On This Day in 1918; Privates Ernest Jackson and Louis Harris, Shot Four Days Before The Armistice.


Shot_at_Dawn,_National_Memorial_Arboretum_(15)
The memorial to over 300 British soldiers shot during World War One. Jackson and Harris were the last.

In keeping with the Remembrance theme of this week I’ve decided to share this with you. During the First World War the British Army carried out over 300 executions by firing squad, around 10% of those British servicemen actually sentenced to death for crimes such as desertion, cowardice, striking a superior officer and mutiny among other capital military offences. This is the story of the last two men to shot at dawn during the First World War. They were shot on November 7, 1918, four days later the war was over and all military death sentences were commuted to prison sentences.

Private Ernest Jackson went first. He’d been conscripted in 1916, arriving in France that November. In April 1917 he went AWOL, Absent Without Leave, for 28 hours. The court martial sentenced him to two years hard labour, a non-capital sentence that was often commuted to a lesser punishment. Jackson’s sentence wasn’t commuted and he didn’t return to active service until August, 1918 when he was returned to his battalion after sixteen months behind bars.

It wasn’t long before he was facing another court martial, this time for a much more serious crime with fatal consequences. On September 29 he reported sick and was sent to Flesquieres to wait for transport to a military hospital via field ambulance. He was arrested by military police and returned to his unit at Noyelles, some 3000 yards behind the British front line trenches where, on October 3, he vanished again and was arrested near Douellen. On October 8 his weapons and equipment were found stashed away, not far from where he’d gone absent for the second time.

Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial on charges of going AWOL, desertion and ‘Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy.’ Going AWOL wasn’t a shooting offence, but desertion and casting away arms both were. The court martial showed him no leniency and nor did his superior officers when they considered his appeal. He was taken to the town of St. Python and shot at 6:10am on November 7, 1918. He was 32 years old.

Private Louis Harris was shot 19 minutes later and 25 kilometres away at Locquignol. Harris wasn’t originally a conscript. He’d volunteered in 1915, but been discharged as medically unfit. With mounting casualties and a constant need for replacements the Army relaxed its medical criteria to admit more recruits. Harris, despite having been previously medically discharged, was now considered fit enough to be conscripted. By peacetime military standards Harris wasn’t fit for service. In wartime and with a desperate need for more men, the Army decided he was still fit enough.

He arrived on the Western Front in July, 1916 and it wasn’t long before he began getting into difficulties with higher authority. On September 2 he disappeared from his unit during a skirmish at Rocquigny. Not a major battle, but a small action where witnesses reported there being “No firing and practically no opposition.” .

Harris had simply deserted his unit, thrown away his weapons and equipment and vanished. He was arrested the next day and brought before a Field General Court Martial on capital charges of desertion and cowardice. He put up almost no defence before the court and it seemed to some who were there that he either didn’t understand or didn’t care how much trouble he was in. He was convicted and condemned in short order, acquitted of cowardice but convicted of desertion, and his case went to appeal.

It did no good. Harris’s commanding officer recommended execution, not commutation. He described Harris as having a bad record in the battalion and his military value as being ‘Nil.’ The Brigade Commander was equally firm in denying clemency. He wrote:

‘I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:

  1. Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
  2. He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
  3. He is worthless as a soldier.
  4. During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
  5. His example is a disgraceful one.’

Private Harris was shot at Locquignol at 6:29am on November 7, 1918. He was the last British soldier shot during the First World War. The bitter irony for both Private Jackson and Private Harris was that, with the Armistice starting at 11am on November 11, 1918, the well-known ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh month’, all existing military death sentences were then commuted. Had these men been sentenced a few days later they wouldn’t have returned home as conquering heroes, but then they wouldn’t have been shot either.

In 2006 all those shot at dawn during the First World War were pardoned. A permanent memorial now stands at the National Memorial Arboretum in the county of Staffordshire. Rudyard Kipling, whose son died during the battle of Loos, immortalied them long before it was fashionable to fight their corner. His poem ‘The Coward’ best sums up their fates:

‘I could not look on Death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone.’

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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.