Archive for September 6th, 2008

1872: Patrick Morrissey, by a future U.S. president

7 comments September 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Buffalo sheriff — and future U.S. President — Grover Cleveland personally sprang the trap to hang matricide Patrick Morrissey.

Grover Cleveland hanged convicts on two non-consecutive occasions.

Morrissey’s drunken altercation with his widowed mother, that led to a stabbing, that led him to the gallows, would obviously be lost to remembrance but for his accidental association with the man who would become president 12 years later. Of course, it was precisely the other way around at the time of the hanging — so the New York Times article (pdf) on the execution has a pleasurable aspect of discovered curiosity: for the newsman, a dull just-the-facts slog in a forgettable day’s work; for posterity, an accidental glimpse at history’s backstage.*

Cleveland had taken office as Erie County sheriff the year before, his stepping stone from a legal practice into an illustrious electoral career in the Democratic Party that would see him rise to Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York (and, after his death, to the $20 bill).

One of Cleveland’s duties as sheriff was to carry out death sentences; he declined to delegate the responsibility to one of his assistants — the hagiography says that his ethical rectitude compelled him to assume the weighty responsibility personally — and handled Morrissey’s dispatch with his own hands.

With his subsequent ascent in the political realm, Cleveland’s activities this day made him the rare notable executioner to earn his fame in another walk of life.

Or infamy, as the case may be. In an era of competitive sloganeering and sobriquets,** Cleveland’s Republican opponents tried to hang him — so to speak — with the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman”.

* The other death row murderer referenced in the Times story was Cleveland’s second (and last) execution on February 14, 1873.

** Like most presidential pols of the time, Cleveland had many more nicknames, both friendly and not — “Uncle Jumbo” because of his girth; “Old Veto” for his liberal use of executive power; and others. (He was also elected a bachelor and married a 22-year-old beauty while in office. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton.) The New Yorker avers that Buffalo voters during Cleveland’s early local incarnation actually knew him by the avuncular-yet-unwholesome handle of “Big Steve”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,USA

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