101 years ago today, a Serbian immigrant was shot for murder in Carson City, Nevada.
It was an ordinary murder, by an ordinary man: his cousin died in a mining fire in 1911, and Andriza (or Andrija) Mircovich, feeling he got stiffed on the resulting inheritance, stabbed to death the probate attorney (a fellow South Slav named Gregorovich).
The execution, however, was extraordinary — and has never in history been repeated.
The march of science had lately made possible whole new methods of execution heretofore uncontemplated — like electricity and poison gas. At the same time, mechanical engineering had improved old standbys like beheading and hanging from slipshod, error-prone affairs to efficient operations worthy of an age of industry.
Somewhere between those categories lies the firing squad. Firearms, of course, were new technology relative to the noose and a big ol’ axe, but we do find executions by shooting back to the 17th century at least.
Though the guns themselves had been updated, Nevada was forced by circumstances to do for firing squads what Dr. Guillotin had done for headsmen.
Nevada law at the time
Image from this history of Nevada capital punishment.
The 1,000-pound gallery of steel, whose arrival caused the prison warden George Cowing to resign in horror,* consisted of a shed with three protruding mounted rifles, which would be individually sighted on the heart of the restrained prisoner and fired when guards cut a string to release a spring mechanism.
In a macabre Rube Goldberg parody, it was improved for the consciences of the guards by having three strings that would be simultaneously cut, only one of which actually triggered the gallery. A redundant layer of plausible deniability was added, since each of the three guards had aimed only one of the three rifles, by loading only two of the three guns with live ammunition.
Mircovich went to his death still fulminating profanely against the judge who condemned him and the injustice of it all. The scene, it must be said, was not exactly the finest hour in penal history.
But the device itself? It worked perfectly, killing Mircovich nigh-instantly with two balls straight to his heart.
From the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1913.
Nevada got rid of this inconvenient execution option not long after, and Mircovich remains the only human being put to death by shooting (whether by human hands or mechanical ones) in the Silver State’s history. The guns from this weird artifact currently reside at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City; the scaffolding that once surrounded them is in some aircraft carrier or tank, having been donated as scrap metal during World War II.
* Cowing was replaced by former governor Denver Dickerson, who would later oversee Nevada’s pathbreaking gas chamber debut. Digression: Dickerson’s turn as governor had been notable for his arranging a boxing match in Reno between the black champion Jack Johnson and the “great white hope” James Jeffries, which resulted in a legendary Johnson victory and — another sign of the era’s dismal condition of race relations — a nationwide wave of racial violence.
According to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Dickerson was the kind of guy who could see past skin color well enough to make bank wagering on Johnson.