On this date in 1933, Dallas Egan hanged at California’s San Quentin Prison — and pretty much nobody was happier about it than Dallas Egan.
A cynic might attribute the puckish jig he reputedly danced en route to the gallows to the liberal allotment of whiskey, straight he had swallowed at the sufferance of Gov. “Sunny Jim” Rolph* — “all the whiskey he can safely stand up under.” It was just the governor’s way of saying thanks to the murderer for going so easy on the justice system.
Barely a year before, Egan and three accomplices robbed a Los Angeles jewelry store when, mid-robbery, an old fella with a hearing deficiency paused at the store window to check his pocketwatch against the wares n display — one of those little accidental moments that make up a life, or in this case, a death. Two deaths, actually. Egan shot the misfortunate William Kirkpatrick dead when the man didn’t respond to an order the robber shouted. “I gave the man full warning,” Egan explained.
But Egan didn’t mean to minimize his guilt; he was fully committed from the time of his capture to get himself the noose.
“I don’t know whether or not I’m insane,” he mused to the court when an attorney tried to secure a sanity hearing for him (per thisLos Angeles Times profile). “We’re all a little crazy; even you, Judge. But I don’t want nine years’ punishment, or 20 years. I want to pay in full!” In later months he would write the governor and the Supreme Court insisting on his just deserts and washing his hands of any appeal or clemency effort on his behalf.
Egan’s last morning, Oct. 20, 1933, began with a good breakfast, some final sips of whiskey and a cigar “tilted at a ridiculous angle,” according to one witness. The previous night he’d played a record of “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider” over and over in his cell, telling guards: “I’ll dance out to that tune.” (Some newspapers misquoted this statement with the more formal “I want to dance out to the gallows.”)
When the hour came, he really did dance an Irish jig as he entered the death chamber handcuffed between guards. He then walked up the 13 steps, energetically and alone. Offering no final words, he plunged through the trapdoor.
Rolph’s generosity toward Egan resulted in a two-day controversy. Some Bay Area preachers chided him for it, but Rolph had the last word: “We would be pretty small when we sent a man into eternity if we could not grant his last request.”
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I am going to tell the truth before God. I am innocent of the charge…My kin people brought me to this, and I want them to pray to meet me in heaven. I have heard they said hanging was too good for me, that I ought to be burned…I hope this poor man will be released, as he is innocent before God.”
(Turning to her sister on the scaffold:)
“I want to be buried by the side of my mother, but they will not allow it. They don’t care what becomes of my body. Good-bye! Sister, good-bye!”
— Margaret Harris, convicted of murder, hanging, Georgia.
Executed October 19, 1883
Servant Harris, age eighteen, was accused of poisoning the family she worked for in order to leave and live with David Dukes, her alleged accomplice, whom she referred to as “this poor man.” Prosecutors said she first added the poison to coffee, which only sickened her mistress, widow Nancy Barnwell, and Barnwell’s two grandchildren. She then added poison, procured from Duke, to rice, killing one of the grandchildren. A commutation was requested from the governor, but it was refused “as there has lately been a perfect avalanche of poisoning cases and an example needed to be made of it,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. At the hanging, “In the Sweet By-and-By” was sung by the four clergymen attending. The condemned and spectators joined in the song.
Their individual tragic passions are little enough notable from centuries’ distance among the forests noosed at the dread Triple Tree, but they give us an excuse to drop in on our slightly gallows-obsessed friend, the barrister and scribbler James Boswell.
Best known, of course, for chumming around with Samuel Johnson and recording the latter’s every bon mot for posterity, Boswell attended this hanging (a regular pastime of his) and used it as the hook to elicit some Johnsonian musings on the terrors of death and the great indifference of the living to same.
I mentioned to him that I had seen the execution of several convicts at Tyburn, two days before, and that none of them seemed to be under any concern. Johnson. “Most of them, Sir, have never thought at all.” Boswell. “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson. “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the awful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: “I know not (said he,) whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.”
Talking of our feeling for the distresses of others; — Johnson, “Why, Sir, there is much noise made about it, but it is greatly exaggerated. No, Sir, we have a certain degree of feeling to prompt us to do good; more than that, Providence does not intend. It would be misery to no purpose.” Boswell. “But suppose now, Sir, that one of your intimate friends were apprehended for an offence for which he might be hanged.” Johnson. “I should do what I could to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once fairly hanged, I should not suffer.” Boswell. “Would you eat your dinner that day, Sir?” Johnson. “Yes, Sir; and eat it as if he were eating it with me. Why, there’s Baretti, who is to be tried for his life to-morrow, friends have risen up, for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged, none of them will eat a slice of plum-pudding the less. Sir, that sympathetick feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind.”
On this date in 1968, Indonesian Lance Corporal Harun Thohir and Sgt. Usman Janatin were hanged in Singapore for bombing the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank three years earlier.
Aptly, such confrontational behavior took place during the era of Konfrontasi, a running fight between Indonesia — feeling its oats as a regional power — and the British straits possessions that had just recently been amalgamated (to Indonesia’s irritation) into the new country Malaysia.
This wasn’t a “war” full of set-piece battles: think commando raids and jungle skirmishing instead. Initially confined to the island of Borneo of which Indonesia occupied three-quarters and coveted the remainder, the fight provocatively spilled to the “homeland” Malay Peninsula itself, including a number of saboteur bombings concentrated in Singapore — which was still a part of Malaysia in the early 1960s.
The most notorious and destructive of these was conducted on March 10, 1965, by our men Harun Thohir and Usman Janatir along with a third commando named Gani bin Arup. Tasked with bombing an electric station, they instead packed 12 kg of nitroglycerin into a bank — an iconic landmark that was at the time the tallest in its vicinity. The MacDonald House bombing killed three civilians and injured 133 more.
Gani bin Arup escaped successfully, but Janatin and Thohir suffered a motorboat breakdown and were apprehended. By the time their execution date arrived, a few things had changed: Singapore itself had been expelled from Malaysia to become an independent city-state; and, the Konfrontasi era had been dialed back with the deposition of Indonesian president Sukarno.
But the hanging still stayed on, and feelings ran understandably high for both the former antagonists.
The jurisdictional issue of most moment for the bombers was not the identity of the offended state, but their contention that they were regular armed forces members just following their orders and entitled to prisoner of war status. Jakarta was indignant at Singaporean courts’ dismissal of this angle; Singapore, well, it didn’t want to take a soft line on terrorists blowing up banks.
Headline in the Oct. 18, 1968 London Times, reporting “a crowd of 10,000 people who joined the procession to the war heroes’ cemetery here [Jakarta] carried banners proclaiming: ‘Declare total war on Singapore’, ‘Annihilate Singapore’, and ‘Hang Lee Kuan Yew‘.”
As is so often the case, one man’s terrorists are often another’s freedom fighters: the hanged marines remain tday official national heroes in Indonesia, and in 2014 the navy created a diplomatic incident with Singapore by christening a Bung Tomo-class corvette the KRI Usman-Harun.
From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 15, 1881:
ATLANTA, Oct. 14 — Frank Hudson, colored, was hanged at Dawson, this state, to-day, for the murder in August last of David Lee, Mrs. Lee and a negro girl. His purpose, according to his confession, was robbery. He was taken to the gallows under guard of a military company and appeared calm and unmoved. He acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his sentence, and hoped he had been forgiven. He was dead in ten minutes from the time the trap was sprung. This is the first execution that has taken place in Kerrell county.
For the background of this murder in the heart of hops country, we’ll crib the meandering but compulsively specific testimony of the event’s only third-party witness in original old-timey cant, as quoted by an appellate court:
Harvey Mortier was speakng angry to Richard Macpherson about a wedge ax that Harvey Mortier accused him with stealing, accused him for taking a wedge ax, and Richard Macpherson says to him, he didn’t do it. He says he would go to Hi Stalder and find out who took the ax. The ax belonged to a man named Hi Stalder.
Well! says Harvey Mortier to him, why don’t you come down now and find out who took the ax? Now, says Richard Macpherson, I won’t go till this evening. He says, you had better come now. He says no, he won’t.
“I will find somebody down in the woods that will put a good head on you; give you a good licking.” This last was said by Mortier to Macpherson. Macpherson didn’t go down to Hi Stalder’s to find out who took the ax. He remained with me chopping, and I was chopping at the time and Richard Macpherson was working with me.
He started to work and Harvey Mortier (the defendant) went away, passing where we were. He went on a little, small trail. Before he left he asked me if I see any deers? I said, yes sir. I says, I seen some deers over there in that direction; so he passes along that little trail going that way, towards that way, and I was chopping wood. Didn’t pay no attention to it.
In a few minutes the gun was fired and I looked and seen Macpherson and Mortier. I saw Harvey Mortier shooting. I seen the smoke and the gun in front of him, and he taking the gun down from him. He was standing in bushes that were chopped down, about two feet high.
(The witness here showed the position of Mortier when the shot was fired, which was a stooping one.)
I saw the smoke in front of his face, and he was trying to hide himself. Mortier was thirty-four yards from Macpherson at the time the shot was fired. I measured in the next day with a six-foot pole.
The smoke was right at the end of the gun. I saw Mortier’s face distinctly and recognized him. I had known him five or six years.
After the shot, Macpherson and I ran away. He ran two hundred and thirty-five steps after he was shot. We ran as soon as the shot was fired.
The last I saw of him he was leaning against a fence. He fell down. I then went after help to bring him home.
At the time the shot was fired Macpherson was standing in front of Mortier and I was standing on one side. Macpherson was chopping a tree about six inches through. Macpherson lived about half an hour after the shot was fired.
Silver City, Idaho
We cannot improve on the correspondent who reported Henry MacDonald’s hanging* in Silver City’s local Owyhee Avalanche the very next day:
* Note that the findagrave.com link misdates this hanging as of this post’s publication. In 1881, October 14 (not the 15th) was the Friday, and I trust that the article reproduced here will constitute evidence that “October 15″ did not appear in the original text of the story.
From the San Francisco Daily Call (Oct. 28, 1871) via a curious trans-Pacific audience in Australia’s Queanbeyan Age (Dec. 21, 1871). As usual, paragraphs added for readability.
EXECUTION OF JAMES WILSON, AT HARTFORD — DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT SUICIDE.
The last hours in the life of the burglar and murderer hanged at Hartford Conn., on Friday, the 13th instant, were sensational enough to suit his morbid craving for notoriety, and strangely rounded out a long career of adventure and rascality.
James Wilson, or to give his true name, David Kently, has been for many years a public outlaw.. He is charged, and justly according to his own confession, with between 200 and 300 burglaries.
The crimination of this career, it will be remembered, was the murderer of Warden Williard, of the State Prison at Weshersfield, on August 16th, 1870. The Warden called to Wilson’s cell-door to hear one of the complaints that troublesome prisoners were always ready with, and was perfidiously stabbed by a sword-cane (how obtained no one knowns), which Wilson thrust between the bars of his door and into the Warden’s abdomen.
Wilson asserted then and to the last that maltreatment provoked the deed.
For this he was condemned to death. Five days before legal limit of his live [sic] expired he was removed from State prison to the Hartford jail.
He had during the previous months exhibited a remarkable mental activity and versatility. He invented several ingenious little machines. He wrote a considerable ways in an autobiography, which was to have been entitled “Thirty Years in the Life of a Crack,” and would certainly have ranked among the curiosities of both crime and literature, had he not in a fit of rage destroyed it.
He made many attempts to get a new trial; then to obtain a communication to Sheriff Russell, designed to explain the desperate means he took, shortly after midnight, to evade the scaffold and the noose.
This attempt at suicide, briefly mentioned by telegraph, was made with a wire three inches long and an eighth of an inch in diameter, sharpened at one end, which he had got from the rim of a ration pan in prison, two months before, and had kept sheathed in leather torn from a Bible binding, concealed as probably no man ever thought of doing so before, in his rectum.
This wire, while keepers slept, he thrust into his heart; but it struck the muscular portion and would not pierce it. He turned over and bent upon the weight of his heavy body, and finally grasped the Testament at his side, and dealt blow for blow upon the wire. He drove it in quite half an inch below the skin, but in vain. The life pulse did not stop, and there in terrible agony the man could no longer suppress a groan, and the keepers found him in a dead faint.
When he was brought to consciousness, he had no regret except for his failure in the attempt.
His demeanour was unshaken thenceforward. He walked to the scaffold, though physically weak, and made a few remarks to the two hundred people in the jail yard, which are thus reported:
I don’t suppose it will amount to much what I can say, or stop the execution. I suppose most of you know why I shall say but a few words to-day. With three inches of steel in his heart a man can’t say much nor be expected to. I did all I could to avoid being here; not that I fear death, but such a kind of death — not fit for a dog or a murderer. I am not a murderer. I killed William Willard in self-defence, and I did just right and I hope his fate will be a warning to all other tyrants like him.
At this time the Deputy Sheriff stood behind Wilson with rope in his hand.
The victim turned round quickly seized the rope in his own hands, and then advanced quite dramatically, and leaning over the railing he continued, with great earnestness:
When a man puts this over his head in the cause of humanity, it is not a disgrace in that cause I put it over mine. And Sheriff Russell you may tighten it up as quickly as you please.
While saying these words he had pulled the noose over his head and thrown the rope out toward the sheriff’s hands. The sheriff then said, “Wilson, do you desire to have prayer offered up for you?”
“Well, yes. I have no objection to a short prayer,” replied the victim calmly but rather coolly.
The minister then offered a short but fervent prayer, keeling at Wilson’s side. When the minister had finished, Wilson repeated the word “Amen” quite audibly. While he was being pinioned, he bade all on the scaffold good-by; and to Captain Wooding he said, “I hope, if you have the opportunity, you will tell the warders of Wethersfield Prison they may profit by the example they have had to not oblige any other convict to murder a warden for humanity’s sake.”
The hanging was decently done, and the pulse extinct in fourteen minutes.
The authorities of the Yale Medical College at New Haven must have accepted the body on the terms he required in his will, as it was but in charge of his counsel, Mr Aberdeen, and sent by him to New Haven.
On this date in 1989, Sierra Leone politician Francis Minah was hanged at Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison as a traitor.
A veteran minister of state under the country’s dictatorial first president Siaka Stevens — a reign recalled in Sierra Leone historiography as the “17-year plague of locusts” that looted the country and set the country upon the path to its horrific civil war.
Nearing 80 years old in 1985, Stevens stepped down and handed power off to another officer as self-dealing and authoritarian as he, Joseph Saidu Momoh.
In early 1987, Momoh dramatically announced the discovery and defeat of an alleged coup attempt against him* and arrested his own Vice President Minah as its instigator. In a farcical trial — Minah denied his guilt to the last — Minah was convicted and death-sentenced with 15 other alleged participants. Most had their sentences commuted to prison terms, but Minah and five others all hanged on October 7, 1989.
Enclosed is a statement of the evidence which appeared against Daphne and Nell, two negroes convicted for the murder of Joel Garthright, which would have been sent sooner had the Attorney been in Town.
Your humble servant.
The evidence against Daphne and Nelly, two Slaves belonging to Col. Champion Travis, who were tried and convicted by the court of James City County in the month of June, for the murder of Joel Gathright, Col. Travis’s overseer, as well as my memory enables me to state it, was in substance follows:
It was proved in plain and positive terms by two negro boys, who were present and saw the greater part of the transaction, that Daphne and Nelly, the two criminals now under condemnation, were at work with ploughs on the day on which the overseer was killed, and the boys themselves leading the oxen to the ploughs.
Gathright, the overseer, came at his usual time to the field where these women were working, and blamed Nelly for suffering the fence to be left open, which had exposed the corn growing to be cropped by the sheep.
Nelly denied the charge and used some impertinent language, which provoked the overseer to strike her. This he did repeatedly with a small cane, till Nelly quitted her plough and ran; the overseer pursued and struck her on the ground after she had fallen.
Nelly recovered from her fall, and immediately engaged him. The woman Daphne, who was at a small distance off, as soon as she saw Nelly closely fighting with the overseer, ran to the place where they were engaged, and together they seized and threw him to the ground. They beat him on the ground with their fists and switches with great fury a considerable time.
The overseer made frequent efforts to raise himself up and get from them in vain, and demanded to know if they intended to kill him.
At length he ordered one of the boys, the witness, to go to a remote part of the field where the negro men were at work, and call one of them to his assistance; after some time, he sent the other boy.
The boys executed their orders, and soon returned to the place they had left; when they returned, the women, Daphne and Nelly, had fled, and an old negro man belonging to Col. Travis assisted to raise the overseer from the ground, who soon after expired.
It was proved by an old negro man, who kept a mill in the neighborhood of Col. Travis’s plantation, that these two women, Daphne and Nelly, in the afternoon of the same day on which they killed the overseer, passed the mill on their way to Williamsburg; and being asked by the old fellow where they were going, and what was the matter — seeing some disorder in their appearances, they replied that they had whipped their overseer, and were going to town to their master.
They were urged by the miller to go on, lest the overseer should overtake them; they observed that they had left him unable to move, and Daphne asked the old man if a woman could be hanged for killing a man.
Several white men who came to the place shortly after the scene was closed, and who were Jurors in the inquest held on his body, proved the violence committed on the body, and a fracture of the skull, which they imagined was made by a stone found a few feet from the head of the unfortunate man.
The Criminals, Daphne and Nelly, were tried separately, and the boys closely and rigidly examined; on each trial they delivered the same clear and unequivocal testimony. The criminals were undefended, but asked themselves many questions of the witnesses, which, as well as I remember, were answered strongly against them.
Attorney for James City County
July 26, 1793
Elsewhere in antebellum human chattelry: this from the Columbian Gazetteer, Oct. 28, 1793.
The full court record ensues in these same papers, demonstrating the same circumstances. Daphne was duly hanged on July 19, but “it being suggested to the court that the said Nelly is quick and big with child, it is commanded the Sheriff of this county that he cause execution of the above Judgement to be done on Friday the fourth day of October next. The Court also valued the said Nelly at fifty pounds Current money.”
(The timeline here implies that Nelly would have been about six to seven months pregnant when overseer Gathright began thrashing her for leaving the fence gate ajar.)
Nelly’s fate moved enough tender-hearted white neighbors to petition for her reprieve, a petition that was rebutted by a furious confutation with vastly more numerous signatories noting that “not a single circumstance appeared in alleviation of the horrid offence.” Can’t think of a one!
At any rate,
She has been delivered of her child some weeks, and now awaits the Execution of her sentence. We have heard with great emotion and concern that much Industry has been exerted to get signatures to a petition to your Excellency and the Hon’ble Board of Council to obtain a Pardon for the said negro woman, Nell; when we consider the alarming commotions which have lately existed among the negroes in this neighborhood, and the dangerous example of such a murder, we humbly conceive it necessary for the public peace that the course of the law should have its full effect in this instance.
On this date in 1853, three bushrangers hanged in Melbourne Gaol for the sensational (and very nearly successful) McIvor Gold Escort attack.
Our hanged trio’s crime traces to the mad 1850s gold rush to Victoria, mainland Australia’s southwesternmost province* and more specifically to the McIvor Creek diggings near Heathcote. Gold was struck there late in 1853; by the next year, the place was heavy with prospectors. And gold, why, we know what gold does to men’s souls.
The notes are eternal but gold sings her siren song in every major and minor key; where she calls men, haggard and desperate, bearing pickaxes and gilded dreams, she also beckons in another register to their counterparts bearing ready sidearms and black hearts. Miners after a different name.
On July 20, 1853, some 2,300 ounces of gold extracted from the McIvor diggings were dispatched with an armed guard from the Private Escort Cmpany on its regular run to Kyneton. Here was a mother lode for characters who could stake it.
The July 20 gold escort encountered a blocked road and six desperadoes waiting in a well-orchestrated ambush: without bothering to demand the escort stand and deliver, the robbers opened fire on their prey, wounding four of the troopers — non-fatally, but enough to compel submission — and killing the coach driver, William Flookes, ere they looted the dray of treasure worth near £10,000.
19th century illustration of the attak on the McIvor gold escort.
When news of the incident reached McIvor, 400 outraged miners formed up in posses and set off in pursuit — but the robbers had planned their strike cunningly and were well ahead of the chase. Racing away through wilderness, they paused to divide their spoils near Kilmore and proceeded to Melbourne, where they scattered themselves and were able to duck a sweeping but essentially blind manhunt for several weeks.
Joseph Grey, George and Joseph Francis, William Atkins, George Wilson, and George Melville were perhaps on the verge of completing the caper by August 13 when George Francis got cold feet and turned himself into the police — shopping all of his confederates into the bargain.
Joseph Grey, the wiliest of the bunch, was cautiously changing his address every single night — and so George Francis’s information did not nab him. Grey managed to stay ahead of the search and make good an escape with his share of the booty: he was never caught.
The remaining four — including Joseph Francis, George Francis’s own brother — were all speedily snapped up.
A twist in the plot occurred when star witness George Francis slashed his own throat, leaving the crown with a virtually empty case until brother Joseph fulfilled the informer’s place, piously declaiming against the shootings as more crime than either Francis had bargained for. This self-serving pap came in for uproarious pillory by the defense barristers when the surviving Francis took the witness stand — “with your own person in danger, you would sacrifice your mother and tell any lie you rpoor intelligence could invent!” — but the stool pigeon’s evidence stuck, corroborated by accounts from the troopers who survived the ambush.
Atkins, Wilson, and Melville hanged together at Melbourne Gaol sixteen days after their judge donned the black cap. Melville’s wife availed her right to claim her husband’s body and scandalized Melbourne’s authorities by cheekily garlanding the corpse in flowers and putting it on display in her oyster shop on Little Bourke Street, charging half a crown per gawk. Melbourne Gaol’s hanged thereafter were exclusively buried within the prison yards itself, and Parliament soon legislated this as a nationwide requirement.
* While the gold rush brought many boom towns that expired with their associated mineral veins, it boomed the frontier town of Melbourne right into the gigantic metropolis it remains today.
From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.
Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.
The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*
She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.