Posts filed under 'Illinois'

1921: Carl Wanderer, of the Ragged Stranger case

Add comment September 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the villain in the Case of the Ragged Stranger went to the gallows in Chicago.

Then-24-year-old World War I veteran Carl Wanderer entered the public’s cognizance when on the night of June 21, 1920, he and his pregnant young wife Ruth were accosted on the way home from cinema by a tramp — a “ragged stranger” in the piquant phrase that would identify both the case and the man. This stranger, who was never identified, held up the happy couple at gunpoint but Wanderer just so happened to be carrying his service pistol and exchanged gunfire with the mugger. After the hail of bullets was over, the ragged stranger was dead and his wife lay mortally wounded in his arms.

The obvious catnip themes — the young bride, the valiant troop, the machismo shootout — instantly made for a national news crime story.


Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1920

But it wasn’t many days that Wanderer’s self-flattering story enjoyed the public’s credulity.

Mr. Ragged’s weapon turned out to be an army-issue pistol just like Wanderer’s own … in fact, Wanderer had borrowed it from his cousin just days before the deadly fray. And this connection in turn led Wanderer to admit under intense police questioning that the tramp was a down-and-outer that Wanderer himself had hired to stage the mugging as a pretext under which Wanderer would murder his wife. Having so done, Wanderer realized that capital felonies are really best without surviving witnesses, so that was the end for the Stranger too.

Wanderer’s confessions, well, they wandered. The unifying thread was the man’s obvious desire to exit his marriage; what’s not clear is whether this reason was the object itself or further to some greater purpose. There were hints that the motive was pecuniary or even that Wanderer was homosexual; his defense would eventually raise a family history of mental illness. Wanderer himself at one point said that he wanted to return to military life;* but, investigations also turned up a scandalous flirtation with a 17-year-old customer of his butcher shop to whom he had made bold enough to send billets doux before his wife’s body was cold.

Chicago, Illinois
July 6, 1920

Sweetheart,

I am very lonesome tonight. I thought I would drop you a few lines as I am ever thinking of you.

The reason I wouldn’t meet you at your house is this. The people would talk about us.

Someday I will tell you a whole lot more. I have been double crossed by some people.

Good night little lover & happy dreams to you.

From Carl

After a jury outraged public opinion by failing to hang him for his wife’s murder, he was tried again before standing room only audiences for the stranger’s death — in effect a second bite at the apple. His young flame Julia Schmitt made a humiliating appearance on the stand which would set up a scorching summation by the state’s attorney.

He saw a vision of the future. It included the army life and Julia. But in that vision was no trace of Ruth who was soon to be a mother.

Ruth must die.

Kisses for Julia, bullets for Ruth.

The man who killed his wife and unborn babe.

That’s the kind of a man he is. See his calm face.

An actor.

But a yellow coward, and a murderer.

Send this cowardly, contemptible wretch, who deliberately and cunningly took the lives of his young, trusting wife, her unborn baby, and the poor, innocent, ragged, unidentified stranger, to the gallows. The man who had kisses for Julia Schmitt and bullets for the one he should have loved and cherished most has forfeited all claims to go on living on this earth.

There is abundant proof of this miserable creature’s guilt. You know as well as I do that he has violated every law of God or man. He deserves death. Even death is too good for him. Send him to the rope. Don’t weaken — give him the punishment he deserves.

Hang him.

And they did.


Belleville (Illinois) News Democrat, September 30, 1921

After hearing the condemned sing on the gallows, one wag present reportedly quipped that Wanderer deserved hanging for his voice alone.

This ragged old case has quite good coverage on this here World Wide Web. Some of Carl’s wanderers include:

* Perhaps not coincidentally, his unit had seen very little combat during the Great War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Sex,USA

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1865: Francis Johnson (Francis Harper), lynch survivor

Add comment December 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Chicago Republican, Dec. 23, 1865:

Special Despatch to the Chicago Republican.

WATSEKA, Iroquois Co., Ill. Dec. 22.

Francis Johnson, alias Francis Harper, was executed at Watseka, Iroquois county, Ill., on Dec. 22, for the murder of Dr. W. Nelson, of Muncie.

THE MURDER.

The murder was committed on the night of Nov. 2, about half a mile south of Gilman station, on the Illinois Central railroad. Harper and Nelson got off the passenger train at Gilman, and started on foot for Onarga. When about half a mile south of the station Harper drew a pistol and shot Nelson through the head but not so as to cause instant death. When he saw the pistol-shot did not kill Nelson, Harper sprang upon him and choked him to death; then robbed the boy of a few dollars in postal currency, and took the murdered man’s clothes, with the marks of blood upon them; also his valise, watch, and ring — all of which were marked with the owner’s name. Harper went to Onarga; had a tailor mend the torn and bloody coat, took the cars for Chicago, and was arrested on the train, through the agency of a telegraphic message to the conductor, who found the property in his possession. Harper was taken back to Gilman, and hung three times by a mob, but was cut down by Sheriff Martin before quite dead. At last the Sheriff got him away, and he was taken to Kankakee. He was brought from there and tried at the last term of the Circuit Court, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on the 22d inst.

HIS TRIAL AND CONVICTION.

The evidence upon which Harper was convicted of the murder of Nelson was purely circumstantial, but conclusive. It was proven that he had hired a revolver in Kankakee, and furthermore that he had accompanied the murdered man on the cars of the Illinois Central railroad to Gilman, at which station they left the train together. It was also substantiated on the trial that he had been boarding with him at the Murray House at Kankakee, nearly a week prior to the time; and when Nelson expressed the determination to go to Gilman, Harper immediately announced his intention of accompanying him. After getting off from the train there, Harper asked Nelson to accompany him to the house of a friend, which invitation was accepted, and the two proceeded down the track together. This invitation on the part of Harper was merely a ruse to decoy his victim into some lonely spot; and, when they had proceeded about one hundred rods, Harper, stepping behind Wilson, drew his revolver, and shot him, as detailed above.

All these details were fully substantiated upon the trial; but in addition to them, Harper, when he was arrested, had upon his person Nelson’s coat, torn and covered with blood; the knife, watch, clothing, satchel and box of the deceased; and upon the latter were Nelson’s initials. After the case was given to the jury, they were out but a short time, when they returned a verdict of “guilty.”

EFFORTS AT COMMUTATION.

Harper was not without relatives, and, upon the announcement to them that he had been sentenced to death, they addressed themselves assiduously to the work of endeavoring to secure for him a reprieve, or commutation of the sentence to imprisonment for life. Gov. Oglesby, however, refused to grant their request; and since neither Judge Starr, who presided at the trial, nor the District Attorney, could be induced to add their signatures to a petition in his behalf, it became evident that the murderer must pay the full penalty of his crime.

WANT OF SYMPATHY.

To say that not a particle of sympathy was manifested by the people of Iroquois county in behalf of Harper, would be no more than speaking the honest truth. We have already stated that so outraged were the people against him at the time he was held in custody at Gilman that he was taken from the officers and hanged by the summary process of Lynch law, but after a desperate effort by the sheriff and his officers, was rescued from the hands of the mob and lodged in jail at Kankakee. Throughout his confinement, during his trial, and after his sentence, there was scarce an individual to be found who expressed a regret at the terrible fate which awaited him, or who entertained a doubt of his guilt.

DENIES HIS GUILT.

The prisoner, throughout the time that intervened between his sentence and Friday of last week, strenuously denied his guilt. No persuasion or entreaty could move him, and no assertion on the part of those who visited him in his cell, that they believed him to be the murderer of Nelson, seemed to move him in the least. To every interrogatory he gave the stereotyped response that he was innocent and knew nothing about the murder, though at times he seemed very humble, and shed tears when conversing with visitors upon the subject of the murder and his approaching doom. To those who were familiar with him he seemed to be borne up by some hope of reprieve, faint though it was, and an escape from the death to which the law had condemned him.

HIS CONFESSION.

One week ago today, Harper confessed his guilt. It was not, however, until assured that all hope of escape from death upon the gallows was out of the question and that all, including his own counsel, believed him to be guilty, that he unburdened his soul of the great secret it bore and escaped the additional sin of going before his Maker with a lie upon his lips. He had been visited in the morning by Dr. Thayer, who earnestly urged him to reflect upon the perilous position he occupied and besought him to make a full confession of his guilt. Bursting into tears, he confessed that he did shoot Nelson on the night of Nov. 2, between Gilman and Onarga. He also confessed that he hired a revolver in Kankakee for that purpose, and that he intended to kill him when they left that place together. He said that the shot did not kill Nelson; that he had a hand-to-hand struggle with him, and that he was not dead when he left him. He further said that he got his own coat bloody, and that he would have given his own life if he could have called Nelson back to life after he had done the fatal deed. He further confessed that he changed his name from Harper to Johnson, and he deserted from the army. The prisoner also said that he had felt for some time a desire to unburden his heart and acknowledge his guilt to his fellow-men, before his God, and seek his pardon. He said that he did not commit the murder for money and reward, but because he was in an unhappy state of mind, which drove him to desperation.

NOT GUILTY OF OTHER CRIMES.

The prisoner denied having participated in or committed other crimes. When asked if he knew anything about the mysterious disappearance of De Los Carrier, he replied that as God was his witness he knew nothing about him; that Nelson was the only man he ever murdered. In this statement the prisoner evinced much candor and honesty, and many believed he was speaking the truth.

THE EXECUTION.

The sentence of the law was carried into effect today, and Harper was executed. Since his sentence he has been confined in the jail at Kankakee, from whence he was brought to this place last evening. During the past few days he has exhibited signs of sincere penitence, and expressed the hope that God had pardoned his terrible sin. In the transit from Kankakee to this place he was far more cheerful than it was expected he would be, and conversed freely with those in attendance upon him.

PREPARATION FOR THE EXECUTION.

Sheriff Martin had made all possible preparation for the execution of the condemned, and, notwithstanding the oft-repeated threats on the part of the people in this locality that the execution should be a public one, it was conducted in a strictly private manner. He called to his assistance a guard of fifteen veteran soldiers, who were stationed around the enclosure in which the execution took place, and effectually guarded the execution from any interruption. The arrangements of this officer were made in a most judicious manner, and the result proved them to be every way successful.

THE GALLOWS.

The arrangement of the instrument of death was different from that ordinarily used, in that the culprit was suddenly jerked up instead of being dropped through a trap, as is ordinarily the custom. A heavy weight attached to a rope passing over a pully, was held by a cord in such a manner that, when this cord was cut, the weight dropped six feet, jerking the unfortunate man suddenly from his standing place into the air. The drop was frequently tested, and found to work smoothly prior to the execution.

HIS LAST NIGHT ON EARTH.

Harper passed his last evening upon earth in devotional exercises. He manifested little nervousness, but read his Bible and said his prayers calmly and quietly, and with hardly the air of one who knew he was to die upon the morrow. He also conversed freely with his spiritual advisers, and sometimes alluded to his approaching end calmly and seemingly without fear. At a late hour prayer was offered in his behalf by those in attendance, in which he joined, and soon after he retired to rest, and during the greater portion apparently slept soundly and quietly.

THIS MORNING

He arose very early, and when asked how he had passed the night, replied that he had rested well. Breakfast was brought him, of which he partook with a good relish, and afterward engaged in conversation with Dr. Thayer, who had so often visited him during his confinement. In this interview he talked freely and again expressed the hope that his sins had been forgiven. The sacrament was administered to him by clergymen who were in attendance at ten minutes before eleven o’clock, and at its conclusion he was directed to prepare himself to proceed to the place of execution. He signified his readiness to accompany the officers, and with them walked forth to die.

AT THE GALLOWS.

Arriving within the enclosure, within which the scaffold had been erected, he was permitted to warm himself for the day was bitter cold, and upon being asked if he had anything to say, replied in the affirmative. In a few words, earnestly spoken, he urged the spectators to take warning by his fate, and entreated them to beware of bad company, which he said had taught him habits which led him to the commission of the terrible crime for which he was about to die. He again acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his punishment, and at the conclusion of his remarks was conducted to the scaffold.

Harper stepped upon the gallows at 11:05 , and was immediately dressed in the shroud prepared for him. He then sang one verse of a hymn in a clear voice, the noose was adjusted around his neck, and the cap was drawn over his face and fastened. At 11:15 the drop fell, and Francis Harper had paid the penalty of his earthly crimes.

He was jerked up six feet, but fell back two feet. The neck was not broken. A few contortions, and he was pronounced dead at 11:19 by the attending physicians. At 11:30 the body was taken down, and will be forwarded to his father at Effingham, Ill. Everything passed off quietly; and thus died one who acknowledged his guilt and admitted the justice of his punishment.

HIS EARLY LIFE.

Harper was twenty-two years of age, and was born in Morgan county, Ind. He had no Christian education, except the good counsels of his mother, which were disregarded. In 1864 he joined the 70th Indiana regiment, but soon after deserted. Since that time he has led a career of crime in this State, which yesterday terminated upon the gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Theft,USA

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1892: Thomas Neill Cream, “I am Jack the …”

Add comment November 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1892, globetrotting murderer Thomas Neill Cream hanged.

Act I

Glasgow-born, Cream grew up in Canada and did his parents proud by becoming a doctor with a big black moustache.

He manifested an early knack for being in the vicinity of patients who died unexpectedly: Cream’s wife Flora died of consumption in 1877 while on a medicine regimen he had prescribed her (granted, Cream himself was away in London at this time), and a patient and possible mistress turned up dead outside the good doctor’s offices overdosed on chloroform. As suspicion burgeoned, Cream legged it for the United States.

Cream set up as a red light district abortionist in Chicago, and it didn’t take long for his special gift to manifest again. He beat one murder charge when a patient’s rotting corpse was found stashed in his midwife’s apartment; but, in 1881, epilepsy pills he provided another mistress for her husband turned out to be spiked with strychnine in a botched attempt to stitch up the druggist for blackmail. Daniel Stott ended up dead; Thomas Cream, in Joliet — 31 years old with a life sentence.

So ended the homicidal career of Thomas Cream … until 1891, when Gov. Joseph Fifer yielded to the entreaties and bribes of Thomas’s brother and commuted the sentence.

Act II

Cream sailed for England that October and a fresh start … in the same line of work. He’d be back in custody by the following June, with at least four more murders under his belt, sloppy and incontinent now like the late-career Ted Bundy.

Cream took lodgings in Lambeth and dove right into London’s seedy underbelly. Barely two weeks after his arrival, a 19-year-old prostitute he’d plied with drinks was dead of strychnine and Cream was using his old ploy of blackmailing a random bourgeois for her murder. A few days later, he did the same thing with yet another streetwalker and another extortion target.

The nigh-industrial rapidity of these maneuvers speaks to Cream’s self-destructive impulsiveness; one can picture such a high-risk caper working (maybe Cream had even made it work sometimes back in Chicago) but only if the murder was executed with great care and the shakedown target very deliberately selected and framed. The “Lambeth Poisoner” (as the press came to call the writer of these anonymous blackmail letters) had done neither; his hamfisted money grabs only drew the attention of Scotland Yard.

Cream so ached for exposure that he gave a visiting New Yorker whom he met an impromptu tour of the sites associated with the Lambeth Poisoner — whose number had by then been augmented with yet two additional prostitutes, again offed with strychnine. Creeped out at the fellow’s suspicious expertise, the Yank tipped off the police; pieces fell into place quickly from that point.

His whole career, including that bit on the far side of the Atlantic, was exposed now and Cream (who here referred to himself as “Dr. Thomas Neill”, as reflected by the carton above) was convicted in a short trial in October 1892 — just a few weeks before the court’s sure sentence was imposed.

Act III?

Cream murdered a minimum of five people. Beyond those five, he’s worth a cocked eyebrow or more in the death of his wife and several women under his care in his medical (mostly abortionist) guise.

Chris Scott’s historical novel Jack imagines Cream as the Whitechapel killer.

But hangman James Billington put Cream into a whole different coffee when he claimed that the Lambeth Poisoner had gone through the trap uttering the aborted sentence “I am Jack the–” … meaning, Billington means you to understand, Jack the Ripper. As a result, Dr. Cream has a ledger in every Ripperology suspects table but there are at least a couple of major problems with the hypothesis:

  1. Nobody else present for the execution reported hearing any such suggestion from the condemned man; and
  2. The Ripper was an elusive criminal with a whole different m.o.; and
  3. Cream was still serving his Illinois prison term when the Ripper murders toook place back in 1888.

You might think that being clad in irons on a different continent makes for an ironclad alibi, but bars are no bar to a criminal as nimble as Jack. The Cream dossier makes the incredible claim that Cream chanced to have a lookalike double in the criminal underworld, and that the two routinely passed as one another — so Cream could have been serving his sentence while his double committed the Whitechapel murders, or vice versa.

If this twist strikes the reader as a little bit too Scooby Doo for reality, well, the man’s verifiable body count more than qualified the doctor for his place in the criminal annals … and his place on the gallows.

A few books about Thomas Neill Cream

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers,USA

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1906: Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller

Add comment February 16th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1906, Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller were hanged together in Chicago, Illinois. Both were multiple murderers, with six deaths between them.

Newcomb, who was, described as “crazed” and “maddened,” hanged for the murder of Chicago police sergeant John Peter Shine.

On October 10 the previous year, Shine heard reports of a gunman terrorizing people on the streets of Englewood. Newcomb had already shot three people and one, a woman named Florence Poore who was the wife of Newcomb’s friend, was dead. Shine found out the gunman had barricaded himself in his apartment. Although he was off duty, he decided to make the arrest himself.

When he knocked on the apartment door and demanded entry, however, Newcomb simply fired through the closed door, hitting Shine in the abdomen and mortally wounding him. The officer died two hours later at Englewood Union Hospital, at the age of 42. Walter Blue, one of the others Newcomb had shot, also died of his wounds.

After Shine was shot, over 100 police officers surrounded Newcomb’s apartment and fired into it, hoping to apprehend or kill the gunman. After a long siege, Newcomb surrendered to an equally certain death in the judiciary.

Little is known about John Mueller or his crimes. Daniel Allen Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1965, describes Mueller as “a drunk and a loser who went berserk when refused money with which to buy liquor.” The 32-year-old slaughtered his wife, Annie, and their two daughters, two-year-old Martha and 18-month-old Mary, by shooting them and slashing them repeatedly with a razor.

The two killers were executed in the Cook County Jail. It was an integrated execution: Newcomb was black and Mueller was white.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1876: Marshall Crain, Bloody Williamson killer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 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 must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”

Marshall Crain, convicted of murder, hanging, Illinois.
Executed January 21, 1876

Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.

The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”

(Williamson County, Illinois has an impressively vast catalogue of highlight-reel violence to its history; there’s more about the Great Vendetta and other skeletons in Williamson’s closet in Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1905: John Johnson

Add comment January 20th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1905, John Johnson was hanged for the murder of Patrolman Dennis Fitzgerald of the Chicago Police Department.

On September 26, 1903, Johnson and another man, Louis Tedford, were being drunk and disorderly near the corner of 44th Street and Indiana Avenue. Fitzgerald told them to move along. In response, the two men beat him to a pulp and shot him with his own gun.

Fitzgerald was a strong man and he lingered for four months before he died on January 20, 1904. Authorities determined his death was a direct result of his wounds. He was buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery.

As for the two offenders, both were convicted of murder, but Tedford got off relatively easily with a fourteen-year sentence. The jury determined Johnson was the one most responsible for the officer’s death, and so he paid for it with his life, a year to the day after Fitzgerald died. “Please hurry things along,” were his last words.

It was a busy day with the rope around North America.


Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, Jan 21, 1905


Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Jan. 21, 1905

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1886: William Wilson

Add comment November 12th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1886, 45-year-old William S. Wilson was hanged for murder in Jonesboro, Illinois. He had killed his wife, Margaret.

Wilson was good at producing offspring — he was the father of at least seven children and possibly as many as nine — but not so good at providing for them. At Christmas in 1885, he left his family and went to Kentucky, leaving his destitute wife and kids only $5 in cash (the equivalent of about $130 in modern terms) and very little fuel. When supplies ran out in early January, several neighbors took pity on Margaret Wilson and her brood and banded together to cut enough firewood to get them through the winter.

When William returned home on January 7, however, he was furious when he learned Margaret had shamed him by accepting charity.

Daniel Allen Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1965, records,

Wilson berated his wife for allowing the neighbors to act. He chased the heavily pregnant woman out of their cabin and shot her down in the mud and slush. The sight of her near-term unborn baby vainly kicking against the interior wall of her abdomen appalled witnesses, who could do nothing to save it. Details such as these illustrate the brutality that often characterizes these all-too-common wife-killing cases.

William had shot Margaret twice: once in the chest inside the house, and once again outdoors as she was running away. As she lay dying on the frozen ground he walked away. He didn’t get far before he was arrested.

A contemporary newspaper article speculated that William might be crazy, noting that he had been “affected for a long time with some incurable disease” and “is not regarded by some as sane.” But it wasn’t enough. William paid the ultimate price for his crime eleven months after the murder.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1844: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, lynched

1 comment June 27th, 2016 Headsman

Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.

Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.

“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”

The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.

A few books about Joseph Smith

Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.

The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†

By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡

But in this case, the law did not take its course.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”

Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.

* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.

** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his spuriously “ancient” book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.

† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.

‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Famous,History,Illinois,Lynching,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Rioting,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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1874: Christopher Rafferty, the first executed for killing a Chicago cop

2 comments February 27th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1874, Christopher Rafferty was hanged for the murder of Chicago Patrolman Patrick O’Meara, who was shot to death on August 4, 1872.

A fourteen­-year veteran of the force, O’Meara was not the first officer of the Chicago Police Department to die in the line of duty — but he appears to be the first whose death brought about a legal execution.

The murder went down like this: Rafferty, a bricklayer by trade and a bit of a hard case despite his youth (he was 25), had participated in a riot the week before the shooting. Rafferty and two other men, one of them his brother, were arrested and then released on bail. Rafferty swore he was innocent and claimed a man named Donovan would support his story, but Donovan refused to provide him with an alibi. To pay him back, Rafferty tracked Donovan down and beat him with a brick. Donovan staggered to the police station, reported the crime and swore out a warrant against his assailant.

At a little after midnight, when O’Meara and his partner, James Scanlan, tracked Rafferty down at Daniel O’Brien’s Saloon at Halsted Street and 35th Place, the thug seemed to be in a good mood and even offered O’Meara a cigar. He seemed to cooperate when the two officers told him they had to arrest him, but then bolted for the door while simultaneously pulling a gun from his pocket and firing at the two policemen, hitting O’Meara in the chest.

O’Meara collapsed and bled out on the saloon floor. His last words were, “Stay, Chris, don’t shoot.” But Rafferty shot again, barely missing Scanlan’s head. After a struggle with Scanlan, he escaped into the night.

Edward Burke and Thomas O’Gorman’s book End of Watch — Chicago Police Killed in the Line of Duty, 1853­-2006 noted,

[O’Meara’s] cold­blooded murder outraged Chicagoans. It was an atrocity further deepened by the fact that the killer had escaped. Local neighborhood folks took to the streets frantic with excitement following his murder, forming small posses that headed out to the prairie grass to hunt for the killer. Local police officials soon persuaded people to permit Chicago detectives to track Officer O’Meara’s murderer down themselves.

O’Meara

They caught him just a few hours later, walking in the fields on his way to Joliet. Rafferty was tried and convicted of the murder a month later, but his conviction was overturned twice on procedural grounds. His three separate trials and convictions are responsible for the long (for those days) wait between his arrest and his execution.

He met his death calmly and without a struggle, sleeping “as peacefully as a child” in the hours before his predawn hanging. His father was permitted to visit him shortly before the execution, and two priests accompanied him to the scaffold. His was the last public hanging in Lake County.

Just before he was hanged, Rafferty (or someone using his byline) penned the following ballad, which looks a shameless rip-off of one already floating about for the years-ago execution of James Rodgers*:

Come all you tender Christians, I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention to a few lines I have here.
For the murder of O’Meara, I am condemned to die,
On the 28th** of February, all on the gallows high.

My name is Chris Rafferty, that name I never denied,
I left my aged parents in sorrow for to cry.
Oh little did they think in my youth and bloom
That I would come to Chicago to meet with my sad doom

My parents reared me tenderly as plainly you may see
Constantly good advice they always gave to me.
They told me: quit night­walking and shun bad company
Or State’s Prison or the gallows my doom would surely be.

Scanlan and O’Meara, they came in a saloon.
They said to me, “Chris Rafferty, we want you right soon.”
It was then I pulled that fatal pop and shot him through the heart
Which leaves a loving wife and husband for to part.

On the day of my trial it would pierce your heart to see
My companions and associates they were all standing by.
I bid them take a warning by my sad fate,
And to leave out their night­walking before it was too late.

O’Meara left behind a wife and five children. As for Rafferty’s family, the Chicago Tribune claimed they were left “in destitute circumstances: that the father is aged, the mother blind, the sister insane, the brother has fled, that the family were supported by the labor of the two sons, and, deprived of this, are now in distress.”

Killer and victim both rest in Calvary Cemetery.

* It must have been a hit, since the same ballad also got re-used for President James Garfield’s assassin.

** Despite what the verse says the execution was on the 27th, not the 28th.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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