1927: Three persistent escapees

1 comment July 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Illinois conducted a public triple hanging, actually among the last public hangings in the state’s history.*

Charlie Duschowski, Walter Stalesky, Charles Shader, Roberto Torrez, Gregario Rizo and Barnardo Roa had busted out of the old Collins Street Prison in Joliet, along with a seventh man named James Price. In the process, they killed Assistant Warden, and former policeman, Peter Klein.

This has dirty Chicago politics from the Prohibition era all over it.

The events angered much of the general public, but among Chicago Mexicans, the fugitives became heroes. Will County officials investigated allegations that Klein belonged to a parole-selling ring headed by Will Colvin, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The newspapers also reported that Chicago police had arrested Klein for selling bootleg liquor while still warden and for allowing prisoners to leave the prison and commit robberies so they could raise money for paroles. (Source)

At any rate, six of the men — all but James Price — were recaptured and condemned to die.

However, friends and relatives of the “doomed” Mexican trio began smuggling in saw blades with their care packages, and by March 1927, Rizo and Roa were hard at work sawing through their bars while the songbird Torrez covered them by belting out La Paloma for days on end.

Roa made a clean getaway, but Rizo and Torrez were taken after a few days in a south Chicago shootout. Now the proposed gallows club was down to five.

Nothing daunted, the three white folk in the party attempted their own breakout by picking their cell lock — joined by Rizo, who would find that the third time was not the charm. Taking sheriff Alfred E. Markgraf hostage, they attempted to drive out of the jail yard: Rizo was shot dead in the resulting fusillade, but somehow Charles Shader managed to scramble away in the mayhem as his compatriots were being re-arrested.

So now, with Shader, Roa, and Price on the lam and Rizo on the ice, only three guys remained to hang.

Left to right: Duschowski, Stalesky, and Torrez.

Notwithstanding the abysmal retention percentage, the prospect of a public triple hanging was a tremendous draw — no less so for the elusive desperadoes’ talent for grabbing headlines afresh every few weeks. A raucous crowd pressed around a sizable detail of riflemen who had good reason to suspect one last bid for freedom. (In a failure of showmanship, that did not happen.) The widow of the original victim even petitioned to throw the trap to drop them. (Ditto.)

So nothing remained but to visit justice upon them.

But not only upon them.

According to the July 17, 1927 Chicago Tribune, the curiosity of the spectacle made it an irresistible lure to yet another fugitive. What was it about Illinois jails in the Roaring Twenties?

Lincoln, Ill., July 16. — (AP) Albert “Blackie” Logan, escaped prisoner from the Logan county jail, is under arrest again here today, awaiting trial for safecracking. Logan ventured from concealment to see the three murderers of Deputy Warden Peter Klein hanged at Joliet. He was recognized by the sheriff.

As for the three escapees:

  • Shader was recaptured and hanged on October 10, 1928. It was the last hanging in the state’s history.
  • Price made it to New York, where he eventually wound up in prison for robbery. Illinois got him back in 1937, gave him a long prison term, and eventually paroled the guy in the 1960s.
  • Roa made it to Mexico, dodged a couple of near-miss extradition attempts, and was never returned to the tender mercies of Illinois. His fate after 1948 (the last time he was arrested, and an extradition fell through) is unknown.

* They were also the first executed in July of 1927, which was important because July 1 was the date Illinois adopted a switch to the electric chair. The change was not retroactive to crimes before that date, however, so it was the gallows for these fellows and several others into the following year.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1927: Martyrdom of Five Christeros

Add comment October 8th, 2010 Headsman

Artist unknown. The inscription reads:

Execution of Cristeros by federal soldiers on the outskirts of San Gabriel, Jalisco, October 8, 1927. On the same site, the soldiers were ambushed, suffering the same fate.

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1927: Sacco and Vanzetti (and Celestino Madeiros)

10 comments August 23rd, 2010 Headsman

America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die

-Allen Ginsberg, “America” (mp3)

We have now reached a stage of the case the details of which shake one’s confidence in the whole course of the proceedings and reveal a situation which undermines the respect usually to be accorded to a jury’s verdict.

-Felix Frankfurter in The Atlantic

America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul

their hired men sit on the judge`s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants

they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch

all right we are two nations

. . .

but do they know the old words of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here …

the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died.

John Dos Passos, The Big Money (part of the U.S.A. trilogy)

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited —
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued —
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here is the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children`s children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts”

If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.

-Bartolomeo Vanzetti


Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

A recently discovered letter indicates that Upton Sinclair was convinced of his subjects’ guilt.

“Alone in a hotel room with Fred [Moore], I begged him to tell me the full truth … He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them … I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life at that point … I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case.”

But Sinclair had reasons beyond the “ethical” to tell what he saw as the larger truth. From a different letter:

“My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book … Of course, the next big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims … It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public.”

Well, the dying time came, the legal midnight hour,
The moment set by law for the Chair to be at work,
To substantiate the majesty of the State of Massachusetts
That hour was at hand, had arrived, was struck by the clocks,
The time for two men to be carried cool on a cooling board
Beyond the immeasurably thin walls between day and night,
Beyond the reach of airmail, telegrams, radiophones,
Beyond the brotherhoods of blood into the fraternities
Of mist and foggy dew, of stars and ice.
 The time was on for two men
 To march beyond blood into dust —
 A time that comes to all men,
 Some with a few loved ones at a bedside,
 Some alone in the wilderness or the wide sea,
 Some before a vast audience of all manking.

 Now Sacco saw the witnesses
 As the straps were fitted on
 Tying him down in the Chair —
 And seeing the witnesses were
Respectable men and responsible citizens
And even though there had been no introductions,
 Sacco said, “Good-evening, gentlemen.”
And before the last of the straps was fastened so to hold
Sacco murmured, “Farewell, mother.”

Then came Vanzetti.
He wished the vast audience of all mankind
To know something he carried in his breast.
This was the time to tell it.
He had to speak now or hold his peace forever.
The headgear was being clamped on.
The straps muffling his mouth were going on.
He shouted, “I wish to forgive some people
  for what they are now doing.”
 And so now
 the dead are dead????

-Carl Sandburg, “Legal Midnight Hour”


(The executions took place just after midnight Aug. 22-23)

THE names of the “good shoe-maker and poor fish-peddler” have ceased to represent merely two Italian workingmen. Throughout the civilised world Sacco and Vanzetti have become a symbol, the shibboleth of Justice crushed by Might. That is the great historic significance of this twentieth century crucifixion, and truly prophetic, were the words of Vanzetti when he declared, “The last moment belongs to us–that agony is our triumph.”

Vanzetti was right when he declared that his execution was his greatest triumph, for all through history it has been the martyrs of progress that have ultimately triumphed. Where are the Caesars and Torquemadas of yesterday? Who remembers the names of the judges who condemned Giordano Bruno and John Brown? The Parsons and the Ferrers, the Saccos and Vanzettis live eternal and their spirits still march on.

-Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, “Sacco and Vanzetti”

Starting points for the many Sacco and Vanzetti resources online: Famous American Trials | Wikipedia | Massachusetts Supreme Court virtual tour | American Writers and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case

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1927: Father Miguel Pro, “Viva Cristo Rey!”

4 comments November 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1927, the anti-clerical Mexican government made the emblematic martyr of the Cristero War.

This video is in Spanish, but the storyline is pretty easy to follow — young man finds faith, lives faith, dies faith.

Miguel Pro‘s dying cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long live Christ the King!” — was a refrain of Cristeros, anti-government guerrillas who in the late 1920’s fought the revolutionary Mexican government’s attempts to forcibly restrict the power of the Catholic Church.

That conflict had been brewing for years, an outgrowth of Mexico’s own complex history of colonization and development — measures to restrict the church’s size, wealth, and social reach had been mooted and sometimes implemented well back to the middle of the 19th century.

Early in the 20th, the confrontation was merely a twist on its classic form: liberal state-builders and the Catholic hierarchy were (or increasingly saw themselves as) diametrically opposed in their vision for Mexico.

That conflict came to a head under president Plutarco Elias Calles, an irreligious northerner with a project of national capital development for whom the church’s intransigence from its agrarian strongholds was most unwelcome … and who seemed to delight in provoking Rome with sport like mandatory physicals for priests, not neglecting to publicize the incidence of venereal disease thereby revealed.

Liberals had already brought about drastically reduced clerical privileges in the Mexican Constitution of 1917; its somewhat draconian measures were neither fully enforced nor fully resisted, but initiated a period where the two hostile institutions rudely grappled for their respective spheres of influence on the ground.

Calles was the rudest grappler of all, and his 1926 Calles Law pushed for anti-clericalism stricter than the letter of the constitution … and sparked armed resistance.

It was an exceptionally dirty war with routine summary executions on both sides and thousands of Catholic refugees — a dangerous environment for any priest with legal sanctions against basically every practice of the vocation. (Photos of Cristeros, some in heroic resistance and others in grisly martyrdom, can be eyeballed here.)

Pro, a Jesuit who like many was forced underground, was under state surveillance and got picked up in the aftermath of an assassination attempt against a prominent politician. He was chosen to make an example of — without an actual trial, possibly because there’s no actual reason to think he was involved in the bombing.

Looking at these pictures of Pro’s last moments, it’s hard to believe that they were taken and circulated at government direction to cow the Cristero movement. Fail.


Led out to execution in a police courtyard. The place of his death today is (bizarrely) Calle Loteria Nacional.


Calmly at prayer before his death, under the eye of the firing squad commander.


Pro himself refused a blindfold. But why state authorities carrying out the execution with an eye towards public relations would allow him to die in this pose is anyone’s guess.


He blessed and forgave the firing squad, of course.


Just beginning to topple at the moment the bullets struck him.


Like many firing squad executions, this one failed to kill its victim with the ceremonial volley. Pro was finished off with a coup de grace.

Calles was simultaneously — the key measures were also enacted in 1926 — involved in a confrontation with the United States over oil rights, a situation that came to the brink of war, with Washington saber-rattling about “Soviet Mexico”. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two situations weren’t related, especially since the new American ambassador* who had arrived only the month before Pro’s execution would ultimately negotiate both situations’ resolutions.

While the natural resource politics went their separate way, the Mexican Revolution’s anti-clerical strain didn’t so much disappear by negotiation as fade away over decades, with regular new outbreaks.

One thinks of Mexico today as such so staunch a Catholic country that it’s hard to imagine that some of these provisions were only officially repealed in 1998.

As for Pro, he’s welcome in Mexico by now — celebrated by Pope John Paul II who ultimately beatified him, and the inspirational source of this hymn whose refrain is his famous last cry.

There’s a faithful site in his honor here, and apparently a shrine to him in Houston, Texas run by a group pushing for his canonization.

* The American ambassador in question, Dwight Morrow, invited Charles Lindbergh on a goodwill tour to Mexico, where the aviator would meet the diplomat’s daughter not long after Miguel Pro’s martyrdom. Little could Lindbergh and Anne Morrow suspect that their love match would set them on the path to their own famous encounter with capital punishment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1927: Rajendra Lahiri

Add comment December 17th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Bengali revolutionary Rajendra Lahiri was hanged by the British colonial government for his part in a notorious train robbery.

The 35-year-old post graduate was one of ten members of the anti-British Hindustan Republican Association involved in daringly robbing the Number 8 Down Train in Uttar Pradesh two years before — the so-called Kakori train robbery.

They escaped with a supply of treasury money to fund their operations. Perhaps more importantly, they struck a spectacular public blow against the empire.

The Kakori train robbery, as depicted in the Indian film Rang De Basanti.

Four of the conspirators were condemned to hang, to considerable popular outrage. Lahiri died first, and though less illustrious than ringleaders Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan who would follow in the next few days, is like them now remembered as a martyr for independence

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Theft

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