This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.
Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.
On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.
Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.
“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”
This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”
“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*
It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.
Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.
John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.
Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.
But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)
The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the gallows.
Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.
Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.
So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.
At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.
“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”
For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)
** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.
Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.
In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)
Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.
In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”
Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.
Brown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.
Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.
Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.
Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)
Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.
The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.
Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.
Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:
The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae
Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.
The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.
The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.
* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”
As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.
“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”
On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.
That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Painewrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.
George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.
Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.
In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.
Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.
A fith-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
A plot against the person of George Washington himself.
Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.
Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.
“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”
The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.
No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.
Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.
The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.
Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.
Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)
The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.
Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.
It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.
* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.
** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.
The July 13, 1793 Wyndham (Conn.) Heraldquotes the last dying words of Ezra Mead, hanged May 31 at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
I, Ezra Mead, aged forty years, was born at Stamford in the State of Connecticut, of honest and credible parents, with whom I lived until I was about ten years of age; when I was bound as an apprentice to learn the Cooper’s trade. After having served the time of my apprenticeship, I went to Fish Kill and married my wife Catherine Rogers; since which time I have been in several parts of the World working at my trade, in order to get something in an honest way by my industry for the support of my wife and children, who resided in the town of Fish Kill. Having returned to my family, I resided with them, but being afflicted by a certain neighbor of mine, in words and actions, was driven by turns to drinking to excess; and in one of these fits of insanity, I committed the crime for which I suffer. But I declare to the world, that I was not willfully guilty of the crime aforesaid; at that present moment I might have suspected he had injured me, but not being master of my reason, have been guilty of what I never intended to have done, as appeared in the course of my trial. And I do further declare that I never have been guilty of any other crime deserving such punishment, as has been represented or reported by many evil minded persons since my imprisonment. And that I forgive all mankind, and hope the Lord and they will forgive me, and that they will take warning by my untimely end. Farewell. Ezra Mead.
He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.
On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.
These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.
However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.
The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.
Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)
En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.
To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.
“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.
But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.
At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.
On this date in 1818, Abraham Casler was hanged in Schoharie, N.Y. for escaping an ill-advised marriage by means of an illicit powder.
Casler had got young Catherine (Caty) Sprecker pregnant and was only induced to change her name in 1812 by threat of prosecution. Even at the wedding he told the bride’s own brother that he didn’t intend to live with the poor girl.
Casler immediately regretted committing himself to wedlock in any form whatsoever (his alternative would have been to pay a fine, much the bargain as compared to an unpromising marriage — particularly so in those benighted days before no-fault divorce). So he promptly enlisted in the army then fighting the War of 1812 so as “not to live with his wife that he wished … was out of the land of the living,” as he said to another recruit.
If wishes were fishes, they’d have arsenic inside. (n.b.: they do!)
When he finally had to return, Casler preferred to spend his time paying court to a widowed Albany innkeeper, and generally had a manifestly unhappy time of it with Caty. The latter’s epileptic fits probably only exacerbated the unwilling husband’s ire.
At last, while traveling, Caty Casler took ill with “a burning heat at her stomach & breast … cold chills by spells accompanied with sweat.” She “said her whole body was in pain; she was alernately [sic] cold and hot; would throw off the bed clothes, and then cover herself again.” After a couple of miserable bedridden days, all the while being personally treated by an attentive Abraham Casler who also shooed away attempts by other guests to assist or to summon medical aid,* Caty Casler succumbed, and “looked blue round the mouth and eyes” and “her hair came out.”
Doctors who conducted the post-mortem found what they were certain was arsenic and opium in Caty’s stomach. The trial record features a number of these medical men describing the exact tests they used to establish the presence of this deadly mineral; for instance, a Dr. James W. Miller described finding “particles … of a vitrious appearance” in the stomach.
Some of those particles were placed on a heated iron; a dense white fume arose from their combustion. Some of them were likewise placed between two plates of polished copper prepared for the purpose; those coppers were bound by an iron wire and placed into the fire until they were brought to red heat; they were then removed and after they were cold they were separated, the interior of the plates were whitened towards the edges of the plate in the form of a circle.
Last, taking two teaspoons of stomach fluid containing these suspicious particles,
He diluted it with a pint of water, then took the nitrate of silver and dissolved it and put into a separate glass; took pure ammonia into another glass; then took two glass rods, wet the end of one of them in the solution of the nitrate of silver, and dipped the end of the other in the pure ammonia, then brought the two ends of the rods in contact on the surface of the water in the vessel containing the contents of the stomach, and passed them down into the fluid; there was a precipitate from the point of contact, that precipitate was of an orange colour. He repeated that experiment several times, and also with arsenic dissolved in water. The results of the experiment were similar; the same precipitate in the one as in the other, tho’ it was more distinct in the solution made of arsenic, that being coulourless.
There was, in Dr. Miller’s opinion, “arsenic in the stomach; [he] has no doubt of it; considers the test made by him infallible; does not know that any thing except arsenic, will produce the same effect on copper, as was produced by those particles in the experiment.”
The court record merely summarizes the testimony witness by witness rather than providing a literal transcription, but one gets a sense of the thing merely leafing through it: it has 16 pages of prosecution testimony, from Casler’s Albany crush and family members catching him in suspicious circumstances, plus six different physicians, one of whom was a Professor of Chemistry at Fairfield Medical Academy.
The defense has one-half of one page, consisting of a flat denial by Casler and the observations of one former boarder with nothing useful to say.
That admonition had to be repeated: less than a year later, the crossbeam that had once supported Casler’s dying throes was tested again to dispatch a farmer from Sharon Springs who had bludgeoned a deputy sheriff to death.
* “It would only make a bill of expense,” Casler said of the prospect of summoning a physician for his wife. This was also the same disquieting answer he gave when asked if he would be taking the body to bury with her family; instead, he unsentimentally buried it at the nearest available spot, where it was soon exhumed by suspicious locals. The guy hung himself with skinflintedness.
On this date in 1829, George Chapman became the first person hanged in Waterloo, N.Y.
According to the July 29, 1829 New York Spectator, the tailor Chapman “had a quarrel with Daniel Wright, laborer (both excessively intemperate drinkers),” but the two sorted it out.
“According to a vulgar custom, however, they must ratify their treaty of amity over a bottle of whiskey”: in drinking their accord the drunks promptly fell back into dispute, leading Chapman to fatally clobber Wright across the head with a shovel.
This article refers soberingly to the perpetrator’s “inevitable doom”, and so it was.
The following spring (according to this pdf memoir which misstates the year of the event), thousands came by foot, by boat, by ox-cart, sleeping under the stars to witness the strange spectacle of Chapman’s public execution. “Trees around the spot were so filled with sight-seers that they looked as if they were covered with blackbirds.”
On this date in 1860, William Fee became the only person ever executed in Wayne County, New York.
Fee’s alleged victim is not distinguished by a name, at least not one known to Fee’s prosecutors. The anonymous woman turned up dead September 26, 1859 on Wayne County’s old Montezuma Turnpike. She had been strangled, the coroner said — and ravished.
Though she was a stranger, the victim had been seen in the area inquiring about employment. Fee and another man named Muldoon had been observed following her the day previous, and that “following” was cast in a sinister light by their now-unknown whereabouts. Both men were laborers working on an enlargement of the Erie Canal around Lyons, N.Y.
Fee was eventually arrested in New York City; Muldoon, in Scranton, Pa. We’ll return to Muldoon later.
Fee and his ill-favored “Hibernian countenance” stood trial from January 30 to February 3, 1860. “Seats were at a premium in the court room and in the gallery behind the curtains there was a crowd of ladies, listening breathlessly to the testimony,” ran a retrospective from 1913. “During the noon hour, seats were bargained for and sold at 10 cents to 50 cents apiece.”
And though he maintained a superficial calm when the jury returned a guilty verdict against him — “Damn tough, but I’m not going to lie awake thinking about it” — William Fee broke down sobbing when the judge finally sentenced him.
The kid came from a working-class family and had a scrappy reputation. It wasn’t clear as he approached execution that he was handling it with the gravity expected for the occasion by right-thinking gentlemen. Then there was the worry for his eternal salvation: born of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents, he was essentially irreligious and indifferent to a parade of ministers who called upon his cell. (Fee accepted the ministrations of a couple of Catholic priests in his very last hours.)
While clerics kneaded the hard clay of Fee’s soul, municipal officials took a chisel to logistics. Since this was the first (and last) hanging in these parts, the equipment had to be obtained on loan: they borrowed the upward-jerking gallows recently used to execute Ira Stout in upstate New York.*
The gallows was erected in one of the small halls of the jail … four upright posts twelve feet high and five feet apart. Across the top was an oak timber projecting two feet or more beyond the frame. At the front end, above where the prisoner was to stand was a grooved wheel or pully; and another was inserted in the timber over the centre of the frame. The main rope ran over these rollers, one end falling in front, to which the halter was attached, the other dropping to the centre of the gallows frame, where heavy weights were attached. These weights, in all 254 pounds, were suspended by a small cord passing through the main timber above and over it to a pin. The weights had a fall of perhaps eight feet. When the cord was severed by a blow of the axe, the weights fell and jerked the main rope running over the grooved wheels. In order that there should be no failure, Sheriff Snedaker had the gallows put up in the court house and fully tested before removing it to the jail. (New York Herald, April 3, 1860)
Fee came to this device still asserting his innocence, but also asserting that Muldoon wasn’t involved. Don’t worry if those seem a bit at odds; the execution party was confused enough to require clarification, too. Cut him some slack: those 254 pounds of weights weren’t going to cut him any.
The hanging went off without difficulty and, whether influenced by Fee’s parting attempt at exoneration or otherwise, Muldoon was never ultimately brought to trial. The evidence against him being unsatisfactory, he was released some months later.
On this date in 1825, a woman named Peggy Facto was hung on Plattsburgh, N.Y.‘s Broad Street Arsenal Lot.
Facto — or “Facteau,” which variant recalls the French influence here on the shores of Lake Champlain — started her way to the gallows the previous autumn when some neighborhood dogs unearthed the remains of a human infant. It had been partially burned in a fireplace, and when found it still had fast about its throat the cord used to choke it to death. (Plus, of course, the dogs had done their own damage.)
This hideous discovery led back to our day’s principal character, the local mother of two [living] children whose husband had abandoned her due to her affair with a guy named Francis LaBare. Both Peggy and Francis were indicted for “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil” to murder their inconvenient bastard immediately after birth.
They faced separate trials for the crime, just hours apart on January 19, 1825, on very similar evidence. Witnesses established the discovery of the body, and an acquaintance named Mary Chandreau testified that she had seen Peggy Facto in an obvious late stage of pregnancy that August. This woman also visited Peggy Facto in jail before trial, and testified that Peggy admitted to having taken a string from one of her gowns to furnish the strangulation-cord.
While this evidence was sufficient to condemn Peggy Facto upon mere minutes of juror deliberation, the same case against Francis LaBare resulted in an acquittal. The mother, who did not testify at her own trial, did take the stand at LaBare’s trial, claiming (according to the notes of the judge), that immediately after she delivered the child, Facto
asked [LaBare] to go find her mother & he refused. She then asked him to go find Mrs. Chandreau & he refused, and next asked him if he meant to let her die there & he said the damned old bitch, I can do better than she can. She then requested him to help her & he did & then the child was born & he took it out and went off & was gone an hour, and when he returned … he came towards her with a knife & threatened her life if she said anything about it.
It’s difficult to account, on the face of it, for the wildly differential outcomes of these trials; the all-male juries might have something to do with it.
At any rate, while LaBare walked, judge Reuben Walworth* pronounced Facto’s fate with enough fury for two … and a distinct disbelief in Facto’s attempt to blame LaBare:
there are very strong reasons for the belief that your own wicked hands have perpetrated the horrid deed. And if there was any other guilty participator in the murder, that your own wickedness and depravity instigated and persuaded him to participate in your crime. To the crime of murder, you have added the crime of perjury, and that in the face of Heaven, and even on the very threshhold of eternity. I am also constrained to say, it is much to be feared, that you will meet more than one murdered child, as an accusing spirit at the bar of Heaven.
Wretched and deluded woman! In vain was the foul and unnatural murder committed under the protecting shade of night, in your lone and sequestered dwelling, where no human eye was near to witness your guilt.
Facto’s only “appeal” after her half-day trial was the clemency consideration of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, a petition that ended up garnering a great deal of popular support, on three stated grounds:
As to the policy of executing any person for the crime of murder when the public opinion is much divided on this subject
Even Judge Walworth ultimately supported this appeal, despite his confidence “that the woman was perfectly abandoned and depraved and that she had destroyed this child and probably the one the year previous, not for the purpose of hiding her shame which was open and apparent to everybody that saw her but for the purpose of ridding herself of the trouble of taking care of them and providing for their support.”
The governor disagreed, arguing that the sort of enlightened people who signed on to death penalty appeals were out of touch with the rank terror necessary to keep the criminal orders cowed.**
So on March 18, 1825, an enormous crowd (fretfully many of them women) summoned from all the nearby towns slogged through spring-muddied roads to be duly cowed by the execution of the infanticide. The condemned, visibly terrified, barely made it through her death-ritual without fainting away, but she managed to re-assert her innocence from the gallows. (Some of the firsthand newspapering is here.)
After execution, Peggy Facto’s remains were turned over to the Medical Society for dissection. “A great many went to see her body, although it had been agreed that it should not be seen,” one woman later recollected in her memoirs. “Many young men went. So much talk was made of this that they said that no other body should ever be given to the doctors.”
** “Their excellent character elevates them above those feelings which govern the conduct of the depraved … if terror loses its influence with them then indeed the life of no man will be secure.” For more on the evolution of the idea of “exemplary deterrence” as the death penalty’s raison d’etre, see Paul Friedland.
On this date in 1708, the slave “Indian Sam” and an unnamed black woman were put to death for the murder of a prominent Queens landowner named William Hallet. The woman was burned; the apparent principal of the plot was hung in gibbets with a blade or spike positioned to torment him as he twisted … a terrible landmark for what Graham Russell Hodges calls the “closing vise of slavery.”
(Two additional accomplices were also hanged later, and several other slaves questioned whose ultimate fate was unknown.)
New York had greatly curtailed Africans’ liberties with its 1706 “Code Noir”, and the growing conflict would soon give birth to a bloody slave revolt.
But grievances were settled, too, at the rough and ready level of private violence. One witness recounted (pdf) the scene.
William Hallet junior who labored at a place called Hellgate his wife and five children in a quarter of an hour were all murdered by one Indian slave whom he had up for 4 years. There was a negro woman Slave in the house who was to him in counseling him in this bloody matter. Both he and his wife have gone at Justice Hattely house with some others … about seven at night [Hallet and his wife] returned home and went to bed … The slaves were watching their opportunity for they had to do it that night, and the house being something dark, [Indian Sam] came into the house and had a[n] axe laid behind the door and seeing his Master asleep took the axe and struck him first with the edge and then with the back of it. The first shook awakened his wife who was abed in the same room and she called murder, thereupon he struck her with the back of an axe on the head. There was one child lying in a box about 7 or 8 years of age. Those he murdered with the back of an axe and then drags the Young Child out from its murdered mother and Struck it on the head. The mother of the murdered child was also big with child.
… I have nothing new to acquaint you with, only that a most barbarous murder has been committed upon the Family of one Hallet by an Indian Man Slave, and a Negro Woman, who have murder’d their Master, Mistress and five Children; The Slaves were taken, and I immediately issued a special commission for the Tryal of them, which was done, and the man sentenced to be hanged, and the Woman burnt, and they have been executed; They Discovered two other Negros their accomplices who have been tryed, condemned & Executed.
Later that year, New York passed another law imposing potentially tortuous executions (“pains of Death in such manner and with such Circumstances as the aggravation and Enormity of their Crime in the Judgement of the Justices … shall merit and require”) for slave conspiracies.
Hallet was the descendant of one of New York’s prominent early grandees whose name long remained prominent, which would lead us to suppose that the restaurant calledWilliam Hallet in nearby present-day Astoria is not altogether coincidental.