On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.
Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.
To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.
Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.
“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.
But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.
Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.
A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.
After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.
Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.
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.”
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 1890, thrashing in panicked resistance, Edward Gallagher hanged in Vancouver, Wash.
Louis Mar, an aged and solitary farmer who was known to carry large sums of cash on him, had been found in November 1889 shot dead outside his home — which had also been ransacked but to little effect. (Thousands of dollars were discovered tucked into the house’s nooks and crannies that the assailant(s) had overlooked.) A discarded scrap of a newspaper proved to match the edition Gallagher himself was carrying when detained lurking around the Mar place a few days later.
1890 was the year that America’s the western frontier officially closed, but the grueling life in its Cascade Mountain vestiges in the 1880s had taken a toll on the Chicago-born murderer. The Portland Oregonian (July 6, 1890) noted that he “is 24 years old, but looks to be over 30.” On top of that, he nearly burned to death awaiting trial in jail when Vancouver’s courthouse went up in flames in February of 1890.
Gallagher might very well have been non compos mentis, and it is not a mark in favor of his sanity that he elected to defend himself by agreeing that he pulled the trigger, but arguing that it had been done in self-defense … while on Mar’s land … and prior to burgling Mar’s house … with a mystery accomplice whom he refused to name.
As much as the circumstances implied a cold-blooded killing, Gallagher’s erratic behavior, disjointed nonsense story of the crime, and inexplicable confidence in his pardon all struck many observers as the mark of a genuinely unbalanced man.
“Gallagher does not seem to comprehend his fate,” the Oregonian puzzled. “One would be in a quandary to decide whether he was insane or lacked brains to comprehend the enormity of his crime.”
didn’t believe he would die that day — despite the bloodthirsty crowd before him, the $225 spent on his execution, the lawmen flanking his left and right.
Instead, with a “slickly idiotic smile,” he apologized to the audience for his appearance and promised he would do better next time. He said “the soldiers” would save him.
Reality struck when his hands were bound. For three maniacal minutes, Gallagher swung his arms and kicked violently, knocking over the sheriff and his helpers. Seven men finally subdued him.
The death warrant was read, a black hood pulled over Gallagher’s head and the noose tightened. Sheriff [M.J.] Fleming, who was paid $50 for the deed, gave the condemned man one more chance to confess to killing and robbing Lewis Marr, an old farmer found dead on his land in the Lower Cascades area of Skamania County.
“Did you kill that man, or did you not? Now, answer,” the sheriff said, according to newspaper accounts.
From beneath the black hood, Gallagher sneered his last words: “None of your damned business.”
His egregious death was witnessed by 200 official ticket-holding invitees, but the wooden stockade nominally enclosing the gallows was easily peered through or over … so another 500 people outside the stockade also peeped on the de facto public execution.
On this date in 1911, still professing his innocence, Daniel “Nealy” Duncan hanged in the county jail at Charleston, South Carolina.
“Short, thick set and very black,”* Duncan was, at length, arrested for the murder of a King Street tailor named Max Lubelsky. Poor Mr. Lubelsky had been discovered on June 21, 1910 as he lay dying of a fractured skull — the bloody cudgel rudely enhanced with a nail abandoned beside its victim was the only clue, besides someone in the neighborhood who thought they noticed “a negro, dressed in a blue suit, wearing a derby hat”** who left the store around the time of the midday attack. The attacker’s purpose was robbery.
Granting that we find ourselves at this moment at the nadir of race relations in the Jim Crow south, these officers conceived themselves acting in good faith, torture and all. They were not utterly indiscriminate; several of the beaten-up suspects were able to produce an alibi and were duly released with their newly acquired welts. But in the absence of a witness (or knuckle-assisted self-incrimination) they had little to work with.
And so the assailant remained a mystery.
There matters still stood on July 8 when the widow Mrs. Lubelsky came racing out of her late husband’s store with blood streaming down her own face, crying murder at the top of her lungs.
To take up the narration reported in the next day’s edition of The State,
Just then a negro emerged and two men, Isaac Goodman and Moses Needle, who were passing, gave chase of the negro. He was caught a few blocks distant and promptly turned over to Police Officer Stanley and Detective Levy, who had also taken up the chase. Protesting his innocence and declaring that another negro had attempted to kill the woman, Daniels was taken to the station house amidst great excitement and the patrol wagon did not roll off any too soon from the excited neighborhood …
The State has given us an incriminating narration, but if we begin from our suspect’s denial it is not too difficult to conceive the scene otherwise — a bystander swept into the chaos as the panicked Mrs. Lubelsky barges out of her shop, the sudden attention of a crowd which the newsman gives us to understand was wound up enough for a lynching. You’d run, too.
The traumatized Mrs. Lubelsky insisted that it was Duncan who attacked her; this is one of the few pieces of palpable evidence we have in the case, though eyewitness error is a frequent factor in wrongful convictions. She would have glimpsed her assailant for a moment, dashed out of the store in a panic, then a fleeing man was chased down and hauled back to her — perfect cues for her memory to fix this man with all sincerity as the picture of her assailant.
And whatever the cliche about criminals returning to the scenes of their crimes, few are bold enough to repeat a literally identical attack days apart. It was basically just by analogy that the July 8 assault was held to place Duncan at the scene of the murder 17 days before; the vague description of the blue-suited man who might or might not have had anything to do with the murder could have fit Duncan or numerous other people. A local black man said that Duncan had been in the area on the day Max Lubelsky was killed, which would scarcely rise to the level of circumstantial even were one to discount the possible confirmation bias (or police pressure) introduced by Duncan’s arrest.
One would like to think (forlorn hope!) that a jury in 2015 would demand better than this to stretch a man’s neck … but in Charleston in 1910, it was enough to surpass reasonable doubt.†
The State, Oct. 8, 1910.
Duncan’s insistence on innocence was passed down in his own family and in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church whose congregation the hanged man once belonged to. In these halls, he is widely understood to have been an innocent man and this conclusion has not wanted for latter-day advocates.‡
The case surfaced to the broader public recently, with a push around the centennial of Duncan’s hanging to have him posthumously exonerated. The measure failed on a 3-3 vote in 19112011.
Left: Dead Weight, a historical novel based on the Duncan case; right: Charleston’s Trial, a nonfiction account.
Duncan was the last person hanged in Charleston, but not the last in South Carolina; there was a double execution in December of 1911 before the Palmetto state adopted electrocution beginning in 1912.
* The State (Columbia, S.C.), June 11, 1911.
** The State, June 22, 1911.
† The supernaturally inclined took notice from the August 1911 hurricane that devastated Charleston as a portend of Duncan’s innocence — and nicknamed it “the Duncan storm”.
‡ 2010-2011 media accounts indicated that the victim’s descendants did not share such confidence in Duncan’s innocence.
Extract of a letter, dated Danbury, (Ohio) May 6, 1819, addressed to a gentleman in Albany.
I thought it would be prudent to inform you of some unhappy circumstances which have recently occurred in our neighborhood, in order to save you from any groundless alarm, which common report might create about us.
Last Sunday, a week, (April 25,) we received the intelligence, that two of our neighbors, George Bishop and John Wood, had been found a little above the forks of Portage river, cruelly butchered by the Indians. We immediately armed ourselves, and proceeded to the river’s mouth, where the bodies had been brought.
An inquest was immediately held over them, and on examining them, found “they were murdered willfully, by persons unknown.” — I dare say, in your time, you have seen men sufficiently cut up, but never like them. On the head of Bishop alone, there were six strokes of a tomahawk, each of which let out the brain; his eyes ran out, &c. A page would not be sufficient to give you a description of one body.
The Indians in the neighborhood appeared much alarmed, and kept coming in all day. A number of them volunteered their services to go with us in pursuit of the murderers — some of them we accepted.
After we had buried the bodies, we held a council among ourselves, and agreed that we would parade all the Indians, and express to them what our determination was. The duty of addressing them was performed by me, through an interpreter, in which I set forth to them, our determination to have the murderers at all hazards — our ample abilities to take them, wherever they were — and it was their duty to have had Indians cut off to prevent future crimes.
After I had finished, Sasa, a young, bold and enterprising chief, (who with the other Indians, had listened with extreme attention, and great solemnity,) said in answer “that he with his party, would find the bad Indians, or never return again; he was thankful that the white men did not think them guilty, and they would show by their conduct, that our confidence in them was not misplaced.”
We organized them under a Mr. Tupper, and two other white men — gave them rations, and on Monday morning early they started. They left their squaws to whom we issued rations.
We then returned home, to act as circumstances should require.
On Wednesday, an express came to us, with the report that the murderers, with many of their tribe (Potowattomies,) had assembled near the place of the murder with hideous shrieks, yells, &c.
We immediately got together and I was chosen to command. Away we marched, or rather ran, and encamped at Portage, after sunset. Early in the morning we started — forded rivers, creeks, marshes and prairies, and crosses Toupoint river, before noon, (30 miles,) about two miles beyond this river we met Tupper & his party, with the three murderers, prisoners. These had taken them by the consent of their chiefs two nights before, near the forks of the Miami river — surprised them in their camp about midnight, in the midst of a large settlement of that powerful tribe, and travelled back, with all their strength for fear of being pursued and overpowered. We were still among them and in danger of a rescue.
I accordingly ordered our refreshments to be given them, and in fiteen [sic] minutes we marched again. Before dark we reached Portage again; and the next day at 4 o’clock we delivered them at Portland, or Sandusky city, to the sheriff.
The same night a legal examination of the prisoners took place, who made a full confession of the murder. They also told where they had secreted the plunder. A party was despatched to find it, who have returned it. Our circuit court sits the 18th of this month, and they will undoubtedly condemn them to be hung.
There is not in the annals of the United States, an instance of such a rapid pursuit and capture of Indian murderers, as the one I have now related. Our friendly Indians received handsome presents, and all is now in peace and quietness.*
From the Cleveland Register, June 8, 1819:
TRIAL FOR MURDER.
We have been politely favored with the trial of the three Indians, who were taken on suspicion of having murdered Messrs. Wood and Bishop, on Portage river, Huron county, Ohio.
At the court of Common Pleas, held at Norwalk, Huron county, Ohio, May term, 1819: three Indians by the names of Neyonibe, Naugechek, and Negossum, were indicted and tried for a murder committed a few weeks since on the bodies of two white men John Wood and George Bishop — Wood and Bishop were out hunting and taken lodgings for the night, in a small hut, a few rods from Carrying river, and 8 or 10 miles from its mouth, where the horrid deed was perpetrated.
The Indians could neither speak nor understand English; all communications with them was [sic] by means of an interpreter. Counsel were assigned them by the court, and on the indictment being read and interpreted to them, they elected to be tried by the court of common pleas, and severally plead not guilty, and the court proceeded to try them separately.
Neyonibe was first tried, who was informed of his privilege of peremptorily challenging twenty three jurors. This privilege, on the jurors being singly called and presented to his view and after a short but critical view of the jurors countenance, he exercised with much promptness and decision. He challenged nearly half that were called.
The evidence to support the charge was chiefly derived from the confession of the prisoner. From these, it appeared to have been a deliberately formed plan by Nangachek and Neyonibe, who knew where Wood and Bishop spent their nights, to murder them and pillage their property.
They accordingly accompanied by Negossum, and armed with hatchets, went in the night to the hut where Wood and Bishop were; and each took his man in a profound sleep, and by repeated strokes with their hatchets, upon the heads and breasts of their victims, they dispatched them, in a few moments and took what property they had with them a part of which they concealed near the place.
It was proved that the property was afterwards found in the place, where they acknowledged they had concealed it.
This case was so plain that the counsel, on both sides deemed it useless to argue it to the jury. Judge Todd, on submitting the cause to the jury, in a very concise and lucid manner instructed them, by what principles they were to be governed in forming their verdict; and the jury after retiring a short time, returned a verdict of Guilty.
Naugechek was next tried and convicted. This case did not differ in a material point from Neyonibe’s, and the circumstances attending their trials were similar.
The case of Negossum who was last tried excited much the most interests.
He is a lad about 16 years old, of good appearance, and as was proved had sustained a good character.
He also peremptorily challenged a number of jurors.
The principal evidence in this case was also derived from his confession, and his declarations accompanying them. From these it appeared, that the other two had taken him into their company without disclosing to him their plan, until they had approached near to the place of murder.
He then being partially intoxicated went on with them voluntarily, but carried no weapon to the hut where Wood and Bishop were; but it did not appear that he knew that to be the place where they lodged, until he entered it with his companions.
Upon entering the hut he went to the opposite side from where Wood and Bishop were, asleep, and there stayed until the murder was committed.
Then Naugechek, told him he should do something, and ordered him to come and strike but he did not move, Naugachek then reached forth his bloody hatchet, and in anger told him to come and strike, he then took the hatchet, and with the handle of it, struck several times across the legs of the dead body of Bishop.
He took none of the plunder, at the hut, but some of it was given to him, afterwards by the other Indians.
After hearing the testimony, the attorney for the state entered a Nolle Prosequi, and the prisoner was released.
Naugechek, and Neyonibe received their sentence, and are to be executed on the first day of July next, between the hours of ten and twelve o’clock. They are of the Potawatama tribe — Negossum is of the Ottowa tribe.
Naugechek, in attempting after he was taken to make his escape, was severely wounded by a shot from one of the keepers. Probably he never could recover from his wounds, and they may prove mortal before the time set for his execution.
From the Utica (N.Y.) Columbian Gazette, July 20, 1819:
Warren, (Ohio) July 8. — On Thursday last, agreeably to their sentence, Naugechek and Neyonibe were executed for the murder of John Wood and George Bishop, at Huron [county, specifically Norwalk -ed.].
They met their fate, we are informed by a gentleman who was present at the execution, with that stubborn impertinence and unconcern so characteristic of the savage tribes; regretting only that they could not be shot or tomahawked instead of being hung, stating the the Great Spirit would be angry with them for appearing before him with a halter about their necks.
One of them, however, a day or two previous to their execution, expressed a wish that he might live to kill six more white people to make up the number of twenty, saying that he had already killed fourteen — and then he would not care how he died. It was thought that there were upwards of two thousand spectators present; and among them but six Indians, who viewed the scene with apparent indifference.
* The reader will surely guess that no pleasant feelings from this or any other incident between the peoples would serve to protect the Potawatomi in the end from westward removal — which is why the name of this nation from the Great Lakes region adorns a creek in Kansas, and the pre-Civil War “Pottawatomie massacre” of John Brown‘s anti-slavery partisans that occurred near said creek.
(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.)
As the rope was placed around his throat:
“Oh, I’ll smother with that on. I’ve got electricity in my head now.*”
– Benjamin Snell, convicted of murder, hanging,** Washington, DC.
Executed June 29, 1900
“A man of education and good family,” Snell was convicted of murder after breaking in to the house of child Lizzie Weisenberger and cutting her throat with a razor. Other prisoners shunned Snell, and when Frank Funk heard that he was to be executed on the same day and scaffold as Snell, he petitioned the courts to change the day. President McKinley reprieved Funk for several days, and Snell and Funk maintained “bitter hatred” until Snell’s death.
* Snell, who pursued an insanity defense that was not persuasive to the jury but was convincing enough to induce the entire Congressional delegation of his home state of Georgia to petition President McKinley for a commutation, regularly complained of electricity buzzing in his brain. “I told a physician about it and he laughed at me,” Snell complained (Washington Evening Star, June 28, 1900) of the incredulity this complaint elicited. -ed.
** A giant at two meters tall and a reported 17 stone on the day of his execution, Stone was nearly decapitated by the noose — presumably the consequence of the characteristic American practice of making an impressionistic guess at the right length of the drop, rather than scientifically calculating it.
San Jose (Calif.) Evening News, June 30, 1900.
The victim’s father had the goriest seat in the house for this, standing “directly at the foot of the scaffold, within a few feet of where the body swung after the fall” (Evening Star, June 29, 1900) at the private hanging. -ed.
Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off a maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.
The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.
In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.
We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we soon feel there is something ominous about it.
After the last slip is drawn,
there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.
Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.
And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.
“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.
On this day in 1886, John W. Kelliher, known as “Reddy” or “Big Red”, was lynched by a mob of some five hundred people in Becker County, Minnesota.
Kelliher had gotten into a fight with a rival pimp and gambler and the village marshal of Detroit (today, Detroit Lakes), John Conway, tried to intervene. Conway was shot dead for his pains, shortly before his wedding day.
Marshal Conway had been very much liked in the village. Though his killer was instantly chased down and handed over to the constabulary,
little business was done in Detroit that day. Men were to be seen in small groups in every part of the town, upon the streets, in the stores, saloons and alley-ways earnestly discussing the tragedy, and the many threatening countenances were ample indications that further developments might be expected, while many appeared anxious, apprehensive and excited, as though waiting for and fearing some terrible event. At precisely ten o’clock in the evening, several taps were made upon the fire bell in quick succession, and the fierce yell, which immediately followed, breaking harshly upon the oppressive stillness, was ample evidence that this was the understood signal for an execution by Judge Lynch. Farmers for many miles around had been coming into town all day, and many men arrived by the evening train from points both east and west; the town was thronged with men and at the ringing of the bell a mass of humanity surged toward the court house; a sledge hammer was brought into use; the sheriff and jailer were overpowered and the keys to the jail taken from them, and Kelliher was quickly brought face to face with his unlawful but determined executioners; a rope was thrown over his head and the cry “go ahead” was given; with probably fifteen men having hold of the rope, and pulling with frenzied zeal the mob left the jail and ran wildly down the street leading west, to the house that had been occupied by Big Red as a bagnio, and in a twinkling the rope had been thrown over the limb of an oak tree, and the body of Big Red was swinging in the air; the victim was doubtless dead long before the tree was reached, or if not dead certainly unconscious.
The scene was one of wildest confusion, but all had been done so quickly and so effectually that the terrible affair could scarcely be realized, but the deed over, the excited crowds melted away and in a short time the village streets were practically deserted. (Original source)
According to John D. Bessler’s Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Tribune took a vehement editorial line against this “barbarous and disgraceful act,” and urged that jails fit themselves out with “a Gatling gun, intended for business” as proof against Judge Lynch. However, the St. Paul Daily Globedemurred, editorializing that “Society owes it to itself to get rid of such tough characters as Kelliher” — and if attaining that end via lynch law was in principle less than ideal, “it was past all human endurance to have a defiant desperado walk the streets of a respectable town and shoot down its citizens in cold blood. Nobody is surprised that he was taken from jail by a mob and swung to the nearest tree. It would have been a surprise if it had not been so.”
On this date in 1906, “with terror stamped on his colorless face and almost in a state of collapse,” Richard Ivens hanged for a murder that remains to this day an unsettling indictment of witness reliability — even when it is his own crime the witness describes.
The tenor of the crime and of its consequent sensation — a Chicago society matron sexually assaulted by a young hoodlum who proceeds to garrot her with a wire — is readily apparent in the headlines of the day; editors from coast to coast plunged into their thesauruses to titillate their subscribers with the most bombastic invective
Baltimore American, Jan. 14, 1906.
As this image also indicates, Ivens confessed soon after he was detained. (He reported finding, or “finding”, the body to his father and the two of them went to the police; the police immediately detained the youth, separated from Ivens pere.)
Usually, a confession is the “and shut” part of an open-and-shut case. Indeed, for most of human history, given a paucity of useful forensic evidence, legal cases have come down to eyewitnesses and confessions: hence the formalization of torture as part of the investigative process courts of bygone years.* A perpetrator’s own testimony against himself is the evidentiary gold standard.
Today, this long-unquestioned bedrock of criminal justice is dissolving. A quarter or more of the wrongful-conviction exonerations from death row have been cases involving false confessions; witness testimony by victims or third parties has frequently been shown to be unreliable. Our behavioral models once implied that the brain stored memories like a faithful photograph, a view suggesting that witnesses could be either accurate or liars without much room in between. Today, it’s ever more widely understood that memories are constructed, and reconstructed, amid the interpolations of fragmentary data and the subtle feedback of others’ suggestion and influence.
But Ivens put this idea to the test more than a century ago. Backed by friendly alibi witnesses who placed him away from the scene of the murder, Ivens recanted his confession and “declared that the police locked him up in a room at the police station with a number of officers and that their questioning so confused him that he said ‘yes’ to everything they asked him.”**
Perhaps this was just the gambit of a desperate defense counsel with few cards to play. But it did briefly make the Ivens case a referendum on the reliability of the confession.
Ivens intimated that the circumstances of his interrogation might have intimidated him into confessing, but his subsequent claim to have no memory at all of those events led a defense “alienist”, J. Sanderson Christison, to argue that the whole story of the crime had been planted in his mind when he was in a hypnotic state.
According to Christison, this Chicago Tribune photo of the accused a few hours after his arrest “shows the hypnotic expression of face in passive attitude.”
Christon’s pamphlet excoriating the way the young man was handled makes interesting reading. Titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Ivens”, its core thesis that Ivens was “dominated by police statements” is a strikingly forward-thinking one.†
we find in the “confessions” a mixture of fact with “suggested” fiction … he was first forcefully charged with the crime in a brutal manner and after being confounded and subjugated, a current of leading questions were put to him on a stupid police hypothesis, so that the first “confession” is composed of a few vague and contradictory statements. And it is both evident and acknowledged that all the other official “confessions” are the products of question suggestions, almost entirely.
For Christison, Ivens was a dull and easily controlled personality; the doctor’s explication of “hypnosis” suggests to modern eyes a laughably Mephistophelean sleepy, verrrry sleeeeepy caricature. But maybe we would do better to view it as the best framework available in 1906 to grasp the incomprehensible circumstance of a person accusing himself of a crime: the most ready illustration of outside influences entering the mind. A century later, we are only just now developing an understanding of wrongful confessions that might be shared widely enough to speak with mutual understanding about disorientation, suggestibility, leading questions, confirmation bias, and the malleability of memory.
But by any name, the notion was not ridiculous to Christison’s peers.
Christison consulted with Hugo Munsterburg, the German-American psychologist credited with founding the field of forensic psychology: Munsterburg shared Christison’s opinion, and expounded on it (without mentioning Ivens by name) in his subsequent magnum opus On The Witness Stand:
the accused was hanged; yet, if scientific conviction has the right to stand frankly for the truth, I have to say again that he was hanged for a crime of which he was no more guilty than you or I, and the only difference which the last few months have brought about is the fact that, as I have been informed on good authority, the most sober-minded people of Chicago to-day share this sad opinion.
I felt sure from the first that no one was to be blamed. Court and jury had evidently done their best to find the facts and to weigh the evidence; they are not to be expected to be experts in the analysis of unusual mental states. The proof of the alibi seemed sufficient to some, but insufficient to others; most various facts allowed of different interpretation, but all hesitation had to be overcome by the one fundamental argument which excluded every doubt: there was a complete confesslon. And if the sensational press did not manifest a judicial temper, that seemed this time very excusable. The whole population had been at the highest nervous tension from the frequency of brutal murders in the streets of Chicago. Too often the human beast escaped justice: this time at last they had found the villain who confessed — he at least was not to escape the gallows.
For many years no murder case had so deeply excited the whole city. Truly, as long as a demand for further psychological inquiry appeared to the masses simply as “another way of possibly cheating justice” and as a method tending “towards emasculating court procedure and discouraging and disgusting every faithful officer of the law,” the newspapers were almost in duty bound to rush on in the tracks of popular prejudice.
[I]f I examine these endless reports for a real argument why the accused youth was guilty of the heinous crime, everything comes back after all to the statement constantly repeated that it would be “inconceivable that any man who was innocent of it should claim the infamy of guilt.” Months have passed since the neck of the young man was broken and “thousands of persons crowded Michigan Street, jamming that thoroughfare from Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue, waiting for the undertaker’s wagon to leave the jail yard.” The discussion is thus long since removed to the sphere of theoretical argument; and so the hour may be more favourable now for asking once more whether it is really “inconceivable” that an innocent man can confess to a crime of which he is wholly ignorant. Yet the theoretical question may perhaps demand no later than tomorrow a practical answer, when perhaps again a weak mind shall work itself into an untrue confession and the community again rely thereon satisfied, hypnotised by the spell of the dangerous belief that “murder will out.” The history of crime in Chicago has shown sufficiently that murder will not “out.”
It is important that the court, instead of bringing out the guilty thought, shall not bring it “in” into an innocent consciousness. Of course in a criminal procedure there cannot be any better evidence than a confession, provided that it is reliable and well proved. If the accused acknowledges in express words the guilt in a criminal charge, the purpose of the procedure seems to have been reached; and yet at all times and in all nations experience has suggested a certain distrust of confessions.
Munsterburg wrote this under the heading of “Untrue Confessions” but he did not exempt himself from susceptibility to the hypnotic tricks of the mind: Munsterburg himself once found his house burgled, and realized that the evidence he subsequently gave about what he found was wildly inaccurate. “In spite of my best intentions, in spite of good memory and calm mood, a whole series of confusions, of illusions, of forgetting, of wrong conclusions, and of yielding to suggestions were mingled with what I had to report under oath, and my only consolation is the fact that in a thousand courts at a thousand places all over the world, witnesses every day affirm by oath in exactly the same way much worse mixtures of truth and untruth, combinations of memory and of illusion, of knowledge and of suggestion, of experience and wrong conclusions.”
We do know at a minimum that Ivens was being interrogated alone for a number of hours by officers who evidently presumed him to be guilty. Right down to the present day, any number of fully cogent adults (many still languishing in dungeons as I write this) have falsely implicated themselves in terrible crimes during similar confinements, under manipulative interrogation techniques evincing much more interest in getting to “yes” than probing truth. (Just one of many reasons we caution the reader against ever talking to the police.)
Lexington Herald, March 20, 1906.
The Richard Ivens case, needless to say, is impossibly cold. It is quite difficult from several generations’ distance to form a convincing affirmative confidence in Ivens’s innocence. But as all those involved for good or ill have gone to their own graves too, perhaps it is enough for us to leave that door open just crack — enough to let in the humility before we print a man’s epitaph.
Wilkes-Barre Times, June 22, 1906.
* Of relevance: a suspect tortured into a confession was usually required to repeat the confession free of torture in open court in order for it to count. Such people did sometimes refuse to do so and even blame the torture for having given a previous incriminating statement; the standard reward for such reticence was, naturally, more torture.
** Baltimore American, March 20, 1906. This is the Chicago Police Department we’re talking about.
† Christison is also noted for theories about the shapes of the ears as criminal indicators, and the pamphlet explicitly cites Ivens’s phrenological characteristics as exculpatory. We all have our hits and our misses.