Posts filed under 'New York'

1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Sex,The Supernatural,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1865: Robert Cobb Kennedy, Confederate terrorist

Add comment March 25th, 2020 Headsman

Robert Cobb Kennedy, the last Confederate executed by the Union during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1865 as an arsonist.


Harper’s magazine illustration of an arsonist.

Kennedy, a West Point washout from a Louisiana plantation, was part of an ensemble of Confederate agents who attempted to torch New York City on November 25, 1864 — a mission designed to revenge Sherman’s march.

On that Friday evening, the night after Thanksgiving, the eight conspirators fired 13 Gotham hotels as well as theaters, public buildings, and the ludicrous museum of showman P.T. Barnum.* Nineteen fires were started overall, the plotters hoping that their simultaneous flaring would overwhelm the city’s capacity to respond and turn into a general conflagration. Through a combination of good luck, bad arson, and timely informants the various blazes were caught before they could do any real damage.

That couldn’t quite be said of the arsonists, who were all — even Kennedy — able to slip away safely to Canada before they could be caught. Kennedy risked a return trip through Detroit hoping to reach Confederate soil. He didn’t make it.

“Mr. Kennedy is a man of apparently 30 years of age, with an exceedingly unprepossessing countenance,” by the description of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 1865) as he stood trial before a military tribunal.

His head is well shaped, but his brow is lowering, his eyes deep sunken and his look unsteady. Evidently a keen-witted, desperate man, he combines the cunning and the enthusiasm of a fanatic, with the lack of moral principle characteristic of many Southern Hotspurs, whose former college experiences, and most recent hotel-burning plots are somewhat familiar to our readers. Kennedy is well connected at the South, is a relative, a nephew we believe, of Howell Cobb, and was educated at the expense of the United States, at West Point, where he remained two years, leaving at that partial period of study in consequence of mental or physical inability. While there he made the acquaintance of Ex. Brig. Gen. E.W. Stoughton, who courteously proffered his services as counsel for his ancient friend in his present needy hour. During Kennedy’s confinement here, while awaiting trial, he made sundry foolish admissions, wrote several letters which have told against him, and in general did, either intentionally or indiscreetly, many things, which seem to have rendered his conviction almost a matter of entire certainty.

He was hanged at Fort Lafayette, having admitted to setting the fire at Barnum’s museum (“simply a reckless joke … There was no fiendishness about it. The Museum was set on fire by merest accident, after I had been drinking, and just for the fun of a scare”). His was the only life claimed by the Confederate incendiaries.

* This facility was born under a bad star: although it survived the ministrations of Kennedy and friends, it burned to the ground the following July. Barnum put up a successor museum which also burned down, in 1868 — leading the man to pivot into the circus industry where he fixed his name in the firmament.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,New York,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , ,

1860: James Stephens

Add comment February 3rd, 2020 Headsman

James Stephens hanged in New York on this date in 1860, for poisoning his wife.

We’ve referenced passingly a number of 19th century hangings on then-trendy “upward-jerking” gallows — whose action is not to drop the offender down through a trap, but to drop a heavy weight which levers the offender up.

Thanks to the Feb. 4, 1860 edition of the New York Herald, we have a very detailed description of this macabre device.

Perhaps the reporter’s skepticism as to this machine’s humane efficacy is informed here by a bit of hindsight, for when it engaged to end the life of our Mr. Stephens,

Up went the culprit high into the air, not with a sudden violent jerk as usual, but slowly, as if by the strength of a man’s arms, instead of a powerful weight of some 300 pounds. It became evident immediately that something was wrong, and soon a rumor went round that the rope had been unwound instead of cut by the hangman. It appeared that the executioner, who was inexperienced, got frightened, and thus the barbarous manner of hanging the culprit was explained.

It was extraordinary that under these circumstances the unfortunate wretch, suspended between heaven and earth, did not exhibit indications of violent suffering. The moment the rope tightened around his neck, and he was elevated about half way up, a slight twitching of the fingers and kicking of the legs were perceptible. Then a few moments intervened without the slightest indication of suffering, except the hard breathing, which was fearful to listen to. After hanging two minutes in this way, another convulsive throe took place; the vessels in the neck seemed to be swelled almost to bursting, the fingers and wrists assumed a bluish hue, and the feet twitched once or twice spasmodically. Three minutes came, and with it a very feeble tremor showed itself in the whole body; but it lasted only a few seconds, when all further motion ceased, and life seemed to be completely extinct. The surgeons, Drs. Woodward, Simmons and Covell, viewed the body after a suspension of five minutes, and gave it as their opinion that animation was certainly gone; but the body was not lowered until fourteen minutes had expired. The surgeons then again examined the body, found no pulse, and the flesh icy cold. Considering the circumstances, the culprit died a remarkably easy death, which was owing, doubtless, to the feeble condition of his constitution. Had he been in good strength at the time of his execution there is no question but that he would have struggled in the most frightful agony for half an hour.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , ,

1779: Claudius Smith, Cowboy of the Ramapos

Add comment January 22nd, 2020 Headsman

Claudius Smith, a feared Tory guerrilla during the American, was hanged in Goshen, N.Y., on this date in 1779.

“The Cowboy of the Ramapos” for his penchant for livestock-rustling in the Ramapo Mountains, Smith headlined a gang of pro-British criminals/partisans operating out of Monroe, N.Y., near the New Jersey border — a zone of dirty irregular warfare.

Quite a lot of legends apparently proliferated about this guy, including in his own time: one wanted poster described him as seven feet tall.

If you were a British loyalist in his neighborhood you might have figured him along the lines of an Anglo hajduk — the Balkan freebooters who straddled the line between social bandit and hero insurgent. To a Patriot, he was little better than a brigand, and not satisfied with riding off cattle and horses ventured also to invade farm houses for plunder. After one of his band’s deadly raids, Orange County Whigs complained to New York Gov. George Clinton, “we have not thought ourselves secure for a long time. We live so scattered that they can come in the dead of night to any one family & do what they please.”

So unsettled were the wartime frontiers that Gov. Clinton was notably unable to satisfy their petition for quite some time, and Smith’s raids, sometimes working in concert with the pro-British Mohawk commander Joseph Brant, continued to frighten those scattered revolutionists.

A Continental Army major named Jesse Brush finally captured Smith on Long Island late in 1778, and delivered him back to authorities at Orange County who gave him a proper trial and condemned him to hang for several robberies. (Murder wasn’t on the rap sheet.)

One month later, Smith’s son Richard with a band of cowboys revenged the execution by slaying a Goshen man named Richard Clark — and pinning to his corpse a warning to their persecutors.

A Warning to the Rebels

You are hereby warned from hanging any more friends to the government as you did Claudius Smith. You are warned likewise to use James Smith, James Flewelling, and William Cole well and ease them from their irons, for we are determined to hang six for one, for the blood of the innocent cries aloud for vengeance. Your noted friend, Capt. Williams and his crew of robbers and murders we have got in our power, and the blood of Claudius Smith shall be repaid. There are particular companies of us who belong to Col. Butler’s army, Indians as well as white men, and particularly numbers from New York that are resolved to be revenged on you for your cruelty and murders. We are to remind you that you are the beginners and aggressors, for by your cruel oppressions and bloody actions drive us to it. This is the first and we are determined to pursue it on your heads and leaders to the last till the whole of you is massacred.

Dated New York February 1779.

It was tall talk that the raiders couldn’t back up: rewards and informants soon broke up the band, leaving the cowboys and Claudius Smith to pass into history.

Ramblers might enjoy a visit to Claudius Smith’s Den, a cave that formerly served as a refuge for Smith’s gang. Beware of ghosts!


(cc) image from The Turducken.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Public Executions,Soldiers,Terrorists,Theft,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , ,

1920: Joseph Usefof

Add comment December 9th, 2019 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“You see an innocent man dying tonight. Thank you, warden. You have been a kind man.”

— Joseph Usefof, convicted of murder, electric chair, New York. Executed December 9, 1920.

Usefof was executed along with three other men for the 1918 murder of subway ticket agent Otto Fialo in the Bronx. Joseph Milano, one of Usefof’s co-defendants, exonerated Usefof in a written confession, which he later retracted. Usefof maintained his innocence; he was the first of his group to be executed because he was considered the most likely to suffer a breakdown.

[Executed with Usefof and Milano were James Cassidy and Charles McLaughlin, along with a fifth man electrocuted for an unrelated murder, Howard Baker. -ed.]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Mass Executions,Murder,New York,Other Voices,USA

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1963: Eddie Lee Mays, the last executed in New York

1 comment August 15th, 2019 Headsman

The last execution in the state of New York occurred on this date in 1963 when Harlem murderer Eddie Lee Mays — who shot a woman dead in the course of a pub stickup — went to the mercy seat at Sing Sing prison.


It was also the last execution in Sing Sing’s notorious electric chair, here elevated to the artistic canon by Andy Warhol‘s 1960s series of electric chair images. Warhol based his arresting view of the apparatus on press photos circulated around the 1953 electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the same device.

New York’s once-robust death penalty statutes and habits disappeared along with the rest of America’s by the late 1960s; her last executioner, Dow B. Hover — the guy who threw the switch on Eddie Mays — committed suicide in 1990.

The Empire State ditched its death penalty laws in 1984, briefly reinstated them in 1995, but executed no prisoners before everything was ruled out constitutionally in 2004.

By coincidence, August 15, 1963 was also the date of the last execution in Scotland.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,New York,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1819: Nathan Foster, wife-killer and patriot-killer

Add comment August 6th, 2019 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, Nathan Foster hanged in Masonville, New York.

The crime on his charge sheet was poisoning his wife, Eleanor, to get with the pretty young maid she hired.

But little less damning in the eyes of his neighbors was the belief that he had taken the life of a patriot while fighting the pro-British side during the American Revolution.

Foster was a tory during the Revolution, and is reported to have been the identical person who inhumanly murdered Col. Alden, at the massacre of Cherry Valley, in 1777. Priest, in his narrative of the capture of David Ogden, who died a short time since in Franklin, Delaware County, thus refers: “This act of barbarity was perpetrated by a man named Foster, a tory at that time, and the same, who a few years since (1819) was hanged for the murder of his wife, by poison, in Delaware County, N.Y. at Delhi. That the same Foster did murder Colonel Alden, was ascertained by a certain James Campbell, another tory, who stated to David Ogden, that he had heard this Foster boast of the act, while they were both with the British at Niagara. He was at length overtaken by justice, and ended his miserable life on the gallows, although at the advanced age of __ years. He died without a confession of his guilt.

Foster’s prosecution had the aid at the very bar of New York’s Attorney General — the future United States President Martin Van Buren. There’s a #longreads piece on the man and the case available from New York History Review.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1819: John Van Alstine

Add comment March 19th, 2019 Headsman

John Van Alstine was (incompetently) hanged two hundred years ago today for murdering Schoharie County, N.Y., deputy sheriff William Huddleston — whom he bludgeoned to death in a rage when Huddleston turned up to execute a civil judgment forcing the sale of Van Alstine’s property to service a debt. The man acknowledged having a ferocious temper.

“It is not a year since I stated in Judge Beekman’s presence, (and, I stated it as the firm conviction of my mind), that there were two things I should never come to — the state’s prison and the gallows,” the confessed murderer mused in his public reflections, below. “How often have these words occurred to me since the regretted 9th, and taught me the vanity of human boasting, and the weakness of human resolution, when opposed to long indulged passions.”


This document has also been transcribed here.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , ,

1876: Owen Lindsay, of the Baldwinsville Homicide

1 comment February 11th, 2019 Headsman

Friend of the site (and sometime guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm brings this story from his essential Murder by Gaslight

Lindsay’s trip to the gallows began when a mysterious body was fished out of the drink in the upstate New York village of Baldwinsville.

Much as with Homer Simpson (electrocuted in 1929), posterity might indulge a chuckle that the instrument of Lindsay’s hanging was a fellow bearing the subsequently interesting name of Vader; needless to say, though, the means by which Lindsay and his Sith accomplice put Francis Colvin into the Seneca River was no elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

Find the whole post at MBG right here.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

1865: Henry Wilson, shy subject

Add comment December 22nd, 2018 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I had made a request not to have my photograph taken, for fear my friends would recognize me. Somebody else made a request that it should be taken, and Chase [the sheriff] paid more attention to them than to me, and let them try to take it as I came out. You can see what kind of man this Chase is, and if I had a chance I would take his photograph d—-d quick. I don’t think they got a good one. So my friends will not know it. Perhaps my photograph will be the means of finding out who I am, but I doubt it d—-dly. I have nothing more to say, and you may go on as soon as you please, for it is no consolation to me to be kept standing here in the cold.”

— Henry Wilson, convicted of murder, hanging, New York.

Executed December 22, 1865 A career burglar, Wilson was executed for slaying of Henry DeVoe, whose home he had been robbing. Wilson admitted to killing two other New Yorkers — Burr Burton in Syracuse and Mrs. Lewis in Lancaster — and told police he was the man wanted for a host of unsolved crimes. He went to the gallows three days before Christmas. A reporter for the Rochester Democrat censored Wilson’s profanities, which appear to be derivations of damn.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,New York,Other Voices,Theft,USA

Tags: , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

April 2020
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!