This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.
But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.
SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:
I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’
To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.
Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.
I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.
Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.
Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.
On this date in 1900, Sonnie (or Sonny) Crain and William “Bill” Brown, both 40, and John Watson, 59, were hanged side by side a quarter-mile from the Warren County Jail in McMinnville, Tennessee.
This was an integrated execution: Brown and Watson were white, and Crain was black.
From the April 27, 1900 American Citizen (Kansas City, Mo.)
The gallows was contained in a 30-by-30-foot enclosure and had been built especially for this day’s event. There were twenty official witnesses. A crowd of about two thousand waited outside the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution, but their view was obscured by a canvas curtain drawn hanging from the top of the gallows.
Watson, a Civil War veteran who’d fought at Shiloh, had committed his crime on December 21, 1898. He shot a neighbor, 40-year-old James Hillis, white, after an argument about some corn and some fence rails.
Hillis walked away from the fight. Watson fetched his shotgun, waited for his chance then shot Hillis on the road that evening, in front of the victim’s daughter. Hillis lived for a few hours after the shooting and named Watson as his attacker.
The killer had a reputation for violence; he’d allegedly shot and seriously wounded a black man in a drunken rage in 1893, but was acquitted at trial. He had also served a term in federal prison for making and selling moonshine, and he was stone drunk on his own apple brandy at the time of Hillis’s murder.
His defense, one of temporary insanity caused by alcohol, didn’t fly with the jury.
Bill Brown was an illiterate tenant farmer; his victim was his wife of ten years, Mary Fults Brown. Bill was tired of his wife and attempted to leave her, but everywhere he went she just followed him. He and his brother, John “Bud” Brown, decided she had to die.
On May 5, 1898, In accordance with the plan, Bill invited a friend, Bill Rogers, to spend the night. Bill made sure to leave the door unlocked, and while Mary and the guest were sleeping, Bud Brown sneaked into the house, shot his sister-in-law and fled. Bill then woke up Rogers, crying, “Lordy, lordy, someone’s shot Mary!”
Bill told Rogers the shooter had fired through the open window, but this didn’t make sense because Mary had been asleep beside her husband and Bill was lying between her and the window. He claimed he didn’t own a gun, but a search of the house turned up a recently fired pistol hidden in a trunk.
It didn’t take long for Bill to crack. He confessed to his role in Mary’s death and implicated his brother Bud (who, incidentally, had a prior record for beastiality with a mare).
The brothers were to be tried separately and Bill went first. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was appealed on the grounds that one of the jurors had mistakenly believed he was sitting at the trial of Bud Brown, not Bill Brown. (Like Sauron and Saruman, they’re easily confused.)
The appeals court judge couldn’t believe it when Bill’s attorney made this ludicrous assertion, and threatened to hold him in contempt for making a mockery of the proceedings and wasting the court’s time. Then Bill’s attorney brought in the juror in question, who admitted his error. (The confusion arose in part because Bill and Bud, neither of whom testified at the trial, were sitting next to each other at the defendant’s table.)
While Bud Brown was awaiting his first trial, Bill was waiting his second trial, and John Watson was awaiting the outcome of his appeal, they were all housed in a jail cell with Sonnie Crain.
Crain had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Will Snellings in a dispute over a craps game, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was housed in the jail while his case was under appeal.
On May 22, 1899, as the Brown brothers slept, Crain bludgeoned them both in the head with a piece of his bed, killing Bud and critically injuring Bill. He later said the brothers had threatened him and he’d acted in self-defense, but the authorities had another theory as to motive.
The jailer was away at the time of the murder and had placed his wife in charge, and there was some evidence that Watson and Crain had conspired together to murder their cellmates in order to create a diversion so they could escape when the jailer’s wife came to get Crain.
Crain (who denied any plan to escape from jail and insisted to his dying breath that he’d acted in self-defense) was convicted of Bud Brown’s murder and sentenced to death. Although Bill Brown’s wounds were very serious and he was not expected to live, he recovered from his injuries in time to be hanged alongside the man who’d tried to kill him and the other man who’d possibly conspired in his attempted murder.
So now that no one is confused … the three ultimately set to die in this labyrinthine affair were hanged at 11:50 a.m. on April 25, attended by two black ministers and two white ones. Crain and Brown were stoic, but Watson’s nerves failed him on the scaffold and he cried and shook as the noose was placed around his neck.
It was the last public(ish) hanging ever in McMinnville.
A Washington Post reporter described the scene in the capital city of Kigali, where 7,000 to 10,000 witnesses saw the three men and a woman put to death on Nyamirambo Stadium‘s red clay football pitch.
dressed in pale pink uniforms, under a sun that had just driven away a covering of gray clouds.
Four masked police officers leaped from a truck and sprinted to within feet of the black-square targets on the criminals’ chests.
As bullets from AK-47s shredded the prisoners, a sudden sharp silence descended on the crowd. Then a fifth marksman shot each prisoner in the head at point-blank range. Twice.
One man sprinted and danced when the shooting stopped. Women ululated.
A man named Andrew, 45, clapped lustily. “God is great!” he cried.
Although Karamira was actually born a Tutsi, he “converted” into a Hutu* and how. He established himself as a leading exponent of “Hutu Power” — the chilling banner under which upwards of a million Rwandans were slaughtered — and had control of two of the radio stations inciting Hutu death squads to their bloody work.
“Our experience in Rwanda has demonstrated that abolishing the death penalty gave new lease on life and this has contributed to the healing of our society,” said long-serving Rwanda President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi. “Rwandans have achieved a degree of unity and reconciliation, unimaginable just a decade and a half ago because a culture of forgiveness — not vengeance — has taken root.”
* Rwanda’s ethnic categories are notoriously artificial.
A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.
In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)
Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.
* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)
A century ago today, Raymond Caillemin, Elie Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined in Paris for their exploits with Third Republic France’s most celebrated band of anarchist bank-robbers, the Bonnot Gang.
It was actually not Bonnot but Octave Garnier who was the original moving spirit for the gang, which took shape in 1911 around a core of anarchist adherents to the philosophy of illegalism — criminality as resistance. The outlaws were revolutionaries, vegetarians, working-class. Though respectable anarchist communists fled from them, the philosophy bit wasn’t a pose.
“It’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal,” Garnier wrote in a memoir discovered after he was killed in a police shootout.
To Garnier the gang owed its signature innovation of using automobiles: they were the first ever to use this novel machine to flee the scene of a crime after knocking over a Paris bank in December 1911. Between their internal combustion engine and their repeating rifles, they had a decided technological advantage on the police who pursued them.
For obvious reasons they were initially dubbed the “Auto Bandits.” But Jules Bonnot stole the marquee by marching into the office of La Petit Parisien in January 1912 to indignantly correct some of its reporting. The newspaper gave him an interview, and started branding the outlaws the “Bonnot Gang” (La bande a Bonnot), a name which has stuck for posterity and titles a 1968 film about them.
For the next three months, they would repeatedly crash the headlines on either side of the French-Belgian border by stealing cars to perpetrate new robberies, often shooting policemen and bank tellers into the bargain.
Meanwhile, they magnetized admirers and enemies alike with their Gallic intrepidity and self-confessedly impossible struggle. Garnier mailed his fingerprints to the police chief. Ground-down proletarians fell into their orbit, cracking bitter fatalistic jokes. Under the pen name La Retif, a young writer extolled the masculine, doomed outlaws: he was the Russian expatriate Victor Serge, at the start of a long revolutionary career.*
To shoot, in full daylight, a miserable bank clerk proved that some men have at least understood the virtues of audacity.
I am not afraid to own up to it: I am with the bandits. I find their role a fine one; I see the Men in them. Besides them I see only fools and nonentities.
Whatever may result, I like those who struggle. Perhaps it will make you die younger, or force you to experience the man-hunt and the penal colony; perhaps you will end up beneath the foul kiss of the guillotine. That may be! I like those who accept the risk of a great struggle. It is manly.
Besides, one’s destiny, whether as victor or vanquished, isn’t it preferable to sullen resignation and the slow interminable agony of the proletarian who will die in retirement, a fool who has gained nothing out of life?
The bandit, he gambles. He has therefore a few chances of winning. And that is enough.
The bandits show strength.
The bandits show audacity.
The bandits show their firm desire to live.
By April and May the authorities were finally overcoming the audacious bandits, though desires to live showed firm to the last: both Bonnot and Garnier were overcome and killed only after holding off protracted sieges against overwhelming numbers.
Although the headline attractions were gone, the ensuing massive trial soon fitted four for death:
Raymond Callemin, Serge’s own friend and reading-companion since childhood
Elie Monier (or Monnier), the onetime refugee draft-dodger whose will grandiloquently bequeathed to the Paris library his copy of Darwin, and to the Paris museum the pistol he was arrested with, provided it be engraved with the phrase “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
The sickly Andre Soudy, reckless in his outlaw adventure since tuberculosis that he was too poor to fend off already had him coughing his way to an earl grave
The joiner Eugene Dieudonne, a friend and compatriot of the gang members but not an actual bank-robber himself. Dieudonne was reprieved on April 20th and dispatched instead to the French penal colony at Devil’s Island
Other prison sentences from a few years up to a lifetime at hard labor were meted out to various other Bonnot gang members and fellow-travelers, several of whom showed themselves dedicated enough to their heroic fatalism to take their own lives. One who attempted an escape only to find himself stymied when he attained the roof of the prison worked fellow-inmates into a frenzied chant of Viva l’anarchie as he hurled slate shingles at the guards who treed him, then wrapped up the performance by hurling himself off the roof, too.
“I would have liked to eat black bread with black hands,” that man’s last testament read. “But I was forced to eat white bread with red hands.”
* Serge got himself in some hot water as an anti-Stalinist in the Soviet Union. Serge’s mature (1945) appraisal of his youthful infatuation with the Bonnot gang, as well as his first-person recollections of the Bonnot gang trial (which got Serge himself a five-year sentence) can be read here
A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.
Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.
This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.
That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.
Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.
“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)
Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman”
by Phil Hanna.
Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.
Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.
This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.
On this date in 1680, an unusual public execution took place in West Ham.
John Marketman (Manchetman) was a ship’s surgeon, which he spelled “chirurgeon” because it was olden days. Being away at sea gave him a lots of time to picture how his wife Mary Snerlin back home might be cuckolding him, and when he arrived back one time to apparent corroborating information, he went a little nutso.
According to the trial record from the spring 1680 Chelmsford Assizes,
the circumstances of the bloody Deed was sworn to as followeth, the Prisoner being newly come on Shore, having been at Sea for a considerable time, was informed that she had been over lavish of her Favours to a Neighbour of hers, being by profession a Shoemaker; he being newly come from Sea and coming home as it is said surprized her too familiar with the said Shoemaker, whereupon he in a Rage threatned [sic] her, yet notwithstanding the Rage of Jealousie, he seemed reconciled, but to the contrary retaining an inward hatred, which she perceiving, fled to a neighbours house, thinking to stay whilst his Anger was overpast, yet he with a seem’d Reconciliation, came to invite her home, and came up to her as if he would imbrace her, but with his bloody hands he stab’d her with a Knife under her Right Breast, about four inches deep,* of which Wound she in a little time died, only confessing her innocence, at his Trial he did not deny the Fact, and after his being convicted did confess his Rashness in proceeding on such Cruelty, without the least remorse, after he was found Guilty of wilful Murder and received Sentence of Death, he seemed exceeding Penitent, and did bewail his cruel Crime, shedding many Tears, that he had given himself over to the suggestions of the Prince of darkness, and so continued to the utmost.
There are somewhat different twists on the underlying facts of the case from different sources — like the profession of the alleged lover, and the question of whether Marketman caught them in flagrante delicto or merely heard town gossip, and the matter of whether he took revenge with cold calculation or in more of a drunken fury. Fill it out however you like; in outline we have one of the stock classics of homicide.
But at receiving his sentence, Marketman did something remarkable: he asked the judge to alter the sentence and be hung not at the usual execution spot in Chelmsford, but in West Ham — “the town where he did perpetrate the wicked act.”
Marketman, you could say, really went all-out from that very first moment to put on a full-dress, no-holds-barred scaffold performance par excellence. He should have been in the business of scripting deaths.
Besides hanging in West Ham, Marketman had his mother (“poor Soul drowned in Sorrow,” in the words of a pamphlet titled “True Narrative of the Execution of John Marketman”**) lead him personally to the gallows. There a minister preached on 2 Corinthians 7:9, “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting” — demonstratively comforting Marketman that his imminent strangulation would stand “a monument to divine justice … in and thorow you, God sheweth the consequences of a sinful and wicked life.”
This was the evolving principle of executions as exemplary deterrence, and Marketman was ready to play the part in his final turn. He spoke for a long time, with the swooning mother right there as evidence, on how he
had been very disobedient to his too indulgent parents, and that he had spent his youthful days in profanation of the Sabbath and licentious evils of debaucheries beyond expression, and that he had been over penurious in his narrow observance of his wive’s ways, desirous that all should pray to the Eternal God for his everlasting welfare, and with many pious expressions ended this mortal life.
In focusing on the theatrical aspects of Marketman’s execution, we don’t mean to suggest that the sea-chirurgeon’s encounter with his death was in any way insincere: present-day executions too comprise a ritualized performance in which a good many dying prisoners are very willing to participate. (Modern American executions behind prison walls don’t map to the take-warning-from-my-fate discourse, but it’s quite common for those on the gurney to offer victims’ witnesses the “closure” shibboleth.)
The early-modern condemned were widely expected to give a pedagogical account of themselves before execution, and widely complied with the expectation. Marketman simply underscores the surprising extent to which a fellow will not only comply but actively assert his part in his own death. Marketman wanted his hanging to embody redemption, instruction, and the majesty of the law that hanged him. Maybe in his heart of hearts he even wanted that before he knifed poor Mary Snerlin.
The chirurgeon went so far as to write a prison letter to his supposed rival: “As for the injury you have done me, I freely from my heart forgive you, begging God to give you grace that you may unfeignedly repent of all your sins, that God may have mercy on your soul.”
See J.A. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past & Present, May 1985.
At noon on this day in 1921, Mailo Segura was hanged in Fairbanks, Alaska.
In 1918 he had murdered a miner, J.E. “George” Riley, near the gold rush town of Flat, in a dispute over money. His was the second execution in Fairbanks history.
George Riley was in charge of the mining operations along Orter Creek near Flat. Segura was a lumberjack and, together with some other men, had sold $300 worth of cordwood to Riley on credit.
In early 1918, Segura confronted Riley with the bill and demanded to be paid. By then, the bill had been outstanding for two years. Riley, however, refused to pay. He said he wasn’t going to hand over any money until Segura either brought his wood-chopping partners along with him to collect the sum in person, or brought a statement from his partners authorizing Segura to take the full amount.
As witnesses at his trial later testified, Segura was furious with Riley and said he would kill him if Riley didn’t give him the $300. On March 2, he withdrew his life savings of $1,800 from his bank account and later that day went looking for the deadbeat.
Segura found his quarry at the mining claim and waited patiently, assisting with the mining work so he wouldn’t look suspicious.
When all the other miners had gone inside the boiler house, Segura shot Riley in the back without warning. The miners heard the shots — there were three, any one of which would have been fatal — and ran outside to find their employer lying stone dead on the ground and Segura running away.
It didn’t take much effort to catch him. Once he was surrounded, Segura raised his hands in surrender and shouted, “Me no kill no more.”
Seeing as how Mailo Segura had repeatedly threatened Riley’s life and then shot the unarmed man from behind, his claim of self-defense didn’t go very far at his trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder on July 18 and was supposed to be hanged on October 8, but Segura put his $1,800 life savings to use filing appeals, and thereby prolonged his life by three years.
When his time came, he was terrified and unable to walk to his death. The authorities had to strap him to a board to keep him upright while they fastened the noose around his neck.
A matter of minor interest: Mailo Segura hailed from halfway around the world in the tiny Balkan kingdom of Montenegro; he might be the only Montenegrin ever executed in North America. (Montenegrins were then and still are today a sizable minority in Alaska.) In spite of his European descent, in trial documents he was referred to as “black,” and possible racial prejudice on the part of the jury was an issue in his appeals.
Thanks to Melissa S. Green for giving Executed Today permission to reprint this summary of Alaska’s last execution. It appeared as a section of Green’s longer history of the death penalty in the state, first published here.
For the first (proper, juridical) execution in Alaska, see here. -ed.
Austin Nelson and Eugene LaMoore, both black, were separately convicted and executed for the same crime, the December 1946 murder of a 52-year-old (white) Juneau storekeeper named Jim Ellen. Ellen’s store had also been robbed. Ellen had immigrated to the U.S. from Greece as a boy in 1909. He was a World War I veteran who held memberships in the American Legion and the Juneau Elks Lodge.
Austin Nelson, a 24-year-old who did odd jobs around Juneau, was arrested for the murder after a check written by him to Jim Ellen was found on the store counter following the robbery/murder. He was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean. Nelson was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including that of a witness who reported seeing him in the victim’s store on the night of the murder. No one witnessed the actual murder, nor was a murder weapon found, not even the straight-edged razor witnesses testified that Nelson had once owned. Nelson lacked money to pay for an appeal and there was no provision for a public attorney in post-conviction proceedings, His execution was set for July 1, 1947.
Eugene LaMoore, a 42-year-old fisherman with a Tlingit wife and two children, was originally an alibi witness at Nelson’s trial. He testified that he had spent much of the evening with Nelson on the night of the murder, including along the avenue where the victim’s store was located. LaMoore’s credibility with the jury was apparently eroded when he initially denied a felony robbery conviction of twenty years before. Although LaMoore returned to the stand the following day to correct his testimony, he was arrested by U.S. Marshal William Mahoney on a charge of perjury and held on a bond of $10,000 — a high bond in 1947 — which LaMoore could not pay. He was held in a cell in the federal jail, shackled in leg irons and, later, in a ball and chain. He was repeatedly questioned by the local FBI agent and other local law enforcement authorities about the murder of Jim Ellen. Shortly before Nelson’s scheduled execution, Nelson was brought to visit LaMoore in his cell. According to later testimony by LaMoore, Nelson pled with LaMoore to help save his life.
On July 1, 1947, the date of Nelson’s scheduled execution, LaMoore signed a typed confession stating that he had participated in a robbery of Jim Ellen’s store with Austin Nelson and that Nelson had killed Ellen during the robbery.
LaMoore was charged with first degree murder. Nelson’s execution was delayed because he was now considered a material witness against LaMoore.
LaMoore was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean, the same court-appointed attorneys who had represented Nelson. The only significant evidence offered at trial to suggest LaMoore’s involvement in the murder was the typed confession he had signed while in jail. At trial, LaMoore retracted the confession, stating it had been made on the advice of a prominent Juneau attorney, Herbert W. Faulkner, who had been persuaded by Deputy Marshal Walter Hellan to come and talk with him (LaMoore had had no lawyer at the time).
LaMoore testified that Faulkner agreed to advise him, though Faulkner denied having done anything except typing up what LaMoore wanted to say in the confession. LaMoore also stated that the confession had been prompted by a desire — especially after Nelson’s visit to his cell — to delay Nelson’s execution. Despite his retraction and the lack of other significant evidence, LaMoore was convicted by the jury and sentenced to death.
Nelson, who had been kept alive during LaMoore’s trial but was never called to testify, was executed on March 1, 1948, a month after LaMoore’s trial ended. LaMoore was executed on April 14, 1950 after an unsuccessful appeal. He reportedly took 13 minutes to die.
His was the last execution to be held in Alaska.
Lerman, Averil. (1994). “Death’s double standard: Territorial Alaska’s experience with capital punishment showed race and money mattered.” We Alaskans [Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News], May 1, 1994.
We wish well the restive shades of Patrick Rena, Thomas Dobbings, Thomas Walker, and Arthur Gibbons; the former two died for a violent robbery upon the roads, and the latter two for a violent robbery upon the Thames.
But our attention for this date is to the fifth man. Richard Coleman also drew the attention of those present, both for the monstrous crime he was accused of, and for his steady assertion of innocence. The minister assigned to salvage these wrongdoers’ souls, which was also a not entirely reputable marketing business in selling scaffold exclusives, knew a lead story when he saw one.
Coleman was executed for being part of a gang of three men who raped to death a woman named Sarah Green on the night of July 23, 1748. He was in no way implicated in this horrific crime for well over a month, a time when the victim lay precariously in hospital.
But by the next April, well … he was the man as far as the law was concerned. Coleman protested his innocence in vain, via Rev. Wilson; the latter’s hanging-day chapbook made Coleman the distinct feature attraction.
The following Paper was delivered to me at the Place of Execution, by Richard Coleman, which he earnestly desired I would publish.
To all Christian People.
The dreadful Sentence passed upon me, I shall meet with Cheerfulness, being in no Degree conscious of the least Guilt of that most inhuman and most unnatural Crime that I have been found guilty of.
I am very sensible that it is not in my Power to make the incredulous World believe me innocent. I leave the following Account with the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who I am very greatly obliged to, and return him my hearty Thanks, for the comfortable Relief I have received from him in a Preparation for a future State of Bliss, and I hope he will cause it to be published for m Satisfaction, that it may pass the impartial Examination of all Persons.
Here Coleman proceeds to give a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of his activities on the night of the murder … and the activities of those around him.
Coleman was at pains to do this not only to assert his own innocence, but to decry a particular witness who ought to have supported his alibi but instead made it known “that if he was subpoenaed he should do me more Harm than Good … The Occasion of expressing himself in that severe Manner, I suppose, was owing to his being unluckily found by me with Mrs. B—t in very indecent Actions soon after her Husband’s Death; and having been often detected by me in the same Manner, it has caused ill Blood between us.”
Whether this man’s testimony would have made the difference one can only guess. At any rate, Coleman insisted,
On Monday the 25th of July I heard that a Woman had been used very ill by three of our Men, but no-body was taken up for it till a Quarrel happened between me and one [Daniel] T[rotma]n, at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse in Bandy-Leg Walk, which was as follows:
– On the 27th of August last … I was very much in Liquor; we had a Pint of Bumbo in the publick Room; and as I was stirring it with a Spoon, Trotman, an entire Stranger to me, very abruptly asked me what was done with the Pig, (meaning a Pig that our Men had taken and killed belonging to a Neighbour, and had been in Custody for it.) … I said to Trotman, Damn the Pig, what is it to me. He damn’d me, and I him; we gave each other very bad Language, and because it had been reported that three or four of our Men committed the Cruelty on Sarah Green, he made use of the following aggravating Words, namely (says he) Don’t you know Kennington Lane. I reply’d yes, I do, damn you, what of that? He said again don’t you know the Woman that was so cruelly treated, Yes, said I, Damn you what of that? Said he, was not you one of the Persons concerned in doing it; I reply’d if I was, you Dog what then, and immediately threw the Spoon at him. He returned it in the same Manner at me, and had it not been for the Persons present we should have fought.
The Morning after the Quarrel happened I called at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse; and Mr. C—t, who keeps the House, said to me Mr. Coleman you was silly last Night … and he repeated the Discourse aforesaid, and told me I did not consider what Advantage bad People might make of such unguarded Expressions. I reply’d that I was much in Liquor, and did not remember what I said.
But as prophesied, the offended Daniel Trotman and a woman in the pub who witnessed the exchange did indeed proceed on the basis of this “admission” to swear out an oath against Coleman who
was carried to the poor Woman in St. Thomas’s Hospital, to see if she knew any Thing of me; and when I came before her I was particularly pointed out by Mr. C— P—e, who laid his Hand on me, and said, is this one of the Men; which was not fair, for she should [not] have fixed upon me without being dictated. Upon that she said I believe he is one. I said to her consider well what you say, for my Life is at Stake. Will you swear I am one of the Persons. She reply’d, No I won’t, and likewise said if I was one of them we walked a good Way, and talk’d of indifferent Things, and you behav’d much like a Gentleman; but when she was assaulted, I ran away, which was not behaving like a Man.
Coleman’s story was that he wasn’t with Sarah Green as friend or foe at all that night. The justice of the peace clearly thought little enough of Green’s sketchy witness guesstimate that Coleman was released on his own word to return for more questioning.
The next scene at Sarah Green’s bedside begins with Coleman outside the room, and the victim asked
what sort of a Man Mr. Coleman was. She reply’d that he wore his Hair, and had a Carroty Beard. As to having my own Hair she was mistaken, for I have not wore it these 14 Years.
His Worship asked the Deceased if she could swear that I aided or assisted in the Assault. She said No, I cannot, for it was dark.
I was called in, and she made the following Information.
This Informant on her Oath says, that on Saturday Night the 23rd of July last between the Hours of 11 and 12 o’Clock, as she was going thro’ Newington Church-Yard to her Lodging in Bandy-Leg-Walk, she was assaulted and cruelly beaten by two Men to her unknown, and that R. Coleman was present in her Company at the Time she was assaulted and cruelly treated.
Coleman would say in his last publication that he believed Sarah Green was coached. Being conscious of innocence — we’ll come to that — the evidence aligning against him must have struck the young man as the product of an evil hand. Maybe it was just a lot of circumstantial stuff and half-mistaken witnesses falling into a terrible pattern.
The next mischance to befall the accused was that his victim/accuser succumbed to her injuries prior to the formal September 19 hearing.
This made the charge against him murder. Well, rape was already a capital crime, so no real change for Coleman … except that he had now lost the chance to confront openly a witness whose testimony sounds from the hospital interviews like it was eminently impeachable. Now, Green’s last affidavit was going to her final word on the matter.*
Coleman fled the warrant consequently taken out for him, which was read as evidence of guilt by neighbors who had the luxury of not reckoning their own survival odds upon a jury-box. Coleman says he tried to place an advertisement which a lily-livered editor rejected, reading
I, Richard Coleman, seeing myself advertised in the Gazette as absconding on Account of the Murder of Sarah Green, knowing my self not any ways culpable, do assert, that I have not absconded from Justice, but will readily and willingly appear at the Assizes, knowing my Innocence will acquit me.
From some combination of partiality, malice, and groupthink, some additional eyewitness testimony — people who think they might have seen him that night, people who swear they talked to Coleman and Green together but never thought to bring it up to the authorities until he was arrested, and alibi witnesses of his own whom jurors disbelieved — Coleman was judged guilty and doomed to the noose.
Basically, the evidence against him was that he’d popped off to Daniel Trotman while in his cups, Sarah Green (mostly) ID’d him, and some people thought he’d been seen with her in the dark that night while some of Coleman’s own friends and relatives claimed otherwise. There isn’t exactly going to be crime lab evidence here, nor was there an explicit threshold for jurors to require near-certainty to convict. It probably looked to the court like a pretty darn good case.
Coleman had no recourse but to commit his futile self-vindication to posterity.
I do also most solemnly protest, that I am not in any Manner of Degree guilty of that most inhuman Murder of Sarah Green, neither was I at Newington, or in Kennington-Lane that Night that the cruel Fact was committed on Sarah Green.
This I declare as a dying Man, and I sincerely believe (as the Rev. Mr. Wilson told me several Times) if I was either directly or indirectly guilty of that Murder, and should go out of the World with denying it, that eternal Damnation would be my Portion.
… I have the Satisfaction to declare myself to the World (as I have often done to the Rev. Mr. Wilson) that I never was so serene in Mind, or so easy in my Conscience in my Life, as I am at this Time, and I heartily wish that every wicked Sinner may have the Opportunity of so good a Divine as the Rev. Mr. Wilson has been unto me, which must be a great Means to the Enjoyment of eternal Bliss.
It is an inexpressible Pleasure to me, that I am soon to leave this very wicked World; and I hope that GOD Almight of his infinite Mercy and Goodness, will, through the Merits and Intercession of my blessed Redeemer, his only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, pardon all my Sins, and receive my Soul into eternal Happiness …
There is nothing that gives me so much Concern as the Distress that I leave my poor Wife and two Infants in. She has been very good to me under my unhappy Misfortune and so have my poor afflicted Brothers. I hope that the Almighty will be the Guardian of my Wife and Children.
We’ve been speaking of Coleman as categorically innocent but presented only conflicting and doubtful witnesses.
The resolution of the matter did not come until two full years after Coleman serenely strangled to death. The rest of the story was incautiously blabbed by a gentleman named James Welch to a companion as they walked the road to Newington Butts.
“Their conversation,” says the Newgate Calendar, “happened to turn on the subject of those who had been executed without being guilty; and Welch said: ‘Among whom was Coleman. Nichols, Jones and I were the persons who committed the murder for which he was hanged.’”
Maybe he should have chatted about the weather.
In the course of conversation Welch owned that, having been at a public-house called Sot’s Hole, they had drunk plentifully, and on their return through Kennington Lane they met with a woman, with whom they went as far as the Parsonage Walk, near the churchyard of Newington where she was so horridly abused by Nichols and Jones that Welch declined offering her any further insult.
Welch’s companion informed on him, but upon arrest there was no better evidence against Welch, Nichols, and Jones than there had been against Coleman. Actually, this later case was much weaker: one guy’s alleged hearsay statement.
In a classic prisoner’s-dilemma scenario, John Nichols was finally persuaded to turn crown’s evidence on the other two before they turned on him, and his testimony to the vile end of Sarah Green got his former mates hanged.
“The poor woman was treated in a manner too shocking to be described,” our correspondent relates. And “it appeared that at the time of the perpetration of the fact the murderers wore white aprons, and that Jones and Welch called Nichols by the name of Coleman — circumstances that evidently led to the conviction of the unfortunate man of that name.”
The hangings in the case of Sarah Green — both the right ones and the wrong one — occurred at the acme of Britain’s “Bloody Code” days.
It’s instructive to note that the reality of wrongful executions seems to have been widely accepted. In the case at hand, the Newgate Calendar does not mince words in describing Richard Coleman as innocent.
And while doubt about individual defendants’ guilt often led jurors to acquittals or the ad hoc “pious perjury” downgrading of potentially capital charges, the existence of this or that wrongful execution in no way imperiled the capital statutes as a whole. It was merely another risk in a brutal world all too full of them.
Just a few months after Welch and Jones went to the gallows, another woman controversially on trial for her life received from one of her correspondents a lament that “We see nothing more frequent than Persons confessing the Crimes that others had suffer’d for before.”
* Although Green’s case was a bit different since she actually had time to swear a statement, the legal footing of “dying declarations” vis-a-vis the usual right of a defendant to confront an accuser has long remained a jurisprudential sticky wicket.