criminals

On this Day in 1925; The Biter (nearly) Bitten at Sing Sing.


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When heroin-loving gangsters Morris ‘Whitey’ Diamond and his brother Joey teamed up with John Farina for an armed robbery and murder, they surely knew they had a fair chance of joining him in Sing Sing’s Death House and Old Sparky as well. The 1920’s and 30’s were halcyon days for New York’s ‘State Electrician’ and his infamous contraption, after all.

What they would never live to know (and executioner John Hurlburt came to know all too well) was that Hurlburt very nearly joined them in Sing Sing’s morgue. Hurlburt’s story is no great secret (you can find my account of it here) but less is reported of the night he found himself almost as dead as any of his 140 ‘customers.’

The Diamonds and Farina found themselves awaiting death for an armed robbery committed in 1924. They stole over $43,000 from bank messenger William Barlow and guard William McLaughlin. In the process they shot Barlow (a retired NYPD officer) three times in the back. McLaughlin (a US Army veteran) managed to fire a few shots before dying.

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It might have gone better if the Diamonds hadn’t been using heroin before the job. It might have gone better still if Whitey hadn’t left a blood-stained finger print in the getaway car, hadn’t left a false licence plate where it was easily found and hadn’t falsely registered it under the name ‘Joe Samuels.’ It probably didn’t help that the address on the false registration was also where Whitey habitually collected his mail.

Further bad news came via bank clerk Antony Pantano, the gang’s inside man. For a lowly clerk, his colleagues thought, he had an unusual interest in the bank’s security \arrangements, especially those involving cash deliveries and collections. When their colleagues were ambushed and left dying in the street, they immediately pointed the finger at Pantano.

Grilled by NYPD officers furious at Barlow’s murder and no doubt wanting to avoid a seat in Old Sparky, Pantano cracked. He named the Diamonds and Farina as the shooters and Nicky ‘Cheeks’ Luciano and George Desaro as driving the two getaway cars. Luciano, no relation, takes no great role in the story. Desaro was later arrested in his native Italy, which agreed to prosecute him and gave him 30 years for his role. He was luckier than Farina and the Diamonds, but not Pantano.

Pantano also found himself going ‘up the river’ to await ‘Black Thursday,’ but his sentence was commuted. Those of the Diamonds and Farina, however, weren’t. New York’s courts had an unwritten rule of never interfering in the cases of condemned cop killers and that Barlow had been retired made no difference. The Whitey, Joey and Farina would die on the same night, April 30, 1925, one after another.

New York’s death warrants only specified a particular week for a prisoner’s electrocution. With that in mind, executions were traditionally conducted on Thursdays (barring last-minute legal appeals, stays of execution, temporary reprieves or commutations.

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As Pantano left the Death House for Sing Sing’s general population, it must have occurred to him that he’d had a very narrow escape. During its tenure, Sing Sing’s Old Sparky (New York once had three of them) claimed 614 of the State’s 695 electrocutions. For every three inmates who walked in, two were wheeled out.

New York wasn’t a State noted for its generosity to the condemned. Pantano’s information and his being a first offender had undoubtedly saved him. As career criminals the Diamond brothers and Farina knew the rules of the game. They must also have known they’d gambled their lives, and lost. John Hurlburt pencilled a lucrative date in his diary, as much as he’d come to hate the work.

Hurlburt’s contract with New York was the same as his predecessor Edwin Davis. For single executions he was paid $150 and travel expenses. For doubles or more, which weren’t unusual, he got $150 for the first inmate and an extra per head thereafter. He would leave Sing Sing with $250 for his night’s work, more than some people earned in a year. Hurlburt, however, was cracking up.

Hurlburt had taken over from Davis when Davis retired in 1912, Davis having trained both Hurlburt and another assistant, Robert Greene Elliott. Initially a believer in capital punishment, he now found himself doing the job only for the money. With his wife Mattie chronically-ill he had no other way to pay the medical bills.

In the months before his date with Farina and the Diamonds he’d become withdrawn, sullen, temperamental, aggressive and depressed. Tantrums were regular, Hurlburt throwing items of equipment around the death chamber and cursing at guards while preparing for an execution.

This time, hours before he was due to earn his fee, Hurlburt suffered a nervous collapse. Prison officials were facing a crisis. Under New York law only a State Electrician could perform an electrocution and Hurlburt was the only one they had. No electrician, no electrocution. After much soft-soaping, gentle persuasion and cajoling, Hurlburt recovered enough to do the job, but only just.

At 11pm, Morris was first in line. He walked in, sat down and died. As his body was wheeled away in came his brother Joey. When Joey had been pronounced dead John Farina rounded out Hurlburt’s triple-hitter. Hurlburt, a broken man by then, promptly  suffered another nervous collapse. He spent the next week in hospital before recovering enough to leave. Unfortunately for Hurlburt, who desperately needed relaxing, calm and above all safe surroundings, he was taken to the nearest available medical facility;

The infirmary at Sing Sing Prison.

Luckily for Hurlburt, he’d been a firm adherent to Edwin Davis’s approach to anonymity. The press had his name, but they never got a picture or any other personal details. His desire for anonymity and the safety thereof was about to save his life.

Some people just aren’t popular in prisons. Informers, ex-cops, ex-guards and sex offenders usually top the list of people considered fair game. Anyone wanting to make them suffer and possibly kill them has virtually free rein to do so if they can get away with it. Seldom, however, will you find anyone convicts hate more than an executioner.

Hurlburt must have been terrified. He couldn’t have avoided the fact (and fear) that, if anyone blew his cover, Hurlburt would be a dead man. He’d immediately be headed for the same morgue as the 140 or so inmates on whom he’d inflicted the ‘hot seat.’ If they even thought he might have been involved with Old Sparky, they’d kill him.

All in all, not what the doctor ordered. With the Diamonds and Farina dead, Hurlburt himself didn’t last much longer. He performed only two more executions, John Durkin on August 27 and Julius Miller on September 19, then resigned only hours before he was due to executed John Slattery and Ambrose Miller. on January 16, 1926. Slattery and Miller were delighted, their executions were postponed and subsequent legal action saw them commuted. Their accomplices Luigi Rapito and Emil Klatt were less fortunate.

By their date on January 29 New York had appointed the other of Davis’s two proteges, the legendary ‘Agent of Death’ Robert Greene Elliott. Another accomplice, Frank Daley, followed them on June 24. Daley played it tough until the bitter end, cursing Slattery and Ross for implicating him until the switch was thrown.

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As it turned out Hurlburt, in failing health himself, his nerves broken and grieving after Mattie’s death in September, 1928, wasn’t long in joining them. On the afternoon of February 22, 1929 he walked into the basement of his home near Auburn Prison where he’d worked as both electrician and performed his very first executions. In his hand was the revolver he always carried when visiting a prison.

He didn’t walk out.

 

Watching the detectives: The arrest of the inappropriately named Daniel Good.


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Daniel Good is probably an unfamiliar name, hanged as he was back in 1842. But the result of his crime if still familiar the world over. Good’s crime was unexceptional, the brutal murder and partial dismemberment of a woman he’d been living with. Horrific, certainly, but unfortunately not unusual.

His crime, committed on April 7, 1842, was discovered by accident. A uniformed officer of London’s Metropolitan Police went to arrest Good after he was seen stealing a pair of trousers from a pawnbroker in Putney. While the officer was busy discovering the victim’s corpse (and probably stunned by its having crudely dismembered) Good made his escape. A manhunt immediately began, nine divisions of officers joining the search.

With no plainclothes officers then in existence, the Met had a serious problem even with nine divisions of officers looking for him. Good, having committed a particularly brutal murder, was also facing a mandatory death sentence. If caught, he would almost certainly hang. But, uniformed officers being highly visible men, Good easily spotted them and slipped the net. Having successfully escaped London itself, Good may well have thought he was home free. As it turned out he couldn’t have been more wrong.

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Having found work in Tonbridge as a labourer, Good remained unaware that one of his new colleagues, one Thomas Rose, was a  former Metropolitan Police officer. Now off the force, Rose wasn’t in uniform and Good, looking for uniformed officers instead of anyone in plain clothes, was very much in harm’s way. Like many former police officers Rose kept a strong interest in crime and criminals. It wasn’t long before Rose recognised Good and alerted his chief pursuers Inspector Nicholas Pearce and Sergeant Stephen Thornton.

On April 25, 1842 Daniel Good was arrested. Once convicted, he was condemned to die. On May 23, 1842, only a month after his arrest, he ascended the ‘New Drop’ outside London’s notorious Newgate Prison to keep his date with the hangman. Executioner WIlliam Calcraft performed his grim duties with, unusually for him, speed and efficiency.

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After being left to hang for the traditional hour to ensure his death, Good was subjected to a rather creepy, but not unusual indignity; having his death mask made for him. This wasn’t unusual at the time, executed prisoners were often subjected to it. A mould was made of his face and a plaster bust made of his head. Good’s death mask now resides in Scotland Yard’s legendary ‘Black Museum,’ a place inspiring a 1950’s radio serial narrated by Orson Welles who famously called it a ‘mausoleum of murder.’

With Good safely in his grave, the Metropolitan Police had to reconsider having only uniformed officers in their ranks. Had some officers been working out of uniform, they reasoned, they might have caught him far sooner. With that in mind a permanent cadre of non-uniformed officers. the Detective Department, was set up in August, 1842. It later became the Criminal Investigation Department.

The Detective Department were the beginnings of Scotland Yard’s now-legendary detectives. In time, their reputation grew and their remit extended. Not only do they cover all crime within London, they are still regularly called in by local forces to assist in especially difficult cases.

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All local police forces today also have their own CID branches, following the Met’s example. Some of them (Frederick Wensley, Fred Cherrill, Jack Capstick, Robert Fabian, Leonard Burt, Ernest Millen, Jack Slipper and ‘Nipper’ Read among others) became celebrities, legendary in their own time.

Daniel Good obviously wasn’t there to appreciate his unwilling place in criminal history. The Yard’s detectives having grown to achieve legendary status, many generations of incarcerated or executed criminals won’t have appreciated it much either.

 

Executed executioners; the biters bit.


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Executioners are seen as a strange breed. Usually tolerated, sometimes celebrated, frequently feared and often despised, the man (for it usually is) who drops the blade, swings the axe, pushes the lever or throws the switch remains a breed apart. With their particular profession in mind, you might think that, death being touted as a deterrent, they might be those most deterred by the thought of facing their own particular brand of punishment.

They haven’t, not by a long shot.

A surprising number, having dispensed the ultimate penalty, have later suffered it themselves. It’s said that it’s better to give than to receive but, despite their experienced eye for such matters, some of them didn’t get the memo.

We’ll start with Brazil, now a non-death penalty country. Brazilian executioners were often slaves with no choice of whether to wield the axe or the rope. Three of the didn’t get to choose whether to receive the axe or rope, either. In 1828 Joao Pablo de Sousa faced his own form of justice, he wasn’t alone. Ten years late ‘Francisco’ met the same same end. In 1850 it was the turn of ‘Ananias.’ The trend wasn’t confined to Brazil and neither started nor ended there.

Sweden saw two executioners feel the kiss of their own axes. Jorg Volmar went to the block in 1541 while the appropriately-named ‘Styf’ became exactly that in 1854. Ireland’s Dick Bauf, a hangman of considerable experience, found himself ‘scragged’ for theft in Dublin in 1702.

Germany too lost at least one executioner, Frederick Stigler in 1590. Stigler, an assistant executioner himself, found himself facing his boss Franz Schmidt, although this particular job saw Stigler taking far too prominent a role for his liking. One swing of the sword later, Stigler became less prominent by about twelve inches.

The United States adopted hanging, shooting, lethal gas, electrocution and lethal injection, a veritable smorgasbord of slaughter. In 1905, Ohio State Penitentiary inmate, the appropriately-named Charles Justice, helped his captirs refine their new electric chair. Noticing that the leather straps originally used caused additional burning and that a prisoner’s skin often came away when the straps were removed, Justice proposed replacing them with metal clamps (think of the chair used in ‘The Green Mile’). Ohio continued using the metal clamps until its last electrocution, that of Donald Reinbolt in 1963. Justice, however, wasn’t around to see his creations in action. Paroled for his assistance (other inmates might have killed him otherwise), he returned to prison in 1911 convicted of murder. His clamps worked as effectively on their inventor as on some 300 other inmates.

Montana’s Henry Plummer also came to the end of his own rope. Plummer, a lawman in the Montana town of Bannick, was also its principal criminal. While carrying a gun and wearing a badge, Plummer also ran a motley crew of killers and thieves who terrorised the area, all while hiding in plain sight behind his tin star. He even installed a town gallows, such was his outward devotion to upholding the laws he conspicuously ignored. Eventually, he ignored them a little too conspicuously and locals, finally fed up with his depredations, lynched him. Plummer was denied the dubious distinction of dying on his own gallows, his lynch mob preferring to simply put a rope round his neck and ahul him off the ground until he died.

California’s Alfred Wells was an inmate at the notorious San Quentin in 1938 when he was assigned to help install California’s latest wrinkle in supposedly painless, humane execution. Ordered to help install the two-seater gas chamber known variously as the ‘little green room,’ ‘the time machine,’ ‘the Big Sleep’ and ‘the coughing box,’ Wells finished his grim task and declared he hoped it was the closest he ever got the gas chamber. It wasn’t. In 1942 Wells returned to San Quentin, this time to Death Row for violent crime spree including a couple of murders. On December 3, 1942 he came closer to the gas chamber than he’d intended…

Returning from the gas chamber to the gallows, several of Britain’s executioners have faced the rope or the block. Whether top of drops of top of the chops, at least six of them met their end on their own scaffolds. In 1538 the singularly unpleasant ‘Cratwell’ found himself wearing a hempen necktie. Amputee executioner ‘Stump Leg’ found himself entertaining the Tyburn crowd with a nifty ‘Paddington frisk’ in 1556. Scotland’s Alexander Cockburn faced his replacement, a man traditionally nicknamed the ‘Dooomster’ by Scottish gallows fans, in 1681.

Perhaps England’s most notorious executioner was ‘Jack ketch, a man so reviled for his barbaric incompetence that he was fired and replaced by his assistant Pascha Rose. At least he was until 1686 when Rose, convicted of sheep-stealing, became gallows fruit himself. In the absence of anyone else, the clumsy Ketch found himself back on one end of the rope while Rose danced merrily at the other.

In 1718 John Price, once reprieved on condition he become a hangman, blotted his copybook with another capital crime and swung from the Triple Tree. In 1785 it was the turn of Thomas Woodham. His execution was the last time an English hangman performed the Tyburn jig.

From top of the drops to top of the chops, we’ll pay a brief visit to La Belle France by way of its dreaded penal colonies in French Guiana. In 1418, executioner Capeluche was both a brute and a cleaver of heads. He was however, competent enough to have trained his own replacement. That same replacement graduated with honours when Capeluche’s own head had to roll.

A century later it was the turn of Florent Bazard. Having bungled one job too many, much to the disgust and fury of the crowd, they conveyed their displeasure by publicly lynching Bazard near his own scaffold. In 1625 Simon Grandjean met a similar fate, although he dangled beside his wife who was acting as his assistant. Last in France’s trail of terror came Jacques Joseph Durand. Remember the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to potential murderers? it didn’t seem to deter Durand, who was executed in 1819 for murder.

The executioners in Guiana were volunteers. They were also convicts. Not surprisingly, they were the most hated men in the Penal Administration. Guards and inmates alike hated them for having turned on their fellow prisoners in return for extra privileges. Being splashed repeatedly with the blood of fellow prisoners,however, doesn’t seem to have tempered their criminal instincts much.

Isidore Hespel (known as ‘the Jackal’) cared not for their scorn. He didn’t care much for the deterrent effect of his own guillotine, either. Sent to Guiana for murder and having killed twice there even before becoming ‘Monsieur de Guiane,’ Hespel’s assistant also graduated with honours when Hespel committed one extra-judicial killing too many in 1921.

Georges Bonfils didn’t fare any better. Having graduated to ‘Monsieur de Guiana’ in 1930 (earning universal hatred from guards and convicts alike), Bonfils too would be shaved by the ‘National Razor. He would be the last of Devil’s Island’s executioners to be executed, although at least two others were murdered by fellow prisoners.

On True Crime Writing.


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 True crime is one of the fastest-growing genres for writers today and it polarises opinion among readers and writers alike. Many consider it a genuinely useful genre that, tastefully and intelligently written, can contribute to greater understanding of criminals, their crimes and their motives. There are also those, especially of the more ‘highbrow’ mindset, regarding the genre as at best voyeuristic, at worst outright sleazy and its writers as peddling ‘trash for cash.’ Neither opinion is entirely accurate, but neither is entirely unfair either. True crime writing varies from ‘cash in’ hackwork appearing almost as soon as particular crimes are committed to genuinely intelligent, far-more-tasteful work making a real effort to educate and inform the reader.

Like any other genre true crime has its big names like Ann Rule, Wensley Clarkson, former FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone and lawyer Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi’s book ‘Helter Skelter’ covers his successful prosecution of Charles Manson and his ‘Family’ and is still the biggest-selling true crime book with 7 million copies sold. Celebrities like actor Ross Kemp have produced well-received work such as Kemp’s ‘Gangs’ books and bookshop shelves everywhere groan under the weight of memoirs from retired criminals of all types. It’s a growing market if you have the stomach for the source material and the ability to produce accurate, tasteful, intelligent writing, although peddling ‘trash for cash’ will probably provide bigger money. So what do you need to be a decent true crime writer?

A strong stomach is essential. Spending your days looking through crime scene pictures, watching documentaries, reading trial transcripts and pondering the darkest aspects of the human mind really isn’t for anybody particularly squeamish. Personally, although true crime is my main breadwinner, I regularly cover other subjects as a form of light relief. It’s also unhealthy, for me anyway, to spend your entire professional life immersed in other people’s suffering. So I’d certainly advise having other subjects you can work on whenever the need hits you to take a break from the Dark Side.

A degree of humanity is also essential. Remember, true crime is NOT fiction. It involves real people, real crimes and real suffering. Granted, you may become hardened to some degree when writing true crime over an extended period. That’s to be expected and isn’t something to be concerned by provided it stays in check. But if you want to write true crime to a decent standard then you also need to maintain a sense of perspective and a professional attitude to the subject matter and source material even when it is unpleasant. A lot of the time, it will be. Also consider whether or not you can handle the more personal aspects of the genre like interviewing criminals. Many people, even professional true crime writers, find it uncomfortable sat across a table from a retired gangster or sitting in a prison visiting room with someone jailed for repeated crimes of violence. You may very well find that, after your first interview with a professional criminal that you’re more comfortable sticking to historical true crime, cases from decades or even centuries ago where you’ll have no need to meet people you might prefer to avoid.

Your professional attitude should extend into your writing style. Make your writing respectful of the subject matter without being mawkish and dripping with excess pathos. Always be clear and concise while retaining enough sensitivity to write like a human for other humans, not a robot devoid of any gentler feelings. Above all, if you’re serious about true crime and trying to elevate it from its oft-perceived level of voyeuristic sleaze (true crime written in a style almost pornographic) then definitely stay as far as possible from anything tacky or cheap. Be empathic without making it a pity party. Be objective without sounding more like a robot than a person.

Regarding basic writing standards, the same applies. Be thorough in your research. Check your facts. Where different sources give conflicting accounts consider those sources carefully. You can often tell truth from lies depending on whose account it is. For some reason, criminals have a terrible tendency to lie whenever convenient. Always bear that in mind, especially when they are denying having done something. As an acquaintance once put it “There’s no place like prison for meeting innocent men.” A healthy degree of cynicism and never taking anybody’s word as gospel are important in solid, competent true crime writing.

True crime writing has a particular inherent challenge. Unlike genres such as history, those involved tend not to leave smoking guns lying around. A military historian still has to check facts, ask questions and draw conclusions based on available evidence, but generals tend to leave diaries, logs, written orders, battle plans, messages and other evidence adding up to ‘Who? What? Where? When? Why?’ Hardened criminals facing life without parole (or worse) for a day’s work tend to do the exact opposite. Incriminating evidence (witnesses included) tends to be quickly disposed of and not left lying around for anybody to find. Evidence can be lost, never discovered to start with, deliberately suppressed or destroyed and so an important part of true crime writing is being able to assess what evidence is available, where and who it came from, how it was found and then filling in any gaps as best you can with what seems the most educated guesswork. By the way, the most solid explanations aren’t always the first ones that come to mind. Don’t take the most obvious, simplistic ideas and present them as hard fact and always differentiate between what the evidence confirms and your personal speculations. Always trust your readers to be bright enough to make up their own mind (because they are) and give them the best means to do so (solid, honest writing).

Market research matters. It’s not simply finding true crime websites, blogs and magazines, there are plenty around. But if you want to be a serious true crime writer then you’ll want customers who avoid shameless ‘trash for cash,’ preferring serious writers offering intelligent contributions and (like any job) you want customers who’ll pay fees agreed and pay promptly. A good example of an honest broker is www.crimemagazine.com, my main customer for true crime work. ‘Crime Magazine’ is popular online (great for high rankings on search engines), the writing is intelligent and tasteful (‘trash for cash’ is definitely not welcome here), the editor has high standards for what’s publishable and (if your work is published) he always pays what’s agreed, pays promptly and (good news for novices just starting out) takes chances by actively encouraging new writers provided their work is up to scratch. If you’re either looking to make some extra cash or you’re just starting out and building your client base then it’s a great place to start.

When you’re deciding what to write about don’t automatically go for the most obvious ideas. By all means consider the ‘classics’ like Dr. Crippen, Al Capone, John Dillinger, the Mafia and so on. But don’t be afraid to dig deeper. Find lesser-known cases with features that particularly stand out. For example, Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only British lawyer ever to hang for murder and the murder committed by John Lee was far overshadowed by his failed execution (making him famous as ‘The man they couldn’t hang.’ Offering lesser-known cases with particular quirks shows original, fresh thinking. True crime editors probably receive a dozen pitches, queries and unsolicited articles every day about the likes of Capone or Crippen often containing little information not already revealed and so they probably don’t need another one. Originality often counts when pitching and querying potential customers so, if you’re serious about true crime, start with plenty of reading and perhaps collecting books to build a reference library. Amazon is a particularly good place to buy true crime books (often including rarities unlikely to be in mainstream bookshops). Amazon’s prices can often be lower as well, which cuts your overheads and gives you access to books you might not otherwise obtain.

True crime is much-maligned in some quarters, not always unfairly. It doesn’t need to stay that way provided writers themselves deliver intelligent, tasteful writing over ‘trash for cash’ muck-raking. It’s not for the squeamish, but not for the callously indifferent or voyeuristic either. True crime might be seen by some as a poor relation to more ‘respectable’ genres, but that doesn’t mean you can lower your writing standards. Your writing style should be engaging and interesting, but never sacrificing substance for style. Consider covering the ‘classics’ while still looking for either original cases or enough new information to revitalise old ones.

True crime might be looked down on by some people and its writers looked upon as ‘Miserable children of a luckless tribe’ (a remark made about the early war correspondents), but it has its uses and it’s a fascinating genre. Assuming I haven’t put you off already, give it a try. The competition helps keep me sharp.