1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,USA,Women

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1888: Oscar Beckwith, the Austerlitz Murderer

Add comment March 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, the “Austerlitz Murderer” — not a Napoleonic figure but an irascible septuagenarian woodsman — hanged in New York.

Oscar Beckwith’s crime, explains the New York Herald of Jan. 18, anticipating the sixth issuance of his sentence for this crime,

was the killing of Simon A. Vandercook at Austerlitz, Columbia county, in January, 1882. Both men were wood-choppers and quarrelled over a supposed gold mine near the town. The victim’s body was found in Beckwith’s hut, portions of it having been burned.* Beckwith fled to Canada and eluded capture until February, 1885. He was extradited, and while in custody admitted the killing, but claimed that it was done in self-defence.

That same paper four days afterwards informs us that he favored the court on this occasion with an “excited tirade” blaming the affair on “Freemason devils” as he was hauled back to his cell, where “he kept up a running invective against everybody who had any connection with his case.”


Via Atlas Obscura.

* More specifically, after suspicions were aroused by the awful smell belched by Beckwith’s stovepipe, the body was found hacked up and stashed under Beckwith’s bed, save that “the head, one hand and a foot were gone. The teeth were found in the ashes of the stove.” (Troy Weekly Times, March 1, 1888) This grisly pile spurred (likely baseless) rumors of cannibalism; he’s also sometimes tagged the “Austerlitz Cannibal”.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Pelf,USA

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1888: Alexander Goldenson, San Francisco obsessive

Add comment September 14th, 2017 Headsman

Alexander Goldenson, an emigre “young, hot-tempered fellow [who] affects the style of dress adopted by the hoodlum element of the rising generation,” was hanged in San Francisco on this date in 1888 for gunning down 14-year-old Mamie Kelly, with whom he had apparently become obsessed. He went to the gallows clutching a photo of his victim — hoping he was about to join her in paradise.*

The story has a timeless quality to it: a smart but disturbed adolescent careening into sexual derangement; a young girl whose first crush became her budding stalker.

It also has a distinct 19th century throwback feel: implausibly esteemed “the first of the Hebrew race who has in this country committed the crime of murder,” Goldenson was the target of a lynching attempt — a would-be revival of a San Francisco tradition from gold rush days. When they finally noosed him under color of law 22 months after the murder, the sheriff issued too many invitations and “the capacity of the jail was overtaxed, many with tickets were unable to get in, and the crowd was one of the noisiest and most turbulent that ever thronged Broadway in front of the old jail.”

Goldenson is the subject of at least two very fine profiles already existing in this vast World Wide Web with ample primary research which we can scarcely hope to improve upon.

  • Our longtime friends at Murder by Gaslight profile “The School-girl Murder” here
  • Shades of the Departed found an intriguing artifact of the crime in an online auction and followed the threads to produce this great three-parter: Part I | Part II | Part III

* He converted to Catholicism hours before his execution, perhaps with this very object in mind. It didn’t work as far as the mortal remains went, anyway: pissed about the conversion, his Russian Jewish mother refused to release his body to the priest for a Catholic burial; and, pissed about the conversion, the Jewish cemetery wouldn’t take him either. He had to settle for the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Murder,Sex,USA

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1888: Two in New Jersey, by father and son hangmen

Add comment July 18th, 2017 Headsman

This morning in 1888, two different locales in the U.S. state of New Jersey put two different men to death — respectively hanged by James Van Hise pere and fils, father and son executioners.

George Kearney

(From the New York Herald, July 19, 1888)

In the heart of New Jersey’s great apple whiskey district is Freehold, the drowsy, ancient town where George Richard Kearney was neatly hanged yesterday for the murder of gray haired Mrs. Margaret Purcell, the housekeeper of Mrs. Daniel R. Lyddy, at Elberon, in February.

It is an old fashioned place, and its people are both picturesque and peculiar. Nowhere in New Jersey are the old prejudices and notions cherished as they are in Freehold. The leading newspaper has been going for over three-quarters of a century, and has a circulation of twelve hundred.

But even the fierce heat of journalism has failed to reform or mould New Jersey human nature into modern ideas.

One of the keen features of Freehold philosophy is that a dollar is a dollar. It stares you in the face at every step you take. The genuine native sucks it in with his mother’s milk.

But the last place you would expect to hear that a dollar is a dollar is the cell of a condemned murderer spending his last night on earth.

And yet on Tuesday night men stood in the little brick jail in the rear of the Freehold Court House intriguing to make a few dollars out of the murderer’s agony of mind. The main idea was to get Kearney to confess so that the confession could be peddled for money to the newspapers.

No reporters were allowed to get near him lest the marketable value of the expected confession might be impaired. The most subtle methods were employed to work the negro up to the point of disgorging. He was fed on peaches and coddled. Then he was plied with questions, charged with trying to keep the secret and urged to make all the facts known.

As the night wore on there was a great deal of winking and whispering. Kearney had been worked up, they said, and could not hold out much longer. There was big money in it, perhaps a thousand dollars. So the whispers said. The newspapers would pay high to get a confession.

Every time a reporter appeared to be curious about the chances of a confession the intriguers received a nervous shock. A thrill of horror went through them when it was learned that the HERALD had asked the telegraph operator to hold his wire until midnight. Perhaps some reporter might slyly get hold of the confession. They were such oily, keen eyed fellows, these reporters.

TRYING TO WORK KEARNEY UP.

Kearney held out doggedly. He was innocent of the Purcell murder, he said, and he could not understand why they were so persistent. Even his Bible reading was rudely disturbed by the confession hunters.

The slightest evidence of emotion caused a flutter. When he was seen to weep there was great joy and excitement. Surely he would reveal marketable matter now.

So, while the black browed wretch tried in vain to forget his approaching doom the high toned officials schemed to make a few dollars.

All this was the result of a confession which Kearney made a short time ago, when he acknowledged that he was guilty of an assault upon Miss Angelina Herbert at Eatontown, for which poor old Mingo Jack was cruelly lynched. Under Sheriff Fields, who has charge of the jail, was left out in the cold. Either Prosecutor Haight or Assistant Prosecutor Schwartz sold the text of the confession to a New York newspaper. He divided with no one. Under Sheriff Fields and his father, the Sheriff and all the constables and turnkeys were blazing mad about it according to what the townspeople say. Fabulous stories were told about the amount paid by the New York newspaper for the confession. Some said it was $1,000 and some said it was $100.

Anyhow, the price of Kearney confessions went up. A person who was supposed to have secret means of influencing the murderer to talk was followed about like a man with a straight tip on a race course. A dollar is a dollar, you know. He was treated and flattered. The general impression in Freehold was that to have a one-half interest in genuine Kearney confession was equal to retiring from active business on a comfortable income.

The HERALD reporter who went to witness the hanging had not been in Freehold an hour before he was asked by two different persons for the exclusive use of the last confession of the condemned man. He was sure to break down, they said. Things were being made hot for him.

Later on the reporter learned that Under Sheriff Fields was in a fever of anxiety lest the confession might escape him. He regarded it as a sort of perquisite. One of the death watch officers was pulling a quiet wire to outwit his chief and capture the confession himself.

And Kearney turned the plots all upside down by going to bed without breathing a word of confession, except the private statement he made to Lawyer Johnston.

New York Herald, July 18, 1888:

PREPARING FOR THE GALLOWS.

Hardly had the sun reddened the east yesterday when the murderer got out of bed and dressed himself. He went to the door of his cell and talked with Constable Fleming. When he mentioned his wife he cried heartily. Then he sat down and read the Bible. Now and then some favored person was permitted by the Sheriff to enter the jail corridor and look at the prisoner.

Meanwhile groups of farmers began to assemble in the rear of the Court House, outside of the enclosure where the new scaffold stood. Lawyer Johnston shook hands and chatted with Undertaker Barkalow, who was to bury his client. Men, women and children lingered in front of the jail. The main street put on a busy, metropolitan aspect. All the saloons did a rushing trade.

Then Hangman Van Hise arrived.

He was the hero of the hour. The fact that he was to hang Kearney while his hopeful son was hanging Ebert in Jersey City made him a person of great importance. All the folks in the street smiled and said “How air you?” when he passed. Van Hise is a short man, with a deep chest and heavy shoulders. His features are blunt and coarse. He wears a large red mustache and there is a cold, steady light in his small gray eyes. In appearance he is an ideal hangman.

KEARNEY GETS RELIGION.

While Van Hise was rigging the rope on the scaffold the colored clergymen arrived.

They were Rev. J. Giles Mowbray, of Freehold; the Rev. T.T. Webster, of Fair Haven, and the Rev. Littleton Sturgis, of Asbury Park.

The ministers were admitted to the corridor and Kearney was led out of his cell. He wore a rough white shirt, with a rolling collar, and gray-brown shabby trowsers.

He was a stoutly built man, with a large head, powerful, hairy jaws and thick neck. His smile was snaky and unpleasant to look at. This man of nature had confessed to two horrible outrages upon white women, but denied the last attempt at the same crime which resulted in murder. Brutality and sensuality were stamped plainly upon his dark countenance. He showed the whites of his eyes and his hands trembled as he met the clergymen.

All three kneeled in the corridor and prayed aloud. Their prayers were disturbed again and again by the amateur constables who were having new clubs with red cords served out to them and banged the clubs against every object within reach. The hammering at the gallows also drowned the sound of the prayers.

Kearney knew what the hammering meant. Once he put his hands over his ears.

When the prayers wee done the Rev. Mr. Mowbray poured out some wine and broke bread. He then read the communion service and gave the sacrament to the murderer. Finally he asked Kearney to pick out the religious service he wanted at the scaffold. He sent into his cell for a Bible. Turning over the leaves rapidly he put his black thumb on the eighty-sixth psalm at the words: —

O God, the proud are risen against me and the assemblies of violent men have sought after men soul.

“I want you to read that?” he said horasely.

Kearney next asked that the hymn sung at the gallows should be “Take the name of Jesus with you.” He read over the verse: —

Oh, the precious name of Jesus!
How it thrills our souls with joy
When his loving arms receive us
And his songs our tongues employ!

One or two of the jail officials who looked on at a distance suspected that Kearney was making a confession, and they suffered sharp anguish as they saw a turnkey creep up close enough to hear. If the confession got out it could not be peddled. The officials panted and perspired. Suddenly Kearney leaped up and threw his hands wildly into the air.

“Glory! glory! glory!” he screamed. “I long for the end now. Jesus is mine. I’ve had trials and tribulations here, but there are none above. Glory to God! Glory! Let the end come. Let it come! Glory!”

“MY BLOOD WILL BE UPON THEM.”

His face was convulsed with emotion and tears ran from his eyes. The cries which he uttered could be heard outside of the jail.

When he sat down the clergyman asked him if he wished to relieve his bosom from any secret connected with the crime. He passionately declared his innocence and turning to Mr. Mowbray, said: —

If they hang me they will be taking the life of an innocent man. My blood will be upon them. I had nothing to do with the murder of Mrs. Purcell.

As the clergyman retired Kearney said to a constable that his confession that it was he and not Mingo Jack who assaulted Miss Herbert at Eatontown was true.

“Mingo Jack was innocent,” he said. “They can believe what they please, but I did it. I told the truth in my confession.”

By this time there was a great crowd in front of the jail. Men, women and children pressed against each other in the vain attempt to hear or see some thing.

An old colored woman kept kneeling at the door on the sidewalk and praying in a low voice. A constable drove her away. There was a drove of constables in the flower garden at the jail. Among them was Clay Wooley, who came near having Stanford Potter hanged for the Hamilton murder at Long Branch. Mayor Brown, of Long Branch, passed in to see the execution. The Sheriff was half crazy settling disputes as to who should see Kearney die.

A lot of boys climbed into tree tops which commanded a view of the gallows. Constables drove them away. Up in the tower of the big Court House rows of fingers at the green slats of the belfry showed where a small army of peepers was concealed.

Chief Haggerty, of the New Jersey Detective Bureau, was hid behind a curtain in the window of the jail hospital. The glare of his diamond pin almost revealed him. Nothing was left undone to evade the law, which declares that not more than thirty-eight specified persons shall witness an execution.

Out in the jail yard a reporter who could not gain admittance to the fatal enclosure sat under a cherry tree in a corner half asleep. In a window opposite to him the female prisoners were crowded.

WALKING TO THE GALLOWS.

At last the side door of the jail was thrown open and the death procession appeared.

First came the Sheriff, and after him the prisoner supporter on either side by the Rev. Mr. Mowbray and the Rev. Mr. Webster. The jailer, a reporter, several jurors, S.B. Hinsdale, the official stenographer in the case, and a posse of constables brought up the rear. Kearney walked with a firm step and showed no signs of fear.

His arms were lashed behind hi by means of straps. The black cap falling back from his face like a cowl and the trailing end of the noose around his neck gave him a horrible appearance. As the ghastly figure passed the corridor the female prisoners gasped and shuddered. The murderer was led into the little rough enclosure where the jurors and others were waiting. As the hangman attached the noose to the rope Kearney smiled in the old surly way.

“If you want to say anything, say it to the Sheriff,” said Van Hise.

“I’ve nothing to say.”

The Rev. Mr. Webster started to pray, when the murderer frowned and told him that he wanted no delay. Van Hise at once pulled the black cap over his face.

“Goodby,” said the negro.

“Goodby, George,” groaned the clergyman.

DEATH WITHOUT A STRUGGLE.

The Sheriff signalled to Van Hise, who pressed his foot on a spring at the side of the gallows. The trigger released weights amounting to 650 pounds, which hung over a nine foot pit in the ground. Instantly the body of Kearney was whipped up from the ground. The rope doubled and his head came within two feet of the crossbeam. The body descended with a terrific jar and swung gently to and fro.

It was seen at once that the knot had slipped from the left ear around to the back of the neck and everybody thought there would be a horrible scene of strangulation. The body hung motionless. There was not the slightest motion to show that Kearney was alive.

About a minute after the spring was touched the shoulders and chest moved slightly, but it was merely the usual muscular spasms. The two doctors who were present decided to allow the body to hang for half an hour, after which it was cut down and put in a coffin. The shoes were cut from the dead man’s feet and there was a general scramble for pieces of shoestrings as mementos. Van Hise declared that Kearney’s neck was broken. He was delighted over a telegram from his hopeful son announcing that the hanging in Jersey City was a success.

“He’s a promising young man,” he said. “It’s the first time I have left him alone on a job.”

NO GRAVE FOR KEARNEY.

As none of Kearney’s relatives turned up the Coroner decided to bury the body at the county’s expense. Both the colored cemetery and the white cemetery authorities refused to allow the remains to be buried in their grounds. The Coroner suggested that the coffin might be stood on end in the narrow pit into which the gallows weights dropped and covered over. This ideas was rejected.

“I don’t know where I am to get a grave,” said the Coroner distractedly, after the execution. “I have an idea that I can bury the corpse at any crossroads. It would serve the town right if I buried it on the crossing of the two main streets. I’ll bury it anyhow, even if I have to dig a grave on my own farm. I offered $5 for a grave in a field near the cemetery, but the owner wouldn’t have it.”

The crime for which Kearney was hanged was committed on February 13, 1888. He was coachman for Mrs. Daniel R. Lyddy, and attempted to outrage Mrs. Purcell, the housekeeper. The old woman resisted and he beat her and threw her down a cellar stairs. She was horribly mutilated, but lived for a month afterward. She identified Kearney and made a dying declaration of the circumstances of the crime.

Henry Ebert

(via Augustine E. Costello)

EXECUTION OF EBERT. — On July 18, 1888, in the Hudson County Jail, Henry Conrad Ebert, paid with his life the penalty for the murder of his wife, Elizabeth. The fatal deed was committed on Sunday, November 27th, 1887, and at no time has there been any doubt of Ebert’s guilt.

Ebert dressed himself for the last few steps he was to walk on earth as late as possible, and lingered over the process to an unusual degree. It was not until 9.55 o’clock that Deputy Sheriff Mersheimer informed Sheriff Davis that Ebert had finished his toilet. The particulars that follow, of the hanging, are taken from the daily press:

Precisely at 10 o’clock, six strokes of the Court House bell clanged upon the air. The sound was expected, but caused cold chills to run over those who heard them. How the knell must have affected the doomed man can be better imagined than described.

Sheriff Davis read the list of witnesses, and they formed in double column. The procession passed through the Court House park and entered the jail. They reached the fatal corridor at 10 o’clock.

Sheriff Davis and Deputies Mersheimer and McPhillips left the corridor and went up stairs for the law’s victim. The two faithful clergymen were with Ebert and their presence had a bracing effect. The death warrant was read and then Ebert’s arms were pinioned behind him at the elbows. The deadly noose was adjusted and the black cap placed upon Ebert’s head. All was now ready for the death march.

Sheriff Davis led the way and was followed down the narrow stairs by the two ministers. Next came the murderer with Deputy Mersheimer supporting him at the left elbow and McPhillips at the right. They reached the entrance to the corridor at 10:10 o’clock.

Ebert’s face was deadly pale as he crossed the fatal threshold and caught sight of the grim gallows at the end. His right eye was gone, and the reddened socket seemed to heighten the pallor of his cheeks. [a result of shooting himself after shooting his wife -ed.] He never faltered.

A few short steps brought him beneath the beam. Van Hise Jr. guided him to the cruciform chalk marks upon the floor. The centre point was directly in line with the pendent rope. Ebert’s legs were quickly fastened with straps. A silence that could be felt, prevailed, broken only by the pulsations of the water pipe keeping time to the strokes of the pumping engine at High Service.

Dr. Meury’s voice broke the stillness as the black cap was drawn down, to forever shut out daylight from the murderer’s sight. He prayed earnestly, and as follows:

O, most merciful God, who according to the multitude of thy mercies, dost so put away the sins of those who truly repent, that thou rememberedst them no more; open thine eye of mercy upon this, thy servant, who most earnestly desireth pardon, and forgiveness. Renew in him whatsoever hath been decayed by the fraud and the malice of the devil, or by his own carnal will and frailness, consider his contrition, accept his tears, assuage his pain, as shall seem to thee most expedient for him, and for as much as he putteth his full trust only in thy mercy, impute not unto him his former sins, but strengthen him with thy blessed spirit, and if it be in accordance with thy will. When he shall have departed hence, take him unto thy favor through the merits of thy beloved son our Lord Christ Jesus, to whom with the Father and Holy Spirit shall be all the glory. Amen.

As the “amen” was uttered there was a pause. Then Sheriff Davis signalled to Van Hise, who pressed the gallows treadle. Ebert’s body sprang into the air at 10:13 o’clock.

His neck was not broken, and a horrible sight followed. The knot slipped from its proper place behind the left ear, and was jerked around to the middle of the left jaw. Fully one-quarter of the dying man’s face was exposed as he strangled to death. His hands were bare and turned purple as the oxygen was gradually cut off from his lungs. The forearms raised until the clenched hands repeatedly rested upon his breast.

The lower limbs were forcibly contracted. His feet seemed to reach out for a resting place in vain. The sight appalled most of the witnesses. Many of them turned their heads aside. Dr. Heifer, of Hoboken, said he would not be surprised if Ebert lived for thirty minutes.

At 10:17½ o’clock the weight was raised sufficiently to lower the body until the feet almost touched the floor. The doctors and the newspaper men gathered around the pendant body. The head of the corpse was a few inches higher than the head of the bystanders, and the doctors took turns in noting the condition of the heart.

At 10:20 o’clock the heart rate was 84; at 10:22 it had fallen to 80; at 10:23 it was 60, and at 10:26 the pulsations were inaudible even with a stethoscope. At 10:33 the body was lowered, and Coroner Brackner and his assistants took possession of it. The body was removed to Speer’s Morgue, where an autopsy was held.

Ebert ate dinner with his usual relish, and a short time afterward, Keeper Eltringham asked him if he would like to be shaved. Ebert said he would, and Chris. Munzing, the Newark avenue barber, was called in. When Ebert sat down to be shaved, the keeper said, “You will have to be handcuffed before he begins.” “What for?” said Ebert; “there is no need of that.” “It is the Sheriff’s order,” said the keeper. “Then I won’t be shaved at all,” said Ebert resolutely, and he was not.

Sheriff Davis and the executioner visited the corridor and examined the gallows, and the afternoon passed for the prisoner without incident. He frequently went to the window and looked out at the crowd of curious people who hung over the iron fence. A number of them were his former neighbors, but he did not recognize any of them.

About five o’clock, Rev. Mr. Meury reached the jail. He was accompanied by Rev. John Staehli of Jersey City, who had been selected as his assistant by the spiritual adviser.

Mr. Meury had intended to go to Trenton with Ebert’s brother and counsel to present the petition signed by over 150 residents of the Fourth district, asking for a commutation of sentence, but he was unable to go. As soon as he learned of the unsuccessful result of the appeal to the Court of Pardons, Mr. Meury started for the jail. He went up to Ebert’s cell and broke the news to him. Ebert bore up well, showing outwardly but little change. The faithful pastor then tried to induce Ebert to make a clean breast of the crime, the prisoner with only a few hours between him and eternity, still adhered to his original statement which all the known facts disprove. Mr. Meury came down from the cell about half-past five o’clock, and just at that time Ebert’s brother called at the jail and asked permission to go in and see the condemned man. It did not take Jailer Birdsall a minute to make up his mind, although it was a very trying moment. He directed Keeper Eltringham to refuse him admittance. Young Ebert walked back to the gate and catching sight of his brother at the window of his cell he made a dumb show to let him understand that he had been refused admission. The crowd around the fence pressed in but the young man was too much excited to pay any attention to them. He returned to the door and asked for Mr. Meury. When he saw him he urged him to get permission for him to go in the gallery at the head of the stairs where he could see his brother and call good by to him. Mr. Meury urged Jailer Birdsall to grant this request, but was firmly refused, “I am satisfied,” said Mr. Birdsall; “that my reasons for refusing are good. It will only make a scene and Ebert has already said that he don’t want to see anybody. I don’t think it will be safe to allow them to come together, and I will not take the responsibility. If the Sheriff will come with him and take him in I will not offer any objection.”

Mr. Meury and young Ebert went to the Sheriff’s office, but did not find the Sheriff. The deputy in charge of his office talked to Ebert and convinced him that it would be useless to search for the Sheriff, as the prisoner was in the custody of the Jailer. Young Ebert hung around the vicinity of the jail for a good while. talking to all he knew about the affair.

The Jailer was right, however, for he did not want to run any risks, and the young man’s erratic actions on former visits were enough to inspire any jailer with extra caution.

After the brother had gone a committee from the Council of Red Men called to see Ebert. They were not allowed to do so. They were very much affected by the condition in which they found him, and said that he had been suspended about six months before the murder. They said, “If he had only let us know about his condition or his trouble with his wife we would have gladly helped him; but we only knew that he had fallen behind, and he was dropped under the rule.” They were affected to tears when they talked with the pastor.

Keepers Hanley and Hanlon and Constable Carroll kept watch by turns over Ebert during the afternoon and evening. About eight o’clock Ebert wanted his supper. He ate a hearty meal sent from Jailor Birdsall’s table. There is a peculiar feature about a murderer’s last two or three weeks. Humanity and custom have made it a rule that condemned men, while awaiting execution, shall be fed on a more liberal plan than ordinary prisoners, yet there are no funds for this, and the jailor has to provide it at his own expense. Ebert had had pretty much anything he liked to order for the two weeks previously, and he thought more about his next meal than he did about the next world. After he ate his supper he chatted with Keeper Eltringham about the Order of Red Men, the different processes of making beer and wine in Germany, and when the keeper was changed he spoke to keeper Hanlon about his service in the Prussian artillery service. He said he enlisted when he was seventeen years old, and served until he was twenty-one, and that while doing garrison duty he learned to play the zither and the trombone in the band. He was quite chatty and frequently laughed. He smoked a pipe after supper, and smoked a cigar which Mr. Meury gave him. He was not allowed to have any cigars except those given by the jailer and Mr. Meury, for fear that some dangerous weapon or poison might have been concealed in the cigar. The police drove the crowd away from the front of the jail, and the place was kept pretty clear all night. Pastor Meury went home for a short time about 9 o’clock, promising to return at 11 o’clock. There were few callers except the newspaper men during the evening, but all the principal papers were represented between dark and midnight.

Ebert went to sleep at 11:15 o’clock and slept soundly.

Rev. Mr. Meury, with Rev. Mr. Staehle returned to the jail at 2 o’clock, and went up in about an hour. They found Ebert still sleeping.

Ebert had requested Mr. Meury to admininister the Communion during the day, but when Ebert persisted in refusing to make a confession, the minister would not administer the rite.

At midnight the jail was closed. The heavy iron shutters closed out the sights and sounds of the outer world. No sounds were heard inside of the building. Groups of newspaper men occupied every available space for writing and the night passed quietly. Ebert became restless as morning drew near, and the flies annoyed him by lighting on the wounded eye.

The twittering of the sparrows about 4 o’clock gave the first notice of the coming dawn, and daylight followed very suddenly. The wagons followed and the day’s work began, the sights and sounds of busy life began to come into the jail, still Ebert slept on as unconcerned as if he had no interest in the proceedings.

Rev. Mr. Meury accompanied by Mr. Staehle, went up at four o’clock. They found Ebert awake waiting for them. He greeted them cheerfully and told them that he had slept very well. Mr. Meury asked him if he had anything further to say, and he said, yes. Then Dr. Meury took out a memorandum book and wrote down the statement in German, of which the following is a translation:

I forgive all who have sinned against me. If I killed my wife in a fit of insanity I regret it from the bottom of my heart, as I would never have killed her had I been in a healthy state of mind. I pray God to forgive me, and hope to meet my wife in heaven. I thank the jailor, my pastor, and all who have been so kind to me while I have been here.

The two ministers then examined him as to his spiritual condition, and at his request they decided to administer the sacred communion. They took up the wine and bread at five o’clock.

The Counsel of Henry Ebert were not from the start all sanguine of saving him from the gallows. The verdict reached by the jury was no surprise to them, as their expectations never went beyond a sort of a forlorn hope that the circumstances attending the shooting of Mrs. Ebert by her husband might lead the jury to bring a verdict of murder in the second degree. When that slender prop was swept away it was manifest to them that their application for a writ of error would be denied because they had nothing sufficiently tangible upon which to base any assurance of procuring a new trial for the unfortunate man. Counselor Wm. D. Daly, who through a creditable sense of his duty towards the murderer, fought to the last for him, spent days striving to discover something that might avail Ebert before the Court of Pardons, but as he admitted sorrowfully after returning from that court, his efforts were discouraging, and he was not disappointed that they were unavailing. The main point upon which the lawyers made a plea for clemency for Ebert, was the fact that the killing was the result of a mutual prearranged plan to die together, and to this end the following letter was brought to the attention of the Court of Pardons:

We are being persecuted by the Groeschel family. Fred Groeschel, his wife, and Dorett List, the mother of my wife, have been accepting as true everything which my wife has said during her insanity, and for this reason now they are persecuting me, running me down wherever they can. They are trying to persuade my wife that they may alienate her affections from me. These people, do not know what true love is. They do not know that a true German woman will cling to her husband, even though he should become bad. I, however, was not and am not bad. These people, through their behavior, have made me sick, confused my brain and made me despondent of the love of humanity. My wife dies of her own free will, and has begged me a hundred times to shoot her. I could not do it and would not do it. I am, however, at the present time, in such a frame of mind, that I should like to shoot myself. Should my wife hear this, however, she would be unredeemably lost, and it is better therefore, that we die together. It is my wife’s own wish that we die together, and I do it. I become a murderer in order to make my wife happy.

(Signed) Henry Ebert.

When all hope was gone, Rev. Mr Meury showed these documents to Ebert, and he admitted that they were in his handwriting. The letter was written by him before he left home on the day of the murder. It was intended that it should account to the public for the projected suicide of himself and his wife. It was found wrapped up in a newspaper among Ebert’s effects, which were turned over to his brother by Warden George O. Osborne when the former left the City Hospital. Ebert’s brother did not discover it until after the trial, and then, believing it to be of great importance, he gave it to Mr. Daly, who had him translate it. While it offered proof that mutual suicide was contemplated, in the eyes of the law it did not in the slightest degree mitigate his crime. But it proves beyond all possible doubt that Ebert’s published statement was false, and was made for effect only. It was convincing circumstantial evidence that he meant to kill both himself and wife that ill-fated day. It was quite probable, judging from their wanderings in New York on the day, he having a loaded revolver in his possession, that he or they were merely seeking a favorable opportunity to end their wretched existence. The letter brushed away whatever doubt there might be of his suicidal and murderous intentions, and fixed his responsibility for the fatal crime.

Among Ebert’s effects at the hospital was also found the following:

Tallahassa Council No. 22, F. O R. M.:

“Bury me as a brother and give the balance to our Elsa.”

This is understood to have reference to the money which was to be paid by the Council at Ebert’s death.

Many of the early workers who left their homes on the hill in the morning, paused as they passed, to gaze up at the grim front of the County Jail, where the condemned man awaited his doom. They pointed out Ebert’s window to each other and talked over his fate until the two Third precinct policemen ordered them to move on. At the foot of the hill, three long cattle trains could be seen on the elevated freight roads waiting a chance to reach the abattoir. The lowing of the bovine victims, as they halted upon their unconscious journey to death reminded many of Ebert’s fate, that was coming with equal certainty and even greater speed.

The sun arose, bright and clear, and promised a perfect day. All who felt its influence rejoiced except the man who was to be cut off in the bloom of health and manly vigor. Beneath his window could be heard the juvenile voices of newsboys as they cheerily hawked their stocks of morning papers.

As the hours sped along the crowds in front of the jail, while constantly changing, increased steadily in numbers. Nothing whatever could be seen and little more learned of what was going on inside the building. There was a peculiar morbid fascination about the spot, however, that proved irresistible to many.

The throng of spectators about the jail became more and more dense, and at 8:30 o’clock the end of Oakland avenue, opposite the jail, and the sidewalk of Newark avenue, were practically blockaded. This state of affairs continued until 9 o’clock, when a detail of about 60 police made their appearance. Chief Murphy was in command, with Inspector Lange and Captain Newton, of the Third precinct, to assist him. The crowds were cleared away in short order, and no one outside of those holding proper credentials were then allowed to pass the lines until all was over. A lot of boys who had gained points of supposed vantage close to the windows of the jail office, were particularly sore at being driven off.

When Ebert’s brother applied for admission to the jail, and was persistently refused by Jailor Birdsall, a good many people were inclined to think that it was unnecessarily severe, but the Jailor had good reasons.

About two weeks before, in searching Ebert the keeper found a small package of strychnine sewed into the buckle band of his vest. It was carefully removed and preserved.

When Ebert’s brother was allowed to call on him he handed him a segar. Ebert in taking it did not notice quickly enough that there was something else in the hand that extended the segar. He made motion to cover his blunder, and the motion slight as it was, attracted attention. The segar was tendered while the brothers were parting and as soon as the younger one was out of the room the prisoner was seized and stripped. The keeper found a small package of strychnine in his pocket and upon comparing the package with the other one seized before, it was found that the wrapper was a piece of the same paper in which the first one was wrapped. This proved that young Ebert had smuggled the first package into the jail, After that he could not get near enough to pass him any more articles.

Ebert’s lease of life had expired. His sands of life were run. The fatal noose was about his neck. The signal was given and Ebert’s soul was launched into eternity. He had expiated his awful crime. The gallows had vindicated this outraged majesty of the laws. There was one murderer less in the world. Was the sacrificial warning heeded? Alas, no! Candidates are still awaiting their turn to share a similar fate.

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1888: Leong Sing

Add comment December 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Bulletin, Dec. 28 1888:

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1888: Danny Driscoll, Whyo

Add comment January 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1888, New York City crime lord Danny Driscoll went to the gallows in the Tombs.

(Co-)leader of the Irish gang the Whyos — so named for a distinctive signaling hoot that once echoed through the Five Points — Driscoll inherited power when his predecessor Mike McGloin hanged in 1884.

This band emerged after the disruptions of the Civil War as Manhattan’s most powerful criminal syndicate. The Whyos’ run in the 1870s and 1880s marks a transitional phase from the wild and woolly Gangs of New York street-brawling era into the more businesslike mafiosos of the 20th century.

Like the Mos Eisley cantina, the Whyos’ seedy tavern of choice (aptly named The Morgue) was notorious for over 100 recorded homicides in gang shootouts and drunken brawls; like Jabba the Hutt, the gang also took a methodical approach to extortion, racketeering, and murder that put the “organized” in their crime. One goon answering to the colorful name Piker Ryan (and old time New York crooks are nothing if not flamboyantly named) was once arrested with an actual ultraviolence menu from which budget-conscious clientele could custom-order thrashings for delivery.

Punching $2
Both eyes blacked $4
Nose and jaw broke $10
Jacked out (knocked out with a Blackjack) $15
Ear chewed off $15
Leg or arm broke $19
Shot in the leg $25
Stab $25.00
“Doing the big job” (murder) $100 and up

These 1884 selections perhaps already represent a moderation from earlier methods; a previous Whyo hoodlum, “Dandy” John Dolan, was noted for the copper eye-gouger he wore on his thumb just in case he needed to — well, you know. Dolan hanged back in 1876.


Wait til they get a load of the clamps.

Driscoll kept a house with his young wife, and was charitable enough also to share it with a whore named “Beezie” Bridget Garrity — with whom Driscoll often caroused in the rough Whyo territory. One night in 1886 their alcoholic peregrinations brought them up against a brothel run by a tough named John McCart(h)y, against whom Driscoll had an existing grudge — and as they entered, Driscoll and McCarty wound up in a threshold gunfight. Beezie Garrity had the bad luck to catch a fatal bullet in the crossfire. Both men would blame each other for firing the shot that killed Garrity, and produce numerous witnesses of variously impaired credibility, but for the city there was no confusion at all: between the two, Driscoll was the man worth getting rid of.

“I’ve got a bad name with the police and they say ‘give a dog a bad name and we’ll hang him,'” Driscoll complained to the court. His criminal record reached back to childhood.

Newspapers in the run-up to the hanging were rife with stories of escape attempts and Whyo menace, but police correctly prophesied that the gang had not the numbers or vigor to make any real disturbance. A cordon of 150 gendarmes around the Tombs saw “small groups of young men with hard, wicked-looking visages whom the police pronounced remnants of the Whyo gang … among them were some of the brazen-faced young women of the class to which Beezie Garrity” belonged. (New Haven Register, Jan. 23, 1888) Driscoll died game, his neck efficiently snapped by a noose of white Italian hemp … which seems by retrospection an apt instrument for his passing.

After Driscoll and his fellow alpha male Danny Lyons both hanged in 1888, the Whyos shrank into memory. They would be overtaken in the 1890s by Monk Eastman‘s gang, one last dinosaur from a fading era of hardscrabble toughs; Eastman was in turn supplanted by the Five Points Gang — a more recognizably sophisticated operation to key the 20th century, composed predominantly of the growing Italian-American emigre demographic that would define organized crime for the Godfather era.

The venerable Bowery Boys podcast of Big Apple history covered the Whyos way back in March 2009.

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1887: Clement Arthur Day

1 comment February 9th, 2015 Headsman


New York Herald, June 10, 1887

UTICA, N.Y., June 9, 1887. — Clement Arthur Day, about twenty-five years old, has been lock tender at No. 66, some two miles south of Boonville, on the Black River Canal, in the direction of Rome. For some time Josephine Ross, twenty-one years old, had been living with him. Her mother resides near Rome. This morning Day quarrelled with Josephine because she had made a visit to her mother, and stabbed the young woman five or six times in the bowels and left breast, killing her instantly. He threw the body into the canal and it floated to the opposite side.

Your correspondent interviewed Day in the Boonville Jail. He said he had lived in Ohio and was a painter and book agent. His wife died about a year ago. While selling stove polish he met the girl under the name of Johanna Cross at the California House, near Rome. She was living with her mother and had taught music. She said she had been betrayed by some one in the woods some time previous, also that her mother had been harsh and cruel, and she begged him to take hera away from the California House …

Johanna’s mother sent for her frequently and she did not want to go. He claimed he could not live without her. They were at Carthage yesterday, and this morning Johanna wrote a letter home, which they both intended to mail in Boonville. Day said he was hot tempered and refused to talk about the details of the crime, but said they had agreed to die together by poison, but he could not find the laudanum bottle after killing her. By agreement, he said, he had intended to drown himself with the stone and rope found near the lock, but seeing some one coming he went toward Ava, where he was seen in the woods, and he gave himself up.

A post-mortem is being held to-night, and the inquest will be held to-morrow. The murderer will claim to be insane from infatuation with the woman, but this is undoubtedly a case of cold blooded murder.


New York Herald, December 23, 1887

ROME, N.Y., Dec. 22, 1887. — Clement Arthur Day, who has been on trial for the murder of Josie Rosa Cross last June, was convicted of murder in the first degree this afternoon, and sentenced to be hanged on February 9, 1888.

He has maintained a sullen silence all through the trial and has feigned insanity admirably. He has not spoken to his counsel nor they to him in the Court House during the trial.

When the jury rendered their verdict his face did not change expression or color.

The District Attorney moved for sentence, and one of the prisoner’s counsel asked him if he was ready to have the judgment of the Court passed upon him.

Day smiled and said: — “Yes, I’m ready. Let them fire away. The quicker the better.”

Judge Williams told him to stand up, and he arose deliberately. The Judge asked him if there was any legal reason why the judgment of the Court should not be pronounced, and a bold and loud “No” came from the prisoner.

He was asked to be sworn as to his bbirthplace, &c., but refused, saying: — “You have had all you want of me; now hang me.” He spoke in a threatening and ugly manner.

The murder was a most brutal one, and the verdict gives universal satisfaction.


Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1888

UTICA, N.Y., Feb. 9 — Clement Arthur Day was executed in utica jail at 10.24½ o’clock this morning in the presence of 24 citizens, including all the officials. He was declared dead in 11½ minutes. His neck was broken.

Before he left his cell he declared that he had nothing further to say to the public. On his knees, in the presence of the Rev. Owen, his spiritual adviser, he declared himself guiltless of premeditated murder.

Four drams of croton oil, sufficient to kill four men, were found in his cell within a week. His father declared he would never be executed.

Day clapped his hands after the death warrant was read, and smiled. On walking over the ice in the jail yard he laughed heartily over the falls of the sheriff, Rev. Owen, a newspaper reporter, and Special Deputy Burke, exclaiming: “That’s four of them.”

He yawned while his legs were being strapped on the scaffold. He shook hands and kissed Deputy Burke, and assisted Deputy Ballow in adjusting the rope about his neck. He smiled as the cap was drawn over his face, and the smile was still there when the body was cut down.

The crime for which Day was hanged was the murder of his paramour, Johanna Rosa Cross. The crime was committed on the banks of the Black River canal the 9th of last June. Day’s father, a lock tender, was the only witness of the tragedy.

Day was jealous of his mistress and feared she would leave him. She had tried many times to get his permission for her to visit her mother, but he always refused, saying she would never return.

The day before the tragedy she received a letter from her mother saying she was dying and asking the daughter to come to her her. She wrote a reply to the letter, and she and Day started down the bank of the canal towards Boonville, where they intended to mail it.

They had gone but a short distance when Day turned on her and struck her with a butcher knife. She fell and he continued cutting until eight distinct cuts were made, one of which entered the heart and another the abdomen.

The father informed the authorities of the crime, and after spending a day in the woods the murderer gave himself up.

In the interviews with him after his arrest not a particle of regret for what he ahd done could be drawn from him. He pretended to have been converted and to be penitent, but his conversation and instincts were vulgar and beastly to the end.

The condemned man passed the last night of his life on earth without displaying any nervousness. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy his violin, and sang and danced with the jail officials and others with apparent unconcern for his future until 12.30 this morning. He then went to bed and slept until 8.30.


Via Murder By Gaslight

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1888: Tsimequor, indigenous Snuneymuxw

Add comment December 12th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1888, Tsimequor, a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, was executed in Nanaimo, British Columbia for a bizarre murder that clashed Aboriginal and white Canadian cultures.

What happened is explained in Jeffrey Pfeifer and Ken Leyton-Brown’s book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The matter that brought Tsimequor to public attention arose out of a tribal custom designed to help members of the community better deal with grief following the death of a child. The custom dictated that when a child died, it was the practice for all other persons in the tribe who bore the same name to immediately change their names. In this way, relatives of the deceased child would be less likely to be reminded of their loss.

Tsimequor’s son Moses died in 1888 and, as per custom, all the Snuneymuxw who were named “Moses” changed their names to something else.

But there was one little boy in the community whose name was Moïse — “Moses” in French — and Tsimequor demanded that he change his name as well. The four-year-old’s parents refused, and days later somebody killed their son.

Had it been solely in the hands of the Snuneymuxw, the crime might have been forgiven. But to the Canadian legal authorities killing a four-year-old because of his name was unambiguously capital murder, and so Tsimequor was arrested and brought to trial. He maintained his innocence, but was convicted on November 7, 1888 and sentenced to death.

Pfeifer and Leyton-Brown record:

Surprisingly, there was considerable sympathy for Tsimequor expressed in the local newspaper, which pointed out that the crime had been committed “through superstition” and noting that Tsimequor had had no legal counsel to defend him at the trial. According to one newspaper report, “a sentence designed to educate Aboriginal people would be more appropriate.” There was however no doubt which tradition would be followed in this case.

Tsimequor was hanged in the Nanaimo Gaol five weeks after his trial.


Privy Council minutes determining that ‘law should be allowed to take its course’ with the hanging of the indigenous man Tsimequor in 1888

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1888: William Showers, “pathetic soul”

Add comment November 14th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1888, after a hearty breakfast of beefsteak, eggs, sweet potatoes and coffee, William Showers became the eighth man judicially hanged in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.

He had been condemned for the murder of his grandson, William “Willie” Kahler. An account of his trial and death, assembled by the Lebanon County Historical Society, describes the condemned man as he appeared on the day of his execution: “The aged Bill Showers [he was sixty-two] looked like what he was, a pathetic soul. He was only five feet two inches in height and weighed less than one hundred twenty-five pounds.”

Showers had been dealt a hard hand in life, and he didn’t have a good reputation among his neighbors in the village of Annville. Much to the shame of the family, his only daughter Sara had borne six children out of wedlock. Sara died young in 1886, and her father was left in charge of two of her children: six-year-old Willie Kahler and his brother, Samuel “Sammy” Speraw, age four. (What happened to the other four children has not been recorded.)

Bill Showers was a widower by then. For about six months, with the help of his son and his daughter-in-law, Showers did the best he could to provide a home for his grandsons.

But in April 1887, Showers’s son and his wife stopped helping him care for Willie and Sammy. Bill had never wanted the boys in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to feed them on his own.

For about a month the three of them lived alone and Bill tried to get someone to take the children off his hands. He tried a few different foster homes, but he couldn’t afford to pay the foster parents for the boys’ keep. He took them to an orphanage, but they were refused admission. The county almshouse rejected them also.

Bitter and desperate, Bill complained to a friend, “If no one will take them, I have one place to put them. I won’t be a damned fool and raise other people’s children.”

In mid-May, however, Showers’s normally sulky and reclusive attitude suddenly changed and he went to the neighbors and cheerfully announced that he had finally found another home for the children. Two brothers in Schuylkill County were willing to adopt them and take them to Texas to start a new life, and they would be out of Bill’s hair forever. Showers asked his daughter-in-law to mend the boys’ clothing in preparation for their journey.

Then, on May 17, he borrowed the local minister’s buggy and set off over the mountains to Sammy and Willie’s new adoptive home. A few of the neighbors noticed Showers riding out of town that morning. They also noticed that he was alone.

By May 30, the good citizens of Annville were suspicious enough to go to the local constable, Joseph Fegan. When Fegan questioned Showers as to the whereabouts of his grandchildren, Bill told them a most extraordinary story: on the way to Schuykill County, he said, he’d encountered two black men and asked them for directions.

He then stopped to water his horses, letting the children out of the buggy as he did so. When he returned to the wagon, Willie and Sammy were gone. He believed they’d been abducted by the two black men. But he never reported their disappearances, he said, because he was “too upset.”

No one believed this wild story, and the people of Annville organized search parties to look for the two children, whom they were sure had been murdered. They found their tiny, nearly naked bodies that very same day, in a ditch only about 70 yards from Showers’s house. They had both been beaten and strangled to death.

Showers was arrested, charged with murder and lodged in the county jail. Which was just as well for him, because his neighbors were inclined to lynch him. His son hired a very able local attorney, Frank Seltzer, to defend him. Seltzer selected Frank Lanz, a former state senator, as co-counsel.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the defendant only with the murder of Willie. The idea was that if they lost that case, they could go forward and try Showers for the murder of Sammy.

The trial date was in mid-June, and the first thing Showers’s attorneys did was move that it be delayed. As the Lebanon County Historial Society puts it:

Seltzer…had a different view of the situation. He rose and objected to the call of the case with a voice that could be heard in the county jail one-half block away. Promptly and resignedly, his tone of voice changed. As if explaining a baptismal font to a heathen, he told the judges that he and Senator Lantz had been retained for less than a week. Their request for a continuance was not made :in the spirit of vexatious delay” but rather for lack of time to prepare the case for trial and, of prime importance, the inability to have a fair trial in the county at the time in light of the prevailing rumors. Adverse pretrial publicity, pleaded Seltzer, rendered a fair trial impossible at this time.

[The prosecutor] Ehrgood replied to Seltzer that he had been given prompt notice he was going to press for immediate trial and Seltzer would have ample time to prepare, since it was only Monday and he would not be ready for trial until the following Thursday. This was a concession which Seltzer and Lantz hardly appreciated.

The judge agreed with the defense, and set a new trial date for September. This would give time for his lawyers to prepare, and maybe for the rumor mill to stop spinning. These were some of the stories floating around:

  • Seltzer murdered his wife in 1886.
  • He also killed his daughter Sara, Willie and Sammy’s mother.
  • He was in love with a local seamstress, Elizabeth Sargent, and killed his family members to get them out of the way so he could marry her.

The press didn’t help matters.

Headlines in the local papers included shockers like “Annville the Scene of a Murder Most Foul!” and “William Showers Dyes His Hands with His Grandchildren’s Blood!”

During the summer of 1887, Showers’s attorney, Seltzer, fell ill and was confined to bed, unable to assist with the defense. It seemed unlikely that the trial would really take place in September. Perhaps Showers couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, for on September 23 he summoned his sons Stephen and William Jr. to the jail, along with the lawyer Luther F. Houck.

Showers made an oral confession to all of them, speaking in his native German, and Houck wrote it down and translated it into English.

The substance of Showers’s confession was that Elizabeth Sargent had agreed to marry him on the condition that he got rid of the boys, and they had agreed to kill them. Elizabeth, he said, helped him strangle Willie and Sammy and dump their bodies in a pre-dug grave.

In court later that day, Showers pleaded guilty to both murders, and his confession was read out for everyone to hear. Elizabeth Sargent was in the audience and she leaped up and shouted, “That’s a lie!” The judge had her removed from the courtroom. The next day she and her parents took a train out of town. Because Showers had implicated her and the police weren’t sure as to whether she was involved in the children’s deaths, the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

The townspeople, however, didn’t believe Showers’s second story any more than they had his first one. They were convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence. She subsequently reappeared and presented an alibi, proving she had not been with Showers on the dates he specified in his statement.

When he heard the news about his client, Selzer rose from his sickbed and rushed to court to try to undo the damage. He begged the judge not to accept the guilty plea. In private, Showers told his attorney the confession was completely untrue and he made up the story because he’d been sick and weak, and people who visited him in jail told him he would be hanged if he didn’t own up to what he did.

Selzer’s argument persuaded the judge: Showers’s guilty plea was withdrawn. He finally went to trial on December 15, 1887.

He testified on his own behalf and gave yet another bizarre story, this time implicating a local man named George Matterness and his dead daughter Sara’s husband, a man named Huffnagle. He said Matterness and Hufnagle, along with two other men in blackface, had visited Showers’s home on the night of May 17 and lead Willie and Sammy out of the house. Matterness, Showers said, had later told him the children were buried in the ditch. Showers had told no one about this before because Hufnagle had repeatedly threatened his life.

The prosecution immediately called George Matterness as a rebuttal witness. Matterness, a teacher, freely admitted he knew Showers slightly, but said the whole story was a lie and he was baffled as to why the old man would have implicated him.

Given the circumstances, it’s surprising the jury actually deliberated till midnight and then on to 8:00 a.m. the next morning before pronouncing Showers guilty.

He told Seltzer, “I’m glad they didn’t find me innocent so they can’t go ahead and try me on the indictment for the murder of Sammy.” He expressed hope that he would prevail on appeal, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied him and the governor quickly issued a death warrant.

Three hundred people were allowed into the prison courtyard to witness the execution. Thousands more clogged the streets around the jail into a “solid mass of morbid minded humanity bent on seeing Bill Showers tripped into endless time.”

The morbid mass got its wish. The small, slight man fell only three feet, and his neck was not broken. He strangled slowly for seventeen minutes.

As Showers’s sons all refused to take custody of the body, he was buried on the grounds of the county almshouse. This was the same institution that had refused to accept his grandsons, an act that would have saved their lives.

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1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

5 comments July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Animals,Borderline "Executions",Electrocuted,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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