On This Day in 1964 – The Last Executions In Britain.


 Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, the last British inmates to hang.

Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, the last British inmates to hang.

As regular readers are aware, I cover true crime here and the death penalty is a regular feature. Being an abolitionist, it’s with some small satisfaction that we’re going to look at Britain’s last executions. To the minute, if you happen to be reading this at 8am. On August 13, 1964 Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen took their unwilling place in British penal history as the last-ever inmates to suffer the ‘dread sentence’, be taken to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons and keep their date with the hangman.

Well, hangmen, actually. Evans paid his debt to society at HMP Strangeways at the hands of Harry Allen (grandfather of comedienne Fiona Allen) assisted by Harry Robinson. Allen paid his at HMP Walton at the hands of Scottish hangman Robert Leslie Stewart (known as ‘Jock’ or ‘The Edinburgh Hangman’) assisted by Royston Rickard.

Their crime was unremarkable (not that any murder is a trivial matter) and their executions were equally standard affairs except for the fact that they were the last in British penal history. Judges would continue to don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ and pass the ‘dread sentence’ until 1969 (the 1970’s in Northern Ireland). The death penalty was retained for  several crimes other than murder until 1998 and its final repeal under the European Human Rights Act. But the noose and scaffold had already been consigned to history and the occasional prison museum.

Never again would the prison bell toll or the black flag be hoisted just after eight or nine in the morning. No longer would crowds gather outside a prison’s gates in protest at what was happening inside.. No more would a prison warder have to brave an angry crowd to post the official announcement on a prison gate. After centuries of State-sanctioned killing ranging from the deliberately-barbaric to the scientifically-precise, ‘Jack Ketch’ had finally put away his noose and passed into history.

Not that this was any consolation whatsoever to Evans and Allen. As far as they were concerned it made no difference at all and nor did it to anyone else. They still had to sit in their Condemned Cells at Walton and Strangeways, guarded 24 hours a day by prison warders and hoping every day for a reprieve that never came. Prison staff and the hangmen still had to report for duty as instructed and ensure that everything was prepared properly down to the finest detail.

The Appeal Court judges and Home Secretary still had to discuss, debate and ponder their decision, knowing all the time that if they refused clemency then these two deaths would be as much their responsibility as that of the executioners themselves. The families and friends of the condemned had no easier time than the condemned themselves. Allen and Evans would die, but their friends and families would still have to live with that afterwards.

Their crime was brutal, their guilt undeniable. Given the evidence against them there was almost no chance of their being acquitted. To manage that would require lawyers possessed of both boundless talent and equal optimism. If they did ever stand a chance of avoiding the gallows then it was far more likely to be through a reprieve than an acquittal. Barring a reprieve or a legal blunder serious enough to impress the Court of Criminal Appeal, their  race was run. They probably knew it.

Evans and Allen were both typical, garden-variety condemned inmates. Under-educated, lower IQ’s than usual, failed to hold down any job for very long and with a string of petty criminal convictions between them. Fraud, theft, deception, the usual type of relatively low-level crimes that see a person in and out of trouble on a semi-regular basis, but nothing to suggest that either was capable of brutal, cold-blooded murder. Then again, a great many brutal, cold-blooded murderers have been described as not being ‘the type’ even though there’s no ‘type’ to watch out for. It would make the lives of honest people and detectives so much easier if there were.

Aside from not seeming the type, Allen and Evans weren’t exactly criminal masterminds either. After beating and stabbing to death Alan West in his home during a bungled robbery on July 7, 1964, Evans in particular left a trail of evidence that Hansel and Gretal would have been proud of. He left a medallion at the crime scene with his name inscribed on it. When he was dumping the stolen car used in the crime Evans dumped it at a local builder’s yard. He’d made himself so conspicuous (and, to a neighbour, highly suspicious) that it wasn’t long before he found himself in custody. Being found in possession of the victim’s gold watch probably didn’t help his case either.

Once under questioning Evans excelled himself even further. Initially he denied being involved. On realising he’d left a smoking gun with his name on it at the scene he decided to bury Peter Allen. To save himself from a charge of capital murder he’d put all the blame on his accomplice. Evans denied having a knife during the robbery and clearly blamed Allen for stabbing West to death. His ploy might have worked a great deal better  but for one small problem; Evans’s own big mouth.

Being keen to bury his crime partner and possibly save himself, Evans talked loud and often. A little too loud and often as it turned out. Evans was loudly denying his having had or used a knife to murder Alan West. It was then that police pointed out to him that they hadn’t actually mentioned a knife, nor had they released that information to the press.

 Bottom right: Harry Allen and Robert Leslie Stewart, their executioners.

Bottom right: Harry Allen and Robert Leslie Stewart, their executioners.

Allen was now also in custody and being questioned. Both killers were under lock and key within 48 hours of committing their crime, a pretty fast resolution to a murder investigation. By modern American standards, their road from trial to execution would certainly seem faster still. One of the principle complaints of America’s pro-execution lobby is that the appeals process takes far too long. There are too many levels of court, too many technicalities, too many bleeding-heart pro-bono lawyers, too many soft judges and State Governors who refuse to allow what a judge and jury have already decided to hand down.

While it’s still groused about in the US, it was never the case in Britain. A condemned inmate was granted a minimum of only 3 Sundays between sentencing and execution. That didn’t mean an execution always happened 3 weeks after a sentence due to appeals, finding new evidence, court schedules, sanity hearings and so on, but 3 Sundays was all you could expect as of right. Miles Giffard, hanged at Bristol in 1953, spent only 18 days between sentencing and execution.

After sentencing the judge would send a private report including their opinion on whether a prisoner should be reprieved. Their reports weren’t always heeded, but they had more influence than any other factor in deciding whether prisoners lived or died.

Avenues for appeal were both smaller in number and moved a great deal faster than their American counterparts. After sentencing the first stop was the Court of Criminal Appeal. Appeals against conviction and sentencing were heard by a panel of 3 judges, often including the Lord Chief Justice unless he’d presided at your trial. If they rejected the appeal the next stop was the Home Secretary (nowadays the Minister of Justice). If the Home Secretary refused clemency the case file would be annotated with a single phrase;

‘The Law must take its course.’

Prisoners could still appeal to the King or Queen, but this was effectively pointless. By one of the many unwritten rules so beloved of British officialdom, the Monarch didn’t grant appeals except on the private advice of the Home Secretary. A Home Secretary (also a Member of Parliament so an elected official) might want to obey or defy public opinion by granting a reprieve while risking their job if they were seen to do so.

The Monarch, on the other hand, not having to consider their approval rating, could grant an appeal thereby saving a prisoner without causing problems for the elected officials concerned. But, regardless of whether a prisoner appealed directly to a Monarch, without a Home Secretary’s advice there would be no reprieve. Nobody involved felt merciful towards Evans and Allen.

Their trial began at Manchester Assizes on June 23, 1964 with Mr. Justice Ashworth presiding. Leading for the prosecution was was Joseph Cantley, QC (Queen’s Counsel, a senior lawyer) while Allen was defended by lawyers F.J. Nance and R.G. Hamilton. Evans was represented by Griffith Guthrie-Jones, QC. It didn’t take very long. Even the best of defenders couldn’t have won a verdict of not guilty. With Evans’s many and varied blunders he was effectively doomed from the start. Allen’s wife was the star prosecution witness, testifying that she’d seen Evans dispose of the knife and that Allen had made incriminating remarks in her presence

Not surprisingly both were convicted. As their murder was committed during a robbery it qualified as capital murder under the 1957 Homicide Act. This Act, brought in after the 1955 execution of Ruth Ellis, drastically altered capital punishment in Britain. It clearly defined the difference between capital and non-capital murder, dispensing with a mandatory death sentence and allowing judges, prosecutors and juries some discretion.

Before the 1957 Homicide Act jurors in particular were quite limited in their options. They could acquit a defendant, find them guilty but insane (avoiding a death sentence), guilty with a recommendation for mercy or simply guilty as charged. For non-capital murder life imprisonment was the sentence. If convicted of capital murder the sentence remained death.

The Act also enshrined diminished responsibility into English law for the first time, largely a response to the Ellis case. This wasn’t done to limit the number of executions per year, but to ease the minds of jurors in particular that a death sentence, when imposed, had been the correct decision. In practice, a jury’s recommendation for mercy carried far less weight than the trial judge’s  confidential report.

With Evans and Allen convicted of capital murder Justice Ashworth then took his own place in British penal history, becoming the last British judge in a British courtroom to don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ (a square of black silk placed atop a judge’s wig as a gesture of mourning for the newly-condemned and recite the modified death sentence. Incidentally the Black Cap remains part of a judge’s ceremonial regalia even today.

Previously, the judge would have recited a long, drawn-out set script which usually did little to help a prisoner keep their composure. It was this:

“Prisoner at the Bar, you have been convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within 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…”

Ashworth’s version was edited for brevity and out of compassion for the prisoners hearing it:

‘”Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, you have been convicted of murder and shall suffer the sentence prescribed by law.”

Shorter, certainly. Any sweeter? Probably not. Their one mandatory appeal was heard by Lord Chief Justice Parker, Justice Winn and Justice Widgery on July 20, 1964. It was denied the next day. The executioners were engaged and a date set. Evans and Allen would die at HMP Strangeways and HMP Walton respectively. Harry Allen and Harry Robinson would execute Evans, Robert Leslie Stewart and Royston Rickard would execute Allen. Both men dying at the same time meant that no one hangman could ever claim to Britain’s last executioner.

 Their final destination: The standard British gallows, never to be used again.

Their final destination: The standard British gallows, never to be used again.

At 8am on August 13, 1964 Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, quickly and without incident, passed through the gallows trapdoors and into penal history. With them went the hangmen themselves, never to be called upon again. So also went centuries of State-sanctioned killings ranging from the deliberately-barbaric to the scientifically-precise. Britain’s hangmen had reached the end of their rope.

Execution for murder was finally abolished in 1969 after a five-year moratorium on hangings. It remained for several civilian and military crimes until 1998 when it was finally outlawed under the European Human Rights Act of that year. Of assistant executioners Royston Rickard and Harry Robinson we know almost nothing. Perhaps they preferred to slip into anonymity as did Robert Leslie Stewart who emigrated to South Africa.

Harry Allen found obscurity a little more difficult to achieve. He had to move at least once to escape the publicity of being incorrectly-labelled ‘Britain’s Last Hangman’ and died in 1992, one month after his friend, colleague and mentor Albert Pierrepoint.

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The Etymology Of Crime – Tyburn.


a8496-gallows

It’s been a while since I last posted due to work and other commitments, so I’ll be offering a series of shorter posts dedicated to the etyomology of crime in general, interspersed with the occasional longer post about other things. It’s always been curious to me how many words and phrases have crept into common usage courtesy of the underworld. A great many of them are used by that perfectly honest, law-abiding people who probably haven’t the slightest idea of their original meaning. So, for openers, I’ll start off with the dreaded Tyburn, Tyburn being roughly where Marble Arch now stands and once the site of London’s premier public entertainment. That entertainment being public executions.

Condemned prisoners were held at the old Newgate Prison, now long-demolished and where the Central Criminal Court (AKA the ‘Old Bailey’) now stands. Prisoners were held in the ‘Condemned Hold’ at Newgate, where their legal status was of being, technically speaking, neither alive nor yet dead. Hence, according to the jargon of the time, they were ‘In Limbo.’

Having been taken from ‘Limbo’ they would be shackled and the hangman’s rope placed around their necks. They were then transported aboard a cart also containing their own coffins which they often used to sit on. Along the way it was customary for them to stop at a tavern or two for a final drink, known in the trade as ‘One for the road.’

Having had their ‘One for the road’ they were put back on the cart and continued on to Tyburn. Now, having taken the last drink they’d ever be having, they were officially ‘On the wagon.’ Tyburn (Marble Arch nowadays) was West of Newgate Prison, so any inmate executed there had, in convict jargon, ‘Gone West.’

Tyburn had it’s own gallows, a purpose-built triangular contraption capable of hanging up to 24 inmates at once (it never actually did, by the way) and it was known as the Triple Tree. In the days before purpose-built gallows it was common for a condemned prisoner to be placed on a ladder resting against a tree and the ladder would then be turned so they fell and slowly strangled. Hence, a condemned inmate in those days would be thoroughly justified in feeling somewhat ‘Turned off.’ which is also the origin of the old wive’s tale that it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder.

With purpose-built scaffolds there were often thirteen steps between the ground and the scaffold itself and thirteen turns of the rope made up the original hangman’s knot. Hence, thirteen has historically proven extremely ‘Unlucky for some.’

One atop the ‘scaffold’ (yes, this is where the word for today’s builder’s scaffolding comes from) the hangman was, in those days, publicly nicknamed ‘Jack Ketch’ after a particularly notorious, clumsy, wretched executioner. ‘Jack Ketch’ is also the hangman who appears in puppet show ‘Punch and Judy.’

Ever had the feeling that people were ‘Pulling your leg’? Not in it’s original sense, you haven’t. Modern judicial hanging involves a precise ‘drop’ calculated using the inmate’s height, weight, physical condition and build. This didn’t appear until the 1870’s so, at Tyburn, death was by a standard drop for every prisoner. In order to avoid seeing a prisoner suffer unduly from slow strangulation a prisoner’s friends (or perhaps ‘Jack Ketch’ himself) would grab their ankles and pull, tightening the noose and either strangling them faster or breaking their neck. Hence, if somebody’s ‘Pulling your leg’, what they’ve said or done might seem spiteful but it’s meant in the nicest of ways.

Not much consolation, really.

Devil’s Island – Colony of the condemned.


‘The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.’ – Rene Belbenoit.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

It is 1852. In France, Emperor Napoleon III, increasingly worried by rising crime and insufficient colonists to consolidate France’s empire, devises a new, dreadful solution. Napoleon isn’t interested in social reform, he’s interested in social cleansing where criminals can simply be exported elsewhere and forced into servitude, preferably never to return. His brainchild will become the most infamous penal system in history. Even today it’s a taboo subject for many French people. His plan is for a system of penal colonies in French Guiana. Inmates call it ‘Le Bagne.’ Former inmate and escaper Rene Belbenoit called it the ‘Dry Guillotine’ and his 1938 book damned both the colony and the ideas behind it. The wider world still calls it ‘Devil’s Island.’

Many people today think of the Guiana colonies in that way, three small islands off the Guiana coastline (Royale, St. Joseph and Devil’s. They weren’t. Out of approximately 70,000 inmates, only 50 were incarcerated on Devil’s Island. It was also reserved for French political prisoners, not conventional criminals. 70,000 inmates went out to Guiana, only 2000 or so returned. Only around 5000 survived to finish their sentences. The rest succumbed to disease, murder, execution, failed escape attempts and deadly animals populating the Guiana jungle. Conditions were so bad that between 40% and 80% of one year’s intake would be dead before the next year’s intake arrived.

Inmates were collected from all over France, confined pending transportation at St-Martin de Re near the port of La Rochelle. Twice a year an old steamer named ‘Martiniere’ left for Guiana. The inmates were escorted from the prison to the dock under military guard. Specially-trained Senegalese colonial troops with fixed bayonets marched them through the town where their friends and families would have their last sight of ‘Les Bagnards’ as they left, mostly never to return. To quote its most famous inmate Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere; “No prisoner, no warder, no gendarme, no person in the crowd disturbed that truly heart-rending moment when everyone knew that one thousand, eight hundred men were about to vanish from ordinary life forever.”

Bagnards leaving for Guiana. For most it was their final journey.
Bagnards leaving for Guiana. For most it was their final journey.

Their suffering began aboard ship. Crammed below decks like sardines with only a half-hour a day on deck for fresh air and sunlight, with hardly any hammocks leaving many inmates sleeping on steel decks, with any trouble below decks punished by the guards turning hot steam hoses on the inmates, life aboard ship was miserable. Guards could also flog inmates who disobeyed even insignificant orders. Inmates often murdered each other to settle grudges or robbed each other of whatever small possessions they had. Life in Guiana, for those who survived the three-week voyage, was immeasurably worse. All an inmate had to endure the voyage was issued prior to embarkation; a convict uniform, wooden clogs, a hat and a small secret device known to convicts as a ‘plan’ or ‘charger.’ A ‘charger’ was a small metal tube carried internally, perhaps containing money, gems, small escape tools, a map and maybe a small knife for self-protection. If an inmate was discovered carrying one, or indeed broke any other rule aboard ship deemed too serious for a mere flogging, they spent the rest of the voyage shackled in the bilges in searing heat and deafening noise, directly over the engine room and boilers.

New arrivals landed at St. Laurent, capital of the Guiana penal system. At St. Laurent most inmates would serve their sentences unless they were interned on the islands or sent straight to jungle work camps. At St.Laurent they were classified according to security risk and criminal record. Standard inmates were ‘Transportes’, transportees who’d committed more serious crimes. Lower down were ‘Relegues,’ serial petty offenders with records for crimes like shoplifting or burglary. The few surviving their sentences were listed as ‘Liberes,’ in theory freed inmates. The worst of the worst were ‘Incorrigibles’ or ‘Incos.’ ‘Inco’ went straight to the feared jungle work camps where food was short, work hard, danger significant and life expectancy seldom more than a few months. If not the jungle camps then a permanent posting to Royale was their most likely destination.

Inmates especially hated ‘Doublage. Any prisoner serving less than eight years had to spend the same amount of time in Guiana as a colonist. Anyone with more than eight years was barred from ever returning to France or leaving Guiana. A two-year sentence effectively became four, assuming the inmate survived.

Conditions were appalling. Food was barely edible and never enough for anybody performing forced labour. Medical care existed, but the prison hospital was poorly equipped and chronically under-staffed. Discipline was brutal, floggings, extended solitary confinement and the guillotine being the order of the day. In the jungle camps inmates worked to stiff daily quotas while underfed, malnourished and brutally disciplined at the slightest infraction. The camps were also breeding grounds for disease. Yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, typhus, cholera and leprosy were commonplace. The jungle was also home for deadly animals like jaguars, snakes, venomous centipedes and flesh-eating ants. The Maroni River was home to piranha and caymans. If these weren’t enough, mosquitoes, leeches and vampire bats were capable of infecting their human hosts with rabies and other blood-borne diseases.

Perhaps the worst aspect was the human factor. The Penal Administration wasn’t concerned about how staff treated inmates provided work quotas were met and the inmates kept in line. Inmates not meeting their daily quota one day would be fed a small amount of bread and water the day after. Every failed day after that meant no food at all until the inmate met a day’s quota and also cleared their backlog of unfinished work. Otherwise, they’d starve, weaken and probably die.

Discipline was harsh, usually brutal. All guards carried pistols, many also carried rifles with orders to kill any inmate attempting escape. They also carried clubs and whips. Inmates could be publicly flogged even for minor infractions. Solitary confinement was a common punishment. Sentences lasting from six months to five years with multiple sentences served consecutively were standard. First escape attempts added two years in solitary to existing sentences. Second attempts added five.

Derelict now, then it was known as the 'devourer of men.'
Derelict now, then it was known as the ‘devourer of men.’

For more serious offences, especially attacking or murdering a guard or colonist, the guillotine was freely used. It was operated by convict executioners who were the most hated inmates in the penal system. One executioner, Henri Clasiot, was so hated that other inmates tied him to a tree filled with flesh-eating ants, smeared him with honey and left him to a slow death. At St. Laurent, inmates were paraded before the ‘Merry Widow’ as the guillotine was known and forced to kneel. The execution would take place and the executioner would hold up the severed head while declaiming ‘Justice has been done in the name of the people of France.’ It was a nauseatingly brutal spectacle designed to intimidate convicts as much as possible.

The first thought occupying many inmates at Guiana was the same as for inmates everywhere; escape. Naturally, Guiana was chosen to make escape as hard as possible. There were only two realistic ways an escaper could escape the penal colonies; through the jungle and across the sea. The jungle was swarming with hazards; deadly animals, flooded rivers, unfriendly natives, diseases, search parties from the prison and, most hated of all, the ‘Man-hunters.’ Man-hunters were liberes-turned-bounty hunters, tracking escapers through the jungle for a reward, dead or alive. Being paid regardless of their prisoner’s condition, many of them killed recaptured inmates and delivered their bodies rather than endure the extra risk and difficulty of guarding a live prisoner. Other liberes made a lucrative (if loathsome) living by offering to help escapers through the jungle before robbing and killing them. Very, very few escapers were heard from again once they entered the jungle and those who were had either successfully escaped or been recaptured.

The sea was every bit as deadly, but the hazards were different. The border between French Guiana and neighboring Dutch Guiana and British Guiana was the Maroni River, itself infested with piranha and caymans, small crocodiles who took swimmers like any other prey. A boat was the only option. Dutch Guiana also handed back escapers found within its borders, while British Guiana only gave them two weeks before either they left or were returned to St. Laurent under guard. Boats could be stolen, but inmates with money could smuggle a bribe to liberes in return for a boat, compass and provisions to last a few days. Assuming, of course, that the boat wasn’t wrecked in a storm, neighbouring countries such as Venezuela and Colombia didn’t decide to hand escapers back at their own discretion and the liberes didn’t take the bribe and still provide nothing useful. The sea wasn’t the most likely option for an escaper; it was simply the least lethal. As a former Warden once put it: “There are two eternal guardians here; the jungle and the sea.”

For the sake of example.
For the sake of example.

Recaptured escapers faced harsh punishments. If a guard or civilian was killed during an escape, the guillotine was a virtual certainly. A first failed escape added two years in the dreaded solitary confinement cells, known as the ‘Man-eater’, the ‘Devourer of men.’ on St.Joseph Island. Second failed attempts added five years more. The solitary block became known for its rule of silence, prisoners being forbidden to speak a single word unless first spoken to by a guard or other staff member. The cells were damp, mouldy and disease-ridden. They were also riddled with cockroaches, venomous centipedes and other dangerous animals and the prisoners were deliberately fed poor food only sufficient to keep them alive without keeping them healthy. As a former Warden at St.Joseph described it when Henri Charriere entered for his first two-year sentence: “Here we don’t try to make you mend your ways. We know it’s useless. But we do try to bring you to heel.” A small infraction meant an extra thirty days added to an existing sentence with longer additions for each additional infraction. Other punishments included screening a prisoner’s cell and leaving them for months in total darkness and perhaps cutting their rations by half. This in addition to potentially being guillotined for attacking a guard. Some inmates committed suicide and went unnoticed for weeks due to the rank conditions in the gloomy, disease-ridden cellblock. In short, an inmate didn’t so much live in the ‘Man-eater’ as exist until they died, took their own lives or went insane which, given the conditions, was more than likely.

The cellblock on Royale.
The cellblock on Royale.

Royale Island was the home of the ‘Incos.’ ‘Incorrgibles’, if not worked to death in jungle camps like Cascade, Charvein and Godebert or along the unfinished roads ‘Route Zero’ and Kilometre 42’ (which were never intended to be finished, existing solely as make-work for slave labourers) would be permanently interned on Royale. Some inmates and officials made a living by taking bribes to have a prisoner’s status changed, making them a regular ‘transporte’ instead of an ‘Inco’ and so seeing them shipped back to the mainland where escape was more likely. This was a confidence trick. ‘Inco’s had their status decided back in France. Even the Guiana Penal Administration couldn’t have it altered. The most notorious inmates were quartered in the ‘Crimson Barrack’ where card games ran night and day, staff were too scared to enter unarmed and unescorted and even blatant murders were regularly committed. The threat of violent death firmly discouraged informing on anybody.

Royale had its own hospital, albeit understaffed and under-resourced. It had a chapel, several workshops, was disease-free for most of its existence and was generally the least worst part of the colony except for would-be escapers. The jungle didn’t guard the island’s perimeter and the staff didn’t have to do too much, either. Instead, guard duties were left to the nine miles of open water between Royale and the mainland, the rip tides that could force swimmers and makeshift rafts out past the islands to be lost in the Atlantic and to the man-eating sharks that infested local waters. Even the sharks served the penal system, both as guards and in a deeply macabre form of waste disposal. Convicts on the islands didn’t have their own cemeteries. Deceased inmates were taken out just off the island coastline and tipped overboard at dusk to the sound of a bell tolling. The sharks learned to appear at the sound of the bell when a free meal was guaranteed. To make things even more macabre, the sharks themselves were hunted by local fishermen, sold to the island authorities and fed to the convicts, completing a rather revolting circular food chain. Inmates weren’t deemed worthy of a decent burial, nor did the island have the space to cope with a constant flow of funerals. Burials at sea became the practical, if rather gruesome, solution.

The last of the three island prisons was Devil’s Island, also guarded by fierce rip tides and sharks with a few staff on hand. It’s odd that the smallest and least-used part of the penal system became the totem for the entire network. During the 99 years of the penal colonies only around fifty prisoners were ever kept on Devil’s Island itself. They were all political prisoners and not felons. Devil’s Island owes its fame and symbolic status to having been the unwanted abode of Captain Dreyfus. Falsely accused of espionage, stripped of his rank and sent to Devils Island forever, Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and reinstated after a global campaign to prove both his innocence and the rampant anti-Semitism of his accusers.

Alfred Dreyfus's prison cell on Ile du Diable, Devil's Island, French Guiana.
Alfred Dreyfus’s prison cell on Ile du Diable, Devil’s Island, French Guiana.

Having spent over five years on the island, Dreyfus returned to France for a rehearing, pardon and reinstatement in the French Army, but only after heart-breaking misery at being framed and made a scapegoat by a country he loved and had served honourably throughout. A principal player in the Dreyfus campaign was famed French writer Emile Zola, whose famous essay ‘J’Accuse’ condemned the anti-Semitism in France and the cowardice of the French state in its treatment of Dreyfus while firmly supporting his claims of innocence. As a result of the Dreyfus case at the start of the 20th century the world finally began to pay attention to Emperor Napoleon’s disastrous and sadistic pet project.

Further unwelcome attention came from Rene Belbenoit and Francis LaGrange, both former inmates of the colonies. Belbenoit, a petty thief given eight years for a small-time burglary, escaped successfully at his fourth attempt and made his way to the United States. His 1938 book ‘Dry Guillotine,’ so named because the penal colonies killed as well as a guillotine only more slowly, was reprinted eight times in the first two months since its release and is a collectible to crime buffs and penal historians. LaGrange, a former art forger, also provided unwelcome publicity through sketches and drawings depicting life in the colonies and used in Belbenoit’s book. Increasing international scrutiny forced the French Government to stop sending inmates to the colonies in 1938 and their closure was scheduled until the Second World War intervened. During the war the islands were taken over by the Americans, who feared the Vichy government might try and make them an Axis base of operations. In 1946 the camps and islands began to be gradually phased out. Between 1946 and 1953 when Devil’s Island itself finally closed forever, the camps were shut one after another and the inmates repatriated. Over 300 inmates refused to leave, many staying on in St. Laurent as French Guiana remained a colonial possession. They decided that they had been too changed by their experience to fit back into French society and that Guiana was the only life they could remember. They were probably right. Of those inmates who were repatriated, a substantial number either returned to prison or were declared insane after failing to re-integrate into French society. Some even took their own lives. It was bitterly ironic that many of these men, men who had previously been cast out of French society, found it taking care of them in their last years.

Henri Charriere, AKA 'Papillon.'
Henri Charriere, AKA ‘Papillon.’

It wouldn’t be right not to give a greater mention to Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere. Papillon’s eponymous book, first published in the 1960’s after the colonies had closed, revived unpleasant memories for the French of an episode many would rather have forgotten. Even today the Guiana penal colonies are a taboo subject for many French people. Papillon’s honesty and whether or not he merely appropriated large parts of his book from other inmates’ experiences has been hotly debated, but his storytelling skills are beyond doubt. Although French authorities claim that only around 10% of his claims are true and it’s certainly true that he never served time on Devil’s Island (he was a safecracker convicted of the manslaughter of a pimp, a charge he always denied), the 10% would still be a damning indictment of the Guiana penal system and its purpose of socially cleansing France of its underworld. It even failed to do that, eventually.

There’s another irony in the penal colony story even today, one not recognised by many people. French Guiana is the site of France’s Ariane rocket space program. The rockets are launched from near Kourou, formerly one of the dreaded jungle camps, with control equipment being sited on Devil’s Island. The space project site is constantly under the guard of the French Foreign Legion who also use Guiana for jungle warfare training. Odd really, when you consider that many of those who have joined the Legion at some point might very well have once found themselves headed for Guiana unwillingly, wearing a different type of uniform altogether.

Modern-day France is ashamed of the penal colonies. In the words of writer, ex-convict and former Foreign Legionnaire Erwin James: “France is right to be embarrassed.”

Death on Wheels – Mississippi’s Travelling Executioner.


The retribution roadshow
The retribution roadshow

Execution has long been part of criminal history. Its more hawkish supporters consider it society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent to other criminals even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it’s no deterrent at all, is applied on an arbitrary basis and makes society as uncivilised and barbarous as the inmates executed.

We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use of the death sentence. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime is incomplete without the history of punishment. It has to be said that punishment is sometimes delivered by unusual means and unusual people. The State of Mississippi adopted an especially unusual means. Its executioner was certainly one of criminal history’s more unusual people.

Mississippi has a somewhat chequered history regarding crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and an almost-complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississipian was executed, although many were convicted. Black rapists, on the other hand, especially those whose victim was white, knew that conviction meant almost certain death. It was only slightly less biased regarding murder. Records show that since Mississippi achieved statehood the vast majority of inmates executed have been black. Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than a white murderer whose victim was black. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones, a discrepancy reflecting poorly on the American ideal of all citizens being equal under the law.

How it used to be.
How it used to be.

Mississippi originally employed hanging as its means of execution. Responsibility for executions was left to the county where the crime was committed. During the 1930’s Mississippi had a number of bungled hangings, especially that of murderer Gary Fairley in 1932. These created a strong desire in some quarters for a centralised system where the State took control, with a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates and a newer, supposedly more humane execution method. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any US State, so retaining capital punishment rather than abolition was the prevailing public and political mood.

There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as ‘Parchman Farm’ or simply ‘Parchman’) was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to locating Death Row at his prison. Wiggins was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman, was a shrewd political operator and had friends in high places. He wasn’t alone. Parchman is in Sunflower County and local residents firmly opposed having their county associated with executions. They feared Sunflower would be stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of playing host to executions and dreaded an influx of condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape. They and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already one of the most notorious prisons in the US. According to author David Oshinsky in his book ‘Worse than Slavery’ one local politician stated: ‘Place that thing at Parchman and you’ll have riots and a wholesale breakout to descend hundreds of criminals down upon our people.’ Parchman has long been notorious for the brutality and harshness of its regime and for the high levels of violence by inmates and staff alike. Bad enough that Sunflower was already known for Parchman, but even worse if it became known as the ‘death county’ as well. Residents weren’t alone in that. No other county wanted to be known mainly for executions, either.

Tradition also played its part. Hangings had always been conducted under county jurisdiction. If a prisoner was condemned in a particular county then that was where they also died. Many believed that public hangings performed locally reassured law-abiding communities and intimidated their criminals. Local executions also made punishment more relevant to local communities and less remote than if done in one place alone. If change was to be made, then the State needed to take control of executions while retaining their visibility, avoiding stigmatizing any one county and providing a less inhumane method than regularly-bungled hangings. A compromise solution was needed and Mississippi authorities found one.

In 1940 the change was made. Electrocution replaced hanging as Mississippi’s method of execution. But it didn’t involve a purpose-built facility like the infamous ‘Death House’ at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison. It involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. The chair would be taken from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment for performing electrocutions that any other prison might use. Mississippi was literally taking its show on the road and providing death on wheels. The equipment for his new job was purpose built. A firm in Memphis constructed a portable generator, 600 feet of high tension cables and the chair itself including electrodes and straps according to the usual specifications adopted by other States. A large silver truck capable of hauling the equipment from county to county was purchased. The equipment and its transporter were far cheaper than a purpose-built ‘death house’ like Sing Sing’s which appealed to politicians and taxpayers alike.

If the method seems curious then that’s because it had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair, let alone used one. The State of Louisiana adopted a similar arrangement and the US Army also adopted it, although the Army retained professional hangmen as a second option. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than the new executioner.

The new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, an ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine only recently pardoned in 1939 after serving time at Parchman for armed robbery. He also had a violent past. During the 1920’s Thompson had shot a neighbour for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution only via an unwritten law of Southern life that said a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say this law only extended to white men and certainly didn’t extend to black men shooting white men on similar grounds.

Thompson was a curious character to put it mildly. He’d scratched a living on the carnival circuit as a stage hypnotist performing under the aliases ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ Like many former sailors and soldiers he was heavily tattooed. He was a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved to entertain friends and acquaintances with hypnosis, often while sharing copious amounts of illegal moonshine. He secured the job through political patronage as it was awarded by then-State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends and often went shooting together so it was no great surprise that Thompson was chosen from six applicants, five of whom didn’t know Governor Johnson personally.

By September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital at Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up his grim equipment, fired up the generator and worked the controls, cycling the voltage up and down to the deafening sound of the generator and unnerving whine as the current wound up and down . According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940: ‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’

Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating: ‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’ At $100 per execution plus expenses Thompson was as keen to start work as the State was to demonstrate its new concept. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.

Thompson's first 'customer.' Note Thompson's hand working the switch,.
Thompson’s first ‘customer.’ Note Thompson’s hand working the switch,.

Like most of Mississippi’s condemned Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale . With the State keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges it was no great surprise that he was first in line. His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make State and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair. Another black Mississipian, Hilton Fortenberry, was executed on the same day in Jackson. Hortenberry was the last Mississipian to hang. As a black murderer of a white retired police officer, Hortenberry knew full well his appeal was only a formality. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg ‘burned’ in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.

With his appeal denied, Bragg’s execution was assured. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he nicknamed ‘My killing machine.’ After some fairly basic tests to ensure all was ready, ‘Dr. Stingaree’ and Willie Mae Bragg were all set to make history. Press interest was considerable both within and outside Mississippi. Electrocutions themselves were nothing new and Bragg was a typical Death Row inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet the effectiveness and reliability of its new invention. If things went badly then the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson would be centre stage and nobody involved was especially concerned about Willie Mae Bragg.

It’s also highly unlikely that anybody considered the dreadful fate of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison in August, 1889. The world’s first judicial electrocution had been a nightmarish exhibition of just how badly wrong untested methods can go. Whether the portable version would be equally appalling remained to be seen. By this point Hilton Fortenberry was largely ignored. Journalists were far more interested in this latest innovation whether it worked properly or not. Death on wheels was far more newsworthy than yet another hanging. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was on hand throughout, taking a series of pictures while standing only feet away from the chair itself.

The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler, but that had been done using permanently-sited and largely-standardised equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States using electrocution insisted on employing only executioners who were already qualified, experienced electricians. Many ‘State Electricians’ worked in the electricity industry prior to their appointment as executioners. Mississippi on the other hand was about to test a generator, switchboard, cables and electrodes that had been bounced around in a truck for hundreds of miles before its first use. They were also employing an executioner with no electrical repair or maintenance skills who, as far as we know, had never performed an execution. Electrocution was a familiar concept, but this way of using it was anything but familiar.

It was totally untested, nobody knew if it would work. The generator, cables, switchboard and electrodes could malfunction. If any of the equipment malfunctioned Bragg might receive no current, receive too much (and be burnt to death) or receive too little (and be slowly cooked alive). Thompson himself claimed that both he and his assistant had been trained by experienced ‘electrocutioners’ but he’d never actually electrocuted anybody and had a reputation for excessive drinking. Even if the equipment functioned perfectly, the man operating it might not. Anybody worried about potential problems had ample reason to be.

As it was their worries were unfounded. Thompson did his job, the equipment worked perfectly and Bragg died as quickly and cleanly as he could have done. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger thoughtfully provided explicit captions with its photographs. As Bragg was being prepared the caption read: ‘At the left Bragg sits in the chair and watches as guards strap his arms.’ Accompanying a photograph taken while the current was switched on another caption read: ‘The picture at the right was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’ Thompson, always ready to supply a grim, attention-grabbing comment, stated that Bragg had died: ‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’ It wasn’t until the remarkable failed electrocution of Willie Francis in Louisiana in 1946 that the technical pitfalls of portable electrocution would be shown in horrifying fashion.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had its banner headline and exclusive photographs, Thompson had his first fee and the new method had been proved sound. The Clarion-Ledger also managed something very rare in criminal history by photographing the execution. Previously, the only live image of an electrocution had been taken secretly at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in January, 1928 by newspaper photographer Tom Howard. His secretly-snapped image of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body and is still one of the most famous images in media history. After the Snyder execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions and even today it’s strictly forbidden to  photograph or film an execution in any US State.

Thompson himself was effusive about his successful debut and subsequent ‘fry parties’ as he charmingly called them. True to form, an interview given to Craddock Gains (writing for the American Mercury) Thompson supplied some choice comments. Thompson seemed to think condemned inmates were grateful for his apparent skill at killing them, stating that he told each of them: ‘Brother, I sure appreciate your trade. I’m going to show my appreciation by giving you a nice clean job. I’m going to give you the prettiest death a guy can have.’

Describing how he thought inmates regarded him Thompson delivered a curious response. Mississippi had several inmates already condemned to hang when electrocution replaced the gallows. These inmates were given a choice between being hanged or electrocuted and, according to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed that the condemned were grateful to die at the hands of so skilled an executioner, stating: ‘You can’t imagine how much that helps a poor peckerwood in the death chamber unless you have seen the grateful eyes these men turn upon me when they place themselves in my hands. I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing. Condemned men seem to trust me, and I never let ’em down.’

Mississippi authorities were far more co-operative with the press than elsewhere in the country.. The angle, distance and clarity of the pictures prove the photographer was only feet away from the chair and obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged the photographer in his work. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity. Thompson, being a natural showman, seems utterly unaffected by his grim work and to positively revel in the notoriety he attracted. Future events showed that those in authority had no problem with his professional skill, but were probably far less enthused by his self-publicising antics between executions.

Thompson continued as ‘travelling executioner’ for several more years, but his lucrative notoriety didn’t last. In December, 1944 a new State Governor was elected, replacing his close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time in finding a replacement, although his reasons remain unclear. No official records exist of Thompson’s being hired and fired but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded. The report also describes him as the ‘former State executioner.’ Thompson could have been replaced for several reasons. Political patronage was an important factor in being employed by the State and, without a patron, finding or keeping State employment was difficult. The new Governor might have employed a friend or acquaintance as his predecessor had done. Thompson’s heavy drinking and perpetual exhibitionism could have been distasteful enough that Bailey wanted somebody less bizarre and more discreet or Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on. We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, nor of who replaced him. There are no official records of either his appointment or his departure. The most likely replacement would have been his assistant (whose name has never been revealed) or possibly an executioner from another State.

This wouldn’t be unusual. Executioners at the time were often private contractors employed by multiple States. Most of New York’s executioners did brisk business with neighboring States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. Robert Elliott was employed by all those States at the same time. Elliott was so busy that on January 6, 1928 he executed six men in two different States on the same day. Elliott performed three electrocutions at the Massachusetts State Prison that morning before taking a train to New York and another triple execution that night. We don’t know whether Thompson resigned or was fired. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.

Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t. During its 15-year tenure the chair executed 73 inmates. 56 black men, 16 white men and 1 black woman died in courthouses and county jails all over Mississippi. Nearly a dozen were still juveniles aged under 21. Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. His case went to the US Supreme Court 3 times during his eight years awaiting execution. Celebrities such as William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker spoke out against his execution and President Harry Truman came under international pressure to commute McGee’s sentence. Even Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg, himself awaiting execution in Sing Sing Prison for espionage, publicly condemned McGee’s case as a demonstration of all that was wrong with American society.

McGee was executed at the Laurel County Courthouse on May 8, 1951 in the same courtroom in which he’d been convicted in 1945. True to form, the Mississippi media made an impression. There were no photographs this time, but a local radio station broadcast a commentary that was syndicated nationwide. The recording of McGee’s final half-hour is available online for those who can stomach listening to the generator noise rising and falling at the moment of McGee’s death while locals cheer and shout the Civil War-era ‘Rebel Yell’ in the background. It’s not easy listening but, like the Willie Mae Bragg photographs, is still an important part of the historical record.

Jimmy Thompson died in a traffic accident on October 12, 1952. He was a passenger in a pick-up truck when it crashed and Thompson was thrown from the vehicle, suffering fatal injuries. He was 56 years old when he died. He left a sister and five brothers, but no children of his own. His life and work later formed the basis for the movie ‘The Travelling Executioner’ starring Stacy Keach as Jonas Candide, a very-thinly veiled version of Thompson himself. Released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, being widely considered as simply too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it an entirely accurate portrayal of Jimmy Thompson and his occupation. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and the dialogue makes it absolutely clear that Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.

Mississippi's first 'gassee' Gerald Gallego Senior. Gerald Junior also ended up on Death Row.
Mississippi’s first ‘gassee’ Gerald Gallego Senior. Gerald Junior also ended up on Death Row.

Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair until James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and the residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and a unit of the prison set aside to house only condemned inmates. The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a double-murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut and Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. Despite this disaster Mississippi continued using the gas chamber until 1989 when the method changed again to lethal injection. Prisoners condemned prior to the change were given the option of choosing gas or injection and today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi. The location was still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.

The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.
The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still adhere to a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at what prison staff call the ‘Maximum Security Unit’ or ‘MSU.’ Even today, despite executions and their location being public knowledge, Parchman still doesn’t officially have a Death Row If you visit, you’ll probably be told they don’t have one and be directed to the ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississipians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.

Papillon – The Butterfly Pinned..?


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Meet Henri Charriere. Frenchman, Venezuelan, career criminal, transportee to Devil’s Island, denier of the murder that sent him there, happy to claim to have committed a murder while he was there and general storyteller and writer. Also known as ‘Papillon (due to a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and writer of the eponymous book turned into the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (on which he was also technical adviser).

We know that Charriere was convicted of the manslaughter of Roland LeGrand, a pimp of no particular note or repute. We know that Charriere received a sentence of life in the penal colonies of French Guiana with an extra ten-year sentence tacked on to it. We know that he actually went to Guiana aboard ‘La Martiniere’ and that he did indeed know Louis Dega, and that Dega was indeed a forger (and a very good one apart from getting himself caught and sent to Guiana for the rest of his life).

We know that he was married before his exile to Guiana and married again in Venezuela after his successful escape from the penal colonies. We know his mother died when he was only ten years old and that he served two years in the French Navy before joining the Parisian underworld as a safe-cracker. Everything else that appears in ‘Papillon’ is open to question. Did it happen to Charriere personally? Did he steal other inmates’ stories, passing them off as his own personal experiences? How many of them were his experiences or even happened? Was Henri Charriere really ‘Papillon’ at all?

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Charriere definitely arrived on the 1933 shipment from France to St.Laurent, capital of the colony and of the numerous prison camps that formed the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana.’ He claimed that his first escape was made within weeks of arrival. Penal colony records state he was there for nearly a year before his first unauthorised absence. That he made eight further escapes, this too can’t be confirmed. That he killed an informer after being transferred to Royale Island, odd to admit that murder while denying the one that sent him to Guiana in the first place. He claimed to have spent several months with Guajira Indians while on the run through Colombia during one unsuccessful escape, which is also unconfirmed except by Charriere’s own account. Charriere also claimed to have saved a young girl’s life by fending off sharks during a swimming break when he was in solitary on St. Joseph Island for an escape attempt. A different account states that the incident did indeed happen, but that the inmate who made the save lost both his legs to a shark and died soon afterward.

While transferred to Royale Island (home to so-called ‘Incos’ or ‘Incorrigibles’, Charriere claimed to have been both a ringleader in a convict mutiny and also to have calmed the same mutiny down, his status as an ‘Inco’ being enough to persuade other ‘Incos’ to abandon their insurrection. Again, other inmates and penal colony records suggest strongly that Charriere was actually a peaceful inmate who caused very little trouble except for escaping. They also suggest he was largely content in his job on Royale Island cleaning out the latrines. According to Charriere he was a hardened felon and desperate escaper. According to seemingly everybody else, official or otherwise, he was happy to work most of the time as a shit-shoveller for other convicts.

There’s also the small matter of his supposed escape from Devil’s Island itself by floating to the mainland aboard a sack of coconuts with another inmate named Sylvain. Sylvain drowned in mud while trying to reach land, according to Papillon, which leaves nobody to corroborate his story or to explain why a conventional criminal like Charriere would be confined to Devil’s Island when that island was only used to hold political prisoners. In fact, of the 70,000 or so inmates sent to Guiana, only around 50 were ever confined to Devil’s Island itself. Neither Charriere nor his supporters can explain that or why, according to Penal Administration records, Charriere’s legendary successful escape through the Guiana jungle was made from St. Laurent where he was assigned at the time. Nor is there any explanation as to why Charriere freely references events in his book such as a convict-turned-executioner’s sadistic murder or the so-called ‘Cannibals Break.’ During that particular escape a group of escapers became so desperate they cooked and ate one of their group to survive. One member of that group (who declined the free buffet) was fellow-inmate Rene Belbenoit, himself a successful escaper and author of the far more reliable ‘Dry Guillotine,’

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The biggest problem of all for Charriere’s devotees, aside from the many inconsistencies and contradictions is Charriere’s book, a book he passed off as a memoir and not as a work of fiction, is the existence until 2007 of one Charles Brunier. Charles Brunier was a First World War veteran, armed robber and murderer sent to Guiana before Charriere. According to Brunier, he was ‘Papillon’, not Charriere. Brunier openly acused Charriere of lying and stealing the experiences of other inmates while claiming them to be his own. Brunier was also an unwilling resident of the colonies until 1940 when he escaped and joined the Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle. He also wore a number of tattoos, one of which just happened to be of a large butterfly adorning his chest and the withered little finger, both identifying marks of the real ‘Papillon.’ In 1970, former Paris-Match reporter Gerard de Villiers wrote ‘Papillon Egpingle’ (‘Butterfly Pinned’), openly accusing Charriere of being a fraud and producing much evidence to prove his case. Charriere, infuriated, didn’t try to debate de Villiers’s book, he simply tried to have it banned instead rather than disprove the allegations made. A distinct body of opinion began to coalesce around Charriere being a plagiarist and a fraud, not least the damning opinion of Truman Capote who openly derided him as a liar and a fake.

There’s no denying that Henri Charriere knew how to write, he knew how to tell a story and how to spin a few myths. But as other inmates accused him of stealing their experiences, the official records show him to have lied on numerous occasions, French officialdom openly states that the truth of his book can be divided by ten to get to what he actually experienced, a reliable journalist has solidly disproved many of his claims and Truman Capote openly called him a fraud, it’s pretty hard to deny that he was also a professional liar as well.

That said, he was a pretty successful one. Certainly a better author and liar than he was a safe-cracker. And is anybody of reasonable intelligence really so surprised to read a criminal memoir and then find it’s been spun like a DJ’s record collection?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Anybody looking for a longer account of the Guiana penal system can  find one here, published by my colleagues at History Is Now Magazine:

http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/#.VEbKyPl4q3v

On Crime And Conversation – Criminal Slang In Everyday Use.


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Crime, it’s a part of human existence. It’s in our culture, our art, our literature, our entertainment. For some of us it’s in our blood. It’s also crossed over into our language. Seemingly normal everyday phrases, the kind most people use without even thinking about their origin, can often have the darkest, most disturbing meanings. So here are some choice examples of criminal slang that even the most law-abiding citizens use all the time:

 

In the clink: This one’s obviously slang for going to prison. It’s an English phrase dating back to the time when all convicts were permanently shackled in manacles or made to wear the ball and chain. Think Magwitch in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations or ‘I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ for this one. Being ‘in clink’ was a reference to constant noise made by convicts as their shackles, balls and chains rattled every time they so much as moved. Go into pretty much any prison museum and you’ll see examples of the manacles, the shackles and the ball-and-chain alongside the old-style convict uniforms with either stripes or arrows all over them. Metal restraints didn’t just restrict a convict’s mobility. The constant rattling and clinking as they moved made it impossible for them to move quietly, important in a time when prisons weren’t always as secure as they are now.

 The third degree: This is American criminal slang, used by cops and robbers alike. Nowadays you’ll hear anybody who’s been on the wrong end of a conversation that seemed overly aggressive and confrontational saying they’ve been given the third degree. Originally, the third degree was a police interrogation involving violence or threats thereof, usually aimed at either getting a prisoner to confess to something, to provide information about their accomplices on a particular crime or otherwise make an unco-operative prisoner rediscover their sense of civic duty. Threats to see that a prisoner fell down the stairs on their way to the cells, to ensure that if they didn’t co-operate or confess their sentence would be far heavier than if they did and officers giving them a good hiding then saying they started the ruckus was standard practice, hence some American police officers nicknaming the baseball bat the ‘Alabama lie-detector.’. The ultimate in the third degree was officers demanding a confession if the prisoner didn’t want to be shot while trying to escape.

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Bootleg:  Anybody familiar with Prohibition, Al Capone, the Untouchables and crime in general will have heard and used the word ‘bootleg.’ If you’re into music then you’ll certainly have heard of ‘bootleg recordings’ and might even own a few. Originally it refers to the trade between the early European settlers and Native Americans. Native Americans were forbidden access to alcohol and in Puritan settlements even those living there weren’t supposed to imbibe the demon drink. To do business with the Native Americans some European settlers would meet them and bring illegal whiskey, gin, rum and many other spirits to trade, hiding them in the legs of their high boots. It’s surprising how many fifths of Scotch you can hide in a high boot even while you’re wearing it, hence the trade was often lucrative and hard to stamp out. Prohibition existed long before the dark days when Chicago became a warzone. So did bootleggers.

 Bobby: Another one from Merrie Old England, this. Every Brit and most foreigners will have heard of British beat cops being called ‘Bobbies.’ In London the tourist traps and souvenir stalls often sell plastic police helmets and miniature truncheons. But even a lot of us Brits don’t know why we call them ‘Bobbies’ even though it’s a common nickname. It’s simple. In the days before policing as we know it today, London was rife with crime until the beginnings of what we now call the Metropolitan Police. Before the Met existed there were only a few constables employed by the local magistrates and no formal police force until the arrival of the ‘Bow Street Runners.’ The Runners were founded and led by Sir Robert Peel, a senior political figure of his time and even after the Runners were replaced by the Met, the nickname stuck. Brits call British police ‘Bobbies and the Irish often call police officers ‘Peelers’ for the same reason.

On the spot: We’ve all said it, heard it or thought it. When somebody else has said or done something that’s put us in a difficult situation then it’ll be ‘They really put me on the spot’ or something similar. This is an American phrase and it does indeed refer to being put in a difficult position. In America’s gangland to put somebody ‘On the spot’ was to set them up at a particular time and place so they could be murdered. Nowadays people might complain of being put on the spot if they were blamed for somebody else’s misbehaviour or otherwise caught the rough end of a situation they maybe knew nothing about until they were angrily being blamed for something they had nothing to do with. Take heart, unjustly-maligned people everywhere, at least there wasn’t a flashily-dressed psychopath with a scarred face, bad attitude and sawn-off shotgun waiting for you when you got there.

13, Unlucky for some: This one’s so common I can’t imagine many people having never heard it before. So, why is the number 13 unlucky for some and not for others? Simple. London’s criminals knew full well that, at one time in British history, there were over 200 different crimes that could mean a trip to the gallows. Under the notorious ‘Bloody Code’ you could hang for sheep rustling or something as minor as theft of anything worth more than five shillings. While we’re on the subject of crime and punishment, London’s underworld also knew that there are traditionally 13 steps to the top of a scaffold or gallows and the traditional hangman’s knot has 13 turns of the rope. Of course, not every crook sentenced to die actually did and a lot of them managed to escape being caught at all. Hence, 13 was always only unlucky for some.

 Sing Sing's death chamber as it was in August, 1963.

Sing Sing’s ‘hot seat.’

In the hot seat: From Merrie Olde England to the United States once more with this one. Americans being Americans, they’ve always been keen on progress, on new ideas and technologies. That even extends to their use of various weird (and not-so-wonderful) methods of execution. Disdaining the old-fashioned European concept of simply hanging people (not that judicial hanging is actually that simple a simple job) they found something far more modern and progressive. The electric chair AKA ‘The hot seat.’ Nowadays people refer to uncomfortable and difficult situations as being put ‘In the hot seat.’  Over 4000 American convicts might look at people complaining about a difficult job interview or press conference and think ‘My heart bleeds.’ Still, while those convicts were fried like bacon at least they can rest easy that they provided endless fodder for dime novelists and film-makers. After all, an American prison movie wouldn’t be an American prison movie without somebody being dragged from their cell through the ominous green-painted, seldom-opened door at the end of the cellblock, never to return unless, in true Hollywood fashion, the phone rings just as a black-gloved hand is reaching for a large switch.

In Limbo: When people are either describing a situation where they don’t know what’s going to happen they’ll often say things are ‘In Limbo.’ ‘Limbo’ was a nickname for the condemned cells at Newgate Prison (where the Central Criminal Court, the famous ‘Old Bailey,’ stands today. Newgate was also one of London’s ‘hanging jails’ with its own gallows. That gallows was used regularly and often for multiple inmates at a time. At the time, British law meant that condemned inmates were neither legally alive or legally dead. They weren’t legally alive after being condemned, but they weren’t legally dead because they hadn’t been hanged yet. ‘Limbo’, being a slang term for Purgatory (the transitional phase between life and death) became the nickname for the condemned cells and Newgate’s dead men walking were described as ‘In Limbo’ until they were either reprieved or taken to Tyburn to perform an entirely different form of Limbo dance.

Turned off: Nowadays when we describe something as a ‘turn off’ or say ‘I was completely turned off’ we mean that something is off-putting, unpleasant, unenjoyable, distasteful and generally something we’d rather not experience again unless we had to. All of which apply perfectly to the original form of ‘turn off.’ In the days when hanging existed, but conventional gallows hadn’t been designed yet, our ancestors had to find ways to hang people without a proper scaffold. They did, in an improvised kind of way. The prisoner would be taken to a conveniently-sited tree with a noose already tied and waiting. Then the prisoner was forced to climb a ladder before having the noose applied. At a signal, the ladder would be twisted violently so that the prisoner was literally ‘turned off’ and left to slowly choke to death. It wasn’t or another couple of centuries that anything resembling a gallows we would recognise it today was even invented. Lovely.

James Wilson, one of the early 'Poms.'
James Wilson, one of the early ‘Poms.’

Pom: Australians often refer to British folk as ‘Poms’ or Pommies.’ More impolite Australians might refer to ‘whinging Poms’ if they should hear one of us complaining about something. Why do they call us ‘Poms’ or ‘Pommies’? Simple, really. The answer dates back to when Australia was a part of the British Empire and not the independent nation it is today. At the time Australia was initially used as a penal colony where Britain simply exported its convicts and left them there to live or die as best they could. To identify them as convicts (and therefore British government property) they were branded with a set of initials. Yes, that’s right, branded. With a hot iron. Forever burned into their skin were the letters ‘POHM’ short for ‘Prisoner of Her Majesty.’ Hence, today’s Australians have always referred to residents of the mother country as ‘Poms.’ Useful tip if you’re ever visiting, though, is to avoid answering any immigration officer who asks if you’ve any criminal conviction by saying ‘Didn’t know they were still compulsory.’ Just a thought.

So, there you have it. A regular Rogue’s Gallery of phrases that perfectly honest, decent law-abiding folk use every day while having no idea of their criminal origins. At least society’s low-lives have managed to contribute something to human existence, albeit unwittingly and, in some cases, terminally.

 

 

 

Irene Schroeder – Pennsylvania ‘Trigger Woman.’


 Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague.

Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague.

 We’re back in Pennsylvania for our latest criminal curiosity. Irene Schroeder, AKA ‘Triiger Woman’, ‘The Blonde Bandit’, ‘Tiger Woman’ and ‘Iron Irene’, was the first woman to be electrocuted in Pennsylvania. Executioner Robert Elliott said that, of all the 387 convicts he executed, that she was the most composed and fearless inmate he ever executed.

She started young, barely 20 years old, hooking up with a married insurance salesman, Sunday school teacher and Boy Scout leader named Glenn Dague. Along for the ride were her brother Tom Crawford and Tom ‘Red’ Wells, an ex-convict Schroeder and Dague picked up on the road in New Mexico. They were essentially a poor man’s Bonnie & Clyde, robbing grocery stores, diners, filling stations in small-time jobs seldom netting more than $100 a job. They also killed and wounded a number of police officers and all the gang members would pay with their lives without ever gaining anything like the lasting fame and pop culture cachet of their more infamous brethren. They were dead and buried before Bonnie & Clyde really got started and the fact that they were finished before the ‘Crime Wave’ of the early 1930’s really got underway saw them achieve only Statewide infamy. Tragic though the story is, with all the gang’s members and several police officers dead, young Donnie Schroeder’s story is the most tragic of all. But we’ll get to that later.

They were responsible for a string of car thefts, armed robberies, several non-fatal shootings, a couple of murders and the kidnap of a Sheriff’s deputy. InOhio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, West Virginia and Ohio their guns blazed and their fingers emptied wallets and cash registers. The beginning of the end came with the murder of Pennsylvania Highway Patrol Corporal Brady Paul. The final nail in their coffins came from evidence unwittingly supplied by her own son Donnie, himself having been taken along for the ride by his murderous mother. What separates this little gang from other Depression-era gangs is their being led by a woman. Bonnie Parker has often been inaccurately and unfairly portrayed as the leader of the Barrow-Parker Gang. She wasn’t. Clyde would never have tolerated anybody else being in charge, especially not a woman. Irene, on the other hand, never left anybody in any doubt as to who ran the show and that included her male accomplices.

After leaving his wife for Irene, Dague lost his job and his posts at the Boy Scouts and Sunday school. It’s highly unlikely that he would have left the straight and narrow had he not met her. That isn’t to say that he didn’t choose to live (and later die) at her side, he did. But Irene was certainly the dominant partner in their relationship. Maybe it would have been better for all involved if she hadn’t been. The other gang members, Crawford had only a minor criminal record while Wells had done time for armed robbery in New Mexico, were your typical Depression-era bottom-feeders and of no note other than their links to Irene Schroeder. Crawford and Wells would come to regret those links as much as anybody.

Their spree began in August, 1029. Schroeder, Dague and Crawford loaded up a Buick, put Donnie in the back seat and set off in search of places to rob. It wasn’t long before their did their first job. On September 1, 1929 the Meadowland Inn in Cadiz, ohio was robbed. The job went perfectly with no gun-play and convinced our terrible trio that armed robbery. Four days later they were in Moundsville, West Virginia robbing a diner and filling station belonging to Jack Cotts. Another simple, small-time job resulted in a $70 haul and, again, no gunplay. Then it all started to go wrong.

Corporal Brady Paul, one of several men who died as a result of meeting Irene Schroeder.
Corporal Brady Paul, one of several men who died as a result of meeting Irene Schroeder.

So far, their luck had been miraculous. They’d committed a string of small robberies without so much as a shot fired and evaded a large-scale dragnet in three separate States. The Moundsville robbery had even been pinned on a different couple, much to Irene Schroeder’s amusement. It was on December 27, 1929 in Butler, Pennsylvania that everything went wrong. They robbed Kroger’s grocery store in Butler. Mr. Kroger was a rarity in those days. He had a telephone, and he knew the number of the police. Fleeing their latest job unaware that they were already being targeted for arrest, they were caught at a roadblock manned by Corporal Paul and Sheriff’s Deputy Ernest Moore. Paul and Moore went down in an exchange of fire that saw the Buick left with several bullet holes, Corporal Paul dying and Deputy Moore seriously wounded. Now it was a capital murder hunt, not just small-time robberies. The gang disappeared, seemingly without trace

Having to abandon their car, they stole another at gunpoint and fled the scene. The abandoned car was traced to one Henry Crawford, Irene Schroeder’s father, In the car was a red scarf identified as belonging to the female shooter by Deputy Moore. He also identified her as Irene Schroeder. Deputy Moore was with police in Wheeling, West Virginia when they visited Henry Crawford to question him when he recognised someone else from the roadblock. It was Donnie Schroeder. Donnie, doubtless unaware he was signing his mother and uncle’s death warrants, told police:

“I saw my Mama shoot a cop! Uncle Tom shot another one in the head.” 

The gang’s fate was sealed. Pennsylvania wasn’t the most hawkish State regarding the death penalty, but cop killers could expect swift justice tempered with little mercy (Paul Jawarski, for example). If caught the gang could expect to die, even Irene if the jury didn’t recommend mercy. Always assuming, of course, that the gang themselves didn’t die in a last stand or some police officers become a little overzealous after the cold-blooded murder of Corporal Paul. Whether the gang died at the hands of police officers or the executioner made no difference. Dead is dead. On January 30, 1930 the gang finally resurfaced in Florence, Arizona (ironically now the location of ‘supermax’ prison ADX Florence). Crawford had gone solo and been replaced by Tom Wells. Dague and Schroeder were recognised by Deputy Joseph Chapman, who they promptly abducted. Snared at a roadblock (they don’t seem to have had much luck  at roadblocks) they threw Chapman from the car, seriously wounded Deputy Lee Wright with gunfire (who later died) and aso wounded Deputies Chapman and Butterfield. Another dead Deputy, in another death penalty State (Arizona had the gallows at the time). It wasn’t long before Justice would claim Schroeder, Crawford, Dague and their latest recruit Tom Wells and send them to join their victims.

 There were over 100 armed men in the posse that ran Schroeder, Dague and Wells to earth in the foothills of the Salt River Mountains. A furious firefight, remembered later as the ‘Battle of the crags’ saw no casualties on either side. It did see the trio surrounded, overpowered and arrested. Their choices were simple. If they weren’t lucky enough to spend the rest of their lives in jail then they could either dance the hangman’s hornpipe in Arizona or do the hot squat in Pennsylvania. It was that or enough 99-year sentences to see them disappear forever into the prison system. Wells was held for trial in Arizona as Deuty Wright had died from his infected wound.Tried for capital murder within a week of his arrest, he was convicted and later hanged. Tom Crawford was later shot dead during a solo bank raid in Texas, although the identification was never conclusive. Glenn Dague and Irene Schroeder would be hauled back to Pennsylvania to be tried for the murder of Corporal Paul. Their train ride from Arizona seemed more like a valedictory parade than two murderers about to meet their Maker. Irene even posed for pictures and signed dozens of autographs as ‘Irene Schroeder, Trigger Woman.’

 

 The verdict. And sentence.

The verdict. And sentence.

 The trial was practically a foregone conclusion, only the sentence was really in doubt as Pennsylvania had yet to electrocute a woman. It wouldn’t be long before Irene Schroeder would be its first. After Deputy Wright, Corporal Paul, Tom Crawford and Tom Wells, Glenn Dague would be the fifth and last person to die because he met Irene Schroeder. Schroeder was convicted and sentenced in mid-March, 1930. The jury’s verdict read simply:

‘Guilty of murder in the first degree, with the death penalty.’

Turning to her sisters in the public gallery, sobbing as the death sentence was read out, ‘Iron Irene’ showed the steel that had hallmarked her criminal career. She’d turned 21 only a fortnight before her sentencing but still tunred to her sisters and snarled:

“Shut up, you sissies. I can take it.”

In a media interview she waxed lyrical about her lover and her sentence:

 

“If I do go to the hot seat, Glenn will want to go to. We will love each other always until the end…”

‘The end’ wasn’t far away. Glenn Dague’s trial began two days after Irene’s had ended. The result as the same. Convicted of Corporal Paul’s murder, sentence of death was passed immediately. The two condemned lovers were transferred to Rockview Prison to await execution. Seeing Rockview had never had a female inmate under a death sentence, special arrangements were made for the doomed pair. Schroeder’s cell was decked out in a much more feminine manner than your typical Death House cell, although no less secure. A partition separated her cell from Dague’s, Dague being installed only feet away and both were scheduled to die on February 23, 1931.

End of the road for the poor man's Bonnie & Clyde.
End of the road for the poor man’s Bonnie & Clyde.

 They died as planned.Schroeder went first, promptly at 7am. Dague’s former Sunday school pastor, Reverend Teagarden, walked part of her last mile with her. Halfway between her cell and ‘Old Sparky’ she turned to him, saying softly:

“Please stay with Glenn. He will need you now more than I do…”

She walked into the brightly-lit, crowded room, sat down and expressed no emotion, leaving no final statement as Robert Elliott applied the straps and electrodes. At a signal the switch was thrown and Irene Schroeder died only days after her 22nd birthday. As her body was removed from the chair Glenn Dague began his final walk. He said nothing as he sat down, the smoke and stench  from Irene’s burns still hanging heavy in the air. The signal was given. The switch was thrown. Glenn Dague was dead. 

Perhaps the last word on this sorry tale rightly belongs to Donnie. Having unwittingly paved hs mother’s path along her last mile, he was very gently told of her impending execution. His response?

“I’ll bet my Mom would make an awful nice angel.”