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


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.


 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.


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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 …

Dallas Egan, a half-pint of whiskey (to the last drop).

   Armed robber and murderer Dallas Egan was rather younger than Gardner when he died on the gallows in San Quentin’s ‘Hangman’s Hall.’ Courtesy of Governor James ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph,  Egan may well have been drunk as well. It was by Rolph’s order that Egan was plied with whiskey before his execution and it had …

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 …

South Carolina and the electric chair, a brief history.

With a shortage of lethal injection drugs and no lawful way to get them (using so-called 'compound pharmacists' is somewhat frowned on by the Food and Drug Administration), South Carolina has resorted to a choice between the firing squad and dusting off its electric chair. Still commonly called Old Sparky, the chair itself is over …

Charles Benjamin Ullmo, redeemed on Devil’s Island.

The dreaded 'Penal Administration, French Guiana' is far more associated with cruelty, inhumanity and death than with survival and redemption. That said, there were exceptions to the rule and disgraced French naval officer Charles Benjamin Ullmo is one of them. Condemned to Guiana for life after trying to ransom stolen military secrets, Ullmo didn't look …

On This Day in 1954 – Ian Grant and Kenneth Gilbert, the last double hanging in Britain.

So, it's to London's notorious Pentonville Prison we go for an historic event in British penal history. Hangings in themselves were nothing unusual, although by 1954 (only a year or so after the wrongful execution of Derek Bentley at Wandsworth) they were becoming increasingly rare events. Double hangings were becoming especially unusual, the days when …

George Stinney, a stain on American justice.


The case of George Junius Stinney could easily be described as a stain on American justice, or the lack thereof. Stinney was executed in South Carolina’s electric chair in 1944 aged only 14, the youngest American to face execution in the 20thcentury. His confession was probably coerced, his trial a travesty of justice and his execution botched, not least because he was a mere child dying in an electric chair designed for an adult. All in all, George Stinney’s original trial and execution made a mockery of the claim of ‘Justice for all’, at least until his conviction was finally overturned. It was overturned 70 years too late to save him from an untimely, unjust and unnatural death.

It was on March 23, 1944 that his path to South Carolina’s death chamber began. The bodies of two young girls, 11-year old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year old Mary…

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Nitrogen Hypoxia – The Death Penalty’s Future?

It’s never been done before and might never be used, but Alabama has announced its near-completion of a nitrogen gas chamber if it should prove impossible to obtain drugs for lethal injections. Far from dusting off its electric chair, (the notorious ‘Yellow Mama’) like Tennessee and South Carolina or offering firing squads as South Carolina …

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