I was born near Goshen, in the state of Connecticut, about the year 1793. My father was a show-man, and his business leading him much from home, I was neglected, and suffered to follow my own inclinations … I chose for my companions the most vicious boys, and spent most of my time in quarrelling, fighting, sabbath-breaking, and other vices. I was indeed sent to school a short time; but, disliking restraint and study, made but little progress in learning. Thus by parental neglect on the one hand, and bad example on the other, were sown those seeds of vice, which, as will be seen in my narrative, produced such a dreadful harvest of crimes.
-From the Narrative of the life of James Lane: who was executed at Gallipolis (Ohio), September 9, 1817, for the murder of William Dowell, with some observations on his behaviour under condemnation : to which is added the address of the court, on pronouncing sentence of death upon the prisoner.
The gallows narrative commenced thereby will arrive on this date in 1817 at a hangman’s tree in Ohio. But it begins, as is customary, delving into the miscreant’s youthful forays into theft, through which he soon “stifled the voice of conscience, which cried against it.” He suffered 10 lashes at the public whipping-post of Litchfield for robbing a schoolhouse of books, and had a couple of close brushes for his habit of walking into unattended farm houses and making off with clothes.
The War of 1812 gave Lane the opportunity to mend his ways, or at least collect enlistment bonuses, which he did on at least three occasions. Being caught in desertion attempts one time, Lane was “sentenced to be cobbed two mornings, fifteen strokes each time. This mode of punishment is very severe. It is performed by laying the offender across a barrel, and whipping him with rods. Five or six others suffered the same punishment with me, some of them much worse than I.”
At last, following more successful desertions, he found his way up the Hudson to
Catskill, [where] I fell in with one Church, as hardened as desperate as myself. We formed an acquaintance with each other, and travelled together to a place near the city of New York. Here we went into a store to buy some small article; and the store keeper suspecting our money to be bad, I flew into a violent passion, snatched the watch from his pocket, and stamped it under my feet. Church then seized a scythe and drove him out of the door. We then locked ourselves in and in spite of the danger which threatened us, ate and drank our fill of the good things we found. By this time, a number of people had assembled in the chamber over our heads, and were making their way down the trap door to take us. Hardened, insensible, and enraged with liquor and passion as we then were, it would have been no wonder if we had put fire to some barrels of powder there. This we might easily have done; but either did not think of it at the time, or were prevented by some other circumstance. I thank God for preventing this dreadful crime; for preserving my life and the lives of so many people as would have been thus destroyed, and giving me a space for repentance.
They got a three-year sentence in the penitentiary for this brazen raid, and Lane piously averred that “the time spent there was the happiest of my life.”
“But such deep rooted habits as ours are not to be cured by a few years of confinement,” the narrator continues, rubbishing the penitentiary movement without which he might have been hanged already. “No sooner were we at liberty, than we betook ourselves to our old course of life.”
The old confederates burgled in Albany, then wandered to New York, and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, separating along the way. Lane lived hand to mouth, moving town to town, working a day or two here and there, stealing when the opportunity arose, and wasting whatever money he laid hands upon “in drinking, carousing, and every other species of vice.”
Following the Ohio River, he made his last call at the river hamlet of Gallipolis, Ohio where he “first met with Dowell, removing from Virginia, for whose murder I am so justly condemned to suffer death.”
The next morning I went to his house, or shed, about six miles from Gallipolis, on my way to Chillicothe, entered, sat down, and talked in a friendly manner with him and a female slave, his house keeper. I then walked on to Mr. Ryan’s, about a quarter of a mile from Dowell’s, where the latter soon came in to buy some meat. We were both asked to breakfast, and accepted the invitation. When Dowell had paid for the meat, I perceived that he had about forty dollars left. To possess myself of this, I resolved to commit the horrid crime of murder! and this on a man who had never done me any injury, whose house I had entered an hour or two before as a friend, and been treated as such, and with whom I had just partaken at the table of the bounties of Providence; and not only on him, but on the woman also, and her four children, and then set fire to the home. Astonishing and incredible wickedness!!! Six human beings were to be sent to their final account, in a sudden and awful manner, and perhaps unprepared — and for what? That I might have a few dollars to throw away, or worse than throw away, as I had done with all my former ill gotten money!!? I can plead no excuse. I was able to work, and not ashamed to beg, till I could find employment. — Shall I say I was urged on by the devil? No doubt I was; but his temptation could have been of no avail, if I had not lent a willing ear to him. I had never resisted him. I was completely his slave! Just, I repeat it, is the sentence of death pronounced against me!!
Lane executed his exclamation-mark plan that night, stealing a cudgel from yet another farm and slipping back to ol’ Moneybags Dowell’s. When the house was asleep, he crept into the house and to Dowell’s very bedside, and slew him unawares with a mighty two-handed smash.
The blow woke Dowell’s slave — who is never referred to by name in this narrative — and after a struggle she managed to escape out the door and elude her murderous pursuer, and we presume her four children did likewise since they were also not murdered. When Lane returned to the emptied Dowell house, he could find no money — “for it since appears he had left it with Mr. Ryan.” He fled over the river into Virginia (today West Virginia), but was captured a few miles away, and as will be readily perceived, was thoroughly worked over before his execution by the local divine.
Since a small town like Gallipolis (population as of the 1850 census: 1,686) didn’t exactly have regular traffic to the gallows, this was a big occasion for the ministers as well. To Lane’s confession, the Rev. Gould appends a two-page summary modestly reviewing his soul-saving offices. Lane’s own biography traces the classic gallows narrative, from sabbath-breaking to the noose; the like formula for Gould’s review ought to be taking Lane from his initial condition, “destitute of all religious knowledge, insensible of his sinfulness, and unconcerned about futurity” to the hope of eternal salvation.
Gould, however, remained skeptical of Lane’s histrionics of religiosity. After the prisoner was sentenced, he “broke off profane swearing, acknowledged his guilt, and became sober,” but as Gallipolis’s pious citizens held prayer meetings in the jail or read the Bible to him, Gould thinks it was his narcissism as much as his conscience that was excited and “the increasing attention which he received from every kind of character, elated him, and did much to divert his mind from the thoughts of death.” Although sometimes “under lively representations of his situation and of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, his feelings were softened into tears,” these interludes “lasted but a few moments” and “he showed no pleasing signs of repentance, no attachment to the Saviour.”
The evening before execution, like careless sinners, he was unwilling to be disturbed with the thoughts of his unpreparedness and danger. He said he had left off swearing, and had prayed a good deal; and therefore believed that God would pardon him. This appeared to be the foundation of his hope to the last. On the day of execution, his sensibility nearly or quite left him. He appeared not to realize his situation. When he was first placed upon his coffin, at divine service, however, he was affected … [but] on the gallows, he expressed his willingness to die, saying he had made his peace with God; but manifested little sense of the importance of death and of eternity.