Simon Webb, Fighting for the United States, Executed in Britain (Pen & Sword, 2021)
In 1942, the first of thousands of American soldiers arrived in Britain to help win the war in the west. But in keeping with the maxim that an army reflects the society from which it is drawn, some of these men proved to be dangerous criminals subject to the most extreme punishment: death by execution. In a curious anomaly, they were tried under American military justice but executed in an English prison. That should have been a major problem because Americans still executed men for rape, Britain did not, and American justice was riddled with racial and ethnic bigotry, which created such a suspicion of bias in the punishments that questions were raised in Parliament. But the expediency of war and the desperation to keep America onside resulted in this perversion of the justice system being glossed over. In this interesting but ultimately shallow survey, Simon Webb recounts the cases that deserve our attention.
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Webb notes that all but two of the condemned were executed by hanging, conducted by English hangmen – the other two died by firing squad – eight were convicted of murder, eight for rape, and three for both. He also reminds us that executions in this era were not uncommon. Webb sets the scene by returning to America’s foundation and its refusal to become entangled in formal foreign alliances even upon entering WWII as an ally. That included the American insistence of no interference with its citizens in Britain no matter the crime or the victim, something that did not apply to any other ally. The British gave them Shepton Mallet prison to conduct their proceedings. David Cobb was the first to die under this agreement for a murder he committed in December 1942. He was executed in England as a deterrent, though Webb does nothing to dispel this fallacy. Webb moves on to describe the prison and the different methods of hanging by the British and the Americans; the British insisted their method was used on British soil and by British hangmen – Thomas Pierrepoint killed Cobb.
The Death Penalty for Rape ended in England in 1841, but America still executed rapists through WWII. They executed 6 soldiers for rape in England out of 126 convictions: 5 Black Americans and a Hispanic American. Webb delves into their cases, then comes 3 double execution cases, of which the process was expedited in the last case so that the Americans did not have to return to the US with condemned men. After describing the case of an innocent Black man, Leroy Henry, sentenced to death with the verdict set aside by Eisenhower for expedient reasons once a petition was signed by over 30,000 people, Webb continues onto the murderers executed by the Americans. One of them, Wiley Harris Jr, also received great British support for clemency, but Eisenhower obviously saw this one differently and Harris was executed. Webb lingers on the murder of Sir Eric Teichman, murdered by ‘poachers’ in December 1944. For that crime, George Smith, with a mental age of 9 years old, paid the price. Two American soldiers faced firing squads in England but these were carried out by American soldiers; as with many of the cases in this book, there were troubling overtones in both of these executions. Only one American soldier was tried for murder in a British court, Karl Hulten for the Cleft Chin Murder; he was killed, his British accomplice was granted clemency. The last execution at Shepton Mallet was for rape; Aniceto Martinez was killed on 15 June 1945.
Webb closes with some conclusions. He argues that the British insistence on conducting hangings was justified based on the American bungling of post-war executions of Nazis, though he praises British efficiency a bit too lightly – while America’s John Woods was undoubtedly a psychopath, England had its fair share of notorious hangmen. Webb also highlights that the American involvement in British justice remains blurred in the 21st Century. Finally, Webb notes the closure of Shepton Mallet prison in 2013, before adding two appendices on where America buried its executed prisoners and potted biographies of the Pierrepoint family of hangmen who wracked up hundreds of judicial killings between them.
The importation of the American military death penalty system into wartime Britain is a fascinating and important subject, but Webb’s book on it sadly lacks substance. In addition, his lack of adequate analysis and deficient methodology provokes more questions than answers. Webb is right to highlight the disquieting racial and ethnic bias in the American executions, but other than some anecdotal evidence, he does not present the complete picture of the appalling level of injustice that the British allowed to scar their judicial landscape. He is not helped here by his slender bibliography, of which only about a dozen books are obviously relevant to this study. Moreover, Webb’s focus on narrating the crimes with only a passing reference to the trials and processes of the American system skews the discussion in favour of the executioners when almost every death sentence passed involved disturbing factors even outside the race and ethnicity of the condemned. Nor is there any analysis of the dozens of cases where guilt was found but the death penalty was not applied. Readers interested in this subject might find Webb’s book a useful source of information on the crimes and some of the men condemned to death for committing them, but they will have to go elsewhere to discover the full story of this dark chapter in American and British justice.