1959: Guenther Podola

Add comment November 5th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1959, Guenther Podola became the last man hanged in Great Britain for killing a police officer.

A German emigre, Podola had been deported from Canada for committing a series of thefts and burglaries.

He’d just moved to London in May of 1959, not six months before his execution, when he tried to ransom stolen jewelry and furs to an American model he’d stolen them from. The model notified police and when they tracked him down, Podola shot Detective Sergeant Raymond Purdy straight through the heart.

Grasping for straws at his trial, he offered the soap opera-esque claim that he (now) labored under amnesia from a knock on the head suffered during his arrest. “I do not remember the crime for which I stand accused,” he told the court. “I am unable to answer the charges.” A Crown psychiatrist, the jury, and anyone’s common sense figured that he was shamming, which Podola himself also admitted after conviction.

Podola’s was the last British hanging of the 1950s. Five years and nineteen executions later, Britain binned capital punishment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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1953: Erna Dorn, June 17 rising patsy

Add comment October 1st, 2020 Headsman

Erna Dorn was executed in secret in Dresden, East Germany on this date in 1953.

Dorn (English Wikipedia entry | German) had been a typist in Gestapo headquarters — real banality of evil stuff — before going to work at Ravensbruck, which was a bit less banal. This is the setup to a fair few executions of Nazi personnel but Frau Dorn got there by a very unusual path.

After the war she was able to pass for several years as a concentration camp survivor rather than a camp staffer, but her cover persona fell apart by the end of the 1940s resulting in her divorce, her expulsion from the Communist party, and her prosecution — first for theft and eventually for the Nazi stuff. However, her sentence was a term of years, not death.

Virtually everything known about her comes from her interrogations over this period and Erna Dorn was your basic unreliable narrator. You’ve got her opportunistically evolving cover stories, and then her swinging into possibly exaggerated claims of responsibility for great abuses, all intermediated by the Stasi with its own interests. “It turns out that everything from Dorn is a fabrication, with zero correlation to truth,” a frustrated interrogator noted after following her tales down one too many blind alleys.

Dorn might have served out her 15 years and been released to take her shifting secrets to an obscure grave. But the June 17, 1953 protests against the East German government threw open the doors of the Halle detention center where she was held, allowing some 250 prisoners a very brief escape (in Dorn’s case, she was out for a single day) before Soviet intervention crushed the rebellion.

As goes the June 17 uprising Dorn was merely a bystander swept into events: it might as well have been the weather that popped open her cell door, and what would anyone do but walk right out?

Save that in the crackdown that followed there was a keen interest in painting the whole embarrassing affair in the scarlet colors of Hitlerism. The camp guard liberated by anti-government protesters made a perfect foil and the unbalanced Dorn was entirely willing to play along at her subsequent snap show trial by doubtfully claiming to have addressed the Halle protesters with an anti-German Democratic Republic harangue.

Dorn was condemned to death as a fascist ringleader by June 22, just five days after her unexpected furlough. The sentence was overturned in the 1990s by the post-GDR, reunified Germany.

* She had to carefully duck a summons to testify at trials of Ravensbruck guards, lest her true role at the camp be dramatically unveiled.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1959: John Day Jr., Korean War casualty

Add comment September 23rd, 2020 Headsman

From Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History:

Day, John E., Jr.
September 23, 1959

On December 23, 1950, twenty-two-year-old John E. Day, Jr., a black private serving in Korea, made sexual advances toward the wife of Korean civilian Lee Hak Chum, sometimes given as Lee Mak Chun, in Seoul. Chum came to her defense but Day pulled a pistol and shot Chum to death. Day was immediately arrested, and in January 1951 he faced a general court-martial. Day was found guilty of murder and on October 1, 1951, he was sentence to hang at Fort Leavenworth, the first American to receive a death sentences during the Korean conflict. He was transported to the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth while the case was under review. The verdict and sentence were approved by the general staff and then the appeals process commenced. The case was considered numerous times but finally the U.S. Supreme Court, after eight years, approved the verdict and sentence, and the matter was forwarded to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president carefully considered the matter before issuing an executive order to proceed with the execution and set the date for execution at September 23, 1959.

Just before midnight Commandant Colonel Weldon W. Cox appeared at the cell door and escorted Day into the power plant building and onto the gallows platform. The prisoner took his place on the trapdoor where Colonel Cox read the warrant for execution of sentence. When the reading concluded Day declined to speak to the witnesses, and, while the chaplain prayed for his soul, Colonel Cox retired and turned preparations over to three sergeants. While the chaplain continued praying the three sergeants bound the prisoner’s limbs with straps, adjusted the noose, and pulled the black cap over his head. At 12:02 a.m. the trap was sprung and Day dropped, breaking his neck in the fall. An Army physician was in attendance and he pronounced Day dead in fifteen minutes, and then the remains were lowered into the coffin provided. He was buried in the military portion of the cemetery later that day.

Sources: Daily Herald (Utah County, UT): September 23, 1959. Dallas Morning News (TX): September 25, 1959.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Korea,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Korea,U.S. Federal,USA

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1951: Robert Dobie Smith, suicide by Pierrepoint

1 comment September 13th, 2020 Headsman

On the 22nd of May 1951, after an argument with Joan, [Robert Dobie Smith] persuaded his brother Andrew to write a rambling letter to explain his intended actions and then make a phone call to the police. The letter stated that he would shoot the first policeman he came into contact with. Smith had earlier stolen a double barreled 12 bore shotgun and 25 cartridges from his father’s home.

From the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page … click through for the rest of the story.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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1955: Emmett Till lynched

Add comment August 28th, 2020 Headsman

Emmett Till was lynched on this date in 1955.

He’s surely the most recognizable and symbolically powerful of America’s many lynch victims, thanks in large measure to his mother’s Mamie Till’s insistence on an open-coffin funeral that put Emmett’s mutilated face in front of media consumers worldwide.

In its narrow particulars, it resembles more closely a private vendetta than the mob justice evoked by a term like “lynch law”: in the dark hours after midnight the night of August 27-28, two white Mississippians, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, barged into the home of a sharecropper named Moses “Preacher” Wright and at gunpoint forced him to surrender his nephew. Chicago-raised and thus insufficiently alert to the full rigor of the color line, young Emmett had transgressed it a few days prior by apparently* hitting on Bryant’s wife, boasting of his prowess with white girls up north.

In retaliation for this offense, the two intruders bundled Emmett into their truck, took him to a barn where they bludgeoned him into the deformed horror that later shocked so many newspaper subscribers — after which they finished him off with a gun and dumped his remains into the Tallahatchie River.

While this was not as exalted as the more recognizably execution-esque summary justice of the whole town, no reader in this year of our lord 2020 can fail to recognize the wanton self-appropriation of policing power by vigilantes justifiably confident in their impunity. This informal extension of the state’s legitimate violence via extralegal but allied actors is a hallmark of lynch law, however its definitional boundaries are drawn.

And indeed an all-white jury predictably acquitted the killers in what they later acknowledged was an act of race-based jury nullification. In a jaw-dropping post-trial Look magazine interview, the pair — shielded from a “double jeopardy” re-trial by their acquittal — matter-of-factly admitted the murder. To the reporter’s eyes they behaved as if they “don’t feel they have anything to hide; they have never regarded themselves as being in legal jeopardy. Not even psychologically are they on the defensive. They took it for granted before the trial that every white neighbor, including every member of the jury and every defense attorney, had assumed that they had indeed killed the young Negro. And since the community had swarmed to their defense, Milam and Bryant assumed that the ‘community,’ including most responsible whites in Mississippi, had approved the killing.”

Yet Till as portrayed by his executioners was a far finer man than they.

Their intention was to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him.” And for this chore, Big Milam knew “the scariest place in the Delta.” He had come upon it last year hunting wild geese. Over close to Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff. “Brother, she’s a 100-foot sheer drop, and she’s a 100 feet deep after you hit.”

Big Milam’s idea was to stand him up there on that bluff, “whip” him with the .45, and then shine the light on down there toward that water and make him think you’re gonna knock him in.

“Brother, if that won’t scare the Chicago ——-, hell won’t.”

But under these blows Bobo never hollered — and he kept making the perfect speeches to insure martyrdom.

Bobo: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.”

Milam: “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'”

Taken to the riverbank where he’d be slain, Emmett Till bravely spat on his killers’ last offer of domineering clemency.

They stood silently … just hating one another.

Milam: “Take off your clothes.”

Slowly, Bobo pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts.

He stood there naked.

It was Sunday morning, a little before 7.

Milam: “You still as good as I am?”

Bobo: “Yeah.”

Milam: “You still ‘had’ white women?”

Bobo: “Yeah.”

That big .45 jumped in Big Milam’s hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.

* The specifics of what transpired at the Bryants’ grocery to trigger the lynching have been finely parsed and disputed ever since 1955. At a maximally “incriminating” interpretation, he made a crude but unthreatening pass at Mrs. Bryant. By other readings the whole thing might have been merely a misunderstanding. In this author’s opinion, indulging the question of whether Emmett Till was “actually innocent” of wolf-whistling a white woman concedes far too much ground at the outset to his murderers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lynching,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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1954: Nikos Ploumpidis, Greek Communist

Add comment August 14th, 2020 Headsman

Singing the Internationale, Greek Communist Nikos Ploumpidis was shot by on this date in 1954.

A left-wing teacher who became a full-time cadre of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in the 1930s, Ploumpidis (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Greek) spent the war years in resistance to the Nazi occupation, of course.

Postwar, Stalin abandoned Greece to the West and the reds lost a late-1940s civil war. Many Communists fled the country, but Ploumpidis stayed and transitioned to the administration of a new party, the United Democratic Left — which was essentially a cutout for the banned KKE.

He was still underground in 1952 at the time of the sensational trial of fellow-traveller Nikos Beloyannis, and produced a sensational intervention in that case when he sent the press an open letter (fingerprints enclosed to prove its authenticity) claiming responsibility for the illegal radios and forbidden Communist coordination for which Beloyannis had been death-sentenced.

This did not save Beloyannis but the intensified manhunt brought Ploumpidis into custody by the end of the year — suffering from an advanced case of the tuberculosis that had dogged him for many years. On Moscow’s insistence the KKE renounced him as a British agent, even going so far as to charge that his execution had been faked, and he’d been relocated to America “where he filled his days and pockets with the bitter price of betrayal.” This stuff was withdrawn and the man rehabilitated in 1958.

His son, Dimitrios Ploumpidis, is a University of Athens psychiatrist who has been active with the left-wing Syriza party.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Greece,History,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason

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1956: Andreas Zakos, Charilaos Michael, and Iakovos Patatsos, Cypriots

Add comment August 9th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1956, three Greek Cypriot nationalists were hanged by the British

Andreas Zakos, Charilaos Michael and Iakovos Patatsos were all members of the EOKA guerrilla movement, which fought the British for independence during the late 1950s. Nine of their ranks overall were executed in 1956-1957, including the three on August 9, 1956 and several others whom we’ve met in these grim annals. As for Zakos, Michael and Patatsos, “the first two had been convicted of taking part in an ambush in December 1955 during which a British soldier was killed, and the third was convicted of shooting a Turkish policeman in Nicosia.” (Source)

All nine are entombed together with four other EOKA men who died less ceremonially at British hands, at what’s known as the “Imprisoned Graves”: the British proconsul John Harding buried them behind prison walls in Nicosia quietly, two to a grave, to avoid creating sites of nationalistic pilgrimage.

But holding onto colonies long-term was not in the wind post-World War II. EOKA did not achieve its ultimate objective of unification with Greece, but its rebellion achieved independence for Cyprus in 1960. Today, that cemetery (emblazoned with the words “The brave man’s death is no death at all”) and the gallows that ushered men into it are that very patriotic monument the British once sought to pre-empt.


The gallows at the Central Jail of Nicosia; on the walls behind the visitors, the leftmost photo is that of Andreas Zakos. (cc) image from Lapost.

The EOKA martyrs can also be seen at various other public memorials in Cyprus, such as a bust of Andreas Zakos at the Legions Heroes Monument, or this statue of Iakovos Patatsos communing with a bird.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cyprus,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1950: The Martyred, at the outset of the Korean War

Add comment June 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1950, the opening salvos of the Korean War were fired … and behind North Korea’s lines, in Richard E. Kim‘s novel The Martyred, 12 imprisoned Christian pastors were on that same day executed.

This psychologically complex novel takes place months later, when United States/United Nations forces backing South Korea have surged northward, capturing Pyongyang. Here the narrator, a South Korean intelligence officer named Captain Lee, is detailed to investigate how it came to pass that these 12 were killed … and that two others with them were spared.

One of those two has gone mad from the experience. The other is suspected of abandoning God to save his life.

We discover otherwise: that in fact, Rev. Shin was spared by his jailers because they admired his firmness whereas the executed men were the ones who turned coward. Even so, Rev. Shin refuses to publicize his innocence, preferring to embrace the unjust suspicion of his faithlessness in order to elevate the so-called martyrs — in turn giving heart and faith to his congregants.

We followed the chaplain up the aisle, flanked by the congregation that still sang, standing. Only a few of the chandeliers were lighted. A cold draft chilled my bare head, though I felt the warmth of human bodies surrounding me. Halfway up the aisle, I looked up toward the altar, behind which stood the elders, Park and a few others, and Mr. Shin. Soon Colonel Chang and I were with them, facing the congregation. Mr. Shin stepped forward. The candles on the lectern flickered. The congregation sat, hushed.

“Dear brethren,” he began quietly. “You all know who I am, and I know you. I know you, yes, I know you so well that I do not hesitate to say that I belong to you and you belong to me. I am you, you are me, and we are one. And I stand here in the shadow of my inglorious past, and say to you, welcome to the house of our Lord. This house of our Lord is filled tonight, and I am out there with you and you are up here with me. We are here together as one to worship our God and praise Him. Amen.”

Scattered voices in the congregation said, “Amen.”

“I know you well, so well that I know you did not come tonight to this house of our Lord to worship Him. You came to hear me. And I shall speak to you and you shall hear me. I am you and you are me. But who am I?” He paused. “I am a sinner.”

He paused again for a long moment; then, suddenly, his powerful voice boomed. “You came to hear me, a sinner, and you shall hear me, a sinner! Open your eyes! Bare your hearts! And hear! It was I who betrayed our martyrs!” He stopped, his hands clutching the lectern, his body bent slightly forward. He had stressed “I” so strongly that the high-ceilinged interior of the church rang with a vibrating “I” in a tremulous echoing that pervaded the dim, cold air — “… I … I … ” Not a soul stirred.

He said quietly, “On the eighteenth day of June, as you all know, the Communists imprisoned fourteen ministers, and I was one of them. On the twenty-fifth day, twelve ministers were murdered. For seven days and nights, they tortured our martyrs. My dear brethren, I say to you that they tormented the flesh of your martyrs for seven days and nights. I say, ‘flesh of your martyrs,’ for they could not harm their spirits. But how did they torture your martyrs?”

To my surprise — and uneasiness — Mr. Shin, for the next twenty minutes or so, described to the congregation in the minutest detail how each ministers was tortured, one after another, all twelve of them. Mr. Hann, said Mr. Shin, collapsed after three ays and nights of torture and becme ill. At first it seemed that the silent congregation was spellbound by the blood-smeared description, but gradually it began to bestir itself, the rustling of clothes, coughing, and concentrated heavy breathing disturbed the cold air.

Suddenly a woman shrieked. Cries went up. The entire congregation stirred with agitation. Some of the elders rose to their feet. Chaplain Koh hurried over to Mr. Shin, who stood unmoved, rigidly facing the crowd.

A voice from the back shouted, “Away with you!” and another voice, “We don’t want to hear from you!”

Then a woman hissed, “You — a sinner! How dare you defile our martyrs!”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Fictional,God,History,Korea,Martyrs,Mass Executions,North Korea,Religious Figures,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1958: Raymond John Bailey, for the Sundown Murders

Add comment June 24th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1958, itinerant carpenter Raymond John Bailey was hanged for one of Australia’s most sensational crimes.

This case derives its gloomy appellation, the Sundown Murders, from the same crepuscular handle dignifying the abandoned South Australia station where the bodies of Sally (Thyra) Bowman (43), her daughter Wendy Bowman (14), and family friend Thomas Whelan (22) were discovered in their Vanguard. All three had been bludgeoned and shot, as had the Bowman’s two dogs — an utterly shocking outrage.

The Outback dirt retained sign of the killer’s own conveyance with its telltale trailer; reported sightings pursuing this clue led a gigantic manhunt to the Queensland hospital where Bailey had gone to work … having driven there with a caravan in tow on a northbound course suitable to cross paths with the victims. He owned an unlicensed rifle; the theory of the case, supported eventually by a confession which Bailey repudiated as given under duress,* was that Bailey set upon the vehicle to rob it and even took the trouble to siphon the petrol — which was “dear up in that neck of the woods and Bailey’s old car and caravan would not be doing more than 10 or 12 miles to the gallon.” (Crown prosecutor E.B. Scarfe)

In the 21st century, investigative journalist Stephen Bishop has notably pitched a case for Bailey’s outright innocence. Bishop’s The Most Dangerous Detective: The Outrageous Glen Patrick Hallahan contends that the titular lawman — he’s the leftmost fella on the picture above, taken at Bailey’s arrest — railroaded the suspect, forcing him into a confession that “does not tally with other evidence” and ignoring potentially exculpatory details like footprints at the murder scene too large to be Raymond Bailey’s.

Bishop’s appeals for an official exoneration have thus far gone nowhere.

* Not his own torture, but the threat — in fact the nearby sound — of his sobbing wife being interrogated.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Theft

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1951: John Dand

Add comment June 12th, 2020 Headsman

John Dand hanged at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison on this date in 1951 — because of spat over £3.

Dand and his victim, 72-year-old Walter Wyld, lived near one another in York. When Wyld was found stabbed to death with no sign of forced entry late the night of January 27, 1951, correspondence in his home indicated that he’d been expecting a visit from John Dand, the son of a former neighbor who owed him the sum in question. The equivalent present-day value of that sum is a bit under £100.

Dand had bloodstained trousers, a fake alibi, and no capacity to keep to a story under interrogation. It wasn’t long before he admitted the murder, which he then tried to un-admit. As the the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page notes,

Dand withdrew his confession and pleaded not guilty at his trial at Leeds before Mr. Justice Gorman on 23rd to the 26th of April. His defence was that he was not physically capable of killing Mr. Wyld, who although much older, was a very fit ex Rugby League player. Unsurprisingly the jury were not impressed with this argument as Dand was 5′ 9″ tall and of average build.

The hanging was carried out by Albert Pierrepoint and Harry Allen. Prisoner 10117, Dand, weighed 147 lbs. and was given a drop of 7′ 7″. The LPC4 form records that there were no physical peculiarities that would affect the drop, but that it was given at the “discretion of the executioner”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf

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