On This Day in 1957: Albert Anastasia, New York’s ‘Lord High Executioner,’ Murdered.


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Anastasia, murdered while getting a shave at New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel, was and remains one of the most callous and murderous criminals in American history. An illegal immigrant who jumped ship in 1919, he also jumped into New York’s underworld. Born into poverty in Parghelia, Italy in 1920 he would die in 1957, rich beyond his wildest dreams and probably the most feared Mafioso of his time. That he died as he’d lived (violently and criminally) was no surprise. That he survived for so long having made so many enemies certainly is.

It didn’t take
Anastasia long to have a close brush with death, both somebody else’s and very
nearly his own. Illiterate, but tough and strong, Anastasia’s first job was as
a dock-worker. Low in pay and status (though not in the risk of injury on the
job) it was also short on perks other than the rampant…

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George Harsh – Great Escaper and the ‘Milwaukee Thrill Slayer.


Before George Rutherford Harsh, Jr. became a crucial member of the Great Escape he became the ‘Milwaukee Thrill Slayer,’ at least according to the Georgia newspapers. Shot down on a bombing raid over Cologne in 1943 while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a confirmed troublemaker in the eyes of his guards, Harsh … Continue reading George Harsh – Great Escaper and the ‘Milwaukee Thrill Slayer.

On This Day in 1924 – Howard Hinton, Georgia’s first electrocution.


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maxresdefault The former Central State Prison Farm at Milledgeville, since demolished.

It’s common to find ‘Peachtree Bandit’ Frank Dupre, armed robber and murderer executed on September 1, 1921 with Luke McDonald, listed as the last man to hang in Georgia. He wasn’t. That was Arthur Meyers, a murderer hanged at Augusta on June 17, 1931 for a murder committed in March, 1924. McDonald, despite dying with the notorious DuPree, seldom gets a mention in accounts of DuPree’s case.

It’s equally common for the same reports to list a ‘Howard Henson,’ electrocuted on September 13, 1924, as the first Georgian to ride the lightning. He wasn’t, his name was actually Howard Hinton. Hinton was executed for rape and robbery or, to put it more delicately, ‘assaulting a white woman.’ Hinton (1920’s Georgia being 1920’s Georgia) was an African-American.

So, with that in mind, why the confusion? The Georgia Assembly, thanks in part…

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On This Day in 1953 – France’s last inmates return from Devil’s Island.


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“The Bagne is a charnel house, a mass grave, running from syphilis to tuberculosis, with all the tropical diseases one can imagine (carrying malaria, ankylosis, amoebic dysentery, leprosy, etc.), all destined to work hand in hand with an Administration whose task it is to diminish the number of prisoners consigned to its care. The fiercest proponents of ‘elimination’ can rest satisfied. In Guyane, prisoners survive on the average five years – no more.” –

Doctor Louis Rousseau, former chief prison doctor.

They called it ‘Le Bagne,’ simply ‘the jail.’ They called themselves ‘bagnards,’ simply ‘convicts.’ Inmates of probably the worst convict prison in history, some 70,000 made  their way to Guiana from France. Only around 5000 survived long enough to finish their sentences. Only around 2000 ever made the return trip. Only one in four lasted five years before dying there. In a good year around 40% of new arrivals…

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On This Day in 1965: Joel Singer and Jack Franck, the real-life ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.’


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If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood then ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ is probably in your DVD collection. Not one of his better-known movies and perhaps not one of his best, but well worth watching all the same. Nor were Joel Singer and Jack Franck the original Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, that dubious distinction rightly belongs to a pair of English highwaymen who both gave themselves the rank of Captain.

The movie, made largely because Eastwood felt like doing a road movie, also starred George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis and a young Jeff Bridges. It was written and directed by Michael Cimino, later to direct ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ The film revolves round ‘Thunderbolt’ (Eastwood), a criminal who attacks bank vaults using a 20-millimetre cannon.

This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. On the weekend of October 22-23, 1965 Montreal crook Joel Singer did exactly that. 33 20-millimetre cannon shells blasted…

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On This Day in 1963: New York State’s Last Execution, Eddie Lee Mays.


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 Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.
Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.

August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know either. Dow Hover (New York’s last ‘State Electrician’) was also unaware, it was just another date in his increasingly-bare diary. Eddie Lee Mays (armed robber and murderer of no particular note) didn’t know. He was well beyond caring by then anyway.

At 10pm Eddie Lee Mays would walk his last mile, sit down and die. He would leave his pre-execution cell in Sing Sing’s ‘death house,’ walk twenty feet with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ride the lightning. Moved from his regular Death House cell twelve hours before…

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On This Day in 1936 – George ‘Diamond King’ Barrett, first to die for murdering a Federal agent.


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Barrett is certainly a criminal curiosity. His life was one of crime and allegedly several murders. The murder for which he finally died gave him an unwilling place in the chronicles of American crime, though he was hardly appreciated becoming one of history’s footnotes. So why did he hang in a state which had long discarded its gallows and how could a simple matter of geography have seen him possibly cheat the hangman?

Though he claimed to have more significant and lucrative rackets, Barrett stuck mainly to stealing cars and reselling them. His methods were simple, but sophisticated for their time. Rather than simply steal cars and resell them in different States, Barrett would gain legal title to similar models then replace the engines and identifying marks to disguise its origin. Clever for his time, but not clever enough to avoid the FBI which had been tracking him since 1931.

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On This Day in 1890; William Kemmler – The World’s First Legal Electrocution.


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 William Kemmler and the first electric chair.
 William Kemmler and the world’s first electric chair.

August 6, 1890 saw the dawn of a new age for criminal history. At Auburn Prison in upstate New York there was the execution.of one William Kemmler, condemned for murdering girlfriend Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet. There was nothing remarkable about Kemmler (an alcoholic vegetable hawker with a vicious temper) or about his crime. There wasn’t anything unusual about an execution in New York State, either., hangings being a fairly regular event.

 Matilda 'Tillie' Ziegler, Kemmler's girlfriend and victim.
Matilda ‘Tillie’ Ziegler, Kemmler’s girlfriend and victim.

What was unusual was the method. Americans had been hanged, shot, drowned and burned at various times, but none had ever been electrocuted. Even the word ‘electrocute’ was brand new, a buzzword for what enthusiasts had clumsily named ‘electrical execution.’ It had never been done before. After its nightmarish debut, there was much debate about whether it should ever be done again.

Of…

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Lloyd Sampsell, California’s ‘Yacht Bandit.’


A free chapter from my latest book 'Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California,' out now online and in bookstores. “I don’t know why this should bother me, but why in the hell should people be interested in what the condemned man ate for breakfast?” – Sampsell just before his execution.    Lloyd Sampsell was … Continue reading Lloyd Sampsell, California’s ‘Yacht Bandit.’

Professor James Howard Snook, Ohio’s ‘Gold Medal Murderer.’


This is a particularly rare case, singular in fact. The case itself, a philandering husband murdering his illicit lover to protect his reputation, isn’t that unusual, unfortunately. An outwardly-respectable married man deciding to end an illicit affair, and then killing his mistress when she threatens to expose hit, is sadly all-too-common. It shouldn’t be, of … Continue reading Professor James Howard Snook, Ohio’s ‘Gold Medal Murderer.’