On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.
Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.
Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.
Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.
Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”
The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”
A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.
“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”
Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.
Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.
Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”
Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”
After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.
In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.
Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”
“So great a concourse of people has perhaps not been seen”* at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket as assembled on this date in 1765 for the execution of Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie.
It was, naturally, scandal that brought them out of the woodwork. Lt. Ogilvie’s older brother Thomas in January of that same 1765 had married a young woman named Katharine Nairn. She had barely half of Thomas’s 40 years.
Katharine soon took a shine to the more age-appropriate sibling, just back from his dashing adventures in the East Indies. Within weeks of the marriage, the two people closest to Thomas were making a fool of him in his very own home. Their eventual indictment charged Katharine and Patrick with “yielding to your inordinate desires … in the months of January, February, March, April, May, and June … at different times, and in one or other of the rooms of the house of Eastmiln, and in the out-houses adjacent thereto,” not to mention (we’re guessing during the warmer spring weather) “in the fields.”
Thomas himself seems to have been wise to the cuckoldry rather early on, but either from weakness or inclination made only token attempts to abate it. Great was the astonishment of the neighbors that Patrick wasn’t banned from the house or Katharine disallowed his company.
At length, Thomas died of poison. The suspicions were only natural.
In fact, maybe they were a little bit too natural.
It has been suspected that the true author of Thomas’s destruction and the lovers’ too was not their own unnatural passion but the greed of yet another party in the nest of family vipers living under the eldest brother’s roof: Anne Clark.
The lover of the youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, Anne was known as a woman of easy virtue, but she had regardless her sexual continence a potentially compelling motive to be rid of Thomas, or rid of Patrick, or both: as both Thomas and Patrick were childless, the family scandal figured to pour all the family’s estates into the puckish hands of her own man. Patrick and Katharine tried vainly to impugn her at trial as a malicious witness
So when Anne supplied a story that the lovers had openly quarreled with Thomas and even vowed in her presence to murder him — and when Anne plied the court with lurid accounts of creeping up the stairs to listen in on Patrick and Katharine romping in his alcove bed — do we hear the voice of a master villain? That reputed prostitute gave bodice-popping evidence at very great length against her incestuous would-be family —
Mrs. Ogilvie was frequently in a room by herself with the Lieutenant … upon Sunday the nineteenth day of May last, all the family went to church, excepting the two pannels and the deponent [Clarke] … the two pannels left the deponent in the low room, and went up stairs together to the east room above stairs … [and Clarke] in order to discover what was passing, went up the stair, and as the bed in the Lieutenant’s room was an alcove ed, the back of which came to the side of the stair, and there was nothing betwixt the bed and the stair, but a piece of plaster and the timber of the bed, so that a person standing in the stair could hear distinctly what passed in the bed, she stood and listened; and from the motions that she heard, is positive that they were in bed together, and abusing their bodies together, by which she means, they were lying carnally together.
You can read the whole of Anne Clark’s testimony among 130-odd pages of details from the proceedings here.
Ogilvie would hold to his innocence through multiple royal reprieves and all the way to the gallows. When the rope slipped on the first hanging attempt, he was not so daunted by the proximity of the eternal that he feared to repeat the claim: “I adhere to my former confession [profession of innocence], and die an innocent man.”
He also died alone.
His former paramour and possible confederate Katharine had delayed her hanging by pleading her belly — truthfully so, for it seemed that her many springtime frolics had in fact quickened her womb.
She delivered early in 1766 and was bound for execution a few weeks later. But Katharine’s wit supplied what crown sentiment would not and she slipped out of prison in the wardrobe of an old family servant one evening.** She had such a considerable head start before her absence was noted the next day that she reached London, hired a boat to the Netherlands, was blown back to Old Blighty by a gale, and hired another boat for Calais before anyone could catch up to her. She alit on French soil, and vanished into the safety of historical obscurity.
“Such were the different fates of two people, who, as far as we can judge of the affair, appear to have been involved in the same crime,” remarks the Newgate Calendar in an expansive vein. “The one dies, avowing his perfect innocence; the other escapes the immediate stroke of justice, which was suspended over her by the most slender thread.
“Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and, in the language of Scripture, ‘past finding out;’ but it is for mortals humbly to submit to all its dispensations.”
* London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1765.
A murderer named Alexander Provan was put to death on this date in 1765, the very rare* instance of a Scottish execution enhanced with mutilation.
Provan, who was uncovered as his wife’s murderer when he carelessly poured out her blood from a bottle thinking he was serving his friends an evening tipple, was doomed to have the right hand that authored the horrid deed struck off prior to hanging at Paisley.
But the unusual sentence implied an unpracticed executioner. Visibly nervous, the man missed his aim and instead of severing the evil limb at the wrist, he split Provan right through the palm.
At this the wretched prisoner began shrieking for the halter already fastened around his neck — “the tow, the tow, the tow!” The horrified executioner obliged with all speed, dragging the wailing uxoricide off his feet and past his mortal troubles.
The ensuing swell of human avarice arriving from every corner of the globe all but overwhelmed the frontier territory’s capacity; nearby San Francisco, “transformed … into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties,” was so disordered that its laws were enforced extrajudicially by a self-appointed Vigilance Committee.
Coloma itself, the literal first mining town of the gold rush, boomed as the county seat of the new-christened El Dorado County. According to Alton Pryor, Coloma had 300 buildings and a hotel under construction by the summer of 1848, six months after the gold strike. (Today, Coloma is a near ghost town.) And like everywhere else, it had a job to manage the mad new world of desperate fortune-hunters ready to murder one another for the dust in their pockets. Coloma has the distinction of giving birth to California’s first sheriff’s department, in 1852.
It’s almost surprising in such an environment that the original gold rush hotbed didn’t have an execution until 1854 — but Coloma made up for lost time* on November 3, 1854, by hanging two men, twice over.
The milestone perpetrators were classic frontier rascals, straight from a spaghetti Western rogues’ gallery. William Lipsey, a 25-year-old gambler, had murdered a fellow cardsharp in a drunken brawl over a game. James Logan, a 47-year-old miner “silvered o’er with age”, was condemned for killing a fellow miner in a claim dispute — though all the way to the gallows, Logan insisted to the last, before the 6,000 or so souls assembled to watch him die, that he had killed only in self-defense, remarking that
[h]e stood before them a condemned man, the victim of false testimony. It was true that he had taken the life of a fellow creature, but he had committed the deed in self-defence. He went to the claim where the tragedy took place, not as has been said to kill Fennel, but because the claim was his own, and he went to get possession of it. His own rash threats had brought him to the scaffold. In answer to propositions to settle the difficulty by law or arbitration, he had rashly replied that there was a shorter and better way — but he did not mean it. He went to the claim to get possession of it, but did not snap or present his pistol — he merely showed it. It was merely a single-barreled pistol. Fennel went and got a revolver, and came back and presented it at him, cocked. Fennel was advancing upon him with a cocked revolver when he presented his singlebarreled pistol. Any other testimony than this was false. He only snapped his pistol a moment before Fennel did his. The man who swore that he snapped his first swore a lie. They both snapped together. He had warned Fennel not to advance. He got behind Swift, and if he (Swift) had stood his ground, nobody would have been killed, But Swift flinched, and stepped aside. He then had to be killed himself, kill Fennel, or run away. He fired, and Fennel fell. He repeated that it was false that he snapped his pistol first; it was that snap that had brought him to the gallows, and the testimony about it was false.
In view of the halter (to which he pointed his finger) and in presence of that God before whom he was so shortly to appear, he was now speaking the truth. He would never have been hung if he had not had a principle of courage in his composition that prevented him from running away.
Lipsey, who was unquestionably guilty, did not have the older man’s composure and had to be half-dragged to the scaffold where he was so unmanned that he could not muster any last remark — though he was heard to murmur before dropped, “I don’t think I’m a murderer at heart.”
As the Coloma sheriff had no experience with executions, both men fell through their nooses and landed on the ground still alive. Still cool under pressure, Logan raised his hood to look around, got up, and walked back up to the gallows platform unassisted — but as the lawmen adjusted the hemp for the do-over, he recollected the letter of the death warrant and asked to see a watch.
“Ah, you have twenty minutes yet,” he exclaimed with a laugh. “If it was two o’clock I would demand my liberty under the law.”
* Coloma had another double hanging in 1855: outlaw Mickey Free hanged alongside Kentucky-born schoolmaster Jerry Crane, who murdered a student with whom he had become infatuated.
On this date in 1862, Union Gen. John McNeil had ten Confederate soldiers hanged in what history has recorded as the Palmyra Massacre.
The Slave Power’s northern salient, Missouri was surrounded to the east, north, and west by free soil — which made it an antebellum flashpoint since the days of the Missouri Compromise.*
In the 1850s, the Missouri conflict poured into neighboring Kansas as the enemy sides of the slavery question fought to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as slave state or free, often literally pouring over the border from (or back over the border into) Missouri. The Missouri borderlands of Bleeding Kansas was where the radical abolitionist martyr John Brown made his name, commanding free state militia in a guerrilla war that presaged the coming clash of North and South.
By the time we lay our scene in 1862, John Brown has exited courtesy of Virginia’s gallows, and the dragon’s teeth sown in Missouri and Kansas and everywhere else had sprung to horrible life. Missouri’s own civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor throughout the state in a bushwhacking conflict that extended locally for many years after Appomattox.**
The nastiness of the years to come is aptly suggested by this date’s events.
Like neighboring Kentucky, Missouri was a border state with a Union government, albeit one contested by a rival Confederate government. From the standpoint of the North, all Confederate activity there was behind its lines and the perpetrators therefore potentially subject to treatment (up to and including execution) as spies, saboteurs, and the like.†
Joseph Chrisman Porter, a Confederate officer, was one such possible client of this here site, tapped as he was for recruiting and raiding operations in northeast Missouri. His Union adversary Gen. John McNeil saw Porter as basically a terrorist. In August of 1862, Porter’s aide Frisby McCullough fell into McNeil’s hands: the Union general had McCullough shot.
On September 12, Porter raided the town of Palmyra, where McNeil held a number of Confederate prisoners. In the course of the raid, he kidnapped Andrew Allsman, a 60-year-old Palmyra resident. “It was said of him that he was able to inform the military authorities of certain movements of the enemy, and that he gave definitive information as to the homes and whereabouts of many men of Confederate leanings,” in the words of this pro-Confederate 1902 pamphlet on the incident. “Naturally, this placed him in disfavor with the Southern sympathizers and those who were fighting in that cause.”
What happened next — though it was not known to the Union at the time — was that Allsman was shot. The pamphlet just cited attempts to obfuscate this event into the fog of war and not really Porter’s fault. The bare fact is that his raiders had gone out of their way to seize an aged non-combatant and then summarily executed him.
Not knowing Allsman’s fate, McNeil responded with an ultimatum to his opposite number.
Palmyra, Mo., Oct. 8, 1862.
To Joseph C. Porter.
Sir: — Andrew Allsman, an aged citizen of Palmyra and a non-combatant, having been carried away from his home by a band of persons unlawfully arraigned against the peace and good order of the State of Missouri, and which band was under your control, this is to notify you that, unless Andrew Allsman is returned unharmed to his family within ten days from date, ten men, who have belonged to your band, and unlawfully sworn by you to carry arms against the government of the United States, and who are now in custody, will be shot as a meet reward for their crimes, amongst which is the illegal restraining of said Allsman of his liberty, and if not returned, of presumptively aiding in his murder. Your prompt attention to this will save much suffering.
Provost Marshal General Northeast District of Missouri
By order of Brigadier General commanding McNeil’s column
The Confederates, of course, could not produce Allsman.
So, on the evening of Oct. 17, five rebel prisoners in the Palmyra stockade plus five more held in Hannibal were informed that they would be shot the next afternoon, in ruthless enforcement of the threat.
The men who died this date in 1862 by a volley of musketry at the Palmyra fairgrounds were:
Captain Thomas Sidenor
William T. Baker
Their names adorn the base of a monument erected in Palmyra in 1907 commemorating the so-called “Palmyra Massacre”. The state of Missouri as a digital archive of original documents relating to the affair available here.
* Missouri was where the slave Dred Scott lived; his owner taking him to the neighboring free state of Illinois and thence points north occasioned the notorious Supreme Court case that bears his name.
** Frank and Jesse James were Confederate partisans for William Quantrill in the Missouri war; they segued directly into their more celebrated career in outlawry right after the war ended — robbing banks whilst settling scores with pro-Union men for the rest of the 1860s, before branching out to other points on the frontier.
† The Union might obviously have chosen to treat the entire Confederacy as a treasonable enterprise rather than a legitimate enemy belligerent. As a historical matter, it did not take this perspective.
ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.
The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.
The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.
Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.
The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.
Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.
Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.
Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.
Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.
Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.
The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:
Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.
Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.
The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.
Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.
The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.
The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.
On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.
The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.
James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,
my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)
Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.
The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.
Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.
As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.
This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.
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.