The first judicial execution of a white man* in the history of the Utah Territory took place on this date in 1859.
One Thomas Ferguson earned the distinction by getting roaring drunk and shooting dead the shopkeeper who employed and boarded him. Allegedly, Alexander Carpenter’s provocation had been to accuse Ferguson of being party to the unknown burglars who had lately raided his Salt Lake City shop, which obviously got way under Ferguson’s skin.
This was frontier America, being newly-settled by Brigham Young‘s upstart Latter-Day Saints sect, though not only by them. The capital’s population was perhaps 14,000 — the kind of place where dubious refugees could wash up from parts unknown, trusting their fortunes to their native wit and Colt’s Manufacturing Company.
“Crime has run riot in this city since the assassination of McNeill and Sergeant Pike” a hostile, non-Mormon correspondent wrote to the San Francisco Bulletin (letter dated Oct. 5, 1859, and published Oct. 27).
Till lately, no one has been arrested. Ferguson, a “Gentile,” murdered Carpenter, a Mormon, and for such an outrage “this people” will permit the sentence of death to be carried into effect; but the murderers of McNeill, of Pike, of Drown, of Arnold — the first two “Gentiles,” the last “apostates” — run at large to hold the community in terror and carry out other sentences.* An apostate committed suicide a few nights since by shooting himself twice in the back of the head!
Carpenter murdered his partner named Turner near Fort Laramie, Nebraska, brought their goods to this city, where, he said, (and convinced his associates,) he was tried and acquitted. Tried and acquitted in Utah for murder in Nebraska!
Both men were New Yorkers — and per a less strident observer writing to the New York Herald (datelined Oct. 7; published Nov. 7) neither of the two was Mormon. They had been allured to the West by the usual siren songs: wealth, fortune, fame. As young men do, these may have pictured themselves forever getting the drop on their enemies and never the other way around … and always with a dashing jailbreak at the ready if it came to that.
Unfortunately for Ferguson, he wasn’t the only Old West stock character in this tableau; a hanging-judge of dubious character named Charles Sinclair officiated the trial, so deep into his cups that he initially set Ferguson’s execution date for a Sunday. (It was changed to a Friday.) Ferguson himself gave the judge a right scorching from his scaffold rostrum on his way off this mortal coil:
I was tried by the statutes of Utah Territory, which give a man the privilege of being shot, beheaded or hanged. But was it given to me? No, it was not. All Judge Sinclair wanted was to sentence some one to be hanged, then he was willing to leave the Territory; and he had too much whiskey in his head to know the day he sentenced me to be executed on, and would not have known, if it had not been for the people of Utah laughing at him … A nice Judge to send to any country! (Source)
* The Espy file credits earlier executions of Native Americans, two Goshutes named Longhair and Antelope who hanged for slaying two whites during settler bush wars. (I would not venture to assert the judicial propriety, even by antebellum standards, of these proceedings.) And of course, Ferguson’s distinction excludes extrajudicial killings like the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
** The unpunished killings the correspondent names in this piece took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1857-1858 war between Mormon settlers in Utah and the federal government asserting its jurisdiction — a period when Brigham Young’s martial law had just been rescinded. Utah Gentiles inclined to read these incidents as emblematic of a lawless atmosphere in which reluctance to prosecute gave Mormons virtual impunity in their conduct towards the rest of the population.