1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Pennsylvania,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1877: George Washington Fletcher, Philadelphia goon

Add comment June 11th, 2016 Headsman

From the New York Herald, June 12, 1877:

PHILADELPHIA, June 11, 1877.

Corrupt and degrading political associations such as pervade the larger American cities have their natural result in the career of the wretch who expiated his crimes upon the gallows in this city to-day.

He bore the name — Heaven save the mark! — of George Washington Fletcher. Born of a good, respectable family, with a brother an exhorter in the Methodist Church, he has been the black sheep of the flock.

Obstinately repelling all good influences, he has deliberately followed a life of crime from boyhood up, and nothing so well shows the depths to which local politics in this city have sunk as the fact that this man was able defiantly to pursue the life he did merely because he had political friends whose dirty work he did.

Secured immunity from punishment by the small fry ward politicians to whom his aid was valuable, this man was nurtured in the belief that for him the law could have no terrors that “influence” could not remove. The leader of a gang whose services as repeaters at the polls in the interest of a corrupt ring of so-called republicans, Fletcher found that he could defy the law and its officers.

His history is a catalogue of offences against the law, but its sudden ending in the midst of his career, in the very prime of life, proves that justice does not always sleep in Philadelphia, even when a politician is the transgressor.

FLETCHER’S CAREER.

Fletcher was born in a portion of the city called Southwark in 1845. He was only eleven years of age when his innate cruely of disposition showed itself in cutting off pigs’ tails at a pork packer’s yards. He was committed to the House of Refuge for this offence, was soon released and was a couple of years later engaged in a row with a colored boy named Robert Clayton, now living in Atherton street, near Fletcher’s old home, and gave him a serious stab in the side with a knife.

About this time the rebellion broke out, and Fletcher followed the First Pennsylvania Reserves to the Army of the Potomac, deserted and afterward became what was known as a “bounty jumper.”

At the close of the war he shiped in the navy, and was drawn to fill the Swatara‘s quota, one of the vessels which accompanied Admiral Farragut‘s fleet to Europe. On their homeward cruise he deserted from the Swatara at Antwerp. He swam ashore. He then made his way to Liverpool, from which place he worked his passage to Philadelphia on a merchant ship.

Fletcher and James Hanley had both been runners with the Marion Hose, of the old volunteer fire department, and on the formation of the paid department both secured positions. The two had been companions in boyhood, but had grown up very different in character, Fletcher having become a young “rough” and political “striker,” and Hanley a quiet, inoffensive, sober and industrious young man.

Fletcher and his chosen companions planned a series of robberies, but obtained amateur “kids” to perform the dangerous work, while they obtained the “swag” and divided the profits among themselves.

Fletcher’s later career as a fireman was marked with acts of violence, one of which was the shooting of a companion named Stark, which occurred some time previous to the murder of Hanley. This case was settled, like many others in which he was involved, and never reached the courts.

OUT OF EMPLOYMENT.

Fletcher and his early companion Hanley appeared to continue on friendly terms until the spring of 1874, when Fletcherwas arrested, charged with having committed an outrage on a girl about fourteen years of age, named Mary Elizabeth McHugh.

On the 27th of April, 1874, the Grand Jury found a true bill against him on this charge, and he was tried three days after and acquitted, but the accusation cost him his position in the Fire Department. After losing his situation Fletcher was for a long time out of work. He complained greatly of his troubles and placed the entire blame on Hanley. He frequently made threats that he would kill him, and his desire for revenge increased as his repeated efforts to have himself reinstated in the Fire Department were unsuccessful.

On election day, November 2, 1875, the day before Hanley was murdered, Fletcher attempted to vote illegally at a poll in the First war. Frank Wilcox, residing in Redwood street, interposed objections, whereupon the fireman rough levelled his pistol and fired directly at him, but the motion of a friendly hand caused the barrel to point downward, and the ball lodged in Wilcox’s foot. That same day, with pistol in hand, Fletcher was scouring the vicinity of the “Neck” with the intention of killing one Antonio Hale.

HIS LAST CRIME.

Shortly before eight o’clock on the evening of the 3d Fletcher visited the engine house to which Hanley was attached.

At the door he met one of the members named Pinker, of whom he inquired, “is Jimmy Hanley up stairs?”

Pinker replied that he was.

“Then,” returned Fletcher, “tell him to come down; I want to see him.”

Pinker replied, “No, I won’t, George, because if he comes down here there will be trouble between you and him.”

Fletcher replied quickly, “Oh, no there won’t; I saw him up town to-day and we made up.”

“All right, then,” said Pinker, “I will call him,” and he then called up stairs.

Hanley was reading a book, but laid it down and came down stairs immediately. The words, “How are you to-night?” passed between him and Fletcher, and they went toward the the outside together in a friendly way.

Hanley leaned against the jamb of the door, and as a drizzling rain was falling Pinker asked him if he had not better put a coat on. Hanley said yes, and asked Pinker to get him one.

The latter took a coat from the truck and advanced with it to Hanley, telling him where to place it again when he was done with it.

Hanley had just raised his arms to pull the coat on when Fletcher drew a small pistol and fired. The ball entered Hanley’s left breast, cut through the lung and passed into the heart, and, reeling back into the engine house, the wounded man exclaimed that Fletcher had shot him, and fell. Pinker and some of the other firemen lifted him and carried him up stairs to a lounge, on which he expired in about five minutes.

Fletcher was at once arrested. His trial took place a few weeks later, and, a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree having been agreed upon by the jury and a new trial refused, Fletcher on the 12th of February was sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until dead.” The Governor nixed fixed just one year ago for the execution, but through the legal delays and arguments in the Supreme Court the execution was postponed.

Since Fletcher’s conviction the most strenuous efforts have been made to secure his pardon, mainly by politicians, in whose behalf he has often rendered important services at the polls.

James H. Heverin, the prisoner’s counsel, has also labored most faithfully in behalf of his client, not ceasing his endeavors to procure a pardon or a reprieve until within twenty-four hours of his death.

HIS LAST HOURS ON EARTH.

Recently the conduct of the condemned man has undergone a change under the ministrations of the Rev. Camp, the Methodist preacher, who has been in faithful attendance upon him.

Fletcher leaves a wife and three children, aged respectively five, three and about two years, all of whom have been frequent visitors to him and have had a softening effect upon him.

He has gradually come to be repentant for his crimes and to take comfort in the consolations of religion. Yesterday he was visited for the last time by his family, his counsel Mr. Heverin, Rev. Dr. Westwood, George H. Stuart and others. His last farewells are said to have been very touching.

Fletcher went to sleep about ten o’clock last night and slept soundly for five hours. His spiritual advisers were with him until he retired, and he prayed fervently with them.

When he awoke this morning, at half-past three o’clock, he lit a cigar and sat on a stool in a thoughtful mood. He talked to Keeper Everly of his death, and said he was prepared to die.

“In three or four hours,” said he, “I shall be in heaven.”

Early this morning he was visited by Rev. Messrs. Camp and Pearce, and sang with them in a clear, loud voice, the “Crucified One,” one of Moody and Sankey‘s hymns, commencing, “It is the promise of God full salvation to give,” which seemed, of all sacred pieces, his favorite one.

His voice rang out clear in the corridor, and the prisoners near him must have distinctly heard it, for his door was partly open. His brother-in-law paid his farewell this morning.

THE EXECUTION.

The Sheriff and his party arrived at the prison at eighteen minutes before ten o’clock, and upon being told that his counsel were among the visitors Fletcher sent for them.

An affecting interview was the result, all of the party, including ex-Sheriff Leeds, coming out of the cell with their eyes full of tears.

The scaffold was erected in the convict’s corridor. At ten minutes past ten Fletcher was brought from his cell, and the dismal procession walked to the gallows.

As Fletcher stepped on the fatal trap and faced the spectators below he bore a subdued expression, but displayed no sign of trepidation. A neat black suit* gave him a somewhat clerical appearance, which was heightened by his attitude, his hands being peacefully clasped together, while his head slightly inclined as Mr. Camp prayed fervently that as God had permitted His Son to die for sinners and that whomsoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life, so might His servant, George Fletcher, have his sins pardoned and be admitted to everlasting life.

Then the doomed man, still betraying no sign of wavering, shook hands with the clergymen, the Sheriff and others, and straightened himself up, while the noose was adjusted, his hands manacled behind his back, and the white cap drawn over his face.

He was then left alone on the scaffold, and all but one of the supports under the trap door on which he stood removed.

Rev. Mr. Camp then lifted his voice in a final prayer, saying, “Now, Lord, we commend the soul of George Fletcher to thine everlasting care. Lord Jesus, receive his spirit, in the name of the Father, Son and —-” He had progressed thus far when he was interrupted by the springing of the trap by the Sheriff, who, by pulling the rope, had pulled away the last upright, and Fletcher’s body fell with a jerk.

STRANGLED TO DEATH.

The trap was sprung at eighteen minutes past ten.

The neck was not broken, and the poor man died slowly by strangulation.

At twenty-five minutes past ten, seven minutes after the fall, the pulse was beating 140 to the minute. It lessened rapidly, but it was not until thirty-five minutes past ten, or seventeen minutes after the fall, that the pulse and the heart ceased their action.

The body was then cut down and taken to the deadhouse, where the physicians formally declared death to have resulted from strangulation.


* The suit was provided courtesy of one of Fletcher’s old political bosses, Jesse Tettermary — a little investment in the future loyalty of his other muscle, perhaps. (Per The North American, June 11, 1877)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pennsylvania,USA

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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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