Posts filed under 'Utah'

1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

Add comment November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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1987: Dale Selby Pierre, Hi-Fi Murderer

1 comment August 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Utah executed Dale Selby Pierre for one of the most notorious crimes in that state’s history — the Hi-Fi Murders.

Pierre, along with two fellow airmen from the Hill Air Force Base, William Andrews and Keith Roberts, began an armed robbery of a hi-fi shop in nearby Ogden near closing time on the evening of April 22, 1974.

The night that unfolded would be a visit to an antechamber of hell not only for the two young clerks on duty at the time, but three other people who wandered into the store while the crooks were still in it — each of whom was added to the growing pen of hostages Pierre et al kept in the basement.

After plundering the shop of $25,000 worth of electronics, Pierre and Andrews went to get rid of their prisoners by making them drink liquid Drano.

This method of homicide, theoretically an elegantly quiet one which would facilitate a clean getaway, had been cribbed from a murder scene in the 1973 Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force.

The struggles of Cortney Naisbitt, one of the surviving victims, forms the subject of Victim: The Other Side of Murder — a classic of the true-crime genre and of the victim’s rights movement.

But human flesh is hardier than celluloid.

Unlike the poor prostitute in Magnum Force, Pierre and Andrews’s victims groaned and gurgled, their blistering mouths suppurating so much fluid that duct tape to quiet them down wouldn’t stick. And the Drano didn’t kill them, or at least it was sure taking its time.

“I remember the noise they were making, the sounds of pain they were making,” Pierre told his clemency hearing. “It was something greater than sad.”

Since they hadn’t got rid of their victims quite so cleanly, Pierre simply set about shooting them — and in the case of Michelle Ansley, a 19-year-old in her first (and last) week on the job at the Hi-Fi shop, raping her first. These execution-style murders had only mixed results, and one of the hostages — 43-year-old Orren Walker — being noticeably not dead, had a ball-point pen kicked into his ear in an attempt to finish him off.

Somehow, Walker still survived, as did 16-year-old Cortney Naisbitt, who suffered severe brain damage. (Both have since died.) Stanley Walker, Carol Naisbitt, and Ansley were not so “lucky.” But neither were the perps: since Andrews had openly talked at the Air Force base about boosting that very hi-fi shop and even killing anyone who “gets in the way,” suspicious fellow airmen soon turned them in.

The 21st century’s more polished and calculating strategic communications consultant probably would have advised keeping well clear of such an incendiary crime, but death penalty opponents actually pushed clemency hard in the Hi-Fi case.* For the NAACP, the sentences underscored racial disparity in the death penalty.

Rubbish, one might say, given the killers’ epically villainous conduct. But one member of the all-white jury was apparently passed a note by parties unknown reading “Hang the niggers.” And the NAACP noted that Utah gave death sentences to these guys, but not to a white supremacist who murdered two black men for jogging with white women.

None of this cut any ice with Utah. Years later, the killers themselves had a hard time fitting that monstrous night into any kind of comprehensible rationale. Pierre:

The crime took a course of its own. It wasn’t planned that way. People kept coming in and I just panicked. The only way to prevent what happened was to have been moved away from the Air Force entirely … Of course the alcohol and the pills I was consuming didn’t help — valiums, reds, black beauties and yellow jackets … I tell myself, “You have to accept responsibility for it — you did it, you were there. You can’t rationalize it.”


Dale Pierre pleads his case to the Utah clemency board.

Dale Pierre was the very first person put to death in Utah after its famously groundbreaking execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977. But in fact, the Hi-Fi killers had preceded the eager volunteer Gilmore on Utah’s death row, and Gilmore as he walked his last mile reportedly wisecracked to Pierre and Andrews, “I’ll be seeing you directly.”

Pierre’s accomplice William Andrews was also finally executed in 1992, after a then-unimaginable (and anything but “direct”) 18 years on death row — nearly half his life. Their fellow accomplice Keith Roberts didn’t personally take part in the cellar hecatomb and therefore avoided the death sentence: he was paroled in 1987.

* The clemency push was much stronger for William Andrews than for Dale Pierre, since Andrews was also making the argument that he hadn’t directly killed anyone and hadn’t intended to. As a matter of fact, the manipulative Andrews was and is widely doubted on that point — but any such claim was wholly unavailable to the acknowledged triggerman Pierre.

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1896: Charles Thiede, the first since Utah statehood

Add comment August 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1896, seven months after admittance as the 45th U.S. state,* Utah hanged Charles Thiede.

By birth a Pomeranian — the place, not the dog — this Salt Lake City saloon owner had gone to sea as a youth and had the hard drinking to show for it. He was plenty notorious before death row for getting into the drink himself, in which condition he often disported himself pummeling his wife, Mary.

When his wife turned up “mysteriously” done to death — her throat twice slashed — outside of Thiede’s tavern one fine spring night in 1894, it didn’t take much connecting of the dots to infer the guilt of her abusive husband, who also was the one who happened to “find” the body. Thiede, all the way to the end, would maintain his innocence, which nobody believed; a fistful of private detectives Thiede threw at the investigation in the weeks leading up to his death turned up little but a weird story about Mary dallying with a vengeful bootlegger. (Or Charles Thiede’s own going hypothesis that some wandering Swedes tried to rape Mary.)

Still, it does have to be allowed that beating a spouse in private, however discreditable the deed, has a different character than slashing her throat on a public road. This was a distinct m.o., and there was little specific cause anyone could point to for Thiede’s having done it. Circumstantial evidence has a way of stacking up against you when you’re known as a violent drunk.

According to Frontier Justice in the Wild West, an Oregon firm was paid $150 to set up a scaffold (hidden from public view within a palisade) using the “twitch-up” design in vogue in the late 19th century. Thiede wasn’t going to drop: he was going to be jerked upward by dropping a counterbalance.

The hanging rope passed through a hole in the crossbeam, over two pulleys, and down the side, where a 430-pound weight was attached. Under the noose was a low wooden platform upon which the condemned man was to stand while being prepared. In the entire construction of the gallows, not a nail or pin was used; it was bolted together so that it could be disassembled and used again.


This illustration of the setup for Charles Thiede’s hanging appeared in the Aug. 11, 1896 Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune. The caption explains the apparatus: “The executioner was concealed in the tent at right,and at a signal from the Sheriff pulled the hidden lever, which drew back (A) the projecting piece of steel which supported (B) the iron bar on which the 430-pound cube of lead rested, causing the weight to drop, and the body to be jerked upward.”

This clever device worked perfectly, if the aforesaid Semi-Weekly Tribune is to be believed, but it would never see action again. Most Utahans preferred the state’s other choice alternative for execution, the firing squad; there wouldn’t be another hanging there until 1912.

Thiede himself was secretly buried in nearby Sandy, Utah, whose citizens were so incensed at becoming involuntary wardens of the killer’s mortal remains that an armed standoff between Sandy residents and Thiede’s people was only dialed down when the latter agreed to remove the remains from the cemetery proper and bury them in an adjacent feld.

* When the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to Utah shortly before the hanging, it at first accidentally addressed its order to the Territory of Utah.

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1894: Enoch Davis, like a cur

2 comments September 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Enoch Davis — condemned for the fatally pistol-whipping his wife, who was planning to leave him (you’ll see why in a moment) — was shot to death at Lehi Junction, Utah.

We have some affection in these pages for men or women who do not “play the man” (or woman) at the end but die in piteously naked humanity.

Given that we bear no brief for the man’s eternal soul, it seems in these parts as if bursting with rage is no less legitimate a way than any other to shuffle off this mortal coil: surely, it is better spectacle than many. “The most despicable mangy canine whelp that ever met an ignominious fate,” reported Salt Lake’s Daily Tribune, “could not have whined itself out of existence in a more deplorable, decency-sickening state than was Enoch Davis’ last hour.”

Davis got started well before the last hour; according to this review of Utah’s notable executions, he kicked off execution day by asking his jailers if he could enjoy one last … prostitute.

Maybe that would have chilled him out a little.

Instead, the Salt Lake Herald reporter recounted (under a scandalized headline) that “for vileness, filth, obscenity, indecency, billingsgate and profanity, no man, standing on the threshold of eternity’s ante-room, ever equaled Davis, barring Ruloff who was hung in Binghampton [sic], New York, in 1872 [sic].”

By turns cursing, resisting, demanding (he had better luck with his demand for whisky), and cursing some more — the Herald report is full of blushing bowdlerizations of Davis’s dirty stories and blasphemous digressions. Solicited of his last remarks, “[t]he subsequent dialogue was of such a disconnected character that reproduction is impossible. First, because it was too filthy; second, the same. And so on ad infinitum.”

Now those are last words we can all enjoy.

Beyond the newsmen, and about 500 residents of Provo, Lehi, and environs who assembled for the show, the audience included the six anonymous members of the firing squad. In order to secret their identity, they had been carried to the site in the dead of night and situated in a tent: they would not emerge until the following nightfall.

Holes cut in the canvas provided their firing positions on Davis, staked out in a bar seat that was (for obvious reasons, but also because Davis was by that point too drunk to sit straight) as securely nailed down as the officiants could manage.

Davis objected to everything else, and of course he objected to this too. “Let me see ‘em! Let me see them men who are going to kill me!” the doomed man carped, not wanting to “die like an Indian.” Odd phrase, but he was a little stressed out.

The sharpshooters demurred.

The demurrers shot sharp.

That part, at least, went off without a hitch. Like an Indian, like a cur, or merely like a weak and wicked villain, Davis succumbed instantly to the volley.

His own cowardly tears fell through the foulest of breaths during his last hour, his complete lack of nerve … might have won him a little human sympathy if it were not for his vile and lying tongue.

-Salt Lake Tribune, quoted in Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions


This illustration (and the sketch of Davis above) both from the September 15, 1894 Salt Lake Herald.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1951: Eliseo Mares, “silently and horribly”

2 comments September 10th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Eliseo (sometimes rendered “Elisio”) Mares was shot in Utah for murder.

He was condemned for the 1946 murder of an Ohio sailor en route to California for his marriage. (Mares claimed self-defense.) The wait for his execution — “five long years,” Mares told a reporter* after he lost his last appeal — was unusually protracted for the time.

By the time his case had wended its way through the courts, county-managed executions had been consolidated at the state prison at Point of the Mountain. Mares was the first put to death there.

Not until 25 years later, in a reminiscence by one of the witnesses, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Clark Lobb, was it disclosed that Mares “died silently and horribly.” Two of the four bullets fired from 15 feet away struck Mares in the hip and abdomen. It was several minutes before the prisoner was declared dead.

This source speculates that the poor marksmanship was intentional, but whether intentional or not, it must have been an appalling spectacle.

The sheriff directing the proceedings immediately began pushing for a switch to away from the error-prone firing squad to the gas chamber. (No dice, although the 1955 legislature did approve a switch to electrocution that fell through for want of funding.)

* UP wire report quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 9, 1951.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1869: Chauncey W. Millard, candy man

1 comment January 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1869, Chauncey W. Millard was shot in Provo, Utah, for a stagecoach murder and robbery.

Despite the trust fund moniker, Chauncey Millard was an underbelly character, a youth of uncertain age (18 or 19, went the estimate) who had drifted west from an abusive apprenticeship. His complete backstory — not even his name* — was never fully assayed, and the Utah authorities did not keep his acquaintance more than a few weeks before they shot him. “It was snowing like this when I done it,” he remarked on his execution day: frontier justice had not allowed even a single season to elapse.

Though slightly different configurations of his backstory are to be found, all recognize him as a youth barely grown from out of that vast and indistinct vagabondage of lumpen marginalia consigned to the shadowlands to scrap for their bread. He wanted any education save a self-made career of small-time savagery. His life was nasty, brutish, and short.

The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin of Jan. 5, 1869, presents a representative summation, channeling a wire story from the scene:

DREADFUL DEPRAVITY — The Salt Lake Reporter of December 24th has the following:

The young man now in the county jail, for the murder of Swett, certainly comes as near being a complete reprobate as any we have met. He tells the story of the murder, and the unsuccessful attempt on Mayfield, with great circumstantiality of detail, adding in conclusion: “Well, Mayfield needn’t be afraid of ever being killed by a pistol, for it can’t be done. His life is insured. I shot at him four times, fair as ever a man did, and with good aim too, and never hurt him.” After the killing, he fled across a ridge, and the next day hired to a Bishop there to herd sheep. As he relates the story, the Bishop spoke of his intention to buy a beef, upon which the young man asked: “Have you got money enough to buy a beef?” “No,” said the Bishop, “but I think I can trade for it.” The prisoner adds very complacently: “I think he was a little scared, but if he had money enough to buy a beef, I thought I would pop him over, take what he had, and light out!” When arrested he merely said: “I suppose you’ll string me up to the first good limb you come to, but I’ll take a nap first.” Upon which he lay down in the wagon and snored quite lustily for four hours.

On awaking he expressed some surprise at not being hanged at once, and was told in this country every man could have a trial and a choice between being hanged or shot. To which he made reply: “By —, that’s bully, I’ll take shooting all the time.” He first gave his name as Chauncey Millard, stating that he had no recollection of his father; but soon after spoke of his mother’s maiden name being Millard, to his paternity is rather doubtful. He was born in the South;** early neglected and abused, and taught nothing worth knowing, his hand was against every man and a good many hands against him. The man to whom he was apprenticed mistreated him, and his first crime was destroying his master’s property for revenge. This was at the age of 13; not long after that he became a bushwhacker, and with a few companions robbed or murdered rebel or Union soldiers indifferently. With the return of peace he came West, and relates several crimes and attempts committed in this Territory.

He expresses a willingness to die, saying he has tried to make money by crime and made a failure. Strangely enough the young man has what phrenologists would call “rather a good head,” and presents an interesting but terrible case of “perverted moral instinct.” He is 18 or 19 years of age, not above the latter, though he is not certain of his age. He presents a curious case of the youthful criminal, made so by the utter neglect of moral cultivation.

Calling him, as one source does, “Utah’s version of Billy the Kid” would probably be more corrective of William Bonney’s inflated legend than of Millard’s utter obscurity.

The least obscure thing about Millard is a strange and tawdry particular of his death: having no kin, and no care, he heedlessly made the Faustian bargain to salvage some last juvenile diversion in this world in exchange for the mortified flesh he was about to take leave of.

The execution proved what a human fiend Millard was. Selling his body to Doctor Roberts of Provo for a pound of candy, he calmly ate the sweets while sitting in the executioner’s chair awaiting the fatal shot.

It’s as pronounced an example as one might ask of the disreputable anatomy trade preying on poverty.

* Chauncey Millard was the name he gave the lawmen, at least; his real identity was never clearly established, though the Salt Lake City News reported shortly before “Millard’s” hanging that guards found a tattoo reading “C.E. Otoway” on his arm and hypothesized that to be his real name. Did 19th century drifters usually tattoo their own names on their bodies?

** Other versions have him a New York delinquent.

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1962: Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheats the executioner

Add comment September 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1962, just hours before he was to face a firing squad for the murder of a fellow inmate, Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheated the executioner with a fatal drug overdose.

It was the final escape for a prisoner who had had a lot of them: five previous stays had scotched scheduled executions, sometimes with just hours to spare, back when such stays were anything but routine. The state’s Pardons Board was a long time mulling the case.

Rivenburgh’s own suicide note complained that he was “tired of waiting, tired of the excessive delays,” which is an interesting reason to take one’s own life just before the executioner was going to do it anyway. (Rivenburgh also asserted his innocence.)

Actually, Utah had built wooden execution chairs for two men set for death a September 14 death by musketry, but didn’t manage to seat either inmate.

The other, Jesse Garcia — condemned for helping Rivenburgh slay LeRoy Varner — was granted a commutation on the evening of September 13.

As it turned out, Utah would not put another criminal to death until Gary Gilmore in 1977.

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2010: Ronnie Lee Gardner, by musketry

5 comments June 18th, 2010 Headsman

A few hours ago as of this writing, the U.S. state of Utah put Ronnie Lee Gardner to death by firing squad, a method so vintage that its constitutionality was challenged in the 19th century.

He’d spent a lifetime in the clutches of various state institutions, and shot a lawyer dead in an audacious attempt to break out of a Salt Lake City courthouse while shackled.

That happened way back in 1985.

A quarter-century later — full half a lifetime, for Ronnie Lee Gardner — the clock finally ran out on the resulting legal process.

Gardner fought the execution to the very end, his plea for executive clemency (backed by some of the jurors who doomed him, and by some relatives of the murder victim himself who claim that Michael Burdell opposed the death penalty) falling on predictably deaf ears just a few days ago.

But Gardner did volunteer, if he had to die, to die that headline-grabbing, reminiscent-of-Gary-Gilmore death at the business end of an anonymous five-man team of marksmen.

With the execution of that procedure minutes after midnight today, Gardner became the first U.S. prisoner executed by firing squad since John Albert Taylor in 1996. He might ultimately be the last ever … though a few inmates still residing on Utah’s death row might yet supplant him.

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1879: Three botches in three states

2 comments May 16th, 2010 Headsman

America’s weird love-affair with Frankenstein execution technology has been an occasional theme on this blog, but the fact is that the old-school execution methods these ghastly machines replaced were unpleasantly hit-and-miss.

On this date in 1879, three different U.S. states produced botched executions, each blurbed this New York Times article. (pdf)


One is attracted most readily to the firing-squad execution of murderer Wallace Wilkerson in Utah.

Wilkerson appealed the constitutionality of this method of execution, and in 1879′s Wilkerson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not” cruel and unusual punishment.

This legal precedent has actually been cited* by the present-day Supreme Court in rejecting legal challenges to lethal injection. Which is ironic, because a couple of months after the high court issued Wilkerson v. Utah, Wilkerson suffered a very cruel execution indeed.

The doomed man talked the officials conducting his execution into allowing him to die without being strapped down. With the resultant range of motion, Wilkerson at the last breath before the fusillade hit him drew his shoulders up as he braced for the impact — and pulled the white target pinned to his shirt above his heart.

The volley didn’t kill him — it just knocked him out of his chair to the ground, screaming “Oh, my God! My God! They have missed!”

He bled to death in 27 minutes, prompting the tongue-in-cheek observation by the Ogden Junction that “the French guillotine never fails.”


Meanwhile, on the very same day in Missouri …

ST. LOUIS, Mo., May 16.–A special dispatch from Booneville, Mo., says: “John I. West, who murdered a tramp last October, was to-day hanged at the Old Fair Ground near this city. When the trap was sprung, at 11:41 A.M., the rope broke, and the culprit fell to the ground on his back, but was too weak to rise. His groans and the gurgling sounds of strangulation were terrible to hear. He was picked up and speedily raised to the trap again, and, while being held by four or five men, was dropped a second time. This time he swung, and in 11 minutes was pronounced dead.

After reaching the platform of the gallows, West spoke nearly half an hour to the crowd present, reiterating his confession of the murder of Shinn, reviewing his past life, and appealing to young men and women to take his fate as a warning. There were about 8,000 people present, among whom was the father of West, who had come from Chapin, Ill.

(There’s a great deal more about West’s crime in the Times article, but it’s pretty dull reading for all the column-inches. He was a tramp who committed a semi-random murder, seemingly activating all the crime-freakout circuits so familiar to cable news programmers.)


Hillsboro, North Carolina, held a first-ever triple hanging — of the “Chapel Hill burglars”. As you might guess, these gentlemen burgled, and said burgling occurred in Chapel Hill. It was for housebreaking, not murder, that they were condemned, with the help of a confederate who turned state’s-evidence against them as soon as the lot was arrested.

Each of the culprits proclaimed his innocence to the last moment. [Lewis] Carlton spoke for an hour, and said his salvation was sure. The parting between [Henry] Andrews and his sister on the scaffold was most affecting, and moved the crowd of witnesses to tears. All the doomed men bore themselves firmly, and showed no signs of wavering. The hanging took place at 2:30 P.M., and was very badly conducted. The ropes around the necks of [Henry Alphonso] Davis and Carlton were too long, and their feet rested on the ground. They were raised up and the ropes retied, causing death by strangulation.

(According to this “history of the University of North Carolina” page, one of the burglars’ victims was writer Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Famous as the woman who rang the bell re-opening UNC in 1875, her role in closing the university in the first place in 1870 and her retrograde racial politics have recently been in Tar Heel news. The linked article suggests that her brush with the Chapel Hill burglars might have given Spencer an appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan’s version of order. After all, a white supremacist vigilante is just a liberal who’s been burgled.)

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat of May 17, 1879 adds of our men’s exit (in an addendum to a report primarily about the aforementioned West) that

[t]he execution was romantic in the extreme. Just as the doomed men ascended the platform a murky cloud, which had been drifting around, hung over the crowd and the instrument of death. Alfonso Davis began to speak, and as he opened his mouth the thunder began to peal, and the rain came down in torrents. Not a man, woman or child in the vast crowd moved or seemed to be aware that the rain was falling, so wrapped up in the death scene were they. At times the cloud threw such a dense shadow over the scene that it seemed as though night had enveloped the place. Then the lightning, vivid and intense, lit up the field of blood and cast forward, in bold and statuesque relief, the figures of the doomed and their executor as he stood like an artilleryman, lanyard in hand, ready to send the signal of death forward … the souls of three burglars went out and beyond, forked lightning illuminating their way and the wildest of thunder pealing their requiem.


The Bayou State redeemed this black day for the executioner’s craft by the uneventful hanging one Robert Cheney (black, of course) “for ravishing Amelia Voight in June, 1878.”

All told, four states killed six men on May 16, 1879, but only two of them died “cleanly.”

* The author of the New York Times opinion piece cited here, Gilbert King, has guest-blogged on this site:

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1996: John Albert Taylor, the last American to face a firing squad

8 comments January 26th, 2010 Headsman

Moments past midnight on this date in 1996 five anonymous marksmen fired four .30-.30 caliber rounds (one rifle had blanks, a balm to the shooters’ consciences) into the heart of Utah rapist John Albert Taylor: the last use to date of a firing squad in the United States. (Update: Not anymore.)

Actually, he’s the only person put to death by shooting under the modern American death penalty regime besides Gary Gilmore.

Like Gilmore, Taylor voluntarily dropped his appeals and sought his own execution for the 1989 rape-murder of Charla Nicole King. A confidante would later reveal that health problems led him to do so in preference to the feared alternative of dying alone in his cell.

As he chose death, so he chose the method: not a clinical, forgettable lethal injection, but the discomfiting tableau of the target pinned over his heart, the protective sandbags stacked up behind him, and the tray of blood beneath the chair he was strapped into. Taylor said he wanted to make a statement. (And that he feared “flipping around like a fish out of water” on an injection gurney, his other option in Utah.)

The reclusive Taylor denied the crime to the end, but never found many takers for the story he was selling — that he’d just so happened to leave his fingerprints on the phone cord later used to strangle the prepubescent girl in the course of committing an unrelated robbery. It didn’t help that Taylor had raped his own sister when she was 12.

For the national and international media circus — British, Australian, Japanese, German, Italian, French, and Spanish media all represented — the story was the anachronistic method of execution, right out of the Wild West.

That story doesn’t have many rounds left in the chamber, as it were. In 2004, Utah succumbed to pressure to change its execution method to lethal injection alone. Though the firing squad is technically on the books in Idaho (at the discretion of the state, not the prisoner) and Oklahoma (as a backup option to lethal injection), it’s vanishingly unlikely to be used in either state.* That leaves just a few of the pre-2004 Utah prisoners grandfathered into the option to supplant John Albert Taylor for the distinction of suffering the last firing squad execution in American history.


That’s a “last,” but given our bloggy medium, we would be remiss not to notice a milestone “first” that also attended Taylor’s death.

According to the Deseret News (Jan. 26, 1996), the ACLU sponsored an America Online chat with anti-death penalty actor Mike Farrell during the hours leading up to and following this execution — “the first-ever death-penalty vigil in cyberspace.”

* Predominantly Mormon Utah has been the firing squad’s last redoubt thanks to the sect’s “blood atonement” theology. (As seen in its pioneer days.) According to the Espy file (pdf) of historical U.S. executions, the last American execution by shooting not to occur in the state of Utah was that of Andrigi Mirkovich in Nevada back in 1913. (Oklahoma used the firing squad routinely in the 19th century.)

Part of the Daily Double: Throwback Executions.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Milestones,Murder,Rape,Sex,Shot,USA,Utah,Volunteers

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