(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. 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.)
“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”
-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864
An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.
Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”
On this date in 1897, criminals William Haas and William Wiley became the first two people to be executed in Ohio’s electric chair. Haas had actually been scheduled to die earlier that month, but the chair had a damaged electrical coil and his execution was postponed so the coil could be replaced.
William Wiley (left) and William Haas.
Haas, an illiterate farm worker, had had murdered Mrs. William Brady, his employer’s wife, the previous summer in Cincinnati. He raped her, slit her throat after she threatened to tell her husband, and set the house on fire to cover his tracks. Some berry pickers nearby saw the fire, though, and put it out before it could cause any real damage. Haas found himself arrested that very same day. He was only seventeen years old.
Thirty-eight-year-old Wiley, a tailor who was also from Cincinnati, had shot his wife to death in a drunken, jealous rage, “seemingly possessed by the devil himself.” After the murder he hid in a closet and was injured in the ensuing fight with police officers as they attempted to arrest him.
The prison officials made Haas and Wiley flip a coin to determine which would die first, and Haas “won.” He was electrocuted at 12:27 a.m.
Just after his body was removed from the chair, Wiley was brought in. A Sacramento Daily Unionarticle summarized the results:
An examination of the bodies after they had been removed to the prison morgue did not disclose even the slightest abrasion or irritation of the skin at the points of contact, and the physicians and experts pronounced the executions as perfect as it was possible to make them.
The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks': The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.
And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.
British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”
It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.
Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)
The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.
Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.
In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)
That warning got the colony’s attention.
The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.
In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.
It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting
Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.
We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?
April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.
The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.
“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.
And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.
The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.
They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …
Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.
This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.
Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.
On the night of the crime, Hopper and four other soldiers were hanging out in a cafe in the town of Welkenraedt, Belgium, just outside of Liege. Just after midnight, Hopper got into an argument with one of his companions, Private Randolph Jackson Jr.
The two men argued frequently and the other three in the group were used to it, and didn’t take them seriously when they started threatening to shoot each other. Finally Private Jackson handed Hopper his gun, presumably daring him to shoot. Hopper shot him dead, then told the witnesses, “You didn’t see nothing.”
At his court-martial, he did not testify and there was no defense. Hopper protested about this later, saying he didn’t get a fair trial: “My Defense Counsel said he was going to tell them. Told me to stay silent. So, he got up and told them I wasn’t guilty. He didn’t say much else.”
Unlike many military men sentenced to death during World War II, Hopper showed remorse for what he had done. Still he asked for leniency and penned a letter to General Eisenhower beginning:
Dear Sir, I was tried for mudder and the court find me guilty and sences me to be hong Sir. And Sir I am asking you to please Sir look in to this mader close Sir for me because I have made a great mucstake Sir and wont you give me another chanch in the armey.
Hopper’s IQ tested at 50, putting him in the moderately mentally retarded range, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him stated he had a mental age of about nine, “bordering on mental deficiency.” Someone with that degree of mental disability would not be permitted to be executed today.
Some people argued that the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison, citing Hopper’s intellectual impairment and the lack of premeditation. Weighing against that was his prior recorded offenses of going AWOL and being in Liege without an official pass. The Brigadier General who reviewed the case recommended that the death sentence stand, and Eisenhower agreed.
Hopper died on a clear, warm morning in Le Mans, France. At 11:00 a.m., his hands and ankles were bound and he said his last words to the chaplain: “Father, I would like you to write to my mother.” The trap sprung at 11:01 and Hopper was pronounced dead at 11:24.
On this date in 1879, a circuitous four-year journey to the gibbet — quite Odyssean by 1870s standards — concluded when John P. Phair was hanged in St. Albans, Vt., still protesting his innocence.
Phair was convicted on circumstantial evidence of the murder of his former companion, Ann Freese: that circumstance was his pawning the late widow’s watch in Boston.
Though police had the exact serial number of the timepiece, Phair staunchly insisted that the man who sold it was not he — damning the Jewish pawnbrokers who identified him as the seller:
Their business is that of pawnbroking — a life of fraud. Their race bears the curse of God, because they crucified his Son eighteen centuries ago … They don’t regard an oath administered in the Christian form.
That salty quote is courtesy of the case file in the excellent historical crime blog Murder by Gaslight, which tracks the strange subsequent progress of John Phair to the gallows in 1877.
On that occasion, two years nearly to the day before his eventual execution, Phair had been due to die — but his supporters had also roused considerable skepticism on the justice of the sentence. For instance, the murderer had apparently covered his tracks by torching the place, and Freese’s remains were discovered badly burnt after the fire was put out. But this fire was detected at 7 a.m., three hours after the departure of the train Phair would have taken to Boston. And Phair produced a quasi-alibi in the form a train passenger who tentatively corroborated Phair’s claim to have merely switched trains in Boston without stopping long enough to fence a watch. So …
Boston Evening Journal, April 4, 1877
Wherever the judicial system proposes to situate the threshold for conviction and condemnation, some subset of messy real-life cases will always smudge the brightest of lines. Phair’s contemporaries simply could not satisfy themselves that they really had the right man. But neither were they convinced of Phair’s repeated denials. In the absence of moral certainty, legal process takes the reins. A dramatic eleventh-hour reprieve from the governor saved Phair in 1877. But as Murder by Gaslight notes:
The problem for Phair now was that by Vermont law he could not ask for a new trial if more than two years had passed since the original verdict. The governor granted him another reprieve until the first Friday of April, 1879 while the legislature debated changing the law.
Phair won this battle — the legislature empowered judges to refer such a case to the Supreme Court — but lost the war. In February 1879, Vermont’s high court considered, and then quickly rejected, Phair’s appeal. Past this point, exertions for the condemned man became the longest of shots, but this is not to say that they did not continue. The man’s exhaustive last-ditch efforts, some by his own hand and some mounted by his friends, have a whiff of the familiar present-day spectacle to them. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer sarcastically titled its after-action report “Hanged At Last”)
Phair won a six-day reprieve from a scheduled April 4 execution; on the eve of the hanging, two judges were taking Phair’s last appeal for a fresh trial; and on the morning of the execution the state’s governor was obliged to reject Phair’s supporters’ plea for a delay to allow the legislature to intervene yet again. (Phair didn’t even know this last one was occurring.)
The man himself was reported calm in the last hours, even as he persisted with his denials. Guilty or not, he finally fell through the long-awaited gallows trap murmuring “Lord, remember me!” at 2:11 p.m. on this date in 1879.
This date in 1859 saw the joint hanging of four youths from a notorious Baltimore gang, and in honor of the occasion thousands upon thousands of curiosity-seekers packed Charm City from “all parts of the State, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and even New York city and Buffalo” to throng the hills and high points overlooking the Baltimore City Jail, where a fine view could be had of the nominally private gallows.
“The housetops, windows, trees and all other places from whence a more enlarged view could be obtained, were crowded with human beings,” reported the Baltimore Sun (Apr. 9, 1859). “A sea of faces met the eye far and near — men, women and children — old age and infancy — white and black — swelled up the vast multitude, drawn to witness the horrible spectacle.”
The doomed quartet were four men named Henry Gambrill, Marion Crop, Peter Corrie, and John Cryphus. Cryphus was a black man condemned for a knife murder committed under the name John Stephens, and he vainly protested all the way to the gallows that Stephens was not he.
The other three who hanged with him — our principal focus today — were entirely unconnected to him. Gambrill, Crop, and Corrie were all stalwarts of the “Plug Uglies”, who were at once a street gang and a political goon squad, involved (with several similar entities) in a number of election day poll riots in the 1850s. Baltimore was at this point America’s third-largest city, having boomed to 200,000 souls rather faster than its civic institutions could cope.
The city veered near to mob rule (for which it earned the sobriquet “Mobtown”): rival gangs of toughs like the Plug Uglies regularly fought deadly street battles involving hundreds of participants — especially around municipal elections which they shamelessly rigged with armed bullying and prodigious vote-stuffing.* The anti-Know Nothing mayoral candidate in 1858 simply conceded the election rather than invite “loss of life and the general disorder of the city.”
[Baltimore’s gangs] carried pugnacious and frequently obscene banners and often brandished weapons. The awl was seen as a workingman’s weapon, and many were made and handed out at rallies. They were used to “plug” Democrats “ugly” and to prevent them from voting. (Source)
Not long before that peacekeeping 1858 mayoral concession, alliterative policemen Benjamin Benton and Robert Rigdon had arrested a Plug Ugly crony for disorderly conduct, when Henry Gambrill raced up to the grappling trio and shot Officer Benton in the head.
Officer Rigdon, who knew Gambrill well, testified against the goon in the resulting murder trial. So incensed were Gambrill’s pals that they contrived to assassinate Officer Rigdon in revenge: covered by a lookout, Marion Crop in the dark of night shot Rigdon through a window as the cop stood at his mantelpiece chatting with his wife. Both Crop and the lookout, Peter Corrie, were chased down and condemned for first degree murder at separate, and sensational, trials in January 1859.
Despite the power of the Know-Nothings, this outrage proved to fall well outside the range of the Plug Uglies’ impunity. If they could do this, then what institutional pillar of the city would remain standing?
No small sentiment went abroad to skip the assassins’ trials and proceed directly to the hanging — perhaps a problematic means by which to stave off anarchy. In a more promising vein, the affair catalyzed some long-sought political reform measures from the legislature to rein in political violence. And on a chilly, overcast morning in April, Marion Crop stood on the gallows and belted out a hymn for the nation’s gawkers, joined with varying enthusiasms by the other three doomed men.
Former friends, we now must leave you
All our earthly hopes are o’er
But in heaven we hope to greet you
There to meet to part no more.
When a few more moments wasted
And this dying scene is o’er
When this last dread grief we’ve tasted
We shall rise to fall no more.
Fast our sun of life’s declining
Soon it will set in endless night
But our hopes pure and reviving
Rise to fairer worlds of light.
Cease this mourning, trembling, sighing,
Death shall burst this sudden gloom
Then our spirits fluttering, flying
Shall be borne beyond the tomb.
Corrie and Crop were buried privately. Gambrill enjoyed a solem public funeral with a procession of a hundred or so carriages through the center of town. An estimated eight to ten thousand Know-Nothing sympathizers attended it.
* Full marks for period color to the gangs of that time, which included the Rip Raps, Black Snakes, Blood Tub, Regulators, Rough Skins, Double Pumps, and Calithumpians. The successful Plug Uglies, who spread to other cities than Baltimore, were the ones destined to give their name to the language as a synonym for a an urban rowdy. (It’s also the name of somebars.)
** Shortly after the events in this post, Baltimore would be distinguished by a massive, and deadly, riot against a column of federal troops being dispatched to Virginia in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Since the Battle of Fort Sumter itself had not resulted in any combat fatalities, it was this riot that laid in the ground the first bodies of America’s bloody Civil War.
On this date in 1895, William Lake died in the electric chair for soiling Albion, N.Y., with a most gory crime of passion.
The farmhand Lake nursed a very one-sided crush on a servant in the household of farmer Joseph Van Camp, 18-year-old Emma Hunt. One October night in 1894, the farmer called on a neighbor, leaving the two alone in the kitchen.
He returned an hour later to find Emma Hunt slaughtered as if by a demon. Her throat was slashed ear to ear and cross-shaped slashes to her abdomen had nearly disemboweled her. Nearby lay a bloody hammer that had caved in her skull. Lake was nowhere to be found, but he only dodged the sheriff’s posses for a few days before an officer caught him hiding in a barn.
It turned out upon Lake’s ready confession that this crime of passion was also one of calculation. Emma, said Lake, “bothered me and hectored me” in disdaining his affections, and “I made up my mind I would kill her.” (New York Herald, Oct. 22, 1894)
While the family ate supper on that horrible night, William Lake wrote out a confession to the murder he was going to commit once left alone, and packed a satchel with which to flee. (He forgot the satchel when the time came.) Lake’s written confession attributed a lifelong bitterness to his illegitimate birth.
He did not attempt to mitigate the crime in any way and welcomed a death sentence that was conducted within seven weeks of his conviction.
The frontier town Tombstone, Arizona saw its first legal hanging on this date in 1884 — and its second, third, fourth, and fifth besides.
On the 8th of December ult., Daniel “Big Dan” Dowd, Comer W. “Red” Sample, Daniel “York” Kelly, William “Billy” Delaney and James “Tex” Howard rode into the nearby town of Bisbee in an attempt to seize the $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine.
Sadly the bandits mistimed the arrival of the boodle. Having already committed to the raid, they improvised a plunder of the general store and the valuables of any nearby customers they could lay the sight of their sixguns upon. And then on the way out, villainous mustaches a-twirl, the gangsters shot up the town and slew four good residents of Bisbee.
The survivors telegraphed the sheriff of Tombstone, the seat of Cochise County.*
Arrayed against Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral** had been the so-called “cowboys”, a network of desperadoes who found this last vanishing enclave of the lawless frontier a congenial environment for opportunistic outlawry: livestock rustling, smuggling, stagecoach robbery, and the like.
The line between legitimate businessman and criminal element was as permeable as the nearby Mexican border. As Tombstone’s posses hunted down the five Bisbee shooters over the ensuing weeks, interrogations would reveal that Bisbee saloon-keeper John Heath — an Ohio native of shady reputation who could be found during the gunfight cowering behind his own bar — was actually the moving spirit behind the raid. He would later testify in a piece of hairsplitting vainglory that of course it was he who conceived it all, as his henchmen were too stupid for such a plan … but the part where they started shooting people was none of John Heath’s idea.
Heath was smart enough to get his own trial separate from his goons, and smart enough to work a jail sentence where his cronies were set up for execution.
Folk in Tombstone were incensed at this leniency and on February 22 they reversed it by extracting Heath from his irons and lynching him to a telegraph pole at First and Toughnut.
The Alfred Henry Lewis Wolfville books (available in the public domain) dramatize a fictitious western town loosely based on Tombstone … complete with vigilance committee and a strong female character named Nell.
It was fairly clear under the circumstances that the five toughs awaiting their March 28 hanging date had no need to entertain any hope of mercy.
Nonetheless, legendary frontierswoman Nellie Cashman — later to be inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame for her exertions in that arctic gold rush was at this time resident in the silver boom town of Tombstone.
So appalled was the Irishwoman at the highly improper festive civic atmosphere prevailing in Tombstone as the executions approached that she organized a gang of her own: a team that on the eve of the hangings secretly dismantled a grandstands some ghoulish entrepreneur had erected in order to at least permit the event to go off with some modicum of solemnity.
LEBANON, Tenn., March 27. — Mack Francis and James Turney, negroes, were hanged at 12.23 this afternoon for the murder of Lew Martin last summer. They showed a great deal of bravado and confessed their guilt after ascending the scaffold. Francis struggled much, but Turney died instantly, his neck being broken. The execution was private, but a large number of people stood around the gallows.
Lew Martin was a half-witted, inoffensive negro. On the evening of the murder he went to church, having $7* in his possession. This he imprudently displayed, and the two men who were to-day hanged saw it. They planned the murder while sitting behind the church, and shot their victim as he was on his way home. In his confession Francis said:
We waited outside the door of the church till the crowd came out, and when Martin was about one hundred yards down the road we followed him. When we caught up with him he was walking with some of the people from the church and we fell back and waited till he got by himself. Then we caught up with him again and walked along, one of us on each side of him. Then Jim drew his pistol and shot him twice. Lew’s head fell forward and he said ‘Jim.’ Jim then turned to me and said threateningly, ‘Shoot; why don’t you shoot.’ I then shot twice, and hit Lew in the body, and Jim shot three more times, when Lew fell. We went through his pockets and found seven dollars, and Jim took four dollars and I took three. When we killed him we thought he had more money, but when we left the church I had no idea of killing him.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1889.
* The equivalent of about $175 in 2014 dollars. (via)
David Cobb, Private, Company C, 827th Engineer Battalion (Aviation), on March 12, 1943 achieved the milestone distinction of becoming the first U.S. soldier executed in Great Britain.
On December 27, 1942 — a mere 11 days after arriving in Britain — Cobb was ordered by a Lt. Robert Cobner to surrender his weapon when the private popped off to him during a routine inspection. Instead, Cobb shot Cobner dead.
He was hanged by the British executioner Thomas Pierrepoint at Shepton Mallet prison — a fortress dating to 1610 and still in use to the present day. The U.S. Army employed part of the prison during World War II to carry out 18 military executions; over half of these men were, like Cobb, black.