Posts filed under 'Utah'

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 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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Shot,Theft,USA,Utah

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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

3 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 Andriza Mircovich 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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1938: The terrified John Deering

3 comments October 31st, 2009 Headsman

We meet people in these pages who go to the scaffold joking, or sarcastic, or cocksure.

Humans bear up to proximity of death with every psychological defense in the book, but even if surprisingly few die in naked terror, make no mistake this Halloween: there’s a reason the executioner is scary.

Shot Through the Heart

Habitual criminal John Deering had a date with a Salt Lake City firing squad this date in 1938.

If anyone should be nonchalant about being ripped open by bullets, it’s a guy who eschewed a prison sentence in Michigan and confessed to murder to get himself extradited to Utah to face capital murder charges — saying that he and the world would both be better off with him dead.

The 39-year-old put on a cool front, but how steady was he, really? In a weird experiment, Deering agreed to be hooked to an electrocardiogram that measured his heart rate during his last moments.

Here comes the science!

The heart of John W. Deering, holdup murderer, beat three times faster than normal just before he was put to death today by a firing squad in the state prison here. The unprecedented recording was termed valuable to heart disease specialists as it showed clearly the effect of fear.

An electro-cardiograph film, recorded with the condemned man’s permission, showed that Deering’s heart beat jumped from normal 72 to 180, although he appeared outwardly calm. It maintained that rate for the several minutes required to complete preliminaries for the execution.

When the doomed man was asked for a last statement his heart beat fluttered wildly, then calmed after he spoke until bullets ended his life. The heart beat stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets struck, but he was not pronounced dead until two and a half minutes after the five shots rang out. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1938)

Still no cure for cancer.

This guy is obviously not to be confused with his tragic Hollywood contemporary of the same name.

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1877: John D. Lee, for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

1 comment March 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1877, Mormon leader John D. Lee was shot at the site of (and for the crime of instigating) the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years before.

As the only person ever prosecuted for this dreadful affair, which saw 120 California-bound settlers slaughtered by a Mormon militia, Lee “was allowed … to carry to his grave Mormondom’s guilt for this horrible and barbaric act.” (Jan Shipps)

On this anniversary of Lee’s death, Executed Today interviews author Judith Freeman, whose historical novel Red Water tells Lee’s story through the eyes of three of his 19 wives.

You grew up Mormon — what brought you to this story? I gather that it wasn’t exactly daily discourse in your youth.

I found a copy of Juanita Brooks‘ book The Mountain Meadows Massacre in a used bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington, read it and was captivated by this story.

Growing up in northern Utah, I’d only heard vague, shadowy references to the massacre. It was the dirty little secret buried in the Mormon past — except for those people in Southern Utah who lived with that story as part of every generation’s experience and shame. I felt I had to write a novel about it, in part to try and understand this question: How do you get basically good people, like those Mormon settlers, to commit such evil?

You paint a picture of John Lee through the eyes of three of his wives. What kind of man was he — and how representative of the Mormon hierarchy would that be?

I think Lee was first and foremost a brilliant pioneer and survivalist and also a big blowhard, the kind of guy who would talk your head off — affable and a bit boring when it came to promoting his own virtues and experiences. He was self-aggrandizing, he’d do anything to make a buck, he had problems with the truth. He was a suck-up to Brigham Young who became his substitute father and then betrayed him.

He wasn’t entirely trustworthy because he put his own interests before all else. He could also be incredibly generous and kind, helpful to others. He wanted people to like him though they often didn’t, and he had an ingratiating quality. He was an orphan, with an orphan’s life-long neediness. In many ways I think he was good to his wives and cared deeply about his family — all sixty something kids and 19 wives. He was an amazingly talented man, skilled at many trades and businesses.

Was he representative of the Mormon Hierarchy? I don’t know. In some ways yes but I sense he was more sycophantic than some, and had a more amusing character than others, but what they all had in common was an absolute deference to church authority. I think I might have enjoyed meeting John D. Lee, he might have been more lively and fun than Brigham Young who strikes me as a misogynist and a brittle, cold man.

What about the women — three very different characters. What’s the sense you got of life for these women as pioneers, living in a polygamous family? How did they relate to one another, and how did the massacre and the execution of John Lee change their situation?

The women were also amazingly inventive as pioneers, strong, tough, formidable women though how can you generalize about 19 different personalities? Some liked each other and some couldn’t stand each other and the good thing was that Lee was a small industry and many of his wives had their own farms so they weren’t required to live on top of each other. He understood the “kitchen thing” when it comes to women, and said he wanted every one of his wives to have her own stove. The Lee family/families were devastated by his execution. His families were left penniless and destroyed, treated very cruelly, the women dispersed and shunned, the children shamed, and this shame was carried for generations.

To what extent is polygamy in the back story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre? What, for that matter, was the massacre really “about” in your judgment?

Polygamy had a small role to play in the massacre. The practice of polygamy, outlawed by the United States, was a part of what disturbed Washington and caused the federal government to send troops to Utah, which scared the Mormon populace into committing violent acts. One must remember that they had been the victims of violence and massacre, and fear turned in their minds.

What the massacre was really about, in my judgment, was the struggle for power in Utah. Would Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy control the territory and be masters of their own destiny, or would the federal government impose control of the “fiefdom”? The massacre came out of the idea the Indians could be made to carry out an attack and then the government would be forced to realize that if the Mormons were not allowed to control the territory and “their” natives, terrible things could happen. But the whole thing got out of control and took on a terrible life of its own.

A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrant wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them.

At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the “Meadows,” resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleaguered emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer! And, all unconscious of the poetry of it, no doubt, they lifted a little child aloft, dressed in white, in answer to the flag of truce!

The leaders of the timely white “deliverers” were President Haight and Bishop John D. Lee, of the Mormon Church. Mr. Cradlebaugh, who served a term as a Federal Judge in Utah and afterward was sent to Congress from Nevada, tells in a speech delivered in Congress how these leaders next proceeded:

They professed to be on good terms with the Indians, and represented them as being very mad. They also proposed to intercede and settle the matter with the Indians. After several hours parley they, having (apparently) visited the Indians, gave the ultimatum of the savages; which was, that the emigrants should march out of their camp, leaving everything behind them, even their guns. It was promised by the Mormon bishops that they would bring a force and guard the emigrants back to the settlements. The terms were agreed to, the emigrants being desirous of saving the lives of their families. The Mormons retired, and subsequently appeared with thirty or forty armed men. The emigrants were marched out, the women and children in front and the men behind, the Mormon guard being in the rear. When they had marched in this way about a mile, at a given signal the slaughter commenced. The men were almost all shot down at the first fire from the guard. Two only escaped, who fled to the desert, and were followed one hundred and fifty miles before they were overtaken and slaughtered. The women and children ran on, two or three hundred yards further, when they were overtaken and with the aid of the Indians they were slaughtered. Seventeen individuals only, of all the emigrant party, were spared, and they were little children, the eldest of them being only seven years old. Thus, on the 10th day of September, 1857, was consummated one of the most cruel, cowardly and bloody murders known in our history.

Mark Twain, Roughing It

John Lee: murderer, scapegoat, or both? How did he come to be prosecuted at all, and how to be the only one prosecuted?

John D. Lee was both murderer and scapegoat. He was bold and careless enough to hang around the area after the massacre, and to prosper from his various businesses and appear almost indifferent to what had happened — perhaps he thought he had the protection of the church authorities who continued to insist the Indians had committed this atrocity. A lot of others who’d participated in the massacre left the area, driven out by fear and shame. But Lee hung on.

John D. Lee, seated beside his coffin just before his execution.

How he was thrown to the wolves by the church authorities is a long story, as is the story of his two trials. He was the easiest person to scapegoat. He took the bullet for his church, and I think the authorities felt that they could put the affair behind them once he was dead, and they did for a very long time, until brave little Juanita Brooks wrote her book in the 1950s and was the first to tell the truth: the Mormons did it.

Does the Mormon church have some unfinished reckoning here? If so — why, after all these years?

Who cares what I think? But in my opinion, of course they do. They need to stop saying it was a “local” affair, carried out by some “local” renegade fanatics in southern Utah. The whole situation that led to the massacre was put into motion by people high up in the church, but I doubt very much they’ll ever go there and admit that. Too many lawyers, too much money, too impossible to admit culpability of prophets, seers, revelators.

Finally, I just want to say that after writing Red Water and thinking about this massacre for the five years it took to research and write the book, this is what I came to believe about how you get good people to do bad things.

You need to get three things going: First, you have to make people afraid and use that fear to manipulate them (think of 9/11). Second, you need get people to obey some greater force or consciousness other than their own — the Mormons had a principle of Perfect Obedience where you were required to subject yourself to the authority of the priesthood and church elders, but this idea could as well be inculcated in the concept of patriotism, or military duty. The point is, you subdue your own conscience in favor of deferment to an outside force. Third, you make people think their system is better than the other guy’s, that you’re doing God’s will, that your sense of right is greater than theirs. If you can make people think they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything. Get these three things going, and you can get good people to commit great evil.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Infamous,Interviews,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,USA,Utah

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1977: Gary Gilmore

22 comments January 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Gary Gilmore uttered the last words “Let’s do it” and was shot by a five-person firing squad in Utah as the curtain raised on a “modern” death penalty era in the United States.

Famous for volunteering for death — he had nothing but disdain for his outside advocates and angrily prevented his own lawyers pursuing last-minute appeals — Gilmore rocketed through the justice system at a pace now unthinkable.

Mere days after courts blessed the resumption of executions in 1976, the career criminal — just paroled from a decade mostly behind bars in Oregon — murdered two people in the Provo, Utah, area. He was convicted in a three-day trial in October 1976 … and dead little more than three months later.

Owing to his milestone status and the unfamiliar public persona he cut insisting on his own death, Gilmore left a trail of cultural artifacts far surpassing his personal stature as small-time crook.

He was lampooned in an early episode of Saturday Night Live. His public desire to donate his eyes (the wish was granted) inspired a top-20 punk hit:

Norman Mailer wrote a book about Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song) and adapted it into an award-winning television movie. Gary’s brother Mikal published his own memoir (Shot in the Heart), later made into an HBO movie.

In a weirder vein, Gilmore is the touchstone for the surrealistic film Cremaster 2, in which magician Harry Houdini — who might have been Gilmore’s grandfather — is portrayed by Norman Mailer.

Gary Gilmore’s was the first execution of any kind in the United States since June 2, 1967. According to the Espy file, it was also the first firing squad execution since James Rodgers was shot in Utah March 30, 1960; only one of the other 1,098 men and women put to death since Gilmore — John Taylor in 1996, also in Utah — faced a firing squad. (Update: After this post was published, another Utah condemned man also opted for a firing squad execution: Ronnie Lee Gardner, shot in 2010.)

Both Gilmore and Taylor chose to be shot in preference to hanging. The firing squad is all but extinct in the U.S., though it still remains on the books in some form in Idaho, Oklahoma and (for prisoners convicted before 2004) Utah.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Private Execution in America.

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1915: Joe Hill

7 comments November 19th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1915, songwriter, poet and labor activist Joe Hill was shot in Utah for the murder of a local butcher.

Even before his execution, the Swedish immigrant was widely thought to have been railroaded for his IWW affiliation.

Though state authorities had little use for the worldwide clemency bid whose backers included U.S. President Woodrow Wilson — powerless to intervene officially, since the execution was a state matter — Hill walked spryly into his martyrdom. The strange post-mortem career of his totemic ashes is the least of the ways Hill lives on.

His dauntless last message to fellow Wobbly Bill Haywood — “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize.” — is a permanent fixture on pins and placards among every stripe of left activist. The songs he wrote remain in print — and in performance.

And the Depression-era tribute ballad “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” can seamlessly serenade ripped-from-the-headlines footage, as a Paul Robeson rendition does in these clips of 1998 protests against then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,History,Language,Martyrs,Murder,Popular Culture,Shot,USA,Utah,Wrongful Executions

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