On this date in 1824, David D. Howe (or “How”) was publicly executed at the upstate New York town of Angelica. Up to five or six thousand souls — several times the population of Angelica — were said to have turned out on a fair springtime morning for the hanging.
Howe’s fate could be read as a cautionary of life before the bankruptcy code. Financially ruined by an unsuccessful investment in a turnpike, Howe attempted to recover himself by farming only to sink ever deeper into debt. Creditors soon came to drag him cruelly under the water line, and in the summer of 1823 they repossessed much of what he owned — including “all my crops, my horses, cattle, and even my farming utensils,” which of course cratered the farming venture into the bargain.
“Had I had time to have turned my property, I would have been able to pay my honest debts,” Howe complained (somewhat optimistically, given his track record) from his dungeon a few days before he hanged.
And the worst of these oppressors in his mind was the victim, Othello Church — who seized “possession of much more than he was bound for, (in my opinion, and which he acknowledged to several persons before his death.)” From Howe’s desperate standpoint, Church “had taken advantage of my troubles, and taken property from me wrongfully, and several other persons seemed combined with him to work my destruction.” The two traded high words often and in public; Howe’s obvious motive would in time help to cinch the circumstantial case against him because he was sought so immediately after the man’s murder that his horse was discovered still damp from its evil ride, and the muzzle of his rifle not yet cooled from the assassination.
Still, Howe could justify the fancy of escaping detection: after all, motive had not been enough to convict him when he was arrested — correctly so, he would admit in gallows’ shadow — for vengefully torching the barn of another vulturous creditor.
And so on December 29, 1823, having observed that “the state of the snow [was such] that I might not be tracked,” Howe — after a couple of alibi-making calls at public houses — secreted his rifle under his coat and made the six-mile ride to the farm of his nemesis. Whatever the injustice of his provocation, it is obvious in his narration that he acted with sure deliberation:
I hitched my beast near Mr. Spear’s shop — took out my knife and rubbed the flint that it might not miss fire. — I took the mitten from off my right hand and put it in my pocket, and was careful not to drop any thing whereby I might be detected. I then stepped to his kitchen door, which opened near the head of his bed, and stood 5 or 6 minutes on his door stone. All creation seemed locked in slumber, and one dread silence reigned through all the works of God.
Now my bold heart even trembled at the thought of an act so desperate, and every vibration of my soul seemed shrinking beneath the horrors of the scene.
I rapped at his door, and shuddered and the very noise I made, and was on the point of retiring, when his wife, I think, awoke him, and he exclaimed, “Who is there?” I endeavored to alter my voice, and answered, “I have a letter for you;” he then said, “walk in;” I answered, “have the goodness to open the door and take it.” He arose, and as he opened the door, as soon as I saw the appearance of his white shirt, I shot at venture; I took no sight, and had the gun by my side, and I think the muzzle was not more than three or four feet from him. I then heard him exclaim, “Oh! my God, my God!!” I heard no more of him. I then returned to my beast; and every step was marked with care, lest I should fall or loose something, as it was slippery. The shocking cries and shrieks of the family broke the midnight silence, and rent the air with horror, which I heard considerable distance. I then rode with great speed home. I dismounted and loaded my gun in haste, and set into the window whence I had taken it; then put out my beast, went to bed, and went to sleep.
The quotes above all come from The Trial of David D. How for the murder of Othello Church at Angelica, which is freely available here; it contains the evidence given against How(e) at trial as well as the confession he dictated to Rev. Joseph Badger.
Badger, a traveling evangelist, would preach the sermon at Howe’s hanging; Badger left an ample journal of his 18-day ministry to the doomed Howe, and parts of that journal can be read in Badger’s memoir. (Unfortunately I have not been able to access the complete original which the memoir references.)
Howe seems by Badger’s account to have hurled himself sincerely, and almost voraciously, into the pious repentance expected of a condemned man. One might well imagine the grateful heart with which Howe, so lately picked into penury by stone-hearted foes, greeted the clergymen and neighbors who now took such an interest in his salvation.
March the 18th. He sent for me at daybreak. I found he had a restless night, and was in great distress. I made him several visits ; his family came to take their leave of him forever. At 3 o’clock P. M., the Rev. Mr. Boach, a Methodist minister, preached a short discourse in the dungeon from John 3:16. Five clergymen were present, and the scene was solemn. Mr. How took the lead in singing two hymns, and carried his part through in a graceful manner. In singing the first, he stood up and leaned partly on the stove; held his little girl by one hand, who sat in the lap of her mother, and with the other he took the hand of his affectionate brother, who stood by his side. At the close of the meeting, his wife gave him her hand for the last time. He embraced her with fondness, and when he pressed his little girl to his bosom (about four years of age) he wept aloud. He requested that several Christian friends should spend the night with him in prayer; thus his last night on earth was spent in imploring God for grace and mercy.
March the 19th. I entered the prison at break of day, found him much resigned. He observed, as I entered, that his last night on earth was gone, which he had spent in prayer. At 7 o’clock I visited him again with a company of ladies who had never seen him. Mrs. Richards, of Dansville, took him by the hand, both fell upon their knees, and she prayed for him in the most fervent manner. He then prayed for himself, for his family, for the family of Mrs. Church, who were afflicted by him, for his executioner, and all the world. As we came out, a gentleman remarked that he had never heard a man pray like him.
At 9 I entered his apartment for the last time, accompanied by his heloved daughter and a young man who was soon to become her husband. We entered with serious hearts; he received them very pleasantly, and made remarks to me on the fine weather, and the lady who had prayed with him. He asked of me the privilege of walking into the yard with the young man. They spent a short time together. He then asked me to wait on Harriet to the door. He placed her by the side of the young man, and delivered her to his charge, saying that she had long been deprived of the counsels of a mother, and would be in a few moments separated from her father forever. “I now commit her to you as a friend, protector,