On this date in 1741, four black men were burned in New York City.
This is the third execution date in that year’s great suppression of a purported slave conspiracy, and it is here that its wantonly inquisitorial character clearly comes to the fore. Accusations under the gallows (or in this case, the pyres) topple like domino-tiles into fresh arrests and new accusations, until from a couple of luckless thieves there are 30-plus souls in the grave.
Eleven days prior, when two slaves named Cuffee and Quack had burned at the stake for this sensational plot, a sham offer of clemency had been extended them with the very fagots beneath their feet. Under this extortion the men had owned the plot, a confession the court privileged as the truth of dying men (for they were burnt anyway, despite their compliance), they duly named as co-conspirators several of those we find in the next tranch of slaves tried before the colony’s highest court.
(We must do Cuffee and Quack the justice of noting that by the time they burned, all those who were to be tried next were already in jail with them, arrested upon the information of another fellow-slave informing to save his own skin. Perhaps the men at the stake supposed their fellows already burnt flesh, and their own accusations strictly ornamental.)
By this point in events, the court was convinced past arguing that a white barkeep named Hughson (whose own Executed Today entry is fast approaching) had played host to large meetings of New York’s Negros, where they drank together and leered at the white servant and toasted one another’s plans to destroy the city. When slaves were wrung for information about the “plot” it was largely to name those who had participated in these supposed meetings. But since a master conspiracy against white New York was now presumed — its alleged leaders had been the first to die — little was required to damn a man but to place him at one of these slaves’ sabbaths. Trials could now become quite perfunctory on any one person’s actual role or misdeeds: just tie him to the satanic cabal.
Even the crown’s own opening statement to the court on June 8 basically promised to mail it in.
It will, I doubt not, appear to you, upon hearing our Witnesses for the King on this Trial, that these six Negroes are some of the Conspirators who combined with those principal Incendiaries, Hughson and his Family, to set on fire the King’s House, and this whole Town, and to kill and murder the Inhabitants.
But as I have already, upon the Trial of the Negro Quack, for burning the King’s House, and of another Negro called Cuffee, for burning Mr. Philipse’s Storehouse, and likewise on the last Trial of Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, and Kerry, endeavoured to set forth their Heinousness of so horrible and detestable a Conspiracy; and the Dangers this City and Province may still be exposed to, until Examples are made of all such as have been concerned in this most wicked Plot; I think I have no Need upon this Trial, to say any Thing further on either of these Heads; not doubting but when you have heard the Crimes which these Criminals stand charged with, proved against them, you will find them Guilty.
The six in question were appended to the horrible and detestable Conspiracy as bullet points in depositions full of denunciations: namely, by the white servant Mary Burton, who was the Abigail Williams character of this particular witch hunt; by Cuffee’s and Quack’s tricked confession at the stake; and by three other slaves — Sandy, Sarah,* and Fortune — who had all been arrested themselves and gave their evidence under the pall of their own probable execution for any failure in cooperation.**
The court would surely reply here that such a society can rarely be penetrated but by dirty hands and compromised witnesses.** Seen in such a light, the roles imputed to these six would have been terrifying.
Jack was a “captain” in the cell and resolved “his Knife was so sharp, that if it came a-cross a white Man’s Head, it would cut it off” (according to Sandy); he with Cook “used to be at the Meetings at Hughson’s, when they were talking of firing the Town and murdering the People” (Mary Burton)
Cuffee and Caesar “fired Van Zant’s Storehouse” (according to the dying confessions of both Quack and the previous Cuffee) with Caesar declaring for good measure that “he would kill the white Men, and drink their Blood to their good Healths: This about a Fortnight or Three Weeks before the Fort burnt.” (Sandy)
Robin “had a Knife there, and sharpened it; and consented to help kill the white Men, and take their Wives.” (Sandy)
Jamaica “(being a Fidler) said, he would dance over [white New Yorkers] while they were roasting in the Flames; and said, he had been Slave long enough.” (Mary Burton)
There is at times a suspicious confluence of language — and a repeated fixation on black men seizing white women — that suggest the interrogator’s influence. Nevertheless, depositions overlapping on a number of key points have persuaded not only the slaves’ jurors but some of their latter-day interlocutors that they truly were party to a most audacious design. Every one of them was condemned to death. Jamaica, the fiddler, received the liberality of a three-day wait; the other five were all to burn the very next afternoon — June 9, 1741.
Their actual execution is a one-sentence afterthought in a record already by the morrow speeding along to the next proceedings: “This Day also, The Negroes Cook, Robin (Chamber’s) Caesar (Peck’s) Cuffee (Gomez’s) were executed according to Sentence.” The reader will notice that where five were doomed, only four have died. The fifth, Jack — that fell captain whetting his sharp blade for white throats — was busy that morning saving his own neck by supplying evidence for the crown, straight from the center of the plot. So Jack instead remained in the courtroom, detailing for his prosecutors (soon to be his pardoners) a fresh roster of prey, even as his comrades were wrenched from the courthouse’s basement jail and set alight in downtown Manhattan.
* Our very partial compiler Daniel Horsmanden admits that this witness “was one of the oddest Animals amongst the black Confederates, and gave the most Trouble in her Examinations; a Creature of an outragious Spirit: When she was first interrogated upon this Examination about the Conspiracy, she absolutely denied she knew any Thing of the Matter … her Conduct was such upon the Whole, that what she said, if not confirmed by others, or concurring Circumstances, could not deserve entire Credit.”
** In fact, the court did make this argument (“if Pagan Negroes could not be received as Witnesses against each other … [then] the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity”), for it was also defending itself as early as July of 1741 against contemporary whites who doubted that any actual terrorist conspiracy existed among the slaves. The anonymous New England critic whose letter surviving to us compares New York in 1741 to Salem in 1692 noticed “that such Confessions unless some certain Overt Act appears to confirm the same are not worth a Straw; for many times they are obtained by foul means, by force or torment, by Surprise, by flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their circumstances, through envy that they may bring others into the same condemnation, or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to die an easier death.” This was a soul ahead of its time.
On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.
Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.
The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.
Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.
They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.
Ten thousand people attended his hanging.
Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”
Tuesday morning last I was horrified at the announcement by a friend that Jas. Utz, Paul’s companion and leader in their attempt to go South, had been executed, being hung on Monday, the day after Christmas, in the jail yard.
It plunged me in a stupor or excitement from which my mind was not free for the entire day. The sentence barely issued and the punishment instantly carried out! The hurry, the suddenness was most revolting. No time given for taking leave of family, friends! No time for appealing for mercy or for a reprieve. No time allowed for composing himself for death!
-Diary of a family member of Paul Fusz, one of Utz’s secret party. (Fusz, only 17 when captured, was pardoned after serving six months at hard labor.)
The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.
On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.
They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.
We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.
This day in 1919 was the closest Joseph Cohen came to the electric chair in Sing Sing. His walk may have been 7 minutes, or possibly 11 minutes, away, but Cohen was not to die this day at the hands of the State of New York, nor at the hands of any state on any day. Instead, he would be gunned down 13 years later as a free man.
Cohen was a wealthy, influential poultry merchant in New York City, and he had a bone to pick with fellow poultryman Barnet Baff, also known as the “Poultry King”. Baff had repeatedly rebuffed other poultry merchants in their efforts to fix prices and charge an exorbitant per-truck fee for poultry handling. That was probably because Baff was making this kind of bonus cash by feeding starving chickens sand and gravel immediately before slaughter. His shady practice was great for sale and terrible for resale.
This did him no favors among other poulters of the city.
By 1913, Baff had become the target of the collective ire of several people in the poultry industry, including Cohen, Ippolito Greco, Tony Zaffarano, and Antonio Cardinale — and possibly still more rivals in the New York Live Poultry Dealers’ Association. That year, a cadre of poultry merchants took up a collection to either frighten or kill Baff.*
Initially, a bomb was placed at his home, allegedly only to “frighten” him. In August of the following year, with Baff insufficiently frightened, the group actively sought to kill their target. At least one attempt was foiled, but on November 24, Baff was gunned down at the West Washington Market in Harlem.**
The murder nearly ended in a trio of executions and several long prison sentences. Instead, it cost just two men modest prison terms and uncovered the sordid underbelly of New York poultry sales.
Details about what actually happened are muddled significantly by various parties coaching witnesses in testimony.† As the story unfolded in the press, several investigators were accused of trying to push blame from Italians to Jews. Ultimately, the New York Attorney General managed to build up a case against several major players in the New York poultry scene and the then-lightweight New York mob scene.
The first break came in 1916 when Carmine diPaolo was arrested for an assault in the Bronx. He mentioned to police that he had been approached by Greco about carrying out the murder, but had backed out before it could be finished. DiPaolo then saw Giuseppe Archiello get paid by Greco after the killing. Archiello’s interrogation implicated Frank Ferrara, Cardinale, Zaffarano, Greco, and Greco’s brother, but it did not point to a source of the estimated $4,500 that was dispersed among the participants in the murder. Archiello was tagged as one of the gunmen and sentenced to death.
Ferrara was next on the docket, charged with driving the getaway car for the two killers. This was when Gaetano Reina was fingered as the other gunman. Ferrara’s story changed repeatedly and significantly, though, and he later insisted that Reina’s name had been fed to him. Ferrara’s conviction led to a death sentence that the state hoped to use to get Ferrara to name names at the top of the food chain.
The breakthrough witness was Cardinale, who had joined the Italian Army during World War I but was involved in the plots against Baff from the start. He was taken to New York by way of a somewhat shaky international agreement that circumvented the American/Italian extradition treaty, and his lawyer — not coincidentally the same as the lawyer for Ferrara and Archiello — convinced him to give up the big names: Joseph D. Cohen, brother of Chief Chicken Inspector Harry Cohen (aka “Kid Griffo”); his brother Jacob Cohen; Moses “Chicken Moe” Rosenstein; David Jacobs; William Simon; and Abe Graff. (Cardinale smartly moved back to Italy after giving testimony.)
Ferrara also decided to “come clean”, telling investigators that Ignazio “Jack” Dragna and Ben “Tita” Rizzotta were in his getaway vehicle. He also noted that he had left this duo out of his original story for fear of reprisal, going with the state-fed names of the gunmen instead.
The six conspirators were brought into court, with the court leaning on testimony of Cardinale, Ferrara, and Joseph Sorro, whom Cardinale said was also involved in several attempts to intimidate Baff. Simon’s indictment was thrown out, while Jacob Cohen and Jacobs were acquitted. Rosenstein pled guilty and helped New York gain a death sentence for Cohen and 10-20 years for Graff.
The convicted Cohen went after the state repeatedly, pointing out the massive inconsistencies in the witness testimony that led to his indictment and conviction. Indeed, Cardinale — who dragged Cohen into this in the first place — claimed two gunmen, neither of whom was currently in Sing Sing. Sorro, meanwhile, was brought up on multiple perjury charges.
Cohen’s execution was postponed seven times, then commuted to life in prison on February 4, 1920, by Governor Al Smith. Cohen was released on November 24, 1921. Officially, he could have been retried, but the state refused.
Archiello’s lawyer‡ insisted that, thanks to Sorro’s perjury, it was no longer clear that Archiello was a gunman. The court agreed to a second trial, and Archiello — who had significant connections in the Harlem mob — pled guilty to manslaughter, receiving a suspended sentence instead of death.
Meawhile, Dragna, Rizzotta, and Reina all walked. Dragna moved to Los Angeles and headed the Los Angeles crime family until the 1950s; he may have had a hand in former leader Joseph Ardizzone’s disappearance. Reina became kingpin of the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn, and got killed by Lucky Luciano.
The Baff murder was atypical in the mob world, in that it featured Italian families doing their dirty work in the traditionally non-Italian field of poultry. The unusual arrangement made the murder an awkward affair that uncomfortably exposed a lot of powerful people. Organized crime was significantly more, well, organized by the time that Prohibition rolled around, and future gangland business murders were handled with a more diligent eye toward shielding bankrollers from blame.
Cohen and Jacob opened up a tailor shop in Manhattan, which put them right in the Italian mafia’s business wheelhouse. He and brother Barney were both shot to death in 1932, and their killers have never been identified.
** Baff was killed just weeks after 18 members of Cohen’s Live Poultry Dealers’ Protective Association were indicted on fraud and racketeering charges.
† The state even employed one Philip Musica, a sort of proto-Barry Minkow with his own zany criminal story. His first foray into business was attempting to sell $250 of human hair to the tune of some $370,000. It’s not clear what the link between “Step 1: Get Hair” and “Step 3: Profit” was, but his misrepresentation of the goods was enough to earn him a federal sentence. Musica spent little time in prison, turning instead into a paid investigator in New York State’s employ during the Baff affair.
He jumped straight to Step 3 for his services and retired around 1916. Musica changed his name to Frank Donald Coster and in 1920 started Girard & Co. — a hair tonic company that was likely a front for a bootlegging operation. Right around the time the old Musica was indicted for perjury in the Baff case, F. Donald Coster bought the pharmaceutical company McKesson & Robbins. Musica expanded its drug enterprise but also did side business of building up paper assets and phantom sales to bolster the company’s apparent value by about $18m. It came crashing down when the company’s treasurer tried to find out why McKesson & Robbins didn’t insure their drug warehouse (turns out “it doesn’t exist” isn’t a good reason to give your accountant).
‡ The lawyer for Archiello and Cardinale, Walter Rogers Deuel, was brought up by the New York State Bar Association for suborning perjury, but he continued to practice law. And Deputy Attorney General Alfred Becker, who, according to one article, “was conspicuous during the war for uncovering German and Red plots,” was also accused of misconduct, though nothing appears to have come of that charge.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).
John Meff hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1721 for returning from convict transportation.
If we are to credit the autobiographical account that Meff furnished the Ordinary of Newgate prior to his hanging, it was the last act in an adventuresome life. )Here’s the Ordinary’s account of the execution of Meff with three other men; here’s the Newgate Calendar entry based upon it, and which provides the quotes ensuing in this post.)
“I was born in London of French parents,” Meff begins — Huguenots who had fled Catholic harassment.
Huguenot refugees formed an important part of London’s Spitalfields weavers, and Meff apprenticed in this business until he could hang out his own shingle. But finding business too slow to support his family, he took to a bit of supplementary thieving.
Meff says that he had already once been condemned to death for housebreaking “but, as I was going to the place of execution, the hangman was arrested, and I was brought back to Newgate.”
Certainly the era’s executioners had frequent criminal escapades, but I have not found this remarkable Tyburn interruptus related in any press accounts in the 1710s. It’s possible that Meff is embellishing on the 1718 downfall and execution of hangman John Price — though Price was seized red-handed and not detained in the exercise of his office. This inconsistency has not prevented creation of a wonderful illustration, The Hangman Arrested When Attending John Meff to Tyburn, from this volume.
At any rate, Meff’s sentence was moderated to transportation to the New World, and he says that he “took up a solemn resolution to lead an honest and regular course of life … But this resolution continued but a short time after the fear of death vanished.”
Here Meff’s story really gets colorful — whether to the credit of the unsettled Atlantic economy or to the teller’s gift for embroidery we cannot say.
The ship which carried me and the other convicts was taken by the pirates. They would have persuaded me and some others to sign a paper, in order to become pirates; but we refusing, they put me and eight more ashore on a desert uninhabited land, where we must have perished with hunger, if by good fortune an Indian canoe had not arrived there. We waited till the Indians had gone up the island, and then, getting into the vessel, we sailed from one small island to another, till we reached the coast of America.
Not choosing to settle in any of the plantations there, but preferring the life of a sailor, I shipped myself on board a vessel that carried merchandise from Virginia and South Carolina to Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other of his majesty’s islands. And thus I lived a considerable time; but at last, being over-desirous to see how my wife and children fared inEngland, I was resolved to return at all adventures.
Once back, Meff says, he “quickly fell into my former wicked practices” — as if by gravity, no further explanation ventured. It’s hard not to suspect that he simply managed to escape his American indenture to continue a career in larceny, absent the whole marooned-by-pirates subplot. Men were known to tell tall tales to the Ordinary — who, after all, had their own story to sell the public through the deaths of their charges.
“The narrow escape he had experienced from the gallows ought to have taught him more wisdom than to have returned from transporation before the expiration of his time; but one would think there is a fatality attending the conduct of some men, who seem resolutely bent on their own destruction,” the Newgate Calendar’s entry concludes.
“One truth, however, is certain. It is easy, by a steady adherence to the rules of virtue, to shun that ignominious fate which is the consequence of a breach of the laws of God and our country.”
One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.
Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.
The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.
Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.
Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.
But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.
Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that
my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.
This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)
In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)
By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.
Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.
Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …
This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …
lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.
“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†
Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.
Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.
As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):
The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.
** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.
† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.
Miscarriages of justice perpetrated by actors in a position to extract private benefit from generating criminal prosecutions is a story as old as the hills. This one, as reprinted in the London Morning Chronicle, Aug. 25, 1817, at least has a happy ending:
Two soldiers, named Hall and Morrison, were on the 26th July tried for a highway robbery at the Stafford Assizes, before Baron Garrow, convicted, and ordered to be executed. They were prosecuted by a man named Read, a bricklayers labourer, who swore that they knocked him down and robbed him of a shilling and a penny, in a church-yard at Wolverhampton, on the 23d July. The evidence of the woman in whose house the prisoners resided, went to prove that they did not sleep at home on the night of the imputed robbery. To those two witnesses the evidence was confined, and against it there appeared nothing upon the trial, except the declarations of the prisoners, containing facts which were afterwards sworn to be others, and which, after the utmost labour of a few benevolent persons, were the means of saving the innocent prisoners from a death which appeared to all to be inevitable.
The two soldiers were, upon the 23d of July, drinking at an hour too late for admission at their lodging at Wolverhampton, and, after applying in vain to be allowed to go into the guardroom to sleep, walked about the village to kill time.
In loitering through the church-yard they met a man who seemed to be in want of work, and, like themselves, without a lodging for the night. A conversation ensued, and the stranger told them his name was Read; that he was a bricklayer’s labourer out of employment, and a Hertfordshire man.
It happened, that in his description he hit upon the part of the country from which one of the prisoners came. A jesting dialogue took place between them, and at length it was agreed that they should wrestle.
Hall was the friendly opponent of Read upon the occasion, and he was thrown in the first round of wrestling. In the second, however, Hall was more successful in the feat of activity, but his triumph nearly robbed him of his life. The vanquished man dropped a shilling and a penny from his pocket. Morrison immediately picked up the money, said it would do for beer, and put it into his pocket. The soldiers quizzed Read about his loss, and were heard by a watchman near the spot acknowledging that they had the shilling, and would certainly dispose of it in the most convivial way.
Read growled about his money, and showed a disposition to quarrel, but did not utter a word about his being robbed of it. About five o’clock in the morning the three were seen near the market-place by another watchman, and the soldiers were bantering Read upon the same subject.
The good humour of Read, however, at this time, appeared quite broken up; he spoke of having the soldiers taken into custody, but was answered by a laugh from them. A grocer, named Powis, saw them all under similar circumstances, and heard Read complain of no attempt at robbery, but saw that he was not pleased at being laughed at.
The grocer soon after met a man named Roberts, the keeper of the House of Correction at Wolverhampton, and mentioned to him that Read said two soldiers had got his money. The answer of Roberts, which did not strike the grocer as extraordinary at first, was, “I must see that man; this is a good job.”
The event, however, soon explained the language. Roberts immediately inquired after Read, questioned him upon the loss he had sustained, and in a very short time apprehended the two soldiers upon the charge of robbing Read in the highway of a shilling and a penny. Before the magistrate, Read swore that the soldiers knocked him down and robbed him of his money in the church-yard. Their commitment was immediately made out, and they were sent to the Assizes of Stafford, where, on the Saturday following they were tried and condemned for the capital offense.
The inhabitants of Wolverhampton knew nothing of the intention of Read upon the interference of Roberts in this transaction. It was generally concluded amongst them that the angry state of mind in which Read appeared, would have influenced him to swear a common assault, but nothing at all serious was apprehended from the wrestling bout. There was consequently no interference upon the part of those who were acquainted with many of the circumstances; and the matter died away until the village was struck with horror at an account in the Stafford paper of the proceedings of the Assizes. An old man was reading the paper in an ale-house to a number of politicians, who were not much affected at any thing they heard until he came to that part which stated the number of persons left for execution. Amongst the names were those of Hall and Morrison. The whole population of Wolverhampton instantly showed how they felt upon an occasion so dreadful.
The Rev. Mr. Guard, one of the most venerable characters in that part of the country, who officiates in the village where Hall’s family resides, upon hearing the event of the trial, set out for Wolverhampton, where he found the people already meeting and acting upon this subject. The men were to be hanged this day (Saturday last), and not a moment was to be lost. Mr. Guard, who had known Hall from his infancy, and would have staked his life upon the integrity of the young man, made a quick but deep inquiry into the facts, and having found every thing confirmatory of his innocence, followed Baron Garrow on his circuit to state what he had learned from the very best authority, and obtain a respite.
He saw Mr. Baron Garrow, but his Lordship appeared to see no reason to alter the opinion which he had formed from hearing the trial. The worthy Clergyman, however, was so well convinced of the truth of his own information, that he could not help exclaiming, with more zeal than discretion, “I see you are determined to hang these poor men.”
Mr. Baron Garrow was naturally offended at this intemperate observation, and an eminent Barrister remarked, that Mr. Guard’s object was wholly defeated by the use of it.
Mr. Guard was not, however, to be turned from the endeavour to save the lives of the two soldiers; there was another quarter to which he could apply. He immediately came to town, and went without ceremony to Lord Sidmouth, to whom he obtained an easy access. He remained in conversation with his Lordship between three and four hours, and Lord Sidmouth afterwards declared, that he never in his life saw such an interest taken in the fate of men who were not related by domestic ties to the individuals whom he was labouring to save. This meeting gave Mr. Guard hopes; though Lord Sidmouth had observed, that in cases of this kind the Judge was necessarily better acquainted with all the bearings of the evidence than the Secretary of State, and therefore his power was seldom interfered with, except under circumstances of strong fact.
Mr. Guard posted back to Wolverhampton the moment after he parted from the Secretary. A meeting of the inhabitants was called, at which Mr. Mander, and all the other respectable residents of Wolverhampton attended.
The witnesses were sworn, and a Petition to the Prince Regent was signed and delivered into the hands of Mr. Guard, who, accompanied by Mr. Charles Mander, very soon after arrived in town. These two gentlemen went, with Mr. Pearsall, of Cheapside, to Lord Sidmouth, and put into his hands the evidence of the innocence of the soldiers. His Lordship requested that Mr. Pearsall would relate the circumstance.
That gentleman repeated the manner in which Read and the two soldiers had acted in the presence of the watchmen and the grocer. Lord Sidmouth was just going up with the Recorder’s Report, and said, that upon his return he would examine the affidavits, and act upon them. Mr. Pearsall observed, that the men were ordered for execution on Saturday, but was assured by his Lordship that their case should not be neglected, and that the affidavits should be laid before the Attorney-General.
Upon the next meeting, Lord Sidmouth said there had been no necessity for laying the affidavits before the Attorney-General. The case, he observed, was one of the most interesting that ever came before him.
Indeed, such was the effect of the affidavits upon him, that he was not only immediately convinced that the soldiers should not be executed, but, in the absence of his clerks, he wrote the dispatch for their respite with his own hand, and sent it to the Sheriff; “because,” said his Lordship, “I could not endure the thought that the soldiers should have one hour more of unnecessary anxiety.”
Mr. Pearsall said there was no doubt that the men had no intention of felony; it would also appear, at another time, that the prosecutor had no intention of indicting them, until he was instigated by Roberts, with the view of gaining the reward called “Blood-money,” which was accordingly pocketed by Read and the keeper of the prison, to the amount of 80l.
Lord Sidmouth declared, that, under such circumstances, an immediate investigation should take place. He coincided in the opinion of the impropriety of Roberts’s conduct, and said a pardon would be instantly granted to the soldiers. He also complimented, in the warmest manner, the conduct of Mr. Guard and the other gentleman, who had exerted themselves. In the course of his observations to Lord Sidmouth, Mr. Guard said he would give up half his fortune to save the life of Hall, so convinced was he of his honesty.
While these operations were going forward in London, affidavits, copied from those handed to the Secretary, were brought to Mr. Baron Garrow by Lieut. Buchanan, of the same regiment as the soldiers, and a respite was instantly granted by his Lordship when he read them.
The Officer stated, that Baron Garrow, upon reading the affidavits, said, if the facts had been known before, their respite should have been granted; and asked whether they would, upon being pardoned, be taken into the regiment again? Lieutenant Buchanan immediately replied, that they would be most gladly received.
July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.
Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.
“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”
Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.
We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.
Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”
* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.
** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.
† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.
See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”