Colonial counterfeiter Owen Syllavan (Sullivan) was executed in New York on this date in 1756.
An Irish runaway, Syllavan followed an indenture to the North American colonies and wound up enlisted in the army during the French and Indian War. As a militia armorer, he picked up the smithing skills with which he would later turn out plates to to clone the colonies’ bills of exchange.
On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”
Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.
Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”
The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was
as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.
The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.
One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.
“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.
We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.
It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.
-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case
* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:
To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.
** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.
Containing many incidents of his life and conduct not before made public. Faithfully written from his own words, while under sentence of death in prison.
LIFE and CONFESSION &c.
In offering to the public the following narrative I feel no other interest than the good of mankind, nor have I any other object in view than to caution the careless and unwary against pursuing that vicious course which has been the means of plunging me at this early period of life into that dreadful dilemma in which I am now involved.
Altho nature had doomed me to a state of obscurity and degradation, I might have remained happy in this unenviable situation, had not the vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier stages of my youth driven me into excesses which have proved my ruin. Pursued by the hand of justice, I have thus early been arrested in my vicious career: drawn from the deep & solitary recesses of obscurity and debasement, to the bar of justice, I am condemned to recieve [sic] the punishment which my guilt has so justly merited, as a warning and example to those I leave behind. It may be somewhat interesting to those I am about to leave to be informed of the causes which have produced those (to me) dreadful effects.
The following pages contain a brief history of my short and wicked life, and such reflections as have been produced in my mind by a retrospective view of my conduct; they are submitted to the public as the last words of a dying sinner.
I am this day seventeen years and five weeks old. I was born of African parents; slaves to Mr. Benjamin Ward of Middlesex county State of New-Jersey, in whose family I lived until about four years ago, previous to which my parents purchased their freedom, and left my master’s family.
My master was a man of very corrupt and immoral habits, subject to habitual intoxication, and most of the vices which flow from that fertile scource [sic] of human depravity. Among other things he almost totally neglected his family concerns, the consequence was that I and my brothers and sisters were left to govern ourselves, and form such habits and principles as our inclinations led us to pursue.
We were not only neglected as to our morals and habits, but were badly provided for with the necessaries of life, our table was but illy supplyed [sic], our cloathing [sic] would scarcely cover our nakedness, much less protect us against the inclemency of the seasons. Thus were we permitted to spend our time in idleness and want, which produced in us an inclination, and afforded us liesure [sic] and opportunities to practise almost all kinds of evil.
I was thus in a manner abandoned by my master and only guardian, in a hopeless state of slavery, with no prospect before me to stimulate my ambition, or direct the youthful ardor that glowed in my breast to the pursuit of any laudable object, I sunk even below the degraded station which nature had assigned me.
I formed connection with such as were willing to associate with me, those were of course a motly tribe of the most abandoned of the human race, among whom it was my chief ambition to become famous, and it may readily be conjectured what was the measure of fame in a society where wickedness was the standard of merit, and lewdness and profanity esteemed the higest [sic] accomplishments of its members.
Hence I became extremely wicked, and subject to almost every vice my tender years were susceptable [sic] of, such as cursing, profane swearing, lying and sabath-breaking [sic; he will repeat this word several times more with the same spelling], with a number of other lewd practice, all which I indulged without restraint, and all my vicious habits increased with my age. My master occasionally chastised me, but this was generally so indiscreetly done, that, instead of a reformation it produced the contrary effect, and I became obstinate and headstrong.
In this situation I lived until I was about thirteen years of age, during which time tho’ I indulged in almost all kinds of wickedness which my tender age was capable of, I do not recollect of having committed any thing legally criminal, except, that I once stole a shilling out of a bakers drawer, with which I bought some cake and shared it with my companions, but being detected, I confessed the fact, and was severely chastised for it.
At length my master dying, his estate fell into the hands of his heirs, who found it so involved that they were under the necessity of selling the personal property. Among the rest I was sold to Mr. Elijah Mount, who then lived in New-Jersey, but afterwards moved to Charlestown, Montgomery county, state of New-York.
I now found my situation entirely changed, my new master was quite the reverse from my old one, he was moral, sober, industrious and frugal, paid great attention to the comfortable support and instruction of his family, nor did he neglect to extend his benevolence to me. He soon laid me under such restraints as in a great measure reformed my external deportment. He totally prohibited my profaneness and instructed me in the principles of christianity, [sic] but, alas! the inbred vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier part of my life, had made such a deep impression on my mind that, altho I found myself under the necessity of complying with his regulations in my conduct, they were far from producing a radical reformation in my principles. On the contrary, I found, that, tho I was constrained to abandon the vicious habits of cursing, profane swearing and sabath=breaking at least publicy, the corrupt principles I had imbibed daily acquired strength as I grew up and became capable of carrying them into effect.
I became lewd to that degree that my lasciviousness overleaped all bounds of discretion, and I indulged it in the most wanton and abominable excesses, so that not even the brutal part of the creation escaped the rage of my unruly passions, the innocent lamb and the loathsome swine indiscriminately became its victims.
I also extended my lewd desires, to those whom nature had placed above me, I however found the gratification of those desires so obstructed by my debased situation, that I could not flatter myself with a hope of indulging them as a favour. I was therefore impelled by their impetuosity to endeavour to obtain by violence what I could not effect by solicitation, I was rash and inconsiderate, destitute of fortitude and circumspection by which I was soon led into the error that now terminates my existence.
The first attempt I made to gratify these lewd desires, was on the body of a young woman in the town of Charlestown whose name for her sake I chuse to with-hold from the public. The circumstances of this nefarious attempt were as follows. It was on a sabath day. I together with some young men of the neighbourhood, who I likewise do not chuse to expose at this time, by publishing their names to the world, were together in an orchard, when this young woman came in. She had by some means or other become obnoxious to them, and soon after she appeared they proposed to me to make an attempt on her chastity, they offering me a small pecuniary compensation, and promised to withdraw to afford me an opportunity, which they accordingly did, while I made the attempt, but I did not succeed, for before I could effect my purpose two of her brothers (small boys) came in sight, and I fled.
This transaction was not disclosed, it is probable the young woman who was the subject of it, from motives of modestly declined complaining, or pursuing measures to bring me to justice; and those who were concerned with me and who ought rather to have protected her agianst any violence offered by me, than to have encouraged me in such an abominable attempt,) could have no motive in divulging a crime in which they themselves were so deeply implicated, and by these means I evaded the punishment which I so justly deserved.
Having thus escaped with impunity, I felt encouraged to pursue my wicked inclinations, my obscurity however prevented my having many opportunities of indulging my passions.
At length however, my attention was attracted by that unfortunate victim of my inordinate passion, who fell a sacrifice to my wantoness, [sic] and ferocity, for which I am now to suffer the just punishment of the law.
Her name was Mary Akins, daughter of Mr. Samuel Akins, of Charlestown, in the county of Montgomery. She was a girl of about twelve years of age, her father lived on a part of my master’s farm, she came to my master’s house on the morning of Sunday the thirteenth day of February last, for the purpose of attending public worship, having heard that a minister was to preach there that day, but being disappointed in her object, and the weather stormy, she remained there til the sun about half an hour high in the afternoon, her father lived about half a mile from my master’s, the road leading across the fields, I had formed a design of making an attempt on her chastity and watched an opportunity to follow her undiscovered, which soon offered, and I as readily embraced, I soon overtook her in an obscure place, where we could not be discovered from either house, with a determination of carrying my nefarious purpose into effect, I passed by her, she appearing offended at my presence, accosted me saying “who wants to keep your company you black devil” I replied I was not going to keep her company, upon which she again accosted me in the same manner adding “you black son of a bitch” to which I made the same reply as before and immediately assaulted her, threw her down, and attempted a violation of her chastity but not effecting it I permitted her to rise, as soon as she found herself disengaged she attempted to escape towards my master’s, threatening to have me brought to justice, upon which my guilt beginning to operate on my mind, and dreading the consequences of a discovery, I determined to prevent it by committing a crime still more heinous, and in an instant determined to deprive her of the power of exposing me, by depriving her of her life I had no sooner come to this resolution than I siezed [sic] a small stone which lay in my way, and I could conveniently hold in one hand, by this time she had advanced about ten or twelve yards from the place where I had made the first attempt upon her towards my master’s, I again assaulted and threw her down, struck her with the stone I held in my hand, on the crown of her head with such force as stunned her and blood issued from her mouth and [obscure], in this situation I again attempted to carry my first design into effect, but was again baffled by her incompetency, I then disengaged from her, blood on my feet and threw the same stone with which I had before struck her on the head, this I repeated twice, and then left her in the agonies of death, and expiring, finding some blood on my hands, I washed them and retired towards home, my conscience had however by this time awakened, and the horrors of my guilt began to agitate my mind, but I endeavoured to sooth my waring [sic] conscience with reflections that I had not been discovered, and that the only one privy to this horrid scene had been deprived of the power of discovering it by the very act that now filled my mind with remorse, under those reflections I had [obscure] some distance, when I began to apprehend, that she might perhaps recover, and have strength enough to reach home, or at least to communicate the transaction and discover its agent, to some one who might pass that way, I therefore returned to the place where I had been engaged in this sanguinary scene, and where its subject lay breathing her last (for she yet breathed.) to remove the apprehensions I had entertained of her revival, I placed two rails crosswise on her neck, and the one end of each under the fence by the side of which she lay, having thus secured her against all possibility of recovering, I retired a second time.
I now returned home, it being about sunset, and no one having noticed my absence, I went about my work as usual, and in about fifteen minutes her brother came in search of her, I heard him making enquiry for her, and passing by him into the house I familiarly asked him what he would think if he should find her dead? to which he replied that he would be much frightened, little thinking that those words carelessly spoken were to be the means of betraying me, they however made a deeper impression on the mind of the young man than I expected; & in searching for the author of this melancholy event, afforded a clue to discover its author, and fixed the suspicion on me.
Soon after the departure of the young man his mother came to my master’s, and informed him that she feared some misfortune had befallen her daughter as her bonnet had been found and she was missing; this excited great consternation, and my master and others went with her in search of her daughter; whom they soon found & carried home. The next morning Mr. Akins came to my master’s and charged me with the crime, informing my master of the grounds of his suspicion: I denied it, but by threats and promises was prevailed upon to confess it at last.
I was immediately bound and carried before Benjamin Van Veghten Esq. for examination, where I made the like confession; as I also did before the Coroner’s inquest. I was then committed to jail for my trial which I had on the 24th of March last, a conviction was a matter of course, my sentence was pathetically delivered by the presiding judge, during which awful scene I remained insensible.
I have since been benevolently attended by the reverend clergy of different denominations, who merit my warmest acknowledgments for their solicitude for my future happiness, I cannot however flatter myself with a hope of mercy; my approaching dissolution exites dreadful sensations in my mind, which I am unable to suppress; my sentence is just but [obscure] reconcile myself to my fate.
The foregoing narrative contains a faithful history of the chief incidents and material transactions of my life, as far as I recollect them; I have no motives to conceal anything; whatever else has been laid to my charge I deny.
Hence let masters learn the necessity of paying due attention to the instruction of their servants, had I not been neglected in my youth, I might have escaped this tragical end.
Let servants learn obedience and resignation, for had I paid due respect to the admonitions of my late master, and contented myself in my late situation, I might yet have been happy; let them also learn to shun the company of that worthless class of citizens, who being despised by their own society seek that of slaves, these are sure guides to destruction, such were those who offered me a reward to commit a rape.
Hence also let parents who profess christianity, (as the parents of these young men did) learn the danger of letting their children stroll about in idleness in such company, especially on sabbath days; and let profaners of that day remark that my worst crimes have been the effects of that sin.
In short let every description of sinners learn the danger of deferring repentance to the cross, if they have one favourable instance, they have a cloud of melancholy examples. I feel the necessity of a Saviour, but my heart is a rock at the door of the sepulcher which I am not able to remove, and I stand on the brink of eternity under the gloomy apprehensions of everlasting misery and despair.
Johnston Jail, April 22d 1803.
Although it sounds as if Cato (or the confessor who obviously composed his testimonial) was pessimistic about the prospects for his everlasting soul, we have firmer information on the unedifying disposition of the youth’s mortal flesh: a Dr. John Ball of Franklinton, Ohio (a settlement today absorbed into the city of Columbus) secured it and kept it in his closet “in order to keep his personal effects secure from the prying eyes of servants. The skeleton was so suspended that should the closet door be opened by one not acquainted with the secret, Cato’s jaws would gnash together and his head would wag in a manner calculated to strike terror into inquisitive female hearts.”
On this date in 1873, John Gaffney hanged in Buffalo — the last of two executions conducted by future U.S. President Grover Cleveland.
The man whom future foes on the national stage would deride as the “Buffalo Hangman” got his political start as sheriff for that Erie Canal port. It was the Sheriff’s honor not only to drop the trap on a condemned man like Gaffney, but, in the first days of February, to successfully petition Gov. John Adams Dix* for a short delay pending execution of the sentence.
Having been condemned for a drunken murder the year prior, Gaffney was then engaged in playing vigorously his last card for clemency: “either insane through fear of death or pretending insanity,” as press reports put it. (We find this one all the way down in Texas’s Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Feb. 7, 1873.) “He has become very violent and uses the foulest language to all who approach him. He walks incessantly, and is said to have abused his spiritual adviser in the most outrageous manner to-day, and threw a crucifix at him through the grating.” Most everyone supposed this was a put-on, but a group of physicians wanted some time to examine him for propriety’s sake.
This ruse kept Buffaloans quite excited for the next week, butteressing the already-vigorous movement among its best citizens for sparing Gaffney’s life.
But in the end, his life was only spared for a week.
To give the killer his due, he had the dignity not to continue the pretense once the governor made it clear that the attempt had failed. Sheriff Cleveland delivered to Gaffney the bad news, and with it, an instantaneous return to reason. (Gaffney admitted once again under the gallows that his madness was shammed.)
One night in May the previous year, Gaffney had been on one of his frequent benders through the district’s cutthroat dive bars. While gambling that night at Sweeny’s saloon, he fell into a senseless quarrel with another of his depraved ilk named Patrick Fahey — which ended when Gaffney produced a pistol and the evident intent to use it. Fahey fled as Gaffney fired errantly, making it all the way to the street before his whiskey-addled assailant finally aimed true. The noise of the volley brought a pair of police running — they only ventured into this part of town in pairs — and they arrested Gaffney on the spot while Fahey breathed his last into the iniquitous gutter.
Gaffney’s usual crew zipped their lips. But police were able to find a minstrel named McQueeney who was witness to the mayhem and prepared to talk (and testify) about it.
By the end — after eight months’ worth of legal maneuvers, clemency appeals, and faux-insanity — Gaffney affirmed his guilt to the witnesses who attended his Valentine’s Day hanging, blaming drink for escalating the encounter and regretting that he had not admitted all and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. “I beg pardon for all the crime I have done, and I forgive all who have injured me,” he said. Then at two minutes before noon, the 22nd and 24th** U.S. president touched the spring to open eternity beneath Gaffney’s feet, and efficiently snapped his neck.
* Dix was one-half of the namesake of the Dix-Hill cartel under whose auspices the belligerents of the recent Civil War managed their prisoner exchanges. The breakdown of this exchange system in 1863 helped create the conditions for the humanitarian catastrophe at Andersonville.
** As all U.S. civics nerds know, Grover Cleveland was President from 1885 to 1889, then lost an election to Benjamin Harrison, then defeated Harrison in a rematch in the next election and returned to the Oval Office from 1893 to 1897: the only president who served multiple terms non-consecutively.
On this date in 1888, New York City crime lord Danny Driscoll went to the gallows in the Tombs.
(Co-)leader of the Irish gang the Whyos — so named for a distinctive signaling hoot that once echoed through the Five Points — Driscoll inherited power when his predecessor Mike McGloin hanged in 1884.
This band emerged after the disruptions of the Civil War as Manhattan’s most powerful criminal syndicate. The Whyos’ run in the 1870s and 1880s marks a transitional phase from the wild and woolly Gangs of New York street-brawling era into the more businesslike mafiosos of the 20th century.
Like the Mos Eisley cantina, the Whyos’ seedy tavern of choice (aptly named The Morgue) was notorious for over 100 recorded homicides in gang shootouts and drunken brawls; like Jabba the Hutt, the gang also took a methodical approach to extortion, racketeering, and murder that put the “organized” in their crime. One goon answering to the colorful name Piker Ryan (and old time New York crooks are nothing if not flamboyantly named) was once arrested with an actual ultraviolence menu from which budget-conscious clientele could custom-order thrashings for delivery.
Both eyes blacked $4
Nose and jaw broke $10
Jacked out (knocked out with a Blackjack) $15
Ear chewed off $15
Leg or arm broke $19
Shot in the leg $25
“Doing the big job” (murder) $100 and up
These 1884 selections perhaps already represent a moderation from earlier methods; a previous Whyo hoodlum, “Dandy” John Dolan, was noted for the copper eye-gouger he wore on his thumb just in case he needed to — well, you know. Dolan hanged back in 1876.
Wait til they get a load of the clamps.
Driscoll kept a house with his young wife, and was charitable enough also to share it with a whore named “Beezie” Bridget Garrity — with whom Driscoll often caroused in the rough Whyo territory. One night in 1886 their alcoholic peregrinations brought them up against a brothel run by a tough named John McCart(h)y, against whom Driscoll had an existing grudge — and as they entered, Driscoll and McCarty wound up in a threshold gunfight. Beezie Garrity had the bad luck to catch a fatal bullet in the crossfire. Both men would blame each other for firing the shot that killed Garrity, and produce numerous witnesses of variously impaired credibility, but for the city there was no confusion at all: between the two, Driscoll was the man worth getting rid of.
“I’ve got a bad name with the police and they say ‘give a dog a bad name and we’ll hang him,'” Driscoll complained to the court. His criminal record reached back to childhood.
Newspapers in the run-up to the hanging were rife with stories of escape attempts and Whyo menace, but police correctly prophesied that the gang had not the numbers or vigor to make any real disturbance. A cordon of 150 gendarmes around the Tombs saw “small groups of young men with hard, wicked-looking visages whom the police pronounced remnants of the Whyo gang … among them were some of the brazen-faced young women of the class to which Beezie Garrity” belonged. (New Haven Register, Jan. 23, 1888) Driscoll died game, his neck efficiently snapped by a noose of white Italian hemp … which seems by retrospection an apt instrument for his passing.
After Driscoll and his fellow alpha male Danny Lyons both hanged in 1888, the Whyos shrank into memory. They would be overtaken in the 1890s by Monk Eastman‘s gang, one last dinosaur from a fading era of hardscrabble toughs; Eastman was in turn supplanted by the Five Points Gang — a more recognizably sophisticated operation to key the 20th century, composed predominantly of the growing Italian-American emigre demographic that would define organized crime for the Godfather era.
This report of the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1899, concerns the forgettable murderer whose electrocution was approved on his first day in office by New York’s new governor — Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become President of the United States.
SING SING, N.Y., Jan. 9 — Bailer Decker, the negro wife murderer of Tottenville, Staten Island, died to-day in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison. The curren was twice turned on, each time with a voltage of 1,780. He was pronounced dead five minutes after the first shock.
Decker met death without flinching. Just before he started from his cell to the execution room he requested of Warden Sage that the other four murderers in the condemned cells be permitted to sing “Comrades.” The Warden granted the request, and Decker joined in the singing with a clear tenor voice.
The witnesses to the execution included H.F. Bridges, Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, at Charlestown. That State, it is said, is likely to adopt the electric chair. Mr. Bridges expressed himself as pleased with the method of the execution.*
The crime for which Decker was executed was the murder of his wife, a white woman, on May 25 last. Decker was an oysterman, but spent much of his time in saloons. He was jealous, and shot the woman while in a drunken rage. He then fired a bullet into his own abdomen with suicidal intent.
On this date in 1927, Robert Greene Elliott — the “state electrician” who wired the majesty of the law to condemned men and women from Rockview, Pa. to Windsor, Vt. — had the busiest day of his illustrious career.
Once just a regular prison electrician, Elliott graduated himself to the euphemism in 1926 and was soon the go-to angel of electric death throughout the northeast. He pulled the lever a reported 387 times for men and women who sat in the new killing device in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and (just one time) Vermont; when John Dos Passos wrote that “they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch,” well, he could have been talking about Elliott’s $150-per-head bounty.
January 6, 1927 was a full and lucrative day for Elliott.
He started the day off with a triple execution in Boston’s Charleston Prison — the first triple electrocution in Massachusetts history.* Then he took a train to New York — relaxed with family — took in a picture — and then conducted the Empire State’s triple execution in the evening. (All six of his luckless subjects in either state had been sentenced for various robbery-murders.) His $900 in wages between the two occasions would be the equivalent of a $12,000+ payday today.
Friend of the site Robert Walsh has a wonderful post detailing this character’s remarkable career; venture if you dare into the world of a prolific killer of the Prohibition and Depression eras, here.
Elliott also wrote an autobiography, Agent of Death, which is out of print and difficult to come by.
* Elliot would return there a few months later for a more famous trio: Sacco and Vanzetti, along with their accomplice Celestino Madeiros. Some other noteworthy clients of Elliott: alleged Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann and illicitly photographed femme fataleRuth Snyder.
This day in 1919 was the closest Joseph Cohen came to the electric chair in Sing Sing. His walk may have been 7 minutes, or possibly 11 minutes, away, but Cohen was not to die this day at the hands of the State of New York, nor at the hands of any state on any day. Instead, he would be gunned down 13 years later as a free man.
Cohen was a wealthy, influential poultry merchant in New York City, and he had a bone to pick with fellow poultryman Barnet Baff, also known as the “Poultry King”. Baff had repeatedly rebuffed other poultry merchants in their efforts to fix prices and charge an exorbitant per-truck fee for poultry handling. That was probably because Baff was making this kind of bonus cash by feeding starving chickens sand and gravel immediately before slaughter. His shady practice was great for sale and terrible for resale.
This did him no favors among other poulters of the city.
By 1913, Baff had become the target of the collective ire of several people in the poultry industry, including Cohen, Ippolito Greco, Tony Zaffarano, and Antonio Cardinale — and possibly still more rivals in the New York Live Poultry Dealers’ Association. That year, a cadre of poultry merchants took up a collection to either frighten or kill Baff.*
Initially, a bomb was placed at his home, allegedly only to “frighten” him. In August of the following year, with Baff insufficiently frightened, the group actively sought to kill their target. At least one attempt was foiled, but on November 24, Baff was gunned down at the West Washington Market in Harlem.**
The murder nearly ended in a trio of executions and several long prison sentences. Instead, it cost just two men modest prison terms and uncovered the sordid underbelly of New York poultry sales.
Details about what actually happened are muddled significantly by various parties coaching witnesses in testimony.† As the story unfolded in the press, several investigators were accused of trying to push blame from Italians to Jews. Ultimately, the New York Attorney General managed to build up a case against several major players in the New York poultry scene and the then-lightweight New York mob scene.
The first break came in 1916 when Carmine diPaolo was arrested for an assault in the Bronx. He mentioned to police that he had been approached by Greco about carrying out the murder, but had backed out before it could be finished. DiPaolo then saw Giuseppe Archiello get paid by Greco after the killing. Archiello’s interrogation implicated Frank Ferrara, Cardinale, Zaffarano, Greco, and Greco’s brother, but it did not point to a source of the estimated $4,500 that was dispersed among the participants in the murder. Archiello was tagged as one of the gunmen and sentenced to death.
Ferrara was next on the docket, charged with driving the getaway car for the two killers. This was when Gaetano Reina was fingered as the other gunman. Ferrara’s story changed repeatedly and significantly, though, and he later insisted that Reina’s name had been fed to him. Ferrara’s conviction led to a death sentence that the state hoped to use to get Ferrara to name names at the top of the food chain.
The breakthrough witness was Cardinale, who had joined the Italian Army during World War I but was involved in the plots against Baff from the start. He was taken to New York by way of a somewhat shaky international agreement that circumvented the American/Italian extradition treaty, and his lawyer — not coincidentally the same as the lawyer for Ferrara and Archiello — convinced him to give up the big names: Joseph D. Cohen, brother of Chief Chicken Inspector Harry Cohen (aka “Kid Griffo”); his brother Jacob Cohen; Moses “Chicken Moe” Rosenstein; David Jacobs; William Simon; and Abe Graff. (Cardinale smartly moved back to Italy after giving testimony.)
Ferrara also decided to “come clean”, telling investigators that Ignazio “Jack” Dragna and Ben “Tita” Rizzotta were in his getaway vehicle. He also noted that he had left this duo out of his original story for fear of reprisal, going with the state-fed names of the gunmen instead.
The six conspirators were brought into court, with the court leaning on testimony of Cardinale, Ferrara, and Joseph Sorro, whom Cardinale said was also involved in several attempts to intimidate Baff. Simon’s indictment was thrown out, while Jacob Cohen and Jacobs were acquitted. Rosenstein pled guilty and helped New York gain a death sentence for Cohen and 10-20 years for Graff.
The convicted Cohen went after the state repeatedly, pointing out the massive inconsistencies in the witness testimony that led to his indictment and conviction. Indeed, Cardinale — who dragged Cohen into this in the first place — claimed two gunmen, neither of whom was currently in Sing Sing. Sorro, meanwhile, was brought up on multiple perjury charges.
Cohen’s execution was postponed seven times, then commuted to life in prison on February 4, 1920, by Governor Al Smith. Cohen was released on November 24, 1921. Officially, he could have been retried, but the state refused.
Archiello’s lawyer‡ insisted that, thanks to Sorro’s perjury, it was no longer clear that Archiello was a gunman. The court agreed to a second trial, and Archiello — who had significant connections in the Harlem mob — pled guilty to manslaughter, receiving a suspended sentence instead of death.
Meawhile, Dragna, Rizzotta, and Reina all walked. Dragna moved to Los Angeles and headed the Los Angeles crime family until the 1950s; he may have had a hand in former leader Joseph Ardizzone’s disappearance. Reina became kingpin of the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn, and got killed by Lucky Luciano.
The Baff murder was atypical in the mob world, in that it featured Italian families doing their dirty work in the traditionally non-Italian field of poultry. The unusual arrangement made the murder an awkward affair that uncomfortably exposed a lot of powerful people. Organized crime was significantly more, well, organized by the time that Prohibition rolled around, and future gangland business murders were handled with a more diligent eye toward shielding bankrollers from blame.
Cohen and Jacob opened up a tailor shop in Manhattan, which put them right in the Italian mafia’s business wheelhouse. He and brother Barney were both shot to death in 1932, and their killers have never been identified.
** Baff was killed just weeks after 18 members of Cohen’s Live Poultry Dealers’ Protective Association were indicted on fraud and racketeering charges.
† The state even employed one Philip Musica, a sort of proto-Barry Minkow with his own zany criminal story. His first foray into business was attempting to sell $250 of human hair to the tune of some $370,000. It’s not clear what the link between “Step 1: Get Hair” and “Step 3: Profit” was, but his misrepresentation of the goods was enough to earn him a federal sentence. Musica spent little time in prison, turning instead into a paid investigator in New York State’s employ during the Baff affair.
He jumped straight to Step 3 for his services and retired around 1916. Musica changed his name to Frank Donald Coster and in 1920 started Girard & Co. — a hair tonic company that was likely a front for a bootlegging operation. Right around the time the old Musica was indicted for perjury in the Baff case, F. Donald Coster bought the pharmaceutical company McKesson & Robbins. Musica expanded its drug enterprise but also did side business of building up paper assets and phantom sales to bolster the company’s apparent value by about $18m. It came crashing down when the company’s treasurer tried to find out why McKesson & Robbins didn’t insure their drug warehouse (turns out “it doesn’t exist” isn’t a good reason to give your accountant).
‡ The lawyer for Archiello and Cardinale, Walter Rogers Deuel, was brought up by the New York State Bar Association for suborning perjury, but he continued to practice law. And Deputy Attorney General Alfred Becker, who, according to one article, “was conspicuous during the war for uncovering German and Red plots,” was also accused of misconduct, though nothing appears to have come of that charge.
FRANK FERRIS, the unfortunate man who is condemned to be executed to-day for the murder of his wife, has been positively refused a further respite by GOV. FENTON. No efforts have been spared by the Portuguese Minister, or Mr. Kintzing, his counsel, to secure a commutation of sentence to imprisonment for life. Both these gentlemen have personally importuned the Governor, but without avail, as he yesterday declared, for the last time, that he could see no reason for clemency in this case.
The murder of which FERRIS was convicted was committed on the night of the 9th of September, 1964, and seems to have been as deliberate as it was horrible. After having announced his purpose, he went to the room occupied by his wife, and after breaking in the door with an ax, beat her brains out with the same instrument. He was arrested by the side of his victim, with the murderous weapon in his hand.
He was formally indicted, tried, and, on conviction, sentenced to be hanged in April last. The case was appealed, and after a review of the proceedings he was resentenced. A respite was granted form the 17th of August until to-day, when the execution will take place.
FERRIS has been a very troublesome prisoner during his incarceration, his querulous and jealous disposition occasioning the keepers much trouble. He found fault with everybody and everything that came near him — the physicians, the keepers, his counsel, his friends, his food and his accommodation, and even so late as yesterday, repeated to our reporter the long list of fictitious grievances which have troubled his mind so much. His nature seemed to be devoid of gratitude, and for all the favors gratuitously heaped upon him by the representatives of his country, his counsel and the prison officials, he has had no word of thanks, but rather of censure.
Although he has been carefully examined by experts in reference to his sanity, and pronounced a responsible person, there are certain points upon which his perverseness would seem to amount to insanity. He says that he has forgiven all his enemies and is prepared to die, yet speaks with great bitterness regarding some of the witnesses who testified against him, and persons who have been of service to him since his arrest.
Twice since his sentence was pronounced he has been deprived of the means of self-destruction. Once he made a great fuss because he had no looking glass. One was furnished him, and shortly afterward a quantity of strychnine was found concealed between the glass and the frame. Subsequently an apple was found in his cell stuck full of matches. Matches had been furnished him for lighting his pipe, and he had stuck the ends of these, which contained the phosphorous and brimstone, into an apple, doubtless intending, when a sufficient supply of the poison was obtained, to eat the apple.
FERRIS had been attended constantly of late by Fathers DURANQUET and MCKENNA, who have endeavored to prepare him for his fate. While he talks fairly upon religious subjects, it is evident from the manner in which he converses upon other subjects, that his thoughts are “of the world worldly.” He appears in good health, is strong and vigorous, and says he will walk manfully to his death. He did contemplate making a speech under the scaffold, but at the instance of his spiritual advisers has relinquished the idea.
All the preparations for the execution are completed. The gallows — on which GONZALES and PELLICIER were hung last Friday — was erected yesterday, and the usual preliminaries arranged. During the erection of the gallows, FERRIS was removed from the condemned end of the first floor of the prison to one in the second corridor, where the sound of the carpenter’s hammer could not reach his ears. The execution will take place around 10 o’clock to-day.
New York Times, Oct. 20, 1866:
FRANK FERRIS, alias FRANCISCO FERREIRA, was executed yesterday morning at the Tombs for the murder of his wife, MARY FERRIS, on the night of Sept. 9, 1864. The murderer was a Portuguese, 36 years of age, and was a sea-faring man. His victim was an Irish woman, the mother of three children, two of them by a former husband. FERRIS was an intemperate man, of violent temper, and often had severe quarrels with his wife. Instead of contributing to the support of his wife and children, FERRIS squandered in drink the money earned by his wife by washing and ironing. He enlisted as a private soldier in a Massachusetts regiment early in 186, but after a few months’ service was discharged for disability. He returned to New York, resuming his old habits, and his wife refused to live with him. He became jealous, and in his drunken frenzy frequently threatened to take her life. Unfortunately those threats were not heeded, and the brutal murder was committed.
MARY FERRIS, the wife of FRANK FERRIS, occupied the top floor of the tenement-house, No. 31 James-street. She was living with her children apart from her husband. She is spoken of by some as a hard-working, industrious, patient woman. Others alleged, and her husband among their number, that she was a prostitute and a disorderly character. No evidence of this kind, however, was adduced at the trial, but a good character was given her.
Her husband had been striving to insinuate himself into her lodgings for weeks, and on her refusal to live with him, had beaten her repeatedly. But a short time before the murder he had assaulted her with an ax, and inflicted such wounds upon her that her life was despaired of. At the instance of her friends she procured the arrest of her husband, and on her complaint he was sentenced to the Penitentiary.
Upon the expiration of his sentence, FERRIS returned to New-York and commenced a search for his wife, but for two or three days he was unable to find her. He finally traced her to her lodgings, and on the 9th of September he called there. MRS. FERRIS was not in and he went away. He had been drinking freely, and while in the house where his wife lived he made terrible threats against her. At one place where he called on that afternoon to inquire for her, he knelt in the middle of the room and said: “I swear by the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ that I will kill her before 9 o’clock to-night …”
He also swore that he would kill himself.
When asked what would become of his children, he replied that they could go on the island. He was observed during the day sharpening a knife on the curbstone in front of the house in which his wife lived. When MRS. FERRIS returned from her work she was informed of the threats made by her husband, and, yielding to the entreaties of her friends, she removed her children and some of her things to the room of a neighbor on a lower floor of the building, where she gave the children supper and put them to bed, intending to remain there with them.
About 8 o’clock in the evening, FERRIS, armed with a heavy, dull ax, went to his wife’s room, and finding the door fastened broke it in with the ax. Disappointed at not finding his wife within, he commenced destroying the furniture. MRS. FERRIS hearing the noise, and hoping to save her furniture, rushed up to her room despite the warnings of her friends. She found the door shut, and a few words were exchanged by her on one side of the door and him on the other. The door then opened, and the woman passed into the room. A moment later she appeared at the window, screaming “Murder, watch!”
UNDER THE GALLOWS.
Yesterday morning about 200 persons gathered within the walls of the prison to witness the execution. Capt. JOURDAN, of the Sixth precinct, was in attendance with a force of 150 policemen, for the purpose of preserving order within and without the prison. The clergymen were saying the last prayers in company with the prisoner in his cell as the spectators were assembling. Sheriff KELLY was with him also most of the morning, and superintended his dressing for the scaffold. The fatal cord was adjusted about his neck, and the black cap was fitted to his head by Mr. GEORGE ISAACS, upon whom the duty of executioner devolves.
FERRIS then bade good bye to all present, and everything being in readiness the solemn procession moved toward the gallows, FERRIS walking between Sheriff KELLY and Mr. ISAACS, preceded by the clergymen. As they emerged from the cell the condemned man began singing, in a clear and distinct voice, a Portuguese hymn, usually sung by his countrymen when the holy sacrament is being given to a dying man. He continued singing as he walked through the line of spectators, concluding the hymn as he took his place beneath the gallows.
In his hand he carried an ebony crucifix, and as he ceased singing he kissed this several times. He then knelt down between the priests, the Sheriff and his assistants kneeling also, and the last prayers were said. He then rose to his feet, and on being asked if he wished to say anything, he replied that he did. In a clear voice, but in scarcely intelligible English, he spoke as follows:
HIS LAST WORDS.
My Dear Gentlemen: I am going to die, and I am innocent of the crime for which I suffer. I do not mean I did not do it, but, though my hand is guilty, my heart is innocent. But for Father DURANQUET and the good Sisters of Mercy, I would have had more to say, and give an account of some people. Good bye, my dear brothers — Amen.
He then thanked Sheriff KELLY for his kindness to him, and resumed his position under the rope. Mr. ISAACS then pulled the black cap over his face, adjusted the rope which was around his neck to that dangling from the beam and all was ready. The Sheriff, with his handkerchief, gave the signal, and with the fall of the heavy weights behind the screen, the body of FRANK FERRIS was drawn into the air. There were a few spasmodic twitchings of the limbs, a convulsive clutching of the hands, and then all was quiet. It was just 9 o’clock and 50 minutes when the weights fell, and in fifteen minutes pulsation had ceased. The body was partially lowered and examined by several physicians, and a few minutes later was taken down and deposited in a plain coffin.
The body of FERRIS is to be buried in Calvary Cemetery, the Portuguese Consul having made arrangements to that effect, and defraying the expenses of burial.
The orphan children of FRANK FERRIS and his murdered wife have been cared for by the Catholic charitable institutions of the City. The Sisters of Mercy have taken the two girls, and the Brothers of Mercy the little crippled boy. The injury to this child was received after the incarceration of the father, and while in the care of Mrs. FERRIS’ sister. The father manifested much affection for the boy, and not till recently, if ever, forgave his sister-in-law for her carelessness in permitting the child to fall out of a window.
State of New York, Executive Department
Albany, Sept. 4, 1851.
To Thomas Carnley, Esq., Sheriff of the City and County of New York
Sir: — I have carefully considered the application for a commutation of the sentence of death pronounced upon Aaron B. Stookey, to be executed on the 19th inst., for the murder of Zeddy Moore.
I have weighed the evidence with an anxious desire to give him the benefit of every circumstance which tends to extenuate his guilt; but after a mature deliberation I am clearly of opinion that his conviction was merited, and that the ends of public justice require the execution of the sentence.
The facts disclosed on his trial were sufficient beyond all doubt, to constitute the crime of wilful murder. It is contended that most of the material witnesses for the prosecution were persons of infamous character and unworthy credit. Making all due allowance for this objection, the proof of his guilt is so complete and overwhelming as to preclude any doubt, and in fact no material fact alleged by any of the witnesses have been called in question by the convict or his friends.
It appears that Stookey met his unfortunate victim casually in one of the public streets of your city. He was armed with deadly weapons, which he usually carried about his person. Upon provocation which, if not wholly imaginary, was too trivial to justify even momentary resentment, and apparently with no other motive than the indulgence of wanton and brutal passion, after first instigating his comrade to commit violence upon Moore, he declared his own intention to kill him and instantly stabbed him to the heart.
To palliate the enormity of this offence, it has been alleged that Stookey was laboring under temporary alteration of intellect, and was morally incapable of an intentional and deliberate crime. [i.e., he was drunk on rum -ed.] Several affidavits have been placed before me intended to sustain this hypothesis. Deeming it my duty to obtain satisfactory evidence on so material a point before coming to a final decision, I have caused an investigation to be made of all the facts bearing upon the question of insanity, and the result proves that there are no sufficient grounds for such an assumption.
It is shown that Stookey, for some years past, had led a life of dissipation and debauchery, that his moral nature was depraved, and his mental faculties impaired, by a long course of vicious indulgence; and in this general degradation of character consists the only reason that has been adduced for doubting that he was conscious of evil, and still retained those powers of moral perception which are given to discern between virtue and crime. All the usual phenomena of insanity and lunacy are wanting. There was nothing in his conduct to indicate that destitution of reason which absolves men from moral and legal responsibility.
My sympathies have been deeply moved by the earnest appeals made in behalf of your prisoner by his worthy relatives and friends. The petitions presented to me bear the names of many influential and respected citizens, whose opinions deserve the highest deference and regard. It is a painful office to be compelled to resist these urgent and affecting solicitations. But all must remember it is the voice of the law which condemns the murderer to death. This penalty, the most dreadful which human power can inflict, is imposed not in a spirit of retaliation or of vengeance, but from conviction of its necessity, for the protection of society and the security of mankind. The severity of the law in this respect has its source in the sacred regard for human life which pervades all civilized communities.
It proclaims in advance, to all whose evil passions may prompt to deeds of blood and vengeance, the impressive warning, that whosoever shall take the life of his fellow being shall thereby forfeit his own. This stern mandate is conceived not in cruelty but in humanity; in compassion for the innocent rather than a willingness to destroy the guilty; it originates in the obligation which society owes to all its members to protect them from unlawful violence, and its true aim is to prevent both crimes and punishments by restraining those who can only be deterred from the worst of offences by the most terrible penalties.
I am aware that serious differences of opinion exist among enlightened legislators in respect to the justice and tendency of a penal code which forfeits the life of the offender in case of murder. It does not come within my province to discuss this principle in the discharge of my executive duties. The law as it stands must be my guide, so long as it remains in force. It is among the first and highest of my obligations to see that it is faithfully executed.
The penalty which the State has prescribed, as a punishment for the crime of wilful murder, must be enforced in all cases where the offence is established by clear and sufficient proofs. This responsibility, weighty and difficult at all times, derives unusual force from the alarming increase of crime in some portions of our State, and especially in your city. The destruction of life by criminal violence has become an event of almost daily occurrence. My reflections upon this subject have produced a firm conviction that this deplorable evil is to be checked, and the lives of our peaceful citizens effectually shielded from danger only by an efficient, faithful and unswerving execution of the law. The peace and safety of society are too sacred to be hazarded by the indulgence of those generous sympathies which the fate of the convict is so well calculated to excite. The demands of justice, and an enlightened regard for the public security, must prevail over the pleadings of compassion.
It remains for you to discharge the most trying duty of your office as I now do mine.
P.S. — I intended to have remarked that Stookey’s crime may be traced directly to the habit he had adopted of carrying a dangerous weapon concealed about his person. His fate should be a warning to all who indulge in this reprehensible practice. It cannot be too strongly impressed upon their minds that persons who choose to carry concealed arms, will be held to a rigid responsibility for the use they may make of them, and for all consequences that may ensue.
(Clemency denial and execution order as printed in the New York Spectator, September 11, 1851.)