North Berwick is held in as much dread as the notorious murderers Burke and Hare. I must allow suspicions are against me that is nothing. I again implore you to banish from your mind the idea [that I am] a murderer of your sister and niece.

My love to all your friends, for friends I have none. Would that God take me to himself.

Robert Emond

Robert was tried in February. The prosecution argued that he’d killed Catherine Franks to get revenge, and Magdalene Franks because she was a witness, and then tore the house apart and stole Catherine’s jewelry to make it look like a robbery.

Some local witnesses who saw Robert on October 26 testified, reporting that he had “blood about his mouth, both above and below,” and that he complained that Catherine Franks was ruining his marriage and said, “This is a terrible business. I am so confused I don’t know what I am doing.” He told a friend that “the devil had been very busy with him.”

Robert pleaded not guilty and claimed the blood on his clothes came from a nosebleed, the injuries his wife sustained when he beat her, or a chicken he’d killed. The coat he mentioned in his letter never did turn up, but one witness testified that he’d seen Robert wearing it shortly after the murders and it had a “wet, reddish stain” on the sleeve.

But there wasn’t a lot he could say about the bloody footprints at the crime scene: a local cobbler testified and said he’d compared the prints to Robert Emond’s boots and “it was a most unusual design and they matched the heels of Emond’s boots perfectly.”

The jury deliberated an hour before convicting him, and after his conviction he finally confessed. In spite of several attempts at suicide while in jail, Robert lived to be hanged five weeks later. On the scaffold he admitted his crime and said he deserved to die. His body was dissected at the University of Edinburgh, as per the custom.

* Line breaks have been added to this letter for readability.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,Scotland

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1948: Thomas Henry McGonigle, murder without a body

1 comment February 20th, 2018 Meaghan

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

The Latin legal term corpus delicti literally translates to “the body of the crime,” and many people are under the impression that it means the actual corpse of a murdered person and that no one may be convicted of murder without the victim’s body.

This is erroneous. Although it is true that no person can be convicted of murder without the corpus delicti, the term doesn’t mean the murdered person’s body but rather the body of evidence that proves a crime has been committed. Every criminal case must have the corpus delicti and, in most murder cases, that includes the victim’s body … but it doesn’t have to.

In the United States, murder-without-a-body prosecutions are not unheard of and happen with increasing frequency due to the advancement of forensic technologies like DNA analysis. Tad DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor, even wrote a book about them, titled No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting, and Winning Cases When the Victim Is Missing, which includes an appendix of over 400 cases.

On this day in 1948, Thomas Henry McGonigle was executed in California’s gas chamber in what was one of the earliest, perhaps THE earliest no-body homicide prosecution in the state. His victim was a fourteen-year-old high school sophomore named Thora Afton Chamberlain, and her body was never found and is believed to have been washed out to sea.

The prosecution would later call the case “one of the best organized and most intense investigations in the annals of the crime of kidnapping and murder.”

McGonigle, a married construction laborer with an arrest record for a variety of crimes including assault with intent to commit rape, was waiting in his car outside Campbell High School when classes ended for the day on November 2, 1945. Thora’s classmates saw her talking to him, and he offered her a job: he needed someone to babysit his sister’s children. It would only be for half an hour, he said.

For whatever reason, Thora trusted the stranger. Perhaps it was because he was dressed respectably in a Navy uniform with medals, including a Purple Heart. She didn’t know they weren’t his, that he’d never been in any branch of the military. He’d stolen the clothes and medals six weeks earlier.

Thora Chamberlain was never seen again after she got into the strange man’s car. McGonigle was an immediate suspect because of his record, and several witnesses identified him from a photo lineup, but in the immediate aftermath of Thora’s disappearance he skipped town.


Murderer and victim.

McGonigle told his wife he was taking a bus to Los Angeles, but in fact he hitchhiked to Illinois where his father lived. The FBI kept on his trail as he drifted across the country, registering in hotels under alias names. Finally he took an overdose of sleeping pills while on a bus bound for San Francisco, and was semiconscious on arrival. The Feds were waiting for him, but instead of jail they had to take him to the hospital for treatment. He was arrested upon discharge.

In custody, McGonigle gave a series of statements admitting culpability but providing wildly differing details as to what happened. He’d stabbed Thora. He’d shot her. He’d strangled her. She’d jumped from his car and was fatally injured. Her death was an accident. He hadn’t killed her at all; she was alive and well and working as a prostitute.

Although the entire truth about what happened is only known to Thora and her killer, the shooting story has the most evidence to support it.

McGonigle said he had shot Thora in his car and the bullet passed through her and got stuck in his car door. He said he’d removed the bullet and buried it under a certain tree in his yard, and also ripped out the vehicle’s bloodstained padding and upholstery and buried it near the construction site where he worked. There was a bullet hole in the door of McGonigle’s car, police recovered the bullet from under the tree where he said it would be, and ballistics later proved it had been fired from a .32 caliber revolver he owned. The police also found the ripped car upholstery at the indicated spot, and it was stained with human blood.

McGonigle lead the authorities to a coastal cliff in San Mateo County known as the Devil’s Slide. He said he’d thrown Thora’s body off the cliff, 350 feet down into the ocean. An extensive search revealed important, chilling evidence that may well have been the clincher: on the day of her abduction, Thora was dressed in her school colors of red and blue, including one pair of red socks and one pair of blue socks, one on top of the other. Searchers found both pairs wedged in separate crevices on the cliff face, and Thora’s parents identified them.

At the trial, prosecutor John McCarthy told the jury how it might have happened, painting a word picture of McGonigle killing Thora in a rape or attempted rape, then lifting her from his car by her armpits and dragging her along the ground to the edge of the Devil’s Slide. In the process her loafers come off and her socks are pulled down her feet. As she falls, they come off entirely and get stuck in the crevices of the cliff.

“In finding the socks,” McCarthy concluded, “the crime was solved.”

Given McGonigle’s string of confessions — which continued even at his trial — and the eyewitnesses who identified him, and the physical evidence that backed it all up, it’s no wonder the jury only deliberated half an hour. He was convicted on March 1, 1946.

While his conviction was under appeal he retracted his previous statements and denied everything. It was a frame-up, he said, all of it: he’d never confessed to anything and the FBI had planted all the evidence and the witnesses had lied. The police, meanwhile, stated he’d also confessed (over and over again…) to the murder of an unnamed “Negro waitress” from San Francisco and the only reason they weren’t going to charge him was because he was already under sentence of death.

The day he was executed, McGonigle wrote down a statement in longhand and left it with the warden:

I, Thomas Henry McGonigle, in this last testimony to the people declares [sic] that I did not shoot Thora Chamberlain and did not throw her body over a cliff and I have never made any such confession that I shot Thora Chamberlain in Santa Cruz County.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Wallace P. “Bud” Hendrick didn’t agree. He witnessed the execution and later told reporters, “He threw his head back and gasped three times. Every time he gasped with that look of pain and death about him, I smiled. He was the most despicable … that ever walked the face of the earth. I only wish it could have taken longer.”

(Robert E. Cornish, a mad scientist and former child prodigy who made various Frankensteinian attempts to raise dead animals, wanted to try reviving a death row inmate after an execution. McGonigle volunteered himself for the experiment, but permission was denied.)

As for Thora, her body is presumed to have washed out to sea. She remains listed in missing persons databases, however, in the unlikely event that it turns up.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,USA

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