While one might suppose that the plague of school shootings is a strictly recent phenomenon for our degenerated times, Benjamin Ratcliff hanged in Canon City, Colorado on this date in 1896 for gunning down the entire school board of Jefferson district, Park County.
One of the daughters had suffered a crippling injury that left one leg shorter than the other. She walked with a permanent limp.
Among the many woes this imposed upon her was an extreme difficulty reaching the Michigan Creek school, which sat on another ranch seven miles away from the Ratcliff home. Ratcliff petitioned unsuccessfully for some manner of accommodation but so far was the school board from consenting that he caught wind of a rumor allegedly being circulated by one of its number to the effect that Ratcliff pere had incestuously impregnated his own 18-year-old daughter.
Spitting mad, Ratcliff stopped by the schoolhouse on election day — May 6, 1895 — to air his grievances. When the school board arrived to open the polls he picked a fight that ended with Ratcliff gunning down all three members of the board with his Winchester rifle: Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt.
Four years before Ratcliff hanged, another settler who lived about 30 miles from the Ratcliff ranch had disappeared. Gottlieb Fluhmann was never accounted for in his own time, but his apparent remains were accidentally discovered in 1944; Ratcliff has sometimes been speculatively credited with that murder, too — though Ratcliff descendants reject that imputation as so much rehashed gossip.
Dennis W. Dilda was born on a farm near Rome, Georgia, in 1849. In his twenties he left home to avoid arrest after he stabbed a Negro to death for his money. He traveled to Texas, where he was soon charged with murdering a white man. Dilda fled and pursued, captured, tried, and acquitted, but there appears to be no record of either the crime or his trial. After being freed in Texas, he met and married his wife, Georgia, and soon followed her family from Texas to the Salt River Valley in the Arizona Territory. Over the next several years, Dilda got into several shooting scrapes in Phoenix, although no one was injured, but when his brother-in-law began to object to his sister’s choice of husband, the brother-in-law disappeared under suspicious circumstances. His body was never found and the family never heard from him again.
In September 1885, Dilda got a job helping to manage William Hamilton Williscraft’s farm. The farmhouse came along with the job and Dilda and his wife and children moved in. Williscraft went to live elsewhere but kept one room in the farmhouse for himself. The room was always securely locked and inside was a locked trunk.
Dilda was supposed to have worked alongside the farm’s general caretaker, “General Grant” Jenkins. By December, however, Jenkins had disappeared, and Williscraft noticed the lock had been pried off the door of his reserved room, the trunk had been opened and a gold watch and two pistols were missing. Dilda told his boss that his coworker had hated the job and complained all the time, and one morning he simply left. He denied knowing anything about the theft and suggested Jenkins had done it.
Williscraft, however, knew and trusted Jenkins, who had worked for him for twenty years. He didn’t believe his faithful employee would have stolen from him and then left without giving notice.
So he rode to town and swore out a warrant with the Yavapai County Sheriff, William J. Mulvenon, charging Dilda with the theft.
Deputy Sheriff John W. Murphy went to serve the warrant, stopping at rancher Charley Behm’s house on the way. He went to Dilda’s house several times on December 20, but each time Georgia Dilda told him her husband was out hunting.
Murphy borrowed Behm’s needle gun and tried one more time after dark. The sky was clear and there was full moon. Again, Dilda’s wife said he wasn’t home. In fact, he was hiding behind a fence, armed and waiting for his quarry, something Georgia was well aware of. When Murphy started to leave, Dilda shot him in the back. The deputy sheriff was able to fire the needle gun once before he collapsed and bled to death. Dennis and Georgia Dilda dragged his body inside the farmhouse and down into the cellar, and Dilda buried it there.
The next day, alarmed that Murphy hadn’t returned, Williscraft went to the farmhouse himself and found Murphy’s horse tied up just twenty feet from the house, and pools of blood in that yard. He gathered a posse of men, but Dilda had already left on foot and he was armed to the teeth, with Behm’s needle gun, his own .30 caliber Remington rifle, and Murphy’s .44 caliber revolver and cartridge belt.
Searchers found the corpse of “General Grant” Jenkins buried in the garden, concealed beneath a bed of replanted sunflowers. He had been shot in the head and had been dead for weeks. The searchers found Murphy’s body a short time afterwards.
A search party went looking for the fugitive and found him two days later, asleep under a tree. He did not resist when Sheriff Mulvenon arrested him. “You know it would be natural for a man in my position, if he could tell anything that would benefit him, he would do so,” Dilda replied simply when pressed for a confession. “But I have nothing to say.”
Dilda’s last night on earth, Wilson notes, “was restless, as he would doze only to awaken suddenly with a startled scream.” In the morning they took him to his favorite Chinese restaurant for breakfast and he ate heartily. At eleven o’clock, Dilda had one final photograph taken with his wife and two small children, Fern and John.
The hanging was at 2:00 p.m.
While Dilda was standing on the scaffold, Sheriff Mulvenon asked, “Is there anything you want?”
“A drink,” Dilda replied. Mulvenon let him take a long draw from a bottle of whiskey.
Some eight hundred men, as well as a dozen women, watched the hanging. Dilda went to his death quietly. The only commotion came from the audience: a reporter sent to cover the execution fainted as the trap was sprung.
The condemned man’s last words were, “Goodbye, boys!”
Georgia Dilda did not face charges for her role in Deputy Sheriff Murphy’s death. She returned to her family in Phoenix after the execution and never bothered to send for her husband’s body.
(In 1783, teenage outlaw James Hay had managed to escape from prison shortly before his hanging and hide out in the environs of Heriot’s school — of which he was an alumnus. Puckish schoolboys secretly brought morsels to their fugitive chum for six weeks, until the heat had died down enough for Hay to successfully escape Scotland.)
For more than a century, since the Restoration, the Grassmarket’s east end had doubled as a public execution theater — although other executions also continued to take place at different Edinburgh venues such as Mercat Cross. But the Grassmarket came online for the gallows just in time to lodge that site in the nation’s memory for martyring an hundred or more Covenanters during the Killing Time. The Duke of Rothes would crack of one such believer who preferred death to reconciliation, “Then let him glorify God in the Grassmarket.” Many did so.
Covenanters Memorial at the onetime site of the Grassmarket’s gallows. (cc) image from Kim Traynor. Just to the right (north) of this view one would find overlooking the memorial the pub named for Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson, who survived her execution in the Grassmarket in 1724.
To these souls of these saints was attached a more profane passion in 1736 when a mob incited by an unjust execution rampaged through the Grassmarket and lynched the captain of the city guard who fired on the populace — the real-life events recalled in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian.
As was the case with London’s nearly simultaneous retirement of the Tyburn tree, the milestone occasion dignified the sufferer far more than the other way around. James Andrews was a forgettable minor criminal who hanged for a robbery in the Meadows.
The city’s next execution was fully 14 months later. It took place outside the western facade of the Tolbooth prison, which now took over from the Grassmarket as Edinburgh’s definitive public execution site.
Jones was a prolific penpal correspondent who had won a worldwide following as he fought his death sentence over half a lifetime.
His accomplice Van Roosevelt Solomon was electrocuted all the way back in 1985 for the same convenience store robbery-murder;* as Liliana Segura recently noted in The Intercept, Jones’s case is heavy with the arbitrariness of capital cases — not only that Jones outlived Solomon by three decades, but also that in that span many other Georgians have committed homicides equal to his in tragic banality, served a term of years for it, and been released. It needs hardly even be said that Jones, like 54 of the other 60 people executed by Georgia since the 1970s, had a white victim: that’s a disparity that courts have washed their hands of even though it was one of the constitutional concerns that led a former incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes in 1972.
While Jones’s death is headline news, his case dates to the earliest years of what is dignified the “modern” death penalty period and as such might more closely resemble the preceding era than the one we inhabit today.
It’s almost a time capsule of the jurisprudence — and sociology — touching capital punishment, even including Jones’s unluckily-timed appeal victory that led to a new sentencing hearing during the gung-ho-to-execute 1990s. Even if the distance of time is extreme, more typical death penalty lags of 8, 10, 15 years mean that most present-day executions are ripples of receding public policy sensibilities — “zombie cases” in the words of Southern Center for Human Rights director Stephen Bright. People like Brandon Jones “almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today,” when prosecutors, judges, and juries all show growing reluctance to don the black cap. But it’s a very different story for those is already tangled in the coils of the system.
* A policeman happened to be arriving right to the same store on a coincidental errand when the crime went down, so the culprits were arrested before they made it off the parking lot.
On this date in 1871, John Hanlon expiated a cold-case Philadelphia murder.
Back in September of 1868, a young girl named Mary Mohrmann vanished while playing outside — her outraged corpse to be discovered days later dumped on a vacant lot a few blocks away at Sixth and Susquehanna.
The crime had every hallmark of a neighborhood perpetrator, someone who would have had the ability to hide away the kidnapped or dead girl in his own home before disposing of her body nearby.
John Hanlon, a nearby barber who knew Mary’s mother, numbered among the several men suspected of the crime and even detained for it. But it was frustratingly impossible to pin a solid accusation on him or anyone else. There were a few witnesses who had seen Mary led off, and a few others who saw someone abandon a bulky encumbrance where Mary was found, but among them all nobody was prepared to venture an identification.
So there the matter rested, and little Mary Mohrmann’s file might to this day reside in the dusty back rooms of the Philadelphia police cold case lockers had Hanlon restraint enough to lay off the predation following his lucky escape.
He did have the wisdom to move (within Philadelphia), and even to change his name to “Charles Harris”, but some detectives who investigated the original case still had him in view. In December 1869, “Harris” caught a fire-year sentence for attempting to molest a 10-year-old girl — and this naturally strengthened the suspicion against him in the Mohrmann case to (as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it on Dec. 30, 1869) “morally certain” despite the “lack of legal evidence to place him on trial.”
Now sure of their mark — indeed, seemingly tunnel-visioned in a fashion highly conducive to a wrongful conviction — police resumed their efforts to remedy that want of legal evidence.
To this end, they provided the suspect a cellmate in the person of a thief named Michael Dunn, whose detail was to elicit from “Harris” particulars of his criminal career. Sure enough, this stool pigeon soon had a self-reported confession in hand.
This distasteful strategem made possible the case that hanged John Hanlon: with it, the state could situate its moral certainty in a coherent narrative of the crime that Dunn read into the court transcripts as issuing straight from the mouth of the accused.
While Hanlon denied to the last that he ever confessed anything to the convenient jailhouse snitch, posterity might comfort itself (as did contemporaries)* by the culprit’s conspicuous caginess when it came to his actual culpability. His refusal even to remark on his own guilt or innocence appeared to speak volumes.
So it is hardly a surprise that few other Philadelphians besides Hanlon’s own mother, sisters, and 16-year-old wife** were at all troubled by the cheat necessary to noose the man. The New York Herald, whose bulletins on the case ran towards sensationalism, reported “a general sense of relief” in the City of Brotherly love post-execution.
When it was found that … Hanlon had really been hung people began to breathe freer — they feel that now their innocents are safe. The influence exerted by Hanlon’s deeds on the minds of every one having helpless children in their family has been something wonderful … no sympathy has been manifested for the guilty wretch.†
He died firmly, having immersed himself in prayer in his last days, and pronounced himself at peace with the world and with his mortal fate.
Editorial from the Feb. 3, 1871 New York Tribune.
* Hanlon, understandably, did not share this equanimity and at sentencing subjected the court to a bitter rant against the prosecutors who stitched him up. “I will die by murder!” he cried. “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilled by perjury.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 12, 1870) Towards the end, in an interview with one of the detectives responsible, a more resigned Hanlon peacably reproached the lawman, “You and I know how it was done, and I don’t want to talk about it.” (New York Tribune, Feb. 2, 1871) By this time, Hanlon had a dying man’s thirst for reconciliation, and he apologized to the detective for the sharp tone he had taken in court.
In his last statement on the gallows, he generically sought forgiveness from “all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871)
** She was 13 when they married.
† New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1871. This author admitted that “it was necessary to use Dunn as a witness … the end will justify the means; yet it is a bad precedent to establish.”
An Elegy written by himself
in the Marshalsea after his condemnation.
Break heart, be mute my sorrows past compare,
Cosbie complain no more, but sit and die,
Tears are no tokens of such dreriment,
As thy true grief pours to the angry heavens,
The heavens offended with thy foul misdeeds,
O great Commander of this glorious round,
The workmanship of thine immortal hand,
Thou that doest ride upon the Cherubins,
And tunest the deeps in dreadful harmony,
Cast down thine eye upon a wretched soul,
And from thy throne of grace great Jacob’s God
Rain mercy on me miserable man,
Fallen into snares of sin and shameful death,
From thee sweet Savior, Savior of the world.
O world, vain world, unconstant, & unkind,
Why hast thou bred me, nursed me, brought me up,
To see this day of sorrow and of shame:
Cosbie complain. Captains and men of war,
With whom I wholime spent my careless days,
Days dated but to this, to end in shame,
Farewell, adieu to you and all the rest
That follow armes, and armes and life adieu,
From armes and life I pass drenched in the pit
Digged by my desperate hands, hands full of blood.
Bleed heart to think what these accursed hands
Have perpetrated, Pardon heaven and earth,
And gentle Lord misled by my amis,
Foully by me sent to this longest home,
O pardon Cosbie’s cruel mind,
His mind enraged, and gentle blood by wrath
And fury tainted and empoisoned.
Why do I kill my doleful dying heart,
With sad rehearsal of this heavy chance.
O death rock me asleep, Father of heaven
That hast sole power to pardon sins of men,
Forgive the faults and folly of my youth,
My youth misspent in waste and wantonness,
And for sweet Jesus sake forgive my soul,
Foully defiled with this above the rest,
And lastly you whose fame I have defiled,
My kin, my Countrymen, friends, and allies,
Pardon, o pardon, such as men to men
Can give, I beg for wronging you in all,
For shaming you in this my wretched end,
The fruitless crop, the meed of my desert,
My bad, my base deserves, sweet Friends forget,
Friends, countrymen, and kinsfolks all forget,
My name, my face, my fact, o blot me out,
Out of the world, put me out of your thoughts,
Or if you think, o think I never was,
Or if you think I was, think that I fell,
Before some fort, some hold in Belgia,
With this suppose beguile your sorrows friends,
Think that I fell before the Canon’s mouth,
Even in mine honors heigth that blessed day,
When in advancement of my name, I left
My countries enemy in his base reuolie:
A wretched man to talk of honors high,
Fallen so basely into the pit of shame,
The pit of death: my God, my God forgive me,
Next to my God, my country pardon me,
Whose honor I have stained and laws infringe,
And thou my sovereign Mistress and my Queen,
Bright star of England’s globe, forgive my fact,
Nor let it touch thy Royal Princely heart,
That Cosbie hath misdone so heinously.
The circle of my time is compassed,
Arrived to the point where it began.
World, country, kin, and friends farewell farewell,
Fly thou my soul to heaven the haven of bliss,
O body bear the scourge of thine amiss.
On this date in 1888, New York City crime lord Danny Driscoll went to the gallows in the Tombs.
(Co-)leader of the Irish gang the Whyos — so named for a distinctive signaling hoot that once echoed through the Five Points — Driscoll inherited power when his predecessor Mike McGloin hanged in 1884.
This band emerged after the disruptions of the Civil War as Manhattan’s most powerful criminal syndicate. The Whyos’ run in the 1870s and 1880s marks a transitional phase from the wild and woolly Gangs of New York street-brawling era into the more businesslike mafiosos of the 20th century.
Like the Mos Eisley cantina, the Whyos’ seedy tavern of choice (aptly named The Morgue) was notorious for over 100 recorded homicides in gang shootouts and drunken brawls; like Jabba the Hutt, the gang also took a methodical approach to extortion, racketeering, and murder that put the “organized” in their crime. One goon answering to the colorful name Piker Ryan (and old time New York crooks are nothing if not flamboyantly named) was once arrested with an actual ultraviolence menu from which budget-conscious clientele could custom-order thrashings for delivery.
Both eyes blacked $4
Nose and jaw broke $10
Jacked out (knocked out with a Blackjack) $15
Ear chewed off $15
Leg or arm broke $19
Shot in the leg $25
“Doing the big job” (murder) $100 and up
These 1884 selections perhaps already represent a moderation from earlier methods; a previous Whyo hoodlum, “Dandy” John Dolan, was noted for the copper eye-gouger he wore on his thumb just in case he needed to — well, you know. Dolan hanged back in 1876.
Wait til they get a load of the clamps.
Driscoll kept a house with his young wife, and was charitable enough also to share it with a whore named “Beezie” Bridget Garrity — with whom Driscoll often caroused in the rough Whyo territory. One night in 1886 their alcoholic peregrinations brought them up against a brothel run by a tough named John McCart(h)y, against whom Driscoll had an existing grudge — and as they entered, Driscoll and McCarty wound up in a threshold gunfight. Beezie Garrity had the bad luck to catch a fatal bullet in the crossfire. Both men would blame each other for firing the shot that killed Garrity, and produce numerous witnesses of variously impaired credibility, but for the city there was no confusion at all: between the two, Driscoll was the man worth getting rid of.
“I’ve got a bad name with the police and they say ‘give a dog a bad name and we’ll hang him,'” Driscoll complained to the court. His criminal record reached back to childhood.
Newspapers in the run-up to the hanging were rife with stories of escape attempts and Whyo menace, but police correctly prophesied that the gang had not the numbers or vigor to make any real disturbance. A cordon of 150 gendarmes around the Tombs saw “small groups of young men with hard, wicked-looking visages whom the police pronounced remnants of the Whyo gang … among them were some of the brazen-faced young women of the class to which Beezie Garrity” belonged. (New Haven Register, Jan. 23, 1888) Driscoll died game, his neck efficiently snapped by a noose of white Italian hemp … which seems by retrospection an apt instrument for his passing.
After Driscoll and his fellow alpha male Danny Lyons both hanged in 1888, the Whyos shrank into memory. They would be overtaken in the 1890s by Monk Eastman‘s gang, one last dinosaur from a fading era of hardscrabble toughs; Eastman was in turn supplanted by the Five Points Gang — a more recognizably sophisticated operation to key the 20th century, composed predominantly of the growing Italian-American emigre demographic that would define organized crime for the Godfather era.
On this day in 1922, Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano were hanged in New Mexico’s Grant County Jail in Silver City for the 1921 murder of a prison guard.
Corral (left) and Losano (right).
Losano and Corral were serving time in the Grant County Jail for robbery (Corral) and attempted larceny (Losano) in the spring of 1921. Losano had only fifteen days days left to go on his sentence. Nevertheless, on April 2, 1921, the two young men decided to make a break for it. The jailer, sixty-year-old Ventura Bencoma, had been sick with the flu and during the early morning hours he decided to have a lie-down. While Bencoma slept, Corral and Losano were able to get out of the cell they shared.
A nearby cell was unoccupied and used for storing coal and firewood, and had an ax. The two convicts sneaked up on Bencoma and brained him with the ax, took his gun and keys, and threatened to shoot the other prisoners if they made any noise. They tried to use the keys to release another prisoner, Jesus Rocha, but weren’t able to get the lock undone and gave up. As soon as the pair had run off into the darkness, the others started screaming for help and woke up the sheriff, who was also enjoying a siesta of his own up on the second floor and had missed the entire jailbreak.
Both Eleuterio and Rumaldo bragged out loud of their escape and short freedom. Both men told Sheriff Casey it was Jesus Rocha who planned the escape and was to have joined them. Sheriff Casey learned from the two that after Jailer Bencoma’s keys and pistol were removed, they were to unlock the steel cell door to Jesus Rocha. Once he was released, the three were to go up to the second floor where Sheriff Casey’s quarters were and call him to the door. Once the Sheriff opened the door, he would be shot and killed with the jail’s pistol. The three would then arm themselves with the Sheriff’s rifles and ammunition. They planned to saddle the horses in the Sheriff’s corral and flee to Mexico. The plan began to fall apart after both failed to unlock the cell door to Jesus Rocha.
In light of this information, Jesus Rocha was charged with murder alongside his criminal colleagues. At trial, Losano and Corral recanted their statements about his involvement and claimed Rocha had not been a part of the escape plan. All three were convicted and sentenced to hang, but the Supreme Court of New Mexico subsequently reversed Rocha’s conviction, leaving Corral and Losano to face the noose without him.
Their families in Mexico pleaded for mercy, claiming that at the time of the murders, Corral was just sixteen years old and Losano seventeen. However, three physicians who examined them judged Corral was least nineteen and Losano was probably older than twenty.
A few days prior to the execution, the deputy warden conducted a surprise search of the condemned men’s cell. Both of their mattresses contained hacksaws and makeshift knives: they’d been planning another violent escape attempt. Unsurprisingly, the state governor, Merritt C. Mechem, refused to commute the sentences, telling Sheriff Casey, “Every guard’s life out there would be in danger with those two in the penitentiary.”
Officials set up the scaffold only about fifty feet from where Bencoma was murdered. Corral went first, then Losano. Both of them were calm and offered the standard prayers, apologies for their crimes and pleas for forgiveness.
On this date in 1894, West Virginia hanged before a crowd of 3,000 for a mining camp murder three months before.
Hardy was reportedly already at odds with Thomas Drews, a fellow laborer in the booming Appalachian coal industry, over their mutual pursuit of the same woman when Hardy lost big to Drews in a craps game on October 13, 1893.
While it’s true that twenty-five cents doesn’t really seem all that “big”, this sum could represent a decent slice of a day’s pay in the coal mining game, and that in an industry where downward wage pressure had generated a ferocious national strike only months before. Hardy was profoundly nonplussed to have to fork over the sweat of his brow to a love rival and, with the added incitement of whiskey, shot Drews dead. (Ten more spectators at his hanging wound up in stir themselves for drunk and disorderlies.)
One of the most popular folk ballads in American history, the song has foggy origins but amazing reach: it has been performed, covered, and reinterpreted by a scores of artists including the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan with the Grateful Dead.
On this date in 1983, Wang Zhong, once the Communist Party Secretary and district head of Haifeng county, Guangdong, was executed for corruption.
The first official of his rank to be so punished, Wang did business on a truly paltry scale relative to the titanicgraft compassed by China’s latter-day oligarchs: his first booty was a 17″ black-and-white TV in 1979. In the end, between payola extorted and contraband expropriated, Wang sold his life for 69,000 yuan — a little over US $10,000.
His crimes were read out and his sentence before more than 17,300 people at a rally at Swatow, 200 miles east of Canton.
Wang then was driven in a truck to an execution ground about 25 minutes away.
Between 600 and 700 bicycles were parked near the execution ground, and some people ran on foot to watch after the truck and its escorts passed by thousands of spectators along the route.
A cold wind blew and a light rain fell as the convoy arrived and a policeman asked Wang if he had any last words. It [was?] said he asked police to tell his children not to follow his examples.
At 2:45, Wang Zhong knelt facing south. The policeman carrying out the execution once again confirmed his identity. Then he picked up an automatic rifle and, ‘peng,’ a bullet pierced Wang Zhong’s heart.