1936: Arthur Gooch, the only execution under the Lindbergh Law

1 comment June 19th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1936 marks the first and only occasion that the federal government hanged a (non-murdering) kidnapper under the Lindbergh Law.

Even before the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the “snatch racket” of kidnappings for ransom had claimed a firm foothold among Depression-era America’s moral panics. The bill that would become known as the Lindbergh Law was actually introduced in Congress three months before little Charles Lindbergh, Jr. disappeared out the window of his New Jersey nursery. Its sponsors were Missouri lawmakers concerned that gang-ridden St. Louis was becoming a kidnapping hub, like the high-profile 1931 abduction of Dr. Isaac Kelley.*

The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.

The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.

At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.

Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.

They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.

A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.

Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.

Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.

By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.

But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)

Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.


Arthur Gooch on the gallows

* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Oklahoma,U.S. Federal,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1936: Harry Singer, in the holiday spirit

Add comment December 26th, 2013 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

(Said to a guard) “The chair will be a good enough [Christmas] present for me.”

— Harry Singer, convicted of murder, electric chair, Indiana.

Executed December 26, 1936

The twenty-five-year-old former farmhand kept mostly to himself Christmas Day, playing checkers and eating “heartily,” according to the Associated Press. Few details of the crime have survived, except the names of his victims: Mr. and Mrs. John Wesley Kaufman and their daughter, age twelve. In prison, Singer also confessed to the murder of Joseph Bryant, age twenty, of Detroit.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , ,

1936: Manuel Goded Llopis

1 comment August 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Spanish Republic executed Gen. Manuel Goded Llopis, who mounted an unsuccessful nationalist attack in the heart of Republican Spain, Barcelona.

Goded (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was born of Catalan ancestry in Puerto Rico. His family moved back to the mother country when the United States stripped that territory away in the Spanish-American War.

Goded advanced rapidly through the armed forces, becoming dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera‘s chief of staff by 1927. He was dismissed from this post for intriguing against the government, but soon found his way back to command and became (Spanish link) one of the circle of officers conspiring to check the advance of the left.

When the anti-Republican military mounted the revolt that became the Spanish Civil War, Goded was in Catalonia — freshly arrived on a mission to snatch Barcelona for the fascists at the revolt’s outset. Forces loyal to the Republican government, however, defeated Goded in the streets of Barcelona on 19 July. The general himself was captured on 11 August. A Republican court had him shot at Montjuic the very next day, along with another officer, Alvaro Fernandez Burriel.

His defeat, in the long run, might have been a gift by the Republicans to their conquerors: Goded was a partner but also a rival of Francisco Franco’s, and Goded’s presence in the postwar settlement among the nationalist victors might have introduced a fault line into the Franco regime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , ,

1936: Josep Sunyol, FC Barcelona President

Add comment August 6th, 2013 Headsman

FC Barcelona is many a sportive leftist’s major European football side of choice, thanks to the club’s longtime identification with its city’s Catalan anti-Francoism.

That identification, stretching all the way back to the club’s formative early-20th century years (“History of FC Barcelona” enjoys its own voluminous Wikipedia page) put the Barca president at the end of fascist guns on this date in 1936.

Josep Sunyol was born into the Catalan elite, and had a varied career in the public eye: left activist, parliamentary deputy, newspaper founder, and, come 1935, president of FC Barcelona. He’d been serving on the Barca board of directors since 1928. There’s a lengthy Sunyol biography here.


At the center of the rail, Sunyol (left) chats with Catalan president Lluis Companys. (Source)

It was in his political, rather than his footballing, capacity that in August 1936 — just days into the Spanish Civil War — Sunyol traveled from Barcelona to Madrid to meet with fellow Republicans.

He never made it back.

On the return trip from Madrid, Sunyol’s chauffeured car flying the Catalan senyera was stopped by pro-Franco Falangist forces in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid. It may have been only inadvertently that Sunyol crossed this checkpoint of nationalists, who were already gathering for an attack on Madrid that would eventually inspire For Whom The Bell Tolls. (Indeed, this novel is set in the Sierra de Guadarrama.)

Whatever Sunyol’s intention, he was quickly recognized and detained by his foes on the evening of August 6. Shortly thereafter, they decided to shoot him out of hand.

The civil war and the era of Franco are still sensitive topic in Spain, but FC Barcelona’s politically engaged supporters have pushed the present-day club (with partial success) to more overtly embrace its anti-fascist “martyr president”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Shot,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1936: Arnold Sodeman, Schoolgirl Strangler

6 comments June 1st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Australia’s Arnold Karl Sodeman was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Coburg, Victoria.

The “Schoolgirl Strangler” used the same modus operandi on all of his four victims: strangled, gagged with their own clothing, the arms and legs tied after death, and their bodies dumped with little effort at concealment.

Born in 1899, Sodeman was raised in an unhappy home with a violently abusive father. He ran away at the first chance he got.

He went on to get in trouble with the law, for theft-related offenses and prison escape, and the authorities deemed him an “incorrigible rogue” — which was less charming than it sounds.

By his late twenties, Sodeman seemed to have settled down. He worked various laboring jobs, married in 1926 and had a daughter two years later. When sober he was a mild enough man, but under the influence of drink — which was often — he changed into a different person altogether.

However, his marriage was loving and happy, and he adored his little girl and his dog. Whatever else Sodeman might have done, he never mistreated his family.

His law-abiding life, however, didn’t last.

His first victim was twelve-year-old Mena Alexandra Griffiths, whom Sodeman kidnapped, raped and strangled on November 9, 1930. Her body wasn’t found for two days. She was the only victim who was sexually assaulted.

A month later the police arrested a suspect, a truck driver named Robert McMahon. Mena’s younger sister identified him, and he was committed for trial. Ultimately, after two and a half months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.

But on January 10, 1931, while McMahon was still in jail, Sodeman struck again, abducting and strangling Hazel Wilson, a sixteen-year-old who suffered from tuberculosis. Hazel was last seen standing near her home, smoking a cigarette and horsing around with an unidentified young man. Her body turned up in a nearby vacant lot the next day.

The police put out appeals for the young man to come forward and “assist with their inquiries,” and even offered a reward for information leading to his identification, but their efforts came to nothing.

Hazel’s father, who reportedly had a violent temper, was looked at as a possible suspect in his daughter’s death, but he was cleared.

Although the police recognized the similarities in the Griffiths and Wilson crimes and realized it was probably the same perp in both cases, they had nothing concrete to go on. Both homicide investigations stagnated.

On January 1, 1935, after a four-year dry spell, Sodeman abducted Ethel Belshaw while she was out buying ice cream, and strangled her. She was twelve. He was her next-door neighbor and sometimes had tea with her family.

Sodeman was actually questioned by the police and admitted he had spoken to Ethel on the day she disappeared, but he said he’d left her alive, and nobody pressed him about it.

Instead, investigators focused on a teenage boy who had given contradictory statements about his movements on the day of the murder. He was arrested and charged with killing Ethel, but there was no evidence against him and the case was dismissed after a couple of days.

Left to right: Mena Griffiths, Ethel Belshaw, and June Rushmer. (Not pictured: Hazel Wilson.)

Exactly eleven months later, on December 1, he killed his last and youngest victim, six-year-old June Rushmer.

This victim he also knew slightly: she was a co-worker’s daughter, and Sodeman took it in his mind to kill her after she asked him for a ride on his bicycle.

(The Belshaws and the Rushmers couldn’t afford tombstones for their daughters. It wasn’t until more than seventy-five years later that the Australian Funeral Directors Association donated bronze plaques to mark their graves.)

It should be noted that Sodeman was drunk at the time of all four murders. “When in this state,” he reflected later, “thoughts would go through my mind concerning men, women and children whom I disliked … I would feel the desire to even it up, not caring what happened to them, but I would shake it off. As soon as the liquor wore off I could reason properly and would wipe it all off.”

At the time of the Rushmer homicide, Sodeman was part of a laboring crew repairing roadways.

Shortly after June’s murder, one of his coworkers joked that he’d seen Sodeman near the crime scene. Sodeman became so angry and defensive that the others got suspicious and went to the police. The cops hauled him away from his work site for questioning.

This time the police had finally got the right man. After twelve hours of interrogation, Sodeman confessed to everything in great detail, describing how he would link his thumbs together to get a better grip on the throats of his victims. He correctly identified the exact type of candy he’d used to lure the girls. He also admitted to the attempted murders of two other children.

At trial, Sodeman’s attorney had little choice but to go with an insanity defense. Sodeman certainly had the genetic background for it:

  • His great-grandfather died of “inflammation of the brain.”
  • His grandfather died in a mental hospital.
  • So did his father.
  • Annnnnd his mother suffered from serious short-term memory loss.

Sodeman himself had bouts of depression throughout his life, and he sustained a serious brain injury years before the murders started when he fell off a horse.

According to author Ivan Chapman, at Sodeman’s trial,

Three doctors — two of them Government medical officers — examined Sodeman and gave their individual opinions. One thought he had a brain disorder that flared when he drank alcohol; another decided he was neither conscious of, nor understood, what he was doing; the third believed Sodeman was not responsible for what he did. All three doctors backed down, however, when Sodeman’s confession was produced in court. They agreed that if it accurately described the facts of the crime, then Sodeman must have appreciated the nature and quality of his acts; none of them was prepared to declare him certifiably insane.

The verdict was, inevitably, sane and guilty as charged.

Although he did appeal his conviction, that went nowhere and Sodeman himself seems to have welcomed death. He said he felt it was necessary for him to die, because if he lived he believed he would kill again.

Sodeman spent the last afternoon of his life playing draughts with another condemned man, then slept soundly during the night. On the scaffold the next morning, when asked if he had anything to say for himself, Sodeman replied simply, “No, sir.” He died without any fuss.

His widow reverted to her maiden name after his death, hoping to escape the notoriety, and raised their daughter alone. She never remarried, and died in the 1980s.

The autopsy did uncover something interesting: it turned out Sodeman had suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease of the brain. When a person with this condition abuses alcohol, their brain can become seriously inflamed, which can cause irrational behavior among other symptoms.

Needless to say, the finding casts serious doubts on Sodeman’s ability to control his actions at the time of the murders. In fact, according to one criminal psychologist, Sodeman wouldn’t have even been found fit to stand trial if his crimes had occurred today.

But it was too late to do anything about it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Serial Killers

Tags: , , , ,

1936: Buck Ruxton, red stains

12 comments May 12th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.

A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.

He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.

Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.

The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.

On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:

Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well

Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”

In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.

This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.

Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.

Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.

Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.

Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.

The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.

Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.

The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.

The Ruxton case, a smashing tabloid hit in its day, has been the subject of its own book, T.F. Potter’s The Deadly Dr. Ruxton: How They Caught a Lancashire Double Killer. It’s also featured in many general true crime books, including Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson’s Crimes of Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Colin Evans’s The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, and Harold Schechter’s A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1936: George W. Barrett, the first to hang for killing an FBI man

19 comments March 24th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Kentucky native George W. Barrett was hanged in Lockport, Indiana.

A rather nasty but ordinary enough career criminal specializing in car theft, Barrett also dabbled in murder. According to Keven McQueen’s book Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics, in 1930 he shot to death his elderly mother and his sister (who lingered for an extended time before dying of pneumonia, the consequence of her wounds), but pleaded “self-defense.”

Two juries were unable to reach a verdict.

Minor detail: Barrett’s cousin, Frank Baker, was the prosecutor in that case, and observers noted he appeared rather less than zealous about convicting his relative; the judge even remarked that Baker sounded more like Barrett’s defense attorney.

After his 1931 murder trial, a decidedly ungrateful Barrett allegedly murdered Frank Baker.

At his 1933 trial in that case he got a hung jury again, in spite of the fact that the only relative of his involved in the trial was the victim.

FBI agent Nelson Klein: shot dead in Ohio, but his killer hanged in Indiana.

Third time’s the charm: Barrett finally got his just deserts on December 7, 1935, when he was convicted of murdering FBI Agent Nelson B. Klein. The jurors stayed out for two days, but supposedly they decided on his guilt long before then and only wanted a few more free meals.

Barrett had killed Agent Klein in a shootout on August 14, 1935; before dying, Klein shot back, hitting Barrett in the legs and crippling him. The other agent involved in the gunfight, Donald McGovern, was unscathed and arrested Barrett.

There was an interesting dispute as to which state had jurisdiction over the crime; the agents had been standing in College Corner, Ohio, but the killer fired his shots from a position 22 feet over the Indiana state line. In the end, Indiana got the honors.

A recent federal law had mandated the death sentence for anyone convicted of killing an FBI agent. Barrett was the first to die under the new law; another man who’d murdered two agents in 1934 got a life sentence in Alcatraz.

The leg wounds Barrett suffered in his last shootout never healed. He attended his trial in a wheelchair and ultimately had to be carried to the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Indiana,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1936: Virgilio Leret, the first shot in the Spanish Civil War

Add comment July 18th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Spanish aviator Virgilio Leret Ruiz was shot for resisting the fascists’ opening gambit in what would become the Spanish Civil War.


The first vignette of this recent film supporting justice for victims of the civil war is voiced by film director Pedro Almodovar, who says “My name is Virgilio Leret Ruiz … I’m a pilot, head of the air force in the eastern part of Morocco. I refuse to support the uprising, and at dawn on 18 July 1936, my comrades turned me into the first military officer assassinated for fulfilling his duty.”

Leret (Spanish link, as are all the ensuing links in this post), who has the incidental distinction of having patented an early jet engine design, was, circa 1936, stationed at the Atalayon Seaplane Base on the outskirts of Spain’s Moroccan exclave of Melilla.

This would put him in the front row for the very first action of the terrible civil war — the July 17 military uprising (Spanish link) that secured Spanish Morocco for the putschists within hours.

North Africa, correctly rated as easy pickings, was to be the first target of Franco’s rising, with the main event on the Iberian peninsula following the very next day. From their standpoint, it pretty much went off without a hitch.


This pro-Franco plaque in Melilla celebrates the city’s distinction as the place where his “glorious national movement” was launched. Image (c) Joshua Benton and used with permission.

Leret’s wife Carlota, spent 4+ years locked up and wrote this book about her fellow prisoners. She later moved to Venezuela, where Leret progeny still remain.

Despite the absence of any effective resistance elsewhere in Melilla, Captain Leret scrambled from a relaxing day swimming with his family and commanded his base to hold out for the Republican government.

While it was no real threat to the rebelling officers, the gesture required a slight detour by Franco’s forces, and even a couple of casualties before the Seaplane base surrendered that night to obviously overwhelming opposition.

The next day at dawn, “half-naked and with a broken arm,” Virgilio Leret Ruiz became — along with two ensigns under his command, Armando Corral Gonzalez and Luis Calvo Calavia — the first people executed in the Spanish Civil War.

Needless to say, a great many others would follow them.

A 2011 documentary, Virgilio Leret, the Blue Knight, retrieves the reputation of this “exceptional man”, and the experience of 20th century Spain through the fate of his family.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Morocco,No Formal Charge,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1936: Mary Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate

2 comments July 16th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, onetime lovers Everett C. Applegate (referred to in some accounts as “Edward” or “Earl”) and Mary Frances Creighton, who went by her middle name, were electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison for the murder of Ada Applegate, Everett’s wife.


Mary Frances Creighton (top) and Everett Applegate.

Newspapers of the time referred to Frances as the Long Island Borgia. The murder came about as a result of, depending on your point of view, a Jerry Springer-type sensation or horrific child sexual abuse or both: In 1934, Frances and her husband and their two children were living with the Applegates and their daughter in Nassau County, New York.

By January 1935, Everett Applegate was having an affair with Frances. He was also interested in the Creightons’ blooming teenage daughter, Ruth. By June of that year the thirty-something man was sleeping with her also, with the knowledge of — and in at least one case, in sight of — Ada, whose obesity kept her mostly confined to bed.

Ruth was delighted with her new boyfriend, who drove her anyplace she wanted to go, gave her money and and bought her clothes and other gifts. But when Frances found out about the relationship in July, she was furious and humiliated.

Not only was Everett in the arms of another, but he was making her, Frances, look like a bad mother. Ruth was going to school dressed like a harlot, even wearing lipstick. Suppose she became pregnant? This would bring terrible shame upon the family.

In mid-September, Ada Applegate became violently sick, with diarrhea and bilious vomit. She spent a few days in the hospital and was discharged, without a diagnosis but feeling much better.

Immediately after she got home, however, her symptoms returned, and she died two days later, on September 27. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion” — in other words, a heart attack.

Frances was a bit of a hard case and no stranger to murder. She and her husband John were living with his parents, as well as her teenage brother, Raymond Avery, in New Jersey in 1920 when Anna and Walter Creighton suddenly sickened and died, one after the other.

In 1923, Raymond too became ill with the same symptoms and rapidly expired, and his sister and brother-in-law collected his $1,000 life insurance policy. Frances and John were charged with his murder after the autopsy, held in spite of their objections, found arsenic in young Raymond’s body.

After the autopsy, deeply suspicious investigators exhumed the elder Creightons’ bodies while their son and daughter-in-law were in jail. No arsenic could be found in Walter’s system, but Anna’s contained a lethal dose, and Frances (but not John this time) was charged with murder even before she came to trial for her brother’s death. She’d never gotten along with her in-laws or they with her, and just before Anna became ill, Frances had made ominous statements that the old woman would shortly “destroy herself.”

The Creightons’ four-day trial for Raymond’s murder resulted in acquittal for both defendants. John went home and Frances remained in custody for another two weeks until she faced her next trial, for the death of Anna Creighton. The prosecution was unable to prove she had personally purchased any poison, and the 24-year-old defendant, an attractive nursing mother who was keeping her infant son in her cell with her, presented a sympathetic picture. Once again, she heard a jury announce a murder acquittal.

But she didn’t take warning from her two near escapes.

Twelve years later, Ada Applegate became the third person close to Frances Creighton who died of arsenic poisoning. Goodness knows how many more she might have ventured.

The police knew about Frances’s relatives’ proclivities for mysterious deaths, and were deeply suspicious. An autopsy revealed three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada’s corpse, and it didn’t take long for Frances to crack under questioning.

She admitted to poisoning Ada, but also implicated Everett, saying he’d known about the crime all along and had helped her. She also claimed he used his knowledge of her past to blackmail her into having sex with him.

Frances killed Ada, Frances said, so Everett would have a chance to make an honest woman out of Ruth, and because Ada had been gossiping in the neighborhood about her husband’s affair with the girl.

Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate found themselves arrested. Only then did a bewildered John find out about the sexual improprieties that had been going on for months right under his nose. Remarkably, he stood by Frances and said he believed her to be innocent of murder.

He was the only one.

A look into Frances’s past revealed some very additional suspicious incidents apart from the deaths in her family. Relatives of a neighbor she quarreled with got extremely ill after having tea with Frances, and although they pulled through, later on, the neighbor’s house burned down.

The fire was arson and Frances had been the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.

As for Everett Applegate, the case against him was far less persuasive.

Frances made three statements: in the first, as told above, she implicated her erstwhile lover. In the second, she said she’d done the murder all on her own and Everett was not involved. The third time she went back to blaming him: he had mixed the poison, and she had given it to his wife.

To this shaky accusation add the ill feeling engendered by Everett’s caddish mores, and it was enough for an indictment. (Everett was also charged with criminally assaulting Ruth. At his arraignment he attempted to plead guilty to this, saying, “I want to marry this girl.” The judge refused to accept the plea.)

By the time of the trial, Frances had gone all-in on blaming Everett. She claimed the lothario had “made” her poison Ada. Her defense portrayed her as a weak woman who had been lead astray by an evil, domineering male. But Everett’s lawyer made sure the jury heard about the deaths of her brother and parents-in-law in New Jersey, and her conviction was a foregone conclusion.

The main evidence against Everett was Frances’s testimony, the fact that he was known to have purchased the rat poison that wound up in Ada’s eggnog, and his despoiling the teenage daughter of his paramour. Everett’s defense attorney agreed their client was a scumbag and a pervert, but denied that he was a murderer.

In his concluding arguments, the attorney asked the jury to acquit Everett of killing his wife and convict him instead of the rape of Ruth. It didn’t work: the jury convicted him on both counts.

While the two condemned awaited their fate, Ruth, who had been sent to a girls’ reform school, would later write a letter to the authorities. She said her mother was innocent and she had heard Everett say he wanted to do away with Ada so he could marry her. No one believed her story.

On the day of their executions, Frances was given the first slot in hopes that she might make a final statement exonerating Everett. Alas, she was in no condition to give any statement at all; suffering from hysterical paralysis, she had to be taken to the chamber on a wheelchair, and some reports state that she was completely unconscious when they strapped her into it. She was the first executee at Sing Sing in 45 years who was unable to walk on their own to their death.

Everett, still protesting his innocence, followed her ten minutes later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Sex,USA,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1936: Allen Foster, who fought Joe Louis

2 comments January 24th, 2012 Headsman

More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.

The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…”

It is heartbreaking enough to ponder the last words of any person dying by force. It is even more poignant to contemplate the words of this boy because they reveal the helplessness, the loneliness and the profound despair of Negroes in that period. The condemned young Negro, groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was a fighter. In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.

-Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait

This story isn’t precisely accurate as Dr. King told it, but the factual basis for this empathetic legend is Allen Foster.

On this date in 1936, Foster was the first man executed by lethal gas in North Carolina — and en route to this minor distinction he punched his ticket for commemoration in civil rights literature when he flourished a flamboyant uppercut to witnesses as he was led to the gas chamber and cried out, “I fought Joe Louis!” It was an allusion to having matched with the world champ when both were youngsters in Alabama.

This coincidental brush with celebrity was about as strange as the fact that it occurred in a gas chamber at all.

After the arrival of the electric chair, the South adopted it virtually across the board; North Carolina had switched from hanging to electrocution in 1910.

But the Tarheel State was also generally more progressive than its neighbors;* V.O. Key would write of North Carolina, “It has been the vogue to be progressive. Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states.”

Part of that “sophisticated politics” was, in the 1930s, a growing debate about the application — indeed, the mere existence — of capital punishment.

According to Trina Seitz’s “The Kiling Chair: North Carolina’s Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster” (North Carolina Historical Review, Jan. 2004):

North Carolinians were beginning to doubt the effectiveness of the sanction and the method used to enforce it. Furthermore, private citizens, humanitarians, and state institutions alike were increasingly scrutinizing the demographics of those being put to death.

Though this scrutiny did not lead so far as actual abolition, it provided the receptively reformist environment for Mitchell County Dr. Charles Peterson’s “pet project” of switching the execution protocol to lethal gas.

The reason for his fascination with gas seems to be obscure; the method had never been employed east of the Mississippi. Maybe it had something to do with 1932’s remarkably smooth gassing of a North Carolinian from nearby Burke County in Nevada, the nation’s gas chamber pioneer.

Whatever the reason, Peterson took a seat in the legislature in 1935 and won adoption for his idea in this very first session.

Unfortunately for Peterson — and doubly so for Foster — North Carolina didn’t have quite the same facility with hydrogen cyanide, and Foster’s execution was a notorious botch that immediately got people back on the electrocution bandwagon.

Foster was doomed for raping a white woman — this may be progressive North Carolina, but it’s still the South — and according to Seitz’s rendering of the News and Observer‘s first-hand report:

“Good-bye.” The Negro’s lips framed the words so clearly that no man in the witness room could doubt what he had said. As he said it, he winked and then forced a smile at the faces peering in at him. Then he began to suffer. No man could look squarely into his eyes and fail to perceive that they were registering pain. The Negro fought for breath, knowing he was going to die and fighting to get it over with as quickly as possible …

he sucked the gas desperately until his head rolled back three minutes later, indicating to physicians that the man finally had lost consciousness. But after a period of quiescence, his small, but powerfully built torso began to retch and jerk, throwing his head forward on his chest, where witnesses could see his eyes slowly glaze … The torturous, convulsive retching continued spasmodically for a full four minutes.

Officially, it took about 11 minutes for Foster to die, and as those agonizing minutes dragged by a physician broke the witness room’s mortified silence by exclaiming, “We’ve got to shorten [the execution method] or get rid of it entirely.” Um, yeah? The prison warden was quoted the next day as saying that even hanging was preferable to this.

The ensuing political controversy, however, did not succeed in reverting the method to electrocution.

Like the original electric chair, North Carolina’s gas chamber was the beneficiary of some hasty technical fixes: heating the gas chamber (it was at the freezing point when Foster died; Colorado executioners advised North Carolina that this would impede the gassing); tweaking the chemical formula.

The very next week, a white murderer named Ed Jenkins followed Foster into the toxic plume, this time to rave reviews: he “died painlessly and the method of execution was humane”. These advances were enough to keep the gas chamber in place, although the state legislature considered several bills to return to electrocution from 1937 to 1943.

During one such debate, North Carolina playwright Paul Green testified to the assembly (per Seitz),

Some day the electric chair and the gas chamber will be set up in the State Museum as symbols of an age of horror and ignorance. School children will look at them and feel superior to us as they look back upon an era of ignorance

Three hundred sixty-two people ultimately died in North Carolina’s gas chamber. And as Green anticipated, the execution chair resides today in the state’s Museum of History.

* This is still true of North Carolina: it has employed the allegedly more humane method of lethal injection since 1984, when no other Southern state save Texas used the needle until the 1990s; that use has been sparing enough that its per-capita execution rate remains markedly lower than most other former Confederate states; and in 2009, North Carolina implemented a stillcontroversial Racial Justice Act empowering condemned prisoners to challenge their sentence with statistical evidence of racial disparity even though courts don’t require this at all.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts Previous Posts


Calendar

March 2021
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!