The Etymology Of Execution.


tyburn_catlandTyburn, near to today’s Marble Arch and site of many executions.

 

Today we’ll be looking at a tangent of the dark business of execution. Not at the technicalities or at any particular case, but at the etymology of execution. Like it or not (personally, I don’t) the death penalty is still a part of human existence in many countries. Like any other human activity we’ve developed words and phrases to describe it and, despite some of those being decades or even centuries old, they’re still part of everyday conversation in British life even though we totally repealed the death penalty and haven’t had an execution since August, 1964.

So, today we’re going to look at some of these innocent-sounding phrases that so many of us use every day without the slightest idea of their actual meaning. Let’s start with one we all know, namely ‘In the hot seat.’ If somebody is complaining about occupying this particularly uncomfortable piece of furniture it’s no great surprise. The ‘hot seat’ is actually American underworld slang for the electric chair.

‘One for the road’ is another everyday phrase referring to having one last drink before going on your way. During the dark days of Tyburn you’d certainly be going on your way as it wasn’t unusual for a condemned convict to stop between Newgate Prison and Tyburn to be allowed one final pint of beer or glass of grog. When we say that somebody has ‘gone West’ we usually mean they’ve departed in one way or another. Tyburn is West of what was Newgate Prison (now part of the Old Bailey) so yes, plenty of people have ‘gone West.’ Literally. Before their final journey they were ‘In Limbo’ (sound familiar? As though you’re between one situation and another?). ‘Limbo’ being a name for the condemned cells at Newgate where, awaiting appeal, convicts languished halfway between life and death.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been ‘Thrown to the wolves’ or ‘Dropped in the cart’, meaning that you’ve been put into a highly unpleasant situation you wanted no part of? The cart in question was the cart used by hangmen to transport the condemned between Newgate and Tyburn. Being ‘Thrown to the wolves’ would have been far worse for you if you’d been a Viking as this was one of their standard forms of execution. Simply fill a pit with half-starved wolves, add somebody you’ve taken a dislike to and it’s all aboard the chew-chew train.

Has anything ever put you off something? Made you feel ‘turned off’? Again, it’s much less unpleasant now than a few centuries ago when, in the absence of purpose-built gallows, hangmen positioned their customers atop a ladder with a noose round their necks and then twisted the ladder until they fell off and slowly strangled. 

It happens to us all. We’re looking for something or someone and we’ve ‘Drawn a blank,’ usually to our disappointment. If you were taking part in a firing squad then you’d quite likely to be delighted to ‘Draw a blank.’ It’s customary (though entirely pointless) for at least one rifle in a firing squad to be loaded with a blank so no shooter ever really knows whether or not they actually killed a prisoner. So, having ‘Drawn a blank’ isn’t necessarily as disappointing as it sounds.

If you’re a wealthy individual then maybe you have some kind of servant or butler or personal assistant. Maybe you even have a ‘Valet.’ Prior to their own abolition, the French had a fair few ‘Valets’ as well. It was the term for an assistant executioner who’d helped set up a guillotine, tested it, helped restrain a prisoner and then stepped hastily to one side to lessen their laundry bills. In it’s original context, if you were employing a ‘Valet’ then it was because you travelled round La Belle France chopping off heads for a living.

Ever been in a deeply unpleasant situation which looks like it’s only going to worsen, only for a temporary improvement at the last moment? You’ve had a ‘Stay of execution.’ A ‘Stay of execution’ is rather more important to some folk than others,. It’s especially important if you’re on Death Row as it’s a written document postponing your date with the hangman indefinitely. 

The death penalty doesn’t just endure in our language, ironically outliving every single British executioner and all their ‘customers.’ It’s even permeated into superstition. Walking under a ladder is still seen by some as unlucky. Considering that ladders were once makeshift gallows and the only people under them were doing the hangman’s hornpipe, it was certainly unlucky for some.

Speaking of that particular superstition, do you know exactly why the number 13 is unlucky for some? It’s because there are traditionally 13 steps to the top of an headsman’s scaffold or a hangman’s gallows. The traditional ‘hangman’s knot’ (very rarely used by actual hangmen, ironically) also has 13 turns of the rope.

It’s one of the darker areas of etymology, but the etymology of crime and punishment is a rich and varied area. And like I said, whether you like it or not (and personally, I don’t) the death penalty was once a part of British life (and death) and it still is in many other countries. 

Well, I’ve got other things to do now today’s post is done and dusted, so I’d better not hang around. If you’re curious to find out more about this fatally fascinating area of human discourse then waste no time commenting or in dropping me a line. 

Come on now. Chop-chop.

 

 

Plymouth’s Own Duncan Scott-Ford – The ‘£18 Traitor.’


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Duncan Scott-Ford’s mugshot taken after his arrest on a charge of treason.

 

Plymouth, being a harbour and garrison town, has had its fair share of maritime heroes. Discuss the history of the place and you’ll certainly be told endless tales about Sir Francis Drake’s defeat of th Spanish Armada in 1588, the fact that Charles Darwin wrote his ‘Origin of Species’ after a trip from Plymouth to the South Atlantic aboard the Beagle, the fact that heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (legendary after 1939’s Battle of the River Plate) was a Plymouth ship and so on. You’ll probably not hear mention of of the fact that another local mariner, Sir John Hawkins, was keenly involved with the slave trade, that when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to penal colonies for the heinous crime of starting a trade union they were transported from Plymouth or that legendary American gangster ‘Legs’ Diamond tried to make Plymouth his port of entry before Home Office officials refused to let him off the boat. When people are boosting thir town’s history they tend to skip over its less desirable events and personalities and Plymouth is no exception. I should know, I was born there and it’s a place that I can take or leave.

So the local boosters and tub-thumpers won’t mention Duncan Scott-Ford. He’s wasn’t the brightest of lightbulbs, he was a petty fraudster dismissed from the Royal Navy amid some ignominy and he was a traitor who sold out his country, his comrades (and ultimately his own life) for the princely sum of 1000 Portuguese escudos, worth around £18 in 1942 and shortly afterward he faced the gallows for treachery.

All in all, not somebody the locals would include in some puff piece intended to encourage outside investment and to bring tourists and their money.

Duncan Scott-Ford was actually born Duncan Alexander Croall Smith on September 4, 1921. His father served in the Royal Navy until he died of pneumonia (itself brought on by an overdose of morphine during a suicide attempt) on March 23, 1933. His son decided to change his name to improve his social standing, given that suicide is regarded as dishonourable in the British military and also enlisted himself. He started out at Devonport in the shore base HMS Impregnable, having enlisted in 1937 when aged only16. His naval career lasted only a few years.

In 1939 his ship, the cruiser HMS Gloucester, was making a goodwill visit to Dar-es-Salaam. Our hapless hero became infatuated with a German, whom MI5 later came to believe he had supplied with secret information including some British naval codes. That was never proved, but it was only the first time his honesty was to be questioned. He was transferred to a base in Egypt where he promptly became infatuated with a local prostitute. Prostitutes being interested in money, and Scott-Ford not having very much to spend, he was caught having altered entries in his Post Office account book. Result: A court martial sentenced him to two years imprisonment and a dishonourable discharge.

His mother, after much pleading on behalf of her errant and rather witless son, managed to get the sentence considerably reduced. After her intervention he received and honourable discharge and his jail term was reduced to six months to be served in England rather than Egypt. Perhaps she thought he might be less wayward if he was home where she could keep an eye on him. She was wrong. After his release he briefly lived with her in Plymouth until they quarrelled over her alleged misuse of money sent home out of his naval pay. They quarrelled bitterly and he promptly left to join the Merchant Navy and was posted to the SS Finland, arriving in Lisbon in May, 1942.

Lisbon, being in Portugal, was in neutral territory. Portugal in general, and Lisbon in particular, were hotbeds of espionage and intrigue. German and British citizens and officials could meet and mingle freely (if not always civilly) and Portugal provided a jump-off point for any spy looking to secretly enter neutral Spain or Vichy France found it far easier to do so from Portugal than most other places. Portugal is also home to several harbours where German and British ships nd their crews often encountered each other. It was where Duncan Scott-Ford encountered German Intelligence, the Abwehr) and made a deal with them. It was a deal he no doubt bitterly regretted later.

The deal was a death-trap right from the start, a classic honey trap. Spies like the honey trap because it allows them to lure in potential agents with false promises and manipulation before employing outright blackmail to keep them working. It usually takes a little time to set up but, once it’s in place, it’s a classic recruiting technique. You find a likely recruit, get them to do you small favours, nothing heavy at first, and then ease them into outright treachery. If their conscience or fear of being caught makes them refuse to go on, then you simply threaten to blow their cover and let their own side deal with them. In intelligence circles, especially during wartime, this is likely to involve either an assassin’s bullet or a hangman’s noose.

Not loang after reaching Lisbon Scott-Ford met a dubious character. a Mr. Rithman, who promised he could get a letter from Scott-Ford to the German girl he’d met while in Dar-es-Salaam. But he wanted a little favour in return. If Scott-Ford could confirm the rumour then floating round Lisbon all British ships had been ordered to be in port by June 28, then the letter would be delivered and Scott-Ford would be paid 1000 Portuguese escudos. Scott-Ford, seemingly unaware that this transcation alone constituted espionage and aiding the enemy, both capital crimes, agreed to meet Rithmann the next day and did so. He couldn’t confirm the rumour, but he met Rithmann and a mysterious ‘Captain Henley.’ The trio talked general gossip for a while about British morale, public opinion, Winston Churchill’s public profile and popularity and Scott-Ford was asked how well German air raids were damaging British morale and industrial capacity. ‘Henly’ passed over the 1000-escudo note as promised and they arranged another meeting for a few days later. This would be the meeting that sealed Duncan Scott-Ford’s status as a traitor and eventually put his neck in a noose.

At their next meeting the requested information was more substantial. Scott-Ford was asked for information about British naval minefields, on the continuing arrival an American servicemen into the UK and to rpivde the latest copies of Jane’s Fighting Ships and Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. He was also asked to sign for the money he’d already received which, like a true master spy, he signed for in his own name. The Bawehr now had all they needed to blackmail him into providingwhatver information they wanted and the British courts had all the evidence needed to see that this particular sailor danced the hangman’s hornpipe. It wouldn’t be very long before Duncan Scott-Ford did exactly that.

The SS Finland sailed the next day, arriving at Liverpool a few days later. On their arrival all crewmen were questioned regarding any approaches that might have been made to them by German agents. Showing a rare flash of intelligence, Scott-Ford admitted he’d been approached (neatly avoiding anybody being able to state they’d seen him being approached), but denied having supplied any information. That questioning should have been a warning. It was a warning that he ignored with fatal results.

In July, 1942 the SS Finland was back in Lisbon. Scott-Ford promptly met his handlers, received another 500 escudos which, true to form, he was stupid enough to sign for in his own name and told his handlers he’d been unable to obtain the books they wanted. Now the honey trap became far less sweet for him. The Abwehr agents threatened to hand his receipts to the British. Panicking, he gave them details of the convoy’s escorting warships, of the convoy itself, the location of an important aircraft factory in the UK and of how Allied troops were preparing and training to invade Europe. The meeting ended with Ford accepting another 100 escudos and agreeing to provide details of his convoy’s return route and speed, details that were doubtless passed on to U-boat wolfpacks prowling the North Atlantic.

On arrival in England he was questioned again about approaches from German agents. Being questioned twice in two trips should have been an even louder alarm bell ringing, but with the Abwehr in total control of his future it would have made little difference. German intelligence owned Duncan Scott-Ford and it was a choice between confessing and hoping to avoid the gallows or continuing to work for the Abwehr. Scott-Ford confessed, was arrested and detained secretly to be investigated and tried for treachery. A search of his quarters aboard the SS Finland provided the clincher when written details of the convoy’s route, speed and escort warships were found in his room.

After British Intelligence decided he would be no use to them for feeding false intelligence to the Abwehr (and of far greater use as an example to any other seaman thinking of supplementing their income) Duncan Scott-Ford was tried secretly before Mr. Justice Birkett. The trial and sentence were mere formalities. He was convicted and condemned to death on October 16, 1942. His lack of value as a triple agent sealed his fate and there would be no reprieve.

Duncan Scott-Ford was hanged by that most famous British executioner, the chief public hangman himself, Albert Pierrepoint at 9am on November 3, 1942.Only after his execution were details of his arrest and trial even made public. If he’d been of any use as a triple agent then his capture needed to be kept secret from the Abwehr but, once the spies controlling the British ‘Double Cross’ system used for ‘turning’ German agents decided he was worthless to them, secrecy was unnecessary and a public example could be made.

All in all, Duncan Scott-Ford was a greedy and foolish young man and an incompetent, naïve, reckless traitor who bartered his life and the lives of many others for a pittance.

Not somebody you’ll find in Plymouth’s tourist literature.

 

Herbert Rowse Armstrong – A Poisonous Plymothian


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Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the only British lawyer to be hanged for murder,

 

Next up in a parade of deliberately-forgotten Plymouth folk is Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong. Retired Army Major, former MP for Plymouth, respectable small-town lawyer, embezzler, fraudster, repeat poisoner and one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. His case isn’t especially memorable in itself, bored and bitter husbands poisoning their wives is nothing new in the true crime trade, but only one British lawyer was ever hanged for murder and it happens to be this chap.

Now many wags, seeing that Armstrong was the only British lawyer to be strung up, might well be thinking ‘Well, it’s a pity more lawyers don’t hang, but at least they made a start.’ or some other macabre witticism. There are also those who believe Armstrong was framed and should never have kept his date with the hangman. If you visit the town of Hay-on-Wye where Armstrong did his dark and deadly deeds (and famous today for its international literary festival), there are still two distinct bodies of opinion on whether he did them at all. I was there a couple of years ago and feelings can still run high on Hay’s most famous (and notorious) resident.

Armstrong’s legal career began after graduating from Cambridge and his first law practice was in Devon, Newton Abbot to be precise. He was born in Plymouth on May 31, 1869 and his childhood home was in Princess Square. Like much of pre-war Plymouth it now no longer exists. What Hermann Goering’s lads couldn’t demolish in wartime mostly fell to the city planners after VE Day, hence the grey, uninteresting concrete jungle that passes for Plymouth city centre. But we digress…

After taking a partnership in a law firm in Hay, the Armstrong’s moved there and initially all was well. At least until the arrival of a certain Oswald Martin. Martin joined Hay’s other law firm and displayed all the conscientiousness, reliability and work ethic that Armstrong conspicuously lacked. With a lawyer available who actually made a decent effort, locals began deserting Armstrong and hiring Martin instead. Business began to slacken off and profits began to dry up. Armstrong needed money to cover his debts and to remove his troublesome rival. He decided on fraud to cover his debts and arsenic to resolve the Martin situation. Domestically, things were increasingly troublesome as well. His wife Katherine, also a native Devonian, was a domineering, quarrelsome, hectoring individual who ran the Armstrong home like her personal fiefdom. To Armstrong, who’d achieved the rank of Major and briefly served in World War One (while cleverly managing to avoid being under fire except once) she was a pain in the neck. She also had a considerable estate so, should she succumb to sudden illness, her husband would be her sole beneficiary.

Armstrong managed to cook the books at his law practice for a while to hide his financial woes, but time was running out. Having embezzled money held as a deposit for a local land deal Armstrong couldn’t then complete the sale because the deposit would be asked for. Stalling the buyer and vendor on completion exasperated both of them so much that they decided to abandon the deal and demanded the deposits be returned. Armstrong didn’t have the money he was supposed to be holding in trust.

First to suffer (after Armstrong’s defrauded clients) was his annoying, domineering, cash-rich wife. Katherine’s health began to fluctuate and she went in and out of hospital during 1921 and 1922.  She always recovered in hospital, but also always became ill while under Armstrong’s care. Armstrong, being a keen gardener, always had large amounts of arsenic in hand and, curiously, her repeated illnesses bore the hallmarks of arsenic poisoning. She died suddenly and Armstrong profited, buying him some more before being publicly outed as a crook in addition to a second-rate and lazy small-town lawyer.

Next on Armstrong’s hit parade was his professional rival Oswald Martin. Not long after the unfortunate departure of Katherine Armstrong (an event her grieving husband barely grieved over at all even in public) Martin received an anonymous gift of a box of chocolates. Not liking chocolates he gave them to his wife and his sister also ate a couple. Both Mrs Martin and her sister-in-law fell seriously ill. Then Martin (who’d been acting for the other party in Armstrong’s embezzled land deal and consequently had no fondness for Armstrong) received a sudden invitation to afternoon tea at Armstrong’s home. Armstrong gave him tea and made sure he ate a particular scone which Armstrong handed him rather than offering the whole plate with the words ‘Please excuse fingers.’ Not a memorable breach of etiquette, as a rule, but it certainly seemed memorable to Martin when he was suddenly and almost fatally ill. Again, his symptoms bore all the classic signs of arsenic poisoning.

The Martin’s all survived, but spent several months living in Hay (a very small place) with Martin’s office right across the street from Armstrong’s and with their would-be murderer not only making polite conversation on a daily basis but persistently inviting both Martin and his wife for another dose of his highly-dubious afternoon tea. The strain must have been almost intolerable. Bad enough for the Martins that they firmly believed Armstong was trying to kill them. Worse that they had to socialise with their would-be assassin as well.

Martin first alerted the local GP, Doctor Hincks. Hincks had treated Martin and Mrs Armstrong and Martin’s suspicions were matched by his own. They were more than matched when Hincks sent the box of chocolates to a private lab for a toxicology test. Lo and behold, a couple had been hollowed out, their fillings replaced with pure white arsenic and melted chocolate smeared over the holes. Enter Chief Inspector Crutchett of Scotland Yard…

Crutchett and his partner, Detective Sergeant Sharp, were hampered by having to work in secret. As a suspect in his wife’s poisoning (proved when her body was exhumed and tested for arsenic) and in the attempted murders of three other people, Armstrong was seen as the type who would either attempt escape or suicide if he knew Scotland Yard were on to him. In the end it made no difference. On New Year’s Eve, 1922 they dropped by Armstrong’s office, questioned him and then arrested him for the murder of his wife. And what did they find when they turned out his pockets before taking him away? A small wrap of special pharmacist’s paper in his waistcoat pocket. A wrap of paper containing a lethal dose of arsenic. When they searched his office they also turned out his desk drawers. Another, larger, package of arsenic was found stuffed inside the desk itself.

Armstrong was quickly tried, convicted and condemned to hang. His appeal failed and this truly poisonous Plymothian met his end at the hands of chief hangman John Ellis at Gloucester Prison on, with a bitter irony, May 31, 1923. It was his 53rd birthday.

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Like a certain Duncan Scott-Ford it’s unlikely that Plymouth’s boosters are likely to put this gentleman in the tourist leaflets. In fairness, he’s been dead since 1923 and his crimes were committed on the Welsh border so it’s no great surprise. That said, he was a local lawyer, Plymouth’s Member of Parliament at one time and, ironically, campaigned heavily on behalf of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee whose failed execution gave him the unwelcome notoriety of being ‘The man they couldn’t hang.’  passage by murdering his wife and attempting to murder two other people, went from this world to the next without any mishap.

Oklahoma: The Botched Execution of Clayton Lockett


Here’s an interesting link for the inside track on this debacle. It’s a preliminary summary from Robert Patton (Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections) to Mary Fallin (Oklahoma State Governor):

 

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8bT8f-N8gQvT0liN0I3d1NIRlU/edit?pli=1

 

 

Here’s the text in full. Further comment by me is probably unnecessary:

 

On This Day in 1865: The Last Stand of John Wilkes Booth


John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

 

John Wilkes Booth was born into one of America’s most distinguished acting dynasties. He died one of America’s most notorious figures and its first Presidential assassin. On the evening of April 14, 1865, not long after the final surrender of Confederate forces that effectively ended the Civil War, he sneaked into Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater in Washington, shot President Lincoln in the back of the head with a single-shot .44 calibre Derringer pistol and made a dramatic escape by leaping from the box to the stage shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”). He’s also said to have added ‘The South is avenged!” before leaping from the box to the stage and then rushing out to a waiting horse and off into the Virginia wilderness.

The actual assassination doesn’t concern us here. What we are looking at is how he escaped after the crime, where he went and how he was finally run to earth. Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln was as futile as it was brutal. It achieved nothing other than to ruin all hope of a swift reconciliation between North and South after the war. It was reconciliation that, ironically, was one of Lincoln’s principal ambitions with the war’s end. Instead, Booth;s crime unleashed a tidal wave of anti-Confederate anger resulting in outbreaks of civil disorder, the murders of over 200 Americans across the country and a bitterness enduring for generations.

Booth himself escaped Washington with an accomplice, David Herold. His co-conspirators were swiftly rounded up. Four earned long sentences. Four more earned a date with the hangman. Booth and Herold took full advantage of the chaos caused by the first Presidential assassination in American history. They rode out into through Maryland and on into Virginia, first seeking medical help for Booth’s leg, broken during his escape from Ford’s Theater. Doctor Samuel Mudd, a Confederate sympathiser, treated Booth’s injuries. Fearing their being found in his home Mudd swiftly passed him on to Thomas Jones, also active in the Confederate underground. Mudd’s name was so blackened by his caring for Booth that it spawned the well-known saying ‘His name is Mudd.’ Mudd drew a long stretch in prison, Booth and Herold weren’t so lucky.

Booth and Herold spent days hidden in a pine thicket in a Swamp bordering the Potomac, waiting for Jones to help them escape across the river and on into the former Confederacy. Jones led them down to the riverbank in the dead of night to a boat he’d procured for them. If they’d made it their chances of being caught would have effectively vanished. Ironically, having successfully committed one of history’s most notorious assassinations, Booth’s inability to read a compass spelt disaster. He wouldn’t live to see a courtroom. If Booth and Herold had simply rowed west across the Potomac then within hours they’d have been across into the former Confederacy. In Virginia they would have been surrounded by sympathisers prepared to shelter them and help them avoid capture. Instead, disoriented and lost, they rowed north-west. Instead of crossing into Virginia and relative safety, they’d rowed all night and were still stuck in Maryland.

Realising their blunder, they bumped into three Confederate soldiers who agreed to help them into Virginia. They travelled together across the river aboard a scow near Port Conway. Unbeknown to Booth, the ferryman reported their presence to one of the many Federal patrols hunting Booth in the wake of his crime. The three Confederates were soon caught and forced to admit they’d escorted Booth and Herold to a farm owned by Richard Garrett. ‘Old Man Garrett’ had allowed them to stay in one of his tobacco barns. Thinking they were temporarily safe, they’d stayed at the barn and were totally unaware of the net tightening around them. It was there that 25 members of the 16th New York Cavalry and two detectives, Baker and Conger, surrounded them. Booth’s last stand was on. For David Herold it was a choice between surrender and death. It was just possible that a court might have shown him some mercy if he gave himself up. For Booth it was either a last stand or the hangman’s rope, Whether he surrendered or fought to the death he would be dead either way. Booth knew it.

Herold surrendered, Booth didn’t. Once Herold gave himself up Booth demanded that the cavalrymen back off 100 feet and allow him to come out shooting. This was the last thing Conger and Baker wanted. They wanted Booth alive to make an example of him. Herold would stand trial and still hang, despite his age. But it was Booth his pursuers really wanted. Having surrounded the barn they were in no mood to wait any longer. They torched the barn roof to try and burn him out and they almost succeeded.

Booth did come out of the burning building. He came out armed, but not shooting. The Spencer carbine in his right hand and the revolver in his left remained unfired. One of the cavalrymen, an Englishman named Thomas Corbett, wasn’t so restrained. As Booth staggered out through the smoke and flying embers Corbett raised his rifle and fired a single .65 calibre round straight through Booth’s neck, severing three vertebrae. The wound was almost immediately mortal.

The soldiers dragged the dying assassin clear of the burning building. Booth, barely alive and almost entirely paralysed, asked Conger to raise his hands for him. With his dying breath Booth looked at his hands and uttered his ambiguous last words:

 

“Useless, useless..”

Was he talking about his assassination of President Lincoln? Was he talking of his never having enlisted in the Confederate army, even while the war was ongoing and every man was needed? Was he talking of the war itself, a war where the industrialised, heavily-populated North held most of the cards right from the start? Only Booth knew for sure and history never will. His never having enlisted would have been a source of shame for him, given his fanatical devotion to the Confederate cause. His assassination of Lincoln was useless, given that the war was already over and Lincoln himself was a keen exponent of reconciliation between the warring factions, reconciliation rendered impossible by Booth’s having caused such bitterness and rage in the North.  So what was it that Booth thought so useless? Maybe he thought his life had been useless, and tried to give it some meaning by one desperate ac for an already-lost cause.

 

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The Brits Who Fought For Hitler.


Insignia of the ‘British Free Corps’, former prisoners-of-war who enlisted in the infamous Waffen SS.

The SS motto – ‘My honour is loyalty.’

 

As a freelance scribbler and long-time student of military history I love finding the more overlooked or forgotten aspects of the subject. For instance, the popular narrative of the Second World War holds that the British people pulled together, fighting as one for a common cause.

Erm, not exactly.

While British troops and the vast majority of the British public did rally round, a tiny handful didn’t. Some turned traitor for money. The notorious ‘£18 traitor’ Duncan Scott-Ford (not one of Plymouth’s favourite sons), was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in November, 1942 for selling convoy information to German Intelligence at a bargain discount. For others the shift was ideological. They were in it for the cause, such as Wiliam Joyce (AKA ‘Lord HAW Haw’ and star of Nazi propaganda broadcast) and John Amery, founder of the ‘British Free Corps.’

The BFC were British troops, former prisoners-of-war, recruited in their camps by the Waffen SS. The BFC was originally Amery’s idea but, given his recruitment efforts were farcically unsuccessful, the unit was turned over to the Waffen SS in the hope that they would run it better than Amery (not difficult). Amery’s original idea was to recruit thousands of British prisoners ranging from committed Nazis and Fascists to disaffected soldiers, those whose anti-Communism outweighed their patriotism and so on.

Recruiting foreigners into the SS wasn’t nearly as rare as you might think. Scandanavia produced the ‘Viking’ Division, there were several thousand Indians possibly motivated by Indian nationalism, a Muslim division active in the former Yugoslavia and even Russian prisoners choosing to enlist. Far from an entirely Nazi unit with strict racial and religious selection criteria, the SS were far more flexible than many might believe.

With their previous success at recruiting foreigners, the SS thought that recruiting British traitors would be equally fruitful. It wasn’t. The BFC never had more than 27 members at any time and only 60 or so ever joined at all. Many who did claimed later that they joined either to escape or to gather intelligence and desert at the earliest opportunity. Throughout its (mercifully brief) existence the BFC never numbered a platoon, let alone a corps.

The BFC didn’t last long, either. Originally named the ‘Legion of Saint George’, recruitment started under Amery in 1943. Thousands of leaflets were delivered to POW camps all over the crumbling Third Reich. Recruiters like Amery visited camps, dishing out gifts accompanied by their sales pitch. The sales pitch appealed more to anti-Communism than outright Nazi or Fascist sympathies and, like the BFC itself, recruitment never really achieved anything. It achieved so little that Amery was replaced as recruiter in late 1943 and the unit handed over to the Waffen SS. By 1944 it was obvious to any British prisoner that the war was already lost and it was only months before the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ would collapse. Even if there were many receptive prisoners they were highly unlikely to join an already-defeated side when they could simply wait for liberation, rather than risk being killed in action or captured and hanged as traitors.

Enduring the POW camps was painful. Albert Pierrepoint’s rope was worse.

Recruitment wasn’t confined solely to British prisoners. Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and others were approached. Only a handful ever enlisted, many who enlisted didn’t stay for more than a few days before returning to their camps. Very often, they simply signed up for a few days of forbidden pleasures (beer and prostitutes being the most popular) before deciding it wasn’t for them. The supposed Corps never even reached platoon strength at its largest.

Nazi and traitor John Amery, founder of the British Free Corps.

John Amery, like the ‘Cambridge Spies’ after the war, was an unlikely traitor. He was the son of one of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Leo Amery (then Secretary of State for India). His brother Julian did excellent wartime service in the British Army and, after John was condemned, did his best to secure clemency. Decades afterward he still refused to discuss his brother. John Amery was an arch-imperialist, a raving anti-Semite, an equally raving anti-Communist and a traitor. His far-right beliefs led him to claim he’d run guns to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (this was a lie, but gained widespread belief). After bankruptcy in 1936 he moved to France, briefly visited Spain, became further embroiled in Nazi collaboration while living in Vichy France and made propaganda broadcasts for Nazi radio during the Second World War. His final treachery was forming the British Free Corps. He was, according to British upper-class stereotypes, the last person expected to turn traitor.

But his family connections, his fictional gun-running for Franco (still ruling Spain at the time) and his brother’s efforts to gain clemency didn’t save him. Amery was captured by Italian partisans weeks before the German surrender and handed over to the British for trial on a charge of high treason. High treason carried a mandatory sentence, death by hanging. At first Amery tried to claim Spanish citizenship, arguing that as a naturalised Spaniard he was no longer British so couldn’t be tried for treason. His lies caught up with him. The Spanish government denied Amery had smuggled them weapons during the civil war. They also confirmed that Amery had taken some steps towards Spanish citizenship, but not all of them. Legally, Amery was still British. His defence simply didn’t exist.

Amery knew it. In an almost-unheard of move he stood before Justice Humphries at the Old Bailey on November 28, 1945 and pled guilty. Humphries warned Amery of the mandatory death sentence before accepting the plea. Amery refused to change his mind. The trial lasted only 8 minutes before Humphries donned the ‘black cap’, a square of black silk traditionally placed on a judge’s wig before a death sentence.

Humphries spoke briefly and bluntly:

“John Amery… I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason. They called you a traitor and you heard them; but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your King and country, and you have forfeited your right to live.”

“The sentence of this Court is that you will be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead and that afterward your body will be cut down and buried withing the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

“Remove the prisoner…”

Final Destination: The gallows at Wandsworth Prison where Amery met his end

Amery’s brother Julian did his best for a reprieve. There was no chance of that. In 1945 the public mood was vengeful, especially towards homegrown traitors. At 9am on December 19, 1945, John Amery took his final walk. It was brief, seven steps from condemned cell to gallows. He walked firmly, unaided, as the prison clock started chiming the hour. By the time the chimes stopped, Amery was dead. It took only seconds. Chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant Henry Critchell had achieved their usual speed and precision. After hanging for the traditional hour to absolutely ensure death, Amery was cut down. A post-mortem was performed and he was buried, as was traditional, in an unmarked grave within Wandsworth Prison.

Oddly enough, it was Albert Pierrepoint who complimented Amery’s courage at the end. In an article written for the ‘Empire News and Sunday Chronicle’ but not published after official pressure, Pierrepoint described Amery as ‘The bravest man I ever hanged.’ Considering Amery’s Nazi beliefs, his treachery and that Pierrepoint hanged 433 men and 17 women in his career, perhaps the most positive thing about John Amery’s life was the manner in which he met his death.

‘Doctor’ Crippen, Hanged Today In 1910. Innocent? Or Hanged For The Wrong Murder..?


The infamous ‘Doctor’ Crippen, actually a salesman of quack medicines.

Most people know the name. Most who know the name, know the story. ‘Doctor’ Hawley Harvey Crippen (actually a salesman of quack remedies) unwittingly became one of criminal history’s most infamous names. His wife Cora disappeared. Her remains were found beneath  the coal cellar of their home, 39 Hilldrop Crescent. Crippen flees to Canada with his mistress, Ethel le Neve. The Transatlantic pursuit of Crippen and his paramour, secretly recognised by Captain Kendall of the SS Montrose, whose radio message made Crippen the first murderer caught by radio. Crippen and le Neve arrested after Scotland Yard’s Walter Dew caught a faster ship (the SS Laurentic) and surprised them.

 

 

Talk of an abusive, unfaithful, drunken, violent wife whose conduct might have driven him to breaking point. Crippen’s illicit liaisons with his secretary and the final chapter on November 23, 1910, when Crippen walked smiling to the gallows. Ethel, having been cleared of any wrongdoing, disappeared into obscurity for the rest of her life. Well, almost…

But was Crippen hanged for the wrong murder? Was he even guilty? New forensic evidence doesn’t conclusively exonerate him. But it certainly raises questions about the original verdict, particularly the forensic evidence that saw Crippen receive his death sentence. According to leading forensic toxicologist John Trestrail (writer of the FBI textbook on poisons and poisoners) and DNA expert David Foran, the remains found under the coal cellar are not Cora Crippen’s.

Foran’s testing of mitochondrial DNA (only present on the female side) was based on an original tissue sample tested for a match with three of her surviving descendants. The samples didn’t match. This doesn’t automatically exonerate Crippen. After all, if the remains weren’t his wife then whose were they? If he didn’t murder Cora then did he murder somebody else? Was he tried, convicted and condemned as a genuine murderer, but actually hanged for the wrong murder?

Trestrail, a world-renowned expert on poisons and poisoners, has stated that this is the only poisoning case he’s ever examined where the poisoner also dismembered their victim. He bases this idea on the premise that poisoners have recognised the real principle of the so-called ‘perfect murder.’ A ‘perfect murder’ isn’t one where a murderer isn’t caught, it’s the murder that goes entirely undetected. Use a poison that mimics some disease or other and, barring any suspicions, it’s far more likely the death will be attributed to natural causes.

Poisoners usually grasp that, at least in theory. They don’t need to dissect their victim. Doing so would be pointless if they’re hoping to pass off poisoning as a natural death. Crippen, despite being one of the world’s most notorious poisoners, doesn’t fit the typical profile of a poisoner. If he was a poisoner at all.

One other complication arises. While the samples were DNA-tested they were also tested to establish the gender of the remains. The test used is cutting-edge and only performed at Foran’s lab. According to the test results, the remains were male. If the tests are accurate, the remains weren’t Cora’s and the deceased wasn’t even female (ruling out the theory that Crippen performed illegal abortions and something went wrong). Essentially destroying the prosecution’s case and the forensic evidence on which it was largely based.

Hawley Crippen, star of the world’s first trial-by-media and still resident at Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’, could be innocent of the murder for which he was hanged. One body of opinion, debatable though it may be, has suggested that Cora did indeed leave her husband for America as Crippen initially claimed. That said, even if she did that doesn’t resolve the question the human remains found in Crippen’s basement. If they weren’t those of Cora Crippen, whose were they and how did they get there?

If Crippen was wrongly convicted and unjustly hanged, it doesn’t just destroy the case against him. It cripples the reputation of the prosecution forensic expert, the ‘Father of forensic science’ Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury is still a colossus in forensic circles. His career was legendary. His case findings and working practices are still held up as examples.

Bernard-Spilsbury-NLB

Sir Bernard Spilsbury, ‘Father of forensic science.’

Only relatively recently have Spilsbury’s skill, accuracy and reputation been questioned. Spilsbury mostly testified for the prosecution in murder cases, very seldom appearing for the defence. His evidence and stature meant that, merely by appearing, he could swing a jury’s verdict.  Another defendant, Norman Thorne, went to the gallows in April 1925 having declared himself a ‘martyr to Spilsburyism.’ Author Richard Gordon described him thus:

‘His opinions were so impregnable, he could achieve single-handed all the legal consequences of a homicide – arrest, prosecution, conviction, and final post-mortem – requiring only the brief assistance of the hangman.’

If he could be so far wrong in the Crippen case, his first big case and his passport to scientific and criminal legend as helping convict over 250 murderers, then how many other defendants might have died at the end of a rope for crimes they didn’t commit?

Trestrail also questions the behaviour of the lead investigator, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Walter Dew. The dismembered body reminded many Londoners of Jack the Ripper. The resulting media storm created immense pressure to catch the murderer. Even Home Secretary Winston Churchill took a personal interest in the case.  After Crippen’s arrest, Dew left Scotland Yard, becoming a private detective and writing the lucrative book ‘I Caught Crippen…’

Trestrail believes that another crucial piece of evidence (a pyjama top belonging to Crippen, found with the remains) was planted by Dew and his Detective Sergeant in an effort to close the case quickly. According to Trestrail, the press and public wanted a murderer hanged, so Dew (and possibly Willcox and Spilsbury) served them Crippen on a plate.

If Dew did frame Crippen, did he frame  the right person for the wrong murder? Was he so convinced of Crippen’s genuine guilt that he planted evidence for the forensic team to find? Did he frame an actual murderer at all, or simply serve up the most plausible suspect, not on a plate, but a pathologist’s slab with his neck broken?

William Willcox, chief toxicologist for the prosecution, found hyoscine in the remains. He also found it with unusual (if not suspicious) speed. Hyoscine has never been used in a murder case before or since, yet Willcox found it very quickly despite that. Crippen had purchased hyoscine from a local chemist before the murder. But why and how did Willcox even know to test for it? Why look specifically for hyoscine when far more common poisons like arsenic or cyanide were more likely suspects?

Crippen possessed hyoscine. Scotland Yard knew he possessed hyoscine. Willcox, with possibly dubious ease, found hyoscine. This when it would have been a highly unlikely poisoner’s choice. Granted, Willcox found a drug police knew was in Crippen’s possession, a drug then used in obstetrics and possibly by illegal abortionists. Was it standard practice to test for every drug in a suspect’s possession, or did Dew suggest it?

2060701270_728536522d

Executioner John Ellis

Rightly or wrongly, Crippen went to the gallows at Pentonville Prison at 9am on November 23, 1910. 109 years ago today. According to executioner John Ellis, Crippen smiled as he saw the noose and quickened his pace as though he wanted it over quickly. He was buried, as was the custom, within the prison where he was hanged. Ethel changed her name and left England for Canada and then Australia, not returning for many years. ‘Ethel  always feared exposure as ‘Doctor’ Crippen’s mistress.

Near the end of her life she finally came back and, not long before she died, she asked a friend to take her to London to visit two places from her past. One was Holloway Prison where London’s female criminals are held, where Ethel herself was held before trial as an accessory. The other was Pentonville, where her lover smiled as he approached the hangman’s noose.

 

Joseph Paul Franklin Will Die Tonight


Racially-motivated serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin faces execution by lethal injection at just after midnight tonight.

This is Joseph Paul Franklin. He’s reportedly confessed to 22 murders, at least 16 bank robberies, several non-fatal shootings and a number of other crimes. Most famously, Franklin was the man who shot porn magnate Larry Flynt (leaving him permanently paralysed) and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. Jr. (who also survived). Franklin, barring any last-minute legal victories, will die at the Easter Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Centre in Bonne Terre, Missouri. Without a successful appeal Franklin will die by lethal injection just after midnight tonight, Missouri time. He’s a neo-Nazi, a racist, an armed robber, a serial killer and bombed a synagogue in Indiana simply because he hated Jews. Chances are that many people would say prisoners like Franklin are the reason the death penalty exists and, if anybody deserves to be put to death, Joseph Paul Franklin has earned it.

But Franklin does have some unlikely allies, most notably Larry Flynt, who will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair after Franklin shot him because his porn magazine ‘Hustler’ carried photo spreads of interracial porn. Most of Franklin’s killings and shootings were hate crimes, motivated by outright racism, anti-Semitism and a hard-line worship of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Franklin’s victims were chosen for such pointless reasons as their race, their religion, the fact that they were in interracial relationships and, in Flynt’s case, because he published dirty pictures where the models weren’t all white. His many armed robberies were more prosaic, Franklin drifted from state to state, using only cash to avoid leaving any paper trail of cheques or credit card transactions. He didn’t even have an ATM card which made catching him even harder.

It’s unusual, but not unknown, for a condemned criminal’s victims or their families to come forward and speak out against a forthcoming execution. It’s even rarer for a victim as widely-known as Larry Flynt to enter the fray and speak against the execution of the man whose racism and violence left Flynt permanently disabled.  In the United States there are a number of organisations composed of the relatives of murder victims who are against the death penalty and executing the criminals whose crimes caused them incalculable suffering. Groups such as ‘Murder Victims Families for Human Rights’ and ‘Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation’ actively oppose executions despite the fact that their members have often felt the pain of losing someone close to them. But it’s by no means the norm for those hurt most by a condemned inmate to come forward and campaign to save that inmate from execution.

There are some other unusual things about Franklin’s scheduled execution. In death penalty states the State Governor can often exercises ‘executive clemency’ even aft appeals courts have denied every appeal made to them. Even with minutes to go, after the US Supreme Court has decided not to issue a stay of execution, most State Governors (not all, but most of them) can still order an execution postponed, a death sentence commuted (usually to life imprisonment) or even an inmate’s release if there’s some last-minute, compelling evidence to do so. Missouri’s Governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, has made the unusual move of already denying clemency on November 18, a whole 2 days before Franklin is scheduled to die. State Governors don’t usually pre-empt the courts by denying executive clemency even before an inmate’s appeals are exhausted, but Nixon is very much pro-death penalty. He’s not immune to issuing stays of execution, he issued one for inmate Allan Nicklasson only last month (albeit because of ongoing difficulties concerning the supply of lethal drugs needed to actually perform an execution), but it was always going to be a long shot for Franklin, especially when you consider that Nixon was Missouri’s Attorney-General when Franklin was originally condemned.

Missouri hasn’t performed an execution since 2011 when Martin Link died for murder. It might be suggested, with a strongly pro-death penalty Governor, that Missouri might want to have some executions, not many, but some, just to remind criminals (and voters) that the State has teeth and is prepared to use them. With that in mind, if they want to make an example then it’s unlikely that many will mind if Joseph Paul Franklin happens to be next in line.  Missouri has also had great difficulty in procuring new stocks of the drugs needed after European Union drug companies began refusing to sell them to Sates where they might be used for executions. This has irritated Missouri’s current Attorney General to the point where he threatened to reinstate the gas chamber if enough drugs can’t be obtained for lethal injections. The supply problem has become so severe that many States, including Missouri, have shifted from the old three-drug cocktail (sodium pentathol, pancuronium bromide and potassium chlorate) to using single-drug doses involving fast-acting barbiturates such as Nembutal (which will be used on Franklin barring any last-minute stays).

Franklin doesn’t want to die. Larry Flynt doesn’t want him to die. Anybody opposing the death penalty on general principle doesn’t want him to die. But it’s very obvious (and not to be ignored) that other victims and/or their families may feel differently and Missouri’s current Governor certainly wants Franklin to die.

In the absence (so far) of any sympathetic appellate judges and with the Governor having so openly and pre-emptively denied executive clemency, the fact that there are many who don’t want Franklin to walk his last mile is unlikely to make any difference at all.

Just after midnight, a minute or two into November 20, he almost certainly will.

EDITED TO ADD:

Late yesterday afternoon Joseph Paul Franklin recieved a surprise stay of execution courtesy of a Federal District judge. Unless the stay is overturned by a higher court by 11:59pm Missouri time tonight the State will have to apply for a new death warrant and set a new date.

UPDATE: The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals just overturned the stay. Franklin will die provided the execution can be performed before midnight today, Missouri time.

http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/20/justice/missouri-franklin-execution/

 

UPDATE:

With the stay lifted, Franklin was executed with a single does of Pentobarbitol (Nembutal).

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/joseph-paul-franklin-execution-delayed-last-minute-over-death-drug-concerns-8950932.html

Cars, Crooks and the Great Train Robbery


Racing driver and Great Train Robber Roy ‘The Weasel’ James.

It’s rare that I get to combine two of my biggest interests in the same scribble, so I thought I’d indulge myself. This is Roy James AKA ‘The Weasel.’ Roy was, like so many aspiring racers, big on ability but short on cash. Even in the 1950’s and 60’s racing was still the most expensive sport on the planet. It wasn’t the business that it is today but to go racing at all, let alone have any chance of winning anything, you needed to either be spotted and hired by a factory team or spend your own money. Lots of it. Roy was a silversmith when he wasn’t racing cars, stealing other people’s cars to sell them on and burgling wealthy people’s houses, but he’d never earn enough to pay for competitive cars and top-of-the-range parts and he knew it.

Roy had the talent. Even other racers at the time who became big names, drivers like Mike ‘The Bike’ Hailwood and three-time F1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart, thought he was naturally gifted. He was fast, sensible, brave but not reckless and raced hard without racing dirtily. He had the talent, just not the cash or a big team to provide it. He did have a talent for cat burglary, though, and it was swag that funded his racing. Jewellery, silver, gold, uncut gems, Roy wasn’t fussy as long it sold well and it sold well enough that he could buy a car from another triple F1 champion, Sir Jack Brabham.

Fast forward to 1963 and the Great Train Robbery. Roy had a minor role. He was there to provide his driving skill in case a quick getaway was needed, to provide an extra vehicle or two if needed and to help uncouple the mail van from the rest of the train. Nothing violent and nothing heavy, no waving guns or beating up train guards. In the absence of a backer with deep pockets or a team with big plans, Roy saw it as his best shot at getting all the cash he’d need to make it as a Formula One driver. It didn’t get him his shot at the big time. It did get him a 30-year jail sentence.

Roy was also supposed to ehlp clean up the gang’s hideout at Leatherslade Farm. He didn’t do a very good job. When police found the hideout they also found fingerprints (one of them was Roy’s), gloves (which con often be turned inside-out and dusted for prints), wrappers used for holding bundles of notes together and all sorts of other goodies. It was only a matter of time before the gang would be doing some time of their own. Plenty of it. After most of the gang had been arrested Roy was about ready to turn himself in. At least he would have turned himself in if the police hadn’t turned up and dragged him off to jail.

Most of them got very long sentences. Roy’s was one of the longest. He drew five years for conspiracy and twenty five for mail robbery. The robbery itself netted £2.6 million but Roy’s share was only one-sixteenth of that, around £162,5000 (although that bought a lot more in 1963). Sounds good at first, until you think about thirty years in a maximum-security prison. Roy ended up serving only 12 years before being paroled in August, 1975.

When he finally got out Roy, incredibly, still thought he had a chance of becoming a big-name racing driver. He contacted an old rival (double World Champion Graham Hill) and current Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Both of them told him, as kindly as possible, that racing had moved on so much in twelve years that if he’d ever had a chance he certainly didn’t any more. Ecclestone threw him the occasional bone. Having been a silversmith Roy was perfectly up to designing trophies. It was just that those trophies would always be presented to other people. Roy had a few more races, making up the numbers in uncompetitive cars, but the dream was dead. He ended up back inside after shooting his father-in-law and pistol-whipping his wife and in 1993 drew another six years. He finally died in 1997, not long after his release.

Hitmen, Hangmen And Hypocrisy.


 

‘I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people.’

Britain’s former chief public executioner Albert Pierrepoint in his 1974 memoir ‘Executioner: Pierrepoint.’

 

I know, I know. There wasn’t meant to be another post today, it’s just that something occurred to me while considering the role of a public executioner in relation to the attitudes and beliefs of the ‘Hang ’em and flog ’em’ brigade. It doesn’t just apply to British folk with a fondness for the noose, though, but to death penalty supporters everywhere and they’re probably going to find this offensive.

 

Question: What’s the difference between an executioner and a professional assassin?

Answer: Almost Nothing.

 

A hitman is employed, either as part of a criminal organisation such as the Mafia or the Triads or on a freelance basis, to dispose of people on behalf of their employers. Their victims are people that their employers consider a threat, dangerous, undesirable or otherwise worth having killed. Whether on orders or for a fee, the assassin is a skilled professional whose profession is causing the deaths of people marked for death at the behest of others. They’re private contractors working out of criminal loyalty or for personal profit. They don’t have a legal mandate and they’re not public servants.

An executioner is also a skilled professional whose profession is the disposal of people deemed a threat, dangerous, undesirable or otherwise worth having killed. It’s just that the executioner is employed by the State and does have a legal mandate to kill professionally. They don’t do it for the pay (which is seldom high), they don’t do it on a whim, but they are essentially contract killers in public service rather than private practice.

It’s not as though an executioner can claim the same defence as a member of the armed forces or an armed police officer. They don’t have the easily-understood, ready-made justification of defending themselves and their colleagues.  They can’t say ‘It was him or me.’ It is, after all, pretty difficult to claim with a straight face that somebody securely strapped into an electric chair or tied to a post in front of a firing squad poses a direct physical threat. No, executioners and assassins are both employed to perform the pre-determined, clinical disposal of other people by whoever engages them to do so.

Now, where does that leave the ‘Hang ’em and flog ’em’ brigade? In their view of themselves, doubtless at a safe ethical and moral distance from either professional assassins or those who employ them. Contract killing, those who do it and those who hire them are somehow something different and removed from ‘respectable’ society. Those involved are a lower class of human. By hiring one person to dispose of others those involved are evil, violent, cruel, selfish, morally and ethically bankrupt.

Curious then, isn’t it, that the moral majority think their own willingness to do exactly the same thing is so different. Anybody who offers a briefcase full of used banknotes to some backstreet gunman is a bad person. Anybody who gives an executioner a legal warrant and a far smaller fee is defending society from the forces of darkness. Yet they’re engaged in exactly the same process. An order’s given, a payment’s made, somebody dies. The difference between public service and private practice remains, but the similarities remain exactly the same.

Bottom line:

If you support employing professional killers as public servants, seeking to protect yourself against people you consider enough of a threat, then you’re no different to a private citizen who feels threatened enough that they resort to hiring a hitman. You may choose to dress it up in legalistic finery, but that also comes with its own measure of hypocrisy. You might like to think that hiring somebody else to do the dirty work for you somehow distances you from it, that your hands are somehow cleaner.

They aren’t.

 

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