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On This Day in 1928: Very unlucky for some…


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Today it’s Friday June 13, 2018. June 13, 1928 was also a Friday, a Friday delivering the ultimate in bad luck to 11 men in three different States…

In Mississippi’s Yazoo County murderer Will Burdo nervously awaited his date with the hangman. While Burdo pondered his fate in Yazoo County Jail, over in Smith County Greene Kirk was doing the same after being convicted of robbery and murder. Mississippi wouldn’t centralise its executions until 1954 and the installation of the gs chamber at Parchman. That came after 14 years of Mississippi’s notorious travelling electric chair. Both Kirk and Burdo were entrusted to the tender mercies of hangmen they hoped would be both skilled and sober. Not that American hangmen had a great reputation for being either.

Over at the Georgia State Prison, Preddis Taylor and Sam Gower were pondering a similar fate shortly to be imposed by newer technology; the electric chair. Unlike Mississippi, Georgia had centralised its retribution, installing Old Sparky in 1924 at the old State Prison in Milledgeville. It’s doubtful that either Taylor or Gower appreciated what was then the relative novelty of being Southern-fried.

Two double executions in two different States on the same day, which wouldn’t have been a criminal curiosity had it not been for the electrical extravaganza scheduled in Kentucky. Kentucky, not the most hawkish of death penalty States, but not afraid to impose it, had no less than seven men doomed to its own electric chair. At the feared State Prison near Eddyville known as the ‘Castle on the Cumberland,’ Old Sparky was about to be fed a seven-course banquet.

In the 20th century only one other prison had executed seven inmates in one day. Sing Sing marched that number to their deaths on August 12, 1912. It had been a nightmare for all concerned. Not because of any technical hitches or other problems, but because the seven men didn’t react too well, or sanely, to being marched one after another through the death chamber door.  Nor, as it happened, did those condemned inmates still waiting for their own date with death. It was a day never before seen and never repeated, even at the notoriously tough Sing Sing.

Clarence McQueen, James Howard, Willie Moore, Milford Lawson, Orlando Seymour, Hascue Dockery and Charles Mitra would meet their maker one after another and quick succession, Kentucky’s largest mass execution of the 20th century. All in all, not a good Friday 13 for anybody apart the executioners who’d profit well from the day’s work, especially in Kentucky.

While Greene and Burdo dropped to their deaths in Mississippi, Taylor and Gower were doing the hot squat in Georgia. Of the four men three were black and one white. Without exception, and as usual in capital cases, all were poor and lacked the funds for even average lawyers. In Kentucky the balance was slightly less uneven. Lawson, Seymour, Dockery and Mitra were white while McQueen, Howard and Moore were black. All of these men were poor as well.

According to reports the black prisoners held up better than their white counterparts, singing hymns and spirituals as they waited to go one-by-one to their deaths. The three whites, however, are reported as having been virtually paralysed by fear as their time came.The result, be they brave and dignified or craven and catatonic, was still the same. All seven never got to hear the phone ring at the last minute, as it so often does in Hollywood’s more stylised idea of capital punishment. There weren’t any lawyers, expensive or pro bono, to delay their walking the last mile. Taken one-by-one they stood, walked, sat down and died.

Even in those less enlightened and perhaps more racially-charged times, Friday June 13 was a rarity. Nowadays few death penalty States execute eleven convicts per year while some haven’t had eleven executions in decades.

That didn’t make this particular Friday 13 any less unlucky for some.

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


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

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

Today’s mass execution has changed all that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

Morphine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t.

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

Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.

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

“George Henry Lamson, you stand convicted of the crime of murder.  The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterward your body be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul…

Remove the prisoner.”

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

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

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

And was probably going to…

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

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

George Henry Lamson was dead.

Executed executioners; the biters bit.


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

They haven’t, not by a long shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this day in 1947; George Sitts, (appropriately named).


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As regular readers know, I do like crime’s more unusual case, the firsts, lasts and onlys. Minnesota’s George Sitts is certainly one of those. Born in Leroy, Minnesota on October 29, 1913, he was a serial felon, escape artist and double cop-killer. He was the first, last and only inmate to sit in South Dakota’s electric chair.

So, the appropriately-named Sitts did indeed sit April 8, 1947. Once, and very briefly.

Sitts had escaped escaped from the Hennequin County Jail in his native Minnesota where he was awaiting transfer to Stilwater State Prison for murdering liquor store clerk Erik Jhansson during a robbery on December 12, 1945. A life sentence at Stillwater didn’t appeal to him so, with three other inmates, he broke out. This was very bad news for several people.

By January 24, 1946 he’d got as far as South Dakota, leaving a trail of gas stations without actually paying for his gas. Near the town of Spearfish he was confronted by Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm and State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Tom Matthews. Sitts murdered both of them, reportedly shooting one of them as his victim lay on the ground wounded.

Sitts had gone from escaped felon to the target of a multi-State manhunt. Already wanted by Minnesota, now he was wanted in Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska as well. The double killing in South Dakota could see him electrocuted if he was caught and caught he eventually was.

On January 28 he arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota. Either out of sheer bravado or, more likely, not knowing whose house it was, he broke into the home of former Deadwood police chief Ross Dunn. He lived secretly in Dunn’s basement, living off canned food and seemingly invisible to law enforcement.

By now local newspaper the Rapid City Journal had started a fundraising drive for a reward, assisted by the Black Hills and Badlands Association. On January 31, the same day the fund drive started, Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm was buried and a successor appointed. On February 4 Sitts crept out of Deadwood.

The same day he flagged down motorist Leonard Ronneburg, abducted him at gunpoint, forced Ronneburg to drive him across the State line into Beulah, Wyoming and left him there. Sitts, having relieved Ronneburg of his car, kept going until he drew near the town of Lysite. There, mistaking a posse for a group of ranchers, he was arrested and returned to South Dakota to be tried for the murder of Agent Matthews.

The trial was both brief and a foregone conclusion. It began on March 18, Sitts was convicted on March 22 and Judge Charles Hayes sentenced him to death on March 30. SItts, the fourth man condemned to South Dakota’s chair, would be the first, last and only man to sit in it.

When South Dakota condemned its first inmate to electrocution, Clifford Hayes for murdering Grant County Sheriff Melbourne Lewis in 1939, they didn’t actually have an electric chair. As the law offered only electrocution as a method, the State had to borrow one from Illinois and have inmates make a replica. Illinois had adopted electrocution in 1928 and had three chairs at Menard, Cook County Jail and Stateville Prison, so lending South Dakota one of their wasn’t a problem.

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The replica, connected, wired and tested, sat in the jute mill at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, still awaiting its first occupant. When inmates two and three had their sentences commuted Sitts, South Dakota’s fourth candidate for the dubious distinction of being its first victim, found his number was up. Despite a brief problem with obtaining a head electrode (someone went out and bought a football helmet to use for the occasion) Sitts was doomed. As a double cop killer, escape artist and serial felon he could hardly have been surprised.

At 12:15 on April 8, 1947, the fateful time finally came. After a last meal of chicken chow mein, Sitts, his head and leg shaved, was escorted from his cell to the jute mill. 41 witnesses were there for this first in South Dakota history. As he was strapped into the chair, Sitts was asked for any final words. Defiant to the end, he replied;

“This is the first time authorities helped me escape prison.”

Minutes later, the switch was thrown. Four jolts of around 2000 volts each seared through Sitts’ body. The switch was thrown by SCI Agent Floyd Short, a personal friend of murder victim Agent Tom Matthews. As the current was turned off and the generator wound down, Sitts was pronounced dead.

South Dakota wouldn’t have another execution for 60 years, until Elijah Page died by lethal injection on July 11, 2011. Page was from Lawrence County, scene of the Sitts trial in 1946. He’d also committed his crime near the town of Spearfish, where Sitts had earned his place in criminal history.

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Old Sparky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sparky’s Revenge; South Carolina considers reinstating the electric chair.


So, the State of South Carolina (previously responsible for executing then exonerating 14-year old George Stinney)   is considering dusting off Old Sparky. Difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs have caused a backlog on Death Row. South Carolina has numerous condemned inmates, wants to start executing them, but can’t obtain the legally-approved means to do it.

A number of drug companies (Pfizer among others), no longer sell drugs for the purpose of executing people. Negative publicity has affected their bottom line, so it’s simply unprofitable to keep doing so. European drug companies also face the European Union’s declared opposition to the death penalty and have felt pressured into withdrawing their supply.

One of the reasons for introducing lethal injection in the first place was, its supporters claimed, to provide a more humane (or less inhumane) method to replace the gas chambers, gallows, firing squads and electric chairs once so popular in dispensing death on demand. This also helped sidestep legal challenges to executions, particularly those citing the 8th Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. That wasn’t a problem for the pro-execution lobby, either.

That discussing more humane methods allows some legislators and supporters to evade discussing executions per se is no great secret. From the pro lobby point of view it’s often easier to avoid debating abolition simply by diverting attention to killing them nicely instead. A debatable concept if ever there was one, but a useful dodge when needed.

Despite lethal injection being introduced (allegedly) to make death more humane, it seems several states are quite willing to discuss reinstating the same methods they cited as outdated and passe. As its boosters claimed at the time, lethal injection would do away with horrific spectacles like those of James Wells in Arkansas’s electric chair or Donald Harding in Arizona’s gas chamber. Botches like that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma have already proved it every bit as unreliable a method as any other. Prisoners still die, granted, but not always quickly, cleanly or humanely.

Part of South Carolina’s problem (aside from the drug boycott) lies in its own execution laws. Lethal injection is the norm unless an inmate specifically chooses electrocution and (rather inconveniently) inmates aren’t choosing to ride the lightning. Unless they do, lethal injection is the only available method under State law.

The  combination of the drug shortage and intransigent inmates has led Republican State Senator William Timmons to champion a return to Sparky’s revenge instead. The idea is currently in committee at the State Senate and will be discussed further. Timmons is also pushing for a ‘shield law’ to stop identification of drug companies supplying lethal injection drugs in an effort to encourage new suppliers.

South Carolina is the latest in a long line of States to reinstate defunct methods or consider doing so. Virginia’s Governor vetoed restoring the electric chair, but allowed secretly importing execution drugs instead. Tennessee has already returned Old Sparky to active service. One Missouri legislator called for a return to their gas chamber. Oklahoma is considering using a nitrogen gas chamber instead of cyanide.

Nebraska was caught trying import generic drugs not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, as was Arizona. Other States including Ohio and Texas have been warned about similar efforts.The thought of an inmate giggling their way into the grave does seem off-putting at best. The irony of killing to protect the sanctity of human life and uphold the law by breaking it seems lost on them. By cloaking drug suppliers in anonymity the ‘shield law’ makes such abuses easier.

The attitude of the pro-death lobby seems to be hardening under pressure from abolitionists and increasing public opposition. From once touting lethal injection as more  humane than electrocution, gas, shooting or hanging,  the new attitude is blunter and more hard-line;

‘If we can’t kill in the way we touted as better, we’ll simply kill with something worse.’

 

 

 

 

I wrote a book.


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

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

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

You can do that here:

 

The First World War – The ‘Ace’ Myth.


Knights of the sky..?

We had a strict code of honour. You didn’t shoot down a cripple and you kept it a fair fight.

Captain Wilfred Reid May, Royal Flying Corps, 13 victories

Fighting in the air is not sport. It is scientific murder.

Captain Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker, U.S. Air Service, 26 victories

Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, René Fonck and Eddie Rickenbacker were once household names, legends in their own lifetimes.. Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” is still the most famous ace of all time. Remembered today as the founding fathers of aerial combat, an entire generation watched these shooting stars blaze through the skies over the battlefields of the First World War. Their stars burned brightly (and often briefly). The ‘Cavalry of the clouds’ became almost instant legends, but subject nowadays to increasing debate.

Was there really chivalry between opposing fighter pilots? And did they really have the military value that folklore claims?

In short, no. Their bravery is beyond doubt. They all gambled their lives and frequently lost. At the time the risks, even of non-operational flying, were shockingly high by today’s standards. Over half the Royal Flying Corps aircrew killed during the First World War died in training accidents before even reaching a front-line squadron. Their work was necessary. Their having legitimate military value is undoubted. But the myths built round the early aces have seriously obscured the grim realities of early air warfare. Modern writers like Peter Hart and Joshua Levine have exposed the harsh realities behind the chivalric myth. To do these pilots justice an honest assessment is long overdue.

First, consider their purpose and value. Theoretically their duties were simple although the reality was infinitely harder and deadlier. Fighters destroyed enemy aircraft to protect ‘friendlies.’ Fighter pilots could frequently achieve more by successfully protecting bombers, reconnaissance flights, artillery-spotting aircraft and observation balloons than they were ever likely to by simply dogfighting. Near the war’s end RFC fighter pilots even found themselves flying ground-attack missions against the desperate ‘Kaiserschlacht’ offensives of Spring, 1918. During the ‘Kaiserschlacht’ fighter pilots successfully attacking advancing troops could achieve far more than merely increasing their personal score in dogfights. Granted, by actively seeking dogfights they might shoot down an important enemy ace, but the odds were long. Killing one or two enemy pilots, especially novices fresh from flight school, meant very little if ‘friendlies’ were still destroyed.

Germany’s Oswald Boelcke, the first leading fighter tactician.

If artillery-spotters were shot down, artillery effectively fired blind using map references. They might not know whether they were even hitting their targets. Without accurate reconnaissance photographs, major enemy attacks could go undetected until they actually started. When planning offensives, planners needed accurate pictures to plan effectively. For the British Army on the ground RFC ‘Contact Patrols’ became increasingly important. Contact Patrols provided almost-live coverage of the fighting as pilots flew low over the battlefields assessing the situation at close quarters and provide communication between the front-line troops and senior commanders. Protecting observation balloons (and destroying enemy balloons) meant the difference between observing enemy activity from a safe distance or possibly not observing at all.

For some aces ‘balloon busting’ was a swift (and near-suicidal) means to score victories. It denied the enemy important reconnaissance capability so was very useful. It was also immensely dangerous. Balloons were usually well-protected by anti-aircraft guns and machine gun nests with fighters often patrolling nearby. They were also deep behind enemy lines. The risks were enormous and many aces avoided balloon busting when they could. Richthofen never shot down a balloon. Mannock’s first kill was a balloon, the experience put him off ever attacking another. Aside from ground fire and fighters, balloons were sometimes booby-trapped. They might contain a mannequin and a basket packed with explosives detonated when a pilot flew too close. Despite the immense risks some pilots regularly went balloon busting. Many (such as Frank Luke) died doing so.

American ‘balloon buster’ Frank Luke.

None of this means that dogfighting was unnecessary or avoidable. As aircraft, weapons and tactics evolved dogfights increased in size and frequency. In 1914 a dogfight might consist of two aircraft firing bolt-action rifles or handguns at each other. By 1918 some pilots thought that less than fifty or sixty aircraft involved meant it wasn’t a proper dogfight. Fighters became indispensable. But fighter aces acquired far greater importance than perhaps they deserve. Their role was often inflated at the expense of other pilots doing equally important, equally dangerous duties like aerial reconnaissance, bombing or even dropping spies behind enemy lines. As former RFC pilot Stanley Walters put it:

“Nobody could say that Great Britain was winning the war when one German went down in flames. That meant nothing. We fighters were the glamour boys and that was all wrong. What we were doing was protecting the Royal Flying Corps while it did its job.”

Accordingly, aces on all sides were lauded as much on myth as hard fact. During the first half of the war they were often portrayed as heirs to a chivalric tradition and knightly honour. They were portrayed as “knights of the sky” rather than ruthless, hardened professionals. Stories abound of pilots waving to each other in mid-combat, returning to base with empty ammunition belts or jammed guns and claiming that an enemy pilot had realized they were defenceless and shown mercy.

Undoubtedly there were occasional incidents of that kind but, as the war continued, fighter pilots developed increasingly ruthless attitudes and tactics leaving chivalry as dead as their victims. By 1916, if dogfighting had ever really been regarded as a sport, it had become a business. Former RFC squadron commander Hugh Dowding (later chief of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain) described leading Fighter Command with pungent bluntness. According to Dowding it was a matter of putting his pilots in a position to shoot as many enemy pilots as possible in the back, preferably while escaping unscathed.

In the latter half of the war successful aces seldom challenged enemies flying undamaged aircraft. They seldom flew into the middle of large dogfights. Instead they often circled the fringes of dogfights looking to pick off damaged aircraft and novice pilots who were obviously vulnerable. Setting traps for enemy fighters became commonplace. Leaving flights of aircraft at lower altitudes invited attack until the attackers dived on seemingly easy prey and were ‘bounced’ from above by more enemy fighters. RFC ace Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock even admitted strafing a German pilot and observer after forcing them down, stating “The swines are better dead – no prisoners for me!” Toward the end of his career Manfred von Richthofen made no secret of firing at enemy aircraft until certain the pilots were dead or their aircraft on fire. Ruthless reality replaced medieval myth. To survive aces increasingly combined skilled flying and predatory tactics with an executioner’s ruthlessness. The ‘Cavalry of the clouds’ evolved into airborne assassins.

The principle means of assessing their effectiveness is also questionable. Much was made of individual scores. Scores were the simplest means to assess their worth. Propagandists used them freely, building gifted aces into instant heroes. Propagandists had to build them quickly because they could become fallen heroes at any moment. Richthofen claimed 80 kills. Rene Fonck claimed 75. ‘Mick’ Mannock was officially awarded 73 although 61 is a more commonly-agreed figure. The score of any pilot (on either side) is debatable. In chaotic dogfights it was perfectly possible for any pilot to mistakenly claim a kill. Pilots might attack and see their target apparently spinning out of control without seeing them recover and escape. Faking loss of control was a common last-ditch tactic on both sides. A number of pilots might attack the same enemy at the same time and all claim a kill without the enemy having even been shot down. There were always some  fraudulently claiming kills if they thought they might get away with it. Eyewitnesses needed to confirm a kill could easily make mistakes, hugely distracted as they were simply by trying to survive. Two aces commonly accused of fraudulent claims were ‘Billy’ Bishop and Frank Luke, both of whose scores attract scepticism and suspicion from some quarters. It’s also historical fact that claims by either side seldom match confirmed enemy losses.

Like their lives, their deaths are frequently obscured by myth. Max Immelmann died mysteriously. The British claimed a Lieutenant McCubbin shot him down. The Germans claimed he shot off his own propeller after his interrupter gear failed. Nobody knows who shot down Albert Ball although the Germans  credited Lothar von Richthofen on doubtful evidence. French ace Georges Guynemer disappeared during a patrol. French schoolchildren were told that he had flown too high and been carried away by the angels. The single greatest mystery belongs to the war’s greatest ace, Manfred von Richthofen. Even today there is no conclusive proof of who killed him. The chance of finding any is extremely slim as several different individuals were all credited.

French ace Georges Guynemer.

Deaths of famous aces posed serious propaganda problems. Once an ace was declared unbeatable by the media plausible explanations had to be found (or invented) when they died. These had to reflect well on the aces and perhaps badly on the enemy. Albert Ball didn’t fly into a cloud never to return, he died because he was perpetually reckless. Edward Mannock died needlessly exposing himself to ground fire after his last kill, something he always ordered his own pilots to avoid doing. Manfred von Richthofen died breaking most of his own rules. He chased Wilfred May deep behind British lines well within range of ground fire and without any wingmen to cover him. Whatever the explanations (from prosaic to absurd) they seldom even implied an ace had been foolish, unlucky or met superior opponents. That aces could suffer physical and mental ‘burn out’ was also never admitted, not once they became ‘immortal’ and ‘infallible.’ As writer Alexander McKee wrote

‘It was not a time for generals, but for `aces’, and they did not disappoint their audience.’

To sum up, the successful aces had many positive qualities. They were physically brave to take such extraordinary risks. They were mentally strong, often flying even while physical and mental strains often became increasingly unbearable). They were usually skilled pilots and accurate marksmen. Some of them (Manfred von Richthofen, Oswald Boelcke, Edward Mannock and others) devised tactics giving a previously blunt instrument a lethal cutting edge. But, as a rule, they were pragmatic, ruthless and deadly when necessary. As the war dragged on they went from being ‘Knights of the sky’ to professionals killing to order.

History’s most famous ace, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen.

 The last word on the “ace myth” is probably best left with Manfred von Richthofen. The ‘Red Baron’ perfectly defined the difference between myth and reality in his famous memoir ‘Der Rote Kampfflieger’ (The Red Battle Pilot). He wrote:

“I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar. It is very serious, very grim…”