Imagine you've been sentenced to die -- how do you escape? Tunnel your way out? Smile seductively at the guard? Request 10 tons of dynamite for your final meal?
Sadly, none of those will work ... but maybe the following methods will, because they did for some people.
via Wiki Commons
He got as far as lining up with his fellow prisoners against the wall when an officer recognized his name. "Are you really the famous chess master Ossip Bernstein?" he asked. Bernstein said he was, but surely anyone would have said "yes" if meant a chance of not being immediately shot 30 times, so the officer needed to be sure. The two of them would play chess, he said. If the condemned man played with the skill of a grandmaster, he'd earn himself a reprieve. If not, the punishment would be instant death.
So Bernstein sat down and played. It was like those stories of a dying man playing a game against Death -- another half century would pass before The Seventh Seal came out, but that image comes from an older and more universal myth. In fact, maybe this officer was Death. Sources do not record his name so we have no way to be sure.
Bernstein beat the officer handily, was released, and got the hell out of Russia and into Paris. His life's adventures weren't quite over. After a couple decades more of professional chess, he saw the Nazis took over France, and so it was time to flee once more, as he figured even chess skills wouldn't convince Nazis to spare a Russian Jew. He had a heart attack while making the journey by foot to Spain, but he got through. He survived another heart attack a decade later as well, and that one wasn't from doing anything terrifying. He was just so excited because he was finally returning to Russia to play chess again.
So the really surprising thing here isn't the answer to the question but whether the question ever actually had to be answered in real life, given just how few conjoined twins ever really existed. And it seems that, yes, historians say one such case really came up.
Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo were conjoined twins in 17th-century Genoa, in Italy. Or, as some would instead describe it, Lazarus had a parasitic twin named Joannes -- Lazarus was intelligent and even handsome, while Joannes just hung off him with his mouth open and eyes closed. Lazarus usually covered him up with a cloak. Which couldn't have been much fun if Joannes was aware of it, but based on the vague accounts by historians, it sounds like Joannes wasn't aware of anything.
via Wiki Commons
Lazarus killed another man in a bar fight and faced execution for murder but successfully defended himself by saying executing him would kill Joannes Baptista too. Now, all you literary analysts have definitely noted that "Lazarus" was the guy in the Bible who came back from death, and Lazarus Colloredo came back from a death sentence. And John the Baptist is best known for having his head on a platter, while Joannes Baptista Colloredo was basically just an inanimate head. It's sounds just like a fable. Yet historians say these two really did exist.
They toured in freak shows, and Lazarus ended up getting married and having kids. Which could answer the other most common question people have about conjoined twins, but Joannes sadly never commented on what it's like to be attached to a twin while they're boning.
Lee may well have been innocent -- there was nowhere near enough evidence to convict him based on our modern standards of proof. But he was in the building when his boss was killed, and he had a record as a thief, so he was convicted and sentenced to hang. The hangman was James Berry, who was working his way toward killing over 100 criminals, including one suspected of being Jack the Ripper, so he was kind of famous. As is standard practice, Berry examined the gallows before the hanging, checking the rope and the trapdoor. All seemed well.
He put the noose around Lee's neck, and he pushed the lever. The trap door didn't open. He paused the execution and examined the door again, and it seemed fine, so he resumed the ceremony, pushed the lever, and still, the door stayed shut. Once more, he went through the whole process, and yet the door remained closed. People have speculated about someone wedging the door shut, but it's unclear when anyone could have had a chance to do this.
Everyone agreed three attempts was enough and cited divine intervention for Lee's survival. His sentence was commuted to life, and he later ended up being released altogether. As for Berry, he went on hanging people and even put out a book where he wrote proudly about his experiences, so it doesn't sound like he was in on a secret scheme to save Lee's life. But after that, he found Jesus (i.e., joined a church) and campaigned against the death penalty. At least a part of his grievance was over how executions take a toll on the hangman.
While there, Latreille came upon something extraordinary. In one corner of the cell was a man with a mop-top hairdo, and rather than being scared of his impending fate, he beat a drum with a stick that guards had for some reason left with him. "How are you able to manage in these miserable conditions?" asked Latreille. "Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends," said the man. "Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends. Gonna try with a little help from my friends." The man's name was Ringo Starr.
Wait, no, sorry. We read our source wrong. Latreille did not find a Beatle in his cell. He found a beetle. It was a rare specimen, a Necrobia ruficollis. As its name suggests (we expect literary analysts AND fluent Latin speakers to be reading this article right now), the insect feeds on corpses, and so perhaps it would be feeding on Latreille before long. But when the prison doctor saw him examining the insect and talking about how unusual it was, he collected it and sent it to a bug expert he knew -- and this bug expert had heard of Latreille, and he used his position to set the zoologist free.
Every single other man who'd been arrested with Latreille was dead within a month. Truly, the moral of this story is that by valuing even the simplest life we see around us, we too will be saved. Or that the justice system always bends to serve the well-connected. Whichever you like better, really.
They charged him with committing "the worst of crimes," a capital offense. That sounds like they caught Rene engaging in some very clear homosexual activity with another person, and we have no details about this other person getting charged, but then people have historically had some very strange and specific ideas of what acts make you gay and what's just typical military roughhousing.
Before the military could drown him in tub or whatever the preferred execution method was in that region, the drummer received help from an unlikely source: the Catholics of Quebec. The bishop there asked that the military not kill him outright and instead present him with a choice. He could accept his death sentence. Or, he could agree to become an executioner himself. The first executioner of New France, in fact.
Rene chose to live. He may not have had the most fun life, going by James Berry's talk of how tough a job being an executioner is, but he got to live. As executioner, we hope he swung his blade cleanly, and whenever someone came out with some especially smart gallows humor, we trust his drum was ready with a ba dum dum tss.
Snyder was tried for murder in September 1952 and wound up scheduled for execution in the electric chair the next July, when he'd be 26. That's a much quicker process than happens today, and it's likely that, guilty or not, he would not be sentenced to death if he were tried now. Within those ten months, Snyder resolved to gain so much weight that he'd be unable to properly fit in the electric chair. He successfully put on a lot, going from 150 pounds to over 300 in less than a year.
For his last meal, he asked for "pork chops, eggs, and plenty of 'em!" Right up to the hours before his execution, he was convinced he'd soon be explaining to reporters how his overeating saved his life.
He was wrong. He fit into the chair just fine.