Posts filed under 'USA'

1852: “Brown”, lynched in California

Add comment March 4th, 2015 Headsman

In extending [Cesare] Beccaria‘s views on capital punishment to the history of lynching in the West, one begins to see that the “violent passions” of the mob were regularly invoked to justify their actions, but as Beccaria predicted, these passions were often little more than a ruse to justify the cold-blooded — and often premeditated — lynching of an accused criminal. Taken as a whole, the case list demonstrates that by and large, lynching had as much to do with vengeance as with the pursuit of justice.

The frequent invocation of San Francisco’s vigilance committees in many of the case records is clearly intended to link extrajudicial execution to “tradition,” an essential element found in the Tuskegee definition of lynching.* On a formal level, well over 50 percent of lynching cases that give a time, record that the lynching took place between midnight and 2 a.m. when the accused was usually encouraged to confess his or her crimes before being strung up. Sometimes they were allowed to make a statement, to smoke a cigarette, or confess to a priest, and after it was over, the bodies would usually be left to hang through the night. This public display of the body can be found in every case, with the shortest times usually lasting around thirty minutes, and the longest, until the bodies decayed.

In one instance, in the small village of Newtown, an African American man known only as “Brown” was apprehended for stealing money. The evidence was completely circumstantial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung by the mob on March 4, 1852. Unfortunately for Brown, the rope was a little too long, and once he was hanged to the tree, the branch slowly gave way — until his legs dangled to the ground. Struggilng in agony, the poor man was cut down in order to be properly hanged. Once he was fully revived, he was tied to a higher branch and the whole process was repeated. When he was finally cut down, a physician was asked to examine the body, at which point he annunced that if Brown’s body was left above ground for five minutes that he would regain consciousness. As a result, “he was therefore hastily dumped into a grave that had been dug and was half full of water, and quickly covered from sight.” Whether completely true or not, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue that this killing really served the greatest good.

* The Tuskegee lynching definition: “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition,” where “a group” connotes three or more persons.

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1882: Bob Jones and Billy Miller, murderers on the open road

Add comment March 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Bob Jones and Billy Miller were hanged together on this date in 1882 for the murder of three sons of Judge J.P. Walker.

The Walker boys had been traveling together for an Arkansas plantation to which their prosperous Alabama father was relocating the family. They “encamped three miles west of Aberdeen [Mississippi], and on Sunday evening some persons passing by found them lying on mattresses, covered with quilts, each with his head split open as though with an axe.”

Miller, a black man, was picked up “under suspicious circumstances” and at the point of lynching he was forced to confess the crime. When he later attempted to disavow it, Judge Walker visited him in his cell, and (per the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Dec. 8, 1881) made the following chilling-but-practical appeal:

I am the father of these murdered boys. I can assure you that you will certainly be hung, if you don’t meet a worse death. It will do you no good to die with a lie on your lips about this matter. I came to get the truth, and you can gain nothing by telling me a lie, for your doom is sealed. Tell me all about the murder of my sons.

According to to the newsmen, Miller then proceeded to tell all. There’s just something persuasive about the grief of a father with a lynch mob at his back.

Per Miller’s confession, he happened by the camp of the Walkers, whose party was actually a foursome. The other white man with them, also just a chance fellow-traveler, pulled Miller aside as he rested by the campfire and indicated that the Walkers, schlepping a wagon full of effects from the Alabama plantation to the Arkansas one, were worth the trouble to put out of the way: “There’s big money in this.” They then axed the trio as they slept.

Miller said that the white man took all the money they could find, giving Miller only a bogus promise to meet him to divide it, and then absconded. The two would next lay eyes on each other in late December, when Jones was apprehended. It had been a job to get him; descriptions of him were shaky and Miller himself didn’t know anything about his accomplice — so random tramps, strangers, and solo sojourners were grabbed and interrogated willy-nilly for some weeks until Jones’s own brothers finally supplied the tip that he had met the Walkers and come back with a gold watch.

Once located, Jones too confessed — in his case, we are assured, “without a semblance of violence and by kind argument.” Surely there was some semblance of violence, since both men were reportedly “in great fear of lynching” even by that time, a month after the murders.


Columbus (Ga.) Daily Ennquirer, Dec. 29, 1881.

Four thousand people were reported to have turned up in Aberdeen to witness these accidental confederates hang for their opportunistic crime. Jones fainted away as he was being arranged on the scaffold; Miller bore it better and swung off with a sad dirge on his lips.

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1996: Antonio James, final judgment

Add comment March 1st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Antonio James downed a last meal of fried oysters and crab gumbo, then went to the death chamber of Angola Prison to suffer lethal injection for the murder of Henry Silver.

Silver was a 70-year-old fellow whom James shot dead in a New Orleans robbery way back in 1979. (Net return: $35.) A few weeks later, he bungled another robbery and ended up shot with his own gun … and under arrest. It was his second murder conviction. Although James dodged 13 death dates and was the senior figure on the state’s death row when his time came, his was pretty unremarkable as death penalty cases go.

This did chance to be the first execution in Louisiana after the film Dead Man Walking (which is set in that state) was released, and it got a bit of additional media coverage as a consequence.

James’s last hours became the subject of the ABC Primetime Live documentary Final Judgment (or Judgment at Midnight). It’s a little hard to come by clips of this program online, but here’s one review, and here’s another. In it, the warden Burl Cain* described James’s execution.

Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, it makes it easier.

* In the Angola memoir In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance by onetime Louisiana death row habitue turned prison journalist Wilbert Rideau, Cain comes off as a real camera-hound.

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1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson’s electoral dirty laundry

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.

This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.

One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.

Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*

At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.

Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.

Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.

After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.

These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.

On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.

After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.

As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)

So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.

But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.

Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.

Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.

Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)

Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.

Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**

I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …

The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.

Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.

The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.

it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.

-James K. Polk

Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.

Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.

* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.

** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.

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1861: The Bascom Affair hangings, Apache War triggers

Add comment February 19th, 2015 Headsman

The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.

Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)

Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.

Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”


Lt. Bascom and Cochise.

The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.

Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.

Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.

But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.

Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.

Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.

At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”

Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,

After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)

A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.

A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.

The events of, and following, the Bascom Affair were depicted on the silver screen in the 1950 Jimmy Stewart western Broken Arrow and its 1952 prequel Battle at Apache Pass — among many other cinematic adaptations.


Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”

* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.

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1813: W. Clements, War of 1812 deserter

Add comment February 18th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for discovering the original June 1813 broadsheet we reprint here.)

LINES

COMPOSED ON THE EXECUTION OF

W. CLEMENT’S: [maddening sic]

Who was SHOT for Desertion, on Fort Independence, Feb. 18
having been four times Pardoned, but having last Deserted his Post, was condemned to die.

The thoughts of death to every mind,
Most sad reflection’s [sic] brings;
But when man’s life is seek’d for crimes,
Then conscience gives its stings.

No cheering hope attends the soul,
Which with black guilt is stain’d;
The waves of trouble o’er it roll,
And seldom peace is gain’d,

Alas! that man should treasure woe,
And bring upon his head,
The curse of heaven, the curse of man.
To strike his comforts dead.

Ah! how the bosom of a wife,
Must throb with anxious care,
When once the object of her love,
Is caught in guilt’s dire snare.

His children raise their little hands,
Compassion to implore;
But oh! the father whom they love
Shall never see them more.

Condemn’d for crimes his life to pay,
The fatal hour draws nigh;
Stern justice heard no widow’s moans,
Nor heeds the orphan’s cry.

His comrads [sic] silent stand around,
And heave the mournful sigh,
Their bosoms heave with mingled grief,
No eye from tears is dry.

And now the solemn dirge begins,
They march towards the spot
Where he receives his crimes reward,
And meets his dreadful lot.

For him, perhaps a mother sighs,
And hopes relief to come;
He’ll never bless her longing eyes,
But hear the muffled drum.

And now the holy man of God,
To Heaven addresses prayer
And bids the poor unhappy man,
For his sad doom prepare.

And now the solemn drum rebounds.
His last funereal hymn,
Again the trumpet slowly sounds,
Each eye with grief is dim.

Advancing to the fatal spot,
Still sadder flows the strain;
Ah! now the dreaded scene is o’er,
The corps returns again.

See, see him welt’ring in his blood,
His spirit now has fled,
His life has paid the fatal debt,
He’s number’d with the dead.

Learn, then, ye who for Freedom fight,
To stand firm by your post,
To vindicate your country’s Right,
Nor let your fame be lost.

O! let poor CLEMENT’S [sic] awful fate,
A warning be to all,
Remember he who duty slights,
Will meet a dreadful fall.

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1894: Joe Dick, “allowed to go anywhere he desired”

Add comment February 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1894, a young Indian named Joe Dick was executed outside the courthouse of Eufaula in present-day Oklahoma.

At the time, Eufala was part of the Muscogee Creek jursidiction of Indian Territory. Until the 1898 Curtis Act, the tribal governments in Indian Country enjoyed full legal jurisdiction, up to and including application of the death penalty.

One interesting feature of that jurisdiction (previously noted in these annals) was the absence of standing jails to incarcerate death-sentenced prisoners. Joe Dick was only loosely guarded and on “Christmas week, he told the officers that were guarding him that he was of a lively nature and would like to attend some of the dances that were going on through the country.” They happily loaned him a horse and saddle, and Joe Dick was as good as his word: after dancing all night, he returned and “reported the next morning for breakfast.”

On another occasion, with firewood running short, an officer John Hawkins set Dick loose in the woods with a cart. The murderer came back three hours later, loaded with firewood. “After that, he was allowed to go anywhere he desired, if he would promise to report for duty at meal times.”

Hawkins and a fellow-officer named Bob Roberts conducted the execution by musketry — both shooting Dick dead through the heart from five yards’ distance as Dick stood against a large tree. (In the Indian Territory, only the Cherokee had enough death penalty cases to warrant a standing gallows; other nations generally carried out executions by shooting.)

Dick had opportunistically murdered a man named Thomas Gray against whom he held a grudge. Chancing upon Gray at work in an orchard one day, Dick simply shot him and rode away. Dick confessed the crime.

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1751: John Morrison, Francis McCoy, and Elizabeth Robinson, robbers

Add comment February 13th, 2015 Headsman

Anthony Vaver’s captivating Early American Crime blog neatly summarizes this story. But for readers with a taste for an original colonial hanging-pamphlet, read on …

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1858: Henry Fife and Charlotte Jones, exonerating Monroe Stewart

Add comment February 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Charlotte Jones and Henry Fife hanged side by side in Pittsburgh for murdering Jones’s elderly aunt and uncle the year before. But their dying confessions insistently exonerating their death-sentenced co-accused led the governor to pardon Monroe Stewart ahead of the latter’s scheduled hanging later that February.

Fife, Jones, and Stewart had been tried and convicted together in the so-called “McKeesport Murder” or “Wilson Tragedy”. The reader will infer that it entailed the murder of a man named Wilson in the city of McKeesport.

George Wilson, an elderly farmer, was Charlotte’s uncle: resident in a McKeepsort log cabin with his sister Elizabeth McMasters. He had a tightfisted reputation and a consequent stash of gold and silver coins and paper bills, amounting altogether to several hundred dollars.*

“Maddened by a thirst for gold and stimulated by drink I gave them the fatal blow that robbed them of life and sent their souls, without warning, to the bar of God,” Fife lamented in his scaffold confession. George Wilson had been stabbed to death; Elizabeth McMasters bludgeoned with a poker until her brains spattered the room.

Their 27-year-old niece, our Charlotte Jones, was the one who reported the murder but it would soon become painfully apparent that she had lacked the poise for this high-stakes bluff. She had already the reputation of a woman of low morals, and her suspicious eagerness to leave the vicinity brought her in for close questioning. It was not long before Jones served up a confession.

In her initial iterations of this statement, Jones implicated not only her lover, 22-year-old Irish shoemaker Henry Fife, but Fife’s friend Monroe Stewart. It seems that this was a bit of panicked vindictiveness on the part of Mrs. Jones, for Stewart had often counseled his friend to kick Jones to the curb.

This denunciation was enough to see all three condemned in an 11-day trial in July of 1857. Post-conviction, Fife would join Jones in admitting guilt, but both exculpated Stewart of any part in the crime. And in the subsequent odyssey of appeals and clemency petitions, it was really only Stewart’s fate that remained at issue.

When Pennsylvania’s high court squelched the trio’s last legal avenue, reported the Baltimore sun (Nov. 26, 1857), Stewart, “who had always displayed the most astonishing self-possession and calmness, appeared overwhelmed by the news, and betrayed a degree of emotion that he never before manifested.”

His whole hope centered on the Supreme Court. He believed firmly that there would be a reversal of the judgment of the court below in his case, and when he found the hope which had buoyed him up suddenly destroyed, his self-possession deserted him, and he gave himself up to a degree of anguish that surprised while it pained his fellow-prisoners. He still proclaims his innocence, and maintains that, though a thousand courts held otherwise, he is guiltless of the blood of the Wilson family.

Fortunately for him, Stewart did not hang with Fife and Jones but was slated to die a fortnight later.

By execution day, Jones was in a state of near-collapse — “utterly broken down and bewildered,” according to the Pittsburgh Gazette‘s report (as reprinted in the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, Feb. 17, 1858). “She cried bitterly, and every now and then uttered incoherent sentences — now stating that she desired to die, and again declaring that she was afraid of death and wished to live.” The lengthy execution prelude on the scaffold, as she multiplied over and over the terrors of her imminent death while Fife tried to console her through interminable prayers, statements, and other ceremonial niceties, must have been agony.

Jones’s statement (read by a spiritual counselor) and Fife’s (which he delivered himself) both owned the murder while insisting that Monroe Stewart had no part in it. Outgoing Gov. James Pollock* had had no time for this ploy in issuing Stewart’s death warrant, and even in the hours after the hanging newsmen speculated that this exculpation carried little credibility. But a new man, William Packer, had taken office between the death warrant and the executions, and Packer thought better than his predecessor of Stewart’s protestations. He pardoned Monroe Stewart days before his February 26 execution.

* In the hours after the crime, Fife buried sacks of $20 gold coins and silver half-dollars and dollars along the bank of the Youghiogheny River. He only had one chance to recover the money later and couldn’t find the hole; neither could the authorities when he later described the hiding place from his condemned cell.

Finally, in 1880, two boys accidentally ran across the cache … only to have a passing stranger with “a heavy red beard and red hair” immediately relieve them of the treasure and hurry off into the mists of history.

** Pollock later directed the Philadelphia mint and helped spearhead the first introduction of the “In God We Trust” motto on U.S. currency.

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1887: Clement Arthur Day

1 comment February 9th, 2015 Headsman


new York Herald, June 10, 1887

UTICA, N.Y., June 9, 1887. — Clement Arthur Day, about twenty-five years old, has been lock tender at No. 66, some two miles south of Boonville, on the Black River Canal, in the direction of Rome. For some time Josephine Ross, twenty-one years old, had been living with him. Her mother resides near Rome. This morning Day quarrelled with Josephine because she had made a visit to her mother, and stabbed the young woman five or six times in the bowels and left breast, killing her instantly. He threw the body into the canal and it floated to the opposite side.

Your correspondent interviewed Day in the Boonville Jail. He said he had lived in Ohio and was a painter and book agent. His wife died about a year ago. While selling stove polish he met the girl under the name of Johanna Cross at the California House, near Rome. She was living with her mother and had taught music. She said she had been betrayed by some one in the woods some time previous, also that her mother had been harsh and cruel, and she begged him to take hera away from the California House …

Johanna’s mother sent for her frequently and she did not want to go. He claimed he could not live without her. They were at Carthage yesterday, and this morning Johanna wrote a letter home, which they both intended to mail in Boonville. Day said he was hot tempered and refused to talk about the details of the crime, but said they had agreed to die together by poison, but he could not find the laudanum bottle after killing her. By agreement, he said, he had intended to drown himself with the stone and rope found near the lock, but seeing some one coming he went toward Ava, where he was seen in the woods, and he gave himself up.

A post-mortem is being held to-night, and the inquest will be held to-morrow. The murderer will claim to be insane from infatuation with the woman, but this is undoubtedly a case of cold blooded murder.


New York Herald, December 23, 1887

ROME, N.Y., Dec. 22, 1887. — Clement Arthur Day, who has been on trial for the murder of Josie Rosa Cross last June, was convicted of murder in the first degree this afternoon, and sentenced to be hanged on February 9, 1888.

He has maintained a sullen silence all through the trial and has feigned insanity admirably. He has not spoken to his counsel nor they to him in the Court House during the trial.

When the jury rendered their verdict his face did not change expression or color.

The District Attorney moved for sentence, and one of the prisoner’s counsel asked him if he was ready to have the judgment of the Court passed upon him.

Day smiled and said: — “Yes, I’m ready. Let them fire away. The quicker the better.”

Judge Williams told him to stand up, and he arose deliberately. The Judge asked him if there was any legal reason why the judgment of the Court should not be pronounced, and a bold and loud “No” came from the prisoner.

He was asked to be sworn as to his bbirthplace, &c., but refused, saying: — “You have had all you want of me; now hang me.” He spoke in a threatening and ugly manner.

The murder was a most brutal one, and the verdict gives universal satisfaction.


Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1888

UTICA, N.Y., Feb. 9 — Clement Arthur Day was executed in utica jail at 10.24½ o’clock this morning in the presence of 24 citizens, including all the officials. He was declared dead in 11½ minutes. His neck was broken.

Before he left his cell he declared that he had nothing further to say to the public. On his knees, in the presence of the Rev. Owen, his spiritual adviser, he declared himself guiltless of premeditated murder.

Four drams of croton oil, sufficient to kill four men, were found in his cell within a week. His father declared he would never be executed.

Day clapped his hands after the death warrant was read, and smiled. On walking over the ice in the jail yard he laughed heartily over the falls of the sheriff, Rev. Owen, a newspaper reporter, and Special Deputy Burke, exclaiming: “That’s four of them.”

He yawned while his legs were being strapped on the scaffold. He shook hands and kissed Deputy Burke, and assisted Deputy Ballow in adjusting the rope about his neck. He smiled as the cap was drawn over his face, and the smile was still there when the body was cut down.

The crime for which Day was hanged was the murder of his paramour, Johanna Rosa Cross. The crime was committed on the banks of the Black River canal the 9th of last June. Day’s father, a lock tender, was the only witness of the tragedy.

Day was jealous of his mistress and feared she would leave him. She had tried many times to get his permission for her to visit her mother, but he always refused, saying she would never return.

The day before the tragedy she received a letter from her mother saying she was dying and asking the daughter to come to her her. She wrote a reply to the letter, and she and Day started down the bank of the canal towards Boonville, where they intended to mail it.

They had gone but a short distance when Day turned on her and struck her with a butcher knife. She fell and he continued cutting until eight distinct cuts were made, one of which entered the heart and another the abdomen.

The father informed the authorities of the crime, and after spending a day in the woods the murderer gave himself up.

In the interviews with him after his arrest not a particle of regret for what he ahd done could be drawn from him. He pretended to have been converted and to be penitent, but his conversation and instincts were vulgar and beastly to the end.

The condemned man passed the last night of his life on earth without displaying any nervousness. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy his violin, and sang and danced with the jail officials and others with apparent unconcern for his future until 12.30 this morning. He then went to bed and slept until 8.30.


Via Murder By Gaslight

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