1890: Elizabeth and Josiah Potts, wife and husband

Add comment June 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1890, an affectionate married couple hanged together in Elko, Nevada, for a murder they insisted they had not authored.

We obtain this headline and the associated (nationally circulated) story from the San Diego Union of June 26, 1890.

[Associated Press Dispatches.]

ELKO, Nev., June 20. — Elko is in a ferment of excitement, many parties pouring in to witness the execution of the Potts family for the murder of Miles Fawcett in January, 1888. Over sixteen women have already applied for permits to witness the execution, which were refused.

The conduct of Mrs. Potts during the past five days has been an alternation of hysterical crying, screaming and swearing at her husband, who mopes the time away in solitude. Yesterday morning at 5 o’clock she attempted to commit suicide, gashing her wrists and trying to smother herself. The vigilance of the death watch prevented further injury but she fainted from loss of blood. Both the Potts retired early last night in a nervous condition.

At 10:30 o’clock the Sheriff read the death-warrants to Josiah and Elizabeth Potts. The reading of the warrant took place in the doorway of the latticed cell, which Josiah has occupied for so long a period.

He stood in a despondent attitude, with his head bowed down against the iron bars, and not once during the reading of the warrant did he lift his head. His wife stood erect, clad in a neat muslin suit draped in black, with a red rose in her bodice. She was pale, but with a most determined aspect in every feature. During the reading of her own warrant only once did she show any emotion whatever, and she convulsively clutched her throat when her husband’s was being read, and when the words “hanged by the neck till you are dead” were reached, she gave a hysterical gasp and seemed to exhibit much feeling.

The reading of the warrants was finished at 10:30, and both the condemned people emerged from the jail, where they had been confined for eighteen months, and proceeded outside the door to the yard between the Courthouse and jail, in which the scaffold had been erected. The sunshine relieved in a measure the gruesome surroundings. During the readings of the warrants, and evidently owing to the intense nervous strain on every one, a Deputy Sheriff was so overcome that he had to call for a glass of water.

At the conclusion of the reading Mrs. Potts earnestly ejaculated:

I AM INNOCENT AND GOD KNOWS IT,

and Josiah Potts reiterated, “God knows we are innocent.” The gloomy procession led the way through a side door and with a bravery unexpected by the sixty-odd spectators, the condemned couple seated themselves on stools provided on the scaffold, while the deputies speedily proceeded to bind them with leather straps, Mrs. Potts helping to adjust them herself while Potts sat through it all in stolidity.

When everything had been properly adjusted, they were directed to rise and all of the attendants shook hands with the condemned unfortunates. The attendants held the strap attached to Mrs. Potts’ manacled wrists and Potts made several most earnest endeavors to clasp the hands of his wife but without accomplishing it. Finally a touch on her wrist caused her to turn her eyes toward his and a mute appeal of love caused their lips to meet. As the rope was stretched around Mrs. Potts’ neck she clasped her hands together, and lifting her eyes towards the sky, exclaimed “God help me; I am innocent.”

Her husband reiterated in a hollow tone, “God knows we are innocent,” as the black caps were drawn over their heads.

The words of the clergyman who had remained with them to the last broke the silence by saying: “Put your trust in God and He will see you righted,” and then the drop fell. Instantaneously,

MRS. POTTS WAS A CORPSE,

owing to her heavy weight. Her flacid [sic] flesh caused a rupture of the carotid artery and a stream of blood burst forth from under the chin of the dead woman, staining her white raiment. To the great surprise of all who had seen Potts’ emaciated condition his vitality was great, it being a fraction over fourteen minutes, as counted by the Associated Press reporter, before life was pronounced extinct by Drs. Meiggs and Petty.

At 11:08 the body of Mrs. Potts was cut down when it was seen that her excessive weight on the five foot and a half drop had almost dissevered her head from the trunk, the muscles in the back of her neck alone supporting the connection.

About nine minutes later Josiah Potts’ body was cut down and the body of himself and wife, in the absence of any claiming friends, were deposited in the potter’s field of the Elko grave yard half an hour later.

After the interment of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Potts, District Attorney Love, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter, placed in the potter’s field all the remains of the murdered Fawcett known to exist above the earth. The box of bones had been in the District Attorney’s office at the Courthouse from the time when he first started to search for the criminals.

THE CRIME

for which the couple was executed was the murder of Miles Fawcett, 70 years of age, at Carlin, January 1st, 1888, because he insisted on being paid some money due from Potts. He visited Potts and this was the last seen of him until his dead body was discovered some months after by a person who rented the house formerly occupied by Potts.


That’s the end of the Union article.

Despite the incriminating circumstances of Mr. Fawcett’s disappearance, many people found the Potts’s insistence upon their innocence persuasive … especially after a last message from Elizabeth Potts reached public ears.


Laramie (Wyoming) Daily Boomerang, June 24, 1624.

Innocent or guilty, Elizabeth Potts remains the first, last, and only woman ever legally executed in Nevada. As of this writing (mid-2018) the Silver State has not had any woman on death row since Priscilla Joyce Ford died in 2005.

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1890: Three hangings in Louisiana

1 comment January 17th, 2018 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 18, 1890:

CLINTON, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At 1:15 this afternoon the witnesses summoned by the sheriff proceeded to the jailyard where the scaffold had been erected. A few minutes later Charles and Isaiah Dent were led from their cells and up the steps to the platform, which overlooked a space where quite a large crowd had gathered outside the inclosure around the jail.

Both men walked firmly, Isaiah showing throughout wonderful nerve, and Charles, though a little shaky, apparently ready to meet his fate without quailing.

When they first reached the platform they seemed to be praying half audibly. While Sheriff Woodward read the death warrant both men looked about them, seemingly not more concerned than if they were only disinterested spectators of the scene. Charles Dent nodded his head assentingly each time the officer paused in his reading.

At the end of a sentence Sheriff Woodward asked them if they wished to say anything. Isaiah said, “I want to speak to them people,” indicating the crowd on the outside. “Friends and foes,” he said in a clear voice, “let this be a warning to all; don’t do like Isaiah.” After a pause he continued, “My home will be in heaven.”

When he had ceased Charles said, “Charles Dent, the same. If I hadn’t went down the road this wouldn’t have happened, but I didn’t do no shooting.”

The black caps were drawn over the heads of the doomed men. The rope that supported the trap was cut and the two fell together a distance of about 8 feet. Their necks were both broken and their agony was soon over, the pulse of Isaiah ceasing to beat within 3 minutes and all signs of life being extinct in Charles in 12 minutes.

Everything connected with the execution was skillfully arranged and quickly and smoothly carried out by the sheriff and his efficient deputies.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRIME

for which Isaiah and Charles Dent were executed were as follows:

Herman Praetorius, a German merchant and farmer living at Ethel, on the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, had been furnishing supplies to the Dent brothers. Along in the summer some cause of disagreement arose and ill-feeling between the merchant and his customers became intense and the relationship between them, as such, came to an end.

Late in the afternoon on Monday, July 1, of last year, while Praetorius was returning from a visit to a plantation several miles from home, he had occasion to pass near where the Dent brothers live. Evidence on the trial showed that as he came into the public road by a bypath Charles and Isaiah Dent, two brothers, and a brother-in-law of theirs were standing a short distance up the road, in an opposite direction from that in which he was going, and that they called to him and he turned and rode back to where they were standing. Some loud words were heard and Praetorius was seen to turn to ride away from the party of negroes, who were armed and making angry demonstrations. Just as he was riding away Charles and Isaiah Dent were seen to raise their shotguns, the reports of which were heard, and Praetorius fell from his horse, shot to death. His murderers fled, Charles and Isaiah escaping to Pointe Coupee parish, the other three participants, David and Clark Dent and Frank Cooper, being subsequently arrested and placed in jail in Clinton.

After some time Charles and Isaiah Dent were

APPREHENDED IN POINTE COUPEE

and likewise lodged in jail in Clinton. Public indignation was at a fever heat and an ineffectual effort was made to hang the two principal murderers by the processes of Judge Lynch’s court. For greater security the two prisoners were taken to New Orleans and confined in the parish prison until the next term of court, which met in September.

The grand jury promptly indicted the five men for murder.

The attorneys for the Dents, Messrs. E.T. Merrick, Jr., of New Orleans, and Judge J.G. Kilbourne of Clinton, filed a motion for a change of venue, which was overruled by the court.

THE TRIAL

excited a great deal of interest and occupied several days. The result was a verdict of guilty, without qualification, as to Charles and Isaiah Dent, which consigned them to the gallows.

Frank Cooper went to the penitentiary for life and Clark and David Dent for lesser terms.

The condemned men have since their arrest steadfastly maintained that the killing of Praetorius was done in self-defense, though the testimony of eye-witnesses to the contrary was irrefutable. Isaiah has taken his fate philosophically, and seemed resigned from the time he learned the decision of the district court had been affirmed by the supreme court, to which an appeal had been taken, but his brother Charles has taken the matter much harder.

James Holcombe’s Crime.

BONNET CARRE P.O., St. John the Baptist Parish, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At dusk of day, Nov. 12, 1888, as James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise were returning from Waguespack’s plantation, where they were employed, they met Madeleine Will, a pretty colored girl, on the railroad track back of Angelina plantation in this parish. Holcombe on seeing her whispered a few words to Ambroise and advancing toward Madeleine began a conversation with her. A few minutes after Ambroise, who was a short distance away, heard a shot fired, and thinking it was intended for him ran off. In his flight he was met by young Brignac, to whom he related the story, and as Brignac came to the spot he found Madeleine Will gasping her life away, whilst Holcombe was reclining over her body.

Brignac ran to the neighbors and related what he had seen, but when they came to the spot Madeleine Will was dead and James Holcombe had disappeared.

The next day the coroner held an inquest over the body and the jury found that

MADELEINE WILL CAME TO HER DEATH

from a gunshot wound inflicted by James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise.

On the 14th of November, 1888, the accused were arrested and committed to jail without the benefit of bail.

Seven months after, on the 5th of June 1889, the grand jury then in session found a true bill of murder against both Holcombe and Ambroise. On motion of District Attorney Leche their case was then fixed for June 14, 1889.

In the meanwhile the dastardly deed had created so much excitement that two of our most prominent citizens took steps towards raising a fund to aid in the prosecution of the case.

On the day fixed for the trial the case was continued to the 15th of June, 1889, when it was regularly taken up and proceeded with.

THE STATE

was represented by Judge Gervais Leche of St. John and Chas. A. Baquie of St. Charles. Ambroise was represented by H.N. Gantier of Jefferson, and James Holcombe having no means to employ counsel, the court appointed P.E. Edrington to take charge of his case.

After a little trouble the following jury, composed of four white and eight colored men, were impaneled: Paul Webre, Jefferson Coleman, Valery Barre, Felicien Landeche, Firmin Clement, Theo. Haydel, Felix Martin, Joseph Sandez, Francois Mathieu, Alfred Vicksnair, Gustave Delonde and Bernard Orbien.

After the state had heard from four of its witnesses it was evident that it would fail in its case, as the evidence was circumstantial and not of a nature to convict, so District Attorney Leche abandoned the state’s case against Emile Ambroise and placed him on the witness stand.

THE GUILT OF JAMES HOLCOMBE

was then clearly proven.

The case was submitted without argument, and after hearing the judge’s charge the jury retired to their room, when in fifteen minutes they returned a verdict of guilty against James Holcombe as charged and not guilty as to Emile Ambroise.

On the 20th of June, 1889, counsel for Holcombe made a motion for a new trial, which was heard on the day following and the motion denied by the court. On the same day a suspensive appeal to the supreme court was granted, and that ribunal on the 13th of December, 1889, affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

On Jan. 6, 1890, the governor fixed the day of execution to be on Friday, Jan. 17, 1890.

James Holcombe was a thick set negro of the true African type, 5 feet 4 inches tall, weight 155 pounds, and 21 years old. He had taken everything philosophically so far, and it was only to-day that he evinced some uneasiness. Charitably disposed persons frequently sent him delicacies, such as champagne, fruits and cakes, all of which he seemed to relish, but his favorite dish was ham and rice, cooked together.

THE EXECUTION

took place yesterday at the courthouse. James Holcombe spent his last night on earth in an apparently comfortable manner, although he would accept of no nourishment, on this, the last day of his existence.

To questions propounded by your correspondent, his answers were that he was reconciled to his God, and willing to meet his fate.

When dressed for the scaffold the greatest coolness was shown, helping his minister to dress him. His march on the scaffold was firm and in his farewell address to the fifteen witnesses present he reiterated his innocence, saying that the God who was to receive his soul this day would in the close hereafter receive the soul of the party who committed the crime.

At 12:17 p.m. the black cap was adjusted and after prayers offered by the Rev. Baily Lee the trap was sprung, his neck was broken and death was instantaneous.

The rope was cut down at 12:49 p.m. and his body delivered into the hands of the parents of the condemned at his own request.

Credit is due to our efficient sheriff and his able deputies for the manner in which the execution was performed.

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1890: Edward Gallagher, “none of your damned business!”

Add comment July 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1890, thrashing in panicked resistance, Edward Gallagher hanged in Vancouver, Wash.

Louis Mar, an aged and solitary farmer who was known to carry large sums of cash on him, had been found in November 1889 shot dead outside his home — which had also been ransacked but to little effect. (Thousands of dollars were discovered tucked into the house’s nooks and crannies that the assailant(s) had overlooked.) A discarded scrap of a newspaper proved to match the edition Gallagher himself was carrying when detained lurking around the Mar place a few days later.

1890 was the year that America’s the western frontier officially closed, but the grueling life in its Cascade Mountain vestiges in the 1880s had taken a toll on the Chicago-born murderer. The Portland Oregonian (July 6, 1890) noted that he “is 24 years old, but looks to be over 30.” On top of that, he nearly burned to death awaiting trial in jail when Vancouver’s courthouse went up in flames in February of 1890.

Gallagher might very well have been non compos mentis, and it is not a mark in favor of his sanity that he elected to defend himself by agreeing that he pulled the trigger, but arguing that it had been done in self-defense … while on Mar’s land … and prior to burgling Mar’s house … with a mystery accomplice whom he refused to name.

As much as the circumstances implied a cold-blooded killing, Gallagher’s erratic behavior, disjointed nonsense story of the crime, and inexplicable confidence in his pardon all struck many observers as the mark of a genuinely unbalanced man.

“Gallagher does not seem to comprehend his fate,” the Oregonian puzzled. “One would be in a quandary to decide whether he was insane or lacked brains to comprehend the enormity of his crime.”

He maintained that incomprehension all the way to the gallows platform. As a fascinating 2013 retrospective in the Vancouver Columbian described it,

didn’t believe he would die that day — despite the bloodthirsty crowd before him, the $225 spent on his execution, the lawmen flanking his left and right.

Instead, with a “slickly idiotic smile,” he apologized to the audience for his appearance and promised he would do better next time. He said “the soldiers” would save him.

Reality struck when his hands were bound. For three maniacal minutes, Gallagher swung his arms and kicked violently, knocking over the sheriff and his helpers. Seven men finally subdued him.

The death warrant was read, a black hood pulled over Gallagher’s head and the noose tightened. Sheriff [M.J.] Fleming, who was paid $50 for the deed, gave the condemned man one more chance to confess to killing and robbing Lewis Marr, an old farmer found dead on his land in the Lower Cascades area of Skamania County.

“Did you kill that man, or did you not? Now, answer,” the sheriff said, according to newspaper accounts.

From beneath the black hood, Gallagher sneered his last words: “None of your damned business.”

His egregious death was witnessed by 200 official ticket-holding invitees, but the wooden stockade nominally enclosing the gallows was easily peered through or over … so another 500 people outside the stockade also peeped on the de facto public execution.

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1890: A quadruple hanging in Jim Crow America

Add comment June 24th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Close to midnight on this date in 1890, four convicted murderers — three of them black and one white — were hanged on the gallows inside the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. They were Edward Carr, 28, Parker Harris, 30, Hardy Ballard, 45, and Frank Brenish, 36.

Carr, who was half-black, had murdered his estranged wife Sallie in broad daylight on the street in Memphis on November 9, 1889. Edward Carr wanted to move to Mississippi and Sallie did not, and she had left him and moved in with a woman friend. When Edward saw his wife and her friend walking down the street, he said, “Sallie, I am going to kill you,” and then shot her.

She ran away, but he chased after her and shot her three more times. Sallie Carr died in her friend’s arms.

Edward surrendered to the police three days later, and his lawyer had to persuade him not to plead guilty to murder.

At his trial he said, “I do not know why I killed her. It was not because she offended me. We had lived happily together … I loved her so well, and she would not go with me.” Offering no defense, he was accordingly convicted on December 17, six weeks after his crime.

Harris had also killed his wife, Letha “Lettie” Harris, on the street in front of witnesses. Lettie was an “octoroon”, a now-outdated term for someone who is of mixed race and one-eighth black, seven-eighths white.

Like the Carrs, the Harrises were estranged and Lettie was living apart from her husband. On August 18, 1889, said husband encountered her riding in a buggy with several women and asked her to come home; Lettie replied that she never wanted to speak to him again.

In response, Parker Harris slashed her throat, then his own. He was able to run from the scene but collapsed several blocks away, weak from blood loss. He recovered sufficiently from his wounds to face trial; he too was easily convicted.

Hardy Ballard had killed a streetcar driver, G. Emmett Pinkston, on Christmas Day 1889 after an argument over the nickel fare. Ballard insisted he had paid; Pinkston said he hadn’t, and kicked him off the car. Both parties were armed in the ensuing fight, Ballard with a knife and Pinkston with an iron hook, and Ballard got the better of the streetcar driver and stabbed him to death.

His plea of self-defense at trial was not believed by the jury.

The sole white man, Frank Brenish, was a wife killer just like two of his co-condemned. Mary, his wife of two years, had left him because of his drinking and his failure to support her and his two stepchildren. Frank threatened to kill his wife if she didn’t come back to him, and Mary took these threats seriously enough to report them to the police. The cops had a talk with Frank and he promised to leave his wife alone.

Mary remained fearful, however, and when she went out she took her fourteen-year-old daughter, her sister and another man to protect her in case she encountered her husband. They were with her the night the murder was committed: they saw the whole thing.

Frank Brenish’s crime was so similar to Parker Harris’s that there was some speculation the two might have a joint trial: on July 5, 1889 he jumped out of a dark alley and slashed Mary’s throat, nearly decapitating her. Then he cut his own throat. Against the odds, a doctor was able to save Frank’s life, but Mary was beyond help: she had died almost instantly.

All four of the condemned were given copious amounts of alcohol while awaiting their execution, and Brenish got morphine as well. The wound on his throat hadn’t healed and it leaked from time to time. The night before his executed, he made a halfhearted attempt at suicide by slashing his wrist with a makeshift knife.

This was the era of racial apartheid in America, however, and even when men died together, they perhaps might not die together.

The gallows in this instance was built for two, so the natural idea was to hang the four men as two pairs.

Brenish, however, refused to suffer the indignity of being hanged alongside a Negro.

His jailers — and one hardly needs to mention their racial identity — honored his request for a segregated execution and modified the gallows so three people could be hanged at once.

The three black prisoners went first. Brenish died alone, fifteen minutes later. Harris, Ballard and Carr had “clean” hangings and died quickly, after making the usual final statements about their sins and their hope for redemption in Heaven.

When the time came for his racially unsullied death, Brenish was either so drunk or so scared he could barely stand, and he took several more swallows of whiskey while standing on the scaffold. He had severed his trachea when he slashed his throat and could only barely speak above a whisper. When he was asked for a final statement, the best he could come up with was, “They oughtn’t to hang a man when he ain’t in his right mind.”

It often happens that, when a person’s throat was previously cut, the wound will re-open during hanging. This didn’t happen to Harris, but it sure did during Brenish’s execution. Lewis Laska in Legal Executions in Tennessee: A Comprehensive Registry, 1782-2009 has a graphic description of what happened:

The officers had difficulty in placing the handcuffs because of his bandaged wrist. Blood trickled down his white gloves. With the noose and cap placed, he swayed to and fro and had to be held. When the lever was pulled and he dropped there was a pop (his neck was broken) and a hissing sound. The drop had opened the hole in his throat from the attempted suicide on the night of the killing. The hole was large enough to hold a cigar. As he hung, his wrist wound bled profusely.

Gruesome as his death may have appeared, though, Brenish didn’t suffer long. His heart stopped in less than a minute.

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1891: William Rose

Add comment October 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1891, William Rose was hanged — and, when the rope snapped, hauled back up and hanged again — for murdering his feuding neighbor Moses Lufkin in Redwood County, Minn.

The scaffold botch was an apt conclusion to a deeply controversial case. Two juries hung (both leaning towards acquittal) before a third trial finally convicted Rose with the help of new eyewitness testimony that wouldn’t inspire much confidence now — and didn’t even back then.

Lufkin had been shot through a window at night — this is according to that questionable eyewitness testimony — by an unknown assailant who then fled. Connecting Rose to the murder required stitching together circumstances: Rose’s known hatred for Lufkin; the want of an alibi; the fact that he’d recently bought some ammunition. Rose protested his innocence from start to finish, and many people believed him.

In a letter published by the St. Paul Weekly Pioneer Press on Oct. 15, Rose accused that very witness of the murder: Lufkin, who was loathed by many besides Rose, had been living with the witness; said witness also knew Lufkin had cash on hand from a pension payment and the sale of his farm. Rose even repeated this accusation at the gallows.

The contentious proceeding — “one of the most remarkable cases known in the history of the State of Minnesota,” in the words of one contemporaneous report* — has been revived for a present-day audience in Patricia Lubeck’s new book, Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice. Lubeck and her friend and research assistant Michelle Gatz combed through original trial transcripts and newspaper coverage, and it left the author “pretty sure that William Rose didn’t do.”

Lubeck (author website) is the curator of Redwood County Museum, which still preserves the jail cell where Rose spent his last night on earth. She was gracious enough to share her research with Executed Today. (Other interviews with Ms. Lubeck are here and here.)


Patricia Lubeck. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Lubeck.)

Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice book coverET: First off, how did you come by this story and what made you decide to devote a whole book to it?

PL: Kind of by a fluke. I came across it at the Minnesota History Center; I was helping my friend research.

When I worked at Yellow Medicine County, I researched the first man hanged in that county and became interested in early crime in southwestern Minnesota. At one point, the archivist at the Minnesota History Center brought out several boxes of court transcripts from trials. I was perusing through several cases when I came across the Lufkin vs. Rose case, and it looked very interesting.

So, William Rose and Moses Lufkin were neighbors and foes. What was the nature of their enmity — how did it get started?

They were two families who settled in southwest part of Minnesota in the late 1800s and they were friendly neighbors in the beginning. But soon petty differences arose, and the quarreling increased in bitterness from year to year.

Then a new element came into the picture when William Rose fell in love with Lufkin’s beautiful daughter Grace, and her father put a stop to the romance. This sparked the feud and lawsuits.

I think because of that feud, when Lufkin was murdered, the community kind of thought that maybe Rose did it.

The problem of the dicey sufficiency of the evidence was at the heart of the case at the time — in trial, on appeal, in the court of public opinion. Does this case have any lessons for thinking about the wrongful-conviction phenomenon here in the 21st century? Or what else do you hope the reader will take away from your book?

I guess I was just really outraged by what William Rose went through, and I felt like I was the voice for Rose. This is a story that not many people know about; it was not just a cut-and-dried case and there were a lot of factors involved. I just want people to know that there were many other possible suspects that could have done it, but that he, Rose, was the one who paid for the crime.

And I still feel that somebody has the missing piece, and somebody may come forward to exonerate Rose. I would like anyone who has information about this case to contact me by mail at: Box 52, Belview, MN 56214.

They had to try him three times to get the conviction, and the case was unusually protracted and controversial. Was there any legal chicanery involved in accomplishing the guilty verdict? By the standards of the time were there any areas where the courts clearly dropped the ball legally?

Another man who lingered alone [after Rose’s funeral] was ol’ man Slover … [who] proclaimed to those still standing at the gravesite, “Gentlemen, this is awful.”

“It certainly is,” replied [Rose’s friend] John [Averill]. “Are you sure you’ve got the right man?”

Slover replied, “I don’t know, John, but I hope so.”

-from Murder in Gales

The difference in the third trial was that Eli Slover came forward and said he was sure that it was William Rose who shot the gun. He had testified at the previous two trials that he wasn’t sure at all … and the shooter was someone he supposedly saw from the back, in the dark, so how would he be sure?

The prosecutor, Michael Madigan, was suspected of meeting with certain witnesses prior to their testimony; coaxing them and possibly even bribing them to give the testimony he wanted in order to bring in a conviction against Rose. I think that the prosecutor wanted to bring in a guilty verdict, and he persuaded Eli Slover to say that William Rose was the one that he saw that night, running away. Later on, this prosecutor got in trouble himself. He went to prison and got disbarred for perjury in 1893.

William Rose on the gallows accused Slover by name as the murderer; Lufkin had moved in with the Slovers and recently sold his farm, so the Slovers knew he had cash on him. He [Slover] is one of a number of other possible suspects I list in the book. This Lufkin guy was a bad man; he himself always stated he would die a violent death.

But at the time that William Rose was facing his trials, there was another murder that happened around the same time period in Redwood County — Clifton Holden, who killed Frank Dodge. People were shocked to have two murders in their midst, after having had a couple of other homicides in the recent past,** and there was a danger that Holden and Rose could have been lynched. At the time, the press and public sentiment cried out for a conviction, and the county was becoming burdened by the costs of trials and so a guilty verdict was found. Holden was also sentenced to hang, but at the 11th hour, Gov. Merriam reduced the sentence to life in prison.


Although memory of these sad events have faded, they were talked-about in the area for years after William Rose’s hanging. “Time and again,” said one newspaper account Lubeck quoted, “has some cute individual started the story that Will Rose was innocent.” There were even confused local rumors that Slover had made a deathbed confession from his later residence in Oregon.

“These events brought home to the people of Minnesota the the truth that the prevailing system during the 1800s, of executing criminals, was radically, morally, and terribly wrong,” Lubeck argues.

William Rose was the only person ever executed in Redwood County. Minnesota abolished the death penalty full stop in 1911.

* St. Paul (Minn.) Daily News, Oct. 15, 1891

** The Marshall (Minn.) News Messenger harrumphed on Nov. 30, 1888, shortly after Rose’s avoided conviction in his first trial, “Redwood County had its fourth murder in two years, and we know of no other county where a murderer may so easily escape, even by going through the court system of Redwood.

“The Alexander murder, premeditated, easily escaped. The Gorres murder only got 6 years for manslaughter, about what a small thief would receive; the Rose murder resulted in acquittal. And now Clifton Holden has murdered a fourth victim.

“Meanwhile the taxpayers are being grieveously burdened with taxation for all these murder trials.”

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1890: Otto Leuth

1 comment August 29th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing of the murder in his book The Corpse in the Cellar: And Further Tales of Cleveland Woe, noted how familiar the case sounds to modern ears:

[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.

Yet it happened over a century ago.

Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she

went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.

It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”

On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.


Otto (top) and his victim.

That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.

Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”

Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.

But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.

Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.

In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.

Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.

On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.

In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.

She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.

The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.

Bellamy records:

The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”

Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.

Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.

Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.

Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.

Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.

Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.

Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.

Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.

The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.

Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.

It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.

Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.

Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Torture,USA

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1890: Major Panitza, by Stefan Stambolov

Add comment June 28th, 2010 Headsman

Sophia, June 28, 1890

With reference to my telegram of this day’s date, I have the honour to report that this morning Major Panitza was conducted from his place of confinement in town to the camp of Bali Effendi, close to Sophia, where the troops are quartered for the summer, and in presence of the whole brigade drawn up in military file he was shot by a peloton of twenty-four soldiers.

Major Panitza fell uttering the cry, “Long live Bulgaria.”

After the execution, Major Marinoff, the Commandant of the Sophia garrison, addressed a short speech to the troops, in which he said that Major Panitza had met his death in just punishment for treason against his Prince and country, and that a similar fate would be dealt out to whosoever should prove a traitor to the interests of the Fatherland.

The troops maintained a perfectly impassive attitude throughout the proceedings, and the execution of the condemned in the presence of the garrison shows that the Government wished to make an example which should be a warning to the officers to refrain from the political intrigues that had during the last few years become so prevalent, and that were dangerously undermining the discipline and loyalty of the army.

British and foreign state papers, vol. 83

Having recently gained independence by backing its Slavic brethren against its longtime Ottoman master in the Russo-Turkish War, Bulgaria was enjoying all the perquisites of being a minor power pressed between major powers.

The leading concern of its able, authoritarian, and justifiably paranoid leader* Stefan Stambolov — “the only Prime Minister in Europe who receives his visitors with a revolver lying next to the ink-stand on his desk,” in the New York Times’ description — was the interest of Bulgaria’s “benefactors” in St. Petersburg in turning this breakaway Ottoman province into an ever more pliant Russian instrument.

Whether it was the coreligionists or their coin who inspired it, many in Bulgaria felt sincere loyalty to Russia; in an age of empires, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable statecraft to opt for the security of dependency.

With that object in mind, Major Panitza hatched a dangerous plot to overturn the Bulgarian government. His plot conjured an equally dangerous reprisal from Stambolov — who was determined to keep as much independence as Bulgaria could sustain.

Despite fairly widespread sympathy in the army and the populace for Panitza’s plot, and of course in the face of entreaties of Russia, Stambolov had the execution carried out with impolitic dispatch just weeks after the court-martial did its work.**

Many outside of Bulgaria saw statesmanlike quality in Stambolov, but his severe rule exemplified by his unpopular ruthlessness towards Major Panitza made him many enemies at home. Stambolov was himself assassinated shortly after resigning from government in 1895, and his corpse abused en route to its resting place.

* Generally transliterated “Stambouloff” or “Stambuloff” during his own lifetime, this gentleman got control of the state by mounting a counter-coup against a Russian putsch. Since the Russians still succeeded in definitively dethroning the sitting Bulgarian king, Stambolov’s hand alone guided the unsteady Bulgarian ship of state for a time.

Stambolov eventually installed an Austro-Hungarian noble as Prince Ferdinand I (the two came to hate each other). Later titled “tsar”, Ferdinand was the grandfather of Simeon II, who achieved the unusual distinction of becoming Prime Minister of Bulgaria through democratic election in 2001.

** Panitza’s co-conspirators got various prison terms, including the former Commandant of the Sofia garrison, a gentleman sporting the Strangelovian moniker Lieutenant-Colonel Kissoff.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1890: William Kemmler, only in America

27 comments August 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1890 the iconic symbol of the American death penalty made its grisly debut upon the person of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison.

The long New World tradition of hanging condemned prisoners came under fire as a barbarism in the late 19th century, leading reformers to look for killing procedures less likely to result in a horrendously protracted strangulation or a midair decapitation. As Empire State Governor David Hill put it,

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner.

On this stage, Executed Today presents a rogues’ gallery of homo Americanus, the salesmen and swindlers who would help the U.S.A. ride the lightning.

The Dentist

A true renaissance man, Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Southwick, applied his active mind to the need to better kill a fellow, and soon hit upon an inspiration — that is to say, a town drunk hit upon an electrical generator and died instantaneously, and the observant Southwick said “eureka!”

Without the subsequent industry of this neglected gentleman, who added to his repertoire scientifically-minded electrical butchery of animals alongside political gladhandings to bring a flutter to a busybody’s heart, the Chair’s entire oeuvre of machismo-sadism might have missed the country altogether. Just imagine living in a world where New York had pioneered its other leading reform alternative: lethal injection.

(This, incidentally, is why the chair is a chair, and not a bed or a stake or a St. Andrew’s Cross: because the guy who thought of it spent all day administering his own tender mercies to seated penitents.)

The Plutocrats

As Southwick nagged his senator and shocked stray cats into the great hereafter, the gears of commerce strove relentlessly ever-onward. The business of America was ever business, and never more so than the Gilded Age.

And the business of killing people was about to become the biggest business there was.

The age of electricity was buzzing into incandescence, and two rival standards were at currents amped over eventual dominance of this stupendous industry. Thomas Edison’s earlier Direct Current (DC) standard was being challenged by Nikolai Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC), backed by the financial muscle of George Westinghouse.

Cheaper and more efficient, AC tilted the playing field against Edison. Seeing his days numbered, the Wizard of Menlo Park fought back the way any dinosaur industry would: dirty.

AC, Edison said, was too dangerous for consumer use — a lurking killer. “Is this what your wife should be cooking with?” And he started taking up traveling road shows zapping large animals with AC to demonstrate the rival product’s deadliness. (This press coined the term “electrocution” from these spectacles.)

This clip of the electric demise of a circus elephant — don’t hit “play” if you’re not up for animal cruelty — is from some years later (Edison kept tilting at windmills and megafauna carcasses as his DC empire disappeared), but it’ll give a sense of the horrifying spectacle.

(Topsy, it should be noted, was being put down as a danger and not strictly for kicks.)

Elephants? Horses? Dogs?

How about a human?

With the New York legislature’s embrace of Southwick’s seated voltage people-eater, Edison turned his PR gears on the state, demanding they adopt his competitor’s “deadlier” current for the contraption. And they did, reflecting a widespread belief inculcated by Edison’s experiments — as this New York Times article on an Edison crony’s public livestock-killing show in the days leading up to the advent of the electrocution law indicates:

The experiments proved the alternating current to be the most deadly force known to science, and that less than half the pressure used in this city for electric lighting by this system is sufficient to cause instant death.

After Jan. 1 the alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this State.

Too bad for Edison that the business he was really trying to kill was made of sturdier stuff.

The Alcoholic Vegetable Merchant

As the 1880’s wane, we come at last to our subject — in several senses of the term — an illiterate nobody of German stock who chanced to kill his common-law wife with just the right timing to join in a new kind of experiment.

William Kemmler mounted a “cruel and unusual punishment” appeal against his sentence funded by Westinghouse himself: no dice. Perhaps appreciating the odd foothold on history he was about to attain, he showed little worry as he entered the execution room and sat himself — “undoubtedly the coolest man in the room,” a journalist present reported.

The End of the Beginning

That reporter’s description for the New York Herald graphically captures humanity’s first horrible encounter with this “humanitarian” machine, beginning with the prisoner’s parting remarks.*

Doubtless he knew that his words will go down in history and he had his lesson well learned. He addressed his audience [in] a commonplace way and without hesitation.

“Well, gentleman, I wish everyone good luck in this world, and I think I am going to a good place, and the papers have been sa[yi]ng a lot of stuff that isn’t so. That’s all I have to say.”

And so with a parting shot at what he was good enough to refer to not long ago as “those d—d reporters,” William Kemmler took his leave of earth. The quiet demeanor of the man as he entered had made a strong impression on those in the room. His self-possession after his oratorical effort simply amazed them. He got up out of his chair as though he were anxious to try the experiment, not as though he courted death, but as though he was thoroughly prepared for it. …

There was no delay. Kemmler constantly encouraged the workers at the straps with “Take your time; don’t be in a hurry; do it well; be sure everything is all right.” He did not speak with any nervous apprehension.

Warden Durston leaned over, drawing the buckle of the straps about the arm. “It won’t hurt you, Bill,” he said, “I’ll be with you all the time.”

A minute later Kemmler said, “There’s plenty of time.” He said it as calmly as the conductor of a streetcar might have encouraged a passenger not to hurry.

Kemmler was pinioned so close that he could hardly have moved a muscle except those of his mouth.

The Warden took a last look at the straps. “This is all right,” he said.

“All right,” said Dr. Spitzka, and then bent over and said, “God bless you, Kemmler.”

“Thank you,” said the little man, quietly.

“Ready?” Said the Warden.

“Ready,” answered the doctors.

“Goodbye,” said the Warden to Kemmler. There was no response.

GAVE THE SIGNAL.

The Warden stepped to the door leading into the next room. It was then forty-three and one-half minutes past six o’clock by the prison clock. “Everything is ready,” said the Warden to some one hidden from view in the next room.

The answer came like a flash in the sudden convulsion that went over the frame of the chair. If it seemed rigid before under the influence of the straps, [it] was doubly so now has it strained against them.

The seconds ticked off. Dr. McDonald, who was holding the stopwatch, said “Stop.”

Two voices near him echoed, “Stop.”

The Warden stepped to the door of the next room and repeated the word “Stop.”

As the syllable [passed] his lips the forehead of the man in the chair [grew] dark [in] color, while his nose, or so much of it as was exposed, appeared a dark red.

There was very little apparent relaxation of the body, however. [A] fly lighted on the nose and walked about unconcernedly. The witnesses drew nearer to the chair.

“He’s dead,” said Spitzka, authoritatively.

“Oh, yes, he’s dead,” said McDonald.

“You’ll notice,” said Spitzka, “the post-mortem appearance of the nose immediately. There is that remarkable change that cannot be mistaken for anything else, that remarkable appearance of the nose.”

The other doctors nodded [assent]. They looked at the body critically for a minute and then Spitzka said, [“]oh, undo that now. The body can be taken to the hospital.”

“Well, I can’t let you gentlemen out of here until I have your certificates,” said the Warden.

FOUND SIGNS OF LIFE.

It was while this businesslike conversation was going on that Dr. Balch made a discovery.

“McDonald,” he cried, “McDonald, look at that rupture,” he pointed at the abrasion of the skin on Kemmler’s right thumb. In the contraction of the muscles the figurehead[?] scraped against it and removed the skin, and from that little [wound] blood was flowing-[an] almost certain indication of life.

A low cry of horror went through the assemblage.

“[Turn] on the current,” excitedly cried Dr. Spitzka. “This man is not dead.”

The crowd fell back from the chair, as though they were in danger. The Warden sprang into the closed door and pounded on it with his hand.

“Start the current!” he cried. As he spoke of fluid began to drop from Kemmler’s mouth and to run down his beard; a groaning sound came from his lips, repeated and growing louder each time.

It seemed [an] age before the card was again turned on. In fact it was just seventy-three seconds from the end of the first contact when the first sound was heard to issue from Kemmler’s lips, and it was not more than a half [minute] before the card was again turned on.

RECOVERING CONSCIOUSNESS.

But every second to that time the horrible sound from those groaning lips was becoming more distinct, [a straining] of the chest against the leather harness stronger and more evident.

The man was coming to life. The spectators grew faint and sick. [Men] who had stood over dead and dying [men] and had cut [men] to pieces without an emotion [grew] pale and turned their heads away.

One witness was forced to lie down while one of the doctors fanned him.

But [the end] came at last. There was another convulsion of the body, and … it became rigid with the rigidity of iron.

“That man wasn’t dead,” cried Spitzka excitedly. As he spoke the body twitched again. The electrician had given the current gain new alternation and now 2,000 volts [were] playing in short, successive shocks down Kemmler spine. The sound ceased with the first convulsion, but the fluid continued to trip from the mouth and down the beard, making the body a sickening spectacle.

“Keep it on now until he’s killed,” said one of the doctors. …

“Keep it on! Keep it on!” Cried Warden Durston through the door.

Silence reigned for a moment. A bell without began to [toll] solemnly. …

BURNED BY THE CURRENT.

Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.

There was a cry from all the members of the little group, and Warden Durston cried through the door leading to the next room to [turn] the current off.

(Also of interest: the New York Times‘ (non-eyewitness) report on the affair.)

More shocking — so to speak — papers ran the next day’s headline “Kemmler Westinghoused,” the verb “to Westinghouse” being another shameless Edisonian bid to stamp his marketing project onto the Queen’s English. This fine, rounded, archaic neologism the right sports anchor could resuscitate as a fresh synonym for thrashing, horsewhipping, poleaxing, or else (in greater justice) for moderation and decency as the only principal in the sordid affair that rejected death-dealing by electricity.

(Officially, Edison also opposed the death penalty. Like Dr. Guillotin, he was doing his part for humanity in the meantime … just with a little skin in the game. Did we mention the business of America is business?)

Westinghouse, for his own part, thought the Kemmler debacle would nip the electric chair in the bud, and he was scarcely the only one.

Official reviews for the “art of killing by electricity” were, ahem, mixed.

“They could have done better with an axe.”**
-George Westinghouse

“Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”
-New York Herald

“Revolting … a disgrace to civilization.”
-New York Times

“We live in a higher civilization from this day on.”
-Alfred Southwick

Books (remarkably numerous!) about the creation of the electric chair

It should, in fairness, be noted that the U.S. was not the only country (pdf) to mull an electrocution chair in the 19th century … but it was (and for a long time remained) the only one to actually use one.

* The Herald excerpt, along with several other articles from the same paper about the Kemmler execution, is here, but the text has obviously been generated from a scan with uneven results. As I do not have access to the originals, [bracketed] remarks in the excerpt indicate this author’s own interpretations or interpolations of seemingly mistaken transcriptions.

** Some sources make it “would have done better with an axe.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Language,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Pelf,Popular Culture,USA

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