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The rise and fall of the Butcher of Havana

A firing squad during the Cuban Revolution. Imagno/Getty Images

How did a blue-collar “redneck” American become the chief executioner of the Cuban Revolution? In 1957 Herman Marks was a violent, tattooed drifter with 32 criminal convictions, says Tony Perrottet in The Atavist Magazine. Two years later, the 38-year-old was entertaining Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Errol Flynn in Cuba and revelling in his nickname, the Butcher of Havana. On a whim Marks had joined Fidel Castro’s forces as they overthrew the military dictator Fulgencio Batista. Thanks to his courage, he rose fast – but the American executed traitors with “an enthusiasm that was unseemly”. With Batista’s downfall, Marks was put in charge of the executions by firing squad that followed the show trials. He oversaw the deaths of hundreds, killing some himself – his signature was said to be shooting so many bullets into the face of a victim that they became unrecognisable.

But by 1960 American-Cuban relations had begun to sour and rumours of a US invasion were growing. With life in Havana “becoming more dangerous by the day”, Marks hijacked a boat and fled the island, eventually reaching New York. After living “under the radar” for six months, the US authorities nabbed him, though their legal efforts to deport him to Cuba failed. Marks’s life “descended into farce”. In 1965 he fell out of a tree while spying on a female neighbour and broke his leg – the press called him Castro’s Peeping Tom. He moved back in with his mother in Milwaukee. Then, after a child molestation charge in 1966, Marks disappeared. Had he returned to Cuba only to face a firing squad himself? Did the CIA give him a new identity? In reality, said his family, he probably “wound up in a pauper’s grave south of the border” in Mexico.

Read the full article here.