1915: Louis Bundy, “I would like to have shown the world what I could do”

Add comment November 5th, 2015 Headsman

Headline from the Nov. 5, 1915 San Jose Evening News: Two Young Men Are Hanged Today For Murder

One century ago today, California hanged two men at San Quentin: Earl Loomis, who murdered a Sacramento candy store proprietress in the course of a robbery, and Louis Bundy, who slew a Los Angeles messenger boy to steal a few dollars he could use to splurge on his girl.

Loomis, a hardened criminal, attracted the lesser notice; it was Bundy, who was an 18-year-old high schooler when he became a murderer, who drew a torrent of futile clemency appeals because of his youth and naivete. His crime dated to December of 1914, when he rang up the pharmacist and place a bogus order, along with a request to bring change for a $20 coin. The idea was to steal the change and buy his sweetheart a Christmas gift.

When the lackey turned up, it turned out to be a chum of Bundy’s, 15-year-old Harold Ziesche: Bundy bludgeoned him with a rock and an ax handle (sans ax) “because he knew me and would have squealed on me.”

As the San Jose Evening News reported in its hanging-day submission,* those appellants included former lieutenant governor A.J. Wallace among other political figures, numerous name-brand ministers (and even the strange Mormon boy-prophet Archie Inger), plus hundreds of Los Angeles schoolchildren.

All were bound for disappointment.

The Golden State was not averse per se to grants of mercy; a week prior to this date’s hanging, California’s pardons board spared three other condemned men, all murderers — and surely even in spurning Bundy in the same batch, the board’s action gave the young man’s supporters a thrill of hope for the intervention of Progressive Party governor (and death penalty skeptic) Hiram Johnson. Johnson had already reprieved Bundy in June, and then a second time in August.

He did not do it in November.

“I have done a great wrong and am sorry,” Bundy said on the scaffold. “I had hoped the law would see a way to let me have a chance, because I would like to have shown the world what I could do.” (Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, Nov. 7, 1915.)

* Also the source of the headline image that surmounts this post.

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1915: Peter Sands, home leave

Add comment September 15th, 2015 Headsman

Irish lance corporal Peter Sands was shot as a deserter one hundred years ago today at Fleurbaix, near Armentières.

Sands, a nine-year veteran age 26 or 27, left the Royal Irish Rifles with another soldier on a home leave pass in February 1915 and returned to his family in Belfast.

Sands had a pass for four days. Instead, he stayed for five months — openly living with his wife, and wearing his military uniform, until some unknown busybody turned him in as a deserter that July.

He would tell his court-martial that he had lost his travel documents to return to the horrible front, and had been blown off when he visited a Belfast barracks to see about a replacement. He did not aim to desert, he insisted; “Had I intended to desert I would have worn plain clothes, but up to that time I was arrested I always wore uniform.” It is not so hard to reach Corporal Sands, psychologically — a man perhaps indulging a lethal opiate of denial. Suppose his “desertion” began with a good-faith mishap and thereafter did not last for five months, but just for one day more … day upon day.

He had no pass, so what was he to do next? He stayed in Belfast with his wife and daughter wearing his service duds while he contemplated that question. (Who can say whether he contemplated it in bemusement or terror.) He stayed every day in March, and it became every day in April, and every day in May and June, too. Nobody came for him on any of those days.

Had his war ended, then? Had he somehow slipped the toils of the machine back to a domestic idyll?

Maybe he truly had … but for that anonymous snitch.

Even if it had to be reminded of its prodigal corporal’s absence, His Majesty’s royal meatgrinder expected a little more hustle from its meat than one barracks call in five months: while Sands was at home, his mates had gone out of the trenches in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (11,000+ British casualties), and the disastrous* Battle of Aubers Ridge (another 11,000+).

His commanding officer “consider[ed] this a bad case of desertion and I recommend that the sentence be carried out.” And it was.

Sands was buried at a nearby churchyard, but his resting-place was lost during the war. He has a marker at Cabaret-Rouge Military Cemetery at Souchez.

* The report of the Times from Aubers Ridge — headlined “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France” — precipitated the “Shell Crisis of 1915”.

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

8 comments August 17th, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1915: Kassim Ismail Mansoor, purveyor of coffee and treason

Add comment May 31st, 2015 Headsman

A century ago today, an Indian Muslim named Kassim Ismail Mansoor was hanged by the British in Singapore as a traitor.

The treason in question concerned the dramatic mutiny some months previous of Singapore’s 5th Light Infantry — Muslims who had feared that they would be dispatched to World War I’s European charnel house. (Ironically, the British brass had no such intent: they already considered these troops too unreliable, for some reason.)

Many of the mutineers were shot en masse by summary court-martial.

Our man Mansoor was not a fighter but a civilian coffee-shop proprietor. Having come into the confidence of some of his countrymen enough to know the mutinous thrust of their grievances, he made bold put in writing an appeal to the Rangoon consul of the Ottoman Empire — Britain’s wartime enemy — for the intervention of Turkish warships that could pick up their disaffected Muslim brethren and turn together against the British. Unfortunately for Mansor, that missive fell into British hands.

A 1937 retrospective series in the Straits Times on the distinguished career of Mansoor’s defense counsel, Sir Vincent Devereux Knowles, dives into the case here: 1, 2. Knowles, it says, knew his task was quite hopeless.

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1915: Basanta Kumar Biswas, bomber

Add comment May 11th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the centennial of Basanta Kumar Biswas‘s execution for the Delhi-Lahore conspiracy.

Said conspiracy was a project several years running by a circle of Bengalis and Punjabis to murder officials of the British occupation — “necessary,” as one of the accused explained at trial in 1914, “to awaken the masses, who are wrapped in sleep and under a foreign yoke.” (London Times, June 24, 1914)

Indeed, from a worse-is-better standpoint, the current Viceroy Lord Hardinge was a real pain since he had implemented reforms to make British authority a little more responsive to the subcontinent’s inhabiants.*

One of the conspirators’ signal blows was tossing a bomb into Hardinge’s elephant-mounted howdah.

This explosive lacerated Lord Hardinge with shrapnel, but it did not slay him — neither him, nor the Raj. (The poor elephant-driver was not so lucky.) But the authors of the deed remained obscure for many months despite the state’s intense investigation, and lucrative reward.

While the British hunted, the terrorists/freedom fighters authored a second bomb attack — one that would eventually form the basis of their prosecution. Biswas was tasked with assassinating another colonial official with another bomb, but finding that sentries prevented his approaching his target, he lodged the device on a carriageway, hoping it would detonate under the wheels of some passing viceregal envoy.

Instead, the roadside bomb was struck by a messenger on a bicycle — with lethal effect.

Three other men were condemned to death at the same trial: Amir Charid, Abadh Behari, and Balmokand. Biswas himself received only a prison sentence, but it was upgraded to hanging on appeal.

Several plaques in India — and one in Tokyo, placed by an expatriate — commemorate the young man as a national martyr.

* The measure of Hardinge’s success was London’s ability during World War I to deplo most of its occupation troops plus over a million Indian soldiers to other theaters without losing control of India — despite the best efforts of the Central Powers to foment a wartime mutiny on the subcontinent.

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1915: 20 Hunchakian gallows

2 comments June 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1915, twenty activists of the Armenian Hunchakian political party were publicly hanged in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square.


A couple of other very grainy (newspaper?) images are here.

These unfortunates had participated in a 1913 convention that resolved — secretly, so they thought — upon treating to a programme of political assassinations of the nationalist Young Turks then driving belligerent policy against Armenians.

Unfortunately for them, the Sublime Porte had sublime ears.* It pounced on the prospective terrorists at the first opportunity, and gave them a couple of years in a dungeon before a wartime show trial days just days after Armenian genocide had commenced.

Paramaz, who’s probably the most individually famous of the twenty, has a recently-erected monument in Meghri. He’s also credited with a movingly humane exchange with an Ottoman judge, each reflecting on their respective impasse vis-a-vis nationhood and self-determination.

“The attributes of history in our reality are arranged in such a way that what constitutes ‘patriotism’ for one is viewed as destructive treason by the other,” quoth the judge (!!!) to the defendants.

And thus the mutual relations between nations living together amount to the negation of international law and social concepts. Today is the last session of these trials … There was something unusual and unqualifiable in these trials. Unqualifiable because neither you nor us had enough wisdom to penetrate each other’s [worlds].

You cannot imagine, effendis, that it is with such grief that I will pronounce the depth of my conviction regarding the patriotism accumulated in you. What can be more heartbreaking tht warm blooded beings like you full of life have sacrificed logic to sentiments … What great deeds vigorous individuals like you could have accomplished, if the ideal of a common welfare had been pursued under one banner … What benefits could have been borne from a mutual understanding that eluded [us], the other end of which is sad and dark. You languished with the idea that you are struggling against injustice; while have felt, every minute, that the rules of the world are abasing higher tendencies under the weight of cruel necessities.

This reflection led Paramaz, who today is an Armenian national hero for his martyrdom at the Turks’ hands, to reciprocate:

I, who has never cried in my life … I am not ashamed to say that I was deeply moved by the sincerity of [the judge] Khurshid Bey’s speech … and I cried, I, Paramaz, because Khurshid Bey put his finger on the wound when he stated, ‘What good deed could have been accomplished …’ I cried because in those words I found the brilliance of truth.

[Yet] we would be asking the same question, and add, What was left that we did not do for the welfare of this country. We accepted such sacrifices, we spilled so much blood and spent so much energy to bring about the brotherhood of Armenians and Turks; we lived through such suffering to elevate each other through trust. And what did we see? Not only did you condemn our gigantic efforts to sterility but also consciously pursued our annihilation …

Gentlemen, judge people by their work, by their traditions, within the realm of their ideas. I am not a separatist from this country. On the contrary it is [this country] that is separating itself from me, being incapable of coming to terms with the ideas that inspire me.

(Both quotes are as cited by Gerald Libaridian’s chapter exploring the Hunchak party’s history and doctrine, from A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire.)

Mutual empathy notwithstanding, the end for these twenty was indeed sad and dark.

* An Armenian informant named Arshavir Sahagian attended the conference and finked out its design. He was killed for his troubles on December 25, 1919, according to Raymond Kevorkian.

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1915: 22 Singapore mutineers

2 comments March 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”

A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.

This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.

The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*

On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)

Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.

Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.

And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.

And not only in the event, but in the aftermath. Prof. C.M. Turnbull noted (pdf)

In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.

* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.

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1915: Thomas and Meeks Griffin, ancestors of Tom Joyner

4 comments September 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, a quintet of African Americans died in South Carolina’s electric chair during a 70-minute span.

Joe Malloy was put to death for killing two white men four years before; the other four executed on this date were convicted together of murdering 73-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. They were John Crosby, Nelse Brice, and — our principal concern today — Thomas and Meeks Griffin.

The Griffins were among the wealthiest blacks around, and we’ve already seen where that’s a dangerous profile to keep in South Carolina.

In this case, and even though public opinion was predictably inflamed at the aged veteran, the Griffins weren’t lynched: indeed, prominent white people in the community, such as the mayor and the sheriff, rose to the Griffins’ defense to the extent of signing a petition for executive clemency. They didn’t believe then that the thief whose accusation condemned the brothers was credible.

More than likely they suspected Lewis’s 22-year-old black mistress, Anna Davis, and/or her husband — and undoubtedly, they would have known exactly why this scandalous angle was not pursued in court.

Still, South Carolina’s governor reckoned that they’d had their day in court, the victims deserved closure, and whatever other equivalents of the familiar modern-day rationales one might care to name.

Almost surely, this distant injustice would be lost to time were it not for the Griffins’ famous great-nephew, the radio host Tom Joyner.

Joyner only recently discovered (via Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s research for a PBS documentary*) his kinship with these executed men; his grandmother had moved away to Florida to bury the family tragedy.

But the broadcaster exhumed it with gusto, and, two years ago, was able to secure a posthumous pardon from South Carolina based on the weakness of the original case. It’s thought to be the first official posthumous pardon the state has granted to any executed persons.

But we do want to extend the Palmetto State the credit due to all its sons whose signatures graced the disregarded clemency petition way back when. More than that: The State editorialized, confusedly but forcefully, against the manifest racial discrepancies in capital sentencing on the occasion of this quintuple-execution. (Oct. 1, 1915) These questions, ever present, are more sincerely grappled with in this column than we can manage today.

* You can watch the big reveal when a flabbergasted Joyner first hears about his ancestors: it’s quite a moment.

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1915: George Joseph Smith, Brides in the Bath murderer

7 comments August 13th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1915, serial uxoricide George Joseph Smith was hung by the capable John Ellis at Maidstone Prison in the UK.

Smith had committed three murders and various forms of larceny as well; he’d earned his noose several times over.

Two things tend to trip people up when they’ve seemingly committed the perfect crime: either they brag about it to impress others, or they repeat the crime using the same methodology as before, since it worked so well the first time. Either of those actions greatly increases the risk of the criminal’s getting caught.

Smith made the latter mistake. He was in a sense a victim of his own success.

Smith was born on January 11, 1872. His criminal record began when he was sent to a reformatory at nine and served a seven-year sentence. In young adulthood he was in and out of prison on theft- and fraud-related convictions.

His complicated marital career began when he married Caroline Beatrice Thornhill, a domestic servant, in 1898. Smith persuaded her to steal from her employers. Caroline served time in prison as a result, and implicated her husband, who got two years for his role in the thefts.

After George Smith’s release, Caroline thought it wise to put a few thousand miles between herself and her estranged husband, and so she left the UK for Canada. She never filed for divorce, however.

Smith remained legally married to her for the rest of his life, so none of his numerous other marriages were legal.

Unlawfully Wedded …

The guy wasn’t good-looking, but he could charm like any good con artist. A year after his marriage to Caroline, Smith bigamously married another woman. He cleaned out her saving account and then deserted her.

Between 1908 and 1914, he married no fewer than seven additional women, usually under an alias, and deserted most of them after a short time, sometimes only a matter of days — but not before he helped himself to their possessions and bank accounts.

As true crime writer Harold Schechter tells it in his book The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers:

Smith initially limited himself to scamming gullible spinsters out of their life savings by luring them into bigamous marriages … The moment Smith had his hands on his new bride’s money, he would disappear. Usually telling her he was going out on an errand — to pick up a newspaper or buy a pack of cigarettes — he would never return. On one occasion, he brought his newlywed wife to the National Gallery of Art and, after viewing some paintings, excused himself to go to the bathroom. She never saw him — or her life savings — again.

That particular bride was named Sarah Faulkner. Smith had already plundered £350 in cash from her and her jewelry as well, and while she was waiting for him to return from the loo he was back at their hotel, swiping her clothing and the rest of her money.

The only wife that didn’t fit this pattern was Edith Pegler.

Smith was away from her side for months at a time on “business trips” and when he returned it was always to ask for money, but he never left her for good and they remained together for seven years. As to whether he actually harbored some form of affection for her or whether he just didn’t want to kill his cash cow while it was still milkable, we can only speculate.

Yet all these women were, in a sense, lucky.

Smith may have broken their hearts and taken their cash, but he left them their lives.

… ‘Til Death Do Us Part

The first unlucky wife was Bessie Mundy, whom Smith murdered on July 13, 1912.

They’d married in August 1910, but he left her after persuading her to give him £150 in cash. On the way out the door, he accused her of giving him a venereal disease.

Eighteen months later, Bessie ran into Smith on the street. Somehow, the charmer got his ex to forgive him and resume their relationship.

In fact, Smith wanted to get his hands on Bessie’s £2,500 inheritance, but it was in trust and he couldn’t touch it.

After their reunion, the couple drew up mutual wills, naming each other as beneficiaries. Bessie willed her husband £2,579. Less than a week later, she was mysteriously dead.

Smith rented a house for them in Herne Bay and had a new cast-iron bathtub installed. Tragically, Bessie drowned in the bath. Her husband said he’d been out buying dinner and returned to discover the body.

Since Smith claimed his bride suffered from epilepsy and that she’d had a seizure the day before she died, it was easy to believe she’d simply had an unfortunate accident.

In spite of his newfound wealth, Smith had Bessie consigned to a pauper’s grave and even returned the slightly-used bathtub to the ironmonger for a £1 17s. refund.

This, perhaps, is where Smith might have counted himself lucky and checked out of the homicide business — or at least thought about a different m.o. Instead, hubris and habit got him hanged.

The Brides of Bath murder victims: from left to right, Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty.

Next to go was Alice Burnham, who was making a goodly living as a nurse. Smith married on November 4, 1913, and became her widower on December 13.

Alice and her new husband were honeymooning at a seaside boardinghouse in Blackpool when she drowned in the bathtub while he was supposedly out getting eggs.

Smith, who claimed she had a weak heart, had insured her life for £500. She too was buried on the cheap.

Margaret Elizabeth Lofty died in her London home a little over a year later, on December 18, 1914. Newspapers reported she had drowned in the bathtub while her husband — identified as Robert Lloyd — was out buying tomatoes. He and the landlady found the body. Lofty and “Lloyd” had married only the day before and, appropriately enough, the ceremony was performed in the city of Bath.

Although it was initially classified as death by misadventure, Margaret’s murder ultimately lead to Smith’s downfall.

Rotten luck, it was: Alice Burnham’s father read an account of her death in the newspaper and, even though the husband had a different name, he couldn’t help but notice that Margaret’s death was suspiciously similar to his daughter’s.

Joseph Crossley, who was the couple’s landlord at the time of Alice’s death, noticed the same thing. Since both the Burnhams and Crossleys had taken a dislike to Smith from the get-go, they both wrote the police, asking them to open an investigation.

Authorities quickly determined that George Joseph Smith and Robert Lloyd were the same man. They sure had the same playbook.

Margaret had made out a will just hours before she died, naming her husband the sole heir to her estate. She had also withdrawn her life savings from the bank the same day, and three days before she had taken out a £700 life insurance policy on herself, with her husband as the beneficiary. Ka-ching.

When the grieving widower showed up at the insurance office to collect on Margaret’s policy, he was arrested. Lloyd/Smith was initially charged with putting a false name on a marriage certificate, but bigamy and murder charges would follow fast.

When news of the arrest was published, a police chief from Kent read the story and told the London police about Bessie Mundy’s death, which was strikingly similar to the other two.

Forever Hold Your Peace

But how could he could have drowned the women in the tub, without leaving marks of violence on their body?

Margaret had only a small bruise on her elbow. For answers, the police turned to renowned pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. The first thing he did was exhume the bodies to determine whether the women had, in fact, drowned. They had.

After experimenting with the very same bathtub Margaret Lofty died in, he determined how it might have happened. John Brophy, a crime writer, describes it chillingly:

With honeymoon playfulness he would enter the room where his bride was already in the bath, admire her naked beauty, bend over her fondly, and, still murmuring endearments, hold her feet. Suddenly, he would tug her feet upward, jerking her head at the end of the bath, below the water, so that in a few moments she would be drowned with no bruises on the body or other signs of assault or resistance.

Effective. Actually, you can see why he stuck to his system.

When Smith went to trial, it was only for the murder of Bessie; British law didn’t permit him to be tried for multiple murders in one go. However, the prosecution wanted to bring evidence in the Lofty and Burham deaths into the trial, arguing that they indicated a criminal “system.”

The judge allowed it, setting a precedent that would be used in later criminal cases.

In pretrial investigations later described in court, Spilsbury demonstrated his murder theory using Bessie’s bathtub and a female police officer in a bathing suit. It worked all too well: she lost consciousness immediately and they had to drag her out of the tub and perform artificial respiration to revive her.

No wonder the jury was only out for twenty-two minutes before it delivered a guilty verdict.

Caroline Thornhill, Smith’s legal wife, returned to Britain for his trial. She married a Canadian soldier the day after his execution.

The “Brides in the Bath” case has remained vividly alive in British memory.

The historian Harold Nicholson compared Smith’s behavior to Adolf Hitler’s in his 1939 book, Why Britain is at War; Smith was mentioned in novels by Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and in 1952 the case was made into an episode for the true-crime radio show The Black Museum.

[audio:http://www.archive.org/download/OTRR_Black_Museum_Singles/BlackMuseum-03-TheBathTub.mp3]

More recently, in 2003 the murders were featured into made-for-TV movie called The Brides in the Bath.

Warning: Video contains NSFW naked ladyparts. Oh, and homicide.

At least two plays, Tryst and The Drowning Girls, are based on the story. In 2010, the author Jane Robins published a book about the case, called The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Pelf,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Theft

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1915: Charles Becker

Add comment July 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, New York City cop and New York City mafioso Charles Becker was electrocuted at Sing Sing for engineering a hit on bookie Herman Rosenthal.

This case of police corruption and gangland gunplay owned the Big Apple’s headlines in the early nineteen-teens — it even gets a callout in The Great Gatsby. Whether it was rightly decided has been hotly contested ever since.

Author Mike Dash, who maintains a dashing historical blog, delved into this Jabba’s Palace in Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Political Corruption and New York’s Trial of the Century. He was generous enough to grant Executed Today permission to excerpt Satan’s Circus for the narration of Becker’s last hours.


Sing Sing had already prepared for Becker’s death.

Invitations had been despatched in the middle of July to those chosen to witness the execution. There were three dozen in total, and they went to doctors and to a sanitary engineer, to representatives of the press, and to the operators of several wire services. One, scarcely surprisingly, was sent to Swope of the World, but the reporter — to his undoubted chagrin — was recuperating from a bout of rheumatic fever and his doctor had forbidden him to attend. Swope despatched another World reporter in his stead; the man arrived at Ossining bearing a large sheaf of handwritten instructions setting out in considerable detail exactly how the story should be covered. Preparations were also made to cater for the needs of the large body of newsmen expected to descend on Sing Sing without the benefit of invitations. Linemen spent several days installing additional telegraph wires and Morse code senders in a shack opposite the death–house.

Inside the condemned cells, white curtains were fitted across the bars of all the cells that Becker would have to pass on his way to the execution chamber, so that the other inmates would not be able to see him as he walked by. In the execution chamber, guards tested each piece of equipment. The lieutenant’s electrocution was scheduled to be the first at which a new system of signals would be used, as the New York Times reported:

Instead of the old method, by which the executioner signalled with his arm to the man in charge at the power plant, there is a little electric button behind the chair, and above it is tacked a placard bearing the following gruesomely suggestive instructions: “Five bells, get ready; one bell, turn on the current; two bells, turn on more current; three bells, turn on less current; one bell, shut off current; six bells, all through.”

New York’s newspapers remained predominantly hostile to the condemned man. The Times spoke for most of the Manhattan press when it observed that Becker’s death sentence was a punishment not just for Herman’ s death, but for the arrogance Rosenthal’s killer had displayed during his strong–arm days: ‘He paid for the times when “Big Tim” called him “Charlie”. He paid for his one–time power, that almost of a dictator, over the underworld of New York. And he paid for his pride in all this.’ Several dailies had issued their reporters with instructions to study Becker carefully for signs of weakness or incipient collapse; in the end, opinion seemed evenly divided between those who thought that the policeman continued to display an ‘iron nerve in the face of doom’ and those who discerned the onset of a nervous breakdown.

The lawyers were more generous. [Williiam] Bourke Cockran paid tribute to his client’s astounding self–control: ‘His hand is just as cool and his voice as steady as can be.’ John McIntyre said that he had never previously doubted the verdict of a jury in a murder trial. ‘But in this case I say that if Becker is executed tomorrow I will carry to my grave the conviction that at least one innocent man has suffered the death penalty.’ And Joseph Shay, another of the lieutenant’s old attorneys, released a statement of his own: ‘I believe that Becker is dying a martyr, and that his innocence will be established in time, perhaps by the deathbed confession of Vallon or Webber. Rose is too low to confess even on his deathbed.’

Becker himself was woken early on his last morning. At 8am his prison clothes were exchanged for special black cotton shirt and trousers, made without metal buttons or wire stitching; he was given black felt slippers instead of shoes. A guard shaved a spot on his temple, ready for the electrode. Another appeared carrying a pair of shears and neatly slit Becker’s trouser leg almost to the knee. When the time came this would allow the death–house guards to affix a second wire to the condemned man’s calf.

The next portion of the day was passed in writing: a love letter for his wife, a final statement for the press. At two in the afternoon the policeman saw his relatives for the last time. His brothers John, the detective, and Jackson, now a Wall Street broker, found him sitting in his cell, gazing at a small photograph of Helen that he kept on the wall. The meeting was so difficult that the two men were relieved when one of the other prisoners along death row broke the awkward silence by singing ‘Rock of Ages’. Becker joined in with the chorus.

Helen Becker reached Sing Sing, pale and breathless from her journey, soon after 11pm. Her husband had been waiting for her with increasing anxiety for most of the evening. Becker was so popular in the death–house that he had received special permission to spend more than an hour and a half with his wife in the warden’s room. The guards, who had been given strict instructions to keep their eyes on the prisoner at all times, turned their backs as the couple embraced for the final time. ‘No condemned man at the prison had ever had such sympathetic treatment,’ observed the World.

Helen left the prison at 1.30 in the morning, and Becker was returned to his cell. ‘I am tired of the world and its injustice to me,’ he told Father Curry, the New York priest. ‘My happy life has been ruined; I have not been given a chance a mere dog would get.’ Warden Osborne, coming to say good-bye at 2.30am, found his prisoner awake and sitting on the edge of his cot, ‘his chin sunk in his hands’. At four, Father Cashin heard Becker’ s last confession, which contained no admission of guilt and ended with the firm assertion: ‘I am sacrificed for my friends.’

The execution was set for 5.45am. Outside the walls, a double line of guards poked long sticks through the fence that marked the limit of the prison grounds to keep back the crowds assembling there. Inside, the executioner – a small, sharp-faced, balding electrician dressed in a baggy grey sack suit, a striped shirt, polka–dot tie and pointed patent leather shoes – checked his equipment for the final time.

Becker was the one hundred and sixteenth prisoner to die at Sing Sing since electrocution was first used to execute a man in August 1890. The victim on that occasion had been an axe-murderer named William Kemmler, who was accidentally subjected to ‘a far more powerful current than was necessary’ and died ‘in convulsive agony’, flames jetting from the base of his spine and purplish foam spewing from his lips. The technique for electrocuting a man had been refined somewhat since then, but it was still common for the death-house to fill with the odour of burning flesh and scorched hair as the moistened electrical conductors placed against the condemned man’s skin dried out. A lengthy electric shock could ‘turn blood into charcoal and boil a brain’. When a prisoner was ready to enter the chamber, he was issued with thick muslin underwear, and little wads of cotton would be forced into his ears and nostrils to prevent scalding brain fluids spurting forth uncontrollably when the current was applied.

Thomas Mott Osborne, who had vowed never to be present when a man in his charge was being executed, walked away from the death–house at 5am, leaving Deputy Warden Johnson to bring the policeman from his cell. Becker, who was still awake when Johnson came for him, went quietly to his death. A dozen steps took him from his cot to the door leading to the execution chamber. At 5.42 the witnesses clustering inside saw a narrow red door swing open, and the condemned man entered the room. He walked with a strange, hobbled gait, his knees locking involuntarily. His face was a mask. The chair, surprisingly insubstantial, stood on a thick rubber mat almost in the centre of the room. There was no glass and no partition to separate Becker from the witnesses who had come to watch him die, the nearest of whom sat only 10 feet away. The electric chair itself, the man from the American observed, ‘had had a double coat of varnish and its metal fixtures had been burnished for the occasion.’ Straps dangled loosely from its arms and legs, and a heavily–insulated wire hung from a goose-necked fixture above it. The policeman’s guards, anxious to spare the condemned man the agony of a lengthy wait, hurried so much with the buckles that they neglected to secure one of the restraints that stretched over his chest. Becker’s last words, uttered as another leather strap was fastened across his mouth, were a recitation of the Catholic litany: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’

Five bells rang, then one. The executioner took his hands out of his pockets and threw a long wooden lever on the wall. The raucous drone of electricity filled the room, a green flash shot from the equipment and Becker’s muscular body lurched forward against the straps, his head twisting sideways and upwards as though attempting to escape the shock.

Charley Becker was the largest man ever brought into the execution chamber at Sing Sing, and it may be for this reason that his electrocution was horribly botched. Too little current was applied at first, so that the death agonies became protracted. The temperature within the dying man’ s body rose to 140 F, the loose strap across his chest burst open, flames were seen to spurt from his temple, and despite the administration of 1,850 volts for a full 60 seconds, Charles Farr, the death–house doctor, found Becker’s heart ‘not only still beating, but pounding strongly.’ In the end it took nine minutes and three separate jolts to kill the prisoner, though the representative of the World observed that ‘to those who sat in the grey-walled room and listened to the rasping sound of the wooden switch lever being thrown backward and forward, and watched the greenish-blue blaze at the victim’s head and feet and the grayish smoke curling away from the scorched flesh, it seemed an hour.’ The whole affair was described in later years as ‘the clumsiest execution in the history of Sing Sing.’

As the reporters gathered to witness the execution filed out of the chamber, they were handed copies of Becker’s final letters. The first was addressed to Governor Whitman:

You have proved yourself able to destroy my life. But mark well, Sir, these words of mine. When your power passes, the truth about Rosenthal’s murder will become known. Not all the judges in this State, nor in this country, can destroy permanently the character of an innocent man.

The second letter was a final testament. Becker had spent much of the night memorising it, in the hope of being allowed to deliver it himself, but the guards had not permitted this.

‘I stand before you,’ this statement began,

in my full senses knowing that no power on earth can save me from the grave that is to receive me, and in the presence of my God and your God I proclaim my absolute innocence of the crime for which I must die. You are now about to witness my destruction by the State … And on the brink of my grave, I declare to the world that I am proud to have been the husband of the purest, noblest woman that ever lived, Helen Becker. This acknowledgement is the only legacy I can leave her. I bid you all goodbye. Father, I am ready to go.

CHARLES BECKER

When most of the reporters had left, Becker’s corpse was removed to the autopsy room for the usual examination, arms dangling, head hanging back, legs swinging. Dr Farr stripped the black cotton shirt from the lieutenant’s hulking body, and was startled to discover that it concealed the little photo of Helen that Becker had kept on the wall of his cell. The dead man had pinned it to his undershirt, with the face turned inward, over his heart.

I have no idea.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,Other Voices,Pelf,USA,Wrongful Executions

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