Slavery Redux

After those Northern spoilsports made slavery illegal some ingenious good ol’ boys came up with a way of enslaving black people that was entirely legal. The system was called convict leasing. It began in 1865 and lasted until 1928.

The idea was simple. Convicts were leased out to plantations etc. to replace the slaves that had been emancipated. If normal criminality did not provide sufficient recruits then people could be arrested on trumped up charges.  Plantation owners could hire rather than buy and their capital outlays were less than when they had to buy their slaves. Also, since they did not own their labour force they had no particular incentive to look after their leased convicts.

Convicts did not only work on plantations. Alabama kept the system from 1875 to 1928 and most of the state’s convicts worked in the coal mines around Birmingham.

Often just convicted of minor offences, the leased convicts  served long periods of hard labor. They lived in  filth, were poorly fed, suffered torture and cruel punishments, and had no protection whatsoever from the labor contractors who hired them. Mine owners often faked “bad conduct” reports on prisoners to prolong their sentences and thus keep experienced men in the mine longer. A blind eye was turned to whippings and other forms of  abuse. Mines had high death rates.  Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.

Convicts were whipped, a man standing at the head and another at the feet, while a third applied the lash with both hands. Men who failed to perform their task of mining from two to four tons of coal per day were fastened to planks by the feet, then bent over a barrel and fastened by the hands on the other side, stripped and beaten with a strap. Out of the fifty convicts worked in the mines from one to eight were whipped per day in this manner. There was scarcely a day, according to the testimony of the witness, James Frazier, in which one or more were not flogged in this manner.  In many cases convicts were forced to work in water six inches deep for weeks at a time getting out coal with one-fourth of the air necessary for a healthy man to live in, forced to drink water from stagnant pools  and the reports of the prison officials showing large numbers killed in ‘attempting to escape’.”

States made a lot of money from convicts leasing. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. No doubt corrupt officials also made a lot of money.

Whilst everybody knows about the practice of lynching in the South I doubt if many people are familiar with convict leasing, yet it probably claimed more lives and was equally a method of social control. Any black person who became ‘uppity’ could easily be arrested on a false charge and sent off to the convict leasing system for ten or twenty years.


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Selection and Retribution


Two trains from Hungary have arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau extermination camp and selection is taking place. Sometimes those capable of working are separated  and sent to one of the many satellite work camps. The rest, most women, the old and children, are sent for immediate gassing. At other times everybody on a train is gassed.


Walking to the gas chamber

Clearing up afterwards. A crematorium chimney is visible in the background.

What a happy group.

Auschwitz guards at a rest centre.


Stutthof concentration camp was located in the north of Poland, near Danzig. Some 85,ooo prisoners died in the camp. The Russians and Poles held four trials of former guards and kapos , charging them with  crimes against humanity. The first trial was held against 30 ex-officials and kapos.  Eleven of them, including five female guards, were sentenced to death. The executions were carried out at Biskupia Górka on the 4th July 1946.

Both Steinhoff and Barkmann were reported as being involved in the selection of women and children for gassing.

The above Stutthof guard photographs are from this page.

Albert Pierrepoint, the British executioner, hung a total of 202 German war criminals  between 1945 and 1949, including Irma Grese for crimes at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and Auschwitz (aged 22), Elisabeth Volkenrath (Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz), and Juana Bormann (Auschwitz). The execution of Grese and some other war criminals was portrayed in the 2006 film Pierrepoint.

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Tramp Chair

A tramp chair was used by small town police forces in the USA to retrain and torment individuals.  As its name suggests it was often used against vagrants.  A person would be locked in the chair and left in a public place exposed to the elements and public abuse, particularly by children.  Sometimes the victim would be stripped naked before being put in the chair.

The caption on the photograph below states that the use of the chair ‘eradicated tramps entirely’.


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The Guillotine in Nazi Germany

We associate the guillotine with France and particularly with the French Revolution. However Germany also used the guillotine and Nazi Germany used it a lot, decapitating thousands of people.

From 1928 to 1932 there were no more than  two or three executions a year in Germany. The rise of the National Socialist party in 1933 produced  a sudden increase in executions. Before 1933, only murder and high treason were capital crimes and in Berlin, beheading (with the axe) was the only lawful method of execution. (Other states used beheading with the axe or the guillotine).

When Hitler came to total power, he decided that criminals and enemies of the state should be executed by either guillotining [or hanging from 1942] and he ordered the construction of 20 guillotines. There were 64 executions  in 1933, 79 in 1934, 94 in 1935 and 68 in 1936.  Between 1933 and 1944, a total of 13,405 death sentences were passed. Of these, 11,881 were carried out.

Between 1943 and 1945, the People’s Courts sentenced around 7,000 people to death. In the first few months of 1945, some 800 people were executed, over 400 of them being German citizens.

Many executions were carried out in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison. Between 1933 and 1945, some 2,891 people were decapitated or hanged in Plötzensee.  Some of them had belonged to Communist resistance groups, others to the Harnack/Schulze-Boysen Organization (the Red Orchestra), and still others to the Kreisau Circle. On the 20th of July 1944, an attempt was made on Hitler’s life by a group of army officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The attempt failed, and between the 8th of August 1944 and the 9th of April 1945, a total of 90 people were executed in Plötzensee for their parts in the conspiracy.

Plötzensee’s guillotine was delivered on the 17th of February 1937 from Bruchsal prison in Baden. In late 1942, a steel gallows beam was erected in the existing execution chamber, and five, later eight hooks, for attachment of nooses.  The two execution areas were separated by curtains.  Condemned prisoners  spent their final hours shackled in special cells on the ground floor of a building which was known as the  ”house of the dead,” before being led across a small courtyard to the execution chamber.

Plotzensee Prison execution room

The executioners receive an annual salary of 3,000 Reichsmarks and a special bonus of 60 Reichsmarks for each execution, which was later raised to 65 Reichsmarks. The families of the executed prisoners had to pay an “invoice of expenses.”  The public prosecutor charged 1.50 Reichsmarks for every day of custody in Plötzensee, 300 Reichsmarks for the execution, and 12 Pfennigs to cover the postage for the “invoice of expenses.”

Initially Roettger, the Plötzensee executioner,  came twice a week and carried out his work in the early evenings. Guillotinings could be carried out at three minute intervals.  Hangings involved slow strangulation, not the more merciful neck breaking drop used in the UK and other countries.  The prisoner was led in with their hands tied behind them and made to get up onto the two step step-up, the executioner following them and placing the thin cord slip knot around their neck. They were not hooded or blindfolded. The executioner got down and simply pulled the step-up from under them leaving them suspended with little or no drop. Subsequent prisoners had to witness the struggles of the earlier victims before it was their turn.

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Pole Hanging

Some years ago I visited the site of Dachau concentration camp. The photograph below was on display. It shows  prisoners being punished by pole hanging.  Prisoners were handcuffed behind their backs and then they were hung from a hook for one or two hours. This would be what the American Government would call a stress position [but definitely not torture].

This was such a common punishment at Dachau that a room was devoted to it with hooks along walls and on support pillars.

Pole hanging appears to have been used in many  Nazi concentration camps. This photograph shows poles at a camp near Berlin.

Pole Hanging Sachsenhausen

When I visited Dachau recently all references to pole hanging had disappeared.  The photographs and exhibits in the camp museum appear to have been sanitised over the years.

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Executions in pre revolutionary china – part 2

The condemned man is standing on a pile of stones or planks. Each day one is removed. He can postpone death by standing on tiptoe but eventually he can no longer support his weight and he will suffocate.


After the revolution.

Public execution of a Qing Dynasty official after the Xinhai Revolution, c1911.

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Sati Hands

Beside one of the gates to the Junagarh Fort, Bikaner District, Rajasthan are the hand prints of women who committed sati when their husbands died in battle while defending the fort.

In other cases hand prints were made by wives and mistresses  before throwing themselves [or being thrown] on the funeral pyre of their husband or master.  When Maharajah Ajit Singh died in 1731, six of his wives and 58 concubines died on his funeral pyre.

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur.

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African holocaust – King Leopold’s Belgian Congo

After the Berlin Conference of 1884 the 905,000 square miles of the Belgian Congo [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo ] became the personal   property of King Leopold II of Belgium. His genocidal exploitation of the territory, particularly the rubber trade, caused many deaths and much suffering. Murder and mutilation were common.

Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death. The Force Publique were required to provide a hand of their victims as proof when they had shot and killed someone, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions for hunting food. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were in part paid off in chopped-off hands. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command ‘ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades … and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross.’ After seeing a Congolese person killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: ‘The soldier said “Don’t take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service.”‘

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Cerro Rico

Cerro Rico is a mountain in Bolivia, near the town of Potosi.  Cerro Rico means rich mountain and it is aptly named.

Early in the 16th century the Spanish Conquistadores were told about the mountain’s vast silver deposits and began mining. The Cerro Rico mines became a source of fabulous wealth for the Spanish Empire.

Potosi became not only the largest city in South America but larger than London or Paris.  In the 16th century, the area was regarded as the world’s biggest industrial site. Potosi attracted adventurers from all over Spain and the became lawless, governed by corrupt officials who wanted their share of the riches.

Between 1556 and 1783 the Spanish  extracted 45,000 tons of pure silver. Some  went to the Spanish monarchy and was largely dissipated in pointless wars. Soon the annual flow of silver was not enough to fund their military adventures and the monarchy started borrowing against future shipments.  That got out of hand and repeated bankruptcies followed.

Perhaps half of the silver went to China. The Chinese had much that the Spanish wished to buy but the Spanish had little to sell in return. However, the Chinese wanted silver so  bars and coins from Potosi were shipped to Mexico and then to Manila. There they were traded to the Chinese in return for silk, porcelain and many other items.

Huancavelica and Cerro Rico

Mercury was used to process the silver ore and this was obtained from mines in the mountain of Huancavelica. Mercury is highly toxic and conditions in the mercury mines were terrible.

At first the Spanish used Indians as miners at both sites. When this source of labour dried up they imported slaves from Africa.  It has been estimated that between four and eight million miners died at Huancavelica and Cerro Rico in extracting and processing mercury and silver.

Working conditions in the mine and  the processing works were very bad. Conditions at Huancavelica were reputed to be even worse than those at Potosi. Many must have either died or been crippled by mercury poisoning. Officials who dug up the bodies of miners in 1604 reported that the decomposed bodies left behind puddles of mercury.

Some of the workers were indentured labourers or  African slaves. Some were free workers. Like those who work the mine today they would be free in the sense they could choose to leave and starve instead of working in the mine.

Mining continues for tin, zinc and a little silver and about 15,000 people still work in Cerro Rico. Conditions have changed little since the Spanish ran the mines. The mountain  continues to kill miners. Deadly accidents are common, and most miners still die young with lung diseases caused by years of inhaling poisonous dust and gases.

Here is a description of a visit to the mine.

Ferguson, N., 2009. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Penguin.
Mann, C., 2011. 1493: How the Ecological Collision of Europe and the Americas Gave Rise to the Modern World, Granta Books.

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Executions in pre revolutionary China

An executioner, his sword and the results of his days work in a Canton prison.

Another executioner shows the result of his work.

After the executioner left.

This photograph supposedly shows the execution of some female students found guilty of anti state activity.

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