(Thanks to Ramicles, the pseudonymous 19th century Chicago correspondent of the Providence Press, for this eyewitness account of a December 15, 1865 hanging of two hired assassins. It appeared under a December 16 dateline in that paper’s December 21, 1865 edition. -ed.)
I have promised the numerous readers of the EVENING PRESS a description of a death scene, and I will keep my word. But believe me, it is no welcome task; my heart is not in it. On my mind one solemn moral is impressed — one moral only: the terrible reality of crime, the terrible reality of punishment. One naturally follows the other, as night follows day.
At the hour of three, lacking ten minutes, on yesterday afternoon, I saw two men, William Corbett and Patrick Fleming, take a formal farewell of this world and enter an untried existence. Those who love to linger on the few hours which the wretched men passed, in the anticipation of that final scene, may do so. I will not. They knew that they had incurred the law’s extreme penalty, and must suffer that penalty. There is a disposition on the part of doomed men to “die game;” and much of the apparent heartlessness is bravado only.
As I have said in a former letter, Fleming has for several days seemed indifferent or defiant. Whether he had faint hopes of pardon, I know not; but there seemed to be something in his manner that showed his reliance to some extent on the mobid [sic] humanitarianism of the age, (as exhibited in the case of the Malden murderer Greene,) and had not finally made up his mind for death.
Those who had not made human nature a study, were therefore unprepared to see the difference in demeanor of the two men, on the scaffold. Corbett, who, since his sentence, has seemed to realize his solemn situation, and has been much depressed, because, as his last moments drew near, cheerful and even jubilant, and the gloomy Court House echoed his hilarious merriment, which was startlingly horrible, as wild laughter wakened in the throat of death. There is something grotesquely awful in hearing a man laugh while the rope is around his neck. (The Republican reporter styled that death “ecstacies!” [sic] I had always supposed that ecstacy was less boisterous; but I am ready at all times to receive new ideas and novel definitions. — Who ever knew a man in Chicago to be wrong? “If any, speak, for him have I offended.”) The conduct of Flemming [sic] was in striking contrast. He seemed chilled with the thought of death, and was so lost in contemplation that he scarcely heard the voice of the clergyman admonishing him to pray.
He indeed repeated the words of the prayer, but so unconsciously that it seemed only mechanical. His eyes were vacantly staring, and his countenance was ghastly in its expression of deadly fear. Was that gaze fixed on vacancy alone? Was it a retrospective vision of the soul gazing on itself, and with reversed sight recalling all the past — the hours of childhood — the fleeting moments of early manhood — the years whose only noteworthy incidents were damning deeds of midnight robbery — that night of blood — that death-cry of his victim — the fatal shot — the flight — the vision of justice and the avenging Nemises [sic] following his track — the arrest — the trial — the death sentence, and the lingering death of expectation preceding its infliction? Or was there one more torture? Was his the gift of prescience, and the power to look beyond the Shadow of the Dark Valley, and was it what he there saw that transfixed him into a statue of cold horror? Who shall say?
Those were my reflections when I looked on the miserable man; and I unconsciously repeated to myself the heartfelt words of the psalmist: “Cut me not off, O, my God, in the midst of my days!”
I shuddered as I thought that the doomed one might be silently repeating the same prayer, and II, by mesmeric rapport or sympathy, had caught up his inaudible petition. Then came another hideous laugh from the lips of Corbett — a few hasty words of farewell — a slight gliding sound as the well oiled bolts slid swiftly back — and two forms shrouded in white cloth were spasmodically struggling with death. The drop was located in the east wing of the Court House, the trap being constructed in the floor. After the two surgeons in attendance had pronounced them both dead, the bodies were lowered into the coffins, as usual, and a few had a curiosity to look at the faces. Singular as it may seem, Flemming had undoubtedly suffered the least pain of the two. The features were somewhat distorted and discolored. But Corbett’s face was a sight such as one would look on but once, and wish to efface [sic] the memory of that one look, and think of it no more forever. The tongue protruded fearfully from the mouth, and the teeth had bitten through it, in that last agony of dissolution. Truly is an execution a moral lesson which no one may witness without a thrill of horror whatever one may think of the theory of capital punishment.
There was one fact in connection with the affair, which I cannot understand. The widow of the murdered man repeatedly made application to the Sheriff for permission to see the hanging and it was refused. At an early hour I saw a lady dressed in deep mourning standing at the Court House gate and I was informed that it was Mrs. Maloney. After all was over, she still stood there, shivering in the intense cold, the bitter freezing cold. It appears some one had told her that the men who had murdered her husband and left her desolate, would be reprieved, and that only increased her anxiety to see the sentence of the law fulfilled.
Hour after hour she waited, while stout men, wrapping more closely their overcoats and mufflers around them, hurried on more rapidly as they felt the keen blast which swept across the square. Several times she was assured that the criminals were hanged; but she refused to believe it, till an acquaintance in whom she had confidence told her, and then with an expression of relief and satisfaction on her face, she suddenly left for home, and I saw her no more. Poor woman! the wrong done her and her child had been avenged. Justice had vindicated itself. Who shall say but half the sorrow of bereavement was lifted from her heart by the knowledge that the slayers of her husband had tasted the bitter waters of death, held to their unwilling lips by the hand of Retribution? Why was it that the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment was denied her? I may be wrong, but I only repeat the sentiments of many men here and elsewhere when I say: Hangings should be public.
I have heard and read many objections to public executions; but I am convinced that whatever may be said of the rude and brutal deportment of the crowd — the levity — the profanity, &c. &c., I am convinced that no man ever saw an infliction of the Death Penalty, and forgot it. Men may read the long accounts given by newspaper reporters, but the reality beggars description. The reader can get but a very poor idea from the most graphic account, and like any other item of news, it is not long remembered. If the grand object is to warn men, by impressing on their minds the terrible consequences of crime, then that warning should be given in the most public manner possible.
When I commenced this communication I had no thought of making a plea for the gallows; and I will only say, that until some more fearful mode of punishing the crime of murder can be invented, hanging commends itself to the approval of reflecting people. It is a severe remedy, but it is the only effectual one; and those individuals who oppose capital punishment so zealously, may easily find other ways to vent their sentimentalism. Sympathy for those whom crime has injured would be better placed than sympathy for criminals. You will hear from me on this subject no more until Jeff. Davis is hanged, and then I shall probably have some comments to make, as I shall endeavor to “be there to see.”