On this date in 1899, young John Headrick was hanged outside Cape Girardeau‘s courthouse for murdering James Lail.
The 19-year-old Headrick was an embittered ex-farmhand of his victim, James Lail — who fired the youth for stealing a buggy.
In July of 1898, he turned up on the farm and found Lail in the barn. Lail’s wife and daughter both saw young Headrick arrive; they would testify that within half a minute of him entering the barn, they heard gunshots.
At trial, Headrick would claim that he shot in self-defense when Lail menaced him with a deadly currycomb (a brush used for horses), offering the prosecutor the opportunity for a bit of sport on the cross-ex:
Q: “You want the jury to understand that you are afraid of your life when a man assaults you with a curry comb?”
A: “Yes, sir, when I am in a place where I can’t get away.”
Q: “Especially if you are armed?”
A: “If I wasn’t armed I would have been killed.”
Q: “He aimed to curry you? He didn’t strike you with the curry comb?”
A: “No, sir, he did not. He struck at me mighty hard.”
Jokes aside, Lail’s surviving family had a terrifying ordeal still to come. As Headrick blasted away at his fallen boss, Lail’s wife Vernie arrived and threw herself over her husband protectively.
The young assailant shot her, too, then began beating her. By now, 19-year-old Jessie Lail was on the scene too. “John Headrick, what do you mean!” she shrieked. “You have wrecked my life forever! You have killed Papa, now you are killing Mother!”
In the ensuing chaos, Vernie Lail tried to make a run for it only for Headrick to chase her down and stab her — to death, or so he thought. Then the young assailant marched Jessie Lail off at gunpoint. Somehow, Vernie Lail survived a slashed throat, a shot through the back, and numerous other injuries to rise yet again and make it a quarter of a mile down the road to her mother-in-law’s house.
“By God, the old woman is gone, you can’t kill her, can you?” Headrick exclaimed to the daughter when they re-crossed the spot where mom’s body should have been. Headrick at this point wisely abandoned the scene of his carnage after trying and failing to extract a pledge from his hostage not to give evidence against him. A posse found him shortly afterwards, hiding in a barn.
The sturdy and surprisingly low-to-the-ground tree on which Headrick was hanged just outside the Cape Girardeau courthouse still stands, or did as of 2010 when it was endangered by a proposed traffic roundabout. Have a gander at the old gallows-tree in this post by Cape Girardeau journalist Ken Steinhoff, here.
Headrick’s hanging took place behind jail walls, but on the same date in Alton, Carroll Rice was hanged before a reported crowd of 5,000 for the murder of his wife.
“Just before the black cap was adjusted, and while his legs were being pinioned, the condemned man broke away form the sheriff and attempted to escape,” press reports ran.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.
Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.
The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.
Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.
And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?
One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”
Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.
We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:
Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …
He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:
“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.
The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.
On this date in 1838, a teenage slave girl named Mary was hanged in Crawford County, Missouri. She had murdered Vienna Jane Brinker, a white child two weeks short of her second birthday.
Mary’s original owner was Abraham Brinker, Vienna Jane’s grandfather. Abraham was murdered by Indians southwest of Potosi in Washington County, Missouri in 1833. He died without a will and his widow, Fanny, and son, John, became administrators of his estate. John appropriated Mary for himself and eventually made her the babysitter for Vienna Jane, his daughter.
Mary, described as “shrewd” and “remarkably fond of children,” was “about thirteen” at the time she killed the toddler on May 14, 1837. That day Vienna Jane’s body was found in a stream on the Brinkers’ property. She’d been struck on the head and flung into the water, where she drowned.
Just why Mary committed the murder may never be known,* but she readily admitted killing Vienna Jane — at least, once Mary “was tied to a log” and interrogated with the sheriff, who “began to act as though he were going to whip Mary” — and her guilt was taken as given throughout her surprisingly protracted 15-month legal odyssey. The judge instructed Mary’s trial jury:
If the Jury shall find from the evidence that Mary, the accused person was under fourteen years when she committed the offense alleged in the indictment, then, unless they shall also find from the evidence that at the time when said offense was committed the said Mary had sufficient mind to know what act would be a crime or otherwise, they shall find for the defendant.
The jury found against her and sentenced her to death.
Mary’s lawyers — there were three of them — appealed on several grounds, but her age was not one of them. The appellate court granted her a second trial on a technicality, but she was convicted again and did not appeal further.
Writing of this case in her book Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005, author Harriet Frazier remarks that “Mary remains the youngest known person ever put to death by the authority of the state of Missouri. It is no accident that she was a female and a slave.”
Willard Rand turned her case into a two-act play, The Trial of Mary, a Slave, which was performed in the Crawford County courthouse in 1990.
* This page on Brinker family history mentions speculation that Mary was revenging her own prospective sale, and/or that she might have had an illegitimate child by her master whom the family sold against Mary’s will.
ST. LOUIS, May 26. — Philip Pfarr, a German, living on what is known as the Skinker road, several miles from this city, was murdered about half-past 9 o’clock last night, by a negro, name unknown, and his wife, who was about to become a mother, ravished. It appears that a negro man, about twenty-five years old, called at Pfarr’s house, about 5 o’clock last evening, and asked for work.
Mrs. Pfarr told him they wanted no help.
He called again about 7 o’clock, after Mr. Pfarr had returned from his labor in the field, and was again told no help was wanted.
About half-past 9 at night Pfarr and his family were aroused by a noise in the yard, and by the barking of their dog.
Pfarr went out to see what was the matter, and was met by the negro who visited the house in the evening, and struck a violent blow on the head, apparently with some blunt instrument, and his skull fractured.
Mrs. Pfarr, who followed her husband to the door, was then savagely seized by the negro, forced to give up what money was in the house, and afterward brutally ravished.
After the negro had fled, Mrs. Pfarr dragged her insensible husband to the house and aroused her neighbors, and everything possible was done for him, but he remained unconscious until noon to-day, when he died.
Intense excitement prevails in the neighborhood, and twenty mounted policemen have been scouring the woods and fields all day, but at last accounts had found no trace of the fiendish murderer.
Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 29, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, May 28. — Mrs. Pfarr, whose husband was murdered last Tuesday night at her home, a few miles from this city, was brought to town, to-day, by the police authorities, and promptly and fully identified the negro, Henry Brown, who was arrested last evening, as the man who killed her husband and violated her own person.
Aside from this identification, Capt. Fox, of the mounted police force, has worked the case up to such a point that there is no doubt whatever but that the man under arrest is the one who committed the atrocious deed.
Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 23, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, MO., October 22. — About 2,500 specators were present at the execution of Henry Brown, who was hanged to-day in the jail-yard of this country, for the murder of Philip Pfarr, and the rape and robbery of Mrs. Pfarr.
All the forenoon the doomed man was melancholy and uncommunicative. At 11 a.m. his two sisters called on him and bade him farewell.
At 1 p.m. he was led to the scaffold, which he mounted with a ready, fearless step, It was evident that he had been liberally plied with whisky.
He made a rambling speech, twenty minutes long, and was so tedious in its delivery that he had to be reminded that his time was up. His harangue was incoherent and disconnected, such as any drunken man would make. He persistently denied the rape of Mrs. Pfarr, and asserted that he only struck Pfarr in self-defense.
His death was almost instantaneous, the neck having been broken. Eight minutes after the drop fell he was pronounced dead. His body was lowered into a rude coffin and carted off to the bone-yard.
Was of a peculiarly atrocious character, involving, as it did, murder, rape and robbery. The scene of this triple deed was a small farm in this county, three miles from the city limits, on which lived a well-known German farmer named Philip Pfarr and his wife. The place is somewhat secluded, no one living nearer than one-quarter of a mile.
According to Mrs. Pfarr’s statement, a negro man, who was subsequently identified as Henry Brown, came to the house on the afternoon of May 26th and asked for work. Mr. Pfarr informed him that he had no work to give him.
The negro continued to loiter around the gate, and Mrs. Pfarr was so suspicious of danger that she would not permit her husband to return to the field to work that afternoon.
About nine o’clock that night Mr. and Mrs. Pfarr were awakened by the loud barking of their dogs. Pfarr went outside to ascertain the cause, and Mrs. Pfarr got up and stood in the doorway.
She heard her husband ask, “What do you want?” and immediately thereafter she heard a heavy blow struck, and saw her husband stagger and fall.
Before she had time to get out of the doorway the assassin, who was none other than Brown, rushed upon her, and throwing her violently upon the floor ravished her before she recovered from the stunning shock of the fall.
To complete his brutality, he struck her a severe blow on the head and demanded what money she had in the house. She delivered her purse, which contained only seventy-fie cents. Taking this he disappeared in the darkness.
The unfortunate woman was at that time in the last stages of pregnancy, and her injuries were so serious that she could scarcely walk. But she managed to go to her husband, whom she found lying at the gate breathing heavily. He was still able to move, and with her assistance reached the door.
She laid him down upon the floor, placing a pillow under his head and covering him with a quilt.
He immediately became insensible, and did not speak again. His skull had been crushed in with a heavy piece of wagon timber, which was found at the gate.
After thus caring for her husband Mrs. Pfarr alarmed the neighbors, who gathered in crowds. When she told her pitiful story the excitement became intense.
Old man Pfarr died at midnight.
By daylight next morning numerous parties had been organized, and the country for miles around was scoured.
More than twenty negroes were arrested and carried into the presence of Mrs. Pfarr, but she failed to identify any of them as the criminal who assaulted her. The excited populace came near lynching two or three suspected individuals, in spite of the declaration of the outraged woman that the right man had not yet been caught.
THE FATAL BELT.
The detection of Brown was brought about by one little circumstance.
In retreating from the room, the ravisher dropped a leather belt from his waist. A police officer took this belt and showed it to a number of people, among whom was a colored woman living near by, who instantly recognized it as the property of her son, Henry Brown.
The entire police and detective force were put on the watch for Brown, who had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
The next day his arrest was effected and Mrs. Pfarr was brought to the jail for the purpose of
IDENTIFYING THE ACCUSED.
She had previously failed to identify at least twenty-five colored men, promptly exculpating each as they were produced, but as soon as Brown was brought into her presence she exclaimed, in broken English, that he was the man who had killed her husband, and ravished and robbed her.
In reply to her reproaches, the prisoner hung his head and confusedly said that he did not know what the woman was talking about.
Brown at first bitterly denied all connection with the crime, and alleged that he was not in the neighborhood on the fatal night. The next day, however,
That he was walking past Pfarr’s place on the night in question when Praff came out and set his dog on him, at the same time throwing a heavy stick at him.
He caught the stick in his hands and threw it back, striking Pfarr and knocking him down. He persistently denied the assault upon Mrs. Pfarr.
He was tried September 15th, the jury, on the testimony of Mrs. Pfarr, promptly finding him guilty of murder in the first degree.
His attorneys were untiring in their efforts to save his neck. The Supreme Court refused a writ of supersedeas and the Governor declined to interfere. There was nothing left for the doomed African but the halter and the cap.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BROWN.
Your correspondent called upon the doomed man Wednesday afternoon.
At first he refused to talk, answering questions in profane and vituperative monosyllables.
After a brief time, however, he became more communicative. He bitterly denied the assault on Mrs. Pfarr and alleged that the blow he struck Pfarr was in self-defense.
He made a special request that his body should not be given to the dissectors, and asked his attorney to make a speech for him on the scaffold. His attorney promised him that both requests should be complied with.
Brown’s personal appearance was extremely brutal.
His forehead was low and narrow, his nose flat and his lips thick and projecting. His color was of that black and shiny hue so peculiar to the pale African. His look was diabolic. Nature seems to have stamped him as an assassin and cut-throat. His muscular development was something wonderful, and his strength must have been prodigious. Despite his protestations of justification and innocence, the community feels that his fate was just and well deserved.
(Line breaks have been added to all the above stories for readability relative to their solid-wall-of-text 19th century originals.)
Entomb your mate in a trunk and the Show-Me State will hoist your neck on a rope: Hugh Mottram Brooks found that out on this date in 1888.
This story had made worldwide headlines within hours of the time an employee at St. Louis’s Southern Hotel had opened the door to a guest bedroom emitting a horrible stench and discovered a corpse stuffed in a trunk.
Headline of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, April 15, 1885. The story occupied the entire front page.
The remains, in life, had belonged to Charles Arthur Preller, an English traveling salesman who had been hanging about the hotel with his impecunious countryman, Brooks.
Those two had been understood on the premises to have been involved, in the Oscar Wilde sense. But the spark for homicide was mere avarice.
The dramatic note left pinned to the late Preller — “so perish all traitors to the great cause” — was almost immediately deemed a red herring, and suspicion descended on Preller’s recent companion, who had absconded with our dead salesman’s money.
A global manhunt pursued the fugitive, who was found to have fled to San Francisco and thence overseas; he was soon arrested in Auckland and extradited back to face a sensational trial — which, by the by, entailed disinterring the corpse to search it for evidence that it had been catheterized. (It hadn’t, and this rubbished the defendant’s alibi that he’d accidentally killed the guy while consensually chloroforming him in the course of a bit of home medicine.)
The wonderful 19th century crime site Murder by Gaslight covers this case and Brooks’s futile defense in meticulous detail. Aptly enough, the Trunk Murderer didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Brooks hanged along with another murderer, Henry Landgraff. The British government did make diplomatic representations on its citizen’s behalf, but they were ignored — prosecutors retorting that London had recently given short shrift to American citizen Patrick O’Donnell.
On this date in 1879, there was a public hanging in St. Charles, Missouri.
John Blan or Bland had murdered his brother-in-law in a log cabin following a dispute about money: Blan clobbered him with a club, then fled into the surrounding woods, only to return after his victim’s family had patched the poor fellow up and put him to bed and finish the guy off with a shotgun. It’s a murder that smacks of irresolution; Blan would later say that he was “scared and did not know what [he] was scared about” and that, afflicted by “the haunts,” he fancied the victim he had just shot pursuing him through the darkened forest. (Blan was also drunk.)
We’re attracted to this story because of the humanizing glimpse of a weak man terrified under the shadow of death that the newspaper reports of his hanging provide. On the scaffold or otherwise, we don’t all check out with a haughty disdain for the reaper.
The story below comes from the June 7, 1879 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, which source had previously (March 6, 1879) reported the prisoner’s unsteady conduct “during the days the evidence was being taken, manifested a great deal of bravado, but after the jury had gone out yesterday evening he grew solemn and seemed to realize his terrible danger. When he came into Court this morning to hear the verdict, he had a haggard expression, as if he had passed a night of intense anxiety. When the verdict was read perfect quiet pervaded the Court-room, and the prisoner turned very pale and supported himself by holding to the arms of his chair. He had evidently not expected such a verdict.”
The doomed man’s nerves had not improved in the interim.
By 6 o’clock Blan began to weaken and frequently shed tears. … At 7:30 o’clock Blan with sobs, told the Sheriff he was afraid he could not stand it. At 7:35 there was a sudden call for the guards at the outside door of the jail and quite a commotion inside. It was soon ascertained that Blan had made a desperate break for liberty. Rev. Mr. Morton and the Jailer were in the cell with him, and just as Dr. Johns, the County Physician, opened the cell door with a drink for Blan, he pushed the Jailer and minister aside, rushed to the door, struck at the Doctor, hitting him on the shoulder and knocking him out of the way, passed through the entry into the Jailer’s kitchen (the only way out) and there ran into the arms of Sheriffs Rienzi and Cook and a number of his deputies, who secured him after a hard struggle …
In a very few minutes Blan was taken on to the scaffold, and there, supported by several Deputy Sheriffs, the death warrant was read to him by Sheriff Rienzi.
Blan was much agitated, was very pale, and his legs seemed too weak to support him … after a short prayer … Blan then asked, “How much time have I got? Can I live till 9 o’clock?” He was told to step on the trap, which he did, and his feet were bound. He asked for water, and when it was given him said to those assembled: “I wish everybody well. May the good stay good, and the bad get better. I have no bad feeling against anybody. I did the deed.” The Sheriff then placed the black cap, and Blan cried out: “Farewell to everybody. Whisky [sic] and trouble got me into this scrape. I don’t deserve hanging.” The rope was adjusted and the trap sprung at 7:52 o’clock.
Minutes past midnight today, Central Daylight Time, Martin Link died by lethal injection at Missouri’s Bonne Terre state prison.
It’s just Missouri’s second execution since 2005, a marked decline from its five-per-year clip over the decade preceding.*
Condemned for raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in 1991, Link “showed little willingness to fight the death penalty,” according to the Kansas City Star. (Not so little that he actually dropped appeals, mind.) He at least once attempted suicide in prison.
In common with many present-day U.S. executions, Link’s was also shaped by the nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, one of the essential drugs in the traditional lethal injection cocktail.
(It’s an anesthetic, the first of three drugs administered and used for the purpose of inducing rapid unconsciousness so the other two can get to the killing business … though the sodium thiopental dose is itself potentially lethal, and some states have experimented with lethal injections using only that one drug.)
While other thiopental-scarce jurisdictions have moved towards alternative chemicals and injection procedures, Missouri did a classic three-drug injection using some of its dwindling stockpile — which was due to expire on March 1, anyway. What the plan might be for the next Show-Me State execution, whenever that might be, nobody seems ready to say. If recent trends are any indication, they’ve got plenty of time to work it out.
“It was such a horrendous crime,” one of the officers told a reporter. “I’ve got a picture of that in my mind right now … of seeing the little girl and everything. It’s kind of hard to put it out of your mind.”
One is attracted most readily to the firing-squad execution of murderer Wallace Wilkerson in Utah.
Wilkerson appealed the constitutionality of this method of execution, and in 1879’s Wilkerson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not” cruel and unusual punishment.
This legal precedent has actually been cited* by the present-day Supreme Court in rejecting legal challenges to lethal injection. Which is ironic, because a couple of months after the high court issued Wilkerson v. Utah, Wilkerson suffered a very cruel execution indeed.
The doomed man talked the officials conducting his execution into allowing him to die without being strapped down. With the resultant range of motion, Wilkerson at the last breath before the fusillade hit him drew his shoulders up as he braced for the impact — and pulled the white target pinned to his shirt above his heart.
The volley didn’t kill him — it just knocked him out of his chair to the ground, screaming “Oh, my God! My God! They have missed!”
He bled to death in 27 minutes, prompting the tongue-in-cheek observation by the Ogden Junction that “the French guillotine never fails.”
Meanwhile, on the very same day in Missouri …
ST. LOUIS, Mo., May 16.–A special dispatch from Booneville, Mo., says: “John I. West, who murdered a tramp last October, was to-day hanged at the Old Fair Ground near this city. When the trap was sprung, at 11:41 A.M., the rope broke, and the culprit fell to the ground on his back, but was too weak to rise. His groans and the gurgling sounds of strangulation were terrible to hear. He was picked up and speedily raised to the trap again, and, while being held by four or five men, was dropped a second time. This time he swung, and in 11 minutes was pronounced dead.
After reaching the platform of the gallows, West spoke nearly half an hour to the crowd present, reiterating his confession of the murder of Shinn, reviewing his past life, and appealing to young men and women to take his fate as a warning. There were about 8,000 people present, among whom was the father of West, who had come from Chapin, Ill.
(There’s a great deal more about West’s crime in the Times article, but it’s pretty dull reading for all the column-inches. He was a tramp who committed a semi-random murder, seemingly activating all the crime-freakout circuits so familiar to cable news programmers.)
Hillsboro, North Carolina, held a first-ever triple hanging — of the “Chapel Hill burglars”. As you might guess, these gentlemen burgled, and said burgling occurred in Chapel Hill. It was for housebreaking, not murder, that they were condemned, with the help of a confederate who turned state’s-evidence against them as soon as the lot was arrested.
Each of the culprits proclaimed his innocence to the last moment. [Lewis] Carlton spoke for an hour, and said his salvation was sure. The parting between [Henry] Andrews and his sister on the scaffold was most affecting, and moved the crowd of witnesses to tears. All the doomed men bore themselves firmly, and showed no signs of wavering. The hanging took place at 2:30 P.M., and was very badly conducted. The ropes around the necks of [Henry Alphonso] Davis and Carlton were too long, and their feet rested on the ground. They were raised up and the ropes retied, causing death by strangulation.
(According to this “history of the University of North Carolina” page, one of the burglars’ victims was writer Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Famous as the woman who rang the bell re-opening UNC in 1875, her role in closing the university in the first place in 1870 and her retrograde racial politics have recently been in Tar Heel news. The linked article suggests that her brush with the Chapel Hill burglars might have given Spencer an appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan’s version of order. After all, a white supremacist vigilante is just a liberal who’s been burgled.)
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat of May 17, 1879 adds of our men’s exit (in an addendum to a report primarily about the aforementioned West) that
[t]he execution was romantic in the extreme. Just as the doomed men ascended the platform a murky cloud, which had been drifting around, hung over the crowd and the instrument of death. Alfonso Davis began to speak, and as he opened his mouth the thunder began to peal, and the rain came down in torrents. Not a man, woman or child in the vast crowd moved or seemed to be aware that the rain was falling, so wrapped up in the death scene were they. At times the cloud threw such a dense shadow over the scene that it seemed as though night had enveloped the place. Then the lightning, vivid and intense, lit up the field of blood and cast forward, in bold and statuesque relief, the figures of the doomed and their executor as he stood like an artilleryman, lanyard in hand, ready to send the signal of death forward … the souls of three burglars went out and beyond, forked lightning illuminating their way and the wildest of thunder pealing their requiem.
The Bayou State redeemed this black day for the executioner’s craft by the uneventful hanging one Robert Cheney (black, of course) “for ravishing Amelia Voight in June, 1878.”
All told, four states killed six men on May 16, 1879, but only two of them died “cleanly.”
* The author of the New York Times opinion piece cited here, Gilbert King, has guest-blogged on this site:
At 6:30 this morning a century ago, two black men were hanged in Kansas City, Mo., for raping a white violinist less than seven weeks before.
There was really only one way this case was going to end.
The assault was of such a nature that intense feeling was aroused. Threats of lynching frequently were heard …
Prisoners in the County Jail raised bedlam when the verdict became known. They had previously threatened to lynch the negroes in the exercise room of the jail.
That’s from the Los Angeles Times blog’s roundup of its A.P. coverage from the Show-Me state a century ago — which further reveals George Reynolds and John Williams enjoyed a five-minute jury deliberation, and this vituperative sentence from the judge:
“They don’t even deserve to be classed with the murderer who must pay the penalty for his crime with his life,” continued Judge Latshaw.* “It would be an insult to these men, who had at least a spark of manhood in their hardened souls, to have such brutes as these put in their class. I don’t care to desecrate the day by ordering these two brutes hanged on the legal hanging day.”
(The regular hanging day — Friday — was safely un-desecrated; Reynolds and Williams hanged on a Tuesday.)
Reynolds fainted at the gallows. “Cowardly Brute,” the LA Times headlined it, also mentioning that he’d been starving himself for a week in a desperate bid to cheat the hangman. He maintained his innocence at the last.
* Judge Latshaw presided over a number of high-profile Missouri trials … oftenacquittals.
But Honest Abe had one last order of business to attend to before his carriage called him away to destiny: the pardon of a convicted Confederate spy due to be shot in St. Louis two days hence. Lincoln’s handwritten clemency for George Vaughn was the last official act of his presidency.
Lincoln in Story (“The Life of the Martyr-President told in Authenticated Anecdotes,” a light 1901 volume for popular consumption) relates:
Before the war Vaughn, with his wife and children, lived in Canton, Mo. He was a friend of Martin E. Green, a brother of United States Senator James S. Green, both strong pro-slavery men. At the opening of the war Martin E. Green recruited a regiment and received a colonel’s commission from the Confederate Government. George Vaughn enlisted under Green’s command and fought through the war.
After a period of fighting, Green and Vaughn crossed into Mississippi from Tennessee, camping at Tupelo, Miss. Not having heard from his family, Green was anxious to hear from his old home, so he delegated Vaughn to go on the mission of delivering letters to his wife.
Vaughn had almost completed his trip, having reached La Grange, six miles south of Canton, when he was captured by a squad of Federal troops.
They searched his person, and, finding letters and papers concealed about him, he was tried as a spy and sentenced to be shot. John B. Henderson, Senator from Missouri, finally succeeded in getting an order from the President for a retrial, but the verdict remained as hitherto. Again Henderson appealed to Lincoln, who granted a third trial, with the same result.
Henderson was not disconcerted, and again went to Lincoln. It was on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 — a melancholy date — that the Senator called at the White House. He called the attention of Lincoln to the fact that the war was practically closed, and said: “Mr. Lincoln, this pardon should be granted in the interest of peace and conciliation.”
This story gravitates naturally to the clemency of “the Great Heart” (as, for instance, D.W. Griffith called Lincoln). Far be it from us to say otherwise, but this is also self-evidently a story of the unusual prerogatives of the well-connected: not just any accused spy could get two trial do-overs and then a pardon free and clear ordered straight from the White House.
Mr. Lincoln replied: “Senator, I agree with you. Go to Stanton and tell him this man must be released.”
Vaughn had but two days to live, and Henderson hastened to make one more stand. After supper he went to the White House. The President was in his office, dressed to go to Ford’s Theatre, when the Senator entered and told of the meeting he had had with Stanton.
Lincoln turned to his desk and wrote a few lines on an official sheet of paper. As he handed it to Senator Henderson he remarked: “I think that will have precedence over Stanton.”
It was an order for an unconditional release and pardon — the last official paper ever signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Update: The excellent tale of a different soldier pardoned on this same date has recently been debunked by the National Archives in an academic scandal: in January 2011, researcher Thomas Lowry confessed to altering the pardon order for one Patrick Murphy from the true (and much less dramatic) date of April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865.
Vaughn was actually pardoned just before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater; Murphy (totally unconnected to Vaughn) was pardoned 365 days prior.