On this date in 1998, Jonathan Nobles was executed in Texas for a double murder — choked off by the lethal drugs as he sang the words “…sweetmother and child” in the Christmas hymn “Silent Night”.
On parole for theft, the drug-addled former electrician Nobles broke into an Austin home on September 13, 1986 wielding a 5.5-inch knife and turned it into a scene of carnage.
Nobles knifed to death two young women, 21-year-old Mitzi Nalley and 24-year-old Kelly Farquhar; when Mitzi’s boyfriend, Ron Ross, attempted to come to their aid, Nobles stabbed him 19 times. Ross survived but lost an eye in the attack.
Nobles confessed and was convicted with ease. This is very obviously not a happy story (few are, on this here site) because two innocent humans were destroyed in the bloom of youth, and a third paid for the crime with his own life. But the journey of redemption and forgiveness undertaken thereafter by both Nobles and at least some of those whose lives he devastated cannot help but inspire.*
The Nobles of death row — the man who was finally executed, 12 years after the crime — was at the last a hard man to hate. He converted on death row to Catholicism, eventually becoming a lay preacher. Murder, of course, is such a great crime because in the end the loss is eternal and can never really be repaired or compensated. Nevertheless, it was clear to all those who knew him that Nobles’s remorse, his change, was deep and genuine.
“I don’t think I’m the monster who perpetrated these terrible acts,” Nobles said not long before his execution. “Nothing I can do for a thousand years can relieve me of my responsibility.”
Mitzi Nalley’s mother, Paula Kurland, made an even more dramatic journey from the other side of that horrible night in Austin. Kurland decided that she needed to forgive her daughter’s killer in order to release the bitterness of his crime.
“You forgive because it frees you,” she said. “Hopefully, one day, it will free the offender, but that’s not the reason you do it. You do it because it frees you.”
Kurland eventually met Nobles face to face — “the hardest thing I ever did, second only to burying my child.”
I went against my whole family, but I knew that if I didn’t tell Jonathan I had forgiven him, I would be a prisoner for the rest of my life. And I couldn’t live with that. …
I never wanted to ask him why. That was never important to me. What was important was that I have the opportunity to give him back the responsibility for the devastation and pain and destruction that he brought into a lot of people’s lives.
The singer-songwriter (and longtime anti-death penalty activist) Steve Earle, who befriended Nobles, was one of the witnesses to his execution.** Earle quoted his friend’s last statement, addressing most of those present by name, thus:
I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that I could undo what happened back then and bring back your loved ones, but I can’t. [to Paula Kurland] I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. [to Ron Ross] And Ron … I took so much from you. I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want my love, but you have it.
[to Steve Earle] Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey man, don’t worry about the phone number, bro. You’ve done so much. I love you. [to his own aunt] Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard for you. I love you. [to a British pen pal] Pam, thank you for coming from so far away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop Carmody, thank you so much. Reverend Lopez and you, Father Walsh, I love you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians. …
Earle’s song “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” is inspired by Jonathan Nobles.
* These attempts by both offender and victim to alleviate the spiritual injury inflicted by the crime exemplify restorative justice, an approach to crime and justice that emphasizes healing over punishment.
** “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from [seeing Nobles executed]. I have absolute waking nightmares about it.” -Earle
On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.
Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.
According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.
His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).
Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.
In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.
Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.
The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”
Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”
What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.
Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. He soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.
A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)
Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”
* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” -Blackstone
** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”
On this date in 1829, George Swearingen, late the sheriff of Washington County, Md., was hanged for murder.
Swearingen murdered his wife after he became infatuated with a woman of ill repute. To savor this tawdry tale, we’re going to reprise our periodic endorsements of our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.
Here are a few morsels from the fall of George Swearingen to whet the appetite:
Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’“
One night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.
And then there’s this Huck Finn interlude.
George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.
And competing interpretations of troubling forensic evidence.
Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex — explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.
On this date in 1881, a mob of 5,000 shouting imprecations against the courts spent two hours breaking open the jail in Bloomington, Illinois, then hauled out a horse thief named Charlie Pierce* and lynched him to an elm tree at the corner of Market and Center.
Pierce’s offense wasn’t so much the horse-and-buggy theft from a weeks prior — the crime for which he was arrested — as making an impulsive and extraordinarily foolish escape attempt that entailed grabbing the sidearm of a well-liked jailer named Teddy Frank and shooting him dead. Rushing to the scene, the sheriff disarmed an unresisting Pierce who perhaps was already beginning to apprehend the possible consequences his rashness would visit on him that very night.
Now, murdering a lawman was typically just about the best way to appear before the bar of Judge Lynch this side of sexual assault. And it may have been that folks in McLean County were just spoiling for a bout of vigilante justice anyway; the local paper Pantagraph had reported that June that such “excitement prevails” against two other criminals that “it is not improbable they will be lynched.”
They weren’t, but according to a 2010 recap of the still-notorious Pierce hanging written by a McLean County Museum of History archivist, matters were exacerbated by the autumn by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling reversing the conviction of another Bloomington murderer.** And Pierce’s end came just two weeks after the U.S. President finally succumbed to the bullet that a madman had pumped into him months before.
A flash mob of infuriated citizenry had the jail surrounded by 8 o’clock, 90 minutes or so after Pierce shot Frank.
“Special despatches from Bloomington, Ill., give graphic details,” ran wire copy that generally expressed special shock at the participation of “the best citizens … in the front ranks of the lynchers. Leading business men cheered and encouraged the lynchers, and women waved their handkerchiefs in approbation.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 3, 1881)
These bloodthirsty local grandees ran up against — and in this instance prevailed over — the growing sentiment among respectable elites that such carnivals tarnished the majesty of the law. In some cases, that was pretty near the very point of them; hooting onlookers were reported to have shouted things like “Justice and the courts are a farce!” and “We have seen too much of court quibblings!” For any observer in his wits it was manifest that such hot blood would bend towards anarchy if given free rein.
A police officer managed to cut down Pierce as the three-quarter-inch manila hemp gouged into his neck, but the miscreant was strung up a second time and “upon [the officer's] attempting to repeat this act of bravery he came near being killed.” The fire department was summoned to disperse the mob with hoses but was also forced to retreat. And the area’s delegate to the U.S. Senate as well as a state’s attorney pleaded with the mob to let the courts handle Mr. Pierce.
By way, maybe, of retort, a placard appeared the following day on the late Charlie Pierce’s lynch tree reading
McLean, Illinois — Ax-man, ax-man, spare this tree, and never touch a single bough; and may God spare this elm tree forever to grow to mark where the first justice to a murder ever was done in McLean County, and may the good people stand by the boys that did it. (The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), October 3, 1881)
It’s the only lynching in McLean County’s history.
* It transpired that Pierce’s actual surname was Howlett. He hailed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
** Patrick “Patsey” Devine, the beneficiary of that ruling, would be convicted again and hanged in 1882. He was feared in danger of joining Pierce on the lynch tree this night, but the mob gave him a miss.
On this date in 1724, four members of a colonial religious cult were hanged together at the gallows of Charleston, South Carolina.
The Dutartre family, whose members comprise two of those executed four, numbered among many Huguenot refugees to settle around Charleston in the late 17th century fleeing religious persecution after France revoked the Edict of Nantes. They settled into the young town’s “Orange Quarter” where for many years French was heard in the streets and from the pulpits.*
The Dutartres would turn the orange quarter crimson in the early 1720s, when they fell under the spell of two newly-arrived Moravian prophets, Christian George and Peter Rombert, who pulled the family into a millenial free-love commune.**
These colonial Branch Davidians were also slated with civic transgressions such as refusal of taxes and militia duty.
At last, a constable named Peter Simmons was dispatched with a small posse to arrest the cult. The Dutartres fired back, killing Simmons — but the other seven members in the bunker were overwhelmed by the Charleston militia.
Four of the family males were tried in general sessions court in Charles Town in September 1724: Peter Dutartre, the father; Peter Rombert, the prophet; Michael Boneau, husband of a Dutartre woman; and Christian George, the milister.
During the trial, the mena ppeared to be unconcerned about the crimes they had committed or their fate. They were convinced that God was on their side and even if they were executed, they, just like Jesus, would be resurrected on the third day.
They were marched to the gallows near the public market (present-day location of City Hall). Standing with ropes around their necks the condemned men confidently told the gathered crowd they would soon see them again. They were hanged together and their bodies were allowed to dangle from the gallows for several days — so the resurrection (or lack thereof) could be witnessed by the public.
Judith Dutartre and her two brothers, David and John, aged eighteen and twenty, were the three other prisoners. Judith, due to her pregnancy, was not tried. David and John were convicted and condemned to prison. [actually reprieved -ed.] They were sullen and arrogant, confident God would protect them. However, after the third day of their kinfolk’s execution (and the fourth, and fifth), when none of the men hanging from the gallows was resurrected, David and John began to see the error of their ways. They later asked for a pardon from the court, which they received.
Less than five months later, David Dutartre attacked and murdered a stranger on the street. He was brought to trial and told the court he killed the man because God commanded him to do so. David was sentenced to death.
A total of seven people (two innocents) died as a result of what has to be one of the most unusual cases of religious fanaticism in American history.
* The French Quarter still exists today, as a cobblestoned downtown Charleston historic district with a Huguenot Church whose congregation dates to the 1680s but whose services now transpire in English.
** Given the timeless popularity of the sexual misbehavior trope for slandering religious outsiders, I do suggest the reader handle this received part of the narrative with due caution.
On this date in 1911,* Dmitry Bogrov was hanged in Kiev for assassinating Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.
Many could diagnose the long-advancing rot of the Russian state, but few had the physic to abate it. Stolypin, a resolute conservative landowner, might have been tsarism’s last, best hope.
During the cataclysmic 1905 revolution, Stolypin was governor of Saratov and kept his province notably free from disturbances.
That earned him a kick upstairs in 1906 in hopes that he could work the same magic on the turbulent country. To a greater extent than most, he did: Stolypin was tsarist Russia’s last great statesman, notably introducing capitalistic land reforms in an effort to germinate a new rural middle class of small, freeholding landowners with skin in the Romanov dynasty. To break liberal obstruction, he also mounted a coup to weight the Duma in favor of propertied classes. “Give me 20 years of peace,” he vowed, “and you won’t recognize Russia.”
It’s left to the speculation of posterity whether he could have pulled the trick: in the event, Stolypin did not get 20 years and Russia did not get peace.
For some, like Solzhenitsyn, Stolypin is the lost chance for a Russia without either despotism or revolution: “He brought light to the world and the world rejected him.” For many others, that Great Man theory is a bitmuch. Russia’s issues with class and governance were a pretty long-term concern.
One of its long-term products was Russia’s energetic radical underground, and this Stolypin harried Russia’s revolutionaries from pillar to post, greatly intensifying police surveillance and infiltration of agitators’ circles to prevent a repeat of 1905. His secret courts meted out punishment with a greater regard for swiftness than certainty; a staggering 3,000 radicals were hanged for alleged involvement in terrorism from 1906 to 1909, generating worldwide condemnation and causing the phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” to enter the lexicon as a synonym for the noose.
Of course, there was plenty of real terrorism, no small part of it directed at Stolypin himself. He survived or avoided several assassination attempts, including a bomb that took the life of his daughter. In turn-of-the-century Russia, though, there was always a next man or woman up when it came to the propaganda of the deed.
The (obviously non-operatic) cartoon adaptation of The Tale of Tsar Saltan; the source material for both opera and cartoon is a Pushkin poem.
As the third intermission drew to a close, a young bourgeois approached Stolypin, drew a Browning pistol, and shot the Prime Minister. Legend has it that Stolypin opened his bloodied waistcoat and addressed the close-enough-to-witness-it sovereign with the words, “I am happy to die for the tsar.” The prime minister would linger on and die a few days later; his murderer did not long outlive him.
Despite Stolypin’s reputation as public enemy no. 1 for revolutionaries, the reason for Dmitry Bogrov to commit this particular murder has long remained murky. (pdf)
Bogrov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a revolutionary, but he was also an informer for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police whose augmentation had been a key Stolypin priority. Just where Bogrov stood at any given time in the vast foggy marches between compromised true believer and agent provocateur is difficult to pinpoint.
The Kiev opera on the night Bogrov shot Stolypin was thick with military personnel, but nobody at all stood watch on the oft-targeted politician — even though there was specific intelligence of a possible threat, issued in his capacity as an informer by the Janus-faced Bogrov himself. The eventual assassin was admitted to the theater that night on a ticket provided by his police handlers.
Considering Bogrov’s very swift execution, and the fact that the tsar suspiciously shut down the investigation (Russian link), many believe that elements of the state security apparatus were the true authors of Stolypin’s death, whether or not Bogrov himself realized it. Russia’s great landholders, never noted for farsightedness, widely opposed the reductions of their estates demanded by Stolypin’s agricultural reforms and rightly saw him as about the only man with the clout to move policy against their considerable opposition. They weren’t sorry to see him go.
As for Bogrov, his departure was a mere footnote. He asked for a rabbi before his hanging, but when he found out that this presumably confessional meeting would be monitored by the public prosecutor, he withdrew the request. (London Times, September 26, 1911) He reportedly died almost indifferently, his last words a disarmingly casual inquiry to the executioner about how best to position his head within his Stolypin’s necktie.
* September 12 by the local Julian calendar; September 25 by the Gregorian calendar.
On this date in 2006, the government of Kurdistan hanged eleven members of an alleged “terrorist cell” in its capital of Erbil.
Sheikh Z(h)ana Abdel Karim Barzinji and his gang “were involved in kidnapping and killing innocent people,” per media accounts, and security forces made sure to provide to television statements dubiously adulterated videotapes of confessions they had wrung from the group. The confessions copped to beheadings and bomb attacks, as well as to gay sex and child rape.
It was the first known judicial execution in Kurdistan since it attained functional autonomy in 1992 — but authorities still delayed it in deference to the moratorium on executions in Iraq immediately following the U.S. invasion. When Baghdad resumed executions in September 2006, Erbil went ahead and did so as well.
This was coming at a time when Erbil had just suffered an especially bloody suicide attack, and residents were demanding answers and more security. Because I had heard of similar homosexual accusations related to al-Qaeda before, my reaction was a mix of amusement and skepticism. A gay/pedophile/Islamist/terrorist network: how convenient to discredit any insurgent effort for years to come …
The entire city was waiting for the confessions, which finally came in the most sordid of manners, interrupted with footage of gay sex, executions, and much gore. The fact that the confessions were intermittent, cut off abruptly at times, that the images of gay sex supposed to have been filmed by Sheikh Zana and his group could have been filmed by anyone even after the culprits’ arrest — in the same way that some were filmed in Abu Ghraib — was not relevant at all to the viewers of this show. My friend Rowand and his family were mesmerized and disgusted. When I expressed my skepticism, they politely dismissed it. This footage appealed to the deepest of Iraqi collective fears, the fear of being exposed as a homosexual.
In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.
It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.
People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.
Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.
Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”
The devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.
When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.
Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.
Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.
Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.
Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.
According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)
“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”
The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”
Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”
Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.
Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.
That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.
Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.
Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.
The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.
The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, brushing with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.
The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.
We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.
The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.
This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.
As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.
And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)
Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.
But there was no relief for either prisoner.
On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.
To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.
After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.
Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.
Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.
* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.