death

Aum Shinryko: Japan’s largest execution since World War II?


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Japan, one of only two members of the G7 to retain capital punishment, the other is the US, has never liked publicity regarding its death penalty. Just as the British used to do until abolition, it’s shrouded in secrecy.

Even the condemned don’t know until shortly beforehand that their time has come. The public don’t know until after they’ve died and an official announcement is made. Until then, the condemned, the execution process and especially those who carry it out are hidden away, out of sight if not of mind.

Today’s mass execution has changed all that.

This morning Japan performed what is probably its largest mass execution since the war crimes trials after World War II. Seven members of the Aum Shinryko cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attack on March 20, 1995 were escorted from their cells one by one and dropped through the trapdoor at a Tokyo prison.

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One after another cult leader Shoko Asihara, Yoshihiro Inoue, Tomomitsu Niimi, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kiyohie Hayakawa, Seiichi Endo and Masachi Tsuchiya were taken from their cells to the  trapdoor, strapped, hooded, noosed and dropped. Three prison officials pushed three buttons, only one of which released the trapdoor. Six more cult members are still awaiting the same fate.

Many, Japanese or not, would say it was justified. They’d littered Tokyo’s subway with packages of nerve agent Sarin, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. It wasn’t their first gas attack on their fellow citizens, they’d attempted a similar Sarin attack before and would try it with cyanide gas later. Even after today’s hanging of seven of them another six still remain on death row. All told, not prisoners likely to attract much, if any sympathy.

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Japan has long tried to keep its executions as secret as possible. Unlike the US where such criminals would attract more publicity than the biggest celebrities (at least around their executions), the Japanese like to keep it as discreet as possible. With a case like this, though, discretion is impossible. The attack was too notorious, the resulting executions were simply too big to hide.

Until recently Japan’s condemned were given no warning at all. They’d simply be roused if they were asleep, told it was time to go and within hours they’d be dead. Even Britain’s condemned knew their date and time beforehand. But Japan’s stance has softened a little in recent years. In 2010 Keiko Chiba, then Minister of Justice and an opponent of capital punishment, decided to stimulate debate by granting the media their first access to the death chamber itself. Traditionally, it’s also the Justice Minister’s responsibility to sign the death warrant formally beginning the execution process.

As in the US, capital justice moves slowly. Technically a prisoner should be hanged within six months of sentencing. In practice, prisoners have remained on death row for decades between sentencing and execution while appeals are heard, sometimes granted and  often dismissed. Once the Justice Minister puts pen to paper, however, it moves far more quickly.

For the remaining six cultists and the hundred or so other condemned inmates, every day could be their last. They just don’t know which day it will be.

 

On This Day in 1934; The last British hanging witnessed by a journalist.


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When Frederick Parker and Albert Probert mounted the gallows at Wandsworth Prison, they died never knowing they’d taken a singular place in Britain’s chronicles of crime. Theirs would be last execution in British prison to be witnessed by a gentleman (or lady) of the press.

Until the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 executions were performed in public. Anyone, be they prince, pauper, journalist or ordinary member of the public, could watch a felon pay the ultimate penalty. After 1868 executions were performed entirely behind prison walls, although reporters were still permitted to be present. Both hangmen and prison governors alike came to prefer it if they weren’t.

Prison staff came to loathe many reporters who witnessed executions, believing them to fabricate reports of doomed men struggling to the last and kicking and screaming their way to their deaths. This, as a rule, very rarely actually happened. In the eyes of warders, governors and hangmen alike, it appeared in the next day’s newspapers far too often. As former assistant hangman Syd Dernley described it in his memoir ‘The Hangman’s Tale’;

“In the absence of genuine information, the wildest stories were heard and believed. Gruesome reports circulated of nightmare scenes in which condemned people had to be dragged kicking, screaming and pleading to the trap, where the rope had to be forced round their necks and they were dropped to strangle, moving and twitching for minutes on end.”

Reporters weren’t officially banned to avoid accusations of censorship and officialdom muzzling the press. In practice, though, prison governors were able to say yes or no. Increasingly, they said no. By the time of Probert and Parker, Associated Press reporter W G Finch was very much the exception to a firm though unwritten rule. He would also be the last of his kind to receive such a privilege.

Finch was one of the doyens of British crime reporting. A member of a group known in the profession as the ‘Murder Gang,’ Finch made it his business to report murders, sometimes arriving at crime scenes before police officers. Like his fellow ‘Murder Gang’ members, he was as much tolerated as accepted by the police of the time. They couldn’t freeze out crime reporters, so they had to (sometimes grudgingly) tolerate their existence.

 

Parker and Probert themselves were otherwise unexceptional criminals. They’d assaulted shopkeeper Joseph Bedford while trying to rob his store on November 13, 1933. Severely beaten, Bedford died of his injuries the next day. Arrested a few days after the crime, Parker and Probert now faced trial for murder, then carrying a mandatory death sentence.

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They were tried before Mr Justice Roche, legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury testified for the prosecution which was led by the equally legendary Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, KC (King’s Counsel). Against such heavyweight opposition the pair could only blame each other. This, of course, made no difference. They had gone to rob together, had killed together and so, in the eyes of the law, would be tried, convicted and hanged together.

Convicted on March 16, 1934, they stood before Mr Justice Roche as he donned the traditional Black Cap to pass what reporters often called ‘the dread sentence’;

“Frederick Parker and Albert Probert, you stand 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 then to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards your bodies be 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 souls…”

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Their appeals proved fruitless and were denied on April 18, 1934. With that in mind, chief hangman Thomas Pierrepoint was booked to hang the pair. Uncle and nephew would work together so frequently they became known as ‘the firm of Uncle Thomas and Our Albert.’ With him were his assistant and nephew Albert (undoubtedly needing no introduction) and two additional assistants, Stanley Cross and Tom Phillips. Cross was an experienced assistant and Phillips even more so. Albert, however, was the relative novice that day.

Parker and Probert were only the sixth and seventh notches on Albert’s rope. Beginning with Patrick McDermott at Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on December 29, 1932 (assisting his uncle Thomas), Albert had only assisted at four hangings since then. His uncle, meanwhile, had been involved in almost 200 executions by that point. He would continue until hanging cop killer John Caldwell at Barlinnie Gaol in Glasgow on August 10, 1946. Caldwell would be Thomas’s 296th and final victim.

Parker and Probert died quietly and quickly at 9am, without trouble, dropping simultaneously was the fashion. As they had murdered and been tried together, so they dropped side-by-side. The presence of W G Finch, though causing no problems whatsoever with the hanging itself, was frowned on by higher authority. The customary placing of official notices on the prison gate, announcing the executions had been carried out, was undoubtedly the death knell for Parker and Probert.

It was also the end of media access to a British gallows. Executions would continue until August 13, 1964 when two inmates, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen died simultaneously at Strangeways and Walton Prisons respectively. Like Parker and Probert thirty years previously, Allen and Evans had committed murder during a robbery. With their deaths the Black Cap, ‘dread sentence’ and the death penalty itself became part of penal history.

 

Doctor George Henry Lamson, the ‘Sleight of Hand Poisoner’; Not as clever as he thought.


 

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The case of George Lamson, a once-promising doctor before becoming a drug addict and murderer, is a prime example of writer H.L. Mencken’s maxim on murder:

‘The easiest murder case to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with.’

Lamson did indeed try to get very cute and, ultimately, it made no difference. Today in 1882 was the day he paid the price. By the time he was helped to gallows at London’s infamous Wandsworth Prison his nerve, tested by years of bad debts, hounding from creditors, rampant drug addiction and outright fear, had deserted him. He spent his final seconds begging the prison chaplain to stay the hangman’s hand for just one final prayer.

All in all, a sorry fate for a man who'[d once shown such promise.

Lamson was an American citizen, serving with distinction in the Balkan War and Franco-Prussian War. In the process the young doctor had been decorated, earning France’s Legion of Honour. While acquiring his decoration and military experience, however, he’d also acquired a habit that would come to rule his life and then destroy it;

Morphine.

By the autumn of 1881 Lamson, still not thirty years old, was a hopeless drug addict with a lengthy reputation for swindling patients, friends and family in order to fund his rampant drug habit. Creditors were hounding him and he’d moved to several different places to escape their demands. Unfortunately, however, their demands followed him. In desperate need of something to pay off his creditors and still sustain his addiction, his drug-addled mind turned to his wife and her cousin Percy John.

Percy’s youth had been spoiled by a crippling spinal disorder that denied him many of like’s simple pleasures. Should he die, the £1500 held in trust for him would be inherited by his wife. Lamson, naturally, intended that the money should come to him and thence to his creditors and the nearest available source of morphine. With that in mind, our medical murderer looked for a way to murder his brother-in-law while setting a false trail to protect himself if he were accused of Percy’s murder.

Capsules were then a new fad and, Lamson decided, would play a crucial part of both his murder scheme and emergency alibi. If he could induce Percy to take capsules obviously not laden with poison while delivering it in some other way then Percy would die, Lamson’s wife would inherit and Lamson would pocket the cash. In December, 1881 his scheme went into effect when he visited Percy at his boarding school.

Percy admired and trusted his dashing, outwardly respectable brother-in-law. He also trusted him, as did the school headmaster specially invited by Lamson as an unwitting alibi witness. In the event of Lamson being accused and trid for murder, he would point to the capsules and deny everything. He also hoped the prosecution might accuse him of using the capsules when a lethal dose of aconitine (a drug he believed untracable) was actually in the raisins of a Dundee cake.

That evening he made a point of describing the new way for Percy to take his medicine, making sure the headmaster saw him filling the capsule with harmless sugar. Making his excuses (he had a train to catch, Lamson left, purposely leaving behind two packets of empty capsules to strengthen his alibi.

Before Lamson even caught his train to Paris, Percy John was already dead.

Suspicion, as Lamson expected, immediately pointed the finger at him. With that in mind Chief Inspector Butcher of Scotland Yard was summoned to investigate and apprehend his prime suspect. London’s newspapers, sensing a classic murder to get their teeth into, helped in the hunt and, before long, Lamson was arrested. The charge was wilful murder, then carrying a mandatory date with the hangman.

The trial, at London’s legendary Old Bailey with Mr Justice Hawkins presiding, didn’t go as Lamson had planned…

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Chief Inspector Butcher had been as diligent as you’d expect from a Scotland Yard detective. He’d found a pharmacist who identified Lamson as buying aconitine while signing a false name in the pharmacist’s Poisons Register. He had evidence of both Lamson’s many debts and that his wife was to inherit Percy’s trust fund. He could place Lamson as being one of the last people to see the victim alive before suddenly and hastily leaving. Lamson’s one shot at an acquittal lay in the prosecution building their case around the capsules. In that there lay one small kink in Lamson’s plan…

They didn’t.

Lamson’s drug-addled mind had failed to account for a very important factor; The jury didn’t need to be convinced of exactly how he’d poisoned Percy, only that he’d done so. And convinced they duly were. After a six-day trial garnering a great deal of publicity (destroying what remained of Lamson’s personal and professional reputation) the jury foreman rose to deliver the verdict;

Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.

With that Mr Justice Hawkins had only one duty left to perform before a packed and silent courtroom. Donning the dreaded ‘Black Cap,’ a traditional gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-departed, Hawkins read the final lines of this rather rather sorry drama;

“George Henry Lamson, you stand convicted of the crime of 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 afterward your body be 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.”

Lamson was immediately transferred to Wandsworth Prison and the Condemned Cell. The ‘CC’ was only a short walk to the end of ‘A’ Wing where Lamson would end his days in what Wandsworth inmates called the ‘cold meat shed.’ But first, surprisingly under the circumstances, there was a powerful campaign to see his death sentence overturned and Lamson reprieved.

Lamson soon found himself watching his lawyers before a three-judge panel at the Court of Criminal Appeal. Barred by law from speaking in his own defence, he could only watch as his barristers trampled the remnants of his personal and professional reputation in a failed effort to overturn his conviction and sentence.

It was here that his ploy with the capsules came back to bite him. He’d intended for the prosecution to accuse him of spiking the capsules and for the defence to easily destroy their case and win his acquittal. Unfortunately for Lamson, the prosecution hadn’t taken the bait. Without it, the defence couldn’t spring the trap. Moreover, appeals at the time were based entirely on evidence used at the trial, ruling out any chance for them to do so before the appellate judges. It must have loomed large in whatever remained of the good doctor’s drug-ravaged mind that, if the defence couldn’t spring their trap, the public hangman certainly could.

And was probably going to…

Lamson’s court appeal having failed, petitions were arranged, personal appeals were made, a public meeting was organised by other Americans living in London. Even the US Ambassador tried to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve Lamson after requests from Lamson’s family in the US. All were to no avail. Lamson was unaware of something else, an unwritten rule that a Home Secretary didn’t reprieve poisoners unless they absolutely had to. Chief public executioner William Marwood was instructed to make a date in his diary.

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After a brief postponement from April 2, the fatal day finally dawned on April 28, 1882. At dawn Lamson was awoken in the Condemned Cell. He declined a final breakfast and, when his time came, had to be helped along his last mile between the ‘CC’ and the ‘Cold Meat Shed.’ Unable even to stand on his own two feet, the ravages of fear and morphine withdrawal taking their toll, he had to supported on the trap as the hangman went about his business. William Marwood (pioneer of ‘long drop’ hanging) worked as quickly as possible to bring this once-promising young man’s suffering to an end.

George Henry Lamson was dead.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On This Day in 1949; Germaine Leloy-Godefroy, last French woman to face the guillotine.


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The name of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy won’t be as familiar as that of Hamida Djandoubi, the last man to be guillotined in France, but she’s worth a mention. She was the last woman in France to face the dreaded ‘Timbers of Justice.’ Marie Antoinette is without doubt the best known victim of the ‘National Razor,’ but Godefroy’s was France’s final female execution.

Her crime was unexceptional. The wife of coal merchant Albert Leloy, she brutally hacked him to death with an axe while he slept, later trying (very ineptly) to disguise it as a random robbery gone wrong. A vicious murder inflicted on a defenceless victim simply to replace him with her toyboy lover, Raymond. Not a case deserving of much sympathy or, you might say, of any mercy. There probably wouldn’t have been any fuss at all if Albert Leloy had wielded the axe on his wife to run off with a younger woman. But France is France and, as in most places, executing a woman was a big deal regardless of her crime.

On December 10, 1947 Albert Leloy would succumb to the axe. On April 21, 1949 Germaine would succumb to a different kind of axe, and for the last time in French history. Germaine and Raymond were soon caught and, when tried in 1948 at the Assize Court of Maine-et-Loire, Raymond drew ten years as an accomplice. Despite trying to shift the entire blame onto Raymond and another toyboy named Pierre, Germaine wouldn’t be as lucky. She was transported to Angers Prison to await a date with the sinisterly-nicknamed ‘Monsieur de Paris;

‘The Man from Paris.’

In 1870, French law had changed. Regional executioners, long known by the towns from which they came, were abolished. From then on there would be only one chief executioner and, by law, he was required to live in Paris. While the likes of ‘Monsieur de Rennes and his brethren were disbanded, French convicts learned to dread hearing one guard say to another the simple phrase ‘Monsieur de Paris est arrivee…’

‘The Man from Paris has arrived…’

The then-current ‘Monsieur de Paris’ was one Jules-Henri Desfourneaux. Desfourneaux, like all French executioners for several centuries, came from a long-serving family of headsmen. Executioners, known disparagingly as ‘Bourreaux,’ were despised by the french public. They didn’t mind turning out to watch them work, but wanted nothing else to do with them. By abolition in 1981 all French executioners could trace their ancestry back to a mere handful of families, mostly intermarried with each other. The Desfourneauxs had been serving French justice for centuries. Jules-Henri himself had racked up scores of ‘customers.’

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Germaine Leloy-Godefroy wasn’t the only last of his career. On June 17, 1939 he’d been in Paris performing what would be France’s last public execution. German serial killer Eugen Weidmann would be the last to face the ‘People’s Avenger’ before an audience. So distasteful was the behaviour of the public outside Saint-Pierre Prison that day (an execution witnessed by 17-year old would-be actor Christopher Lee, that President Lebrun immediately banned any further public beheadings and, in the process, cut off centuries of French tradition as well.

Ironically, Lee (eventually to become Sir Christopher Lee) would later play legendary bouureaux Charles-Henri Sanson in one of his many screen and stage parts.

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With her appeals denied and Presidential clemency not forthcoming, Germaine prepared herself for the end. France’s condemned weren’t informed of their impending execution until it was time to take their final walk. It hindered suicide or escape attempts and didn’t leave them sitting in tiny cells watching the clock tick as they brooded on their impending death.

At around 4:30am on the cold, grey dawn of April 21, 1949, Germaine Leloy-Godefroy’s time finally came. Desforuneaux, by then ageing and sliding into alcoholism, was ready for perform his grim task. Things moved swiftly from then on. After a brief talk with Chaplain Moreau she attended Mass before writing a final letter. The grim ritual known as the ‘toilette du condamne’ was performed, her hair being trimmed and her neck bared, ready for the blade. Offered the traditional final cigarette and glass of rum, she declined.

All that remained was one final piece of bureaucracy. Under French law a convict couldn’t actually be executed. Instead, they had to be formally paroled by the justice system into the custody of the executioner. With the paperwork attended to, nothing else stood between her and her unwilling date with destiny.

It was over quickly. Like England’s hangmen, the bourreaux didn’t waste time. As soon as she reached the guillotine after a brief walk from her cell, they laid her out and strapped her down. Without any further ado, the blade fell. The audience, now composed only of those specifically invited to view an execution behind prison walls, signed their witness statements and departed.

Germaine Leloy-Godefroy was dead.

 

 

Executed executioners; the biters bit.


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

They haven’t, not by a long shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On This Day in 1959; Elmer Brunner, the last execution in West Virginia.


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West Virginia has never been known as a hard-line death penalty State, abolishing capital punishment in 1965. After 1899 there were 104 hangings and, with a change in method, nine electrocutions. Elmer Brunner’s, on April 3, 1959 was the last.

Brunner wasn’t a notable murderer in himself. His crime, murdering homeowner  Ruby Miller, was and remains all-too-typical. Miller had disturbed him while he was burgling her home in Huntington on on May 27, 1957. According to Brunner’s version, she’d disturbed him with a shotgun. Beating her to death with a claw hammer, he said, was an act of self-defence.

Not surprisingly, neither judge or jury bought that defence, especially not from an ex-convict. Arrested on the same day,  Brunner’s trial began in the week of June 28, 1957. Before a packed courtroom he was convicted with no recommendation for mercy. His execution date was set for August 2, only a month after his conviction. He was shipped to the dreaded West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville, home of Old Sparky.

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Moundsville possessed a reputation as bad as any penitentiary in American history. Assaults on inmates and staff alike were an almost daily occurrence. Rapes and murder were also occupational hazards for anyone unfortunate enough to live or work there. Disease was rampant, even a tuberculosis epidemic swept the prison at one time and the food was appalling.

Granted, Brunner would be kept in a single cell away from the violence, deprivation and brutality, but he would have traded his more comfortable single cell for life in general population. All he had to distract him was fighting appeals, trying to forestall his ever-encroaching appointment with Moundsville’s most lethal inmate;

Old Sparky.

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The electric chair had replaced West Virginia’s gallows in 1951. Built by inmate Paul Glenn, Old Sparky’s tenure was both brief and limited. Where West Virginia’s chair claimed only nine inmates in its 14-year career compared to its New York namesake, Sing Sing’s once claimed seven inmates in a single day (August 7, 1912). Other States electrocuted more than West Virginia’s total in a single month. Brunner’s position that point was certainly precarious. but it could have been worse.

It probably did little to reassure Brunner that only two inmates walked their last mile during his tenure. Eugene Linger, well, didn’t. The murderer walked to the chair on June 5, 1958. Another murderer, Larry Fudge, saw his time and appeals run out on July 1, 1958. Fudge, the 8th in West Virginia to ride the lightning, walked calmly from his cell, sat in the chair and died. Next and, though nobody knew it, last to do so would be Elmer Brunner. But not for a while.

Brunner fought against his sentence for two years, taking his case as far as the US Supreme Court. He won a stay or two, but never a commutation. All he managed was to delay the inevitable. By his final date on April 3, 1959, his time and appeals ran out. State Governor Cecil Underwood, whose tenure also included the executions of Linger and Fudge, wasn’t offering anything, either. Warden Donivon Adams had already overseen the executions of Linger and Fudge, now he prepared to execute Elmer Brunner. Brunner’s time had simply run out.

Brunner’s final stay, a brief one, came from Underwood. Originally slated to die on March 27, Underwood postponed the execution until March 3 because of the Easter weekend. Had he taken his final walk on March 27, Brunner wouldn’t have been having a Good Friday. As it was, fryday was postponed only briefly.

When the time came Brunner was stoic, as calm as anyone could be expected to be in the face of his impending death. He’d eaten his last meal, the witnesses had been assembled and Old Sparky thoroughly tested. Three prison employees waited to push three buttons, only one of which would send 2,000 volts searing through Elmer Brunner.

At the appointed time Warden Adams gave the signal. All three buttons were pushed simultaneously, the current surged and Brunner died. Old Sparky had delivered his last jolt.

West Virginia, facing increasing public opposition, abolished its death penalty in 1965. No longer would inmates dread the crash of the gallows trapdoor or the hum of flowing electricity. Despite occasional efforts to restore it, West Virginia hasn’t executed anyone since.

The State Penitentiary is now a museum and training facility. Once the State’s only maximum-security prison, its terrible reputation eventually forced its closure in 1995. It became both a training facility for prison officers and a tourist attraction. Old Sparky, seldom used then and in retirement today, remains one of its most popular exhibits.

 

 

The Last Meal.


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Study media reports of executions, recent or decades-old, and you’ll probably find mention of the prisoner’s last meal. Most prisoners spend their entire sentences eating whatever the prison kitchen provides and have no choice. Condemned inmates are traditionally allowed to choose their final meal. Before British reporters were barred from witnessing hangings in the early 20th century their reports usually mentioned whether a prisoner enjoyed their final breakfast. Today, American reporters often mention what prisoners have for their last meal, although prison authorities often call it a ‘special meal’, deferring to the prisoner’s feelings about their upcoming death.

The last meal is usually a tradition, not a rule. No law automatically entitles prisoners to anything other than standard prison meals so it’s a privilege, not a right. It’s also far more significant than being merely a kind gesture. It’s an important part of the execution ritual and has been for centuries. Barring last-minute legal action a prisoner’s last meal is usually their last chance to control anything that happens in their final hours. Modern executions are usually conducted according to strict timetables and rigid rules with minimal deviation therefrom. In the US, a prisoner might wait over twenty years between sentencing and execution so their last freedom of choice can be very important to them.

Execution is a grim ritual. The last meal is a part of that ritual and a ritual in itself. In medieval Europe it had religious significance dating back to when religion played a far greater role in daily life than it does today. A mental image of Christ’s Last Supper is often referenced as parallel to a modern convict choosing their final menu. It also symbolises a prisoner making peace with their executioners, breaking bread with them in the same way that Christ invited Judas Iscariot to the Last Supper. In modern-day Louisiana (a strongly-religious Southern state) Warden Burl Cain routinely invites condemned prisoners to eat their last meal with him and invited guests, offering the condemned Christian fellowship. Cain still supervises their execution, but he extends the invitation regardless. Naturally, the inmate isn’t obliged to accept.

Religion aside, superstition once played its part. In medieval Europe many believed that well-fed prisoners could be executed without fear of their returning as ghosts or revenants. The quality of their final meal was also believed to influence the likelihood of their doing so. If the food and drink were of the best quality it was believed less likely that prisoners would haunt their executioners. If the meals were poor many believed prisoners would return as malevolent spirits bent on tormenting those involved in their deaths.

What prisoners are permitted varies according to their location. In Texas, the last meal was introduced in 1924, the same year that Texas replaced the gallows with the electric chair and the State took over executions from individual counties. With one single Death Row located at Huntsville, the State of Texas centralised and standardised custody of condemned inmates which included granting them a last meal. Today, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice no longer allows last meals. Condemned inmates get the standard meal before execution.

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Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.

Other US States have widely-differing policies. Florida is comparatively generous, allowing a budget of $40. Oklahoma budgets only $15. New York performed its last execution in 1963 (abolishing capital punishment in the early 1970’s) but was especially generous to its condemned. An inmate at Sing Sing Prison’s notorious ‘Death House’ could order both a last dinner and last supper. For example, murderer Henry Flakes was executed on May 19, 1960. His dinner consisted of barbecue chicken with sauce, French fires, salad, bread rolls, butter, strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, 4 packs of cigarettes, coffee, milk and sugar. Supper was equally generous: Lobster, salad, butter and bread rolls, ice cream, a box of chocolate candy, 4 cigars, 2 glasses of cola, coffee, milk and sugar. Unlike many prisons today, Sing Sing’s condemned could include tobacco products like snuff, cigars, chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

In 1930’s Indiana, the State Prison at Michigan City was equally generous with last meal requests. Like Burl Cain today, on May 31, 1938 Deputy Warden Lorenz Schmuhl dined with murderer John Dee Smith at sundown and electrocuted him just after midnight.

Prisoners have often been offered alcohol just before execution. Prisoners facing firing squads have long been offered the traditional last cigarette. Both are partly a compassionate gesture, but also calm an inmate’s nerves in their final moments and make them more co-operative. In 1925 Patrick Murphy was executed at Sing Sing having pleaded with Warden Lewis Lawes for one final drink. In 1925 Prohibition was in force throughout the US so whiskey was forbidden for every citizen, incarcerated or otherwise. Lawes, a firm opponent of capital punishment and well-known to enjoy a pre-dinner Scotch throughout Prohibition, made a compassionate-yet-illegal decision. He broke both prison rules and Federal law, slipping Murphy a small bottle of bourbon an hour before his execution. Murphy took the bottle, looked at Lawes (who loathed executions) and died having returned the bottle to Lawes saying ‘You look like you need it more than I do, Warden.’

British hangman John Ellis often recommended prisoners were offered a cup of brandy minutes before their execution. At California’s San Quentin Prison inmates were once allowed a little whiskey immediately before they entered the gas chamber. Nowadays American prisons allow no alcohol of any kind and, unlike 1960’s New York, few prisons allow tobacco products as part of a prisoner’s final meal. When the state of Utah used the firing squad prisoners were allowed a last cigarette but were escorted into the exercise yard to smoke it. Under Utah state law, smoking indoors in public buildings (including prisons) is forbidden because it’s a health hazard. Doubtless Utah’s condemned inmates thought that rule really mattered at that point.

There are other lesser-known rituals associated with the last meal. Between 1924 and 1964 Texas electrocuted 361 inmates at Huntsville. As part of their last meal Texan inmates often ordered as many portions of dessert as there were condemned inmates. If a prisoner wanted ice cream and there were 5 other condemned inmates on Death Row, then the prisoner would ask for six portions of ice cream so that no condemned inmate endured an execution night without a parting gift to raise their spirits. In New York, a number of Sing Sing’s condemned either shared their last meal with another inmate (as Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley shared his with John Resko in 1931) or split their meal with all the other condemned (as did Raymond Fernandez, hours before his execution in 1951). Like the last meal itself, sharing food was a tradition rather than a right, but it often kept inmates more settled when one of them was about to die.

It’s not unusual for a prisoner’s final choice to reveal something about them. Some decline a last meal to demonstrate contempt for prison authorities or simply because fear has left them unable to face food. Others opt for old favourites, food they probably haven’t had since their arrest, perhaps as a consolation and reminder of happier times. Some order huge meals, some order small ones, some order food they’ve never tried before out of curiosity. A few inmates make choices that seem bizarre to others, but make sense to them such as Victor Feguer, hanged in 1963. Feguer requested a single olive, asking that the olive pit be placed in his shirt pocket before he was buried. A strange request unless you know an olive pit is a symbol of rebirth.

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New York’s last execution was of Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Mays wanted no food or drink, only a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. Matches were forbidden for condemned inmates so Mays received his cigarettes, but had to ask guards to light them for him. At San Quentin, one Jewish inmate ordered an elaborate kosher meal then requested his first ham sandwich. San Quentin inmate Wilson De la Roi turned his final meal into a joke. When asked for his choice he wanted a packet of indigestion tablets. Asked why, he chuckled, remarking that he might have gas on his stomach.

All in all, the last meal is many things to many people. To some it’s a kind gesture that should be retained as a final compassionate act. To others it’s not only unnecessary but the prisoners don’t deserve one. To prisoners themselves it can be a gesture of defiance, a chance for one final joke, a last chance to try something new, something to look forward to as the clock ticks down or simply not worth bothering with. It’s certainly far more than simply ordering from a menu.

The Etymology Of Crime – Tyburn.


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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.

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.