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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.

 

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.

 

 

IDENTIFIED: ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing’s electric chair.’


For my 100th post, I’m going to offer you something special, something a little different from the usual fare. The story of this ‘unidentified man’ at the moment of his death.

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True crime buffs and historians will have seen this particular image many, many times. Taken by photographer William van der Weyde, it’s invariably captioned as ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair, circa 1900.’

It was taken at Sing Sing, but it wasn’t taken in 1900. That ‘unidentified man’ can now be given a name and a story. So here it is.

The photo was part of a series published the Royal Magazine in 1898. The article describes the original Sing Sing death house, not the one readers might be more familiar with today. That wasn’t opened until 1922 and the second death house didn’t open until 1915. This is the set-up as it was in the beginning.

Sing’s Sing’s first was a quadruple on July 7, 1891. That day Harris Smiler, James Slocum, Joseph Wood and Shibaya Jugiro paid for their crimes. The last was Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Between them, the three death houses would claim 614 of New York’s 695 electrocutions.

The ‘unidentified man’ is actually murderer Arthur Mayhew, who walked his last mile on March 12, 1897. Mayhew, convicted of murder-robbery on the testimony of accomplice John Wayne, was the 20th inmate electrocuted at Sing Sing. His crime was unremarkable as murders go, clubbing 68-year old shopkeeper William Powell on Fulton Street. His execution would also have been unexceptional, saving that he hasn’t been properly identified in over a century. Wayne, who received a 15-year sentence and so avoided execution, later retracted his testimony before reverting to blaming Mayhew.

Convicted and condemned, Mayhew found himself awaiting execution for a year. In that time Carl Feigenbaum, Louis Hermann and Charles Pustalka were taken from their cells and executed. Given the original layout of Sing Sing’s pre-death house era, Mayhew would have heard every single detail of their deaths.

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As you can see, the death cells were separated from the death chamber itself by only a single door. The condemned wouldn’t actually see anything, white sheets being draped in front of their cells just before an execution, but they could hear absolutely everything.

They could hear another prisoner being led away, hear the door open and close, hear their last words (if they had any), the clunk of the switch being thrown and the hum of flowing electricity. As a final torture, they could hear the autopsy being performed, New York State law mandating an autopsy immediately after an execution. The autopsy room at Sing Sing was next door to the death chamber for convenience.

The convenience of prison staff, of course, not prison inmates. They didn’t find the clunk of the switch, the dull hum of electricity and the shrill whine of a bone saw the slightest bit convenient. In fact, it had a nasty (though unsurprising) tendency to drive them insane. When Sing Sing set its record on August 7, 1912 by electrocuting seven inmates one after another, those awaiting death created havoc. So did those whose dates were still approaching.

They were spared quite as much suffering when it was Arthur Mayhew’s turn. Mayhew, originally one of two executions scheduled that day, would have heard the other prisoner being told his sentence had been commuted and he was to be reassigned into Sing’s Sing’s general population.

With this last, most uplifting thought in his mind, Arthur Mayhew would die alone and, until now, unidentified.

His executioner, the world’s very first ‘State Electrician’ remained as close to anonymous as possible, though by his own choice. Edwin Davis was man fearful of being identified. The public knew his name and only a rough idea of what he looked like. He would journey to Sing Sing discreetly, having arranged with a railroad company  for its train to pick him up and drop him off at a spot between stations before and after an execution. He permitted no photographs and once lambasted assistant Robert Elliott (later New York’s third State Electrician) for once using his name while ordering dinner.

The layout of Sing Sing’s first death chamber was designed so official witnesses and reporters wouldn’t even see him do his deadly work. As you can see from the image below, the man in the background on the left (sometimes incorrectly identified as Davis) was actually puling a cord, not the switch. The cord was connected to Davis’s hand as he stood in the closed-off booth directly behind the chair. One pull told him to throw the switch, a second pull told him to cut the power so doctors could make their checks. If the prisoner was still alive, the cord was pulled again to order as many shocks as were needed.

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Mayhew needed only the standard two jolts before dying, one to kill him and another to make absolutely sure. He was certified dead little over a minute after the cord was pulled and Davis threw the switch. As he was led into the chamber he clutched a crucifix, a fact confirmed by press reports published on March 13, the day after he died.

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As he was being strapped down he uttered his final words;

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

His end, at least, was mercifully brief. Though not so brief there wasn’t time for another picture:

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As Mayhew is listed by most sources as ‘unidentified,’ the first photograph of an electrocution in progress is commonly held to be that of Ruth Snyder, executed at Sing Sing in 1928. The image is widely considered one of the most important and distinctive in the history of journalism and is still used in some journalism courses for teaching purposes. It made journalistic history at the time.

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Snyder was illicitly photographed by reporter Tom Howard just after the current was turned on, using a hidden camera concealed in his trouser leg. Given that Mayhew is specifically named in the archived article in the Royal Magazine (published in 1898) and that Sing Sing records and contemporary news reports list Mayhew as having been executed on March 12, 1897, it reasonable to say that these images are of Mayhew and that the world’s first electrocution photographs were in fact taken some thirty years earlier than commonly thought.

The image also has its place in popular culture. It’s easily found online and provided the inspiration for the James Cagney film ‘Picture Snatcher.’ Curiously, while Cagney played a newspaper photographer who illicitly photographed a woman in the electric chair, probably the most famous scene of his entire career is at the end of classic ‘Angels with Dirty faces’ in which Cagney (playing gangster ‘Rocky Sullivan’) has to be dragged kicking and screaming into Sing Sing’s chair. Cagney himself never clarified whether his character was actually panicking or was feigning fear to benefit the ‘Dead End Kids,’ preferring the audience to decide for themselves.

I somehow doubt Arthur Mayhew, who always protested his innocence, would have appreciated his singular place in the chronicles of crime. Or his place as a small-time pop culture icon, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Executed executioners; the biters bit.


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

They haven’t, not by a long shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote a book.


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It’s been quite some time since I last posted ere, but I have been extremely busy with paid work and earning a living. Part of that has been writing my first book.

Criminal Curiosities is a collection of crooks, all with something about their crime, trial or punishment that is singular to them. The first prisoner to face the guillotine, the first to commit a robbery using a landmine, the first case in which the murder victim’s actual body had a starring role in reconstructing the crime for the jury trying his killer and so on.

So, if you’re curious as to who was really America’s first Public Enemy Number One, ever wondered who was first to take a seat in the electric chair or perhaps you’ve never heard of the art forger brave enough to bilk Hermann Goering out of sixty million dollars (at today’s prices) feel free to pick up a copy and please do leave a review.

You can do that here:

 

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.

Death on Wheels – Mississippi’s Travelling Executioner.


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The retribution roadshow

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

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

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

How it used to be.

How it used to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

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

Josef Jakobs – the Last Execution At The Tower Of London.


 Josef Jakobs, the last person executed at the Tower of London.


Josef Jakobs, the last person executed at the Tower of London.

The Tower of London, nowadys a popular tourist destination. Once also a prison, defensive fortress, a crime scene (if you believe, as I do, that the ‘Princes in the Tower’ were murdered here) and also the site of a number of execution. Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey (who was the shortest-reigning Queen in British history, in office for only nine days), and of host of others. And it’s one of those others that we’re looking at today.

If you’re thinking, as so many do, that the Tower’s reputation for executions ended in medieval times then you’d be wrong. 11 German spies were shot there in the First World War and one in the Second. He was Josef Jakobs from Luxembourg, executed by firing squad on August 15, 1941, who holds the grim distinction of being the last prisoner executed at the Tower. August 15 was also the date, in 1961, of the last hanging in Scotland, that of Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen and, in New York in 1963, the last execution in New York State, that of Eddie Lee Mays (by electrocution). But I’ve covered Mays already and we’ll get round to Burnett in due course. It’s Jakobs we’re interested in today.

Jakobs was a Luxembourger born on June 30, 1898. He was a veteran of the First World War (he served as a lieutenant in the 4th Foot Guards of the German Army), was drafted back into the German Army as an Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) in June, 1940 and then his career (and life) took a disastrous downturn when a previous conviction for selling counterfeit gold (and its accompanying stretch in a Swiss prison) saw him demoted to Feldwebel (Sergeant) and transferred to the Meteorologischen Dienst, the military weather service. His demotion also brought him to the attention of German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who recruited him to spy in England. Ironically, given Jakobs’ grim distinction, Canaris himself was executed for treachery on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg concentration camp after his implication in the July Bomb Plot of1944 where Hitler narrowly escaped assassination.

His being a Luxembourger wasn’t unusual, many agents recruited by the Abwehr were either non-German or indigenous to the countries they betrayed (such as Duncan Scott-Ford whom I’ve already covered). He was trained in espionage, equipped with £500 in forged money, a radio transmitter, a pistol, civilian clothes, forged identity papers and a sausage, an obviously German sausage which wasn’t all that smart of his recruiters as it would have stood out like a sore thumb in wartime Britain.

Arthur Owens. Not a man of doubtful loyalties, because he simply didn't have any.

Arthur Owens. Not a man of doubtful loyalties, because he simply didn’t have any.

He flew out Schiphol Airport, in the Occupied Netherlands, landing by parachute near Ramsey in Huntingdonshire on January 31, 1941 and promptly broke his ankle on landing. Crippled and with no means to pursue his mission, that of discovering troop movements and monitoring weather conditions to aid air raids on British targets. He fired his pistol repeatedly into the air until two local farmers came to his aid. Charles Baldock and Harry Coulson promptly notified the local police and Home Guard who detained him for transfer to London. He was still wearing his flying suit with a civilian suit underneath and his equipment. Jakobs was promptly arrested and transferred to London to the secretive ‘Camp 020’ used for holding German spies while deciding whether they’d be more useful as double agents or simply be tried secretly and executed. Jakobs wasn’t seen as useful enough to be a double agent which made his trial, held secretly, a foregone conclusion.

His trial was held in secret because the British wanted to protect the ‘Double Cross’ system used to ‘turn’ captured German spies and use them t feed disinformation back to Abwehr HQ in Berlin. It was via ‘Double Cross’, at the instigation of a singularly unsavoury Welsh nationalist, MI5 agent, Abwehr agent and self-interested ne’er-do-well named Arthur Owens (codenamed ‘SNOW’) that Jakobs and many other German agents dropped into Britain and were almost immediately caught, then either ‘turned’ or executed. Owens was devious, selfish and only acted on one side, his own, while making as much money as he could from whichever side paid best at the time. He betrayed scores of Abwehr agents, knowing full well the fate that awaited them. He was an opportunist, a crook, a mercenary and quite possibly a psychopath.

Jakpbs ended up at ‘Camp 020’ via Ramsey Police Station and Cannon Row Police Station in London. He was interrogated, harshly but not mistreated, by an expert in the art of mentally breaking prisoners, ‘Tar’ Robertson of MI5’s Section B1A to help decide if he’d be offered the chance of working for the British. He was kept at Brixton Prison’s infirmary and again interrogated, thsi time by MI5’s ‘Tin-Eye’ Stephens, an even more ruthless interrogator who, like Robertson, disdained physical torture. Like a small fish, Jakobs was thrown back as not worth keeping. He was, in fact, thrown in among sharks. His secret trial was forgone conclusion, given that he’d been caught with spying equipment, had already admitted arriving for the purpose of espionage and hadn’t inspired any respect by readily offering to betray the Abwehr. If, MI5, reasoned, he would fold so quickly on capture then he’d be of no use to them. Jakobs spent another two months at Dulwich Hospital being treated for his ankle injury before his trial on August 4-5, 1940.

Jakobs was given a military court-martial rather than a civilian trial with Lieutenant-General Sir Bertram Sergison-Brooke presiding. The evidence of eight witnesses, Jakobs himself and his own equipment was overwhelming and he was promptly sentenced to death by shooting. In deference to his being a soldier he was allowed shooting rather than the civilian method of hanging, affording him the chance to die like a soldier instead of as a common criminal at the hands of Britain’s chief hangman Albert Pierrepoint like Duncan Scott-Ford in 1942. Jakobs appealed to King George VI by letter, offering again to spy for the British and claiming he had always intended to turn himself in. It made no difference, the judgment was affirmed and his final, desperate appeal was rejected. His execution would take place on August 14, 1941 at the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London. Nobody had been executed at the Tower since 1747.

 Place of execution: The miniature rifle range at the Tower.


Place of execution: The miniature rifle range at the Tower.

At 7am that morning Jakobs, still hobbling on his injured ankle, became the last inmate to be executed at the Tower. He was assisted into a chair set up on the minature rifle range and a white target maker was pinned over his heart. An eight-man firing squad from the Holding Battalion of the Scots Guards, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Gerrard (Deputy Provost-Marshal for the London District) performed the execution. At 7:12am Gerrard gave a silent signal and a single rifle volley echoed round the Tower grounds. Josef Jakobs was dead. Seven bullets had struck him on or around the marker while one sturck him in the face. It was over.

 The chair in which Josef Jakobs died.


The chair in which Josef Jakobs died.

Jose Jakobs was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetary after his execution. 

 

On Crime And Conversation – Criminal Slang In Everyday Use.


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sing Sing’s ‘hot seat.’

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

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

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

James Wilson, one of the early 'Poms.'

James Wilson, one of the early ‘Poms.’

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

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

 

 

 

Irene Schroeder – Pennsylvania ‘Trigger Woman.’


 Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague.


Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 The verdict. And sentence.


The verdict. And sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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