On this date in 1873, John Gaffney hanged in Buffalo — the last of two executions conducted by future U.S. President Grover Cleveland.
The man whom future foes on the national stage would deride as the “Buffalo Hangman” got his political start as sheriff for that Erie Canal port. It was the Sheriff’s honor not only to drop the trap on a condemned man like Gaffney, but, in the first days of February, to successfully petition Gov. John Adams Dix* for a short delay pending execution of the sentence.
Having been condemned for a drunken murder the year prior, Gaffney was then engaged in playing vigorously his last card for clemency: “either insane through fear of death or pretending insanity,” as press reports put it. (We find this one all the way down in Texas’s Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Feb. 7, 1873.) “He has become very violent and uses the foulest language to all who approach him. He walks incessantly, and is said to have abused his spiritual adviser in the most outrageous manner to-day, and threw a crucifix at him through the grating.” Most everyone supposed this was a put-on, but a group of physicians wanted some time to examine him for propriety’s sake.
This ruse kept Buffaloans quite excited for the next week, butteressing the already-vigorous movement among its best citizens for sparing Gaffney’s life.
But in the end, his life was only spared for a week.
To give the killer his due, he had the dignity not to continue the pretense once the governor made it clear that the attempt had failed. Sheriff Cleveland delivered to Gaffney the bad news, and with it, an instantaneous return to reason. (Gaffney admitted once again under the gallows that his madness was shammed.)
From the Feb. 12, 1873 New York Herald.
One night in May the previous year, Gaffney had been on one of his frequent benders through the district’s cutthroat dive bars. While gambling that night at Sweeny’s saloon, he fell into a senseless quarrel with another of his depraved ilk named Patrick Fahey — which ended when Gaffney produced a pistol and the evident intent to use it. Fahey fled as Gaffney fired errantly, making it all the way to the street before his whiskey-addled assailant finally aimed true. The noise of the volley brought a pair of police running — they only ventured into this part of town in pairs — and they arrested Gaffney on the spot while Fahey breathed his last into the iniquitous gutter.
Gaffney’s usual crew zipped their lips. But police were able to find a minstrel named McQueeney who was witness to the mayhem and prepared to talk (and testify) about it.
By the end — after eight months’ worth of legal maneuvers, clemency appeals, and faux-insanity — Gaffney affirmed his guilt to the witnesses who attended his Valentine’s Day hanging, blaming drink for escalating the encounter and regretting that he had not admitted all and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. “I beg pardon for all the crime I have done, and I forgive all who have injured me,” he said. Then at two minutes before noon, the 22nd and 24th** U.S. president touched the spring to open eternity beneath Gaffney’s feet, and efficiently snapped his neck.
* Dix was one-half of the namesake of the Dix-Hill cartel under whose auspices the belligerents of the recent Civil War managed their prisoner exchanges. The breakdown of this exchange system in 1863 helped create the conditions for the humanitarian catastrophe at Andersonville.
** As all U.S. civics nerds know, Grover Cleveland was President from 1885 to 1889, then lost an election to Benjamin Harrison, then defeated Harrison in a rematch in the next election and returned to the Oval Office from 1893 to 1897: the only president who served multiple terms non-consecutively.