US

Leroy Henry, Shepton Mallet and the curious case of George Edward Smith.


A few days ago Channel 5 screened another episode of Hidden History of Britain. Presented by former politician Michael Portillo, the episode covered Shepton Mallet Prison and the case of Leroy Henry. Shepton Mallet should be familiar to readers of Crimescribe, as should Leroy Henry who I’ve previously covered. You can watch it here.

I was consulted by programme-makers Transparent Television for this one a few months ago, one of the perks of covering crime’s odds and ends being the occasional consult or interview request. Having now watched it myself, it’s well worth looking at. It’s not Portillo’s first foray into crime documentaries, either. The BBC screened ‘How to kill a human being’ a couple of years  ago and he’s a very watchable presenter.

Henry’s wasn’t the only curious case of former US Air Force Private George Edward Smith. Smith, convicted of murdering senior British diplomat Sir Eric Teichman at Honingham Hall, was hanged on May 8, 1945 by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris. While the rest of the world was going to wake up to the dawning of a new age, Smith was pondering his final hours in Shepton Mallet’s condemned cell.

I covered Smith’s case a couple of years ago, in a guest post for Executed Today, a fascinating site rich in criminal history and thought it was worth remembering. So here it is.

Bye for now.

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.

 

 

 

Leaving Le Mans


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The race is over, but the flags are still flying, the airhorns are blowing and the fans are cheering.. The crowd will drift back to the campsites soon, either heading back tonight on the ‘ferry dash’ or for one last night on the beer before it’s all over for another year. The winning drivers have popped the champagne, cried a few uncharacteristically non-macho tears and posed for the world’s press. The latest Le Mans 24 Hours is done and dusted.

Me? Right now I’m having one last look round at the crowds and taking one last breath. A breath of hot air, exhaust fumes, burnt rubber, cooked food, French cigarette smoke, sweat and human happiness. I’m sweating in the sweltering June afternoon, thoroughly shattered after more than a week under canvas. It’s 3:30pm on a Sunday afternoon and I’ve been awake since 6am on the Saturday morning. I’m barely awake, barely able to stand up straight, barely able to think. I still have to get the 8pm TGV to Morlaix, travel three hours from the Western Loire into Brittany and doss down in Morlaix station until the 7am bus to Roscoff ferry terminal and then home. But, while I know what my body’s telling me, my emotions are everywhere at once.

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I don’t know what I’m feeling. What I’m supposed to feel. Only days ago I arrived on an almost-empty campsite and seen 300,000 people arrive, set up and party like we were all 18 again instead of the middle-aged, pot-bellied petrolheads that most of us really are. Part of me is glad I’ve only got one more night until my own bed, that I won’t have to queue for half an hour for 5 minutes under a tepid shower in a muddy cubicle, that I can have enough hot water for my first proper shave in over a week. That I can go home to my family.

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But part of me is sad. Sad that this year’s great adventure is over. Sad that it’ll be nearly a year before I pack and ship out to France again, to the sun, the people, the language, the food, the culture and the vibe of Le Mans. Sad that I’ve already been awake for 31 hours yet won’t see a bed until late-afternoon on Monday at the earliest and that I’ll be travelling or dossing down until then. Sad that I won’t hear the French language, that I won’t have French cigarettes that actually taste French, that it’s all over and it’s back to work and bills and washing dishes and the usual daily grind. Not that I really mind the daily grind, I just need one time in the year when I’m just having fun for a little while and leaving the day-to-day stuff to itself for a few days. I like my job. I like my life. I just need a change and a rest once a year.

So no, I don’t know what I’m feeling or how I’m meant to feel. Body and mind have fragmented to the point where simply sticking to my schedule on the way home, just putting one foot in front of the other, are going to be major challenges. My body’s been on the rack since I left home. My mind isn’t any better. But it’s worth it to me and I know, regardless of how spent and broken I feel right now, that I’ll be mad keen to come back months before I actually strap on a rucksack, make one last check of my tickets and passport and head off to the train.

It’s something I love.

It’s part of me.

And here comes the train to Morlaix…

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Albert Pierrepoint – Master Hangman.


 Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.


Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

.Public Executioner. It’s not what you’d call an everyday profession. Unusual? Certainly. Skilled? Absolutely. Dark and scary? Well, it depends on why you fancy the job, really. But it’s certainly not the sort of work that most people would consider a life’s ambition or the family business unless you happen to be Albert Pierrepoint. Albert really wanted the job and even wrote a school essay on how much he fancied doing it, possibly because his uncle and father were hangmen as well and he ended up working with his uncle quite a few times. Albert ended up having legally killed more people (at least 435 men and 17 women) than any half-dozen British serial killers combined and then, having ‘topped’ that many people (as he so quaintly put it) the ‘Master Hangman’ (as he so modestly called himself) had a sudden revelation that killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong slightly failed any semblance of logic or common sense. Which was bit late for him (after 25 years in the job) and ever so slightly late for the 450 or so people that dear Albert referred to as his ‘customers’ (although the complaints department phone never rang, for some reason utterly unrelated to their all being dead).

 The 'Execution Box' containing the tools of Albert's grisly trade.


The ‘Execution Box’ containing the tools of Albert’s grisly trade.

For our diminutive death merchant (he was a little chap, only about five feet and six inches tall) stringing people up wasn’t a sordid, grim, depressing affair that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It was a skilled and potentially dangerous ‘craft’ at which he liked to excel with his speed and skill. British hangmen had an unofficial competition to hold unofficial records for the fastest and cleanest killings possible. Sort of a ‘Death Race’ if you like. Albert managed to ‘top’ his rivals (not literally) when he executed a prisoner and took only 7 seconds from start to finish. 7 seconds. Not even long enough to say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Pierrepoint’ before his latest dance partner was doing the hangman’s hornpipe before a bevy of (somewhat stunned) local dignitaries. Still, it was Albert’s job to make things go with a swing, when you think about it.

 Where the bottom fell out of their world.


Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Albert was always somewhat irked by the miserly pay for what he considered a skilled and potentially dangerous profession. The pay for the job was, frankly, lousy. It was a small amount that was only paid half before a job and half after and if a prisoner’s sentence was commuted then the executioners weren’t paid anything at all, not even travel expenses. Albert often went from one end of the UK to another and came home penniless and that was why he quit the job in 1956, leaving the authorities to go hang, as it were. It didn’t matter to the powers-that-be that their master butcher ended up out of pocket, just as long as they saved some cash as well as saving a prisoner’s neck (literally).

 You weren't paid a thing if they didn't have to swing.


You weren’t paid a thing if they didn’t have to swing.

Still, Albert’s job did have its lighter side. He owned a pub when he wasn’t travelling round the country performing his famous rope trick and it had an amusingly appropriate name all things considered. His pub was named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, something Albert had made a career out of. It’s even said there was an appropriate sign dangling over the beer pumps, presumably for the benefit of more tardy customers, which read ‘No Hanging Round the Bar.’

 Albert was a professional until the last drop.


Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert even found time to become an unwilling celebrity. He’d always kept his ‘craft’ a secret from anybody who didn’t absolutely need to know (it tends to invite a certain amount of unhealthy curiosity when you say you kill people for a living, after all). But his best efforts to stay out of the limelight ended courtesy of World War Two when it was publicly announced that he’d be popping over to Germany to perform his rope trick on over 200 Nazis. Not surprisingly in 1945 this made him a pretty popular chap all round. His amusingly-named pub did more business than ever as voyeurs turned up in droves just to look at him, get their photos taken with him, buy him pints of beer (which he kept behind the bar and sold back to other customers) and simply so they could say they’d shaken hands with the ‘Genial hangman’ as he became known.

Albert resigned in 1956 in a dispute over money. As usual, he’d been engaged to execute Thomas Bancroft, a murderer of no particular note, gone to Walton Prison at his own expense and then Bancroft was reprieved with only 12 hours to spare. Albert, tired of being stuck with travel and hotel bills, demanded that his superiors pay his expenses and they refused. So he quit as he’d rather be dropping convicts than dropping cash every time an inmate’s lawyer managed to get them off. His bosses begged and pleaded (they didn’t have anyone else who could do the job as well as Albert and you could call him ‘Top of the drops’ really) but he held firm and even refused their oh-so-kind invitation to go back on their list and continue providing cut-price carnage on their behalf. He finally turned against his former occupation (a bit late for himself and certainly far too late for 450 convicts) and later said that the death penalty achieved nothing but revenge.

Which was nice…

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


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


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

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

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

 Admiral Peary, leader of the 1908 Polar expedition.


Admiral Peary, leader of the 1908 Polar expedition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

north-pole

 

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

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

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

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


 The mighty Belly, as nobody dared call him.


The mighty Belly, as nobody dared call him.

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

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


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

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

 'Anybody got any mixer..?'


‘Anybody got any mixer..?’

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

 A staged shot of Leadbelly and fellow inmates.


A staged shot of Leadbelly and fellow inmates.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 Sing Sing Prison, yet another home from home.


Sing Sing Prison, yet another home from home.

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

John ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill


 "Yes, I'm Lieutenant Colonel Churchill. Looking for excitement, are you..?"


“Yes, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Churchill. Looking for excitement, are you..?”

Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill. Known to his friends as ‘Jack.’ Known to his fellow Commandos as ‘Mad Jack’ and/or ‘Fighting Jack.’ Probably known to the German Army as ‘Oh no, it’s him again’, He started life in the leafy, peaceful English county of Surrey. It was about the last conventional time and place Jack would inhabit for, oh, the next couple of decades. He had a public school education, went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was posted to Burma as a 2nd Lieutenant in the well-respected Manchester Regiment. In Burma he began his love affair with all things Scottish, despite not having a drop of Scottish blood in him. He studied the bagpipes and acquired a fondness for the Scottish Claybeg, a basket-hilted broadsword that he used in battle because:

“An officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed.”

Churchill archery

Army life soon began to bore him. Jack was an unconventional man in an extremely conventional world and the British Army was about as conventional as it gets. After ten years in the service he’d had enough of living with strict rules for absolutely everything and he quit, taking a job as a newspaper editor and taking up the sport of archery. The dreaded English longbow was another medieval weapon Jack would take into battle as, after the 1939 World Championship in Norway, the clouds of impending war were darkening the skies of Europe. Jack decided the time had come to rejoin the Army and put himself in harm’s way once again.

 Jack had an individual interpretation of the military phrase 'cold steel.'


Jack had an individual interpretation of the military phrase ‘cold steel.’

Jack’s first taste of action was around Dunkirk in 1940. His regiment were headed for the port and (hopefully) passage home when a German infantry unit suddenly barred their way. Jack, being Jack, solved this little problem unconventionally by killing the enemy commander with his longbow (becoming the last soldier in military history to kill with a bow and arrows). He then led his unit in a desperate charge through the enemy ranks. Shortly after returning to England Jack heard about a new type of British soldier, the Commandos. Despite the fact that he had little idea what Commandos actually did. He signed up because their work was highly dangerous so obviously it would be a lot of fun. Jack proved a natural Commando. He had the aggression of a lion, the coolness of an experienced soldier and was unconventional even by Commando standards. The man and the job fit together perfectly and Jack was already building his legend.

 Why not have a little music between firefights?


Why not have a little music between firefights?

Jack was also keen on motorcycles. Very keen. So keen, in fact, that during one Commando raid he strapped his broadsword to his hip, his bow and arrows on his back and his mighty bagpipes over one shoulder and entered the fray by riding a 500cc monster off a landing craft and straight into the heart of the fighting while bellowing his personal battle cry of ‘COMMAND-OOOOOOOOO!’ Which left his own side astounded and the enemy staring in understandably open-mouthed disbelief. The legend of ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill was growing and now even other Commandos considered him entirely well named. 

By July, 1943 our fearless fighter was a full-blown legend and there was no stopping him. He led Number Two Commando in a raid on the Sicilian town of La Molina, hoping to silence an enemy lookout post. Jack went to reconnoitre the enemy positions with a Corporal as back-up and once again returned having added once more to his legend. He’d brought back some souvenirs of his recon in the form of 42 German prisoners whom he’d collected and marched back to the Commando positions while waving his sword at them ad threatening summary beheading for anyone trying to escape. For some reason his prisoners thought, seeing as they outnumbered him 42 to 1 and he still didn’t seem worried, that ‘Mad Jack’ was just mad enough to make his threat a reality. Can’t imagine why…

 

 "Improperly dressed? Never!"


“Improperly dressed? Never!”

Jack’s impressive run of luck finally ended in 1944. His team were wiped out and he was wounded and then captured while on a mission in Yugoslavia. Despite Hitler’s ‘Commando Order’ stating that all captured Commandos were to be shot, Jack was spared because he told them he was related to a certain other Mr. Churchill, Winston. Jack was no more related to Winston than I am but, as huge a lie as it was, it worked. Jack was sent instead to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, from which he promptly escaped, was recaptured, escaped again and made an epic 150-mile march to meet advancing American troops, surviving on rainwater he drank from roadside puddles and a can of onions he’d managed to steal somewhere along the way.

nuke blast

Jack still hadn’t had enough. Within weeks of returning to England he’d managed to arrange a posting to the Far East (where war was still raging) but, sadly for Jack (though probably nobody else involved) the war ended while he was aboard a troopship. He expressed his feelings about the end of the war by blaming the Americans for intruding in European affairs (thus depriving him of further chances to get himself killed) by saying, very angrily:

“Damn those Yanks! If they’d stayed out of it we could have been fighting for another ten years!”

 

Paul Jawarski – Pennsylvania’s Phantom Dynamiter.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

 End of the line for the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'


End of the line for the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Case Of Leroy Henry


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

General_of_the_Army_Dwight_D._Eisenhower_1947

 

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

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

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