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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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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1951: The Einsatzgruppen Trial war criminals

Add comment June 7th, 2020 Headsman

A batch of Nazi war criminals highlighted by four condemned at the Einsatzgruppen trial hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison on this date in 1951.

Formed initially to decapitate Polish intelligentsia when Germany invaded that country in 1939, these notorious paramilitaries were deployed by Reinhard Heydrich behind the advancing German line of battle to pacify occupied territory. “Pacify” in the event meant slaying Communists, partisans, and of course, the Reich’s innumerable racial inferiors. Einsatzgruppen authored many mass executions like the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev, each local atrocity a self-conscious contribution to the wholesale genocide. All told these units might have killed upwards of 2 million human beings; they were also used to gather Eastern European Jews into urban ghettos, which subsequently became the staging points for deportations to the camps.

Postwar, the big Nuremberg war crimes tribunal against the major names in the German hierarchy unfolded from late 1945 in a multinational courtroom: American, British, French, and Russian judges and prosecutors working jointly.

But the emerging superpower rivalry soon narrowed the window for similar cooperation in successor trials, leading the rival powers to try cases on their own.* Accordingly, United States military tribunals unfolded 12 additional mass trials, known as the subsequent Nuremberg trials — each exploring particular nodes of the Nazi project — such as the Doctors’ trial and the IG Farben trial.

The Einsatzgruppen trial was one of these — 24 Einsatzgruppen officers prosecuted at the Palace of Justice from September 29, 1947 to April 10, 1948.

Twenty-two of the 24 were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and 14 sentenced to death. However, ten of the fourteen prospective hangings were commuted, and all surviving prisoners had been released by 1958. The four who actually went to the gallows at Landsburg Prison on June 7, 1951 were:

    Out of the total number of the persons designated for the execution, 15 men were led in each case to the brink of the mass grave where they had to kneel down, their faces turned toward the grave. At that time, clothes and valuables were not yet collected. Later on this was changed …

    When the men were ready for the execution one of my leaders who was in charge of this execution squad gave the order to shoot. Since they were kneeling on the brink of the mass grave, the victims fell, as a rule, at once into the mass grave.

    I have always used rather large execution squads, since I declined to use men who were specialists for shots in the neck (Genickschusspezialisten). Each squad shot for about one hour and was then replaced. The persons which still had to be shot were assembled near the place of execution, and were guarded by members of those squads, which at that moment did not take part in the executions.

    -Paul Blobel on his mass-execution process

  • Otto Ohlendorf, an economist tapped as commander of Einsatzgruppe D (educated and ideologically reliable administrator were intentionally sought for leadership positions in these gangs). Together with Ukrainian and Romanian auxiliaries, this unit killed 90,000 people in southern Ukraine and Crimea which the good functionary strove to render “military in character and humane under the circumstances.”
  • Werner Braune, a former Gestapo man who became chief of one of Einsatzgruppe D’s units, called Einsatzkommando 11b.
  • Erich Naumann, a former brownshirt turned commander of Einsatzgruppe B who frankly acknowledged to the tribunal that “I was ordered to Heydrich and I received clear orders from him for Russia. Now, first of all, I received the Fuehrer-Order concerning the killing of Jews, Gypsies and Soviet officials” and “considered the decree to be right because it was part of our aim of the war and, therefore, it was necessary.”
  • Paul Blobel, a World War I veteran become architect who was into his late forties when he helped organize the Babi Yar massacre. Afterwards, he had charge of Sonderaktion 1005, a 1942-1944 project to destroy evidence of such massacres by, e.g., digging up mass graves to pulverize and dynamite the remains into unrecognizability. “The mission was constituted after it first became apparent that Germany would not be able to hold all the territory occupied in the East and it was considered necessary to remove all traces of the criminal executions that had been committed,” according to Adolf Eichmann aide Dieter Wisliceny. Blobel “gave a lecture before Eichmann’s staff of specialists on the Jewish question from the occupied territories. He spoke of the special incinerators he had personally constructed for use in the work of Kommando 1005. It was their particular assignment to open the graves and remove and cremate the bodies of persons who had been previously executed. Kommando 1005 operated in Russia, Poland and through the Baltic area.”

In a concession to efficiency or spectacle, they were joined by the three other condemned men from other installments of the Nuremberg trials, the , against the directorate that ran Germany’s concentration camps.

  • Oswald Pohl, the head of he directorate that ran Germany’s concentration camps. He was the only person executed from his own particular installment of the war crimes trials, called thePohl trial
  • Georg Schallermair, an SS sergeant convicted for murders he’d personally committed at Dachau.
  • Hans Schmidt, the former adjutant of the Buchenwald concentration camp who carried his implausible insistence of ignorance as to the camp’s deaths all the way to the end. Schmidt’s name in the news might have inspired an American wrestling promoter to assign it in 1951, along with a boffo Nazi persona, to one of pro wrestling’s great heels.

* Here’s some information about Soviet war crimes trials.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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1956: Sylvester Murau, via filial impiety

Add comment May 16th, 2020 Headsman

East Germany beheaded Sylvester Murau by fallbeil on this date in 1956.

A blue-collar laborer who served a jail sentence for poaching under the Third Reich, he’d joined GDR’s feared security service, the Stasi — until he was dismissed when some fascist dalliances during the war years came to light.

He then transitioned from Stasi agent Sylvester Murau to defector Sylvester Murau, fleeing to West Berlin and settled down in West Germany for life as a communist apostate.

That was in 1954. Later that same year, his daughter Brigitte “Gitta” Cullmann, popped in for a visit — transit between East and West Germany was not yet impeded by any wall back then — and fell to drinking with him in Heubach with some pals.

Well, it turns out that Brigitte was a Tier 1 Operative of a Stasi agent herself, albeit a real bum as a child: her presence induced dad to let his guard down with her acquaintances, and once ol’ Sly was sufficiently sauced, the visitors tossed him into a car and bundled him back over the border. It’s among hundreds of cases where Communist bloc defectors were forcibly repatriated eastward by Stasi kidnappers, there to meet all manner of mistreatment — but Murau’s situation was surely exceptional in depending on such obligingly disloyal kin for its very implementation.

Ruthless Gitta later married the Stasi colonel who planned the body-snatch.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason

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1953: Mat Indera, for the Bukit Kepong incident

Add comment January 30th, 2020 Headsman

Muhammad Indera — popularly known as Mat Indera — was executed on this date in 1953 in British-controlled Malaysia.

The imam turned Communist insurgent directed one of the signal bloodbaths of the Malayan Emergency — the tumultuous decade of political and guerrilla struggle against the British Empire for sovereignty.

Mat Indera’s contribution was the 1950 Bukit Kepong incident — an armed attack on a police station in that town that killed 19 policemen.


The 1981 movie Bukit Kepong dramatizes the events in question.

The British put a handsome price on the man’s head, and in 1952 someone took it.

His name and his deed are still controversial enough in Malaysia that a politician in 2011 found himself upon a sticky wicket for suggesting that Mat Indera was an anti-imperial hero.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Malaysia,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Wartime Executions

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