Posts filed under 'Kentucky'

1817: Eleanor Gillespie

Add comment July 26th, 2017 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, Bath County, Kentucky housewife Eleanor (sometimes spelled Ellenor) Gillespie hanged “at the forks of the road on Mt. Sterling pike” for strangling her abusive husband.

The best account we’ve found of this affair is the Gillespie family lore as related in a letter to the Bath County News-Outlook on Nov. 4, 2009.

The family version of events was that [second husband, and sheriff, John] Hawkins was a drunkard who was both physically and sexually abusive to Eleanor and her children. She couldn’t turn to “the law” for help as he was the law. She took matters into her own hands on the night in question. He was drunk and up to the usual. Luckily for little 7 yr. old Rebecca Gillespie, he passed out before he was able to abuse her. Eleanor had had enough. With the help of her son [Jacob Gillespie, aged about 14 years and therefore lightly handled by the law] they tied a rope around the man’s neck and as the family version goes, “One went one way and the other went the other way.” …

The acting sheriff after the murder was none other than the son of John Hawkins … Hawkins, Jr. is the one who quite possibly started the rumor that Hawkins was murdered over money, not wanting to real reason to get out.

It seems that Eleanor still enjoyed some public sympathy notwithstanding; local magnate George Lansdown(e) was involved in a caper to spring her from jail, perhaps owing a debt of inspiration to the cross-dressing flight of Jacobite Lord Nithsdale: Lansdown called on the jail as a visitor and there stripped himself so that Eleanor could put on his civilian men’s clothing and just stroll on out of lockup.

She just about accomplished this but a do-gooder or do-badder guard named David Fathey recognized her on the way out and arrested her; evidently our disrobed rescuer was counting on some look-the-other-wayism via what must have been a sentiment widely abroad in the community, for “Lansdown was incensed at Fathey for not permitting her to escape; a fight ensued and Fathey whipped Lansdown.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1886: Robert Silas Fowler, lustful

Add comment April 23rd, 2016 Headsman

It is said on the 7th of last May, the day before the execution of Mose Caton, [Robert] Fowler danced a jig on the gallows and said:

“Well, within twenty-four hours Caton will be in hell,” and a short time after the execution remarked: “Who in the hell will be the next one?”

-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886

You know what they say: if you have to ask …

Robert Fowler was an irascible Union County, Ky. man who had gone to work on a farm, fallen for the farmer’s beautiful daughter, been spurned, and pulled the old Humbert Humbert by instead marrying her 49-year-old widowed aunt.

But Fowler continued to nurse an unrequited lust for 18-year-old beauty Lida Burnett, and it would eventually prove fatal to them both. Fowler ditched her aunt at one point to take another run at the girl, failed, returned to the aunt, and finally jealously threatened Burnett that he would kill her should she make an engagement with anyone but himself.

So Fowler was the natural suspect* when Miss Burnett — having defiantly pledged someone her troth — set out on horseback from her cousin’s house one evening and never made it home.

The ensuing search turned up the poor young lady’s remains, nearly headless from two deep gashes in her throat. News reports from the period are oddly mixed on the question of whether she had been ravished, too.

Fowler’s residence yielded up bloody clothes, still wet from the killer’s attempt to wash them out. “It is thought,” reported the Globe-Democrat blandly on Aug. 19, 1885, “that he will be lynched to-night.”

Contrary to expectations, Fowler survived long enough to let the law take its course. He acknowledged his guilt on the scaffold before a reported crowd of 5,000 or more in Morganfield, who got two hangings for the price of one after Fowler snapped the rope and fell to the ground the first time he was dropped.

* Actually, he was the third suspect: two black men who’d been seen in the vicinity were investigated first.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,USA

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1962: Kelly Moss, restless of spirit

1 comment March 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1962, J. Kelly Moss went to the Kentucky electric chair in Kentucky for murder.

A lifelong criminal whose offenses ran more to the impulsive than the diabolical, Moss was arrested 10 or more times from 1950 to 1953, according to an Evansville (Ind.) Courier and Press profile. “Kelly Moss, when he was sober, was a real gentle person,” the former police chief of Henderson, Ky. told reporters decades later. “My recollection is that he was a real good man. But when he got drunk, he was a holy terror. When (Moss) was coming at you, he looked like a raging bull. When you got a call to Kelly’s house, you sent every car you had.”

His stepfather Charles Abbitt unfortunately didn’t have all those cars.

When Moss, fresh out of his latest prison stint on a robbery charge, showed up at Abbitt’s Henderson home blind drunk and in need of fare for the cab that had just delivered him. The cab driver gave up and left while Moss wailed on the door; what happened in the next 90 minutes or so must be guessed at, but Moss’s mother returned from church to find her husband’s mangled remains. “His face was pulverized by blows, and many of his ribs had been broken,” according to the Henderson Gleaner.

Moss apparently hadn’t realized just how much damage he’d done in his raging-bull mode; when arrested later, he was shocked to discover himself a murderer. “We had a little fight but I certainly didn’t intend to kill him. This is the worst thing I have ever had happen to me. This means a long term for me.”

Actually, the term was not so long — although Moss did his level best to extend it.

Leveling himself up into a skilled jailhouse lawyer, he papered Kentucky courts with relentless self-prepared writs that protracted the short lease on life his murder conviction offered. (He helped other prisoners file their appeals, too.) Outliving his victim by four-plus years was making good time by his era’s standards.

“The restless spirit of Kelly Moss was stilled just after midnight this morning,” the Gleaner reported on March 2, 1962. He wasn’t reconciled to the electric chair, and the device almost choked on him: Moss was the last person executed in Kentucky prior to the death penalty’s long 1960s-1970s lull in America. Kentucky’s next, and last, electrocution would not take place until 1997.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Kentucky,Murder,USA

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1829: The slaves of the Greenup revolt

Add comment November 20th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1829, the Kentucky town of Greenup strung up martyrs to the slave economy.

Our incident begins with a slaver by the name of Gordon who, with the aid of two assistants, was driving 60 blacks “including all sexes and ages” from the flesh markets of Maryland where he bought them west to the Mississippi — likely there to be “sold down the river” into barges bound for still harsher bondage deeper South. Melancholy slave coffles* like this one crisscrossed Kentucky’s highways routinely, columns of chattel lashed two by two to a long chain with a wagon train of provisions alongside. (Source) The awful migrations peaked in the summer months — timed to cotton plantations’ coming labor demands for the autumn harvest.

Despite the frequency and visibility of these transits, Kentucky remained an uneasy northern frontier of the Slave Power; in the coming Civil War it would become a literal battleground claimed by both North and South. Greenup was a river town, and just across the river lay Ohio, an abolitionist state. Kentucky’s proximity to free soil had invited bloody slave revolts in the past; here, the North-South nexus also helped to propagate the story of the Greenup incident.

An editor in nearby Portsmouth, Ohio, which was not merely free territory but a hub of the Underground Railroad, ran a story that soon volleyed around the Republic as newspaper after neighboring newspaper reprinted the remarkable bulletin copied ultimately from Portsmouth’s Western Tiller. This version of it (with line breaks added for readability) comes from the New-Hampshire Sentinel of Sept. 18, 1829. It’s verbatim from what the Western Tiller had reported almost a month before.

Affray and Murder!

A most shocking outrage was committed in Kentucky, about eight miles from this place, on the 14th inst. [14th of August, 1829] A negro driver, by the name of Gordon, who had purchased in Maryland about 60 negroes, including all sexes and ages, was taking them, assisted by an associated named Allen, and the wagoner who conveyed the baggage, to the Mississippi.

The men were handcuffed and chained together in the usual manner for driving those poor wretches, while the women and children were suffered to proceed without incumbrance.

It appears that, by means of a file, the negroes, unobserved, had succeeded in separating the irons which bound their hands, in such a way as to be able to throw them off at any moment. About eight o’clock in the morning, while proceeding on the state road leading from Greenup to Vanceburg, two of them dropped their shackles and commenced a fight, when the wagoner, Petit, rushed in with his whip to compel them to desist. At this moment every negro was found perfectly at liberty; and one of them seizing a club, gave Petit a violent blow on the head, and laid him dead at his feet; and Allen, who had come to his assistance, met a similar fate, from the contents of a pistol fired by another of the gang.

Gordon was then attacked, seized and held by one of the negroes, whilst another fired twice at him with a pistol, the ball of which each time grazed his head, but not proving effectual, he was beaten with clubs and left for dead.

They then commenced pillaging the wagon, and with an axe split open the trunk of Gordon, rifled it of the money, about $2,400, sixteen of the negroes then took to the woods.

Gordon in the mean time, not being materially injured, was enabled by the assistance of one of the [slave] women, to mount his horse and flee; pursued however, by one of the gang, on another horse, with a drawn pistol. Fortunately he escaped with his life, barely arriving at a plantation as the negro came in sight; who then turned about and retreated.

The neighborhood was immediately rallied, and a hot pursuit given — which we understand has resulted in the capture of the whole gang, and the recovery of the greater part of the money.

Seven of the negro men and women, it is said, were engaged in the murders, and will be brought to trial at the next court in Greenupsburg.

There are various reports afoot of the precise number of hangings effected on this date. The Espy file offers five names, but the newspapers of the time give it as four — as in this version from the Essex Gazette of Haverhill, Mass. (Jan. 2, 1830), which is likewise an nth-generation copy of the Western Times‘s initial reportage. The doomed men, that paper remarked, “all maintained to the last, the utmost firmness and resignation to their fate”; in spite of the predictably harsh punishment, it is interesting that they were allowed that traditional privilege of the condemned to expostulate under their hanging-nooses, even here to the point of vindicating the justice of their rebellion which would really have been tantamount to inciting other slaves to follow their example too.**

They severally addressed the assembled multitude, in which they attempted to justify the deed they had committed, on the principle acknowledged by all wise men,

That it is lawful in the sight of God and a principle implanted in the breast of every man by nature, to fight for freedom, and slay the tyrant who dares to deprive them of it.

This only they had done, and having failed to accomplish the sole object for which they slew their merciless oppressors, traffickers in human flesh, it remained for them to pay the forfeit of that failure with their lives.

One of them while standing upon the cart, just ready to be launched into eternity, exclaimed, several times — “Death! — Death, any time, in preference to slavery!”

During the whole time they stood under the gallows, not a joint was seen to tremble, nor a sigh heard to escape from them.


David Walker, a free-born North Carolina black man who moved to Boston and became a prominent abolitionist, dwells at some length on the story in his magnum opus, Walker’s Appeal. Directed at his African-American fellows, the Appeal here does not pause to justify the self-evident righteousness of slaves revolting against their captors — instead, it addresses the putatively “humane” action of the enslaved woman, who in Walker’s estimation in effect props up slavery as a whole when she rescues the near-murdered slaver Gordon. Indeed, while the sketchy information that survives about this failed revolt does not offer us the particulars of what unfolded in the hours immediately following the slaves’ breakout, the proximity of potential refuge across the sectional border invites one to wonder whether that ounce of compassion was not the difference preventing the slaves from reaching the Ohio River. Walker, at any rate, has no patience for sentiment in this instance.

Here a notorious wretch, with two other confederates had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them like brutes … [until] by the help of God [the slaves] got their chains and hand-cuffs thrown off, and caught two of the wretches and put them to death, and beat the other until they thought he was dead, and left him for dead; however, he deceived them, and rising from the ground, this servile woman helped him upon his horse, and he made his escape.

Brethren, what do you think of this? Was it the natural fine feelings of this woman, to save such a wretch alive? I know that the blacks, take them half enlightened and ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European that can be found in all the earth … there is a solemn awe in the hearts of the blacks, as it respects murdering men: whereas the whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. This is the natural result of pride and avarice.

But I declare, the actions of this black woman are really insupportable. For my own part, I cannot think it was any thing but servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance: for we must remember that humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord, does not consist in protecting devils. Here is a set of wretches, who had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them around the country like brutes, to dig up gold and silver for them, (which they will get enough of yet.) Should the lives of such creatures be spared? Are God and Mammon in league? … Any person who will save such wretches from destruction, is fighting against the Lord, and will receive his just recompense. The black men acted like blockheads. Why did they not make sure of the wretch? He would have made sure of them, if he could.

Walker died suddenly of tuberculosis a few months after his Appeal hit print. As he forecast elsewhere in that same document, his widow received scant indulgence on her mortgage debt once the husband was out of the picture and the white real estate mogul George Parkman soon compounded the woman’s grief by throwing her out of the house. It was one of the countless little coldnesses Parkman inflicted en route to stacking up his own fortune … and to his years-later star turn as the victim of one of Harvard University’s most sensational murder trials.

* The witness who described this earlier 1822 scene of a 40-strong slave coffle marching perversely under the stars and stripes quotes an apt stanza from popular 18th century poet William Cowper, an ardent hater of slavery:

Ah! me, what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair?
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man!

** Perhaps matters would have been handled differently a couple of years later, after Nat Turner‘s rebellion scared the pantaloons off slaveowners.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA

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1873: A day in the death penalty around the U.S., courtesy of the New York Herald

Add comment June 13th, 2015 Headsman

Dispatches to the New York Herald from 1873 give us today’s post: a little portrait of public hangings in Reconstruction Dixie.

Isham Belton O’Neill, 32 at his death, hanged in Atlanta on this date in 1873; the Herald reported it in the next day’s edition.

O’Neill grew up on a farm outside Atlanta but was taken to the city by service in the Confederate army.

Postwar, he started a short-lived painting business with a fellow veteran, John Little: short-lived, because within a few months the courts were sorting out the partnership’s dissolution. Little, evidently, felt hard done by their rulings and “met O’Neill on the street several times after the snit, and even visited him at his shop, always urging him to let him have a sash, which he claimed to be his own property.”

On September 5th, 1871, they bumped into each other again by accident and after a few pleasantriles, Little started in on the sash again. “You got it be swearing a damned lie,” he insisted.

The testimony is that O’Neill then struck him in the face, and [Little] seized O’Neill first by the collar and then by his hands, which he endeavored to hold firmly; but O’Neill, by turning and exerting himself, wrenched his right hand from Little’s grasp, put it behind him and drew from under his coat a large Bowie Knife and quickly stabbed Little in the abdomen, the knife penetrating six inches deep, making a surface cut of two inches long, the sides of which were jagged, as if the sharp, two-edged knife, after having been plunged in, had been twisted round and drawn out.

Enough about the sash, okay?

O’Neill was a respectable fellow in the community (apart from the unpleasantness), and he stuck to a shaky “self-defense” story long enough that he might have started to believe it himself. So even though Little gurgled his last that night with five feet of bowel hanging out of the jagged fissure O’Neill had carved, the killer felt inordinately confident of an executive reprieve.

O’Neill even eschewed the opportunity to escape during a general jailbreak in February 1872, obediently remaining in his spot even with the cell door popped wide open in front of him. Several fellow prisoners successfully absconded on this occasion and avoided recapture.

O’Neill only received word of the governor’s final rejection of his petition at 1 in the morning on the date of his hanging, when “he was awakened out of a sound sleep to receive it.”

Up to that moment he had been confident in the belief that his life would be spared by the Governor, and had refused to listen to the advice of his counsel and spiritual advisers to prepare for death. When he was told that the last hope was gone he felt very bad and was convinced. For the first time he seemed to realize the awful situation, broke down and gave way to piercing cries and lamentations — “Oh! is it all over with me? My God! it is terrible. Does the Governor refuse even a respite? O merciful God, is there no other chance!” and he ended with long heartrending, choking sobs.

We turn now to the Herald‘s June 17 report of a public execution from Lebanon, Virginia.

A steady, sharp stroke of a hatchet, a rope is cut, the crash of a falling drop follows, another rope is stretched to its utmost tension, there is a rebound and the body of Archie Johnson, a negro, is swinging in the air, a solemn warning to an immense multitude of spectators that “he that sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”

Archie Johnson, “a copper-colored negro, about twenty-eight years of age” with a countenance “regular and well cut for a negro” was the former slave of a local Russell County gentleman.

Upon liberation, the correspondent charges, he “began a career of dissipation and vice,” driving away a wife with his wantonness before he “totally abandoned himself to all that was degraded, vicious and criminal.” At last, he murdered a man named Hunt.

This story is particularly intriguing for the writer’s detailed — often editorializing — reportage of the hanging details.

Not only all Russell county were on the grounds, but from Washington, Scott and other surrounding counties many thousands came to behold the death struggles of a condemned felon. The number of females in the vast throng was somewhat astonishing, and their complexions were as varied as the costumes they wore. Some were as black as a traditional ace of spaces, others as fair as the whitest lily, while the intermediate embraced every imaginable shade between the two. A large number of these came on horseback, their long, dark riding skirts forming a happy contrast with the innumerable bright and gaudy colors worn by the pedestrians. As to horses, all the available racks, trees and fences in town were thickly lined with them, and then it seemed that the surrounding woods were densely picketed with them. The prevailing costumes of the men were blue and gray jeans. The valleys, the knobs, the peaks and plains, the huts and houses, seemed to have poured themselves out to-day, all actuated by the same common, morbid curiosity, and it can safely be said that scarcely a score of them were solemnly impressed by the terrible scene they witnessed. The number present was estimated at six thousand people.

Turning from sociology to engineering, our observer sketches the construction of the lethal apparatus:

THE SCAFFOLD

was a very ordinary, rude affair, consisting of the usual two main uprights, a narrow platform in the rear, in front of which was the drop, supported by a rope. This ran through the crossbeam near the centre, and was secured to a peg driven in one of the uprights, about four feet from the ground. It allowed of a fall of six feet, and was in all respects as thorough and effective as a majority of the clumsy, murderous machines* generally used in such instances in the South. The structure was situated in the old field to the north of the town and about half a mile distant from the jail.

As for Johnson himself, he signed off on a written confession blaming for his downfall those usual suspects: liquor, cards, loose women. Then he puffed a nonchalant cigar as he rode on his coffin to the gallows, “neatly and tastefully attired in a suit of entire black cloth, black cap, with gloves and gaiters”; he sat on a chair beside his noose for two different sermons (Methodist and Baptist), then a hymn which Johnson “joined with great spirit and religious zeal,” asked one last cigar which he puffed happily for ten minutes in which “his coolness just at this time excited the wonder of many and the admiration of more,” and finally at 2:24 p.m. — 48 minutes after he arrived at the gallows — submitted to his fate.


There was a third U.S. hanging on June 13, 1873: Joseph Duncan, in a public execution at Paris, Ky., for murder. All I have been able to learn in particular of Duncan’s hanging was that his first rope broke, necessitating the ol’ do-over.

* Presumably the Yankee’s judgment of the gallows here is informed by New York’s having “progressed” to upward-jerking hangings.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Virginia

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1885: Mose Caton, beastly husband

Add comment May 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1885, a vast concourse crowded into Morganfield, Ky. for the satisfaction of seeing the hated Mose Caton hang.

Caton was a Union County, Ky., farmer and cooper who married a widow to secure some land. And he seems like a catch! “Mose Caton seemed to be of the opinion that he had absolute power over the lives of his family,” this contemporaneous chronicler recorded. “The ethics of most people at the present day would prompt them to interfere if his treatment of his family should be practiced toward ordinary domestic animals.”

The poor widow Hester took to her new hubby’s thrashings like the Stanford prison experiment inmates and soon became a beaten, broken soul. Out in the boondocks, Caton had a free hand.

Disheveled and too frightened to speak, she ate in the corner, sat on a box separate from the rest of the family, slept on a filthy feather bed and absorbed any humiliation Mose cared to inflict on her … up to and including actually having Mose move his mistress right into the house, and having the mistress physically whip the wife. When Mose built a new house he gave the abused Hester the loft, into which household fire-boxes (rather than fireplaces) emptied their smoke. The woman lived in hell itself.

But she didn’t live there very long.

She died on Sunday, February 22.

As neighbors helped the next day to dress the body for burial, they saw written in the bruised flesh the terrible treatment Hester had endured … including a dreadful abrasion about the neck that looked for all the world like the mark of a cord about her neck.

Though the corpse was buried, reports of its condition soon led to its disinterment — bruised, oozing blood, visibly murdered.

“Mose Caton’s face was the most notable feature of the man. It might well be styled Mongolian in its principal characteristics. The rather scant chin whisker and mustache was the first requisite to this effect. Then the prominent cheek-bones; eyebrows, highest at the outside ends; and a deep sinister wrinkle, starting at the sides of the nostrils, and dropping down past the mustache, heightened the effect. His eyes, more yellow than grey, were not capable of shame, and yet they were not firm and steadfast. He could keep his eyes upon your face, but he could not look steadily into your eyes. His eyes would wander to your forehead, chin, cheeks, back to your eyes, and then away again all over your face.

“His forehead was high, but rather narrow, and retreated from the eyebrows back. The hair was black and slightly tinged with grey. He parted his hair on both sides, and a lock fell down the center of his forehead, not unlike the one commonly seen in the pictures of old Father Time. The ends of the rather long hair was tucked under like Secretary Lamar wears his hair. His clothing was of ordinary woolen goods. He wore a white shirt, and a celluloid turn down collar that was too small for him. He supplemented its length with a red ribbon, which ran through the front button-hole of his shirt collar and tied the ends of his celluloid collar together with the loose ends of the ribbon.” (Source)

“Have him at all hazards,” someone said, voicing the shocked sentiment of all present.

A posse of 25 somewhat fearful men — for Caton had a forbiddingly malevolent public reputation quite apart from the treatment of his spouse — was formed to arrest the tyrannical husband, along with the mistress and the boys. The Catons battened down the hatches and started firing. Their daughter Annie absorbed a breast- and bowel-ful of buckshot in the crossfire, a mortal injury. Only when the posse threatened to burn the house down did the besieged clan give up.

Even then, their trip to the lockup “was interrupted many times by bands of men on foot, emerging from the cypress forests in the icy wilderness, and demanding that the prisoners should be hung then and there.”

Authorities managed to keep the lynching sentiment at bay, but only just. Outraged locals were understood to stand ready to take matters into their own hands at any hint of excess delicacy or dawdling on the part of the judiciary. There were even rumors that an artillery piece had been procured to make certain matters should the need arise to assault the jail, and that the courthouse audience itself had several ropes in hand should it be called upon to issue its summary verdict.

When the jury announced that this would not be necessary, the onlookers bayed in bloodthirsty satisfaction at the sentence. Caton had scarcely a month yet to live, and this was not enough time to dissipate the hatred he had earned of his neighbors: there was an intent to hang Caton privately, but thousands of people pouring into Morganfield, Ky., made it clearly understood that they would riot and pull down the barrier if they were balked of their sight.

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

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1864: Four Confederate soldiers, under Burbridge’s Order 59

1 comment November 5th, 2014 Headsman

The Martyrs Monument of Midway, Ky., honors four Confederates publicly executed by the Union one hundred fifty years ago today.

A brutally contested frontier zone between North and South, Kentucky at this point was under martial law, governed by General Stephen Burbridge — but nearly anarchic on the ground in some areas.

In an effort to quell the activities of Confederate guerrillas-slash-outlaws, Burbridge issued a still-notorious directive called Order 59: Citing the “rapid increase in this district of lawless bands of armed men,” the order threatened to expel Southern sympathizers and seize their property. Moreover, it warned: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”

The outrages in question for this occasion were raids on Midway horse farms* (allegedly led by “Sue Mundy”) that, on November 1, resulted in a shootout fatal to one Adam Harper Jr.

Agreeably to Order 59, Burbridge had four of his prisoners — men with no specific connection to Harper’s death — shot on the town’s commons, forcing the local populace to attend the scene.

Rest
Soldiers
Rest
Thy
Warfare
Oe’r [sic?]

M. Jackson
J. Jackson
C. Rigsner
N. Adams

Shot by order of
Genl. Burbridge
Nov. 5 1864
In retaliation

Our Confederate Dead

Burbridge would be dismissed, and his Order 59 revoked, early the next year. “Thank God and President Lincoln,” was the reaction of the Louisville Journal.

Three other similar monuments in Kentucky (in Eminence, Jeffersontown, and St. Joseph) honor other soldiers executed under Burbridge’s retaliation policy.

* Midway knows from horses.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Kentucky,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1827: Isaac Desha pardoned by Gov. Joseph Desha

7 comments June 18th, 2013 Meaghan

On this day in Kentucky in 1827, a plainly guilty murderer who was on to his third trial received an unconditional pardon. His name was Isaac Desha and his father, Joseph, was the state governor.

The murder was committed in 1824. Isaac Desha had separated from his wife, who was reportedly “terrified” of him, and was staying in Richard Dogget’s roadside tavern/inn on the border of Fleming County. On November 2 of that year, Francis Baker showed up and checked himself into the inn. A newspaperman from Mississippi, he was en route to New Jersey where he planned to get married. He was well-dressed and had a lot of luggage with him.

Baker wanted to visit a local man whom Desha also happened to know, and Desha volunteered to take him there. The two men set off together, Desha riding his bay horse and Baker on a gray mare, carrying two saddlebags.

They never arrived at their mutual acquaintance’s home.

Two hours later, a neighbor named Milton Ball noticed a gray mare, with saddle and bridle but no rider, wandering aimlessly on the highway. He caught it and was trying to find the owner when he encountered another riderless horse. This one he recognized as Desha’s. It had a saddle but no bridle.

Milton Ball got his brother, who took the horse to Desha’s residence. No one was home and he left it there.

As Ball was still trying to identify the gray horse’s owner, he came upon Isaac Desha walking down the road carrying two saddlebags. Desha identified the mare as his own property and took it from Ball, and they parted ways.

Awhile later, Francis Baker’s saddlebags were found empty and abandoned. The man never returned to the inn. The locals put two and two together and looked warily at Desha, but there was no hard evidence of foul play and he was the governor’s son, after all, so they said nothing.

That hard evidence turned up within a week, in the form of Francis Baker’s brutalized corpse — partially stripped, and hidden behind a fallen tree only yards from where Desha had been seen carrying the saddlebags. He’d been beaten with some blunt object and his throat was slit, and he had unusual stab wounds that were “four-square” shaped.

Fragments of a horse bridle and a whip were recovered from the scene; Desha owned a horse whip with a heavy handle that could have inflicted the injuries that killed Baker. Desha also owned a dagger that, it turned out, precisely matched the oddly shaped stab holes in Baker’s shirt.

The circumstantial evidence continued to pile up: the mare Desha had claimed as his own turned out to be Baker’s horse, and he also had Baker’s gold watch and the clothing and money that had been packed in Baker’s saddlebags. Desha claimed he’d randomly encountered two unknown men who’d sold the horse to him, and that he didn’t recognize it as stolen property, even though he’d been riding with Francis Baker only hours beforehand.

As for the watch, money and clothes, Desha didn’t even try to account for those.

He was arrested, and tried for murder in January 1825. The case was sensational and they had to move the trial elsewhere because the court determined Desha couldn’t get a fair trial locally. His father hired the finest defense attorney that there was, but the jury took only an hour to convict and recommended a death sentence.

Desha’s attorneys immediately appealed the verdict and sentence. One of the issues was that the sheriff had stayed with the jury during their deliberations, something Desha’s defense said was improper. The sheriff had presumably watched over the jury because a number of them got anonymous notes threatening to burn them in effigy if they voted to convict.

(Not threats to burn the jurors, mind. Threats to burn their effigies.)

The appeals court judge, one George “Peg Leg” Shannon, agreed with the defense and overturned the verdict. The fact that he was good friends with Desha’s father the governor had nothing to do with it, he said, and the outrage among the citizenry and angry editorials in the newspapers would never make him admit otherwise.

Desha got his second trial in September 1825 and got convicted and sentenced to death again. Once again the case was overturned on appeal, this time because the prosecution had not proved Francis Baker’s murder took place in Fleming County like the indictment said.

The local papers called the trial a “farce” and ranted about corruption within the judiciary. The Winchester Gazette editorialized, “It would seem that justice has either bade adieu to Kentucky, or that her judges are the most corrupt and desperate men living.”

But there was nothing to be done about it: Desha would have to be tried a third time. He was, in February 1826, well over a year after the murder, and the third jury convicted him too.

Desha despaired over his third conviction and attempted suicide in July of that year, slitting his throat in his cell. He very nearly succeeded, and the surgeon who brought him back from the brink had to put in a silver tube to reinforce his severed windpipe. For the rest of his life he could speak only in a whisper. The tube needed to be removed regularly for cleaning, and every time this happened Desha endured a terrible feeling of suffocation.

whereas the whole of the evidence against the said Isaac B. Desha being circumstantial, and from much of it being irreconcileable, I have no doubt of his being innocent of the foul charge; therefore is an object worthy of executive clemency.

Now, know ye, that in consideration of the premises, and by virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution, I have thought proper, and do hereby grant to the said Isaac B. Desha a full and free pardon for the supposed offence, as alleged against him in the bill of indictment …

Given under my hand at Frankfort, on the 18th day of June, A.D. 1827, and in the 36th year of the Commonwealth.

By the Governor.
Jos. DESHA.

Desha’s murder conviction was once more under appeal, but his suicide attempt had left him in such poor health that a sympathetic doctor signed an order saying keeping him in jail was endangering his life. He was released on bond pending the outcome of his appeal.

In March 1827, his lawyers tried to get the murder case dismissed on procedural grounds. Request denied. In June they filed for dismissal again, because the court had failed to seat a full panel of impartial jurors. (Desha used all his juror challenges to help keep the count down.)

Request denied again, and what’s worse, the court decided Isaac Desha’s health had improved enough that he could withstand the rigors of jail. He was remanded into custody.

Governor Desha still had one last card up his sleeve, and it was a trump. On June 18, the same day Isaac was ordered back behind bars, his father rose in court and issued him an unconditional pardon on the spot.

Joseph Desha committed political suicide when he pardoned his son. Isaac’s crime, and the obvious favors afforded him by the justice system, severely damaged the governor’s reputation.

Contrary to popular belief, Joseph didn’t resign after pardoning his son. He quietly finished out his term, retired to his farm and never entered politics again. He died in 1842.

As for Isaac Desha, there’s a legend that he moved to Honduras or Hawaii and has descendants still living there. In fact, although he did head west after his release from jail, he never made it further than Texas.

Like a lot of pioneers, he surely hoped he could put his former troubles behind him. But Isaac Desha carried trouble with him: in Texas, he allegedly robbed and killed a fellow traveler in a crime remarkably similar to Francis Parker’s murder. He was charged with murder yet again and this time he didn’t have an influential father to protect him.

Desha escaped the death penalty one last time, though, by dying of a fever on August 13, 1828, the day before his murder trial was supposed to start. He was twenty-six.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Scandal,USA

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1863: William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw

Add comment May 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1863, two men were shot* on the beach at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, site of a Civil War prison. Their crime: recruiting for the Confederate army behind Union lines.

After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality” vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodily contested frontier march between the rival governments.

With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.

In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.

Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”


Not to be confused with Order 66.

This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.

General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†

Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.

At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.

Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:

That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …

After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.

To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.

After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)

There is a weathered but still-visible monument to Thomas J. McGraw erected in 1914 by the Daughters of the Confederacy at the Flagg Springs Baptist Church cemetery where his remains were interred. (Corbin’s remains are at a family cemetery in Carthage.)

* Corbin and McGraw were set up for execution seated on the edges of their own coffins, so that the force of the firing detail’s barrage would knock them conveniently back in. That’s efficiency.

** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.

Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Kentucky,Ohio,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1862: Samuel Calhoun, antebellum serial killer

Add comment February 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.

(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)

“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”

If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable

Read on for the full story in a post at Civil War Medicine guest-authored by one of our favorite crime-history bloggers, Robert Wilhelm of Murder by Gaslight.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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