The longest prison sentences ever served: redux

Prison walls

Who served out the longest prison sentence known to history? My extensive investigation – begun in 2010 but now comprehensively updated – answers that question [it’s Charles Fossard, of Australia, with an all-but-incomprehensible 70 years, 303 days]. It also takes a look at some of Fossard’s unwitting and unwilling rivals, and tries to go inside the cells, to hear from the prisoners themselves. Their stories are often brutal, occasionally pathetic, but always surprisingly compelling.

The full story – which includes numerous case studies, a state-by-state listing of the longest sentences served everywhere from Alabama to Wisconsin, a look at record stretches from elsewhere, some notes on extraordinary cases of protracted solitary confinement, and a listing of all 16 known cases of men who spent in excess of 60 years behind bars – can be read here.

 

America’s first highjacking

Earnest Pletch, 'The Flying Lochinvar': early highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder.

Earnest Pletch, ‘The Flying Lochinvar’: pioneer highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder.

Earnest Pletch was mad on planes and mad on flying. In itself, that was scarcely uncommon in the America of the 1930s, a dozen years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic turned the United States into the epicentre of everything exciting in the aviation world. Yet Pletch was a pretty unusual case. He came from a well-off family, but had dropped out of school to find work in a travelling show. He was a serial husband and adulterer who was already, at the age of 29, planning to abandon his third wife. And he had actually been taking flying lessons.

Now – late on the afternoon of 27 October 1939 – Pletch was looking forward to going solo. He was not going to take the controls in the usual way, however. He was going to do so after shooting his pilot in the back of the head.

He may be long forgotten now, but Pletch came briefly to America’s attention that autumn after booking tuition in Missouri with a pilot by the name of Carl Bivens. Midway through the third of these sessions, while airborne at 5,000 feet and sitting in the rear seat of a tandem training plane equipped with dual controls, he pulled a revolver from a trouser pocket and, without giving any warning, sent two .32 calibre bullets through Bivens’s skull. Pletch then managed to land the plane, dumped the instructor’s body in a thicket, and took off again, heading north to his home state to… well, what he intended to do was never really clear, and we will come to that. Continue reading

The last secret of the H.L. Hunley

Submarine inventor James R. McClintock as he looked in the later 1870s, from a carte de visite photographed in New Albany. McClintock was living in the Illinois town when he journeyed to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there. Image: Naval Historical Center.

At a quarter to nine on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was on active duty, blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by a wintry moon that barely illuminated the dark ocean, was a sight so strange that he was not at first quite certain what it was. “Something on the water,” he recalled it to a court of enquiry a week later, “which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby told the Housatonic‘s quartermaster of the object, but it had already disappeared–and when, a moment later, he saw it again, it was too close to the sloop for there to be time to slip the anchor. The Housatonic‘s crew scrambled to their action stations just in time to witness a substantial explosion on their starboard side. Fatally holed, their ship sank in a few minutes, taking five members of her crew with her.

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship–all 1,240 tons of her–had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley‘s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about how the submarine came to be built – of her funding by a patriotic Southerner named Horace Hunley, the construction of two prototypes, and how the Hunley herself was riveted together at Mobile – not to mention the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We also know a little of the men who did the actual work: James McClintock and Baxter Watson, two talented mechanics who were running a steam gauge business in New Orleans when the war broke out. We even have a shrewd idea of the division of labor between the two men, for Watson’s son once confided that while his father had built the Hunley, it was McClintock who designed her. Of the three men responsible for the Hunley, then, it was probably James McClintock who played the most important role–and, as thing turn out, it is McClintock who also has by far the strangest tale to tell. Continue reading

The Villisca Axe Murders 100 years on

Joe and Sarah Moore, c.1905 with their eldest two children, Herman and Katherine. All four, together with two younger children and two of Katherine’s young friends, would die together in June 1912, killed by an unidentified ax-wielding assailant. The unsolved crime remains Iowa’s most infamous murder mystery.

Shortly after midnight on June 10, 1912—one hundred years ago this week—a stranger hefting an ax lifted the latch on the back door of a two-story timber house in the little Iowa town of Villisca. The door was not locked—crime was not the sort of thing you worried about in a modestly prosperous Midwest settlement of no more than 2,000 people, all known to one another by sight—and the visitor was able to slip inside silently and close the door behind him. Then, according to a reconstruction attempted by the town coroner next day, he took an oil lamp from a dresser, removed the chimney and placed it out of the way under a chair, bent the wick in two to minimize the flame, lit the lamp, and turned it down so low it cast only the faintest glimmer in the sleeping house.

Still carrying the ax, the stranger walked past one room in which two girls, ages 12 and 9, lay sleeping, and slipped up the narrow wooden stairs that led to two other bedrooms. He ignored the first, in which four more young children were sleeping, and crept into the room in which 43-year-old Joe Moore lay next to his wife, Sarah. Raising the ax high above his head—so high it gouged the ceiling—the man brought the flat of the blade down on the back of Joe Moore’s head, crushing his skull and probably killing him instantly. Then he struck Sarah a blow before she had time to wake or register his presence.

The Moore house in Villisca, 1912. One of the town’s larger and better-appointed properties, it still stands today and has been turned into Villisca’s premier tourist attraction. For a price, visitors can stay in the house overnight; there is no shortage of interested parties.

Leaving the couple dead or dying, the killer went next door and used the ax—Joe’s own, probably taken from where it had been left in the coal shed—to kill the four Moore children as they slept. Once again, there is no evidence that Herman, 11; Katherine, 10; Boyd, 7; or Paul, 5, woke before they died. Nor did the assailant or any of the four children make sufficient noise to disturb Katherine’s two friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, as they slept downstairs. The killer then descended the stairs and took his ax to the Stillinger girls, the elder of whom may finally have awakened an instant before she, too, was murdered.

What happened next marked the Villisca killings as truly peculiar and still sends shivers down the spine a century after the fact. Continue reading

Colonel Parker: murderer?

Colonel Tom Parker—the title was awarded to him by Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis in 1948 for political services rendered—claimed until 1982 to have been born in West Virginia. In fact he was a Dutchman, and the circumstances under which he left the Netherlands in 1929 remain a puzzle to this day.

The Colonel always was a mystery. But that was very much the way he liked it.

It was, of course, a tough trick to pull off, because the Colonel’s name was Tom Parker, and Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley. Since Elvis was the biggest name in the entertainment industry, his manager could hardly help appearing in the spotlight, too. For the most part that was not a problem, because Parker had a showman’s instincts and he enjoyed publicity. But, even so, he was always anxious to ensure that attention never settled for very long on two vexed questions: exactly who he was and precisely where he came from.

So far as the wider world knew, the Colonel was Thomas Andrew Parker, born in Huntingdon, West Virginia, some time shortly after 1900. He had toured with carnivals, worked with elephants and managed a palm-reading booth before finding his feet in the early 1950s as a music promoter. Had anyone taken the trouble to inquire, however, they would have discovered that there was no record of the birth of any Thomas Parker in Huntingdon. They might also have discovered that Tom Parker had never held a U.S. passport—and that while he had served in the U.S. Army, he had done so as a private. Indeed, Parker’s brief military career had ended in ignominy. In 1932, he had gone absent without leave and served several months in military prison for desertion. He was released only after he had suffered what his biographer Alanna Nash terms a “psychotic breakdown.” Diagnosed as a psychopath, he was discharged from the Army. A few years later, when the draft was introduced during the World War II, Parker ate until he weighed more than 300 pounds in a successful bid to have himself declared unfit for further service.

For the most part, these details did not emerge until the 1980s, years after Presley’s death and well into the Colonel’s semi-retirement (he eventually died in 1997). But when they did they seemed to explain why, throughout his life, Parker had taken such enormous care to keep his past hidden—why he had settled a lawsuit with Elvis’ record company when it became clear that he would have to face cross-examination under oath, and why, far from resorting to the sort of tax-avoidance schemes that managers typically offered to their clients, he had always let the IRS calculate his taxes. The lack of a passport might even explain the single greatest mystery of Presley’s career: why the Colonel had turned down dozens of offers, totaling millions of dollars, to have his famous client tour the world. Elvis was just as famous in London, Berlin and Tokyo–yet in a career of almost 30 years, he played a total of only three concerts on foreign soil, in Canada in 1957. Although border-crossing formalities were minimal then, the Colonel did not accompany him.

Parker serving in the U.S. Army, c.1929. Photographer unknown.

Although it took years for the story to leak out, the mystery of the Colonel’s origins had actually been solved as early as the spring of 1960, in the unlikely surrounds of a hairdressers’ salon in the Dutch town of Eindhoven. There a woman by the name of Nel Dankers van Kuijk flicked through a copy of Rosita, a Belgian women’s magazine. It carried a story about Presley’s recent discharge from the U.S. Army, illustrated by a photo of the singer standing in the doorway of a train and waving to his fans. The large figure of Elvis’s manager, standing grinning just behind his charge, made Dankers-van Kuijk jump.

The man had aged and grown grotesquely fat. But she still knew him as her long-lost brother.

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The mysterious Mr. Zedzed, the wickedest man in the world

basil zaharoff

Zaharoff promenade.jpg

Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, better known as Sir Basil Zaharoff: arsonist, bigamist and pimp, arms dealer, honorary knight of the British Empire, confidant of kings, and all-round international man of mystery.

Late in November 1927, an elderly Greek man sat in his mansion in Paris and tended a fire. Every time it flickered and threatened to die, he reached to one side and tossed another bundle of papers or a leather-bound book into the grate. For two days the old man fed the flames, at one point creating such a violent conflagration that his servants worried he would burn the whole house down. By the time he had finished, a vast pile of confidential papers, including 58 years’ worth of diaries that recorded every detail of a most scandalous career, had been turned to ash. Thus the shadowy figure whom the press dubbed “the Mystery Man of Europe” ensured that his long life would remain, for the most part, an impenetrable enigma.

Few men have acquired so evil a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.

In his prime, Zaharoff was more than a match for the notorious Aleister Crowley in any contest to be dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World. Still remembered as the inventor of the Systeme Zaharoff—a morally bankrupt sales technique that involved a single unscrupulous arms dealer selling to both parties in a conflict he has helped to provoke—he made a fortune working as a super-salesman for Vickers, the greatest of all British private arms firms, whom he served for 30 years as “our General Representative abroad.” He expressed no objection to, and indeed seemed rather to enjoy, being referred to as “the Armaments King.”

Men of the Constantinople Fire Brigade, an Ottoman army unit well-known in the 19th century for its corruption. In the 1860s Zaharoff was employed there as an arsonist, setting fires that could be extinguished for profit.

Zaharoff’s youth remains shrouded in mystery and rumor, much of it put about by Zedzed himself. He was born in the Turkish town of Mughla, the son of a Greek importer of attar of roses, and soon proved to be an astonishing linguist—he would later be described as the master of 10 languages. At some point, it is supposed, the family moved briefly to Odessa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where they Russified their name. But remarkably little proper documentation survives from this or any other period of Zaharoff’s career. As one early biographer, the Austrian Robert Neumann, put it:

You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! a fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…. He buys a château in France and—how does the story of the editor of the Documents politiques go?—”Sir Basil Zaharoff at once buys up all the picture postcards… which show the château, and strictly prohibits any more photographs being taken.”

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Santa Claus Smith

A Depression-era hobo–one of thousands who traveled the roads and rails of the United States during the 1930s.

On the evening of July 18, 1935, in an America still crushed in the coils of the Great Depression, an old man with a long white beard appeared on the front lawn of a farm off Route 1 in Metamora, Indiana.

It was late, nearly dusk, and when the farmer’s wife came out to ask what the man wanted, he begged her for a piece of bread. “He had a very kind face,” she wrote some days later,

and it has always been my custom to give to tramps if I have anything I can handy [sic] give. He was carrying a pack on his back so I told him to set it down on the lawn. I had a nice warm supper cooked so I served him on the lawn. He seemed to be very hungry. I gave him a second serving. When he finished he took from his pack two checks copied from brown paper, looked like they were cut from paper bags. He came forward and handed these to me with his plate.

According to this woman, “his face was so kind it is hard to believe he meant anything false.” But when she looked down at the paper cheques, she saw that one had been written for $25,000, and the other for $1,000.
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