On this date in 1936, Earl Gardner, a “pint-sized” Apache Indian from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, hanged for the murders of his wife, Nancy, and baby son, Edward. Gardner had, for no apparent reason, axed them both to death the previous December.
This wasn’t his first time, either; in the 1920s he’d served seven years in prison for stabbing another man to death.
He tried to plead guilty to Nancy and Edward’s murders, but the judge refused to let him in spite of Gardner’s preference that the government should “take a good rope and get it over with.” Better to “die like an Apache” than die a little every day in prison, he said. With his heart never in his own defense, it’s no surprise he was convicted; appeals filed by his attorney proceeded against Gardner’s wishes, and without success.
Finding a gallows was difficult as the state of Arizona was using the gas chamber exclusively for executions, so U.S. Marshal Ben J. McKinney improvised a gallows using an old rock crusher from the Coolidge Dam project. The crusher had been abandoned within a deep gorge on the Indian reservation. A rope was strung from a crossbeam and a hole cut in the floor for the trapdoor. After there were rumors of an Indian uprising McKinney deputized a force of men and armed them to prevent any interference, and they guarded the gallows for days before the execution date.
As he stood on the contraption’s trapdoor before forty-two witnesses, Gardner was asked if he had anything to say. “Well, I’ll be glad to get it over with,” was all he could come up with. It took longer to get it over with than anyone could have anticipated. A witness recalled:
Earl went to the gallows without apparent concern and died a ghastly death. I was crouched in a corner of the crusher on a pile of gravel and damn near went through the trap after him. Earl’s shoulder struck the side of the trap and broke his fall. He hung at the end of the rope gasping … until Maricopa County Sheriff Lon Jordan, a giant of a man, stepped down through the trap and put his weight on Earl’s shoulder to tighten the noose and shut off his breathing.
When the trap sprung at 5:06 a.m., the noose slipped around to the front of Gardner’s throat, causing him to fall off-center and hit the side of the opening. His head snapped backwards but his neck didn’t break and he thrashed around for over half an hour. It wasn’t until 5:39 that his heart ceased to beat.
Earl Gardner’s death was the last legal hanging in Arizona.
On this date in 1921, an Irish Republican Army detail detained Richard and Abraham Pearson at their farm in rural County Offaly.
While the Pearson brothers watched in horror along with their mother, three sisters, and other family members, the Republicans readied the kindling to fire the family house. Then, Richard and Abraham were executed by an IRA firing detail.
The shooters were inexperienced as executioners and nobody delivered a coup de grace, so the Pearson brothers took hours to bleed to death from their assortment of debilitating torso wounds; Abraham did not expire until the next morning, some 14 hours later.
It might perhaps be said that few places exemplify like Ireland after its dirty war of independence Faulkner’s bromide that the past is never dead, and it’s not even past.
— claiming that the evangelical Protestant Pearsons were essentially targeted by neighboring Catholics on grounds of sectarian bigotry and/or an interest in pinching their 341 acres. (The surviving Pearsons emigrated to Australia and their land was indeed broken up and distributed.)
This line, whose upshot obviously impugns Irish Republicanism, occasioned a furious counterattack from that sector arguing that the Pearsons were punished for a much more prosaic reason: that they had shot at and wounded IRA volunteers who were setting up a roadblock by cutting down trees at the perimeter of the Pearson farm.
The family patriarch, William Pearson, was away at the time and later filed for compensation from London, noting that “I was always known as a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown. I assisted the Crown Forces on every occasion, and I helped those who were persecuted around me at all times.” “Crown Forces” in this instance would have been the hated paramilitaries, the Black and Tans, who pack their own upshots.
Extrajudicial executions might perhaps rate among the inevitable casualties of a tooth-and-claw war over the nation’s destiny, but so too are the clash of interpretive meanings given them by later generations. Even eighty-odd years later, the urgent need to confute RTE’s “revisionist” gloss on the Pearson executions led almost immediately to a book of essays by Republican historians.
On this date in 1862, seven federal raiders were hanged in Atlanta for the daring heist of a Confederate train two months prior. Among them were some of the very first Congressional Medal of Honor awardees.
In terms of its impact on the Civil War, the “Great Locomotive Chase” was a bust. But as pure Americana, you’ll have a hard job to top this caper.
The chase began a year to the day after the first shots had been fired between North and South. Despite the anniversary, the occasion promised nothing but the routine northbound passenger run for the locomotive General from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tenn.
This line was a spur of the Confederate rail network, and we have already noted in these pages the interest that network held for pro-Union saboteurs. Chattanooga was its great hub: telegraph and rail lines from every quarter of the Confederacy converged there like the center of a spiderweb.
For this reason, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, who had just occupied Huntsville, Ala., aspired to swing his army north to strike this vital city. His bold commandos nonchalantly boarding the northbound train this day were part of Mitchel’s larger operation: cut the rail line from Atlanta to prevent timely reinforcement of Chattanooga, then quickly conquer the strategic city.* Gen. Mitchel was 28 miles from Chattanooga on April 12, 1862, and if his special agents could turn their trick then the whole course of the war might change.
Not long after 5 a.m. on that April 12, the General pulled into a depot at Big Shanty (today, Kennesaw, Ga.). It had a short layover there for breakfast at the adacent Lacey Hotel.
But more important to the raiders’ leader James J. Andrews was what Big Shanty did not have: a telegraph.
While the train’s passengers and crew were settling in for the most important meal of the day, Andrews’s raiders efficiently decoupled the locomotive, its coal tender, and three box cars from the passenger cars. Most of the raiders loaded into the boxcars to be ready as muscle for the crazy flight ahead. But the day was to be a match of speed and ingenuity between the Union daredevil Andrews, and the Confederate train conductor William Fuller — who for the start could only watch in astonishment over his coffee as his General unexpectedly pulled away.
With no telegraph in the vicinity, Fuller had no way to send word up the line to stop the General. But umbrage either patriotic or professional carried him from that first moment in a Javert-like pursuit of his commandeered locomotive.
Fuller dashed out of Big Shanty and up the train tracks on foot with his team. It’s not as crazy as it sounds: negotiating hilly terrain, the General would be making only 15 or 20 miles per hour at speed — and she stopped regularly, to foul the rails behind her, and to cut the telegraph wire. Throughout the chase, or at least until its very last stretch, the Union men managed to keep the next station ahead ignorant of the General‘s treasonable mission by snipping telegraph wire, so on the occasions when they had to stop and answer to a Western & Atlantic Railroad official they were able to bluff their way onward with a story about driving a “powder train” requisitioned by General Beauregard himself.
But those stops took time, and Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave Andrews’s raiders much of that to spare.
A couple of miles up the line, Fuller et al found an old handcar, and were able to take to the rails themselves. Near 20 miles into the chase, they were able to commandeer a short-line locomotive, which took them to Kingston where they switched to a mail train. Neither of these vehicles could match the General‘s horsepower; however, Andrews had to keep stopping to cut more telegraph wires or to pry up a rail, and he really got pegged back when the General had to defer to other rail traffic on the single-line route. For instance, the Union commandos spent a frustrating hour on the siding at Kingston waiting out southbound trains.
Andrews’s party did not know for sure at this point that there was a pursuer making good use of this hour. But even so, they had a challenge to spend the scarce resource of time with their hijacked locomotive to best effect.
The objective of the raid was to wreck the Atlanta-Chattanooga rail line, in a way that would put it out of commission for many days and give Gen. Mitchel leave to overwhelm Chattanooga — something like firing a bridge or collapsing a tunnel. The stops they made as they passed various stations to cut the telegraphs or laboriously crowbar up a bit of the rail were essential to give them the ability to cover the next few miles, and bluff past the next station. But thanks to Fuller’s pursuit, there was not after these time-consuming little acts of sabotage a sufficient opportunity to accomplish the tactical purpose of the hijacking.
An extensive collection of links and images relating to the entire route of the chase is here.
In the coolest final stage, the segment most properly called the “Great Locomotive Chase”, Fuller’s gang grabbed a southbound locomotive, the Texas, and without bothering to turn it around they slammed it into reverse in hot pursuit of the northbound General.
The federals in the General tried dropping timbers, and even cutting loose boxcars behind them as railbound battering rams aimed at their inexorable hunter. The Texas kept coming.
By the time the Union boys reached a wooden covered bridge over the Oostanaula, it was apparent that the locomotive would soon exhaust her fuel. Still, the churning plumes of the backward Texas loomed just a few minutes behind. In his last chance to do what he had set out for, Andrews torched his final remaining box car and released it into the wooden bridge, hoping to set the entire structure ablaze and collapse it into the river. Unhappily for the General‘s illicit crew, looking backwards with desperate hope as their ride chugged off, boards sodden by a week’s worth of springtime rain showers stubbornly refused to kindle … and then the Texas arrived to clear away the incendiary.
As its fuel dwindled and its adversary closed, the Generalcame to the end of her legendary run about 18 miles from Chattanooga. Andrews and party abandoned their engine to history and scattered into the woods — but none escaped the immediate Confederate manhunt.
The twenty raiders, plus two others who were supposed to be part of the operation but missed their rendezvous, were all court-martialed as spies: “lurking in and around Confederate camps as spies, for the purpose of obtaining information,” a description bearing very scant resemblance to their actual activities. Eight would hang on this basis.
The intrepid ringleader James Andrews, who was a civilian, was executed in Atlanta on June 7, all alone. His mates only learned of his fate while sitting at their trial in Chattanooga — an experience described in a memoir by one of their number, William Pittenger.
As the trial of different ones proceeded, we had still greater encouragement from the court itself. Members called on us, and told us to keep in good heart, as there was no evidence before them to convict any one. This cheered us somewhat, but there was still one thing which I did not like, and which looked as if something was wrong. The court would not let our boys be present to hear the pleading of counsel on either side, though they urgently requested it. They could neither hear what our lawyers had to say for them, nor what the Judge Advocate urged against them.
The trials proceeded rapidly. One man was taken out each day, and in about an hour returned. The table in the court room was covered with bottles, newspapers, and novels, and the court passed its time during trial in discussing these. This was very well if the trial was, as they said, a mere matter of formality; but if it was a trial in earnest, on which depended issues of life or death, it was most heartless conduct.
At last the number of seven was reached, and they would probably have proceeded in trying others, had not General Mitchel, who was continually troubling them, now advanced, and shelled Chattanooga from the opposite side of the Tennessee river. This at once broke up the court-martial, and sent the officers in hot haste to their regiments to resist his progress. Soon after, General Morgan advanced through Cumberland Gap, and threatened Knoxville, which also rendered it necessary to remove us.
Evacuated to Atlanta, they there “remained for a week in quietness and hope, thinking the worst of our trials were past,” Pettinger wrote. “Little did we foresee how fearful a storm was soon to burst over us.”
For its topicality to our site, we here excerpt Pettinger’s chapter 11 at some length:
One day while we were very merry, amusing ourselves with games and stories, we saw a squadron of cavalry approaching. This did not at first excite any attention, for it was a common thing to see bodies of horsemen in the streets; but soon we observed them halt at our gate, and surround the prison. What could this mean?
A moment after, the clink of the officers’ swords was heard as they ascended the stairway, and we knew that something unusual was about to take place. They paused at our door, threw it open, called the names of our seven companions, and took them out to the room opposite, putting the Tennesseeans in with us. One of our boys, named Robinson, was sick of a fever, and had to be raised to his feet, and supported out of the room.
With throbbing hearts we asked one another the meaning of these strange proceedings. Some supposed they were to receive their acquittal; others, still more sanguine, believed they were taken out of the room to be paroled, preparatory to an exchange.
I was sick, too, but rose to my feet, oppressed with a nameless fear. A half crazy Kentuckian, who was with the Tennesseeans, came to me and wanted to play a game of cards. I struck the greasy pack out of his hands, and bade him leave me.
A moment after, the door opened, and George D. Wilson entered, his step firm and his form erect, but his countenance pale as death. Some one asked a solution of the dreadful mystery, in a whisper, for his face silenced every one.
The raiders hanged June 18, 1862
William Hunter Campbell, a civilian
Pvt. Samuel Robertson
Sgt. Major Marion Ross
Sgt. John Scott
Pvt. Charles Shadrack
Pvt. Samuel Slavens
Pvt. George Davenport Wilson
“We are to be executed immediately,” was the awful reply, whispered with thrilling distinctness. The others came in all tied, ready for the scaffold. Then came the farewells — farewells with no hope of meeting again in this world! It was a moment that seemed an age of measureless sorrow.
Our comrades were brave; they were soldiers, and had often looked death in the face on the battle-field. They were ready, if need be, to die for their country; but to die on the scaffold — to die as murderers die — seemed almost too hard for human nature to bear.
Then, too, the prospect of a future world, into which they were thus to be hurled without a moment’s preparation, was black and appalling. Most of them had been careless, and had no hope beyond the grave. Wilson was a professed infidel, and many a time had argued the truth of the Christian religion with me for a half day at a time; but in this awful hour he said to me:
“Pittenger, I believe you are right, now! Oh! try to be better prepared when you come to die than I am.” Then, laying his hand on my head with a muttered “God bless you,” we parted.
Shadrack was profane and reckless, but good-hearted and merry. Now, turning to us with a voice, the forced calmness of which was more affecting than a wail of agony, he said:
“Boys, I am not prepared to meet Jesus.”
When asked by some of us in tears to think of heaven, he answered, still in tones of thrilling calmness, “I’ll try! I’ll try! But I know I am not prepared.”
Slavens, who was a man of immense strength and iron resolution, turned to his friend Buffum, and could only articulate, “Wife — children — tell” — when utterance failed.
Scott was married only three days before he came to the army, and the thought of his young and sorrowing wife nearly drove him to despair. He could only clasp his hands in silent agony.
All this transpired in a moment, and even then the Marshal and other officers standing by him in the door, exclaimed:
“Hurry up there! come on! we can’t wait!”
In this manner my poor comrades were hurried off. Robinson, who was too sick to walk, was dragged away with them. They asked leave to bid farewell to our other boys, who were confined in the adjoining room, but it was sternly refused!
Thus we parted. We saw the death cart containing our comrades drive off, surrounded by cavalry. In about an hour it came back empty. The tragedy was complete!
Later in the evening, the Provost-Marshal came to the prison, and, in reply to our questions, informed us that our friends “Had met their fate as brave men should die everywhere.”
The next day we obtained from the guards, who were always willing to talk with us in the absence of the officers, full particulars of the seven-fold murder.
When our companions were mounted on the scaffold, Wilson asked permission to say a few words, which was granted — probably in the hope of hearing some confession which would justify them in the murder they were about to commit. But this was not his intention. It was a strange stand — a dying speech to a desperate audience, and under the most terrible circumstances.
But he was equal to the occasion. Unterrified by the near approach of death, he spoke his mind freely. He told them that “they were all in the wrong; that he had no hard feelings toward the Southern people for what they were about to do, because they had been duped by their leaders, and induced by them to engage in the work of rebellion. He also said, that though he was condemned as a spy, yet he was none, and they well knew it. He was only a soldier in the performance of the duty he had been detailed to do; that he did not regret to die for his country, but only regretted the manner of his death. He concluded by saying that they would yet live to regret the part they had taken in this rebellion, and would see the time when the old Union would be restored, and the flag of our country wave over the very ground occupied by his scaffold.”
This made a deep impression on the minds of those who listened, and I often afterward heard it spoken of in terms of the highest admiration. When he ceased, the signal was given, and the traps fell!
Five only remained dangling in the air; for two of the seven, Campbell and Slavens, being very heavy men, broke the ropes, and fell to the ground insensible. In a short time they recovered, and asked for a drink of water, which was given them. Then they requested an hour to pray before entering the future world which lay so near and dark before them. This last petition was indignantly refused, and as soon as the ropes could be adjusted, they were compelled to re-ascend the scaffold, and were again turned off!
The whole proceeding, from beginning to end, was marked by the most revolting haste. They seemed to wish, by thus affording no time to prepare for death, to murder soul and body both. Even the worst criminals in our country are allowed some weeks to ask for God’s mercy, before they are thrust into his presence; but our poor boys, whose only crime was loving and trying to serve their country, were not allowed one moment! Could the barbarity of fiends go further?
That afternoon was one of deepest gloom for those who remained. We knew not how soon we might be compelled to follow in the same path, and drink the same bitter cup our comrades drank. Once during the trial we had offered to accept the award of the court in one of the cases as the sentence of all, since we could not see the slightest reason for leaving some and taking others. At that time, however, we believed that all would be acquitted. Now every hope had vanished.
But even without the addition of fear for ourselves, the parting from our loved friends, whose voices were still ringing in our ears, while they themselves had passed beyond the gates of death into the unknown land of shadows, was enough to rend the stoutest heart. There were tears then from eyes that shrank before no danger.
But I could not shed a tear. A cloud of burning heat rushed to my head that seemed to scorch through every vein. For hours I scarcely knew where I was, or the loss I had sustained. Every glance around the room, which revealed the vacant places of our friends, would bring our sorrow freshly on us again. Thus the afternoon passed away in grief too deep for words. Slowly and silently the moments wore on, and no one ventured to whisper of hope.
Fearing they could suffer snap execution at any moment, the remaining raiders made their own hope.
Weeks later, a jail breakout freed eight; all eight covered the hundreds of miles to Union lines safely.
The last six, Pettinger included, were captured in the attempt and remained as war prisoners until the following March, when they were swapped back to the Union in a prisoner exchange.
Strange to say, the United States at the outset of the Civil War did not have a standing military decoration. One of the fruits of this fratricidal conflict was the creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which remains to this day the highest honor bestowed within the U.S. armed forces. Abraham Lincoln signed the enabling legislation in July of 1862; they were minted beginning at the end of that year and formally became available as decorations on March 3, 1864.
Our last six survivors — the six exchanged for Confederate POWs — presented themselves to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on March 25, 1863. In the course of the visit, Stanton presented them with the first six Medals of Honor ever awarded; ultimately, 19 of Andrews’s Raiders received the award — whether living or dead. (Andrews himself was not eligible for it, as a civilian.)
We have included here several clips of the 1956 Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase. This escapade was also the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy, The General, which can be enjoyed in full online:
For a look at the real General in action in 1962 for the Great Chase’s centennial, take a gander at this video. The Texas is on public display at Atlanta’s Southern Museum‘s exhibit on the Great Locomotive Chase.
Dispatches to the New York Herald from 1873 give us today’s post: a little portrait of public hangings in Reconstruction Dixie.
Isham Belton O’Neill, 32 at his death, hanged in Atlanta on this date in 1873; the Herald reported it in the next day’s edition.
O’Neill grew up on a farm outside Atlanta but was taken to the city by service in the Confederate army.
Postwar, he started a short-lived painting business with a fellow veteran, John Little: short-lived, because within a few months the courts were sorting out the partnership’s dissolution. Little, evidently, felt hard done by their rulings and “met O’Neill on the street several times after the snit, and even visited him at his shop, always urging him to let him have a sash, which he claimed to be his own property.”
On September 5th, 1871, they bumped into each other again by accident and after a few pleasantriles, Little started in on the sash again. “You got it be swearing a damned lie,” he insisted.
The testimony is that O’Neill then struck him in the face, and [Little] seized O’Neill first by the collar and then by his hands, which he endeavored to hold firmly; but O’Neill, by turning and exerting himself, wrenched his right hand from Little’s grasp, put it behind him and drew from under his coat a large Bowie Knife and quickly stabbed Little in the abdomen, the knife penetrating six inches deep, making a surface cut of two inches long, the sides of which were jagged, as if the sharp, two-edged knife, after having been plunged in, had been twisted round and drawn out.
Enough about the sash, okay?
O’Neill was a respectable fellow in the community (apart from the unpleasantness), and he stuck to a shaky “self-defense” story long enough that he might have started to believe it himself. So even though Little gurgled his last that night with five feet of bowel hanging out of the jagged fissure O’Neill had carved, the killer felt inordinately confident of an executive reprieve.
O’Neill even eschewed the opportunity to escape during a general jailbreak in February 1872, obediently remaining in his spot even with the cell door popped wide open in front of him. Several fellow prisoners successfully absconded on this occasion and avoided recapture.
O’Neill only received word of the governor’s final rejection of his petition at 1 in the morning on the date of his hanging, when “he was awakened out of a sound sleep to receive it.”
Up to that moment he had been confident in the belief that his life would be spared by the Governor, and had refused to listen to the advice of his counsel and spiritual advisers to prepare for death. When he was told that the last hope was gone he felt very bad and was convinced. For the first time he seemed to realize the awful situation, broke down and gave way to piercing cries and lamentations — “Oh! is it all over with me? My God! it is terrible. Does the Governor refuse even a respite? O merciful God, is there no other chance!” and he ended with long heartrending, choking sobs.
We turn now to the Herald‘s June 17 report of a public execution from Lebanon, Virginia.
A steady, sharp stroke of a hatchet, a rope is cut, the crash of a falling drop follows, another rope is stretched to its utmost tension, there is a rebound and the body of Archie Johnson, a negro, is swinging in the air, a solemn warning to an immense multitude of spectators that “he that sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”
Archie Johnson, “a copper-colored negro, about twenty-eight years of age” with a countenance “regular and well cut for a negro” was the former slave of a local Russell County gentleman.
Upon liberation, the correspondent charges, he “began a career of dissipation and vice,” driving away a wife with his wantonness before he “totally abandoned himself to all that was degraded, vicious and criminal.” At last, he murdered a man named Hunt.
This story is particularly intriguing for the writer’s detailed — often editorializing — reportage of the hanging details.
Not only all Russell county were on the grounds, but from Washington, Scott and other surrounding counties many thousands came to behold the death struggles of a condemned felon. The number of females in the vast throng was somewhat astonishing, and their complexions were as varied as the costumes they wore. Some were as black as a traditional ace of spaces, others as fair as the whitest lily, while the intermediate embraced every imaginable shade between the two. A large number of these came on horseback, their long, dark riding skirts forming a happy contrast with the innumerable bright and gaudy colors worn by the pedestrians. As to horses, all the available racks, trees and fences in town were thickly lined with them, and then it seemed that the surrounding woods were densely picketed with them. The prevailing costumes of the men were blue and gray jeans. The valleys, the knobs, the peaks and plains, the huts and houses, seemed to have poured themselves out to-day, all actuated by the same common, morbid curiosity, and it can safely be said that scarcely a score of them were solemnly impressed by the terrible scene they witnessed. The number present was estimated at six thousand people.
Turning from sociology to engineering, our observer sketches the construction of the lethal apparatus:
was a very ordinary, rude affair, consisting of the usual two main uprights, a narrow platform in the rear, in front of which was the drop, supported by a rope. This ran through the crossbeam near the centre, and was secured to a peg driven in one of the uprights, about four feet from the ground. It allowed of a fall of six feet, and was in all respects as thorough and effective as a majority of the clumsy, murderous machines* generally used in such instances in the South. The structure was situated in the old field to the north of the town and about half a mile distant from the jail.
As for Johnson himself, he signed off on a written confession blaming for his downfall those usual suspects: liquor, cards, loose women. Then he puffed a nonchalant cigar as he rode on his coffin to the gallows, “neatly and tastefully attired in a suit of entire black cloth, black cap, with gloves and gaiters”; he sat on a chair beside his noose for two different sermons (Methodist and Baptist), then a hymn which Johnson “joined with great spirit and religious zeal,” asked one last cigar which he puffed happily for ten minutes in which “his coolness just at this time excited the wonder of many and the admiration of more,” and finally at 2:24 p.m. — 48 minutes after he arrived at the gallows — submitted to his fate.
There was a third U.S. hanging on June 13, 1873: Joseph Duncan, in a public execution at Paris, Ky., for murder. All I have been able to learn in particular of Duncan’s hanging was that his first rope broke, necessitating the ol’ do-over.
(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 here. 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.)
“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”
-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864
An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. [but see this post’s comments -ed.] He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.
Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”
The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.
In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.
On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.
Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.
He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.
He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.
By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)
According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.
Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.
What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.
Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.
“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)
Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.
Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”
In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.
It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.
Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.
The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.
In extending [Cesare] Beccaria‘s views on capital punishment to the history of lynching in the West, one begins to see that the “violent passions” of the mob were regularly invoked to justify their actions, but as Beccaria predicted, these passions were often little more than a ruse to justify the cold-blooded — and often premeditated — lynching of an accused criminal. Taken as a whole, the case list demonstrates that by and large, lynching had as much to do with vengeance as with the pursuit of justice.
The frequent invocation of San Francisco’s vigilance committees in many of the case records is clearly intended to link extrajudicial execution to “tradition,” an essential element found in the Tuskegee definition of lynching.* On a formal level, well over 50 percent of lynching cases that give a time, record that the lynching took place between midnight and 2 a.m. when the accused was usually encouraged to confess his or her crimes before being strung up. Sometimes they were allowed to make a statement, to smoke a cigarette, or confess to a priest, and after it was over, the bodies would usually be left to hang through the night. This public display of the body can be found in every case, with the shortest times usually lasting around thirty minutes, and the longest, until the bodies decayed.
In one instance, in the small village of Newtown, an African American man known only as “Brown” was apprehended for stealing money. The evidence was completely circumstantial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung by the mob on March 4, 1852. Unfortunately for Brown, the rope was a little too long, and once he was hanged to the tree, the branch slowly gave way — until his legs dangled to the ground. Struggilng in agony, the poor man was cut down in order to be properly hanged. Once he was fully revived, he was tied to a higher branch and the whole process was repeated. When he was finally cut down, a physician was asked to examine the body, at which point he annunced that if Brown’s body was left above ground for five minutes that he would regain consciousness. As a result, “he was therefore hastily dumped into a grave that had been dug and was half full of water, and quickly covered from sight.” Whether completely true or not, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue that this killing really served the greatest good.
* The Tuskegee lynching definition: “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition,” where “a group” connotes three or more persons.
On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.
Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.
In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.
It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.
He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.
Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.
Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”
This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.
Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.
This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.
Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.
Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.
My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.
He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.
The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).
Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.
* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.
** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.
† Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.
‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.
§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)
The trial in the case of Andrew Tyler, convicted and sentenced to die, at the late term of the Supreme Court held in Williams county, as accesory [sic] to one of the most wanton and singular murders of which the records of depravity and crime presents an example.
From the evidence given on the trial, as well as the confessions of Heckerthorn, the principal, (who awaits his trial in November next,) it appears that Heckerthorn was desirous of learning the art of fortune telling, and that as the initiatory step, Tyler persuaded him to kill Scamp’s child, and hide the body, designing then to leave the country together, and after some months return and get a reward for finding the body of the child, and thus establish a reputation as fortune tellers, by which they would be enabled to make a great deal of money.
A more inadequate cause for so great a crime we never learned of; and, on Tyler’s part, the instigation of the murder can only be explained by the supposition that long habits of deception and falsehood, practiced by him as a fortune teller, had darkened in his mind whatever little sense of right and humanity he ever possessed. -Kalida Venture
The Death Penalty
Horrible Account of a legalized murder in Williams county, Ohio, which took place on Friday week.
(Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 6, 1849)
If we are at times put to the blush for the crimes of our fellow-beings, we are as often shocked at the barbaraties [sic] of our race, who to retaliate for one crime commit another, no less offensive in the sight of God and man. We refer to the barbarous custom of strangling a man to death in cold blood for certain crimes which twelve men believe he has committed.
Here is an account of this legalized murder, committed no the 26th ult. in Bryan, Williams Co., the particulars of which contain enough of the horrible to gratify the most savage. The Spirit of the Age, published at Bryan, says:
About one o’clock, P.M. the prisoner was conducted on to the scaffold, accompanied by Rev. R.R. Walters, who, after the prisoner had taken his seat, delivered some very appropriate remarks from Acts, chap. 5th, verses 2nd, and 3d — a text selected by the prisoner.
A hymn was sung and prayer offered by Rev. Mr. Walters.
The prisoner then made a brief address to the assembly. He asserted his innocence in the strongest terms — declaring that he had nothing to do with the perpetration of the crime, for which he was to be executed. He said he had no anxiety to live — but felt prepared and desired to depart and dwell with his Saviour.
At the close of his remarks, he knelt down, and spent a few moments in audible prayer. He prayed for support in the terrible scene upon which he was immediately to enter — for the forgiveness of all who had sought his hurt, and that he and they might meet in a happier world.
At a quarter past two, the Sheriff adjusted the rope, which was already around the prisoner’s neck, drew the cap over his face, and bade him adieu.
He then descended the stairs, and as he went down, touched the spring with his foot, and the drop fell.
Here followed a scene, which was for a moment, shocking to all beholders — almost beyond description. To set the matter in its true light, it should be mentioned that Tyler had at all times insisted that he should be executed without any slack of rope.
Willing to gratify him so far as duty would permit, and in accordance with this oft-repeated and urgent request, the Sheriff gave him at first only about one foot of slack.
The instant the drop was sprung, the prisoner slightly crouched his body; by this means the hoose slipped around, bringing the knot immediately under the chin, in such a position that with his short fall it did not tighten at all, consequently he was merely suspended by the neck.
Probably his first slight fall suspended sensation and respiration temporarily for he hung quietly for a time; but this suspension was only temporary, and it is certain that nothing like strangulation was produced.
He soon recovered his breath, and commenced groaning and struggling as if suffering excruciating torture.
The spectacle at this moment was too revolting to witness; we noticed many who had thought and said, that they could look on his expiring agonies with a hearty good will, who turned away from the sight with blanched cheeks and looks of commiseration.
The Sheriff, probably somewhat overcome by the fearful duty he had attempted to discharge, did not immediately after springing the drop go around to see the true condition of affairs.
On learning the situation of the prisoner, he promptly ordered the scaffold raised, and no sooner was this done than he was upon it, and taking Tyler by the hand directed him to stand on his feet, which he was able to do without assistance.
Aided by Gen. Gilson, the Sheriff then proceeded to lengthen the rope, giving it about four feet additional slack.
Tyler still fervently begged them to shorten instead of lengthening it, but he was told that his wishes could no longer be regarded.
During this time, Ex-Sheriff Cunningham passed up the stairs, and taking Tyler’s hand, inquired if he still asserted his innocence; he replied, “I am innocent.”
Having adjusted the noose, and all others having left the scaffold, the Sheriff took his hand, and again bade him farewell. His last words to the Sheriff were — “For God’s sake shorten the rope.”
Again the drop was sprung, and Andrew F. Tyler was launched into eternity. He scarcely struggled after the second fall — after about thirty minutes, his body was taken down, placed in the coffin and carried back to an upper room of the jail.
(New York Commercial Advertiser, February 13, 1849)
Andrew F. Tyler, the “fortune teller,” convicted in Williams county, Ohio, as accessary [sic] to the murder of a small child in that county, was executed at Bryan, on the 26th ult. A large concourse of citizens assembled to see the spectacle, and in defiance of the law abolishing public executions, tore down the jail yard erected by the Sheriff. The last words of Tyler were, “I am innocent.”
If we recollect right, Tyler was charged with aiding in the murder of a child in order that the fortune he had preetended to tell might prove true. He declared his innocence of a murder of such strange motive to the moment of the falling of the fatal drop, and would it not have been better for the cause of justice, and just as well for the community to have sent him to life imprisonment as the gallows? His dying declaration may be true, for evidence that appears conclusive of guilt is not always so. -Cleve. Herald
The Popular Taste
(Boston Daily Atlas, February 22, 1849)
A man named Andrew F. Tyler, convicted of murder, was hung recently at Bryant [sic], in Williams county, Ohio.
The Dayton Transcript states that the Sheriff had built a high wood fence around the jail yard, in order to have the execution as private as possible, but the populace were so eager to witness the spectacle, they tore down the fence the night previous.
The brutal taste which prompted this act, is of the same character as that which leads crowds to witness prize fights, and makes momentary heroes of the vilest bullies in creation. -Cincinnati Gazette
(As inchthrift old-time editors were fond of forbidding walls of unbroken text, line breaks and white space have been added to all of the excerpts above. -ed.)