Edith Cavell – Hand-wringing propaganda is not enough. Nor does it do her any service.


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“I am glad to die for my country.” – The last words of Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell was shot by a German firing squad at the Tir National rifle range near Brussels on October 12, 1915, having been convicted by a German military court of aiding the enemy by helping Allied soldiers and escaped prisoners through Belgium into neutral Holland. Her death brought international condemnation for Germany, aided to the maximum by British propaganda seeking to take full advantage of her death. But, despite their publicly-stated desire to see her reprieved, how much could the British have done to save her? Did they do all they could? And, as a martyr to the British cause, was Edith Cavell worth more to them dead than alive?

The British propaganda machine certainly exploited her execution to the absolute maximum. Published accounts of her death range from the mildly-exaggerated to the blatantly dishonest and don’t tend to coincide with the eyewitness accounts of those whose grim task it was to actually watch her die. One then-popular account states that she completely lost her nerve at her execution and, far from facing her death in the stereotypically heroic fashion, fainted. Having fainted, according to this rather creative version of events, the officer in charge simply walked over to her prone figure and calmly shot her in the head with his service pistol.

Looking at it from a propaganda perspective, Edith Cavell was worth more to the British dead than alive. Having already been captured her work helping escaping Allied soldiers was over so her purpose as an active agent was already served. Even if she had been reprieved which, with bitter irony, would have aided the German cause far more than that of the British, she would certainly have spent the rest of the war in prison and thus of no further value to the British. After being shot, on the other hand, she became a far more damaging British weapon than running an escape line. She became a martyr instead.

The facts of the case were fairly straightforward. Cavell admitted under questioning that she’d helped over 200 Allied fugitives escape through Belgium into neutral Holland. She was proved to have given them shelter and supplied them with food, money and false identity papers to help them across the border. In short, she admitted committing capital crimes under German military law at the time, and it was under German military law that she was tried, convicted and condemned.

Whether or not she at any time involved herself with active espionage as well is debatable. Noted espionage expert Nigel West is positive that she did and that she did so knowing the risks if she was caught. M.R.D Foot, a distinguished military historian and former intelligence officer who also served with the SAS during the Normandy campaign, is absolutely positive that Cavell was originally engaged by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to assist with a spy ring, but turned her back on espionage to instead assist Allied fugitives. Beyond West and Foot’s accounts, however, there’s so far no evidence that she engaged in active espionage. According to archive evidence studied by former MI5 Director Dame Stella Rimington, Cavell knew at least something about information being passed back to England via her network.

It would have made no difference anyway as she was never tried for espionage, but for aiding the enemy and neither Cavell nor the British ever denied that she did do so.

Another, rather distasteful, speculation concerns her brief time under a death sentence. The British don’t seem to have done all that much to save her. but what could they have done? That she was guilty is undoubted and the Germans were hardly likely to grant any clemency request coming from the British, especially as the British shot eleven prisoners during the First World War convicted of espionage on behalf of the Germans. It does seem as though, in the absence of any meaningful options to stop her execution, British propagandists made the best use possible of an execution their superiors could do little or nothing to prevent.

Cavell herself seems to have made much less fuss about her death than propagandists did. According to Chaplain Gahan (who made a final visit hours before her execution) she was calm, rational and accepted her fate with great dignity and fortitude (far from the image of the prostrate victim callously finished off with an officer’s service pistol as she lay catatonic on the Tir National rifle range). She went to her death composed and calm, not collapsed on the ground before her executioners. She even refused a blindfold, which hardly suggests she was unable to face her final ordeal.

There isn’t any evidence to suggest that Edith Cavell’s death was actively connived at by the British authorities. The evidence for her actively involving herself in espionage is equally debatable. But what can’t be denied is that she knew what she was doing, she knew the likely outcome if she were caught and yet she chose to do it anyway and take the risk. She gambled her life for her principles, and lost. What’s also undeniable is that, not having prevented her death, British propagandists made as big a meal of it as they possibly could. Granted, that isn’t the same as doing less than they could have to secure clemency, but it’s still thoroughly distasteful and opportunistic on a grand scale.

The German authorities, themselves conflicted about executing her, finally decided to make an example of her via the firing squad. Like the British authorities after the 1916 Easter Rising, they did make an example of Edith Cavell. Unfortunately for both governments it was seen by many as an example of their own cruelty and callousness and they couldn’t have handed their opponents a bigger propaganda victory. Instead of setting examples to avoid, they set examples to follow.

What we’d nowadays call sexism also played its part. The Germans were keen to show that being female wasn’t an ‘get out of jail free’ card for condemned prisoners. British propagandists were equally keen to exploit her gender. whining bitterly about how barbarous it was to execute a woman. Bitter irony when you consider that British women were routinely hanged for murder at the time. False reports of her collapse before the firing squad, the suggestion that she should be reprieved simply on account of her gender and the general idea that shooting a woman for aiding the enemy was an atrocity while no similar degree of attention would have been lavished on a man condemned for exactly the same acts do her memory no favours.

Was she the proverbial ‘Weak and feeble woman’? No.

Did she know what she was doing and the penalty if she were caught? Yes.

Was she also at any point actively spying as well as helping Allied fugitives into neutral territory (and then on to Britain to continue fighting the Germans)? Maybe.

Edith Cavell was a brave person who made freely the choice to risk her life. She did so knowingly. She faced her end as bravely as any man, not as some hysterical banshee unable to face the consequences of her actions. German authorities at the time may have done themselves a disservice by not commuting her sentence, but British propagandists have done far worse to her memory and her place in history.

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Wild West – The ‘Gunslinger’ Myth


The stylised version of a Wild West gunfight. These almost never happened.
The stylised version of a Wild West gunfight. These almost never happened.

The Wild West, home of many colourful (often disreputable) characters. Native Americans, gold prospectors, gamblers, cattle ranchers, miners and immigrants scrambled to extend the new frontier. They spread further West in search of their fortunes. With law-abiding, hard-working citizens came criminals. The most notorious were gunslingers, hired guns who’d rob a bank one month, protect a cattle baron the next and then be hired as a town Marshal the month after that. Being a gunslinger didn’t automatically make a man a criminal, some of the best-known were both law enforcers and lawbreakers at different times.

Gunslingers in popular culture.

The popular image of gunslingers comes from cheap novels and films and it’s far more fiction than fact. Hollywood would have us believe that hired guns were either all good (like Gary Cooper’s portrayal in the classic film ‘High Noon’) or all bad (like Michael Biehn’s portrayal of Johnny Ringo in ‘Tombstone’). This black-and-white idea doesn’t reflect reality. Pop culture’s image is often a slow-talking, fast-drawing lone gunman riding into town, taking on several men at once while wearing one or two pistols in low-slung hip holsters and, naturally, letting them draw first before instantly killing all of them. He’ll probably indulge in a drawn-out, climactic gunfight, standing opposite his opponent in the middle of a street for several minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The ‘good guy’ lets the ‘bad guy’ draw first but still wins, naturally.

This portrayal is, frankly, rubbish. Gunslingers weren’t even called gunslingers during the ‘Wild West’ period. They didn’t wear the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig’ of a low-slung hip holster tied to their thigh for a faster draw Many didn’t favour the pistol as their primary weapon. Drawn-out standoffs were almost non-existent, as were single gunslingers choosing to fight multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. Few made public show of their skills with trick shooting or fancy pistol-twirling in saloons or on street corners (notable exceptions were ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and the infamous John Wesley Hardin). They were seldom always lawmen or outlaws and frequently both at different points in their careers (some even managed to hold public office as sheriffs or marshals while operating as vigilantes, assassins, extortioners and general criminals). Pop culture’s version of the gunslinger hasn’t made them more interesting, its dumbed down who these men were, what they did and how they did it while ignoring the more complex aspects.

‘Shootists’ – The reality.

According to etymologist Barry Popik the word ‘gunslinger’ didn’t come into use until the 1920 movie ‘Drag Harlan’ and then in the novels of famed Western author Zane Grey who first used it in his 1928 novel ‘Nevada.’ The word ‘gunfighter’ first appeared in the 1870’s. Wild West gunmen were more commonly known as ‘shootists’, ‘badmen’, ‘pistoleers’ or ‘pistoleros’ (a Spanish word for ‘gunman’). Granted, the word ‘gunslinger’ sounds good, but it first appeared long after gunslingers themselves ceased to exist. Feared gunman Clay Allison is believed to have coined the most popular term of the period when asked about his occupation by replying “I’m a shootist.”

The commonly-accepted gunfighter's rig. They didn't wear these, either.
The commonly-accepted gunfighter’s rig. They didn’t wear these, either.

Pop culture would also have us believe that gunmen wore customised gunbelts and holsters, the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig.’ They didn’t. The stereotypical ‘gunfighter’s rig’ beloved of movie directors the world over didn’t exist during the period. It came into being in the 1950’s when ‘quick draw’ contests with blank-firing revolvers became a competitive sport. The low-slung holster tied down to a man’s thigh simply didn’t exist.

Also almost non-existent was the idea of two fighters walking out into a street, facing each other and then fighting a ‘quick draw’ duel. If a real gunfighter drew quickly it was usually because an opponent had tried to ambush them. Most one-on-one gunfights resulted from personal disputes such as over women or during card games where insults were exchanged and guns drawn immediately. The idea of Wild West gunfights having any resemblance to European duelling is best left in dime novels and movie theaters where it belongs. Only two such face-to-face duels are on record as having actually happened, between ‘Wild Bill’ and Davis Tutt in Deadwood, South Dakota (Hickok killed Tutt with a remarkable single pistol shot at a range of over fifty meters) and between Jim Courtright and Luke Short (Short killed Courtright with a volley of four bullets, not a surgically-delivered single shot. Gunfights like those in the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ directed by Sergio Leone are wonderful viewing, but bear almost no relation to reality.

Gunfighters of the time were also far more sensible than to tackle multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. One extremely rare example was the notorious ‘Four dead in five seconds’ gunfight in Austin, Texas. Gunfighter Dallas Stoudenmire (employed as town Marshal at the time) used his two pistols to kill four men, three of whom  had ambushed him. Unfortunately the fourth was an innocent bystander already running for cover when the shooting started.

Tools of the trade.

A 'coach gun' used by stagecoach guards. Many gunslingers preferred these over revolvers including John 'Doc' Holliday and William Bonney AKA 'Billy the Kid.'
A ‘coach gun’ used by stagecoach guards. Many gunslingers preferred these over revolvers including John ‘Doc’ Holliday and William Bonney AKA ‘Billy the Kid.’

Another myth is that gunfighters all preferred revolvers. In films they draw one or two pistols, empty them without seeming to aim and, naturally, kill every opponent without missing or accidentally shooting anybody else. Any pistol marksman will tell you that holding a revolver with one hand and fanning the hammer with the other is the worst way to shoot accurately. In reality, most gunmen favoured the ‘coach gun’ (a short-barrelled shotgun used by stagecoach guards, hence the phrase ‘riding shotgun’) or rifles like the 1873 Winchester. Legendary gunman Ben Thompson was a firm devotee of the shotgun, as was John ‘Doc’ Holliday’ of OK Corall fame. Billy the Kid always preferred a Winchester rifle. The reason was simple. Shotguns and rifles are more accurate than pistols so killing with the first shot was more likely. It was pointless drawing a pistol quickly if you couldn’t hit your target before they hit you. As Wyatt Earp once put it “Fast is fine. Accurate is final.”

Some gunfighters bucked that trend. Clay Allison, Dallas Stoudenmire and Frank and Jesse James all preferred pistols, but they were exceptions. Small pistols like the Derringer were tiny, often firing only one or two shots instead of the six rounds in a typical revolver. They were easily-concealed ‘hideout guns’ often hidden in waistcoat pocket or boot by gamblers for use at a poker table. Similar guns were  made for women and nicknamed ‘muff pistols’ because they were often carried in the fur-lined hand-warmers fashionable among women of the time. Whether picking a fight over a poker game or trying to rob a female stagecoach passenger, these small guns often fired large-calibre bullets, much to the distress of many an outlaw.

As time went on single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons were replaced by ‘repeating’ guns like the revolver, shotgun and breech-loading rifles such as the 1873 Winchester. Gunfighters now had weapons enabling them to deliver greater firepower with less time spent reloading their weapons. Samuel Colt’s ‘Peacemaker’ revolver was accurate, powerful and instantly outdated other evolvers by being the first to use all-inclusive metal cartridges. The new cartridges rendered old-school ‘cap and ball’ revolvers obsolete almost overnight. These need the user to fill each individual chamber with gunpowder, add a lead pistol ball and some wadding, ram the ball, powder and wadding into each chamber using a lever under the barrel and then fit a percussion cap over each chamber. Only then is a ‘cap and ball’ revolver fully loaded. The ‘Peacemaker’ could be reloaded simply by shaking out the spent metal cartridges and replacing them. Improved weapons meant increased firepower. Increased firepower was essential in the evolution of the gunslinger.

Rise of the hired gun.

 

Legendary gunslinger ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock.

So what created the gunslinger? Why was there a need for hired guns rather than the police forces we know today? In a word, necessity. Law enforcement was at best basic. Individual US Marshals could find their territory extended over hundreds of square miles. County Sheriff had the same problem. There was simply too much ground containing too many people for such limited law enforcement to deal with. Outlaws could easily evade even the most persistent Marshals and Sheriffs simply by crossing State lines, putting themselves beyond the legal jurisdiction of their pursuers. The court system on the frontier consisted largely of ‘Circuit Judges’ (a term still used today). Individual judges were allotted a ‘circuit’ of towns and rode round and round conducting trials and any other legal business that had amassed since their last visit. Jails were insecure and their staff often corrupt, so even when criminals were arrested they often easily escaped. Authorities could also offer rewards for wanted outlaws on a ‘dead or alive’ basis, encouraging many gunslingers to work as bounty hunters. With rewards offered ‘dead or alive’ many bounty hunters found it safer to simply kill wanted outlaws, deliver their bodies and collect their reward. It was safer than the additional risks associated with delivering live outlaws into custody for the same amount of money. Bounty hunters of the time were sometimes referred to as ‘bounty killers’ because, to them, fugitives were worth the same alive or dead.

The gunfighter – Hero or villain?

With the vastly inadequate official systems available, many towns hired their own sheriffs and marshals. Naturally, the job required men who were expert with guns and bold enough to fight when necessary. Not every expert marksman was also prepared to face ruthless criminals for a sheriff’s wage. So townsfolk often turned to whoever was prepared to do the job, often hiring gunfighters based on their fearsome reputation rather than their regard for the law. Notorious outlaws ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius (later killed by Wyatt Earp) and William Bonney (known as ‘Billy the Kid’) were also sheriff’s deputies at one time. Even the infamous John ‘Doc’ Holliday, one of the most feared gunmen of the Wild West, was also deputised by his long-time friend and Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp after the famed ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Tombstone, Arizona. Equally notorious killer Ben Thompson served as Chief of Police in Austin, Texas, despite having previously served a sentence for murder.

Businessmen also hired groups of gunslingers to protect their lives and their interests. Famed cattle baron John Chisum once employed ‘Billy the Kid’ as a gunman and to protect his livestock against cattle rustlers. Mining companies often employed notorious gunmen such as Butch Cassidy to escort shipments of newly-minted bullion and payrolls, ensuring their safe arrival by hiring gunmen who might otherwise try robbing those very shipments. In the absence of adequate official law enforcement many people sought their own version by employing as sheriffs and marshals exactly the kind of people they hoped to be protected from. Famed marksman Tom Horn (later hanged for murder) was a sheriff’s deputy and a Pinkerton detective while performing contract murders at the same time. Jim Courtright was a town marshal when he fought his famous duel with Luke Short. Being town marshal hadn’t stopped Courtright from trying to extort Short. It didn’t stop Courtright killing him, either. Wyatt Earp was heavily involved in gambling (and, some say, pimping) while also serving as a Deputy US Marshal.

Men of dubious reputations weren’t everybody’s first choice as law enforcers, but then they were often the only men available to do the job. The frontier territories, with their cattle ranches, mining towns, railroads and various other lucrative businesses and limited law enforcement, offered rich pickings for outlaws prepared to rob, extort and kill anybody opposing them. Law-abiding citizens had to hire their own gunmen and sometimes resort to vigilante justice through lynch mobs. Until the law was fully established the gun took precedence.

One last thought on the gunslinger myth is that pop culture isn’t entirely to blame. To develop and keep their credibility gunmen had to be regarded as people to both respect and fear. The more feared they were, the fewer challenges they were likely to face. With that in mind, many gunfighters built myths around themselves, made themselves seem as skilled (and therefore deadly) as they could get away with. John Wesley Hardin was a notorious braggart. Clay Allison was the same. If gunfighters are so badly misrepresented in the modern world then they are also to blame.

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

Professor Ross Marvin – Murder At The North Pole..?


 Ross Marvin, one of history's more unusual murder victims..?

Ross Marvin, one of history’s more unusual murder victims..?

 Well, we’ll problably never know and that’s what makes this case so interesting. A distinguished Professor, two Inuit helpers, the first successful expedition to the North Pole and Admiral Robert Peary, one of America’s most famous explorers. Throw in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic Circle and that the murder (if it was a murder) occurred in an area not within any legal jurisdiction and you end up with more questions than answers. What really happened? Did Marvin go insane under the strains of Polar exploration? Did his Inuit helpers have to kill him to save themselves? Was it a murder or simply self-defence?

Our tale begins in 1908, when Admiral Peary led his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole. In late-1908 the party left for Greenland with Peary in command and Marvin acting as his personal secretary and in charge of training the team in basic survival techniques such as sledge maintenance and repair and how best to build shelters. Marvin was a resolute, determined and brave soul, physically fit and highly educated with degrees in physics and meteorology as well as being a qualified civil engineer. He was the type who actively sought out challenging, hazardous environments. Peary,himself no shrinking violet, took a liking to Marvin immediately and also saw his valuable skills. 

 Admiral Peary, leader of the 1908 Polar expedition.

Admiral Peary, leader of the 1908 Polar expedition.

 Peary broke his team up into seven small parties. In total there would be 28 sledges pulled by 148 huskies and the party would be accompanied by 19 Inuit helpers. Two of these would find themselves taking a very rare place in criminal history.  Six groups were to support Peary’s team in their attempt to reach the North Pole. They would travel by different routes, each dropping off supply caches as they went for Peary’s team to collect as they moved towards their destination. Between September, 1908 and February, 1909 they trained hard for the mission and departed as soon as conditions made an attempt feasible. Marvin and two Inuits, Kudlooktoo and Inukitsoq, made up the sixth of the seven groups which departed. Inukitsoq and Kudlooktoo would return. Marvin would never be seen or heard of again.

But what exactly happened? Peary’s team reached the North Pole on April 6, 1090 and sent a message on their return from the Pole dated September 6, 1909:

‘Stars and Stripes nailed to the North Pole – Peary.’

Initially, the two Inuit helpers arrived at the rendezvous site where Peary’s men were celebrating their success. Peary’s sense of achievement and glory was thoroughly ruined by their report that Marvin had fallen through a patch of thin ice and, unable to rescue him, they had to leave him where he was and return to the rendezvous without him. As Peary put it:

“It killed all joy I had felt. It was indeed a bitter blow to our success.” 

The expedition erected a memorial to their fallen member, reading:

‘In memory of Ross Marvin of Cornell University. Aged 34. Drowned April 10, 1909, fifty-five miles off Cape Columbia, returning from 86 degrees 38 minutes northern latitude.’

It would be seventeen years before the truth (or a well-concocted lie) would come out. Danish missionary Jens Olsen was preaching at Karnah in 1926 and his prayer meetings were well-attended. One of them saw Inuksutoq and Kudlooktoo attend and, when Olsen asked if anybody in the crowd wanted to confess their sins, Kudlooktoo stunned all concerned by standing up and saying:

“Ross Marvin did not die because he drowned, but because I shot him.” 

According to the two Inuits, Marvin’s personality had become progressively more irrational and disturbed as the expedition wore on. He became increasingly foul-tempered, aggressive, verbally abusive and his behaviour deteriorated to the point where he emptied Inukutsoq’s possessions from the sled and attempted to leave him out on the Arctic tundra with no way to get back to the start point which would have meant certain death. One of them stated:

“It was not at all our good Marvin. He was a different man from the one we had come to know.” 

north-pole

 

Having tried to ditch one of his helpers, Marvin proceeded on with Kudlooktoo in tow and they were caught up by Inukutsoq and they stopped to rest. Marvin also refused to allow Kudlooktoo to share his igloo, which would almost certainly have been fatal., before telling him that he would also not have any food. During questioning by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, Kudlooktoo said he’d asked for his rifle to shoot a seal and instead shot his employer before turning the gun on his fellow Inuit and threatening him with summary execution if he informed anybody of what Kudlooktoo had done. Both men, fearing ‘white man’s justice’, had managed to keep silent for seventeen years before one of them felt a need to unburden himself.

What actually happened is unclear. We only have the word of the two survivors as to why Marvin was killed. On the other hand, it isn’t unknown for explorers to lose their minds when confronted with extreme hardship and discomfort for extended periods. What confused things even more was that, at the time, the area wasn’t part of any legal jurisdiction. In the absence of any nationality, the area was effectively exempt from the rule of law until it was finally claimed by Denmark in 1921, some years after the killing happened. With no legal system in place at the time, there could be no trial which left the Inuits, regardless of whether they committed a cold-blooded murder or acted in self-defence, free to continue their lives without any further action being taken.

A Professor, a distinguished explorer and Admiral, two Inuits, the North Pole and a killing, certainly one of the most curious (and frustratingly odd) events in criminal history.

Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter – Bluesman, Convict and Murderer.


 The mighty Belly, as nobody dared call him.

The mighty Belly, as nobody dared call him.

William Huddle Ledbetter. AKA ‘Lead Belly’, was one of the archetypal blues icons of the Deep South. He wasn’t from Mississippi or Chicago, unlike so many contemporaries, but he still had a prodigious appetite for music and the talent to match. His fondness for life’s many rich pleasures (mainly involving boozing, brawling and bumping monkeys) was the cause of the occasional unscheduled career break courtesy of the Texas, New York and Louisiana penal systems. He found the time (frequently while serving yet another stretch) to make himself one of America’s all-time musical legends, influencing modern acts like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan among a host of others and he’s generally considered as authentic and real a bluesman as you’ll ever find.

 'Stella', named after a fan (and possible conquest).

‘Stella’, named after a fan (and possible conquest).

Aided by his trusty 12-string guitar (named ‘Stella’ after one of his many female admirers), a talent for the accordion and a natural ability to work up a crowd, ‘Lead Belly’ set about creating his own musical and personal legend. His story’s part myth, part fact and part invention and to this day nobody’s quite sure which is which. Which probably suited him just fine.  His nickname, for instance, is still open to question as nobody’s quite sure why people came to call him ‘Lead Belly.’ Some say it was because he was somewhat portly (though probably not to his face). Some say it was because of his admittedly prodigious appetite for illegal moonshine (he certainly knew how to raise a glass, the results of which sometimes combined a hangover with more than enough prison time to sleep it off). Some say he managed to annoy somebody so much that he ended up narrowly surviving a shotgun blast to the belly (probably one of the few fights he ever lost). Whatever the reason, he was always ‘Lead Belly’ by name and definitely by nature.

 'Anybody got any mixer..?'

‘Anybody got any mixer..?’

One of the hallmarks of his career was the occasional unscheduled holiday as a guest of several different states. He did time for murder, attempted murder, more than one count of assault and generally wasn’t what you’d call long-tempered, timid or easily calmed when drunk, angry or especially both at once. Unfortunately, he frequently was drunk and angry at the same time. This slightly bad-tempered streak usually meant that somebody paid the price. In 1915, he was on the run after a Texas bar brawl (which had been a pretty ugly affair) when he had another difference of opinion during which his opponent lost through the simple means of being killed. As a black man in 1910’s Texas facing a murder rap he was lucky not to hang, but unlucky enough to draw 99 years in the Texas prison system. His unscheduled career break lasted until 1924 when, having spent his spare time (he had plenty) playing and singing for guards, the prison warden and State Governor Pat Neff, Neff was so impressed that right before his departure from office he granted a pardon and ‘Lead Belly’ was a free man once more.

 A staged shot of Leadbelly and fellow inmates.

A staged shot of Leadbelly and fellow inmates.

Not for long, however. It seems that our bellytastic bluesman just couldn’t keep his hands off the bottle (or anybody who annoyed him after he’d emptied one). Career break number two came as a guest of his native Louisiana and a spell at the dreaded Louisiana State Penitentiary, known simply as ‘Angola.’ Like anybody just passing through he opted to collect a lasting souvenir of his stay, albeit in the form of a scar running almost entirely around his neck. This delightful gift came courtesy of a fellow inmate who presumably didn’t like him all that much and chose to express his feelings by trying to remove our hero’s head with a straight razor. The mighty ‘Belly’ somehow survived this somewhat aggressive self-expression. His luckless opponent almost died because, even after being sliced like a side of ham, ‘Lead Belly’ still proceeded to club him almost to death before being dragged off to solitary. Which, for some strange reason, didn’t help his chances of early parole all that much.

 "Would Sir like a little off the top..?"

“Would Sir like a little off the top..?”

Eventually he managed to avoid killing or battering his fellow inmates long enough that his native Louisiana finally turned him loose. Avoiding trouble with other inmates probably became easier after his little altercation as other inmates quite wisely avoided him like the plague (winning a fight by surviving near-decapitation and then beating your opponent almost to death tends to have that effect on people). He was free to continue wandering the South, playing his tunes, drinking prodigious amounts of illegal moonshine and eventually opted to head North where perhaps he thought he’d have fewer occasional career breaks. Wrong again…

New York, New York. Not that he got to see much of it.
New York, New York. Not that he got to see much of it.

He turned up in New York where many Northern music-lovers feted him as a vital figure in the blues boom and also the fast-evolving folk scene. All seemed to be going well and everything in his garden seemed rosy. And then he was arrested and jailed for assault. Again. This time for stabbing someone (at least neither contender was almost beheaded this time round, which was nice). Off to sample the joys of the New York penal system this time, where the bars, walls, guards, rules and other cons were pretty much the same as his many previous alma maters, and only the accents were really very different.

 Sing Sing Prison, yet another home from home.

Sing Sing Prison, yet another home from home.

This stretch was a little different from his previous career breaks. Maybe he was mellowing, maybe it was a shortage of lethal-strength moonshine, maybe he decided he preferred breathing free air to sweat, stale tobacco smoke and a thousand other inmates farts, we don’t know. What we do know is that he went right through his last sojourn behind bars without killing or seriously maiming anybody. He just went in, did his bit, came out and never went inside again.

Paul Jawarski – Pennsylvania’s Phantom Dynamiter.


 Paul Jawarski, leader of the 'Flatheads' gang and known as the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

Paul Jawarski, leader of the ‘Flatheads’ gang and known as the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

Meet Paul Poluszynski, alias ‘Paul Jawarski’, known throughout Pennsylvania as ‘The Phantom.’ Before the end of his extremely violent (and, some might say, mercifully brief) criminal career he claimed to have killed twenty-six people including four police officers and a payroll security guard. His gang, the ‘Flatheads’, also committed the first-ever robbery using a landmine. Criminals often use explosives to blow vehicle doors and crack safes. Blowing an entire armoured truck onto its roof and then rifling the cargo had never been done before. Jawarski and his gang were the first to do it.

Jawarski was a Polish Immigrant born some time during 1900. He died in the electric chair at the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary at Rockview on January 21, 1929 aged only 29. When he died he was also wanted in Ohio and Michigan, mainly for a string of armed robberies and multiple murder. If Pennsylvania hadn’t executed him then Ohio almost certainly would have. In Michigan he would almost certainly have spent the rest of his life behind bars.

The world’s first robbery-by-landmine happened on March 3, 1927 on Great Bethel Road outside Pittsburgh. A Brinks truck was delivering a payroll to the Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Company in Coverdale. The truck and its single escort car tended to use the same route on a regular schedule and that proved their undoing. Jawarski got the idea from the First World War. On the Western Front opposing armies used mine warfare regularly, either by burying artillery shells nose-up to destroy enemy tanks and trucks or by tunnelling under enemy trenches and burying huge explosive charges of up to 96 tons beneath their front line positions. Jawarski saw landmines as having a criminal use. Namely ambushing payroll trucks and incapacitating their escorts. It worked perfectly..

The crews of the truck and escort car didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. They certainly didn’t expect the hundred pounds or so of industrial dynamite that erupted without warning right under their truck. Armoured trucks are enormously heavy vehicles and don’t usually end up being blown twenty feet into the air and landing upside-down. This one did. Its support car went straight into the resulting crater, leaving both vehicle crews injured, dazed and utterly disoriented but, miraculously, still alive. The ‘Flatheads’ then rifled through the truck (which had been blown wide open) and disappeared with $104,000 in cash. Criminal history had been made and mercifully nobody had died.

 Robbery by landmine. The Brinks armoured truck Jawarski and his 'Flatheads' dynamited and looted of $104,000.

Robbery by landmine. The Brinks armoured truck Jawarski and his ‘Flatheads’ dynamited and looted of $104,000.

This was the most notable crime of his career, but it wasn’t his first or last. It was only one of a string of armed robberies and murders Jawarski committed in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Other criminals, security guards, bystanders, suspected informers and several police officers fell before his shotgun. It was for one of them, that of payroll guard Isiah Gump on Christmas Eve, 1925 during a Pennsylvania robbery with a haul of $48,000, that saw him condemned to death. It was the Gump case that caused him to show one of his rare moments of decency. Another man, Daniel Rastelli, was convicted of Gump’s murder and sentenced to death. Jawarski contacted a lawyer and passed on a confession, freeing Rastelli but also dooming himself when he was spotted and arrested two days after the landmine robbery. Rastelli was released while ‘Jawarski’ drew thirty-to-sixty years for the landmine robbery which did little to improve his attitude toward society. Two days after his conviction for the landmine robbery he was tried again for the murder of payroll guard Ross Dennis during a robbery outside Beadling, Pennsylvania. He was condemned to death. If he managed to gain a commutation for the Dennis murder it would make no difference. He could still have been condemned for confessing to the murder of Isiaih Gump.

Pennsylvania didn’t have a formal Death Row at that time. Unlike New York’s infamous ‘Death House’ at Sing SIng Prison, Pennsylvania lodged its condemned in local institutions such as the Allegheny County Jail and transport them to the State Prison at Rockview for their date with ‘Old Sparky.’ It was at Allegheny that he was confined in a cell on ‘Murderer’s Row.’ With a bitter irony, it was the same cell previously occupied by Daniel Rastelli. Jawarski was to wait there until his appeals were denied (with his record they almost certainly would have been) and a car arrived to take him to Rockview for execution. He would eventually visit Rockview and be executed, but not yet. The Pennsylvania Phantom’ planned a disappearing act.

 Allegheny County Jail. Jawarski escaped while under sentence of death.

Allegheny County Jail. Jawarski escaped while under sentence of death.

It was in April, 1928 when the ‘Phantom’ suddenly (and violently) vanished. An outside accomplice (probably a ‘Flathead’) visited him. Security at Allegheny being somewhat lax in this instance considering Jawarski was a condemned prisoner, the staff didn’t find the guns the visitor was smuggling. One for himself, one for Jawarski and another was taken from a prison guard when the accomplice, the ‘Phantom and convicted murderer Jack Vasbinder decided to arrange their own reprieve. Having blasted their way out, the trio disappeared. Jawarski’s unofficial stay of execution wouldn’t last very long. Vasbinder’s would be even shorter.

Vasbinder, aside from being a murderer, had one other major failing. He was a hopeless drug addict and that made him a liability. If caught and going through withdrawal he might offer any and every piece of help to the authorities in return for a fix. His escape partner knew that full well and decided to solve the problem by shooting him. As Vasbinder lay dying, his killer finished the job by dumping him in the Allegheny River before moving on to Michigan and re-starting his crime spree. It was in Detroit that another career highlight presented itself. On June 6, 1928 ‘Jawarski and his new gang robbed the payroll of a newspaper, the Detroit News. They left having taken out nearly $30,000 in payroll money and also two police officers. Sergeant George Barstad had walked in on the robbery and was shot dead. Patrolman Guy Cragg was seriously wounded.  

September 13, 1928 was the beginning of the end. Unknown to him, n old acquaintance had recognised him from ‘Wanted’ posters by then all over Pennsylvania and Michigan. The acquaintance alerted police who quickly responded. After a fierce gunfight and chase Jawarski was in handcuffs and seriously wounded. Patrolmen Effinger and Wieczorek were both dead from shotgun blasts. The crime spree was over and the extradition negotiations were about to start. They were unusually brief. Normally when a felon is wanted in multiple States then there’s a protracted and sometimes hostile amount of negotiation over where they eventually end up. As Jawarski had already been condemned to die in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio agreed relatively quickly that Pennsylvania could have him. Perhaps as far as law enforcement in all three States were concerned, the sooner he did the ‘hot squat’ the better.

 

 End of the line for the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

End of the line for the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

They didn’t have long to wait. Jawarski knew it was hopeless. With his record trying for a commutation in Pennsylvania was a lost cause. Even if he escaped a death sentence in multiple murder charges there, he’d still be tried for murder in Ohio, also a death penalty State, or spend the rest of his days in a MIchigan prison. He ‘volunteered’ by dropping his appeals and instructing his lawyers not to make any efforts to delay the inevitable. His wish was granted. On January 20, 1929 the car and escort arrived to take him on his last ride. He remained unrepentant to the very end. During his last night he wrote a brief, scathing note to Andrew Park, the prosecutor who secured his death sentence. It read:

‘To Andy Park. See you at 49 Hell’s Fire Lane, 6 1/4 miles the other side of Hell.’

Shortly before he walked his last mile Paul Poluszinsky, alias Paul Jawarski, alias Paul Palmer, known to the pres and public as the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom’ was offered the spiritual advice of a Catholic priest. His last words were as blunt and forceful as his personality:

“I preached atheism since the day I quit singing in the choir. A man is yellow if he spends his life believing in nothing and then comes crawling to the Church because he is afraid his death is near.”

He didn’t believe he had a mortal soul. Judging by his carer and reputation, it’s unlikely anybody else did, either.

The Strange Case Of Leroy Henry


 Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn't need.

Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn’t need.

The strange case of Leroy Henry attracts me for two reasons. One is that I like to look at the unusual. Even if posting on a widely-known and common story then I prefer one with a twist. It helps keep things interesting. Leroy Henry’s case was very interesting. Private Henry was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who flooded the UK in preparation for Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe. He arrived in 1943 and was assigned to the 3914 Quartermaster Gas Supply Company delivering fuel to various US Army units. He was also black and so had to endure both the racial segregation in the Army at the time and no small amount of racial prejudice, particularly from his fellow Americans. He was based in Somerset, near Bristol and it was at Somerset’s Shepton Mallet Prison that he nearly, but not quite, kept an unjustified date with the hangman.

The summer of 1944 was, for obvious reasons, a rather busy time for Americans and their British hosts. Few people knew when or where the forthcoming invasion would happen, but it was no secret that sooner or later it would. Private Henry, like most young soldiers abroad, liked to spend his time off relaxing. A few drinks, a dance or a movie and maybe some time with a woman. There’s nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that he was apparently paying for her time. But Leroy Henry was a black man in a segregated US Army from a country with a long-established history of keeping people like him in what many whites thought was their place. In the South lynchings still occurred, a black defendant stood a far higher chance of conviction (especially if the injured party was white) and, if convicted of a capital crime, was much more likely to face execution. Leroy Henry was black, came from Missouri (not the most racist state in the Union, but no sinecure, either) and was on trial for the alleged rape of a 33-year old British woman. A white 33-year old British woman. Rape in the US Army was (and still is) a capital crime under Section 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and defendants at the time would be tried for their lives under the US Army Articles of War of June 4, 1920. A black defendant, an institutionally racist Army and a white alleged victim didn’t look promising for the defence. And it wasn’t.

Henry was court-martialled at a US Army camp near the town of Warminster. Under the Visiting Forces Act, Parliament had agreed that the US Army could handle its own criminal cases unless the Army waived that right and handed the case over to the British police and legal system. They didn’t. The court-martial was presided over by a Colonel, prosecuted by a Captain Cullison and Henry was defended by a Major Drew. The jury consisted eight officers, seven white and one black. 

Henry’s alleged victim (who shall remain nameless) alleged that he had appeared at her home in the village of Combe Down late one night lost, asking for directions to the city of Bristol. She also claimed her husband was present and that he had no objections when she offered to go out with Henry and personally direct him to the road for Bristol. Having left the house, she alleged that Henry had assaulted her, threatened her with a knife, thrown her over a wall and then raped her at knife-point. There were, however, some serious doubts about her having made a genuine allegation. Inquiries revealed that she had been, at least, a part-time prostitute, offering sexual favours to soldiers in return for money, food and goods often entirely unavailable to civilians due to strict wartime rationing. That in itself isn’t proof of perjury, not in the slightest, but more doubts were to follow. Chief among them being that, while medical examination did reveal evidence of sexual activity, it didn’t reveal any trace whatsoever of physical injury, signs of a struggle or indeed any evidence of physical mistreatment whatsoever. Inquiries also revealed that Leroy Henry and his alleged victim were known to each other and had been for some time.

Leroy Henry, not surprisingly gave a different version of events. He admitted sleeping with the alleged victim, but claimed he had agreed to pay her for doing so. According to Henry he had been prepared to pay her £1 (worth far more then that today) but that she had demanded twice that. According to Henry, he told her he didn’t have £2 and was prepared to pay half that, at which point she flew into a rage and threatened to report him to the Army for raping her.

So, the jury had two different stories. One came from a black defendant without any supporting eyewitnesses who may or may not have been lying to save himself. The other came from a white woman whose character would have been considered dubious by the standards of the time and who claimed to have been victim of a violent attack while having suffered no physical injuries. The jury chose to believe the alleged victim. Private Leroy Henry was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at Shepton Mallet Prison, using a standard British gallows operated by British executioners. Henry was shipped to Shepton Mallet, a British civilian prison loaned to the US Army by the British authorities for the duration of the war, with an armed escort and under sentence of death. 

147 US servicemen were executed for crimes committed during the Second World War, 70 of whom died in Europe. All were convicted of rape and/or murder. All were either hanged or shot, shooting being the preferred choice for purely military offences such as desertion or mutiny, with the exception of the US Army’s sole execution for desertion during World War II, the widely-known case of Private Eddie Slovik.. Having been convicted of a capital crime involving a civilian, Leroy Henry would hang unless a Board of Review rejected the sentence or a General signed a commutation. Under the circumstances, neither a sympathetic Board of Review or equally sympathetic General were especially likely prospects. 

 The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

Shepton Mallet had become the US Army’s princpal military prison for the ‘European Theater of Operations’ (ETO). It wasn’t the only place in Europe where American soldiers were condemned and executed, but it was one of the more regular spots for eithet a firing squad or a hanging. At Shepton Mallet firing squads were conducted at 8am. There were two prisoners shot at dawn. Sixteen were hanged in the newly-constructed gallows room, built to British specifications and operated by British hangmen. Hangings were usually performed at 1am. Sixteen men were hanged at Shepton Mallet while two more were shot. Of those hanged, nine had been convicted of murder, six of rape and three of both. Six of them were executed standing side-by-side in three double hangings, a British gallows being designed to hang two inmates at once if needed. The average age of those executed was twenty-one years old. No officers were executed, they comprised seventeen Privates and one Corporal. The principal executioner was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his son Albert, Herbert Morris, Steve Wade and Alexander Riley. Albert did perform three himself, but Thomas pulled the lever most often. 

General_of_the_Army_Dwight_D._Eisenhower_1947

 

Lodged in the specially-built ‘Condemned Cell’ at Shepton Mallet, things looked very bleak indeed for Leroy Henry. At least they did until the intervention of a local tradesman, a local dignitary and 33,000 local people. Jack Allen was the local baker who started the petition. Appalled by the quality of incriminating evidence (more the rather striking lack thereof) he began to collect signatures. This wasn’t unusual in cases involving British condemned inmates and was seldom successful. In Leroy Henry’s case it was, especially when in the nearby spa town of Bath Alderman and local Magistrate Sam Day added his voice and signature to the chorus of disapproval. What resembled a case of ‘Jim Crow Justice’ now became a political and diplomatic football.

Campaigning proceeded quickly and snowballed equally fast. Faced with a petition of 33,000 names, wide local outcry, highly-connected locals like Sam Day and finally the attention of the national press, General (and future President) Dwight D Eisenhower swiftly brought matters to a head. Not only did he refuse to confirm the death sentence, he also threw out the entire case. Private Leroy Henry was now free to return to his unit without a stain on his record. It’s unusual that so high-ranking a figure as ‘Ike’ would personally involve himself in a routine court-martial, or that he would take such decisive and far-reaching action. It’s especially indicative of the pressure placed on him behind the scenes as Henry was condemned only a few days before June 6, 1944 when, for obvious reasons, this was an extra headache on top of the D Day landings that he really didn’t need.

So, justice was served after all, albeit in highly convoluted fashion.with an unexpected guest appearance from General Eisenhower…