On this date in 1926, Richard Whittemore — the chieftain of a notorious armed-robbery syndicate in Prohibition New York and Maryland — was hanged at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary for murdering a prison guard during an escape the year before.
Whittemore, known as the “Candy Kid” — it’s not clear to me whether this throwback nickname alludes to his gang’s prodigious heroin addiction — was national news for a brief twelvemonth during Prohibition.
In 1925, he busted out of prison in Maryland, killing a guard. It was for this crime that he ultimately hanged, but it was for his months on the lam that he made his blackened name.
Whittemore recruited a coterie of cold-blooded toughs and commenced a series of brazenly public violent robberies. (He also wifed up someone called Tiger Girl.)
After heisting a few payrolls — back when such things were delivered in armored cars instead of by digital funds transfer — the Candy Kid’s gang made for New York, where they proceeded to stick up several jewelry stores and eventually (in Buffalo) to hijack a Federal Reserve truck.
For all their momentary success, their candle burned at every possible end. Stickups followed each other with just a few weeks in between to squander the proceeds and, as alluded, the gang indulged a judgment-impairing drug habit.
The end, when it came, was swift.
In March 1926, barely a year after blasting his way out of prison, Whittemore was caught. Within the next five months, he beat charges in New York (pdf), was extradited to Maryland, found himself convicted of murder there, and expeditiously hanged.
Years later, the death of this professional blackguard is probably most noteworthy to posterity for the attendance among the select circle of witnesses of professional crank (and son of Baltimore) H.L. Mencken.
That irascible pundit was no foe of the death penalty (although the nature of his support veered idiosyncratic). He scarcely felt the hanging’s participants to have been degraded or brutalized by the ritual of hanging Whittemore, and held forth on the subject in a subsequent essay later reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy:
It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill that can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.
A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn’t move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.
I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somrwhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman, to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.
To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.
The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been of late a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not he instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.
Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the former is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwithstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.