In A Tale of Two Cities, the guillotine was transformed by Charles Dickens into a semi-independent character, whose ever-present and ominous shadow dominated the story. Today, mention of the guillotine usually brings to mind images of the French Revolution, as its blade chopped through and culled the Ancien Regime’s aristocracy. In its 1790s heyday, it snipped the necks of historic figures such as the ultimate royalists, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. An equal opportunity instrument of death, the guillotine also chopped off the heads of the radical republicans who had executed the king and queen. In between those political extremes, tens of thousands lost their lives to the guillotine in is busiest stretch of usage, during the Reign of Terror.
So ubiquitous was the instrument in this period, that it became a quasi-symbol of Revolutionary France. So associated is the guillotine with the French Revolution, it is easy to forget that its use continued long after the 1789 upheaval came to an end. Indeed, the instrument, sometimes referred to by the French as “The National Razor”, continued to do its work well into the modern age. It serviced its last customer in the 1970s, during the Age of Disco, and after Star Wars was released on May 25th, 1977. Later that year, on September 10th, Hamida Djandoubi won the distinction of becoming the correct answer to the question: “who was the last person guillotined in France?”
Hamida Djandoubi was born in Tunis in 1949, and moved to Marseilles in 1968. There, he worked a series of menial jobs. One of them, a stint as a landscaper, ended when a workplace accident resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. So he switched careers, and became a pimp. He earned a date with “The National Razor” after he kidnapped, tortured, and strangled to death a former girlfriend in 1974, after she filed a complaint that accused him of trying to force her into prostitution.
Djandoubi was arrested and went to trial in February of 1974. He was duly convicted and sentenced to death. After he exhausted his appeals and failed to win a reprieve from France’s president, Djandoubi’s went under the guillotine in a Marseilles prison at 4:40AM, September 10th, 1977. The guillotine remained France’s official instrument of execution throughout the end of the 1970s, and into the early 1980s. The French did not abolish the guillotine and capital punishment until 1981 – the same year MS-DOS 1.0 was released, and Indiana Jones premiered in the US.
16. The 1970s Major Drug Trafficker Who Went on the Lam
America’s most famous drug dealers in the 1970s were black gangsters Nicky Barnes, and the even better known Frank Lucas. The latter became even more famous years later, after he became the subject of Ridley Scott’s 2007 blockbuster American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington. However, a far bigger and wealthier drug dealer than either Barnes or Lucas was Frank Matthews (born 1944), who was in a league of his own. Matthews was America’s biggest narcotics trafficker when he jumped bail in 1973 and disappeared with $20 million. Despite their best efforts, authorities caught neither hide nor hair of him, and he has been at large ever since.
Frank Matthews was born in Durham, North Carolina, and after his mother’s death, he was raised by an aunt and her police lieutenant husband. The fact that he was raised in a police household did not stop Matthews from becoming a delinquent. He dropped out of school in seventh grade, and soon thereafter did a year in a juvenile reformatory for assault. He moved to Philadelphia after his release and became a numbers runner, then left the City of Brotherly Love for NYC in a deal to avoid prosecution.
Frank Matthews was a big and muscular man, and that helped secure him gigs as a collector and enforcer in NYC. He eventually ditched that line of work and got into the drug trade when he discovered that there was far more money in that. The Italian mafia controlled the heroin trade at the time, but when Matthews tried to do business with them, they rejected him. From then on, he had an antipathy towards the Italian mafia, and avoided working with them whenever possible. In lieu of Italian mobsters, he partnered up with a Cuban drug dealer. His partner was forced to flee the US soon thereafter to avoid an indictment, and set Matthews up with his South American contacts and suppliers.
Within a year, Matthews had become one of NYC’s biggest drug dealers. By the early 1970s, he was the East Coast’s biggest narcotics trafficker. At the peak of his career, Matthews supplied major drug dealers throughout the US, and had operations in 21 states, from Boston to Alabama, and as far west as Missouri. In 1971, he held a “summit” meeting in Atlanta of the country’s biggest African-American drug dealers, to discuss new supply pipelines to break the Italians’ stranglehold on heroin importation. Reportedly, it was this gathering of black crime bosses that got another black gangster, Nicky Barnes, to think about setting up a “Council” to coordinate the activity of a black mafia. Matthews savored his success to the fullest. He enjoyed the high life, and lived it up with luxury cars, huge fur coats, and trips to Las Vegas where he was treated like royalty.
14. As With Al Capone in the 1930s, the IRS Was the Nemesis of This 1970s Criminal Kingpin
Frank Matthews’ visits to Sin City were not just for pleasure. Over the years, he made frequent trips to Las Vegas, in which he carried suitcases full of cash to secretly launder at the casinos for a fee. On one of those trips in early January, 1973, he was picked up at the airport by DEA agents on an arrest warrant for conspiracy to sell 40 pounds of cocaine. The feds, who suspected that Matthews had millions in cash stashed away, wanted him held without bail as a severe flight risk. A US magistrate however set bail at $5 million – at the time, the highest bail amount in US history. Matthews, who was also told by the IRS that he owed taxes on the estimated $100 million he earned in 1971, knew he was in serious trouble.
Even if he beat the drug charges, the feds would almost certainly get him on tax evasion. Just like they got Al Capone in the 1930s, the IRS was out to get Matthews in the 1970s. When his bail was reduced to $325,000, he paid it, got out of jail, then disappeared with his girlfriend and about $20 million in cash. Decades later, Matthews’ fate remains a complete mystery. According to Mike Pizzi, a US Marshall who spent years involved in a futile hunt for the fugitive, it is as if Matthews simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Frank Lucas opined on the disappearance: “Some say he’s dead, but I know he’s living in Africa, like a king, with all the fucking money in the world“.
The only drug widely available to American troops in Vietnam until 1969 was marijuana. Then heroin became ever more available. It was cheap, and of such a high level of purity that servicemen could get high smoking heroin mixed with tobacco. That made it more appealing to those who would have been reluctant to inject the drug. By 1971, almost half of US Army enlistees in Vietnam had tried heroin, and of those, about half exhibited signs of addiction. In May, 1971, US Congressmen Robert Steele of Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois went to Vietnam on a fact finding mission. It uncovered disturbing facts: 15% of American servicemen in Vietnam were heroin addicts. Even more military personnel in theater were recreational users of heroin, marijuana, and other drugs.
Worse, the addiction epidemic spread in the early 1970s from Vietnam to other US military installations around the world. The American garrison in West Germany was particularly hard hit. The armed forces tried to handle the epidemic with a mixture of military discipline and penalties, combined with a limited amnesty. Military personnel caught using or possessing drugs were subject to court martial and dishonorable discharge. On the other hand, those who voluntarily sought help would be offered an “amnesty” and a brief stint of treatment. As statistics revealed, that approach was a dismal failure: during the previous year and a half, heroin use had skyrocketed. The idea that so many servicemen were addicted to heroin horrified the American public. That drug was widely perceived at the time as the most addictive narcotic ever produced, and one whose addiction was nearly impossible to escape.
12. A Military Drug Epidemic That Led to Serious Social Problems in the 1970s and Beyond
In response to the military drug epidemic, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction. It revealed that Congressmen Murphy and Steele had been mistaken in their figures. Instead of 15%, the true figure for self-identified addicts in Vietnam was actually 20%. This took place as the US tried to negotiate an exit from the Vietnam War, while it drew down its troops. About 1000 servicemen were sent back home each day, where most were discharged soon thereafter back into civilian life. If the addiction figures were true, it meant that hundreds of active heroin addicts were being released into the US each week. Such a huge influx of hardcore drug addicts created serious social problems in the 1970s and beyond.
Psychologists drafted a plan for the president that entailed radical changes in how the military dealt with addiction. Instead of reliance on courts martial, treatment would be emphasized. And rather than rely on addicts to self-report their drug use in the hope of “amnesty”, widespread urine testing throughout the services should be employed to detect heroin use. Under the new policy, American servicemen in Vietnam who tested positive for heroin were kept in theater under treatment until they dried out, before they were allowed to return home. There, they received further treatment in VA facilities. It was a vast improvement over what had been done before, and the relapse rate among those who underwent such treatment was a relatively low 5%. The problem was not finally contained until years later, after the US finally withdrew completely from Vietnam.
Charles Sobhraj (1944 – ) is a Frenchman of Vietnamese and Indian origins, who spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between France and Indochina. He became a delinquent at an early age, engaged in petty crimes, and was sentenced to his first prison sting at age eighteen, for burglary. A manipulative psychopath, he met and endeared himself to a rich prison volunteer, who introduced him to high society after his release. Sobhraj used that access to the rich to enrich himself in turn, via scams. He also scouted the homes of his new upper class friends and acquaintances for lucrative burglaries.
Legal troubles eventually forced him to flee France with his girlfriend in 1970 to avoid arrest. The couple travelled through Eastern Europe with fake documents, and eventually ended up in India. There, Sobhraj ran a car theft and smuggling ring until 1973, when he was arrested for an attempted robbery of a jewelry store. He managed to escape, and fled to Afghanistan. There, Sobhraj and his girlfriend began to prey on tourists along the “Hippie Trail” – an overland route between Europe and South Asia, popular with Hippies and Beatniks between the 1950s and 1970s.
Charles Sobhraj’s girlfriend eventually left him and returned to France. He then engaged in a variety of criminal schemes. One such enterprise with his brother backfired, and left his sibling serving an eighteen year term in a Turkish prison. Thereafter, Sobhraj grew steadily darker, and he began to pile up the bodies of murder victims all along the Hippie Trail. He is believed to have murdered at least twenty Western tourists in the 1970s, and the true body count is thought by many to be significantly higher.
Sobhraj was finally undone in 1976, when he tried to drug a group of French tourists in India. He miscalculated the dosage however. His victims became violently ill, but were still conscious enough to realize what Sobhraj had tried to do. They managed to overpower and seize him, until police arrived. Thai authorities sought his extradition for a murder committed there – which likely would have resulted in a death sentence. Indian authorities decided to try him for crimes committed on Indian soil first, however. He was convicted of a variety of offense and imprisoned, but escaped in 1986 after he drugged his prison guards.
9. The End of the Road for the Slippery 1970s Hippie Trail Killer?
Charles Sobhraj did not stay on the lam for long, and was easily recaptured a month later. The led many to speculate that it was a deliberate attempt to get extra jail time tacked on to his sentence. With the extra jail time, he was not released until 1997, after the twenty years statute of limitations for crimes committed in Thailand in the 1970s had passed. Thus, he could no longer be extradited to face a potential death penalty there. Behind bars, Sobhraj used his cunning and charisma to keep himself in the public eye and maintain his celebrity status. While imprisoned in India, he charged a pretty penny for interviews with journalists, and an even prettier penny to sell his Indian movie rights.
India had no “Son of Sam” laws that prevent criminals from profiting from the celebrity that arose from their crimes. So Sobhraj presumably managed to keep those earnings. After his release from prison in 1997, Sobhraj returned to Paris, where he enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle, and reportedly sold his international movie rights for U$ 15 million. His freedom did not last long, however: he unwisely travelled to Nepal in 2003. When the authorities were alerted of his presence, he was arrested for a 1975 double murder. He was convicted a year later, and handed a life sentence. As of mid-2022, an aging Charles Sobhraj is still locked up in a Nepalese prison.
By the early 1970s, millions of Americans were protesting the Vietnam War. Protest was particularly fierce on campuses. There, a recent change that ended college deferments, which had previously exempted most college students from the draft and service in Vietnam, added fuel to the fire. The backlash reached a fever pitch after President Nixon announced a widening of the conflict on April 30th, 1970, with American military operations in Cambodia. The following day, protests and demonstrations swept campuses across the country, including that of Kent State, in Ohio.
On May 4th, about a thousand National Guardsmen were on Kent State’s campus. When students held an antiwar rally, they were met with tear gas. Some students threw back the canisters, as well as rocks. Things escalated, soldiers advanced on the students, and about thirty Guardsmen opened fire. Within seconds, four students met a tragic end, and nine were wounded. A student and part-time photographer, John Filo, captured a shot of fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, as she cried over a fatally wounded twenty-year-old Jeffrey Miller. It was printed on the front page of the New York Times, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and became a symbol for the lost innocence of a nation’s youth.
7. The Idiot Who Continued to Fight World War II Into the 1970s
In 1944, the invaded and sought to recapture the Philippines from the Japanese. A twenty two year old Japanese Imperial Army lieutenant, Hiroo Onoda, was sent on a reconnaissance mission to the island of Lubang in the western Philippines. An intelligence officer specially trained as a commando, Onoda was directed to spy on American forces in the area and conduct guerrilla operations. He was ordered to never surrender, but was also expressly ordered that, under no circumstances, was he authorized to take his own life.
Within months, American forces invaded the island, and in short order ended or captured all Japanese personnel, with the exception of Onoda and three other soldiers. Onoda took charge of the survivors, and took to the hills. As GIs overran the Philippines and overcame organized Japanese resistance on the archipelago, Onoda, scurried about the rugged terrain of Lubang. He was cut off from communications with his chain of command, and did not receive official word of the Japanese capitulation in 1945. So he continued to fight – until the 1970s.
Without new orders to countermand his last received instructions to fight to the death, Lieutenant Onoda displayed a single-minded devotion to duty. He hid in the jungles and mountains of Lubang, and fought on for twenty nine years, into the 1970s. For nearly three decades, this most famous Japanese holdout survived with his tiny command in the dense thickets of Lubang. They erected bamboo huts, and to eke out a living, they hunted and gathered in the island’s jungle, stole rice and other food from local farmers, and slew the occasional cow for meat.
Tormented by heat and mosquitoes, rats and rain, Onoda’s band patched their increasingly threadbare uniforms, and kept their weapons in working order. In their long holdout, Onoda and his tiny band came across various leaflets that announced that the war had ended. Like other holdouts, they dismissed them as fake news: enemy propaganda and ruses of war. When they encountered a leaflet upon which had been printed the official surrender order from their commanding general, they examined it closely to determine whether it was genuine. They decided that it must be a forgery.
Even when Hiroo Onoda and his companions recovered airdopped letters and pictures from their own families that urged them to surrender, the band convinced themselves that it was a trick. As the years flew by, Onoda’s tiny four man contingent steadily dwindled, as he lost comrades to a variety of causes. In 1949, one of them simply left the group, wandered alone around Lubang for six months, and eventually surrendered to the authorities. Another was slain by a search party in 1954.
His last companion was shot dead by police in the early 1970s, when they came upon the duo as they tried to burn the rice stores of local farmers. Onoda was thus finally alone. Yet he continued to fight, faithful to his interpretation of his last received orders, and doggedly conducted a one man war. In 1974, a backpack travelling Japanese hippie found Onoda, and befriended him. He managed to convince the holdout that the war had ended decades earlier, but Onoda still refused to surrender, absent orders from a superior officer.
The backpacker returned to Japan with photographic proof of his encounter with Hiroo Onoda, and contacted the Japanese government. The authorities in turn tracked down Onoda’s former commanding officer, who traveled. There, Onoda’s wartime commander personally informed him that the war was over, that he was released from military duty, and ordered him to stand down. In 1974, clad in his battered and threadbare uniform, Lieutenant Onoda handed in his sword and other weapons to representatives of the US and Filipino military.
That finally brought Onoda’s private war to an end nearly three decades after the conclusion of WWII. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan, but admiration for his single minded devotion to duty was not universal. Back in Lubang, the inhabitants did not view Onoda as a conscientious and honorable man devoted to duty. Instead, they viewed him as a murderous idiot who, during his twenty nine year holdout, had inflicted sundry harms upon the Lubangese. As seen below, they had a point.
In the course of his nearly three decades holdout in the Philippines, Hiroo Onoda stole, destroyed, and sabotaged the property of the civilians of Lubang Island. He also needlessly ended about thirty local police and farmers. He took their lives as he and his band clashed with them as they stole or “requisitioned” food and supplies in order to continue a war that had ended decades earlier. A militarist through and through, the stubborn holdout believed that he was justified because the war had been a sacred mission.
The pacifist and futuristic Japan that wanted to forget WWII and focus on the future was unrecognizable to Onoda when he returned home. The holdout found himself unable to fit in a country and culture so radically different from the one in which he had grown up. Within a year of his return to Japan, Onoda left it and emigrated to Brazil. There, he bought a cattle ranch, settled into to the life of a rancher, married, and raised family. He died in 2014, aged 91.
It was the fall of 1969, and a high school social studies teacher invited a University of Arizona expert on witchcraft and folklore to give a speech to upperclassmen. The speaker, Dr. Byrd Granger, addressed students of Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, AZ, and gave a presentation about witches’ common. According to Dr. Granger, witches often wear devil’s green, have green or blue eyes, blond hair, a pointed left ear with a node, and a widow’s peak – a V-shaped point in the hairline in the center of a forehead. Heads swiveled towards Ann Stewart, a Flowing Wells English teacher who had all of those attributes. Few could have predicted the consequences of that presentation.
Flowing Wells High School students began to tease Mrs. Stewart about whether or not she was a witch. She saw an opportunity to enhance the kids’ interest in literature and folklore. As she described it later: “I like to get kids involved. I teach American literature, among other things. Although I’ve never had a unit in the occult, we do delve into early American folklore and witchcraft. It was good fun and it stimulated them“. So Stewart played along. She never said she was a witch, but whenever students asked if she was one, she did not deny it. Instead, she replied with a variant of “Well, I have all the signs. What do you think?” What they – and the school administration – thought got her fired.
Ann Stewart wanted to increase her students’ interest in literature, so she suggested in 1970 that they find out what astrology is all about. That further enhanced the rumors about her involvement with the occult. Later that year, a junior high school teacher invited her to speak before her eighth graders about folklore and witchcraft. Mrs. Stewart dressed up and played the part of a witch in order to jazz up the presentation. When those eighth graders arrived in Flowing Wells High School that fall, many of them fueled the rumors that Mrs. Stewart really was a witch. The English teacher thought it was all good fun. Flowing Wells, however, was a particularly conservative community, and many students, their parents, and faculty members at the high school did not get the joke.
Mrs. Stewart was suspended on November 20th, 1970, for: “teaching about witchcraft, having stated that you are a witch in a way that affects students psychologically“. She was also accused of insubordination, discussing subjects beyond the curriculum, being a bad influence on students, and aggravating other teachers. The suspension of a teacher in 1970 for witchcraft became international news. In conservative Flowing Wells, Stewart became a pariah, shunned by neighbors and former friends. She appealed to the school board, but it confirmed the decision to fire her. So she sued in court, and there won on grounds that the board had violated the legal procedures for the dismissal of a tenured teacher like Stewart. The court ordered her reinstatement, but as if February, 1972, she had not returned to her job. It is unclear if she ever taught at Flowing Wells again.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading