On This Day in 1977 – Hamida Djandoubi, last man to face a French guillotine.


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The dawn on September 11, 1977 dawned damp and grey for the citizens of Marseilles, especially those residing in Les Baumettes Prison. All the inmates (and some of the staff) were were in a dark mood as they contemplated the rising of the dawn and the falling of executioner Marcel Chevalier’s blade. Inmates of ‘Death Alley’ were equally subdued. If they were relieved at that day not being theirs they were too tactful to show it.

For Hamida Djandoubi, however, this was his day. Nobody involved yet knew it, but it would be the last time, both in France and Western Europe, that a prisoner would embrace the infamous ‘Widow’ and lie between the ‘Timbers of Justice.’ It would be the last time Chevalier, descended from a long line of executioners, would perform the grim office of ‘The Executioner of High Works.’

Capital punishment had been under debate in France for many years. The guillotine itself had been both a political and humanitarian statement. Egalitarian in principle, it became the only method of execution for French civilians regardless of rank and social class. No more did peasants swing limp on the rope while the axe and sword were reserved for their social betters. No longer would people be burned, broken on the wheel or hung, drawn and quartered. When Charles-Henri Sanson debuted his new device, beheading highway robber Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792, everybody was to get a quicker and cleaner death.

Djandoubi would be the last.

By 1977 death sentences were rare and executions even rarer. Much of the French public and its politicians had turned against the death penalty. When Chevalier inherited the job from his uncle Andre Obrecht in 1975 he worked only a few times, although he his son was at Djandoubi’s execution to assist and watch should he succeed his father. Judicial death in France had long been a family affair, after all.

Executioners, disparagingly nicknamed ‘les bourreaux’ by their countrymen, occupied a contradictory place in french society. Until the execution of German serial killer Eugen Weidmann in June, 1939 the French public hadn’t minded turning out in their thousands to watch these men work, but had always despised and shunned them at the same time.

Schools refused to accept their children. In the days of regional executioners they were forced to live just outside whichever town or village they lived in. Even bakers would keep the executioner’s bread separate so their other customers would know their bread wasn’t tainted, an old French folk tale said that anything touched by the executioner was also touched by the Devil himself. Even churches refused to marry them, except into the families of other executioners. By the time Chevalier became last to perform his office all French executioners could be traced to only a handful of families, not always illustrious ones at that.

8053966631_4749cd2e3eAfter Weidmann executions would always be performed in private within prison walls. Hamida Djandoubi’s date with ‘bourreaux’ Marcel Chevalier would be poorly-attended by official order.

Not that people called him a ‘bourreaux’ much any more. In 1870 the term had been outlawed and calling anybody a ‘bourreaux’ became a crime. The same changes also mandated that only one chief executioner would be required and he was required by law to reside in Paris. Overnight the regional executioners lost their jobs, although some did continue as assistant executioners or ‘valets.’ Now that ‘Monsieurs de (insert town here) were largely out of work there was only one chief and he bore a sinister nickname;

‘Monsieur de Paris,’ the ‘Man from Paris.’

It became a phrase dreaded in French prisons, especially in the cells forming ‘Death Alley.’ For a long time prisoners didn’t know their execution date until the official party came to take them from their cells. Until 5am every morning, by which time executions for the day would have been performed, every condemned prisoner dreaded the sound of a guard saying to a colleague ‘Monsieur de Paris est arrivee.’

‘The Man from Paris has arrived.’

Who would it be, they wondered? Whose cell would be unlocked? Who would be taken away never to return, perhaps kicking and screaming on their final walk? Until 5am they didn’t know but, for at least one of them and maybe more, the time between four a five in the morning was when they’d find out.

Would the keys rattle in their cell door..?

With no chance of a commutation or stay, Djandoubi knew his time was almost up. At around half-past four it was his turn to hear those keys rattle like a skeleton’s bones. He was told what time it was and why he had official visitors. Led away from Death Alley for the last time he was accompanied by his lawyer and ready for the final acts of his personal drama.

Djandoubi, a French-Tunisian by birth and pimp by profession, had tortured and murdered his sometime girlfriend Elizabeth Bousquet. She’d refused his increasingly insistent efforts to become one his working girls and, his harassment getting worse, had reported him to police and he’d spent 11 months in prison. He avenged himself on her after his release in Spring 1973.

After abducting her and torturing her with lit cigarettes, on July 3, 1974 he’d taken her to the outskirts of Marseilles, strangled her and dumped her body. It was a brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary murder that drew no pity from judges, jurors or anyone able to stop his execution.

Before he could die the traditional French bureaucracy had to be observed. Paperwork had to be completed paroling the prisoner into the (very temporary) custody of Chevalier and his assistants. French law dictated that no convict could be guillotined, so Djandoubi had to be freed in order to be killed. With that taken care of the ‘toilette du condamne’ could begin.

‘Le toilette’ was rather more practical. Djandoubi, wearing the traditional red sweater of the condemned, had his hands and feet tethered with string. He could walk, but not run or struggle. His neck was bared, the sweater cut with scissors and eased down around his arms to avoid jamming the blade. He was offered a last cigarette and a glass of spirits. Now all was ready and, for Djandobui and the guillotine itself, all was finished.

The end came quickly. Standing before a door leading into the prison yard Djandoubi was held by two of Chevalier’s valets and marched quickly to his fate. He was laid face-down on ‘le bascule,’ a sliding wooden board. When the blade fell its impact would cause Djandoubi’s body to ounce from the bascule into the traditional wicker coffin beside it. A nod to the days when executions were regarded as public entertainment, the French nicknamed it the ‘family picnic basket.’ As the bascule slid him into position ‘le lunette,’ the traditional wooden collar, was quickly slipped down over the back of his neck. With everything ready Chevalier wasted no further time. One last look ensured nobody was at risk from the falling blade and Chevalier pushed a button. No photograph exists, but this image of Weidmann’s execution is very similar to what Djandoubi faced.

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The blade fell. Hamida Djandoubi was dead.

So was the death penalty. France finally abolished capital punishment in 1981 after a vote in the National Assembly. The guillotine became a museum piece (albeit an embarrassing exhibit seldom displayed in public) and Chevalier, last of ‘les bourreaux,’ was out of work. Between Djandoubi’s execution and final abolition every death sentence was respited,  the authorities seeing no point in further executions.

As Djandoubi’s body, spirit and head simultaneously parted company, centuries of tradition were died with him. Like Djandoubi and many thousands of others, ‘les bourreaux,’ the death penalty and the  ‘National Razor’ were no more.

Today, they are seldom missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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George Kelly, falsely convicted and quickly hanged.


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For most crime buffs the name ‘George Kelly’ inspires memories of rattling Tommy guns, bank robberies and the kidnapping of Charles Urschel, all attributed to American crook George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. Kelly, a second-rate gangster at best, was made out to be far worse than he actually was, spending the remainder of his life in Leavenworth and Alcatraz before dying of a heart attack in 1954.

For residents of Liverpool, however, that name reminds them of a double murder, a rigged trial and a fast hanging in 1950. Like his American namesake, our George Kelly was also made out to be far worse than he really was. A petty crook, he didn’t deserve to title of ‘gangster.’

He didn’t deserve to go to the gallows, either. For a double murder he didn’t commit.

But, at 8am in Liverpool’s Walton prison on March 28, 1950, he did exactly that. When the time came Albert Pierrepoint and assistant Harry Allen walked into the condemned cell, strapped Kelly’s arms, led him the few short steps to the gallows and justice, so it seemed, had been served.

It hadn’t, by a long way.

Kelly’s alleged crime, armed robbery of Liverpool’s Cameo Cinema on the night of March 19, 1949, also resulted in a double murder. Cinema manager Leonard Thomas and assistant manager John Catterall were shot dead. Local gossip blamed Kelly and his alleged accomplice, local strong-arm man Charles Connolly. If tried and convicted, the pair would almost certainly be hanged. They were arrested on September 30, 1949 on the basis of an anonymous letter.

Enter local hoodlum Robert Graham who came forward and blamed the pair. He claimed that, while in Walton with them, Kelly had admitted the shootings and named Connolly as his partner. According to Graham, Kelly was the shooter and Connolly the look-out. Under the rules governing common purpose, that made both men equally responsible for the shootings and, therefore, equally likely to hang if convicted. In return for his information, and likely for his own safety, Graham was immediately released from his prison term.

A prison term for dishonesty…

First, Kelly and Connolly were tried together. The jury were unable to reach a verdict, but only an acquittal would have barred the Crown from a arranging a retrial. The fact that neither could be proved as having ever met, that both offered sound alibis and that the evidence of both Graham and fellow prosecution witnesses James Northam and Jacqueline Dickson, a pimp and prostitute respectively, was less-than-stellar, probably saw the collapse of the first trial. Dickson was also outed as writing the anonymous letter. Faced with prosecution witnesses of such low character, the jury couldn’t agree a verdict against either defendant.

Second time around the pair were set to be tried separately. Connolly, warned that a murder conviction would probably see him hang, accepted ten years for robbery and conspiracy while Kelly was awaiting both his own appeal and execution.. He died in 1997, still protesting his and Kelly’s innocence. His chance of a reprieve effectively destroyed by Connolly’s deal, Kelly remained in Walton’s condemned cell under 24-hour suicide watch.

Kelly’s trial was, by modern standards, a dubious affair. It was also Britain’s longest murder trial at that point, lasting 13 days of February, 1950 with Mr. Justice Roland Oliver presiding. The prosecution’s case was riddled with flaws, allegations of police coaching prosecution witnesses, the prosecution withholding evidence from the defence and of Kelly generally being railroaded to the gallows.

It also saw the first appearance of a woman as lead counsel in a capital case. Rose Heilbron had become a King’s Counsel (a senior barrister) in the same month that Kelly and Connolly supposedly murdered Thomas and Catterall at the Cameo. With Kelly facing the rope if convicted, her first murder case as lead counsel couldn’t have been any more challenging.

Inexperienced in capital cases, she did as much as anyone could. It wasn’t enough. The jury convicted her client, Mr. Justice Oliver donned the traditional Black Cap and sent Kelly back to Walton under sentence of death. Under the law as it then stood, George Kelly had only a minimum of three Sundays between sentencing and execution. With that in mind, letters from the Prison Commissioners went to Albert Pierrepoint and senior assistant Harry Allen offering them a morning’s work.

Rose Heilbron, however, had other ideas. She lobbied hard to have Kelly’s verdict and death sentence overturned. She went to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Kelly beside her as she listed 11 error’s in Oliver’s summing-up of the case. She also pointed out that a man named Donald Johnson has been tried and acquitted of the crime.

Johnson (also represented by Heilbron) had given police two statements. One admitted Johnson’s role as an accessory, which was ruled inadmissible and caused his trial to collapse. The other, not rediscovered until the 1990’s, had been withheld from the defence.

Johnson, a career criminal with a lengthy record, had also been stopped by a police officer near the Cameo Cinema before the crime. The shooter was also described as being left-handed. Johnson was left-handed, George Kelly wasn’t. Northam and Dickson’s statements appear to have been withheld from Kelly’s lawyers, Kelly was tried separately from Connolly without legal cause, Connolly’s guilty plea was obtained by threats of execution and Robert Graham’s first statement had been withheld from Kelly’s legal team as well.

The case against him was also based entirely on circumstantial evidence, without even forensic evidence linking Kelly to the crime. All told, the defence had plenty of grounds for appealing a conviction that should never have occurred in the first place.

None of it did any good at the time. Kelly’s conviction was upheld, his sentence approved and he duly went to the gallows. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that local man Lou Santangeli, a friend of Connolly’s, began a campaign to prove Kelly’s innocence. Digging through old files and using Connolly’s own memories, he pushed the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2001. In 2003 the court ruled; George Kelly’s conviction had finally been quashed. Connolly’s robbery conviction went with it. According to Mr. Justice Rix;

“There was in these cases a breakdown in the due administration of justice and a failure to ensure a fair trial, we consider that the consequence was a miscarriage of justice which must be deeply regretted.”

Before his death in 1997 Charles Connolly expressed regrets of his own;

“If capital punishment had not been in force and George Kelly had not already been sentenced to hang I would never have pleaded guilty. i would have shouted my innocence whatever the consequences.”

Shortly after the ruling Kelly’s body, buried within prison walls in accordance with the law governing hanged prisoners, was finally returned to his family. Daughter Kathleen Hughes stated;

“I have waited a long, long time for this day. I hope now I can give him a decent Christian burial, which I have previously been thwarted from doing.”