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1692: The Salem witch trials’ last hangings

Add comment September 22nd, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1692 saw the last executions of the Salem witch trials.

Eight souls hanged from sturdy trees at Gallows Hill on the occasion:

  • Mary Easty (or Eastey)
  • Alice Parker
  • Mary Parker
  • Ann Pudeator
  • Wilmot Redd
  • Margaret Scott
  • Samuel Wardwell

As well as:

  • Martha Corey, days after her husband Giles was horribly pressed to death for refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy by lodging any plea

This group of mostly older women (and one man who married an older widow) had, like their predecessors over the course of 1692, been the victims of wailing children charging them (with afflicted histrionics to match) as supernatural malevolents — and of the credulity of their neighbors and judges.

The latter was, at least, eroding by this point in time.

Shortly before her execution this day, Mary Easty addressed to the court a dignified petition less for her own life than for the safety of everyone else who might come under her honorable judges’ scrutiny — indicted as it stood by Easty’s own certitude of her innocence.

To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in judicature in Salem and the reverend ministers, humbly sheweth that whereas your humble poor petitioner being condemned to die doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your poor and humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency (blessed by the Lord for it) and seeing plainly the wiles and subtlety of my accusers by myself, cannot but judge charitably of others that are going the same way with myself if the Lord step not mightily in.

I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned for, and then cleared by the afflicted persons, as some of your honors know. And in two days time I was cried out upon by them, and have been confined and am now condemned to die.

The Lord above knows my innocency then and likewise doth now, as at the Great Day will be known to men and angels.

I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set.

But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in.

I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft, and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way.

The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed.

I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine some of those confessing witches, I being confident that there are several of them have belied themselves and others, as will appear, if not in this world, I am sure in the world to come, whither I am going.

And I question not but yourselves will see an alteration in these things. They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil; we cannot confess. I know and the Lord He knows (as will shortly appear) they belie me, and so I question not but they do others. The Lord alone, who is the searcher of all hearts, knows that I shall answer it at the Tribunal Seat that I know not the least thing of witchcraft, therefore I cannot, I durst not belie my own soul.

I beg your honors not to deny this my humble petition for a poor dying innocent person, and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing to your endeavors.

Mary Easty

As she herself foresaw, Easty’s petition availed her own self nothing — but her judges would soon feel the rebuke Easty voiced.

Exactly why the Salem witch trials started when they did, and ended when they did, has always been a speculative matter. This occasion was a mere 15 weeks after the first Salem witch hanging. It was the largest single mass-hanging of the affair, and it brought the body count to 19 or 20, depending on whether you count Giles Corey. (His death by pressing wasn’t technically an “execution,” merely the violent termination of his life by a legally constituted judicial process.)

The snowballing investigation, sweeping up dozens more accused besides just those executed,* was making people uneasy. It surely hastened the end of the hysteria that the little accusers started pointing their witch — notably at the wife of Massachusetts Gov. William Phip(p)s.

Phips had initially established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was finding his little colony honeycombed with necromancy. Now considering his creature to be run amok and targeting “several persons who were doubtless innocent,” Phips stopped proceedings in October — first, by barring so-called “spectral evidence” (which was tantamount to barring the trials altogether since kids claiming to be tormented by underworld spirits was the only evidence on hand); and on October 29, dissolving the court altogether and prohibiting further arrests.

A special court established to try the remaining 52 cases in January of 1693 acquitted 49 of the prisoners; the rest, and all those still in jail for witchcraft, were pardoned by May of 1693. Within just a few years, jurors and judges and even accusers issued public mea culpas for hanging the Salem “witches”.

The original witch-court’s Judge William Stoughton joined Cotton Mather in pridefully refusing to acknowledge the injustice they had helped to author.* Among most others, it would very quickly become shamefully understood that Salem had done the accused witches a very great wrong.

John Hale, the Puritan minister of nearby Beverly, Mass. — and like Gov. Phips a man who had had his own wife chillingly accused by one of the “possessed” brats — would later write a book ruminating on “the nature of witchcraft” (like Mary Easty, he wasn’t quite ready to give up the concept categorically). In it, he notes the forehead-slapping indicia of the witches’ innocence — and if we dock him points for obtaining his wisdom retrospectively, we might also consider as motes in our own jaundiced eyes the ridiculous non-evidence and overlooked exculpations that have served to seat men and women on the mercy chair in our own time.

It may be queried then, How doth it appear that there was a going too far in this affair?

Answer I. — By the number of persons accused. It cannot be imagined, that, in a place of so much knowledge, so many, in so small a compass of land, should so abominably leap into the Devil’s lap, — at once.

Ans. II. — The quality of several of the accused was such as did bespeak better things, and things that accompany salvation. Persons whose blameless and holy lives before did testify for them; persons that had taken great pains to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such as we had charity for as for our own souls, — and charity is a Christian duty, commended to us in 1 Cor. xiii, Col. iii.14, and many other places.

Ans. III. — The number of the afflicted by Satan daily increased, till about fifty persons were thus vexed by the Devil. This gave just ground to suspect some mistake.

Ans. IV. — It was considerable, that nineteen were executed, and all denied the crime to the death; and some of them were knowing persons, and had before this been accounted blameless livers. And it is not to be imagined but that, if all had been guilty, some would have had so much tenderness as to seek mercy for their souls in the way of confession, and sorrow for such a sin.

Ans. V. — When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan, that the afflicted grew presently well: the accused are generally quiet, and for five years since we have no such molestation by them.

In 300-odd years since September 22, 1692 on Gallows Hill, nobody else has been executed for witchcraft in the United States.

* Stoughton clashed with Phips to the extent of actually ordering in January 1693 the executions of old sentences that had been stayed for pregnancies or other reasons. Phips immediately blocked them, causing Stoughton to resign the bench.

Stoughton was no ordinary magistrate: he was also the sitting Lieutenant Governor, and would succeed Phips as the head man in Massachusetts. Had he been the man with executive power at the time all this toil and trouble bubbled over, considerably more than 20 souls might have been lost to the madness.

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders, who could do nothing but watch, now could catch nothing but the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could the fort possibly survive the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wonderous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.


On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a poem celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. Originally known as “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, you know it today as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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2007: Daryl Holton, wanted dead

Add comment September 12th, 2014 Headsman

Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.

Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.

Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.

According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)

“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”

The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”

Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”

Holton is met in depth in the 2008 documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, detailing his remarkable relationship — even friendship — with vociferous death penalty proponent Robert Blecker.

Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.

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1929: Homer Simpson

Add comment September 11th, 2014 Headsman

Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.

WORST. EPISODE. EVER.

Other Simpsons characters to face the electric chair include Snake, an unnamed Convicted Man in a hurricane, and (appropriately for this post) Police Chief Wiggum

Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.

That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.

Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.

Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.

The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.

The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, brushing with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.

The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.

We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.

The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.

This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.

As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.

And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)

Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.

But there was no relief for either prisoner.

On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.

To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.

After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.

Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.

He’s buried back home in Fort Hill Cemetery

Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.

* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.

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1817: James Lane

Add comment September 9th, 2014 Headsman

I was born near Goshen, in the state of Connecticut, about the year 1793. My father was a show-man, and his business leading him much from home, I was neglected, and suffered to follow my own inclinations … I chose for my companions the most vicious boys, and spent most of my time in quarrelling, fighting, sabbath-breaking, and other vices. I was indeed sent to school a short time; but, disliking restraint and study, made but little progress in learning. Thus by parental neglect on the one hand, and bad example on the other, were sown those seeds of vice, which, as will be seen in my narrative, produced such a dreadful harvest of crimes.

-From the Narrative of the life of James Lane: who was executed at Gallipolis (Ohio), September 9, 1817, for the murder of William Dowell, with some observations on his behaviour under condemnation : to which is added the address of the court, on pronouncing sentence of death upon the prisoner.

The gallows narrative commenced thereby will arrive on this date in 1817 at a hangman’s tree in Ohio. But it begins, as is customary, delving into the miscreant’s youthful forays into theft, through which he soon “stifled the voice of conscience, which cried against it.” He suffered 10 lashes at the public whipping-post of Litchfield for robbing a schoolhouse of books, and had a couple of close brushes for his habit of walking into unattended farm houses and making off with clothes.

The War of 1812 gave Lane the opportunity to mend his ways, or at least collect enlistment bonuses, which he did on at least three occasions. Being caught in desertion attempts one time, Lane was “sentenced to be cobbed two mornings, fifteen strokes each time. This mode of punishment is very severe. It is performed by laying the offender across a barrel, and whipping him with rods. Five or six others suffered the same punishment with me, some of them much worse than I.”

At last, following more successful desertions, he found his way up the Hudson to

Catskill, [where] I fell in with one Church, as hardened as desperate as myself. We formed an acquaintance with each other, and travelled together to a place near the city of New York. Here we went into a store to buy some small article; and the store keeper suspecting our money to be bad, I flew into a violent passion, snatched the watch from his pocket, and stamped it under my feet. Church then seized a scythe and drove him out of the door. We then locked ourselves in and in spite of the danger which threatened us, ate and drank our fill of the good things we found. By this time, a number of people had assembled in the chamber over our heads, and were making their way down the trap door to take us. Hardened, insensible, and enraged with liquor and passion as we then were, it would have been no wonder if we had put fire to some barrels of powder there. This we might easily have done; but either did not think of it at the time, or were prevented by some other circumstance. I thank God for preventing this dreadful crime; for preserving my life and the lives of so many people as would have been thus destroyed, and giving me a space for repentance.


But it seems so idyllic in Thomas Cole’s 1833 “Catskill Scenery”.

They got a three-year sentence in the penitentiary for this brazen raid, and Lane piously averred that “the time spent there was the happiest of my life.”

“But such deep rooted habits as ours are not to be cured by a few years of confinement,” the narrator continues, rubbishing the penitentiary movement without which he might have been hanged already. “No sooner were we at liberty, than we betook ourselves to our old course of life.”

The old confederates burgled in Albany, then wandered to New York, and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, separating along the way. Lane lived hand to mouth, moving town to town, working a day or two here and there, stealing when the opportunity arose, and wasting whatever money he laid hands upon “in drinking, carousing, and every other species of vice.”

Following the Ohio River, he made his last call at the river hamlet of Gallipolis, Ohio where he “first met with Dowell, removing from Virginia, for whose murder I am so justly condemned to suffer death.”

The next morning I went to his house, or shed, about six miles from Gallipolis, on my way to Chillicothe, entered, sat down, and talked in a friendly manner with him and a female slave, his house keeper. I then walked on to Mr. Ryan’s, about a quarter of a mile from Dowell’s, where the latter soon came in to buy some meat. We were both asked to breakfast, and accepted the invitation. When Dowell had paid for the meat, I perceived that he had about forty dollars left. To possess myself of this, I resolved to commit the horrid crime of murder! and this on a man who had never done me any injury, whose house I had entered an hour or two before as a friend, and been treated as such, and with whom I had just partaken at the table of the bounties of Providence; and not only on him, but on the woman also, and her four children, and then set fire to the home. Astonishing and incredible wickedness!!! Six human beings were to be sent to their final account, in a sudden and awful manner, and perhaps unprepared — and for what? That I might have a few dollars to throw away, or worse than throw away, as I had done with all my former ill gotten money!!? I can plead no excuse. I was able to work, and not ashamed to beg, till I could find employment. — Shall I say I was urged on by the devil? No doubt I was; but his temptation could have been of no avail, if I had not lent a willing ear to him. I had never resisted him. I was completely his slave! Just, I repeat it, is the sentence of death pronounced against me!!

Lane executed his exclamation-mark plan that night, stealing a cudgel from yet another farm and slipping back to ol’ Moneybags Dowell’s. When the house was asleep, he crept into the house and to Dowell’s very bedside, and slew him unawares with a mighty two-handed smash.

The blow woke Dowell’s slave — who is never referred to by name in this narrative — and after a struggle she managed to escape out the door and elude her murderous pursuer, and we presume her four children did likewise since they were also not murdered. When Lane returned to the emptied Dowell house, he could find no money — “for it since appears he had left it with Mr. Ryan.” He fled over the river into Virginia (today West Virginia), but was captured a few miles away, and as will be readily perceived, was thoroughly worked over before his execution by the local divine.

Since a small town like Gallipolis (population as of the 1850 census: 1,686) didn’t exactly have regular traffic to the gallows, this was a big occasion for the ministers as well. To Lane’s confession, the Rev. Gould appends a two-page summary modestly reviewing his soul-saving offices. Lane’s own biography traces the classic gallows narrative, from sabbath-breaking to the noose; the like formula for Gould’s review ought to be taking Lane from his initial condition, “destitute of all religious knowledge, insensible of his sinfulness, and unconcerned about futurity” to the hope of eternal salvation.

Gould, however, remained skeptical of Lane’s histrionics of religiosity. After the prisoner was sentenced, he “broke off profane swearing, acknowledged his guilt, and became sober,” but as Gallipolis’s pious citizens held prayer meetings in the jail or read the Bible to him, Gould thinks it was his narcissism as much as his conscience that was excited and “the increasing attention which he received from every kind of character, elated him, and did much to divert his mind from the thoughts of death.” Although sometimes “under lively representations of his situation and of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, his feelings were softened into tears,” these interludes “lasted but a few moments” and “he showed no pleasing signs of repentance, no attachment to the Saviour.”

The evening before execution, like careless sinners, he was unwilling to be disturbed with the thoughts of his unpreparedness and danger. He said he had left off swearing, and had prayed a good deal; and therefore believed that God would pardon him. This appeared to be the foundation of his hope to the last. On the day of execution, his sensibility nearly or quite left him. He appeared not to realize his situation. When he was first placed upon his coffin, at divine service, however, he was affected … [but] on the gallows, he expressed his willingness to die, saying he had made his peace with God; but manifested little sense of the importance of death and of eternity.

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1916: Kosta Kromphold

Add comment September 1st, 2014 Headsman


According to the Portland Oregonian, Kosta Kromphold mellowed to a phonograph in his jail cell on the eve of his execution — including “If I Had a Thousand Lives to Live.”

A Russian native, the forgettable Kosta Kromphold had left his dear mum in New York City and chased his fortune to the Pacific coast, where he found it at gunpoint in the money-box of a Chinese restauranteur in Marysville.

Kosta really got himself into the egg drop soup during the subsequent chase by two bicycle (of course — this is California!) cops. Firing back at his pursuers, he shot officer John Sperbeck dead, right through the mouth.

According to April Moore’s Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men, “A Mrs. A. Meyers of New York City wrote to Governor Hiram Johnson on behalf of her housekeeper, Johanna Kromphold, the condemned man’s mother, saying that Mrs. Kromphold had already lost two of her three children. Mrs. Meyers’s message continued, ‘By taking this young boy’s life, you not only take one but two, as I am positive she will never live through this terrible ordeal.'”

This appeal didn’t work, and on September 1, 1916, Kromphold imparted a dying plea to the Folsom Prison chaplain: “Write my mother. I haven’t the heart to do it.”

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1878: Sevier Lewis, a family affair

Add comment August 30th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On August 30, 1878, Sevier (aka Severe, Savier) Lewis was hanged in Empire City, Oregon — today known as Coos Bay — for the murder of his much younger half-brother, Zachariah T. “Zack” Lewis on May 22, 1876.

The brothers were two of Hiram Hamilton Lewis’s nine children. Hiram was 74 years old at the time of Zack’s murder, and ambitious in spite of his age: he was running for state legislature.

Sevier, who was in his early fifties, was married and had seven children. Zack was twenty-five, single and still living at home. It was said he’d taken an interest in Sevier’s sixteen-year-old daughter Sylvia. Her father warned him to stay away, but Zack wouldn’t listen and kept coming around pestering his niece with unwanted advances. Finally Sevier had had enough.

Well, that’s one version of the story. Here’s another one:

Sylvia confided to her young uncle that she’d been raped by her father, and become pregnant. Zack went to Sevier and told him to stop the molestation immediately or he would tell the entire family what he had done. He helped Sylvia move in with her grandparents to protect her, and told Sevier that if he touched her again, he would kill him. Sevier touched her again.

These starkly contrasting purported motives may assign which characters, in the ensuing violent tableau, don the white hats and which the black. But either way, one late spring day, Sevier loaded his gun and went to his father’s home where he found little brother working in the fields. Sevier shot him dead, and then took flight.

In December 1877, a full year and a half after the shock murder and probably about the time Sevier was getting comfortable with having gotten away with it, a Coos County man chanced to recognize the fugitive in a hotel bar in Seattle and had him arrested.

Sevier’s own father and Sevier’s own son both testified against him at the subsequent trial, traveling 200 miles to to so. His defense attorney didn’t try to pretend he was innocent and only pleaded for a recommendation of mercy. He was convicted of his brother’s murder in June 1878 and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. The judge also ordered him to cough up $830.10 in court costs, including $21 worth of beer he’d been prescribed during his incarceration.


Oregonian, August 31, 1878.

Lewis’s scaffold speech was bitter and disjointed — “bravado and blasphemy on the gallows,” the Portland Oregonian headlined it. He rambled on about how everyone was prejudiced against him, expressed love for his family and added, “If I could die a thousand times and save my daughter I would do it. If I could save her I would be satisfied to die.”

Author Diane L. Goeres-Gardner describes his final moments in her book Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905:

Defiant, stubborn and vindictive, he finally forced Sheriff Aiken to manhandle him closer to the hanging rope. Even as the black cap was pulled over his head and he was being pushed forward he yelled, “What in the hell are you doing that for? I am not afraid to die.”

It was a clean hanging. His neck snapped and Sevier Lewis died within minutes.

What happened to Hiram Lewis’s political aspirations? Well, given the scandal, it’s no surprise that he lost the election. He moved to Lane County after Zack’s murder and died in 1879, supposedly of a broken heart.

What can history tell us about which brother to believe? Was Sevier really trying to protect his daughter, or did Zack pay the ultimate price for his attempt to rescue Sylvia from her predatory father?

Andie E. Jensen, author of Hangman’s Call: The Executions and Lynchings of Coos County, Oregon 1854-1925, studied the available records and notes that Sevier’s youngest child Lucy’s year of birth is unknown — the dates range from 1875 to 1877 — while all his other children had their exact date and place of birth recorded. He speculates that Lucy, said to be the daughter of Sevier and his wife Elizabeth, was in fact Sylvia’s child.

“Fact or fiction,” he concludes, “we will never know for sure. The end result was the execution of Sevier Lewis, whose act of murder victimized more than just his half brother Zack.”

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1962: James Dukes, philosophical

Add comment August 24th, 2014 Robert Elder

(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.)

A circled passage in the section “He Is Sentenced to Death,” in Plato’s Apology:

The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways,
I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

— James Dukes, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois.
Executed August 24, 1962

Dukes was executed for killing Detective John Blyth Sr., who had pursued him after he had beaten his girlfriend in church and shot two other men who tried to stop him. On Dukes’s execution day, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, who took part in the final gun battle, told a newspaperman, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this night.”

Dukes made no oral statement but left behind a copy of the Apology for the press.

(Dukes was the last person executed in Illinois prior to the national death penalty hiatus of the late 1960s. He was also the last person electrocuted in Illinois, and the last put to death in Chicago’s Cook County. -ed.)

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1833: A 13-year-old slave girl

1 comment August 23rd, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On Tuesday, the 23rd inst., Harriet, slave of JAMES H. SHEPPERD, JR., aged about 13 years, was convicted of the murder, by drowning, of a son of ALEXANDER McKENZIE, Esq., of Hardeman county; she was sentenced to be hung on the 23rd of August. The boy deceased, was aged about 5 years, and was drowned in a common flour barrel fixed in a spring near the residence of his father. (Source)

On this date in 1833, a thirteen-year-old slave girl was hanged for murder in Bolivar, Tennessee.

The teenager, called Harriet, belonged to James H. Shepperd, Jr. On some unspecified date, she drowned a five-year-old boy, the son of Alexander McKenzie, in a flour barrel near his home in Hardeman County.

A local news account noted, “The circumstances as detailed by the witnesses on the trial, show the transaction to have been one of the most wanton and aggravated murders, perhaps ever committed by a female so young, and created considerable excitement in the minds of a virtuous community.” Harriet was convicted on July 23 and executed exactly a month later.

Harriet was the youngest female ever legally executed in Tennessee. She was not, however, the youngest person in the state to meet with that fate. That honor goes to twelve-year-old Jesse Ward, also a slave, who was hanged for arson in Knoxville in 1809. He burned down his master’s house and several barns because he was angry at being whipped.

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1851: John McCaffary, the last hanged by Wisconsin

2 comments August 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1851, the domestic abuser John McCaffary (or McCaffrey) was publicly hanged in Kenosha, Wisconsin.* His crime — singularly ill-concealed — was a noisy row with his wife Bridgett that ended with him tipping her into a rain barrell and holding her in it until she stopped moving.

Neighbors alerted by Bridgett’s shrieks arrived to find the newly-minted widower redwet-handed, and his late wife stuffed in the backyard butt.

There had been a few executions in Wisconsin before McCaffary’s, but this was the first one after Wisconsin attained statehood in 1848. It was attended by a large crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers — a third of them female, to the special chagrin of newsmen.

And those 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers, as it turned out, witnessed something never to be repeated. From that day until this, the state of Wisconsin has never again put a human to death.**

The crowd played a part in that eventuality. Wisconsin was a reforming northern state — in a few years, the anti-slavery Republican Party would be founded there — and the spectacle of public enjoyment under the gallows struck as regrettable the sorts of people who, say, write Madison Democrat editorials. (“Murder before the people, with its horrors removed by the respectability of those engaged in its execution.” (Source))

Christopher Latham Sholes, a Kenosha publisher whose main claim to historic fame was later inventing the first commercially successful typewriter,† was seated in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1852 as a Free Soiler. He too had denounced the execution in his newspaper — “the crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man … we hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.” (See It Happened In Wisconsin, 2nd, or this link.) As a legislator, he put his political capital where his editorials were and spearheaded a successful campaign to get rid of capital punishment.

On July 12, 1853, Wisconsin followed the example of its neighbor, Michigan, and abolished the death penalty full stop.


Burial marker for McCaffary in Kenosha’s Green Ridge Cemetery, erected in 2001. ((cc) image from Matt Hucke.) The McCaffary house on Court Street is also a registered historic landmark, and possibly haunted by Bridgett’s ghost.

There’s a handy roundup of resources related to the McCaffary execution here.

* The present-day name. Kenosha was then known as Southport.

** According to Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States, there was an 1868 Wisconsin execution under Oneida (not Wisconsin) law, conducted on tribal lands.

† Said typewriter also debuted the now-standard QWERTY keyboard layout.

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