Posts filed under 'North Carolina'

1946: Twice double executions around the U.S.

Add comment November 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.

North Carolina

Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,

got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.

Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.

The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.

The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”

Georgia

Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.

Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.

Arkansas

There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Gassed,Georgia,Murder,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1864: Private Samuel Jones, in retaliation for Private Daniel Bright

Add comment January 13th, 2016 Headsman

The New York Times of January 23, 1864

Gen. Getty:

DEAR SIR: We, the subscribers, request to say that there was found this morning a dead man, and still hanging, in our neighborhood, as the inclosed scrip which was found pinned to his back, will show you by whom it was done. We have made a suitable box and buried him near the place he was found hung. Should his friends wish to get his body, they can get it by applying to any of the subscribers. We trust that you will not attach any blame to any of the citizens of this neighborhood, as we were entirely ignorant of any of the circumstances until we found the body. From all we can learn, he was brought across the Chowan River to this place, and as soon as the men who had him in charge hung him, they went back.

It was signed by ten people of Pasquotank County, North Carolina.

The note they enclosed, retrieved from the hanging body, read:

NOTICE

Here hangs Private Samuel Jones, of Company B, Fifth Ohio regiment, by order of Maj.-Gen. Pickett, in retaliation for Private Daniel Bright, of Company L, Sixty-second Georgia regiment, hung Dec. 18, 1863, by order of Brig.-Gen. Wild.

Bright, a member of the newly-formed 66th North Carolina guerrillas, had been hanged as a spy. Jones had been obtained by casting lots among Union prisoners of war held at the Confederate capital of Richmond, in response to Pickett’s demand for some Yankee to execute tit for tat. (Pickett’s proclivity for retaliatory executions would soon require him to quit the country at the end of the Civil War.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Chosen by Lot,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,No Formal Charge,North Carolina,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions

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1932: Asbury Respus, North Carolina serial killer

3 comments January 8th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in North Carolina, a middle-aged man named Asbury Respus was executed for the murder of nine-year-old Vera DeWitt Leonard.

And that wasn’t all: though virtually forgotten today, Respus was a serial killer with eight confessed murders to his name.

He claimed that he fell from a barn rafter as a youth and was never quite the same after that, being prone to “spells” of homicidal rage. This story may well have been true; he had a noticeable indentation in his skull.

According to Respus’s confession, he killed his first and second victims in Northampton County in the early 1900s. Their names were Lizzie Banks, whom he shot, and Zenie Britt, whom he beat to death with a stick. The third victim was Becky Storr, killed in Boydton, Virginia around 1910; she too had been bludgeoned with a stick.

These early murders are attested only by Respus’s own confession; the first verifiable homicide by his hand took place in 1912. Sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Northampton County man named Ed D. Wynne, Respus escaped from a road gang in 1916 and began life as a drifter.

They can’t have hunted this fugitive very hard. He never went far, always staying in the vicinity of Greensboro, North Carolina.

All four victims prior to his incarceration had been African Americans, as was Respus himself. On January 14, 1918, Respus crossed the color line to axe to death a 56-year-old white woman named Jennie Brown in her home, which he then burned to the ground. So thoroughly did his arson consume the premises that no evidence of a crime remained … leaving Respus free to continue his murder spree. From here on out, by whatever happenstance, all victims were white.

On July 22, 1920, he came across a little boy named Robert Neal Osborne and drowned him in a stream, just for kicks. Again he got lucky: little Robert’s death was recorded as accidental. On July 17, 1925, he murdered 80-year-old widow Eunice Stephenson by striking her on the head and hanging her body from a ceiling beam. This homicide was recognized as such but went unsolved for years.

Vera Leonard was Respus’s youngest female victim and his undoing. Respus may have killed her with rape on his mind. As it was, he went with his old standby, a blunt instrument to the head; afterwards, he burned her body “to a char.” He did not blame his “homicidal spells” for Vera’s murder but instead said he’d been out of his mind on drugs.

Respus expressed gratitude that he was going to his death. “I’d rather he dead and in heaven,” he said, “than here on earth being tormented to death.”


It was a busy day for U.S. executioners. Headlines from the Jan. 8, 1932 edition of the New York Sun.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Serial Killers,USA

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1881: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

1 comment November 4th, 2014 Headsman

Three murderers’ coincidental hanging dates on November 4, 1881, were reported by the next day’s issue of the New York Herald. We reproduce all three bulletins below, verbatim save added line breaks to aid readability.

Whiteville, N.C., Nov. 4, 1881

Henry Lovett, colored, to-day suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Archelaus P. Williams, who was also colored.

The doomed man slept quietly last night and ate a hearty breakfast this morning. The Rev. H. Gore, colored, of the Missionary Baptist Church, who had attended the malefactor on several occasions and officiated with him to the last moment, states that Lovett professed himself as willing to die. His demeanor this morning was calm and collected and he bade goodby to the sheriff, jailer and others in attendance with perfect composure.

At half-past eleven o’clock this forenoon he was taken from the jail to the gallows, which was erected in the jail yard. He mounted the scaffold with a firm step, attended by the jailer, sheriff and clergyman.

PRAYING ON THE SCAFFOLD.

The execution being public, the yard and surrounding grounds were packed with an eager populace anxious to witness a spectacle seldom seen in the county of Columbus.

Religious services were held upon the scaffold, in which Lovett joined with fervor.

At the conclusion of the devotions the Sheriff adjusted the rope, and at ten minutes past twelve the drop fell. At the expiration of fifteen minutes the physicians in attendance pronounced Lovett dead. He died with scarcely a struggle, the neck being dislocated by the fall. After remaining suspended for twenty minutes the body was cut down and taken to the public burial ground for interment.

STORY OF THE CRIME.

The murder of Williams by Lovett was committed at a place known at Williamson’s Cross Roads, in Tatums township, in this county, on the 19th of July, 1880.

The parties had always been on friendly terms, but upon the day of the murder, both men being intoxicated, some misunderstanding had arisen between them, during which Williams picked up a rock to throw it at Lovett, who had drawn a pocket knife. High words and threats passed between them, but finally apparent peace was restored and Williams threw down the rock in token of amity.

Lovett then approached him, and putting his arm around Williams’ neck said, “There is no trouble, Ned (a name by which the latter was usually known), between us,” and they walked off together in seeming good friendship, when a blow was heard and Williams exclaimed, “I’m a dead man without a cause!”

At the same instant Lovett was seen by one of the bystanders to draw a knife from the neck of his victim.

Some of those present immediately secured Lovett, while others hastened to the assistance of the wounded man. The former made no effort to escape, nor did he attempt to resist arrest.

Medical attendance was very promptly on hand, and it was found that the jugular vein was partially severed and the throat and windpipe badly cut. Williams, however, lived twenty-four hours after receiving the fatal wound.

He was about fifty-five years of age, and left a wife and several children. He was generally a peacable man, but at times, especially when partially intoxicated, was inclined to be quarrelsome.

TRIAL AND CONVICTION.

At the fall term of the Superior Court of Columbus county last year the Grand Jury found a true bill against Lovett, and he was duly arraigned for trial.

As the prisoner was entirely without means the Court assigned counsel to defend him. Upon affidavit being made that the prisoner was not prepared for trial the case was continued until the spring term of 1881, at which the prisoner’s counsel asked for a further continuance to enable them to secure important witnesses, and upon affidavit made to that effect the request was granted.

At the fall term, which convened at Whiteville, September 19, 1881, Judge Jesse F. Graves, presiding, Lovett was brought to trial, and after a fair and impartial hearing, an able defence by his counsel and an exhaustive charge by the court, the jury rendered a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.”

A motion was made for a new trial upon the ground that no malice had been shown upon the part of the defendant, but it was overruled. The court then pronounced sentence of death upon the prisoner.

INDIFFERENCE TO HIS FATE.

Lovett received the sentence with stolid indifference, apparently without remorse for the fearful crime he had committed or solicitude for the awful fate which awaited him.

This utter disregard of the past or future he has as a rule maintained ever since. Spiritual consolation has been offered him through the ministrations of a Baptist (white) clergyman and also by two colored ministers of the same denomination, but he paid little attention to any of them, although his conduct has been quiet, peacable and orderly during his long confinement.

He claimed to be but twenty-one years of age, although his appearance would indicate that he was at least four years old. He also claimed to have had no recollection of the events of that fatal day.

Lovett was a full black, about five feet and five inches in height, and his status as a colored man was considerably below the average of intelligence among those people. He was unmarried.


Plattsburg, N.Y., Nov. 4, 1881

Henry King was executed here to-day for the murder of Michael Hamilton at the State Prison, at Clinton, on July 13, in which both men were convicts.

Both were New York burglars, who had been drafted from Sing Sing Prison. King was serving a life term for killing Police Sergeant McGiven, of New York. He had been very quiet and penitent in the jail and attended strictly to the religious advice given him by Father Walsh.

The arrangements for the execution were carefully made by Sheriff Mooney, the gallows being placed in the rear yard of the jail.

At thirty-six minutes after eleven o’clock the Sheriff and deputies, two medical men and representatives of the press took their places.

The warrant had been previously read in the cell. The condemned man walked unpinioned, with a determined air to his fate, behind Fathers Walsh and Carroll, who were reciting the offices of the Church. King spoke briefly, thanking the Sheriff and his deputies for their kindness, and saying that he had hopes of God’s forgiveness.

DEATH BY STRANGULATION.

The rope and cap having been adjusted by Sheriff Mooney, that official stepped behind a screen, and at seventeen minutes to twelve the body of King sprang upward and was dangling in the air four feet from the ground.

The knot having slipped to the front the neck was not broke and death ensued by strangulation.

After a lapse of three minutes no pulse could be felt at the wrist, but it was still eighty at the heart. At twelve o’clock it was gone and he was declared dead by the doctors. Seven minutes later the body was lowered, placed in a coffin and given to his mother and brother, who had come up from New York last Tuesday for that purpose.

The remains were taken to St. John’s Church, where a funeral mass was recited, and at two o’clock they were buried in the village cemetery.

DETAILS OF THE TRAGEDY.

On the 10th of August, 1876, Henry King was sentenced to serve a life term in Dannemora Prion for murdering Sergeant James McGiven, of New York.

A short time after the shooting of President Garfield, King and another convict named Hamilton, got into a quarrel regarding the character of Vice President Arthur and his fitness to administer the affairs of the nation in the event of President Garfield’s death and Arthur’s succession to the Presidency.

Hamilton made some remark which was not complimentary to Arthur, whereupon King struck his brother convict two blows on the head with an axe, killing him instantly.

King was tried on the charge of murder, at the Circuit Court in session at Plattsburgh, on September 14, Judge Landon presiding.

Three witneses were sworn for the prosecution — the prison physician, a cook and one of the keepers. No evidence was introduced on behalf of the prisoner. The taking of testimony occupied about one hour and a half, when the jury retired. After an absence of about two hours it returned and requested the Judge to explain the legal difference between murder in the first and second degrees.

EXTRAORDINARY SCENE IN COURT.

Judge Landon was about to reply, when the prisoner arose to his feet and said: — “Your Honor and gentlemen of the jury, this was not a murder in the second degree. It was a deliberate and premeditated murder. I know that I have done wrong, that I ought to confess the truth and that I ought to be hanged.”

Here the prisoner’ counsel tried in vain to silence him.

“No,” continued King.

I have done wrong. It is my duty to confess it, and I cannot help doing so. I cannot keep still. I plead guilty to murder in the first degree. It was fifteen minutes from the time I struck the first blow with the axe until I struck him the second time, and all this time I kept thinking, ‘I will finish this man.’ If this is not premeditated murder what is it? I have already killed two men. What is my life to me? The life of either of these two men whom I have killed is worth a dozen of mine.

THE DEATH SENTENCE.

The prisoner then sat down, whereupon the Judge informed the jury that in view of the prisoner’s admission that the murder was premeditated there was no necessity for any further explanation of the law upon his part.

The jury thereupon retired and very soon came back with a verdict of guilty. In reply to the question as to whether he had anything to say why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him King replied: — “Nothing, sir; the sentence is a just one. I ought to be hanged.”

KING’S RECORD IN NEW YORK.

Policeman Patrick Kennedy, of the City Hall police, said yesterday: —

I arrested King immediately after his stabbing poor McGiven. King had a watch and chain in one hand and an open knife in the other.

As soon as McGiven was wounded he released his hold of the thief, who had thus become a murderer, and cried out ‘I am stabbed!’ Just as this occurred I arrived at the scene and seized the murderer.

McGiven said, ‘Look out for him; he has a knife.’ With some difficulty I succeeded in disarming King, not, however, before he informed me that if he had his pistol with him he would ‘fix’ me.

I subsequently learned that King was one of the worst characters in a locality notorious for crime — viz., from Twelfth to Forty-Second Street, east of First Avenue. He was always ready, for anything in the way of crime, being what is known as a ‘general thief,’ having no particular specialty, but adopting sneak thieving, burglary or highway robbery as occasion offered.

He lived with his mother and brother in Nineteenth street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, and was well known to the police as one of the most desperate characters in the Eighteenth Ward.

He had the most violent temper that ever man was cursed with. He would stop at nothing to injure any one who interfered with or thwarted him.

Since he has been in prison I have ascertained that he wrote letters to this city, in which he expressed the intention, if ever he got out, to put an end to my life. Some idea of the man may be formed from his statement only a day or two ago that he does not want to live, as if he were to obtain his liberty he might commit other murders.


Jonesborough, Ga., Nov. 4, 1881

Tom Betts, colored, was hanged here to-day for the murder of Judge H. Moore, last fall.

Betts was taken from jail at 12 o’clock by the Sheriff under a guard of seventy men and carried to the gallows, which was erected a mile from the town.

The condemned man made a speech confessing his crime and expressing the belief that he would be saved. The drop fell at 1:01 o’clock and death resulted in seven minutes from strangulation.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Murder,New York,North Carolina,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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2001: Willie ‘Ervin’ Fisher, traveling man

4 comments March 9th, 2014 Headsman

(Thanks to John S. Carbone of Alienists Compendium. Dr. Carbone is also the Director of Mental Health Services and Chief of Forensic Psychiatry for the North Carolina prison system.)

On this date in 2001, Willie ‘Ervin’ Fisher, aged 39, was put to death by lethal injection at North Carolina’s Central Prison in Raleigh.

His was a forgettable if lamentable crime were it not for the changes to the state’s administrative code that his passing — nay, his post-mortem travels — effected.

Fisher at first invoked that time-tested excuse of addling by drugs and alcohol as exculpation for the slaying of April 2nd 1992.

He admitted from the time of arrest to the murder of Angela Johnson, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, during a domestic altercation that was witnessed by many as it spilled outside to a parking lot for its finale by knife and broken broomstick.

Interestingly, Fisher had no prior felony arrests, and when he was deemed able to have formed the specific intent necessary for first-degree murder, that other time-tested excuse — ineffective counsel — was raised with equal futility. Throughout, however, prison officials described him as a ‘model prisoner’ on death row, one who received nary a single disciplinary charge in the decade he was incarcerated. And though he later abandoned the pretense of chemical sway and accepted full personal responsibility in a videotaped appeal for clemency to the governor, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Fisher gave a brief last statement on the evening of his demise, and was pronounced dead after 9:00 p.m. His earthly remains were then transported across town to the medical examiners’ office.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

The decedent’s sister, Sally Fisher, was at that time the deputy registrar of vital records for the Forsyth County (NC) Health Department, and as such was familiar with then-existing rules pertaining to the handling and transportation of dead bodies. Ms Fisher later recounted that “I just got up that [next] morning and said, ‘we might as well [bring] Ervin home’…. I just wanted to be close to him for a while.”

So Ms Fisher, her sister, and her niece piled in the latter’s SUV and drove to Raleigh at 6:00 a.m. on the 10th to claim the corpse. At first, the medical examiner balked at releasing the body thusly, but Ms. Fisher was versed in statute and code, and after a number of frantic phone calls for guidance, the ME had no choice but to turn Fisher’s remains over to his family.

Then, with the help of an employee of the ME’s office, the four struggled to wedge Fisher’s by-then-stiff corpus into the back of the SUV. Fisher had to be placed recumbent as he wouldn’t sit up straight. Ms. Fisher and her sister got in the back seat and talked with the departed while the niece drove the 100 miles west on Interstate 40 to Winston-Salem and the family residence.

Though it was only early March, Fisher’s family turned on the air conditioning inside the SUV — to the highest setting.

En route, they stopped at least once for sodas and to make phone calls to family and friends to let them know that Fisher was headed home, and that everyone should come to visit upon his arrival. There was a brief and impromptu reunion of sorts held in the front yard when the travelers reached the family’s residence. This was followed by a meandering drive around town to visit old haunts (pun fully intended) before eventually reaching the funeral parlor.

Word traveled fast, and it wasn’t many hours before a local television station in Winston-Salem had called the warden at Central Prison for comment regarding the inmate of whom he had overseen the execution mere hours before who was nevertheless now cruising out west with crowds forming to wave at him.

Some said that the family fetched Fisher to save expenses. The Department of Correction, though, was authorized to provide up to $300 to indigents for burial costs if a letter were received from a funeral home … and no such letter had been received. Ms. Fisher herself later said that money had nothing to do with the decision. “To me, it was … closure. For ten years, I was talking to him through glass and couldn’t touch him. That was my brother. He was the baby…. Bringing him back home helped me out.”

And in what may be Ervin Fisher’s lasting legacy, it is now mandated by amended state administrative code that only a hearse from a licensed funeral home can take possession of the dead at the medical examiner’s office.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1984: Velma Barfield, the first woman in the modern era

Add comment November 2nd, 2013 Headsman

The first execution of a woman* in the U.S. “modern” death penalty era took place at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Central Prison on this date in 1984 when 52-year-old Velma Barfield received a lethal injection for poisoning her fiance.**

Barfield was already twice a widow in 1977 when her prospective third spouse Stuart Taylor began suffering agonizing stomach pain at church. He died shortly after.

A thorough coroner and a tip call to police by Barfield’s sister each independently flagged arsenic as the cause. Exploration of her past uncovered a disturbing pattern of people near to Velma Barfield who died in spells of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

She would confess when confronted to poisoning off not only her late fiance, but also her mother and two elderly people for whom she was a paid caregiver, all during the 1970s — a period when she was afflicted by addictions to numerous prescription drugs. There are at least two other probable murders she may have authored during this time.† “It’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” one of her sons remarked innocently at Taylor’s service, before the criminal suspicions surfaced.

Like the second American woman executed — Karla Faye Tucker more than 13 years later — Barfield was mediagenic, devoutly Christian, and white. Like Tucker, Barfield made national news as she approached her execution date. Time magazine, 60 Minutes, even international press descended on Raleigh.

The bespectacled, crocheting grandmother ended up declining to appeal to the Supreme Court or file other delaying actions that were available to her so that she could meet her execution with greater dignity, but she still sought mercy from the governor. Her sterling prison record was her strongest card; staff routinely broke a “no contact with other inmates” rule (the entire death row women’s section consisted of Barfield alone) in order to put the matronly “Mama Margie”‡ around inmates whom her ministrations could help.

Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, her clemency pitch was addressed to Gov. Jim Hunt at the peak of his ferocious 1984 U.S. Senate run against Jesse Helms, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history up to that point. Hunt wasn’t about to go soft on arsenic killers four days before the polls opened. (He still lost by 86,280 votes.)

In the small morning hours this date in 1984, dressed in pink cotton pajamas and an adult diaper, Velma Barfield gave a last statement apologizing for “all the hurt that I have caused,” laid down on a gurney to receive the IV lines, and was put to sleep.

* The last execution of any woman in the U.S. prior to Velma Barfield’s was all the way back in 1962.

** Last meal: Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola.

† Her first husband, and the father of her children, died in a suspicious fire in 1970; shortly before her execution, Velma admitted to her family that she had started it. Singer Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of the apparent first poisoning victim, whose death Barfield only confessed very late in the game to the minister who helped her write her book: Jennings Barfield was already afflicted with emphysema and diabetes when the two wed in 1971, so his death a few months later failed to raise any eyebrows. Byrd eventually composed a song about his grandfather and his deadly bride, titled “Velma”.

‡ Full name: Margie Velma Barfield. She was born Margie Velma Bullard.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,North Carolina,USA,Women

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1864: The Kinston hangings

2 comments February 15th, 2013 Headsman

Even the most casual student of the U.S. Civil War will know of Confederate Gen. George Pickett, namesake of Pickett’s Charge during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

But it was for what Pickett did on this date in 1864 — much less well-recalled today but to the 1864 New York Times correspondent exemplifying “the madness of rebel leaders” — that he had to flee to Canada after the war, for fear of being prosecuted for committing a war crime.

Book CoverGeneral Pickett is far removed now from the high-water mark of the Confederacy, scrapping in eastern North Carolina, where loyalties in the Civil War are quite divided.

There, the federals had held the town of New Bern going on two long years. Pickett was detailed to mount an assault upon it, which failed, but netted him a number of Union prisoners.

Desertion plagued the Confederate army in general.

North Carolina men in particular had a reputation (of arguable veracity) for absenting themselves; and, as the state as a whole was the most reluctant (and last) seceder, no small number of those deserters were ducking out for ideological reasons. Plenty of onetime Confederate conscripts who conceived greater loyalty to the Union than to their state shed gray uniforms for blue.

Licking his wounds from the New Bern sortie down the road at Kinston, Pickett recognized a couple of his prisoners as his own former soldiers. They had a testy exchange with the beaten general, and Pickett had them up for a summary court martial in a flash. On February 5, Joe Haskett and David Jones were hanged for desertion.


There followed an interesting exchange between the rival commanders.

Intending to forestall any tit-for-tat killings of POWs, the Union general warned Pickett to treat them humanely.

Major-General Pickett,
Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, Confederate Army:
General: I have the honor to include a list of 53 soldiers of the U. S. Government who are supposed to have fallen into your hands on your late hasty retreat from before New Berne. They are the loyal and true North Carolinians and duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry. I ask for them the same treatment in all respects as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN J PECK

Pickett must not have appreciated having his martial prowess busted on by his opposite number, because he returned a sarcastic reply promising to use Peck’s list to identify deserters. (In a subsequent letter, he threatened to meet retaliations with 10-for-1 hangings. Pickett showed an “imperious and vaunting temper” in the postwar judgment of Attorney General Holt. Or more directly put, he comes off as an asshole.)

GENERAL: Your communication of the 13th instant is at hand. I have the honor to state in my reply that you have made a slight mistake in regard to numbers, 325 having “fallen into your(our) hands in your (our) late hasty retreat from before New Berne,” instead of the list of 53 with which you have so kindly furnished me, and which will enable me to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts. I herewith return you the names of those who have been tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion from the Confederate service and taken with arms in hand, “duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry, U S Army.” They have been duly executed according to law and the custom of war.

Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors, many of these men pleading in extenuation that they have been forced into the ranks of the Federal Government.

Extending to you my thanks for your opportune list,

I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. E. PICKETT

He did it, too.

The Confederate chaplain John Paris recounted for his side’s press the scene, a baker’s dozen of men on a large platform, heads sacked, an unknown cross-eyed executioner waiting to strip the bodies of their clothes as payment. Most were local boys, dying shockingly under the eyes of their own family and acquaintances. Reportedly, a number of shaken Confederate soldiers deserted to New Bern after witnessing the scene.

The thirteen marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear were not. On the scaffold they were all arranged in one row. At a given signal, the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling. But it was as truly the deserters doom. Many of them said I never expected to come to such a end as this. But yet were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom. The names of these misguided men were, John I Brock, Wm. Haddock, Jesse Summerlin, A I Brittain, Wm. Jones, Lewis Freeman, Calvin Huffman, Stephen Jones, Joseph Brock, Lewis Taylor, Charles Cuthrell, W. C. Daughtry and John Freeman.

The knell of vengeance has sounded. … deserters in North Carolina must now open their eyes, from the mountain to the seaboard. Desertion has become in our army a desperate disease, and desperate cases require desperate remedies. Let fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and wives, exhort their friends at all times to be faithful to their country under all circumstances.

In all, 22 alleged deserters hanged over the course of February in this affair, the 13 executed together on February 15 obviously accounting for the lion’s share. The incident is the likely inspiration for the novella published later in 1864 by a Confederate North Carolina cavalryman: The Deserter’s Daughter; most certainly, Kinston made the rounds in the North to great indignation.

And an event so notorious was bound to draw attention with the end of the war: even in 1864, the New York Times had editorialized demanding “instant and relentless retaliation … there could be no such thing as acquiescence or empty protest. Even if the Government could bring itself to this abject mood, the public indignation would not tolerate it.” Officers who had been stationed at New Bern did not neglect to keep this sentiment alive in the chain of command, pushing for punitive action to avenge their former comrades.

In the end, there would be none.

Playing it safe, Pickett skipped out for Canada (and even changed his appearance) in 1865 as a board appointed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opined that he and other parties to the hangings were “guilty of crimes too heinous to be excused by the United States government … there should be a military commission immediately appointed for [their] trial … to inflict upon [them] their just punishment.” That was especially so as it emerged that some of the hanged had “deserted” from stuff like bridge guards and state militias — not (in the view of prosecution-minded Unionists) the Confederate army proper.

But as the investigations continued into 1866, they zeroed in on Pickett as their specific target. And, they ran out of steam — or into a stone wall.

In 1866, Pickett appealed from exile to Ulysses S. Grant, who just so happened to be an old West Point chum of Pickett’s.* “Certain evil disposed persons,” Pickett wrote, “are attempting to re-open the troubles of the past.” With the Supreme Court’s Ex parte Milligan ruling, the prospect of a military tribunal evaporated.

Grant had the case shelved, even against Congressional appeals, until everybody just gave up and dropped it. “I do not see how good, either to the friends of the deceased, or by fixing an example for the future, can be secured by his trial now,” Grant said once of his old associate. Plus ça change.

Pickett lived until 1875, selling insurance without legal molestation but also shadowed by the dark cloud of Kinston. After his death at age 50, his wife went on to rehabilitate Pickett’s reputation in the popular eye.

But not in every eye.

As late as the turn of the century, a veteran’s polemic was dedicated to excoriating not only Pickett, but Grant and the Union men who had declined to punish him.

We’ve only outlined the Kinston story in this post, but much more detailed narratives can be found at:

* In fairness to U.S. Grant, we are bound to report his stated reason for opposing any prosecution of Pickett: it would violate the grant of clemency he himself had made to secure General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,North Carolina,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1833: Frankie Silver, Morganton legend

8 comments July 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1833, a young woman named Frankie Silver was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina for murdering her husband Charles.

The cover of Perry Deane Young’s book (available at Amazon.com) shows actress Amanda Ladd in the title role of Young’s play Frankie. Young can be contacted at www.perrydeaneyoung.com or by e-mail at pyoung3@bellsouth.net

Silver is a staple of North Carolina folklore, supposed to have assassinated her spouse in a jealous rage and checked out singing her confession from the gallows.

But the reality, as best one can discern from the distance of time, is quite a bit murkier; indeed, quite a bit more dark and dramatic.

Executed Today is honored to mark the occasion by interviewing author Perry Deane Young.

Young’s acclaimed The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged? debunks many of the fables surrounding this old time true crime.

ET: Just by way of orientation, what’s the baseline legend of Frankie Silver that Appalachian children learn? And how exactly did this particular hanging come to be so richly preserved in ballads and folklore and the like?

PDY: The legend is that this true story was the basis for the black blues song, Frankie and Johnny.

Frankie killed her man out of revenge cause he done her wrong. The legend is that she was the first — or only white — woman ever hanged in North Carolina, that she sang a confession from the scaffold. This was the story I heard as a child; only later would I learn that none of this was based on facts.

Most historians now think the song, Frankie and Johnny, was based on a murder in St. Louis, although several folklore collections published in the 20th century say it was based on Frankie and Charlie Silver.

What is it that drew you to this case in the first place?

Most people’s mothers tell them stories about Winnie the Pooh and, oh my, Tigger the tiger. My mother told me about a woman who cut her husband’s head off with an axe and burned his body in the fireplace.

As a writer, I’ve always been grateful for that.

Your book makes the case that she was wrongly executed, and not only that — but that “the true story, the facts … are even more interesting than the story as it has been passed down by so many ballad singers, folklore specialists, storytellers and newspaper columnists”. What’s the most important misconception people have about Frankie Silver? What surprises you most about the story?

There are many misconceptions, starting with the murder itself. There is ample evidence from the time to prove that her husband was loading his gun to kill Frankie and she picked up the axe to defend herself.

She did not sneak up on him as he lay sleeping; she killed in self defense.

She was not the first or only woman ever hanged in North Carolina, she was one of at least 15.

She did not read or sing a confession from the scaffold.

A young school teacher plagiarized a Kentucky ballad, “Beacham’s Lament,” had it printed and handed out at the hanging. It is this ballad, in which Frankie laments her guilt, that has come down as factual. However, when I was a college student, I came across 17 different letters and petitions to the governor asking for a pardon for Frankie. In these documents, it is clearly spelled out that Charlie Silver was a drunk, abusive husband and Frankie killed him in self-defense.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course … but it doesn’t seem to require hindsight to think that her lawyer would have been expected to introduce evidence of domestic violence even if that wasn’t the main thrust of his defense. Would it also have seemed that way to the reasonable barrister in the 1830s, or was there good reason for him to avoid it? Can we say that she was hanged for poor lawyering?

The late Sen. Sam Ervin was, like me, a great believer in Frankie’s innocence. A letter he wrote me explaining why is reproduced in the new edition of my book. He explained to me that at the time she was tried, the accused was deemed an incompetent witness and could not take the stand in her own defense. The law was changed in North Carolina in 1859 so that, as now, you can choose to defend yourself but you still cannot be compelled to testify against yourself.

Frankie’s lawyer, perhaps at the insistence of Frankie’s father, pleaded innocence. In other words, he could not introduce evidence of extenuating circumstances such as spousal abuse if he was saying she didn’t do it in the first place. In the book, I note that a man named Reuben Southard beat his wife to death that same year in the same county and got off with court costs. In one of the petitions, Frankie’s neighbors assert that it has often happened that a man murdered his wife with no legal consequences. In an article for his local newspaper, Ervin blamed Frankie’s lawyer for the outcome of the trial, not realizing that her lawyer was his own great great uncle.

Over the longer arc, it’s surprising to me that the claim by a woman who killed her husband that he was an abusive spouse — especially if that claim attracted a lot of support at the time — would go underground in the historical recollection of the case. In its essentials, this is one of the stock templates we have for thinking about a domestic crime. What happened in Morganton, and with the families’ descendants, over the years to shape the popular memory of the event? And does it suggest any larger lessons to you about the way we construct our histories?

The explanation is quite simple. All that survived over the years was this ridiculous “ballad,” in which Frankie confessed her guilt. She had nothing to do with that ballad.

Fayetteville Observer, July 30, 1833

But, in fact, she did write out a confession.

The confession itself has never been found but we know from other sources that it explained that she killed in self defense. The documents that detailed Charlie’s abuse and other details about the case remained hidden in the governors’ papers in the North Carolina Archives until I discovered them in 1963 when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2001, Frankie was finally allowed to have her say in a play which I wrote with William Gregg and which was produced by the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in August 2001.

In the play, a minister who is working to save Frankie from the gallows, overhears a young man singing the silly ballad. He is asked if a hundred years from now people will still be singing that ballad, not knowing what really happened. He answers: “People would rather believe a simple lie than a difficult truth.”

Compounding the historical image of Frankie has been the fact that her family was ashamed of having a convicted murderer in their midst. It was Charlie’s family that became the keeper of the legend and all its misconceptions. The Silvers kept alive the fake ballad “confession” and did everything they could to preserve the image of Charlie as a faithful husband who was killed by a spiteful wife.

Do you find that here in 2012, there are still people whose oxen are gored if your research contradicts their own version of the story — especially if you present Charlie as a violent husband?

You betcha! The Silvers to this day are rather vehement in defense of their Charlie.

It was a historic moment when I was invited to speak in the old church house near the murder scene for the Silver family reunion. In the basement of the church, they have created an extraordinary archive on the murder story and the family in general.

By this time, they have accepted that Charlie may not have been the innocent victim they’ve been told about. Many in the family are serious about their historical researches and want to know the facts. However, a contemporary Charlie Silver also said, “I just wish people would stop talking about it.”

You’re working on a program for Discovery channel’s “Deadly Women”. Does it hold any new revelations about this intriguing historical case?

The chief revelation came to me after being questioned by a very bright young woman named Colette Sandstedt for the program. She had done her homework exceedingly well. By the time we had gone over all the historical evidence I had collected over the past 50 years, I was ready for her last question: “What is the most shocking aspect of this case to you?”

I answered: “The most shocking aspect of the case is the way this poor woman has been misrepresented for almost 200 years.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Interviews,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1870: Wyatt Outlaw lynched by the Ku Klux Klan

2 comments February 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1870, the lynching of a mulatto freedman in Alamance County, North Carolina sounded the tocsin for ex-Confederates’ rollback of Reconstruction.

Perhaps America’s most tragic period, the aftermath of the Civil War saw a too-brief attempt to enforce ex-slaves’ civil rights, before it succumbed to violent counterattack. The prevailing historiography in the century-long era of Southern apartheid that followed remembered it as a time of impertinent Negroes ravishing Dixie’s virtue by being seated in the legislature and giving orders to their natural betters.

Winners write history, after all.

Those of the pro-Republican coalition at the time, before Northerners folded their hand, had a mind to write a different history.

Alamance County was one epicenter of this aborted alternative. The enclave was cool to secession from the beginning, and in the early years of Reconstruction had a live black-white coalition. Wyatt Outlaw, a mixed-race Alamance native who had fought for the Union, was a local leader in it. A member of the antislavery Union League, which registered freedmen as voters throughout the South, he was appointed a town commissioner for Graham, N.C. under the state’s new constitution.

This made him a prime target of Ku Kluxers. On the night of February 26, 1870, an armed party of white supremacists about 100 strong raided his home and strung him up on an elm tree facing the county courthouse. Pinned to his corpse for the edification of the morning’s churchgoers was a note:

“Beware you guilty — both white and black.”

North Carolina Governor William Holden complained to the U.S. Senate of federal unwillingness to act against such outrages.

What is being done to protect good citizens in Alamance County? We have Federal troops, but we want power to act. Is it possible the government will abandon its loyal people to be whipped and hanged? The habeas corpus should be at once suspended.

After another pro-Reconstruction politician was murdered later that year, Holden boldly took the initiative himself and called out the troops to arrest suspected Klansmen. But the right-wing Democratic party won midterm elections in 1870, and promptly impeached Holden for this atrocious tyranny; he was the first U.S. governor ever removed from office by impeachment.*


A “carpetbagger” ally of Wyatt Outlaw named Albion Tourgee — a judge who stood as one of North Carolina’s most prominent and hated advocates for African American equality — later wrote a novel about his experiences, A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools. Now in the public domain and available free online, this book’s portrayal of the Reconstruction South is receiving renewed scholarly appreciation** — including Tourgee’s catalogue of terrorism against emancipated blacks and the Republican government. The novel was a sensation (pdf) in its time.

One of the characters in Fool’s Errand is a nearly exact representation of Wyatt Outlaw: “Uncle Jerry Hunt”, who resists the Klan. It is “chiefly through Uncle Jerry’s persuasions, and because of his prominence and acknowledged leadership, this spirit had gone out among the colored men of the county.” He meets a graphic end that almost journalistically reports Outlaw’s real fate.

It was a chill, dreary night. A dry, harsh wind blew from the north. The moon was at the full, and shone clear and cold in the blue vault.

There was one shrill whistle, some noise of quietly moving horses; and those who looked from their windows saw a black-gowned and grimly-masked horseman sitting upon a draped horse at every corner of the streets, and before each house, –grim, silent, threatening. Those who saw dared not move, or give any alarm. Instinctively they knew that the enemy they had feared had come, had them in his clutches, and would work his will of them, whether they resisted or not. So, with the instinct of self-preservation, all were silent–all simulated sleep.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes the silent watch continued. A half-hour passed, and there had been no sound. Each masked sentry sat his horse as if horse and rider were only some magic statuary with which the bleak night cheated the affrighted eye. Then a whistle sounded on the road toward Verdenton. The masked horsemen turned their horses’ heads in that direction, and slowly and silently moved away. Gathering in twos, they fell into ranks with the regularity and ease of a practiced soldiery, and, as they filed on towards Verdenton, showed a cavalcade of several hundred strong; and upon one of the foremost horses rode one with a strange figure lashed securely to him.

When the few who were awake in the little village found courage to inquire as to what the silent enemy had done, they rushed from house to house with chattering teeth and trembling limbs, only to find that all were safe within, until they came to the house where old Uncle Jerry Hunt had been dwelling alone since the death of his wife six months before. The door was open.

The house was empty. The straw mattress had been thrown from the bed, and the hempen cord on which it rested had been removed.

The sabbath morrow was well advanced when the Fool [i.e., Tourgee himself] was first apprised of the raid. He at once rode into the town, arriving there just as the morning services closed, and met the people coming along the streets to their homes. Upon the limb of a low-branching oak not more than forty steps from the Temple of Justice, hung the lifeless body of old Jerry. The wind turned it slowly to and fro. The snowy hair and beard contrasted strangely with the dusky pallor of the peaceful face, which seemed even in death to proffer a benison to the people of God who passed to and fro from the house of prayer, unmindful both of the peace which lighted the dead face, and of the rifled temple of the Holy Ghost which appealed to them for sepulture. Over all pulsed the sacred echo of the sabbath bells. The sun shone brightly. The wind rustled the autumn leaves. A few idlers sat upon the steps of the court-house, and gazed carelessly at the ghastly burden on the oak. The brightly-dressed church-goers enlivened the streets. Not a colored man was to be seen. All except the brown cadaver on the tree spoke of peace and prayer–a holy day among a godly people, with whom rested the benison of peace.

The Fool asked of some trusty friends the story of the night before. With trembling lips one told it to him,

“I heard the noise of horses–quiet and orderly, but many. Looking from the window in the clear moonlight, I saw horsemen passing down the street, taking their stations here and there, like guards who have been told off for duty, at specific points. Two stopped before my house, two opposite Mr. Haskin’s, and two or three upon the corner below. They seemed to have been sent on before as a sort of picket-guard for the main body, which soon came in. I should say there were from a hundred to a hundred and fifty still in line. They were all masked, and wore black robes. The horses were disguised, too, by drapings. There were only a few mules in the whole company. They were good horses, though: one could tell that by their movements. Oh, it was a respectable crowd! No doubt about that, sir. Beggars don’t ride in this country. I don’t know when I have seen so many good horses together since the Yankee cavalry left here after the surrender. They were well drilled too. Plenty of old soldiers in that crowd. Why, every thing went just like clock-work. Not a word was said–just a few whistles given. They came like a dream, and went away like a mist. I thought we should have to fight for our lives; but they did not disturb any one here. They gathered down by the court-house. I could not see precisely what they were at, but, from my back upper window, saw them down about the tree. After a while a signal was given, and just at that time a match was struck, and I saw a dark body swing down under the limb. I knew then they had hung somebody, but had no idea who it was. To tell the truth, I had a notion it was you, Colonel. I saw several citizens go out and speak to these men on the horses. There were lights in some of the offices about the court-house, and in several of the houses about town. Every thing was as still as the grave,–no shouting or loud talking, and no excitement or stir about town. It was evident that a great many of the citizens expected the movement, and were prepared to co-operate with it by manifesting no curiosity, or otherwise endangering its success. I am inclined to think a good many from this town were in it. I never felt so powerless in my life. Here the town was in the hands of two or three hundred armed and disciplined men, hidden from the eye of the law, and having friends and co-workers in almost every house. I knew that resistance was useless.”

“But why,” asked the Fool, “has not the body been removed?”

“We have been thinking about it,” was the reply; “but the truth is, it don’t seem like a very safe business. And, after what we saw last night, no one feels like being the first to do what may be held an affront by those men. I tell you, Colonel, I went through the war, and saw as much danger as most men in it; but I would rather charge up the Heights of Gettysburg again than be the object of a raid by that crowd.”

After some parley, however, some colored men were found, and a little party made up, who went out and saw the body of Uncle Jerry cut down, and laid upon a box to await the coming of the coroner, who had already been notified. The inquest developed only these facts, and the sworn jurors solemnly and honestly found the cause of death unknown. One of the colored men who had watched the proceedings gave utterance to the prevailing opinion, when he said,–

“It don’t do fer niggers to know too much! Dat’s what ail Uncle Jerry!”

And indeed it did seem as if his case was one in which ignorance might have been bliss.

The multitalented, ahead-of-his-time Tourgee might well have uttered the same sentiment in 1896, when he was the lead attorney on the losing side of Plessy v. Ferguson — the Supreme Court’s landmark sanction of the color line that Uncle Jerry’s hangmen had drawn.

There are a couple of interesting journal articles touching on Alamance County during Reconstruction which are freely available as pdfs from the Journal of Backcountry Studies: “Other Souths”: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alamance County, North Carolina and Scalawags Among Us: Alamance County Among the “Other Souths”.

* Narrowly beating Nebraska’s David Butler, who got the boot a few months later. Holden remains the only governor to suffer this indignity in North Carolina history; there has been a recent push in the Raleigh legislature to posthumously pardon him. Holden’s own memoirs are also available free online.

** Along with the book’s contention that northern Republicans were to blame for vacillating on Reconstruction. “This cowardly shirking of responsibility, this pandering to sentimental whimsicalities, this snuffling whine about peace and conciliation, is sheer weakness … [the North is] a country debauched by weak humanitarianisms, more anxious to avoid the appearance of offending its enemies than desirous of securing its own power or its own ends.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Hanged,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,North Carolina,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,USA

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1936: Allen Foster, who fought Joe Louis

2 comments January 24th, 2012 Headsman

More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.

The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…”

It is heartbreaking enough to ponder the last words of any person dying by force. It is even more poignant to contemplate the words of this boy because they reveal the helplessness, the loneliness and the profound despair of Negroes in that period. The condemned young Negro, groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was a fighter. In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.

-Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait

This story isn’t precisely accurate as Dr. King told it, but the factual basis for this empathetic legend is Allen Foster.

On this date in 1936, Foster was the first man executed by lethal gas in North Carolina — and en route to this minor distinction he punched his ticket for commemoration in civil rights literature when he flourished a flamboyant uppercut to witnesses as he was led to the gas chamber and cried out, “I fought Joe Louis!” It was an allusion to having matched with the world champ when both were youngsters in Alabama.

This coincidental brush with celebrity was about as strange as the fact that it occurred in a gas chamber at all.

After the arrival of the electric chair, the South adopted it virtually across the board; North Carolina had switched from hanging to electrocution in 1910.

But the Tarheel State was also generally more progressive than its neighbors;* V.O. Key would write of North Carolina, “It has been the vogue to be progressive. Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states.”

Part of that “sophisticated politics” was, in the 1930s, a growing debate about the application — indeed, the mere existence — of capital punishment.

According to Trina Seitz’s “The Kiling Chair: North Carolina’s Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster” (North Carolina Historical Review, Jan. 2004):

North Carolinians were beginning to doubt the effectiveness of the sanction and the method used to enforce it. Furthermore, private citizens, humanitarians, and state institutions alike were increasingly scrutinizing the demographics of those being put to death.

Though this scrutiny did not lead so far as actual abolition, it provided the receptively reformist environment for Mitchell County Dr. Charles Peterson’s “pet project” of switching the execution protocol to lethal gas.

The reason for his fascination with gas seems to be obscure; the method had never been employed east of the Mississippi. Maybe it had something to do with 1932’s remarkably smooth gassing of a North Carolinian from nearby Burke County in Nevada, the nation’s gas chamber pioneer.

Whatever the reason, Peterson took a seat in the legislature in 1935 and won adoption for his idea in this very first session.

Unfortunately for Peterson — and doubly so for Foster — North Carolina didn’t have quite the same facility with hydrogen cyanide, and Foster’s execution was a notorious botch that immediately got people back on the electrocution bandwagon.

Foster was doomed for raping a white woman — this may be progressive North Carolina, but it’s still the South — and according to Seitz’s rendering of the News and Observer‘s first-hand report:

“Good-bye.” The Negro’s lips framed the words so clearly that no man in the witness room could doubt what he had said. As he said it, he winked and then forced a smile at the faces peering in at him. Then he began to suffer. No man could look squarely into his eyes and fail to perceive that they were registering pain. The Negro fought for breath, knowing he was going to die and fighting to get it over with as quickly as possible …

he sucked the gas desperately until his head rolled back three minutes later, indicating to physicians that the man finally had lost consciousness. But after a period of quiescence, his small, but powerfully built torso began to retch and jerk, throwing his head forward on his chest, where witnesses could see his eyes slowly glaze … The torturous, convulsive retching continued spasmodically for a full four minutes.

Officially, it took about 11 minutes for Foster to die, and as those agonizing minutes dragged by a physician broke the witness room’s mortified silence by exclaiming, “We’ve got to shorten [the execution method] or get rid of it entirely.” Um, yeah? The prison warden was quoted the next day as saying that even hanging was preferable to this.

The ensuing political controversy, however, did not succeed in reverting the method to electrocution.

Like the original electric chair, North Carolina’s gas chamber was the beneficiary of some hasty technical fixes: heating the gas chamber (it was at the freezing point when Foster died; Colorado executioners advised North Carolina that this would impede the gassing); tweaking the chemical formula.

The very next week, a white murderer named Ed Jenkins followed Foster into the toxic plume, this time to rave reviews: he “died painlessly and the method of execution was humane”. These advances were enough to keep the gas chamber in place, although the state legislature considered several bills to return to electrocution from 1937 to 1943.

During one such debate, North Carolina playwright Paul Green testified to the assembly (per Seitz),

Some day the electric chair and the gas chamber will be set up in the State Museum as symbols of an age of horror and ignorance. School children will look at them and feel superior to us as they look back upon an era of ignorance

Three hundred sixty-two people ultimately died in North Carolina’s gas chamber. And as Green anticipated, the execution chair resides today in the state’s Museum of History.

* This is still true of North Carolina: it has employed the allegedly more humane method of lethal injection since 1984, when no other Southern state save Texas used the needle until the 1990s; that use has been sparing enough that its per-capita execution rate remains markedly lower than most other former Confederate states; and in 2009, North Carolina implemented a stillcontroversial Racial Justice Act empowering condemned prisoners to challenge their sentence with statistical evidence of racial disparity even though courts don’t require this at all.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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