From the Alton Weekly Courier, June 25, 1857, under a June 20 dateline.
Yesterday being the day appointed for the execution of the murderers of Jacob Barth, we dispatched one of our Assistants to Edwardsville, in order that from personal observation we might be able to correctly report the proceedings of this melancholy occasion at the earliest moment. The following is as full and concise a sketch as could be prepared after his return late yesterday evening, and contains, we believe, all the particulars in which our readers would likely feel an interest.
The Day and The Crowd
The weather was very favorable, the day being mild and pleasant. The sun shone clear and warm, but not oppressively so; the recent rains had settled the dust, but had not made any mud, and the roads were consequently in good traveling condition. The rarity of capital executions in this part of the country, together with the recent and very exciting history of this case, conspired to draw out a tremendous crowd of people to witness this the last and severest penalty of the law. It was estimated that there were between seven and eight thousand persons present, some of whom had come from a distance of fifty miles. They were of all ages, sexes, conditions and complexions. A large portion of them were Germans* — friends, relatives and countrymen of the murdered man. Very much to our surprise, mortification and sorrow, we observed a large number of females among the spectators — we say “females,” for we scarcely feel at liberty to designate them as either women or ladies, for we have always thought, and had good reason to think, that every feeling and attribute of a true woman’s nature would generate in her bosom an unconquerable repugnance to voluntarily witnessing any such revolting scenes under any circumstances in the world. Many of the females who were at the place of execution yesterday, and who witnessed the infliction of the dreadful death penalty with the same coolness and indifference as the men generally manifested, were young, and would have been pretty anywhere else and under ordinary circumstances. Why they attended, or what could have induced them to be present at all, we cannot possibly conceive; and in recording the fact that they were there, we feel that their loving, and noble, and gentle sex is by that fact disgraced.
It is already known to our readers that Robert Sharpe, the younger of the two brothers condemned, has been sent to the State’s Prison for life, under commutation of sentence by Gov. Bissell. The other two – George W. Sharpe, tried and condemned under the name of George Gibson, and John Johnson, who, until after his trial bore the false name of Edward Barber — have been closely attended by Rev. E. M. West and other clergymen, and have appeared to be truly penitent for their crimes. For several days before their execution, they both seemed fully resigned to their fate, and prepared to meet and try the dread realities of eternity; but yesterday morning Sharpe yielded to despondent and despairing feelings, and seemed to suffer dreadfully with fear and terror during the last few hours of his life. The prisoners were both young, heavy set, and rather good-looking men. They evidently had been possessed of healthy and vigorous frames, capable of performing much labor. In preparation for the last scene of their lives. Sheriff Job had arrayed the unfortunate men in very neat suits of clothing, of the ordinary style and fashion, and of perfect snowy whiteness in every particular; they were also cleanly shaved and looked extremely well. Sharpe had two sisters and two brothers, including the one now in the Penitentiary; Johnson had four sisters and four brothers; the parents of both are all living yet; but no relative or even acquaintance who knew them before they committed the murder was beside them in their last trying hour.
At half past one o’clock the Sheriff placed the prisoners in a neat and comfortable hack which had been provided, and in which they were conveyed at a slow pace to the place of execution. The carriage was escorted by a portion of the Madison Guards, under command of Captain J. Sloss, fully armed and equipped. A large concourse of spectators followed, but observed good order and decorum. The procession passed along the main street of the town, through its entire length. The prisoners occupied themselves in singing and prayer all the time after they left the prison.
The spot chosen for the execution was in a ravine east of town, and on the County Poor House Grounds. The scaffold was a neat and substantial structure, as perfectly adapted to its use as anything could be. It was surrounded by rising ground in every direction, so that every person in the vast assemblage could obtain a perfect and near view of the awful tragedy. An area had been laid off by a temporary enclosure, which was guarded by a detachment of the Madison Guards, under command of Lieut. J. G. Robinson, no one being allowed to enter without the permission of the Sheriff.
The Scene at the Scaffold
After those whose duty or privilege it was had ascended to the platform of the scaffold, Sheriff Jon briefly addressed the assembled multitude. He said he was there in his official capacity to perform an unpleasant duty, in executing upon two of his fellow men the severest penalty provided by our laws for the violation of its enactments. Exceedingly unpleasant as was this duty, it was yet a duty, and should be faithfully performed. The example thus set ought not to be lost upon those who had come to witness it. The persons — and specially the youth — of that vast assemblage should take warning from the terrible fate of the two young men so soon to be hurried to the dread presence of an offended God, and avoid the crimes that so justly and so certainly lead to this terrible end. Rev. E. M. West then spoke at some length in explanation of the manner in which and the reasons why the commutation of the sentence of Robert Sharpe had been petitioned for and granted. We cannot possibly give even a skeleton of his remarks in this issue; perhaps we may do so tomorrow. Mr. West then closed with a brief and earnest admonitory exhortation suited to the occasion. The Sheriff then extended a permission — even an invitation — to the prisoners to address the audience, of which Johnson immediately availed himself. He said he stood before his hearers a cold-blooded murderer, of which crime he had been found guilty, and for which he was soon to be so terribly yet so justly punished. In a few minutes, he and one of his companions in guilt would be suddenly launched into eternity, and sent into the presence of the great God whose laws they had violated, with the blood of their victim yet red upon their hands. But he had a humble hope that he had made his peace with God, and that although his crime had been great, his salvation was sure. His soul was at peace; he had no malice in his heart, and he was ready and willing to meet the Judge of all the earth. His punishment although terrible was just, and he was prepared to meet it. If he had remained at home during his early youth and obeyed the pious instructions of his mother, he would not now have been on the scaffold a condemned murderer. He hoped all the youth who heard him would take warning by his example, he influenced by the counsels of their good and pious mothers, keep out of bad company and bad habits and thus avoid the terrible fate that had so soon overtaken him Johnson spoke with much feeling and earnestness and manifested deep emotion while speaking. His remarks were very appropriate to the occasion, and were listened to with respectful attention. Sharpe seemed to desire to speak but was so overcome with the horrors of his situation he was unable to do so. Rev. J. B. Corrington then addressed to the audience a few very appropriate remarks. He had once thought that a saving repentance in view of the certainty of death was almost if not quite an impossibility, but in the two interviews he had had with the condemned in prison, he had received grounds for hope that their repentance was thorough and sincere, and of course acceptable. He hoped, however, none of his hearers would trust their salvation to a death-pending repentance. We have positive evidence of the efficacy of but one such; and God had placed this one case on record in His Holy Word that none might despair, and but the one that none should presume. Mr. Corrington closed with a brief but earnest and heart stirring prayer, in which the prisoners, standing and with clasped hands, joined audibly.
The prisoners then shook hands with and took an affectionate leave of each other, the Sheriff and his deputies and the attending clergymen. Johnson seemed perfectly composed and met his fate without exhibiting the least symptom of fear or even regret. He stood erect and without trembling, retained the ruddy natural glow of health in his face, and as much firmness and calmness of mind as in an ordinary business transaction. Often he would clasp his hands, and a smile of apparently perfect happiness would overspread his features. He seemed perfectly willing — even anxious, for his last moment to come. When the Sheriff told them to step on the drop, he turned to his companion and said, “George, which side would you rather stand on?” Sharpe was terribly affected, and was really a pitiable object to behold. His eyes seemed to have almost lost all expression, and exhibited nothing but a glassy, death-like stare; his face was ashy pale, and showed no color save a livid purple hue; his hands were alternately and convulsively clasped and raised in supplication, and he constantly gave utterance to heart-rending moans or incoherent prayers. When requested to step forward upon the drop, he obeyed, exclaiming, “O Lord! have mercy on me! I dare not die! I’m afraid I’m not prepared!” The ropes were adjusted round their necks, their arms were pinioned together across their backs, their hands tied, white muslin caps were drawn over their heads, and when all was ready, at a single stroke, Sheriff Jon severed the cord which held the supporters of the drop, and in an instant the unfortunate murderers were suspended in mid air in the agonies of death. They both struggled very much for more than a minute. In about two minutes after, they fell, Johnson ceased to manifest any signs of life. Sharpe continued to struggle, though less and less, for full five minutes. The knot of the noose had slipped round to the back of his head, and the fall had failed to break his neck; he therefore lived until he was literally choked to death. They both fell about five feet, and if the knot had remained in the right position, his neck would have been instantly broken, of course. After having hung full thirty minutes, the bodies were taken down, placed in handsome walnut coffins, and decently buried. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Sheriff Jon for the kind and considerate, yet firm and prompt manner in which he discharged the unpleasant duty that devolved upon him. The independent, manly and conscientious course he has pursued during the exciting and trying scenes that have occurred at our county seat during the past few weeks has won for him a still greater share of the popular favor of his constituents of which he before enjoyed so much.
* The victim was German; the young men, deep in their cups, murdered him because they took umbrage at Barth’s refusing them a ride. According to the New York Daily Tribune (May 29, 1857), a mob of some 400 lynch-minded Germans assembled in Edwardsville when the accused were granted a change of venue to a more “American” county — and even went so far as to throw up a gibbet before the Sheriff Job who eventually conducted the legal execution dissuaded his immigrant neighbors from effecting an extrajudicial one.
** Bissell was the first Republican governor of Illinois: in fact, one of the first Republican elected officials anywhere. He had previously distinguished a term in Congress (he was elected as a Democrat, before the 1854 founding of the GOP) with his naked contempt for the South’s delegates. For having the temerity to rebut exaggerated claims of Mississippian valor in the Mexican-American War, Bissell at one point prompted the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis to challenge him to a duel: surprisingly (to Davis) Bissell accepted, but word of the affair circulated in Washington and the sectional hotheads were made to cancel their rendezvous.
Here’s an 1858 letter to Bissell by Abraham Lincoln seeking (successfully) the pardon of two Logan County men convicted of stealing a few hogs.