1928: Frank Sharp, palm printed

Add comment October 19th, 2020 Headsman

From the Scottsbluff (Nebraska) Star Herald, October 19, 1928:


Sharp Dies in Chair, Protesting Innocence

Executed for Murder of Wife in 1926; Mother’s Plea to Governor Fails.

Tells All “Goodby”

Lincoln, Neb., Oct. 19 (AP) — Maintaining his innocence to the last, Frank Sharp, 52, twice convicted and twice sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Harriett, near here in March, 1926, was electrocuted in the Nebraska penitentiary at 6:29 a.m. today.

A current of 2,400 volts was allowed to course through his body.

Sharp was apparently the calmest man in the room as the attendants strapped his arms and legs to the chair. He was breathing a little heavily and he moved his finger nervously, but otherwise displayed no emotion.

“Good-by and God bless you,” he said to reporters, witnesses and physicians in the room.

Sharp listened attentively while prayers were said by Father Ford and by Chaplain Maxwell.

Visited by Relatives.

Sharp repeated a prayer with the priest while holding a small crucifix in his left hand.

When the chaplain extended his hand toward Sharp, the prisoner said “you’ll have to come over to me. I can’t move my hand.”

“I am not afraid to die, gentlemen,” Sharp said while guards ripped his trousers to clamp part of the death harness on his leg. “There’s no reason for me to be afraid.”

“All right, sir,” he told the executioner after a request that he close his eyes. “Fix things to suit yourself. Whatever you do is all right with me.”

Even after the head piece was placed on him and the heavy strap over his face, Sharp continued to talk.

“You’re smashing my nose,” he said twice before the executioner adjusted it.

The doomed man had cheerful good-bys for the warden, chaplain, priest and his friends and in each case ended by saying “God bless you.”

The current was turned on at 6:29 and after 45 seconds was turned off. The doctors examined the body and pronounce Sharp dead at 6:32.

His body was claimed by his family and will be buried at the local cemetery.

The condemned man’s brother and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Charley Sharp, visited the death cell yesterday evening.

Wife Slain in 1926.

Among those who were present at the execution were the murdered woman’s brother, Homer Wilis, and her son by a former marriage, Art Ostbloom.

Mrs. Sharp was killed on the night of March 16, 1926. Her body, its skull mutilated by blows of a hammer, was found in the family [obscure], two miles northeast of Havelock, the next morning, after an all-night search by local police.

Blood stains on his clothes directed suspicion toward Sharp. Foot prints near the murder scene that were found to coincide with the shoes Sharp was wearing that night. Other circumstancial evidence also was found, the most important of which was a palm print of the hammer, used to kill Mrs. Sharp.

Convicted on Palm Print.

This print was declared by experts to be similar to Sharp’s and had a large part in his conviction. It is believed Sharp was the first man to be executed largely on palm print evidence.

His first conviction was reversed by the supreme court on technical errors, but his second conviction was affirmed.

Sharp always contended he was held up by robbers who bound and blindfolded him and abducted his wife. This was the story he told when he aroused a farm home on the night of the murder and to which he staunchly clung during his trials and his appeal to the state pardon board in a final attempt to escape the death penalty.

Without retracting this story, Sharp remained composed and apparently confident. He declared he was ready to die and forgave everyone concerned with his conviction.

“Innocent as a Child.”

After Warren W.T. Fenton had read the death warrant, the condemned man asserted that he was as innocent as a child. “If it will help things any to kill me,” he said, “it is all right with me.” He then handed his statement to the warden and asked the newspapers to print it. The statement, written in long hand with a pencil, follows:

Frank Sharp’s final statement to the newspapers:

I have always contended the facts would come to light before I would go to the electricity chair.

I hold no imminity to anybody.

I want to thank everybody that tryed to help me in my last hour.

The state onley claims circumstanced evidents in my case and I believe the evidents proves my innocents far beyond a doubt. I wish to forgive everybody that hold an evial thought against me and may God bless them.

And all I have to ask for is a chance to prove my innocents.

FRANK E. SHARP.

Members of the Sharp family called at the capitol last evening to make a last presentation to Governor McMullen. Mrs. A.G. Sharp, 75, mother of Sharp, was leaning on the arm of one of her sons. The group comprised two brothers of Sharp, a son, two sisters and the mother. They were received in the governor’s private office and remained half an hour. Governor McMullen explained the manner in which the board of pardons had considered Sharp’s allegation of newly discovered evidence and its decision that the facts presented had no bearing on the case and told them of the powers and duties of the governor and of his inability to take further action. Upon taking their leave members of the party said they had no fault to find with the governor’s decision of his duty in the case.

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1928: Jim Moss, former Negro League ballplayer

Add comment August 3rd, 2020 Headsman


Chicago Defender, Aug. 11, 1928.

Former Negro Leagues baseball player James Hugh Moss was electrocuted in Georgia on this date in 1928, along with a white man named Clifford Thompson.

The threesome of Moss, Thompson, and Thompson’s wife Eula, were Prohibition bootleggers from Etowah, in eastern Tennessee. A year before almost to the day (August 5, 1927), they had rolled up with a car full of moonshine whiskey to a general store in Chatsworth, Georgia, 45 miles away. Although it was after hours they were able to rouse the shopkeep Coleman Osborne. Some kind of argument ensued, and Osborne was shot dead.

All three of the smugglers were capitally convicted.

Eula Thompson’s electrocution was postponed and as we shall see, never ultimately conducted — but on the eve of the men’s death, she attempted to save them with a sketchy confession to an affair with a local farmer that necessitated Osborne’s murder when the latter found out about it. This sent Georgia Gov. Lamartine Griffin Hardman on an 11th-hour investigation into the exculpatory claim but as a physician he knew just what to do and according to a news report, “Governor Hardman announced recently that the phrenology of Clifford Thompson, the woman’s husband, and Jim Hugh Moss, Negro electrocuted for the murder of Osborne, played a part in his decision not to interfere in their cases.”

That gem comes from a writeup of the case at Baseball Prospectus, which notes that after Eula Thompson’s gambit to exonerate the boys failed, she resorted to a gambit to exonerate herself by blaming the whole thing on (the by then already-executed) Jim Moss. This got her a reprieve while Governor Hardman put his skull forceps to work and eventually the Peach State decided not to run any volts at all through the charming young lady. She married an admirer from the public, got paroled in the 1930s, and ended up back in prison for murdering her brother.

As to Moss’s former athletic feats, the thing that draws our attention in the first place, they’re only glancingly alluded to by the period’s press report. He would have played in the complex of black professional leagues during the period that Major League Baseball enforced a whites-only color line.

A Negro Leagues blog made a go at tracking him down and found that a guy named “Moss” (no first name given) made a single documented appearance in 1918 for the Chicago American Giants. The name subsequently appears on a lower-tier barnstorming team, the Havana Stars. (Chicago-based, despite what the name would suggest.)

Moss isn’t the only known ball player to sit in the mercy seat: check out this forum thread on executed players. And on our humble death blog, we’ve noticed other, more oblique contacts between the headsman and the seamhead.

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1928: Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler

Add comment January 13th, 2020 Headsman

U.S. serial killer Earle Nelson hanged in Winnipeg, Canada on Friday the 13th of January in 1928.

A disturbed and preternaturally balding 30-year-old, Nelson grew up in San Francisco “a psychotic prodigy. He was expelled from primary school at the age of 7. His behavior included talking to invisible people, quoting Bible passages about the great beast and peeking at his cousin Rachel while she undressed.”

Monsterhood beckoned via a compounding of destabilizing influences: venereal disease, a religious obsession, and a collision with a streetcar that left him in a weeklong coma and with a permanent vulnerability to headaches and dizzy spells. By the latter 1910s he was rotating shifts of institutionalization: jail in Los Angeles (mere burglary), the Army (subsequently deserted), and commitments to the state mental ward (“He has seen faces, heard music, and at times believed people were poisoning him. Voices sometimes whisper to him to kill himself.”)

From the start of 1926 until mid-1927, he gave over to a homicidal spree that claimed 22 lives all around the U.S. and ranging — obviously — into Canada. They were all women, bar 8-month-old Robert Harpin, the infant son of a mother whom he targeted; while his second-last victim was just 14, the predominant victim profile was a matronly landlady whose lodgings he could enter at invitation as a prospective lodger — and there put her at ease with his Biblical facility while maneuvering her into some circumstance suitable for wrapping his hands around her throat. Most were also posthumously raped after strangling.

Those noticeably large hands were among the first descriptors that witnesses had given of the suspect from the scenes of his earliest killings in San Francisco, and this together with a swarthy mien gave newsmen the nickname “Gorilla Killer” or “Dark Strangler”. They’d have frequent cause to use it as the terrifying killings migrated north from the California Bay to Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; Seattle … and then east, leaving outraged corpses in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Chicago.

Public alarm naturally followed each new report of his signature killings. After several homicides in Portland, the police there cautioned landlords from showing rooms unaccompanied with the grim words, “I do not wish to unduly alarm the people of Portland. But there is no denying the situation is grave.”

The Dark Strangler’s situation finally became grave when he took his act international. In Winnipeg he killed a teenage girl selling flowers and a housewife in quick succession, and this time the police A.P.B. was quick enough to catch up with him — gruesomely discovering the mutilated cadaver of the flower girl in his boarding house room. Public tips zeroed in on him a few miles before he reached the North Dakota border, and fingerprints courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department confirmed the identity.

Easily convicted in an atmosphere of great public outrage, Nelson mounted a credible but hopeless appeal for clemency on grounds of insanity.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt apparently began as a pitch for a Nelson-inspired screen treatment.

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1928: Chen Jue

Add comment October 14th, 2019 Headsman

China Communist revolutionary hero Chen Jue was executed on this date in 1928 by the nationalist Kuomintang.

Chen Jue with his wife Zhao Yunxiao or Yunqi are celebrated revolutionary martyrs for their respective sacrifices of life for the cause in Changsha.

They met pursuing studies of revolutionary praxis in Moscow in the mid-1920s, and returned as revolutionary cadres at just the moment that China fell to open civil war.

In April 1928 both were betrayed to the KMT. Zhao Yunxiao was pregnant; she would be suffered to carry her daughter Qiming to term before quaffing the same cup as her husband. The two swapped red tear-jerking missives before their death, that are preserved at an exhibit at the People’s Revolutionary Military Museum.

“We didn’t believe in ghosts before. Now I am willing to become a ghost,” the man wrote the wife before his execution. “We are here to save the parents, wives and children of the entire Chinese people, so we sacrificed everything. Although we die, our spirits remain with the comrades who yet live.”

“Little baby, your mother will be taken from you when you have no more than a month and a dozen days,” the wife wrote the child months later. “Little baby, I tell you very clearly that your parents were Communists … I hope that when you grow up, you read well and know how your parents died.”*

Their cause, of course, was destined for victory. If history records the destiny of their child, I have not located it.

* Both of these are my amateur-hour translations via online tours, unaided by any actual expertise in Chinese. Caveat emptor.

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1928: Seven electrocuted in Kentucky

Add comment July 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1928 — Friday the 13th — the Bluegrass State tied a terrible record that still stands to this day by sending seven men to the electric chair on a single day. (New York, the electric chair pioneer, had carried out a sevenfold electrocution in 1912.)

The prolific history writer/blogger Mike Dash fielded a Reddit question with some detail about this event, here; Dash notes that Kentucky habitually carried out (smaller) multiple-execution batches during this period, likely for reasons of administrative convenience moreso than record-hunting.

For additional particulars, we excerpt a summary of their cases from the Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger of the same date.

Milford Lawson

Milford Lawson was convicted in the Whitley circuit court at Corbin, in 1926, for the killing of John Stansberry. Stansberry, who lived with his wife and daughter on Main street in Corbin was awakened by an alarm at his door at midnight. He was shot to death by Lawson when he opened the door to answer the alarm. The sixteen year old daughter of Stansberry witnessed the shooting. Stansberry was killed instantly.

Orlando Seymour

Orlando Seymour was indicted jointly with William Huddleston for the killing of Will Schanzenbacher in Louisville. Huddleston was given a life sentence and Seymour, who actually did the killing, was given a death sentence. Mr. Schanzenbacher had charge of a coal yard in Louisville. It was known to the two defendants that he was in the habit of carrying the receipts of each day home with him in the afternoon in a tin box. Huddleston and Seymour planned to hold him up and rob him. It fell to the lot of Seymour to do the actual holding up, while Huddleston waited in the car. When demanded by Seymour to give up his money, Mr. Schanzenbacher, instead of acceding to his demands, started to run away and was shot down by Seymour.

Hasque Dockery

Hasque Dockery was tried in the Harlan circuit court in 1926 and given the death penalty for killing Mrs. Elizabeth Howard. Dockery was guilty of a triple murder, having killed Mrs. Howard, Joe Jenkins and Mrs. Jenkins at the same time. He appears to have been estranged from his wife, who was living with Bradley Howard and his wife and the Jenkins family. It appears that Dockery went to that house on the night of the killing search for his wife and without provacation [sic] shot and killed Mrs. Howard, Joe Jenkins and his wife. Charles Howard, a young boy, escaped only by running. Dockery also fired one shot at him.

Charles P. Miltra

Charles P. Miltra was indicted jointly with Carl Hord in the Jefferson circuit court for the murder of Marion A. George in 1926. George opera[t]ed a grocery store at First and Magazine streets in Louisville. This murder was committed in pursuit of a plan which the two defendants had entered into to rob Mr. George. It was agreed that Hord should go into the store and call for cigarettes and that Miltra was to follow, and while Mr. George was getting the cigarettes he was to cover him with the pistol and demand the money. That part of the program was carried out, but Mr. George grabbed a meat cleaver and struck Miltra with it. Miltra then fired two shots, the first missing George but the second piercing his abdomen. Miltra escaped and went to St. Louis where he was arrested a few days after the tragedy and upon his return to Louisville made a voluntary confession. The peculiar defense was interposed for Miltra, that he should not be held responsible for the shooting of George because he was rendered unconscious by the lick which George inflicted upon him with the meat cleaver and did not know that [sic] he was doing when he shot Mr. George. This contention, however, was overruled by the court on the idea that malice is not necessarily confined to specific intention to take the life of the person killed, but it may include an intention to do an unlawful act whose result will probaably [sic] deprive another person’s life.

James Howard

James Howard, negro, was given the extreme penalty in the Jefferson circuit court for the murder of his common law wife, Lucy Buckner. He stabbed his victim to death with a knife. This killing took place April 17, 1926. It is disclosed by the evidence that Howard ran his victim down and stabbed her to death while she was trying to escape from him. Howard was jealous of another negro, which appears to have incited the killing.

Clarence McQueen

Clarence McQueen, negro, was indicted in the Harrison circuit court and given the death penalty for the murder of Louis Williams, another negro. McQueen is a negro about forty years of age. He and Williams were neighbors and had been friends for a long time. On April 25, 1927, while under the influence of liquor, McQueen, who had a shotgun, came upon Williams on the river bank where they became involved in a difficulty and McQueen shot Williams to death. He then escaped and was not apprehended until September, 1927, when he was returned to Cynthiana and placed on trial.

William Moore

William Moore, negro, was indicted and tried in the Jefferson [… omitted text …] Anna Eslick, who appears to have been his sweetheart, and who was the wife of another negro. This killing took place in the absence of any eye witness, but while the evidence against Moore was largely circumstantial, at the same time it was practically conclusive that Moore killed the woman, by beating her to death with a beer bottle.

The state of Georgia supplemented the day’s grim toll with a “mere” double electrocution of Sam Gower and Preddis Taylor, while two men more, Will Burdo and Greene Kirk, hanged in separate executions by two Mississippi counties.

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1928: William Charles Benson

Add comment November 20th, 2018 Headsman

William Charles Benson hanged at Wandsworth prison on this date in 1928, the murderer of his ice cream factory co-worker’s wife.

Benson in 1925 had moved in with his mate Sidney Harbor in Kentish Town where the quarters were so close that everybody shared the same bedroom.

The savings in rent were drawn from the heart’s account, once Sidney’s wife Charlotte — the couple had two children together — took a shine to the boarder in the other bed. Benson in 1927 lost job and side piece alike when he was fired from Wall’s and also kicked out of the house by the suspicious Sidney; Charlotte, however, continued the affair and eventually even took an apartment nearby Benson’s new place to facilitate assignations.

Early on the morning of September 6, 1928, Benson hailed a constable with the words, “I want an ambulance, I have just killed my girl.” Apparently, she had proposed putting the adultery to an end and returning to Sidney.

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1928: Xiang Jingyu, Communist

Add comment May 1st, 2018 Headsman

The Chinese Communist Xiang Jingyu was martyred on May Day of 1928.

The preeminent female cadre of her time, Xiang was the 16-year-old daughter of a merchant when imperial China fell in 1911. She came of age, and radicalized, in the tumultuous aftermath, becoming an early advocate for women’s liberation as an essential objective of the revolution. She also became the wife of Mao crony Cai Hesen.

Xiang made her mark with a seminal 1920 essay, published while studying in France, “A discussion of women’s emancipation and remoulding.” In it, “Xiang called upon women who had realized consciousness to form four organizations: a study and propaganda society, a free choice in marriage league, a student loan society, and public nurseries.” (Andrea McElderry, “Woman Revolutionary: Xiang Jingyu,” The China Quarterly, March 1986)

Returning to China the following year, she became one of the Communist Party‘s leading voices in the women’s section, where she dunked on bourgeois feminism (“The result of their efforts will be that the whole bunch of them will enter the pigsties of the capital and the provinces where together with the male pigs, they can preside over the nation’s calamities and the people’s misforturtunes”) and gained only halting traction campaigning for girls’ education and mobilizing female factory workers. Her dour and driven demeanor earned her the nickname “Old Grandma”.

Arrested by French soldiers in Hankou‘s French Concession, Old Grandma had no time for the captors who would betray her to the Kuomintang, and her own death. “I am Xiang Jingyu, a member of the Chinese Communist Party. You can kill me and cut me to pieces. I myself have no hope, but tens of thousands of Xiang Jingyus will rise up in my place.”

The present-day Communist Party esteems her a hero.

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1928: Floyd Hewitt, “Boy Clubber”

Add comment January 6th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1928, seventeen-year-old Floyd Hewitt was executed in Ohio’s electric chair for the horrific murder of a farmer’s wife and five-year-old son.

Floyd grew up in rural area outside Conneaut, Ohio. Although at 6’4″ he had the body of a grown man, he was mentally disabled, callously described by his defense attorneys as “a moron with a ten-year-old’s intellect.” One newspaper portrayed him thus:

He is not considered of normal intellect, his drooping mouth, dull eyes and appearances contributing to the opinion. He was not bright in his classes at school.

On the evening of February 14, 1927, he visited a local farm belonging to the Brown family. He was a frequent visitor there; he loved listening to jazz music on the radio and the Browns were the only family in the area who had a set at home. Celia Brown’s husband, Fred, was away in town and she was home alone with their son Freddie.

This news column and this article describe what happened in detail. Floyd got “stirred up inside” by the music. Feeling “an overpowering love,” he made sexual overtures towards Celia, who slapped him. He hit back, and she grabbed the fireplace poker to defend herself, but he tore it from her hands. In the ensuing fight Floyd hurled Celia down the stairs and struck her repeatedly with the poker until she was dead. Then, afraid the little boy would tell on him, Floyd chased Freddie into the basement and beat him to death with a baseball bat, too.

Then he went back upstairs, washed his hands, walked the short distance home and sat down to read the newspaper.

Fred Brown got home a little after midnight, found his wife’s body on the porch. There was blood everywhere. Fred summoned neighbors and the police. After searching the rest of the house, the neighbors found little Freddie’s body in the basement.

Floyd rapidly came under suspicion; he literally left a trail of footprints right to his front door. The next morning he was arrested, wearing the same bloodstained sweater he’d worn the night before. One of the buttons had been torn off and was left at the crime scene.

Within hours, Hewitt had made a full confession. He even went so far as to take the police on a tour of the Brown house to point out what had occurred and where. The next day, however, he retracted his statements and would maintain his innocence until his death.

The press bluntly christened him “the boy clubber.”

On the first day of his trial, as he was taken into the courtroom, Floyd remarked, “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it?” One reporter described him as “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.”

He was indeed an overgrown boy, only sixteen years old at the time of his crime, but the prosecution demanded the death penalty.

Death penalty expert Victor Streib in this review of Ohio juvenile executions summed matters up thus:

Although indicted for two first degree murders (mother and son), he was tried only for the first degree murder of the five-year-old boy.

During the three week trial, the state relied heavily upon Hewitt’s signed confession while the defense stressed Hewitt’s mental disabilities. On April 26, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy.

Hewitt appealed, and his execution was postponed for a time, but the appeals process wore down in less than a year and the board of clemency refused to recommend a commutation to the governor …

Hewitt’s chronological age at execution was seventeen, but his mental age remained forever fixed at ten.

Floyd Hewitt might have been the youngest person ever executed by the state of Ohio, and he was the first from Ashtabula County. A “bedraggled figure … with his long black hair hanging low over his face,” and clutching a photo of his family, he died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary Annex at 7:43 p.m.

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1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

1 comment January 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.

That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.

Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.

On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.

The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.

As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.

Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.

In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)

The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.

But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.

No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)

The Crown was not interested:

It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.

Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.

Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.

“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”

At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.

Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.

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1928: Clarence “Buck” Kelly, testicle donor

4 comments May 11th, 2014 Headsman

The worst thing that happened to Clarence “Buck” Kelly on this date in 1928 was being hung for murder.

But the only thing anyone could talk about afterwards was how he was un-hung … for science.

Kelly and a friend, Lawrence Weeks (later joined by a third friend, 17-year-old Mike Papadaches), drunk on Prohibition moonshine, robbed a Vallejo Street hardware store of a handgun and set off on a San Francisco armed robbery spree. It lasted just a couple of days in October 1926, but the “terror bandits” left a half-dozen dead.

More of the gory but unremarkable (as murder sprees go) particulars can be found in David Kulczyk’s alliterative California Fruits, Flakes, and Nuts: True Tales of California Crazies, Crackpots and Creeps.

We’re more excited by what happened after he died.


The chief surgeon of San Quentin prison, Dr. Leo Stanley, would write that the “swaggering” Buck Kelly came unmanned at the scaffold: “vanity cannot climb San Quentin’s thirteen steps and survive.” The prisoner took his leave of this world shrieking “Good-by, mother!” from under the hood.

Dr. Stanley was of course present to certify Kelly’s death, but also as the local emissary of the medical gaze so long directed at the fresh clientele of the gallows — that “absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” as Foucault put it.

Once Dr. Stanley’s stethoscope fell silent 13 minutes after the trap fell, the cadaver of Clarence “Buck” Kelly was cut down by the prison’s inmate “scavenger crew” and laid out for autopsy.

It is here that the “terror bandit” gives way to the “gland scandal”.

When the late Kelly’s family received the body for burial, post-autopsy, they discovered that the corpse had been relieved of “certain organs essential to a rejuvenation operation.” These “glands,” in the prevailing euphemism of the newsmen, had been removed by Stanley and installed into a charity patient at a nearby hospital.

Review, which notes the New York Times boasting that “America was first in gland grafting.”

He did this because ball transplant therapy was the little blue pill of the 1920s, and made some colorful medical charlatans some colorful mountains of cash.

Indeed, fresh testes were promoted not only for virility, as one might suppose, but as an all-purpose spring of rejuvenation good for a diverse array of afflictions large and small. According to Thomas Schlich, gland therapy had been credited with addressing

chronic skin problems, impaired vision, neurasthenia, epilepsy, dementia praecox, senile dementia, alcoholism, enlarged prostate, malignant tumors, rheumatism, loose teeth, various kinds of paralysis, “moral perversion of old age,” and arteriosclerosis.

(Testicular transplant was also tried out as a treatment for homosexuality.)

The leading exponent of such procedures was a Russian Jewish emigre, Serge Voronoff, who plied his trade in Paris. Having worked with eunuchs in Egypt around the turn of the century, Voronoff got to thinking big things about the little head.

Voronoff’s ball-transplant fad was so successful that demand from rich old dudes for fresh packages far outstripped what France’s guillotines could ever hope to provide. (This is a longstanding theme in the history of condemned prisoners’ medical exploitation.)

So Voronoff emigrated again, to the animal kingdom.


Image from Voronoff colleauge Louis Dartigues’s book Technique chirurgicale des greffes testiculaires … methode de Voronoff.

Voronoff became the guy who would help you sack up with monkey power,* writing: “I dare assert that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.” All one had to do to get a piece of that simian sturdiness was graft on a little piece of their sex organs.** “Monkey glands” were even an early entrant (pdf) in performance enhancing medicine for the burgeoning sports world.

Voronoff had plenty of detractors, but before monkey glands were decisively discredited in the 1930s he also had plenty of imitators.

Our Dr. Leo Stanley was not as outre as some of the graft grifters afoot, but he too went in for the medicinal power of the testis.†

Immediately upon discovering Kelly’s anatomization, which was never properly authorized by either the family or the prisoner (Stanley said he had Kelly’s verbal okay), the terror bandit’s former defense attorney Milton U’Ren‡ made the situation into the aforementioned scandal. U’Ren demanded Stanley’s resignation and eventually filed a civil suit.


Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1928.

It would emerge in the course of the “scandal” that Dr. Stanley had since 1918 cut out the balls of about 30 hanged cutpurses to hang them in other men’s coin purses — “engrafting human testicles from recently executed prisoners to senile recipients.”

Being a doctor right at one of the nation’s more active death chambers gave him a steady supply of donors, although Stanley too had expanded to experimenting with testicular tissue from goats, boars, rams, and stags. If you were an animal whom European nobility was interested in placing on a heraldic crest, you were an animal whom Dr. Stanley was keen on emasculating.

His work in this sensitive area was not exactly a secret; Stanley himself published and spoke on the topic, and it had even hit the papers in a laudatory vein.

It was only the cavalier approach to consent in this instance that made it the “gland scandal”, and Stanley was able to weather the embarrassment job intact. He remained at San Quentin until 1951 and continued experimenting with testicular transplant; the procedure’s promise of restoring youthful virility to aging men appealed as strongly then as it does in our day, and he had no shortage of volunteers eager to freshen up their junk. Stanley, for his part, was ceasing to see his operations as “experimental” — just therapeutic. For years Stanley’s scalpel probed scrota, free and incarcerated alike, for the font of youth.

According to Ethan Blue’s “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951,”§ over 10,000 testicular implant operations took place at San Quentin by 1940.

* Voronoff’s transplantation of chimpanzee testicles into humans has even been proposed as a possible early vector of HIV transmission.

** This period’s interest in transplantation and interspecies medicine is reflected in interwar literature. In Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, the titular pet undergoes this procedure in the opposite direction — receiving human testicles. The 1923 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” revolves around an elderly character who has been treated with a rejuvenating “serum” extracted from langurs, which reduces him to the bestial behaviors of its donor.

And then there’s The Gland Stealers

† Stanley also shared his era’s fascination with eugenics; as with the testicle thing, this was (pseudo-)science with a social reform agenda. Stanley urged prisoners whenever he got the chance to undergo (voluntary) sterilization — urged successfully, on some 600 occasions.

‡ U’Ren wasn’t just another pretty face (or suggestive name): he was a former district attorney notable for prosecuting Fatty Arbuckle for murder.

§ Pacific Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (2009).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Theft,USA

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