On this date in 1870, William Dickson’s hanging in the Leavenworth jail yard accidentally put the kibosh on Kansas executions for the next 74 years.
The Sunflower State entered the Union bleeding and had not shown particularly reticent about capital punishment during its first decade of statehood, the 1860s.
Dickson was just an illiterate laborer who murdered a pedlar in Delaware township — but the public hanging brought out the worst in the mob, and “During the execution order was maintained only by the most strenuous efforts, and repeated threats.” (Leavenworth Bulletin, Aug. 9, 1870)
The distasteful scene moved the legislature to revise the state’s capital statutes, unusually placing the responsibility of actually ordering hanging dates directly on the governor instead of a judge. (Such dates also had to be “not less than one year from the time of conviction.”)
The ensuing decades of Gilded Age governors proved perfectly happy never to do so. So, even though courts kept issuing death sentences, they were never carried out. Kansas finally abolished the death penalty outright in 1907. It was restored only in 1935, and the first hanging under the reinstated statute — the first since Bill Dickson — finally took place in 1944.