1921: Jake Martin and Putnam Ponsell

One needn’t look to far to find venom and cruelty around the institution of capital punishment.

But the human potential is wonderfully plastic, and without unduly romanticizing the act of strangling on a hemp rope a fellow who has committed homicide, even this extremity carries the potential for catalyzing reconciliation across the threshold of death itself.

This date’s public hanging in Crestview, Florida of Jake Martin and Putnam Ponsell was marked by a remarkable display of contrition and forgiveness that symbolically brought the hanged men back into the community they had wronged even as they were dropped to their deaths.

Martin and Ponsell had hitched a ride with a local and then beaten him to death and rifled the body — that was on July 4, less than 12 weeks before execution.

We will venture to impute to these fellows genuine repentance. At court, Ponsell confessed to the crime without any guarantee from the state. He then testified against Martin, who denied the charge and then “broke down and made a full confession.” (Macon Telegraph, Sep. 8, 1921)

(Martin, granted, broke down only after conviction. Ponsell’s firm and open-hearted embrace of responsibility was openly admired by observers.)

This human sentiment would be reciprocated. Here’s the remarkable newspaper report from execution date (a wire story run in a number of papers, this version from the Augusta Chronicle, Sep. 24, 1921).

Murderers Pay Death Penalty While Crowd Boosts Collection.

Crestvew, Fla., Sept. 23 — A double execution took place here today when Putman[sic] Ponsell and Jake Martin, paid the death penalty for the murder of John Tuggle on July 4th, near this place. The trap was sprung at 19 minutes past 12 and the men were pronounced dead in 18 minutes.

A crowd estimated at 10,000 persons had gathered to witness the hanging which was a public one.

Both Ponsell and Martin admited their guilt just before the execution and a letter from the mother of John Tuggle was read to the men in which she said that she had forgiven them.

A collection was taken up in the rod for the benefit of the wife and two children of Ponsell and he wife and one child of Martin who are destitute and more than a thousand dollars was contributed.

(No doubt this touching reconciliation with the gallows crowd was greatly aided by the circumstance of Martin and Ponsell’s whiteness.)

According to this recent news story, our quiescent bludgeoner Ponsell left behind a letter addressed “To Young Mankind.” The actual contents of this straighten-up-and-fly-right manifesto do not appear to be available online, unfortunately.

Martin and Ponsell didn’t save their lives. But maybe a Dostoyevsky might have hoped that they saved their souls.