1859: Baltimore’s Plug Uglies

Add comment April 8th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the joint hanging of youths from a notorious Baltimore gang, and in honor of the occasion thousands upon thousands of curiosity-seekers packed Charm City from “all parts of the State, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and even New York city and Buffalo” to throng the hills and high points overlooking the Baltimore City Jail, where a fine view could be had of the nominally private gallows.

“The housetops, windows, trees and all other places from whence a more enlarged view could be obtained, were crowded with human beings,” reported the Baltimore Sun (Apr. 9, 1859). “A sea of faces met the eye far and near — men, women and children — old age and infancy — white and black — swelled up the vast multitude, drawn to witness the horrible spectacle.”

The doomed quartet were four men named Henry Gambrill, Marion Crop, Peter Corrie, and John Cryphus. Cryphus was a black man condemned for a knife murder committed under the name John Stephens, and he vainly protested all the way to the gallows that Stephens was not he.

The other three who hanged with him — our principal focus today — were entirely unconnected to him. Gambrill, Crop, and Corrie were all stalwarts of the “Plug Uglies”, who were at once a street gang and a political goon squad, involved (with several similar entities) in a number of election day poll riots in the 1850s. Baltimore was at this point America’s third-largest city, having boomed to 200,000 souls rather faster than its civic institutions could cope.

The city veered near to mob rule (for which it earned the sobriquet “Mobtown”): rival gangs of toughs like the Plug Uglies regularly fought deadly street battles involving hundreds of participants — especially around municipal elections which they shamelessly rigged with armed bullying and prodigious vote-stuffing.* The anti-Know Nothing mayoral candidate in 1858 simply conceded the election rather than invite “loss of life and the general disorder of the city.”


Plug Ugly ruffians boss a ward. (Via)

Affiliated with the nativist, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” movement,** the Plug Uglies’ nickname underscores the brutal tenor of their times:

[Baltimore’s gangs] carried pugnacious and frequently obscene banners and often brandished weapons. The awl was seen as a workingman’s weapon, and many were made and handed out at rallies. They were used to “plug” Democrats “ugly” and to prevent them from voting. (Source)

Not long before that peacekeeping 1858 mayoral concession, alliterative policemen Benjamin Benton and Robert Rigdon had arrested a Plug Ugly crony for disorderly conduct, when Henry Gambrill raced up to the grappling trio and shot Officer Benton in the head.

Officer Rigdon, who knew Gambrill well, testified against the goon in the resulting murder trial. So incensed were Gambrill’s pals that they contrived to assassinate Officer Rigdon in revenge: covered by a lookout, Marion Crop in the dark of night shot Rigdon through a window as the cop stood at his mantelpiece chatting with his wife. Both Crop and the lookout, Peter Corrie, were chased down and condemned for first degree murder at separate, and sensational, trials in January 1859.

Despite the power of the Know-Nothings, this outrage proved to fall well outside the range of the Plug Uglies’ impunity. If they could do this, then what institutional pillar of the city would remain standing?

No small sentiment went abroad to skip the assassins’ trials and proceed directly to the hanging — perhaps a problematic means by which to stave off anarchy. In a more promising vein, the affair catalyzed some long-sought political reform measures from the legislature to rein in political violence. And on a chilly, overcast morning in April, Marion Crop stood on the gallows and belted out a hymn for the nation’s gawkers, joined with varying enthusiasms by the other three doomed men.

Former friends, we now must leave you
All our earthly hopes are o’er
But in heaven we hope to greet you
There to meet to part no more.

When a few more moments wasted
And this dying scene is o’er
When this last dread grief we’ve tasted
We shall rise to fall no more.

Fast our sun of life’s declining
Soon it will set in endless night
But our hopes pure and reviving
Rise to fairer worlds of light.

Cease this mourning, trembling, sighing,
Death shall burst this sudden gloom
Then our spirits fluttering, flying
Shall be borne beyond the tomb.

Corrie and Crop were buried privately. Gambrill enjoyed a solem public funeral with a procession of a hundred or so carriages through the center of town. An estimated eight to ten thousand Know-Nothing sympathizers attended it.

* Full marks for period color to the gangs of that time, which included the Rip Raps, Black Snakes, Blood Tub, Regulators, Rough Skins, Double Pumps, and Calithumpians. The successful Plug Uglies, who spread to other cities than Baltimore, were the ones destined to give their name to the language as a synonym for a an urban rowdy. (It’s also the name of some bars.)

** Shortly after the events in this post, Baltimore would be distinguished by a massive, and deadly, riot against a column of federal troops being dispatched to Virginia in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Since the Battle of Fort Sumter itself had not resulted in any combat fatalities, it was this riot that laid in the ground the first bodies of America’s bloody Civil War.

† While the Know-Nothings’ national impact was limited, they essentially took over Maryland’s political apparatus in the 1850s and made it the party bastion. Know-Nothing nominee (and former U.S. President) Millard Fillmore carried only one state in the 1856 presidential election won by James Buchanan: Maryland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders now saw nothing of the fort save by the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could it possibly weather the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wondrous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.


On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a verse celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. “The Defence of Fort McHenry” is better known today (when set to the tune of a British drinking song) as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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1926: Richard Whittemore, Mencken subject

Add comment August 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1926, Richard Whittemore — the chieftain of a notorious armed-robbery syndicate in Prohibition New York and Maryland — was hanged at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary for murdering a prison guard during an escape the year before.

Whittemore, known as the “Candy Kid” — it’s not clear to me whether this throwback nickname alludes to his gang’s prodigious heroin addiction — was national news for a brief twelvemonth during Prohibition.

In 1925, he busted out of prison in Maryland, killing a guard. It was for this crime that he ultimately hanged, but it was for his months on the lam that he made his blackened name.

Whittemore recruited a coterie of cold-blooded toughs and commenced a series of brazenly public violent robberies. (He also wifed up someone called Tiger Girl.)

After heisting a few payrolls — back when such things were delivered in armored cars instead of by digital funds transfer — the Candy Kid’s gang made for New York, where they proceeded to stick up several jewelry stores and eventually (in Buffalo) to hijack a Federal Reserve truck.

For all their momentary success, their candle burned at every possible end. Stickups followed each other with just a few weeks in between to squander the proceeds and, as alluded, the gang indulged a judgment-impairing drug habit.

The end, when it came, was swift.

In March 1926, barely a year after blasting his way out of prison, Whittemore was caught. Within the next five months, he beat charges in New York (pdf), was extradited to Maryland, found himself convicted of murder there, and expeditiously hanged.


Years later, the death of this professional blackguard is probably most noteworthy to posterity for the attendance among the select circle of witnesses of professional crank (and son of Baltimore) H.L. Mencken.

That irascible pundit was no foe of the death penalty (although the nature of his support veered idiosyncratic). He scarcely felt the hanging’s participants to have been degraded or brutalized by the ritual of hanging Whittemore, and held forth on the subject in a subsequent essay later reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill that can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.

A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn’t move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.

I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somrwhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman, to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.

To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.

The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been of late a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not he instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.

Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the former is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwithstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.

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

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1900: William Black, nearly lynched

1 comment August 31st, 2011 Headsman

“Not only the citizens of Aberdeen,” began the Feb. 23, 1900 Baltimore Sun, “but practically those of the whole of Harford county are wrought up to a high degree by the assault which was committed here upon Miss Jessie Bradford, the 15-year-old daughter of Mr. Edward Bradford, a well-to-do and respected farmer.”

A posse of mounted men was even then abroad hunting the suspect, a black shantytown dweller said to have assaulted the “prepossessing, well developed” girl with the “clear, wax-like complexion” as the latter returned on the train tracks to her uncle’s home. A conductor on a passing train had seen them struggling in the ditch and left a note (“Negro raping a white woman”) at the next stop; Miss Bradford, too, survived the trauma and gave an eyewitness description of her assailant that pointed at William Black.*

“The inhabitants of the county will spare no pains nor sacrifices to run down the miscreant,” the Sun concluded.

And we think we have a pretty good idea just what this running down would be liable to entail, since it was only days after Black’s capture that residents of a Harford county town went and lynched another African-American accused of attacking a white woman.

Black had managed to keep on the run for a week and get himself out of Harford County to Baltimore before he was arrested. He certainly owed his lease on the last few months of his life to eluding the outraged citizens.

Indeed, three months after the rape, the state’s attorney filed to handle the case in Baltimore rather than in Harford county on account of the continuing “probability of the negro being lynched had he been brought [to Harford county] for trial … it would only be the work of a few short minutes if he landed here.” (Sun, May 24, 1900) Passions had not cooled: to the contrary, it had since become known that Black had already been released from a previous prison term for a similar crime in neighboring Cecil County, and the law-and-order set was up in arms with the hempen fin de siecle version of a three strikes law.

Baltimore Sun, March 6, 1900

Black’s professed relief at evading the rigors of lynch law was to be short-lived.

A steady drumbeat of coverage for the “Aberdeen Outrage,” the “Miss Bradford Assault”, or whatever other salacious description could be conjured, kept him in papers as public enemy number one; Jessie Bradford, so very young and so very white, tearfully testified against Black in a scene that cannot have failed to stir the three-judge tribunal. (Black sensibly opted against a jury trial.)

He would remain lodged in Baltimore right up until his hanging in Bel Air back in Harford county, as a precaution against the mob. He was there long enough to see another of his race precede him: one Amos Smith, who hanged in Baltimore City Jail on August 3, fraternally comforting his fellow-sufferer that “I am only going ahead of you a few days and will be in the other world to meet you when you come.”** (Sun, Aug. 3, 1900)

Actually getting Black across that Styx in the legally prescribed fashion would require some craft on the part of the lawmen.

Even though the sentence was sure, the good folk of Harford County were feared violently inclined to prefer personally administering the judgment. Harford Sheriff Andrew Kinhart, said the Sun (Sep. 1, 1900), “stole a march on the watchful public” anticipating its potential victim arriving on a 9:30 train by racing his “exceedingly nervous” prisoner from Baltimore to Bel Air under cover of darkness, arriving at 5:40 a.m. in time for Black’s hearty if secretive last breakfast in the company of his wife, and then proceeding swiftly to the scaffold before the rabble could get wind of what was going on. It was a high-risk ploy as it entailed leaving behind in Baltimore Black’s armed escort in the interests of stealth — but it did work, our scribe judging the unhappy business to have been conducted “creditably”.

* Black persisted in his innocence at trial, and up to his execution. Though condemned prisoners’ assertions of virtue are hardly the most reliable gauge, neither are eyewitness statements … although in this case, Black reportedly admitted to the crime in the last hours before his death.

** Both Smith and Black also shared (Sun, July 11, 1900) the same spiritual advisor whilst awaiting execution: Methodist Episcopal preacher Ernest Lyon, later the U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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