Joel Singer and Jack Franck, the original Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.


 

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If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood then 1974’s ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ distributed by United Artists, is probably in your DVD collection. Not one of his better-known movies and perhaps not one of his best, but well worth watching all the same.

The movie, made largely because Eastwood felt like doing a road movie, also starred George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis and a young Jeff Bridges. It was written and directed by Michael Cimino, later to make The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. Centred round the titular ‘Thunderbolt’ (Eastwood), a criminal who attacks bank vaults using a 20-millimetre cannon.

This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. On the weekend of October 22-23, 1965 Montreal crook Joel Singer did exactly that. 33 20-millimetre cannon shells blasted a man-sized hole in the vault of a Brinks office in Syracuse, New York. Once inside, Singer and his crew walked away with $430,000 in cash and non-negotiable securities. It was one of the bigger robberies of the era, the only one ever committed using a 20-millimetre cannon and should have been the score of Singer’s career.

Instead, it did him no favours whatsoever.

Singer, who’d cut his criminal teeth with Montreal’s West End Gang, had set up the job with his uncle Jack Franck. It was Franck who, using Singer’s money, bought two Finnish made Lahti 39 20-millimetre cannons and 200 rounds of armour-piercing ammunition. The Lahti, nicknamed the ‘Elephant Gun’ or the ‘Finnish Boombeast,’ was originally made for destroying light armoured vehicles and later used for counter-sniping and as an anti-aircraft weapon.

It was indeed a beast. It weighed 109 pounds and was, although theoretically portable, very difficult to actually carry anywhere. It also a type of 20-millimetre round that made the Oerlikon cannon in Eastwood’s movie look like a potato gun by comparison. Franck ordered the cannon from a Virginia gun dealer.

Singer, wanting to alibi himself, stole it from the delivery warehouse in Plattsburgh on the night of  April 5, rather than sign for it. Hopefully, he thought, nobody would trace back to him a weapon stolen by persons unknown. Unknown to career felon Singer, the FBI were already taking an interest in his rather unusual taste in firearms. They believed the weapons were stolen by Canadian separatists from Quebec, not ordinary thieves.

Once all was set, Singer and his accomplices broke into the Brinks armoured car headquarters in Syracuse, New York. Using the cannon to blast through the vault wall, finishing the job by cutting the steel reinforcing bars in the concrete, they walked out with around $430,000. When the theft was discovered the guns were missing, but a home-made cannon stand, torches and numerous other tolls were discovered. The cannon would be found later, although over 30 spent 20-millimetre shell cases littered the floor

Singer’s crew had walked out with some $430,000. Panicking at the thought of being caught, Uncle Jack walked straight into the welcoming arms of the FBI.

Franck was prepared to talk and testify in return for full immunity from prosecution. His nephew, meanwhile, had become the 221st name to be added to the FBI’s legendary ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list. Federal convictions usually mean hard time, something Uncle Jack was determined to avoid even if it meant giving up his own nephew.

Hard time was exactly what Jack Franck wanted to avoid. It was exactly what nephew Joel Singer received. With Franck’s help the FBI recovered the cannon and Franck testified at Joel Singer’s trial. Singer, convicted of third-degree burglary and first-degree grand larceny on January 31,  1967, was sentenced to 5-10 years in Attica. True to the criminal code, Singer declined leniency and refused to name any of his accomplices.

He was there during the notorious Attica riot of 1971 when 43 inmates died and, according to those who knew him, was deeply traumatised by it. Paroled in 1972, having spent the final months of his sentence in a psychiatric unit after suffering a breakdown, he returned to Montreal. It was there that on February 6, 1973 Joel Singer took his own life with a dose of cyanide. He was only 31 years old.

It was Stan Kamen of New York’s William Morris agency who came up with the idea for ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.’ Filmed in America’s Mid-West from July to September of 1973 and released in 1974, it did well with reviewers and audiences alike.

It’s inspiration, however, never lived to see it.

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Law must take its course.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prisoner at the Bar, you have been convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Remove the prisoner…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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:

 

Paul Jawarski – Pennsylvania’s Phantom Dynamiter.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 End of the line for the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

End of the line for the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

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

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

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

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

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

True Crime Blogs And Websites: Some Top Picks.


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So, as you’re no doubt aware, I have an interest in true crime and I ted to cover the more unusual bits and pieces. If you’re interested in the subject generally then it’s hard to avoid the plethora of websites and blogs out there that deal with it, although the tone and style of some I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. So, if you’re a more serious student of the subject, here are a few of my top picks in no particular order:

1. Crime Magazine I’ve written for Crime Magazine since 2007 and I’ve always liked its accessibly style and avoidance of the trashy, prurient attitude you’ll find on many true crime sites. It’ll cost you a small subscription to read the articles on here, but it’s worth it for the quality thereof. There’s no trash here, it’s all handled in a tasteful and factual manner, certainly not for anybody who might want the trashy end of the spectrum. If you like your true crime sensible and non-sleazy, then this is a place for you.

2. Sword and Scale is a newcomer to the genre. It’s free to use, has an accessible style without being quite as heavyweight as Crime Magazine, but not tasteless and tacky, either. I wrote regularly for Sword and Scale and it’s always nice to see something new appear that doesn’t sacrifice quality for sensationalism. For a lighter writing style that doesn’t pull its punches, this is a good place to drop by.

3.True Crime Library A veritable encyclopaedia of al things crime. Everything from Victorian hangings, famous murders, Depression-era bank bandits and the home-grown cases you might not have already heard of can be found here. They also publish plenty of books (some of which I use in my own writing) and have a broad range of subjects with something for everybody. Not overly heavyweight in tone, but not by any means a disreputable torture-porn site, either. A good place for general cases and covering all bases, albeit sometimes slightly more tabloid than I personally like. 

4. Laura James This is more for your fans of historical cases. Think of the ‘classics’ such as Crippen or the Acid Bath Murderer with a broad variety of subjects and a huge database of other cases. Again, I prefer my true crime to be respectful and mindful of the fact that true crime is exactly that. It isn’t fiction, it involves real people whose actions had real consequences and so its not (to me anyway) an area that benefits from being treated like torture-porn hackwork. A great place for historical true crime and the facts are solid and reliable.

5. Executed Today One for anybody with an interest in the death penalty.The style might seem somewhat lowbrow and opinionated at times, but it’s a good site if you’re interested in this particular area. With crime comes punishment and capital punishment is its most extreme and questionable form. Here you’ll find a list of executions, famous inmates, curious stories and general interest stuff. Well worth a look.

6. The Malefactors Register Run by well-known crime writer and expert Mark Gribben (you’ll often find him on crime documentaries, especially ones about the American Mafia) this is an excellent read. Again, there’s something here for everybody. The style is sensible without being overly reverent, blunt without being crude and covers all manner of different areas. 

7. Historical Crime Detective Another fairly new website to look through. Factual, brisk and simple. A meat-and-potatoes site for those who like their prose simple and their cases outside the constant rehashes of Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and so on ad nauseum. This one often focuses on the less well-known crimes and criminals and, in my opinion, is a breath of fresh air for those among us who’ve gone beyond just reading about and studying the crimes and criminals everybody’s already heard of, over and over and over again. Historical Crime Detective is recommended and certainly one to keep popping back to.

8. Old Bailey Online One for British enthusiasts, but certainly interesting to anybody fancying a look at cases tried in possibly the most famous courthouse in the world. The Central Criminal Court or ‘Old Bailey’ to give it it’s more familiar name, has seen every kind of crime and criminal pass through its courtrooms, often on their way to penal colonies, prisons or the gallows. Terrorists, serial killers, spree killers, armed robbers, spies, traitors and crooks of all kinds have come here to have a judge and jury decide their fate and they still do. The court itself is built on the former site of the infamous Newgate Prison, once one of London’s hanging jails and still a notorious clink with a fascinating (if rather grim) history. For afficionados of historic cases and some of Britain’s best-known crimes and criminals, take a look through their database.

9. Crime Library Probably the most widely-known true crime website out there. I’m not always keen on the style, sometimes it feels a little too populist and not quite as sombre as the subject perhaps demands, but there’s plenty here for anybody and everybody who’s perhaps less of a snob than me. Famous crimes, criminals, detectives, prisons and general mainstream crime is what you’ll mostly find here. It’s not catering to any particular niche and doesn’t claim to, either. Pretty much what you’d expect if you’re new to true crime and you’re looking for a decent, entry-level site to dip your toe in the water. 

So, take a quick look around these if you’re looking for a mix of the old, new, reverent and slightly less so. You’re bound to find something there that will tickle your fancy or help you learn something new, maybe even inspire you to have a crack at writing yourself. After all, if I can do it then anybody should be able to.

Back to the regular output tomorrow, haven’t decided what yet. But do take a look at what’s on offer. It’s a fascinating area of human life and history as long as you’re not incorrigibly squeamish.

Ronnie Biggs – Master Criminal..?


Ronald Biggs

Today we’ve got an unusual double anniversary involving a well-known, but curious, character, Ronnie Biggs. Biggs helped carry out the Great Train Robbery on August 8, 1963, 38 years ago today. August 8, 1963 was also his 34th birthday.. A lot of people also persist in thinking that he was some sort of master criminal who set up and led the whole thing. He wasn’t, by a very long shot. He was a very minor figure in the ‘Crime of the Century’ and not in any way a criminal big-shot.

Bruce Reynolds, the real mastermind behind the 'Crime of the Century.'
Bruce Reynolds, the real mastermind behind the ‘Crime of the Century.’

It was actually Bruce Reynolds who planned and masterminded the robbery. It was Reynolds who agreed to let Biggs, a small-time thief and robber of no particular notoriety, join the gang because Biggs said he could recruit a retired train driver. He could, it was just that the retired train driver couldn’t actually drive that type of train which meant that Jack Mills (who’d already been coshed with a steel bar) had to be dragged into the driver’s cab and forced to move the train instead.

 Bridego Bridge just after the robbery.

Bridego Bridge just after the robbery.

As far as the robbery itself goes, the rest is history. The gang stole 120 mailbags containing nearly three million pounds (worth around forty-six million in today’s currency) and split the loot at their hideout, Leatherslade Farm. Biggs himself took a share of £147,000 (worth around 1.6 million pounds today). If the accomplice assigned to burn the farm to the ground and destroy any incriminating evidence had actually done so, then the gang would have had a far better chance of not being caught. He didn’t, and they were. Along with many other members including Bruce Reynolds, Biggs received thirty years. He was sent to Wandsworth to disappear into obscurity as just a mugshot and a convict number, but didn’t quite follow the rules. After fifteen months at Wandsworth (known to British inmates as the ‘Hate Factory’) Biggs escaped.

 Not what you'd call hiding from the forces of law and order.

Not what you’d call hiding from the forces of law and order.

 

Between 1965 and 2001 Biggs was a fugitive. First in Australia (reporters found him before the police) and then Brazil by way of Panama (reporters found him in Brazil as well, also before the British police). Once he’d fathered a child in Brazil and as Brazil had no formal extradition treaty with the UK, Biggs was effectively free to taunt the British authorities from afar and taunt them he did. The robbery had made him a little famous, his escape made him very and his repeatedly flaunting himself in the media made him internationally-known, not just to the police. He collaborated on a popular jazz album in 1977. He was barred from working and lived under a curfew under Brazilian law as a known felon, so started entertaining tourist parties with accounts of the robbery at his home. Around that time he also started marketing merchandise, T shirts, coffee mugs, cups and so on, all over his adopted home of Rio de Janeiro. 1978 would see even more outrageous excesses.

In 1978 he collaborated with notorious punk rockers the Sex Pistols, appearing in their film ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ and providing vocals on two song, one being ‘No-one is Innocent’ which had the delightful alternate title of ‘Cosh the Driver’ a crude reference to Jack Mills. He also provided vocals on the equally-delightful ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ and managed to be photographed for the album cover as well. Scotland Yard were unlikely to forget him and he seems determined to ensure that they couldn’t even if they’d wanted to. Especially when ‘No-One is Innocent’ reached Number Seven in the UK Singles Chart in July, 1978. For a man on the run he seems to have spent a lot of it standing out very visibly while flicking two fingers at the British authorities and saying ‘Catch me if you can.’ In 1978 a group of British ex-soldiers did. They kidnapped him to try and claim the reward.

They didn’t return him to the UK and they didn’t get their reward, either. Suffering mechanical problems their boat was forced into Barbados. Barbados didn’t have an extradition treaty with the UK and they don’t aid and abet kidnappers either. Biggs was simply returned to Brazil and took full advantage of his latest escape from the law. He gave Independent Television News exclusive acces to him and to cover his return to Brazil (in exchange for a very large fee) and made sure the British authorities knew they hadn’t got their man. It was another two-fingered salute to the system..

In 2001, he’d finally had enough. He wanted to come home to die. He was arrested as soon as he arrived and wasn’t released until 2009 on compassionate grounds (he was dying). He finally died in December 2013 and, on January 3, 2014, he was cremated. But he couldn’t resist one last dig at the authorities he’d confounded and infuriated for so long. His coffin had two flags on it, one British and the other Brazilian. The Brazilian flag largely hid the British one from view, a final dig at British justice for pursuing him so relentlessly and for so long. His coffin had a guard of honour, composed of Hell’s Angels. And, in the rear window of the hearse where it couldn’t be seen by anyone looking on, one last message for British officialdom.

A floral wreath showing two raised fingers.

Biggs was a small-time villain who lucked into a big-time robbery. He didn’t even perform his role in the robbery very well, having recruited an engine driver who couldn’t actually drive the engine.. But one thing he was extraordinarily good at was playing the celebrity villain. He managed to parlay a walk-on part in a major robbery into lasting fame simply by escaping from prison and evading extradition for nearly 40 years. He was, in reality, a small-timer when he was an active criminal, but as a celebrity villain he was immensely successful.