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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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.

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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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1953: Carl Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady

Add comment December 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1953 — six months after the execution of a more notorious couple, the Rosenbergs — two Missouri kidnappers were gassed together for the abduction-murder of a millionaire car dealer’s son.

Robert Greenlease owed his millions to a string of midwestern GM dealerships planted at the very flowering of America’s interstate system and suburbanization.

Carl Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady reckoned he’d owe some of those millions to them, too.

On September 28 of 1953, those two snatched little Bobby Greenlease Jr from the grounds of a Catholic school in Kansas City via the all-too-easy expedient of Heady presenting herself as Bobby’s aunt.

Then they extorted Sr. to the tune of $600,000, and after several days’ negotiations, Greenlease paid it through an intermediary — a record US ransom sum that would not be surpassed until 1971.

But the motor magnate never saw his son again. Even by the time they’d sent their first ransom note, the kidnappers had shot little Bobby dead at a deserted farm just over the state line in Kansas.

Although this audacious attack on a minor oligarch made national headlines — it couldn’t help but remind of the Lindbergh baby case — the crooks basically had an opportunity to get away scot-free with all their ill-gotten gains. Bobby Greenlease’s body wasn’t discovered until a couple of days after the ransom was paid, and nobody knew who the abductors were at that point.

Hall and Heady absconded to St. Louis but the wealth, like the crime itself, was just too much for these small-time shoulders to bear. Instead of lying low, Hall — after ditching Heady and taking most of the ransom with him, a reckless provocation of his co-conspirator that might itself have blown up his cover in short order — took up residence in an expensive hotel and started throwing money around. A cabbie reported the shabby character’s suspicious spending, and in no time at all the two were in custody.

A further mystery, never solved, entered the case on the night of Hall’s arrest: half the ransom money disappeared. The mob-connected lieutenant who collared Hall and brought him to the station less $300,000 of the score eventually resigned from the force in disgrace and faced federal prosecution for misappropriation and perjury; the cop indicted with him earned a presidential pardon by turning on his comrade. Other ideas were that the criminals had buried half the money (they claimed this, for a while) and that better-connected figures higher up the food chain had taken in. All the bills’ serial numbers had been recorded but only a few were ever known to have surfaced again in later years, in Michigan and Mexico; where these trace remains of a family tragedy might rest today is anybody’s guess.

As for Hall and Heady, they emerged into the glare of national infamy and — because they had crossed the Kansas-Missouri state line — a federal prosecution. Heady remains to this day the last woman executed under U.S. federal auspices.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a detailed photographic retrospective here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Milestones,Missouri,Murder,Pelf,U.S. Federal,USA,Women

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1953: Abel Danos, le mammouth

Add comment March 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1953, the French gangster and Nazi collaborator Abel Danos was shot as a traitor.

Once a small-time crook for the milieu criminal syndicate, Danos upon his arrest went way beyond turning state’s evidence and offered his goon talents to the German police. From 1941 to 1944 he murdered people — he’s believed to have personally executed over 100 French Resistance members during the war — for salary as a member of the French Gestapo. Though arrested at the end of the war, he made a sensational escape and got into the robbery outfit Gang des Tractions Avant; he fatally shot both Italian and French police in that vocation. Career-wise you have to credit the man for focusing on his core value-adds while remaining flexible to embrace new opportunities.

“Le mammouth” — so nicknamed for his heavy build — went extinct courtesy of a firing squad at Fort Monte-Valerien, refusing a blindfold after a last swig of rum.

There’s a 2006 French-language biography of Abel Danos, by Eric Guillon.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Organized Crime,Shot,Treason

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1953: Istvan Sandor, underground Catholic

1 comment June 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Istvan Sandor was hanged in Communist Hungary

Sandor was a printer noted as a mentor to younger Catholics — including the orphanage that shared his print-shop’s building.

When his Salesian order was suppressed in 1950, Sandor had to continue this work underground, practically inviting martyrdom. At one point his superiors in the order urged him to flee Hungary; Sandor stubbornly stuck around under an alias.

This shadow existence was bound to be a fleeting one. The Hungarian secret police kept close tabs on him, and when it found that he was in contact with a guard close to the party leadership, it made a national security case out of the affair — arresting nine of its own spooks, five priests, and several civilians.

In a secret military trial, Sandor and three others were condemned to death by hanging for plotting against the state. One of those sentences was modified to life imprisonment, but the other three hanged on June 8th. Their families only got definitive word of their fate in 1955.

Sandor was officially rehabilitated by the post-Communist government in 1994. In 2013, Pope Francis beatified him.

“We celebrate in him the hero who was true to his calling as a Salesian brother, even at the cost of his life,” Cardinal Peter Erdo said at a mass on that occasion. “We respect in him the exceptional labourer who taught youth the love of work. We stand deeply moved before the victim of a show trial who was tortured, sentenced to death and executed based on false testimony.”

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1953: Louisa May Merrifield, elder abuser

1 comment September 18th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1953, housekeeper Louisa May Merrifield, the so-called Blackpool Poisoner, was hanged at Machester’s Strangeways Prison for killing her employer.

She was the third-last woman hanged in Britain and the very last woman to be executed at that particular prison, which now houses only men; the job was performed by Albert Pierrepoint.

Born in 1906, Louisa had already served prison time for ration book fraud by the time of the murder, and she lost custody of her four children due to her excessive drinking and neglect.

She couldn’t seem to hold on to a man (she was married three times) or a job (she had 20 in three years).

She took her final position on March 12, 1953, after she and her husband of one month, 71-year-old Alfred Edward Merrifield, became housekeepers and live-in companions to Sarah Ann Ricketts, a spinster who was nearly eighty years old. Sarah Ricketts owned a bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, North Shore, Blackpool.

The Merrifields indulged in elder abuse and neglect, and Sarah Ann complained she didn’t get enough to eat and that her housekeepers swilled rum on her dime. Meanwhile, Louisa was going around boasting that she’d inherited a £3,000 house.

When someone asked her who had died, she answered, “She’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.”

Louisa’s prophecy was eerily accurate: Sarah Ann Ricketts expired on the night of April 14, 1953, only a month after she’d hired the Merrifields and three days after Louisa’s prediction … but not before drafting a new will which left her bungalow to the Merrifields.

Louisa didn’t call a doctor until the next morning. She said that, as the old woman was clearly beyond help, she didn’t want to drag anyone out of bed in the middle of the night.

The suspicious GP refused to sign a death certificate and insisted on an autopsy, which revealed the cause of death as phosphorus poisoning, administered in the form of a rat poison called Rodine.

Although a police search of the bungalow didn’t turn up any Rodine, a check at the local pharmacy showed Louisa had recently purchased the stuff and signed the poison register.

The Merrifields found themselves charged with murder. Louisa was arrested first, two weeks after Sarah Ricketts died, and Alfred a few days later.

At their trial in July 1953, Louisa was convicted and sentenced to hang. The judge called her crime “as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.”

The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on Alfred, however, and the district attorney decided not to prosecute again. He was released and in due time inherited a half-share in Mrs. Ricketts’s bungalow. He died in 1962 at the age of 80.

Louisa Merrifield’s ghost is said to haunt the cell she once inhabited at Strangeways Prison.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,The Supernatural,Women

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1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers

7 comments June 18th, 2012 Meaghan

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

In June 1953, some discontented young citizens of Magdeburg, East Germany revolted and began demonstrating against the repressive Communist regime. On June 17, in the spirit of totalitarian governments everywhere, the authorities ordered a platoon of soldiers to open fire on a crowd of protesters.

Incredibly, the soldiers refused.

Every one of them vanished shortly thereafter, never to be seen again.

It was long assumed that the entire platoon had been executed for insubordination. This wasn’t confirmed until 1998, however. Four years previously, Magdeburg construction workers digging the foundation for a new building accidentally unearthed a mass grave containing 32 bullet-riddled skeletons. From the condition of the remains, authorities determined the victims — all of them young men — had died sometime between 1945 and 1960.

They could have been the missing Soviet platoon, but they could also have been prisoners executed by the Gestapo mopping up in May 1945, just before the Germans fled the city in advance of the Red Army.

As Jessica Snyder Sachs noted in her 2001 book Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, the victims all had extensive tooth decay and no sign of dental work, which was consistent with Russia but not central Europe. This was hardly conclusive, however.

To solve the mystery, investigators turned to Reinhard Szibor, a biologist at the nearby Otto von Guericke University.

Szibor had helped in criminal cases before and was famous for using pollen to link suspects to crime scenes. Pollen clings to people’s hair, skin and clothes and is, of course, also inhaled. The stuff is nearly indestructible and will remain long after human remains have disintegrated. Authorities hoped Szibor could use pollen samples from the mass grave to determine what time of year the victims died.

Discover Magazine explains how he did it: Szibor rinsed out the skulls’ nasal cavities, had a look, and found pollen from lime trees, plantains and rye, all of which release their pollen during June and July. In other words, the Magdeburg victims had died during the summer months, the time when the Soviet platoon was reportedly executed, and not in the springtime when the Nazis retreated from the city.

Though we still don’t know the precise date of their deaths, and likely never will, the soldiers who paid for their humanity with their lives had finally been identified.

Die Lösung (The Solution)

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

-Bertold Brecht

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1953: Miss Earle Dennison, the first white woman electrocuted in Alabama

2 comments September 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Earle Dennison became the first white woman electrocuted in Alabama history.*

The 55-year-old widow had a sort of Arsenic and Old Lace and Orange Drink thing going on: that sugary refreshment administered by kindly old Auntie Earle on a visit to her niece Shirley Weldon was the delivery vehicle for that venerable poison.

Puking her guts out, little Shirley was raced to the hospital where Earle Dennison had her day job as a nurse. But while the child lay dying, the aunt slipped away so that she could make a payment on a $5,500 life insurance policy she had taken out on the kid — a policy that would have expired the very next day.

This whole affair could hardly fail to cast an incriminating light on the death two years prior of Shirley’s older sister … whose body, upon exhumation, also showed traces of arsenic.

Dennison was indicted but never tried for that previous possible murder; Shirley Weldon’s case would more than suffice to secure the landmark visit to Yellow Mama. The main question was really whether Dennison had been, juridically speaking, plum off her rocker.

Not far enough off it to help her.

Shirley’s parents subsequently won a $75,000 judgment against the insurance company for issuing the policy to an in-law with no insurable interest in the young victim, thereby “plac[ing] the insured child in a zone of danger, with unreasonable harm to her and … the defendants in issuing the alleged illegal contracts.”

But that was a different era. As of today, vast tranches of collateralized policies among suspicious parties with no insurable interest, issued by bankers as rich as Croesus and implicitly guaranteed too big to fail, might well constitute a forward-thinking investment opportunity for troubled economic times.

* There had been only one woman of any racial category electrocuted in Alabama full stop, according to the Espy file of historical U.S. executions: African-American Silena Gilmore in 1930. Prior to that, Alabama had not executed a woman at all since the Civil War.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,USA,Women

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1953: John Christie, a little late in the day

4 comments July 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1953, English serial killer John Christie was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for the murders of six women.

The sex-killer is most infamous, though, for a different death: that of Timothy Evans, a neighbor and fellow client of Pierrepoint whom Christie had stitched up three years before for strangling Evans’s wife and child.

Back then, the respectable Christie was the star witness against Evans. Evans tried in vain to blame Christie (“this perfectly innocent man,” Evans’s prosecutors scoffed) for the murders.

Nobody knew then that Christie had strangled an Austrian prostitute during sex back in 1943, nor that he had done a gassing-strangulation-rape job the following year.

Both their bodies were both buried in the garden at 10 Rillington Place: the first inhabitants of what would be the British Isles’ most notorious corpse hotel.

Strangulation sex killings would become the definitive Christie m.o. after Evans hanged. He got himself a no-fault divorce by throttling his wife in bed late in 1952, then raped and strangled at least three other women whom he had invited back to his pad. The remains of each were secreted in the apartment’s nooks and crannies.

This is Richard Attenborough as Christie doing his thing to Evans’s wife (he’d later confess to that crime) in the 1971 flick 10 Rillington Place.

Christie seemingly could’ve gotten away with it all, if it weren’t for his penny-wise and pound-foolish decision to move out of the charnel house early in 1953 and let someone else stumble upon the remains. (Christie had quit his job the previous December, and hocked his strangled wife’s stuff to make ends meet for a while. He was homeless when the subsequent manhunt tracked him down.) There was even a human femur being used to prop a fence.

Having quite a lot of damning evidence, and Christie’s confession besides, his lawyer went for a hail-Mary insanity defense, but Christie didn’t even bother with an appeal when that didn’t take.

But there was the small matter of that other gentleman hanged back in the day for a strangulation murder, all the while unsuccessfully accusing his then-respectable neighbor Christie.

An inquiry launched by the government very conveniently concluded that (Christie’s confession notwithstanding) Evans was indeed guilty of killing his wife. Two stranglers in the same place at the same time, and the one had just happened to try to blame the other one when he was accused.

For obvious reasons, this whitewash was greeted skeptically and — though the two-killers theory does still have its defenders — officially reversed when Evans was posthumously exonerated in 1966.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Sex

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1953: Marguerite Pitre, the last woman hanged in Canada

4 comments January 9th, 2010 Headsman

Thirty-five minutes past midnight this date in 1953, the 13th and last woman executed in Canada, Marguerite Pitre, was hanged in Montreal’s Bourdeaux gaol.

Pitre was condemned an accomplice to Albert Guay in the latter’s 1949 airline bombing, which killed 23 people just to get rid of Mrs. Guay.

The “dark and buxom go-between in Guay’s affair”* with a teenage waitress had rented Guay a room to install the nymphet when the girl’s father got wise to the frolicking and kicked her out of the house.

Pitre actually testified against Albert Guay in his trial, describing how she bought dynamite at his instruction and delivered a “mystery parcel” to the air freight on the doomed plane.

In fact, she helped blow open the case at the outset by attempting suicide 10 days after the crime and blabbing in the hospital how Albert had made her do it. Pitre insisted, though, that her own involvement was unintentional, and that she thought the box held a statue even though it was her own brother who had fashioned the explosives into a time bomb.

But after Guay’s conviction, both Pitre and her brother were arrested and separately tried for the plot themselves — both of them to follow Guay to the gallows for the audacious crime.

* Chicago Tribune, Jan. 9, 1953.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

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