On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.
William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.
When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”
Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.
Slowly the minutes dragged.
The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.
Five minutes passed.
There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.
Another five minutes dragged by.
Would this man never die?
Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.
The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.
The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.
Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.
There were few murmurs, which died at once.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.
The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.
Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.
Fourteen and a half minutes.
‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.
The end has come.
And the end had come.
Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.
First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.
Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.
Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.