On this date in 1807, James McLean survived one hanging but not a second at Batavia, N.Y.
Subject of the first public execution in Genesee County, the drunken Scottish immigrant had axed to death a fellow squatter in an argument … and then a second man who ran to his victim’s aid … and then almost a third who was saved by flight.
This minor execution is the subject of an extensive historical inquiry* by a descendant of one of the victims full of period color: the defendant claiming the (then-recognized) right to a jury consisting of half non-citizen aliens as a “jury of his peers”; the billing receipts for the manhunt and the gallows construction (including gallons of brandy for the guards); and the indeterminate legends about what happened when the rope broke the first time.
The story has been told and retold that during the hanging the rope broke and McLean fell to the ground, shaken and stunned but alive. While another rope was being secured, McLean was reputed to remark, “As I killed two men, I deserve two hangings.” Another version has McLean protesting a second hanging since he had been convicted of only the one murder and had already been hung for that.
However, a historian’s recounting of the era’s newspaper accounts claims
that when the weight fell, the rope broke and McClean fell to the ground. He soon recovered from the shock and rising to his feet, expressed a strong desire not to be “hung again.” Some insisted that one hanging was a fulfillment of the law. Others, however, thought differently and informed McClean that “as he had killed two men, he ought to be hung twice.”
* The writer’s use of “gibbet” to mean an apparatus for a “sudden suspension” hanging, where the prisoner is not dropped but jerked into the air by a countervailing weight, is non-standard; “gibbet” means a gallows (or certain types of gallows structures, if you’re persnickety about it), and became a verb signifying the salutary posthumous display upon such a structure of an executed prisoner’s remains.