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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Power,Women

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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.

On this day..

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

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