On this date in 1827, Levi Kelley suffered the last public hanging in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the September murder of his tenant Abraham Spafard.
Some malignant spirit determined to reduce the man to a grim irony or object lesson seemingly attended Kelley’s every step towards the gallows. His story, according to The Story of Cooperstown, begins 10 days prior to the capital crime at another public execution.
Among the spectators at this hanging was Levi Kelley of Cooperstown, who, in order to witness the spectacle, had covered a distance of 75 miles, drawn by his favorite team of black horses, a noble span, of which he was very proud. Kelley was much depressed in spirit by the dreadful scene at the gallows, and to a friend who accompanied him on the homeward journey remarked that no one who had ever witnessed such a melancholy spectacle could ever be guilty of the crime of murder.
Undoubtedly, many killers besides Levi Kelley through the annals of time also underestimated the violence of their own temper. We do not know whether he also labored under any expectation of preferential treatment, as the nephew of Cooperstown founder Judge William Cooper — which also made him the first cousin of author James Fenimore Cooper.
But what occurred at Kelley’s hanging, to which that same team of proud black horses drew him this day, made a niche in history all his own, and made both the murderer and his executioners unwitting instruments of at least two more deaths. A local balladeer described the scene:
December on the twenty-eighth
Did Levi Kelley meet his fate;
This awful scene I now relate
Caused thousands there to fear and quake.
Though wet and rainy was the day,
The people thronged from every way;
With anxious thought each came to see
The unhappy fate of poor Kelley.
The day was come, the time drew near,
When the poor prisoner must appear;
The officers they did prepare,
And round him formed a hollow square,
That they with safety might convey
Him to the place of destiny;
The music made a solemn sound
While they marched slowly to the ground.
A scaffold was erected there,
And hundreds on it did repair,
That all thereon might plainly see
The unhappy fate of poor Kelley.
Before they bid this scene adieu,
An awful sight appeared in view.
See, hundreds with the scaffold* fall!
And some to rise no more at all
Till the great day when all shall rise,
To their great joy or sad surprise,
And hear their sentence “Doomed to Hell,”
Or, “With the saints in glory dwell.”
The wounded here in numbers lie,
And loud for help now some do cry
While others are too faint to speak,
And some in death’s cold arms asleep.
One man’s skull was crushed. Another spectator was carted away alive, but mortally injured.
Nineteenth century homo Americanus might count it a credit to pragmatism, even to consistency, that the spectacle of grisly public death was not the sort of thing to interrupt a hanging.
The fatal collapse of the spectators’ grandstand only delayed the execution by the space of time necessary to restore order. The disturbance may even have offered the condemned man some relief from his own fright in compassion for the woe beneath him.
“Who are killed and how many are injured?” the shaken man asked, surveying the wreckage from his gibbet as the noose was readied for his throat.
* The audience’s “scaffold” — not that of Kelley.