Posts filed under 'Idaho'

1862: Not Finnigan, miner’s court survivee

Add comment September 12th, 2017 Headsman

This entry from a diarist in Idaho’s 1860s gold rush arrives to us courtesy of Steven Tanasoca and Susan Sudduth in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of summer 1978.

Sydney-born, our observer George Harding in 1856 joined the wave of Austrlian migration to gold-strike California with his widowed mother and three younger brothers. But the family (augmented by a stepfather and an adoptive son) soon drove on to the Oregon Territory. In 1862, 19-year-old George, his brother Bill, and their stepfather Charles Murray tried their luck in the Idaho mining boom: far from prospecting, Harding made his bread by painting, carpentry, and suchlike workaday labor in the Elk City camp.


Wednesday 10th [September] Clear and fine all day. We worked all day on the fashion Saloon. A man by the name of [James] McGuire was shot through the neck this afternoon by a man named Finnigan. A most horrid murder was commited [sic] this afternoon. He was stabbed in the neck twice, cutting the jugular vein in two. He died about half an hour after. At the time of the murder, he was lying in bed supposed to be asleep. They have arrested Finnigan. Have suspicion that he committed the crime. We had a very severe frost last night. Ice was a quarter of an inch thick in the shop.

Thursday 11th Clear and fine all day. We work[ed] all day painting for Captain Maltby. The town has been in a great excitement all day. The miners came into town this morning and organised a Vigilance Committee. Finnigan has been on trial all day. The jury returned a Verdict about 10 o’clock this evening that he was guilty of Willful Murder. A great number of the miners was for hanging him right away, but after a little consideration it was decided that he should be hung at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. We had another very heavy frost last night.

Friday 12th Clear in the morning, but got dark and cloudy in the afternoon. We worked all day for Captain Maltby. The scaffold was erected this morning about eight hundred yards from Elk City on the West side. Finnigan was brought to the scaffold about eleven o’clock under a strong guard. He was reading the prayer book all the way to it. When he got on the scaffold, he confessed that he committed the crime and stated the reasons why he had done it. He said that some time back he and the deceased had a quarrel in which the deceased had attempted to take his life with a knife and would have done it had he not been stopped by outside parties.* He said that after this he had wanted some revenge. Also, the deceased had said that he would kill him the first chance he got. Finnigan warned all young men to take warning by him to keep from drinking and gambling as it was that that had brought him on the gallows now. Finnigan took a parting leave of all his friends. The Sherif [sic] then covered his face and tied his hands behind his back and put the rope around his neck. The trap was then let go, and to the astonishment of the spectators, Finnigan fell to the ground. By some means or other the knot came untied after giving Finnigan a heavy jerk. As soon as he could speak he cried out to save him, save him. Some of the people then cried out to let him live and he was then taken back to the town, which he left this afternoon. It commenced raining this evening.

* The bad blood between these men is fleshed out a bit more — along with a more cinematic version of the gallows escape — in An Illustrated History of North Idaho. This source not unreasonably suspects that a sympathetic hand among the execution party might have rigged the noose to “by some means or other” come undone.

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1881: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment October 14th, 2016 Headsman

Four hangings from the four corners of a continental empire darkened American jurisprudence on this date in 1881.

Sageville, New York

Edward Earl hanged in this Adirondacks hamlet for stabbing to death his wife (never named in any press account I located) four years before

Earl attempted (and obviously failed) an insanity defense, which was an interesting tidbit since Charles Guiteau was at this moment gearing up to do the same after assassinating President Garfield earlier this same year.

Dawson, Georgia

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 15, 1881:

ATLANTA, Oct. 14 — Frank Hudson, colored, was hanged at Dawson, this state, to-day, for the murder in August last of David Lee, Mrs. Lee and a negro girl. His purpose, according to his confession, was robbery. He was taken to the gallows under guard of a military company and appeared calm and unmoved. He acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his sentence, and hoped he had been forgiven. He was dead in ten minutes from the time the trap was sprung. This is the first execution that has taken place in Kerrell county.

Ukiah, California

For the background of this murder in the heart of hops country, we’ll crib the meandering but compulsively specific testimony of the event’s only third-party witness in original old-timey cant, as quoted by an appellate court:

Harvey Mortier was speakng angry to Richard Macpherson about a wedge ax that Harvey Mortier accused him with stealing, accused him for taking a wedge ax, and Richard Macpherson says to him, he didn’t do it. He says he would go to Hi Stalder and find out who took the ax. The ax belonged to a man named Hi Stalder.

Well! says Harvey Mortier to him, why don’t you come down now and find out who took the ax? Now, says Richard Macpherson, I won’t go till this evening. He says, you had better come now. He says no, he won’t.

“I will find somebody down in the woods that will put a good head on you; give you a good licking.” This last was said by Mortier to Macpherson. Macpherson didn’t go down to Hi Stalder’s to find out who took the ax. He remained with me chopping, and I was chopping at the time and Richard Macpherson was working with me.

He started to work and Harvey Mortier (the defendant) went away, passing where we were. He went on a little, small trail. Before he left he asked me if I see any deers? I said, yes sir. I says, I seen some deers over there in that direction; so he passes along that little trail going that way, towards that way, and I was chopping wood. Didn’t pay no attention to it.

In a few minutes the gun was fired and I looked and seen Macpherson and Mortier. I saw Harvey Mortier shooting. I seen the smoke and the gun in front of him, and he taking the gun down from him. He was standing in bushes that were chopped down, about two feet high.

(The witness here showed the position of Mortier when the shot was fired, which was a stooping one.)

I saw the smoke in front of his face, and he was trying to hide himself. Mortier was thirty-four yards from Macpherson at the time the shot was fired. I measured in the next day with a six-foot pole.

The smoke was right at the end of the gun. I saw Mortier’s face distinctly and recognized him. I had known him five or six years.

After the shot, Macpherson and I ran away. He ran two hundred and thirty-five steps after he was shot. We ran as soon as the shot was fired.

The last I saw of him he was leaning against a fence. He fell down. I then went after help to bring him home.

At the time the shot was fired Macpherson was standing in front of Mortier and I was standing on one side. Macpherson was chopping a tree about six inches through. Macpherson lived about half an hour after the shot was fired.

Silver City, Idaho

We cannot improve on the correspondent who reported Henry MacDonald’s hanging* in Silver City’s local Owyhee Avalanche the very next day:

* Note that the findagrave.com link misdates this hanging as of this post’s publication. In 1881, October 14 (not the 15th) was the Friday, and I trust that the article reproduced here will constitute evidence that “October 15″ did not appear in the original text of the story.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Idaho,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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1864: Three Idaho robbers, choked on gold

Add comment March 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1864, Doc Howard, Christopher Lowery and James Romaine hanged at Lewiston for “the strangest and darkest chapter in north Idaho’s criminal annals.”

Lured west by prospecting’s siren song, explorers struck gold in Idaho in the 1860s and poured in, dragging in their wake the lawlessness characteristic of boom towns.

Idaho and eastern Washington, a correspondent wrote to the Baltimore Sun by way of summing-up the bonanza year of 1863,* “is exceedingly rich in deposits of gold” to the delight of “thousands of sturdy miners from California and Oregon.”

“It is estimated that the mines situated in Washington and Idaho Territories yielded for the year 1863 some $20,000,000, and it is thought that next year this amount will be doubled … coin is almost unknown in the various mining towns, and even the ost trivial transaction of business has to be paid for in gold dust.”

As usual in these cases precious few of the miners hit the mother lode; it was the contractors who supplied them best positioned to make out. In August 1863 Lloyd Magruder, a prosperous and respected pack train operator who had once sat in the California legislature, embarked one of his mule convoys heavy with mining goods from Lewiston, over the imposing Bitterroot Range, and bound for the burgeoning mining colony of Virginia City.**


The Bitterroot Mountains. (cc) image by Eric Gross.

But the hills held other treasures than merely retail markups.

A day after Magruder’s slow pack train set out, three rough frontiersman — our three men, Howard, Low(e)ry and Romaine — left Lewiston, too. Overtaking Magruder on the road, they joined his traveling party on an amiable basis; by the time they reached Virginia City, Magruder trusted them to help sell off his mining supplies. Business complete, Magruder was ready to return to Lewiston, he had $25,000 in gold revenue in his pockets and not an inkling that the boon companions he now hired as his guards meant to take it from him. That’s the gold … that’s what it makes us.

Deep in the mountains one night, the wicked trio — joined by a trapper, Billy Page, who was inducted into the plot (so he said) by means of the sure understanding that to refuse was death — murdered Magruder and four other men traveling in the party.

A night was chosen when they were encamped on a ridge which broke off on one side almost perpendicular for several hundred feet into a canyon or mountain gorge. Near the summit was a spring which furnished men and animals water. From a confession made by Page, the trapper, it appears that on the night selected for the massacre, Page was put on guard and told what was going to happen, and ordered to keep still under penalty of death. Magruder and Lowry were also on guard away from the camp in an opposite direction, while Phillips, Allan and the other men were fast asleep in their blankets near the fire. During the first watch of the night, Lowry, who was on guard with Magruder, approached within striking distance, and dealing him a powerful blow with an axe which he had concealed under his coat, awaiting the fatal moment, knocked him senseless to the ground, where he was speedily dispatched. The killing of the sleeping men in camp was then quickly accomplished. Page, the trapper, who was watching the mules near by, claimed that he saw the murders committed. As soon as daylight arrived, the mules were brought up and five of the best were selected, four for saddle mules for the men to ride and one to pack their plunder. The other animals were then driven into a deep canyon and they, too, were murdered. They tied the murdered men in blankets and dropped them over the bluff near camp, into the bottom of the canyon, several hundred feet below, after which, having secured the gold dust, they made a bonfire and burned all the camp equipage, including the aparejos and other paraphernalia of a pack train. (Early History of Idaho)

The murderers made for the coast, slipping quietly back into Lewiston and grabbing the first stagecoach out in the morning, en route to Portland, Ore. But a friend of Magruder’s, sensing in their furtive and ill-favored manner — buying tickets in disguise; heedlessly abandoning valuable mules and camp supplies — something of their villainous design, set a Javert-like pursuit upon their booted heels.

He would pursue them at his own expense, leaving behind the inn he operated in Lewiston, all the way to San Francisco whence they journeyed to have their gold shavings coined by the mint. Page earned his freedom for giving evidence against the others; the remaining three attained the distinction of suffering the first legal executions in the history of the Idaho Territory.

* Letter dated Jan. 1, 1864; it was published Mar. 24.

** Today a hamlet (Wikipedia pegs its population under 200) in the state of Montana; at the time, a Wild West boom town in the Idaho Territory whose tenuous order was maintained by a vigilance committee.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Idaho,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1909: Fred Seward

Add comment May 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1909, Fred Seward was hanged at the Boise penitentiary.

Seward developed an obsession with a “notorious woman” named Clara O’Neill, of Moscow. (Idaho, not Russia.)

When O’Neill spurned his suit, Seward shot her dead. Then he turned the same gun on himself: the shot gruesomely disfigured his face and cost him the sight in his left eye — but it did not kill him.

The state of Idaho was more than willing to pick up the slack.


From the Idaho Daily Statesman, May 8, 1909

His last words were simply, “Do a good job, boys.”

The boys — Seward’s executioners — did so, and cleanly snapped his neck in the fall.


“The Son of God, who came not to destroy, but to save men’s lives, has revealed to the world the right life for both men and nations. The great mission then of the individual, the church, the state and the nation is not to destroy men, but to bless, help and save them. In the light of the teachings of Christ, the state has no more right to kill than the individual.

“The official murder at the penitentiary the other day was most demoralizing in its influence upon the people who read the horrible details of the transaction. Let men who are a menace to the public be shut up where they can do no harm to their fellows, but let the state learn to help, reform and save them, but not destroy them. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is as good scripture for a state or nation as for a church or an individual.”

-Rev. A.L. Chapman (Boise, Idaho)
May 16, 1909 “Peace Day” sermon

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1937: Douglas Van Vlack

Add comment December 9th, 2013 Robert Elder

(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.)

“I have a right to choose the way I die!”

— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937

Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Idaho,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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