On this date in 1882, Thomas Egan was hanged in Sioux Falls in the Dakota Territories (present-day South Dakota) for strangling his wife, Mary.
It took three tries to get the hanging right … and it still turned out they got it wrong: years later, Egan’s stepdaughter copped to the crime on her deathbed.
Let’s start with the twice-botched hanging, whose can’t-look-away horror can hardly be improved from its original coverage by The Chicago Tribune (picked up elsewhere as well — such as The Alexandria Post of Douglas County, Minnesota):
A HORRIBLE AFFAIR.
The Execution of Thomas Egan, the Wife Murderer, at Sioux Falls, Dak — The Drop Fails Three Times Before the Culprit is Deprived of Life, Owing to Rotten Ropes.
On Thursday, July 13, occurred at Sioux Falls the first judicial hanging ever done in the territory of Dakota. Nearly two years ago Thomas Egan, who suffered the death penalty, most foully and cruelly murdered his wife, with whom he had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. From evidence produced at the trial it would appear that they had frequent quarrels which at length culminated on this fatal morning in her death. He deliberately sent the children away, and while she was washing dishes at the table came behind her, and after throwing a rope around her neck and strangling her, pounded the life out of her with a club. The body was then thrown through a trap door into the cellar, where it was found three days after, horribly mutilated. The skull was fractured and the head was covered with frightful gashes made by the club. It appeared also as if she were not dead when thrown down, as she was discovered partly reclining against the call [sic] of the cellar, which added to the horribleness of the crime. Eagen [sic] was arrested and tried, and although there was every effort made by his attorneys to save him; he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Sioux Falls by Judge Kidder of the Fourth judicial district of the territory.
On Thursday, 13th, after eating a hearty breakfast, hearing the sentence read, and some religious exercises by a Catholic priest, Eagan [sic] was taken to the gallows. All eyes were intently fixed on the prisoner. His face was somewhat pale, but his lips were firm and he seemed to exhibit no sign of fear. He was a straight, heavy-set man, weighing 180 lbs., with a retreating forehead, heavy projecting eyebrows and an ugly looking eye. His general appearance was far from prepossessing. He was dressed in a plain black suit, with clean white shirt, collar and tie, and low shoes. He walked straight up to the platform to the scaffold, taking his place on the fatal trap, turned around and faced the crowd below. The sheriff now asked him if he had any thing to day [sic], but his lips still were kept sealed to his secret, and he shook his head and answered in a low voice, “No.” His legs were now tied, he himself assisting the officer by placing his feet close together. The black cap was put on his head, but not a limb quivered. The noose was adjusted and the fatal moment had come. While the priests were chanting their solemn service, and while the attending officers and crowd were holding their breath in silence, the sheriff touched the trigger which alone kept Thomas Egan from his death. There was a crash as the door flew back against the boards and body, deprived of its footing, shot through the door, and now, horror or horrors!
The rope snaps like a piece of thread, the body drops to the earth with a dull thud, partly on its back, and rebounding rolls over on its face. The crowd are paralyzed with astonishment and fear. An unearthly gurgling sound now breaks forth from the prisoner. His neck is not broken, but the cord is wound tightly about it and he is strangling. A half a dozen men now rush forward, one seizes him by the arm, another by the leg, another by the waist, another by the head. It is seventy-five feet from the ground, where he has fallen, back to the jail-door, and around to the platform of the scaffold he is hurriedly conveyed through the crowd, the broken rope in the meanwhile dangling from his neck, while his horrible groaning strikes terror to the bystanders. Once more on the scaffold, another rope is adjusted and the sickening details once more gone through with, the trap falls again and the half dead man drops once more; but worse. The rope was not fully adjusted before the excited sheriff again touched the trigger and down the body goes a second time but not with sufficient force to accomplish the desired result.
His neck is still unbroken, and the slow process of suffocation is all this time going on. The attendants seize him by the arms and again pull him on the scaffold while the death struggle continues. The first rope is flopping from his neck and he still has life enough, so one says who was on the scaffold, to brace his feet for the third and last fall. If at this juncture some one had mercifully stepped up and put a bullet through his head, it would have been an act which would have certainly been appreciated by the crowd. The rope is finally fixed, the door drops once again, the man shoots down, and there is a snap which is heard all around the yard and outside. There is a shrugging of the shoulders, a twitching of the legs a convulsive shudder and all is still. The body swings slowly around. There is no motion of leg or arm or muscle, and in eight and one half minutes the doctors pronounced him dead, and shortly after the body was taken down. Yes, he is dead at last, and the sightseers heave a genuine sigh of relief. The corpse is now cut down and the pinioned arms and legs released. The dirt was brushed from the clothing and body laid in a coffin, where it was afterwards viewed by the crowd, both outside and inside the jail. The effects of the strangulation were fearfully evidence about the neck. The first cord had embedded itself, but the action of the heart had forced the blood under it and the flesh was swollen, purpled and discolored. There was a sightless stare to the eyes and blood was flowing out of the corners of his mouth. After all those desiring had seen the corpse it was boxed up, and early in the afternoon it was taken to the Catholic burying-ground where it was buried, and with it the club and cord with which he killed his wife.
Nobody in a position to help Egan knew he hadn’t “most foully and cruelly murdered his wife” or that “the horribleness of the crime” stained some other’s soul, of course … but one wonders how the writer thinks he did know it. The obscure considerations of jurymen might well be the most virtuous structural safeguard of the Republic, but as a dependable compass of fact, one might as well scry the entrails of a sacred ox.
It has always seemed misfortunate to the Headsman that journalists prone to the most tedious wheedling over the use of the qualifier “allegedly” to uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty consider the epistemological certitude of a juridical conviction sufficient to abandon full stop the (admittedly inelegant) qualifier and speak of Revealed Truth. The New York Times would hardly think to make apology for flatly calling Egan — who did keep his peace about the verdict — “the wife murderer”:
… any more than the San Antonio Express-News would regret the assertive headline “Father who killed 3 is executed” mounted atop an article reporting the executed man’s continued insistence upon his innocence. Any good scribe frets more readily about column-inches and legal ass-covering than bickering and arguing over who killed who. But shame if not stylistics merits less awe before the particular sausage-making of the judiciary when such modern cases too turn out to have been cock-ups from start to finish.
In 1993, South Dakota Governor Walter Miller apologized (.pdf) for Egan’s execution. A descendant of Egan’s has written a book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies: The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas Egan.
Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.