1866: Charles Carrington

Add comment January 5th, 2018 Headsman

This from the Albany Journal of January 8, 1866, whose subject should not be confused with the prolific Victorian erotica publisher of the same name.

The sheriff in this Buffalo hanging was Oliver J. Eggert, not future president Grover Cleveland who attained that office — and its associated responsibility for hanging convicts — only in 1871.

Charles H. Davis, better known as Carrington, was executed at Buffalo Friday. The Commercial brings the particulars of the execution, which we condense, giving the essential points.

The prisoner was 20 years of age, born in Os[h]kosh, Wis., and his mother lived in Buffalo with one Theodore Carrington (formerly of this city,) and her reputation was bad. Davis had bad associates, and led a hard life for one so young. On the night of the 10th of January last, he with two other fellows was engaged in a burglary, plundering the house of a woman in Buffalo. The woman gave the alarm, and two policemen ran to the spot and gave chase to the thieves. Davis was behind a fence, and as Policeman Dell came up he shot him dead, then fled, and concealed himself, but was soon after arrested. He was tried in February, and the jury failed to agree. He was again tried in June and convicted. The case was carried up, but the higher courts confirmed the proceedings, and the prisoner was executed under the sentence. He escaped from jail and was recaptured sixteen miles from the city. His conduct in jail was good, and up to a few days since he expected a commutation of sentence. No effort was spared to induce Gov. Fenton to interfere, but he stood up manfully for the execution of the law, and for this is entitled to the respect of the people. Shooting a policeman in the discharge of his duty, seeking to arrest the midnight marauder, was a crime that richly merited death, and the Governor would not interfere.

The culprit gave himself up to spiritual advice and made preparation to die, but he protested his innocence to the last.

THE SCAFFOLD.

He mounted the scaffold with a firm step, accompanied by the officiating clergyman, the sexton and his assistant, and Officer Lester.

The clergyman made a short prayer, after which Carrington was told that if he wished to say anything to those present he could do so.

HIS SPEECH.

He rose, holding the Bible in his hand, and spoke, in effect, as follows: —

It was hard to see a young man, not twenty years old, standing there. He had always worked for a living and had never been arrested before. Had lived in Buffalo for some years and thought it was a hard place. On the night in question he had been led away. He said: “I stand with a clear heart, with the Bible in my hand, expecting to meet my Maker in a few minutes.” There was no object in denying his guilt, if he was guilty. He could look all present in the face, with a clear conscience, and declare that he never took the life of any man.

He never felt so easy and contented in his life as now. He had been waiting for his doom for two weeks; he had been so excited that he could not rest, but he was now easy in his mind — being prepared to die. He would rather be in his place than that of the man who cut the rope, though not meaning anything against him (the Sheriff,) or any other person. When he went down (pointing to the trap upon which he stood,) his soul, he trusted, would go up to another and better place.

He had lain in jail almost a year. The jailor, as well as his family and assistants, had always used him well — nobody could have been used better. He would like to talk all day. Those present could stand it, if the weather was cold. He here repeated the assertion of his innocence, and reiterated his former avowal that he bore no malice toward any person. He never took the life of Dill, he declared; there was another man who ought to be standing where he was, though he did not know “for certain,” who committed the crime. He spoke of the evidence adduced against him, and did not think it sufficient for his conviction.

Women of ill-fame, he said, would ruin any man. There were many men now in prison who would not be there had it not been for them. He declared that he had confessed all his sins to the clergyman who had attended him. He had not confessed the guilt of the crime for which he was about to suffer, as he was innocent, and could not confess that. He said, as he had but three minutes to live he could not explain things as he wished and as he would like to. He was here told that five minutes would be given him. He replied that he could not do it in five minutes, and that he might as well go in three. He was sorry to stand where he did, and die as he was about to die. [Here he repeated his former assertion about another person who should stand in his place.]

He was, he continued, about to leave this world, but nobody could say anything against his character. He had been to church and Sunday school, and had never done anything wrong. [Of course we do not pretend to follow him, verbatim, in his remarks, and to give the repetitions in which he indulged. We only seek to give a rough outline of what he said.]

The clergyman here spoke a few words to him in a low tone — which those standing below did not hear — and concluded by shaking hands and bidding him good-bye. He threw to the ground the handkerchief which he held in his hand, meaning it, as we understood him, as a present to Captain Bennett, of police station No. 3, who stood near, and who was instrumental in effecting his arrest.

THE LAST MOMENTS.

The rope, the noose of which had previously been placed about his neck, was now adjusted to the beam above by Officer Kester, and Carrington, looking up to the gallows frame and the staple to which the rope had been attached, said, “It is hard.”

After his arms were pinioned and the black cap drawn over his face, he said, “I expect to die easy, and hope to meet all in a better place than this.” He hoped none would think he was guilty. He was ready to go.

He continued to speak until ten minutes to twelve, when the sexton dropped the handkerchief — the signal was repeated to the sheriff by the jailor — the rope was severed by a blow, and Charles Carrington was no longer of this world.

THE END.

The neck was instantly broken — he dying with very little struggling or apparent pain. Drs. Green, Lathrop, Richards and Hauenstein were present, and it was announced that the pulse had ceased to beat at the end of seven minutes, though the pulsations of the heart continued faintly for about eighteen minutes.

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1873: John Gaffney, hanged by a President

1 comment February 14th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1873, John Gaffney hanged in Buffalo — the last of two executions conducted by future U.S. President Grover Cleveland.

The man whom future foes on the national stage would deride as the “Buffalo Hangman” got his political start as sheriff for that Erie Canal port. It was the Sheriff’s honor not only to drop the trap on a condemned man like Gaffney, but, in the first days of February, to successfully petition Gov. John Adams Dix* for a short delay pending execution of the sentence.

Having been condemned for a drunken murder the year prior, Gaffney was then engaged in playing vigorously his last card for clemency: “either insane through fear of death or pretending insanity,” as press reports put it. (We find this one all the way down in Texas’s Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Feb. 7, 1873.) “He has become very violent and uses the foulest language to all who approach him. He walks incessantly, and is said to have abused his spiritual adviser in the most outrageous manner to-day, and threw a crucifix at him through the grating.” Most everyone supposed this was a put-on, but a group of physicians wanted some time to examine him for propriety’s sake.

This ruse kept Buffaloans quite excited for the next week, butteressing the already-vigorous movement among its best citizens for sparing Gaffney’s life.

But in the end, his life was only spared for a week.

To give the killer his due, he had the dignity not to continue the pretense once the governor made it clear that the attempt had failed. Sheriff Cleveland delivered to Gaffney the bad news, and with it, an instantaneous return to reason. (Gaffney admitted once again under the gallows that his madness was shammed.)


From the Feb. 12, 1873 New York Herald.

For the whole of his short adult life, and even years before then, Gaffney was a rough customer down in Buffalo’s seedy dockside canal district — where “a life didn’t count for much.”

One night in May the previous year, Gaffney had been on one of his frequent benders through the district’s cutthroat dive bars. While gambling that night at Sweeny’s saloon, he fell into a senseless quarrel with another of his depraved ilk named Patrick Fahey — which ended when Gaffney produced a pistol and the evident intent to use it. Fahey fled as Gaffney fired errantly, making it all the way to the street before his whiskey-addled assailant finally aimed true. The noise of the volley brought a pair of police running — they only ventured into this part of town in pairs — and they arrested Gaffney on the spot while Fahey breathed his last into the iniquitous gutter.

Gaffney’s usual crew zipped their lips. But police were able to find a minstrel named McQueeney who was witness to the mayhem and prepared to talk (and testify) about it.

By the end — after eight months’ worth of legal maneuvers, clemency appeals, and faux-insanity — Gaffney affirmed his guilt to the witnesses who attended his Valentine’s Day hanging, blaming drink for escalating the encounter and regretting that he had not admitted all and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. “I beg pardon for all the crime I have done, and I forgive all who have injured me,” he said. Then at two minutes before noon, the 22nd and 24th** U.S. president touched the spring to open eternity beneath Gaffney’s feet, and efficiently snapped his neck.

* Dix was one-half of the namesake of the Dix-Hill cartel under whose auspices the belligerents of the recent Civil War managed their prisoner exchanges. The breakdown of this exchange system in 1863 helped create the conditions for the humanitarian catastrophe at Andersonville.

** As all U.S. civics nerds know, Grover Cleveland was President from 1885 to 1889, then lost an election to Benjamin Harrison, then defeated Harrison in a rematch in the next election and returned to the Oval Office from 1893 to 1897: the only president who served multiple terms non-consecutively.

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1951: Harley LaMarr, dutiful son

1 comment January 11th, 2013 Headsman

On February 12, 1950, Buffalo socialite Marion Little Frisbee* was discovered in a frozen ditch in a suburb 12 miles outside the city, a .32-20 rifle bullet through her left temple.

Within 24 hours, a 19-year-old Native American** youth named Harley LaMarr had been caught at a boarding-house and copped to the crime.

While the coroner did report an “attempt at criminal assault,” the motive for Frisbee’s abduction/murder had been robbery. Harley LaMarr needed money because his mother, Amelia Palwodzinski, had had a fight with her second husband the month before. In the course of that fight, she planted a butcher’s knife in the man’s chest.

As Amelia went off to serve a 30-year stretch for manslaughter, she made her boy Harley promise to give the victim a decent burial. Harley had no money: he did have a .32-20. He took it to a tony part of town and waited for an opportunity.

Marion Frisbee’s purse netted him about $6. He didn’t bother taking her diamond ring because, he said, he just wanted cash for the funeral. Harley insisted the gun went off by accident: the jury in a four-day trial that April didn’t buy it.

The day before Harley LaMarr’s electrocution at Sing Sing on January 11, 1951, the Empire State’s prison officers brought his mother from Bedford Hills a few miles down the road to death row for one last goodbye with her tragically dutiful son.

The youth met with his mother for 20 minutes after authorities brought her from Bedford Hills.

They spoke together in low tones. The woman took a long last look at her son and walked away from the visiting cage dry-eyed.

“Thank you for coming, ma,” the youth called after her. (Source (pdf))

* No relation to the flying-disc fortune; that “Frisbee” was only trademarked in 1958. Marion Frisbee was just the wife of a local salesman with the Queen City Pure Water Company.

** Amelia was white; Harley’s father was Native American.

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1825: Isaac, Israel, and Nelson Thayer, in Buffalo’s only public hanging

1 comment June 17th, 2011 Headsman

Given that the great city of Buffalo, New York has raised its hangmen all the way to the White House, it might come as a surprise that the Queen City has hosted only a single public hanging day.

This is the anniversary of that day, which saw droogish brothers Isaac, Israel, and Nelson Thayer turned off from the same gallows for the murder of John Love — the Thayers’ former boarder, turned considerable creditor, turned potential forecloser.

The very enjoyable blog Murder by Gaslight, whose beat is America’s 19th century crime scene, has the story of the Thayer brothers fully narrated — along with a separate post featuring a very ungainly murder ballad.

Then the judge pronounced thare dredful sentence
Whith grate candidness to behold
You must all be hanged untell your ded
And lord mursey on your souls

Well, we can’t all be Oscar Wilde.

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1901: Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s assassin

4 comments October 29th, 2009 Headsman

Back ’round the fin de siècle, everybody who was anybody* was being whacked by anarchists.

On this date in 1901, unemployed (and seemingly unbalanced) steelworker Leon Czolgosz rode the lightning at New York’s Auburn Prison for inducting the late U.S. President William McKinley into the club.

It hadn’t even been eight weeks since Czolgosz met McKinley gladhanding a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and fatally (though it took the victim a week to succumb) shot the second-term Republican president.

Matters progressed from there as one might expect.

In a one-day trial that lasted 8 hours from jury selection to sentence, Czolgosz was condemned to die in New York’s electric chair. He went to his death unapologetic, but also alone; most anarchists disavowed him for hurting the cause.**

Here’s the New York Times account of the assassin’s final moments.

As he was being seated [in the electric chair] he looked about at the assembled witnesses with quite a steady stare and said:

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people — of the working people.”

His voice trembled slightly at first, but gained strength with each word, and he spoke perfect English.

“I am not sorry for my crime,” he said loudly, just as the guard pushed his head back on the rubber headrest and drew the strap across his forehead and chin. As the pressure on the straps tightened and bound the jaw slightly he mumbled: “I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”

It was just exactly 7:11 o’clock when he crossed the threshold [into the execution chamber], but a minute had elapsed and he just had finished the last statement when the strapping was completed, and the guards stepped back from the man. Warden Mead raised his hand, and at 7:12:30 Electrician Davis turned the switch that threw 1,700 volts of electricity into the living body.

The rush of the immense current threw the body so hard against the straps that they creaked perceptibly. The hands clinched suddenly, and the whole attitude was one of extreme tension. For forty-five seconds the full current was kept on, and then slowly the electrician threw the switch back, reducing the current volt by volt until it was cut off entirely.

They made good and sure by dissolving the body in sulfuric acid.

Thomas Edison made a video recreation of the scene — not to be confused with actual film of the execution, though some sites present it as such — shortly after. Whether its creation was influenced by Edison’s now-doomed project of discrediting Alternating Current, a business rivalry that had helped introduce the electric chair in the first place, I have been unable to determine; the Edison labs produced a number of silent films exploiting “a whole string of news events surrounding the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo … both through a monumental display of lights (including test bulbs on the reproduction of the electric chair) and by a booming output of scenics, actualities, and even a historical topical.”

Glum.

More lighthearted (and more audible) is “The Ballad of Leon Czolgosz,” from Stephen Sondheim’s offbeat Broadway hit Assassins, here presented with liberal use of the Edison labs’ Pan-Am Expo footage.

… it’s not the first pop culture ephemera generated by McKinley’s martyrdom; folk ballad variations under different titles (“The White House Blues,” “McKinley,” “McKinley’s Rag,” or this version, “Zolgotz”) were in circulation in the early 20th century. Other variations and some background can be had here.

[audio:Zolgotz.mp3]

This third assassination of an American chief executive in the span of 36 years (with similar fates for James Garfield’s killer and the Lincoln conspirators) led the Secret Service, originally a Treasury Department anti-counterfeiting unit, to assume responsibility for bodily safeguarding the President in 1902.

* We’ve met a few of anarchism’s greatest hits in these pages … as well as their greatest martyrs.

** Anarchist titan Emma Goldman was blamed for inciting the murder and initially arrested; she was also one of the few anarchists to defend Czolgosz: “He had committed the act for no personal reasons or gain. He did it for what is his ideal: the good of the people. That is why my sympathies are with him.”

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1814: Four of five deserters, in Buffalo

2 comments June 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1814, an American army in Buffalo, N.Y., shaken by desertions lined up five absconding soldiers for execution.

The memoirs of one Jarvis Hanks, a drummer, recalled the singular scene that ensued.

In this alternative history of the war of 1812, the sergeant commanding the firing party and the soldier not executed make their way down the continent as an odd couple and fight in the Battle of New Orleans.

During the time we remained at Buffalo, five men were sentenced to be publicly shot for the offence of desertion. They were dressed in white robes with white caps upon their heads, and a red target fastened over the heart. The army was drawn up into a hollow square to witness the example that was about to be made of their comrades who had proved recreant to the regulations of the service. Five graves were dug in a row, five coffins placed near them, also in a line, with distance between coffins and graves to enable the criminals to kneel between them. About twelve men were assigned to the execution of each offender. Their guns were loaded by officers, and they were not permitted to examine them afterwards until they had fired.

All things being in readiness, the chaplain made a prayer, the caps were pulled down over the eyes of the poor culprits, and the word of command given: “Ready! Aim! Fire!” They all fell! Some into their graves, some over their coffins. One struggled faintly and the commanding officer ordered a sergeant to approach and end his misery. He obeyed by putting the muzzle of his piece within a yard of his head, and discharging it. This quieted him perfectly!

At this time one of the condemned slowly arose from his recumbent position to his knees and was assisted to his feet. His first remark was, “By God, I thought I was dead”. In consequence of his youth and the peculiar circumstances of his case, he had been reprieved, but the fact was not communicated to him until this moment. He had anticipated execution with his comrades, and when the report of the guns took place, he fell with them, though not a ball touched him. The platoon assigned to him had guns given to them which were not charged, or at least had nothing but powder in them.

Even Dostoyevsky didn’t get to the point where the mock executioners actually “fired”.

These executions took place during the Niagara campaign in the latter stages of the war — the Americans’ last push in their unsuccessful bid to conquer Canada.

* This execution, which obviously has a folklorish quality, has somewhat slippery particulars. The not-necessarily-dependable dating of the Espy file (pdf) places it on this date, as does The Rivers of War, which squares with the quoted soldier’s account of timing and the known troop movements. Hanks’ writings (and that of two other War of 1812 soldiers) is published in Soldiers of 1814: American Enlisted Men’s Memoirs of the Niagara Campaign. (Review.)

Espy names the executed soldiers as John Black, Mahlon Christie, George Orcote, and Isaac Kent.

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1872: Patrick Morrissey, by a future U.S. president

7 comments September 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Buffalo sheriff — and future U.S. President — Grover Cleveland personally sprang the trap to hang matricide Patrick Morrissey.

Grover Cleveland hanged convicts on two non-consecutive occasions.

Morrissey’s drunken altercation with his widowed mother, that led to a stabbing, that led him to the gallows, would obviously be lost to remembrance but for his accidental association with the man who would become president 12 years later. Of course, it was precisely the other way around at the time of the hanging — so the New York Times article (pdf) on the execution has a pleasurable aspect of discovered curiosity: for the newsman, a dull just-the-facts slog in a forgettable day’s work; for posterity, an accidental glimpse at history’s backstage.*

Cleveland had taken office as Erie County sheriff the year before, his stepping stone from a legal practice into an illustrious electoral career in the Democratic Party that would see him rise to Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York (and, after his death, to the $20 bill).

One of Cleveland’s duties as sheriff was to carry out death sentences; he declined to delegate the responsibility to one of his assistants — the hagiography says that his ethical rectitude compelled him to assume the weighty responsibility personally — and handled Morrissey’s dispatch with his own hands.

With his subsequent ascent in the political realm, Cleveland’s activities this day made him the rare notable executioner to earn his fame in another walk of life.

Or infamy, as the case may be. In an era of competitive sloganeering and sobriquets,** Cleveland’s Republican opponents tried to hang him — so to speak — with the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman”.

* The other death row murderer referenced in the Times story was Cleveland’s second (and last) execution on February 14, 1873.

** Like most presidential pols of the time, Cleveland had many more nicknames, both friendly and not — “Uncle Jumbo” because of his girth; “Old Veto” for his liberal use of executive power; and others. (He was also elected a bachelor and married a 22-year-old beauty while in office. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton.) The New Yorker avers that Buffalo voters during Cleveland’s early local incarnation actually knew him by the avuncular-yet-unwholesome handle of “Big Steve”.

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