Tuesday, June 17, 2008

June 17

On this date in 1939, the German-born serial killer Eugen Weidmann lost his mind – and the head that encased it – to the guillotine outside the French prison at Versailles.

Weidmann had committed a number of petty crimes over the years and had completed a short prison term in March 1936 before meandering to France to avoid serving in Hitler’s armed forces. It appears that Weidmann viewed himself to be something of a criminal genius, and he organized a gang comprised of fellows he’d met while in a Franfurt prison to carry out a series of abductions that mainly targeted wealthy visitors from the United States and Great Britain. When their first effort went badly and their victim managed to escape, Weidman and his companions evidently decided to take no more chances. Beginning with the abduction and murder of the American dancer Jean de Koven – whom he admitted to strangling while she was drinking tea -- Weidman and his accomplices tallied a half dozen victims between July and September 1937. Most of them had been shot in the back of the head and robbed; one of their female victims was buried in a garden, the other stuffed into a cave. Detectives located and arrested the conspirators in December, and their trial – which did not take place for another 15 months – resulted in the completely predictable verdict of death for Weidman. His accomplices earned life sentences.

At 4:00 a.m. on June 17, 1939, prison officials roused Weidmann from bed, shaved the back of his neck, offered him a shot of rum and a smoke, then escorted him the Place de Greve, a public plaza just outside the prison walls. More than two hundred audience permits had been issued to view the killing, and so an eager crowd awaited the condemned man as he emerged from Versailles. Most of them had been merry-making since the previous evening in anticipation of the execution, and Weidman’s arrival rejuvenated their fatigued spirits, sending them into what the press described as a “hysterical” frenzy. When Henri Desfourneaux, France’s executioner, released the blade, Weidman’s head tumbled to the pavement while numerous women in the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs and scarves in the accumulating lake of blood.

Embarrassed by the display, prison authorities consigned future executions to the interior of the prison, where they ere carried out until 1977, when the last guillotining took place. France, joining much of the rest of the world in its evolving standards of decency, formally abolished capital punishment in September 1981.

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