(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. 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.)
The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways,
I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.
— James Dukes, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois.
Executed August 24, 1962
Dukes was executed for killing Detective John Blyth Sr., who had pursued him after he had beaten his girlfriend in church and shot two other men who tried to stop him. On Dukes’s execution day, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, who took part in the final gun battle, told a newspaperman, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this night.”
Dukes made no oral statement but left behind a copy of the Apology for the press.
On this date in 1851, the domestic abuser John McCaffary (or McCaffrey) was publicly hanged in Kenosha, Wisconsin.* His crime — singularly ill-concealed — was a noisy row with his wife Bridgett that ended with him tipping her into a rain barrell and holding her in it until she stopped moving.
Neighbors alerted by Bridgett’s shrieks arrived to find the newly-minted widower redwet-handed, and his late wife stuffed in the backyard butt.
There had been a few executions in Wisconsin before McCaffary’s, but this was the first one after Wisconsin attained statehood in 1848. It was attended by a large crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers — a third of them female, to the special chagrin of newsmen.
And those 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers, as it turned out, witnessed something never to be repeated. From that day until this, the state of Wisconsin has never again put a human to death.**
The crowd played a part in that eventuality. Wisconsin was a reforming northern state — in a few years, the anti-slavery Republican Party would be founded there — and the spectacle of public enjoyment under the gallows struck as regrettable the sorts of people who, say, write Madison Democrat editorials. (“Murder before the people, with its horrors removed by the respectability of those engaged in its execution.” (Source))
Christopher Latham Sholes, a Kenosha publisher whose main claim to historic fame was later inventing the first commercially successful typewriter,† was seated in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1852 as a Free Soiler. He too had denounced the execution in his newspaper — “the crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man … we hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.” (See It Happened In Wisconsin, 2nd, or this link.) As a legislator, he put his political capital where his editorials were and spearheaded a successful campaign to get rid of capital punishment.
On this date in 1738, the last victims of witch trials in the Lower Rhine were burned at the stake in Gerresheim, an ancient German city today subsumed by Düsseldorf.
More eccentric than demoniacal, the sicky 14-year-old Helena Curtens reported having seen some ghostly apparition during a curative pilgrimage to Kevelaer, and received from him some towels with weird occult inscription. (She actually did have such towels.)
This adolescent attention-seeking turned into a whole thing when judge Johann Weyrich Sigismund Schwarz’s long ears caught hold of Gerresheim’s wagging tongues.
The whole idea of witches and witchcraft was trending ever less fashionable at this time, but not for Schwarz: he routed Curtens’s occult encounter into the judicial Hexenprozess and got on record an accusation against her neighbor Agnes Olmans as well as the usual stuff about playing the harlot with a visiting devil.
Their case extended for more than a year; Helena Curtens was 16 by the time she burned.
In that time, Curtens stayed curiously committed to her crazy story, even knowing that it was putting her under the shadow of the stake.
Olmans, by contrast, fought with every fiber the allegations that her young neighbor kept confirming. Olmans even fell ironic victim to the uneven development of rational witch-law reform when she tried to demand that she be put to the ordeal of water to prove her innocence: it turned out that this backwards practice of pseudo-forensics had been barred in 1555, so Schwarz could not order it. At trial, her denials were easily overcome by the gossip of neighbors, and even her own husband — who recalled that the mother-in-law had a distinctly witchy reputation. Hey, ’til death do us part, babe.
Today, there’s a public stone monument to these milestone sorceresses, the Gerresheimer Hexenstein (“Gerresheim witches’ stone”)
Its inscription reads:
Human dignity is inviolable.
For Helene Mechthildis Curtens and Agnes Olmanns.
Burned in Gerresheim on August 19, 1738.
After the last witch trial in the Lower Rhine
and for all those tortured and outcast
The first (of nine) legal executions in Missoula County;
The first Chinese person hanged in Montana;
The quickest reported hanging, with death declared in only a minute and a half.
Ah Yung was condemned for the January 29, 1883 murder of Chung Yu, the paymaster of the Wing See Company.
However, the authorities believed his murder was the least of Ah’s crimes; he was suspected of killing no fewer than seventeen people, two whites and fifteen Chinese.
Ah Yung shot and killed Chung Yu and wounded another man during a botched robbery, then fled the scene. The authorities offered a $400 reward for his arrest, and he was captured a month after the murder at Frenchtown, Montana. But, as Donovan records, “because of some bizarre reason, there was a question whether or not the reward was going to be paid for his captor released the prisoner.”
Fortunately, the murderer remained free for only a few days and didn’t have the opportunity to commit any more crimes before he was captured again, and this time sent to jail in the newly incorporated city of Missoula.
Chinese immigrants, especially drawn by gold strikes,* were a sizable constituent in frontier Montana as throughout the American West. A Montana travelogue in the Nov. 25, 1882 Utah Salt Lake Tribune
“Gangs of Chinamen clearing away the forest and underbrush … laboring with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.” This was the Northern Pacific then under frenetic construction through forbidding Rocky Mountain terrain in subzero temperatures. In Missoula itself, “Celestials” were “numerous enough to form a Chinese quarter. They have an eye to business, and where you find a live, busy camp or town in this remote region, there, too, you find the inevitable Chinaman.”
A Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest attempted to offer pastoral counsel to the condemned man, only to discover that he was utterly ignorant of religion. Pressed to confess, Ah Yung refused and kept repeating, “Me no kill him,” — a statement he held to his dying moments.
On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.
“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)
On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.
The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.
While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.
The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.
In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.
“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.
The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.
Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.
“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.
Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.
The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.
The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.
At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.
Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.
They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.
A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.
Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.
Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.
By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.
But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)
Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.
Arthur Gooch on the gallows
* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.
The last execution in the history of the former state of Czechoslovakia occurred on this date in 1989.
Staggering home extremely drunk late one autumn night, Štefan Svitek (English Wikipedia entry | Czech) found the door locked and the pregnant Roma wife he regularly battered disinclined to open it.
So Svitek opened it himself by grabbing an obliging ax and splintering it to pieces.
Then he turned the ax on poor Marie and the family’s two daughters.*
Even the most aggressive executioners — and Czechoslovakia was not that — don’t hang every homicide. Svitek might have doomed himself in the final analysis with his disturbing sexual proclivities, especially since they surfaced during his rampage. He reportedly carved up the bodies, sliced off his late wife’s breasts and even cut the still-stirring embryo of his next child out of her womb, and pleasured himself over all the fresh gore. He would later describe it as the most intense sexual experience of his life.
It emerged at trial that Svitek’s youth in an alcoholic home had warped his animal urges so severely that he pursued urges for animals, taking special gratification in castrating them.
This last operation Svitek perpetrated on his own self as he fled in panic from his domestic charnel house, then attempted to commit suicide by hanging.**
He broke that rope. On the 8th of June in 1989, he did the same to Czechoslovakia’s.
Svitek’s hanging June 8, 1989, was not only the last ever in the soon-to-be-defunct Czechoslovakia, but the last associated with either of Czechoslovakia’s successor states, neither of which have the death penalty on the books. (Svitek was hanged in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital; the last execution in the Czech half was that of Vladimir Lulek earlier in 1989.)
The New York-born couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman* were two of the most notable figures among the hundreds, and then thousands, of settlers pouring into the territory every year. In 1836, they founded on the banks of the Walla Walla River a Christian mission to the nomadic Cayuse who roamed the territory. It’s in present-day Washington State, which was then part (with the current U.S. states of Oregon and Idaho) of a single frontier territory collectively known as Oregon.
The Whitmans’ early settlement, offering medicine, education, and (of course) proselytizing, proved a success at first; it would become for several years a waypoint on the developing Oregon Trail.
White diseases came with the settlers.
The Cayuse people had already dwindled (pdf) to just a thousand or two after the decimations of smallpox and other plagues swept the region in the decades preceding. Now, outbreaks of measles were ravaging those remaining.
Marcus Whitman, a doctor as well as a spiritualist, proved unable to check the new epidemic. Rumors went abroad that the missionaries were bewitching or poisoning the Cayuse, as the vanguard of a coming territorial conquest; the Whitmans themselves were very keen to the hostile feeling the situation had engendered and had even heard whispers that they were the targets of assassination plots. Bravely, they stayed.
“Perhaps God thought it for the best that your little child should be called away,” Narcissa Whitman said in strange consolation to the grieving mother of an Anglo child who also succumbed to measles in 1847. “It may calm the Indians to see a white child taken as well as so many natives, for otherwise we may all be compelled to leave within two weeks.” (pdf source, op. cit.; this document also reconstructs a detailed narrative of the unfolding tragedy)
But that remark was only days before the terrible November 29, 1847. On that cold autumn Monday, a small party of Cayuse led by a chief named Tiloukaikt fell on the mission and slaughtered both Whitmans plus another 11** inhabitants of the little compound.
Some 54 surviving women and children were taken hostage, and several of these died in custody as well. A Canadian official of the Hudson’s Bay Company hurried to ransom the captives at the price of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 muskets, 600 loads of ammunition, 37 pounds of tobacco, and a dozen flints.†
This quick response might have forestalled a worse tragedy for the missionaries — but as far as the Cayuse went, the die was already cast. A volunteer militia of Oregonians under Cornelius Gilliam soon mobilized to retaliate, driving many Cayuse into the Blue Mountains.
By mid-1848, spurred in part by the Whitman bloodbath, Congress officially incorporated the region as the Oregon Territory; arriving early in 1849, the new territorial governor Joseph Lane immediately opened negotiations with the Cayuse to hand over the perpetrators of the massacre. With federal troops arriving later in 1849, the Cayuse at last capitulated and gave up five warriors: Tiloukaikt, the leader; Tomahas; Kiamasumpkin; Iaiachalakis; and Klokomas. (There are numerous alternative transliterations of these names.)
They were tried in Oregon City, the territorial capital at the time — a town of 500 or so on the Willamette River Falls — in a landmark case: the first proper death penalty trial in the young territory.‡ This would fall a little short of modern standards, and not just because it was held in a tavern for want of a regular courthouse. The prosecution was not especially rigorous linking all the defendants to specific violent acts, but the defense’s recourse to Cayuse cultural practices that held shamans liable for the failure of their medicine conceded the point by implication. The judge‘s final instructions simply directed his jury to “infer” the defendants’ culpability by virtue of “the surrender of the Defendants by the Cayuse nation as the murderers, the nation knowing best who those murderers were.” So why even have the trial? Kiamasumpkin, against whom no evidence was ever individually presented, went to the gallows insisting that he didn’t even arrive to the Whitman Mission until the day after the massacre.
All five were condemned in the end, and executed by prominent early pioneer and lawman Joe Meek.§ “On the 3d of June an election and a hanging match took place at Oregon City,” ran the Aug. 22, 1850 story in the New York Tribune — for the Whitman massacre had been a matter of national interest. “The town was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.”
“Their tribe, the Cayuses, gave them up to keep peace with the whites. Much doubt was felt as to the policy of hanging them, but the popularity of doing so was undeniable.”
Fears that the quintuple hanging would stoke a running conflict with the Cayuse were not altogether misplaced, but over the subsequent years the dwindling tribe was simply dwarfed by over 30,000 newly arriving settlers lured by a congressional grant of free land. By 1855, the defeated Cayuse were forced onto the small Umatilla Reservation, ceding (along with the Umatillas and the Walla Wallas) 6.4 million acres to whites. The Cayuse tongue was extinct by the end of the century.
** Figures of both 13 and 14 (inclusive of the Whitmans) are cited in various places for the Whitman Massacre’s body count; the discrepancy turns on whether one’s tally includes as a casualty Peter Hall, who escaped from the mission, fled to Fort Walla Walla, and then made a panicky attempt to reach The Dalles. Hall disappeared into the wilderness, and was never heard from again.
† Ransom covered gratis by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
‡ The Espy file‘s index of U.S. executions lists only a couple of undated executions many years before under informal frontier justice.
Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.
The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.
“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”
But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.
The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.
But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.
Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.
So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*
“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”
An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)
So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**
Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.
“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”
No one answered.
“I forgive everyone.”
And then she hanged.
Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.
As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.
** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.
The penniless 27-year-old occupied the stone cottage adjacent to her victim’s way out in the countryside at Carsphad — near the fringe of present-day Galloway Forest Park. Timney was Ann Hannah’s tenant, but the two were known to have a fractious relationship and often cross words. Timney had borrowed so often that Hannah grew deaf to her importunities; Hannah suspected Timney of stealing firewood, and Timney suspected Hannah of stealing her husband’s caresses.
On January 13, 1862, Hannah was discovered breathing her last on that cottage floor in a puddle of her own blood, splatters of which also decorated the little home like a slasher movie. The obvious suspect had some incriminating bloodstains on her person. Timney claimed that Hannah started the fight by kicking the younger woman, and in the ensuing fracas Timney grabbed the weapons ready to hand (a knife, a poker, and a wooden mallet: seems like more than you’d need) and mauled her neighbor to death.
“Oh, my Lord, dinna do that,” Timney cried out in court when the judge donned the black cap to impose her death sentence. “Give me anything but that, let the Lord send for me!”
Mary Timney was initially regarded by her former neighbors in Carsphad as a monster. But as her execution approached, sentiment underwent a surprising reversal. The pathos of leaving the young woman’s four children motherless, or else the simple discomfiture of publicly swinging a woman from the gallows-tree, soon led to a strong local push for mercy. “The great majority of the public of Dumfries were horrified and indignant that this butchery should be permitted in their streets,” one paper reported.
The Crown saw no grounds to extend it, and swore in an extra 200 constables to manage the crowd.
In a stateof near collapse, Mary Timney went to the gallows this date before 3,000 solemn spectators. She was still pleading. “Oh no, no, no! My four weans, my four weans.” (See this book)
The scene appalled everyone so entirely that it was never repeated: Mary Timney was the last woman publicly executed in Scottish history.