Posts filed under 'Kentucky'

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.

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1863: William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw

1 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.

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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.

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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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1865: Marcellus Jerome Clarke, “Sue Mundy”

5 comments March 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Marcellus Jerome Clarke rode a carriage to a scaffold on Broadway Ave. in Louisville, Ky., where he addressed the multitude thus:

I am a regular Confederate soldier, and have served in the Confederate army four years … I could prove that I am a regular Confederate soldier, and I hope to die for the Confederate cause.

And then he did.

Clarke‘s last remarks were a protest against Kentucky’s military government. Having captured Clarke just three days before, it refused him prisoner-of-war status; regarding him rather as a franc-tireur, it gave him a pro forma secret trial even while throwing up the gallows for the preordained hanging.

This border region between North and South had seen bitter guerrilla war. As one indicator: the Northern effort in the Bluegrass State to suppress Confederate irregulars had been led by a general who earned the nickname “Butcher of Kentucky” for his ruthless exertions.

Stubbornly eluding those exertions (the Butcher was gone by March 1865) was Clarke, an elfin captain of 20 years with a band of cavalry raiders (in)famous for its hit-and run raids on Union men and supplies. (And on one infamous occasion, 30 African-American cattle-drivers.)

It was during this time that stories began circulating of a daring female commando, a “she-devil in pantaloons,” and the picturesque character — perfectly calibrated to twist the Butcher’s tail — seized popular imagination and moved newspapers.

While the honor is disputed by another Kentucky irregular hanged later in 1865, this “Sue Mundy” (or Munday) character soon came to be identified with the androgynous, just-old-enough-for-his-riding-license Clarke.

The Louisville Journal fantastically embroidered the Mundy legend and its alleged connection to Clarke — editorializing, for instance, that Clarke cross-dressed for amusement and advantage and could pull off his female alter ego thanks to his

“fair [complexion], long dark hair, which touched his shoulders, and a beautifully shaped mouth” (Mar. 16, 1865)

and his

“medium female statue, small feet and hands, face beardless and quite handsome, voice soft and feminine — all together making a counterfeit so perfect that even John Morgan, on a certain occasion, mistook him for a female.” (Jan. 14, 1865)


Right?

A captured Clarke would eventually complain that “he was not guilty for one-tenth of the outrages that he had been charged with and that the Louisville Journal had done him a great injustice.” Maybe he’d never heard that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The publicity this afternoon, of course, was of the very worst variety, albeit not exactly inimical to the celebrity racket.

“The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions. It was feared for a time that he would break the lashings. His sufferings, however, were of short duration. Thus ended the career of the notorious Sue Mundy.”

Several historical markers in Kentucky still commemorate that notorious career.

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1913: Joe Richardson lynched

3 comments September 26th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly after midnight on this date in 1913, Joe Richardson was hauled out of jail in Leitchfield, Kentucky, and lynched on the town square for attempting to assault an 11-year-old girl (white, of course).

“The little girl was on her way to school about 8 o’clock in the morning,” reported the Crittenden Record-Press (Oct. 9, 1913) “when, it is said, she was attacked by the negro who was frightened away by approach of the neighbors.”

According to Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940,

photographs rendered the violence of a lynching visible and accessible to a wider audience. Although, as will be shown, the public for these images was imagined as relatively narrow or contained, they nevertheless seemed to punctuate the lynching as a public spectacle. Small posses that quickly lynched their victims outside town but paused long enough to take pictures intended their actions to be witnessed … ‘the [Richardson] mob worked quietly and most of the citizens of Leitchfield knew nothing of it until the body was found hanging from a tree early this morning … A large crowd congregated … after the hanging was reported.’ A photograph of Richardson’s hanging body was mounted on a card and peddled door-to-door by an unknown photographer.

This lynching site claims that it was only after the work was done that townspeople realized the hanged man was the local drunk, and had “merely stumbled into the child, and not even torn her dress.”

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1897: Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling, Pearl Bryan’s murderers

1 comment March 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1897, a remarkable scene unfolded at the double hanging of Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling in Newport, Ky.

Jackson was described as standing erect and playing the part of an actor. Walling trembled with his eyes downcast. At that point, Jackson was again asked if he had anything to say. An eyewitness said, “Jackson hesitated fully two moments before he replied. Before he spoke, Walling turned expectantly evidently believing Jackson would speak the words that would save his life, even while he stood on the brink of death. Walling had half turned around and he stood in that position with an appealing expression on his face, while Jackson without looking at him, upturned his eyes and replied, ‘I have only this to say, that I am not guilty of the crime for which I am now compelled to pay the penalty of my life.”

Walling was then asked if he had any comments. He said, “Nothing, only that you are taking the life of an innocent man and I will call upon God to witness the truth of what I say.”

At 11:40am the trapdoors opened and Jackson and Walling were hanged.(Source)

Jackson and Walling had been convicted the previous year in separate trials — each defendant accusing the other — for the murder of Pearl Bryan, a naive Greencastle, Ind. farmgirl who had gone in search of an illegal abortion and turned up headless.

The notoriously grisly case — the decapitated body was only laboriously identified by tracing a manufacturers’ mark on her shoes back to her hometown — precipitated a nationwide media frenzy, ordinarily an ephemeral phenomenon.

But this story had more legs than your average whodunit. Years later, tourists were still seeking out Pearl Bryan sites to gawk, and paying local hucksters to eyeball murderabilia.

(As was the style at the time, the Pearl Bryan slaying also contributed a murder ballad recorded by the Library of Congress. Close-enough lyrics here.)

[audio:Ballad_of_Pearl_Bryan.mp3]

But for the last public hanging in Campbell County, the crime beat couldn’t even scratch the surface of the weirdness.

Poor Pearl Bryan’s head, you see, was never found, and the culprits adamantly refused to divulge its whereabouts, prompting rumors of satanic ritual.

This occult connection (and the unsettled nature of a case with a head still at large) attracted paranormal associations.

Bobby Mackey’s Music World, a Wilder, Ky., honky-tonk, that opened more than 80 years after Pearl Bryan’s murder, is reputed to be haunted by her spirit and those of the men hanged for her death. (The actual connection of this building/site to Pearl Bryan or her killers is speculative at best, but to judge by the stories they tell about it, Bobby Mackey’s seems to be a spectral Grand Central Station. Don’t take it from me: a “ghost counselor” and the “President of the United States Psychotronic Association” both vouch for its spooky bona fides!)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA

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1865: Champ Ferguson, Confederate guerrilla

6 comments October 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Champ Ferguson was controversially hanged at Nashville for the “murders” he committed as a Confederate guerrilla.

There seems to be some slight difference of opinion (and do click that link) over Champ‘s role in the War Between the States.

Had the Confederate cause prevailed, he probably would have been a hero. Since history is written by the winners … here he is instead.

For reasons that lie in the uncertain junction between personal enmity and sectional loyalty, the war’s start saw Ferguson terrorizing Union supporters in the Kentucky-Tennessee borderlands, operating primarily around Sparta, Tenn.

These were not only state borders, but borders between the rival federal and Confederate territories. Civil War borders, obviously, were hazy and violently contested affairs: Kentucky was northern-controlled but claimed by both sides (it had rival governments); Tennessee seceded only after Fort Sumter.

Loyalties within Kentucky and Tennessee were divided as well. Ferguson’s own brother died fighting for the Union, and his cousin was killed by Ferguson’s own men. But the main battles were fought far away, leaving the conflict to play out locally.

In many cases … guerrillas identifying with the Confederacy operated well outside Confederate lines and Confederate control, leading to a certain ambiguity in official attitudes, since they did have their uses.

Guerrilla activity was … a feature of those up-country or back-country areas of states like North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, in which there were significant internal divisions in terms of sympathy for Confederacy or Union … guerrilla conflict was the only direct face of war experienced by many in Tennessee and Kentucky, since the movements of the main armies remained distant from them throughout. Unionist guerrillas, for example, controlled many of the counties of eastern Tennessee, while Confederate guerrillas disputed Union control of western Kentucky and middle Tennessee. One of the ironies of the situation in the Appalachians, the Cumberlands and the Ozarks was that, while these areas of rugged terrain were favoured by Confederate guerrillas, they were also the very areas within the Confederacy which most Union sympathisers inhabited

-Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies

That was Ferguson — a “legendary Confederate partisan and guerrilla” or little better than a bandit, depending on your point of view. Either way, he was feared by area Unionists and renowned for killing prisoners. Stories of his savagery — severing heads and the like — made the rounds. Ferguson would argue (and did) that he did nothing his enemies weren’t also doing. (The New York Times printed a lengthy account (.pdf) of Ferguson’s versions of the many killings he was accused of — disputing some, frankly acknowledging many.)

That brings us back to winners and losers.

Ferguson, of course, got the losers’ treatment after the war; while vendettas against rank and file Confederate officers were not on the agenda, Ferguson’s irregular status and unbecoming reputation set him up for a war crimes trial. All attempts to claim wartime protections were rejected.

The Times account of his hanging this day — witnessed by his wife and 16-year-old daughter; their alleged rape is sometimes given as the reason for Ferguson’s campaign — is picturesque. (.pdf)

He stood composedly on the drop some twenty minutes, while the charges, specifications and sentence were read by Col. Shafter. He nodded recognition to several persons in the crowd, and shifted his position in an impatient manner while the sentence was being read. To some specifications he inclined his head in assent. To others he shook his head. That about Elam Huddleston caused him to say, “I can tell it better than that.” When the speaker read, “To all of which the prisoner pleads not guilty,” he said, “I don’t now.”


An 1865 Harper’s illustration of the hanging. See the way the troops surround the scaffold? There’s a bit of folklore that the military did that in order to fake the hanging and cut him down still alive.

Along with Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prison Andersonville, Ferguson was the only Confederate executed for Civil War “war crimes.”

Arguably somewhat neglected as a Civil War figure, Ferguson still has a few books detailing his life. An interview with the a author of the newly-published Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War is here.

A few books about Champ Ferguson

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Soldiers,Tennessee,Terrorists,USA,War Crimes

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1936: Rainey Bethea, America’s last public hanging

38 comments August 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1936, thousands thronged Owensboro, Kentucky, for a glimpse of what would prove to be the last public hanging in the United States.

The U.S. followed the trend of its onetime mother country, England, in moving the formerly iconic public hanging increasingly behind closed doors, but its federalist structure made that change uneven. In Kentucky itself at this time, the law displayed sedimentary layers of death penalty history.

Caught up for killing a 70-year-old woman — done in the midst of a drunken burglary, he had left a telltale ring at the scene; fingerprint analysis also helped establish his guilt — Rainey Bethea was on the hook for murder, robbery and rape. The former two indictments would have subjected him to (private) electrocution at the state penitentiary. The latter charge still carried the punishment of public hanging in the local county seat.

Bethea was charged only with rape.

While the explicit sentencing disparity between the crimes bears the clear marks of racism and patriarchy that made purported black-on-white sexual crimes such live fodder for lynch law, and the four-and-a-half-minute jury deliberation doesn’t have the look of solemnity, Bethea’s actual guilt seems fairly well-established.

But the case attracted a nationwide media swarm not for any exceptional quality of the crime or the anachronistic nature of the punishment, but for the involvement of a female sheriff. The “matronly” (virtually all descriptions of her gravitate to this adjective) Florence Thompson had inherited the top law enforcement post upon the death of her husband … and that meant she had inherited the responsibility of hanging Rainey Bethea, which would make her the first American woman to supervise an execution.

Would she or wouldn’t she? The press descended on Owensboro to cover the edifying spectacle of a plump mother stringing up a rapist, or else maneuvering her way out of the job. Thompson played cagey until the very last moment, when the ringers she had secretly hired appeared on the scaffold while she watched from a nearby vehicle.

In this photo, Bethea — almost totally obscured between his escorts — has just begun ascending the gallows.

The man who threw the trap showed up drunk and performed appallingly, but press reports subsequently focused on the beastly behavior of the “jeering” crowd rushing the gallows to tear souvenirs from the corpse. (For instance, Time and the New York Times.)

But according to Perry T. Ryan’s 1992 review of the case — including interviews with surviving witnesses — little to nothing of the kind occurred. Ryan claims Bethea faced about the most dignified hanging mob imaginable.

Maybe hyped-up atrocities in the hinterlands were part of what distant editors demanded after H.L. Mencken at the Scopes trial. Certainly, the local Messenger-Inquirer painted a sharply different picture from more prominent outlets in this August 16 editorial (titled “Panderers Galore”) whose themes could have stepped fresh from a modern cable TV gabfest:

Ambitious and irresponsible reporters and photographers who swarmed into Owensboro for the Bethea hanging dipped their ready hands into the cloaca of evil designs and plastered over the name of this fair city the dirty results of their pandering.

Those who saw the dawn kindling in the east and ushering in the last sunrise of the despicable creature about to die, did not expect all of the watchers to be in reverent mood, but a calm, quiet demeanor characterized their behavior, as a group, throughout their long wait, surprisingly moderate for an occasion on which the law was exacting the supreme penalty.

Considering the size of the throng that witnessed the hanging Friday morning and that it was composed largely of people, who journeyed to Owensboro from distant places, the wonder is that there was no demonstration, no emotional outburst. There was not the semblance of ‘mob impulse’ or ‘eagerness for the kill.’ For the sensation seeking star scribes of quacks of American journalism, it was entirely too tame an affair. This is the reason that some of them reported it as they wanted it to be — not as it was.

They heard a very few people on the outskirts of the crowd call out at different times: ‘Hurry up,’ ‘Get it over’ or ‘hang him.’ To give screaming bulletins to the yellow press and to ruthless radio commentators, they magnified and colored it into a scene of ‘great disorder’ though there was never a general outcry of any kind.

When a priest held up his hand from the scaffold for silence, as Bethea was about to go to his death, there was no ‘blood thirst’ mob ‘shouting and yelling.’ Present were several thousand, who came from near and far to see a man legally hanged for the most heinous crime ever committed in Daviess county, and several thousand more, who turned out to see how the rest would act. When that hand went up in a gesture for silence, the buzz of the multitude’s conversations died down till the fall of the proverbial pin could have been heard.

The smart scribes and sob sisters looked on. All they saw was a black man standing on a scaffold with a rope around his neck and a mass of people peering up at him. That was too tame, they would call it a ‘jeering’ throng. All they heard was the click of the trap door. That would not do. There would have to be ‘cheering.’ So they said there was. Then they heard cameramen from cities where nothing is cared about the horrible crime Bethea committed. They were bawling at officials to ‘move out of the way,’ to ‘give us a break.’ They had to have their souvenirs to show the half civilized readers of their yellow sheets. The boys and girls who had to tell the story needed more color to regale them with atrocious accounts of how the people behaved. They found a few individuals who had gone in the bizarre which inspired thundering headlines about ‘gayety’ and ‘carnival’ spirit.

In administering the last sacrament, the Rev. H. J. Lammers, of Louisville, made an opening in the hood. When the doctors pronounced Bethea dead, one of the attendants at the scaffold took a tag off the hood. Another then took a fragment and others, who were at arms length from the dead man, followed suit. The blunder of tearing off that tag gave the high powered thrill-writers their big opening. They pictured the crowd as tearing Bethea’s clothes from his body. The crowd was never in disorder and Bethea’s clothes were never torn.

The ‘souvenir hunting mob’ did not even pick up the sox [sic] and shoes the doomed man left at the foot of the gallows. It did not so much as touch the basket in which Agnew and Wheatley, colored undertakers, placed the body, clothes and all, or molest it or them in the slightest as they bore it away.

The scavenger writers who came to depict a ‘jolly holiday’ and ‘gala occasion’ had both, but they never saw a more orderly throng at a baseball game.

The public hanging of Bethea was not a disgrace to Kentucky. But, a disgrace to Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, and some other states, was the spectacle made of it in their scandal monger press. Owensboro should not be surprised at the scurrilous attack upon it by lurid writers and glib tongued talkers in northern and eastern states for they delight to distort any news from Kentucky into weird barbaric tales. We have learned how best to protect our women from rapists-murderers, white or colored. The only way, it seems, that we will ever be able to protect them from the cruelties of a sordid section of the press, will be by softening the state’s anti-rape law, which makes public hanging mandatory. So many as favor that will please tell the legislature.

Vendors of news occupy an important place in the nation, and their purpose should always be to maintain unquestioned exactness of facts. Where the subject matter is susceptible to coloring there should be no sacrifice of truth. To pervert the high honor of the profession for the paltry reward of more readers is a dangerous venture and one that should be curbed.

Owensboro’s citizenry, than which no finer representatives of high-bred Americans can be found anywhere, regrets that it was necessary to invoke the Mosaic law, but a sobered regret and a more solemn memory is that the hanging was eagerly seized upon and transformed into a picturization of the exhibition of low passions loosed.

We are proud of our city, and justly so, for no people are of finer fiber. The putrid pens of those who wore the garb of the news profession painted in lurid colors purported happenings, and it is sad but true that such distorted reports are accepted while the plain statement of facts is discarded as an attempted apology.

Thousands of those who witnessed the Bethea hanging came from outside the county. They belonged to good families in their communities, temporarily bereft of their better judgment and bent on viewing a scene which ordinarily would be extremely repugnant to them. And the out-of-town reporters found in the visitors elements to embody in their sordid stories.

A thoughtless word here and there, expressed without cognizance of its probability of misuse, and the staid citizen away from home becomes to the wild-eyed correspondent a Kentuckian gunning for human game. There should be available means of calling to account the writer who for a few filthy shekels diverts his sense of justice into the recording of things that never were.

As the editorial intimates, regardless of what actually happened in Owensboro, the circus atmosphere quickly brought the matter of public hangings into question. In 1938, the Kentucky legislature moved all executions behind prison walls … and Bethea secured an indefinite claim to the status of last person publicly executed in the United States.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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