1935: May Hitchens Carey and Howard Carey, mother and son

Add comment June 7th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1935 in Georgetown, Delaware, a mother and son were hanged for the murder of Robert Hitchens, May Carey’s brother and Howard’s uncle.

The execution of May, 52, attracted some attention as it was the first time in living memory that a woman had faced capital punishment in Delaware. The last time a woman was executed there had been in the 1860s.

On November 7, 1927, May enlisted the help of her two oldest sons, Howard, then 20, and James, 16, to murder their uncle Robert. May had taken out a $2,000 insurance policy on his life and promised to buy her boys a car if they helped her. After Robert got home from work, the three of them jumped him, beat him with a club and sledgehammer, and then finished him off with a gunshot to the head. They poured alcohol over his body and down his throat and rummaged through his belongings in an attempt to make the murder look like a robbery.

The police fell for the robbery gambit and thought Robert had been slain by bootleggers. For a long time it appeared the trio had gotten away with it.

But murder will out. The homicide went unsolved until December 1934, when May’s youngest son, Lawrence, was arrested on an unrelated charge of burglary. He told the police everything he knew about his uncle’s murder, which was enough to put his mother and brothers behind bars.

Lawrence testified against his family at the ensuing trial. (Not that his cooperation in the murder case helped with his own legal difficulties; he got seven years for the burglary.) May tried to shoulder all the blame — “I drove my children to do it. It was all my fault. They killed him but they would not have done it, if I hadn’t made them do it.”

May, James and Howard were all convicted but the jury recommended mercy for the two young men. In the end, James was sentenced to life in prison but Howard, who had sired a family of three children, got a death sentence, as did his mother.

During the time period between the trial and the time the sentence was carried out, both Howard and May turned to religion for solace and read their Bibles “cover to cover.” Their last meal was cake and ice cream.

Authorities erected the gallows behind a high fence to conceal it from prying eyes. They even stretched a piece of canvas overhead to prevent aerial photography. A single rope was used for both hangings, and May was first in line. She wore a new black dress with white ribbon around the throat. Her son was dressed in a formal suit and tie. Mary died at 5:30 a.m. and Howard followed her at 6:08.

As for James, he outlived his mother and brother by only nine years, dying in prison of natural causes at the age of 34.

On this day..

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1935: Tully McQuate, “If I hang, I hang”

1 comment May 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1935, one of the all-time great names in American gallows history hanged at California’s Folsom Prison for one of the all-time crimes of ingratitude.

Tully McQuate (or Tulley, or Tullie; the name means “peaceful”) entered the annals of criminology via a sack of dismembered human remains discovered in San Diego’s harbor in 1934.

These gory parts turned out upon examination to have formerly constituted a well-to-do 74-year-old widow named Ellen Straw. Mrs. Straw, it transpired, had taken a shine to an Ohio-born drifter thirty years her junior after hiring him to do her yard work, and finally invited said McQuate to live with her.

Period reportage describes her as his “benefactress” but it appears the favors were reciprocal.

“She took a liking to me and I took a liking to her,” he explained in a matter-of-fact confession. (Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1934)

She took me into her home and we got along pretty well for about a year. Then she began to get jealous of me and we began to quarrel.

One night we went down to a mission — neither of us was very religious, but we used to get a kick out of it. We quarreled on the way home. She went to her room and I went to mine. She kept on quarreling with me — I could hear her through the wall.

Finally I got up to get a drink of water. I found a clawhammer that I had been using around the house. I took it and went in and hit her over the head with it. I guess I hit her twice. [The court would find that he hit her six or seven times. -ed.]

I never had any intention of killing her, but when I saw she was dead, I just covered her up and went back to bed.

“Well, if it’s done, it’s done,” I said to myself. I knew it was all up with me then. I knew they would find me some time. But I didn’t care. When I lost my family I had nothing left to care about. [McQuate’s wife had divorced him years before. -ed.]

I left the body there for six days. I never did see her face again. Then I decided I’d better get rid of it, so I took the knife and a saw — I couldn’t get the body into the sack.

McQuate projects a pragmatic matter-of-factness about the situation that’s equal parts disarming and blood-chilling. One can at least say for him that he faced the consequence with the same equanimity.

Well, I guess my time has come. I’ve confessed — told the whole truth — and I’ll plead guilty. There’s no use putting the State to the expense of a trial. I’ve paid taxes myself.

McQuate was as good as his word. Indeed, when the legal proceedings required two days — perhaps anticipating appeal avenues, the District Attorney successfully insisted that McQuate, who had intended to represent himself, must have an attorney in a death penalty case — the murderer griped on the second day, “It’s so foolish. I did it; let ’em sentence me and get it over with. If I hang, I hang.” (Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1934)

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1935: George Criner, “anything can happen to anybody”

3 comments October 16th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“A few minutes before this happened if anyone had told me that I would be here, I would have said they were crazy. But remember, anything can happen to anybody. You can walk out on the street and die of heart trouble. Or you can go out on the street and get run over. I think that will be all.”

-George Criner, convicted of murder, hanging, Montana. Executed October 16, 1935

Criner came home very drunk one night and tried to take his girlfriend’s diamond ring. She refused to let him, and he beat her with an iron poker and cut her with a pocketknife, then shot the police officer who tried to intervene. At the preliminary hearing, Criner said that he very much wished he hadn’t been there.

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1935: Del Fontaine, punch drunk boxer

1 comment October 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Canadian pugilist Del Fontaine was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, “the bravest fellow we ever saw go to the scaffold.”

Winnipeg-born as Raymond Henry Bousquet, Fontaine twice won the Canadian middleweight belt.

But a grueling, 98-fight career took its toll on the man.

By the end — when he had crossed the pond for a couple years traversing the English rings — Del Fontaine was visibly punch-drunk. The onetime champion lost 12 of his last 14 fights.

Punch drunk — scientific name dementia pugilistica — is just the classic diagnosis for “concussed all to hell,” afflicted by traumatic brain injury and its mind-altering long-term effects: Depression, violence, mood swings, loss of judgment and impulse control. Those are the kinds of behavior patterns that tend to brush up against the criminal justice system.

The syndrome’s popular name suggests its most visible injury, to motor skills — a symptom Fontaine’s colleagues in the business could readily diagnose.

Del shouldn’t have been in the ring at all for his last fight. He wasn’t in a fit state,” fellow prizefighter Ted Lewis testified at Fontaine’s trial, recalling a Newcastle bout that ended in a flash on three first-round knockdowns. “As a boxer, he has received more punishment than anyone I have ever seen.” The house doctor at a Blackfriars venue Fontaine had appeared at earlier in 1935 said the fighter complained of double vision and sleeplessness, and couldn’t walk straight. (London Times, Sep. 17, 1935)

If 1935 was a few decades’ shy of our present-day understanding of concussions, it was still well-enough known to those who had experience of the punch-drunk that psychological changes accompanied the physical impairments. Those who knew Del Fontaine knew he wasn’t right in the head.

The reason this tribunal had to sit for the humiliating public probe of Fontaine’s mental crevasses was that Fontaine had left his wife and kids behind when he crossed the Atlantic. Once he got to the Isles, he took up with an English sweetheart in Bristol.

This Hilda Meek, a West End waitress a decade the junior of her lover, became the object of an obsessive infatuation. In a fit of jealous rage, Fontaine gunned her down (and her mother too, although mom survived) when he caught Meek making a date with another man.

Fontaine was captured, unresisting, dolorously on the scene, and openly admitted his actions. Acquittal on the facts would be a nonstarter; diminished responsibility because of dementia pugilistica was the best defense gambit available.

The highly restrictive legal bar against an insanity defense aced out the legal maneuver: however impulsive and moody a lifetime of concussions had left him, they couldn’t be said to have prevented him “knowing right from wrong.” Still, his case attracted a fair bit of public sympathy, and when a petition for clemency went nowhere, hundreds of people, including a number of other boxers, turned up at Wandsworth to protest on the morning the punch-drunk Del Fontaine hanged for murder.

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1935: Thomasina Sarao, miscalculated

5 comments March 29th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly after midnight this date* in 1935, the career of 71-year-old Canadian executioner Arthur Ellis came to an end with the botched hanging of Thomasina Sarao.

All a simple matter of physics.

When the old-school “drop ’em from a cart” method of strangulation hanging gave way to the “new drop”, the hangman’s art eventually came to encompass the scientific application of the humane level of force to the doomed person’s vertebrae.

Something in the neighborhood of 1,000 ft/lbs was about right. Too little, and the poor wretch strangles to death. Too much, and you rip the head right off.

Thomasina Sarao got too much, and it ripped her head right off.

They’d worked everything out to a handy table, see, where if you weighed this much, they knew to drop you this far, derived from the formula

1020/weight in pounds (less 14 lbs for the head) = drop in feet

Except in the widow Mrs. Sarao’s case — the Italian immigrant had offed her husband to collect the insurance** — Arthur Ellis was given the wrong weight for his client. He coiled a noose for a woman 32 pounds lighter than the person who actually mounted the scaffold, and he therefore made it more than a foot too long.

That whole “ripping off a woman’s head” thing really harshed everyone’s vibe. So, although hangings had long been moved behind prison walls, the Canadian government stopped the ongoing practice of allowing members of the general public to obtain tickets to witness them.

“Arthur Ellis” — it was actually a trade name he’d made up, and so dignified that one of his successors used the same alias — died three years after his grisly retirement party. He’s saluted by the Arthur Ellis Awards, the Crime Writers of Canada’s annual awards: a little trophy of a guy getting hanged.

[Ellis Trophy][Ellis Trophy]
Winners of the Arthur Ellis Award, like Robert J. Sawyer, get this trinket to commemorate. At least the little wooden fetish has his head attached to his shoulders. (Images (c) Robert J. Sawyer, and used with permission.)

* March 28 is sometimes reported, but the period press reports (like this wire story) seem to agree on the 29th, as does this index of Canadian executions.

** Two male co-conspirators, Leone Gagliardi and Angelo Donofrio, were also hanged for the same crime, a few minutes before Sarao on a different scaffold.

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1935: Pat Griffin and Elmer Brewer

1 comment June 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1935, the first double hanging* in the state of Iowa took place at Fort Madison.

Waterloo, Iowa, police heading out to query Elmer Brewer “in connection with alleged misconduct of Brewer with juvenile girls” alarmed Brewer and his friend Patrick Griffin, who assumed they were coming to arrest them for a robbery.

The two killed Deputy Sheriff William Fay Dilworth in a shootout.

Long forgotten, Griffin’s rodeo avocation, his friendship with the classmate who was to be his Catholic confessor, his offer to give all his earnings to the victim’s family were his sentence commuted to hard labor.

Just a lost file from the police blotter, moldering in a musty corner of a local archives. Although the glacial progress of the legal proceedings will look more familiar to modern eyes.

Thus closes a case which has been more or less in the courts since December 16, 1932. Attorney James Fay of Emmetsburg and Attorney John McCartney of Waterloo made valiant efforts to save the lives of the two men, but to no avail. Following their conviction of the murder in the district court in Waterloo on January 5, 1933, they were sentenced to be hanged on January 26, 1934. In May, 1933, an appeal was filed with the state supreme court, thus automatically staying the execution. The supreme court denied the appeal. On June 24, 1934, Attorneys Fay and McCartney petitioned the supreme court for a rehearing. This was denied January 10, 1935. A plea for commutation of the sentences to life imprisonment was denied by Governor Clyde Herring on February 1 and the chief executive set April 5, 1935, as the execution date. Continuing farther with their efforts the attorneys sought a writ of habeas corpus from District Judge John Craig of Fort Madison, but their request was denied. The refusal opened another loophole for the attorneys to ask a review of Judge Craig’s action. Again refused, the lawyers announced that they would go to the United States supreme court where they would ask the court for a writ of habeas corpus. In order to allow time for this step Governor Herring granted the convicted slayers a 60-day stay of execution but at the same time he announced that it was the last reprieve that could be expected from him. Illness of defense attorneys, it was said, prevented them from prosecuting their appeal to the supreme court. Monday Mr. Fay appealed to Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Dewey for a stay order and a writ of habeas corpus, but Judge Dewey refused to interfere. In Des Moines Tuesday a last minute effort to save the men was made in an appeal to Governor Herring, but the appeal for a commutation of sentence was denied.

A family member has compiled old clippings about this case — from which, both the excerpt above and the illustration — here.

* According to Iowans Against the Death Penalty. There had been a previous double execution when Iowa was a territory, and a triple execution in 1918.

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

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